"Yar har, fiddle di dee, Being a pirate is all right with me, Do what you want 'cause a pirate is free, You are a pirate!"
- – LazyTown
"Oi! You'z lot! You'z part of my crew now. Any problemz with dat, you talk to da complaintz department. Dat'z me gun, by da way."
Pirates are scavenging sea bandits that raid and loot anyone on their sight. Despite being the seaborn equivalent of muggers, they are a far more glamorous cultural icon. They were known to be pretty cool for having a ship with black skeleton flag, as well as being badass as fuck for fighting heavily armed navy on daily basis (or so the legend goes; while there were a number of impressive battles, pirates preferred easier marks like unprotected merchant convoys). Sadly, it isn't a profession with the best long-term benefits since they would most likely be hanged by the navy or died of scurvy. But if they did succeed, like hell they will be famous and feared by everyone as soon as anybody saw their pirate flag and run the fuck away.
Pirates, despite being a band of misfits, were quite varied. In real life they were cutthroats and bandits with ships or boats, while during later ages in fiction they were romanticized as something of a concept of freedom despite their infamy. In all cases, pirates are well known thanks to modern pop-culture depictions as anarchistic and anti-governmental. They opposed the oftentimes brutal authoritarian life in the navy and wanted to live out their own lives without anyone bugging in. The reasons were many and this resulted in pirates to be (ironically) closer to the modern establishment. While in Europe kings and queens ruled through an absolutist system of rule, pirates had something akin to modern democracy (the crew choose a new captain from among themselves by voting). While slavery was normal and nations fought each-other, pirates did not care about racism since a pirate crew could be multi-national and include slaves among their ranks. In fact, equality was common among pirates and slaves saw this as one of the few ways to feel free and equal. Some crews did not discriminate if you could do the job. They took in everyone who wanted to join. One particularly famous example was the Brethren of the Coast, a coalition of pirates and privateers who operated in the Caribbean. However, there was a dark side as pirates would also force people to join their crew at times and some were known to trade slaves if the money was good enough.
This kind of lifestyle is what attracted writers who presented pirates in a romanticized way, as misfits who seek out a life of freedom. On the other hand they were portrayed in a more favorable light as anti-heroes. This has some basis in truth, as some pirates began their careers as legitimate privateers in the service of their king until political winds changed. Others were genuine legends whose stories impress readers to this day.
TL;DR piracy is fucking awesome... unless you encounter modern pirates in places like Burma and Somalia.
- Edward Teach - Better known as Blackbeard, one of the original Golden Age pirates known for his intimidation tactics which including exaggerating and weaponizing his fearsome reputation. His nom de guerre came from the fact that he used to put gunpowder in his beard and set it off to give himself a terrifying appearance (it helped that he was over six feet tall when most men of the time were about five and a half). Also because how often he let his victims live to talk about it. He was also quite smart, as he once raided a town for medicine because most of his crew was riddled with diseases - sexually transmitted ones, then when some of the crew he sent to negotiate got drunk he marooned them in disgust. He died in battle, being shot at least twice and slashed around 20 times before being run through and having his throat slit, not before severing three of his killer's fingers.
- Henry Avery - The most successful (and mysterious) pirate in history. How successful? He was named the king of pirates after looting the Mughal Emperor's treasure fleet, which was worth £52 million today. Shortly after, though, he vanished. Neither he nor his treasure was seen again. Some vidya speculate that he went on to found the pirate utopia of Libertalia in Madagascar.
- Anne Bonny and Mary Read - Two of the most famous female pirates. Here they get one entry as they have fairly similar life stories: born in destitution, were disguised as boys early on in their lives, moved to the Carribean where they took up piracy, and both became the lovers of Calico Jack, while becoming renowned pirates in their own right. In fact, when Anne and Mary first met, Anne was feeling horny and Mary was disguised as a man, so Anne put the moves on Mary before finding out the truth. Despite their eventual capture, they only avoided execution because both were pregnant (although Mary died of a fever while in prison while Anne's fate is now unknown, with her either being released after giving birth to her child or also dying in prison), though that didn't stop them from fighting off their captors alone and then telling off Calico Jack for being a cowardly drunk; they even shot a few of their crewwmates for being too drunk to fight in the battle that led to their capture.
