As is the case with much pirate history, a great deal of it is wrong, often either anachronistic or culturally mis-associated, or not specifically associated with piracy per se, but with the maritime in general. And so it is with keelhauling, a Dutch practice at first, to which the French and a few other nations later added their small marks.
But keelhauling had little to do with piracy, but this hasn’t stopped it from being including in discussions about pirates and piracy, nor included in pirate fiction and film, most notably and recently in the fourth season of Black Sails. (Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails for all four seasons.)
The original Dutch practice, as described in “A Relation of Two Several Voyages Made into the East-Indies” by Christopher Frick and Christopher Schewitzer, 1700:
“He that strikes an Officer, or Master of the Ship, is without hopes of pardon to be thrown into the Sea fasten’d by a Rope, with which he is thrown in on one side of the Ship, and drawn up again on the other, and so three times together he is drawn round the Keel of the Ship, in the doing of which, if they should chance not to allow Rope enough to let him sink below the Keel, the Malefactor might have his brains knockt out. This Punishment is called Keel-halen, which may be call’d in English “Keel-drawing.” But the Provost hath this Priviledge more than the other, that if any one strikes him on Shoar, he forfeits his hand, if on Board, then he is certainly Keel-draw’d.”
There are several notations of keelhauling and other punishments in the journal of Dutch Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp in 1639. Typically the keelhauled seaman was drawn three times beneath the ship, apparently not too tightly for he was usually whipped on his “wet bum” with a rope’s end afterwards. For lesser offenses, ducking from the yardarm was employed. In some cases, a seaman convicted of serious offenses might be ducked, keelhauled, whipped, lose his wages, and be discharged. In the case of infirmity due to age or illness, the physical punishments might be stayed, and the seaman discharged instead.
A mid-1850s century French version, described by a former midshipman in the British navy and published in Onward magazine, November 1869, was conducted slightly differently:
The writer continues with a description of what he witnessed:
N. B. Spanish Keelhauling
I’ve also seen one reference to the Spanish using keelhauling: Gemelli-Careri, describing his voyage aboard the Manila galleon in 1697, notes that he heard tell of a passenger, during the senas ceremony, being made to “facendogli passere sopra il Vascello,” from which event he died. The period English translation gives this as keelhauling, although sopra means over, not under. So, while it might be keelhauling, it might also be ducking, which is more likely given the ceremony of senas, or signs of land. Ducking might be inconvenient, even frightening to some, but wasn’t usually fatal. Keelhauling often was.
N. B. Keelhauling’s Ancient Origin?
A number of web articles and books, both popular and scholarly, note that keelhauling is of ancient origin. However, this is probably not the case. Scholar Henry A. Ormerod in Piracy in the Ancient World (1924) claims that an image on an ancient Greek vase shows keelhauling, and he has reproduced the image as the frontispiece to his book. However, I see nothing in the image to suggest keelhauling per se. Instead, it appears to depict some form of water torture of prisoners who had their hands tied and were thrown overboard, perhaps pulling them back to the surface as they begin to drown. However, the image does not appear to show keelhauling as we define it—the dragging of a victim beneath the vessel from one side to another. In fact, the victims have only one line attached: keelhauling generally requires two.
Similarly, some scholars and other writers note that the Lex Rhodia of 800 BCE describes keelhauling as a punishment for piracy, but there are actually only a few short paragraphs of the Lex Rhodia that still survive and they don’t discuss punishment for piracy, so I’m not sure where this idea originated. It may be a misreading of Ormerod, who suggests that it may have described punishments for piracy. The only line that refers to piracy is in regard to responsibility for paying the ransom of a ship to pirates. This is a common problem in history: the repetition of misinformation or incomplete information as fact.
My thanks to writer Sylvia Tyburski, whose questions to me on the subject caused me to review the facts on the purportedly ancient origin of keelhauling! I’ll post a link to her article as soon as it’s available.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated July 10, 2018.
Classic romanticized buccaneers! The pirate captain and his woman ashore on a Caribbean island or an isolated part of the Main, perhaps to share plunder or while careening, or simply to celebrate the holiday. We can always count on Howard Pyle to make the romantic appeal to our imaginations. And indeed, buccaneers did celebrate Christmas (and probably smoked cigars on occasion too), as I discuss below.
