Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Son of a Gun

Son of a gun is a funny term, I think. All the funnier, frankly, because I know people who are convinced that it must have originated in the Wild West when even the horses carried revolvers. I'm sure all Texans are certain the term was born there because really, wasn't everything invented in Texas?

The term is nautical, of course, but you knew that my Brethren. Before we talk about the moniker and its possible origins, it helps to know a little bit about the terminology used aboard ship when referring to cannon. Here's a quick primer (pun intended, you son of a gun).

When ships were made of wood and the men who sailed them were made of iron, a cannon - no matter its size - was called a cannon and the round projectile it belched forth was called a cannon ball. But only on land. On a seagoing vessel the cannon was called a gun and that spherical object was referred to as shot or round. Anything other than a cannon ball that might be discharged from a gun (chains, grape and the like) was also called shot. Men who worked the guns were known as gunners (by land they were referred to as artillerists). By World War I the terms were interchangeable and now when we think of a gun we're usually picturing a pistol of some kind. But back in the day, though handy, guns aboard ship were a bitch to pick up and carry!

So a son of a gun must have been a gunner, right? You're close, maybe. There are two theories as to where the term came from but both, as you no doubt imagined, come from the preeminent source for all things afloat: The Royal Navy.

The first origin story comes from the fact that boys as young as nine were frequently aboard navy ships in the role of either cabin boy (essentially a servant) or Midshipman. Being a Mid was the navy's on the job training. The boys were most often the sons of friends of the Captain or another officer, taken on board and trained up to eventually pass the Lieutenant's exam and hopefully one day make Post Captain. It was rather a position of prestige, but the work was hard and Mids were often put in charge of those who tended to the sails (reefers) or gun crews or both.

Obviously, young people can't be left to their own devises regardless of how much responsibility they're given and aboard a large ship the number of boys could grow to as many as twenty or thirty. The go to person for looking after the monkeys was the gunner's wife who was almost routinely on board, living with her husband and helping out in the sick berth and even on the gun deck in battle. So much for that fantasy about never a woman aboard. Because the boys at sea were looked after by his wife, they were collectively known as "sons of the gunner". So each of them was a son of a gun, and right proud of it too!

The more salacious theory - and the one I like to tell to young people and those who don't talk about s*e*x - involves the visits from prostitutes that sometimes occurred aboard navy ships at anchor close to home. The gun deck became the place for trysts with the sailors, the orgiastic nature of which cannot be lost on anyone. And so, a boy fathered by a sailor at one of these shindigs was, of course, a son of a gun. Isn't that fun? Or something.

I like to think of a kid as both: born to a prostitute in some port town, raised on the mean streets and then sent to sea, maybe with his father. Aboard ship he makes good, going from servant to Mid to Lieutenant to Captain and with his prize money he sets his Mom up in a nice cottage by the sea. Happy ending. There was never a more egalitarian place than the navy, after all.

And there you are, my Brethren. Only two Sailor Mouth Saturdays until International Talk Like a Pirate Day! I'll spy ye in the week to come.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Toys: I'm Expecting Great Things

Well, its that time again isn't it Brethren. September will soon be upon us and that means the wee monkeys will be returning to school. In fact, as I mentioned, mine have already gone back but Alaska is a different kind of place and most of you are probably looking at next week or even after Labor Day. So I thought, with time for only a short post today, I'd treat you to the above.

What you see here is the aptly named "What Would a Pirate Do?" folder and you cannot beat it with a stick! The skull & crossed swords spinner in the middle works (at least until second quarter...) and gives you diverse options from enjoyable to bloody to "sounds like work". As examples we've "Sing a Chantey", "Take No Prisoners" and "Swab the Deck". With twelve choices in all, its hard to imagine this little piece of booty ever wearing thin in the entertainment department.

Inside are two sturdy pockets. On one is a list of ten phrases given as "Important Pirate Lingo". The sentences are clever in that each one follows an almost poetic circle from one word to another that leads right back to the beginning. For someone like me who doesn't just love words but worships them, this is a delightfully unexpected addition. The whole thing is especially relevant now as we hurry along toward International Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19th. Here's an entertaining and useful way to get ready for the big day!

The WWPD? folder is available here in Anchorage at Titlewave Books and on the web at Archie McPhee and elsewhere. Stow your novel, your ship's log or your school projects and never have to worry about losing them to an unscroupulous mate again. But lets shoot for a C+ next time , mister. I'm expecting great things this year.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Is That a Flintlock in Your Pocket or...

I'm kind of a gun nut. Not like Mr. Howard in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" though. (Remember him? The marine Sergeant that shot Dr. Maturin while trying to take down an albatross on the deck of the moving frigate? Yeah, that guy. Never happened in the books, let me tell you.) No, I like the history of the gun and what it has accomplished for (or against) civilization over the course of its 650 plus year genealogy. So it follows that I have a keen interest in what firearms have meant to pirates and privateers.

In the 16th century the flintlock pistol was developed in Europe, making obsolete the matchlock pistol which required clumsy slow match to ignite the black powder and thereby shoot the ball. Flintlocks were used pretty much around the world until the end of the 19th century. Even such massive movers of technology as the Napoleonic and American Civil wars didn't much change the humble flintlock, and with good reason. Though expensive, flintlocks were light, accurate and easy to shoot with one hand. A man could master shooting a flintlock pistol far more quickly than he could master swordsmanship and, in fact, the flintlock became a bone of cultural contention for just that reason, particularly in the New World. Latin men prided themselves on their ability with the sword and looked down on Teutons and Saxons for their insistence on "crude duels" with pistols. The way pistols killed more readily than dueling swords such as epees and rapiers was considered inelegant, and really what is more cultivated than fighting with some guy you just met because he looked at your girlfriend funny?

Flintlocks as a general rule had a range from three to four yards, depending on their length. They were made with either a long (about twelve inches) or short (about nine) smooth-bore barrel. A flintlock weighed in at no more than six pounds and was rarely longer than eighteen inches. This was a weapon not only for men but for women, requiring only a steady hand, a keen eye and a familiarity with the pistol that would allow the shooter to correct for pull.

Pirates and privateers loved the holy living heck out of good flintlocks and a prize that had small arms aboard was a coveted catch. In fact, among pirates in particular, a man who distinguished himself in the taking of a prize might be given first choice of the captured flintlocks as a reward for his fine work. Thankee Cap'n Roberts. I'll name 'er after you!

Obviously, there were issues. The salt air and threat of dampness could destroy an uncared for flintlock. Wet powder was an unfortunately frequent occurrence, too, and the smart sailor kept his piece well oiled and his powder dry by husbanding his own supply. Still good advice if you ask me. Since the flintlock was made ready for use with the same basic principle as preparing a cannon - but without the hindrance of slow match - it was not uncommon for savvy sailors to wait until action was close at hand to load their personal arms. The flint was the key and the best flint, even today, comes from England and Germany. A good flint in a well maintained pistol could last through fifty firings before it would need to be changed. Pretty progressive coming off the fuse technology on the matchlock that had to be replaced and lit before each discharge.

But how to carry your precious sidearm? I'm glad you asked. Of course there was the classic stuff it in your belt and hope it doesn't go off in your pants (more on that in a minute) but pirates tended to be style mavens and sporting a gun was no exception. The simple - and fashion forward - solution was to tie two pistols to either end of a silk ribbon and drape the whole thing around your neck. Think of the possibilities for contrasting colors and textures! I'm gonna go ahead and speculate that the ladies favored this one whenever possible.

Another option, which has a far more Errol Flynn ring to it, was the baldric. This was a wide band of leather that encircled the body, falling from one shoulder to the opposite hip. There was a loop for holding a sword in its sheath at the hip and holsters could be sewn onto the front panel to hold one or more pistols. Some pirates - like Blackbeard - wore two baldrics crossed over their body with pistols on both, making shooting one after another easy. Once the pistol or pistols were spent their butts could be used as cudgels which earned them the moniker "skull crusher". Whatever gets the job done in close combat, Brethren.