- Sir Francis Drake - The best illustration that the line between regular merchant, pirate, privateer and genuine military officer could be very tenuous at times. A full account of his long career can be found elsewhere, but let us just say that he started his career as a regular merchant occasionally getting rowdy with the Portuguese and the Spanish, then realized looting them for silver and gold was profitable and he became a full-fledged (and endorsed) raider. He was so good at liberating riches from them that he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth, then later offered the post of vice-Admiral of the Navy when the Spaniards became fed up with the Anglos raiding them and spectacularly failed at trying to get even. Also something about circumnavigating the Earth (Magellan would've been first had he survived the trip) but who cares, it's not piratey enough.
- William Adams - Served under Drake for long enough to get the title. More famous for going to Japan and becoming one of the few foreign-born Samurai. How's that for Multiclassing?
- Abduwali Muse - A well known modern pirate. Isn't as charming and heroic as the above but gets a mentioned just because he was featured in "Captain Phillips", a film based on a true story about somali-pirates hijacked Maersk Alabama, an unarmed container ship from the Port of Salalah in Oman, with orders to sail through the Guardafui Channel to Mombasa, Kenya. Like almost every somali pirates, he doesn't have a good childhood due to living in extreme poverty without any food or clothes and had to survive by worknig for jack shit being a taxi driver and fishermen cooks. Despite having no achievement what-so-ever compare the above, his story does however helped create a film and a meme.
- Ching Shih/Cheng I Sao - Chinese Pirate Queen, who not only led one of the biggest pirate fleets, but also managed to successfully retire. She got her fleet through marrying a pirate, who gave her half his fleet. And when he died she got all of it, by way of political maneuvering with her husband's family. The Chinese government tried to take her down, but she was so good that she stole their ships until they were forced to use fishing boats. She even created a set of pirating laws that made rape of female captives punishable by beheading. Eventually she was given amnesty by the Chinese Government and retired from piracy to set up a gambling den and brothel.
Types of Pirate
Buccaneers - The classic, the archetype, the most iconic of all pirates that feature in almost in every media. From 1650 to 1720, empires like France and England wanted to develop their own colonial empires in the Caribbean. Problem was, the Spanish got there first, and at the time they had the most powerful navy. However, they also had massive treasure fleets, so the English began paying privateers to raid the Spanish whenever they were at war; but as soon as the war ended, there was a surplus of heavily armed ships that decided to turn pirate to stay in business. And with the ever-growing sea trade, piracy was the norm, especially when some colonial governors encouraged this behavior with an unofficial policy of "no peace past the line." The archetypal pirate captain is known for wearing eye patches, owning a pet parrot, and having a hook for an arm and a peg leg, which shows that this guy is a badass when he lost most of his limbs yet is still able to fight. They are also known for having a black skeleton flag, named the Jolly Roger (see above) while sailing a ship with a fuck load of cannons (if they are rich enough). In regards to the popular legend of successful pirates burying their treasure; this wasn't done out of some odd ritual or anything grand. They did this for insurance (and even then, only did it sparingly): in the event that they were captured, they'd use their hidden loot as a bargaining chip to prevent them from proverbially (and sometimes literally) walking the plank. This didn't work all the time, as the captors either couldn't be bribed or didn't buy the story. Still, the mystique of a lost and forgotten treasure trove just waiting to be discovered made for great stories in taverns full of adventurers, so legends about buried treasure persisted throughout the centuries in fictional writing.
Privateers - Not pirates per se, but many pirates started out as privateers. These were privately owned Armed Mechantmen who were employed by their home country to raid enemy supply lines (or in rare cases, rival nations that are not at war). Typically a privateer carried "Letters of Marque and Reprisal" to show the legality of their actions; it was only if they stepped outside the bounds of the letter or otherwise lost it that they'd become pirates. Even then, enemy nations would sometimes ignore the letters of marque (not without justification, since letters would often be rendered invalid or else forged easily enough to fool the illiterate) and hang captured crews as pirates instead of kept as prisoners of war.
Vikings - Scandinavian pirates with badass beards. Despite common depictions, their helmets did not have horns. Existed long before the Caribbean pirates, and they sure made themselves famous all over medieval Europe. They are also responsible for being the ancestors of 90% of the Caucasians thanks to their continent wide rape-demic.
