Here is the final post in this series by guest poster Mark S. Cookman.
Previously in this series I looked at command officers and mid-grade officers on a pirate or privateer vessel. In this article, we will be looking at the makeup of the crew itself. Remember that the only rule with pirates is that there are no rules; no two crews of any two pirate ships were exactly the same. Even so, we can narrow down some roles common to pirate/privateer crews based upon the jobs that must be done aboard ship. Most simply put, pirate crews are a mixture of brutes, gunners, swabbies, and musikers. Let’s examine each category in turn.
A great deal of hard work and heavy hauling is involved in just sailing a tall-masted ship. In strong winds the canvas sails must be man-handled by a deck crew that is stronger. Loading and unloading supplies, most especially cannons or chests of gold, requires a number of strong backs. This is why every ship has its share of brutes – big, strong men capable of handling themselves no matter the work or the fight. In addition to the tasks already mentioned, brutes would be key men in hunting parties, ship boarding, and raiding groups as well. Keep in mind that not all brutes need to be hulking bruisers. A wiry-tough and dexterous hunter, skilled with both blades and long rifle, could be a brute as well. Brutes, no matter their size, do not shrink from a hard task. Men of this sort make up perhaps as much as 1/2 of a pirate crew, but they will be mixed among the gunners and swabbies, not a stand alone corp. Most of the men on a pirate or privateer ship were probably gunners.
Depending upon the size of their shot, each cannon required a crew of either 3 or 4 men to load and fire it. So a sloop carrying 4 small guns per side would require a minimum of 24 men to fully maintain them and that does not include the officers directing the cannon fire. On a large ship, like Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, a full gun crew would be 160 men dedicated only to firing the cannons. (It is important to note here that Blackbeard had a total crew compliment of 125 on board the Queen Anne’s Revenge.) These crewmen would have to be available 24/7 to do their job whenever required, but otherwise might have no duties on the ship. There was double-duty in most crews though. Most pirate ships didn’t keep a full compliment of gunners like warships of the time did because fewer crew members meant fewer shares and that meant more money for everyone when the treasure was split. Gunners could make up between 1/3 to 2/3 of a crew.
Swabbies, or actual trained sailors, are the crew members responsible for handling the rigging and the sails to keep the ship moving. These are the guys and gals who climb the ratlines into the rigging and walk the spars that jut from the masts. Swabbies sometimes fight from the highest position that they can get to on their own ship and then leap into the rigging of the enemy vessel when boarding. Often dexterous fighters, swabbies are known for leaping into the fray, but sometimes they hide in the rigging as deadly snipers. It might be surprising to discover that skilled sailors usually comprised less than 1/3 of the total crew compliment of the ship.
It is difficult to prove that “musikers”, or musicians as we call them, were ever a stand-alone part of a pirate crew. However, two excellent examples from the pirate period demonstrate that they have been a common part of most ships of war, pirate and privateer ships included. The first example is from the early Seventeenth century. In Captain John Smith’s advice concerning how to conduct a one-on-one naval engagement he remarks when preparing to board one should, “. . . sound Drums and Trumpets, and Saint George for England.” The second example comes from the early Eighteenth century. In the articles of Captain Bartholomew Roberts it is stated: “The Musikers to have Rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six Days and Nights, none without special Favour.” When thinking about the musicians on board a ship in the 16th to 18th centuries, one must not think of a band. That would be far too organized a concept. There is no way to know how many crew members may have been musicians, but one assumes that the number is not large.
It is likely that ships of this period had crew members who owned musical instruments as varied as brass horns, mouth harps, fiddles, bag pipes and accordions. Furthermore, sailors could gather numerous instruments from the various ports of call their ship made. Examples here are numerous: cowhide and goatskin drums from Africa, dried gourd maracas from Cuba, bamboo drums and flutes from Hispaniola, and even tambourines from Morocco. Pause a moment and consider the combined sounds of all of the instruments mentioned here. Now you know why a band is not the idea you want to have. The musicians were popular with the crew, as they were entertainment as well as a valuable battle element. The musicians played during meal times and during work breaks allowing the crew some entertainment to break the monotony of long hours of tiring work. This boost in moral was welcome at anytime, but was perhaps the most effective when used in battle.
From stories of Bartholomew Roberts crew and others, we know that when a ship with musicians approached another ship with the intention to fight, the effects of the music could be terrifying to the enemy. The musicians would play marches and other martial music. There were drum rolls, trumpet and bugle calls, and perhaps even a piper given the nationality of the crew. Add to this the noise of the ship’s cook beating upon his pots and pans and the crew stamping their feet or beating their weapons against the ship. Finally top this off with the sounds of shouting, screaming, and shooting, both pistols and rifles as well as cannons and deck guns. Your imagination can supply you with the details of the scene. The intended result is achieved: the morale aboard the pirate vessel is raised to a fevered pitch while the morale of their intended prize is shaken. So do not forget that pirates and privateers know the value of bardic inspiration when you run those encounters.
This concludes the series about the crew of a pirate or privateer ship. May this information about the command officers, the mid-grade officers, and the common crew enhance both your understanding of the way that ships work and your future gaming adventures. Thank you for your time. If you have any questions or comments, please make them below.
Mark Cookman is a writer, educator, and jack-of-all-trades with professional experience in Armor Making, Automobile Racing and Repair, Brewing, Classical Fencing, Delivery Driving, Doughnut Making, and Game Design just to list a few skills. He has been gaming since 1982 with AD&D 1st Edition. He is the author of Welcome to Mortiston, USA and the chief cook and bottle washer at Black Shark Enterprises. Mark always has his dice.