When Kitty was a little girl she dreamed of being a museum curator or archaeologist. Now she studies and writes all about history.
Life as a Pirate
When you were a child, did you ever dream about being a pirate? Perhaps you were carried away with the tales of Blackbeard, Captain Hook, and the like. Maybe the idea of being on the sea, fighting battles, and stealing treasure excited your imagination. Maybe you could see yourself with a sword and a pair of boots, with the obligatory shoulder-perched parrot and eye patch. But did you ever stop to think about what it really might have been like to live as a pirate?
Our fairy tales and history books don't tell us the true story of pirate life...the ins and outs, ups and downs. Many of our stories and movies show us the "glamorous" side of pirate life, but we don't get to truly understand what it might have been like to live on the open seas. To eat, drink, and sleep as a pirate. Today I plan on taking you on a tour of REAL pirate life...the good and the bad, the adventurous and the ugly.
Where Did Pirates Come From?
Pirates simply defined were thieves and/or violent criminals that sailed the open waters of the world. It is hard to pinpoint a time and place where pirates originated because as long as there have been humans, there have been thieves and criminals. And for as long as people have been brave enough to sail the open seas, you can bet some criminals decided using the sea as their means of transport was most beneficial.
History of Pirates
According to some, the first documented pirates came from the Mediterranean region in the fourteenth century B.C. Specifically, these people were called the "Sea Peoples" and were thought to have come from the Aegean Sea. However, some historians consider pirates from various places in the Mediterranean area to be a part of the classified "Sea Peoples," which also included pirates from Ancient Greece. Again, this is the first documented example of pirates but, in all likelihood, not the first pirates to have scoured the open waters.
Pirates have been documented on almost every continent in the world. Throughout the pages of history, there were pirates from Asia, Europe, Africa, and even the Americas. You might have heard of the Vikings as an infamous European example of pirates. There were pirates from the Middle East, as well as from China as Asian examples. The Barbary corsairs were pirates that originated from various ports in North Africa. And, of course, during the "Golden Age of Piracy," pirates from various colonies in North America raided the Caribbean for treasures and other spoils.
How Did One Become a Pirate?
Often pirates started out as young sailors who quickly learned that stealing was the easiest and quickest way to make a living. It is speculated that both Blackbeard and Calico Jack began as sailors before crossing that boundary into pirate-hood. In other accounts, pirates were made. What I mean by this is that some people were captured during raids or battles and forced to work on the pirates' ship as servants/slaves. Some of these people thought it might be better to join them if they couldn't beat them.
Other ways to become a pirate was to join a friend's ship (who was already into piracy), or if you were a female tough enough to handle it...marry a pirate (as in the case of the infamous Anne Bonny). A large majority of pirates came from poverty, though a few were born into a life of privilege...but the call of the sea and the treasures it may hold tempted them too strongly.
What Did Pirates Do?
If you were a pirate in the Golden Age of Piracy, what would you do?
Pirates' main means of living was to steal from others. They'd steal treasures like gold and jewels, yes, but most of the time, pirates would steal things to aid in their survival. Food, drink, and supplies for sailing would make their way off of one ship and onto a pirate's ship in no time! Pirates also had no problem pillaging villages and other places along the shoreline if in need...and sometimes just to have a little fun!
Pirates loved to eat, drink, and be merry. They were known to be revelers for a reason...they liked to feast and party! Soaking in all of the luxuries of life in one night was of importance to a pirate because who knows when they would have the opportunity again? In a month at sea, they might be eating rotten bread and drinking spoiled water. A large majority of pirates were alcoholics, as documented by pirates themselves, so drinking was a pastime that filled their days when the resources were available.
Putting the adventures aside, pirates also had to maintain their ships. This meant cleaning and repairing their ships so that these vessels would live to sail another sea. Stolen goods could be used to keep their ships in worthy condition.
What Did Pirates Eat?
There are many of us who might imagine pirates eating whatever they want, whenever they want, but the reality of life for pirates was not always so fanciful or decadent. Often when the pirates were out to sea for months on end, their food supply would dwindle. They had no way to keep their food cold or frozen, which means that much of their food supply would rot or grow mold. This included meat, bread, dairy, and produce. But because of this, one might have also seen pirates eating a lot of cured (salted) meats and fermented vegetables. Some other pirate food staples might have included: salted meat, sea biscuits (a hard bread meant to last long periods of time), Sauer kraut, and bone soup.
If the pirates were smart, they would steal and keep livestock on board. For example, if they kept a cow and/or goats, they would have access to milk. If they kept chickens– eggs would be readily available. And when all else fails, and all the food has rotted–eat the livestock!
What Did Pirates Drink?
Alcohol, of course! The pirates in the Caribbean are most likely to have consumed a lot of rum (alcohol made of sugar cane), a resource available on farms throughout the Caribbean. Beer and ale were also a favorite and were often stolen in raids of other ships along with mead, brandy, and wine. Any kind of alcohol was subject to being stolen and downed by pirates...let's face it, they were drinkers. We picture pirates stealing chests of gold and jewels when in reality, they were most likely stealing chests of liquor!