Finally, pirates were notorious for wandering around aboard ship or on land with their loaded pistols in what might ironically be called the "safety" position. A flintlock had two positions for the lock-cock which would eventually strike the flint and cause the spark that would fire the weapon. Two notches back on the lock-cock and the pistol was ready to fire. Only one notch back - "half-cocked" - and the pistol was on "safety". You can see where this is going, can't you? Yep. A jostle by your buddy's annoying pet monkey and your piece goes off half-cocked. Then no amount of protestation that "this never happens to me" is going to replace your unfortunate toe. Or the monkey's hand. Or your friend's eye. And that's where we get that expression that always raises a snicker from a middle school social studies class. Always.
So be careful out there Brethren. Prime and cock only when action is imminent. You (and that monkey) will be glad you did!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

History: What Would Pass for Nice Booty

I know everybody loves the stuff and I'll probably draw some wrath from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" crowd but I honestly think that popular fiction has dumbed pirates down to a reprehensible degree. The belief that every ship was
full of gold that could then be spent without question ashore sort of makes these guys look like all they had to do was shoot a man or two and their ship had come in - so to speak. Either that or just be crotchety British actors who turned to skeletons at night. Hell, skeletons don't even need grog, do they? Sometimes history is far, far more interesting than mass market, made to make money fiction, regardless of Disney's ability to afford CGI. Told you I wouldn't be popular after this one.

But I'm not here to feed the fantasy (if I were my profile picture would graphically attest to just how much cleavage that waistcoat is capable of producing when laced up tight). I'm here to show you the ropes and so let us talk about what was really crammed into the holds of those unfortunate merchant ships that encountered our Brethren at sea. I know some of you are with me still, and I thankee.

Most of the time - and I'm talking from Ancient Roman days to right stinking now - the merchant vessel was carrying humble goods for sale to humble people in humble ports around the world. It was not uncommon for pirates during the Golden Age to come across ships taking livestock or human chattel to a Caribbean port. Molasses, rum, wine, sugar cane and cloth were also top prizes. Fruits and vegetables were not uncommon and, despite the popular picture of "scurvy dogs", guys in a crew like Blackbeard's had access to a remarkably healthy diet because of small prizes full of produce. All of these items were routinely taken to a known port where merchants were happy to trade with seamen "on the account" for the cold hard cash that bought fancy clothing, women and rum.

Of course, there were places where incredible fortunes might be stumbled upon, but these were the exception and not the rule. They were also one of the myriad reasons so many sailors chose and then stayed with the perilous life of a pirate or privateer. Venezuela had harbors what produced enormous pearls seemingly endlessly, and ships that sailed from Maracaibo and Caracas were frequently laden with this kind of wealth. Mexico was a source of gold and silver, as was Peru and whole galleons full of gold dust or silver bars were available in the time of the English sea dogs and the buccaneers.

In the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, East India men returning from the wealthy ports of China and India frequently carried chests of jewels and bolts of silk, both of which could be traded on the West Coast of Africa or in Madagascar for enormous sums. Thomas Tew, the English pirate turned American dandy, captured a merchant in the Indian Ocean in the late 17th century that yielded a share of 3,000 pounds for every crew member. The modern equivalent would be approximately 4 million pounds. Set for life. No question.

By the privateering days of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the treasure ships of the Spanish Main had dried up. Simple cargoes like rice, salt, ivory and indigo as well as frilly goods like lace and silk stockings or underthings were more common. Men like the Laffite brothers made multiple fortunes simply by providing a goods-starved market in the form of New Orleans under the American embargo of foreign merchandise with a one-stop, tariff free shop. They also saw an opportunity in the revolutionary enterprises of Central and South America. Ships transporting arms and munitions were a delight to a privateer. Not only could he (or she) have their pick of cannon - which were particularly hard to come by - but liberationists would happily pay top dollar for any weapons at all. Most unfortunate of all, the slave trade had not ceased but simply gone underground. Since slaves could not legally be imported into the U.S., plantation owners throughout the country flocked to Barataria or Galveston to buy smuggled men and women from the Laffites.

I'm not saying no one got rich by any means. Plenty of savvy men and women made fortunes in "the trade". And there's my argument really. Nothing was handed to them. They had to be savvy just to be able to stay alive, make a buck and have a little fun. And an evening by the fire having a few chuckles with a guy like Thomas Tew seems like a lot more fun to me than trying to drink with a skeleton.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Pirates Own Book: "His Predominant Characteristic, Ferocity"

When life gets your humble hostess down just a little, when she sits facing another round of query letters to send out and another week of hectic running about and the fact that her house needs a new roof and a paint job, nothing comforts like the comedy stylings of Charles Ellms and his delightful "The Pirates' Own Book". Well, I could drink but really that would only make me feel worse in the long run. Let us save the grog for Friday, Brethren, and launch into Chapter 9 in my favorite pirate fantasy book: The Life of Benito de Soto.

To answer any questions you may have on the subject, the picture above is an engraving from the original book and is entitled "Horrid abuse of the helpless women in the cabin". Trust me, that's a walk in the park compared to what those women really suffered but this was the 1830s after all.

Ellms describes de Soto as having been "bred a mariner" and notes that he was "in the guiltless pursuit of his calling" in 1827. At this time he joined the crew of a slaver headed for Africa, the members of which Ellms refers to specifically as "renegadoes". The ship reaches the coast of Africa (Angola specifically, though Ellms does not mention the spot) and the human cargo are taken aboard. De Soto falls in with the First Mate, who plans to mutiny and turn pirate. Most of the crew is convinced to join in and when the Captain is conveniently ashore they take control of the vessel. The crew members who "had rejected the evil offer" to become pirates were put in a boat well off the coast and left to their fate. The boat, I'm sure I need not mention, foundered and was lost with all of these right thinking men.

Meanwhile, de Soto staged an argument with the mate in charge and killed him outright. The others elected de Soto Captain and the Defensor de Pedro sailed for South America to sell the unfortunates in the hold and get right to that pirating thing. In fact, de Soto changed the name of the brig to the Black Joke. I'm giving de Soto props for ironic creativity on that one.

Once the slaves were sold, de Soto and his crew got to work with a vengeance. They were notorious for leaving no prisoner alive and no prize afloat, making de Soto one of the most reckless pirates ever. Ellms manages to avoid specifics in this regard, and gets straight to the incident that finally ended de Soto's mad reign of terror.

Morning Star was a British merchant ship carrying wounded soldiers and their wives from India back to England. She met Black Joke in the south Atlantic and was unfortunately pursued immediately. According to Ellms, de Soto originally thought the brig was Spanish. When told she was British he has de Soto say: "So much the better. We shall find the more booty." Now its Ellms who is the master of irony.

Morning Star was eventually caught and convinced to heave to and surrender. Ellms does his level best to fall all over himself apologizing for the Captain and crew of the merchant, being that she was carrying no cannon and the pirate ship was heavily armed. He tells us that despite the surrender "...courage, which is so characteristic of a British sailor, never for a moment forsook the captain." That's awesome. De Soto killed the Captain and the First Lieutenant directly when they came over the side of Black Joke as ordered. He then boarded Morning Star and killed most of her crew as well as a good many of the wounded passengers. The men that were not killed were secured in the hold while the women were taken to the Captain's cabin and repeatedly raped.

Ellms, interestingly, has these action occur without de Soto being present. In Ellms' account, the pirate Captain remains aboard his ship while the men he sent over to Morning Star (led, I feel compelled to add, by a Frenchman named Barbazan - yes like the modelling school), perpetrate the horror under their own auspices. These are the men who "...indulge in the pleasures of the bottle... and then having ordered down the females, treated them with even less humanity than characterised their conduct toward the others." In fact, according to testimony from the survivors, de Soto was in the middle of the entire orgy of torture and death, but there may be a clue to Ellms' narrative choices at the end of the chapter.

Eventually all the remaining prisoners are locked in the hold and Morning Star is left to sink, holes having been drilled into her hull. De Soto and his men sail off, though Ellms again makes this a choice of the mate Barbazan while de Soto sleeps. Morning Star's prisoners escape the hold, man the pumps and are eventually picked up by a British ship bound for Gibraltar.

