Piracy and the life of pirates have taken on a very Hollywood sort of feel. Most people have forgotten that pirates really did and still do exist (although their numbers and practices have changed dramatically). It is time to shed a more accurate light on what the life of a pirate actually entailed.
Pirates functioned very much like any other groups of individuals in an organized civilization. They had leaders, jobs, rules, etc. They worked hard and unlike the stereotype very few pirates became wealthy. In fact, most pirates died young and poor. The pirates lived in a mainly democratic society where the captain of the ship was designated as such because of his fierceness and experience; this usually included other characteristics that the other pirates trusted. Pirates also had what they called a code of conduct. The code of conduct was a set of rules that was written down and clearly explained to all who were aboard the ship. The code included terms of compensation for pirates who were injured, a sort of modern worker’s compensation plan, and the compensation for a debilitating injury was quite fair for the times. To break one of the rules in the code of conduct was serious and the punishment was usually brutal.
Pirates usually increased their numbers by welcoming in outcasts from societies that they visited. This is why pirates have a reputation for being disliked and ill-mannered. Additionally, the day-to-day life of a pirate was brutal and therefore contributed to the roughness of the pirates. The classical age of piracy is directly related to the time of British imperialism. As the British grew more invested in protecting their shipped goods from pirates, the pirates had to become more violent and otherwise resourceful just to make it to another day.
Pirates and British sailors alike ate very poorly and often suffered from scurvy and other crippling illnesses and injuries. Sometimes the distain for the motherland and the desire to revolt against the brutal authority to which they were subjected to led British soldiers to mutiny and offering their ships as new members of a pirate’s vessel and crew.
A day at sea was quite boring for most pirates. The only excitement that typically existed on the boat was the intermittent fights and the occasional plundering of victims who had been washed out to sea. Food preservation was a challenge, especially on longer journeys, so even the pirates who did have food ate things such as limes and biscuits. While at sea, pirates also commonly ate turtles, which were plentiful around their usual gathering grounds of the Caribbean. Turtles were easy prey to catch and were delicious especially when compared to what the pirates usually ate.
Life on land was much more exciting for pirates, especially if the pirates were retuning from a plunder and had booty to spend. It was common for a pirate to head for the taverns and alehouses when they first hit land and to spend a great deal of their pieces-of-eight in one night. Pirates typically had a weakness for rum, ale, food, and gambling. Tavern owners had a love-hate relationship with the pirates who could bring in most of their income but who could also start fights and cause other disruptive events in their state of drunkenness. But life on land was not all fun and games as the pirates were also responsible for preparing for the next voyage. The ship had to be checked and repaired, supplies had to be gathered, cleaning needed to take place, etc. Failure to properly maintain the ship and to gather enough with fresh supplies of water and food for the next voyage would be catastrophic.