How pirates were punished:
before and after the trial
A captured spy usually didn't have to face a long prison term.
In fact the concept of imprisonment for a crime was foreign during
the Golden Age of Piracy. The idea of using confinement as a regular
form of punishment was not widespread until after the American Revolution.
Typically prisoners were in the gaol (jail) while awaiting trial
and then if found guilty, while waiting for the sentence to be carried
out. (I know what you're thinking, what about the Count of Monte
Christo? He falls in the same boat as other political prisoners.
If the person was politically important or if the person possessed
certain knowledge or value, then they may be held indefinitely.
These are special cases. The only real exception to this general
rule was people placed in jail for debt. A person who went to "debtor’s
prison" could in spend the rest of his life in jail.
A gaol during the 18th century was not a very pretty sight. It
was dark, it was dank, and it was overrun with rodents and insects.
Only the largest cities had a real "prison". Most were
just converted store rooms or cellars that were used as a gaol when
the town had a prisoner. They lacked any kind of common sanitation.
Often the floor would be covered in straw in order to absorb human
and animal waste. The same straw was used for the prisoners' bed.
In the larger city, there were permanent prisons complete with
torture rooms for interrogation, smaller cells for important prisoners
and usually a large central holding are for common prisoners. Despite
being a permanent structure, these were also filthy, disease ridden,
and over-crowded. It was not uncommon for a healthy person to enter
a prison, be acquitted of his crime and then suffer from a chronic
illness for the rest of his/her life; because of his short time
However, neither the temporary pen nor the permanent prison was
a match for where England stored most of its criminals. The filthiest,
most deadly prison of all was the prison ship. The prison ship was
a derelict ship that was moored in a river or off shore. The ship
was in such a state of disrepair that it was not worth salvaging.
Port holes, were boarded over, most hatches were bolted shut or
boarded over and the conversion from derelict to prison ship was
complete. Prisoners were then thrown into the hold and left to rot
until they were tried and their sentence carried out.
Sanitary conditions on the prison ships were abysmal. The ships
leaked water, making the men was constantly wet. Vermin such as
lice, spiders, other insects and larger critters such as rats were
all over the place. Disease was constant with many prison ships
cesspools of cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever. The jailers
were not too concerned about removing the dead and other prisoners
were not quick to report a dead person for fear of even less food
being thrown down the hold. Few people could make it past a month
on a prison ship. During the American Revolution, more Americans
died on board British prison ships than all the combat casualties
from all the battled combined; such were the horrors of being placed
in a prison ship.
In all types of prisons, some of the more dangerous or more important
prisoners were kept in chains at all times. Some would also be chained
to the wall or other large object. If these prisoners happened to
have enemies in the cell with them they would probably wake up dead
the next day. This was most unfortunate but it was something the
authorities could live with.
For the most part, prisoners were not segregated. Men, women and
children were often thrown into the same communal cell. To make
matters worse, those already convicted and sentenced were often
in the same cell as those awaiting trial. Only important prisoners
were placed in a cell alone. What this means is that a woman who
was awaiting trial for something like stealing a fish from the market
could be in the same cell with a man who was to be hanged for rape
The only bright side is that once you were tried and sentenced,
your days in the gaol were numbered. It was time to be flogged,
pilloried, sold or hanged!
Few pirates got off by simply being pilloried. To be sentenced
to the pillory was a sentence of public humiliation. The pillory
was a round platform that could be rotated. The person to be pilloried
would be secured to the pillory in a number of ways. In some instances
he or she was fastened with chains about the neck, hands ankles
and waist and forced to remain in kneeling or half crouching stance.
Other pillories had a chest high yoke where the head and hands were
securely locked in place forcing the person to stand in an uncomfortable
position. In most cases, the pillory was located in a market place
or other gathering area. Many pillories were designed so that the
platform could be rotated 360°. This allowed a good view of
the person from all directions. Persons would often be sentenced
to the pillory for a few hours or perhaps a day or two.
There are records or people being sentenced to the pillory for
six or twelve hours only to have the sentence commuted after one
or two hours on the pillory. The reason for the commuting of the
sentence is because the pillory was not designed to kill a person
only cause them great humiliation. While in the pillory, the crowd
was allowed to castigate the criminal. This included both verbal
and physical torment. The physical torment included throwing rotting
vegetables and human and animal waste at the criminal. Often more
deadly items such as sticks and stones were thrown. While being
pilloried, the criminal was not allowed food or drink. Many people
died being pilloried despite having a sentence commuted to time
served. Broken bones were common, and in the case of the neck yoke,
if a person lost their footing they could suffocate due to strangulation.
