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Fresh Water at Sea in the Golden Age of Piracy, Page 6

Problems with Fresh Water at Sea - Procurement For Pirates

Good locations for watering were even more limited for pirates. When Edward Low started his pirating career, he and his dozen companions decided to take "a small Vessel, and go in her, make a black Flag, and declare War against all the World."1 While this sounds romantic, it also meant they had to avoid well-populated locations where fresh water was known to be good and could be easily accessed. Otherwise they ran the risk being discovered by people based on their behavior and appearance.

Dampier's Roebuck Under Attack
Artist: Charles Barbant
Dampier's Roebuck Under Attack off New Guinea (19th c.)
William Dampier stopped at Kupau, Timor after several frustrated attempts to get water only the northwestern coast of Australia. However, the Governor of the Dutch fort Concordia met his ship in a sloop manned with forty soldiers and was not willing to let them water there. Dampier explains, "By the small Arms my Men carried with them in the Boat, they took us to be Pirates, and would not easily believe the Account my Men gave them of what we were, and whence we came."2 Dampier was pretty desperate for water, so he sent his clerk to the governor the next day and, after the clerk agreed not to bring their ship too close to the fort, "assoon as we pleased, we should send our Boat full of empty Casks, and come to an Anchor with it off the Fort, till he sent Slaves to bring the Casks ashore, and fill them; for that none of our Men must come ashore."3 Even potential pirates were unwelcome.

Compromise was sometimes necessary. When pirate captain Nathaniel North was stuck aboard a prize ship that had been separated from the other ships by bad weather they were 'drove to great distress' by a lack of water on the ship. Because it was a shared problem, the captives provided the solution. "The Moor merchant, who was on board with him, and whom he had treated very humanely, showed him a draught [draft, in this case a map], by which he came to a small island not far from the Dutch settlement, and watered."4

Of course pirates had a different philosophy most of the time, sometimes employing pressure to find water on land. North's pirates tried to capture a fishing boat to find out how where they could get good water, but the men in the fishing vessel jumped overboard and most of them swam to shore. North's men chased one of them, accidentally breaking his jaw during the chase. They took the man to their surgeon and give him a pipe of tobacco and some liquor, after which he told them about a well on shore. The pirates were only able to get 3 buckets of water from the well, causing them to threaten to kill the wounded fisherman. He "told them, if they would have patience till the sun was set, they would have plenty, for the spring would rise, and flow all night; which they found to be the fact, and filled twenty tons [tuns] of water, and returned on board, carrying the man with them, for whom they made a gathering of some goods, and about 30 dollars."5

Pirates Approaching in a Threatening Manner
Artist: Howard Pyle - Then the Real Fight Began (1911)
A death threat to another fisherman played a part when Edward Low's pirates were seeking water. Low's crew had captured a fishing boat with two men and a boy on board off the Portuguese island of Madeira. In an effort to get water, they sent one of the fishermen "ashore with a Flag of Truce, demanding a Boat of Water of the Governor, on Pain of taking away the old Man's Life, whom they threatened to hang at the Yard-Arm"6. When the governor complied, the pirates let the three of them go, being "much handsomer cloathed than when they took them."7

Another trio of men were similarly treated after being taken off a small ship at anchor by pirate captain Richard Taylor at a time where his crew needed to refresh their supply of fresh water. "They sent one of these [three men] on Shore to the Captain [of the small Ship], to acquaint him, if he would supply them with some Water, and fresh Provisions, he should have his Ship again"8. The master of the ship agreed to the terms, but the man delivering the message joined the pirate crew and convinced them that the master's offer was 'collusive' resulting in their deciding to seek water elsewhere.

Edward Low's pirates captured seven ships off of St. Michaels in Maryland in 1722. After plundering the ships, and taking one for their own use, "Low then sent word to the Governor at St. Michaels, that if furnished with supplies he would release the vessels that had been taken, otherwise they would be burned."9 The governor decided it was best to give the pirates what they wanted and they released the remaining six vessels.

When William Kidd was searching for water in the East Indies he had a some of trouble getting anyone to give it to him. The word had been passed around the area that his pirate hunting voyage had turned into a piracy voyage by the East India company, making him an Charles Galley
Artist: Willem Van de Velde the Younger
The Charles Galley, Similar to Kidd's Adventure Galley (late 17th c.)

unwanted visitor. In October of 1697, Kidd anchored off Calicut (modern Kozhikode) where he sent a message via a local fishermen to shore requesting wood and water. They refused to talk with him. He sent a boat ashore with a letter which was to 'end all suspicion' and asking "for wood and water which if you will please to enorder, I shall honestlie satisfie [pay] for"10. Receiving no response, he sailed "to the small port of Bhatkal where he forcibly procured all that he required by plunder and violence."11 So much for ending all suspicion.