Black Joke also ends up on the coast of Spain and is wrecked on a lee shore during a squall. De Soto manages to salvage her and, with prize goods sold and salvage money in hand, he heads to Gibraltar himself. He takes lodging at a seedy inn and Ellms describes him rather poetically. "He dressed expensively... His whiskers were large and bushy and his hair... was very black, profuse, long and naturally curled... He appeared to me such a man as would have made a hero in the ranks of his country, had circumstances placed him in the proper road to fame..."

In that passage may be the key to Ellms' unusual telling of Benito de Soto's story. De Soto was recognized in the street by one of the soldiers that survived the horror aboard Morning Star. The pirate was arrested and confined for an unusually long time while the Gibraltar authorities took statements from his unfortunate victims. Ellms, who was stationed on Gibraltar at the time, had the opportunity to visit de Soto in prison. The ambivalence Ellms felt toward the disease ravaged prisoner he met comes across very clearly in the writing. I have to wonder if Ellms felt sorry for de Soto, and chose a secondary villain to blame the Morning Star atrocity on.

De Soto was tried and convicted and sentenced to hang. Ellms witnessed the execution, and he offers a picture of a repentant pirate who "...seemed to wish for the moment that would send him before his Creator". De Soto died in 1832 and his head was displayed on a pike as a warning to other pirates.

Its rather poignant really, the juxtaposition between Charles Ellms and Benito de Soto. Ellms, whose book paints even the most gentlemanly privateers as blackguards and criminals, gives de Soto a generous dose of humanity. De Soto, who was certainly the kind of villain that would make Rob Zombie drool (I can hear the man now - "Sherri! This shit writes itself!"), comes off as a lost kid who might just have fallen in with the wrong crowd.

This is why I keep digging into "The Pirates' Own Book". Thank you Charles Ellms. Now I can get back to those query letters.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Home Ports: Bonjour, Anglais!

Saint-Malo is a port city in northwestern France on the English Channel. As you can tell from the picture, the town even today has a very closed in, medieval feel. The walls are sturdy and the harbor is cozy. The town is a tight knit place and, even though it can swell to well over 200,000 people during the summer, the 50,000 odd permanent residents are basically all family one way or another. They're also damn proud of their privateer ancestors.

In the 17th century, Saint-Malo became the port of choice for French privateers who preyed on English merchant vessels in the Channel. Over the course of that century, Saint-Malo grew rich with privateering profits and, like a factory town, everyone in Saint-Malo worked at the business of privateering. To the French, Saint-Malo was La Cite Corsaire. To the English, it was The Nest of Wasps. The French word for privateer - corsaire - was virtually born in Saint-Malo. The men who sailed out to plunder English shipping were said to pursue la course which meant, in this case the errand or the race. Privateering had a new name.

The corsairs of Saint-Malo were national heroes in France. They were the rock stars of the age. Girls of Brittany and beyond kept engraved cards with the visages of privateers near their bedsides. Whole families and even church officials grew rich on the profits. City streets in Saint-Malo were named after famous native sons who worked la course like Rene Duguay-Trouin, Robert Surcouf and Jean Bart. Even Jean Laffite claimed at some point or other to have been born in Saint-Malo (his family was actually from Bordeaux but whose counting?)

In 1693 the English got fed up and decided to take Saint-Malo out with what was then referred to as an "infernal machine". They packed an 85 foot long ship full of explosives, literally jamming everything from barrels of black powder to missiles and bombs into the unmanned frigate. They set their weapon of mass destruction off to blow a hole in the city's fortified wall one night but things didn't quite work out. The ship hit a rock, the all important black powder got a little more than damp and the whole thing fizzled rather than exploded. The resulting fireworks killed an unfortunate cat but did no damage what ever to the city. Impotent at best.

Saint-Malo continued her predations through the Napoleonic wars, her corsaires being some of the few French ships that could thumb their noses as the English blockades. After that, though, the time of privateering was done. Saint-Malo is still a great port, but today her snug harbor is full of luxury yachts instead of daring corsaires. Sigh.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Thwart

Ahoy Brethren and welcome once again to Sailor Mouth Saturday. I'm at the Alaska Writers Guild workshop Saturday and Sunday, so this post comes to you kinda early for me.

Now, I'm an equal opportunity kind of privateer (on some issues anyway) and so today I'm posting a picture of C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower. Yep. He's no Jack Aubrey by half but that's how the cards were dealt. Besides, we're talking about his hat here, not his looks or personality. That said, let us cast off.

"Athwart" is a word that was bandied about by sailors from the 16th century on. Maybe earlier for all we know. The point is that, though it sounds strange and old-timey to us, it would have been common parlance aboard the ships of everyone from Blackbeard to Dominique Youx and beyond. Well, Youx would have said it in French but you get my drift.

The word literally means from side to side and was the opposite of fore and aft - from front to back. Anything crossing the line of a ship's direction was said to be athwart that ship. "Athwart hawse" was the term for anything - a boat, a whale, a tree trunk - accidentally drifting across the path of the ship. Ships would fire a warning shot athwart an enemy to make her heave to and surrender without damage. Firing "athwartships" was big with pirates and privateers. Just scar 'em a little and keep the prize intact. Finally, during the Napoleonic wars, old school officers like Nelson (and our buddy up there who was named after him) were said to wear their bicorn hats athwartships as opposed to the more modern fore-and-aft style.

As the term came down to us, it was shortened to thwart and took on the meaning of crossing an adversary. To stop someone from accomplishing something. To thwart them. I like athwart better myself, and I refuse to wear my bicorn fore-and-aft regardless of peer pressure. So there.

Happy Saturday, Brethren. See you in the week ahead!

Lady Pirates: And We Don't Even Know Her Name

I always get a kick out of "experts" who insist that because the pirate codes put together by the more famous Captains of the Golden Age outlined the rules pretty clearly everything ran like clockwork. Guys were marooned for looking at boys and lost hands for pilfering a few pesos. Uh-huh. Last time I checked these were pirates and let me tell you, it stands to reason that if it went on in the greatest navy the world had seen so far - the Royal Navy - it went on aboard pirates and privateers. Do not misunderstand me. I'm not saying that punishments didn't occur. They did on both sides of the coin and with the kind of ferocity that makes us modern softies wince. What I'm saying is that what was good for the goose was good for the gander. For the most part, pirates had experienced naval - or at least merchant - service, and we all know that an orca doesn't change its spots (much less its underwear).

That brings me to the bizarre and chuckle-worthy myth that nary a damsel ever set foot aboard a pirate sloop because some pirate code said that smuggling a girl on board was a hanging offense. Honestly. Mary Reade and Anne Bonny were not the first - nor I might add the last - ladies of fortune to join a pirate crew. Being the most famous doesn't make you the best. It just means you have a fabulous publicist.

So, the lady of the day. We know her only as William Brown, her girly name being lost to the sea foam. She sailed for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars and her exploits illustrate that, if you could get away with it in an outfit like Nelson's Navy, you could get away with it anywhere.

William Brown was described in the September 1815 addition of London's Annual Register as follows:

She is a smart, well-formed figure, about five feet four inches in height, possessed of considerable strength and great activity; her features are rather handsome for a black, and she appears to be about twenty-six years of age.

The entry in and of itself is telling. Brown is referred to as "she" throughout. There is no apologia for her sex whatever. In fact, the writer seems more surprised at her ability to put away the grog than he is at her gender. Interesting.

Brown must have been a hearty, capable lady because at the time of the Annual Register's blurb she was a captain of the foretop aboard the three decker, 104 gun man of war Queen Charlotte. The ship carried a compliment of 850 men so it wasn't like Brown was the only body they could find to keep the reefers in line.

By way of explanation, a captain of the foretop was in charge of the men and boys who went aloft to tend the uppermost sails on the foremast. These included topsails and topgallants ordinarily but in special circumstances royals and skysails would be added as well. The men (and women) climbed up a hundred feet or more and then worked their way out onto the crosstrees to stand barefoot on a sturdy rope and work the sheets. Think about it. Picture it in your mind, on a nice day. Now imagine a squall at night. That, my Brethren, took guts and our lady Brown did it for some twelve years.

