Though pirates have a notorious reputation for theft, violence, and cruelty, not all swashbucklers behaved in such a savage manner. Many pirates avoided violence whenever possible, and some treated their crewmates humanely.
Pirates are bad in books, movies, and some historical accounts because they often resorted to violence to achieve their desires. These seafarers stole for a living and used intimidation as part of their strategy. Some acted barbarically, killing and torturing people to develop a fearsome reputation.
This article examines pirates and whether they could be classified as “good” or “bad,” with a few real-life examples, and dives into the importance of reputations among seafarers. Finally, it briefly looks at one of the most sadistic pirates in history.
Were Pirates Good or Bad?
Pirates were both good and bad. Some were more humane than others, often generous and willing to avoid violence unless necessary. Others, however, were truly ruthless killers who tortured their victims and never thought twice about taking a life if someone was in the way of what they wanted.
However, most sailors that went on to become pirates did so out of necessity. Many of these men were once members of the Royal Navy. After being cut loose, they didn’t have pensions, severance pay, or any other way to earn a living. The majority were poor and uneducated, and sailing was all they knew. As such, these men went back to their roots, once again sailing the high seas to earn their keep.
Examples of “Good” Pirates
There are dozens of accounts of captains treating their crew humanely without resorting to violence at every opportunity. It’s important to note, however, that these men still occasionally used violence as a way to get what they wanted. They were, after all, still criminals of the sea. However, many seemed to possess more restraint than the “bad” pirates discussed later in this article.
Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy
Like many sailors during the Golden Age of Piracy, Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy was a former sailor in the Royal Navy. After his duties, he continued to sail, eventually becoming the captain of his own ship, sailing the seas as a pirate. He was quite a successful buccaneer, capturing over fifty ships throughout his short career.
Black Sam was considered well-mannered, clean, generous, and dapper among his crew and those who knew him. He was often referred to as the “Robin Hood of the Sea.” He led his men using a democratic-like system and used tactics to gain control of ships without damaging them.
Edward England was an Irish pirate who began his career as a privateer before being captured and forced to work as part of another pirate’s crew. By 1718, England was captaining his own ship, sailing the seas as a pirate himself.
He was known to avoid resorting to violence unless necessary. Though his crew was often ill-tempered and savage, England tended to offer the crews of plundered ships to join his own, once even giving command of a seized ship to one of the original crew members.
People who knew him stated that he was good-natured and courageous. They said that though he didn’t like to treat people poorly, even those he captured, he was often overruled by his fiery crew.
Examples of “Bad” Pirates
Though many pirates started out as ordinary people, it’s safe to assume that some let the power of piracy go to their heads. The dangers and isolation of sea life were enough to drive a man mad, but once you add power achieved through their raids, many could have easily turned cold-hearted and brutal. Some, however, were sadistic at the core.
After avoiding Spanish capture as an indentured servant, François l’Olonnais went on to obtain a ship, sailing the high seas with his crew. He was a feared pirate, infamous for beheading crews and tormenting the residents of every city he plundered.
He was an especially brutal man, once tearing the heart out of a Spanish soldier before he ate it raw. Needless to say, this struck fear into the other soldiers, who then spoke freely and openly, without holding back any information that l’Olonnais requested.
This brutal pirate seemed to revel in the torturing of his victims. He often cut out tongues, sliced men into pieces while they were still alive, and tied cords around the eyes of his victims, tightening them until the eyes protruded from the head.
Sir Henry Morgan
Though Sir Henry Morgan was technically a pirate, he was actually backed by the English government, though unofficially. He eventually had a fleet of 36 vessels and over 2,000 men and went on to burn the city of Panama to the ground.
Sir Henry Morgan went on to betray his crew, leaving his men and carrying all of the booty for himself. Though he was captured by the English after they made peace with Spain, they didn’t make him pay for his crimes. Instead, they knighted him, making him a government official in Jamaica.
A Pirate’s Reputation
Pirates cared a great deal about their reputations. A reputation for violence was particularly helpful, as it minimized the amount of violence in which a pirate had to partake.
If a pirate captain was infamous for murder, torture, and other merciless attacks, anyone who knew his name was less likely to resist, leading to a reduction in combat. This made the captain’s life easier, as crews who knew of his wicked ways would surrender instead of subjecting themselves and their crew to cruel deaths.
Not only that, but pirates knew that if they came off as cowardly, their crew would no longer respect them and elect a new captain. Because of this, pirate captains took it upon themselves to intimidate, take crews hostage, and even torture or kill to spread a fearsome reputation across the seas and show their crew that they were worthy of captaincy.
Who Was the Most Evil Pirate?
Edward Low was the most evil pirate to sail the Seven Seas. He was a particularly vicious man who seemed to revel in the torturing and killing of his victims. In one instance, he cut the lips off of a sea captain, roasting them in front of him. Later, he murdered the entire crew.
Low’s reputation preceded him almost everywhere he sailed. He was notorious for cutting out tongues and mercilessly killing hundreds of people throughout his career, often without real justification. His savage, gruesome attacks led to an increased military presence on the seas, eventually ending the Golden Age of Piracy.