Daily Archives: 19 December 2006

Pirate Recruits and Draftees in the Early 1700s

Pirate ships recruited men from every sort of vessel which sailed the Atlantic and Caribbean, but there were two trades which stood out as a source of willing men. The first was the Newfoundland fishery which attracted the pirates of the 1710s just as it had those of a century earlier. Here every summer there were some two thousand English and American sailors and fishermen, ‘shamefully exploited by the masters of their ships’ and doing work of ‘extraordinary labour and pains’, perfect recruits for the pirate ships who came to Newfoundland ‘to get better manned’. The West African slave trade was an even better recruiting ground for pirates, the crews of slavers being ‘generally glad of an opportunity of entering with them’, as Snelgrave reported. Slavers were notoriously unpleasant ships to work in, with more than their fair share of harsh and brutal captains and with incredibly high mortality among their crews, an average of one in four who shipped at English slaving ports such as London and Bristol not surviving the voyage. Sailors were described by a clergyman eager to redeem them as ‘a third sort of persons, to be numbered neither with the living nor the dead: their lives hanging continually in suspense before them’. This was literally true for the crews of slavers, making them very willing to swap their harsh conditions for the easygoing life aboard a pirate ship, even if it was a ‘voyage to Hell’ in which they would inevitably die sooner or later, as a pirate in Captain Cocklyn’s crew described the prospects of the venture on which he had embarked.

In the first three or four years of this period of piracy, few men were forced to join the pirates, except those known as ‘artists’, skilled men desperately needed aboard the ship such as carpenters, coopers, sailmakers and surgeons or perhaps a tailor, the pirates with their shipworn clothes ‘wanting such a person very much’, as a tailor forced to serve Bartholomew Roberts against his will declared at his trial. Musicians, such as trumpeters and fiddlers, were also more than likely to be forced on board as music was an essential part of life on a pirate ship. De Bucquoy describes the men on Taylor’s ship practising with their weapons on deck, ‘while their musicians play divers airs so that the days pass very agreeably’, though this might not be so pleasant for the musicians who were ordered ‘to play their tune or be beat’, as was ‘one of the musick’ of a slaver captured by pirates in West Africa.

But the general run of sailors, ‘being encouraged by the daily and uninterrupted success of the pirates’, needed no force to make them enlist, sometimes whole crews at a time, but more often just two or three of the more adventurous or more discontented of the merchant crew. John King, a young passenger on a sloop captured near the Virgin Islands by the famous pirate Black Jack Bellamy, was absolutely determined to join his crew. ‘He declared he would kill himself if he was restrained and even threatened his mother who was then on board as a passenger.’ But such enthusiasm for the piratical way of life began to wane as time went on and it became increasingly apparent that life as a pirate was likely to be a short one. Now volunteers dried up and more and more men were forced to serve, often with a pistol at their head or with a whip, a change in policy which made pirate crews dangerously divided between forced and willing men and enabled the former to take control of the ship on several occasions.

SOURCE: The Pirate Wars, by Peter Earle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), pp. 166-168

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