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 BLACKBEARD'S BOTTLE  -  What did the Pirates drink?

Bottles recovered by Rod Attrill from the harbour in Nassau, Bahamas.

This is a selection of bottles recovered by the author by diving in the Harbour at Nassau in the Bahamas. The earliest on the left dates from about 1700. The centre bottle is from about 1760 and the two on the right are from about 1780. Blackbeard would have used squat wine bottles on his ship similar to the ones on the left.

The night was dark, the warm sea air pungent with the scent of wood smoke and food cooking over hot charcoal. A hundred yards from the shore, the three-master gently rocked at her mooring in the great harbour of Providence Island. Above her bare masts, the dark velvet of the cloudless sky was studded with the countless stars of the tropical night.


coin Apart from the gentle lapping of the waves against the ship there was little noise, just the dull murmur of low voices and the occasional roar of drunken laughter. On that night in 1715, the western end of the harbour at Providence was crowded with more than a score of vessels. Aboard each a small crew were drinking themselves to insensibility, while the majority of their shipmates were ashore doing much the same in the taverns and bordellos of Charles Town.

The few sailors remaining aboard the ships relaxed with tales of piracy, drinking their strong Ale directly from thick uneven bottles. Back in England, months earlier, each hand blown bottle had been corked and then tied with wire in the manner of Champagne bottles to ensure that late fermentation didn't blow out the cork. As a result, opening bottles could be a tedious business. It was far quicker for a pirate to chop off the neck with a single sweep of his cutlass! As each bottle was drained, so it was tossed overboard without ceremony to join its severed neck on the sea bed two or three fathoms below.

Black glass bottles

These black glass bottles date to the time of Blackbeard . The picture on the right shows pirates at Ocrakoke inlet with similar bottles. 

Sailors at Ocrakoke.

The ships were each and every one Pirate vessels, many captured from the merchants of France, Spain and England, and all renamed to suit the whim of their new owners. Their captains' names evoke the romance and cruelty of that long gone era; Charles Vane, Calico Jack Rackham, Benjamin Hornigold and Edward Teach - more commonly known as the legendary Blackbeard. These men were the scourges of the western Atlantic. They were daring, brave and adventurous, but at the same time they were also cruel and frequently without mercy; raiders of the high seas.

Pirating was not all excitement though. For every prize taken there were countless long hours scanning the horizon or lying in wait. The resulting boredom of the crew was relieved by a copious ration of alcohol. Indeed, Daniel Defoe, writing about pirates in Providence at the time, claimed that: 'Sobriety brought a man under suspicion.'

Rum Barrels

Cruise ships in Nassau Harbour.

Our dive was only a few hundred yards from these cruise ships in Nassau Harbour

Centuries later, when the seas outside Nassau's harbour were too rough for SCUBA diving on the reefs, my friends and I would swim among the accumulated debris of three hundred years, seeking history in the shifting and changing contours of the harbour's sands. Usually we would find the bottles left behind after thousands of drunken nights. Sometimes we found the whole bottles, sometimes only the base or the severed neck. At the end of the dive, our nylon mesh goody bags would be heavily laden. Sometimes it was even necessary to inflate our safety vests to gain sufficient buoyancy to lift the heavy bags to the dive boat.

Of course, we hoped to find something more valuable. Every time we pulled on SCUBA tanks and gathered up our goody bags and digging tools, we were conscious that this dive could be the dive; the dive when at last we would see that tell tale glint of gold, or the square corner of an old chest. There was always the hope, although in reality we knew we were only likely to find old bottles and maybe a cannon ball or two, or possibly the coral encrusted remains of a sword hilt. Still, the hope was always there, for without hope, the reality would have been far less interesting.

Another coin! Over several years, we became fascinated by the variety and beauty of the old bottles from the harbour, and many of us developed a keen interest in their purpose, manufacture and contents, and by so doing, gained an insight into the lifestyle of those long gone.

There can be little doubt that drink was important to early seafarers. Many references to the fact are found in the writings of Daniel Defoe, better known for 'Robinson Crusoe,' than for his 'General History of the Pyrates.' Defoe's History, published in 1724, describes an entry in Blackbeard's journal which explains how the mood of the crew changed when drink was freely available 'such a day, Rum all out: -our company somewhat sober: -a damn confusion among us! Rogues a plotting; -great talk of separation. - So I look'd sharp for a prize; - such a day took one, with a great deal of liquor on board, so kept the company hot, damn'd hot, then all things went well again.' Defoe continues, saying: 'Thus it was that these wretches pass their lives, with very little pleasure or satisfaction, in the possession of what they violently take from others, and sure to pay for it at last, by an ignominious death.'