Low's pirates ran into a similar problem at least twice. When they were sailed to Grenada after missing Tobago, Low had to hide most of his men because a large number of men on a ship suggested she was a pirate. He told enquiring officials that he "had lost his Water; and was oblig'd to put in for a recruit; the poor People not suspecting him for a Pyrate, readily suffered him to send his Men ashoar and fetch off a supply."12

They were not quite so lucky the second time. Some of Low's pirates had taken one of their sloops to search for two ships reported to be sailing to the Cape Verde islands, but they missed these much needed prize ships. Being "reduced to great Necessities for want of Provisions and Water... they ventured to go ashore at St. Michael's [São Miguel, Azores] for a Supply, and pass for a Trader, but they play'd their Parts so aukwardly, that they were suspected by the Governor to be what they really were"13. Some Portuguese sailors recognized a few of the crew and, as Johnson glibly puts it, "the whole Crew was conduc[t]ed into the Castle [prison], where they were provided for as long as they liv'd."14

A French pirate crew was similarly captured on the same errand. Their ship, "whilst lying off Point de Galle [modern Galle, Sri Lanka] to procure water and provisions, was blown out to sea, leaving the boat's crew, of which [forced man Jonas] Hanway was in charge, ashore. They were taken by the Dutch and sent to Madras [India] for trial where Hanway saved his own life by turning King's evidence, the others being hanged or imprisoned."15

Even when pirates went to out of the way places to get water, they sometimes encountered problems. After a failed attempt to find the pirate ship Speaker, pirate John Cornelius brought his Persian Gulf, 1776
Map-Maker: Jean Baptiste Anville - Golfe Persique 1776
ship Morningstar into the Persian Gulf and settled on what they imaginatively referred to as Antelope Island because of the number of antelopes that lived there (The island was more officially referred to as Tombo during this time - shown in red at left - and is today called Tunb.) "Here they designed to heave down and clean, and they had got a good part of their goods and water casks ashore, when the look-out discovered two lofty ships, one of them wearing a flag at the fore-top-mast head."17 They scrambled to get what water casks they could back on the ship, waited for the two Portuguese ships to come abreast of them. Following a brief skirmish, the pirates escaped as soon as they were able and sneaked back to their careening spot on Tunb after dark. To their dismay, they found the Portuguese had landed and smashed all the casks they had left on shore.

Of course, turnabout is fair play. Historian Charles Grey explains that there were several pirate ships sailing in a very loose consortship in the East Indies during this time. The five ships involved in this loose confederacy were the William Want's Dolphin, Joseph Farrell's Portsmith Adventure, William May's Pearl, Thomas Week's Susanna and Thomas Tew's Amity.18 On at least one occasion they decided to combine their might to pay back a perceived insult. Grey explains that "the whole of the [five] Pirates combined to attack and bombard the coast town of Leet [modern Al Lith, Saudi Arabia] in revenge for the denial of water and provisions to one of them, and then thoroughly plundered that place"19.

Stopping for water presented another problem for pirates - men escaping. A key aspect of piracy was their ability to intimidate other ships into surrendering without a fight. (Contrary to the way some popular media portrays them, most pirates preferred not to have to engage in battle.) Since most merchant ships were minimally manned, the more men a pirate had (and could display on deck when attacking), the more likely the merchant was to be intimidated into surrendering. Pirates sometimes had trouble recruiting men, however, so they forced men out of the ships they took to join them to increase their numbers. Such forced men occasionally tried to escape and making landfall to get water and other provisions presented an opportunity for that.

Philip Ashton Escaping
Philip Ashton's Escape, From De Nieuwe Robinson Crusoë (1850)
Philip Ashton, captive of Edward Low's crew, provides one of the most detailed descriptions of how this could be accomplished. When Low's ship stopped at Roatan, Honduras, Ashton convinced the ship's cooper to take him with them to get fresh water from the island. Ashton seized his opportunity:

When we came first to Land, I was very Active in helping to get the Casks out of the Boat, & Rowling them up to the Watering place; then I lay down at the Fountain & took a hearty Draught of the Cool Water; & anon, I gradually strol' d along the Beech, picking up Stones & Shells, & looking about me; when I had got about Musket Shot off from them (tho' they had taken no Arms along with them in the Boat) I began to make up to the Edge of the Woods20

The cooper spotted Ashton, asking him where he was going. He replied that he was going to get coconuts. That must have satisfied the cooper, because Ashton then slipped into the woods. Once he was out of sight "I betook my self to my Heels, and ran as fast as the Thickness of the Bushes and my naked Feet would let me."21 On discovering Ashton's disappearance, the cooper called for him several times and finally decided that he had gotten himself lost. "So finding it in vain for them to wait any longer, they put off with their Water, without me; and thus was I left upon a desolate Island destitute of all help, and much out of the way of all Travellers”22.

