History with Haggis: Pirate hygiene

December 14th, 2009 by | 5 comments


Imagine being on a wooden ship for days, no… weeks on end. Packed with other dirty, greasy men. No shower, no bathroom, no toothbrush. And when you finally reach land, you can’t go into a hotel to finally shower, no, you’re still dirty as can be. What a vacation that would be.

Maracaibo-561-354And yet, pirates actually lived in pretty bad conditions like those I just mentioned. On a ship or, when they were on land, in their homes, there were rats and mice to deal with. At least on land there were snakes to kill them, but bringing snakes on a plane ship was of course not done. Fortunately, they did bring some fresh water on board… but that was only for drinking and cooking. No washing, except maybe when there was a rainstorm, which meant free showers for everyone. So it was necessary to go on land now and then, hoping to acquire some fresh water, because pirates could get pretty dirty, staying on board for weeks. And of course they couldn’t just walk into a supermarket or harbour, being pirates and all. No, they had to scout out some small, deserted river to get their water.

But even if they managed to acquire some water from a river on land, or from rain caught in barrels, there was another problem: the water was often not pure, becoming unfit for drinking quite soon, especially in hot climates. Conserving food was an equally big problem. Sure, you could smoke, salt, or pickle meat and fish, but try doing that with bread, fruit, and vegetables: won’t work. So, the pirates’ meals consisted mainly of hardtack, dried peas and beans. Yummy. On the upside, they got to drink lots of beer, because contrary to water, that doesn’t go bad very quickly, due to the alcohol.

A possible solution for the problem of spoiling water would be to distill it. There is actually a report in a French magazine from 1837 about captain Cook taking a distillation apparatus on board as early as 1772. Unfortunately, the results were less than hoped for. The water tasted (and was) foul, and the crew actually preferred drinking rainwater. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the process of distilling seawater was perfected, a bit too late for the golden age of piracy. By the way, here’s a description of a seawater distillation installation, if you want to know more about that.

Soldiers_on_peg_legs_and_canes_and_in_wheelchair_c._1800Okay, enough about water, let’s talk about something a bit more juicy: sawn-off limbs. Ewwww! Yes, well, you want to hear the true history, don’t you? And sawing off gangrenous limbs just happened to be one of the tasks performed by ship’s surgeons. Of course, most pirates didn’t even have a doctor on board, but privateers did, and they’re technically pirates too. Apart from sawing off the occasional limb, ship’s doctors performed a wide variety of tasks, such as treating pain and fever, and removing abscessed teeth. They also were in charge of the hygiene aboard the ship.

Aloe_vera386868234Of course, even if they had no surgeon to saw off their limbs, pirates could still lose an arm or a leg (or both, if they were really unfortunate). Luckily, there were often agreements to compensate such an unlucky sailor, either with pieces of eight or with slaves. Henry Morgan, for instance, paid his injured sailors particularly well, and he also employed surgeons who were paid extra money for furnishing their medicine chests. Fortunately for the pirates, the Caribbean is rich in medicinal herbs, such as aloe, so they never had to look far to get their medicine.

So, it might surprise you to hear that pirates did actually have a certain standard of personal hygiene, even with their limited opportunities. But knowing that, pirates were of course not a shining example of hygiene, and it’s only logical that Johnny Depp stopped Pirates of the Caribbean toothpaste from appearing in shops: “I drew the line at hygiene products. It just seemed wrong. Like Captain Jack toothpaste, for example. How can a guy with gold teeth sell toothpaste? It’s like a bald man selling shampoo.” Because in the end, pirates are great at being filthy, and that’s one of the reasons why we like them.

Posted in History with Haggis

5 Responses to “History with Haggis: Pirate hygiene”

  1. Hande says:

    Hah-hah. Nice one, Haggis. 😀

    Really informative and fun to read as well. 🙂

  2. haydenwce27 says:

    Well, I’m sure the naughtier pirates would’ve gotten a proper wash because they would’ve been keelhauled.

  3. KCFriday says:

    Wow If I were writing a report on pirates, and included those facts, I’d get an A.

    We’re talking a guaranteed A.

    That A would get you into the college of your choice.

    Think about it.

  4. hathen says:

    i liked that comment by johnny depp

  5. Sam says:

    That was as educational as it was entertaining.

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