On the Water

Pirates in the Atlantic World

With so much valuable cargo crisscrossing the Atlantic, piracy flourished.

Pirates cruised the Caribbean Sea and the North American coast searching for likely targets. At the height of Atlantic world piracy around 1720, some 2,000 pirates were attacking ships and threatening trade. Many of them had deserted their posts aboard naval or merchant ships or had themselves been captured by pirates.

From Capt. Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates . . .(London, 1724)

Courtesy of the Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Pirate Captain on the African Coast, 1722

Capt. Bartholomew Roberts raises his sword to his two ships after capturing a fleet of eleven English, French, and Portuguese slave ships off the coast of Africa. The ships surrendered without a fight because the commanders and crews had gone ashore to deal with captives and cargoes.

Edward Teach: The Pirate Blackbeard

Edward Teach (about 1680–1718) wore his thick, black beard long, adorned with ribbons. It gave him his nickname, and before battles he hung smoldering fuses from his beard to terrify his enemies.

In the early 1700s, Blackbeard captured dozens of merchant vessels in the Caribbean and along the Atlantic Coast. In 1718, he raided Charleston, South Carolina, seized many ships, and demanded a ransom for “several of the best inhabitants of this place.” Later that year, he was killed in a battle with the British Navy. The British fleet commander, Lt. Robert Maynard, brought Blackbeard’s head back to shore to claim a £100 reward.

From Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates . . . (London, 1724)

Courtesy of the Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Blackbeard’s Jolly Roger

Pirates hoisted the skull-and-bones flag to show what their prey could expect if they resisted capture. The flags could also be plain black or plain red without any pictures—everyone knew what they meant.

Courtesy of North Carolina Maritime Museum

Photograph by Julep Gillman-Bryan

Courtesy of the North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources

Blackbeard’s Flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge

Blackbeard captured a French slaver named Concorde in the Caribbean in November 1717. He renamed it Queen Anne’s Revenge and used it as his flagship for the next seven months. In June 1718, Blackbeard deliberately ran the ship aground in Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. He abandoned much of his crew and fled with a smaller group, probably so he could keep more of his loot.

Divers discovered the wreck in 1996. Since then, thousands of artifacts from the early 1700s have been recovered, providing a remarkable window on life aboard a pirate ship.

From Jean Boudriot, Le Mercure, 1730 (Paris, J. Boudriot: 1991)

Courtesy of Jean Boudriot

French Merchant Ship, 1730

There are no contemporary images of Queen Anne’s Revenge, formerly the French slave ship Concorde. Archaeologists believe that the 1730 French merchant ship Mercure, shown here, was close in size and rig to the pirate ship.

Courtesy Chris Southerly, Underwater Archaeology Branch, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources

Site Plan Drawing of the Wreck Site, 2008

This illustration details all the known features of the wreck, as the sand covering it is gradually removed. Site plans constantly evolve, as new objects are revealed during ongoing excavations. They are the most accurate and permanent rendition of the site itself, as it is carefully recorded, photographed, and dismantled.

Female Pirates

From Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates . . . (London, 1724)

Courtesy of the Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Female buccaneers were rare, but Anne Bonny and Mary Read briefly led pirates’ lives in the Caribbean. Both sailed with Captain “Calico” Jack Rackam and fought beside their shipmates.

In 1720, Calico Jack and his entire crew were captured, tried, and sentenced to death. But both women were pregnant, and the court deferred their sentences. Read died of a fever in prison; Bonny gave birth in prison and was set free.

The Pirate’s Arsenal

Pirates preferred their prey to surrender without a shot, so that no person or any valuable goods were damaged. But most were ready to fight to the death rather than be captured and hanged. Guns, swords, and other armaments were the tools of their trade.

  • Cannonball

    Pirate ships were heavily armed to intimidate other vessels into surrendering, or to subdue them. Cannon were prized booty, for they represented the deadly power that pirates had over their quarry. Queen Anne’s Revenge was believed to have carried 44 cannon.