It is doubtful many pirates got off with just a time in the pillory.
However, a pirate who was flogged could very well spend some time
in the pillory after being beaten. If you see a sentence such as
"fifty stripes on the back followed by a day of public display
(or humiliation) it probably meant flogging and the pillory.
In smaller cities and in the American colonies, the pillory was
less common. Typically a person on public display was placed in
the stocks. The stocks usually involved a yoke for the feet that
was anchored to the ground. Sometimes a neck and hand yoke were
used. The place of display was still in a busy public area or sometimes
where ever the crime was committed. Despite being less elaborate
in the presentation, the heaving of insults and garbage at the criminal
was still the rule of the day and a person in the stocks could also
die from injuries sustained while confined.
The lucky man convicted of piracy got off with 50 to 100 lashes!
Flogging was an acceptable way to punish sailors on board Navy and
Merchant ships. The Captain of the ship usually determined the number
of lashes to be given and in some cases those numbers could reach
fifty or even one hundred. In most instance a much lower number
was given (ten or twenty). The implement used in the punishment
was the cat-o' nine tails.
Cat o' nine tails was a particularly nasty whip that was common on
board naval vessels at the time. It was a whip, usually made a cow
or horse hide, with nine knotted lines. There are stories that steel
balls or barbs of wires would be added to the end of the lines to
give them more striking force. This would have been uncommon and against
The whips were typically oiled and wiped clean in between floggings
but the concept of bacteria and germs was unknown. The cat-o'-nine
tails was a breeding ground for disease and pestilence.
After the flogging was meted out, one of two things was usually
done. On board most ships the back was doused with a mixture of
salt and vinegar. This lessened the chance of infection. however
this was done to members of the crew, men still considered good
sailors. A pirate on the other hand may not be so lucky. His back
could just as easily be rinsed with a bucket of water from the ocean.
Salty ocean water would not have been as effective as vinegar and
salt at preventing infection and indeed may have increased the odds
of infection. Pirate were also less likely to be given adequate
medical treatment, especially if they were captured by a nation
other than Britain. A pirate flogging could lead to a slow painful
death from gangrene or blood poisoning.
A final note: Many people have heard the song, What do you
do with a Drunken Sailor. One particular verse was originally
sung: Give him a taste of the Captain's Daughter. This has
been corrupted by some balladeers to Throw him in bed with the
captains' daughter. Obviously the second term makes more sense
to many people today, but does not really seem to be much of a punishment
(unless the Captain catches him!). If you go back to the original
verse and make the connection that the Captain's Daughter
was slang for the Cat-o 'nine tails then the punishment become
quite clear. So next time you are at an Irish bar and they begin
singing Drunken Sailor impress your friends with this bit
o trivia: The Captain's Daughter is the Cat-o-nine tails.
(updated, Jan. 2007)
The next level of punishment for the common pirate was slavery.
While the sentence normally was not a life time of slavery per-se,
it often turned into slavery until death. This is because criminal
slaves were often treated worse than African slaves. Imagine being
sold to the owners of ships you used to attack!
If it were not for the economic benefits of slavery, it is doubtful
any pirates would have escaped the hangman's noose. By selling the
pirates into slavery the government actually made a small profit
and companies such as the Royal Africa Company and the East India
Company received cheap disposable labor. Some of the pirates were
used as slaves aboard ships but they were also used on plantations
and in mines. The Royal Africa Company used them in their gold mines;
the East India Company used them on opium plantations. The work
was dangerous, back breaking and often led to disease. Food for
the slaves was often little more than mealy bread or gruel.
Despite the length of sentence, once sold into slavery many would
find that they were slaves for life. The owners would find cause
to lengthen their time as slaves. Perhaps the slave fell sick or
the slave was thought lazy. This was good enough to take on extra
time. Or perhaps, the slave would receive a bill for his food or
clothing and would then need to serve extra time to cover these
added expenses. There were always ways to add time to a slave's
sentence. Often the only way out of the forced servitude was death
or running away. Because slaves were prone to suicide, some owners
felt that Papists (Catholics) made better slaves because they would
not commit suicide, fearing for their immortal soul.
The government would often dictate the length of enslavement at
sentencing. Two common lengths were seven and eleven years. These
were not the only lengths of time, but they do seem to appear quite
often in the sentencing of pirates. When the court sentenced a man
to slavery it was considered and act of compassion but in reality
it usually meant a slow lingering death marked by hard labor, bad
food, and continuous mistreatment.