These are unexpected words from such a man; one of the most notorious and blood thirsty of the pirates, and a man who met his own end in just the way he describes. Just a few years later in 1729, the ration of beer for sailors in the Royal Navy is recorded as being one gallon a day. However, on long journeys when the beer became flat, it was often replaced by a pint of wine, or by half a pint of rum.

Black glass bottle from about 1750.

Among the pirates on Providence, a favourite drink is recorded as being Rumfustian, a potent heavily spiced mixture of Beer, Gin and Sherry - surely a modern partygoer's nightmare. Blackbeard himself is said to have favoured Rum and gunpowder - a concoction probably chosen more for its macho image than for its taste!

Blackbeard is known to have been a great manipulator of image. A famous example is his habit of tucking burning hemp fuses into the brim of his hat when going into battle - a move designed to add to his demonic appearance and to demoralise antagonists

More Rum Barrels Another contemporary story gives credence to the drinking capacity of American sailors in the eighteenth century. On January 27th, 1798, the U.S.S. Constitution raided a distillery on the Firth of Tay where 40,000 gallons of whisky is said to have been captured. Sources in America reported that the ship arrived home a month or so later with no cannon, no shot, no food, no powder, no rum, no whisky and 48,600 gallons of stagnant water!

Charles Town in the Bahamas - known today as Nassau, became a Pirate base after Captain Henry Jennings first sailed into the harbour of Providence Island - now known as New Providence, at the turn of the eighteenth century. Jennings found the harbour ideal for his purposes, deep enough for the small and swift pirate vessels, but hazardous for the heavily armed Men of War of the British Navy.

Jennings found the harbour well protected from the ocean swells by a low lying scrub covered island, an island which later became Hog Island after, it is often said, pigs were released there to provide victuals for visiting sailors. More recently, and with the onset of tourism Hog Island became more romantically known as Paradise island. Today its soaring hotels are luxurious oases surrounded by lakes, tropical gardens and golf courses - a far cry from the dense low thorny scrub of Blackbeard's day!

Pistol At the eastern end of Nassau's harbour, as it widens into Montagu Bay, the waters are wide and shallow, seldom more than two fathoms deep. The bottom here is covered with a luxuriant growth of Turtle Grass.

It is in the west however, where the current rushes furiously through with the changing of the tides, that the greatest protection is afforded moored vessels. At this end of the harbour also, a township of taverns and bawdyhouses was quickly established to satisfy the needs of the thousand or more pirates lured to the island by its safe haven. In the early years, Charles Town was a shantytown of driftwood and Palm fronds, with old sails draped over spars to make tents. The smell was so bad, that it was said sailors arriving at the island could smell the town before they could see it. Thankfully, things improved after the islands were reclaimed from the pirates and they later became a British colony.

Although a considerable amount of drinking went on in the taverns of the island, much occurred aboard ship and among the crew, most frequently on deck. One Pirate Captain, Bartholomew (Black Bart) Roberts insisted, almost certainly for safety, that candles aboard his sloop should all be extinguished by eight p.m., and that ' if any of the crew after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they shall do it on the open deck.'

There was in those days - particularly in far flung outposts of empire, no system of waste collection, and sailors simply threw unwanted items into the sea where they conveniently disappeared from view - as regrettably many still do today.

Bottle The fate of each item varied according to its material. The shoals of small fish, crabs and lobsters quickly consumed any type of food, while leather, wood and bone were more slowly consumed by the decomposing bacteria and fungi. Iron objects rusted rapidly, solid metal objects like cannon balls retaining only a core of iron under countless layers of oxide. Silver too was quick to corrode, only gold remaining unchanged. Thin copper, brass and bronze was quickly lost, while more solid items made from these metals are usually salvageable when the surface corrosion is removed.

Unlike many metallic objects, Glass is said to be chemically inert, but early bottle glass contained many impurities including iron slag and many seventeenth century bottles quickly corroded. The earliest bottles to be brought to the New World were the Onion bottles or Squat Wines, wide based free - blown bottles made of very heavy dark green or black glass. On one memorable dive I found a rare cache of three complete squat wine bottles in the edge of a bank where the changing tides had scoured away the sand. These rare bottles dated from the late seventeenth century, and one was complete with its cork, twisted wire seal and contents.

Later, I was unable to resist the temptation. I can now confirm that three hundred and fifty-year-old wine tastes far worse than seawater!

Yet another coin - a veritable hoard!

After the bottle was cleaned, and then soaked for some time in fresh water, it was given pride of place on my bookshelf. Not for long though. As the oxygen and humidity of a clammy Nassau summer penetrated the glass, so layers peeled and fell from the bottle until little remained but a small pile of black pieces. Had I been better versed in the conservation of artefacts, I would no doubt have soaked it for many months in fresh water before even thinking of displaying it. Maybe I should have displayed it in a small aquarium!

