Sunday, March 3, 2019

Captain Kidd & Wooden Ships by Katherine Pym

YA for All Ages London 1665


Capt Kidd in NY Harbor. It was traditional to have wives & lovers aboard before sailing

Research takes me to different eras and locales. One of those places is on a wooden ship slicing through the ocean's heavy swells. I have several books that describe the building of them, their terminologies, but few mention what it was like living on board. Until now...

Oh, I knew ships were crowded. Cages of ducks, geese and chickens lined the main deck rails. Cows and goats were harnessed to masts. Below decks, the magazine and filling rooms sat close together but the powder room was farther astern. Safety, you know, even as ships sometimes spontaneously exploded.
Capt Kidd's New York home
Seamen would often re-use old gun cartridges that, after a while, would deteriorate to a fine dust, and combined with particles of sulphuric and nitric acids found in gunpowder, a highly combustible substance called ‘guncotton’ would form. This friction of dust and gunpowder would cause terrific explosions, sinking the ship and everyone on board. 

Upward to several hundred men crowded onto a vessel. Captain Kidd, the privateer who turned pirate in the last years of the 17th century, had one hundred fifty-two men and boys cheek to jowl aboard his ship Adventure Galley. Men had to sleep in shifts. 

Inaccurate renduring of Capt Kidd
The decks were so short, maybe 5 feet ceilings, everyone had to walk in a permanent crouch. Unless a seaman was given express permission from the captain, no fire could be taken below decks, and unless the decks had gun ports, it was damn dark down there. 

“’No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail,’ observed Samuel Johnson. ‘For being in a ship is being in jail with the chance of being drowned... a man in jail has more room, better food and commonly better company.’

“Every available inch below deck was taken up with water-casks, barrels of salt beef, peas, beer; coils of ropes, bundles of extra canvas;” a private cabin or two, depending on the ship’s rate. These cabins were 4x4 feet. No one could stretch or pace. One had to sleep in the fetal position. 

“For landsmen, novices at this naval dormitory, the smell of that sleep chamber was gagging. Their overworked fellow sailors rarely changed their clothes or bathed; to top off the aroma of vintage sweat, toilet hygiene was rudimentary at best. 

“The ship’s head (i.e., toilet) consisted of a plank with a hole in it, which extended forward from the bow; a sailor perched on it, rode it like a seesaw, and, while doing his business, resembled some gargoyle or perverse bowsprit; the ship’s rail might provide the merest amount of privacy. A man attempting to tidy his ass risked a plunge into the sea.” 

Sailor being flogged

Even as existence such as this seemed pretty unpalatable, it got into the blood of men. Once they found their sea legs and learned the ways of the sea, many wouldn’t leave it for all their stolen treasure. If they didn’t like what their captain did, they could always mutiny, throw the offending captain overboard (as the Henry Hudson’s crew did) and sail away into the stormy sunset. 


Many thanks to: 

Wikicommons, public domain 

The Pirate Hunter, The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks. Hyperio, NY, NY. 2002


  1. This does not sound like fun. Your blogs and stories always educate me

    1. You are always the best Janet, a great support friend. Thanks very much.

  2. Love the comment about being a sailor and being in jail, and which is the smarter of the two.

    1. Thanks for commenting. One learns so much when researching. Lots of little jewels pop up. All the best,

  3. That had never occurred to me. What a rough life and yet it drew them in.


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