Corsairs - Also known as Barbary pirates. They mainly came from North Africa and most of their attacks were focused on capturing slaves rather than stealing loot. Nations could avoid having their ships attacked if they paid a steep tribute to the Barbary states; it wasn't until the early 19th century that Western nations decided to fuck that noise and steamrolled them (This steamrolling is the source of "The Shores of Tripoli" in the US Marines' Hymn). Though the term usually refers to pirates in service to specific nations.
Modern Pirates - Mostly just poor 3rd world uneducated people who are survivors of various wars and regimes. They are not exactly primitive uneducated however, since some of them were former fishermen who had knowledge about the sea, war veterans who specialize in weaponry as well as technical experts who operates on electronic devices like GPS devices, but they are still too green when compare to the actual navy, not to mention the days when any wannabe pirate could find a merchant ship, arm her with some cannons and then go toe-to-toe with a genuine military ship have long since past. They are armed with many modern-day weapons from assault rifles to rocket launchers that were salvaged from the conflict. They raid the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean using just skiffs and can travel hundreds of miles from home to hold commercial ships hostage for steep ransoms. They tend to be on the skinny side due to the lack of food and health care and they are not fun and games because of that, since most of them just want to survive and they had to turn to piracy when they have no choice due to the terrible living condition in a typical post-war country. So in short, they what Buccaners were mostly like once you strip away the Romanticism. Modern Piracy is still popular in places like Africa and Asia, and actually costs the companies anywhere from hundreds of millions to billions in losses. Due to this, its not uncommon to see heavily armed mercenaries aboard civilian freighters in high-risk shipping lanes to deter pirates from boarding.
Internet Pirates - Hackers who "illegally" download foreign internet goods like manga scan, anime, books or newly released video games for free (though sometimes they do hack, acquire and release data that shady corporations want to hide or make certain douches pay for their crimes like Anonymous does from time to time). As technology advanced and the invention of 3D printer came along, the "pirate" is able to download miniature blue prints for 3D printers.
Swashbucklers - The Noblebright side of the Fantasy pirate coin. These guys are basically buccaneers who seek adventure and right wrongs. They may be exiled princes or other political fugitives forced into a life of outlawry. They are also masters of swordplay and trickery; so basically they're more akin to musketeers or Zorro, but with ships of their own. Think of Dread Pirate Roberts from the Princess Bride or Captain Blood.
Dread Pirates - The Grimdark side of the Fantasy Pirate coin. Not to be confused with the legend that Dread Pirate Roberts cooked up for himself; these guys are the real deal. Take a buccaneer and mix in the supernatural or even eldritch. This type of Pirate frequently appears as the antagonist in the Pirates of the Carribean movies. See Ghost Pirates for a specific subset below.
Space Pirates - You know pirates, BUT IN SPACE! A seemly possible concept where ships have solar sails with FTL engine and they sails in void of space instead of ocean. Since space has no oxygen, pirates had to wear concealed power armor to board ships in order to loot and plunder. In some indie games like FTL, the crew can use teleportation device to board enemy ship without space suit, the same goes to the lighting strike ability in battlefleet gothic armada. And instead of making you walk the plank, they'll just throw you out the airlock!
Ghost Pirates - it is said if some pirates are too badass to die, they become ghost and continue to terrorize ships for fun. Some said it was the caused of some voodoo curses, other thinks they are just too tough to stay in hell. These dead pirate sail in their seemly broken pirate ship crawling with Moses and maggots and it is seemly indestructible from any cannon fire. SPOOOOOKYYY.
Airship Pirates - Piracy in the sky with steampunk technology. They'll still say "Yarr!" and "Avast!" but their clothing is decidedly more Victorian instead of Baroque, with lots of goggles and brass thrown in. Let's not forget the short legged version for Age of Sigmar. There is exactly ONE example of airship piracy in history: when the German Zeppelin L23 captured a Norwegian schooner during the first world war. An instance of an airship privateer may have existed with the U.S. World War II blimp Resolute, which was reported in 1946 to have been the last use of the United State's power to issue a letter of marque, but no record of this mark being issued exists.