While many were sold to the large companies mentioned, several
were also sold into slavery in colonies. The lives of these men
faired little better than those of the African slaves. Most of the
criminal slaves were considered inferior to African slaves because
they couldn't handle the heat as well. Naturally a pirate from the
Caribbean was unlikely to be sold back where he might have friends
who could help him. A Caribbean pirate might find himself in India,
or the South Pacific.
The pirate who actually completed his time as a slave and live
to tell about it was a lucky man.
In the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow
(Captain Jack Sparrow) has been branded with the letter "P"
on the inside of his forearm. This was because Sparrow's "
little run in with the East India Company", according to the
There is quite a bit of confusion concerning the branding of people.
Branding was not always done and quite often when a person was branded
it was not by order of the court. Branding was a way of marking
a person for life for a crime. Typically this was done to people
who escaped the gallows and on the mercy of the court. The reason
for the branding was to make sure the criminal did don't get this
lucky break a second time.
This does not mean every pirate who was sold into slavery was branded.
It means those that had a death sentence commuted might have been
branded. For a very short time, English courts branded prisoners
on the cheek. This practice occurred from 1699 until 1707. Before
and after this time the common practice was to brand those who has
been spared a death sentence on the hand or thumb.
Branding was also done by slave owners. If a person was to be a
slave for life, he or she might be branded right away. However if
a criminal was sentenced for a set number of years; then branding
was held over the slave's head as a way to prevent escape attempts.
It was common to flog and brand an escaped slave upon recapture.
This was the warning that if an another attempt was made; the slave
would be flogged and hanged!
In the movie Captain Norrington finds a brand on Captain Jack Sparrow's
arm and orders for him to be hanged. This would have been an unlawful
act in real life. The brand only meant that Sparrow's death sentence
for piracy had been commuted for some reason. Unless Norrington
could show evidence that Sparrow had committed an act of piracy
since the commutation of the sentence, all Norrignton could really
do is run him out of Port Royal.
Keel Hauling or Keelhauling
Keelhauling was not a practice of Pirates but you can rest assured
that such a punishment drove many an honest man to piracy. Keelhauling
was a form of corporal punishment practiced in the Royal Navy.
First let us remember that in the Royal Navy on the high seas,
the Captain was the law and could and did hand out punishments as
he saw fit. This was also the case among many of the merchant ships
belonging to such out fits as the East India Company and Royal African
Company. Many of the punishment were quite cruel and harsh. Some
forms of punishments were in fact a death sentence. This was the
intended case, for keel hauling.
How it was done
The guilty party would be stripped of clothing and a rope would
be passed under the ship from port to starboard. The man's hands
would then be secured to the rope . Often his legs would also be
bound together to prevent him from swimming. He was never weighted
down in any way, for this may prevent him from hitting the bottom
of the ship. He would then be tossed overboard and a selected group
of men would then attempt to the pull the man out of the water,
by passing him under the boat and out the other side.
Of course the captain would select the men but it rarely mattered
how many people hauled the man out.
If the man was pulled slowly he would most likely drown. The shock
of the cold ocean combined with the wake of the moving ship was
usually more than enough to cause the strongest man to fill his
lungs with sea water.
If the man was pulled quickly, he would undoubtedly hit the bottom
of the ship, which was covered with razor sharp barnacles. In the
end he most likely bled to death from the injuries incurred or suffered
a slow painful death from infection.
There was also the possibility that the rope would snap while
rubbing against the keel. And then to make matters worse, if the
man did actually survive, the Captain could always accuse the crew
of doing the punishment incorrectly and order it done again!
With such a cruel punishment facing one's possible future it becomes
readily understandable why a crew might mutiny under a cruel Captain.
(More to come-- such as when Keelhauling was finally stricken from
Royal Navy Law)
Incidentally for those who do not know, the Keel is the back bone
of ship which runs from stem to stern. (front to back)
Hanging was the fate of most Pirates. The process was a slow and agonizing
death, which often took several minutes. Two methods were used. One
would be to put a rope around a person neck and then pull him off
the ground. The other was to pull something out from under the condemned
and let them swing freely. Rarely, would either method lead to a broken
neck and faster, less painful death.
Unlike later executions, hangings in the 16th and 17th century
were a spectacle designed to enlighten the community of the evils
of piracy. A good description of such an act was reported for the
execution of Captain Quelch, a pirate hanged in Boston in 1704.
It is uncertain that every hanging was done with as much pomp and
in the exact same fashion but it is almost certain that a grand
public display of punishment would be meted out.
