Did Pirates Fight Each Other?

Pirates are best known for their fearsome reputations and tales of attacking merchant ships and settlements on shore. Given this penchant for violence, many people also wonder whether pirates ever turned their swords on each other. So, did pirates ever fight each other?

Pirates rarely fought each other. For pirate strongholds to be possible, there needed to be a sense of camaraderie between pirates. They were more focused on attacking merchant ships and other targets where they could recover the loot. Mutinies aboard pirate ships were also rare. 

This article will examine the history of pirates fighting (or not fighting) each other. It will explain why mutinies on board pirate ships were relatively unheard of and answer some other questions that readers may have.

Pirates Rarely Fought Each Other

Though movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise focus on in-fighting between pirates, this was relatively rare in real life. Pirates were already threatened by the navies of different European countries and privateers – fighting each other would have added an additional, unnecessary amount of danger to their work.

Additionally, there’s also the consideration of the pirate republics. Also known as pirate havens and pirate strongholds, these were essentially places on land where pirates could gather and spend time without worrying about being captured by governments. [1]

These pirate republics could only function if there was limited to no conflict between pirates. There would have been no point in creating a place where pirates and their crews could relax, only for it to become a battleground on land. 

Instead of fighting each other, pirates would actually sometimes even work together while at sea. This was helpful if they were facing a ship that had better weaponry than their own ships – a relatively common occurrence since pirates were limited to the ships they could steal.

That said, this isn’t to say there were no battles between pirates. However, the most common of these were not necessary between “pirates” – but between pirates and former pirates who had taken the King’s Pardon and turned pirate hunters.

One of the best-known pirates to turn pirate hunter was Benjamin Hornigold. Hornigold was the pirate who had first given Blackbeard a position of responsibility, elevating him to the position of second-in-command on board his ship.

However, in 1718, he accepted a King’s Pardon and turned pirate hunter, attacking his former comrades. He was sent after the pirate Charles Vane and captured the pirates Nicholas Woodall and John Auger. [2]

Other pirates to turn pirate hunters include John Cockram and Josiah Burgess. [3]

Did Pirate Crews Mutiny?

While pirate ships may not have attacked each other, fans of pirate media will know this isn’t the only way in which pirates might have fought among themselves. Another possibility is that of mutiny – when the ship’s crew turns against the person in charge, generally the ship captain, and overthrows his control. 

Like in-fighting between pirates, pop culture is fond of portraying pirate crews as frequent to mutiny. However, this is another falsehood – just as pirates rarely fought each other, their crews also mutinied very rarely.

There was a very simple reason for this – there was no reason for them to do so. 

Pirates were, by and large, volunteers. They were often men from European countries looking for a way to make money, sailors discontent with the pay offered by navies and merchant ships, and ex-slaves who joined pirate ships when the same ships attacked slave ships and plantations and freed them. [4] 

Their history also meant that pirates were suspicious of absolute authority. Former slaves would view the idea of someone having complete authority over them as being similar to slaveowners, while sailors who had left “respectable” work often did so because they were discontent with how ship captains ran their ships.

For this reason, captains were generally voted on. [5] This means that if a pirate crew found themselves discontented enough that they considered mutiny, they could simply vote out the captain instead. 

One of the best-known instances of a pirate captain being voted out of command was Charles Vane. In 1718, he was voted out by his crew when he ordered a retreat instead of attacking a much better-equipped frigate. The crew saw this as cowardice and replaced him with the notorious Calico Jack Rackham. [6]

While this may seem surprising for some people, possibly the more surprising part is how deposed captains were treated. After being voted out, former captains and their supporters were rarely killed. Instead, they were left at a port (often in a pirate republic) or on a deserted island. 

Vane’s crew, for example, gave him command of the sloop that was part of his “fleet,” keeping his brigantine for themselves. He and 16 of his supporters were turned loose, and from his sloop, they continued committing acts of piracy until Vane and one of his supporters, Robert Deal, were captured by the British. They were tried and hung in 1721.

That isn’t to say that there are no recorded acts of mutiny among a pirate crew. While most pirates were volunteers, there were some who were held captive and forced into piracy. Additionally, some pirate captains refused to vacate the post when voted out.

One example of a pirate who mutinied is William Fly. Fly first mutinied against the captain of the merchant ship on which he was serving. The mutiny resulted in the murders of the captain and first mate, and the rest of the crew turned to piracy, with Fly as the ship’s captain. [7]

However, some of these “pirates” had joined less than willingly. One of these men was William Atkinson, who was forced to work as the ship’s pirate. Discontent with this, he mutinied against Fly. 

Atkinson and the second group of mutineers were captured in 1726, along with Fly and his supporters. While the second group of mutineers was mostly acquitted, Fly and his crew were hanged as a result of their first mutiny and turned towards piracy.

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