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


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