Why Did Pirates Call Treasure Booty?

During the Golden Age of Piracy, from 1650 to 1720, thousands of pirates raided the waters along trade routes in search of loot, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting ships in their path. Treasures acquired during these plundering voyages included various items of value, and pirates referred to these riches as “booty.” Today, booty has an alternate meaning, so many people wonder why pirates called treasure booty.

Pirates called treasure “booty” because it meant loot, exchange, and spoils of war. Booty from pirate raids ranged from literal chests of gold to random valuables such as spices, coins, gems, and jewels. After cataloging their take, pirates took the loot ashore to sell.

This article examines the definition and etymology of the term “booty” to explain why pirates used the word to describe goods stolen at sea. Additionally, it looks at what typically pirate booties consisted of and how they divided it among crewmates. Read on to learn more.

Does Pirate Booty Have Anything To Do With Human Anatomy?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “booty” has two distinct meanings, with the first term akin to stealing.[1] The second definition refers to the human buttocks.

Despite these two words being spelled and pronounced the same way, pirate booty has nothing to do with human anatomy. In fact, the word booty to reference treasure or valuables taken during war came centuries before the terminology was used to casually reference the rear end.

Therefore, the definition of booty as it relates to pirates is the original.

“Booty” in Pirate Speak

Etymology explains that the word booty is derived from Middle French “le butin,” meaning loot, and the Low Germanic word “būte,” meaning exchange.[2][3]

Using the word “booty” in a sentence, one might say:

“During their plunder, the pirates took a booty of 2,000 Spanish reales.”

Interestingly, when “booty” first emerged (likely from military forces) as a term to describe stolen goods, it specifically referenced items pillaged on land. To describe valuables stolen at sea, people used the word prizes.

It wasn’t until the 15th century that the word “booty” referenced goods stolen on open waters.

Slang Term “Booty”

People often use the slang term “booty” to describe human buttocks.

Etymologists believe this form of the word is a variation of the English-based Creole word bottie (literally “buttocks”) used from the 16th to late-17th century.[4]

The slang use of “booty” to describe buttocks didn’t appear in modern English until 1928.[5]

Does “Booty” Mean Treasure in Pirate?

Booty, as it relates to pirate treasure, refers to items stolen by pirate crews during plundering voyages. Prior to its use as a pirate term, armies used the word to reference valuables stolen during war on land (e.g., “spoils of war”).

Even today, military manuals reference the term “war booty” to describe the equipment, property, or other goods of opposing forces taken or found on the battlefield.[6]

Of course, pirates didn’t care about semantics and used the term “booty” to describe any bounty taken during sea voyages and raids. Using the word to describe goods stolen at sea eventually became the norm.

What Is a Pirate’s Booty?

The most valuable pirate booty included precious metals (e.g., gold and silver), spices, silk, jewelry, and gemstones. With that said, swashbucklers actually preferred coins because they could spend the currency immediately — it didn’t require offshore selling.[7]

Four common coins during this era included:

  • Spanish reales
  • Peso (“pieces of eight”)
  • Escudo
  • Doubloons

The table below examines the regular name, common name, and equivalent values of these highly-sought coins:

CoinReferred To AsReales EquivalentDoubloonEquivalent
½ reale½ reale½ reales1/256 doubloon
8 realePeso “pieces of eight”8 reales1/16 doubloon
EscudoEscudo16 reales⅛ doubloon
8 EscudoDoubloon128 reales1 doubloon

Although pirates preferred highly valued items and actual currency, the majority of ships they happened across contained common goods (e.g., tobacco, alcohol, linen, wood, etc.). Many times, pirates would keep some of these commodities for themselves, including food or medicine. In some cases, they’d use plundered linen, wood, ropes, and other materials to repair their own ships.[8]

How Did Pirates Divide Their Booty?

After pirates stole goods from another ship, they didn’t dive into the riches right away to see their rewards. Instead, a quartermaster cataloged all items and kept the booty under wraps until the crew arrived on shore to sell their loot at a pirate haven.

At the pirate haven, they’d exchange the stolen goods for currency. 

Any currency acquired after selling the loot was then divided amongst the crew. How much each crewmate received was determined using a hierarchical system.

  • Crewmates – 1 share
  • Skilled Seamen – 1 ¼ to 1 ½ shares
  • Officers – 1 ¼ to 1 ½ shares
  • Quartermaster – 2 shares
  • Captain – 2 shares

At the pirate haven, the crew usually stuck around, spending their funds on spirits, tobacco, and women.[8] When the money ran out, they headed back to their ship to sail the high seas once again in search of new vessels to plunder.

What If Pirates Didn’t Steal Anything?

Long sea journeys in search of loot were always unpaid — it’s not like pirates received a regular paycheck for joining their captain on a plundering voyage. If they couldn’t find a ship to raid or if a looting mission was unsuccessful, they went to shore empty-handed. Stealing was the only way these criminal seamen made their living.

Naturally, if pirates wanted to eat, they had to avoid frequent failures. To prevent recurrences of failed missions under the same leadership, they utilized a democratic system of government.[9] Pirates elected a captain based on specific traits (e.g., sailing skills, bravery, etc.).

Crewmates expected their captain to lead them to riches and aid them during raids using their seafaring skills. Therefore, if a captain failed on multiple excursions, turned out to be an unskilled sailor, or acted cowardly during plunders, pirates would hold a vote to replace him.

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