Monday, October 20, 2014

Jewel of the Caribbean

Martinique is one of the larger islands in the Lesser Antilles, with 436 square miles of land. Like most of the Caribbean, it is highly volcanic. Most of the high ground (including Mount Pelee, (a volcano that has erupted 4 times since 1700) is in the north. Because of this, the northern part of the island is rain forest, while the south is savannah, a wide range for such a small place.

It was charted by Columbus in 1493, but the Spanish weren’t interested in a place with no gold. The island remained in the control of the Carib Indians until 1635, when the French took control of the island, after the English chased them out of their colony at St. Kitts.

Funding for the colony came from the Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique (Company of the Islands of America) founded by Cardinal Richelieu – yes, that Cardinal Richelieu, the bad guy in The Three Musketeers.

The Caribs rose against the French in 1636, and again in 1658, when the French used their superior firepower and armor to drive the natives entirely off the island. In 1685 Louis XIV created the Code Noir, which allowed the importation of African slaves.

From then on, the culture and cuisine of the island was an intermingling of African, Native and French influences. At various times there were rebellions and even massacre, but those three remained.

First one fort, Saint Louis, was built to protect the large natural harbor. Then another fort was added, named Fort Royal, was added in the north part of the island. Though the second structure was located in a malarial swamp, the French overcame this by draining the swamp and improving the land. (An ideas colonists in other parts of the New World should have copied.)

Martinique grew tobacco and later sugar. Wars were fought and the Dutch were repeatedly held off. Under the guidance of administrators appointed by the king, the forts were improved. An enterprising governor built the first distillery, and began rum manufacture. The island prospered.

The city of Saint Pierre, near Fort Saint Louis, became a cultural hub of the area, and became known as the Paris of the Caribbean.

France was a Catholic nation, but there were few priests in the Antilles (which was, after all, the aft end of nowhere back then.) Because of this, the area drew French Protestants (the Huguenots.) France was not enthusiastic about having a Protestant sub-culture. First Protestant nobles relocated to Martinique, where they stayed despite various edicts sent out against them by the king. The French, like so many other people, seemed to feel that if they were far enough away from Europe, they could do what they liked.

The French also tried to populate the island by offering land to their own peasants, in exchange for a very brief (3 year) stint as indentured servants. The deal looked good, but in fact few of the new settlers lived past the three year mark. Work in a climate much hotter than Europeans were used to, and a host of tropical diseases, life spans were drastically reduced.

The French government sent over a thousand lower-class Huguenots between 1686 qne 1688, intending them to work as indentured servants in the fields, the nobles of the island rebelled.

With the enlightenment, notions about the rights of individuals had begun to blossom, and this had begun to affect the notion toward slavery. While Europeans had no compunction with enslaving Africans, but the idea had begun to form that a person shouldn’t enslave someone who was like them.

The French Protestant workers were far too much like the French Protestant nobles to be enslaved by them. The few Catholic nobles urged them all to emigrate, hoping to seize the lands held by the Huguenots. Under these circumstances, the ruling French Protestants left the island for the Carolinas, home to Protestant English. They took the Huguenot slaves with them. One third of the population disappeared almost overnight.

The Catholics who thought that getting rid of their rivals would make them rich were for invasions in later wars by the Dutch and the English. Still, the sugar trade was so profitable that the French government ransomed the island again and again.
Declining sugar prices reduced the profitability of the large plantations, and slavery was abolished in 1848.

On May 8th 1902, Mount Pelee erupted, killing everyone in Saint-Pierre and the surrounding countryside in under three minutes. The only survivor, Auguste Cyparis, was in jail for the night, and was protected by the thick walls of the prison. He later joined Barnum and Baily’s circus in the United States, and became a celebrity by repeating his story.

During bygone days, pirates did sail the waters of Martinique, to capture ships and sample the local rums. Blackbeard captured his Queen Anne’s Revenge, formerly a French merchant ship, in these waters, and men like Bellamy or Charles Vane may have stopped in for a drink.

Today Martinique is one of the jewels of the Caribbean, an expensive hotspot for the super-rich and a budget destination for those seeking a good time for less, both at the same time. Rum is still manufactured here, just as it was during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Could Pirates Read and Write?

