Diet - Drink

Drinking water would be shipped aboard in enormous casks that were often permanent fittings of the ship. Water casks were filled at any spring or river and taken to the ship by boats to be emptied or pumped into the casks, the larger casks weighing well over a ton each. After a few weeks below decks, the water in casks would be tainted and in time would develop various degrees of insect and plant pond-life but when drawn from the cask and boiled during cooking was still useable. For drinking, seamen chose beer or ale rather than water. Small beer could be made for refreshment without inebriation by watering-down beer or ale ; this would also keep fresher longer than plain water. Pirates and many seamen considered ‘small beer’ fit for women and children only, and spoke of this brew only in derogatory terms. In the tropics or during very hot weather an allowance of (at least) four pints per day was given to seamen - but an allowance of a gallon per day was not uncommon - but this daily amount would be reduced by the captain if supplies of drinking water ran low.  Several ships were ‘lost through mutiny’ when the captain made an error in judgement or in navigation causing weeks of delay during which the drinking water aboard ship was used up and the crew became desperately frustrated ; a sailing ship becalmed in the tropics in 1710 saw the desperate crew resort to drinking sea-water and their own urine before the wind



The parlour of any English tavern of the period would be well stocked to cater for all tastes


returned bringing a shower of rain.  Another ship in similar circumstances saw the crew having no food left and reduced to a cup of stale water per day - even after reaching fresh supplies many of the crew did ‘not recover their senses, for numbers of them have turned Mad and Idiots…





Two glass bottles : a French wine bottle circa 1720 (left) and a Dutch bottle (right)  recovered from a shipwreck circa 1700


Pirates drank alcohol
‘only to excess’ both when ashore and at sea. Drinking large quantities of alcohol led to many other excesses and sickness and many pirates claimed before being hanged strong drink was the cause of their bad behaviour or had led to them becoming pirates in the first place. ‘Blackbeard’ noted that running short of alcohol on board would see a likely mutiny so kept his crews well-supplied with strong drink. ‘Calico Jack’ Rackam and his pirate crew were captured at anchor as they were too drunk to put up any opposition ; they were subsequently tried and hanged at Jamaica. Pirate crews ashore at their bases at New Providence, Madagascar or Port Royal (before the earthquake there in 1692) would see taverns crammed with drunken, reeling seamen spending all their plunder on alcohol and their women in showers of gold doubloons and silver pieces-of-eight coins.






Drinking vessels - the two pots (left) are Dutch but would common in all Caribbean taverns; a horn beaker for ale and cider and a pewter tankard (right) circa 1690



Pirates - like most other seamen and civilians in this historical period - drank a lot of alcohol on a daily basis whether at sea or not. Moslem countries did not brew or distil alcohol ; pirates sailing in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea paid high prices to any European trader in Madagascar, Calicut, Bombay or Madras shipping alcoholic drink : which was rare as there was no market for spirits in those countries. Mariners sailing off India and Madagascar in later years obtained
arrack, a potent spirit from fermented rice. Caribbean seamen enjoyed flavoured rum distilled from a brew of molasses or cane-sugar, the practice originating in Barbados in 1620 copied from the method of making Spanish aguardiente but this kind of Rhum was not the same tipple as you see in bars today. Rum could be used as a base for another very popular pirate drink, Punch ; rum and water with added lemon juice and sweetened with sugar.
  Rum would be used along with hot water and sugar to make punch or added to beer or ale, warm water and sugar to make Flip, served in metal cans fitted with a lid to keep the drink warm. Pirate ‘Flip’ developed into a drink we enjoy today, Egg-Nog or Rum Flip : take an egg and separate the yolk from the white ; mix sugar to the beaten yolk then add rum and milk - whip the egg-white and add to the yolk by ‘folding in’. Chill in a fridge before drinking. Another spiced and sweetened pirate drink based on rum was the famous Bumboe or Bombo, an old medieval recipe similar to mead, modified by substituting rum for ale and distilled or fermented cane liquor for the honey, and adding nutmeg. ‘Grog’ is rum diluted with water to reduce the mixture’s sugary and sticky consistency ; the term comes from a practice introduced in 1745 by Admiral Vernon, an officer serving in the Royal Navy. Vernon wore a Grogram cloak at sea (a tough material made from silk, mohair and wool). Period Rum would keep indefinitely - if stored correctly - but rum mixed with water has a limited life. Gin was shipped from England and Holland but though extremely cheap was thought to be equally ‘unwholesome’. Brandy was both a very popular drink and considered a medicine ; in the Caribbean a local brandy came from Pisco in Chile - and the drinking of this much sought-after brew is said to be the reason why pirates Dampier and Davis and their crew sailing in the Pacific could not come alongside a prize off the coast of Peru despite twenty attempts to do so, eventually giving up and sailing away to sober up. Port wine was rare but welcome and light Spanish wines were refreshing and very popular, along with fortified wines from Madiera and Sack (sherry) from Portugal or Spain or from the vineyards owned by these countries along the coasts of Chile and Peru.





Vessels containing liquid came in all shapes and sizes. A small keg, a leather 'Jack' bottle and a leather gourd could all be used by pirates on 'shore raids'.


An extreme form of pirate drink was
Kill-Devil ; made by mixing rum, gin, beer or ale with spices and a final piratical touch in the form of
  ‘a pinch of gunpowder’. Take it from me, the mixture tastes pretty awful and in drinking toasts using it this particular brew might have been some sort of macho-test so when ashore stick to the other popular pirate drink, Flip.





A coffee-pot circa 1700 - though tea was said to be the favoured drink of Pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts.


Any adventurous pirate with the wherewithal may like to try brewing ‘Rumfustian’ : this concoction involves fresh eggs mixed with treacle or molasses (an alternative here is to use neat rum), beer, gin and sherry (or Madeira wine). Mix to a cream in a bowl then pour the result into an iron pot or a ‘tinned’ copper set over a fire : as the mixture warms up, add ground cinnamon and a pinch or two of nutmeg to spice the taste and mix in Demerara or brown sugar a tablespoonful at a time until the mixture is judged ‘sweet’. Don’t let this mixture get anywhere near boiling-point and if possible keep it below a temperature of 80 degrees (if it bubbles’ or steam comes off it’s too hot so remove the pan from the fire and add a teacupful of cold beer). This makes a good ‘adult bedtime drink’ in a cool environment - if a little sickly-sweet for most - and best drunk from small pottery vessels ; but don’t confuse Rumfustian with Runbullion as the latter is a pirate spirit distilled from a week-old fermented brew of a mixture of the crushed pulp of over-ripe tropical fruits mixed with water and an added measure of Vitriol!

Until around 1740, beer and ale were the usual breakfast drinks ashore. Tea and coffee were known by pirates, but along with cocoa and chocolate were seen as valuable trading commodities and weren’t taken by them as drinks very often. Bartholomew Roberts was a notorious pirate but the most outstanding aspect of this highly-successful pirate in an era of widespread alcoholism during a long period of raids, rapine and robbery was his almost total abstention from alcohol ; instead, both ashore and aboard ship he drank a lot of tea, a fact so unusual it has been remarked upon by every pirate chronicler since Roberts’ death in 1722.

All text & photos © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore