Author: Krzysztof Wilczynski
It would be an unfair statement to say that a lighthearted way of life in the 18th century was restricted to piracy. During this period, death was often sudden, in the midst of battle, by shipwreck, tavern brawls, disease, etc. But then, there was always death by ‘dancing the hempen jig’, a pirate’s term for a hanging, which awaited any pirate brought to trial, and sentenced.
Trials for piracy, were usually held in admiralty courts, tribunes, that had been founded in 1340’s in England, for trials concerning crimes committed beyond the high water mark. It was possible for a member of the pirate crew to turn King’s evidence and testify against his fellow pirates, for which a pardon was granted, but only after the others had been convicted. Once convicted, the pirate could be hanged any time ten days after the trial.
On the day of the hanging, the condemned pirates were led in a procession led by an officer carrying the Silver Oar, which symbolized the authority of the High Court of the Admiralty. The final destination was the gallows, which was usually positioned in a public place near the water, often at the low-tide mark. The entire event, like all hangings was a spectacle that drew large crowds.
Before the actual hanging, a chaplain usually gave a sermon, urging the convicted to profess their faith, and repent, before being hung. Often the sermon would also preach to the audience, using the pirates as prime examples of the degeneracy of a human soul After the sermon, the pirate was allowed to speak to the people before being swung off the cart beneath the gallows. In their last speech, before execution, some appeared to be repentant, some frightened, others surly, while there were those who told crude jokes to the crowds.
After the execution, the bodies of the less significant crew members, were buried face down, below the high water mark, or left hanging until three tides had passed over them. The bodies of the most notorious captains, were often embalmed in tar, encased in an iron framework or chains, and hung from a gibbet in a conspicuous place by the water edge, where they swayed in the wind, until nothing was left. This served as a frightening example to those leaning towards the tempting rewards of piracy.
The punishment for privateering was imprisonment, with the possibility of being released in a prisoner exchange. This however was not a favorable alternative to the noose since it often meant a prolonged death, in prison hulks, which were converted naval ships that were no longer seaworthy, or goals, which were usually damp and disease-ridden.