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Pirate Fare

The "Golden Age of Piracy" in the Caribbean, the period popularised by TV and film, began in the late 17th century until the early 18th century.  Between the years 1716 to 1726 pirate ports experienced rapid growth in the areas in and surrounding the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  During this time it is believed there were approximately 2400 men active as pirates, but what did they eat aboard ship? 

The rations for most seamen centred on salt beef or pork, cheese, fish, ale and some form of ship's biscuit.  Yet the quality of the food more often than not deteriorated because of storage problems, lack of ventilation, and poor drainage.  Food aboard ship was also affected by the presence of rats and other vermin, and biscuits were often filled with maggots and weevils, a type of beetle.  Many ships' suppliers were dishonest and sent stores that were already rotten before they were taken on board.

The food stored aboard ship was meant to last many months, through damp, cold, and heat.  Although 18 th century seafarers’ rations might sound less than tantalising, sailors were actually better fed than many in the labouring classes at home.

Baking aboard ship would have proved a challenge when at sea on rough waters.  Bread could be bought from a baker ashore with a request that it be “twice-baked”.  Loaves baked this way were tough to cut up except with a saw, but the loaves would remain edible for a long time.  Most bread was thus shipped aboard in the form of “hard-tack” or “biscuit”, and was often called “ship’s bread”.  These were rough three inch-square or diameter cakes of dough made with flour and water only, with an added pinch of salt.  The cakes would then be baked in batches until hard and packed in casks or sacks.  They could be handled several times and unless they got damp, they might keep for a very long time.  Seamen would not try to bite these iron-hard cakes but would soak them in their water, ale or broth until they were soft enough to break off a corner.  These “biscuits” were often flavoured at sea by being dipped in bacon or pork fat and lightly fried. 

The ship’s biscuit notoriously attracted weevils and other insects that burrowed their way through the supply as the expedition wore on.  Some sailors just saw the insects as extra protein.  The old sea-going habit of rapping ships bread on the table to encourage the weevils inside the biscuit to leave or be eaten is well-known; less well-known is the seaman’s habit of collecting a handful of maggots, lightly browning them in pork fat or beef dripping and then spreading them like meat-paste onto a biscuit (very tasty, by the way!).  A ships bread-room would make these small cakes from maize, wheat or perhaps even cassava flour.

Salted meat, often dried as an extra measure of preservation, was another staple and, if looked after carefully, could keep almost indefinitely.  Slabs of beef and pork were typically stored in casks with brine or packed directly in salt.  Meat in the form of live pigs, cattle, sheep, goats or chickens could be kept on deck or in the ships’ manger to be killed and cooked when required.  But as space aboard a sailing ship was at a premium, taking live animals aboard - along with the food and water to keep them alive - took up valuable capacity.  In many cases ordinary seamen were not permitted, did not have the space, or did not have the necessary cash to lay in a personal store of live animals. 

Many accounts from Royal Navy sailors 1760-1815 note that to enjoy fresh meat aboard ship for a change - perhaps during a year at sea - catching rats and feeding them pieces of ships’ biscuit to fatten them up for eating was a well-known practice aboard larger ships.  Seabirds (such as noddy’s or booby’s) were largely ignored outside a real emergency as they gave little meat, but their flesh would be eaten and their blood might be drunk by a hungry seaman marooned, shipwrecked or cast adrift in a boat.

Most pirates and privateers who left memoirs mention properly cooked turtle-meat as being the finest food available; many likening it to the finest beef.  The calipash and calipee, the greenish and yellowish gelatinous substances from the upper and lower lining, respectively, of the turtle shell is still highly sought-after to make delicious soup.  Other pirates mention eating seal and dolphin, again likening both when well-cooked as an equivalent to roast mutton or best roast beef.

Cheese of various kinds could be kept for a long time and was a regular ship-board staple mentioned in many ration allowances aboard ship right through the Georgian period.  Butter was sometimes available early on in the journey but did not store well and was quickly eaten.  Suet or fat cooked with flour was sometimes substituted for the meat and cheese ration.

Vegetables and “greens” were almost unheard of as they were all but impossible to keep from rotting on the damp ships.  Fresh supplies of peas, beans, turnips or onions would be eaten early on in a voyage before they began to rot.  Sauerkraut made from cabbage and soup made from tablets processed from stores of dried vegetables began to appear on English vessels in the 18 th century as captains experimented with foods that could prevent scurvy and other diseases discovered to be associated with malnutrition.  Oatmeal and “pease,” dried peas served like lentils, were staples for the English sailors, while rice, beans, and chickpeas fuelled the Spanish.

As much as a gallon of beer was rationed to Royal Navy sailors each day, often served mixed with water.  It was a popular beverage that could be stored for travel, repelling algae growth and bacteria due to its alcohol content.

Before 1720 - with the execution of many notorious pirates such as Vane and Blackbeard - and the growing suppression of piracy by the British Government and their Colonial Governors, pirate ships in the Caribbean could put into many islands and harbours and go ashore to trade or reap from local natives coconuts, mango, oranges, lemons and other fruits in addition to fresh meat from turtles, goats, deer, pigs and of course, collecting shellfish from the shoreline and netting or hooking many different kinds of fish.  A beach-barbeque is not a recent innovation.  Such barbeques and boucans are the origin of the term “buccaneer” - “boucanier” - since pirates and privateers are recorded enjoying such feasts in the mid-1670’s.

Pirates dried lots of meat and fish such as eels ashore for storage aboard ship by the same process, but they would still have to lay in dry stores for emergencies and in order to undertake voyages around Cape Horn to reach the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean or to reach the Cape Verde or Canary Islands on the east side of the Atlantic before restocking to head south-east for the Guinea coast.  “Island-hopping” around the Caribbean would enable a ship to put in at many ports to restock with food, water and firewood, but many of these ports would not be open to visiting pirate ships and after 1720 none were.  Without a good base, a pirate would eventually resort to robbing prizes not just of their money but also of their food and drink, spare parts, replacement men and wood for the galley fire.  Pirates in the Indian Ocean used several places in and around Madagascar to refit and restock with food and water, notably Ranter Bay and the islands of Saint Mary and Johanna.

After a spell eating salt or dried food, seamen had an obvious appetite for fresh food, but to suit a palate ruined by salt and alcohol, even when fresh this food was often pickled or highly spiced.  Salmagundi - the word comes from an old French culinary term, salamine meaning salted or seasoned - is said to be the favourite pirate dish, eaten not just aboard ship but when they were ashore too.  This popular dish came with local variations on the islands of Jamaica, Hispaniola, Trinidad or Nassau but was basically a highly spiced and flavoured concoction of meat, fish, vegetables and fruit.  A period Pirate recipe for Salmagundi of 1712 once prepared in a Port Royal tavern was:

It is suggested that plentiful servings of cold beer, ale or rum punch should accompany the meal.  Pirate Salmagundi is not a dish to be consumed by the faint-hearted!

If you are feeling brave, m'hearties, then a selection of dishes for a pirate banquet can be found on Tastes Of History's Blog.