Pirate life

“A pirate’s life is the best there is,” Carlo tells Lily in Ocean Without End.

But was it really? Pirates, like all sailors, had to work hard in sometimes harsh conditions, and spent a lot of time hanging about waiting for something exciting to happen.

  • What did pirates eat?
  • What did they sound like?
  • What did they wear?
  • The Code: rules or guidelines?
  • Did they bury treasure?
  • Walk the plank and buckle your swash

Pirate food

Sailors and pirates in the 18th century often ate horrible food. All the crew’s food for the entire voyage had to be packed into the hold and storerooms, and of course there was no refrigeration. Vegetables and meat were pickled or salted, and didn’t taste very nice at all. Cooks had to use lots of spices to hide the taste of each rotten meal. Even flour and sugar would spoil if water got into the hold during a storm. Poultry and livestock were kept in cages on deck so that there were eggs, and cattle or goats to milk or eat. Sometimes the crew caught fish or sea turtles, or even birds.

But after a few weeks at sea, there was usually no fresh food left. No fresh water either – sailors drank ale (although most people didn’t drink fresh water in those days anyway). Ships on long voyages relied on biscuit, dried beans and salted beef. Without proper food, many sailors got sick and died of scurvy.

In the Mediterranean Sea, where ships were never far from a pirate haven, the crew would land as often as possible to stock up on food – and to eat and drink as much as they could while they had the chance.

Cookie, Lily’s friend on Gisella, tries his best to make proper meals out of the contents of his cook’s storeroom, but it gets harder and harder the longer they are at sea. He bakes bread, cooks up great pots of stew, and complains a great deal.

The ship’s galley, or kitchen, was usually not much more than a fireplace with a few cauldrons and maybe a spit to roast meat. A cook had to be very clever, and very resourceful, to create decent meals for the crew in such difficult circumstances – but if he didn’t, he might live to regret it.

Tough talk

Did pirates really say, “Ahoy me hearties”? Did the scurvy dogs really shout “shiver me timbers” or “blow me down”?

Apparently not. Sorry to have to tell you that.

Some familiar words are real: words like “avast”, “belay”, “swabs” and “lubbers” were used in the British Navy; other words like “wench” were in common use in the Middle Ages but had died out by about 1700.

But most of the phrases we associate with pirates were made up by novelists like Robert Louis Stevenson or Rafael Sabatini, or movie scriptwriters. But there’s a good reason for this – pirates swore so much, and so dreadfully, that there’s no way you could actually put their words into a book or a movie. So the writers made up a few funny phrases and pretend swear-words so that the pirate characters sound as if they’re saying horrible things, even though they aren’t.

When I was writing the Swashbuckler books, I had to do the same thing, but I wanted the swearing to be a bit different from all the usual scurvy dogs. I even made up a word: “Well, I’ll be dumblustered.” Don’t ask me what it means! I wanted to write “Well, I’ll be hornswoggled,” which is one of my favourite words, but when I looked it up I found sailors didn’t use that word until about 1860.

The pirates in Swashbuckler do swear properly, but not as much as they would have in real life – but you can’t have a pirate book with no swearing.

Pirate fashion

If any pirates really had got around in skull-and-crossbones headscarves, their mates would have thought them very fancy. Pirates, like all sailors, wore the most comfortable and hardwearing clothes they could find. Most had only one set of clothes that they wore every day and rarely washed.

Every sailor or pirate went barefoot, partly because shoes were very expensive, but also because bare feet gripped onto the slippery deck and bare toes twisted around ropes while the sailors were aloft.

Trousers were usually baggy, cut just below the knee, and made of heavy wool or canvas. If you needed a belt, you made one from rope. A loose linen or light cotton blouse or shirt was pulled over the top, and not tucked in except on trips to town. The lucky ones had a canvas jacket or coat they could wear in cold weather, and some wore knitted caps.

Women pirates wore the same sorts of clothes as the men.

Most men wore beards simply because they didn’t have the time to shave and couldn’t be bothered, and they tied their long hair out of the way with thread, twine or perhaps wrapped a length of material around their heads, so their hair didn’t get caught in the lines or tackle.

And yes, they smelled really bad.

The Pirate Code

Every ship had Articles or an agreement between captain, ship owners, and all officers and crew about how to behave, the rates of pay, and punishment for any crimes. Even Navy ships operated under Articles, and still do, especially in times of war. The Articles were a list of rules that every person on board had to respect – or there would be trouble.

Pirate ships were no different. Corsairs and privateers had Articles that included payment to their government and the ship’s owners. Pirate crews kept everything for themselves.

Each ship’s crew agreed on a set of rules to make sure their voyage was successful. Most importantly, the rules set out the share of booty or plunder that each crew member would receive if they carried out a successful attack, or for his or her family if a pirate was killed in battle. It included compensation to people who were wounded in a fight – you might get an extra bag of silver if you lost your right arm, for example (in the movie Captain Blood, one of the pirates reckons that could be a good way to get rich!).

The worst crime a pirate could commit was to cheat on his mates. If anyone stole from the crew or wimped out in a fight, he faced the worst possible fate: marooning, or The Pirate’s Revenge.

There was no formal Pirate Code – every ship made its own arrangements. So you see Captain Barbossa was right when he explained to Elizabeth, in Pirates of the Caribbean, that the Code was “more what you might call guidelines.”

Buried treasure

A successful pirate could make a lot of money. In 1587, Francis Drake aboard the Golden Hind took the treasure ship Cacafuego off the coast of Ecuador. It was worth £126,000 in gold and silver alone, plus profits from selling the ship and its other contents. Eight years later, he took the San Felipe off the Azores and raked in another £114,000. He was rich beyond imagining, and so was his Queen, Elizabeth, who had secretly backed the venture. Drake spent his money, rather than burying it. He lived like a king – or maybe a duke.

But most pirates were lucky just to make a living. They spent their money as fast as they made it, and weren’t very good at planning for retirement. As far as we know, nobody bothered to bury chests full of treasure, but that hasn’t stopped people looking for it ever since.

Still, the legends of buried pirate treasure abound. One of the most famous is that of William Kidd, who sailed in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and met his end on the gallows at Wapping. Kidd’s fabulous fortune is supposed to be buried … somewhere. Who knows?



Walk the plank and buckle your swash

Walking the plank is supposed to be the worst punishment meted out to victims of pirates. But, in fact, pirates could do a lot worse things to their captives that would make them wish they could take their chances with the sharks. There’s no record of anybody ever being made to walk the plank – but it makes for terrific drama in movies like Peter Pan.

A “swashbuckler” was originally any old bully who made a lot of noise and threw his weight (and his sword) around. But last century it came to mean a fictional pirate who was particularly good at swordplay, at outwitting his (or her) opponents, and maybe showing off just a little bit.

A swashbuckling novel or movie always has dramatic sword duels, not like real pirates, and feats of great derring-do.

If you really tried to buckle your swash, you’d be slashing at a shield (or buckle).

Here’s a list of great books of pirate facts:

* Eye Wonder: Pirate (Dorling Kindersley)
* The Pirates, Douglas Botting (Time Life Books)
* The Dictionary of Pirates, Jan Rogozinski (Wordsworth)


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