Call them sea thieves, entrepreneurs, mischievous warriors, or wild creatures…For centuries pirates have ruled the high seas, terrorized merchants, ran havoc along the coast and sprung countless myths and legends. Love them or hate them they are here to stay.
This post sheds some light on the pirate lifestyle: flag designs and symbols, how they dealt with injuries and battle wounds and what methods of discipline they used to maintain order aboard their ships. Historic data is from the SC State Museum exhibits.
Jolly Rogers of most notorious pirates
– The first recorded Jolly Roger belonged to Emanuel Wynn, a French pirate who flew a black ensign “with cross-bones, a death’s head and an hourglass”
The skull and the cross-bones signified death. An hour glass implied time was running out for the intended victims if they didn’t immediately surrender. Other flag symbols included spears, swords, skeletons, and bleeding hearts.
Pirates sometimes used a red or “bloody” flag to indicate that no quarter will be given should a ship be captured.
When approaching a merchant ship, pirates would normally fly the black flag suggesting no harm would be done to the crew who readily surrendered. However, when a ship tried to flee or fight, the red flag quickly replaced the black one.
The use of the red flag may have originated with the red ensign the English privateers flew in 1694 during King William’s War. Once the hostilities ended, many of them turned to piracy and so the red flag practice continued.
The carpenter was also the medic
– Few pirate ships had the luxury of a surgeon.
The ship’s carpenter often handled minor surgeries and amputations.
Keep in mind sterilization, antiseptics and anesthetics were unknown.
Victims swallowed rum or brandy in hopes the alcohol with numb the pain…
The “doctor” had to be able to read and understand Latin as most medicine bottles were labeled in this language. The misuse of drugs was quite spread.
Medicine and medical instruments held high value, although most had questionable uses.
Blackbeard famously demanded that Charleston pay his ransom in medicine not riches! He clearly understood and valued its importance.
Life on board was tough. Dealing with wounds even tougher...
Here are some 18th century reproductions of medical tools that pirates may have used to repair wounds and amputate limbs.
There are capital knives, a double retractor, and a capital sow…in other words high class surgery!
For further reading, checkout the well prepared article Medicine at Sea by Cindy Vallar.
It has freakish stories, witty quotes and a brief summary of the world’s first medicine manual:
“The Surgeons Mate” by John Woodall, first published in 1617.
Crime and Punishment…
Pirate crews were large compared to those on merchant vessels. With many people doing chores, pirates had plenty of idle time and often got into fights. Sometimes they settled their quarrels ashore “dueling it” out.
Marooning – Breaking the pirate code was considered a major infraction that often resulted in marooning as punishment. A marooned pilot was left to his fate on a deserted island with little or no food and water. Remember Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean?
Stock and Pillory – Pillories were set up to hold up petty criminals in marketplaces, crossroads and other public places.
Having fun at the SC State Museum
They were often placed on platforms to increases visibility. The punishment usually lasted for few hours and sometimes folks will throw garbage at the offender.
Keelhauling – This was probably the most cruel and painful methods of punishment.
A rope was passed under the ship, the offender was tied to one end and thrown in the water. Then, he was dragged beneath the ship and up the other side, scraping himself across sharp edged barnacles along the way.
Keelhauling could take place multiple times based on the crime and could easily result in the pirate’s death.
Hanging – This was the worst and final punishment a pirate could receive.
A pirate under water at the SC State Museum
The lingo calls it “dancing the hempen jig”
or “doing the gallow’s dance”
Many pirates were hung up in chains or in an iron cage called the gibbet.
Walking the plank – Most infamous punishment was forcing the pirate to “walk the plank”. Yet the practice belongs more in legend than in truth.
One published account does appear in 1822 of a Spanish pirate forcing a victim to walk on a plank over the side of the ship into the sea. The report made big news at the time. Some believe this is where Robert Louis Stevenson got the idea for his Treasure Island novel sixty years later? and the rest is history…
You too can be a pirate for a day at the SC State Museum downtown Columbia. The Pirates, Privateers and Buccaneers exhibit runs through January 2nd. Tickets are $5 adults and $3 for children ages 3-12 in addition to general admission ($7 and $4 respectively).
Ahoy me hearties!
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