"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge
the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." ~Proverbs 24:3-4

Not Just For Kids


Piracy - the business of robbery on the high seas - has been around as long as ships have carried goods across the ocean. Sea robbers have been called by many names-pirates, buccaneers, corsairs, marooners, marauders, freebooters, filibusters, sea rovers, sea wolves, sea dogs, and privateers. They have often been glorified as nautical Robin Hoods and maritime heroes. Some pirates were great navigators, mapmakers, or explorers, and many were remarkably courageous. But they were also known to be cruel villains, terrorists, cutthroats, and murderers.

Even though piracy was punishable by hanging, many seamen were willing to take the risk. Some outlaws took to piracy to get rich quick. Many pirates had fled from the widespread miseries of poverty, unemployment, indentured servitude, or slavery; or had been recruited as deserters from armies and navies. Others were attracted by the free existence and boisterous lifestyle that piracy seemed to offer. Sometimes sailors on merchant ships would rebel against their captain and take over the ship. These sailors could not go back home because they would be thrown in jail, so they would become pirates. Captives sometimes voluntarily joined the pirates.

The Phoenicians, early navigators on the Mediterranean Sea, raided cargo ships in that area. The Roman Empire was never able to rid the Mediterranean of pirates, and even Julius Caesar was a prisoner of pirates at one time. Vikings, or Norsemen, seized ships and raided villages in northern and western Europe from the eighth to the tenth centuries. Muslim "Barbary Coast" pirates operated from bases in North Africa and sold many Christians into slavery during the Crusades.

Following Columbus' discovery of the western hemisphere, Cortez's conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico, and Pizarro's conquest of the Incas in Peru, "treasure fleets" began to transport the vast wealth of the new world back to Spain. England hired private vessels to seek out and attack Spain's shipping routes. These privately commissioned ships became known as "privateers". A privateer would share his booty with the government he served as well as with his crew. There was a fine line between a being a privateer and a pirate. Pirate ships were not commissioned by any government. But privateers often operated with invalid permits or exceeded their authority.

One of the most famous privateers to attack the Spanish galleons was Henry Morgan. He had a large base at Port Royal, Jamaica, with warehouses full of stolen gold and silver bars, jewels, and silks. Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, both well-known English explorers, were also privateers. Captain William Kidd was a Scottish privateer.

Many pirate ships raided the sea lanes of the Caribbean in the winter and plundered ships off the North American coast during the summer. As early as 1632, Massachusetts' first governor, John Winthrop, sent a naval expedition after Dixie Bull - New England's first pirate. One of the most feared pirates of all was Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard. His ship attacked many defenseless merchant ships that sailed along the coast of Carolina and Virginia between 1716 and 1718, until he was killed in a battle. Jean Laffitte was a pirate who raided ships in the Gulf of Mexico. Bartholomew Roberts was another pirate who operated along the American shores.

On the other side of the world, the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa was a well-known pirate headquarters. During its heyday there would be as many as a dozen pirate ships harbored there at one time. There were pirates in the Far East as well. In the first half of the 17th century, a Chinese pirate named Cheng sailed up and down the coast of China, robbing merchant ships on their way to Europe.

While careful patrolling by modern navies and improved communications between ships has reduced the incidence of piracy, some modern day pirates still exist, particularly in the waters of Southeast Asia. Of the hundreds of refugee boats leaving Vietnam in the 1980's, over half were attacked by pirates who robbed the boatpeople of their last, precious belongings. In 1991 there were 150 pirate attacks around Indonesia alone. Pirates have also returned to the Caribbean-they use high-speed boats and prey on the wealthy yachts that cruise around the islands.

Did You Know…?

  • Caribbean pirates who smoked their meat on grills called "boucans" were called "buccaneers."

  • Anne Bonny and Mary Read were two famous women pirates.

  • While a few pirates liked to dress up in brightly colored clothes, the popular image of the pirate with a plume in his hat and a parrot on his shoulder is largely a myth. Most real pirates were dirty, unshaven, had broken or missing teeth, poor skin, and wore tattered rags or animal hides. Few pirates, if any, had earrings.

  • Pirates had their own rules of conduct on board their ships. Punishments for crewmembers who broke those rules included being flogged, marooned, keelhauled, or forced to "walk the plank."

  • Pirates occasionally did bury chests of treasure in secret places. Many people have searched for buried pirate treasure, but only a few have found some.
  • Have a Pirate Feast

    "Salamagundi" was a pirate stew. To make some, you will need: one large pot with a lid; one quart of cold water; diced fish or beef; diced hard-boiled eggs; chopped onions; chopped cabbage; salt, pepper, garlic, and any other spices you like. Place all of the ingredients in a large pot of cold water. Turn the heat on low, and cook for three hours. (Or you can use a covered cooking dish in the oven at 325 degrees for three hours.) Serve with dry bread, hard biscuits or crackers. Drink citrus or tropical juice. For dessert, have dried fruit. Invite your friends and dress up like pirates!

    Make Your Own Pirate Flag

    Pirates sailed under their country's flag until just before they attacked a ship. Then they raised their pirate flag, the "Jolly Roger." This symbol would send shivers up and down the spine of a merchantman. Pirates designed their own flags, usually some version of a white skull and crossbones on a black background. They also sometimes included skeletons, crossbones, cutlasses, and hourglasses in their flag's design.

