Select Page

This is a rare episode indeed, my beautiful Brainiac – it’s almost topical!  Outside of a few holidays and the start of the covid pandemic, rare is a YBOF tied to current events.  Evergreen content, me.  But there’s a little something in popular culture that has absorbed and dissolved my entire being.  There is no Moxie anymore, only an unfathomable obsession with Our Flag Means Death.  I won’t gas on about it here, but a comedy about Blackbeard and his ‘good friend,’ a real life aristocrat who ditched his family to be a pirate, by and starring Taika Waititi, how could that possibly be bad?

 

All this thinking about pirates has made me realize that I’ve hardly said a word about piracy in nearly 200 episodes, more than 100 hours material, plus the bonus minis at patreon.com/yourbrainonfacts.  One short-ish paragraph about how the UK West Country accent became the default pirate speak waaay back in #73 For The Last Time.  So today I’m here to correct that oversight, starting by my favorite kind of correcting, correcting historical misapprehensions.  

 

piracy not confined to age of sail, from earliest example to the modern day (look at me, I am the captain now)

 

Most of what you think of when you think of pirates, most of what you’ve seen and read and watched your entire life vis a vis pirates is the fault of author Robert Louis Stevenson and his novel Treasure Island, with an assist from Walt Disney.  The novel was a hit in 1883, engraving Stevenson’s version of pirated into the public consciousness and the 1950 Disney movie, where the accent comes in, reignited the fandom fires and marketability.  More books and comics were written, movies were made, almost always copying something –usually many things– that can be traced right back to Stevenson.  It’s what I refer to in the YBOF book as ‘cemented apocrypha.’

 

Let’s run through a bunch real quick, starting with the easy stuff – peg legs and eye patches.  Life in the age of sail was hazardous enough, let alone being a sailor whose job involved cannon fire and close-weapons combat, and definitely people were bobbing around with a limb or an eye.  If they survived losing said limb or eye.  Remember what doctor-quality healthcare was like in, say, the 17th century.  If you’re out to sea and find yourself at the last desperate step of amputation before your incipient death by septicemia, a place constantly moving, with a finite amount of fresh water and no concept of hygiene, your surgeon will probably be the cook.  After all, knives are knives, meat’s meat.  If you don’t lose your life, you will lose your job.  Galleon, sloops, and schooners aren’t exactly handicap-accessible and piracy isn’t a job that can make reasonable accommodations.  You’re not completely SOL though.  On a lot of pirate ships, you’d actually be entitled to,,,a pension.  We’ll wait a moment for American listeners to chuckle sardonically and shake our heads.  More about pirate compensation and benefits in a bit.  As for eye patches, any Mythbusters fan will tell you that could be a handy tool.  You keep one eye covered at all time and it never adjusts to the light of day.  If you have to go below decks, where there are precious few and poor light sources, you swap it over to cover your daytime eye and go about with your nighttime eye.  Nighttime, daytime, nighttime, daytime.  God help you if you’re down there a while and have to emerge into the noonday sun, that’s gonna suck.  10 times worse than going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

 

If you’re picturing a pirate ship as a giant craft, looming over merchant ships like a school bully, prepare to be disabused. Big ships are intimidating, but they’re also slow and less maneuverable. Small ships can also go into more-shallow water than a larger craft, so if your little pirate sloop is being chased by a Portuguese man-o-war, the ship not the jellyfish, you can hug the coast, even dart among reefs and rocks to get away to live to thieve another day.

 

The pirates we see in movies tend to be middle-aged men or at least guys in their 30s, guys with a lot of years behind them.  Sure, there were some road-dogs, but most pirates were probably in their 20s.  Turning to piracy is a young man’s game.  They’re fit enough for the work and tethered by fewer attachments and responsibilities, like wives.  One study, looking at 1716-1726, estimates that only 4% of pirates were married.  To women back home, anyway; more on *that later too.

 

Life on a pirate ship looked like the hijinx the robo-people are up to in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, like a Dothraki wedding every day.  They might be pillagers and burners, but they lived in a society.  There were rules, conventions, actual written laws on how pirates were to conduct themselves.  Some captains banned their crew from gambling, smoking, and even excessive drinking, which is probably the least pirate-y thing you’ve ever heard.

