Whores, Doxies, Three-penny-uprights, Cracks, Harlots, Fire ships. Whether in Black Sails or a history book, everyone knows who pirates spend time with. Prostitutes. The pirate and the pirate’s wench are inseparable. Who were these women that claimed the attention of men who terrorized the world?
It’s been estimated that thirty percent of women in the 18th century worked as prostitutes at some time in their lives. In a world where women were not allowed jobs, property or control over their own existence, prostitution offered the only path to independence that many women had.
In the 18th century, a married woman was literally a part of her husband, in the same way that his foot or his hand was part of him. She could not sign a contract, own property, or engage in commerce without his consent and cooperation. All of a wife’s property was her husband’s property, but the husband’s property remained solely his own.
Furthermore, a wife could be turned out of the house by a husband who caught her cheating. Probably the most famous case of this was Grace Dalrymple Elliott, who was divorced by her husband after an affair, and forced to become a courtesan when her parents refused to take her back in. “Daly the Tall” slept her way through the English aristocracy, then went to France, became mistress to the Duke d’Orleans, and barely escaped being hanged in the French Revolution.
Far more common was the poor serving girl who ran away for a life of leisure and apparent glamour. In 1715, a housemaid earned only £5 a year (about $300 in today’s money). If she was under 16 (many were) she would not be paid at all, only given a place to sleep and some food. And probably not much food at that. Thousands of these girls drifted in and out of prostitution, whoring for a while, then drifting into work as a servant, then going back to the streets.
“A short life and a merry one” was the pirate’s motto, and a whore had much the same philosophy. For pirates, the risk was death in battle or hanging. For prostitutes, venereal disease, alcoholism, pregnancy, and exposure were the dangers to be faced. Diseases like syphilis had no cure, and a woman had a two percent risk of dying from each pregnancy. That may not sound like much, but when a woman might have 15 children in her lifetime, this presented a 30 percent risk.
Historic pirates and their wenches were both interested in having a good time, and it was a lot easier to do it together. After weeks at sea, the pirate wanted more than a quick fuck. (Well, okay, they wanted that too.) They also wanted a female presence… a soft body to sleep with, a soft voice to listen to. And the pirate had plenty of money to pay for female attention.
Most sailors wanted the same thing, and they took their doxies drinking and dancing, just like a real date, which must have been pleasant for the ladies. The pirates could do the same, only to a much higher level. A pirate might shower his companion with Spanish gold, rare trinkets from India, and silks from China. This was much easier since he hadn’t paid for any of it. He knew that as soon as he left port, his current companion would move on to the next man. But pirates lived in the present.
The variety of women in Nassau was astounding. Native, black and Irish former slaves, French women, English women, Spanish ladies, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, perhaps even Chinese or Indians. (Goods from both counties have been found in the ruins of Port Royal. Who’s to say people didn’t also make the trip?)
We know that women came from as far as England on deliberate journeys to meet the pirates. While men might be paying three copper pennies for a romp back home, they were passing out handfuls of gold in Nassau.
The women who came had ambition, and the pirates did too. Sometimes this meant that the ladies took off with the cash, went north to places like New Orleans and opened brothels (or used their funds to marry successful men). But sometimes, the pirates and the prostitutes hooked up for a lifetime. It’s a fact that some pirates were smart enough to take the money and run to a better life. Who’s to say they didn’t take their favorite companions with them?