The Trials of the Pirates:
During the Golden Age of Piracy
(roughly 1700-1725), thousands of men (and a few women)
took to the seas in pirate ships, attacking and looting merchant traffic from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean. Once someone joined a pirate crew, there were only a few ways out - and most of them were not pretty. Pirates could die in battle against their victims or pirate hunters, they could accept a pardon and go back to honest work, they could try to hide and blend into society or they could get captured and tried. Most of the latter were hanged after a trial. But what was a pirate trial like?
Most of the pirates ever brought to trial were caught in action on the open seas. For example, when "Black Bart" Roberts
was cornered and defeated in 1722 by pirate hunters off of Africa, nearly all of his men were captured. Of 234 pirates taken on Roberts' two ships, 70 were blacks who were returned to slavery, 74 were acquitted, 20 were sentenced to indentured servitude, 17 were sent to a sailors' prison at Marshalsea, two were sent to England for further trials and 52 were executed. Some other pirates who would later be tried were captured after Blackbeard's final battle
in Okracoke Inlet and after Stede Bonnet's last stand at the Battle of Cape Fear River
. Sometimes, pirates on land and in towns were recognized, arrested and tried, but mainly they were captured at sea.
British Maritime Law:
Many European powers were involved in the Atlantic, but none was affected by piracy as much as the British. Most of the pirates were English, Irish, Scots or American and they tended to operate out of bases in the British Caribbean. The Royal Navy was occupied in capturing the pirates and bringing them to justice, so when they were captured they were usually tried under British law. Naturally, piracy was illegal and the punishment was hanging. In England, Pirates were hanged by the River Thames at Wapping. Traditionally, they were hanged on the tidal flat at low tide: three tides would come and go before their bodies were taken away. This is because they committed their crimes at sea, where the Lord High Admiral had jurisdiction. Any crime committed on land above the high tide mark was considered a civil case.
The Pirate Trials:
Pirate trials rarely took more than a few days. This was due to a number of factors. First of all, the governors, ship captains and other witnesses and officials were often very busy men. Also, the pirates were charged with their own defense. Generally, they said little in their own defense, tending to claim that they had been forced to join the crew or plead drunkenness in the hopes of gaining sympathy. On the other side of the courtroom, however, there was usually a whole team of educated and respected men testifying against the pirates. Most of the trials featured victims who came forth to talk about their experience and to identify the pirates. The trials were used as a public platform to rail against the evils of piracy and those pirates who publicly repented and denounced their former lifestyle were occasionally shown leniency.
Pardons and Leniency:
Men serving as officers on board pirate ships
- captains, quartermasters, boatswains, etc - were nearly always put to death once convicted. Some of the common pirates, however, were spared the hangman's noose. Younger men, those who testified against their fellows or those who had been forced to join the pirate crew were most often spared. Still, some 400 men were hanged for piracy between 1716 and 1726. As piracy became more common and pirates more violent, fewer men were spared.
To Discourage the Others:
Once convicted, most pirates were publicly hanged. Their hangings were quite a spectacle: thousands of people would show up and the pirates sometimes put on quite a show for the crowd before they died. There was nearly always a clergyman present, to try and get the pirates to publicly repent if they hadn't already. After they were hanged or killed, prominent pirates were often somehow publicly displayed. Some were hung in chains, hung from a gibbet or placed inside an iron cage. Some of the famous pirates who were hanged and then had their bodies publicly displayed included William Kidd
, Calico Jack Rackham
and Charles Vane