These days the view of pirates and piracy has been somewhat rose-tinted by time, nostalgia, and media portrayals such as those in Pirates of the Caribbean. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow has given a jovial, roguish glow to the reputation of the Golden Age pirate, but the truth is a little less harmless and a little more dangerous.
It may be the case that some pirates were good at heart, or at least that they were not bad. Certainly it would not be fair to generalize and say that all pirates were ruthless, violent criminals, but neither would it be accurate to state that the average pirate was of the jovial, party-loving, goofy nature that we have come to connect with them.
At the heart of it all pirates were seeking out a living, and so they took their hauls very, very seriously. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that pirates would endeavour to seek a peaceful (or at least bloodless) end to a raid; taking hostages was just one way in which they might coerce a crew to give up its valuables without facing a fight. However, pirates were also known to torture and kill hostages now and then if the ship’s crew refused to surrender. This might have been done for enjoyment by the odd sadist, but the truth is that most pirates who did this were doing it in order to set a standard and make an example so that they would face less resistance in the future. Such actions served as a display of mercilessness to future targets, and they were intended to convey that resistance was futile and ultimately non-beneficial to a targeted crew.
Intimidation tactics were used by pirates as a matter of course; they would rarely risk the dangers of a fight if they could simply scare a crew into giving them what they wanted. The use of flags to this end was widespread and common; in order to frighten merchant crews into submission some pirates would raise a blood red flag. This indicated that no quarter would be given and no prisoners were to be taken.
There were a few more subtle uses for flags, however. Some pirates would deploy the flag of a friendly nation in order to place target ships into a false sense of security; when they were too close to escape the pirates would reveal themselves and spring the trap. Some might also deploy black flags and sails in order to sneak in and out of ports and night, and of course to creep up on target ships. Black sails were more expensive, however, and so only relatively successful and established crews would be able to afford them.
Intimidation and fear were friends to the average pirate; a fearsome reputation for ruthlessness would go a long way towards ensuring they had to fight less often (and so risk their lives less often). However, there is plenty of evidence to show that pirates were not above violence, murder, and even torture when it came down to the wire.