There is a strong and persistent belief among moderns that freebooters didn’t eat very well. When, in the late 17th century, seaman James Yonge wrote in his journal about meals of “… water, gruel, rusty pork and sad beef, filthy peas and Cascan bread made of roots of trees” most people tend to imagine he was the voice of reason on the subject. The situation in which Yonge and his mates found themselves – crossing the Atlantic from the Caribbean in a small ship which was sadly under-provisioned – necessitated the kind of meals he groused about. But in the big scheme of things, food aboard a buccaneer or privateer was surprisingly luxurious and fit for any modern table.
The original boucaniers who became the buccaneers ate more than their share of smoked boucan. Originally made from the black pig native to what is now Haiti, boucan evolved into a versatile way of preserving meat. Fowl and fish could also be smoked and a favorite boucan meat among sea raiders of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico was turtle. Large sea turtles were easy to catch on land and their meat was considered healthier than pork. Not for any reasoning about cholesterol or high blood pressure though – boucan in all its forms was heavily salted – but because pork was thought to make a man more prone to the pox. Though it would mean an overnight by land to achieve a good supply of boucan, the meat, which was similar to Native American pemmican or modern jerky, would keep a long time and was easy to store and carry.
Along with their pork and turtle, the buccaneers on anything but the most meager rations tended to eat a balanced diet. Many of them were from Mediterranean backgrounds and they brought the pallet for olive oil and wine to sea. Olives, olive oil, vinegar, onions, shallots and garlic all figured strongly in the dishes of Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese freebooters. A lot of fresh fish was on the menu of all pirate ships, for obvious reasons, and no one will deny their healthful qualities. Cheese was also a frequent addition to meals, and since hens were often kept aboard most ships but the smallest pirogues, fresh eggs were a staple.
Pirating sallies were short – four months was considered a long haul – and involved putting in frequently to freshen water or deal with prizes, so fresh vegetables were not as unusual as they would be aboard a Royal Navy man-of-war. Along with garlic and onions, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, radishes and squash would have been readily available depending on where your ship sailed. Fresh fruits were plentiful all over North and South America. In the north berries, especially blueberries, raspberries and cranberries, were relatively easy to come by. Cranberries in particular were a high source of vitamin C, keeping scurvy at bay in colder climates. In the tropics, all manner of citrus fruits along with bananas, avocados and melons could be easily had.
Dutch, British and Northern French corsairs tended to appreciate a slightly different diet if available. The boucan, fish, fruits and vegetables would all be consumed but cooking fats like butter and lard (even ship’s tallow in a pinch) were preferred. Beef figured more prominently in these diets as did hard tack or ship’s biscuit, frequently made from corn rather than wheat flour. Many buccaneers also ate the “cascan bread” that Yonge mentioned. Made from the cassava, which is similar in texture to the jicama or turnip, the “bread” was more like a tortilla then a loaf of wheat bread.
Of course a pirate needed something to wash his meal down with and, as with food, the choices tended to reflect European or Creole origins. The British came to the West Indies with their love of “beere” in tact. Ales, ciders and beers were all popular in more Northern European colonies and aboard their ships. As they colonized places like Jamaica, however, the settlers developed a strong hankering for rum. Rum punch, bomboo, flip and black strap were just a few of the variations that could be found by land and at sea. Henry Morgan toasted the decision to take Porto Bello with rum punch.
Because rum kept so well in casks, it was a staple of marine life by the mid 18th century, but Creoles of Mediterranean descent still preferred their wines. Sangria was popular and had the added advantage of upping one’s intake of fresh fruit. Champagne, often served with a chunk of sugar loaf, was not unheard of but wines like Madeira, Canary, port, Sillory and claret along with sherry (generally thought of as a “lady’s cordial” by the 19th century) were most common. Renato Beluche reportedly would not leave port without a good supply of Sillory or Madeira. His dear friend Dominique Youx preferred to provision with whisky, which was on the rise as a piratical beverage by 1800.
Want did occur and Yonge’s documentation of meager rations was certainly an ever present possibility. In truly bad times, crews would eat the ship’s animals – including rats – tanned leather and tallow. Sometimes lack of water was more terrible than lack of food. The worst instance of buccaneer hardship was probably the one documented by Alexander Exquemelin during Henry Morgan’s march across the Isthmus of Panama to take Panama City. The buccaneers, barefoot, miserable from heat and insects and out of supplies, began gnawing on whatever leather they had. Exquemelin gives this recipe for making an ammunition satchel relatively edible:
Slice the leather into pieces, then soak and beat and rub between stones to tenderize. Scrape off the hair and roast or grill. Cut into smaller pieces and serve with plenty of water.
Since it is Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S., I plan to be particularly thankful for a meal that does not require tenderizing and the scraping off of hair. I hope that, where ever you are, you can say the same.
Header: Madness at the Dinner Table by Rowlandson c 1816