Seafood seems like it might have been an easy source of food for pirates; however, it was rare that pirates would have the time to sit around and fish all day for a bite to eat. It would have taken too long and not produced enough food. Though, I'm sure desperate times call for desperate measures.
Whatever they could steal from other ships, they would eat!
Where Did Pirates Sleep and Bathe?
While at sea, where did pirates sleep? If you were the Captain or ranked higher amongst the crew, you might be spoiled with a private sleeping quarter. Otherwise, you would be sleeping in an open yet small space with dozens of other crew members. Sometimes they had hammocks; other times, they were on the floor. The preferred bed in a pirate ship was a hammock as it would rock and sway with the ship's motions, providing for an easier night of sleep.
You can bet that a pirate's hygiene was sorely lacking. Not only did they not have a huge supply of water (on board, that is), but most of them were drunk men and most likely didn't care if they stunk or not. Fresh water on board a ship was reserved for drinking purposes, not bathing purposes. Some documents tell of men being lowered into the ocean water in order to cool off but not necessarily to bathe. There was no such thing as deodorant, and I am sure they weren't brushing their teeth either (what teeth they had left in their heads).
Conditions on board a pirate ship were harsh, so things we take for granted every day were not always so easy to come by on a long journey at sea. This includes eating and drinking fresh food and water, bathing and keeping clean, as well as a good night's sleep.
Illness and Death
Pirates did not usually live a long life. This was due to many factors, including their exposure to the elements, poor hygiene, exposure to others who are ill, being involved in dangerous conditions, starvation, dehydration, etc.
Sometimes, pirates were wounded and/or even killed while trying to steal from another ship. A pirate might gain a gun shot or knife/sword wound if a battle ensued. Sometimes these wounds would prove fatal. If the pirate didn't bleed to death, the infection might set in and kill them instead. If a ship was to be hit by a cannon or if it was flipped over in a storm or on rocks, pirates could indeed drown to death.
And if a pirate was captured for his criminal activities? He would be hung, decapitated, or literally "fed to the birds."
Scurvy is probably the most famous of the pirate illnesses. This illness caused pirates to look a certain stereotypical way - pale skin, hunched backs, spotted skin, swollen gums, unsteady gait, and loss of hair and teeth. Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin c in one's diet. As you can imagine, after months of being at sea Vitamin C is most likely in short supply for pirates on board. Scurvy can be fatal.
Dysentery was another common "pirate disease." This is an illness that causes the walls of your bowels to swell up and bleed...as you might imagine, this results in bloody diarrhea as well as other unpleasant signs and symptoms. This disease is caused by eating contaminated food or drinking bad water. Obviously, this is something that pirates dealt with quite often, so dysentery was found on many ships.
A Pirate's Life for Me!
As you can see, a pirate's life wasn't always the life of adventures and never-ending fun like the movies make it out to be. Oftentimes, pirates were smelly, drunk, hungry, sleep deprived, wounded, and angry. So, is a pirate's life for you?
Sources and Further Reading
- Cordingly, D. (2006). Under the black flag: The romance and the reality of life among the pirates. Random House Trade Paperbacks.
- Lovgren, Stefan. “Grim Life Cursed Real Pirates of Caribbean.” History, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/grim-life-cursed-real-pirates-of-caribbean.
- “Pirates in the Atlantic World.” National Museum of American History, 28 Apr. 2021, https://americanhistory.si.edu/on-the-water/living-atlantic-world/pirates.
© 2015 Kitty Fields
Michael Higgins from Michigan on January 26, 2015:
Great hub and congrats on HOTD! I always enjoy reading about the old sea farers.
Paula from The Midwest, USA on January 25, 2015:
Hello Kitty, what a fun article on pirates! When I first saw the title, my mind immediately went to the ride "Pirates of the Caribbean" at Disneyland, a long time favorite ride of mine. It seemed like fun and games and lots of gold and jewels and the occasional battle. At any rate, its not all fun and games, but it is neat to learn more. Thanks for sharing this very informative hub. It was fun.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on January 25, 2015:
@Rosy S &others: yes, it is very, very barbaric in the old days. The Past Port of Mallam Illiarecount the barbaric life of the North Africans near the Mediterrenean coast down to Nigeria. In all societies, it is a bug that sucks. Barbarism was even consider a bravery. You have the opinion to be on the legal or illegal side.
As for the scourge of scurvy, the royal navy had the secret in lime and lemon juice, which provide many of the minerals and vitamins especially, vitamin C. Thank you all for your nice comments so far.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on January 24, 2015:
In my grammar school days, the last read I had on piracy was R.L. Stephenson "Treasure Island." I do not think any sane person would opt for the life of a pirate, even though few of my friends become soldiers. In such story, we did not learnt anything about criminals and thieves being pursur by the law and I do not see any reason why it should fascinated the imagination of a good fellow to get treasure, when other legal means are available.
However, you hub is a good piece and rightly deserves the day. I see you did a good research or who would know these ins and outs of the pirates life?
