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Treating Animal Bites and Stings in the Golden Age of Piracy, Page 2

Animal Attacks: Fish

Most of the fish which attacked sailors did so primarily as a reaction to being caught or otherwise meddled with rather than as an aggressive act. The exception to this are sharks for whom there is such a litany of attacks in the period literature that they will be discussed in their own section.

Spotted Eagle Ray
Photo: John Norton - Spotted Eagle Ray (Aetobatus narinari)
Merchant sailor Edward Coxere notes that eagle rays [which he notes he refers to by the Dutch name 'pillestart'] had a "sting on their tails were like poison."1 He then tells a story of one of their men who was pushing water over the boat's fishing net when "he met with one of these pillestarts, which stung him in the thigh. He gets presently ashore, makes a fire in the sand and thrust his thigh into it, in such a manner as none of us did dare do the like, to fetch out the venom, which is a salve for that sore."2

William Dampier identifies three types of rays which he called Stingrays, Rasprays and Whiprays. While stingrays and whiprays exists, (whiprays being freshwater), rasprays do not. Dampier elsewhere comments that the skin of certain rays is used as a rasp, which may be where this name came from. He warns that the stingray "has three or four strong sharp Prickles, near two Inches long, at the Root of its Tail, which are said to be very venomous, but the rest of the skin is smooth."3

In fact, stingrays have a barb covered in flat spines in their tail "which can easily cut through flesh."4 These spines have groves in them that contain venom-secreting cells which enters the wound after the spines cut through the skin. However, "Stingrays generally do not attack aggressively or even actively defend themselves", preferring instead to swim away from perceived threats.5 It is likely that Coxere's man stepped on the ray while splashing the water into the net, which responded by whipping up its tail and stinging him.

William Dampier stated that seamen could be poisoned by catfish. He explained that they had three fins on their backs, each of which "hath a stiff sharp Bone, which is very venomous if it strikes into a Man’s Flesh"6. He explained that some natives had been killed while others lost use of their limbs after coming in contact with catfish in the Bay of Guyaquil. A Captain Michin told Dampier that while he was in the Straits of Malacca (off Sumatra, Indonesia), "he lost the use of his Hand by one Catfish
Artist: Duane Raver - Black Bullhead Catfish (Ameiurus melas)
of these [Catfish] , only in going to take the Hook out of its Mouth. The Wound was scarce visible, yet his Hand was much swoln, and the Pain lasted about 9 Weeks; during most part of which the raging Heat of it was almost ready to distract him."7

The University of Michigan has reported that a many as 1250 - 1600 species of catfish may be venemous. They have a venom gland located "on the edges of the dorsal and pectoral fins, and these spines can be locked into place when the catfish is threatened. When a spine jabs a potential predator, the membrane surrounding the venom gland cells is torn, releasing venom into the wound."8

Two sea-based accounts mention barracudas, which may not seem as surprising as it really is. While in Manila, Philippines, Friar Domingo Navarette, gatherer of interesting stories, told of a barracuda attack on a ship in which he was going to sail. A barracuda "laid hold of an Indians Ankle with such Force, that it was dragging him away to the Sea until the [ship's] Company with Sticks and Stones made him quit his Prey, and return to the Sea."9 The men brought the victim to Navarette in a 'bad condition' but his wounds were eventually healed. "Those Men were scar'd for they had never seen or heard tell that that Fish would come ashore, and much less that it would fall upon a Man."10

Barricuda and other Reef Fish
Artist: Robert W. Hines
Barricuda, Red Snapper & Other Reef Fish
It is fairly rare for barracudas to attack people without provocation, although it can happen as Navarette's case suggests. One diving site states that the number of barricuda attacks in the last century is only 25, although they don't cite their source.11

Dampier also mentions barricudas from his time spent among the logwood cutters in Honduras in 1676. He explains that they will "greedily take the Hook, and will snap at Men too in the Water."12 He also says that they "are firm, well-tasted fish" although they can be poisonous when eaten. "I know that in many Parts of the West-Indies, some have been injured by eating them, and that at different Seasons of the year; therefore Seamen commonly taste the Liver before they venture any further; and if that has a biting taste like Pepper, they esteem the fish unwholsom, but if not, they eat it: and yet I have found even this Rule fail too."13.

