There are two forms of the pirate legend: that of the sadistic and violent criminal who tortured and killed his prisoners, and that of the romantic, heroic social outcast who defied conventionality and authority to seek his fortune. So which one did captives face when a pirate crew overtook their ship? That depends on what you read. There is great discrepancy between the two versions, which is only now being unraveled, as historians look more closely at the pirate myth. However, based on historical accounts, it seems some pirates epitomized cruelty, while others were merely fortune-hunters.
Pirates used the element of surprise when taking a ship, often raising a flag identifying themselves as a friend. When the unsuspecting crew realized they were under attack, it was too late to flee, and they had no choice but to surrender or fight. Pirates preferred capture to fighting, and could be violent if a crew resisted. Anyone who dared fight the pirates might have their throats slit before being thrown overboard to the sharks. The myths of making prisoners walk the plank or eat their own ears or lips are unfounded. There is only one documented case of plank-walking, and only two documented cases of forcing prisoners to eat body parts. In fact, some pirates treated prisoners decently, to encourage other ships to surrender rather than fight. They preferred immediate surrender, and resented being forced into battle.
It is reported that pirates frequently tortured captives to uncover the location of valuables. In some cases, merchants swallowed jewels to hide them, and the pirates would make them take laxatives to eliminate them. The usual method for forcing captives to confess was hoisting and drubbing (beating), but some pirates preferred more sadistic techniques. One, called sweating, involved a fiddler playing while the pirates poked the captive with forks and daggers until he revealed the location or collapsed. A commonly used method of torture, called woodling, involved tightening a leather cord around the prisoner's head until his eyes popped out. According to accounts, women prisoners were frequently sexually assaulted, often repeatedly, which made them 'damaged goods' if they survived and returned to society.
There is evidence pirates had some mercy, however. When capturing slave ships, they were known to free the slaves and welcome them into their own group. It is believed that a third of many pirate crews were black, and they were awarded the same rights as the whites.