 

Those men we now know were in their 20’s were actually a little less homogenous, and less like homogenized milk.  Many pirate crews included people from Africa, both directly from their homeland and those who had escaped chattle slavery.  It’s estimated that at one point, 60% of Blackbeard’s crew was black.  They were not as egalitarian when it came to gender, though.  Yes, Mary Read and  Bonny, *and Zheng Yi, I know, there *were female pirates, and they deserve their own episode, but statistically, they were outliers.  Captains reeeally didn’t want women aboard, to the point that it was spelled-out in the pirate code – “If any man shall be found seducing [a woman] and carrying her to sea in disguise, he shall suffer death.”  Women were thought to be bad luck on ships.  Sailors, more than actors and athletes combined, are a superstitious lot.  I could do a whole episode on that alone.  Shoutout if you want an episode on superstitions, soc med.  

 

Oh yeah, the pirate code.  I just dropped it in there like it was assumed.  As we all remember from the first Pirates movie and hopefully a little independent scholarship besides, pirates did have their own system of laws, usually called Aeticles of Agreement, which applied more on a ship-to-ship basis rather than every pirate everywhere.  Remember, you’ve got captains and crews from different nations with different agendas, goals and enemies.  Only certain things were considered rules for all pirates, such as “He that shall desert the ship or his quarters in the time of battle shall be punished by death or marooning.”

 

The pirate code was popularized by the early Buccaneers, which we use as a syonym for pirate but which actually refers to the semi-lawful sailors and soldiers who harassed Spanish ships and ports in the Caribbean Sea during 17th century specifically.  Every sailor had to sign their name to the rules of the particular ship, essentially agreeing to the terms of service.  The contract codified things the voting methods, codes of conduct, punishments for violating those codes, distribution of pay, workman’s compensation, etcetera.  Sailors also swore an oath of allegiance and honor, with one hand on a Bible, part of the ship, or a much more metal option like a sword, a cannon or a human skull, if you happen to have one of those lying about.  

 

Not every man was there voluntarily though.  If you had skills a ship needed, you might find yourself press-ganged into service and forced to sign the Articles of Agreement.  This, if nothing else, created a certain plausible deniability or something like a conscientious objector status, so some pirates asked to be “forced to sign” so that they could claim innocence.  The Articles were then posted in a prominent place so everyone would remember the expectations.  In my mind, it looks less like Martin Luther mixed with a wild west wanted poster and more like the worker’s comp poster in the breakroom that’s required by law.

 

Neither were they all, to a man, murderous sociopaths.  Dead men can’t spend money, so pirates fought as often and as hard as they had to.  The biggest expenses on a pirate ship were personnel and repairs, so you really want to manage the amount of cannonballs that are gonna come flying your way.  Pirates preferred to let their reputations precede them, encouraging their targets to give up with minimal fight.  They’d know you at a distance by your pirate flag.  Yes, the jolly roger, the classic skull and crossbones, was used, but by a lot of captains, not really good for branding.  A pirate flag was as important as a brand logo is now, like Blackbeard’s skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear, clearly recovering from a bad break-up, or Batholomew Roberts’ flag featuring himself having a drink with Death.  Here’s something to ponder, the most famous pirates weren’t the best ones, they were the best that got caught.  Their trials made their crimes public record.  The real best pirates have actually been lost to history because they were just that good.

 

That being said, surrendering was still in your best interest if your ship had been boarded.  Making a pirate’s life difficult is a roundabout way of making your own life much shorter, the outcome much more torture-y and much less walking the plank, since that is 97% fiction.  Keel-haul was the order of the day, i.e. being tied to a rope and dragged *under the ship.  On the other hand, helping out by telling them where the loot is would probably win mercy and even a job offer.  You’re a sailor who’s clever enough to stay alive, that’s all they really need on a resume.

