How Did Pirates Get Their Ships?

As outlaws, pirates couldn’t just saunter up to the offices of a shipbuilding firm in a major European city and place an order for their latest model. Additionally, they often didn’t have the funds to pay for their vessels and wouldn’t have wanted to pay for them if they did. After all, why pay in cash for what you can take for free?

Pirates got their ships how they acquired everything else: by force. They targeted swift seaworthy vessels that were well-armed or could be easily fitted with weapons such as cannons. However, they had to take care not to damage their target, ensuring it would still be seaworthy post-capture.

This article will describe the challenges pirates faced in acquiring boats and explain how they overcame them. It will also describe the types of vessels that they most often targeted.

Challenges in Acquiring Vessels 

By the time of the Golden Age of Piracy – which lasted from the mid-17th to the mid-18th century – many European nation-states had been in existence for centuries. 

Not only did countries like France, England, Sain, and Portugal have powerful bureaucracies, armies, and navies, but they also had long-established legal frameworks and relatively efficient courts and law enforcement.

The strength of the state in their native countries meant that pirates were frequently on the run. They had to avoid the largest crowded urban centers and commercial ports to avoid the gallows. This fugitive status also meant that pirates could not easily purchase boats.

With more straightforward avenues closed to them, pirate captains had to look elsewhere for potential acquisitions. In obtaining their ships, as with everything else they did, the pirates’ primary strategy was the use of force. 

However, vessel acquisition posed specific challenges that made their task harder.

Pirates could not risk damaging a potential target by bombarding it into submission with cannon fire. A boat found to be damaged beyond repair on capture would be of no further use, invalidating the whole point of its acquisition. Extensive damage would also require a lot of work and valuable funds to fix.  

Moreover, pirate ships needed to be hardy, especially in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, where conditions were routinely challenging. They would also have had to contend with hurricane season in the Caribbean. So a ship that was easily dominated or overpowered was unlikely to be valuable to a pirate captain, to begin with. 

In addition, pirates would have appreciated swift, well-armed vessels that they could use to outmaneuver and threaten their future victims into submission. The reason for these preferences was that – like guerilla fighters on land – pirates relied more on ambush and threats than on actual violence to obtain their goals. 

By design, the boats needed to execute these strategies would be harder to outrun and outgun. That is, the same qualities pirates most desired in a vessel made it harder to outrun or overpower its crew easily. [1]

Common Acquisition Strategies

Pirates would first have had to identify potential targets. Picking their potential target involved locating a vessel that was desirable but not so superior to their existing craft that obtaining it would be impossible or potentially fatal.

Ideally, they would have avoided major ports and shipping lanes, where they would be more likely to run into naval vessels that might have come to their victims’ aid.

The next step would be to track the vessel, taking notes on the number of its crew, armaments, and general capabilities of the boat. All this information would help the pirate captain hatch a plan to capture the vessel.

Pirates could resort to a variety of strategies. Mainly, they were incentivized to use the least amount of force necessary. A peaceful takeover would avoid damaging the vessel and endangering the ship’s crew.

A remarkably successful strategy, given its simplicity, was to fly under a different flag. [2]

This way, the captain of the intended target would not anticipate any danger until it was too late. Only when their target was close would the pirate’s identity become clear. Sometimes, a pirate vessel might also feign distress to lure its prey into coming to its aid. Under such circumstances, many captains would surrender instead of fighting off the pirates.

Unlike pirate vessels, merchant ships often had small crews to make room for more goods. Their guns would only be effective at a distance. So, a large crew of vicious pirates would quickly overrun a merchant vessel at close quarters.

If a crew were to resist, the pirate captain might ask his crew to fire a few canon balls across the ship’s bow. This was meant as a threat prefacing an all-out attack. If a captain didn’t surrender, the pirate crew would board his boat and take on his crew in a hand-to-hand battle.

Some pirates, such as Captains Henry Avery and George Lowther, were sailors on merchant ships who took over vessels by leading mutinies on board. The notorious Jack Rackham is even supposed to have stolen a sloop from under the noses of a fleet of Spanish gunships. 

Such cases, however, are outliers. Most often, a pirate captain would have liked to find an easy target and take it over with the least amount of violence.

Specific Types of Vessels Pirates Targeted

Pirates favored vessels like sloops, brigantines, and schooners for their swiftness in the water and easy maneuverability. [3]

All three had shallow hulls, making it easy to hide out in inland estuaries or sail up coastal rivers when being pursued by officers of the law. Brigantines also had oars that made it possible to move swiftly, even when wind speeds were low. 

However, these boats were harder to obtain, and their smaller sizes meant that merchant’s vessels didn’t often use these designs. So, some of the largest and most famous pirate ships were also galleons, fleuts, and square rigs. 

Often, pirates would have to customize these vessels, adding cannons and replacing cargo holds with quarters for the crew. In doing so, they would have to be wary of not adding to the considerable bulk of these crafts.

Finally, pirates would also have used small boats to launch surprise attacks.  

[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source

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