Statistics say that, before it sank into the ocean in the great earthquake of 1690, the town of Port Royal, in Jamaica, had one tavern for every two houses. This statistic is true, if a little misleading. The business of selling drinks has changed a bit in the last 300 years.
Let’s start with some terminology. Today, we think of the terms “tavern,” “alehouse,” and even “bar” as being pretty much the same thing. And if we even know about the term “public house” we group it right in with the others.
But a Public House was a slightly different concern. It was, literally, a house that was public. Ale-brewing and beer-brewing at the time was untaxed an unregulated, and many, if not most, households saved money by brewing their own ale or beer. The two drinks are pretty similar. Grain, water, yeast and hops (if available) ferment together to make an alcoholic drink.
Both brews can be brought to a high art. But when the maker’s intention is mostly to kill water-borne bacteria (through formation of alcohol) and create drink that makes the drinker tipsy, it’s not hard to produce a mixture that’s at least satisfactory. And if a home-brewer had plenty of his home-brew, it was to his advantage to sell it to passer-by.
So a Public House was a house – a private home – that had been opened to the public. Anyone with enough ale (beer is brewed in cooler climates than the Caribbean) could open his front door, hang out a sign, and invited pirates, and others, in for a drink. For a fee, of course.
Port Royal was not protected by the English regular Navy. Instead, a half-organized group of privateers and pirates made the place their home, and protected it as a matter of keeping a secure docking-place. The sailors from these often illegal or semi-legal ships wanted drink. And the home-owners needed cash. So doors were opened and strange sailors were invited in.
This, by the way, also indicates the benign intent of most pirates. If your town has a problem with badly-behaved pirate-sailors, you don’t open your front door to them. You don’t invite them under the same roof that shelters your wife and children. And yet the homeowners – or at least 1/3 of them – did.
Upon entering a Public House, the pirate – and perhaps a few of his friends – would sit down at the family dining table and agree on a price for drink. The homeowner, his wife, and perhaps even their children made pleasant conversation, and showed off any skills they might have at singing or playing music. If the pirate was too drunk to go home at the end of the evening, he could bed down in a spare room, for a small additional fee. If there was no spare room available, a pile of straw on the floor might be available for a slightly smaller fee. In the morning, the family waved him on his way, and if he had enjoyed himself, he might be back the next night.
Ale-house, and even pot-house, were similar terms, describing a place that sold only ale, and was probably in someone’s home.
A hostile was specifically a place for travelers, and featured stabling for horses. While a tavern, or even a public house, might also be able to put up a horse or two, there were not generally enough mounted travelers on the small Caribbean islands to require much in the way of rented horse-housing.
Actual taverns, purpose-built businesses intended for selling drinks and providing entertainment, were not regulated until 1752, and even then only those within 20 miles of London. The Caribbean, like most of the New World, was the wild, wild, west as far an entrepreneurial liquor-sellers.
Taverns sold other drinks besides ale, notably wine, rum, and whiskey. They were open on a regular basis, not just when their owner had extra booze to sell. And they were probably more often frequented by local prostitutes. A proper tavern could be counted on to have several sleeping-rooms, and might offer a regular in-house musician, and even space enough for dancing.
Taverns often also offered newspapers and lyric-sheets. It was common at the time for song-writers to market their works directly. Since no recordings could be made and sold, the writer of a song would have sheets printed up with the words (usually the same group of popular tunes were re-cycled) and then went door-to-door selling them to taverns. If the tavern owner was interested, he would pay a penny or so, and the song-peddler would glue a lyric sheet to the wall.
Other sorts of notices were posted as well, and were a drawing point for potential customers. Notices of slave sales, rewards offered for runaway slaves and servants, and notices of pirate trials and hangings were all announced by being posted up in such public places. And a juxtaposition between dated notices and lyric sheets on the walls of ancient taverns give us some idea of what tunes were popular during what years. (Guess what? One of the favorite songs during the Golden Age of Piracy was a ballad about Robin Hood taking from the Rich to give to the Poor.)
And as for “bars” – well, that is a word tied to a structure, usually with shelves behind it and a bar-tender as well. A bar is useful if an establishment has one drink-server, several kinds of liquid entertainment, and customers who want to sit near or lean on the bar structure. The word also implies an emphasis on hard liquor – something far less common in the early 1700’s. If you had asked a pirate to tell you his favorite bar, he wouldn’t have known what you were talking about.