    To make your own pirate flag you will need the following: a 12x18 piece of black construction paper for the background; a 12x18 piece of white construction paper for skulls, bones, etc.; a smaller piece of black construction paper for additional details such as eye sockets; a pencil, scissors, and paste. Sketch your pirate designs on white construction paper and cut them out. Paste them on the black background. Paste on additional details in black paper.

    Pirate Vocabulary

    Ye – you
    Me – my
    Ahoy – hello
    Avast – hey
    Aye – yes
    Blimey – an exclamation of surprise
    Booty – loot
    Bucko – friend
    Cap’n – short for Captain
    Davey Jones’ Locker – the bottom of the sea
    Deadlights – eyes
    Doubloon – a Spanish gold coin
    Gangway – get out of my way
    Grub – food
    Landlubber – a non-sailor
    Larboard – the left side of the ship (also called port)
    Me hearties – typical way for a pirate leader to address his crew
    Matey – friend
    No quarter given – surrender will not be accepted
    Sail ho – I see a ship
    Sea dog – an experienced seaman
    Shanty – a sea song
    Shipshape – well organized, under control
    Shiver me timbers – an expression of surprise
    Starboard – the right side of the ship

    Pirate Movies

    AGAINST ALL FLAGS -1952. (Errol Flynn infiltrates the pirate colony of Madagascar, one of the best pirate movies ever.)

    THE BLACK PIRATE -1926. (A silent movie with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and some great swordsmanship; especially watch the secondary characters.)

    CAPTAIN BLOOD -1935. (Errol Flynn is a pirate of the Robin Hood variety in this lavish production; Flynn's first swashbuckler.)

    THE CRIMSON PIRATE -1952. (Burt Lancaster in a light-hearted swashbuckler.)

    PIRATES -1986, PG-13. (An uninspired story by Roman Polanski, but the costumes, sets, and backgrounds are spectacular; starring Walter Matthau.)

    PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN - 2003, PG-13. (The Curse of the Black Pearl was by far the best of the series featuring eccentric pirate Captain Jack Sparrow.)

    THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE -1983, PG. (A fun musical starring Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Angela Lansbury, though not faithful to the original Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.)

    THE PRINCESS BRIDE -1987, PG. (A classic fairy tale with a beautiful princess, an evil prince, a giant, and the Dread Pirate Roberts, with lots of adventure, romance, and swordplay.)

    TREASURE ISLAND -1990, G. (Charlton Heston stars in this movie based on the classic book.)

    Pirate Books

    THE BAREFOOT BOOK OF PIRATES, by Richard Walker. (A swashbuckling collection of pirate tales from all around the world.)

    THE BOOK OF PIRATES, by Howard Pyle. (Fiction, fact, and fancy in a classic, beautifully-illustrated book on pirates.)

    CAPTAIN KIDD'S CAT, by Robert Lawson. (The story of Captain Kidd as told by his cat.)

    EDWARD AND THE PIRATES, by David McPhail. (A charming picture book about pirates and the power of books to fuel the imagination.)

    FACT OR FICTION: PIRATES, by Stewart Ross. (Eye-catching illustrations and bold text describe pirates of the Spanish Main, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the Eastern Seas.)

    THE GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN, by Sid Fleischman. (Entertaining story about a boy who is shanghaied by a villainous pirate captain.)

    THE GREAT PIRATE ACTIVITY BOOK, by Deri Robins. (Lots of fun pirate-themed activities and things to do; a great resource for planning a pirate party.)

    PIRATES PAST NOON, by Mary Pope Osborne. (The fourth book in the Magic Tree House series, where Jack and Annie are whisked back to the days of deserted islands and nasty pirates.)

    PIRATES! RAIDERS OF THE HIGH SEAS, by Christopher Maynard. (Eyewitness Readers, describes the lives and activities of pirates.)

    ROBINSON CRUSOE, by Daniel Defoe. (Before Crusoe is shipwrecked on the island he is captured by Moorish pirates from Africa.)

    THE STOWAWAY: A TALE OF CALIFORNIA PIRATES, by Kristiana Gregory. (An exciting historical fiction story that takes place in the year 1818, in Monterey, California.)

    TREASURE ISLAND, by Robert Louis Stevenson. (The most popular pirate story ever written.)

    Pirate Websites

    (An educational website devoted to the subject of piracy.)

    (New England Pirate Museum educational materials.)

    (The Jolly Roger history.)

    (Pirate Image Archives.)

    (Nautical archaeologist's site on pirates, pirate history, weapons, ships, music, movies, books, nautical terminology, and more. Includes classic pirate books that you can read online for free!)

    (Buccaneer Trading Company site devoted to books & artifacts on piracy.)

    (Hawkins Scurvy Crew pirate page; written by a homeschooler, so it also contains info about homeschooling.)

    (A clearinghouse for info on pirates, privateers, and nautical history.)

    (Pirate vocabulary.)


    These pages are a continuous work in progress.
    Copyright © 2000- by Teri Ann Berg Olsen
    All rights reserved.

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