It is difficult to prove that musicians were a part of every pirate crew, but there are two excellent examples from the pirate period that they may have been a common part of most ships of war, pirate and privateer ships included. The first example is from the early Seventeenth century. In Captain John Smith's advice concerning how to conduct a one on one naval engagement he remarks when preparing to board one should, ". . . sound Drums and Trumpets, and Saint George for England." The second example comes from the early Eighteenth century. In the articles of Captain Bartholomew Roberts it is stated: "The Musicians to have Rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six Days and Nights, none without special Favour." When thinking about the musicians on board a ship in the 16th to 18th centuries, one must not think of a band. That would be far too organized a concept.
It is likely that ships of this period could have had crew members who owned musical instruments as varied as brass horns, mouth harps, fiddles, bag pipes and accordions. Furthermore, sailors could gather numerous instruments from the various ports of call their ship made. Examples here are numerous: cowhide and goatskin drums from Africa, dried gourd maracas from Cuba, bamboo drums and flutes from Hispainola, and even tambourines from Morocco. Pause a moment and consider the combined sounds of all of the instruments mentioned here. Now you know why a band is not the idea you want to have.
The musicians were popular with the crew as they were entertainment as well as a valuable battle element. The musicians played during meal times and during work breaks allowing the crew some entertainment to break the monotony of long hours of tiring work. This boost in moral was welcome at anytime, but was perhaps the most effective when used in battle.
From stories of Bartholomew Roberts crew and others, we know that when a ship with musicians approached another ship with the intention to fight, the effects of the music could be terrifying to the enemy. The musicians would play marches and other martial music. There were drum rolls, trumpet and bugle calls, and perhaps even a piper given the nationality of the crew. Add to this the noise of the ship's cook beating upon his pots and pans and the crew stamping their feet or beating their weapons against the ship. Finally top this off with the sounds of shouting, screaming, and shooting, both pistols and rifles as well as cannons and deck guns. Your imagination can supply you with the details of the scene. The intended result is achieved: the morale aboard the pirate vessel is raised to a fevered pitch while the morale of their intended prize is shaken.
While musicians and music may not have been a topic you were expecting in column about the history of pirates and the sea, I hope that you see their importance to the ships as whole in the period that we are studying. In the next column we will delve further into music as we talk about sea shanties or the work songs of sailors and pirates.
Copyright 2001, Mark S. Cookman