Were Pirates literate? Or illiterate? Is that something we can know 300 years after the fact? What did they read and write anyway?

We can get some information from statistics from the time, but statistics can be misleading. For instance, throughout much of the 1600’s, “literacy” was defined as being able to write your name. Being able to read didn’t figure into it at all. Nor did such basics as knowing the alphabet.

In the year 1700, approximately half of English men could read, and about 25% of English women. Of course, this was heavily weighted at the top of the social scale. In other words, the richer you were the more likely you were to be able to read and write. Noble families had the time and money to employ tutors. Well-to-do merchant houses needed to have members who could keep accounts and write letters.

But lower class people, laborers, shoemakers, tradesmen, and sailors, among others, had little use for reading or writing. They didn’t live in a world where reading was expected. People tended to stay close to home. Knowledge was often transmitted through tradition, the spoken word. Signs were often pictures. Books were rare and expensive.

But lower-class people – sailors, pirates – also had ways to become educated. Though only half as many women as men could read or write, those that did often taught their children. Moreover, especially in the Protestant countries like England, there was a fresh emphasis on reading the Bible. Churches often gave reading lessons to those who could not afford them.

And not all of the rich pursued an education. Captain Henry Morgan spoke of being educated, “More with the pike than the pen.” Just because your family could afford an education didn’t mean that you dedicated yourself to it.

So, at least some of the sailors who became pirates would reasonably be literate. Of course, this covered a lot of ground. Yes, literate at the time meant being able to write your name. But it’s possible to read without being able to write. Writing requires practice, and fine motor skills. It is a skill of the fingers as well as the mind. People who worked with their hands might well read better than they could write.

Or the reverse might be true. We think of the phrase, “Make your mark” as a request for an illiterate person to use a crude “X” to sign a document. But it’s a matter of record that some of the “marks” made by illiterate sailors were elaborate drawings. A person who had fine motor skills but no education might be very good at drawing.

Mutineers were the ones who invented the “round robin.” This was a method of signing a document in such a way to hide who the leaders in a conspiracy were. Instead of placing signatures in rows, the names were arranged in a circle. If the mutiny was stopped, there was no way to tell who had started it. Pretty clever for a group that was barely literate.

So what does it all come down to? It’s reasonable to assume that about 1/6th of the crew of any given pirate ship had some skill in reading and writing. Of course, navigators and officers are more likely to have these skills. But it’s not a done deal. A pirate captain could rise through charisma and a gift for strategy, so literacy was not a requirement.

And one last thing… On a pirate ship, men with skills and time on their hands often shared those skills with those who wanted to acquire them. School on a pirate ship? Yes, it probably happened.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

Pirates and Tattoos

I have answered several questions about pirates during the Golden Age and the tattoos they wore, but my answers have not been very popular.  You see, pirates from 1690 – 1720 or so simply didn’t wear tattoos. Or if they did, the markings would be as rare as nuns with similar marking today.

It’s true that Europeans, and especially sailors, have been getting tattoos for many years. But just not quite enough years. The heart of piracy’s Golden Age lies almost exactly 300 years ago. Tattooing has only been popular for about 240 years.

The precipitating action… the event that brought tattooing into the minds of European sailors, was the voyage of Captain Cook to New Zealand and Polynesia in 1771. Even the word “tattoo” dates from this time. Cook recorded it as “tattaw” and it was also spelled “tattau” before today’s spelling was settled upon.

Why didn’t this happen before? Europeans had developed their own traditions of body art before the Roman Empire, and they had certainly met Native Americans who practiced the art. In fact, Pocahontas, a real historical figure, was marked in this way. But until Cook’s voyage to the South Seas, it just didn’t catch on.

Perhaps Cook just had some art-loving sailors on his ship. Maybe the body art they encountered was unusually beautiful or impressive. Or perhaps the sailors were desperate for a lasting souvenir of their trip to the far side of the world. The Pacific Islands may have sponsored especially fond memories due to a culture that encourage young women of all classes to gain wide sexual experience before marriage, even to the point of having one or two children, just to prove to prospective husbands that they were fertile.

