The Life of a Pirate: What They Ate, What They Did for Fun, and More!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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 Kitty Fields