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It’s a simple question: Did pirates have tattoos? And the answer is simple, too–and complex as well.
Evidence for the simple positive answer is easy: buccaneer-surgeon Lionel Wafer, writing probably of the 1680s, noted that “One of my Companions desired me once to get out of his Cheek one of these imprinted Pictures, which was made by the Negroes, his Name was Bullman; which I could not effectually do, after much scarifying and fetching off a great part of Skin.” (Lionel Wafer, in A New Voyage & Description of the Isthmus of America. Oxford: Hackluyt Society, 1934, page 83.)
What Wafer was trying to do was surgically remove a “gunpowder spot,” as tattoos were then known in English. The term came into use via the process: prick holes in the skin and rub finely crushed gunpowder in to make a permanent mark. A simple enough process, not much different than that used by professionals today, and pretty close to those who use a homemade process (not recommended, of course).
So, without further analysis or discussion, we know that at least one late seventeenth century buccaneer was tattooed. What we do not know is whether such gunpowder spots were considered part of sea roving or maritime culture. In other words, did pirates or other seafarers view tattoos as identifying marks of their trade?
We also know that at least some other seamen of the era were well-inked: one “saylor” in 1720 Virginia had “on one hand S. P. in blew Letters and on the other hand blew Spots, and upon one arm our Savior upon the Cross, and on the other Adam and Eve, all Suppos’d to be done in Gun powder.” (The American Mercury, 17 March 1720, no. 13.)
Others are known as well, close enough to our period (circa 1655 to 1725) to be relevant. My thanks to maritime historian David Fictum, preeminent student of English maritime clothing in this period (you can look him up on Facebook), for providing me with these two instances:
From The Virginia Gazette, September 22 – 29, 1738: “RAN away from the Subscriber, in Caroline County on the 27th of August last, a Convict Servant Man, named John Coleman, alias, John Nabb…[he] has these 3 Letters on one of his Hands, I c M, but cannot be certain they stand thus; and has on one of his Arms, the Picture of our Saviour on the Cross…[He] has been a Sailor.”
And from The American Weekly Mercury, June 24 – July 1, 1736: “RAN-away from Patrick Creagh and William Medcalf, of the City of Annapolis in Maryland, on the 17th of May 1736 Three Servant Men, Viz. John Thomas, belonging to the said Creagh. He is a Ship-Carpenter or Caulker by Trade…I think he was mark’d on one of his Arms with some Letters & the resemblance of our Savoir, and on the other with Adam & Eve.”
Buccaneer, naval captain, privateer, world explorer, naturalist, and author William Dampier wrote of European tattooing while describing the manner of tattooing at Meangis, Indonesia during his circumnavigation of the world after a South Sea buccaneering voyage:
“By the Account he [Prince Jeoly] gave me of the manner of doing it, I understood that the Painting was done in the fame manner, as the Jerusalem-Cross is made in Mens Arms, by pricking the Skin, and rubbing in a Pigment. But whereas [gun] Powder is used in making the Jerusalem-Cross, they at Meangis use the Gum of a Tree beaten to Powder…” (William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World, volume 1:514. London: James Knapton, 1699.)
Dampier’s description of the Jerusalem cross alludes to Christian pilgrims whose tattoos often served to ensure Christian burial in foreign lands, as well to create a permanent “souvenir” or proof of pilgrimage. Constantin-François Volney in the late eighteenth century described these pilgrims and their journeys to and from Jerusalem:
“Easter over, each returns to his own country, proud of being able to rival the Mahometan in the title of Pilgrim, nay, many of them, in order to distinguish themselves as such, imprint on their hands, wrists, or arms, figures of the cross, or spear, with the cypher of Jesus and Mary. This painful, and sometimes dangerous, operation is performed with needles, and the perforations filled with gunpowder, or powder of antimony, and is never to be effaced. The Mahometans have the fame practice, which is also to be found among the Indians, and other savages, as it was likewise among several ancient nations with whom it had a connection with religion which it still retains wherever it prevails.” (From Travels through Syria and Egypt, in the years 1783, 1784, and 1785 by Constantin-François Volney. London: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1787, pages 311-312.)
This practice had apparently been around for centuries prior, and was probably picked up in the Middle East. It is quite likely that Christian seamen in the Mediterranean often had religious tattoos, if only to identify themselves as Christian in case of drowning or other death during their travels. More on this in a moment.
Pirates, mariners, and marooners who had lived among Native Americans were sometimes inked, and Native American and African mariners were probably often inked. Those who hailed from certain lands in the Mediterranean or in the East beyond were likewise probably often inked as well.
Lionel Wafer, while recovering among the Darien (Cuna) after burning himself severely when drying gunpowder, noted that “I went naked as the Salvages [sic], and was painted by their Women; but I would not suffer them to prick my Skin, to rub the Paint in, as they use to do, but only to lay it on in little Specks.” He described the process further: “But finer figures, especially by their greatest artists, are imprinted deeper, after this manner. They first with the Brush and Colour make a rough Draught of the Figure they design; then they prick all over with a sharp Thorn till the Blood gushes out; then they rub the place with their Hands, first dipp’d in the Colour they design; and the Picture so made is indelible. But scarce one in forty of them is painted this way.” (Wafer, op cit, pages 22 and 83.)