A similar account is found in an account of pirate Nathaniel North. Author Charles Johnson identified Red-Snappers near Mauritiis in the Indian Ocean as being poisonous when eaten. The crew of North's vessel, despite being warned not to eat the fish, went ahead and "supped plentifully on the fish, and drank very heartily after it. Soon after they began to swell in a frightful manner. The next morning some planters came on board with fowls, goats, &c. and seeing the pirates in a miserable condition, and some of these fish lying on the decks, asked if they had not eaten of them?"14 Upon learning the facts, the planters suggested that the pirates drink "plentifully of strong liquors, which was the only way to expel the poison"15. Johnson reports, "They readily followed this advice, as the prescription was agreeable, and by this means, with the care of the surgeons, of whom they had several expert in their business, and stocked with good medicines, they all recovered, four excepted, who paid their obstinacy with their lives."16

The sickness caused by eating these fish turned out not to be an inhernet fault of the fish, however. Both the barracuda and the red snapper meat can contain ciguatoxin, which "is found in fish that feed on coral reefs and in predatory fish that eat the reef feeders."17 Dr. W. Robert Lange of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore says that ciguatera fish poisoning is responsible for half of the fish-related food poisoning cases in the United States. The cause of the problem is a 'dinoflagellate' which "attaches itself to marine algae growing on coral reefs. It is consumed by small herbivorous reef fish as they eat the algae."18 The reef fish are then eaten by predators such as barracuda and red snapper.The cure prescribed to the pirates is rather curious, given that the modern advice warns that alcohol makes the symptoms of cinguatoxin worse.

1 Edward Coxere, Adventures by Sea of Edward Coxere, 1946, p. 20; 2 Coxere, p. 21; 3 William Dampier, “Part II: Mr. Dampier's Voyages to the Bay of Campeachy”, Voyages and Descriptions, Vol. II, 1700  p. 73; 4,5 "Stingray injury," Wikipedia, gathered 10/25/16; 6 William Dampier, Memoirs of a Buccaneer, Dampier’s New Voyage Round the World -1697-, 1968, p. 107; 7 Dampier, Memoirs, p. 107-8; 8 Nancy Ross Flannigan, “Killer catfish? Venomous species surprisingly common, study finds”, ns.umich.edu, 12/10/2009; 9,10 Domingo Navarrete, The Travels and Controversies of Friar Domingo Navarrete 1618-1686, 1962, p. 87; 11 "Debunking the Myths behind Barracuda", Leisure Pro's Aquaviews Online Scuba Magazine, leasurepro.com, gathered 10/26/16; 12,13 Dampier, “Part II: Mr. Dampier's Voyages to the Bay of Campeachy”, Voyages and Descriptions, Vol. II, p. 71; 14 Captain Charles Johnson, The History of the Pirates, 1829, p. 199; 15,16 Johnson, p. 200; 17,18 Jane E. Brody, “An Insidious Poison Lurks in Some Fish”, The New York Times, 9/8/1993, gathered 10/25/16

Animal Attacks: Insects

When thinking of insects 'attacking', many people think of stinging insects such as wasps and bees as well as small parasites such as mosquitoes, fleas and flies. Parasitic insects do appear in sailor's accounts, but they will not be discussed here since this is more fully explored in the article on parasites and their treatment.

Fire Ant Bites
Photo: Daniel Wojcik - Multiple Fire Ant Bites on a Leg
Wasps, bees and similar stinging insects along with ants, flies and similar biting insects must surely have been a problem for sailors, although they are generally not mentioned in their accounts. Such things were likely considered a regular nuisance rather than a singificant problem to be mentioned by most journalers.

The one exception to this comes from buccaneer William Dampier. While recounting his adventures among the logwood cutters in Honduras, he explains, "The great black Ant stings or bites almost as bad as a Scorpion; and next to this the small yellow Ants [probably fire ants] bite is most painful; for their sting is like a spark of fire; and they are so thick among the boughs in some places, that one shall be covered with them before he is aware."1 Some of the period doctors discuss treatment of such stings, which will be explored in the medical treatment of animal attacks section of this article.

Chinese Red-Headed Centipede
Photo: Kenpei - Chinese Red-Headed Centipede

Dampier also mentions the bites of venomous centipedes while in Mindanao, Philippines in 1686. There are a variety of these in the Philippines, although the one he describes - which is grey-brown or red color and 'full of Legs' - may match the Chinese Red-Headed Centipede. Their venom, while painful, is not usually considered deadly to humans.

Dampier advises, "Their Sting or Bite is more raging than the Scorpion. They lie in old Houses and Timber."2 Venomous centipedes would have been a problem during the golden age of piracy since varieties are found throughout the Caribbean. They don't actually bite or sting a victim, rather having a hollow pair of pincer-like legs in the front through which then inject venom into a wound.3

Scorpion stings were already mentioned several times by Dampier in an effort to Durango Bark Scorpion
Photo: Tomas Castelazo - Durango Bark Scorpion Native to Mexico (Centruroides suffusus)

show how other insect bites felt in comparison. This suggests that the scorpion sting was common enough for the average reader of his books to use for comparison.