Royce on January 24, 2015:
I never actually never knew pirates had such a history. Great article. Very informative.
poetryman6969 on January 24, 2015:
Life in the old days was short and dirty for many folks.
Anya Brodech from 130 Linden St, Oakland, California, 94607 on January 24, 2015:
Yeah scurvy was definitely a huge problem since they didn't have fresh fruits or vegetables on board most of the time. Also, they didn't drink/carry much water on board because getting reliable clean water back in those days was hard, and also the water would get slimey from being stored in wooden barrels for long periods of time.
Fun and exciting as the movies are, a pirate's life is not for me!
Lorelei Cohen from Canada on January 24, 2015:
I wondered what pirates ate and now I know. Very fun description of the life of a pirate.
Chuck Nugent from Tucson, Arizona on January 24, 2015:
Congratulations on being selected as Hub of the Day (and this Hub certainly deserved the honor).
While the 17th and 18th century pirates of the Caribbean and their activities have been romanticized, the same is not true for pirates in other places and eras. One of the U.S. Navy's first foreign encounters was when President Jefferson dispatched naval war ships to the Mediterranean to deal with the North African Barbary pirates who were attacking our merchant ships.
In the recent movie, Captain Phillips, and related books, the heroes were Captain Phillips and the Navy Seals who rescued him and his crew on the container ship Maersk Alablama in 2009 from the Somali pirates who had captured it. Abduwali Muse, the only one of the pirates captured alive, became the first person in 100 years to be charged with piracy by the United States. Muse was given a prison sentence of 33 years and 9 months which was more lenient than the old days when captured Caribbean pirates were usually tried and hanged by British authorities as soon as they were brought ashore.
Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on January 24, 2015:
Congrats on the great piece and the HOTD! The mascot for the university where I teach is the pirate, so I have to share this on our FB page! Fun read!
Silver Fish from Edinburgh Scotland on January 24, 2015:
I just love this hub, you make this exciting topic come alive. Thanks for brightening my day with this excellent hub.
whonunuwho from United States on January 24, 2015:
Well done my friend. I wrote a poem entitled: "The Life of a Pirate", on these very pages and you may wish to read. whonu
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on January 24, 2015:
Kitty, your hubs are always so interesting and fun! Well deserved Hub of the Day. Congrats!
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on January 24, 2015:
Just wanted to come back to say Congrats on HOTD
Angels are on the way to you today ps
Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on January 19, 2015:
Genna - So true! A lot of things are glamorized for Hollywood that in reality were total opposites. Thank you for reading & commenting!
Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on January 19, 2015:
What an interesting article. I think we often give an element of romance to the pirates of olden days…but this isn’t an accurate image. All of that salty meet and alcohol they consumed made me wonder how thirsty they would have been. Thus, drinking preserved alcohol was helpful, and perpetuated the cycle. No wonder many of them were alcoholics. Water must have been in short supply, so hygiene would not be a high priority. Illness must have been rampant at times. Thank you for this illuminating hub. I learned quite a bit about these adventurers.
Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on January 12, 2015:
Thanks Dolores! LOL...I don't think it's a life for me either, though I've had dreams of being a pirate which makes me wonder if I wasn't one in a past life!
pstraubie - Thanks for reading and commenting! I love The Goonies...one of my all-time favorites! :)
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on January 12, 2015:
Yo Ho...it's a pirate's life for me....well, in my younger days when I let myself get carried away with fantasy. I loved the movie Goonies ..have you seen it? And I rewatch it every few years.
Well done...voted up++++ and g+ tweeted shared
Angels are on the way to you this afternoon ps
Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on January 12, 2015:
YARG! I'm sorry but couldn't resist. While a pirate costume is great for Halloween, a pirate's life sounds terrible. It can be fun to romanticize the past, but it seems to do with the cool outfits. The stench, the food, and the lifestyle sounds quite challenging!
Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on January 08, 2015:
Thai pirates, Somali pirates, mention that piracy on the high seas is not an archaic profession.
Then on dry land we have the bankers and corporate execs we could include?
Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on January 08, 2015:
Update this one with SE Asia pirates and the Somali ransomers, as well as pirates from southeastern Thailand. Piracy on the high seas is far from an archaic profession.
Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on January 08, 2015:
sounds as if you didn't need to see their Jolly Roger, you could smell them coming over the horizon. Only thing missing was mention (or I missed it) of the modern pirates getting rich from ransoms these days, and the plundering of the SE Asia boat people fleeing after the fall of Vietnam. Thailand has had some of the most infamous, along with those from failed states of the horn of Africa.
Kay Plumeau from New Jersey, USA on January 08, 2015:
Great article! Despite the hardships, I'd still love to plunder on the high seas. Very informative, will be sharing!
Nell Rose from England on January 07, 2015:
lol1 you got to be joking, a pirates life for me? no! so no jack sparrow then? lol1 this was great1 loved their history food etc, I loved Pirates, well clean ones! great hub, voted up and shared! nell
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 07, 2015:
Excellent article. This was really well written on a fascinating subject. Thanks