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London and the pirates

Pirate executions
Pirate trials
London-born pirates
Captain Johnson's classic history of the pirates
The pirates of fiction
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Mr Richard Temple in 'The Pirate of Penzance'
View full size imageMr Richard Temple in The Pirate of Penzance. © NMM

Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera The Pirates of Penzance, and the swashbuckling films of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks senior, give the impression that most pirates were romantic and carefree adventurers led by aristocrats who had fallen on hard times.

In reality, most pirates were hard and ruthless robbers and murderers who were notorious for their foul language and heavy drinking.

A study of the lists of pirates brought to trial between 1700 and 1715 (the period often called the golden age of piracy) shows that more than 90% of pirates were former seamen.

They took to piracy because:

A man-of-war chasing a pirate lugger.
View full size image A man-of-war chasing a pirate lugger. © NMM

  • some were made redundant by the Royal Navy
  • some were attracted by the easy life and the possibility of getting rich quick
  • many were merchant seamen who volunteered or were forced to join the pirates when their ships were captured.

It is not surprising that the hometown of most of these pirates was a seaport. And since London was the largest and busiest port in Britain it inevitably produced the greatest number of pirates.

Pirates and the London courts

Jack bringing a Pirate into Port (caricature).
View full size image Jack bringing a pirate into port (caricature). © NMM
Until 1700 all cases of piracy by British subjects or in British colonies came under the jurisdiction of the High Court of Admiralty in London. This meant that any pirates who were captured were sent back to London and locked up in the prisons of Newgate or the Marshalsea before being sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

After 1700 pirate trials could be held by Vice-Admiralty courts overseas. Large numbers of pirates were tried and hanged in Boston, Charleston, Williamsburg, Nassau and Jamaica. However, a great number of pirates continued to be tried and executed in London.

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Find out more
Fact fileCaptain Kidd
A seventeenth century pirate
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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