Two French seamen, one from Brittany, the other from La Rochelle, who had been members of the sieur de La Salle’s failed Texas colony, survived by living among a Native American tribe. In 1687 both men had “[T]heir Faces and Bodies with Figures wrought on them, like the rest [of the people they were living with].” In the same year a Spanish boy from Mexico, who had escaped on the Gulf Coast with other Spanish prisoners captured by buccaneers at Apalache, Florida, survived likewise by living with a Native American tribe. The boy, when found by Spanish Capitáns de Mar y Guerra Don Martín de Rivas and Don Pedro de Yriarte who were looking for La Salle’s colony, had tattoos like those of the people among whom he was living. (See Henri Joutel, The Last Voyage Perform’d by La Salle. London: A. Bell et al, 1714, page 173. And Enríquez Barroto, “The Enríquez Barroto Diary,” in Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 1987, page 180 &c.)
The evidence of Bullman above and other records as well indicate that at least some Africans were also tattooed, although most historians studying the subject note that scarification and similar processes were more common among Africans than tattooing. There were sea rovers of African origin in the Caribbean.
There is a general consensus among some researchers that the tattoo has long been a part of maritime culture, while others are hesitant to make this argument. Certainly it was a distinct part of maritime culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and is today as well, although possibly to a somewhat lesser extent. In 1900, US Navy surgeon A. Farenholt discussed the number and variety of tattoos of seamen aboard the USS Independence, and made some observations on tattooing in the navy in general. He estimated that roughly sixty percent of enlisted sailors had tattoos, with roughly one quarter of seamen in their first enlistment having them, and roughly half in their second enlistment having them. He noted that the forearm was the most popular location for tattooing among the Independence sailors, and the penis the least, with only seven instances of the latter. For readers who thought that penis tattooing was a modern curiosity, please be advised that there is not much that is really new. (See A. Farenhold, “Tattooing in the Navy, as Shown by the Records of the U.S.S. Independence.” United States Medical Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 1 (January 1900): 37–39.)
N.B. David Fictum, noted above, recommends Ira Dye, “The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 133, no. 4 (1989), as an excellent source that helps put tattooing and seafarers in context.
In my most recent book, The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, I wrote the following, based on current general understanding, at least among a number of authorities published in English: “But the tattoo as a definite part of maritime culture probably did not exist until seamen began visiting Polynesia in the late eighteenth century.”
However, the images by Louis Ducros at the top of the page and just below clearly belie this. It may be that in the English navy and merchant marine, and in the American as well, tattoos did not become popular, in particular as an identifying mark or rite of passage, until after voyages to Polynesia became more regular (and from here we have the word “tattoo”), but clearly this was not the case among seamen of other nationalities, at least of those from Taranto. And this may not have been the case among English and American seafarers either. Further, it is entirely possible, even probable, that the degree tattooing was purely cultural–and culture changes over time. For example a Ducros watercolor of several Maltese seamen shows no tattoos on their arms, although it’s possible he simply chose not to depict them.
In the image at the top of the page we see the tattooed arm of an Italian seaman from Taranto in 1778. Tattoos belonging to other seamen are also shown, and also immediately above, with some dating to the 1760s, clearly before the British voyages to Polynesia. As one might expect, the tattoos are a variety, with Roman Catholic religious imagery quite prevalent. There is also a small vessel, possibly a tartana or “tarteen” under oars, a couple of suns, a possible set of arms, a chain around the wrist, and a Jerusalem cross.
Adding to the difficulty in answering the question of tattoos among seafarers of the period is the fact that people other than seafarers had “gunpowder spots” in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, ranging from the lubberly working class to upper class ladies–yes, ladies–and gentlemen.
Among working class examples, David Willson, a deserter from the British army in 1715, was described as having his initials “D. W.” in gunpowder on his right hand. We don’t whether he came by his gunpowder spot while serving in the army, or prior to service, or afterward. (London Gazette, 10 September to 17 September 1715, no. 5363.)
Among “ladies and gentlemen,” Thomas Otway’s Beau in act 4 of The Soldiers Fortune (1681) catalogs the “Age, Shape, Proportion, colour of Hair and Eyes, degrees of Complexion, Gun-powder Spots and Moles” of the “choicest Beauties about Town.”
Aphra Behn, famous poet, playwright, and novelist, writes of “a Blew spot made in a Ladys neck, by Gunpowder…” The poem was published in Lycidus or the Lover in Fashion (London: Joseph Knight, Saunders Francis, 1688), and was attributed to “a Person of Quality.”
I note as an aside that one scholar has asserted that “gunpowder spots,” including the one described by Aphra Behn, were associated with seventeenth century English gun culture. I think this is a rather misplaced notion, except in that the origin of tattooing with gunpowder may have derived from the knowledge that un-burned corns of powder will occasionally embed themselves violently in the skin, leaving a permanent mark. (One pirate re-enactor, who has since passed away, I met on the set of True Caribbean Pirates had a tattooed palm–small blue-black dots everywhere–resulting from the premature ignition of a gun cartridge during loading.)