Warhammer Fantasy Pirates - A lot of pirates tend to operate either in the seas near Tilea or around Lustria, where there's always opportunities for gold-hungry adventurers (though death is also a high probability due to disease or dismemberment by dinosaurs). There's several different varieties:
- Most famously are the Norscans being the fantasy equivalent of Vikings, in that they like to wreck the Empire's shit by raiding their border and would also took the opportunity to explore the new world for plunder and destruction in the name of their gods. The Norscan are nature born sea faring adventurer that back in the old day, a Norscan by the name Losteriksson being also the first old world to settle in the new world Lustria. There he became famous after plundered the shit out of it and founded a coast settlement named after his daughter that was born on this land: Skeggi, then encourage even more Norscan to have a piece at the place despite its seemly high mortality rate from jungle disease, wild cold ones and Lizardmens. The Skaeling tribe in particular is famed for their seafaring. Wulfrik the Wanderer uses a magic longship to teleport anywhere whenever he wants or needs (because chaos gods) to go wreck some fools.
- Dark Elf Corsairs using Black Arks (which are city-sized FLYING ships) in their raids and like to take captives hostage to be sold into slavery. Lokhir Fellhart is a famous example, who likes to wear Cthulhu-looking mask that he likely looted from Lizardmen.
- The Zombie Pirates were a White Dwarf army list under the leadership of Luthor Harkon, who formerly worked for Abhorash before striking out on his own for Lustria and establishing his own goddamn kingdom called the Vampire Coast. And with all the dead bodies of unfortunate sailors, he's got plenty of recruiting opportunities. Another undead admiral operating in the area is Captain Noctlis of the Dreadfleet, a Von Carstein vampire who teleported his entire freaking castle into the Galleon Graveyard, and thanks to the mighty technosorceries of vydiagaems they are a fully fledged faction in the Total Warhammer.
- There are also the Sartosan Pirates of the Principality of Sartosa (aka: AN ENTIRE NATION OF PIRATES) that lies south of Tilea. One of the most famous Sartosan pirates is the sea mutant Aranessa Saltspite, rumored to be the daughter of the sea god himself.
Warhammer 40K Pirates - Ranging from chaos worshiper, sadistic spiky ear slave trader, cunning spiky ear glass cannon and the fucking orks, they are all badasses. Rogue Traders probably count as pirates too (corsairs would be the most accurate term), but they are first and foremost explorers of the imperium (otherwise is HERESY and would probably be anally raped by inquisitions ship's nova cannon, or an cyclonic torpedo) but of course, unless they were pillage and plunder a xeno ship, is fine lol. For /tg/ brewed 40K pirates, see Black Locks who are both pirates and Space Marines.
One Piece - As the pirate king, Gold Roger, was executed, he told everyone that he hid his treasure at the ass-end of the world, kickstarting a golden age of piracy! Some are using this chance to amass riches or oppress the weak, others just want to be free from the dictatorial World Government. The world is vast and uncharted, people get anime superpowers by eating cursed fruit or training really hard, and there exist sea monsters that are bigger than your ship. Have fun!
Space Pirates from the Metroid Series - while not being human and lacking the Caribbean pirate stereotype, they are aliens that like to raid and destroy vessels while trying to be the biggest of dicks to every other species, especially the Federation. They are led by Mother Brain with Ridley, a species of cyborg/gargoyle/dragon alien being their military commander. They all got shit on by Samus unfortunately...non-stop.
Worldbuilding And Moral Considerations
How evil a Pirate in a given setting defaults to has a few inputs that are worth considering:
- Slavery is a big one. If the people they're raiding practice slavery and the pirates don't, that's a very serious point in the favor of the Pirate (in fact, it was exactly this moral ambiguity that gave the Buccaneers what good press they had) especially if they free slaves. If it's the other way around (slave raiders on free peoples), the resulting pirates are probably evil villains, full stop.
- How badly they treat captured crews. If they let them go once they've robbed the cargo holds, they probably are considered more "moral" than if they kill or enslave anybody who sees them. (Hostage taking may or may not count for this purpose; if it's purely for ransom, it's in a gray area, with the shade depending on how well the hostage is treated.)
- Enforced enrollment in the pirate crew is on the evil side, and also somewhat on the stupid side--having a bunch of people who don't want to be there as crew on a ship is usually a bad idea when mutiny is a problem.
- How badly non-pirate sailors are treated by their captains: when the Navy press-gangs and keelhauls their crew, a pirate ship is easily seen as a bastion of freedom in contrast.
- Pirates who don't do anything are a thing in media. As they don't do the pirate thing, they usually don't count as pirates.
- How prone they are to mutiny is also a consideration; although any pirate crew is liable to mutiny, the causes of said mutiny can be important in determining morality. If you're sailing under Bill the Bastard has random crewmen flogged and branded for looking at him funny, stealing his hat while he's wearing it and original sin while never giving out a fair cut of the pay and hogging all the Grog from himself, mutiny is an extreme if understandable response.