1 5 Captain Charles Johnson, A general history of the pirates, 2nd Edition, 1724, p. 368; 2 William Dampier, A Continuation of a Voyage to New-Holland, &c., Part II, 1703, p. 21-2; 3 Dampier, A Continuation, Part II, 1703, p. 27; 4 Captain Charles Johnson, The History of the Pirates, 1829, p. 164; 5 Johnson, History of the Pirates, p. 197; 6,7 Johnson, General History, p. 373; 8 Johnson, General History, p. 128; 9 George Francis Dow and John Henry Edmonds, The Pirates of the New England Coast 1630-1730, 1996, p. 153; 10,11 Charles Grey, Pirates of the Eastern Seas (1618-1723), 1971, p. 201; 12 Philip Ashton, Ashton's Memorial, 1726, p. 31; 13,14 Johnson, General History, p. 376; 15 Grey, p. 72; 16 Johnson, History of the Pirates, p. 194; 17,18 Grey, p. 158; 19 Philip Ashton, Ashton's Memorial, 1726, pp. 41-2; 20 Ashton, p. 42; 21 Ashton, p. 43

Problems with Fresh Water at Sea - Lost and Broken Casks

Things happened to the casks on a ship while at sea which could dramatically diminished a ship's water supply. Men Moving Barrels on a Model of the Vasa
Photo: Peter Isotalo
Barrels Below Decks In a Model of the Swedish Warship Vasa
Casks roll, particularly when the ship is experiencing violent motion. In his book of naval rules and customs, Nathaniel Boteler told his readers when preparing for battle "half butts and hogsheads of water... [are to be] made fast in several places upon the decks"1. There were at least two reasons for doing this, both being caused by the violent movements of the ship's deck when under attack. A cask of 252 gallons would have weighed about 2520 pounds (or about a ton - a term which was was not so coincidentally derived from the word tun). If such a container got loose on the deck and started rolling, it would destroy almost anything in its path. Second, a rolling casks might either be lost overboard if it was on an open deck or broken open if it hit something.

In preparing for a battle with five French pirates near St. Jago of the Cape Verde Islands in 1686, the ship Caesar prepared to defend their ship in a way that would have made Boteler proud. They put themselves into "the best posture for defence which we did by starting down [staving by knocking in the head of] all our water casks and h[e]aving overboard all that might be of the least hindrance to us."2 Many ships from this period must have done a similarly good job in preparing for battle because accounts do not have much to say about water being lost during battles.

Weather presented another problem entirely. William Dampier reported that in 1691 a large wave hit his ship, causing it to roll. "Such of our Water-casks as were between Decks, running from side to side, were in a short time all staved, and the Deck well washed with the A Ship Tipping in a Storm
Artist: Willem Van de Velde the Younger
A Ship in Need in a Raging Storm (1707)
fresh Water. …but no harm happened to any of us, besides the loss of three or four But[t]s of Water, and a Barrel or two of good Cape Wine, which was staved in the great Cabbin."3

Pirate Nathaniel North's men encountered a storm in the East Indies which "beat in their stern, and obliged them to throw over all their guns (two excepted, which lay in the hold) and forced them into the gulf of Persia"4. Here they took several small ships in order to tear them apart so they could use the material to repair their stern. "Being very much in want of water, having staved all their casks, to save themselves in the storm, and meeting with little in the vessels taken, they hoisted out the canoe to chase a fishing vessel, that they might be informed where they should find water."5

Edward Barlow's diary noted that the ship Cadiz Merchant ran into a storm in 1681. The seas washed over the ship "damaging a great deal of goods, so that we were forced to throw overboard all our water casks which stood upon the upper deck, and we lost and staved fifty pounds worth of lime-juice, which ran out all into the sea"6.

Captain Nathaniel Uring several times broke open some of his casks of water while being chased by privateers. The first time this happened, he was captaining a mail packet boat [ship carrying mail and packages] back to England from the West Indies in 1703. Two privateers were approaching, one of which they were able to outrun. However, "the other out-sailed us very much; which obliged us to lighten the Packet-Boat, in order to make her sail faster"7. This was first attempted by throwing all their spare wood yards and masts along with some cables [ropes] overboard and cutting off the bow anchors. This failed to work, however, so they cut off the upper deck of the ship "and threw it all over-board, and staved some Casks of Water in the Hold, and pump' d it out"8. This allowed the boat to stay ahead of the second privateer until it became dark and they got away.

