Monday, November 16, 2015

What’s in the Pirate’s Chest?

Unlike common sailors, who traveled from ship to ship and kept their possessions in canvas bags, pirates were often dedicated to live on one ship for the rest of their lives (even if that wasn’t very long.) Pirates, seeking to live like “gentlemen” (we might say just to live like human beings) rose to the level of keeping enough possessions that they needed a private chest to hold them.


So, what would a pirate keep in such a chest?

Firstly, the same as any sailor, he would keep a change of clothes. Probably only one – the 18th century wasn’t big on anyone having huge amounts of clothing. Time, supplies, and the culture of the ship allowing, a sailor put on clean clothes for Sunday, and washed and repaired the other set on Monday. Then those clothes would wait until the following Sunday, when the cycle would be repeated.



Sailors also tried to keep a special set of clothes for going ashore. These were “party clothes” and were usually cleaner, in better repair, and “fancier” than common work clothes. A pirate, who had the luxury of stealing much nicer clothing from the officers and passengers on the ships he robbed, might have some very nice shore-going clothes indeed. But he probably wouldn’t have more than one set, and he would likely have only the coat and shirt. Pirates were often described as wearing grand coats along with common ragged work pants.



Perhaps they were loath to put their private parts in another man’s pants.

Also in the chest, part of the shore-going rig, would be shoes. Pirates usually went barefoot on the ship, and wore shoes only for special occasions, such as religious services, funerals, time on shore or attacking other ships. Boots, while worn, were very, very rare.



Now we are getting down to more individual items.

Each pirate would probably own a metal or wooden plate for eating, and a spoon. On merchant ships, the sailors were often fed out of buckets – it was quicker and easier to clean up after. Up to five men would share a bucket full of boiled beef and vegetables, which they would eat using their hands, or perhaps by scooping it up with pieces of ship’s biscuit. (This may be the origin of the word “mess.”)

Owning a pewter plate and a pewter spoon was the first mark that a pirate was going to live like a human being. Plates of this nature recovered from pirate ships often have the owner’s name crudely scratched onto the plate with a nail or other sharp object. Clearly they were important objects.



However, the pirate would not own a special knife for eating (he’d use his regular work knife) or a fork. Forks were still for royalty and the mega-rich, and a pirate probably wouldn’t see the use of them.

Of course pirates kept weapons, and the means to care for them. He might have as many as six pistols, and would certainly own a cutlass or machete. Weapons needed to be cleaned and oiled regularly, so oil and whetstones would be in the chest, in addition to spare flints, and a small supply of powder and shot.



Literacy was low in the early 1700’s, but a pirate’s chest might still contain letters from home, or books. If the pirate couldn’t read, he might persuade a more literate friend to read to him, and he might be taking lessons in reading or writing in his spare time. Popular books were the Bible, editions of Shakespeare, or Aesop’s Fables, which was the closest thing to a children’s book back in the day.



Writing supplies might also be in the chest, though they weren’t common. Interestingly enough, men who could not write could often draw beautifully. Writing or drawing equipment would consist of paper, a bottle of ink, and one or more quill feathers cut into pens.


Tiny miniature portraits of loved ones were beginning to be popular. It would be very rare for a common sailor to be able to afford such a thing, but some people could.



A pirate might also have gaming supplies, such as dice, cards, a backgammon or chess set, or a cribbage board. Gambling was usually not permitted on board ship (it often led to quarrels or bad feelings), but as soon as the crew hit port it was perfectly ok, and no one wanted to be without supplies. A pirate could also wile away the time by playing Patience, or what we would call Solitaire.



Most ships employed a musician, but a pirate might own and play his own musical instrument, such as a drum, a fiddle, a wooden flute or a guitar. Musical instruments weren’t much like modern ones, but pirates were well known to enjoy music.

Craft supplies would also be in the chest. Most sailors carved wood, did embroidery, knitting, or cross-stitch, or did fancy rope work for enjoyment. So, while rope wouldn’t be in the chest (that would qualify as ship’s supplies, and would be stored in a common area) he might have a ball of string, yarn, or twine.



Most British pirates smoked a pipe, so pipes and tobacco might be stored in the chest. Pipes were usually made of clay, and they broke easily. Huge piles of broken pipes are found near pirate sites. Pirates also smoked cigars, and might have some in the chest. Lighters and matches had not yet been invented. Smoking materials were lit by dipping a long splinter of wood into an existing flame (candle, lantern, or the galley stove) and carrying the flame to the pipe.



The pirate wouldn’t need to keep bottles of rum in his chest, since liquor supplies – all you cared to drink – were as much a part of shipboard life as food or water.

Sewing supplies, and other items to repair possessions would be in the chest. Pirates mended their own clothing and even shoes. Light thread, heavy thread, needles of various sizes, beeswax, oil, and other such things were in the chest.

Lastly, the pirate would have a small “purse” or carrying bag from money. Usually, they carried only a small amount. Why? Gold and silver are heavy, and so they were most often stored in some central location until needed. The ship’s Quartermaster kept a list of the treasure each pirate had earned, and a corresponding list of what he had drawn out of the fund. A quick calculation showed how much was being “held” for him. The system worked a lot like a pirate credit union.



Surprised? Even pirates knew that money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s the things that money CAN buy, however, that often bring a smile.

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