I just read a great article from the Smithsonian about Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe; click here to read it for yourself. Not only does it tell the story of Selkirk, but it also provides a glimpse into what life aboard a real pirate ship might have been; here’s an exerpt from the article:
“Because pirates have been so romanticized by actors from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp, it’s easy to overlook that the typical pirate ship stank of animals and excrement, that scurvy and yellow fever often killed so many that corpses were routinely dumped at sea, and that pirates often delighted in macabre torture.
Pirate prisoners would most likely have chosen to walk the plank—a practice more common in TV cartoons than in pirate history—rather than be subjected to sadists like Edward Low, who, in the 1720s, cut off a prisoner’s lips and broiled them in front of the hapless fellow, or those who practiced “woolding,” in which slender cords were twisted tightly around men’s heads in the hope of seeing their eyes burst from their sockets.
Consequently, when commercial shipowners or governments captured pirates, they were rarely shown mercy. Pirate expert David Cordingly, former curator of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, writes in Under the Black Flag that it was common practice in the British colonies to place the body of a captured pirate in a steel cage shaped like a man’s body and suspend it near the entrance to a port as a grisly warning to seamen.”
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-real-robinson-crusoe-74877644/#uojl6hh0zwYidZiL.99
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In researching the book I’m currently writing about the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, I came across a great passage from “History of the Pyrates” printed in 1724 relating to whether capital punishment, specifically hanging, was a deterrent to becoming a pirate. I cut and pasted it here because it is fun to read in the original format.
At Mary Read’s trial she was asked why she became a pirate where she would be “fure of dying an ignominious Death, if flie fhould be taken alive ?”
This is her recorded reply:
“-She anfwer’d, that as to hanging, fhe thought it no great Hardfhip, for, were it not for that, every cowardly Fellow would turn Pyrate, and To infeft the Seas, that Men of Courage muft ftarve : That if it was put to the Choice of the Pyrates, they would not have the punifliment lefs than Death, the Fear of which, kept fome daftardly Rogues honeft ^ that many of thofe who are now cheating the Widows and Orphans, and oppreifing their poor Neighbours, who have no Money to obtain Juftice, would then rob at Sea, and the Ocean would be crowded with Rogues, like the Land, and no Merchant would venture out ; fb that the Trade, in a little Time, would not be worth following.”
Mary Read was certainly a tough lady, and I believe her response was probably indicative of the attitudes of her compatriots at the time: that the “trade” of being a pirate was only for the courageous. Mary was well educated, raised as a boy, fought as a soldier in Queen Anne’s War, and had been quite law abiding, but readily accepted the pirate life when it became an option for her after she met Jack Rackham.