Little is known about William Brown aside from her place aboard ship and the fact that her gender was discovered in 1815 (which led to her mention in the Register). The fact that she was a woman didn't stop her from collecting prize money owed her and returning to her ship after a disagreement with her unnamed husband. In 1816, Brown was transferred from Queen Charlotte to the frigate Bombay. The ship's only existing muster book rates her as an able seaman and lists her as 32 years old, not the 26 years mentioned in the Register. Even more impressive, if you ask me.

There is no further written record of William Brown after that simple line in a Royal Navy frigate's muster. The entry lists her as captain of the forecastle, which would have meant a promotion and less time away aloft. I like to think that the lady Brown made warrant man, perhaps as gunner's or bosun's mate. More pay and more prize money there. Who knows? It's fun to contemplate though, isn't it?

All in all the story of William Brown proves one thing to me at least: the world is more than we know. In an organized, well documented service like the Royal Navy, women like Brown not only survived but succeeded. So just imagine what went on aboard a pirate sloop and how no one will ever be the wiser.

Fair winds, Brethren. It's Friday at last.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

People: Raise a Cup (Of Tea That Is)

My husband and I have this friend named Dave. We both worked with him back in the day and he came to our wedding during the late Jurassic period. My husband still works with Dave, in fact, and I always remember him as a really cool guy. He loves Warren Zevon, who was a pirate in his own right, and he used to drive this really awesome, old school orange BMW. Dave's last name is Roberts. I'm gonna go ahead and speculate that he and today's pirate are somehow related.

Bartholomew Roberts was born John Roberts in Wales around 1683. In 1719 he was sailing as Second Lieutenant aboard a merchant bound for West Africa when his ship was captured by the pirate Howell Davis. Roberts was either pressed into service with Davis or he signed on voluntarily. Either way he sailed aboard Davis' Rover for only a short time before the Captain was ambushed and shot by Portuguese officials. Roberts was swiftly elected Rover's Captain and he gathered a small fleet, returned to the port where Davis had been killed and torched the settlement in an act of angry vengeance.

Still pissed as all hell, Roberts led his little pirate fleet to the Bay of Bahia in Brazil where he took 42 treasure ships by surprise and managed to sail back to West Africa with goods and specie worth well over 100,000 British pounds. On top of that, Roberts took the 40 gun frigate of a Brazilian vice-admiral and a huge golden cross set with emeralds and diamonds which had been intended for the King of Portugal. The former he made his flagship and renamed Royal Fortune. The later he hung from his neck by a gold chain and there it remained for the duration of his life. Time to party, mates!

But see, here's the thing about our boy Black Bart. He was handsome, tall and always dressed in the height of fashion but he was a tea only kinda guy and the sort of Captain that maintained naval style discipline. So party meant, what? Earl Gray instead of the usual green tea and y'all can stay up till 11:30? I don't know.

Success was in the cards for Roberts. He continued to raid shipping off Africa's coast and, when that got old, he sailed back to the Caribbean and took what he wanted there. He plundered off the Carolinas, New England and even Newfoundland and he was never short of crew members. Guys waited in line to get on board with Roberts. Even a portion of his wealth was enormous to most sailors. Roberts only formidable foe at this time was the weather. He was caught in a storm in the Atlantic trying to return to Africa in 1720 and had to head back to the Caribbean. Many hands were lost to thirst when the water barrels went dry before land was sighted.

Undeterred, Roberts set up shop on the Island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean and he became such a pain in the local government's backsides that the French Governor of Martinique and the English Governor of Barbados - enemies in any other situation - agreed to combine forces to stop Roberts depredations. Unfortunately, Black Bart got wind of their little plot and he had a new Jolly Roger done up for the occasion. As shown here, the flag pictured Rogers
standing on two skulls. The letters beneath each human head stand for
"A Barbadian's Head" and "A Martiniquian's Head". Get the drift, Governors? Shortly after raising his new war cry, Roberts captured the 52 gun frigate carrying the Governor of Martinique back home from France. Oops. Bart hung the Governor, tortured the crew and took the frigate as his 2.0 version of the Royal Fortune.

By 1722, the Crowns of Europe were in a lather about Roberts and Royal Navy ships were dispatched to take care of the pirate once and for all. HMS Swallow and HMS Weymouth (sometimes the British kinda sucked at naming their ships) set out to take care of the trouble. In February, Captain Chaloner Ogle (um, the British weren't always good at naming their sons either) aboard Swallow engaged Royal Fortune's companion Great Ranger and captured her in short order. He then took off after Roberts.

At this point, Roberts' uncanny good luck finally gave out. Ogle caught Royal Fortune and swept past her, firing a hellish broadside loaded with murderous grapeshot. Men were mowed down like grass. Among them was Bartholomew Roberts. He died of injuries to his neck and chest and his remaining crew quickly tossed him overboard so that his body could not be displayed by the British. Royal Fortune's Captain was welcomed by the sea in a bright scarlet coat, still wearing his gold and diamond cross.

Roberts was arguably the most successful pirate in history. It is documented that he took some 400 ships in his short, three year career and certainly the wealth he stole was incalculable. Maybe that teetotaling does pay off... Nah. Had to be the name. You can't do better than Black Bart Roberts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tools of the Trade: You Gotta Support Your Team

Ahoy Brethren and I apologize for the brief neglect of my beloved Triple P. The family and I were having one last gasp of fun before school overcame us
this morning. But I'm back now and I'm here to talk to you all about pirate flags.

The origins of the pirate flag are sketchy at best. Most authorities (if there are such things as "pirate authorities") put forth that the black flags with their deliciously creepy images grew out of warning flags flown at sea from ancient times. Particularly during the years of the Black Plague in Europe, ships began to fly red or black flags if plague was aboard. This was a way to warn other ships and various ports that pestilence was among the crew and contagion was more than likely. It was not necessarily a voluntary situation, however. Sometimes a know-it-all on a fellow ship would spot one of your guys sporting a bad case of impetigo and you'd be forced at cannon point to raise the red flag. Then getting into port could be a real pain, unless you were a little underhanded and managed to lose that red flag at sea. Maybe lose the guy with the crusty scabs too. That might help.

Anyway, pirates caught on pretty early that they could use the fear factor of contagion via the red flag to their advantage and so the original pirate flags were thought to be made of red cloth with various designs. These flags were called by their French name: Jolie Rouge. Literally "Pretty Red". French is so whimsical, isn't it? From this, some say, we get the term "Jolly Roger".

The flags displayed images designed to intimidate and many of these were taken from graveyard imagery. Directly above is the flag of Christopher Moody which includes an hour glass with wings and a skull and crossbones. Anyone who has seen pictures or rubbings from 16th and 17th century graveyards will recognize these kind of emblems. On headstones, they were used to remind onlookers that they'd end up dead too one day. In the case of this flag, the handy addition of the burly arm with the sword simply brings on the high note of "resistance is futile; surrender or die". In a time when very few people could read, this kind of imagery was clear and readily understood by everyone who came in contact with it.

When did red fall out of favor and black come into its own? It seems like the buccaneers of Cuba and San Domingue favored the red flags but once the Golden Age of piracy washed over the Caribbean in the 1700s, black flags became the rage. Up above we have, among others, the flags of Jack Rackham, Henry Every and of course Edward Teach with the skeleton making ready to stab a heart with a spear. That gets the message across without a word over the rails and more than one merchant ship simply gave up once these Jolly Rogers were raised.

For privateers, like their naval cousins, a ruse de guerre was more to the point than any showy black flag. Simply determine what country your prize was from and then run up that flag - or one of a neutral or friendly country - until you were close enough to reveal your "true colors". This was considered a fair and gentlemanly approach and even nautical heroes such as John Paul Jones and Horatio Nelson used this tack without the least bit of guilt.

So there you are. Go find a flag you like and hang it prominently for all to see. Just be sure you know which pirate ran it up back in the day. You want to be able to say when someone asks!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Jack

All right, let's get this out of the way straight off. I hear those of you who know me well giggling in the corners. "Nice excuse to post a picture of a half-naked Russell Crowe, Pauline!" Fine. Maybe it is. Looks better than the ridiculous picture of a jackrabbit that I found on Google Images, doesn't it, ladies? Ah hell yeah. Besides, that's not Russell Crowe, that's Captain John "Jack" Aubrey, RN. See how it all ties together?

