In the year 1707, in a court of law, James Conroy testified that Captain 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.”
A vicious attack by a pirate captain on one of his helpless victims? Not quite. This is the record of a merchant captain disciplining a member of his crew.
In the early 18th century, ship captains were virtually all-powerful aboard their ships. The law said that they could physically discipline their crews using “moderate punishment’ but there was no governing body to monitor this. Alone at sea, merchant captains did whatever they wanted.
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.
The records we have of these crimes comes primarily from court cases, but the court system worked very differently 300 years ago. In order to bring a case, the accusing party had to first pay all the court costs up front. Attorneys had to be hired, and in the British legal system a lawyer needed to be hired as well.
Sailors, who were working men, rootless, homeless, poorly paid, often illiterate, were seen as little more than animals. Merchant captains were most often from middle-class families. They needed to be educated in order to carry on the business of the ship, buying and selling cargo, trading in different currencies.
The most common case brought against merchant captains by their crews was a complaint of bad food. Captains were usually paid a share of the profits of a voyage, and it was in their best interest to keep expenses as low as possible. One way to do this was to buy the cheapest food possible for the crew. Often this meant meat that was improperly cured, which rotted during the voyage. Sailors expected to eat bread infested with weevils, salted meat that might be raw, and a steady diet of boiled, dried peas. But often the food was bad enough that, once in port, they clubbed together their meager pay and took the captain to court.
The problem was that the captain was a gentleman, and the judge was a gentleman too. There would be no evidence to bring… It had all been eaten. It was the testimony of the men against the testimony of the captain. The men would swear the food was bad. The captain would say that it looked okay to him. (He certainly hadn’t eaten any of it. Captains kept a separate larder for themselves.)
Faced with this testimony, it was more than likely that the judge would see things the captain’s way.
But crews still brought complaints. Sometimes they even won.
Even if they didn’t, the sailors carried the tales with them. By 1715, a new spirit was beginning to grow among merchant sailors. They felt a sense of kinship that transcended national, language or even racial differences. Sometimes crews staged work stoppages. Sometimes they mutinied. Sometimes the line between the two was very thin. One crew succeeded in bringing a ship they had signed onto right back to port because it was leaking so badly. They might have been thrown in jail for this, had not the next crew signed onto the boat done exactly the same thing.
Often underpaid, sailors began refusing to work while their ship was in port (merchant captains wanted them to unload the ship.) And when a captain tried to head out to sea with a crew too small to properly handle the ship (another method to save money and increase profits) they sometimes refused to work the sails. And when the ship was attacked by pirates, they often joined the pirate crew.
This was the way that pirates recruited. They simply asked the crews of the ships they captured if anyone wanted to join up. Sometimes every man on board signed on. Then the officers of the captured ship were put off in a rowboat, and the merchant vessel became a pirate ship. The pirates provided navigational help, and the newly fledged pirate ship usually followed the “parent vessel” for a while. A change of name was also in order.
And the most common name chosen for a pirate ship?