While in Acapulco, Mexico in 1648, friar Domingo Navarette explained that they had "abundance of terrible Scorpions." He was advised that the best way to prevent them from stinging was to pray to St. George before going to bed. "I continu’d this Devotion many Years and, God be prais’d, the Saint always deliver’d me both there and in other Countries from those and such like Insects."4 Navarette's deliverance may not have been due to reverance alone. While there are 221 species of scorpions found in Mexico, several sources claim only 8 of them are actually deadly to humans.5

1 William Dampier, “Part II: Mr. Dampier's Voyages to the Bay of Campeachy”, Voyages and Descriptions, Vol. II, 1700  p. 64; 2 William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World, 1699, p. 220-1; 3 "Centipede bite", Wikipedia.org, gathered 10/24/16; 4 Domingo Navarrete, The Travels and Controversies of Friar Domingo Navarrete 1618-1686, 1962, p. 41-2; 5 See for example, Tara A. Spears, "Tropical Scorpions: What You Don’t See Can Hurt You", On the Road in Mexico website, gathered 10/25/16

Animal Attacks: Monkeys

In the scheme of things, monkey attacks were not very potent. However, such attacks are mentioned by two sources and so have earned a place in the list of animals attacking seamen. The first such attack is from sea surgeon John Atkins. On his way to Cape Corso Castle (in what is now Ghana, Africa), Atkins commented that "the most danger to Travellers, is from a prodigious number of Apes (some 5 foot long) and Monkeys that inhabit it, who will attack single Passengers, and drive them for Refuge into the Water, of which these Creatures are very fearful."1

Angry Monkey
Photo: Sabine Deviche - An Angry Monkey. It is sort of see it as a serious threat.

More satisfying from a descriptive point-of-view is William Dampier's encounter with monkeys in Honduras in 1676.

If they [monkeys] meet with a single Person they will threaten to devour him. When I have been alone I have been afraid to shoot them, especially the first time I met them. They were a great Company dancing from Tree to Tree, over my Head; chattering and making a terrible Noise; and a great may grim Faces, and shewing Antick Gestures. Some broke down dry Sticks and threw at me; others scattered their Urine and Dung about my Ears; at last one bigger than the rest, came to a small Limb just over my Head; and leaping directly at me, made me start back; but the Monkey caught hold of the Bough with the tip of his Tail; and there continued swinging to and fro, and making Mouths at me.2

This account features all the things one could expect from a monkey attack, although it lacks much in the way of a sense of danger.

1 John Atkins, A Voyage to New Guinea and Brazil, 1735, p. 108; 2 William Dampier, “Part II: Mr. Dampier's Voyages to the Bay of Campeachy”, Voyages and Descriptions, Vol. II, 1700  p. 59-60

Animal Attacks: Rats

Rats generally wouldn't go after something as large as a sailor, except in unusual circumstances. When he was marooned on Juan Fernandez Island in 1704, Alexander Selkirk reported that "Rats gnaw'd on his Feet and Clothes while asleep, which oblig'd him to cherish the [wild] Cats ...by which many of them became so tame, that they Rat

would lie about him in hundreds, and soon deliver’d him from the Rats."1 Although Selkirk was a sailor, this occurred on land.

At sea, sailors generally slept in hammocks. Rats could be a problem even there, however. In his surgical book, Richard Wiseman reported that while one of his patients, while lying in his hammock

was wakened by the wet he felt upon his Breast and Belly; and getting up to a Candle, he found the Dressing upon his Hand all bloody, as also the place whereon it lay. I being called took off his greazy Dressings, and found the Palm of his hand and fingers gnawed by Rats. They had eaten through the oiled Cloths, and had gnawed his Hand more, if he had not wakened by the trickling of his blood. [His hand was probably too numb from the existing wounds for him to feel the rats biting it.]2

Wiseman re-dressed the wound for the patient using digestive medicines [which promote the growth of healthy flesh in a wound] generally following standard wound treatment procedures.

1 Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage Round the World, 2004, p. 73; 2 Richard Wiseman, Of Wounds, Severall Chirurgicall Treatises, 1676, p. 437

Animal Attacks: Seals

Angry Seal
An Angry Seal. From Alfred Edmund Brehm's Life of animals ((1895)

Admittedly, there is only one account of a seal attack in the information I have gathered, but it seemed so bizarre that it is included here . It come from a report by Woodes Rogers while they were at Lobos Island in the Canaries off Spain. "The Seals are numerous here, but not so many as at Juan Fernandez; A large one seiz’d a stout Dutchman, had like to have pull’d him into the Water, and bit him to the bone in several places, in one of his Arms and Legs."1

This seems like awfully vicious behavior for a seal. However, it must first be remembered that they are wild animals and second (and probably more importantly) the sailor was probably doing something to the seal that it didn't like. (Such as trying to kill it. Sailors ate seals.) With the information given here, it's impossible to say why the Dutchman was bitten, although it seems likely that it was an unusual event.

1 Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage Round the World, 2004, p. 82

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