The first episode of Black Sails season 1 opened with pirates attacking a merchant ship, and some of the first words we heard from the pirates were about the terrible things the merchant captains do to the sailors. As a historian, this resonated strongly with me. I wanted the audience to be shown the horrors that life at sea could become. Obviously, a TV show can’t do this. It distracts from the story at hand, and would introduce confusing, one-shot characters. But it’s a story that needs to be told if viewers want to understand pirates.
It’s easy for people in today’s world to say “Be a pirate!” with some enthusiasm. But in the early 1700s, piracy was a serious matter. Pirates were criminals, despised by society while free, and hanged if they were caught. Pirates were also cut off utterly from families they had left behind. Their options were limited and their lives were almost guaranteed to be short.
What made a man become a pirate?
The eighteenth century was a time almost beyond understanding for modern folk. For one thing, “going out and getting a job” was a new idea. For hundreds of years, people had been born into jobs as farmers or craftsmen. But, starting in the 1600s, capitalism and the rise of “modern” farming methods reduced hundreds of thousands of English farmers to a state of near-starvation. For the first time, many young men fled the lands their family had cared for and went to cities looking for opportunity.
Very often, opportunity meant going to sea. Merchant ships, engaged in long range trading with Africa and the West Indies –the Caribbean – needed sailors. This was work, not for a share of the profits, but for wages. And it created a system of unbelievable brutality.
Ship owners were propertied men, and ship’s captains had been through an apprentice system that taught them valuable skills – reading, writing, knowledge of how to engage in trade and navigate a ship. Sailors, always on the move, owned little. Many of them had spent time in jail. They were seen as the lowest of the low by those who employed them, and were treated accordingly.
A merchant ship captain was often paid based on the profitability of his voyage, and crew were an expense. It was therefore in the captain’s best interest to crew his ship as lightly as possible, and work the men as hard as he could. And since food, water, and liquor were included in the crew’s wage, keeping costs for these items low was just good business.
As anyone who has ever bought the very cheapest items marked “hot dogs” in a discount grocery can tell you, cheap food is usually not good food. And in the 18th century, there were no safe food regulations at all. A merchant ship’s crew might find themselves fed only rotten vegetables, meat crawling with maggots, biscuits covered with mold, cheese that hosted long worms. It did no good to complain. Once at sea there was nothing else to eat.
The captain, who paid for his own food out of a separate fund, had properly preserved food, good cheese, fine liquor. Sometimes, upon arriving in port, a crew would try to take a captain to court over such mistreatment. But the captain (a gentleman) would tell the judge that the food had seemed fine to him, and the judge (also a gentleman) would agree, and that would be the end of it.
At sea, a captain’s power was virtually unlimited and often personal. Captains felt a need to keep their crews in a state of fear. Captain Francis Rogers of The Crown told several of his crew that he would “Skin them alive.” When John Hamilton, whose arm had been maimed by his captain early in the voyage, did not do a full day’s work, Master Abraham Harris threatened to, “Break your other arm.” Captain Samuel Hays told one of his crew in 1725 that he would “Stab him and eat a piece of his liver.”
Nor were these threats idle. Merchant captains employed the cat o’ nine tails, a vicious whip of nine strands. They also used horse whips, canes, ropes, clubs, and whatever came to hand. One seaman was beaten with a “dry’d Elephant’s pizel.”
Captains were only legally allowed to administer “moderate punishment” according to law. But this seems to have stopped nothing. James Conroy testified in 1707 that his captain, a man named Wherry, “catched him fast by the Nose with his left hand & thrust his thumb into his left Eye & with his right hand struck three Blows on his said Thumb & in that manner willfully, designedly & maliciously maimed and put out his eye.”
When one sailor, Richard Baker of the Europa, became sick from the bad food, he was still ordered to his regular duties. Too ill to comply, he was ordered to take the helm for four hours “Which is two men’s turns.” His commander, James Blyth, then whipped him with a knotted rope, and when that did not make him stronger, he was tied dangling from the mizzen mast for an hour and a half. Cut down at last, he died four days later.
Was it murder? A modern mind says yes. But it wasn’t nearly so obvious in the 18th century.
Merchant captains had a monetary reason to want sick, weak, or incapacitated crewmen to die, because if they did, they did not have to be paid. Some may also have taken steps to see that a man died from the normal hazards of the ship, rather than from a blow. Master Robert Hartley beat a man severely, then sent him up the mast to grease the halyards. When the man fell into the sea, Hartley refused to let anyone rescue him.
Hundreds of these cases can be read in historical records. These were the cases that the sailors took to court, a task made more difficult because in the 18th century, court costs had to be paid by the person bringing the accusation. Sailors needed to band together to bring such a case before a judge, as the fees involved could eat all of a man’s wages from a voyage.
Every time something like this happened, the survivors spread the story to every ship they served on, leaving behind a folklore of tyranny. Even when sailors managed to pay for a court case, captains were rarely convicted. The officers of a ship tended to stick together, many other witnesses would be scattered or dead, and the crime would have been committed months or years before. The word of a “gentleman” captain would be taken over that of a “low class” sailor.
Of course, these incidents were unusual, which is why they ended up in court. Most captains confined themselves to whippings, which were common enough that having scars from the “cat” was considered the mark of a true sailor.
And these were the “good guys.”
Coming from a place like this, it’s easy to see why sailors would be angry. Sometimes they staged work stoppages, or confronted captains, usually as a group. One ship faced mutiny when the sailors realized that it was too old and leaky to successfully make the trip across the Atlantic. The crew took over the ship and forced it back to Charleston Harbor, then fled. The captain tried to gather a new crew. These men did the exactly the same thing.
When an attack by pirates coincided with a mis-used and unhappy crew, the results were usually bad for the merchant captain. Several pirates, including Charles Vane, thought it their duty to obtain justice for sailors. It was not uncommon for a pirate crew to set up a formal court on the deck of a captured ship and try the merchant captain for his crimes. The pirate captain sat as judge. A list of charges was read out, sailors testified, and punishment was administered in the form of beatings, whippings, hanging or simply turning an enraged crew loose on their officers.
As we see in Black Sails, many pirate attacks ended in an effort to recruit the merchant crew, but unlike the TV show, no recruits were turned away. Any man who joined a pirate ship was an asset in the form of another hand to wave a cutlass, frightening the next ship into a quick surrender.
It was a rare captured ship that didn’t offer up at least one crew member ready to “go on the account” and sometimes whole crews turned pirate in one fell swoop. When this happened, the merchant vessel became a pirate ship. The merchant captain and whatever officers remained loyal to him were put off in a small boat. The pirates supplied necessities, such as a navigator. The new pirates were free to elect a new captain, and usually followed the pirates who had attacked them, at least until they had learned the skills of pirating.
Often at this time, the ship would be re-named. And now you know why the most popular name for a pirate ship was Revenge.
This article originally ran in January of 2014. It has been updated slightly.