 

Say you’ve decided to sign on, both metaphorically and literally, and now you answer only to your captain, the supreme authority over your life, the last word in what you do and what happens to you, right?  Not to cut the peg-legs out from under any legendary pirates, but the captain wasn’t an unquestioned dictator.  Enter the Quartermaster, a position as important as captain that seemingly no one thinks is interesting enough to include in any media and I think that’s a damn shame.  There’s a lot you could do with the power dynamic, especially if the two had some weird messed-up codependent relationship.  Is anyone a screenwriter, btw?  Asking for a friend.

 

The Quartermaster maintained order, managed rations and resources, settled disputes, and most critically, was in charge of divvying up the loot, which required thorough record-keeping.  He also handled minor discretions and punishments, though especially felonious offenses had to be overseen by a council of crewmembers.  He was really like a co-captain, leading boarding parties and taking command of ships the captain planned to keep.  Again, why do we never hear about these guys?  It would be like leaving Commander Riker out of ST:TNG, both beard and no-beard versions.

 

As a crewmen on a pirate ship, you are paid a share or partial share of the stolen booty, with the exception of Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate, who is the reason I started this script in the first place and who is still another page or so down.  He paid his crew a salary, perhaps conscious of the fact that he was a really bad pirate and there wasn’t much fabulous booty to go around.  The captain gets two shares – it’s good to be the king, the quartermaster get 1.5 shares (really feel he deserves 2); the ship’s surgeon, if they had one, the boatswain, the master, and the carpenter, the guy who very-importantly fixed cannon holes in the hull, get 1.25.  The carpenter was another crewmate who could be tasked with doctor duties, mostly the choppy-offy stuff.  The rest of the crew get an even share, though there were a few people who’d get a lesser amount, like cabin boys.  Shares came out of the net, not the gross.  First, the QM has to subtract for injuries to be compensated, repairs to be made and supplies to be replenished.  Then, you get paid.  Still, this was a much better deal than sailing for, say, the British empire, where the captains and officers were paid handsomely and the crew were paid an insulting pittance, since they often were conscripted, tricked into recruiting, or had no other options in life.  Those lads may labor for the entire year to earn what you’ll make in one good score.  You can also walk away from a pirate ship next time you reach land; good luck trying that with the British navy.

 

The QM was an elected post.  You know who else was elected?  The captain.  Yep, the crew could vote out their captain, and if they followed the Articles they agreed to, it would be democracy, not mutiny.  There was one exception – the captain couldn’t be replaced while the ship was engaged in a battle.  You had to give him the chance to see it through, I guess, or keep his mind free of inter-office politics to focus on the task at hand.  

 

You may owe fealty to one other person on ship specifically, your met

[segue] During the Golden Age of Piracy, some buccaneers engaged in matelotage, a form of civil union. Sometimes these arrangements were purely financial — but often they were affectionate, romantic, or sexual.  Matelotage developed in that environment where crew mates often knew one another more intimately than the wives and children they’d left behind on land.  In some cases, matelotage was affectionate, even fraternal; in others, it was romantic and sexual. But regardless of the nature of each relationship, pirates took the bonds of matelotage very seriously.

 

As far as historians can tell, matelotage began during the 1600s. The word derives from the French matelot, which means sailor or seaman, or a fish stew with wine, at least when I looked it up.  There’s a chance “matey” likely also derives from matelot, making it a sort of cousin-word to matelotage.  Think about that next time you’re looking at the Marshmallow Mateys knock-off-breakfast-cereal-in-a-bag.  It’s believed that matelotage began as a purely economic consideration, like tantin of two – when one of the pair dies, the other gets the bulk of whatever they leave behind, after sending *some home to the family on land.  Other forms of matelotage were built around passengers or sailors trading sexual favors for food, security, or as a form of payment for outstanding debts.  

 

If your partner held rank, you could find yourself in a very advantageous position indeed, especially if you were younger.  Young matelots explicitly traded sex for stability, advancement, and often money.  There are parallels to the pederasty of ancient Greece, but with less bathing and more picking weevils out of biscuits and being forced to drink your own urine when the water runs out, even though that only makes things worse.  Privateer commander George Shelvocke was in a matelotage with the ship’s cabin boy, who rocketed up the ranks to first mate, a job he was completely unqualified for.   The crew groused that “the boy gave us all a kind of emulation, wondering what rare qualifications Shelvocke could discover in a fellow, who but a few days before rinsed our glasses and filled us our wine.”  It’s all about who you know and what you do, or vice versa.

