We've all seen the movies where one-eyed, peg-leg pirates make off with great wooden chests full of gold, silver, and jewels. But this image isn't really accurate. Pirates only rarely got their hands on treasure like this, but they did still take plunder from their victims.
Pirates and their Victims
During the so-called Golden Age of piracy, which lasted roughly from 1700 to 1725, hundreds of pirate ships plagued the waters of the world. These pirates, while generally associated with the Caribbean, did not limit their activities to that region. They also struck off the coast of Africa and even made forays into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They would attack and rob any non-Navy ship that crossed their paths: mostly merchant and slave vessels plying the Atlantic. The plunder the pirates took from these ships mainly were trade goods profitable at the time.
Food and Drink
Pirates often plundered food and drink from their victims: Alcoholic drinks, in particular, were rarely if ever allowed to continue on their way. Casks of rice and other foodstuffs were taken on board as needed, although the less cruel pirates would leave enough food for their victims to survive. Fishing ships were often robbed when merchants were scarce, and in addition to the fish, pirates would sometimes take tackle and nets.
Pirates rarely had access to ports or shipyards where they could repair their vessels. Their ships were often put to hard use, meaning that they were in constant need of new sails, ropes, rigging tackle, anchors, and other things necessary for the day-to-day maintenance of a wooden sailing vessel. They stole candles, thimbles, frying pans, thread, soap, kettles, and other mundane items and would often also plunder wood, masts, or parts of the ship if they needed them. Of course, if their own ship were in really bad shape, the pirates would sometimes simply swap ships with their victims!
Most of the "loot" gained by pirates was trade goods being shipped by merchants. Pirates never knew what they would find on the ships they robbed. Popular trade goods at the time included bolts of cloth, tanned animal skins, spices, sugar, dyes, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, wood, and more. Pirates had to be choosy about what to take, as some items were easier to sell than others. Many pirates had clandestine contacts with merchants willing to purchase such stolen goods for a fraction of their true worth and then resell them for a profit. Pirate-friendly towns such as Port Royal, Jamaica, or Nassau, Bahamas, had many unscrupulous merchants willing to make such deals.
Buying and selling slaves was a very profitable business during the Golden Age of piracy, and slave ships often were raided by pirates. Pirates might keep the slaves to work on the ship or sell them themselves. Often, the pirates would loot the slave ships of food, weapons, rigging, or other valuables and let the merchants keep the slaves, who were not always easy to sell and had to be fed and cared for.
Weapons, Tools, and Medicine
Weapons were very valuable. They were the "tools of the trade" for pirates. A pirate ship without cannons and a crew without pistols and swords were ineffective, so it was the rare pirate victim that got away with his weapon stores unplundered. Cannons were moved to the pirate ship and the holds cleared of gunpowder, small arms, and bullets. Tools were as good as gold, whether they be carpenter's tools, surgeon's knives, or navigational gear (such as maps and astrolabes). Likewise, medicines were often looted: Pirates were often injured or ill, and medicines were hard to come by. When Blackbeard held Charleston, North Carolina, hostage in 1718, he demanded-and received-a chest of medicines in exchange for lifting his blockade.
Gold, Silver, and Jewels
Of course, just because most of their victims didn't have any gold doesn't mean that the pirates never got any at all. Most ships had a little gold, silver, jewels, or some coins aboard, and the crew and captains were often tortured to get them to reveal the location of any such stash. Sometimes, pirates got lucky: In 1694, Henry Avery and his crew sacked the Ganj-i-Sawai, the treasure ship of the Grand Moghul of India. They captured chests of gold, silver, jewels, and other precious cargo worth a fortune. Pirates with gold or silver tended to spend it quickly when in port.
Thanks to the popularity of "Treasure Island," the most famous novel about pirates, most people think that the bandits went around burying treasure on remote islands. In fact, pirates rarely buried treasure. Captain William Kidd buried his loot, but he's one of the few known to have done so. Considering that most of the pirate "treasure" to be had was delicate, such as food, sugar, wood, ropes, or cloth, it's not surprising that idea is mostly a myth.
Cordingly, David. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996
Defoe, Daniel. "A General History of the Pyrates." Dover Maritime, 60742nd edition, Dover Publications, January 26, 1999.
Konstam, Angus. "The World Atlas of Pirates." Guilford: The Lyons Press, 2009
Konstam, Angus. "The Pirate Ship 1660-1730." New York: Osprey, 2003