Rope bounded the lives of pirates, as it did for all sea-faring men. Rope held their vessels together, lifted their sails, held them to docks or to the sea bottom via the ship’s anchor. Men climbing to trim the sails depended on well-maintained rope to support them. And in an era when absolutely no safety regulations existed, damaged rope was a reason for mutiny.
|A piece of preserved rope found on board the 16th century carrack Mary Rose|
The earliest evidence we have of human-made rope is in impressions made in clay and dating back 28,000 years. (No, that’s not a mistake.) Our earliest actual example of rope is a fossilized piece of “two-ply laid rope” which was found in the famous Caves of Lascaux – the ones with the famous animal paintings. These fossilized pieces date to approximately 15,000 BC.
All kinds of materials have been used to make rope. Palm fiber, flax, grass, animal hair and leather have all been pressed into use. By the late Middle Ages, and through the Golden Age of Piracy, hemp rope was the accepted standard. Hemp is a fast-growing plant, and produces long, strong fibers. Unfortunately, like most natural materials, it is prone to rot.
Rope was made in “ropewalks”, an early sort of factory. Fibers were twisted together into twine, then twine was twisted into rope. The process involved enormous amounts of both skill and humans muscle. Teams of men walked backwards, while hauling and twisting the fibers. The process produced a set length of rope, not a continuous stretch. In the early 17th century, Peter Appleby constructed a 300-metre long ropewalk (for the dockyard) in Copenhagen, Denmark.
As navies rose in importance, rope making became a matter of national security. The ropewalk at Chatham Dockyard in England is still producing rope commercially and has an internal length of 1,135 ft (346 m). When it was constructed in 1790, it was the longest brick building in Europe. The facility produced a huge variety of rope, and provide jobs for strong, skilled workers. It took over 200 men to form and close a 20-inch (circumference) cable laid rope.
The lengths of the buildings and the functional maximum length that a single length of rope could be made gave shipping a measurement – the “cable length” or average length of a piece of rope. Roughly 800 feet (thought it varies between nations.)
What if you needed a piece of rope more than 800 feet long? This could only be achieved by splicing, a method of braiding or weaving the ends of rope together to make a longer piece. Though different styles of splicing rope exist, each has its own problems. Some create a weak place in the rope. Others don’t, but make a bulge, which is difficult to get through pulleys.
But once it’s been put to use, rope is no longer rope. A ship may contain up to several MILES of rope, but each piece has a name and a function. It could take a novice sailor years to memorize all of this, and during the time he was studying, he was said to be “learning the ropes.” The phrase has since been adopted by other professions, signifying a period when a new employee is picking up the basics of his or her new workplace.
As an example of terminology, rope that is purposely sized, cut, spliced, or simply assigned a function, is referred to as a "line". Sail control lines are mainly referred to as sheets, for example a jibsheet. A halyard is a line used to raise and lower a sail, and is typically made of a length of rope with a shackle attached at one end. Other examples include anchor line ("rode"), stern line, marline and so on.
Most importantly for sailors, rope dating from the Golden Age of Piracy needs to be maintained. At minimum, current safety experts recommend that all natural-fiber lines should be inspected every year, with an eye to replacement. High-stress lines should be inspected every three to six months. Life-critical lines, such as the toe lines that sailors stood on while furling sails, should be inspected before every use.
But in the 17th and 18th century, there were no safety standards, and no requirements. Ship-owning corporations wanted lines to last as long as possible. Maintaining materials in the service of lowering maintenance costs was common practice. Lines were tarred (waterproofed) so often that sailors were known by the smell of tar they carried on their clothes., and even called by the nickname “Jack Tar.” Elaborate systems of protection came into practice (see the video below) But some commanders, ignorant of the properties of hemp, (most captains had been schooled in reading and writing, literature, cyphering or bookkeeping, astronomy or navigation and geography, but not the hands-on work of a ship) saw reason to replace lines only when they failed.
The fact that this might mean that one or more sailors died was not a problem, since a work-related death did not cost the company any money. In addition, time spent inspecting rope was not time spent making the ship go faster, or moving more cargo. Sailors were often left to discover dangerous lines by themselves. And since hemp rope absorbed water, it was most likely to rot from the inside out, hiding defects. A captain or corporate officer might ignore information from sailors about unsafe working conditions. Indeed, he might have a sailor who insisted on presenting facts about failing rigging flogged in punishment. After all, how dare a common sailor tell a captain how to run his ship?
Deaths and injuries from unsafe rigging had no direct effect on shipping companies or captains. But word got out that such-and-such was not a safe ship, and sailors looking for work tried to avoid these vessels. And when sailors were injured or killed resentment rose. This was exactly the kind of bad feeling which drove men to become pirates. After all, on a pirate vessel, officers were dependent on the good will of the crew, and having risen from the ranks (in most cases) pirate captains had first-hand knowledge of the dangers of old rope.