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Christmas Holidays at Sea:    1      2      3      4      5       Next>>

Christmas Holidays at Sea in the Golden Age of Piracy, Page 3

Buccaneers and Christmas Abroad

Buccaneer Captain
Artist: Joan van Keulen
Buccaneer from Map -
Pas kaart Van de Noord
Kust van Espaniola (1684)
Several of the Buccaneer's accounts from their sea-going adventures give us details on how they celebrated Christmas at sea and abroad. Nearly all of them involve Captains Sharp, Sawkins, and Coxon on their raids in South America and the Caribbean which began shortly after Christmas in 1679.1 The primary element of the Christmas celebration among the buccaneers is just what Labat intimated: alcohol.

William Dampier explains that "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."2

The first of Sharp's buccaneering crew's Christmases at sea (1680) found them at Juan Fernandez Island (today called Alejandro Selkirk Island). Alexandre Exquemelin explains that "being Christmas day, we gave in the morning early three volleys of shot, for solemnization of that great festival."3 Captain Bartholomew Sharp relates in his journal that the crew found the island "a very refreshing Place to us both in respect to the Goats we found here... [as well as] fresh Water wherewith we filled our Vessels.”4 A few days later he reports that on the eastern side of the island the crew "met with great store of Fish, and particularly Lobsters, in this Place as also three Springs of good Water.”5 (While goat seems a bit more traditional than lobster in the scheme of things, I could be convinced to make that sacrifice.)

Juan Fernandez Island
Encamped on Juan Fernandez Island, from Voyage Round the World
by Geroge Anson (1748)

This particular Christmas was not without its problems, however. First there were the seals. "Here [Juan Fernandez Island] we saw multitudes of seals, covering the bay every where, insomuch that we were forced to kill them before we could set foot on shore."6 Nothing says 'Happy Holidays!' quite like clubbing seals!

Of course that paled in comparison with Captain Sharp's other problem that Christmas; some of the men had turned mutinous. (They were buccaneers, after all.) Basil Ringrose notes in his journal that "it is usuall amongst the generality of men, that plenty of all things [as they found on Juan Fernandez Island], breeds an increase of ill humors, Faction and Disturbances."7 The surgeon might have been able to draw off the bad humors through judicious bleeding, but faction and disturbances had to be cured in another way.

Exquemelin, clearly taking sides, explained that "our worthy commander, Squire Trelawny firing at the Pirates
Artist: George Roux
Not a Christmas Present You Expect
"Squire Trelawny firing at the Pirates"
from Treasure Island (1885)
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.8 Exquemelin almost makes it sound as if the men wanted to shoot him because he had marked Christmas as a day for being merry!

Basil Ringrose clarifies the situation and details more of what produced this Christmas crises in his journal.

A party of the disaffected to Captain Sharp got ashoar and subscribed a Paper to make John Watling Commander, pretending liberty to a free election as they termed it, and that Watling had it by vote. The reason of this mutiny was that Sharp had got about 3000 pieces of Eight, and was willing to come home that year, but two thirds of the Company had none left; having lost it at play [gambling]; And those would have Captain Sharp turned out, because they had no mind as yet to return home. This Fewd was carried on so fiercely, that it was very near coming to a civil War, had not some prudent men a little moderated the thing...9

The next year's Noel was a bit less fractious for Sharp's crew, although they had unseated him as British soldiers toasting
The British Sailors Loyal Toast, from The British Tar in Fact and Fiction, p. 136 (1738)
captain and then reinstated him between one Christmas and the next. (Buccaneers will be buccaneers, after all.) 1681 was not the most joyous holiday, however. Captain Sharp describes it thus: "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 that my Men might not mutiny.”10

Exquemelin agrees, noting that Captain Sharp "made us share the wine amongst us, as being persuaded they would scarce attempt any such thing [as mutiny] in their sobriety. The wine we shared fell out to three jars to each mess."11 Pretty sharp of Sharp to use his wine so strategically. This highlights the importance of celebrating the holiday properly vis-a-vis the morale of the buccaneers.

A Buccaneer's Dog
Sorry Phydeux! You're what's for
dinner! From On the Spanish Main
by John Masefield (image: 1744)
There are some minor discrepancies about the menu between the various accounts of this Christmas. Exquemelin provides a lot of detail, explaining that the crew "killed yesterday, in the evening, a sow. This sow we had brought from the Gulf of Nicoya, being then a suckling pig, of about three weeks old, but now weighed about fourscore and ten pounds. With this hog's flesh we made our Christmas dinner, being the only flesh we had eaten since we turned away our prizes under the equinoctial, and left the Island of Plata [Isla de la Plata, Ecuador]."12 Ringrose agrees with the part about the sow, which he calls "a large Hogg"13. He expands upon the menu, however, explaining that "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”14. So... dog for Christmas dinner! Enjoy the holiday, everyone! (Me, I'll stick with the lobster.)