    This 6-lb. ball is from a small cannon. Pirates used guns of this size to clear the decks of an enemy ship or to fire a shot across its bow—a message that meant “prepare for boarding.”

  • Shot in three sizes

    For captured guns to be effective, a wide range of shot sizes was needed for ammunition. These three sizes of shot would have been used for anything from clearing the decks of enemy ships to hunting birds along the shallow coastal waters of North and South Carolina.

  • Langrage spike

    Langrage was any kind of scrap iron, like nails, bolts, or spikes, that would fit into the muzzle of a cannon. It was shot at the sails and rigging of an enemy ship to disable it. It could also be fired at the deck to wipe out the crew.

...let’s jump on Board and cut them to Pieces.
—Blackbeard to his crew, before boarding an enemy vessel.
From Capt. Charles Johnson, A general history of the pyrates . . . 1724

A Pirate’s Life

Pirates knew that if they were caught in the act, they would be hanged swiftly and without mercy. They also knew that politicians regularly issued pardons to encourage pirates to end their thievery and keep the sea lanes open. Neither the threat of swift justice nor the prospect of a pardon had much impact. Pirates tended to live hard and for the moment.

  • Gold dust

    Only a small amount of gold dust has been recovered from the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Why hasn’t more pirate booty been found?

    Blackbeard deliberately grounded the ship. He abandoned it and sailed off with a few of his crew, probably so there would be fewer and thus larger shares to distribute among his men. This strategy gave Blackbeard time to take the most valuable things as he left the ship.

  • Tobacco pipe fragment

    Before cigarettes, many people smoked tobacco in ceramic pipes with small bowls. The few examples found aboard Queen Anne’s Revenge were made in England.

  • Animal bones

    Pirates needed provisions, just like any ship’s crew. Dozens of animal bones have been found—mostly leg and rib bones from young pigs. These were probably from living animals, kept aboard until they were needed for food. A few butchered cow bones also were recovered—even a pirate’s diet had some variety.

  • Pewter charger [or] plate

    This pewter charger, or large platter, was placed under a dinner plate at formal meals. It was much too fancy for pirates’ meals aboard ship, indicating that it was plundered from a captured ship. It is one of several found aboard the wreck, along with other expensive pewter tableware.

  • Charcoal

    A cook fire aboard the Revenge is the likely source of this charcoal. Aboard ships, cooking fires were carefully contained in bricked cook stoves to prevent fires from spreading.

    Tile for cook stove

    Tiles or bricks were commonly placed beneath or around a ship’s stove to prevent fire from spreading to the wooden timbers nearby. This thick, heavy tile probably served this purpose, since it was found in the vicinity of the Revenge’s galley.

A Pirate’s Gear

Pirate ships needed the same sorts of materials and supplies as merchant vessels to outfit their crews.

  • Nails

    Nails were a multipurpose fastener aboard ships. In addition, a handful thrown into the muzzle of cannon served as an effective antipersonnel weapon or sail shredder during a battle.

  • Lead patch

    Lead patches of various sizes and thicknesses are common finds on the wrecks of wooden ships. They were used for patching holes in the decks and hulls.

  • Cask and barrel hoops (casting)

    On sailing ships, barrels were the most common containers for food, cargo, and other storage. These fragments represent a nest of barrel hoops. On many ships, the barrel hoops and staves were stacked and stored belowdecks; the barrels were only assembled as needed.

  • Lead sounding weight

    Blackbeard eluded the British by using his knowledge of local waters to sail into shallow areas where bigger warships could not safely follow. He lowered this sounding lead over the side to learn the water depth under his vessel. The depression in the bottom was filled with tallow or wax to sample the bottom. Knowledge of the bottom conditions was needed for anchoring.

Piracy in Print, 1700s

In 1724, Captain Charles Johnson published his General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. Based on newspaper, court, and eyewitness accounts, Johnson’s book was a best seller. It was quickly translated into French, German, and Dutch, and spawned many other books on piracy.

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries