Image: Caribbean Pirate Sailing Boat
The ship sails billowing in the distance spread panic
across the seas. The skull-and-crossbones flags were enough to strike terror in the bravest of hearts. As the
ships drew nearer, so did images of flashing swords,
plunder and bloodshed.
The ships that pirates used were stolen or obtained in a
mutiny. Some were even acquired from privateers as
these ships were fast and specially designed for the
purpose of pursuit. A pirate could command several
ships, the most famous multi-ship pirate being Bartho-lomew Roberts, who owned six ships through his colorful career.
A pirate ship was an interesting place to be in. It was a
place where they lived, and it was always battle-ready! Though the crew lived together, there were special
cabins for the captain and the quartermaster. The ship
also had a storeroom where the booty was kept. It
carried plenty of weapons and it was oh, so fast! Though some pirates used large ships, many preferred the faster sloops, brigantines and schooners.Schooners were two-masted ships with narrow hulls and large spread of sail that made them
fast, sometimes going over 11 knots.
The brigantine had a foremast, usually with square-rigged sails. The main masts with a fore-and-aft and square-rigged
topsail could move in any wind condition. It was about 80 feet long, 150 tons and could carry up to 100 men and 12 guns.
The sloops were small, single-masted craft with an enormous sail spread which made them fast and agile. In the
Caribbean, sloops were popular for their speed and ability to enter shallow waters, where larger battleships could not
These vessels were also easy to remove barnacles from and were easy to keep in fighting fit shape. Warships,
battleships and frigates became popular because of their weapon-carrying ability.
When a pirate’s flag was seen, it struck fear into the hearts of prospective victims. Many gave up as soon as
they saw the flag. The early pirates flew a red flag, presumably as a warning not to oppose or fight back. This was
known as the Bloody Flag and it was flown along with the national flag of their country. Pirates raised the black flag
if the vessel under attack showed resistance and it sent out a clear warning that “no quarter would be given”.
Pirates used symbols as part of their strategy to instill fear. Skeletons, flaming swords, and hourglasses were among
their favorite symbols. The most popular was the “Jolly Roger”, a white skull-and-crossbones on a black
background. This was probably derived from the French flag known as “Jolie Rouge” or “rouge laws” in England which
were meant for dealing with thieves and vagabonds.
The word Roger could have originated from this. Or, the name could have even come from the very macho concept
of the raging bull as Roger was a name commonly given by the English to their stud bull.
The skull-and-crossbones symbol was the symbol of death. Associated symbols like the raised glass could
have meant that the pirate was toasting death, while dancing skeletons meant flirting with death. Sometimes, two or
three symbols were used together.
The much-feared Blackbeard flag had a horned skeleton holding an hourglass and a spear next to a bleeding heart.
Along with the skull-and-crossbones flag, Bartholomew Roberts had a complex flag showing a pirate holding an
hourglass alongside a skeleton clutching a spear. These symbols could have reflected the feelings of the pirates
as well as the fear they wished to evoke.
Today the Jolly Roger has become a symbol of adventure and possibly the most recognizable symbol of piracy.
But behind the mask of adventure on the high seas, lies many a tale of horror and bloodshed!
Ships were altered to make space for guns, and the expression “making her flush,” meant removing and adjusting the
ship to make room for fighting. Extra guns were fitted by piercing the hull, while timber made the ship stronger to handle
the extra weaponry. Swivel guns were mounted on gunwales for easy operation.
Modern pirate ships are swifter and outfitted with high-tech equipment. It is suspected that they use satellites to spy
on cargo ships and tankers. They have modern artillery, and accessories like scooters and smaller vessels that allow
them to attack and get back to the main ship. They are quieter and do not announce their coming, much unlike a 17th
century ship that proudly set up sail that made ships surrender out of fear!