In any case, tattoos became a traditional memento that sailors brought back from their journeys. Very soon, a traditional set of symbols sprang up to mark special occasions in a sailor’s life. Many of these survive today.

Swallow – Originally this was a mark of having committed to become a sailor or have “gone to sea” since anyone becoming a member of the crew would expect to serve a year of more. Today it is reserved for someone who have sailed more than 5,000 nautical miles. In addition, if a sailor was drowned, it was said that a swallow would carry his soul up to heaven.

Dragon – Signified someone who had sailed to Asia.

Golden Dragon – A sailor who has crossed the International Dateline.

Anchor – Had crossed the Atlantic.

Crossed anchors, or an anchor on the hand between the thumb and forefinger – One who had reached the rank of bosun.

A fully rigged ship – Noted that the wearer had sailed around Cape Horn.

A rope around the wrist, or the word “Hold Fast” across the knuckles – Mark of a deck hand.

A pig on one foot, and a rooster on the other – Two animals often found on sailing ships as part of the food supplies. As neither could swim, it was believed that God would use a miracle to save the innocent animals in a storm. Supposedly, this magical luck would transfer to a human who wore the marks.

An anchor – Link to home and family (often with the word “Mom” of “Dad”

A nautical star – talisman to guide the wanderer home.

But wait a minute! What about Captain Jack Sparrow’s tattoo? What about the “P” branded on his forearm? Maybe pirates had other ways to mark themselves?

Sorry to disappoint you. But Jack may have been the one exception. (There are tattoos, after all, even in a nunnery.) And Jack had been to Singapore.

And in a world where slaves were common, and where people of all nations could become slaves through simple bad luck, Captain Jack’s P is probably a sign that he’d been caught and was in danger of being sold by someone who wanted to regain a little of what Jack had stolen.

Besides, no pirate wanted a permanent mark which associated him with the Sweet Trade. It’s called “plausible deniability.” The chance to look up from your beer and say to the authorities, “Pirates? There ain’t no pirates round here, mate. You must have been thinking of some other tavern.”

Which gave the pirates a chance to get back to their drinks and their women. That was the point of the thing, after all.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Pirate Life of Charles Vane

Charles Vane was a bad ‘un. He terrorized the Caribbean, bringing trade to in the area to a halt, tortured his captives, and cheated his crews out of their fair share of plunder.
A woodblock portrait made from a description shows a man in a long coat, wearing a gentleman’s wig and carrying a sword. His nose is hawk-like, and he wear a goatee over a few day’s growth of stubble.

No one knows where Vane came from. He was probably born around 1680, and likely served as a Navy sailor or privateer during the War of Spanish Succession. He hung around Jamaica in 1714, and when the Spanish Treasure fleet wrecked against the coast of Florida in 1715, he joined up with Henry Jennings, an English privateer captain. He helped Jennings to “acquire” a ship named the St. Marie and raise a crew to sail to Florida.

There they fought off all comers in what quickly turned into a free-for-all. French and Spanish military were trying to salvage the treasure, while thousands of pirates, privateers, and young men looking to strike it rich tried to steal part of the gold.

Vane captured enough money to live on for a while, and when Jennings returned to Jamaica – he still considered himself a lawful privateer – Vane wandered off to New Providence, already a port run entirely by pirates.

Vane hung around, drinking whoring and going out on occasional pirate raids, until 1718. He developed a reputation for beating up his victims at random, especially ships’ officers. Even if he had already promised mercy, anything that set him off would cause a violent outburst.

When the English send Woodes Rogers into New Providence with an offer of a free pardon to any pirate willing to forego his pirating ways, many pirates celebrated. Vane raised a mob who vowed to remain pirates forever. When Rogers raised the Union Jack over New Providence’s fort, Vane attacked the fort, took down the flag, and replaced it with a Jolly Roger, or as it was called by a witness, “A black flag with a death’s head on it.”

In the meantime, Vane and Jennings sent word to James Stuart, a pretender to the throne of England, offering to become James’ navy, in exchange for a pardon from him, larger war ships, and permission to make war on England.

