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Pirate punishments

How pirates were punished

Confinement 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 in incarcerated.

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 and murder.

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!

The Pillory

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.


The 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 regulation.

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.


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 movie.

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.

Admiralty's oar

Silver Oar of the Admiralty

Admiralty's oar

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[1]), face down, so that his soul may never find rest or he would be hanged in chains or iron.

Hanging in Chains or Irons

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.

How pirates punished others

Walking the Plank

For the most part, walking the plank is a Hollywood myth. There are a few accounts that people were forced to walk the plank by Pirates of the South China Sea. There is also one account that Bartholomew Roberts forced some of his captives to walk the plank. However, the accounts are suspect at best. Still, pirate were known to come up with some rather ingenious ways to torture their captives so it is quite possible that some enterprising fellow with a sharp sadistic mind would've come up with such a devilish plan.

For the most part pirates preferred the time-honored method of a "heave to". That is, they picked up the culprit and simply tossed him/her overboard.


Forget everything you learned from Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. Marooning a man was in fact, one of the cruelest forms of execution devised. When you get down to it, a marooned man was basically told to kill himself.

Typically pirates had three forms of punishment, Moses' law, Throwing overboard, and marooning. Marooning was a punishment reserved for murderers, rapists, thieves, and bad captains. Typically a marooned man would be given the clothes on his back, a bottle of water or rum, an arm (pistol), a bottle of powder and a handful of shot. He would then be left behind on some spit of inhospitable land to his own devices.

Contrary to the book Treasure Island, no man would have been marooned on such a big island, covered with plant an animal life. No, quite to the contrary, the convict was left on nothing more than a bald spot of land with no hope of food or shelter. Often these islands would be nothing more than simple sand bar that would only be above water at low tide. By the time high tide would arrive the man may be neck deep in water or worse.

The reason the pirate was left with a pistol was so that he might take his own life, thus ending his misery in this world but condemning his Christian soul to hell for all eternity.

What is worse, as in the Case of Captain Vane, when a pirate was marooned on an island that might actually sustain him, it was unlikely that anyone would actually rescue him.

The word maroon comes from a Spanish word "cimarron" which was the Spanish word used for deserters. The English corruption of this word was Marooner. Because prates were notorious for leaving their shipmates on deserted islands the practice became known as marooning. Because the practice was so common among pirates, when an honest sea captain would find a marooned man, they would usually assume him to be a pirate and would have nothing to do with him, or worse, clap him in irons and take him to the nearest port to be hanged and possibly collect a reward.

Flogging, part 2

On board a pirate vessel, it was up to the captain, and crew, by vote to determine if one were to be flogged. Often, though, the punishments were included in the pirate articles. If the articles were broken, pirates often would vote for the flogging even of a friend in order to keep order among the thieves.

However to insure that the Captain didn't retain the power to flog men at random, flogging was only done by the quartermaster on the Captain's order. This led to a system of checks and balances, because if the captain gave the orders, the Quartermaster could refuse and put the ship to another vote, possibly for a new Captain.

In the Royal Navy, the Captain could order any man to flog another man, often a privileged seaman or if he felt like it, he could do it himself. And it was up to the Captain alone if a man were to be flogged. There were no channels for appeals.

Of course, there had to be exceptions to these rules. For instance, Black Beard was a notoriously brutal man not only to captives but also to members of his own crew. I highly doubt any member of his crew would have really questioned his authority.

Pirate also tended to give fewer lashes to crew members than Naval or Merchant ships. Some articles refer to Moses' Law when it came to doling out lashes. The law itself means forty lashes less one or 39 lashes. The term was meant to be a biblical one in that 40 lashes are what was determined enough to kill a man according to the Old Testament and thus 39 lashes was the most you give a man without declaring a penalty of death. This was also the traditional number of lashes, Christ received from Pilate and thus it would have been un-Christian to flog someone more than that. In actuality 39 lashes was more than enough to cause a man to pass out and easily enough to kill, depending on who was doing the flogging. Yet there are historical accounts of sailor receiving 50 or 100 hundred lashes and living to tell about it. This is probably due to the nature of the whip and man wielding it. Quite often a captain or crew would mete out fewer lashes depending on the particular infraction. Moses' Law was usually deemed just for only the most serious crimes that did not ordinarily carry a death sentence.