The quality of bottle glass quickly improved through the eighteenth century. By 1750, the glass was of a far greater purity, and many bottles have survived in the sea with no obvious corrosion. The shine of most however, has been lost to long years of abrasion against the sand of the sea bed as they were rolled about by the swells.

Most of the artefacts recovered by archaeologists are the remains of articles no longer required - many of them broken. Such is the case with artefacts recovered randomly from the seabed, particularly in harbours where currents and tides, and the propwash from modern vessels have mixed the ancient with the modern. In Nassau harbour, an old brass button may lie beside an American dime, while cannon balls, ballast stones and old anchors rest with Coca-Cola bottles and aluminium beer cans.

Ancient wine bottle from Nassau Harbour. If one wishes to believe though, artefacts on the harbour floor can be linked to their location and to historical fact. In 1718, British Colonial Governor Woodes Rodgers chased the pirate Charles Vane from the harbour. Vane, in a successful attempt to evade the English ships, the Rose and the Shark, set fire to a captured French Vessel loaded with explosives, and set it afloat in the path of his pursuers.

It is said the French fire ship went down in the precise location where I later found a perfectly preserved square sided glass snuff jar almost three hundred years later. Lying no more than a few feet from the anchor of a moored boat, the fragile snuff jar lay untouched and alone on the white sand in twenty feet of water. Miraculously it was quite undamaged, although anchors must have thudded down, and dragged through the sand around it from the time it first came to rest. Around the jar, there was the evidence of an old wreck; great mossy piles of ballast stones sheltering lobsters and tropical fish, and rotting iron cask hoops scattered about on the sand. Less than a hundred yards away, inter island mail boats unloaded their cargoes of bananas, tomatoes and pineapples from the Family Islands at the busy Potter's Cay dock.

The wreck may not have been Charles Vane's fire ship, but I still like to think it was!

Just as rare as the snuff bottle, and as well preserved, are the big old Spanish clay 'Olive' Jars. These narrow mouthed round - bottomed coil pots were used to bring wine or olive oil from Spain to the New World. There is no doubt that many of these would have been captured by the pirates, and then brought back to Providence, to ultimately join the detritus on the sea bed after their contents had been used.

I remember once diving with a friend in water close to his harbour- side house. In only ten feet of water, I saw the end of a fine elongated Olive Jar poking from the sand, but regrettably my diving buddy was closer to it than I was. I may have seen the bottle first, but he was the one to pull it from the sand. He later kept what I always regarded as my jar on his patio as a decoration. One night, during a wild party, the jar was kicked over by a drunken guest and smashed into a thousand pieces.

Spanish 'Olive Jar ' recovered from Nassau Harbour.

Years later, I still regret not being the first to get to that jar.

Dutch case gin bottle from about 1800. The bottles and jars recovered from the harbour tell us what the seafarers of each period liked to drink. They even tell us which drinks were the most popular. Most of the seventeenth century bottles are said to have contained wine, while the English bottles from the eighteenth century contained Ale or Porter. A few quite unusual eighteenth century tall square bottles contained Dutch Gin (seen on left), but these were very much in the minority. Later, in the nineteenth century, when Gin was clearly drunk in considerable quantities, they were known as 'Case' Gins, Case bottles could be more easily packed into cases than round bottles, and thus they gained their name

Bottles in English pubs of the period were frequently labelled with seals of molten glass on their shoulders. Pressed into the seal, words or symbols declared the bottles ownership by the hostelry. Such bottles are unknown from Nassau harbour, as there appear to have been no taverns in the colony with their own seals.

Some bottles though have seals showing their contents. Probably the commonest of these contained 'Vieux Cognac' from John Alberty (seen on right), and bore the date 1815. Another very dark sealed bottle from New Orleans contained a concoction with the name of Tabac de Adelpit - whatever that was! Schnapps, as well as Gin, was also frequently taken in the nineteenth century. One of the prettiest, a small green or brown square bottle bears the unusual name 'Udolphowolfes Aromatic Schnapps.'

'Vieux Cognac' bottle - labelled John Alberty 1815.

Today the Schnapps bottles, the older Dutch Gins, the Snuff Jar and the free blown black glass' Pirate' bottles take pride of place on my Welsh dresser back in England, where they are a constant reminder of my life in the islands.

I pick up one of the bottles from time to time, feeling the weight and irregularity of the thick dark glass. For a moment I am transported back in time to the island of Providence, to the wooden ships and to the pirates. I can almost hear the coarse laughter of the seamen as they upend the heavy bottles and swill down the fiery liquor. I even wonder if Blackbeard himself may have drunk from that very bottle.

Somehow it brings a little comfort to another cold English winter day. 

R. Attrill 2006