What made a man into a pirate? What did pirates look like? For some it comes as bad news that pirates on average weren’t dirty, nasty evil men; they didn’t bury treasure, didn’t habitually make their victims walk the plank into the sea, wear distinctive tattoos or ear-rings as a matter of course, have a parrot perched on one shoulder, always carried a cutlass and a long-barreled flintlock pistol and have at least one wooden leg. Pirate captains - with very few exceptions - weren’t bloodthirsty despots, capering clowns or lumbering drunken idiots.
Taking an average between 1700 and 1730 of pirates hanged for their crimes, pirates were aged twenty-five years of age. Pirates were almost all ex-seamen, with a background of the merchant service or the Navy. Many turned into pirates from serving on privateers, but some young British or Colonial men in English or North American Atlantic ports joined a known pirate crew after hearing of the rich plunder to be had in ‘venturing your life’ and taking a few risks. Seamen - even after a short voyage - would bear the marks and scars of handling heavy tackle aboard a ship at sea. Hauling on tough hemp ropes and handling wet sails left large calluses on the hands, and wind and salt-spray gave their faces and necks a ‘ruddy’ weather-beaten look. The way a seaman walked reflected the weeks and months spent traversing a wooden deck which continuously pitched and rolled underfoot. In later periods, members of the Press-Gang could spot a fellow seaman from his appearance and his walk even though the retired seaman might be dressed as a butcher, a baker or a candle-stick maker and be strolling through the streets of Nottingham. A seaman’s life was physically very hard work, in a dangerous environment involving constant damp and discomfort, poor living conditions and bad or monotonous food and drink. Seamen died from being drowned, but most died from diseases such as dysentery, tuberculosis, typhus and smallpox ; just as did ‘landsmen’ ashore - most pirates generally had ‘a short life but a merry one’ ending in penury or at the gallows but the very luckiest were able to retire on average between two and four years later with enough money to ‘set up for life’. Unlike privateers or merchants seamen, pirates had the promise and opportunity of huge financial gains to make up for their hardships.
A pirate returning to port in 1725 with the equivalent of £500 in his pocket was individually richer than 95% of the rest of the population of Europe and North America. Between the years 1690 and 1730 it can be calculated that the number of pirates world-wide was estimated at between 2000 and 3000 at any one time and throughout this forty-year period they stole money and materials to the value of the staggering sum of £1000 million pounds sterling. Though most pirates lost or squandered their shares on drink and women, each pirate had - on average - an equivalent income of around a million pounds per annum.
Depending on the historical period in question, people’s appearances would loosely follow fashion or the availability of materials. In an age where your status in society was decreed by the clothes you wore, many - if they could afford it - went for an extravagant cut of a coat or dress (to use more than the requisite amount of material was a sign of wealth) and of course to make your clothes of silk rather than wool or linen showed that you were a very rich person. Pirates followed the general pattern for sea-going men ; tough, plain clothes to suit the working environment and the prevailing weather. In warm climates, a neck scarf over a loose shirt of linen or cotton - usually ‘white’ in colour but often having a coloured pattern of stripes or check - worn in or over loose-fitting trousers or more often a pair of loose breeches cut off below the knees between a foot and six inches above the ankle. Seaman’s trousers known as ‘petticoat breeches’ were generously cut in the legs and resembled ladies’ culottes of a later period ; these breeches were made of wool or linen to suit the climate. Breeches would have a button-fly or be a fall-front pattern as common fashion decreed. A seaman working in hot and sunny climates always wore something on his head ; a bandanna-like scarf, a bonnet, a woollen cap, a wide-brimmed hat or a cocked hat. His jacket made from wool, canvas or heavy linen - sometimes called a ‘fearnought’ - would be a plain cut-down or shortened version of the civilian coat, with the bottom hem being just below the waist instead of having a full and pleated skirt, and the sleeves ‘turned-back’ to button just below the elbow. Some seamen would wear a sleeved waistcoat instead of a jacket. Blue was a popular colour for clothes, as were red and yellow. Seamen would possess (or share within a group) a heavy wool, hemp cloth or canvas windproof overcoat for bad weather - these semi-waterproof over-garments were wide-fitting, generously roomy inside and often buttoned right up to and over the chin to protect the face. Many pirates possessed ‘fancy laced clothes’ through stealing them from prizes but these were probably only worn ashore ‘to impress the natives’. These ‘fancy’ clothes - of course - when taken as plunder would belong to the ships’ crew as a whole and not to a particular individual unless ‘purchased’. Aboard ship, most seamen went barefoot but going ashore slipped on a pair of buckle-shoes in an age where all forms of household filth and rubbish was discarded into a central ditch or sewer and rain was the only cleansing agent as ‘street-sweepers’ had not yet been generally employed.
Favoured personal weapons were the muzzle-loading flintlock pistol, a knife or dagger for the ship and any ‘close work’ in combat and a longer blade such as a cutlass or hanger for intimidation or actual use when attacking an enemy but full-length swords or sabres were unhandy in the press of a brawl aboard ship and difficult to manage in the general conditions aboard boat or ship. Firearms such as muskets, musketoons and the ‘blunderbuss’ were used by pirates to over-awe the crew of a prize or at close ranges make them keep their heads below the rail, but were probably discarded upon boarding and used only to control a captured crew. A pirate with a cool nerve and a steady eye would be placed by one of the ships’ swivel-guns during the action ; these ‘murdering pieces’ were capable of terrible destruction through a single well-aimed shot.
Pirates often wore their personal weapons ashore in ‘pirate environments’ such as Tortuga, Nassau, Port Royal, Ranter Bay or Santa Maria Island but would certainly not do so in any ‘civilized place’ such as London, Bristol, Charleston or New York without the risk of being challenged and arrested. In several pirate Articles, weapons are stated as required to be kept in the best working condition at all times - and the best personal weapon aboard a prize would be awarded to the pirate who first sighted the prize at sea as this was an obvious incentive for everyone concerned to keep ‘a good look-out for any sail’.
All text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore. (Photos to be added later)