Pirates & galleons

Pirates & galleons

A 17th-century pirate captain with a flintlock pistolA 17th-century pirate captain with a flintlock pistolA pirate is someone who takes over a ship that does not belong to them. Pirates often sailed in stolen ships across the world’s oceans, stealing other ships’ cargo, then burning or sinking the ships after murdering the crew and captain. There have been pirates since ancient times, but the "Golden Age of Piracy" started in the early 16th century. It was sparked when the Spanish started shipping large amounts of treasure from the Americas back to Spain. Britain, France and the Netherlands, all hostile to Spain, hired pirates called privateers to steal and plunder the Spanish ships. Pirates are still in action today, especially in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia.

Privateers attack a Spanish galleon.Privateers attack a Spanish galleon.

Golden Age of Piracy

After Christopher Columbus, in the service of Spain, landed in the Americas in 1492, Spain claimed much of Central and South America as its own. The coastal areas of the new Spanish colonies became known as the Spanish Main. The Spanish began to mine huge quantities of silver from Potosí in Bolivia—and shipped the treasure back to Spain. The sea journey was threatened by privateers, men employed to steal Spain’s treasure by enemy governments. And so the “Golden Age of Piracy” in the Caribbean Sea began. 

Spanish galleons

Spanish galleons were large and slow moving.Spanish galleons were large and slow moving.Galleons were originally built by the Spanish as warships to escort the convoys of cargo ships sailing between Spain and the Americas. From about 1600, all treasure from the New World—including gold bars, silver ingots and coins—was transported in the galleons themselves: the Spanish treasure fleet. Despite its great size, 30 metres (100 feet) long and 10 metres (30 feet) wide, a galleon was vulnerable to pirate attacks because it was slow to manoeuvre. The crew of more than 200 men relied on the ship’s extensive weaponry to defend themselves.


Galleons carried gold, silver and jewels.Galleons carried gold, silver and jewels.

Privateers and buccaneers

Carrying such valuable cargo, the Spanish treasure ships were a tempting target. Privateers (short for “private men-of-war”) were seamen who captured vessels on behalf of another country—often Britain, France or the Netherlands. The privateer captain and the king shared the spoils.

The privateers joined forces with local raiders, called buccaneers, to attack the Spanish. Buccaneers were fortune-hunters from Jamaica, Tortuga and Hispaniola in the Caribbean. Their name came from the French word boucanier, meaning “someone who smokes wild meat”, from the boucan (grill) they often used.

Weapons included pistols and cutlasses.Weapons included pistols and cutlasses.

Privateer attacks

Privateer ships would often take a galleon by surprise, swapping a friendly flag for the Jolly Roger only moments before their attack. The privateer ship would draw alongside the galleon, using a grappling iron to hold the ships together. The privateers leapt aboard, brandishing cutlasses (short-bladed swords), pistols, axes and daggers. Faced with such a force, the galleon's captain might surrender his ship without a shot being fired. The privateers would then make off with their plunder: their opponents’ possessions, arms, supplies and treasure. 

The pirate William Kidd is hangedThe pirate William Kidd is hanged

A pirate's fate

Privateers were given permission to capture enemy treasure by their king or queen. Ordinary pirates had no such permission and simply stole from whichever ships they came across. Pirates were hunted down, tried and hanged for their crimes. For example, a reward of £100 was offered for the capture of Blackbeard (c.1680–1718), a pirate who became well known for his cruelty.

An expedition of two British naval ships tracked him down in 1718. He was killed, but only after a fight in which he suffered five gunshot wounds and 20 blows from a sword.

An 18th-century illustration of Bartholomew RobertsAn 18th-century illustration of Bartholomew Roberts

The pirate code

Surprisingly, some pirates followed certain rules that were agreed amongst themselves. The pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts (1682–1722) came up with a set of rules for his men. They were expected to be brave and fair to each other. If a pirate took more than his share of the booty (stolen treasure) or was a coward in battle, he was marooned (left on his own) on a remote island with a little water but no food.

Consultant: Philip Parker

See also in History

See also in Technology

Pirates probably didn't bury their treasure—they were too busy spending it. Captain William Kidd (1645–1701) was the only pirate known to have buried treasure, perhaps in the area of Long Island in modern-day New York state. No one has ever found it.

Everyone has read about pirates (and their parrots) talking about "pieces of eight". A piece of eight was, in fact, a silver Spanish coin called a peso de ocho reales (meaning "weight of eight reales") and it was worth eight reales (a Spanish unit of currency).

In 1695, English pirate Henry Every stole one of the largest treasures ever. He captured the Mughal emperor's ship Ganj-i-Sawai and made off with jewels and coins worth at least £100 million ($160 million) in today's money.

In 1717, King George of England announced an amnesty that allowed pirates to keep their treasure if they would stop being pirates.

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