Diet - Tobacco

Tobacco was the usual 17th and 18th Century accompaniment to eating and drinking and could be taken by pirates in several forms : Snuff - ground and powdered tobacco flavoured with herbs or dried fruit and sniffed straight up the nose ; using tobacco leaves rolled into Spanish cigarillos - long thin cigars ; and of course shredded tobacco leaf smoked in clay pipes. Having tobacco but possessing no pipe saw seamen roll the shredded tobacco leaf in a scrap of paper in order to ‘draw the smoak’ through the paper tube - this emergency-practice later evolved into the first cigarettes. Tobacco was also chewed aboard ship to alleviate hunger-pangs and because many sailing ships had stern regulations about non-smoking on board when on duty. Pirates - though not in any way regulated by a captain as common seamen were - made themselves subject to some of these rules such as not smoking below decks ; any pirate found smoking an uncovered or un-lidded pipe below decks - or carrying an un-fastened candle-lantern there - would be subject to punishment as the danger of any uncontrolled fire aboard a ship at sea manned solely by habitual drunkards was an obvious hazard.





A selection of clay pipes ... as tobacco became cheaper, pipe bowls became larger!


Many of the harmful toxic effects on the human body we hear about today caused by eating unhealthy or bad food, drinking regular large quantities or alcohol and ‘smoaking to excess’ - including habitual drug abuse - were not experienced by pirates simply because they didn’t live long enough for the symptoms of a multiple combination of excesses to develop. Pirates died young - for various reasons - before symptoms could manifest. Venereal and sexually-transmitted diseases were a common health problem amongst pirates and there were some quack treatments and folk remedies, but the usual treatment for this ailment involved applications of ‘salts of mercury’. Blackbeard’s ships once raided the town of Charleston in South Carolina simply in order to get hold of some medicines to treat widespread sickness amongst the crews and any doctor or chirurgeon discovered aboard a prize was very likely to be pressed or forced into service.




Snuff boxes - made of wood for seamen and brass, pewter and silver for 'gentlemen'. Snuff is useful for a tobacco-addict where a naked light is forbidden - such as in the ships' Gunpowder Magazine - or similarly where a pipe can't be smoked. Nipping a coin betrween the fingers to make a dent inthe flesh before taking a pinch of snuff from a proffered box is where the term 'penny-pinching' originated.

highly sought-after trade goods to colonial traders ashore without the necessary legal payment of harbour dues or excise duty - usually with the connivance of the local Governor and his assistants - meant that pirates could and did obtain anything they wanted in return particularly in the form of spare parts, food, drink and weapons to enable them to carry out or increase the extent of their predatory cruises. Pirate ships returning to the Caribbean from the Guinea Coast or Indian Ocean found a waiting and eager market for their plunder of silks, spices or even tea enabling a share-out amongst the pirate crew possible once these commodities had been sold for cash. New England merchants and traders employed agents in places such as New Providence Island to wait for the arrival of pirate vessels and buy their plunder for ready cash ; massive profits on both sides could be had through such arrangements. Pirates often went one step further and ‘cut out the middle man’ by landing their plunder ashore at several coastal towns in South Carolina, Virginia or New England to sell direct to traders and merchants and in some cases direct to the public. Pirate captains and their quartermasters were all very experienced smugglers ; the passing by the British Government of The Navigation Acts in 1696 heralded the beginning of a ‘Golden Age’ of smuggling and piracy in the Caribbean and along the east coast of North America - with the death of ‘Black Bart’ Roberts in 1722 and the growing pirate suppression and law enforcement at sea by the Royal Navy the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ fast faded yearly from gold to silver, then  to bronze and iron and within a decade pirates had all but disappeared from the sea and the courtroom. The Admiralty Courts in the Colonies were hence abolished - but at Admiralty Dock in London and Wapping Old Stairs the gallows still stood, patiently waiting for any ‘Gentlemen of Fortune’.

All text & photos © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore