Monday, December 26, 2016

The Pirate's Surgeon

In the world of the 18th century, ship’s doctors were hard to come by. Most merchant ships did not carry sort of medical personnel at all.  Merchant crews were small, often only 7 or 8 men, and shop owners and captains did not want to reduced profits by having a crew member who did not add to the speed or hauling capacity of the ship.

Navy ships did carry medical officers, but usually did not employ doctors. The official job description of a naval medical officer was “barber-surgeon.” The trade of barber-surgeon involved an apprenticeship. An apprentice started out doing tasks like sweeping up and disposing of lopped-off limbs, and progressed through assisting with procedures, and ending with performing operations under supervision.

This training was, of course, heavily slanted toward the injuries and diseases of sailors. But “medicines” at the time was more of a philosophical exercise, something practiced by highly educated men (always men) who had attended college and learned to speak Latin and Greek. These doctors could charge high fees, and spent their spare time studying and arguing philosophy.

Barber surgeons removed limbs that had been damaged in accidents and occasionally cut off obvious cancers. When not performing these services, they bled people (more about this later) and cut people’s hair.  The navy needed people with these skills, and since navy ships had huge numbers of sailors (over a hundred was not uncommon) it was practical to have staff to keep them healthy.

Pirates recruited their members usually from the lower levels of ship personnel. This often included men skilled at every aspect of life at sea, from knot-tying to navigation. But it was harder to enlist the higher echelons. Officers were better paid and less likely to suffer the kinds of injustice and financial hardship that drove men to be pirates.

The ship’s articles – with its signature of every crew member – became a death sentence if the ship was captured. Actually signing onto a crew was something rarely done by men who were neither desperate nor utterly fed up with the inequalities of life.

Yet pirate crews wanted skilled medical personnel very badly. Pirate ships were fighting ships, and their crews were more confident with a surgeon to take care of them. A trained barber-surgeon knew how to administer popular medications for common ailments. He could also draw blood from the crew. This was considered regular preventative medicine.

We’ve all heard horror story about people being treated with leaches, or blood being sucked out by means of heated glass jars. The most common method, however, was to open a patient’s vein and drain out a little less than a pint of blood. There was a bit of technique involved in opening the wound so that th4e bleeding could be stopped quickly.  The blood was caught in a bowl – usually the same bowl used for holding hot water and soap when shaving.  It measured the correct amount of blood, which was then thrown over the side. (It might also be fed to any cats or dogs aboard the ship.)

Bleeding was considered to be simply a good medical practice. If it wasn’t done, a person might experience a buildup of “too much blood.” Medical theory said that this might cause the symptoms of high blood pressure, stroke, or bring about sickness. Most English people wanted to be bled every six weeks to two months. A barber-surgeon aboard a pirate ship made them feel safe.

Of course, the benefits of this treatment were mostly psychological. But a sudden loss of about a pint of blood can lower catastrophically high temperatures, a fact useful in a time and place where ice, or even cool water, might not be available.  And regular bloodletting can help with high blood pressure, by simply lowering the amount of blood.

So recruiting a surgeon was very desirable, but also very difficult for a pirate captain. What to do? Some surgeons were kidnapped by pirate crews and pressed into service. Others, unhappy with their current working conditions, persuaded attacking pirates to pretend to kidnap them, joining the pirates while leaving themselves an “out” in case of capture.

A few more, such as Alexandre Exquemelin, joined pirate crews as a matter of principal. We first learn of Exquemelin when he joined the Dutch East India Company in 1657 where he apprenticed as a barber surgeon. He was shipwrecked, then joined the French West India Company. The Company dissolved shortly thereafter. He was stranded on the island of Barbados and forced into indentured servitude. At first he was harshly treated, but he was later redeemed by a barber surgeon who continued training him in the trade.

Exquemelin won his freedom long before he had finished his required seven years of apprenticeship, and sold his services to pirates. Being literate, we also wrote a tell-all book about his adventures, long on sea stories, but short on piratical medicine (possibly because of his sketchy training.) The book, The Buccaneers of America is available on Amazon today.

