Deciding to be a pirate was a life changing event. Piracy was a hanging crime. When pirates were caught, they were tried and hanged, usually in short order. In the face of such a ferocious reprisal, why would anyone want to become a pirate?
People driven to break the law with these kinds of results come from a desperate place. The people who became pirates were sailors, and the life of a sailor in the 17th and 18th century was desperately hard.
Anyone who’s a fan of pirates is familiar with pirate captains killing members of their own crew. It’s how they prove they’re in charge. They shoot some guy out-of-hand, and the rest of the crew doesn’t seem to mind. Reality was far different.
Early navy and merchant sailors were at the mercy of their captains and officers. Sailors were regularly beaten as part of their jobs, and the heavy piece of knotted rope used to do it was called a “starter,” a device to start men to work. Disobeying orders was punishable by whipping, and it was possible to whip a man to death.
Sailors were treated like animals because it was believed that the “lower classes” were little more than animals. Poorly educated, with no training in the manners considered important at the time, often scarred by poor nutrition or hard work, sailors were considered the dregs of society. Yet at the same time, men of the poorest classes often joined the navy or the merchant marine to see the world and gain knowledge and experience denied to them on land.
In addition, life at sea was hard. Food preservation was crude, so most food was heavily salted, and often starting to decompose. Water, kept in barrels for weeks or months, was a horror show. Officers ate better because they paid for their own food, something which was denied to common sailors.
Then, beginning in about 1696, a perfect storm began in the Caribbean that led to piracy’s greatest hour.
A series of short, chaotic wars between the European powers had brought thousands of conscripted sailors into the region, just as hundreds of thousands of slaves, both European and African were being shipped in to work on expanding plantations. Then the wars ceased, and the sailors became unemployed.
With so many seamen looking for work, merchant ship owners and captains took the opportunity to drastically lower wages. Sometimes captains cut pay out entirely, under the pretext that their crews weren’t working hard enough.
At the end of a voyage, sailors had to remain on the ship, since they had no money, and the crew was fed and had a place to stay. Those trying to find employment elsewhere would need to find it quickly, and would not have time to pick up rumors about which captains were fair, opposed to whipping, or more generous with pay.
Conditions became worse, and in a slave-driven society it was even impossible to find alternate work on shore. And in the middle of all this came the pirates.
A pirate crew might have mutinied against their officers, or have banded together in port and stolen a boat in the dead of night. When they attacked a ship, they took all the money and the decent food. Then they would gather the crew and a give a recruiting speech that went something like this:
“Would you like to get a year’s salary for a week of work? Would you like to have all the liquor you want, right now? Would you like to eat the best food on the boat? Would you like to be treated like a human being, and vote on matters that concern you, and never be beaten or whipped again? Then come with us, and live a life of freedom!”