What Did It Take to Lead a Pirate Life?


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

We’re going to talk about the day-to-day pirate life onboard a ship. Let’s explore what was common to all mariners, pirate and non-pirate, and also some of the differences, the divergences that made pirate life unique and, to a few, preferable to legal seafaring. Most people turn to piracy, at least in part for the profit potential, but there were arguably other incentives.

Treasure chests on a sandy beach with pirate ships in the background
There were many incentives for people to lead a pirate life, profit being one among many. (Image: Design Projects/Shutterstock)

Pirate Life Wasn’t For Everyone

To be a skilled mariner in the age of sail required talent, toughness, and quite a lot of knowledge. An able seaman would have years of experience and could hand reef and steer, that is, manage the sails and act as a helmsman to direct the ship. And he would also be able to knot and spice the rigging aloft, keep a lookout, use the lead, which was a means of sounding the depth of the ocean, work on a gun crew, manage the machinery of the deck and probably sew moderately well in his spare time. 

There were also idlers, carpenters, and coopers who were trained in making barrels and casks; surgeons and pursers who handled the money on board; and men with indispensable special stabilities. Officers would be able to do all of an enabled seaman’s duties plus order the setting of the sails, stand watch, and in some cases, perform the difficult mathematics of celestial navigation using a sextant. By the way, there was no reliable way to calculate longitude until the 1770s.

Pirate Math

A compass and a notebook with a beach in the background
Those who wanted to lead a pirate life had to have knowledge in different fields of expertise. (Image: Aris-Tect Group/Shutterstock)

Piracy and navigational challenges were a fundamental part of an able education in one particularly interesting fashion. In an essay entitled “When Pirates Studied Euclid”, historian Margaret Schotte includes an example of a word problem from Richard Norwood’s 1631 Trigonometrie textbook: “A merchant man… falls into the hands of pyrats; who amongst other things, takes away his sea-compasse. When he is gotten clear, he sailes away as directly as he can and after two dayes meetes with a man of war.” 

It’s a large naval vessel. Naturally, the man of war will then try “to hunt down the pirates. Since the merchant had sailed, since at least 64 leagues betweene the South and the West, what course shall the man of warre ship to finde these pyrates?” For more than a century, variants on this pirate question appeared in textbooks.

People studied and took exams as to what they would do to navigate safely in perilous conditions.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

For Those Who Don’t Like Math

In some cases, large naval ship would carry a contingent of people ranked as Landsmen. People who had never been to sea and had none of these skills but were still needed to haul on ropes, sand the deck, carry burdens, turn the capstan, which was the large axle used to raise the anchor, work the pumps, and so on; unskilled, grueling work, but necessary. 

Pirate cruise tended to be, on the whole, more expert than other types, composed as they mostly were of experienced sailors instead of impressed landsmen. They also tended to be larger compared to a merchantman’s compliment, so the work could be more likely shared out. Even so, because the lighter labor loads were part of the appeal of piracy, many pirate crews were not over-eager to do such hard labor.

If they could, pirates not uncommonly forced prisoners or enslaved people from Africa or the Indian subcontinent to perform the hard labor. And, of course, in the Mediterranean, coasteering ships were frequently ridden by captives whose lot was generally supposed to be extremely unenviable.

Being a Pirate Was Tough

In general, life on the high seas was seen as a hard lot for the common marine labor unquestionably, but for the officers as well. Most men avoided sea life entirely and arguably with good reason. 

Portrait of Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson famously compared being in a ship akin to being a jail with the chance of drowning. (Image: Joshua Reynolds/Public Domain)

As the great moralist and lexicographer of the 18th century, Samuel Johnson famously put it. “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” He went on, “A man in a jail has more room, better food and commonly better company.”

Johnson was famous for being able to argue any side of any argument. He seems to have believed this apparent hyperbole very sincerely. His trusted assistant, Francis Barber, a freed black man from Jamaica, once voluntarily enlisted as landsman in the navy. Johnson was frantic and went to great lengths to get him discharged, pulling every string he could think of, despite the fact that Barber himself gave no indication of wanting to leave the service.

The division between Barber and Johnson is a good microcosm for the general takes on life at sea. For many, it seemed unforgiving, filthy, cramped, smelly, and dangerous, and actually, it pretty much was all of those things. On the other hand, for those who adapted, it represented routine, familiarity, constant companionship, perhaps freedom from debt, legal entanglements, or family obligations, and certainly a culture that was different from the culture on land.

Common Questions about What It Took to Lead a Pirate Life

Q: What skills did one need to be part of a mariner in the age of sail?

One had to have years of experience handling reef and steer, managing sails, directing the ship as a helmsman, knotting and spicing the rigging, using the lead, and managing the machinery. To lead a pirate life, one had to be tough, have much experience, and possess a lot of knowledge in various fields.

Q: What did the landsmen do?

These were people who had never been to sea or had none of the skills needed to survive leading a pirate life but would instead take on the tedious labor that was needed onboard. Over time, they could learn various skills from their crewmates.

Q: How did Samuel Johnson describe life at sea?

To Samuel Johnson, life at sea, whether it was a pirate‘s life or not, was akin to being in jail at will. The difference was that at sea, you could drown. He famously said, “A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”

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