We might think of those dismantling our NHS as little more than a posse of privateers (government sponsored pirates), but it turns out that actual pirates cared for the sick and injured by whatever means they could.
Yes, he was real, and yes, he was ferocious, but the discovery of extensive medical equipment on board the wreckage of Captain Blackbeard’s flagship the Queen Anne’s Revenge shows that even the most hardened buccaneers cared for their crew, with an on-board clinic that treated everything from bullet-wounds to syphilis.
On-board Treatment for Syphilis
Archaeologists excavating the wreck have pulled out a trove of medical and surgical supplies, including a urethral syringe containing mercury used for treating syphilis, and the remains of two pump clusters for pumping fluid into the rectum, allowing it to be absorbed quickly – though quite what this was a treatment for remains unknown.
The excavation team also found a porringer (probably used in bloodletting treatments), needles and scissors, a brass mortar and pestle and two sets of nesting weights used in preparing medicine, as well as galley pots for storing balms, salves and other potions.
Blackbeard (real name Edward Teach) is known to have captured the ship – originally called La Concorde de Nantesthat – from French slave traders in 1717.
“Give me your medical supplies, or else I’ll set all your ships on fire!”
Maintaining the crew’s health was so important that although Blackbeard released most of the French crew members when he first captured the Queen Anne’s Revenge, he forced the ship’s three surgeons to stay.
Of course, with all the hardships of being a pirate, Blackbeard would have needed fresh supplies of medicine to treat his crew. But how would he have got them? And from where?
True to pirate-form, records show that in 1718, Blackbeard spent a week blockading the port of Charleston, South Carolina threatening to “murder all their prisoners, send up their heads to the governor, and set the ships they had taken on fire,” unless the governor delivered him a chestful of medicine. The governor promptly complied.
But in the end, this budding pirate healthcare system didn’t last long. Having run aground and gone on the run with most of the plunder, Blackbeard was eventually hunted down by the Royal Navy and killed in November 1718.
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