BUCCANEER CHRISTMAS & DOG FOR DINNER
We do have multiple brief accounts of one buccaneer Christmas. Buccaneers, like other Europeans and European-derived Christian peoples, did observe the holiday, far more often with raucous, inebriated celebration than with religious devotion.
William Dampier noted that the captains of salt ships at Saltudos, or Salt Tortuga–where the very real Dr. Henry Pitman, inspiration for Sabatini’s novel Captain Blood, His Odyssey, was marooned–were always well-supplied with rum, sugar, and lime juice for visiting “privateers,” the euphemism for buccaneers, as opposed to the term “pirates.” Piracy after all was a crime.
“I have seen above 20 Sail at a time in this Road come to lade Salt; and these Ships coming from some of the Caribbe Islands, are always well stored with Rum, Sugar and Lime-juice to make Punch, to hearten their Men when they are at work, getting and bringing aboard the Salt, and they commonly provide the more, in hopes to meet with Privateers, who resort hither in the aforesaid Months, purposely to keep a Christmas, as they call it; being sure to meet with Liquor enough to be merry with, and are very liberal to those that treat them.”
Clearly, a buccaneer Christmas at any time of the year was a drunk-fest.
Our most famous description of an actual buccaneer Christmas dates to 1681, during the final days of the South Sea voyage of Captain Bartholomew Sharp and his companions in arms, in plunder (often as wishful as real), and in debauchery.
Sharp, already having been deposed once as captain once during the voyage during a stay at Juan Fernandez Island, a stay which coincidentally began on Christmas Day. Now, at the end of the voyage and almost home, with numbers depleted by buccaneer desertions, accidents, and deaths in battle, with the remaining crew on short allowance, Sharp remained a divisive leader, not for the least reason that by gambling with his fellow buccaneers he had increased his profit by leaps and bounds, leaving some of his comrades with little profit during the course of a long bloody voyage–not the best way to show leadership by any means.
On December 7th, according to buccaneer surgeon Basil Ringrose (I almost wrote Rathbone!), “This day our worthy Commander, Captain Sharp, had very certain intelligence given him that on Christmas Day, which was now at hand, the company or at least a great part thereof, had a design to shoot him; he having appointed that day some time since to be merry. Hereupon he made us share the wine amongst us, being persuaded they would scarce attempt any such thing in their sobriety. The wine we shared fell out to three jars to each mess.”
Mess size varied, as did Spanish jar size. Five to seven to a mess was common, but could even have been as small as four men. Spanish wine jars often, but not always, held a Spanish arroba, roughly four and a quarter gallons. At 750 milliliters to a modern wine bottle, we do some simple math and find that each mess received the rough equivalent of slightly more than sixty-four modern bottles of wine per mess, to last eighteen days: or, three and a half bottles of wine per day per mess. This wine may have been stronger than what we’re familiar with. It might have been very similar to Peruvian wine fortified with modern Pisco, the latter of which is usually 80 proof when sold in the US, but I’m speculating here based on a description of some of the wine found by buccaneers on the Peruvian coast. (And no, I won’t touch the “Who first came up with Pisco–Peru or Chile?” argument. We’ll leave the swords and poniards sheathed for now.)
Buccaneer surgeon Basil Ringrose provided the details: “This day being Christmas day, for celebration of that great festival we killed yesterday in the evening a sow. This sow we had brought from the Gulf of Nicoya, being then a sucking-pig of three weeks old, more or less, but now weighted about fourscore-and-ten pounds. With this hog’s flesh we made our Christmas dinner, being the only flesh we had eaten ever since we turned away our prizes under the equinoctial and left the island of Plata. We had this day several flaws of wind and some rain…” The holiday was celebrated roughly in the latitude of Rio de Janeiro.
Sharp himself is a bit more direct: “When to Solemnize that Festival as well as we could, we eat the only Hog we had left, drank some Jars of Wine, and made our selves as merry as we were able, which I did the rather that my Men might not Mutiny.”
How they seasoned the pig is not noted. Given that their only way at sea of cooking was in a copper kettle, they would have boiled the flesh rather than roasting it over coals and seasoning it with a pimentade of lime juice, salt, hot peppers (pimento, or chili peppers as we know it), probably allspice, and perhaps a black or similar common pepper, as was common. The seasoning would have been similar in the copper pot, assuming they had the ingredients. The buccaneers would have served it with coarse boiled cornmeal (imagine a coarse polenta or coarse yellow grits, the latter are hard to find anymore) seasoned with salt and manteca (pig lard), which had been their only fare since departing the isle of Plata.
