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The Pirate’s Life at Sea

Author: Cindy Vallar

We harbor romantic ideas about life aboard a wooden ship, but Doctor Samuel Johnson once wrote, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in jail with the chance of being drowned…. A man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”1 His words painted a far closer image to reality, for a mariner’s life was anything but comfortable. He lived belowdecks in dim, cramped, and filthy quarters. Rats and cockroaches abounded in the bowels of the ship. Privacy was nonexistent, especially aboard a pirate ship where two hundred men might inhabit a world measuring one hundred twenty by forty feet. Within the pages of Five Naval Journals 1789-1817, an anonymous sailor said, “On the same deck with me…slept between five and six hundred men; and the ports being necessarily closed from evening to morning, the heat in this cavern of only six feet high, and so entirely filled with human bodies, was overpowering.”2

Bathroom facilities were primitive. Rotting provisions, bilgewater, and unwashed bodies made the air rank. A storm meant days of dampness after it passed. Headroom between decks posed problems for taller men. Captain Rotheram of the HMS Bellerophon, whose gun deck headroom measured five feet eight inches, surveyed his crew and found they averaged five feet five inches in height.3

According to a sailor named Barrow, “There are no men under the sun that fare harder and get their living more hard and that are so abused on all sides as we poor seamen…so I could wish no young man to betake himself to this calling unless he had good friends to put him in place or supply his wants, for he shall find a great deal more to his sorrow than I have writ.”4 For these reasons most sailors were in their mid-twenties, having gone to sea much earlier. Whether pirate or seaman, they had to have stamina and dexterity that older men no longer possessed. They also spent from three months to several years away from home.

Added to these problems were the dangers inherent in a sailor’s life. He might plummet to his death while working the sails high above the deck. He might fall overboard, in which case the ship rarely returned for him and few sailors knew how to swim. Plus there was the danger of sharks in tropical waters. Then there was the danger of fire or shipwreck. Also, the dull routine that was the norm between the sighting of sail and boarding a prize, numbed sailors’ minds. Accidents and natural disasters certainly claimed sailors’ lives, as did sea fights, but men were far more likely to succumb to disease than anything else. Scurvy, dysentery, tuberculosis, typhus, smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever killed half of all seamen.  According to David Cordingly, “It has been calculated that during the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France of 1793 to 1815 approximately 100,000 British seamen died. Of this number 1.5 per cent died in battle, 12 per cent died in shipwrecks or similar disasters, 20 per cent died from shipboard or dockside accidents, and no less than 65 per cent died from disease.”5 

Drinking water, stored in kegs, turned foul and sailors were sometimes forced to drink this water. More often, though, they drank rum or grog rather than the brandy and wine that officers imbibed. Pirates, on the other hand, drank a mixture of rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg; rumfustian, which blended raw eggs with sugar, sherry, gin, and beer; and sherry, brandy, and port.
The two most common foods sailors ate were salted meat and hard tack. The former might be kept in barrels for years before use. The latter was oftentimes invested with weevils. In the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic period, seamen ate a rather bland and routine diet. On Mondays they ate cheese and duff (flour pudding), Tuesdays and Saturdays boiled beef, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays dried peas and duff. On Sundays they were served dried pork and Figgy Dowdy or a similar treat. Supper consisted of leftovers from dinner, a biscuit, and a pint of grog. In contrast, on 14 August 1781, a rear-admiral served twelve dinners one meal that included: boiled ducks smothered with onions, roast goose, tarts, beaten butter, potatoes, French beans, whipped cream, fruit fritters, bacon, apple pie, boiled fowl, carrots and turnips, albacore, Spanish fritters, boiled beef, and roast mutton.6

It mattered not whether the salted meat and fish turned rancid. It wasn’t thrown away. “Merchants and owners of ships are grown to such a pass nowadays…for when they send a ship out for a voyage they will put no more victuals or drink in the ship than will just serve so many days, and if they have to be a little longer in this passage and meet with cross winds, then the poor men’s bellies must be pinched for it, and be put to shorten their allowance.”7

To restock their provisions, pirates stole from the ships they seized. They also supplemented their diets with dolphins, albacore tuna, and other varieties of fish. One particular food was the green turtle. They “are extremely good to eat--the flesh very sweet and the fat green and delicious. This fat is so penetrating that when you have eaten nothing but turtle flesh for three or four weeks, your shirt becomes so greasy from sweat you can squeeze the oil out and your limbs are weighed down with it.”8 They enjoyed salamagundi, which resembled a chef’s salad. Marinated bits of fish, turtle, and meat were combined with herbs, palm hearts, spiced wine, and oil, then served with hard-boiled eggs, pickled onions, cabbage, grapes, and olives. Pirates also ate yams, plantains, pineapples, papayas, and other fruits and vegetables indigenous to the tropics.

