PIRATE  LIFE  : 1690 – 1713

“Such a vile crew of miscreants to whom it was a sport to do mischief, where prodigious drinking, monstrous cursing and swearing, hideous blasphemies and open defiance of heaven and contempt of hell itself was their constant employment unless when sleep sometimes abated the noise and revelling ...”

A statement made by a captured merchant ship captain held prisoner for a time by a pirate crew

Aboard a ship, there would be times when cruising when a lot of the crew were ‘off-watch’ and at ease to indulge themselves. There is no average or norm here - Blackbeard is noted as keeping his crews drunk for most of the time, yet Bartholomew Roberts is traditionally held to have ‘run a tight ship’. Most pirates seem to have smoked and drunk themselves into oblivion at regular intervals - or at the very least, enjoyed the liberty and freedom of being able to do so - and rarely put pen to paper but a few of their predecessors operating as ‘buccaneers’ had time to make observations and make notes in their journals which are now invaluable in trying to find out where they lived, where they went and what these sort of men did when not at sea taking prizes or were actively engaged in shore raids. It is to these we owe most of our knowledge of the early operational arrangements of buccaneers at places such as Campeche (Honduras) or on the island of Tortuga (off Haiti). Later, as their operational world began to shrink through increased naval activity and the tightening-up of civil administration, pirates did not enjoy many such ‘safe havens’ and resorted to using lonely islands, bays or coastal inlets as bases to refit and sell their stolen goods.

The author on ‘anchor watch’ at dusk. Re-fitting a pirate ship required a good deal of new ironwork, cordage, timber and canvas and took many hours in a ‘safe’ anchorage…

Traders dropping anchor at Campeche in the latter half of the 17th Century made sure they provided enough punch or rum for the illegal logwood-cutters there to get falling-down drunk ; after that, the cutters would buy their own drinks from them and also offer their produce at a reasonable price - but any traders failing to adhere to this traditional arrangement would be offered inferior goods at highly inflated prices.  Cheap Gin in the first half of the 18th Century caused a large number of the working population of lower-class Londoners to descend into a slow spiral of degeneration, disease and death, described by some far-sighted individuals at the time as a threat to the national livelihood (as late as 1765 in London, major riots still ensued after even respectable tradesmen had gathered at an inn to discuss matters of business over a dinner but then over-indulged in drink).  In an age where over-indulgence in alcohol was the general norm rather the exception, any port would see a variety of entertainment for the delectation of ‘sailors on shore leave’ who as a rule were notorious in what they did in returning to port after a voyage of often several months at sea. These harbour and port areas would be a complete ‘no-go’ for anyone deeming themselves ‘respectable’. New York had a ‘bad’ reputation between 1702 and 1713 when a host of privateers used the port as a base for raids on French and Spanish commercial shipping which brought in tremendous sums of money through returning with a good proportion of the two thousand different ‘prizes’ said to have been taken by colonial and British privateers in this period - but even respectable ports such as straight-laced Boston in New England had harbour areas where most people would not go. In 1699 one Boston seaman accused of keeping company with pirates won 1,300 ‘pieces of eight’ in a tavern there on a single dice-throw - even allowing for exaggeration, a ‘piece of eight’ was worth about five shillings sterling so this was a very large sum of money : the tavern in question was located in a general area described by a Boston Puritanical preacher (probably in exaggerated terms) as ‘Hell on Earth’.


On the Caribbean island of Jamaica, the small town built on a narrow southern peninsula was first known as Cagway but later as Port Royal - before it was destroyed by an earthquake and sank into the sea in June 1692 - was described as ‘the richest and wickedest place in the world’ in having more gambling dens, taverns, alehouses, ‘drinking-kens’ and brothels than any other port in the world all crammed into the square quarter-mile area of a small, flat triangle of land between the ‘Neck’ and the palisades of Fort Rupert in the east, northwest to Fort James then southwest to Fort Charles or ‘The Chocolate Hole’.