However, diarist John Taylor who visited Jamaica in 1687 wrote that Sharp’s buccaneers also served dog for Christmas dinner:
“Soe that they killed one hog, which was all they had left, and a spanell dog which they bought of one of their quartermaster for 40 dollars, on Christmas Day for their dinner.”
Alas poor beast, alas man’s best friend! But Taylor was no eyewitness, he was just repeating what he had heard from local sources. There was in fact a dog, a little curly shaggy-coated canine, like that of a poodle. And, according to one buccaneer, John Cox, who was there, they did in fact eat him:
“When we took the two Barks at Nicoya, we had a little sucking Pigg in one of them, which we kept on Board ever since for our Christmas days Dinner, which now was grown to be a large Hogg; so we killed it for Dinner, but thinking it not enough for us all, we bought a Spaniel-Dogg of the Quarter-Master for forty pieces of eight, and killed him; so with the Hogg and the Dogg, we made a Feast, and we had some Wine left, which made us merry: This being the only think we had eaten that had blood in it since our departure from the Duke of York‘s Island.”
But no one’s memory is perfect. Did they in fact eat dog for Christmas dinner? Was Cox inspired to exaggerate based solely on the rhyme of Hogg and Dogg? Do we see the interfering hand of an editor trying to “sex up” the manuscript? Again Basil Ringrose comes to the rescue, writing of a day in late January, well after Christmas, just prior to making landfall in the Leeward Islands:
“On that day [January 26, 1682], therefore, a little Spanish shock-dog, which we had found in our last wine-prize taken under the equinoctial and had kept alive till now, was sold at the mast by public cry for 40 pieces-of-eight, his owner saying that ll he could get for him should be spent upon the company at a public merriment. Our Commander, Captain Sharp, bought the dog, with intention to eat him, in case we did not see land very soon.”
The money raised was added to one hundred more pieces-of-eight that were left over from a previous sharing of plunder, in which the boatswain, carpenter, and quartermaster had refused to accept shares owing to some disagreement “with the sharers.” The coins were laid up, to be spent ashore in celebration of their return to the Caribbean from the South Sea.
Two days later the buccaneers sighted Barbados, but were scared off by the barge belonging to the English man-of-war Richmond lying at anchor Bridgetown harbor. Two days later the buccaneers sent a canoe ashore at Antigua, or Antigo as they called it, and from here they went their separate ways.
So it was not a Christmas dog after all! Or was it? We hope it was part of no Christmas dinner except to have gnawed any scraps ravenous buccaneers may have cast his way. “Perros Ingleses!” we have heard Spaniards call the buccaneers, or at least buccaneer surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin said they did on one occasion, and surely in fact on many. But dog don’t eat dog, or so they say, and we hope, more from Ringrose and the buccaneer arrival at Antigua and not necessarily from common proverb, that Cox was wrong and that Sharp may have been mostly joking about eating the dog.
WITH A WILLING WOMAN IN A HAMMOCK
So, would buccaneers have celebrated Christmas as in Pyle’s image above? With a willing woman in a hammock, smoking a cigar? It’s a common image in fiction, that of a romance between a pirate and a lady on the seashore. We almost imagine this as the setting in the aftermath of The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini, but when we recall the noble manner in which the romance unfolded, his gentlemanly behavior, her lady-like sensibilities, we can’t imagine Priscilla Harradine smoking a cigar. On the other hand, we recall her attraction to men of adventure and her propensity for slipping off to swim nude, and we think perhaps she might after all.
For the sake of romantic notions, combined with the fact of romantic relations between buccaneers and some women, I will forego a discussion of the often profoundly disturbing treatment of women by pirates at times, a fact often ignored or only hinted at it film. You may find these sordid details in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, and in other works as well.
Some, probably many, buccaneers were married but they did not take their wives, or their women in general for that matter, to sea with them, the one known exception being John Beare who took his woman, the daughter of a rum punch woman in Port Royal, to sea at least once dressed as a man. Accused of piracy by the English–and yes, he was in fact a pirate–he fled to Havana where he married his true love and began serving as a Spanish privateer, or, as the English would have it, a Spanish pirate. Perhaps Beare did celebrate a Christmas ashore while careening, his inamorata waiting languidly in a hammock.
