Pirate Tactics for Capturing a Ship

Capturing a bigger and more powerful ship was no mean feat for a pirate crew during the Golden Age. The process was a lot more complex than many people seem to think and the risk to the pirates themselves could be fairly high. This is why any pirates simply opted to steal the cargo that ships carried rather than trying to take the ship itself. The fact that most targeted ships would be better armed and armored than the pirate vessel meant that exchange of fire had to be avoided at all costs. Of course this also meant less damage to the prize ship in the long run.


Choosing the right Target
It was important that the pirate crew chose the right ship to target if they were to have the best possible chances of success. The ideal prize ship would be one that had more cargo than crew or firepower, and one that didn’t have a protective convoy or armed escort. Finding such a ship meant that they, the pirates, would need to scout the less travelled sea lanes that were not so often patrolled by the navy. Of course it meant that pickings were not always great, and the ships targeted could range from fishing boats to Galleons.

Planning your Attack
Once the target had been chosen and the pirates felt they had the timing right they had a few strategies open to them. They could fly a false flag that would make them seem friendly and lull the victim into a false sense of security (to prevent them speeding up and getting away), or they might pretend to be in distress to lure in the target as it aims to provide assistance.

Once the target ship was well within firing range the pirates might either raise their own flag, fire a warning shot, or (if the target ship was Spanish) send any ex-slaves or dark skinned pirates onto the decks to cause panic. You see the Spanish colonies ran largely on slave labour from Africa and they were generally afraid of retribution from ex-slaves. The hope was that the target ship would surrender without a fight, and the truth was that they generally did due to panic or lack of resources.

Frighten into Submission
The message given to target ships was very clear; “surrender or die”. Unless it was far superior in terms of firepower the victim ship most likely would surrender, though some merchant ships were known to bribe pirates. In fact some even carried special cargo with which to bribe any encountered pirates.

Capture the Ship
By the time the pirates were close enough to begin boarding it was likely that any merchant ship wouldn’t fight back. This was because merchant ships couldn’t afford to lose any crew; they often travelled with just enough people to man the ship so that they could save on wages and have more room for cargo. If, for some reason, they didn’t surrender the pirates would target the ship’s rigging and sails as they were easy to replace and their loss would prevent the target ship from escaping.

Human Collateral
If the prize ships crew surrendered immediately it was pretty much a guarantee that bartering an bribes would ensue and the crew would be left with their lives, if not their cargo or ship. If no surrender was forthcoming a defeated crew would most likely be taken prisoner, sold into slavery or killed and any passengers would be sold or ransomed. Of course the treatment of prisoners did vary from ship to ship this was generally the way of things. The captain of the prize ship was generally shot or marooned as an example, either way.

What next?
If, at the end of the endeavour, the prize ship was in good condition then the pirates had a few options available to them. They could take the cargo and set the ship afloat (or sink it), they could sell the captured ship, or they could add it to their own fleet. If they were lucky they might capture a ship so heavy with goods that they had to keep it until they could sell all it held.