Pirates Culture > Disease & Injury
Disease & Injury
Disease, injury and death were common fates that befell pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. Life aboard a pirate ship was not as glamorous and clean as the movies and media suggest. In fact diseases like scurvy and infection ravaged the close quarters of the ships, causing pirates to make drastic moves for medical treatment.
Surgeons were highly prized among pirate crews and were often forced into service alongside blacksmiths and other tradesman after being aboard a captured ship. This was not due to a cruelty on behalf of the pirates but more of a desperate need for medical attention due to the dangerous lifestyle they engaged in.
Often according to the pirate code, a pirate who faced a loss of limb was compensated justly for his service.
Medicine was such a highly prized commodity in the pirate world that it was sought after even before gold and riches. This was because during this period there was not the widespread development of medicine that we see today.
A famous story of medicine occurred when the infamous pirate Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach dominated the port of Charles Town during the famous Blockade of Charles Town in order to gain access to chests of medicine to help his crew.
Doctors were often present among Imperial warships and merchant ships and were often conscripted by a pirate crew along with carpenters or other tradesmen to help repair, tend to the wounded etc. A famous example of this was when Henry Morgan made Alexander Exquemelin, a Dutch doctor be part of his crew after he captured his ship. Exquemelin went on to write one of the only primary source documents about buccaneers in the era.Sickness and diseases such as, dysentery, malaria, smallpox, and yellow fever:118created problems among ships and "could be fatal.":80 Pirates, like privateers, were a little better off than those who worked on merchant or naval ships as "food was superior," "pay was higher," "shifts were shorter," and the crew's powers of "decision making was greater." Epidemics and scurvy led some to desert "naval vessels for pirates." In the event of disabilities occurring while in service to the ship, some pirates set up a "common wealth" plan to be paid to any man in the event of injury.:44, 9, 73–74Doctors and surgeonsThere were doctors and surgeons present on some pirate vessels. Any surgeon or doctor who sailed with pirates, according to Rediker, was considered by their peers "to be insane.":50 Surgeons/doctors were paid more shares, between "one and a quarter" and "one and a half," than other men on pirate ships.:70 However, doctors and surgeons weren't always trusted as they were not allowed to vote with the crew "because their class background (or forced status).":79:164