From the 17th century on, Jack was the common term for a sailor in England and her colonies. In French, the name was Jacques. This is interesting because in English "Jack" is a diminutive of John, whereas in French - particularly the Creole French spoken in the Caribbean and Louisiana - "Jacques" is a diminutive of James. Go figure.

Anyway, the name Jack began to be applied to things that had to do with sailors and shipping. There were black jack tankards for swilling grog, jack-blocks for tying off topgallant sails, jack cross-trees made of iron to support high sails like royals, jack-in-office, a common sailors' term for a snarky officer and foremast jack, the common sailor just spoken of who worked "before the mast" rather than aft on the quarterdeck. The name Jack became so attached to Englishmen around the world that the flag of Britain, with its confluence of St. George's, St. Andrew's and after 1801 St. Patrick's crosses, became known as the Union Jack and was first flown on Royal Navy vessels. Huzzah!

Still in parlance today is the word "John" for a prostitute's customer. "Jack" was the original term used by "doxies" (girls who worked the dock) for any paying sailor. Prostitution was tacitly sanctioned by most navies and, when ships were at anchor near home, "bum boats" were rowed out with provisions and paid companions for the sailors rather than allowing shore leave. This was particularly necessary in the Royal Navy where impressed men might take the opportunity to escape.

Also, there's the word "jacket" for a short, sturdy coat. Before foremast jacks were issued uniforms these types of all purpose coats were made by the men themselves out of sail cloth or nankeen and they easily identified a man as a Jack - a sailor who was not an officer, surgeon or member of the clergy. In French a jacket is now a veste but during the Napoleonic era it was a jaquet - a nod to not only French sailors but Revolutionaries who were known as Jacques as well.

So there you go. If you run into a man named John today, Brethren, call him Jack. Or if he's James, call him Jacques. Why the hell not? Happy Saturday to you, and three cheers for Lucky Jack!

People: The Kind of Sailor a Girl Likes

I'll freely admit to being a history geek kind of the way Alton Brown on the Food Network is a food geek. I love all the aspects of particular points in history. Its not just visceral either, although that is certainly part of it. It's also trying to imagine and envision how our ancestors thought and felt and why they did what they did. That is particularly true with the guy we're going to talk about today. Put him in a cubicle and he'd probably lose it after a week. Put him knee deep in gore in the middle of a deafening sea battle (and that is not hyperbole, Brethren) and he emerged a hero. So sexy!

The able seaman pictured above is Commodore David Porter. He was born in Boston in 1780 to an already distinguished seafaring father who was a hero in the Revolutionary War. In his teens, Porter went to sea on American merchant vessels. He was impressed by the Royal Navy twice and managed to escape both times. By the age of 18 he was a midshipman aboard the U.S. Constellation and within a year he had passed for Lieutenant. In 1803, he was aboard Philadelphia when she ran aground in Tripoli harbor while battling Barbary corsairs. Taken prisoner in Algiers, Porter was subjected to some harsh treatment due to his refusal to shut up and sit down, so to say. In 1805, a daring Marine raid which inspired the "shores of Tripoli" line in the Marine anthem repatriated Porter and his fellows. He made Master and Commander and was given command of USS Enterprise - the first one.

After rising to the rank of Captain, Porter was called upon to take the post of Commodore at the newly established Naval Station in New Orleans. Here, Porter ran afoul of just about all the locals, from Territorial Governor Claiborne (actually a Virginian, but still) to the Laffite brothers and their band. Porter wanted everything done by the rules and the frequent sales of contraband that were tacitly allowed by the local government were a constant thorn in his side. He left his post when war with England broke out. After short cruises in the Caribbean, he took command of the frigate Essex, collected his US letter of marque, and headed off to the South Pacific.

Essex was incredibly successful with Porter at her helm. She effectively shut down the English whaling fleet in the South Pacific and, adding that to her over $2,500,000 in prize money, she was the most successful U.S. ship during the War of 1812. Porter and his men finally faced British wrath in February of 1814. Essex was attacked in Valparaiso Harbor off Chile. Despite the neutrality of the sight, the British frigates Phoebe and Cherub engaged Porter. The battle, which lasted over two hours, is famous for the bravery of Porter and his men and notorious for its carnage. Captain Hillyar of Phoebe (allegedly a friend of Porter's) showed his ungentlemanly side by lying out of range and bombarding the crippled Essex with his long guns. Porter finally surrendered, and the men of his crew who were still alive were paroled by Hillyar and sent back to the U.S. aboard their tender, Essex Jr. Porter and his men were lauded as heroes and he became a member of the board of navy commissioners until 1823. At this point, Porter turned from privateer to pirate hunter.

The depredations done by pirates in the Caribbean and particularly around Cuba at this time were out of control. Insurance companies had raised their rates for merchant vessels to above the maximum levels seen during the War of 1812 and America in particular was losing more revenue than she was gaining on the water. Porter was given command of the so called "Mosquito Fleet", which was based in Key West. The fleet got its name from the small sloops and schooners it used to literally fight fire with fire. These ships could cut into the small bays that the pirates called their own and take the little ships on their own terms. Once again, Porter was unusually successful. Even over the protests of the Cuban government - who didn't like the pirates turning bandit on their shores - Porter managed to take out famous pirates of the time like Cuban Diabolito and Canadian Charles Gibbs. There is some speculation that a run-in with Porter is what killed Jean Laffite in the Gulf of Honduras, but it was more likely the Spanish Navy. At any rate, Porter effectively shut down the last of the Caribbean and Gulf pirates.

Porter went on to fall out of favor with the American Navy, much like his mirror image Thomas Cochran did with the British Navy (Thomas being the historical figure O'Brian used as a model for John "Lucky Jack" Aubrey in his famous novels). He became the Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican Navy in 1826 and remained there until 1829. He did not return to service with the U.S. Navy but was appointed U.S. Consul General to the Turkish states in 1831. He remained at this post, and was remarkably capable of diplomacy in his later years, until his death in 1843. His body was returned to the U.S. and he is buried in Philadelphia, where he maintained a home for most of his adult life.

Porter is a fascinating mix of hereditary seaman, foremast jack, successful commander and cagey diplomat that we just don't see anymore. Two of his sons, the "adopted" eldest David Farragut (who may very well have been Porter's) and David Dixon Porter, both became highly distinguished officers in the U.S. Navy. Farragut, in fact, started his career aboard Essex as a midshipman under his Dad. How cool is that? Porter had seven other children with his wife Evalina (although he later accused her of adultery and swore some of them weren't his). He was respected, even by his enemies, and he ran happy ships with only the very necessary amount of severe discipline.

Would I call Porter a hero? Despite the fact that my own ancestors might disagree, I sure would. Plus, I have to add stud to the list of adjectives as well. Don't you just love that handsome man in his shiny uniform? Sorry, Uncle Renato, but that's the kind of sailor a girl could learn to like.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Nice Ride!

Its a little hard to be a pirate without a ship. Really, if you're stuck on land all you are at that point is a highwayman and the end result of that profession is, it seems to me, far more severe and direct. Plus you're working by land. Land. Only lubbers enjoy that and you, my Brethren, are no lubbers. So today, let us discuss the two (three semantically, but two in point of fact) favored flavors of boat for the pirates of the Golden Age, and the privateers of the Revolution and South American liberation.

The go to ship of 18th century buccaneers and pirates was what was then referred to as a sloop. This was a small craft with one mast that could carry what amounted to an enormous press of sail when measured to the size of the hull. This ability to pack on sheets gave the sloop an advantage in speed over almost any other ship. Besides speed they had superior maneuverability and could move fast even tacking into the wind. This made escape from pesky naval vessels surprisingly easy. The ships had a shallow draught, meaning that their hulls were high and relatively flat at the bottom so that they could navigate shallow bays which larger frigates could not hope to enter. Another handy escape mechanism. A Jamaica or Bermuda built sloop, both of which were favored by buccaneers like our buddy L'Ollonais, could carry a compliment of up to 75 men and a 6 to 8 small guns. From 1700 to about 1750, this was the pirate ship of choice (Blackbeard's massive frigate Queen Anne's Revenge being a fluke of an ego as big as the ship and a reputation to match).

