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History Of Pirates

While a ship is technically a vessel with three masts, many pirate ships were not ships at all. Ships, including warships, frigates and merchant ships were rarely used by pirates. Pirate ships provided pirates with transport, weapons and storage.

Pirate ships provided pirates with transport, weapons and storage. They were a sailing home for the crew, and included space for not only rations, but treasure. They needed to be navigable, fast, and well armed in order to allow the pirates to be successful. During the height of the pirate era, pirate ships sailed the Caribbean, leaving havoc in their path. The island ports offered shelter, entertainment, and an opportunity to recruit new crew members to pirate ships of the time. While we may not always know the name, pirate ships are a critical part of pirate lore.

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A classic pirate ship.

A Basic Outline of a Pirate Ship

While the navy used such vessels, and they were well-armed, they were both slower and less easily navigated than smaller vessels. Sloops and schooners were the most common types of pirate ships. These smaller vessels often had only one mast, and could carry a crew of 75 men and 14 guns. Speed and maneuverability made sloops ideal pirate ships, able to outrun the larger and slower naval vessels. Modern audiences will recognize these real life pirate ships in the images we see of pirates in the media today.

Where Did Pirate Ships Come From?

Pirate ships were often not specifically designed for as pirate vessels Many times, pirates moved onto a newly captured vessel when it was superior to theirs. Some pirate ships moved from legitimate use to piracy when the crew mutinied. Other pirate ships were retired privateer ships. Privateers were, functionally, state approved pirates, so these fast and well designed pirate ships were often recruited as pirate vessels when the privateering contract expired.

Pirates in Popular Culture

In today’s Hollywood-ruled entertainment culture – shanghaied recently by a certain pirate blockbuster, which shall go unnamed – pirates are of more interest than ever before. We have an image of romantic, dashing pirate men and of the beautiful pirate woman with her cutlass and low neckline, all on a fantastical pirate ship. Our idea of pirates is almost inseparable with the mythos behind them. Who were they really, though, and just how much similarity do real pirates bear to the moviegoers’ image of them?

What does the name Pirate imply?

The name pirate was used to refer to more than just the buccaneers of the high seas and the real pirates of the Caribbean. Strictly, the name pirate was used to refer to those independent pirates who used their pirate ships to attack merchant vessels and steal their goods, which they would then bring into port to sell. These very real pirates were little more than criminals, highwaymen of the seas, and truly deserved the name pirate.

Privateers, on the other hand, still engaged in piracy – but did so “legally,” under the flag of a specific nation, and only against that nation’s enemies. One such pirate was Robert Morris, an American privateer from the early years of the country. Many privateers were wealthy – Morris’ pirating profits made him the first millionaire in American history.

Famous Pirate Ships

An important part of pirate lore is, of course, the pirate ship, with its Jolly Roger and cannons ready to take down any innocent passerby. Among the most famous of all pirate ships was the one captained by the pirate captain Edward Teach – better known today as Blackbeard. His ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was the terror of honest merchantmen near his haunt near the island of St. Vincent until his death at the hands of Lieutenant Maynard of the British army.

The Infamous Pirate Woman

Although Hollywood portrayals of piracy and pirates nearly always contain at least one good-looking pirate woman, real life was rather different. Piracy was almost exclusively a man’s world, and was not at all the romantic life portrayed in film. There were, however, a few notable exceptions to this rule. One extremely powerful pirate woman was the infamous Cheng I Sao of the Red Flag Fleet, in China and Malaysia in the early nineteenth century. With the death of her husband, Cheng commanded over 1500 pirate ships until her death in 1844. Other famous pirate women were Mary Read and Ann Bonny.

Current media has made pirates a more popular and interesting subject than ever. While many documentaries and books focus on pirate history, there is less out there about famous female pirates. While we may not even always know her real name, pirate women fought, sought glory and treasure, and even captained more than one pirate ship.

Women on a Pirate Ship

While the pirate code banned women from pirate ships, women did serve as pirates, primarily by cross dressing as men. Regardless of the pirate code ban on women on pirate ships, women not only were pirates, but in some cases even captained fleets of pirate ships. More than one pirate woman is found in the history of piracy and pirate ships, ranging from the sixteenth century all the way to the eighteenth century. While we often think that a pirate woman lived in the Caribbean in the 17th century, the list of famous female pirates at shows that there was many a pirate woman from the ancient world into that of nineteenth century China.

Famous Pirate Women

Two of the most famous pirate women of all time were Anne Bonny and Mary Reed. Anne Bonny was an eighteenth century Irish woman, who moved to the Bahamas after marrying a small-time pirate. She eloped with another, more successful pirate, Jack Rackham, and dressed as a man began her own career in piracy. More information on Anne Bonny can be found at Anne Bonny was imprisoned while pregnant, and received a stay of execution due to the pregnancy. Her final fate is unknown.

Mary Read served alongside Anne Bonny on Rackham’s ship. Read spent much of her life dressing as a man, serving in the military, marrying and running an inn as a woman, and eventually turning to piracy. She and Anne Bonny served on the same ship, and Bonny kept her secret for quite some time. Even after her gender was revealed, Read was accepted and served on the ship alongside Rackham and Bonny. Captured along side Anne Bonny, read died in prison, possibly due to complications of childbirth or a fever. offers a more thorough look at this fascinating pirate woman.

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