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Too Great a Cruelty: ARCHAEOLOGY's Top Ten Vicious Pirate Acts


From an eighteenth-century drawing: Captain Francis Spriggs' men force a captued Portuguese sailor to run around the ship's mast, prodded on with spears.

Disclaimer: The accounts that follow, taken from contemporary reports, are not for the faint of heart. As these shocking examples of cruelty show, pirates of the Golden Age were not the same lovable or admirable rogues portrayed in popular literature and film today. However, other accounts from the same era show that wealthy merchant ship officers were often no less harsh towards their own crewmen. As many pirates had escaped from the life of a poor merchant sailor, they may have relished the opportunity to exact retribution against merchant crews and upper-class citizens.

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 As David Cordingly relates in Under the Black Flag, on April 14, 1718, pirate captain Charles Vane and his crew took the Bermuda sloop Diamond, beat up the captain and crew, looted the vessel, and singled out one crew member, Nathaniel Catling, to be hung. Vane's crew believed Catling was dead, but when they pulled his body from the noose he was seen to revive, "whereupon one of the pirates hacked him across the collarbone with his cutlass and would have continued until he had murdered him had not one of the other pirates persuaded him it 'was too great a cruelty.'" Vane's crew then sent fire to the Diamond, but Catling luckily not only survived this treatment, but also escaped to describe the events in an official deposition to Governor Benjamin Bennett of Bermuda.

 Cordingly also tells of how Governor John Hart, writing to the Council of Trade and Plantations in London from St. Kitts on March 25, 1724, described an attack on a Portuguese ship traveling from Brazil by the pirate Edward Low. After the ship's captain dropped a bag of gold into the sea to keep the pirate from taking it, "Low cut off the said Mster's lips and broiled them before his face, and afterwards murdered the whole crew being thirty-two persons." Hart obtained these details from Low's captured quartermaster, Nicholas Lewis.


Captain Edward England's crew throw bottles at a prisoner lashed to the ship's capstan.

 There were numerous reports of the cruelty of Henry Morgan's crew towards the people of the Spanish settlement of Portobello, which they captured in 1668. One contemporary report, quoted by Cordingly, says that "A woman there was by some set bare upon a baking stove and roasted, because she did not confess of money which she had only in their conceit. This he heard some declare boasting, and one that was sick confess with sorrow."

 The Pirates Own Book describes how a group of pirates sailing under Captain Edward England met an old captain of theirs named Skinner, whom they felt had treated them poorly. They "laid hold of Skinner, tied him fast to the windlass, and pelted him with glass bottles until they cut him in a shocking manner, then whipped him about the deck until they were quite fatigued, remaining deaf to all his prayers and entreaties; and at last, in an insulting tone, observed, that as he had been a good master to his men, he should have an easy death, and upon this shot him through the head."

 In 1718, after accepting a pardon from the governor of North Carolina and taking up residence in the town of Bath, Blackbeard married 16 year-old Mary Ormond. Defoe's A General History of the Pyrates states that "His behaviour in this state was something extraordinary; for, while his sloop lay in Ocracoke Inlet, he was ashore at a plantation where his wife lived, with whom, after he had lain all night, it was his custom to invite five or six of his brutal companions to come ashore, and he would force her to prostitute herself to them all, one after another, before his face."

 According to The Buccaneers of America, a compilation of contemporary accounts of piracy, a typical death at the hands of Montbars of Languedoc, was particularly gruesome. After cutting open the stomach of his victim, Montbars, nicknamed "the exterminator," extracted one end of his guts, nailed it to a post and then forced the man to dance to his death by beating his behind with a burning log.

 Cordingly describes Henry Morgan's advance on the fortified Santiago Castle, in the Spanish port of San Geronimo. He used "several women and old men, and some friars and nuns dragged from the church" as human shields for his advancing men. "The soldiers in the castle fired a cannon loaded with chain shot, killing one of Morgan's men and wounding two friars."


From an eighteenth-century drawing: Captain Condent's men go for a ride on two Portuguese monks, taken prisoner from a ship off of the coast of Brazil.

 According to Defoe, Blackbeard once shot his second-in-command, Israel Hands (whose name Robert Louis Stevenson would later appropriate for a pirate in his Treasure Island) in the knee under the table during a game of cards, quite unprovoked and rendering the man limp for life. When Blackbeard was "asked the meaning of this, he only answered, by damning them, that if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was."

 After Henry Morgan's men took Gibraltar, according to Exquemelin, his men tortured a Portuguese man. Four stakes were set into the ground, and the man was suspended between them by cords attached to his thumbs and big toes. As quoted in Cordingly, "Then they thrashed upon the cords with great sticks and all their strength, so that the body of this miserable man was ready to perish at every stroke, under the severity of those horrible pains. Not satisfied as yet with this cruel torture, they took a stone which weighed above 200 pound, and laid it upon his belly, as if they intended to press him to death. At which time they also kindled palm leaves, and applied the flame unto the face of this unfortunate Portuguese, burning with them the whole skin, beard and hair."

 Condent's revenge against ships' masters (from The Pirates Own Book): "...after taking a fleet of salt ships at the Isle of May, he inquired into the manner of the commanders' behavior towards their men, and those against who complaint was made, he whipped and pickled." "Whipping and pickling", which involved splashing whip wounds with brine, was a common torture tactic used by merchant officers against their crewmen. Condent probably thought he was just giving them what they deserved!

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America