By 1730, a variant of the sloop was starting to show up in the Colonies. Called a schooner, this similar ship had two masts, generally speaking, and was lean and mean from a standpoint of draft and hull size. These ships, frequently made of the coveted white oak that grew in North America and was so difficult to penetrate with a cannon, were a real innovation in terms of speed and safety. The problem was that a schooner did not have the hold space available in a proper sloop, limiting the amount of stores and plunder that could be packed aboard. Once again, though, about 75 men and 8 small guns were viable on a schooner, and many American pirates found them handy for short expeditions around the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean.

In the very late 1700s and on to the 1830s, the brigantine or brig came into her own. Sloops and particularly schooners were still in use in the Gulf but the ideal ship for those waters was the hermaphrodite brig, pictured above. Hermaphrodite refers to the ship's rigging: the foremast (at the front of the ship) carried square or "ship" rigged sails while the mainmast carried fore-and-aft (literally "front and back") rigged sails. Most of the Laffite brothers' Baratarian pirates chose these ships since they were ideally suited to taking advantage of the frequently changing wind conditions in the Gulf. Brigs could also carry more men (up to 120) and arms (up to 12 cannon) than a sloop or schooner and their wider construction allowed a larger though still relatively shallow hull. More stores and booty could be brought aboard making expeditions farther afield possible. Renato Beluche sailed more than one brig from the Atlantic around Cape Horn to the Pacific.

Just remember now, pirates didn't, generally speaking, sail into the bay and haggle with the used schooner dealer. A ship was a prize just like her cargo which is why all this movie nonsense of blasting away at the prize with all guns white hot rarely happened. Freebooters tended to trade up. If the prize was more suited to your purpose than what you were sailing, you left the prize's crew on your ship and sailed off aboard theirs.

So take that prize and fair winds, Brethren. I hope your sloop comes in soon.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movies: "Climb the Mainmast You Monkeys!"

I'm going to go straight out to the end of the mainsail crosstrees and say that "Captain Blood" is the greatest pirate movie ever made. Its only rival to my mind is DeMille's silent version of "The Buccaneer" with Friedrich March as Jean Laffite (although the 1950 version with Yul Brynner in the role is no slouch), but I'm just a tad bias there. Errol Flynn is the definitive swashbuckling hero. He is all handsome poise and manly flair without a single dangling bead or drop of eyeliner to muck up the picture. That man was a stud.

For those of you who have not experienced the sheer popcorn and soda for a nickle delight that is "Captain Blood", I will first of all say shame on you. Go put it in your Netflix queue right now. Seriously, I'll wait.

Back? Good. You'll be glad you did that, trust me. Anyway, I'll give you a brief rundown of the plot just because its kind of silly to do a review without telling you what the movie is about. The plot itself seems a little overdone now. In all honesty though, the joy of "Captain Blood" is not necessarily in its plot, it's in the exuberant, "I dare you to call me a ham" acting of every last one of the people in the film. It's in the wonderful camera work and direction by Mr. Casablanca himself, Michael Curtiz. Most of all, it's in the fun of being able to watch two virtual unknowns turn into stars right before your eyes. How often does that happen these days?

Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is a physician in England in 1685. The movie makes it clear upfront that Blood has "dropped the sword and picked up the lancet" so we won't be surprised later when he's a fencing master. Oh yeah, and he's also Irish. He's kind of a tall, handsome, agreeable version of Doctor Stephen Maturin from the O'Brian novels, but we'll talk about him another time.

A simmering revolution is going on in the farmlands of the country as the Protestant people are upset with their Catholic king James II for being, well, Catholic. William and Mary are in exile in Holland and the people make their displeasure known by attacking the English army guerrilla style. A local skirmish causes injury to one of the rebels, and the Doctor is summoned to stitch up the wounded man. The army finds the rebels and Blood is accused of treason for giving "harbor, succor or comfort to a rebel". Despite his plea of "Its right innocent I am", guilt by associations gets Peter Blood a death sentence. In the nick of time, somebody figures out that British colonies in the Caribbean need hands to work the fields and so off Blood and his new pals go to life as slaves in Port Royal Jamaica.

Upon landing, the prisoners are subjected to a slave auction. The Governor is there, despite his horrible gout, as are plantation owners Dixon and Bishop (Lionel Atwill). We are informed that Dixon is the worst kind of master from the get go, but Bishop doesn't seem much better. Along for the ride is Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), the landowner's strong willed and beautiful niece. The usual auction fun ensues and, when Blood is too Spartacus for Bishop, Dixon steps up to buy him. Arabella saves the day. Having her own money, she buys Blood and keeps him from the clutches of Dixon.

The movie got some bad "insider" press before it was released by Warner Bros. for the amount of torture shown on film. The slaves, who would in actuality have been indentured servants, are treated to some grim miseries including flogging and branding. The first branding - done by Dixon to a runaway - is juxtaposed with the Governor whining to his incompetent physicians about his unbearable gout. If you think about it too long, it is pretty nasty and a lot closer to reality than movie goers in 1935 probably wanted to get. I like that though, and I think it probably took some doing for Curtiz to be able to avoid having to edit the thing all to hell.

Through her charm, Arabella manages to get Dr. Blood to treat the Governor and, before you can say "lay off the fat", he can walk again. This scares the pink pants off the two local doctors, who eventually supply Blood with his own ship. He plans to sail off with his fellow slaves and never see Jamaica again. Of course the plot is discovered, more brandings and beatings are implied or witnessed. When it's Peter's turn for a scourging, Spanish raiders show up and plunder the island. Peter and his boys hurry down to the docks only to find that their ship has been burned. No worries! We'll take the Spaniard galleon! And kick Spanish ass while we do! Huzzah!

Doctor Blood is now Captain Blood and he and his crew terrorize the Caribbean. He's notorious now but he is thoughtful about his treatment of prisoners and ladies in particular. Oh, Errol! Anyway, Port Royal is ransomed by the British and Arabella takes a vacation to England. On her way home, in a freaking aircraft carrier with staterooms the size of a generous loft, her ship is taken by the notorious French pirate from Tortuga, Captain Le Vasseur (Basil Rathbone). Rathbone is just as awesome as Flynn here, coming off with the threatening menace of an Edward Teach and the suave, ladies' man air of a Jean Laffite. I'd have a hard time choosing between Le Vasseur and Peter Blood frankly. Needless to say, Arabella doesn't.

Blood rescues his lady love and the two pirates duel over her on a very recognizable beach in Laguna, California. But who cares? The fencing is impeccable and when Le Vasseur is stuck in the gut he crumples to the sand, the waves washing over his dead body without Rathbone so much as flinching. They just don't make 'em like they used to.

William and Mary return to England and take the throne, the big battle at sea, against the French no less, is won and Blood returns triumphant to Jamaica to claim the Governor's mansion and the hand of his saucy lady love Arabella. The End.

The DVD has a ton of special features including discussion about the score, the original novel by Rafael Sabatini and the cast. All in all, its one of the best ways to spend a Saturday night with the family. And I'm sorry Mr. Depp, Errol Flynn is still the best pirate ever. Period.

Monday, August 10, 2009

People: Scourge of the Spaniards

A happy Monday to you, Brethren. I hope that another week finds you well. To help us all through the day that is most likely to find at least some of us thinking we hate our stinking jobs, let's talk about buccaneer, megalomaniac and sociopath Francois L'Olonnais, shall we? Sounds like fun!

Born Jacques Jean David Nau some time in the first half of the 17th century, the young man who would change his name to L'Olonnais (after his birthplace in Brittany, Olon) went off to the Caribbean in 1650 to become an indentured servant on a Spanish sugar plantation. Indentured servitude, either voluntary or imposed for some criminal act, was extremely prevalent in this era and area. Men and women looking for a better life in the New World signed up to serve wealthy families or corporations for a set number of years in return for passage by ship and some supplies such as a cow or a piece of land promised as a reward when their time was done. It all sounded good at first. If a person wasn't afraid of hard work they could get to the Americas and potentially be set to start their own farm or business when the contract of indenture was over. The problem was that indenture was tantamount to slavery with a time limit. A kinder master was still Master, and a sadistic one could cripple or kill at a moment's whim. Hate the job? Tough. Your in it, perhaps for life.

