How Did Pirates Really Die?

By Howard J. Bennett

If you’ve seen the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you might think that most pirates died by having dangerous objects rip through their bodies. However, swords, guns, and cannon balls were not what sent most seafaring scoundrels to Davey Jones’ locker. Instead, a pirate’s greatest enemy was disease: food poisoning, malnutrition, and infection. Here are just a few of the conditions they had to contend with.

Scurvy. Pirates often spent long periods of time at sea. Because electricity and refrigerators had not yet been invented, there was little they could do to preserve food. As a result, their diet that consisted of meat, biscuits, rotten vegetables, stale water, and rat droppings! Scurvy is a disease that results from a lack of vitamin C, which is abundant in fruits and vegetables. Symptoms include bleeding gums, fatigue, diarrhea, having your teeth fall out, and death.

Infection. Everyone in the 18th century had to put up with limited medical care. No one knew that germs cause infection or that there were simple ways to treat infections. Many pirates died from blood poisoning after minor injuries that could easily be treated today. On top of that, pirates lived in close quarters so it was easy for infection to spread from one person to another. This would lead to epidemics of the flu, diarrhea, and other contagious diseases on a ship. (Keep in mind that there were no toilets on pirate ships, which meant that the crew had to deposit their bodily products directly into the ocean—and I doubt that anyone washed their hands after they went to the “bathroom.”)

Skin conditions. Pirates were a dirty lot. No one took baths back then and pirates wore the same clothes day after day. This lack of cleanliness resulted in boils, rashes, and lice. Pirates were also plagued with fleas and a parasite called scabies that crawled around under their skin making its victim suffer with a very nasty itch.

Arrgh, matey! Now you know why your parents bug you to take baths, change your clothes, and eat fruits and veggies!


© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 9/14/08.)

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