A clergyman arrived in Port Royal, Jamaica in 1661 after a long voyage from New England but left shortly afterwards on the same ship leaving behind him an explanatory note stating “Since the majority of the population here consists of pirates, cut-throats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole world, I felt my permanence there was of no use.”  Having a long heritage of receiving privateer and pirate plunder and well-known as the base and home of the ‘King of the Buccaneers’ - Sir Henry Morgan - this sink of debauchery was awash with cheap rum, wine and brandy (tea, coffee, ale and beer were in short supply as neither Port Royal or Kingston had a source of fresh drinking water and this commodity had to be fetched by road using slaves from a point many miles away). Though said to be administrated from ‘respectable’ Kingston on the other side of the natural harbour - said to be able to hold 500 ships - Port Royal had no real law and order (especially after dark) except the fist, cudgel, knife, cutlass and pistol. Prostitutes arriving from England are reputed to have made large fortunes in such places after just a few weeks - one pirate offered 500 ‘pieces of eight’ to one such strumpet if able to see her totally naked - this was deemed unusual at the time as the sexual act at that time was rarely performed by a couple being totally unclothed ; and you should note that the 18th Century ‘sex industry’ if we can call it that was far different in reference and even casual regard or mention to what it later became in a hundred-year process of gradual denial and repression towards the Victorian Era - and even compared to today’s so-called ‘permissive society’ - which eventually forced it ‘underground’. In the 18th Century it was the criminal element and sexually-transmitted diseases that prostitution encompassed that caused most concern and complaint.

The earthquake in 1692 saw the entire north-east portion of Port Royal  around Fort James sink into the sea (including the churchyard holding the grave of Sir Henry Morgan ) and most of the remaining buildings collapsed - in the centre of the peninsula, hundreds of people fell into open cracks and gaping fissures which swallowed up entire buildings. The destruction of Port Royal was widely advertised in civilised circles in New England and Britain as ‘divine retribution’ and compared to what happened to ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ in The Old Testament ; the port and town never recovered from this biblical-scale natural disaster - some of the survivors moved across the harbour to Kingston in an attempt to settle there but as the importance of Kingston then ascended meteorically, the ‘respectable’ residents there opposed any new occupation by any survivors from Port Royal. Though there was an attempt to re-establish and rebuild Port Royal in a ‘respectable’ fashion, the tremendous hurricane that arrived there in August 1723 was the most powerful ever recorded and along with sinking forty-four of the fifty ships in the harbour at the time and enormous waves swept the peninsula clear of buildings (and about four hundred people) once again.

Within a few years, a small pirate establishment in the Bahamas on New Providence Island using the natural harbour of Nassau was established. Named through a Dutch association with William III in 1695, the British settlement at Nassau had been destroyed and burned by the Spanish soon after it was established. The anchorage there had the advantage of having two entrances and the channel so shallow that ships over 200 tons could not enter it - this was a great disadvantage to warships but not a problem for pirates who mainly used smaller vessels such as sloops and brigantines. The post-war boom from 1713 (the recent war ended in that year but the war would shortly resume in 1715) as privateers-turned-pirate sought a shore-base turned a small hotch-potch beach settlement into a busy, thriving shanty town comprising hundreds of tents and shacks built from reclaimed old ships’ timbers. A report from a spy in 1714 stated that 2500 pirates were living on the island : by attracting a horde of ne’er-do-wells of all nations (and of course, all their associated hangers-on) the place turned into a riot of pirate anarchy where ‘the weak went to the wall and only the strongest would survive’ - but in comparison, a popular proverb from this era states that ‘… when a pirate thought of Heaven, he dreamed of New Providence’.


Clever merchants - or their representatives - dealing with this sort of anarchy in a ‘professional’ form in order to acquire stolen plunder would often ply their opposite numbers with plentiful drink in order to reduce the threat of unpredictable violence and render most of their ‘business partners’ more pliable - and far more amenable. Period accounts are not uncommon - in generalisation - of pirates reaching a favourable port or harbour, the crews then over a few days or weeks blowing their loot on wine and women in the local bars, inns and taverns whilst in the background their Quartermaster or Captain privately negotiated the sale or barter of captured trade goods after a bribe to a corrupt colonial governor and any merchants willing to run the risk of handling ‘stolen property’. When there was no money left, the crew would stagger back aboard their ship and set sail again in search of plunder … the wiser or wealthier members of the crew would already have disappeared, heading towards a faraway corner where they weren’t well-known in the Colonies or back to Britain and could use their loot to buy a farm or set themselves up in honest trade.