Francois, who was probably one of those slightly unbalanced kind of guys to begin with, drew the short straw in the Master department. Once he arrived on what is now Cuba he experienced starvation, beatings and round the clock work for three years. When his time was up the promise of land was forgotten. Francois was set adrift, penniless and nearly naked in a foreign country. He was angry and now certifiably insane. Like so many of his comrades, he turned to the occupation of buccaneer and his particular hatred of the Spanish earned him the moniker Fleau de Espagnols: Scourge of the Spaniards.

Francois settled on the island of Tortuga where small expeditions with a handful of men earned him the admiration of the French Governor La Place. The Governor shared Francois' hatred for the Spanish and in 1660 he gave the new buccaneer a ship to captain. Francois rounded up more sailors and set out to not only earn his moniker but prove that he was indeed a sociopath.
Savvy if touched, Francois pursued only Spanish ships and killed all but one or two people aboard to ensure that his horrible tortures would be talked about around the Caribbean. Spanish merchant seamen got to a point where they were so terrified of L'Olonnais that they would simply abandon their ship rather than face his sadistic wrath. Needless to say, this made getting rich easy for Francois and keeping crewmen remarkably easy too. Although there was no love lost for Francois back on Tortuga, men readily signed up for his ships in order to partake in some of his tremendous wealth.

When another war between France and Spain broke out in 1667, Francois saw an even broader opportunity for plunder and torture. He began raiding port towns along the Spanish Main. Eventually acquiring a fleet of ships, Francois notoriously sacked Maracaibo on the Venezuelan coast and then Gibraltar off Spain. The now infamous pirate was fearless and feared and tortures such as pulling out fingers and removing still beating hearts were part and parcel of these exploits. No one was spared and women and children were particularly targeted because L'Ollonais believed they would give up the locations of treasure more readily.
Update: Your humble hostess was looking over a map of the Spanish Main this afternoon and realized that the Gibraltar in question is not The Rock off Spain but the small port town on Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. Sorry, Brethren. Carry on.

Like a modern day celebrity, Francois began to believe his own press. He assumed that he could not be defeated and took risks that led to just the opposite of success. In 1668 he made the decision to take six of his ships and raid the vast silver mines of Nicaragua. He landed and trekked well over 500 men inland where he successfully raided the mines. On the way out, though, the buccaneers were overcome by a group of warriors from the Darien tribe. These men, who lived on the coast and were familiar with Francois and his atrocities, showed no mercy to the brutal pirate.

L'Ol0nnais was painstakingly cut into pieces by the warriors who took care to keep him alive as long as possible. His parts were thrown onto a fire while he watched and some of those who escaped the horror reported that the warriors cannibalized the pirate's body. I'm thinking they probably wouldn't have troubled themselves to eat such bitter meat but who knows. Either way, its an end fit for a sociopath. Don't you think?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Cat

Ahoy Brethren and welcome once again to Sailor Mouth Saturday. Its time to briefly discuss naval discipline and that ubiquitous tool of same: the cat o' nine tails.

Called simple the cat by seamen, the thing was a wicked combination of rope, knots, sometimes sharp objects and human muscle. Swung with enough force, the cat could flay a man's back in ten to twenty strokes. This was followed by a nice dousing of seawater and then a return to duty if the victim was capable, which he generally was not. Most cats consisted of nine ropes tied with nine knots each, and that alone would do enough damage thank you very much. Particularly sadistic bosuns and captains - and notoriously pirates as well - would add things like hooks, barbs or broken glass to the knots. I don't think further detail is necessary.

The old saying about the Royal Navy and its appetite for rum, buggery and the lash not withstanding, what is interesting is how many of our modern phrases have descended from the vocabulary of applying the cat.

First off, the cat was hung in a bag from the main mast. Different navies used

different colors of cloth. For instance, the Royal Navy used red cloth while the American Navy used green. Pirate like black or purple. When a flogging was in the offing, sailors would alert one another by passing the word that the "cat was out of the bag". The ritual of shipboard discipline involved most if not all members of a crew witnessing the punishment and superstitious sailors were ritually quiet before, during and after a flogging. Chiding officers would ask them if the "cat got their tongue" as a way to remind them what falling out of line would mean. "You could be next," they were saying.

A small ship might not allow enough space on deck for the bosun or his strong man to truly make the blows count. Ships like this were said to have "no room to swing a cat". The fact that the origin of this term has been forgotten by many became obvious when people started adding the word "dead" as if the term implied picking up Whisker's cold body by the tail and flailing it over head.

Considering that every blow was actually multiplied by nine, flogging with a cat could be particularly horrific. Sailors who had particular friends, and who were in a position to use the cat if necessary, would make pacts with their mates to go easy on each other should the dreaded moment present itself. A simple scratch that drew blood for the officers' benefit but didn't pull meat from the bone would ensure a sailor's well being after the fact. Thus, promises of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" were born. The sailors would suffer only flesh injuries and walk away "no worse for the wear."

So put the cat back in the bag, Brethren, and remember the seamen who suffered every time these terms slip from your lips. Stop by again soon, and enjoy your flogging free Saturday... (I mean, unless you're into that sort of thing).

Friday, August 7, 2009

Toys: Chick Pirates to the Rescue!

You know what I like? I like surprises. I'm not talking about those big, jump-out-from-behind-the-furniture SURPRISE! Birthday party kind of things. That's overkill, it would probably give me some kind of paroxysm and I'm way too old for that. No. I'm talking about the little, unexpected stuff that people do intentionally to brighten up someones day. Maybe even their whole week, or month, or life.

As an example, I will frequently swing by the toy department of my local Fred Meyer first thing on grocery day (its Wednesday for me, so if you want to run into Pauline on Wednesday morning, you'll know where to look!). I head straight to the stuffed animals and pick out a small guy that catches my eye. I like elephants, hippos, dogs and pigs but I have to admit that monkeys are my preference. Then, off the critter and I go to shop. At some point, I find a shelf I like and I leave my friend there next to the bleach or juice or salad dressing for someone I don't know to find. It injects a little fun into a mundane task, and I hope it makes someone smile.

Its like this little gem here; the Anne Bonny Action Figure. My friend Laurel, who is a very talented gift giver, brought Anne to me last Holiday season when I was hosting a get-together at my home. Completely unexpected but totally appreciated, the gift both surprised and delighted me. Anne's arms and legs are movable, she can stand on her own and she comes dressed as you see with a boarding axe, a cutlass and two pistols. I cannot think that diamonds could be more of a friend to a girl. The toy also comes with some fun facts about Anne including her real name - Anne Cormac, her date and place of birth - around 1700 and listed as County Cork, Ireland (but in fact she was born in Charleston, S.C.), and her weapon of choice - boarding axe. Hell ya!

Anne Bonny sailed with Calico Jack Rackham in the early 18th century, and by all accounts she was a virago of the first order. Now she is lovingly molded in plastic and she stands, weapons at the ready, next to my bed right by my alarm clock. Thanks to that surprise expert, my friend Laurel, I have a kindred spirit to greet me each and every morning. How cool is that?

If you want your own little Anne Bonny either get yourself a great friend like Laurel or hop over to Archie McPhee at They have Anne and lots of other action figures for her to hang out with (I like to pair her with my Edgar A. Poe and Jane Austen action figures, and then imagine what they talk about). Enjoy, Brethren, and check in tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Pirates Own Book: You Can't Make This Stuff Up... Or Maybe You Can

Look, everybody knows chick pirates are hot. From actual flesh and blood women like Anne Bonny and Cheng I Sao to fictional lasses like Morgan Adams and Paulette Flynn (if you don't know that last lady yet, keep coming back to Triple P; you will!), nothing gets the blood pumping like a swinging sword and a flash of boob - all at the same time! Cha-ching! So today's topic comes as no surprise.

