Pirate Compass, Sword and Cross

Pirate Punishments: How Pirates Dealt With Criminals on Board

Table of Contents

Yo ho, are you considering taking on a pirate’s life? The debauchery, the adventure, the loot! What’s not to love? Believe it or not, a pirate’s lifestyle often ran afoul of the rules. Even the surliest pirate captain had guidelines to follow. What happens to a pirate who steps out of line? If swashbucklers and buccaneers enjoy grandiose revelry, pirate punishments are as over-the-top.

The infamous adage “dead men tell no tales” served as a warning to those who chose the pirate lifestyle. Every captain and each ship had its own set of rules and unique ways of dealing with rule-breakers. Believe it or not, there were worse punishments than walking the plank!

The ‘Pirate Code’

SST-Pirate skull hat

Though each set of rules differed from ship to ship, a kind of pirate outline for good behavior had been adopted by noteworthy pirates by 1724. The so-called ‘pirate code’ was made up of several articles written by various pirates from the 17th century. These rules were adopted by the likes of “Black Bart” Bartholomew Roberts and Edward Low. Nine such pirate codes were published for the first time in the 1724 book by Charles Johnson, “A General History of the Pyrates.”

Like a poster declaring the rules of a workplace, the pirate code was often printed and nailed to the captain’s door. Pirates who joined the crew signed the articles, which allowed them a share of booty and a vote for officers. So, what type of rules did the ‘pirate code’ have?

Most rules had to do with the sharing of treasure and how such ill-begotten gains were split. Others dealt with more personal matters – such as bringing a woman or otherwise onto the ship. Black Bart’s rules included a ban on women in disguise on board. Any infraction would result in the death of the offending pirate, the fate of the woman left to the kindness of his peers.

In all, most pirates adopted a similar but different ‘pirate code’ and each dealt out punishment for breaking the rules. Even wanted pirates used these rules, which were likely adopted from maritime Naval Laws. Some punishments were simple and efficient while others could be downright cruel.

For Minor Infractions…

SST-Pirate ship flag

What could a pirate do to fall out of line? One of the many ways to fall on the bad side of a captain is to be annoying through drink or general mischief. If a captain deemed that you were being more of a pest than a respectable pirate, he had many forms of pirate punishments to turn to. One such punishment is “clapping.” Far from being a way to cheer on a performer, “clapping in irons” meant that a pirate would soon spend some quality time alone.

The punishment involved a pair of iron cuffs on the wrists and ankles for the ne’er do well, followed by isolation in a dark corner of the ship. For offenses that went beyond annoyance, the pirate could be made to stay topside during a violent storm. In any case, this punishment served as a deterrent to those who might think to rock the proverbial boat.

Sometimes “clapping” doubled with “sweating.” Tied to the mast of the ship, the condemned would dance around the deck to the delight of his peers. Of course, his peers would take pleasure in poking and prodding the poor sod with their daggers to the tune of a fiddle player. As far as pirate punishments go, clapping and sweating are rather light forms.

Truly Sadistic Punishments

For crimes considered unforgivable, there were punishments that involved obscene, torturous acts. From permanent scarring to executions, some pirate ships never let a pirate forget their transgressions.

Pirate punishments for breaking unbreakable rules ranged from mutilating the offender to eviscerating them in the cruelest ways. Pirate prisons existed in the sense that a deviant could be locked away below deck, but most pirates preferred to collect a quick payment on the accrued debt. Black Bart, for instance, wrote into his pirate code that should a pirate steal from his fellow pirate, his nose and ears shall be mutilated and he shall then be stranded in a place where he was expected to face challenges and hardships.

For bringing a woman on board disguised as a man, the pirate was sentenced to death and the woman was left to the goodwill of his peers.

The means by which a pirate met his doom is where the cruelty lies. The worst pirate to cross had to have been Edward Low. Notorious for his cruelty to captured sailors and enemy pirates, the punishments for his own crew were even worse.

At his disposal were a few devious means by which to dispose of a bad apple. The phrase “let the cat out of the bag” originates from one such punishment: whipping with a cat o’ nine tails. This device was simply a whip with nine ropes, each with a knot, hook, or steel ball at the end. In the unofficial pirate code, a pirate could receive up to 39 lashes with the instrument without perishing. Many died from the punishment or from infection.

Another fate worse than pirate prison is “keelhauling.” The crew would tie the offending pirate by the ankles and drag him under the boat along the keel, where he would be torn to shreds by barnacles. Though the pirate code stated that this wasn’t a means of execution, most of those who underwent a keelhauling died of infection or drowned.

Then there’s the classic punishment of walking the plank. Of all the things pirates do, walking the plank is the most infamous. A mate would be bound and forced to inch their way to their doom off a board. In the end, they would plunge to their death, sinking into the depths.

A Pirate’s Life for Me?

Though there were no real pirate laws, the pirate code acted as an unofficial line that no pirate would dare cross. Aboard the Royal Conquest, however, the only rule you must abide by is to have a good time. Tours depart daily from St. Petersburg, Florida. For more information, visit

Related Posts