 

While not specifically mentioned in any written pirate’s code, they were common enough that most captains honored them.  Matelotage manifested in many different ways, but among pirates in the Caribbean in the 18th century, it generally denoted a sexual relationship. Even Captain Robert Culliford, the English pirate who defied Captain Kidd, engaged in the practice.  A register from Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series records a John Swann, who was known as a “great consort of [Captain] Culliford’s, who lives with him.” The note is ambiguous, but clearly a relationship greater than economic convenience had developed between the sailors.

 

Matelgotage, like any relationship, could be threatened by jealousy and entanglements over money or sex.  And like other relationships, they could be founded on or fueled by real passion for one’s partner.  There was an incident under Captain Bartholomew Roberts, where a sailor insulted the captain and Roberts stabbed him with a sword, killing him stone dead.  When the sailor’s matelot, Jones, heard what happened, he went after the captain, screaming in his face.  Roberts took that in similar stride and stabbed Jones as well.  Injured but not incapacitated and roaring with holy fire,Jones threw Roberts over a cannon and “beat him soundly,” according to one account.  Ultimately, though, Jones lost and was sentenced to receive two lashes… from every, other, sailor, on, the boat.  That summary was better than the latter four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, don’t at me, you know I’m right.

 

If you’re thinking, “This is cool, pirates were really progressive and inclusive,” you better pump your brakes.  historians today generally believe that rates of homosexuality likely mirrored what would have been found in the population at large.  Records on matelotage specifically are few and far between, so it’s impossible to quantify how common the arrangement was.  Homosexuality existed, but wasn’t accepted as the norm on ship or off.  Onboard, it was probably like “the custom of the sea,” the polite euphamism for shipwrecked sailors committing cannibalism, or to borrow a phrase from my Navy husband, “it’s not gay if you’re underway.”  

Still, it was better than being on land, where you’d find yourself jailed or killed for being gay, assuming you weren’t of the top tier of society who could pay to make their troubles go away and carry on with their un-kept secret.   Some folks were more against pirate same-sex unions than others.  The governor of Tortuga, a hotspot for buccaneers, wrote to the mother country France, asking the king to send -bet you can’t guess what he asked for- 2,000 prostitutes, in hopes that the presence of more women would curb the prevalence of matelotage.  The plan backfired when some pirates started marrying sex workers and upgraded their matelotage to a polyamorous threesome. 

 

Ultimately, whether their relationships were romantic or platonic, matelotage partnerships gave pirates a modicum of safety as they navigated a life of crime on the high seas.  And if you’re the thinking, ‘that’s not how pirates were, they were manly dude bros,’ well *I can cite my sources and *you can die mad about it.

 

Okay, crew, that’s enough storytime for today.  We’ll pick up next week with the real adventures of Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard, the realities of scurvy and how incredibly freaking long it took doctors to figure out, and any other amazing things I come across in the week.  Got an amazing pirate fact no one talks about?  Send it over.

 

Sources:

https://luulapants.tumblr.com/post/679849063731052544/very-excited-because-i-just-reached-the-part-in-my

https://explorethearchive.com/stede-bonnet

https://www.barbadoscarolinas.org/stede-bonnet-gentleman-pirate

http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/08/pirates-rarely-made-people-walk-the-plank/

https://www.cgpgrey.com/blog/how-to-be-a-pirate-quartermaster-edition

https://daily.jstor.org/clinical-trial-scurvy/

https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/the-age-of-scurvy

https://www.pirateshipvallarta.com/blog/pirate-stories/pirate-ship-quartermaster

https://www.nosuchthingasafish.com/

https://www.wired.com/2008/09/pirates-a-reali/

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/71320/10-misconceptions-about-pirates

https://allthatsinteresting.com/matelotage