Few groups have been as romanticised as pirates. Between their outings on the silver screen, their adventures in books and television, as well as the enduring allure of a life on the high seas, pirates have become cultural icons. Names like Blackbeard, Jack Rackham, William Kidd, Black Bart, Barbarossa, Charles Vane, Mary Read and Anne Bonny, to name just a few, have continued to enchant us to this day.
During the Golden Age of Piracy, roughly from 1650–1730, pirates scoured the West Indies, many growing rich as buccaneers and privateers, essentially a practice of state sanctioned piracy. The English used this method of naval warfare to hamper Spanish growth in the Americas and profit from their vast treasure fleets. Many pirates began life as buccaneers and privateers, but often in name only. They’d frequently attack any ship they came across, no matter the flag they flew.
Piracy attracted a diverse range of individuals, from adolescents to the middle-aged, pirates were essentially violent criminals on the sea. Many of them were young sailors who turned to piracy. Some joined involuntarily, essentially becoming slaves after being captured during a raid, while others were disillusioned labourers from the rural areas of their home countries, driven to a life of crime by crushing debt and land reforms. In truth, the life of pirate was hard and brutal and attracted hard, brutal people.
A great deal of attention is paid to the actions of these semi-mythical individuals, but while life on board a ship could be brutal, what really made it a tough life, fit for only the hardest of men (and on occasion women), was the food.
Naval rations were notoriously bad. Ever since the beginnings of us exploring the oceans, by necessity, food onboard has to be sparse. But as the importance of ship grew in both trade and warfare, often called the Age of Sail, roughly from 1571–1862, conditions onboard became far worse. An estimated 2 million sailors died from scurvy between 1500 and 1800, more than all US military deaths combined in the nation’s history.
While sailors the world over suffered from scurvy, pirates suffered particularly badly. But they had more immediate issues to content with — starvation. To deal with this, pirates ate pretty much whatever they could…