Punishment for Pirates

During the Golden Age of Piracy there were, arguably, two kinds of pirate. There were the crown ordained Privateers such as Sir Francis Drake and Captain Morgan who had crown protection, and there were the rest of the pirates who were subject to the law. The most common punishment for the common pirate was execution, and there were a surprising number of ways in which buccaneers were disposed of. They would be extremely lucky to get a quick and painless passing that was for sure.

Punishments for Pirates


If a pirate was caught by a country’s navy, they would be imprisoned and taken to court so that their punishment could be decided. The pirates would be tried and sentenced (the verdict would generally be a resounding guilty) and after this they would face execution in a number of ways. The way in which they were killed, and what happened to their body afterwards depended entirely on their notoriety in the place they were tried. The more dastardly and famous the pirate, the longer and more painful punishment.


If pirates were caught by the French Navy this would most likely be their fate, and it’s arguably the least cruel method of execution. Decapitation, especially when done by a skilled French executioner, would be fairly quick and painless. Sometimes, the head of the punished priate would be be put on display for all to see and as a warning to other pirates.

Gibbeting as a deterrent

Gibbeting was a common practice after execution; by putting the corpses on display to the public in these body shaped metal cages the judges would hope to put others off following the path of piracy or highway robbing.

Tidal Gibbeting as Punishment

Gibbeting could also, however, be a particularly nasty form of execution. Tidal gibbeting involved putting a prisoner in a gibbet at low tide in the sea, or a tidal river, and allowing their body to be fully submerged by the tide three times. The bodies would then be removed and either disposed of, or, if the pirate was particularly infamous, displayed at cross roads or along the banks of a public river.


Hanging, otherwise called the ‘long drop’ was the most common form of execution overall and was, if it went well, a fairly quick process in terms of capital punishment for pirates.

The Marshals Dance

A cruel and twisted version of hanging most often reserved for pirates, the Marshals Dance involved hanging with a short rope as punishment. This prevented the prisoner’s neck from breaking and caused them to asphyxiate. The curious jerking of their limbs as they strangled was said to resemble dancing by those who had the stomach to watch.