Pirate Punishment

Every pirate ship's articles or codes of conduct addressed the issue of punishment. One of the points in Bartholomew Roberts' articles, for example, listed that “He that shall desert the ship or his quarters in time of battle shall be punished by death or marooning.” A typical code, it clearly demonstrates that pirates weren't necessarily lawless, and how seriously they considered any perceptibly treasonous or cowardly acts among their own. A swift death for unmentionable acts by pirate standards was being kind to a rogue gone bad.

There were, in fact, far worse punishments that pirates were made to endure from their own kind including marooning, flogging, and a particularly nasty torture called keelhauling. In addition, pirates didn't even have much aversion to selling a disgraced pirate into slavery.

With any punishment, it was usually a ship's quartermaster who saw to it that an offender's punishment was carried out to its fullest extent. When examining punishments, it must be said that walking the plank is arguably one of the greatest pirate myths. Few pirates ever used that type of punishment.

The majority of captured pirates the world over were hanged. Sometimes it was a small affair, other times it was a grand event witnessed by large audiences. For the most part, pirates were hung either by parties securing the noose and pulling them up off the ground or by having them stand atop a platform like a gallows, or even a cart situated below a crossbeam. The footing would then be removed so the pirate would swing above ground, his body twitching and convulsing violently.

As a further show of punishment, hanged pirates would often remain on display, sometimes in chains or housed in a cage made of iron. Others would be decapitated or have various limbs cut off and skewered on iron spikes.


A pirate crew with the ultimate punishment in mind would often maroon a disgraced comrade. The term “maroon” is derived from the Spanish cimarron , meaning a fugitive. The most popular case of marooning is, of course, Daniel Defoe's legendary Robinson Crusoe, allegedly based on the marooning of pirate Alexander Selkirk.

The marooning of Robinson Crusoe, however, took place on a plush island with plenty of resources. Real-life marooning was a nasty business and one that all pirates took very seriously. For the most part, the practice involved putting any offending pirate ashore on an uninhabited island often void of natural resources.

Unlucky victims would be left with no means to live, and on occasion not even the clothes on their backs. If a pirate was marooned on a tiny island or sandbar, he was virtually guaranteed a slow death as starvation and dehydration took over. He could also fall victim to the high tide or even sharks that could reach him.

Depending on a ship's captain and crew, marooned pirates would sometimes be given basic provisions or weapons, but little more than that. On occasion, all they'd receive is a musket or pistol with a single round with which they could commit suicide. The more fortunate maroon victims might be left on an island that at least had some measure of wildlife or sustenance. More often than not, marooning proved fatal to pirates, the punishment befitting the crime they committed against their former crewmates.

Sometimes pirates who'd been marooned were picked up by a passing ship. If their rescuers didn't see fit to leave them on the island or kill them, they might have the good fortune to become part of a new crew of rogues. They might also be taken prisoner and end up in prison at that ship's next port of call.

Disgraced pirates, however, weren't the only seafarers who fell victim to marooning. Sometimes captured prisoners were simply dropped off on an island and left to fend for themselves. In 1821 near Cuba, Captain Barnabas Lincoln and 11 members of his crew were marooned by pirates who imprisoned them on an island only a few feet above water. Luckily, a few members of the marooned party were able to escape via a makeshift craft they built and could bring help.

What happened to marooners who weren't pirates?

One of the worst things about being marooned and subsequently rescued is that most crews who actually picked up marooners would automatically assume they were pirates — so victims who had the good fortune of surviving a marooning by pirates didn't always survive their rescue. Often they would be transported to the nearest port and turned over to authorities.


The process of keelhauling, which reputedly was invented by the Dutch around the fifteenth or sixteenth century, was a particularly heinous act that no seaman — sailor or pirate — should be made to endure. Victims of keelhauling, often with lead weights secured to their legs, were tied to a rope hanging from the mast's yardarm. The rope and the ensnared victim were then subsequently tossed into the sea and dragged under the ship's keel on one side and then brought up on the other side to the corresponding yardarm.

Aside from drowning torturously slowly, the victim was sure to be cut to bits by the inevitable scores of painfully sharp barnacles glued to the keel and hull of the ship. Keelhauling was a surprisingly standard punishment on British, French, and Dutch naval vessels, but by the mid-nineteenth century it was officially discontinued.


Perhaps the most common punishment seafarers endured was flogging , or whipping. Typically accomplished by using a cat o' nine tails, flogging involved lashing offenders in various manners until they endured a certain length of time, number of beatings, or, in some cases, until they were dead.

One particularly ghoulish punishment involved being nailed to a mast through one's earlobes and left to suffer until nightfall. This punishment was usually instituted when a sailor committed an infraction that wasn't serious enough for flogging. The threat “I'll nail you for that” is derived from this penalty.

A cat o' nine tails was a short wooden stick or handle that had nine knotted ropes, each 18 inches long, secured to its end. Lashes inflicted in this manner were brutally painful, as skin was ripped by the hard knotted ropes. As the handle was drawn back, the ropes ranged over the victim's back, a process called combing the cat, so as to separate the bloody ropes from loose flesh stuck to them.

To add additional misery, salt would sometimes be poured into the open wounds. Victims who suffered dozens of lashes died a horrible death, and the crew of the ship witnessed the punishment, which was usually held on the vessel's main deck.

The British navy, which began the practice around 1700, was fond of using flogging as punishment for disciplinary indiscretion, but they were by no means the only group, culture, or civilization to use the procedure. Indeed, the act of flogging has been used for centuries, from the ancient world to the time of Christ and modern-day slavery. For the most part, victims of flogging are tied to a stationary object or made to bend over something in order to provide the initiator full access to the area that is to be whipped.

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