What Is Pirate Treasure?

In pirate legends, a chest of glittering gold coins always represents the booty, but historically, many other kinds of goods were considered treasure worthy of a battle on the high seas.

For pirates and for residents of the American colonies like Adolph Philipse, the owner of Philipsburg Manor, gold, silver and jewels were not the only “treasures” worth buying, using or displaying. Many household goods and exotic foodstuffs used at Philipsburg Manor arrived in New York by ship from many hundreds—or even thousands—of miles away.

Today, food and objects arriving by ship bear bar codes that allow items to be tracked from the place they are made all the way to the stores where consumers place them in a shopping cart—or even to the buyer’s doorstep with an online order. Not so in the 18th century. Obtaining exotic goods then was a long and involved process, with uncertainty and danger along the way.

Ship owners like Adolph Philipse sent their boats on long treacherous journeys. Ships left New York laden with furs, preserved meats, timber and wheat headed to the West Indies. There, the crew traded some of these items for sugar, rum, molasses and cacao (the seed used to make chocolate and cocoa) before heading to Europe or Africa. On the trip back to the American colonies, spices, silk, cotton, porcelain and sometimes enslaved men, women and children might make up the ship’s cargo.

On any of legs of the journey, the packed vessel might be lost at sea, or captured by pirates. Ships that left New York harbor bound for the Caribbean, England, Madagascar or other ports might be gone for a year or more. For the months until the ship returned, the owner had no idea if their ship would reach port with all the valuable goods onboard.

For all of these reasons, the things that New Yorkers in the 21st century enjoy every day were considered special and valuable nearly 300 years ago. A mug of hot chocolate? A porcelain teacup? A pound of sugar? A single nutmeg? Even a piece of printed fabric? All these things were considered treasures in the 18th century.  


In the 18th century, chocolate was far more precious and difficult to come by than a Hershey bar is today. Harvested in Mexico and other regions of Central and South America, cacao grew far from the places like Spain, England and Hudson River Valley where people developed a taste for chocolate. The bean or seed of this plant was ground into a paste and made into a drink. Europeans and American colonists sweetened cacao with sugar (another luxury good) and drank it. For someone living in the 18th century, the word “chocolate” referred to this drink that resembled hot chocolate. Those who could afford to drink it considered the beverage to have nutritional or medicinal properties, while it meant something else for those who may have prepared it (To learn more, see this article in The Magazine Antiques).



Commuters use travel mugs in 2013, but in the 18th century, it was empty mugs that traveled long distances. Delicate ceramics from China filled the holds of ships headed for the American colonies. Objects made of porcelain (a white clay high in specific minerals) were often used at the table, like plates, bowls and cups. Until the very early 18th century, only the Chinese knew the secret of making the porcelain highly coveted by Westerners. Blue-and-white porcelain reached the West, then multi-colored pieces with elaborate scenes of birds and flowers. Since the dishes, bowls, and teapots were fragile, a whole shipment rarely arrived intact.



Colonists in the 18th century used sugar sparingly because it was expensive, especially the fine white sugar sold in cones like the example shown here. Large shipments of sugar arriving in England and New York from Cuba, Jamaica, Martinique and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) usually contained unrefined brown sugar called muscovado in casks or barrels. While the wealthy bought white sugar if it was available, sugar refining was also done at home, a long process of boiling and evaporating that yielded fine white grains. To use the sugar—to add it to chocolate, for example— a cook first cut the cone with nippers, which look like scissors.



Nutmeg, saffron, peppercorns, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon drove international trade and exploration as much as any other food product. Merchants founded the Dutch East India Company in 1602 to bring spices to Western markets, but these prized seeds, leaves and roots were already hot commodities by then. In the mid-18th century, even more ships reached New York laden with spices as part of their cargo, but prices remained high. Nutmegs were just one desirable ingredient that traveled around the world and north along the Hudson. Precious spices were kept in spice boxes like this example. The detailed carving indicates the value of the contents kept inside. 



Colonial men and women used wool from sheep and flax from a plant to make homespun cloth for some of their clothing and household needs, but the process of making cloth starting with an empty field or a newborn lamb was long and labor-intensive. Silk fabric was not made in the colonies at all, and cotton grown in the south had to be milled in England until the late 1700s. Demand for ready-to-use textiles grew steadily in the colonies. Like so many other luxury goods, bales of textiles arrived by ship from England, France, India, China. A printed textile like this one was used as a bed cover, but colonial women also put their needles to work making bed hangings and garments like gowns, jackets or petticoats from imported fabrics.

These are just a few of the things men and women in the 18th century bought and treasured. Which of these goods are still expensive today? What is the difference between something that is costly and something that is valuable?  Do you have treasures that are only precious to you?  Would you risk pirates to protect your special treasure?