We also have the example of Dutchman Jacobus (James) Marquess, or “Copas” [Cobus] for short, a buccaneer “lingusiter”–also known as a “truchman” or interpreter–in the South Sea with Bartholomew Sharp. Copas fell in love, or perhaps merely deeply in lust, with a “Mustees” Spanish woman at the island of El Cavallo while the buccaneers were ashore taking in water over the course of four days and three nights. Many of his companions worried that he was a turncoat who intended to betray them to the Spanish. A Native American boy also ran away while at the island, perhaps with Copas.
“[T]he woman lieing on borde one or two nights, was very familiar with one Copas a dutch a man, who formerly had saild with the Spaniards…but was mainly Inamoured with thiss women, makeing her severall presents of some Vallew,” wrote a buccaneer who is best identified as Edward Povey.
Copas pretended to go hunting but deserted to her instead, leaving all but two hundred pieces-of-eight of his plunder behind–some 2,200 pieces of eight, plus jewels and other goods. He must truly have been in love, indeed! Or perhaps he thought he could sell his knowledge of the buccaneers to their enemies. Alas, this instance of buccaneer love did not occur over Christmas, but late in May, 1681.
Raveneau de Lussan, buccaneer author, wrote that during the occupation of Guayaquil by French flibustiers in 1687, he was almost seduced away by the “widow of the local treasurer,” who suggested they hide in the woods until the pirates were gone, and then they could marry and he would have “her husband’s office in addition to her own extensive holdings.” Quite an offer! But de Lussan turned it down, and again, this flibustier love did not occur over Christmas, but in April. Spring is the time for love, so it is said. Or perhaps just for mating.
If any buccaneers did take their wives or inamoratas with them to sea, I imagine it may have been some of the early flibustiers and boucaniers who did so with their “Amazon wives who could shoot and hunt well,” as one chronicler noted of them, supporting the expeditions and perhaps even participating in the assaults themselves.
CIGAR SMOKING WOMEN
But IF a buccaneer did have his woman with him at Christmas (and I speak of buccaneers solely as men only because, although there may have been one or more women in disguise among them as actual crew members, to date we know of none), might she have smoked a cigar?
To find an answer we must first know if people smoked cigars in the 17th century Caribbean or anywhere else for that matter. We turn to Jean-Baptist Labat, priest and also chronicler of the late 17th and early 18th century Caribbean for the answer:
“We do not use pipes in the Americas; the Spanish, Portuguese, many English and French, nearly all blacks, and all our Caribs smoke bouts [“ends”], or as the Spanish say, cigars… It is rare to find a Spaniard without his provision of cigars.”
(Notably, Labat mis-heard cigaro and wrote it as cigale, or cicada in French. His description of cigars is quite modern: six to seven pouces long, and five to six lignes in diameter, roughly six and a half to seven and a half inches long, and around half an inch in diameter.)
So Spaniards and others smoked cigars. But did buccaneers? Most buccaneers were English, French, and Dutch, although there were many other peoples, nationalities, and ethnicities among them, including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and other European origins, plus African, Native American, even Asian via Mexico via the Manila galleon, plus a variety of mixed races. They were, in other words, a variety of white, black, and brown of many origins. Among the English, French, and Dutch they chewed tobacco or more commonly smoked it in pipes, small to medium bowl size among the English and French, large among the Dutch. White clay pipes were the most expensive and typically from England and the Netherlands; terracotta pipes were cheaper and often made locally; and wooden pipes were the cheapest (and doubtless the worst to smoke).
However, Spanish buccaneers among them would likely have smoked cigars (or seegars as they became known among the English by the early 18th century), and some English, French, and Dutch may have preferred them at sea as they did ashore. Certainly some African slaves and former slaves among the buccaneers smoked cigars, and it’s probable that some English, French, and Dutch buccaneers smoked captured cigars, if only by cutting them up and smoking the tobacco in their pipes. There is no question that cigars were smoked at sea: the 18th century Spanish Álbum de Construcción Naval of the Marqués de la Victoria shows the cigar along with the pipe among the forms of tobacco used by Spanish seamen. Having smoked both pipe and cigar, I can say that a cigar is no more dangerous aboard a wooden ship than is a pipe: both can be hazardous if appropriate measures are not taken.
