Although movies and books portray the pirate life as exciting, lucrative, and adventurous, the truth regarding 17th-century pirates is that life was merciless. Pirates experienced poverty, violence, filth, malnutrition, constant danger, and almost inevitable death.
The average lifespan of a pirate after beginning their career was around two years. A pirate’s average age was about 25 years old. These young seamen often succumbed to illness, infection, malnutrition, battle wounds, or accidental injuries at sea.
This article examines the lifespan of pirates, the risks they faced, and common causes of death among the buccaneers. Additionally, it briefly lists famous pirates who died relatively young and their causes of death. Read on to learn more.
How Long Did Pirates Usually Live?
Those who turned to piracy knew it meant the risk of death, especially if captured. Despite this, young, poor, uneducated men longed for the chance to secure riches quickly. Early retirement was unheard of for these young men, so the idea of becoming wealthy through piracy was all too alluring.
The number of young buccaneers exploded throughout the Golden Age of Piracy, with an estimated 5,000 active pirates at sea during the era.
Though these mean desired early retirement, many didn’t live long enough to see their dreams come to fruition. The majority hardly lived a long life at all.
Most pirates didn’t live for more than two years after beginning their careers. Exposure to the elements, poor hygiene, illness, malnutrition, dehydration, and a dangerous lifestyle often led to an early death. If a pirate escaped disease and infection, capture almost always meant execution.
What Was the Most Common Cause of Death Among Pirates?
Sea life was rough, nutrition was poor, sailing was hard work, and life was fraught with many dangers for pirates. There were multiple ways to die as a sea dog, and they knew it.
The most common causes of death among pirates included malnutrition, illness (i.e., flu, dysentery, tuberculosis, etc.), blood infections, dehydration, accidents, combat-related injuries, and execution after capture.
Scurvy Killed Over Two Million Seamen
One of the most well-known pirate illnesses is scurvy. This condition is caused by malnutrition due to a vitamin C deficiency. Though easily cured today, pirates knew little about the ailment during the Golden Age of Piracy. Dr. James Lind discovered the cure in 1747, over a decade after the famous pirate era had ended.
Symptoms of scurvy caused pirates to appear pale with splotchy skin and led to swollen, bleeding gums, putrid breath, tooth loss, and severe pain in the joints. If left untreated, scurvy resulted in a horrifying death. From 1492 to the mid-1800s, scurvy is estimated to have killed over two million seamen.
Blood Infections Led to Amputations and Death
The lack of proper hygiene and unsanitary conditions aboard pirate ships led to a variety of ailments and infections. Even the tiniest wounds could become contaminated with bacteria, leading to serious blood infections. Many times, the wounds became so severely infected that the limb required amputation to prevent death — but amputation often resulted in death as well, so it was a difficult decision to make.
Dehydration Was Common Due to a Lack of Freshwater
Perhaps one of the most serious challenges the pirates faced was the lack of fresh water. Many pirates died due to dehydration.
Drinking water was very hard to come by, and pirates spent weeks, months, and even years at sea. Not only did they have to plan routes for water stops, but when water was scarce, they had to ration the supply among crewmates. Even when they did have an ample supply of water, it sat in casks, eventually growing algae or bacteria, causing illness after consumption.
Dysentery Killed Pirates Quickly
Dirty, crowded ships made it easy for disease to spread — and fast. Sir Francis Drake, pirate and circumnavigator, was one of many pirates who fell victim to the “bloody flux,” also known as dysentery. Dysentery is caused by contaminated food or water and leads to inflamed intestines. The inflamed intestines result in bloody diarrhea, bacterial poisoning, dehydration, and if left untreated, death.
Combat-Related Injuries Included Gunshot Wounds, Stabbing, Etc.
The pirate’s job was to raid ships and ports, stealing any valuable commodities worth selling on land. Of course, not every ship surrendered to the swashbucklers — most fought back. As such, pirates often succumbed to gunshot wounds, lacerations, or other fatal war injuries.
Ships were commonly hit with cannons, causing splintering projectiles and crushing injuries. If a vessel happened to capsize or sink, drowning was a very real possibility.
Accidental Injuries Often Led to Death
Manual labor was a requirement for crewmates, and there were no safety measures in place to prevent injuries. Each pirate played a vital role in the ship’s performance, keeping it afloat and moving efficiently across the high seas.
Pirates had to climb to release the sails, manually heave the capstan, repair holes, operate cannons, and work with pulleys and thick, strong ropes, all of which could lead to serious bodily harm, even death.
If a pirate was injured during a voyage, medical care was unlikely; they rarely had doctors aboard. However, Blackbeard was known to keep medical supplies onboard to keep his crew healthy and strong.
Captured Pirates Were Almost Certainly Convicted and Executed
Piracy wasn’t pretty, to say the least. Crewmates often experienced severe punishments at the hands of the quartermaster (as ordered by the captain), even for minor infractions.
Flogging (i.e., whipping), public humiliation, marooning, and various other cruel forms of abuse were common. However, most pirates would rather suffer these consequences than be captured, as capture most certainly meant imminent death.
When captured for criminal activities, pirates were usually publicly executed by hanging or decapitation. A more tortuous method involved a gallows-like structure and a body cage. Pirates were secured in the cage and hanged publicly, left to die of thirst, starvation, and exposure.
Famous Pirates, Years Active, and Cause of Death
The majority of pirates died while active in their piracy careers. More fortunate pirates died later of natural causes.
Here are some of the pirates that died, leaving behind a legacy:
- Blackbeard – Perhaps the most notorious and feared pirate, Blackbeard died at the age of 38 after combat with a British fleet. The famed buccaneer had only sailed the high seas as a pirate for less than two years when he died.
- Sir Henry Morgan – It’s believed that Sir Henry Morgan became active with a group of privateers in the early 1660s. He sailed from 1663 to 1671, giving him an active period of eight years before he died of natural causes at the age of 53.
- Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy – Though he only plundered ships and ports for a little over a year, Black Sam was exceptionally prosperous, seizing over 50 ships before his death at age 28. This young pirate met his end after his ship, the Whydah, capsized about 150 meters from shore.
- John “Calico Jack” Rackham – During the early 18th century, the Bahamas and Cuba were taken by storm by pirate Calico Jack. This young pirate remained active in the area for two years before his capture. After his capture, he was tried and convicted and subsequently hanged at 37 years old.