In 1837, at the fair beginning of what would blossom into the full silliness of the Victorian era, Charles Ellms wrote "The Pirates' Own Book: Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers". He published it in all earnestness, saying that what he had written down was exact and true and maybe he thought it was. What comes across today as a decidedly lurid, "you can only imagine" style of story telling that was clearly meant to titillate the sheltered audience he hoped would devour his prose. Grungy pirates carry off innocent maids and use them to death, toothless villains hack up heroic sea captains without a flinch, tortures abound and eventually the menace is put to the sword, drown or hanged for his black crimes. Its too good to just review. We'll be visiting this again and again. I highly recommend this book, which is currently in publication by the Marine Research Society of Salem, Massachusetts. If you have a true interest in pirate history, this one is worth the price of admission for its complete lack thereof. Bless you for a storyteller, Mr. Ellms.

The first entry in the book tells us of the she-pirate Alwilda. The picture above is from the book, and it shows our Viking heroine curiously dressed in the oddly hermaphrodite garb of a confused 1830s sailor. Not very flattering, but I'm thinking the illustration may have influenced Amelia Bloomer's "reform" costume. Anyway, Ellms tells us that Alwilda was the daughter of a "Gothic king" listed as Synardus. Her father insisted she marry Alf, prince of Denmark. Alwilda would have none of it and so she dressed as a man and, accompanied by a band of like-minded babes, set to sea in her own ship. What rocks harder than a lady pirate? A ship full of lady pirates! She had so much success that male Vikings joined her band and she was "so formidable, that Prince Alf was despatched (sic) to engage her." If you can't see what's coming, you haven't read much Victorian prose (or a modern romance novel).

During a "severe action in the gulf of Finland, Alf boarded her vessel, and killed the greatest part of her crew, seized the captain, namely herself". She was wearing a helmet so he didn't recognize her but when the helmet came off he "persuaded her to accept his hand, married her on board, and then led her to partake of his wealth, and share his throne." It seems his valor in battle - I mean he killed all those women, right? - totally threw Alwilda over and she swooned into his arms. Like butter, baby!

The history is a little less defined and a lot less romantic. According to the Danish historian Saxo-Grammaticus (I am not making that up) writing in the 12th century, Alwilda was the daughter of the Goth King Siward. What turned her to a life of sea roving is not mentioned in her brief history, but some Viking women went to sea, either with their men or on their own. She may very well have been one of those people who fit the "pirate model" over all. Alwilda may have been different and she wasn't going to try to fit in.

The history reports that Prince Alf eventually defeated Alwilda in a sea battle and took her as his wife. How she felt about that is not recorded. Perhaps the lack of care for her opinions and desires was why she went to sea in the first place. Or maybe she just had the itch. I'll leave it to you to decide my Brethren. Leave me a note and let me know what side you fall on. I'll look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

History: Ain't That Pretty At All

I don't generally hear anyone who does the pirate "thing" talk a whole lot about slavery. Granted, its not really one of those topics that lends itself to conversation over a mug o' grog and a deck o' cards but the reality is that pirates on both sides of the Atlantic were intimately familiar with slaves and slavery and sometimes that is worth remembering, even if its just for the sake of the nameless thousands who lost their lives at the hands of a brutal system that is - even more unfortunately - still with us in our world today.

The pirates of the Caribbean and Gulf had rather an ambivalent attitude towards human bondage. More than a few pirates were black, either free by law or runaways. There was certainly more than one black corsair Captain, although many of their names are lost to history. One of the most notable was Diego Grillo, an African slave from Spanish Cuba who escaped the killing fields of the sugarcane plantations in 1668. Nicknamed "Lucifer" he terrorized Spanish shipping for a number of years. Many crewman of both buccaneer and privateer ships were black. It is estimated that as many as 30% of pirate crews were black during the so called Golden Age in the early 18th century, and in the trade escaped slaves were considered excellent mates. They would fight to the death to avoid recapture, where - particularly in the Spanish and French islands - they could face hanging, flaying or burning alive for running away. I'd fight like hell, too.

The privateers of the early 1800s had large percentages of blacks among their crews as well. In many cases, however, particularly where the ships were working from a Laffite base such as Barataria, the blacks were free men. Many of them were refugees from the Haitian revolution who had been forced to flee along with the white population. They were looked on as no more trustworthy by the new Haitian Republic than a white person, and many free people of color owned black slaves themselves.

Despite this seemingly egalitarian attitude toward an otherwise unrecognized group, Caribbean pirates and Gulf privateers thought nothing of selling the human cargo for profit if they captured a slaver. The juxtaposition is astounding in many ways. For me, it is another example of how our ancestors perceived the world so much differently than we do and its almost impossible to really wrap one's brain around.

Across the water, on the northern coast of Africa, the pirates of the Barbary Coast (what we now think of as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) were sailing with slaves as well. In this case, though, color was not the issue. Religion was.

The Barbary pirates enslaved Christians - mostly sailors taken from ships they had plundered - and put them to work at their galley and xebec oars. The life
expectancy for a man rowing a Barbary galley was six months at most. If the

man was not ransomed by his family or country, he could expect to die of drowning, disease or shear exhaustion. Men were chained by the ankles, seven to an oar which was approximately fifty feet in length. The bench beneath them was ten feet long, four feet wide and covered with sheepskin because it helped create a smoother rhythm as the naked rowers worked.

There were no potty breaks, the rowing area was not sheltered from the sun or wind and at least one overseer strolled the bridge between the two gangs of rowers, his whip at the ready. The slaves could be expected to row up to twenty hours a day, depending on where the galley was headed. Since the Barbary pirates made raids as far north as Iceland, I don't think I need to elaborate on how plausible that pace might be. Food and water were got on the fly, with the most usual fare being a biscuit or bread soaked in wine stuffed into your mouth while you rowed. Ben-Hur it wasn't... That looked vaguely like a pleasure cruise by comparison.

My point? I'm really just trying to pass on information here but I want us all to remember that these "pirates" we like to talk like, dress like and admire weren't always nice guys. In fact, many of them were sociopaths who couldn't have fit in to society if they tried. And then too, some institutions just encourage that kind of behavior. Like slavery.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Doc, My Eye Hurts

I don't think anyone in their right mind would say the sailor's life was easy. Everything conspired to make you either a tough as nails, muscle bound superhero or a gelatinous wimp who eventually oozed off the deck of the ship to join Davey Jones in what may have looked like a watery form of heaven at that point. The navy and merchant services were particularly grueling, as we've discussed before, and turning pirate was the best option in many cases. At least you could always walk away. I mean, if you could walk.

But what about the "officer" class? Not everything was roses around the door up there on the quarterdeck and today's handy invention is a good example of why.

Obviously, navigation is necessary to all ships at sea. Being out in the open ocean is as disorienting as being up in a plane. With only miles of water and sky all around, good tools and the knowledge to use them were the difference between getting where you wanted to go and never - ever - seeing home again. From the earliest days of sail, mariners learned to navigate by the position of celestial objects. The sun, the moon, the planets and various stars such as Polaris and Sirius became the unwritten language by which a man could find his course and stay on it. Knowing dates and times was essential too, especially when dealing with moving bodies like the sun and moon. I'm pretty sure sailors had as much to do with inventing calendars as women did.

As the art of sailing progressed so did the tools and while this was good from a knowing where you are standpoint it didn't always help your health. For centuries, sailors used an instrument called a cross-staff to calculate latitude while at sea. Use of a cross-staff involved standing on a heaving deck (isn't that a great term?), positioning the instrument at your eye and staring up at the sun. The sun! How many times have you been warned about staring into the sun? Don't lie; I'm a mom.

The navigator would need to keep the sun aligned with the top of the crossbar while he stood there on deck, his toes curling painfully to try to keep him steady. Then he would need to slide the crossbar down until the horizon touched its other end. All while staring at the sun. OK, so if you don't get pterygiums from the salt air, now you're in for early cataracts from staring at the sun. In all fairness, by the age of Napoleon cataract surgery was being done but it was no picnic and no guarantee you wouldn't lose your eye - or your life.

Enter John Davis who, in 1595, introduced the backstaff (a fine example of which is shown above). With this instrument a man could turn his back to the sun and calculate latitude by measuring its shadow with the backstaff. Of course, you still might end up with Doc Fumbles ripping out your cataract down the line, but at least you could read the stinking charts when you got done with you calculations.

Its like I tell my kids: the 20th century didn't invent technological advancement and here's a good example of what I mean. Have a great Tuesday, Brethren!