The Life of a Pirate: What They Ate, What They Did For Fun, and More!

Blackbeard battling Lt. Maynard prior to his capture. Pirates liked to fight!
Blackbeard battling Lt. Maynard prior to his capture. Pirates liked to fight! | Source

A Pirate's Life for Me!

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 life 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 there were criminals who decided using the sea as their means for transport was most beneficial.

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.

You might be wondering, 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 you can'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, but there are a few that were born into a life of privilege...but the call of the sea and the treasures it may hold tempted them too strongly.

Pirates often stole their food and alcohol in order to survive...or simply to have a little fun.
Pirates often stole their food and alcohol in order to survive...or simply to have a little fun. | Source

What did Pirates eat?

There are many of us who might imagine pirates as 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. The fact that they had no means to keep their food cold or frozen means that much of their food supply would rot or grow mold. This included the 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 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 happily 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 was also a favorite and was 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 have produced enough food. Though, I'm sure desperate times call for desperate measures.

Whatever they could steal from other ships, they would eat!

Perhaps pirates kicked back and took hammocks.
Perhaps pirates kicked back and took hammocks. | Source

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 will 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 (or 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.

Sometimes pirates' battles ended badly for them...
Sometimes pirates' battles ended badly for them... | Source

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. Treasure 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 time 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.

Here lies a pirate...
Here lies a pirate... | Source

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. If a battle ensued, a pirate might gain a gunshot or knife/sword wound. Sometimes these wounds would prove fatal. If the pirate didn't bleed to death, infection might set in and kill him/her 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, 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 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.

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. So, is a pirate's life for you?

© 2015 Author Nicole Canfield

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Comments 25 comments

MHiggins profile image

MHiggins 21 months ago from Michigan

Great hub and congrats on HOTD! I always enjoy reading about the old sea farers.

oceansnsunsets profile image

oceansnsunsets 21 months ago from The Midwest, USA

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.

Miebakagh57 profile image

Miebakagh57 21 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

@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.

Miebakagh57 profile image

Miebakagh57 21 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

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 S profile image

Royce S 21 months ago

I never actually never knew pirates had such a history. Great article. Very informative.

poetryman6969 profile image

poetryman6969 21 months ago

Life in the old days was short and dirty for many folks.

abrodech profile image

abrodech 21 months ago from 130 Linden St, Oakland, California, 94607

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!


Lady Lorelei profile image

Lady Lorelei 21 months ago from Canada

I wondered what pirates ate and now I know. Very fun description of the life of a pirate.

Chuck profile image

Chuck 21 months ago from Tucson, Arizona

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.

Great Hub!

Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 21 months ago from Planet Earth

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 profile image

Silverfish 21 months ago from Edinburgh Scotland

I just love this hub, you make this exciting topic come alive. Thanks for brightening my day with this excellent hub.

whonunuwho profile image

whonunuwho 21 months ago from United States

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

heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 21 months ago from Chicago Area

Kitty, your hubs are always so interesting and fun! Well deserved Hub of the Day. Congrats!

pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 21 months ago from sunny Florida

Just wanted to come back to say Congrats on HOTD

Angels are on the way to you today ps

kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 21 months ago from the Ether Author

Genna - So true! A lot of things are glamorized for Hollywood that in reality were total opposites. Thank you for reading & commenting!

Genna East profile image

Genna East 21 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

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.

kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 21 months ago from the Ether Author

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 of my all-time favorites! :)

pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 21 months ago from sunny Florida

Yo'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 profile image

Dolores Monet 21 months ago from East Coast, United States

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!

Perspycacious profile image

Perspycacious 21 months ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

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?

Perspycacious profile image

Perspycacious 21 months ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

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.

Perspycacious profile image

Perspycacious 21 months ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

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.

KMSplumeau profile image

KMSplumeau 21 months ago

Great article! Despite the hardships, I'd still love to plunder on the high seas. Very informative, will be sharing!

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 21 months ago from England

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

Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 21 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

Excellent article. This was really well written on a fascinating subject. Thanks

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    Author Nicole Canfield (kittythedreamer)1,887 Followers
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    When Kitty was a little girl she dreamed of being a museum curator or archaeologist. Now she studies and writes all about history.

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