The main pirate anchorage at New Providence was within the area circled

Much later, towards the end of The Golden Age of Pirates, a similar pirate set-up to New Providence Island sprang up again on the island of Madagascar and later created the stories of ‘Libertalia’ : a fabled ‘democratic utopia’ organised and run by pirates for the sole benefit of pirates and an eternal round of idleness, drink, fun and women … but the place as such probably never existed and like Shangri-la and El Dorado, falls into the same category of  ‘wishful thinking’

Pirate ‘Articles’ were a deliberate contradiction to the Christian Decalogue or the ‘Ten Commandments’ in stating what ‘thou shall and shall not do’ : but they were based on the simple ‘contract of employment’ signed by crew going aboard a privateer or a merchant vessel (though a crew signed on, conduct aboard a warship was governed by the ‘Articles of War’). Though never written in a standard form, pirate ‘articles’ make the stipulation that women were not allowed on board a pirate ship (there were exceptions to this rule for the crew aboard a Navy warship). A typical pirate article in this respect is : “No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them - if any man found seducing any of the latter sex and carry her to sea disguised he is to suffer Death.”  Beyond speculation concerning the former category, the reasoning behind the latter is obvious - a wild gang of mostly young male cut-throats aboard a ship far from any constituted authority and under no obligation to anyone but themselves with access to unlimited alcohol when suddenly mixed with a few females is a situation explosive enough to be compared with gunpowder suddenly exposed to a naked flame!  In a few exotic locations described or noted in ‘pirate’ memoirs, females were compliant enough ashore as to mean that pirate crews spent months enjoying their favours - but such long-term indulgence and idleness would see their ships slowly rotting in the anchorage and destroy the efficiency of any crew, pirate or otherwise. Any Captain denying his crew ‘shore leave’ to his crew in such a location would be asking for trouble but even in giving it, he could still be headed for future difficulties : a warm climate, blue seas, beautiful terrain, plentiful food … but above all, beautiful and willing women. Otaheite (Tahiti) is traditionally held to have been the main cause of the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty in the last quarter of the 18th Century and in the previous decade, Captain James Cook had been killed by natives during a local ‘misunderstanding’ but well before the 18th Century even Christopher Columbus had problems with crew desertion and mutiny in him returning to the ‘New World’ after 1492.

Pirates with captured trade goods or plenty of money in their pockets would be an irresistible magnet for all forms of female enticement and entrapment in spots where just a single iron nail could ‘purchase’ the favours of a local native woman. In the Persian Gulf or in the Indian Ocean, Moslem traders or pilgrim ships on their way to Mecca taken by English pirates in the late 17th and early 18th Century where women passengers were found aboard sparked off such a storm of disgust and outrage when the treatment of such women by the pirates was later fully discovered that it caused a tidal wave of complaint of enormous proportions : when full compensation and ‘damages’ were demanded, the subject was brought up before the King and debated by his Ministers and Honourable Members in The House of Commons and twice caused a suspension or seriously disrupted the entire Indian trade to a tremendous degree costing millions of pounds to be lost to the English East India Company, with their overseas on-site employees seized and thrown into prison by an angry Mogul, rajah or sultan and all their personal and company property in the ‘factories’ confiscated in a retaliation for the pirates habitually throwing overboard any cargo aboard a prize that they did not intend to steal. There is little doubt that upon hearing about any of these upsets, the pirates concerned who had caused it and were still at liberty and still had money in their pockets probably laughed out loud and drank a toast to themselves … though inter-action and trading with indigenous populations was certainly not unknown, many villagers in the Caribbean and in The Far East quickly learned to flee inland, grabbing their few possessions and dragging their livestock with them upon sighting any European ship offshore due to the outrages committed on them by pirates and slavers.

