The Life of a Pirate

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13054

Pirates buried their treasure and made maps to mark the spot. They carried parrots on their shoulders and made their enemies walk the plank. Or did they? How much that we "know" about pirates is true?



learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Captain Barnaby Briggs says:

"Ahoy, me hearties! So ye want to know about me life? Aye, the life under the Jolly Roger is a good 'un, full of dubloons, shantys, and rum! The sea dogs have swabbed the deck and we're ready to weigh anchor, so ye come along. Ye'll get yer sea legs soon enough, landlubber! Don't be a scallawag or ye'll feel the point of me cutlass, savvy?"

In the first Related Lesson of this series on Pirates, found in the right-hand sidebar, you learned that pirates have existed throughout history, but the pirates of the "Golden Age" (1650-1720) are the ones we're most likely to think of when we hear the word, "pirate."

  • So, what was the life of a Golden Age pirate like?
  • How much do you already know — or think you know — about a pirate's life?

Try to guess which of the pictures in the image below were really part of a pirate's life!

The pirate's life could be full of independence, danger, excitement, riches, and enjoyment, but it could also be very short, difficult, and painful.

Let's start at the beginning:

  • How would someone become a pirate?

Becoming a pirate

Pirates were most often former sailors from navy or merchant ships. On these ships, they had to work hard, got little reward, and had no say in the management of the ship. They simply had to obey their captain. But on a pirate ship, there was less work, the possibility of greater rewards, and a chance to decide their own fate (As you learned in the first Related Lesson in this series, the ship's Articles of Agreement guaranteed a sailor's rights.).

  • Who wouldn't want to trade the life of a navy sailor for the life of a pirate?

Howell Davis was a sailor who did just that. When his ship was captured by Irish pirates, Davis decided to join them, and soon rose up to be named captain. Davis is famous for capturing ships by clever trickery. He would pretend his ship was a merchant ship and sneak up on his prey. He once entered a port dressed like a gentleman, captured the governor of the colony, and held him for ransom.

Captain Howell Davis

Illustration from "A General History of the Pyrates" by Captain Charles Johnson c. 1728, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Some pirates, like Blackbeard, started out as "legal" privateers, then turned into illegal buccaneers. Occasionally, a wealthy man would turn to piracy just for excitement, such as Captain Kidd, whom you learned about in the last Related Lesson. That was also true of Stede Bonnet, who is thought to have taken up piracy out of boredom or to get away from a nagging wife! He purchased his own ship, but it was taken over by Blackbeard. He did manage to get another ship and even capture some enemy ships, but he was eventually caught and hung.

surrender of Stede Bonnet

Image from the "Pirates of the Spanish Main" trading card series issued ca. 1888 by Allen & Ginter, via Picryl, is in the public domain.

Let's look at a few aspects of a pirate's life.


You probably already know some of the dangers of a pirate's life. The biggest danger was, of course, being wounded or killed in battle.

  • What were pirate battles like?

First, a pirate ship would get in close to the ship it was planning to attack. The pirates would try to scare their victims by making a lot of noise and acting crazy. The pirate flags (Jolly Rogers) played a big part in this because they usually carried a skull or skeleton or swords or daggers dripping with blood to scare them into surrendering.

Take a look at Blackbeard's Jolly Roger:

Blackbeard's Jolly Roger

If an enemy ship didn't surrender out of fear, the pirates would attack. They would use their cannons to shoot and kill people on deck, or damage the rigging of the ship (rigging is the system of ropes that support the sails) and disable it. If they ran out of cannon balls, anything could be loaded into the cannon and fired: nails, glass, rocks, etc. They would also throw grenades onto the deck to kill and disable. Grenades are hollow balls of metal filled with gunpowder and lighted with a fuse. They also used something called a "stinkpot," a pot filled with some disgusting-smelling material that they threw on the deck of the other ship, hoping to disable the crew with nausea!

Once on board the enemy ship, they would use small weapons, such as knives, to attack the crew. Pirates had pistols, but probably did not use them much because they had to be reloaded after each shot, and that took too much time. They much preferred a "cutlass," a sword with a short, curved blade, that was easy to carry and would not get stuck in rigging or sails as a longer sword might.


  • So, what did pirates do aboard their ships when not attacking another ship?

There was work to be done, of course. They had to keep the ship clean and repair anything that had broken. When the pirate captain decided to take over a new ship, it would have to be fitted out with new cannons. They would also make improvements so it could sail faster, with better sails and rigging. It was very important for a pirate to have a fast ship to avoid capture and to capture other ships. It also had to be kept seaworthy so it would not sink in storms. Pirate ships were not allowed in ports, so they had to "ride out" storms at sea.

pirate ship at sea

When not working, pirates had to find ways to entertain themselves.


  • Would you believe that pirates read books?

In 1996, Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, was found on the bottom of Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina (You'll read more about this in a later Related Lesson.). Among the cannons, anchors, cannon balls, pottery, and other artifacts found, there were some small scraps of paper buried in the mud. When they dried out, researchers discovered they were part of a book called Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, by Captain Edward Cooke. So, at least one person on the QAR must have been a reader. And there are reports of pirates stealing books from ships, along with the "pieces of eight"!

Pirates loved music, too. "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!" A pirate ship usually kept many musicians on board. Music helped keep up the crew's spirits during long voyages and "lean" times (when their money had run out). Singing loud songs was also a way to celebrate their victories! "Shanties" were the traditional sailor songs that they would sing.

Loud music could intimidate the enemy during battle, and inspire the pirates to fight bravely!

They liked to dance to the music, too. Mostly they danced "jigs" — happy little country dances that most of the pirates would know. There was a lot of bouncing up and down, like this Dancing Pirate from PrismDragon 97:


  • What did pirates eat and drink on board?

 For the first few weeks after they set off on a voyage, pirates would probably have good, fresh food: eggs, cheese, meats, and fresh vegetables. After that time, the fresh food would run out, and they ate what most other sailors at sea ate at the time: hard biscuits, salted meat, beans, and pickled vegetables and fruits. The beef was so dried out that it looked like leather, and some sailors carved it into belt buckles. The biscuits would become very hard, and were often infested with weevils (a kind of beetle that gets into grains). Some ships kept cows and chickens aboard so there would be fresh milk and eggs for the voyage. When the livestock feed ran out, pirates would begin to kill and eat the animals. Then, they would make broth from the boiled animal bones. This was called "bone soup."

Of course, they could also steal foods from other ships, catch fish, and sometimes would eat turtles or turtle eggs found on islands.


pirate drinking rum

Pirates drank a lot of alcohol, probably a gallon a day! Water spoiled quickly in the wooden casks it was stored in, and beer and rum kept a lot longer, so they were what the pirates most often drank. But drinking alcohol makes you drunk! And that slows you down and makes your thinking unclear. In fact, pirate Captain "Calico Jack" Rackham and his crew were captured by "pirate hunters" because they were too drunk to fight or escape. "Black Bart" Roberts was smarter — he only drank tea.


It was very rare for a pirate ship to have a doctor on board (Although Blackbeard had three of them! He "pressed" them into service; that is, took them from other ships.). That wasn't good, because pirates were often injured during battles or storms. Without proper treatment, infections would set in quickly and they might die. A pirate's hand, arm, or leg would often have to be cut off if infected (So, yes, some did have wooden legs, and possibly hooks for hands, but not many. Most would "retire" from piracy if they were wounded that badly.).

Sometimes, as you've learned, there was not enough nutritious food to eat, and that led to sickness as well. The lack of Vitamin C (found in fresh fruits and vegetables) caused a disease called "scurvy." Dysentery is another disease that affected pirates. It was caused by eating rotten food and drinking bad water.


Pirates had many ways of punishing those who didn't do as they wanted. As you learned from reading the Articles of Agreement (Related Lessons), marooning and death were the punishments for not following the rules. They would also use the "lash" (or whip) for punishment. And there was a terrible punishment called "keel hauling," in which the person was dragged beneath the ship by ropes. There were barnacles hanging onto the bottom of the ship, so the sailor would get terribly scratched up — if he survived.

Learn more about Keelhauling from Audiopedia:

  • Did they really make people "walk the plank"?

There are a few records of this happening at sea, but historians think it probably didn't happen very often, and it was not a common punishment that pirates used.


  • Did pirates really get rich?

Some pirate captains got very rich, but most did not live long enough to enjoy that wealth. The wealthiest was "Black Sam" Bellamy, who gathered a total of 120 million dollars. But his ship sank in a storm, and he drowned before he could use it.

As always, crime doesn't pay!

Now that you've learned about the life of a pirate, sail over to the Got It? section, where you'll create your own pirate ship's log and decide which sea shanty is your favorite!

Elephango's Philosophy

We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.