Monday, March 3, 2014

Pirates and Their Wenches

“Wenching” has to be the activity most associated with pirates, challenged only by the pastime of drinking rum. Men far from home, sailing ships where no females were allowed, wanted feminine company when they got into port, and pirates were well supplied with funds to attract women.

But what was a pirate’s woman like?

It has been estimated that in the 18th century 30% of all women worked as prostitutes at some point during their lives. It was simple economics. Women were not allowed to work at most jobs. And since there was no effective birth control, any kind of sexual experience would likely result in pregnancy, which would make an unmarried woman an outcast.

Some women, wives of sailors impressed by the navy or otherwise forced out to sea, might go for years without seeing any of their husband’s pay. Likewise, if a woman lost her husband, she was at the mercy of family to support her, or else would be destitute. Widows, women deserted by their husbands, orphaned girls, the very poor made up the ranks of prostitutes.

In “polite” society, the wealthy and also the small middle class of the time, protected their women fiercely from the evils of the world. A woman who committed a “faux pas” as illicit sexual activity was called, was likely to be thrown out of her home and need to become a prostitute. Some of these women, who miscarried or gave birth to a baby that did not survive might succeed in returning home later.

On the other hand, many servant girls ran off to become prostitutes when their wages were insufficient. If they were under 16, their employers were not required to pay them any money at all, only to feed them. They did this reluctantly, and girls did not last long in this lowly work. Housemaids worked from sunup to after dark. Prostitutes worked for a few hours, drank liquor, went dancing, and appeared to be having a good time.

It has been well documented that many of these women preferred sailors as customers. Starved for female companionship, these men often wanted more than simple sex. Publications that included lists of prostitutes included women who serviced sea officers “because they return laden with presents.” Sailors met women in dance halls, and danced with them, buying them drinks and generally treated them to something resembling courtship, even though the outcome was forgone.

One woman, interviewed by a self-appointed social investigator, said that she was “wife” to eight or ten sailors. When they came into port, they gave her all their pay and lived with her. She provided the home, and performed wifely duties like budgeting the men’s money. “He would spend it all in a week. Sailor boy(s) always spend money like rainwater.” She said she made sure that merchants did not cheat her “husbands,” and helped them to buy clothes and other necessities.

They knew about each other, and were patient in waiting for her home to be open. And in the meantime, she also maintained a boyfriend, waiter in a local coffeehouse.

In England, most houses of prostitution were run by women. These “procuresses” as they were called, recruited young women, and represented one of the happy endings that a prostitute’s life could come to. Managing a successful house of prostitution could make a woman wealthy and allow her political power (from noble and political clients) in a time when females had little money of their own or ability to control their own lives.

Most were not so lucky. Prostitutes often died young from disease, alcoholism, or exposure to the elements.
International trade was transporting syphilis throughout the world, and it often flourished in port cities. This disease, which could not be cured by any medicine of the time, gave symptoms that appeared and disappeared without apparent cause.

Portside ladies were often compared to ships, their large rustling dresses resembling sails. Women infected by syphilis were known as “fire ships.”

Many phrases noting the resemblances between women and ships are recorded from the time. “Many a man-o-war has been her willing prisoner.” “Likes to fight yardarm to yardarm.” “Ready to be boarded.” “A fine stern on her.”

In England, prostitutes gathered in the Wapping district and the area around Corlears Hook, which may have given us the word “hooker.” There were, technically, no laws against prostitution, though the women were often arrested for theft, drunkenness, and public indecency.

In the New World, violence was much closer to the women’s work, but opportunity abounded. When pirates took over the Caribbean island of Nassau, many of them sent for their families back home, and when news of the pirates’ activities reached the women on the street, adventuresome ladies crossed the sea especially to meet pirates.

One of them was Mary Read, the soldier, sailor and adventurer who later became a pirate herself. Others were prostitutes who plied their trade on the docks as they had back at home, but for much more money. And from the pirates, they likely also received better treatment.

Women at the time were at the mercy of men, as it was completely legal for a man to beat his wife, and the penalties for simple assault were tiny. It was also common for men of the lower classes to be beaten and humiliated by their “superiors” at work or in public. Men who suffer assaults to their dignity, or who feel emasculated, are the ones most likely to abuse women and children.

But pirates, more than any other working men, had no reason to feel that their manhood was under attack. Pirates had opportunity to get revenge on those who may have mistreated them, and they were able to exert power over men of upper classes. They were free in a way that men had not been free before.
Even the hierarchy of their ships supported their personal dignity. Their captains and officers might outrank them, but did so only with the crew’s permission. Pirate ships were democracies.

When these men came into port, they were jolly, flush with money, and ready to have a good time. On shore, the women had built homes from canvas, the remains of burned buildings, and bits of wrecked ships. Most vessels, even pirates, employed musicians, so music, dancing and sex was the order of the day. If a woman had children, even many children by many fathers, it was likely no concern to the pirates.

Like other sailors, many pirates likely enjoyed returning to the same women over and over. And when a pirate retired, as some of them did when flush with gold, he might want to marry. He was a man with a secret behind him – piracy was a crime punishable by death, with no statute of limitations. Then what better person than a lady who already knew all about him?  This was the surprising end to some pirating stories, matrimony with the classical companion of a buccaneer.



  1. I am writing a research paper for school on this subject and I was wondering if you would share with me some of the sources for this article? Thank you

    1. Thank you! It's a great question, and I'm glad you asked. One source is the words to certain sea chanties, especially Blow the Man down (traditional). Also Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Katie Hickman (which alos includes earlier history), Some explorations of an online source for old English law, supported by the BBC show Garrows Law and Also Seafaring Women by David Cordingly and White Cargo by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh. The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard supplies most of the info about pirates.
      It seems to me that the quote from the woman who "married" sailors comes from The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, but I can't find the quote just now.
      I also sourced Engraving by Hogarth (Dover Fine Arts series) Which offers a lot of social commentary on the pictures. You can also reverse-lookup the pictures I used as well if you want to source them.
      Please let me know how your paper went. Contact me at

    2. I should also note that some of the conclusions- that pirates had less reason to abuse women, and that pirates often married prostitutes, are my own (The latter supported by RL Stevenson's Treasure Island, in which Long John Silver is married to a former prostitute)

  2. Loved this read

  3. Excellent history of Pirate Wenches!! Actually surprising to learn about their "relationships" with women! They had a softer side that served them, and their women, well.

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