Yo ho ho and a ship full of wood

Avast there, me hearties, and I will tell ye the story of the British pirates and the original black gold… arrrghhhh.

Enough – it’s not ‘talk like a pirate‘ day just yet.

I ended my last post, a paean to the colour black, by introducing the fact that retired pirates diversified into selling black dyestuff instead of rip-roaring about the Spanish Main, drinking themselves stupid in any of Port Royal’s many inns – there were ‘ten tippling houses for every hundred inhabitants’, though that’s likely to be exaggerated – and acting as role models for Cap’n Jack Sparrow.

(Incidentally, many of the Port Royal pubs were run by women. They frequently doubled as brothels, and had quite prosaic names like The Three Mariners, The Catt and Fiddle and – incredibly for a pub in a wild, lawless place like Port Royal – The King’s Arms. They, like most of the town, were destroyed in the 1692 earthquake which was widely seen as being divine retribution.)


In actual fact, many of the pirates had been dabbling in the dye trade before they gave up sin and villany. Ah – they didn’t give those up; they did generally give up raiding Spanish ships after the 1667 Treaty of Madrid suppressed much of the piracy in the Caribbean, but they didn’t give up carousing or horrific violence. Nor did they move away from the Spanish Main, and many of them settled – as they had done for years – in what is now Belize.

The coastal lagoons and offshore cays there had always been a convenient base for attacking Spanish traders, and a valuable prize from the captured Spanish ships was logwood, one of the best sources of the colour black before the introduction of aniline dyes in the nineteenth century.

But the buccaneers didn’t initially realise why the Spanish were transporting tree trunks around, and simply burned the wood they discovered on the captured ships. However one privateer – a Captain James – took a logwood-laden prize to London and discovered just what had been going up in smoke. Once the word got round, the pirates began to target ships carrying the timber, and also raided the coastal bases of Spanish logwood cutters working further inland (the area was otherwise considered to be uninhabited ; evidently local ‘Indians’ didn’t count).

Then came the Treaty of 1667, and the end of tacit support from the navy and colonial authorities. The pirates had – by and large – to find jobs as there just weren’t that many ‘X marks the spot’ treasure maps available. Many of them became, essentially – no surprise here at all – commodities brokers. Some settled as planters, some as indentured workers, some became cutters. There had been a ban on (legitimate) logwood imports to Britain, but this was repealed in 1673 and the main world market was open to the ex-pirates. Merchant ships called at the coastal depots and took the logs to Port Royal or Boston, from where they were shipped to Europe.

William Dampier is one of the main sources for life in the ex-pirate logwood trade; he wrote a lively account of his misspent youth. Dampier left Port Royal in 1675 and fetched up on what later became known as the Mosquito Coast, helping some of the ex-pirates to transport logs from the interior of the country to the pick-up points on the coast.

The loggers lived by the creeks so they could benefit from the better conditions there – a hint of  a breeze is better than no breeze at all – and commuted to the logging sites every morning by canoe. The tracks for the logs’ transport were hacked from the jungle with cutlasses; in the wet season water levels rose; the ever-present insects made life in the logging settlements a dangerous misery. When it came to the timber, the best trees were the oldest and largest ones, and they could be enormous – as much as two metres in circumference (the really big ones couldn’t be transported, and had to be blown up on site to get at the valuable heartwood). When the transport ship arrived, the loggers would be well paid, and large amounts of money were spent on reminiscent drinking binges.

The old pirate ‘code of honour’ still operated. Generosity in the merchant captains was rewarded; meanness was punished: ‘…they will pay him with their worst wood, and commonly have a stock of such laid by for that purpose’. If a captain was especially mean, the ex-pirates would doctor the wood, hollowing out the logs and filling them with dirt, then plugging the ends so the deception wouldn’t be found until the offender reached his home port.

Dampier lasted only six months, which is probably not surprising. He went on to become one of the Royal Navy’s most celebrated admirals, to explore and chart large areas of the world on three circumnavigations (though he tended to gloss over his buccaneering past a little, ho ho).

The inhabitants of the logging coast weren’t so fortunate. Demand for logwood peaked in the early eighteenth century, and the ‘Baymen’ realised they couldn’t manage by themselves. From the 1720s, they began importing slaves; prices declined in the 1750s and 1760s and they diversified as their grandfathers had done, turning to mahogany. This led to increased exploitation of the interior, and the import of many more slaves. There was a brief revival of the logwood industry in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and then aniline dyes – which had been available earlier – really took over.

So there you go – there is a link between pirates and the colour black other than the Jolly Roger. And a link between the little bag of logwood chips I’ve bought and the buccaneering days of the Spanish Main…



8 thoughts on “Yo ho ho and a ship full of wood

  1. fafaknits

    Pirrrrrates, yeah! (sorry I am a ‘pirates arrrrrrrrrrrrrr cool’ T-shirt owner so I can get a little overwhelmed when one of my favorite fiber blog has a whole post about them teehee)
    Also a very interesting read, thank you for sharing your knowledge 🙂

  2. Marilyn Raphael-Mathews

    Have you read “The Color Red”? The book gives a great historical overview in the same time period (pirates) dealing with cochineal,(little insects living on cactus in Mexico and Guatemala) a beautiful bright red dyestuff highly prized prior to aniline dyes, and frequently used in present day. It’s a terrific read!

    1. kate Post author

      No I haven’t – and I’m going to order it from the library immediately! It sounds absolutely fascinating; I knew a bit about cochineal, but not enough… thanks you!


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