For those interested in more detail about the history of pirate doctors, however, I strongly recommend The Pirate Surgeon's Journal at

Monday, December 19, 2016

Pirate Christmas Songs

Christmas and piracy don’t seem to go together very well. From a purely historical perspective, Christmas was not a wildly celebrated holiday back in the Golden Age of Piracy. Today, however, Christmas, its planning, partying and purchasing go on for nearly six weeks in the US. So, in modern times, Christmas and pirates just HAD to find a way to go together.

We’ve already had a look at Pirate Santa. So this year, we’ll take a look – or a listen – with some of the popular pirate Christmas songs on YouTube. Yes, it’s a thing.

The first one is from one of my favorites. Tom Smith is a professional filk singer. That’s right – filk, not folk. Filk singing is defined as taking tunes from well-known songs and adding fresh lyrics, usually with a nerdy theme. Originally – back in the 1960’s when these dongs first achieved a name – nerdy meant science fiction, but it grew to include fantasy, and then later to attach itself to tunes and subjects from various popular TV shows. (The theme music from Gilligan’s Island has been used for multiple filk songs)

Tom manages to make his living playing at various conventions and events throughout the US, and he loves pirates. (One of his biggest hits informs us that Hermione Granger is, in fact, a Pirate Queen. She was born on September 19th, International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Tom is also writer of the official song of Talk Like a Pirate Day, called appropriately It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day

For Christmas, he gives us a medley of many classic Christmas tunes, with appropriately piratey alterations. Click on the link to enjoy. And feel free to check out Tom’s site and buy some of his work. I’ll guarantee you’ll enjoy.

Tom Mason and the Blue Buccaneers are a full-fledged band with an eclectic bluesy sound. Unlike many other pirate bands, they are not dependent on traditional songs or sea shanties.  These songs are new, fresh pirate material, rooted in the history of real pirates, and also in Caribbean rhythms. While Tom Smith sings about Jack Sparrow, Tom Mason is more likely to channel Blackbeard. These pirates aren’t sanitized. They’ve slit a few throats. But Santa Clause can bring out their best, as this song describes.

Don’t mess with Santa, even if you’re a pirate. And if you want to check out Tom and his crew, click here to pick up some pirate (but not pirated) downloads.

The Bilge Pumps don’t have nearly Tom Mason’s polish. But they do have a steel drum player who’s pretty good, and they aren’t ashamed to sing “Far Lar Lar Lar Lar, Lar Lar La Lar” while caroling. No, the music isn’t that tight, but with pirates, it’s personality that counts. The Bilge Pumps hale from Texas, and make most of their appearances a Ren Fairs and outdoor venues.  They’re not historical pirates, and they don’t confine themselves to fantasy realms, either. But it’s clear that they really, really wish they could be actual pirates.

This group has a variety of Christmas music, from More Rum, Gloria! to Pirating a Winter Wonderland, and A Pirate’s Christmas Wish but I’m going to give you their version of Deck the Halls. It’s not quite in tune, but it’s funny.

Our next video is form Captain Dan and the Scurvy Crew, a rap group that made it all the way to season seven of America’s Got Talent. Though they were eliminated in the Audition round, a clip form their album “Authentic Pirate Hip Hop” has garnered hundreds of thousands of YouTube hits.
These guys know their stuff, and they are unique in having noticed the similarities between pirates and rappers. (Huge reputation, huge piles of gold, huge number of female friends….)

This official video not only tells a pirate story, but utilizes the force of Lego for a vivid story-telling experience. Sadly, the pirates in this story aren’t redeemable, even by Santa. In other songs, they really ride the Hip-Hop dream, with songs like “It’s All About That Booty,” “Broadside” and “From the Seas to the Streets” these guys have a real street braggadocio.

That’s pretty much the end of this pirate post. The Holiday is coming fast. I wish you all a Merry Holiday Season, and a Profitable New Year. (And don't get caught by the Royal Navy!)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Pirates and Beards

" our Heroe, Captain Teach, assumed the Cognomen of Black-beard, from that large Quantity of Hair, which, like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face, and frightened America more than any Comet that has appeared there a long Time.

This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes..." (Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates, 3rd Ed., p. 87-8)


Many of the folks who reenact pirates, or who participate in Pirate Rock music like to cultivate a luxurious beard. Beards are a great way to show off a sense of rebellion. But here’s the thing – real pirates, during the Golden Age, didn’t wear beards!