James agreed in principal, but was not quick to send the required ships. In the meantime, the leaders of the largest body of pirates, Hornigold and Jennings, advised the pirates to accept the pardon, while arriving ships laden with treasure reminded the pirates of how profitable their profession could be. At last a major council was held, but some of the pirates came in drunk, and in no time at all everyone was shouting.

The council broke up in the most literal fashion, with pirates heading out in all directions, some to take the pardon in other ports, some to plunder new ships, some to hunt for another pirate port.
Vane acquired the sloop Lark and began outfitting it for use as a pirate ship. But enough pirates were angry with him for one reason or another that, when the Navy ship Phoenix captained by a man named Vincent Pearse.

Pearse found Vane and his crew and blocked the small cove where they were working on their new ship. The pirates decided to pretend that they were planning to sail their new ship to meet Pearse and take the pardon, but they were not believed for a moment. Instead, Pearse arrested them and took them back to New Providence for execution.

But while the rank-and-file pirates didn’t like Vane, the leaders of the pirate community did not want to see one of their own hanged in what had almost been the capital of a pirate nation. They rowed out to the Phoenix as it lay in Nassau Harbor and demanded that Vane be set free. Pearse finally agreed, and in return a veritable who’s who of the pirate world lined up to be pardoned for their crimes.
Captain Pearse must have thought that he had it made, but a few days later his was probably disappointed when his celebration of the Price of Wales’ birthday was marred by the pirates setting a boat on fire and trying to steer the flaming hulk into his ship.

Worse came later. Vane and a group of his friends snuck off in the night in rowboats and captured a small merchant vessel. They brought it back to Nassau Harbor, entering by a natural “back door” and plundered the ship in shallow water, where the much larger Phoenix could not go.  


Vane paraded his success through, even though Pearse fired on him repeatedly, and the number of Vane’s followers tripled in only three days. Right under Pearse’s nose, they outfitted a pirate ship, which they renamed the Ranger. They then went out to terrorize the Caribbean.
Vane captured 12 ships in less than 6 weeks. He tortured the crews, hanging one man, placing lihted matches in the eyes of another, beat the passengers, flogged the captains. He kept some of the ships he captured.

He returned to New Providence and made the place his own. The Phoenix had departed. Then another large pirate ship sailed into the harbor. Blackbeard, having newly acquired the Queen Anne’s Revenge had come home.

For a month, the pirates partied, waiting for word from the Stuarts in France. But the Pretender’s cause was in decline, and after a while Vane realized that he’d have to get his own war ship. He gathered his friends and went hunting.

They captured ship after ship, building a pirate armada and frequently making trades for large and larger ships. Vane renamed each ship the Ranger in turn. Finally they returned to Nassau Harbor.
This time while they were enjoying their spoils, two British warships entered the harbor. Unable, in his larger vessel, to run out the “back door.”  So the pirates grabbed every useful thing in the port, from farm animals and supplies to a skilled carpenter they roused out of bed.

They sent a fire-ship at the British and escaped in the confusion. But realizing that they were unlikely to ever return to their former home was not encouraging. And by now Vane knew his deal with the Stuarts wouldn’t work out. For weeks, the ships floated on the waves while the pirates devoured their supplies and remained drunk.

When they finally found a ship to attack, Vane thought they were overmatched. He decided to break off the engagement and run. This was not popular with the crew. Vane’s second in command, Jack Rackham, deposed him as captain, putting Vane and his few supporters adrift in a pair of rowboats.
The boats were separated in a storm, and Vane ended up alone on a desert island. He was supported by turtle hunters who, knowing his identity, gave him supplied but refused to allow him on their boats.

Vane finally found someone who didn’t recognize him, joined the merchant’s crew and was working as a common sailor when he was outed by one of his former crew members. He was arrested and hauled into Kingston Jamaica, where he was tired and hanged on March 29th, 1721.

His body was left hanging in the harbor as a warning to other pirates until it disintegrated. 


Monday, September 15, 2014

Real Pirate Food

What did pirates really eat?

