Monday, September 20, 2010

The Pirate's Arsenal

When I am giving a talk on pirate weapons I usually begin with the question, "You just sighted a merchant ship. What item in the pirate's arsenal is most likely to make them surrender without a fight?"

Most people answer "cannons" followed by "guns" and "swords". The correct answer is the pirate's black flag. The most common pirate flags were either black or red and most had some representation of a death's head. This carried a message - "surrender or die" for the black flag and "surrender or we will spill your blood" for the red flag.

The skull and crossbones was a common symbol for death for centuries. You see it on New England headstones and on poison (not so much anymore but it was still there when I was growing up). Flying it from your mast was a promise of death.

For most sailors, that was enough. They were hired hands. It was not their vessel or cargo. At most they might lose some or all of their wages - not enough to die for. If they surrendered they would likely survive. They had a good chance at keeping their ship or at least being put in a longboat with provisions. They might be roughed up a bit or they might be given friendly treatment. They woudl not be fighting for their lives against a larger, better-armed crew.

The cannons, guns, and swords were needed but mainly to make good on that threat.

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