1 William Dampier, Memoirs of a Buccaneer, Dampier’s New Voyage Round the World -1697-, p. 28; 2 Dampier, p. 85; 3 Alexandre Exquemelin, The History of the Buccaneers of America, p. 259;  4 Bartholomew Sharp, “Captain Sharp’s Journal of His Expedition,” from William Hacke’s A collection of original voyages, p. 44; 5 Sharp, p. 45; 6 Exquemelin, p. 260; 7 Basil Ringrose, The voyages and adventures of Capt. Barth. Sharp and others, in the South Sea, p. 48; 8 Exquemelin, p. 304; 8 Ringrose, p. 49; 10 Sharp, p. 54; 11 Exquemelin, p. 304; 12 Exquemelin, p. 304; 13 Ringrose, p. 108; 14 Ringrose, p. 108-9;

Christmas with the Pirates

"After this Cruize, they [Jack Rackham's crew] went into a small Island and cleaned, and spent their Christmas ashore, drinking and carousing as long as they had any Liquor left, and then went to Sea again for more, where they succeeded but too well, though they took no extraordinary Prize, for above two Months...” (Captain Charles Johnson, The General History of the Most Notorious Pirates, 3rd Edition, p. 151)

William Dampier the buccaneer
William Dampier, from
The Coming of the British to
Australia 1788 to 1829
by Ida Lee (1906)

From the few accounts we have, the pirates celebrated Christmas with the best of them, generally feasting when they could and resorting to their old favorite standby: liquor.

William Dampier gives us a couple of accounts of Christmases spent sailing with Captain Charles Swan. (Dampier and Swan walked the line between buccaneer and pirate throughout their careers. While it could be successfully argued that they were still buccaneers at this point, I have decided to stick them in with the pirates.) In 1685, Dampier reveals that they "sent in 3 Canoas [canoes] with the Strikers [harpooners] to get Fish, being desirous to have a Christmas Dinner. In the Afternoon they returned aboard with 3 great Jew-fish [Atlantic Goliath grouper], which feasted us all; and the next day we sent ashore our Canoas again, and got 3 or 4 more."1

The next Christmas found the crew at Mindanao - the last island of the Philippines. While there, Captain Swan "desired all his Men to be aboard that Day [Christmas], that we might keep it solemnly together: And accordingly he sent aboard a Buffaloe the Day before, that we might have a good dinner."2 Swan ate on the ship with his men and then went back to shore. His men mutinied and took his ship Cygnet later.


Pirates celebrating
Artist: M. Baird
Pirates (a political cartoon, but it works) Harpers Weekly (July, 1861)
In 1720, pirate Captain Edward England's crew spent Christmas " in Carowzing and Forgetfulness, and kept it for three Days in a wanton and riotous Way"3. Of course Johnson immediately added a caveat to this story (as he was wont to do) noting that in doing so, they wasted "their fresh Provisions in so wretched and inconsiderable a Manner, that when they had agreed after this to proceed to Mauritius [an island off the eastern coast of Madagascar] they were in that Passage at an Allowance of a Bottle of Water per Diem, and not above two Pounds of Beef, and a small Quantity of Rice, for ten Men for a Day, so that had it not been for the leaky Ship, (which once they were about to have quitted, and had done, but for a Quantity of Arrack [cheap wine] and Sugar She had on Board,) they must most of them have perished."4Johnson several times makes the point that many of the pirates were not very good at planning the use of their victuals. But... Christmas!

And what is Christmas without snow? (Actually, it's pretty typical for the Caribbean.) We do have one buccaneer/pirate account of a snowy Christmas... sort of. It is from buccaneer surgeon Lionel Wafer's account of sailing with our old friend Captain Sharp. Wafer relates that "Upon Christmas day, 1687. we were just clear of the Storm, and in the Latitude we mentioned, off Cape Horn. Running hence to the Northward again, being now got out of the South Sea, we met several Islands of Ice; which islands of at first seemed to be real Land.”5 OK, he doesn't actually talk about snow, but he does note that "[f]rom these Hills of Ice came very cold Blasts of Wind; insomuch that our Men, newly coming out of a hot Country, could hardly endure the Deck."6 So as cheerful as many of us think of snow at Christmas, it may be best not to wish for snow at Christmas while at sea.

1 William Dampier, Memoirs of a Buccaneer, Dampier’s New Voyage Round the World -1697-, p. 273; 2 Dampier, p. 367; 3 Captain Charles Johnson, The General History of the Most Notorious Pirates, p. 133; 4 Captain Charles Johnson, p. 133-4; 5 Lionel Wafer, A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America, p. 192-3; 6 Wafer, p. 193


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