The other remote connection to gun culture is common poetic allusion or comparison–an obvious poetic convenience, in other words. The ultimate origin of “gunpowder spots” is not firearms, but body marking: gunpowder simply worked well to make a permanent stain and was readily available. Beauty marks on men and women of the era did not imply an association with firearms, and to argue this is to stretch beyond the facts, not at all uncommon today in both common popular discourse and academia. Even Aphra Behn in her poem acknowledges that the tattoo really has nothing to do with firearms except as a convenient poetic comparison:
Powder, which first was for destruction meant,
Was here converted into ornament;
But yet retains its wonted nature still,
And from your neck, as from a Port do’s kill.
Similarly, William Wycherley in his poem “Upon the Gun-powder Spot on a Lady’s Hand” published in 1704:
Thy Gun-Powder, on thy Hand, shot
Me dead, half-dead with Love before;
Kill’d me, both on, and by the Spot,
Thy cruel White Hand on it wore:
Seventeenth-century surgeon Richard Wiseman had experience with gunpowder spots of two sorts: “Only if they be burnt with Gun-powder or any other way, their Cure is much alike, they onely differing secundam magis and minus. Onely if they be burnt with Gun-powder, they must pick out the Powder first; else they will carry the same blew Mark, if it be in their Faces, which some people use to do in their Hands and Arms, which I have often been imployed to take out, when done wantonly in their Youth; but could never remove them otherwise then by taking off the Skin.” (Richard Wiseman in Several Chirurgicall Treatises. London: E. Flesher and J. Macock, for R. Royston, 1676, page 440.)
Clearly not everyone, ranging from a buccaneer to others, wanted to keep their tattoos forever.
We come again, and importantly, to playwright and poet William Wycherley who wrote The Plain-Dealer (for what it’s worth, my favorite play), first performed in 1674:
“[O]r was it the Gunpowder spot on his hand, or the Jewel in his ear, that purchas’d your heart?” sneers the manly Captain Manley (act. 2, sc. 1) to his former inamorata in regard to an obnoxious fop (they’re all obnoxious, aren’t they?) seeking her hand. At first glance it seems that Manley might be sarcastically referring to the lack of a gunpowder spot on the fop’s hand, and therefore that such spots were indicative of the seaman and therefore of the adventurer. Captain Manley, after all, was a fighting seaman. (Regarding the “Jewel in his ear” see Pirates & Earrings.)
John Dickson Carr, novelist and historian, would seem to have agreed with my initial assessment of the gun-powder spot on the hand being a sign of the seaman: he writes in his novel Devil in Velvet, “as much the mark of the seaman as the gunpowder spot on his hand…,” almost certainly inspired by Wycherley in The Plain-Dealer. The depth of Carr’s non-fiction research ability is attested to by his nonfiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. However, we were both assuredly in error: Professor Ted Cotton, retired Professor Emeritus of English Literature from Loyola University in New Orleans, not to mention old friend and fellow swordsman, in conversation with me some years ago suggested the lines refer merely to the earring and gunpowder spot as being fashions of idle foppish gentlemen. Add to this the evidence of ladies and gentlemen with gunpowder spots, and it is certain to me now that the lines in The Plain-Dealer refer to a gentleman, not a seaman.
Of course, none of this goes to prove or disprove whether late seventeenth to early eighteenth century seamen associated with the Golden Age of Piracy–English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Africans, Native Americans, various mixed races of various nationalities, and in smaller numbers Portuguese, Corsicans, Levanters, Italians, Danes, Germans, various other Europeans, even a few Asians–specifically associated tattoos with their maritime culture, much less did pirates and other sea rovers, a subset of the former, do so.
It remains possible that some Western European mariners, including sea rovers, considered “gunpowder spots” as part of their tradition, but there is no conclusive evidence for this for the period in question. Certainly it is true today: for example, Navy seamen and tall ship sailors often get tattoos and consider this to be traditional, even as do members of some other groups, military and non-military, as do some “downright individuals.” Permanent body decorating has been around for a very long time among the majority of cultures past and present.
So, best guess for the Golden Age of Piracy? Although some sea rovers of the era had tattoos, tattooing–and it would not be known by this name for roughly another century–was not yet a practice of group identity among them or of other mariners broadly associated with this era. Of course, I could be wrong: we need more evidence than what we have so far. But the evidence of Dampier, Wafer, and Wycherley strongly suggests that tattoos or gunpowder spots were not yet a distinct part of Western European maritime culture, except possibly among some of the regional maritime sub-cultures.
And before anyone asks or suggests this: no, I don’t think it likely that early eighteenth century pirates had skull and bones tattoos!
Post Script: This blog post is dedicated to my younger daughter, Bree, a tall ship sailor in her spare time and who will soon have a tattoo…
Copyright Benerson Little 2017-2018. Last updated January 28, 2018.