Pirate Ships and Flags

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Raz-Plus and Reading A-Z offer projectable or printable books—also assignable in Raz-Plus!—such as Pirate Ships and Flags, an informational (nonfiction) book with 1,781 words, Level U (Grade 4), and Lexile 840L.

Pirate Ships and Flags

Written by Robert Charles
Illustrated by Paula Schricker

Pirates were robbers. They traveled by sea and attacked ships carrying valuable goods. They even went ashore to attack villages. They took gold, silver, jewels, and also fine fabrics, spices, grain, coffee, and tea.

A pirate attack's success often depended on the ship they used. Pirate ships came in many sizes and shapes. The type of ship pirates used depended on the part of the world they came from—and pirates came from all over the world! The type of ship pirates used also depended on the period of history during which the pirates operated.

Early ships were not as large or as fast as most of the ships that were used in the 1700s. This was the Golden Age of Piracy (1650s—1730s).

As you read, you will learn about different types of pirate ships and life on these ships. You will also read about pirate attacks.

Greek and Roman Pirate Ships
Some early pirates came out of the ancient Greek and Roman empires. They did their pirating over 1,600 years ago. The sea around Greece is filled with many small islands. Ships carrying valuables sailed between the islands. They traveled close to the shore. This made it easy for the pirates who were hiding on the islands.

The Greek pirates used streamlined ships for their attacks. These ships were called galleys. These sleek ships were powered by oars. Some also had one or two large sails. Depending on the size of the pirate ship, dozens of pirate crewmen rowed the ship. A galley under the power of many oars was much faster than the clumsy cargo ships that depended on wind power. A galley could quickly overtake a slower cargo ship.

Galleys were also shallow. This made them easier to steer. They could quickly change direction. It also meant that if the pirates were being chased, they could escape to shallow water. They could also go over rocks that large ships would get caught on.

These pirate ships often had sharp battering rams attached to the bow, or front of the ship. They would ram the victim ship, trying to punch a hole in its side, or hull. If the ship being attacked took on water, it became even slower.

Romans were not natural seafarers like the Greeks. So they built many of their ships to copy the Greeks. Roman pirates also used galleys powered by long oars. Some of these galleys had rowers at more than one level of the ship. The poor oarsmen who rowed below the deck were forced to row where it was hot and stinky.

Viking Pirate Ships
While the Greek and Roman pirates threatened ships sailing around southern Europe, the Vikings—most active from 800 CE to 1100 CE—ruled the seas of northern Europe. The Viking pirates were ruthless villains of the north. They attacked ships at sea as well as villages along the coast. These people of the north gained a reputation for being fierce warriors.

Vikings were also expert shipbuilders. The seas of northern Europe were often very rough, unlike the smoother waters of the Mediterranean. The ships used by Viking pirates had to be strong so that they would not break up in the rugged sea. Their ships were known as longboats.

Longboats were long, as their name suggests. They were also narrow and sleek. This made them fast and easy to steer. They were powered by a large square sail when in the open sea. When near the shore or going up rivers, they were powered by oars. The longboats were shallow and could land almost anywhere. This made it easy for Viking pirates to sneak up on ships and villages and quickly attack.

Longboats were also unique for their design. The front and back of the longboat curved upward to a point. It was difficult to tell the front from the back. The point, or prow, was often decorated with a dragon's head. These boats were called dragon boats. Other prows were shaped like snake heads or the heads of other figures.

Longboats could hold over fifty Viking pirates. These pirates carried spears, axes, swords, and bows and arrows to use in their attacks.

Pirate Ships of Northern Africa
Another group of pirates did their pirating along the northern coast of Africa a little over 1,000 years ago. These pirates were known as Barbary corsairs.

Corsairs used sleek galleys much like the ones used by the Greek and Roman pirates. The oars were rowed by enslaved people, which meant more pirates ended up joining the fighting.

The corsairs' ships were fast. Enslaved people scraped and waxed the hull of their galley between trips at sea. This increased the ship's speed. The galleys were powered by both oars and sails. The oars were long and heavy. A single oar might have to be rowed by several people. A corsair galley could have two to three masts, each holding a sail of a different size.

A corsair galley often held over one hundred people. This meant that trips to sea had to be short, since the galley could not carry enough food and water for long trips.

Some corsair galleys were beautiful ships. They were often painted with gold decorations, and gold-painted figures often extended from the back of the ship.

Chinese Pirate Ships
The seas and coastline of China and southeast Asia were perfect settings for pirates. Chinese pirates hid in mangrove swamps that lined the coast. Chinese pirate captains often led fleets of small pirate ships.
One pirate commander, Ching-Chi-ling, led a fleet of nearly 1,000 heavily armed ships.