- What do they spend their plunder on. Most pirates spend their booty on upkeep of their ship, cannons, guns, swords, booze, food, fancy things and, well, Booty. But some will also spend it on their families while others decide to give some of it to an orphanage or school or something in their home port.
- Privateers, mentioned above, are usually considered more "moral" than their freelancing counterparts. Usually.
Note that multiple kinds of Pirates can exist in a given setting, each with their own niche in the Alignment Chart (Even Lawful Good, Neutral Good and Lawful Neutral depending on where you draw the line between lawful navy executing 'commerce raiding' and piracy), although given the nature of Piracy, only a few Privateers will be Lawful of any kind.
The big one: Pirates need a safe port of some kind to operate (ships require a lot of maintenance that can only be done when at rest, and the pirates need to be able to sell or trade their captured goods). This has many subtle implications, with a few possibilities:
- The Pirates are effectively sponsored by some port. This implies either full state sponsorship of some kind, or a state that effectively doesn't care about their raiding, usually because the Pirates in question only target the enemies of whoever owns the port.
- The Pirates are disguising where their goods are coming from. This is harder then it sounds, as ships are usually easily identified, and any port that cares about contraband will almost certainly be interested in the origins of whatever goods are coming into it.
- Pirates who figure they can operate their own port are usually faced with the fact that most of the people who engage in piracy are not exactly reliable sorts, which is what is desperately needed in order to have a functioning port.
Further, you need to have cargo worth capturing. A lot of stuff that gets shipped is very hard to sell, not just because it is the proverbial "hot goods", but because it is effectively worth money only to the right buyer (who is usually in one of those ports that care about contraband). You need something that is both valuable, and a commodity. (Historically, sugar qualified, as did tobacco and other luxury goods; of particular interest here is exotic pets, such as monkeys and, yes, parrots.) This acts as a further constraint, unless you have a port that is strongly sponsoring the Pirates, to point of knowingly paying for stolen goods.
For a nation whose government is fairly loose and rudimentary, the distinction between "Pirate", "Honest Trader" and "Navy" is sometimes difficult to make. Many pirates would prefer to go after foreign prey rather than people from their home ports. A down on his luck merchant captain might try to steal the stuff from a rival ship from a rival country if the choice is "make a profit, pay the crew, eliminate some of the competition and live to sail another day" or "starve to death/have a mutiny for unpaid wages/have the ship founder for disrepair/go bankrupt". Privateer work was common in times of war when said actions got sanctioned and sometimes a merchantman could have a few extra guns put on her and be made into a ghetto warship.
To complicate matters even further, even powerful and well-organized nations like France and England had 'prize money' laws in place that made capturing enemy vessels and their cargo a very attractive prospect: any ship captured at sea and its cargo became de jure property of the crown, but the king would generously compensate the crews with money/valuables once the prize was brought in. On top of that it wasn't uncommon at all for the winner of a naval engagement to quietly enroll any surviving sailor to replace losses and/or keep manning their now captured ship, no matter their nationality; so even a 'national' crew from an 'official' Navy ship could sound like a weird mix of freebooters hauling their capture in when coming into port.
If you get enough pirates in an area, they might come together and found a town. It starts off in some place with a natural harbor to shelter in storms and repair their ships between fights. Then crews begin swapping stuff if one of them has a surplus of gunpowder and the other has a surplus of food and similar. A couple of guys are left behind from each crew (as well as captives) to collect timber, first when it's expected that there will be some damage taken in the near future and latter more regularly around a growing logging camp. A couple of docks go up to make things go more smoothly, as does a forge or two and a couple of vegetable gardens. Then some enterprising pirate cobbles together a pub, selling plundered Beer, Grog and Rum to passing pirates and shore-side workers at first and soon enough is brewing there own, especially when a few full fledged farms get going to provide produce. Soon enough the Pub has some prostitutes and by extension some bastards. Tents and lean-tos are replaced by small cottages and shanties and after that houses. Workshops gradually come together and more and more of the population becomes permanent. Soon you get a thriving and lively if disorderly and dangerous new settlement, which eventually settles down into a more quiet and businesslike place much to the chagrin of old timers who miss the gold old days of loose women, hearty songs, exciting brawls and the odd knifings which made things dangerous and interesting.