References to ‘play’ you will find in many 18th Century memoirs but this rather harmless-sounding term has nothing to do with children’s activities and was used at the time to describe gambling : either at cards, dice or ‘wagering’. In one instance when a man fell down in the street in London during this period, several young men were seen instantly to set large wagers on whether the man was alive or dead and then waiting to see the result (nobody could go and look or help the man as doing so would have compromised the bets). At this time in London, enormous sums of money - whole fortunes and entire estates - were being won and lost by people playing cards or throwing dice. That gambling is a terrible addiction is no longer doubted today, but back then it was simply a ‘matter of honour’ - but in the 18th Century ‘honour’ and a man’s word meant far more than today’s measure of personal honesty. A hungry Earl of Sandwich is said to have placed a slab of meat between two slices of bread and ate it with his fingers at the card-table where he had been for several hours so he didn’t have to leave it and stop playing to eat his dinner : hence inventing the modern term for a snack or substitute for a sit-down meal, the ‘sandwich’.  A typical pirate article in this respect is : “No person to game at cards or dice for money”. Gambling aboard a pirate ship was actually forbidden in the ‘Articles’ aboard some ships as it was known - probably from rumour but possibly actual experience - to be a potential powder-keg of big trouble after taking a prize as the crew gambled their shares away at dice : but it is recorded as happening. Pirate crews could be agreeable and accept their losses but could also be easily swayed by a good orator - despite the agreed ‘Articles’ the line between democratic anarchy and sudden bloodshed aboard a pirate ship would be very thin. Duelling amongst aristocrats was well-known but as laid down in ‘articles’, disgruntled pirates would leave the ship and settle any dispute ashore with knives, swords or pistols : for one or two big winners to remain aboard a ship in such circumstances and surrounded by a very unhappy set of losers could quickly explode into a knife-fight (or worse) of large proportions and the Captain and the Quartermaster would be hard put to sort this out if it came to threats or blows exchanged … but on the whole, from existing accounts this seems to have been managed to general satisfaction even aboard mutinous privateers-turned-pirate such as Captain Kidd’s crew - though in trying to remain a privateer against the majority vote of his crew, Kidd eventually paid for their mutiny with his own life - and some pirate crews (such as the crews sailing with Blackbeard) split up or ‘disbanded’ and the cruise ended as a result. It should perhaps be noted here that the ‘articles’ agreed would only govern the conduct of a pirate crew aboard ship : when ashore, a pirate could seemingly do whatever he liked.

Early to mid-18th Century sports and leisure pastimes usually involved both alcohol and cruelty to animals, or both - so much so that a modern reader is sometimes horrified by reading period accounts of a crowd reading advertisements for ‘sport’ and gathering to see chickens being stoned to death, cats torn to pieces by dogs and chained-up bulls covered in fireworks which were then set alight).  Pirates having captured a prize at sea employed various degrees of torture to exact information from the prizes’ captain, master or crew about any potential or hidden loot - and there’s no doubt the more desperate villains amongst the pirate crew looked upon this as ‘sport’. Spanish documents - even allowing for some exaggeration - describe such excruciating tortures in almost graphic detail ; pirates sailing under the ‘red flag’ did not excuse themselves from this cruelty but merely pointed to the tortures legally exacted by the Spanish Inquisition against any Protestant heretics (and in some ‘buccaneering’ cases, pirates possibly even learned from the Spanish and simply copied).  Alexander Exquemelin in his book The History of the Buccaneers of America describes in detail some of the ruthless tortures exacted by buccaneers on their victims in seeking plunder in their raids on Spanish ports and towns ; Sir Henry Morgan denied he ever had anything to do with such cruelty but in the same period in a London prison, if a man or woman refused to plead when on trial in court they would then be taken out to a ‘Press Yard’ where they would be chained to the ground and heavy weights piled on their chests until they did plead - many died under this literal legal pressure. Slicing open a chest with a sword to remove a prisoner’s heart - as was recorded in one instance performed by a particularly nasty 17th Century buccaneer and some accounts then have him taking a bite out of it - might be compared to the time taken by pirates to exact a particularly exquisite form of inhuman punishment aboard a captured ship in the shape of cutting off both lips from a prisoner and boiling them before him whilst sewing the man’s wound together with stitches shows a terrible refinement in cruelty and an overall indifference to human suffering even in an age where it was not uncommon in London to see the public execution of a child under sixteen years of age hanged by the neck until dead for being found guilty at court of a petty theft costing a few shillings. Because of their ‘democratic liberty’ and their ‘free and easy life’ - and their alleged excesses - there was little sympathy to be seen at any court from a judge in dealing with members of a captured pirate crew on trial for their lives … most of the ‘short but merry lives’  of captured pirates would come to an end on the gallows.

Continued in - PIRATE  LIFE  : 1713 – 1724


All images supplied by & all text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore.


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