You are here: History > Pirates & galleons > Life aboard a pirate ship

Life aboard a pirate ship

Animals, captain and crew on deck Pirates were better treated, and had more freedoms and rights than “normal” sailors. Many of them became pirates in the first place to escape the brutal treatment they received on merchant ships or warships. On a pirate ship, both the captain and the quartermaster (the person in charge of food and living conditions on board) were elected by the crew. The captain was a man to whom the crew could give its trust rather than a hated figure of authority. He was often the bravest fighter among the ship’s company. If the captain became unpopular, or treated the crew badly, the pirates would happily remove him, and elect someone else as their leader instead.

The pirate code

Before they could join a pirate band, new recruits had to promise to follow a strict code of conduct. This included fighting bravely in battle and keeping weapons in good working order. There were penalties for disobeying these rules. Stealing from shipmates and deserting the ship were some of the most serious crimes. Disgraced pirates could be marooned (abandoned on a desert island), or even put to death.Every crew member signed a copy of the rules, which were called "articles".Before a battle, the whole crew discussed their plan of attack, with any disagreements settled by a vote. The ship’s captain could be overthrown by a show of hands among the crew. The pirates even received money if they suffered any injuries while they were fighting for the band. Treasure was divided up according to an agreed system. The captain and his officers received slightly larger shares than the rest of the crew. Some pirates became rich and retired to a life of luxury, but many spent any money they earned on drink and gambling within days of arriving in port.


A pirate's diet: chicken, turtle, porridge, biscuits and beer


Two staple foods on pirate ships were salted pork and tough, long-lasting biscuits called hard tack. These often became infested with weevils. When food ran out, the crew had to eat soups made from boiled bones. On some ships, the only food was old leather. Water became undrinkable just days into a voyage, so pirates drank beer or rum instead.

Many ships carried chickens on board. These provided eggs and meat. On long voyages, poor diet resulted in diseases such as scurvy. Caused by a lack of vitamin C, it could be prevented by eating fruit—but no one knew that at the time. The sea itself provided fresh food in the form of fish or dolphins. Sea turtles were a good source of fresh meat. They were slow on land and easy prey for pirates. They could even be kept alive on board ship until needed. Turtle eggs were also a popular delicacy.



Life at sea

A cutaway illustration of pirates working and relaxingThe crew was made up of sailors who turned to a life of piracy. Many of them became pirates to escape the brutal treatment they received on merchant ships or warships. They had been forced to live on rotten, maggot-infested food, and frequently suffered disease and crippling injury. The captain on such ships had absolute authority and often handed out harsh punishments, including flogging. Life at sea was still tough for pirates. Below deck, it was dark, damp and dirty. The men lived in cramped conditions, sleeping amongst rats and eating a poor diet. Rats on board were a big problem; they ate the food stores, chewed through ropes and carried disease.

Chores aboard a pirate shipThere were no doctors, so pirates' battle wounds went untreated. All an injured pirate could do was wear a patch over a lost eye, or wear a wooden leg in place of a missing limb. Much of the time, in the weeks between attacks, life was extremely boring. When they had time off from chores, the pirates could sing, dance, play cards or sleep. There were many more men on board than were needed to crew the ship. The extra men would be used to crew any ships they captured. In the meantime, it meant they could all do less work on board. 

Consultant: Philip Parker

Captains were sometimes voted out by their crews and left ashore for not being aggressive enough—while others were abandoned for being too bloodthirsty.


Find the answer