Pirates of the Golden Age didn’t often try to capture ships because, in all honesty, it was a very complex and difficult business to undertake. This is why so many pirates were happy to stick to hit and run raids aimed at getting cargo and getting away before retribution could be dealt. When they did try to take a ship, however, it was key that they should try to limit the exchange of cannon fire as much as possible not only to save their own skin, but to limit the damage done to the prize ship as well.

So, let’s take a look at how pirates captured ships

Find their target

As with so many other things in life it was key, for pirates, to choose the right target and the right time to attack. As pirate ships were generally older, less well equipped and more weakly armored than the ships they attacked it was key that they find a ship that was alone and that they approach it in a place where it was unlikely to get aid. This meant scouting the less popular shipping lanes where the navy seldom ventured. Often they would follow a ship for a little while before moving in for the kill.

Trick their Prize

Once they had decided the time was right the pirates could use any number of clever tricks to lure their target close without the exchange of fire or the need to chase them down. Firstly they could raise a dummy flag to lull their victims into a false sense of security and prevent them from speeding off as the pirates approached. Secondly, they might pretend to be in distress in order to prompt good Samaritan ships to approach them and offer help.

Show their true colors

Once the ship was well within firing range the pirates would raise their own flag and perhaps even storm onto their deck, brandishing weapons and screaming fearsomely. If a ship was particularly strong they might even fire a warning shot to make a crew think twice about fighting back. The idea was to produce enough fear to make an instant surrender as likely as possible. If the target ship was Spanish the pirates might even send dark skinned members, or paint themselves to look such, to up the fear factor. You see Spanish colonies relied on slave labour from Africa and the Spanish were always in fear of retribution from freed slaves.

Fight or Flight

The message given to the targeted ships was “surrender or die”, and most would indeed surrender unless they had far superior firepower and a much bigger crew. In fact most merchants were so ready to bribe their way to freedom that they had special cargo set to the side for that purpose.

Capture the Ship

Once a pirate ship got close enough to commence boarding it was almost certain that merchant vessels wouldn’t put up a fight. You see merchants often travelled with only enough crew to keep the ship moving, and as such couldn’t afford to lose any men in a struggle. If they were, however, disinclined to surrender the pirate ship would target the sails and rigging to make escape unlikely (or impossible) because these were easy and cheap to repair once the ship was in their possession. Far from being bloodthirsty the pirates were clever and restrained when it came to ship capture.

What to do with Prisoners

The treatment of prisoners did change from ship to ship, but crews could generally expect to be spared their lives and be offered the chance to buy or barter their freedom if they surrendered. If they refused to surrender, however, they could be sold as slaves, forced to join the pirates crew (if they were specialists this was almost a certainty) or killed. Passengers would also be sold or, if they were important, ransomed, and the captain would generally be shot or marooned as an example to all.


If they succeeded in taking a ship in good condition they might sell it or keep it and add it to their own fleet. In fact, if they were very lucky, they might even have to keep a hold of it until they could sell off all the cargo it contained.