With Talk Like a Pirate Day nearly upon us, people all over are trying to figure out how to serve some authentic pirate dishes at their celebrations. So, for your enjoyment, I have produced a set of recipes. These are fundamentally like the 18th century dishes that real pirates really ate, but they’ve been updated to make them easier to cook (and eat) by 21st century people.

Since we are accustomed to starting our meals with salad, I’ll begin with an 18th century salad that has been associated with pirates, the Solomongundy.


1 head of romaine lettuce, cut into strips
8 hardboiled eggs, peeled and sliced
1 pound cooked chicken breast, cut in strips
1 pound smoked ham, cut in strips
1 cucumber cut in thin slices
3 ribs celery cut in small slices
1 can of anchovies, drained.

Lay out the lettuce in an even bed on a platter. Cover with the other ingredients, laying them out in patterns or designs. Be creative.


6 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon dry mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients thoroughly and sprinkle over your solomongundy

Our next recipe is for ship’s biscuit, also called “hard tack” This was the nearly indestructible bread that lasted for months on long sea voyages. It’s a really simple one:

Ship's Biscuit:

4 cups of unbleached flour
1 cup of water
1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 250 degrees

Mix the flour and salt, then add the water and mix until you have a very stiff dough. Let it rest for 10 minutes, then beat it out flat with a rolling pin or a wine bottle. When its ½ inch thick, fold it and beat it back to ½ inch. (Instead of beating it, you can also run it through a pasta maker.)

Continue for about half an hour, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Roll the dough out one last time, into a square shape and cut into 2” squares. Prick each with a fork.
Place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 250 degrees for one hour. Cool on racks.

This will produce a little over a pound of nearly indestructible biscuits, of about the texture of concrete. How does a person eat such a thing? Answer – You make Lobscouse.

Shop’s biscuit was never intended to be eaten like a cracker. You'd break your teeth on it. Instead, the men it was given to pounded it into bits with the steel handles of their tools and soaked it in meat broth. Lobscouse was a stew based off this.


2 pounds corned beef
2 pounds smoked ham
1 bay leaf
4 large onions
6 large potatoes
½ pound ship’s biscuit, pounded into crumbs
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
Salt and pepper to taste

Place the meat in a pot with the bay leaf and cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook until meat is tender, about 2 ½ hours. Discard the bay leaf. Skim the fat that has risen (pirates called tis “slush”) and reserve. Reserve 3 cups of the liquid.

Cut the meat into ½” dice, cut potatoes and onions into ¾” dice.

Heat 6 tablespoons of slush in a heavy frying pan and brown the meat. Remove the meat, draining the fat back into the pan. Sauté the onions until tender, add the potatoes and cook about 6 minutes. Add the meat and 1 ½ cups of cooking liquid, and cook until potatoes are almost tender, then add the biscuit crumbs and the spices, including plenty of pepper. Cook 5 more minutes. Add more liquid if you like it more moist.

This has been food associated with English pirates, and there is no more English way to end a meal than with a pudding. Since you’ve already beaten on bread for half an hour and boiled meat for over two hours more, I’m providing the recipe for Hasty Pudding.

Hasty Puddings:

Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil
2 cups of fine breadcrumbs
1 cup of raisins
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup sugar
Zest of one lemon
Two cups of grated suet.
(If you can’t get grated suet near you, as most people in America cannot, you can buy it online here, or substitute 2 sticks of very cold grated butter)

Mix all ingredients thoroughly, then beat together

5 eggs

And add to the mix. Form the dough into egg-sized balls, and roll each ball in flour. Drop balls into the boiling water, stirring just enough to keep them from sticking together. Boil for 15-20 minutes, then scoop out and let drain. Serve with sauce.


1 cup melted butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup sherry wine (The pirates called this “sack”.)

Mix together in a saucepan over low heat and pour, warm, over hasty pudding balls.

So there you go. A three-course meal that would have been right at home on a pirate’s table. Enjoy!
And Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Monday, September 8, 2014

At Least One Thing You Probably Didn’t Know About Talk Like a Pirate Day

Okay, you may or may not know that the famous holiday started in June of 1995, then John Baur and Mark Summers were playing handball, and one of them was injured just badly enough to yell “Arrrgh!” The boys were amused enough that they went on talking like pirates for a while and then imagined a day when EVERYONE talked like pirates.

