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Glossary of Pirate Terms - 500-Year Time Line - Monetary Systems

Piracy is almost as old as mankind itself, and it still exists today. Ever since the first crude boat was put in the water, there has been piracy.  Pirates have stolen everything from gold and fine jewels, to hogs for food, and rope and other equipment necessary for sailing a ship. Most people think of Captain Kidd or Blackbeard when the word “pirate” is mentioned. Many visualize the Jolly Roger being hoisted to the top of a mast and the bloody battle that followed. Many think of tales of walking the plank and lore of buried treasure.  In reality, the idea of walking the plank is originally credited to Major Stede Bonnet, but was rare. Pirates seldom buried treasure because they normally divided the loot amongst themselves. They often wasted their money at the drinking establishments in friendly ports. So, in most cases, the treasure was in too small of quantities to bury, and it was spent instead.

Hollywood has played an important part in the romantic myths surrounding pirates.  One of these myths is that pirates were bloodthirsty renegades who butchered and raped their captives. While some pirates prided themselves for how badly they treated their captives, most were proud of how well they treated them. Most pirates would avoid a fight whenever possible.

Pirates in the New World commonly would fly the flag of the nation of their potential prey. When they got close enough to do battle, they raised the black flag – the Jolly Roger. This usually was a black flag with a white skull and crossbones (or some variant of this design), and it was a signal to surrender and quarter would be given. The design on the black flag was to warn the victims of the bloody fate that awaited them if they chose to fight. The victims on the ship under attack had to make a hasty decision. If they chose to resist, a red flag was raised on the pirate ship – indicating no quarter would be given.

Sailors had a very rough life in the Navy or on merchant vessels. Rations were little and the pay wasn’t good. They endured cruel punishments. It was very tempting to many a sailor to turn to the easy life of a pirate. Many times the crew of a ship being attacked by pirates wouldn’t put up much of a fight. It was their opportunity to join a pirate crew and live an easier life. Pirates usually lived a short and dangerous life, but it was a pleasant life of drinking and carousing, and the pay was far better. Many pirates who were executed by hanging had their decomposing bodies hanging on display in the harbors as a warning to any seaman who was contemplating a life of being a pirate.

Buccaneers were a breed of French and British dissidents , deserters, outlaws and maroons (runaway slaves) whose bond was their common hatred of Spaniards. The Spanish provoked this hatred in many ways by their cruelty and lust for American gold and silver. Another reason for their hatred of the Spaniards was the Spanish Inquisition – an entity that tortured, imprisoned, and burned alive non-Catholics. Many of the Buccaneers were Protestant and were very glad to fight the Spaniards. Buccaneers formed an alliance called the “Brethren of the Coast” and had “articles” or laws that they went by. These articles provided rules for division of loot, treatment of prisoners, and punishment of crewmembers who broke the laws in the articles. Buccaneers were well known for their marksmanship with a musket. They were not “technically” pirates since they only preyed on Spanish ships and settlements. When the Spanish colonial empire began to dwindle, the buccaneers began to disappear – but their void was quickly filled as piracy continued.

Many people think of a pirate as a one-legged rascal with a patch over his eye and a hook where his hand was. This was probably not as common as most people think, but still Robert Louis Stevenson was pretty accurate by creating the immortal Long John Silver – that one-legged pirate who led the mutiny in the book, Treasure Island. The ficticious character, Long John Silver was the owner of the Spy Glass Inn, and later the ship’s cook on the Hispaniola. In reality, many sea cooks were dismembered sailors who could still cook on a ship.

A lot of people also picture pirates having earrings in their ears. A lot of sailors believed that pierced ears would give them better eyesight. Modern acupuncture suggests that this theory might actually be true.

On board a pirate ship, the officers were elected democratically. Most of the affairs on the ship were voted on, but during battle, the pirate captain had absolute power over his crew. Men who were caught stealing or deserting were seriously punished. One of the worst punishments was marooning – abandoning the dissident on a deserted island with a pistol with one shot. The purpose of the pistol was to let the dissident commit suicide as an alternative to starving to death on the island.

There is still piracy in the world, mostly in the waters around Singapore, but also in other areas, like the Caribbean. Modern pirates use high speed motorboats equipped with radar. As many as 120 ships are reported to be captured each year by pirates, but this figure is not accurate as many shipping companies are too embarrassed to report losses due to pirates. The unpoliced waters in the Straits of Malacca are the sites of many pirate attacks on merchant freighters.


All crewmembers had an equal vote in the ship's affairs.

All loot taken was first used to maintain the ship, the rest was divided amongst the crew.

Any crewmember who stole or hid treasure from a prize was punished by death or marooning.

Any crewmember who robs another would have his nose and ears cut, and then be marooned.

No gambling was allowed on most ships.

All tobacco pipes must have a cap over the bowl to prevent fires. No lanterns or candles were to be lit after dark.

No pipes, lit candles or uncovered lanterns allowed below deck.

Punishment for starting a fire was a flogging or death.

All crewmembers were required to keep their weapons in working order.

No women were allowed on a voyage. any crewmembers stowing away a woman would be put to death.

Desertion was punishable by marooning or death.

Fighting among crewmembers was not tolerated - both parties involved in a fight were punished.

None of the crew should speak of dividing the prize until the loot was divided.

Each crewmember recieved 1 share, the captain and quartermaster each got 2 shares, the bo'sun and master gunner recieved 1-1/2 shares, and the remaining officers got 1-1/4 shares each.

The ship's musicians were to rest on Sundays, and occasionally other days if it was so granted.


The crew has no ownership of the vessel they sailed on.

No democracy.

No pay if no prizes were captured.

Each crewmember was entitled to 1 share, the ship's owner recieved half the loot, the captain was entitled to 3 shares, other officers got 1-1/2 shares, and the cook, his assistants, and the cabin boys each got a half a share.

A reward was given to the first man to sight a prize ship.

All crewmembers were entitled to extra pay for injuries.


An old pirate and a young sailor were having a drink at a dockside grog shop. The old pirate had a peg leg, a hook for a right hand, and a patch over his right eye.

The young sailor asked, “How did you lose your leg?”

The pirate replied, “Arr, matey, we were attacking a Spanish galleon, and a cannonball blew my leg off.”

The young sailor was awestruck. “Wow!” he said, “What happened to your hand?”

The pirate replied, “Arr, matey, we were boarding a Dutch merchantman and a Dutchman cut my hand off with his cutlass.”

The young sailor said, “Wow! What happened to your eye?”

The pirate replied, “Arr, matey, I was walking down the beach and looked up. A seagull crapped in my eye.”

The young sailor asked, “How would you lose your eye from that?”

The pirate replied, “Well, matey, that was me first day with the hook.”

Glossary of Pirate Terms - 500-Year Time Line - Monetary Systems