What about Blackbeard, you ask? Well, he was the exception that proves the rule. Blackbeard’s black beard didn’t just cause him to stand out because of its size, color and quality. Just the fact that he had a beard made him stand out… And the beard was a disguise. 


How do we know how pirates wore their hair?

We don’t have any photographs of pirates, and very few illustrations of them from the time period. But we have plenty of illustrations, paintings and engravings of sailors – and pirates were sailors.  Any deviation from the traditional “look” of sailors was noted when these men turned pirate and attacked merchant ships. So the lack of comments on facial hair indicates that pirates followed the fashion for the average man of the time.

It was the fashion for all men at the time to be clean-shaven – amazing considering how crude shaving implements were. Steel razors had only recently been invented, and were still the province of the very rich.  Poorer men shaved themselves with iron blades, or plucked the individual hairs with crude tweezers. Sometimes, they shaved with broken glass. It was guaranteed to provide a sharp edge.

The new steel razors – precursors of the “cut throat” razor – were sharp all along the blade, and did not fold, which is one of the things that make a modern straight edge razor easier to control and therefor safer. Even if pirates were able to steal the very best razors, they might have been afraid to use them. The very sharp blade and crude design meant that these blades not only nicked the face, but might cut the fingers as well.

Enter the ship’s barber. Men had been going to the barber since ancient Roman times. And the event was probably as social event as well as a grooming ritual. Barbers not only had specialized tools, the best blades, and experience, they had gossip and style advice for men who wanted to look their best.

This wasn’t an every-day thing. Most men of the time shaved only twice a week – Sundays, and some time mid-week. Additional barbering was done for special events. In the Navy, this meant national holidays, ceremonies of promotion, and visitations between ships. Pirates probably kept the ritual of the Sunday shave, and saved their “special event” shaves for times when the ship was coming into port. There’s considerable evidence that pirates liked to look their best for the ladies.  

The ship’s barber might also “bleed” his clients. At the time, many kinds of sickness, including venereal disease, were believed to be caused at least in part by a build-up of too much blood. Having a vein opened to let out about a pint of blood was just good, regular preventative medicine. (In fact, this kind of bleeding can help high blood pressure, a disease that sailors, who were often deprived of water, and also ate heavily salted food, while consuming tobacco and heroic amounts of alcohol, were likely to suffer from.)

In fact, the image of the barber pole – that rotating red-and-blue striped pole outside old fashioned barber shops – is said to represent an arm being cut open so that the blood ran down.

The ship’s barber was also often the ship’s surgeon. More about that later.

The ritual of soap, warm water and a sharp blade is familiar to any man who shaves today. Hot water came from the ship’s galley, soap was whatever cleaning compound could be had. A good barber would have served an apprenticeship of several years, during which he would have learned how to care for the blades and tools of the trade. A few notes from traveling barbers does tend to confirm that ship’s barbers did indeed shave men while on a moving ship.

But if a man didn’t want to have a sharp blade so close to his delicate skin, another option presented itself. Some men removed facial hair by using a pumice stone. Rubbing the porous stone over the face wore away some of the hair, and pulled other hairs out by the roots. Commenters of the time had two observations about how this felt. One was “It doesn’t hurt at all.” The other was “After your face toughens up, in a month or two, it doesn’t hurt at all.”

Sharp steel? Chunks of glass? Rubbing rocks on your face? Seems like the very act of being well-groomed proved a pirate’s courage.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Pirate Carpenter

Another job on the ship.

“Carpenter” is not a job that we associate with pirates. Building things just doesn’t seem like a very piratical activity. But pirates in the Golden Age sailed on wooden ship, and the job of Carpenter was one of the most important in the crew. Without repairs, even a wooden ship will sink.

The main job of the ship’s Carpenter was to care for the hull of the ship. Even in peaceful times, the hull of a wooden ship was under constant attack from barnacles, rot, and a nasty sort of burrowing clam known as a ship-worm.  Ships also took damage from running over coral or rock formations.

Masts sometimes broke under the strain of wind pressure, or failed because of tropical rot. Accidents damaged the decks, stairs, railing and furnishings of the ship.

Image result for 18th century carpenter

In a perfect world, the ship would carry a spare for every useful item on board. But in the real world such a wide variety of equipment would eat into valuable cargo space. So ships did the next best thing – they carried a wide supply of unworked wood, and one or more skilled Carpenters to turn it into whatever was needed.

