Sure, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland—and Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Jack Sparrow—may make it seem like pirates were jolly, loveable men (and a few wild women to boot!) who enjoyed a swashbuckling lifestyle that simply focused on having a good time at every turn. And while pirates were known for their legendary penchant for partying, they also happened to be some of the most ruthless people in history. Although it isn’t fair to generalize and say that all pirates were inherently cruel and cold-hearted, the great majority of pirates engaged in plenty of violent behavior in order to get what they wanted. Driven by an intense thirst for more riches, pirates would do just about anything to get their hands on more loot.
Pirate ships usually wished for their targets to surrender without needing to fight, but if that did not happen during a raid, they would quickly turn to violence. Their need for control over their prey would cause them to hold ship crews hostage, sometimes torturing or even murdering those on board, especially if the ship refused to surrender and fought back instead. Pirate crews would often slaughter everyone on a ship who resisted them, partially out of necessity, but also because they wanted to convey their merciless reputation to other ships. This would serve as a warning to other potential targets, letting them know that resistance would be futile.
Some pirate ships took their savagery to the next level. It is well known that flags were a big part of the culture and every pirate ship had its own unique design. However, pirate ships that had an especially menacing crew would sometimes hoist a red flag that would convey to other ships that no prisoners would be taken; in other words, if they targeted your ship, you likely were not going to make it out alive. This simple act could strike fear into the hearts of even the most confident and well-equipped merchant ships. One of the most clever tactics pirates used was to cast the flag of a friendly nation to the ship they were preparing to attack so that their victims would let their collective guard down.
Another favored strategy of pirates was to sail with black flags rather than the standard white, which would make it far more likely that their ship could sneak up on a victim under the cover of night without being spotted. This element of surprise allowed pirate ships to enjoy successful raids because their victims would not be nearly as prepared to defend themselves as they would have been if they saw the pirates approaching. Although black sails cost more money and therefore were really just an option for more wealthy operations, it was a great trick for sneaking in and out of ports unnoticed.
While intimidation was the name of the game for most pirate ships, most of them employed a rowdy crew prepared to take action whenever it was needed. From causing mayhem when boarding a targeted ship to following through with violent acts including torture and murder, it is clear that ruthless pirates were to be taken seriously!