Another sources mentions that Roman law/tradition that said forty lashes were a death sentence, thus a person should survive 39 lashes! Of course the Romans didn't set limits when it came to flogging so that is also questionable. In fact it would have been quite possible for a Roman executioner to kill a person with fewer than 40 lashes with the flagrum, the roman whip that preceded the cat-o-nine tails. The flagrum was a long handled whip with three to twelve strands of stiffened oxen hide embedded with lead weights, bone, and or iron/brass hooks, The flagrum was designed to tear skin, muscle, and bone right off the body It was to bring about a slow very painful death. The cat-o-nine tails was designed to inflict pain and suffering but not lead to death. It was a mild, almost timid, cousin of the flagrum.

Moses Law would have been given using the Cat-o-nine tails.

A word or two about torture

Why pirates were tortured?

For the most part pirates weren't tortured, at least not English pirates caught by the English Navy. This doesn't mean they weren't treated badly. It just means they weren't tortured. Torture is when pain is inflicted for the purpose of gaining information or a confession. One of the most common methods of torture by the English Government was "pressing". Pressing involved laying a person between to heavy slabs and then adding weight to the top slab until the person cooperated or died. The more diabolical tortures such as plucking out eyes, cutting off fingers, and such was not commonly practiced in the 18th century.

Mistreatment is another thing entirely. It was not uncommon for pirates to be shackled to the main mast during storms, of locked in the hold without proper food or water. It was also common for them to be kicked and slapped while in custody. These were minor indiscretions that some captains, especially merchant captains would ignore. However, according to the regulations of the British Admiralty, all prisoners were to be treated humanely and wounded prisoners were to be given the same medical attention as that of any other sailor.

Why pirates tortured others?

Pirates tortured for fun and also for information. Many pirate captains were quite sadistic and were known for unbelievable acts of torture. Such men as Black Bart Roberts, Francois L'Ollonais, and even Henry Morgan were known to have committed horrific acts of torture.

A common practice of many pirates was gather all those present in one location and then randomly pick a person. This person would then be butchered before all present. Afterwards, the pirates would demand the location of the booty with the promise that the killing would continue if an answer was not given immediately.

If a ship put up a fight and the pirates had to board by force, some pirates would kill a selected number of the other crew for every pirate who was killed or wounded in the attack. This was done as a warning to any future prize.

We here that Stede Bonnet cut the ears off a Captain from Nantucket simple because he didn't like New Englanders and as a warning to any other New Englanders who got in his way. I can only imagine the limerick associated with the story!

Of course pirates also tortured for sport. This was especially true of Protestant crews that captured Spanish priests, monks, or nuns. Nuns were often raped before being murdered. Priest and monks were also raped. Almost all would be forced into some act of complete humiliation in efforts to renounce their faith. Monk riding was a common torture. This was basically a drunken act where monks would be forced to act as horses as the pirates had jousting matches. Catholics were also used as target practice. A Catholic would be tied to an empty barrel and tossed overboard, being dragged behind the ship. The pirates would then take turns shooting at the victim until they drowned or were shot dead.

The same fate would also meet other prisoners depending on the mood of the captain. Sometimes pirates simply tortured as a sadistic way to just pass the time on an otherwise boring sea voyage.

Some pirate captains abstained from mistreating prisoners in hopes of escaping the gallows. Others would torture and kill entire crews believing the adage, dead men tell no tales. was also a good way to avoid the gallows. Neither practice guaranteed the desired outcome.

[1] 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.

Profile picture for user Tobias Gibson

The only author and editor of all pages on the site. Most of what I write about is based on years of book reading on the topic. My first web page was published back in 1994.

Updated: 04 September 2022