An eye patch, a bicorn hat, a parrot on the shoulder, and a West Country accent – this image of the pirate, from the so-called Golden Age of Piracy (about 1650-1730), still looms large in the popular imagination.
However, behind all the sea shanties and rum, many pirates from this time were brutal and callous.
They had their own rules, and those who broke them were severely disciplined. Here we look at nine harsh methods of punishment that were used by pirates.
1. Clapping in irons
A relatively minor punishment on board a pirate ship was to be shackled around the wrists and ankles, known as ‘clapped in irons’. The misbehaving pirate would then typically be lobbed into some dark, dank corner of the ship with very little food and water, if any, for a period of time. Sometimes they might be left on deck during a terrible storm, or put in a basket which was then hung from the bowsprit (the boom pointing forward from the ship’s bow).
This relatively paltry pirate punishment was a circular version of running the gauntlet. The transgressor would be tied to a central mast of the ship and made to ‘dance’ around the deck. The mates would gather around and delight in tormenting the offender by jabbing him with cutlasses and daggers as he scurried past them.
This torture would often be accompanied by the sound of a fiddle, with the crew knocking back grog and jeering.
The pirate code of 18th-century pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts, known as Black Bart, stipulated a nasty punishment for a pirate caught stealing from a matey. The culprit’s nose and ears would be slit and he would have to endure a sort of semi-marooning, where he was put ashore somewhere that wasn’t very nice but did have some form of civilisation.
Notoriously savage pirate Edward Low was fond of torturing the passengers of ships he’d captured. He would cut off ears, and one unlucky Portuguese captain had his lips removed by Low, who cooked them and then forced the prisoner to eat them.
‘Avast, ye lubbers, else you’ll get a keelhaulin’!’
When sentenced to a ‘keelhauling’, the naughty shipmate would be tied at the feet, dragged along the keel (the bottom of the boat), and back up again. The victim would often be a bloody mess at the end, with their clothes and skin shredded by the sharp barnacles stuck to the ship. That was if they didn’t drown, of course, which frequently happened.
Keelhauling was not intended as an execution method, but it was often deadly. There were reports of happening right up until the middle of the 19th century.
5. Whipping with the cat o’ nine tails
Also known simply as ‘the cat’, the cat o’ nine tails was a savage whip of nine strands knotted at the ends. Sometimes the ends of each strand would have fish hooks or musket balls on them. The whip would be kept in a sack, and come the moment for a man to be flogged, the ‘cat’ would be taken out of the sack, hence the expression, ‘to let the cat out of the bag’.
According to many pirate codes, such as the 1724 code of John Phillips, captain of the Revenge, those rulebreakers sentenced to a flogging would receive 39 lashes. This number, known as ‘Moses’ Law’, was thought to be the maximum a man could survive. Many sufferers survived a lot more lashes than this, but many also died after receiving far fewer.
The cat would often still be covered in blood and guts from last prisoner, so the wounds going gangrenous from the whip was probably what killed a lot of victims.
6. Hanging at Execution Dock
Execution Dock was an execution site near the docks in Wapping, East London, reserved for those guilty of crimes on the high seas: pirates, smugglers, and mutineers.
With public slayings at Execution Dock beginning in about 1400, these early terminations saw the convicts staked to the beach and drowned by the rising tide.
By the 16th century, the method had changed to hanging the prisoner in chains over this same spot until they were dead. At high tide, the bodies would be completely submerged in the water. They were normally cut down after a few days, but some were left up for longer.
Large crowds would gather on the river in boats and on the shore to watch the executions.
Famous pirate Captain William Kidd was hanged at Execution Dock in 1701. As a grim deterrent, his body was covered with pitch (to preserve it for longer) and left suspended in an iron cage in Tilbury, Essex for three years.
The last hangings at Execution Dock took place in about 1830.
7. Walking the plank
One of the most famous aspects of pirate life is an unpopular pirate or captive being made to walk the plank. This method of execution involved the prisoner walking along a wooden plank balanced over the side of the ship. Bound with ropes and forced at the point of a cutlass to inch their way to the end, they would then plunge off the edge into the water, sinking down to die in ‘Davy Jones’s Locker’ (the bottom of the sea).
Danish pirate John Derdrake and legendary New York river pirate Sadie the Goat were among those said to have forced captives to walk the plank.
More often than not, though, the pirates probably just chucked offending maties overboard without the pomp and circumstance.
8. Drying in the sun
The tiny island of Dead Man’s Cay, Jamaica is now a beauty spot popular with tourists. But in the age of the pirate, the only boat trips out to this place were one way, as this was a place of execution. Pirates captured by British officials would be rowed out to the cay and locked inside an iron cage that was hung from a post driven into the ground. In the blazing Caribbean sun, without food or water, they never lasted long.
For pirates that committed a serious breach of pirate code, such as desertion or stealing doubloons from a fellow buccaneer, the punishment was marooning.
It was effectively a death sentence. The unfortunate matey would be taken to a remote, uninhabited island with no food source or fresh water – and then left there to die. They’d be given only a bottle of rum, a pistol, and some gunpowder.
Pirate captain Edward England and a few of his chums were famously marooned on an island in the Indian Ocean in 1720. They escaped after four months by building a boat and sailing to Madagascar.
Shiver me timbers!