What Did Pirates Eat on Ships?


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

The potential for profit and greater freedom were just two of pirating’s enticements. An important appeal of pirate life that is often underrated is food. The food situation on long naval voyages was pretty terrible. English sailors worked hard and needed a lot of calories. There was a continuous battle to provide these as cheaply as possible, particularly for long voyages where lading space mattered as well.

A bottle of rum and barrels with the sea in the background
Drinking was an important part of the life of most pirates, especially on long naval voyages. (Image: Bryan Faust/Shutterstock)

Preserving Food

Close to port, food might be decent enough, but for most of the age of sail, the means of preserving food were pretty limited, particularly given the lively appetites of the ship’s rats, weevils, and cockroaches. The rats were sometimes even permitted to thrive on long voyages, as they could be a useful source of protein.

Rat peeping out of a hole
Sometimes, rats were used as sources of protein in long naval voyages. (Image: IrinaK/Shutterstock)

The staples of a long naval voyage included a simple diet, mostly of sat meat, usually pork dried peas, old cheese, and fish if it were available. Often, it was not. Oatmeal was made into a thick stew, called loblolly, in vast amounts, and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of ship’s biscuit. This was a hard, flavorless cracker that in the 19th century came to be called hard tack. 

Soft tack meant regular bread, but no one ever seems to call any food just plain tack. The best thing we can say of hard tack is that if it is stored somewhere dry, it will last for years without becoming less edible than it was when it was fresh baked.

Cutting Expenses

Naval suppliers often delivered worse than what they promised, and merchant vessels frequently saw rations as a place to save money. Merchant captains and owners might try to save money by forcing the men onto short rations or by purchasing cheap food that spoiled too quickly. 

Sometimes not everything in the pork barrel was pork. For example, ship biscuits are unappealing if made from wholesome flour. It is far worse if made from adulterated horse feed, as sometimes happened. The officers, who were allowed to ship their own provisions and could even bring livestock, had no obligation to share even if the ship’s boys and landsmen were starving. 

There is every reason to think that pirates often ate better than naval crew, merchant men, or their prisoners. They stuck to local waters, often shores and inlets they knew well, and therefore had better access to better cuisine. Moreover, when they captured something edible or potable at sea, they shared.

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

Drinking Culture

There’s one other important item of the sailor’s diet of course, which is drink, often the hard stuff. Some quantity of beer, wine, or liquor was almost always a part of a sailor’s daily allocation. 

It’s not true that all sailors swung from the rigging drunk at any time of the day. But it is the case that drunkenness could be a problem, particularly if they saved their rations up for a debauch. It was apparently even more of an issue with pirates, whose rules required the free sharing out of such stores.

Rum, in particular, was culturally important, both as a drink and as a trade good. Of course, holds full of gold treasure were uncommon. Most booty consisted of cargo. Rum was among the most fungible of goods, as it could be used directly as a currency at many points along the coast of the African continent to purchase goods and human captives. As a beverage, it was both popular and problematic.

Drunk Pirates

Wooden barrels on the deck of a wooden ship
Though pirates drank freshwater, it wasn’t necessarily “fresh” in the sense that it still had algae and other unwholesomeness in it. (Image: Irina Kovancova/Shutterstock)

Tales of sailors and piratical drunkenness abound, but rum was also a practical necessity at sea. Sailors didn’t necessarily carry alcohol because they were degenerates. Freshwater on a ship was fresh in the sense of not being saltwater. It was not typically fresh in the sense of smelling clean and not being full of algae and other unwholesomeness. Water was imperfectly stored in wooden casks and was not filtered or pasteurized. 

To make it more palatable and less hazardous, water was mixed with alcohol—rum usually after the 17th century, thanks to the British slavery plantations in Jamaica, and their ability to produce sugar cane molasses for the empire. 

Pirates and other mariners alike were used to the drink and often added citrus juice if they could to improve the dubious taste. The buccaneers, pirates, and merchants of the Caribbean favored a concoction called bumbo—water, rum, sugar, lime, and sometimes nutmeg or cinnamon, which was delicious.

Common Questions about What Pirates Ate on Ships

Q: What was hard tack?

Hard tack, or ship’s biscuit, was a hard, flavorless cracker. As it lasted longer, pirates took them on long naval voyages.

Q: Why was rum important for pirates?

Rum was important for pirates for a number of reasons. It was deemed as a trade good. Rum could be used as a currency at many points along the African continent. Pirates could use rum to purchase goods and human captives. Rum was also used to make water more palatable on long naval voyages.

Q: What water did pirates drink?

Pirates drank freshwater. It was called freshwater in the sense that it wasn’t saltwater, but it still had algae and other unwholesomeness. This was because the water wasn’t stored perfectly. It was stored in wooden casks and not filtered or pasteurized. Pirates would mix it with alcohol or an alcoholic beverage like rum to keep it less hazardous.

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