They picked a date for their holiday because Summers had found that, while he could never remember his wife’s birthday, once they were divorced he couldn’t forget September 19th, and he wanted to have some reason to think of it. The holiday took off when the duo wrote to the famous comedian Dave Barry, who found the idea worth a column…. And so a movement was born.

One of my friends tells a story of a family member who simply talked like a pirate on the assigned date, without explaining himself to anyone. (You can get away with a lot when you’re in IT.) Apparently it’s contagious, and so a conference call would happen, and pretty soon a bunch of VP’s were saying “Avast!” and “Me bucko!” with no idea why, until someone piped up and shouted “Why are we doing this?!”

Explanations were then offered. Pirates aren’t rude, after all. They just need to be asked direct questions.

Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket, as Baur and Summers are now known, have published a book, run a website, sell T Shirts and blog, all in the name of Piratical Pronunciation. Facebook got in on the fun in 2008, when they added the chance to update your Facebook language to “English – Pirate” which will change the site’s name to Ye Olde Facebook and promote most of your friends to captains.

(Go to Settings, change Language and set it to English – Pirate. Just that easy)
The number of sites and organizations celebrating the holiday gets bigger every year. Krispy Kream  gives a free donut to everyone who can talk the talk, and Long John Silver’s gives away fish. Minecraft offers pirate language, and publisher O’Reilly offers a discount on the R programming language (get it?)

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, itself a parody, has made Talk Like a Pirate Day its official holiday, claiming that the lack of pirates is the reason for global warming. (We have fewer pirates, than during the Golden Age, and temperatures are going up, after all…)

Assorted sites will give you advice on exactly how to ‘talk like a pirate,’ though I can’t offer any better advice than to check out Disney’s 1950 movie Treasure Island, starring Robert Newton. Newton exaggerated his own West English accent for the part, and was so distinctive that he’s defined pirate-speak ever since.

Talk Like a Pirate Day even has its own official song, written by Tom Smith.

Yo, Ho, Yo, Ho,
It's "Talk Like A Pirate" Day!
When laptops are benches God gave us for wenches,
And a sail ain't a low price to pay!
When timbers are shivered and lillies are livered
And every last buckle is swashed,
We'll abandon our cars for a shipfull of ARRRs
And pound back the grog till we're sloshed. Yo ho ....

Why is the holiday so popular? Because it’s fun. No one can tell us about “What it’s supposed to mean,” or how to find “the true meaning of the holiday.” It’s supposed to mean that you talk like a pirate, and the real meaning of the holiday is “Aarrrgh!”

It’s one of the few eventss that Hallmark has yet to create a card for, and you don’t have to buy anything, although some people do invest in an eye patch. TLAPD is just about having a good time, and we need that.

Oh, and that one thing that I’ll bet you didn’t know? September 19th, in addition to being a holiday, is Hermione Granger’s birthday. Yes, that Hermione, the one from Harry Potter. And this fact has also been memorialized in song, with Tom Smith’s “Hermione Granger the Pirate Queen” a tune that you should definitely buy at Tom’s website, in addition to the Official Anthem.

And maybe we'll never get closer,
Than watchin' 'em on the big screen,
So here's to old Errol and Depp as Jack Sparrow,
And every damn one in between!

Yo Ho!

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Pirate’s Personal Armament

Although pirates usually did their best to rob people by simply scaring them witless, part of the performance was always carrying a stack of weapons. In fact, many pirates collected weapons. And the variety of things carried by pirates as weapons is vast and varied.

To begin with, there was the classic pirate sword. Often called a “hanger” because it was an ever-present item at a pirate’s side. It was fashionable for gentlemen to carry swords, and in fact special swords had been designed just for the purpose of hanging prettily at the side of a suit of dress clothes.

These swords were perfectly useless, of course. A pirate’s less so. The proper sword for a pirate was short, so it was easy to draw on a crowded deck. It was a heavy blade, not elegant in appearance but capable of dealing a heavy chopping blow. If the deck was too crowded even for this, a brass knuckle-guard turned the sword into a punching weapon. And if the deck during the fight was too crowded even to punch, a solid brass knob on the end was handy for pounding on the enemy’s skull.