A Packet Boat and Larger Ship
Photo: Thomas Luny
A Packet Boat Under Sail With Ship Behind her (1790)
Luck was not with Uring, however. Two days later they spotted another large ship which also chased after them. We staved more Water-Casks, and pumpt out the Water, and likewise saw'd our Gun-hills [gunwales - the sides of the boat] through to the Ports on each side... in order to make the Vessel sail better"9. They were again able to escape their pursuer.

Uring recorded another such adventure in his packet boat which happened in December 1707 after they left Antigua. Two ships came after him, so Uring prepared his packet boat Prince George for a fight. However, this ships gained rapidly, at which Uring "gave Orders for lightening the Ship to make her sail better"10. They once again got rid of their spare yards, masts, cables and bow anchors along with some goods they were hauling. They "staved several Butts of Water in the Hold, and set the People to pump it out; by which Means we were in hopes to have out-sailed the Privateers"11. They failed to outrun or fight them, however, and were caught. It is notable that the water was one of the last things Uring mentions in these three accounts as being ejected from the ship.

Uring wrote about one last encounter of this nature in his book. In August of 1709, his 150 ton ship was at sea somewhere around South Carolina heading for Antigua when they sighted three privateering ships, "which immediately gave use chase."12 Uring had 16 cannon on the boat most of which he chose to throw overboard along with part of his cargo. "[W]e staved some Water and Beer in the Hold, to lighten the Ship, in order to make her sail faster; but they being light and clean Ships, out sailed us"13. They were again caught. It turned out that two of these ships were the same ones who had caught his packet boat in 1707. Fortunately, "I found [them] willing to ransome the Ship upon easy Terms... I bought her for less then half what she was worth. The Price I gave for the Ship and Cargo was Four Hundred Pounds Sterling"14.

Ships running aground present an obvious reason for emptying the tons of water a ship carried. When Barlow's ship Wentworth ran aground near Sumatra, Indonesia in 1701, he noted that "the waters were increased with the flood tide, but still we could not get afloat, so we emptied six butts of fresh water. And not long after, the water [in the ocean] being more increased, we got afloat again"15.

Unloading Barrels From a Ship by Hand
Photo: George Hayter - Unloading Barrels By Hand From a Ship, British Museum (1851)
Pirate Captain James' ship Alexander (where future pirate captain Thomas Howard was quartermaster) ran aground twice, requiring them to empty their water. The first grounding occurred when they got stuck on a hidden sand bar off the coast of Africa while chasing a lighter merchant ship. "This obliged the Pyrates to start their Water, and throw over the Wood [kept to replace broken spars and masts] to get the Ship off, which put ’em under a Necessity of going back to Cape Lopez [on the coast of Gabon, Africa] to take in those Necessaries."16

Once this was done, the pirates decided to head to Madagascar. During this trip, "they run the Ship on a Reef, where she stuck fast. The Captain being then sick in his Bed, the Men went ashore on the small adjacent Island, and carry’d off a great deal of Provision and Water to lighten the Ship"17. At least they don't seem to have had to knock in the heads of the cask the second time.

Sometimes the problem was a compound one. After a losing fight with a land-based force on Guam, George Taylor's log of the privateer ship Success explains how their ship got stuck on May 29, 1721. To get it off, "we clear away the hold ready to start [stave] our water to make the ship lighter"18. The next day, they used their pinnace to tow the ship off the rocks while the shore battery fired at them. Taylor's log records the damage. "Thus have we lost both our bower anchors and cables, the stream and kedge anchors, four hawsers, four of our lower deck guns, nineteen barrels of powder, two men kill'd and six wounded: having stood these fifty hours, a fair mark for the enemyto fire at: and if we had not got clear,' I do believe they would have sunk us before morning."19 So there was something to emptying the water at times.

1 Nathaniel Boteler, Boteler's Dialogues, 1929, p. 292; 2 Charles Grey, Pirates of the Eastern Seas (1618-1723), 1971, p. 46; 3 William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World, 1699, p. 543-4; 4 Captain Charles Johnson, The History of the Pirates, 1829, p. 196; 5 Johnson, History of the Pirates, p. 196-7; 6 Edward Barlow, Barlow’s Journal of his Life at Sea in King’s Ships, East and West Indiamen & Other Merchantman From 1659 to 1703, p. 348; 7,8 Nathaniel Uring, A history of the voyages and travels of Capt. Nathaniel Uring, 1928, p. 61; 9 Uring, p. 62; 10,11 Uring, p. 66; 12,13 Uring, p. 85; 14 Uring, p. 86; 15 Barlow, p. 521; 16 Johnson, History of the Pirates, p. 146; 17 Johnson, History of the Pirates, p. 147; 18 William Betaugh, A Voyage Round the World, 1728, p. 156; 19 Betaugh, p. 157

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