Larger Chinese pirate ships were called junks. These junks were often converted cargo ships. This meant that they were slower than most other pirate ships, but what these ships lacked in speed they made up in arms. They carried over a dozen large guns. They were such good fighting ships that the Chinese navy could not defeat them.

Pirate junks often had three masts. The sails were large and had four sides. They were made of silk reinforced with strips of bamboo. These ships were large enough to provide the captain with a nice place to stay, but the crew lived below in the crowded hold.

Pirate Ships of the Caribbean
Probably the pirates we know the most about are the pirates of the Caribbean Sea. The islands of the Caribbean were perfect hideouts for pirates looking to plunder ships carrying gold and silver. These unruly pirates attacked many Spanish ships passing between the islands.

The pirates of the Caribbean did not sail the high seas. Instead, they stuck close to shore and sailed among the islands. Therefore, they did not need large ships. These pirates preferred to use sloops and ketches to attack other ships. These smaller boats were fast and easy to move around.

Ketches were equipped with two masts. A mainmast rose from the center of the deck. A smaller mast rose from the back section of the deck. Ketches also had a long pointed pole extending forward from the bow. It was called a bowsprit. The bowsprit on some ketches was as long as the main body of the ship. Triangular sails were rigged to the bowsprit. These sails increased the ketch's speed.

The mainmast held a large square mainsail. If the wind blew from behind the ship, the crew would raise the mainsail, and the wind would push the ship through the water. Sails rigged to the back mast were used to move the ketch in different directions. The ketch's variety of sails made it a versatile sailing ship.

Pirate Flags
Pirate ships flew flags to warn other ships that they were about to be attacked and that they should surrender. Flags were used to strike fear in the crew of ships about to be attacked. Some flags carried scarier messages than others. For example, an all-red flag signaled certain death. However, sometimes pirates were sneaky. They would sail a friendly flag first. Then when they got close to the ship they were attacking, they would raise the pirate flag.

The best-known pirate flag was the Jolly Roger. It was decorated with a skull and two crossed swords, or crossbones. It told crew members on a ship being attacked to surrender without a fight or face death.

In addition to skulls, bones, and swords, pirate flags were decorated with hourglasses, skeletons, and blood. The hourglass signaled that time was running out and the crew should surrender.

One of the most notorious pirates of all time was Blackbeard. Blackbeard's flag was a skeleton that looked like a devil. The skeleton held a spear that pointed at a red heart. Drops of blood dripped from the heart.

Life on a Pirate Ship
When we see pirates in movies, we often see white faces. But in truth, up to 30 percent of pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy were Black. Pirates targeted ships carrying enslaved people because the ships themselves were valuable: large and fast. Sometimes the Africans on board joined the crew. Some of the enslaved people on pirate whips were white Europeans, former enslavers themselves.

When not actively pirating, life was still harsh, and often boring. Pirates spent much of their time between attacks repairing sails and riggings. Sailing itself was physically hard work. Sails had to be raised and lowered by hand as conditions changed and to keep the ship moving fast. Teamwork was important.

Pirates' quarters were below deck in the ship's hold. They were usually cramped; no one had much personal space. Pirates slept in hammocks and kept their personal property in a sea chest. When the weather was good, crew members could sleep on deck.

Pirate ships usually had a population of rats. The rats chewed sails and ropes and ate food supplies. Rats were even known to chew through a ship's hull and sink a ship.

Food aboard a pirate ship was repetitive. They had little fresh meat. When they did, it was usually turtle meat. Sometimes pirates ate fresh fish. Otherwise, meals consisted of dry, salted meat and dry biscuits, washed down with beer, wine, or water. Ships usually had poor cooking facilities.

Pirates ate from metal plates. If they were lucky, they had a fork or spoon. Otherwise, they just used their fingers.

Pirate life often looks exciting and full of adventure in the movies. Life aboard a real pirate ship was not very pleasant at all! Neither were the punishments pirates faced when they were captured.

Around the world, authorities put captured pirates to death for their crimes. The bodies of executed pirates used to be placed in iron cages and hung from wooden frames where they could be easily seen. This was done to discourage others from becoming pirates. Although pirates still exist today, the Golden Age of piracy has sailed away.

In Pirate Ships and Flags, students learn about various ships used by pirates throughout history. Many teachers use this and other books from Raz-Plus and Reading A-Z to help supplement science, history, and social studies lessons. 

Pirate Ships and Flags

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