Pirates and Foodstuffs–The 18th Century Lowdown

An immense amount of research goes into the writing of an historical novel, be it romance or otherwise. Quite often, a lot of the most fascinating minutia never make it into the novel. While I was writing Three Star Island, a time travel romance set on the coast of the Carolina colony during 1721, I became captivated with the complex nature of trade between the English colonies stretching from parts of Georgia and northward, and the Spanish colonies to the south. What interested me the most was the impact piracy had on the exchange of goods between nations.

Especially food.

When Captain William Payne shipwrecks on the tiny coastal island where my heroine, Penelope Saunders lives, his pirate ship, Night Fury, has a hold full of illicit cargo. His goods are both captured from other ships on his way north from Florida, and illegally bought in the Spanish port of St. Augustine. Here are a few of the items he’d have been carrying, and their importance to trade and the English dinner table.


Rum was not only a staple of sailing life, it played a large role among the land-bound colonists, as well. Rum punch was quite popular at parties and celebrations, and was less expensive than brandy or whiskey, therefore making it very popular among the poor and working classes. Punch was often made a mixture of key limes, rum, and sugar. Although some colonists filtered water through jugs filled with charcoal in order to remove some of the less desirable detritus from it, this didn’t always equal water free from bacteria. Therefore, alcohol was a surefire way to stave off any waterborne diseases.


Tea was another drink that helped ensure one didn’t develop a horrible disease such as cholera, mostly because in order to brew tea, one must first boil the water it’s steeped in. It could be an extremely expensive commodity, however. In Three Star Island, Penelope lives in poverty, unable to afford tea on her own. Being a time traveler and an historian, however, she would have been hesitant to purchase tea even if she had the money.

Tea often was shipped in the form of large, pressed bricks ranging from a few inches across to about the size of a high school yearbook. In order to keep the tea leaves from crumbling during shipping, binders were needed. Those binders were often ox blood or manure. Penny makes sure she sticks to coffee because of this, also available in the Colonies at the time.


Everyone loves spices of some sort. Both Spanish and English colonists adored spices such as cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg, and a huge number of recipes from the era include allspice. Spanish baking was rife with almond and cinnamon delights, often cooked in conjunction with saints’ days and holidays. Cinnamon was also sometimes added to a Spanish breakfast favorite: hot cocoa, a delicacy taken from the natives in Central and South America.


Oranges play a small role in a scene in Three Star Island. St. Augustine, one of Spain’s oldest colony towns, which is still situated off the coast of Florida, is not only the port Captain Payne calls home, but an enormous producer of oranges.Unlike other tropical fruit, many of which English colonists didn’t have the taste for, oranges were very popular among both the British and the Spanish alike. During the time in which the novel is set, England and Spain are bitter rivals and enemies. A treaty made in 1670 attempted to settle disputes between the two kingdoms, yet trade was still illegal.

In addition to this, the Spanish crown dictated that all goods exported and imported were to be produced exclusively for and by Spain, and were to be transported solely by on Spanish vessels.The English, however, turned a blind eye to this, and quite gleefully defied the Spanish King’s wishes by doing trade with pirates, privateers, and “unscrupulous” merchants. Oranges were high on the list. Anastasia Island sits just off the coast of St. Augustine, and had massive orange groves. A little over a decade after the novel is set, twenty-eight thousand oranges made up a cargo headed for Charleston, despite the fact little else in the main came out of St. Augustine.

All of these products would have been highly sought-after by the Colonists, especially at a cut rate. Pirates, privateers, and smugglers of the time made certain Spain and England did steady business with each other despite the animosity the kingdoms held for each other. And without them, Three Star Island would never have been written.