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Pirates & galleons

How pirates attacked

Pirates prepare to board a Spanish galleon.Pirates prepare to board a Spanish galleon. In the 17th century, the Spanish treasure fleet carried gold, silver and jewels from the Americas back to Spain. The loaded Spanish galleons always sailed in convoy, escorted by several warships. But a galleon would become vulnerable to attack by privateers and pirates if she became separated from the rest of the convoy. In a one-to-one confrontation with a pirate ship, the straggler might make a run for it, stay and fight, or even deliberately run the ship aground, with the hope of retrieving her cargo later.

A pirate ship spots a lone galleon.A pirate ship spots a lone galleon.


On sighting a sail, the pirates went into action. First of all, they identified the ship, assessed her fighting strength and decided whether she was a potential prize. A Spanish galleon was usually slower than a small, slight pirate ship, so the pirates would happily chase another ship at speed. But they would also be ready to turn and run if that ship turned out to be significantly stronger than they were in terms of cannon and crew size.


The greatest danger in a sea battle came from spilt gunpowder being set alight, which would blow the vessel to pieces.

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