When their provisions ran scarce, pirates did resort to extreme measures. Charlotte de Berry’s crew purportedly ate two slaves and her husband. In 1670, Sir Henry Morgan’s crew ate their leather satchels. According to written accounts, they cut the leather into strips. After soaking these, they beat and rubbed the leather with stones to tenderize them. They scraped off the hair, then roasted or grilled the strips before cutting them into bite-size pieces.

Another aspect of life at sea involved sailors’ leisure time. Whether pirate or not, they enjoyed many of the same activities, only the amount differed, particularly where drink was concerned. While gambling did occur, it wasn’t conducive to harmony amongst the men, and even the pirates included it as an intolerable infraction in their articles of agreement. Chewing tobacco, scrimshaw, and embroidery were popular pastimes. They also spun yarns about fearsome ghosts and goblins. When pirates boarded a prize, musicians were among the most sought after sailors enlisted into the ranks of the pirates, whether they joined willingly or were forced, because pirates loved entertainment.

Why did sailors take the extra risk of going on the account? Piracy offered a number of advantages, not the least of which was freedom from the harsh discipline suffered in the Royal Navy or aboard a merchantman. Pirates rarely flogged their mates, and while marooning and death were severe forms of punishment, they never endured six hundred lashes, swallowing cockroaches or iron bolts to learn a lesson. Nor would a pirate captain dare to cut out an eye as happened to Richard Desbrough.9  Life on land was equally fraught with cruel punishments, for use of the thumbscrew, pillory, and branding iron were still in use. “Children as young as seven, both boys and girls, were hanged. …[I]n 1698, Parliament had passed a law that the theft of good, worth more than five shillings, rated the death penalty.”10

When a sea captain refused to join his crew, one pirate said, “Damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security, for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they got by their knavery. But damn ye altogether. Damn them for a pack of craft rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, then there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage; had ye not better make one of use, than sneak after the arses of those villains for employment?”11

Aside from freedom, the financial rewards were far greater as a pirate than as a legitimate sailor, especially since pirates shared their plunder more equitably than privateers or the navy did. Gold, silver, silks, spices, timber, and a variety of other commodities made lucrative prizes. A privateer in the early seventeenth century might receive £10, the wages of most sailors for one year. A pirate, on the other hand, had the potential of earning up to £4,000 in a year, although he rarely held onto his ill-gotten gains for long. In 1695, Captain Avery and his men captured the Gunsway, and netted about £1,000 each. In 1721, pirates under John Taylor and Oliver la Buze netted £875,000 after seizing a Portuguese East Indiaman. 

Even so, not all sailors turned pirate when their ships were taken. Captain William Snelgrave spent time as a captive of Howell Davis. He published an account of his experiences in 1734. His descriptions of pirate life weren’t complimentary. “[T]he execrable Oaths and Blasphemies I heard among the Ship’s Company, shocked me to such a degree, that in Hell its self I thought there could not be worse; for though many Seafaring Men are given to swearing and taking God’s name in vain, yet I could not have imagined, human Nature could ever so far degenerate, as to talk in the manner those abandoned Wretches did.”12 “They hoisted upon Deck a great many half-Hogsheads of Claret, and French Brandy; knocked their Heads out, and dipped cans and bowls into them to drink out of: And in their Wantonness threw full Buckets of each sort upon one another. As soon as they had emptied what was on the Deck, they hoisted up more: and in the evening washed the Decks with what remained in the Casks. As to bottled Liquor of many sorts, they made such havoc of it, that in a few days they had not one Bottle left: For they would not give themselves the trouble of drawing the Cork out, but nicked the Bottles, as they called it, that is, struck their necks off with a Cutlace; by which means one in three was generally broke: Neither was there any Cask-liquor left in a short time, but a little brandy. As to Eatables, such as Cheeses, Butter, Sugar, and many other things, they were as soon gone. For the Pirates being all in a drunken Fit, which held as long as the Liquor lasted, no care was taken by any one to prevent this Destruction….”13

Pirates, however, saw life from a different perspective. While some regretted going on the account, most laughed in the face of death. All sailors knew they might die before a voyage ended, and pirates weighed past experiences against the promise of wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Even though few attained such wealth, they still opted for freedom and potential riches. Perhaps Bartholomew Roberts best summed up their philosophy. “In honest service there is thin rations, low wages and hard labour; in this [service], plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worse, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.”14

1 Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1987), page 258.
2 Patrick O’Brian’s Navy (2003), page 87.
3 Cordingly, David. The Billy Ruffian (2003), page 209.
4 Gill, Anton. The Devil’s Mariner (1997), page 75.
5 Cordingly, page 165.
6 Blake, Nicholas, and Richard Lawrence. The Illustrated Companion to Nelson’s Navy (2000), page 99.
7 Gill, page 77.
8 Exquemelin, Alexander O.. Buccaneers of America (1969), page 73.
9 Ibid, page 79.
10 Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter (2002), page 357.
11 Gill, pages 79-80.
12 Breverton, Terry. Black Bart Roberts (2004), page 29.
13 Ibid., page 35.
14 Gill, page 80.