According to the Maritime laws in Boston at the time (and most
likely throughout the British Empire) a condemned pirate was to
be hanged within ten day of being found guilty. The time between
the sentencing and the hanging was to allow the condemned man the
chance to repent for his evil ways. (He wouldn't have his sentence
reduced by repenting, he would just have his soul possibly saved.)
It also allowed time for visitors from neighboring towns to arrive
for the show.
Silver Oar of the Admiralty
During this time of repentance, the condemned would b visited
by clergymen and would receive numerous lectures on their evils
ways. It was also during this time that, on occasion, a person of
high standing could buy a pardon for the condemned. In some cases
this is also where pirates would turn state's evidence on other
pirates in an attempt to save their own neck.
Eventually the hanging date would arrive. In a town such as Boston,
the condemned were paraded through the town to harbor or docks.
He would often ride in a one-horse cart, with his hands tied to
a pole and his feet often tied together to prevent escape. An official
would lead the cart. In Boston, the official would carry a silver
oar that represented British maritime authority. Next to or behind
the condemned would follow a clergyman who recited passages of repentance.
The hanging would take place in the late morning or late afternoon.
Businesses would close so that workers could attend the ceremony.
A band might play some religious songs. Eventually the condemned
would reach the gallows.
Typically the gallows were not a permanent fixture and was nothing
more than two beams with a cross beam in which a noose hanged. The
cart containing the condemned would be positioned under the noose.
The clergyman would then mount a pedestal and give a sermon. The
sermon may last as much as an hour or even longer. The sermon was
always about the evils of piracy and acted as stern warning to all
those present. Following the sermon, the charges against the condemned
would be read and the sentence pronounced.
Once the sentence was pronounced, the condemned would get a chance
to make a final statement.
After the final statement, a hood may or may not be placed over
his head and the noose was slipped around his neck and tightened.
The horse would be prodded to move and the cart would roll out from
under the condemned leaving him dangle a few feet above the ground.
The other method of hanging required a higher cross beam and would
be used in order for the crowd to get a better view of the event.
What would happen is a rope would be passed through a pulley with
a noose at one end and a few men or a horse at the other. When it
was time the carry out the sentence, the condemned would be hoisted
into the air and the rope tied off.
In either event, the condemned would slowly strangle to death.
His body would go through convulsions and was twitch and a swing
wildly. On many occasions bindings around the legs and hand would
come loose and also swing about wildly.
Because of spasms, hangings were also called the "Devil's Jig",
or "Gallows' Dance" or numerous other sardonic euphemisms.
After the condemned was dead he was almost always remain hanging
until at least sundown, and often even longer. Once he was cut down,
he would either be buried between the tides (beneath
the high water mark*), face down, so that his soul may never
find rest or he would be hanged in chains or iron.
* Many sources state the
body was buried beneath the low water mark or low tide. This would
actually have people digging holes in the water. The low tide is
the point at which the ocean level is at its lowest. Each day the
ocean reaches four different levels. There are two high tides, one
about every twelve hours. One of these tides tends to be higher
than the other. There are also two low tides. The lower of the two
high tides is often mistakenly called a "low tide". Only the high
tides leave a definitive mark on the shore. The low tide is the
lowest ebb at which the ocean reaches. To attempt to bury a body
beneath this point would mean to try and dig a hole in the sand
under the ocean. This would be a most difficult chore to attempt.
Most likely what the original authors were talking about was the
burying the body beneath the lower water mark left by the lower
high tide. Over time, the burial method has probably been obscured.
Hanging in Chains or Irons
The good news is, you were already dead. The bad news is you
were not given a proper burial. For many pirates, this bad
news was quite frightening. It meant that your immortal soul
would never have any chance of redemption.
The practice of hanging in chains or irons was pretty
basic. The pirate would be hanged until dead. Then his body
would be placed in a iron cage or possibly wrapped in chains.
This cage was then hoisted on a rafter and left to rot in
a public area.
Typically this public place would be a dock where other
potential pirates would be able to view it as a warning/reminder
of what comes of those who go on the account. Such places
as harbor entrances were a favorite for hanging pirates
in irons. Gallows Point was one of the most famous paces.
The body would remain on display until there really wasn't
anything left to display because of decomposition. At this
point the rotting body would most often be dumped in the
ocean for fish food or, at best, buried between the tides.
It was very rare for a body hanged in irons to be claimed,
due to the enormous amount of disgrace attached to such
a person and the assumption that whom ever claimed the body
was a pirate as well.