Carpentry equipment during the Golden Age was tried and true. Many of the designs of tools and equipment went back to the middle ages. It was primitive, but all worked, and with it a trained man could make anything from a deck to a mast to a new arm for the ship’s figurehead.

Image result for repairing  a ship's figurehead
The first tool of an 18th century Carpenter was his work bench. This was a sturdy block of wood, about six feet long and about 18 inches wide. It had 4 strong legs on each end, making it unlikely to tilt of wobble. But unlike modern work-benches, it was chair-height instead of table-height. The reason was simple. The screw vise that we use today to steady a piece of wood we ae working on was not yet a common tool.

To keep a piece of wood steady, the carpenter placed it on the bench and then simply sat on it. This worked quite well for most applications. The Carpenter would sit, and then saw, drill, or chisel the wood to the desired shape.

Drills existed, but not in a form we would easily recognize. For small applications, the Carpenter might use a bow drill. The drill head was set on the end of a long shaft. The shaft was run through a loop in the string of a bow, and as the bow was moved back and forth, the bit would turn. 

For larger applications, one might use a Brace and Bit. This was a primitive sort of crank (the brace) with a removable drill bit. The Carpenter placed the bit where he wanted to drill, then turned the crank by hand. Though slow, this was a perfectly adequate way to drill wood. My own father owned a brace-and-bit set, which he used during the 1930’s and 40’s at job sites where no electricity was available.

An 18the century hammer and saw look very much like the modern equivalent, but both were designed so they could be repaired – the saw by replacing its blade, the hammer by replacing its wooden handle. Back in the day, you didn’t throw away a whole tool just because part of it was broken. Chisels were nearly exactly the same as those today.

Few modern-day Carpenters own an adze, but for the 18th century wood worker it was essential. This tool looks something like an ax, but the blade is horizontal rather than vertical. The adze can be used to cut grooves in wood, or to smooth a beam for use, or even to cut planks from a felled tree. It can take the place of an ax, and was used as a plane, the modern plane not having been invented yet.

With these simple tools, a good Carpenter could make nearly anything, using only the roughest pf materials. But his most important work lay in simply keeping the ship afloat.

All wooden boats leak to some extent. Water will come right through wood, given enough time. Furthermore, the normal flexing and moving of a ship at sea loosens all the ship’s joints over time. Water comes in at the seams. Day by day, the carpenter maintained these joints. Often this meant driving fibers such as frayed rope between boards that had too much space between them. The fibers would then swell and block the gaps. The Carpenter would finish it off with a coating of tar, to complete the waterproof seal.

 Image result for caulking the seams

Small holes were plugged by driving in a wooden wedge or cone. Once the device was in place, it swelled from exposure to water, and completed the seal. Excess wood could be cut away. Making these wedges and cones was also work for the Carpenter and his apprentices.

Larger leaks or damage from cannon fire could be “shored up” by placing a slab of wood against the hole on the inside and bracing it with a log or beam placed at a 45-degree angle and wedged between the plug and the deck blow. This was difficult, dangerous work. Even as the Carpenter and his mates worked, the water rose around them, and the sea fought them every inch of the way.

Cracked masts would be splinted, in much the same way a broken bone is splinted. This might involve a cooperative effort by the Carpenter and Bosun, as the proper pieces of wood needed to be selected and shaped, then hauled into place and bound to the mast with ropes. 

If a whole mast was carried away, something needed to be rigged up to replace it, if the ship was to move at all. A pirate ship might cut down a tree, but if trees were in short supply, anything might do. Many ships have limped back into port with makeshift masts constructed out of anything available. The point was to get to shore before the ship sank, or ran out of food or water.

Because he was so vital, a merchant ship’s Carpenter commanded a high rate of pay, and was usually treated with respect by his captain. Because of this, pirate captains faced a shortage of skilled carpenters. Even Sam Bellamy, one of the richest and most persuasive pirates was forced to kidnap Carpenters in order to modify and maintain his ships. Carpenters Thomas South and Thomas Davis, who survived the sinking of Bellamy’s flagship, had been conscripted by Bellamy. Therefore, while six of their fellow pirates were found guilty and hanged, they were acquitted of all charges and spared the gallows.

Which is one way to be a pirate and have a real life, too.