Ah, but did women smoke cigars? Well, we know that among the English, French, and Dutch many women smoked pipes, along with many African women in the Caribbean. And there were Native American women who smoked cigars. So why not Spanish women of any ethnicity? And why not cigars, given that they were the predominant means on the Spanish Main of taking tobacco? In fact, we know that in the 18th century there were Spanish creole women who smoked cigars, thus it’s almost certain they did in the 17th century as well.
John Cockburn, writing of the year 1735 in which he was captured by a Spanish guarda costa, or as the English would probably have it, a Spanish pirate, noted the following of three Spanish friars who had just crossed some mountains in Nicaragua:
“The gentlemen gave us some seegars to smoke, which they supposed would be very acceptable. These are leaves of tobacco rolled up in such a manner, that they serve both for a pipe and tobacco itself. These the ladies, as well as gentlemen, are very fond of smoaking; but indeed, they know no other way here, for there is no such thing as a tobacco-pipe throughout New Spain, but poor awkward tools used by the negroes and Indians.”
And who’s to say the woman in Pyle’s painting is Spanish in any case, although it is a romantic notion.
Of course, Pyle’s use of a woman smoking a cigar is even more provocative than merely putting her recumbent and languid in a hammock. Since the late seventeenth century, smoking in women has often been seen as a sign of promiscuity rather than as a notion of budding equality. But Pyle’s image is not merely a sexual provocation: it is an image of aggressive independence. This woman is no wallflower, she is no quiet being who fully accepts the purely feminine role imposed upon her. Rather, she is a suitable companion adventurer: a modern progressive woman even by the standards of Pyle’s day. I wouldn’t usually consider Howard Pyle as a feminist per se, but in this case I think he has already proved the argument.
Cockburn, John. The Unfortunate Englishmen: or, a Faithful Narrative of the Distresses and Adventures of John Cockburn. “New edition.” London: Hamilton and Co. Shakespeare Library, 1794 (63-64).
[Cox, John]. The Voyages and Adventures of Capt. Barth. Sharp, and Others, in the South Sea. London: P. A. Esq. [Philip Ayers], 1684.
de Lussan, Raveneau. Journal du Voyage Fait a la Mer de Sud, avec les les Flibustiers de l’Amerique en 1684. et Annés Suivantes. Paris: Jean Baptiste Coignard, 1690.
——. Journal of a Voyage into the South Seas in 1684 and the Following Years with the Filibusters. 1689. Reprint, translated and edited by Marguerite Eyer Wilbur. Cleveland: Arthur C. Clark Company, 1930.
——. Journal of a Voyage Made by the Freebooters into the South Sea, 1684, and in the Following Years. 1699. In The History of the Buccaneers of America by Alexandre Exquemelin [Joseph Exquemelin]. Reprint, Boston: Sanborn, Carter and Bazin, 1856.
——. Les Flibustiers de la Mer du Sud. 1695. Reprint, edited by Patrick Villiers. Paris: Éditions France-Empire, 1992.
[Dick, William]. “A Brief Account of Captain Sharp . . .” In The Buccaneers of America by Alexander Exquemelin [John Esquemeling], 257–83. 1684. Reprint, New York: Dorset, 1987.
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Little, Benerson. The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674–1688. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2007.
——. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth About Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016.
——. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630–1730. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005.
Navarro de Viana y Búfalo, Juan José. Álbum de Construcción Naval del Marqués de la Victoria. Museo Naval de Madrid.
[Povey, Edward?]. “The Buccaneers on the Isthmus and in the South Sea. 1680–1682.” In Jameson, Privateering and Piracy.
Pyle, Howard. How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas. An illustration in Harper’s Weekly, December 16, 1899.
Ringrose, Basil. “The Buccaneers of America: The Second Volume.” In Exquemelin, Buccaneers of America (Crooke, 1684).
——. Buccaneer Atlas: Basil Ringrose’s South Sea Waggoner. Edited by Derek Howse and Norman J. W. Thrower. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
——. “Captains Sharp, Coxon, Sawkins, and Others . . .” In The History of the Buccaneers of America by Alexander Exquemelin [Joseph Esquemeling], 180–313. 1699. Reprint, Boston: Sanborn, Carter and Bazin, 1856.
Sabatini, Rafael. The Black Swan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.
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Taylor, John. Jamaica in 1687: The Taylor Manuscript at the National Library of Jamaica. Edited by David Buisseret. Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2008.