In an era before pistols came with holsters, pirates were famous for carrying as many of them as possible. Blackbeard was famous for wearing six pistols in a bandolier across his chest, (the original six shooter) and another pirate trick was to tie braces of pistols to either end of a length of ribbon. The ribbon could then be slung around the pirate’s neck, so the pistols dangled in front, easy to grab and shoot. They also didn’t have to be treated specially after they were fired. Simply dropping the empty gun meant that it would fall back into place, and not be a trip-hazard, rolling around on the deck.

Pirates also favored the blunderbuss. This was an old-fashioned type of shotgun. The weapon looked like an oversized pistol, but instead of firing a single 62 caliber round ball it fired a large number of much smaller sized shot. Even more important, it was large and imposing. Pirates would much rather scare their prey, after all. Like the modern shotgun, the blunderbuss was accurate only over a short range.

Though they were not usually considered  pirate weapons, pirates also used flintlock rifles and muskets. These weapons were carried up the masts, where a marksman would brace himself and fire onto the deck of the enemy ship from a distance. Picking off an officer or helmsmen could make all the difference when chasing a fleeing ship.

Pirates also used grenades. These were round iron vessels with an opening on one side that was tubular, like the neck of a bottle. The grenade could be filled in advance with a mixture of gunpowder and roundshot, and plugged with fuse. The fuse would be lit, and the grenade thrown onto an enemy ship, or into a crowd of enemy combatants. And if roundshot was in short supply, nails, rocks or bits of broken pottery could be pressed into service.

Pirates also filled the grenade with tar, which burned with a dense smoke, creating a smoke bomb, in order to cause panic and confusion.

They also went the low-tech way, and stuffed burning rags into glass bottles full of lamp oil or liquor, creating a Molotov cocktail. This wasn’t used much, however, since it was impossible to rob a ship that was on fire, and the risk of fire spreading to the pirates’ own ship was enormous.

In close-quarter fighting, knives might be pressed into use. Of course every pirate carried a knife. They were common seamen’s tools, and the same blade would be used to cut up food at meals. The knife wasn’t an impressive weapon, but it could get the job done.

Another weapon, which many people have never heard of, was a marlin spike. This was another sailor’s tool. These ranged in size from about 8 inches long to huge tools nearly three feet in length. The marlinspike was simply a spike, a length of metal pointed on one end and blunted on the other.

What was its intended use? Well, working with rope formed a great part of any sailor’s work, and the marlinspike was used to help untie knots, to unravel rope, or to poke openings in the weave of a rope so that it could be spliced. In fact, the marlinspike was such an important item on a sailing ship that today the skills of using rope on a ship is called “marlinspike seamanship.”

The marlin spike is a weapon mostly because it was sharp and handy. It is featured in songs and stories where a sudden, passionate fight breaks out on shipboard. The most famous reference to pirates is in the song “The Derelict,” (Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest, Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.)

The mate was fixed by the bos'n's pike
The bos'n' brained with a marlin spike 

The tool was used for stabbing, and of course this was most effectively used on soft tissue, especially the eyes or the throat. But, as the song notes, it was also sturdy enough to be driven through the soft bone of the temple and into the brain. A marlin spike would make a great, authentic addition to a pirate costume.

Another weapon of opportunity was the belaying pin. What was a belaying pin? “Belay means “stop.”  On a sailing ship, belaying pins were devices set along the railings where ropes were tied off. The pins were removable, which made it easier to loose the ropes in a hurry.

Like any other weapon of opportunity, it was simple to pick up a belaying pin and crack someone over the head with it, a trope that Hollywood has wrung a lot of mileage out of. Given the large number of other weapons available, it seems unlikely that a belaying pin would be used very often for pirate mayhem.  

However, in actual pirate trials, Captain William Kidd was convicted of murdering a man by hitting him in the head with a bucket, and another pirate murdered a shipmate by smashing his head with a trough used for feeding the ship’s chickens. So anything’s possible.