Pirates have been a scourge on the seas for thousands of years. But the heyday of pirates was the late 1600s and early 1700s. A long war in Europe had just ended. Skilled seamen in England and other countries were fed up with harsh naval life. Piracy promised freedom and wealth. And out there on the high seas were ships headed to Europe from the New World and Orient, loaded with gold, jewels, silks, and other treasures. Lured by these rewards, many able seamen ventured into the free-spirited life of piracy—including some of the most famous pirates of all time.
Terror on the High Seas
Flaunting flags emblazoned with skulls and crossbones, pirate ships roamed the seas in pursuit of likely prey. The ships carried fearsome men (and sometimes women) brandishing pistols and swinging swords. They did everything they could to strike terror into the hearts of their victims and to encourage ships to surrender without fighting.
Many captains wore flamboyant clothing in an effort to look as fierce and intimidating as possible. Everyone on board was dressed to kill—ready to fight to the death if necessary. All dreamed of finding a large treasure ship that would provide a luxurious retirement.
There's no doubt about it: pirates were cruel and greedy. They disregarded established law. But a the same time, most pirates abided by their own codes of conduct, and life aboard pirate ships was more democratic than that on naval ships at the time.
Captains were elected by popular vote and could be removed if their performances fell short. Members of the crew shared in the booty and received compensation for the loss of body parts in action- an early form of worker's compensation. This was the life that William Dampier embraced in 1674.