Sea of Conquest – Top five historical facts about real pirates


Many pirates weren’t down on their luck!

Yes, surprisingly many – famous at least – pirates weren’t actually the down-on-their-luck scoundrels you might expect. Few pirates lasted long if they weren’t able to bring together a ship and a crew, and that required a large initial investment. Pirates like Stede Bonnet, who’ll be familiar to fans of the TV show ‘Our Flag Means Death’, actually came from quite middle-class upbringings! Of course, ‘pirate’ is actually a pretty broad term, and throughout history, many poorer people have taken to the high seas, but in the 17th-century privateering was not the sole employ of those who were down on their luck. Speaking of…


Most pirates were doing it ‘legally’

While we call them ‘pirates’, many of the privateers we think of today were just that. For those who don’t know, a privateer is a sea captain given a thing called a ‘letter of marque’ from their home country (or beyond). This letter basically gives them official clearance to raid and loot enemy shipping, since many nations didn’t have big enough navies to cover all their colonies. Naturally, reining them in wasn’t really an option, so a letter of marque was pretty much a blank cheque to raid anything, including the ships of the nation they were supposed to be working for!


Pirates didn’t bury their treasure

Most people already know this by now, but burying your treasure wasn’t really a thing pirates did. Sure, it seems self-explanatory, but what better thing to do with your loot than stash it away for another day? But most pirates were living the 17th-century equivalent of pay cheque to pay cheque, and squirrelling away their ill-gotten gains for another day wasn’t really an option. That didn’t stop legends surrounding buried treasure from gaining prominence, such as that of William Kidd, probably the only documented instance where a pirate did bury their treasure to hide it, although it has never been found.


Pirates weren’t just in the Caribbean

Whether it was along the North Atlantic coasts, the Mediterranean or perpetrated by the infamous Barbary Corsairs, throughout the 17th century piracy was a fact of life for sailors. Given the ease with which pirates could flee into the ether and the number of possible ways to escape justice such as letters of marque or pardons, it proved to be a very attractive trade. However, it was still immensely dangerous and, if caught, many pirates could find themselves quickly sentenced to execution. By the late 18th century the Golden Age of Piracy was firmly at an end, but the temptation to take to the high seas and loot the ever-growing commercial shipping has always tempted more to try.


The most dangerous thing for pirates was disease

The 17th century was a dangerous time for sea travel, with medical practices still being quite primitive on the high seas. If you got an injured leg or arm in a battle the best you could hope for was that it was either only a shallow flesh wound or amputation. Splinters, shrapnel, and even simple cuts could all lead to infection that was virtually incurable. But the most dangerous disease was probably the most simple, vitamin C deficiency or ‘Scurvy’. Until it became standard practice to bring things like lime or lemon juice – which could combat scurvy – aboard, it was a near-constant threat during long sea voyages.

Scurvy can lead to some nasty effects like fatigue, the wearing away of muscles, bleeding gums and eventually death due to the damage to the immune system. The increased fatigue in a job that required near-constant vigilance amongst the crew could be just as much of a danger to pirates as the actual health effects!