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.  


  1. Very helpful information for the book I'm writing. Thank you!

  2. Regarding pirate literacy: