Between Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, the Marigalante Pirate Ship in Puerto Vallarta and other such popular portrayals, you could be forgiven for thinking that pirates were jolly, loveable rogues who enjoyed a swashbuckling, party hard lifestyle but did no real harm (or at least were not vicious and malicious. While the party-hard mentality is spot on, however, pirates could be some of the most ruthless and violent people on the seas at this time in history.
Violence and Ruthlessness
Generalization is not fair, of course, and there were probably many pirates who did only what they had to in order to make a living. Nonetheless there were those who were driven purely by greed and cold-hearted ambition. Men such as those were more than happy to use violence in order to get what they wanted.
Murder and Torture
Pirate vessels usually aimed to gain a surrender from their victims; if this did not happen during a raid they would quickly become violent, however, and depending on the captain this could be very grisly. Need for control would often push them to hold crews hostage, sometimes murdering or torturing crewmen if they refused to be cowed and fought back. Sometimes, in order to strike fear into the wider community (and of course to survive certain raids) they would slaughter every sailor who resisted them. This was usually done to send a message to other potential targets, but some captains seemed to enjoy the murder of naval sailors.
Skull and crossbones
Flags played a huge part in pirate culture and tactics; particularly savage crews would raise a flag that told their enemies no mercy was going to be given. This red flag told any targeted vessel that no crewmen were likely to survive a boarding, and the act of raising it could strike fear even into a hardened enemy Captain. More tactical and subtle pirate crews might have raised the flag of a friendly nation in order to fool target ships and lure them into a false sense of security so that they could be approached with minimal resistance and hostility; when it was too late to run they would often reveal themselves (if not recognised beforehand).
Another sneaky tactic was to sail with a plain black flag or sails (rather than a standard white one) so that they could sneak up on their targets in the dead of night with less chance of being spotted from afar. This element of surprise mean that raids were more successful because the victims were less able to prepare and so were more likely to panic and surrender! Black sails cost more money, so they were really only an option for the pirates who were more successful anyway, but it was a great trick and it was one that many may have seen as an investment. They could also help crew to sneak in and out of ports unnoticed!
Most pirates would rather have gained what they wanted without violence; it was a risk for them as well as their victims, after all! This was why intimidation was at the top of their tactic list, but the truth is that there were few pirates who, when pushed, were not capable of ruthless violence when the situations called for it.