Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Mind Your Balls

I've said it before and I'll say it again: hitting a prize with a broadside is far more than just ill advised. Its stupid. The ship you are trying to board is just as valuable - sometimes even more so - as the goods and/or people it carries so you better think long and hard before putting that slow match to the touch hole, mate.

But Pauline, you say, what to do when they start firing on us? Well there is that isn't there? And, though most pirates and privateers were too small to carry the kind of fire power that the movies - classic or not - like to show us, a couple of four to six pounders and a swivel could do a lot of damage if the need arose. Sometimes it did, and then the freebooters had to chose their ammunition wisely.

The options were not as limited as you might thing. As the Mythbusters proved a couple seasons ago in the Pirate Myths Revisited show, you can pretty much shoot anything out of a cannon (and hit a pig carcass with it). Hell, the Barbary pirates once shot a French governor out of a thirty-two pounder. Messy work, I'm guessing. Bottles, flatware, pins and needles, and the list goes on; anything you can cram into the barrel will, if properly primed, scatter menacingly toward the enemy. Of course, that doesn't mean it will do much damage and that is why there were different kinds of cannon shot for specific needs. You wouldn't hunt a squirrel with an elephant gun, after all (and if you would, I hope you live far away from me).

Pictured above are four of the five choices as far as ammo for your cannon. First off, of course, are cannon balls or round shot. This was used when serious damage to the prize was called for. Particularly, round shot was the weapon of choice against other cannons. A well placed shot could cripple or even blow up an opposing gun, with all the imaginable collateral damage. The problem was that ball would rust between uses and the rust had to be hammered off in order to insure that accurate firing could occur. That's fine in a chase situation where you have time to prepare for a potential battle, but not too handy in a pinch.

Next, the barbell looking item and its neighbor with the two balls and a chain are bar and chain shot, respectively. These lack the subtlety of ball shot and were used to cut up rigging, sails and any unfortunate sailors thereon. They spun and whistled horribly as they spewed from the cannon and merchant vessels feared the potential damage they could do to the point that they might just surrender if they saw bar or chain being loaded into a gun.

The white bags that look a little like something you might bring home from the feed store are grape shot. Round shot about the size of golf balls were tied together and fired at the prize. The bag burst open and the balls scattered, picking off men and rigging randomly.

Not shown is the dreaded canister, which was used exclusively for killing human beings. A cloth or metal container was filled with balls intended for flintlocks or muskets and fired at close range. The cannon was effectively transformed into a giant shotgun and the carnage could turn a small merchant into a floating abattoir with one or two shots.

Not pretty, of course, but a pirate ship is not a pleasure yacht is it? No it ain't.

And by the way, the picture shown today is from the drool-inducing sight Privateer Media. These guys will rent you cannons and shot and boats and so on for your next historical film. Go poke around. Trust me its fun (even if everything looks a little too clean).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Movies: "To Lord Nelson"

I aspire to call myself a novelist. I've written a ton - ten books that share subject and characters - but I'm not quite there yet. "There" is a relative place and it was the serendipitous intersection of my "professional writing experience" and the 251st anniversary of Admiral Horatio Nelson's birth (today!) that led me to this post... That and an unabashed insatiable appetite for Russell Crowe playing Jack Aubrey. If they had added Jean Laffite all my fantasies would be tied up with a bow.

I heard an editor throw out a remark about the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World recently. It was kind of a bad thing to say to a rabid O'Brian junky, in all fairness. The editor informed me that the movie was a condensation of not one but three (some say four) of Patrick O'Brian's novels. Given that the man has never read O'Brian, I didn't know what to say. Other than to inform him that, by his logic, the movie is a condensation of twenty novels.

So indulge me in a little compare and contrast Brethren, rather than a blow by blow of the film. While I love the movie - the look, the cast, the details of ships and shipping in Nelson's navy are hard to argue with - it is no more O'Brian than I am. Here's why.

Master and Commander, the first book in what is affectionately referred to as O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, was originally published in 1969. Opening in April of 1800, the book introduces us to John Aubrey, a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy stuck on Gibraltar without a ship and Stephen Maturin, a half Irish, half Catalan Doctor who is impoverished and out of work. The two become friends over a common love of music and, when Jack is made Master and Commander and given the sloop Sophie, he asks Stephen to join the crew as ship's surgeon. Here's a handsome still of our intrepid heroes - now older and wiser - from the film:
If you've only seen the movie and none of that sounds familiar to you than I hope my point is clear. Peter Weir used no part of M & C in the creation of his script other than the characters Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. As a matter of fact, the story goes that Master and Commander was tacked on to the name of the film because the studio thought The Far Side of the World didn't sound manly and actiony enough.

Speaking of which, let us poke around at The Far Side of the World for comparison. This is the 10th book in O'Brian's delightful series. Published in 1984, the book is set in 1813. The movie, curiously, is set in 1805. O'Brian claimed to have taken his inspiration from the epic conflagration between USS Essex and HMS Phoebe that culminated in David Porter's Essex being sunk in Valparaiso harbor in 1814. Essex was decimating the English whaling fleet in the South Pacific and Phoebe was sent to stop her. Now this sounds like the movie, right? Kinda.

Of course, you couldn't have the US - during her second war for independence no less - as the villain, so Weir put a French privateer in the place of the American ship. From there, both O'Brian and Weir deviate vastly from the events of the Essex/Phoebe engagement. And Weir's film, which focuses only on Surprise chasing the French privateer Acheron, really has very little to do with O'Brian's book.

Frankly, the book is far more interesting. There is the crazy gunner Horner, who brings his pretty wife aboard ship. Of course this was not uncommon. The problem is Mrs. Horner is much younger than her husband and it is inferred that he may be impotent. She starts an affair with an older midshipman, Hollom, who gets her pregnant. Maturin's assistant performs a sloppy abortion. When Horner finds out he casts the assistant surgeon overboard, throws his wife and Hollom off a cliff on Juan Fernandez Island and ends by hanging himself below decks. Not manly and actiony enough for ya? Or what, too many women?

The book ends with Surprise having to leave men behind (including Jack and Stephen) on an island full of Royal Navy mutineers. The tension is so thick in the last thirty pages of the book that it is nail biting and the blood and guts that ensue make the movie look relatively tame in that department.

The most memorable line - the one that still echoes in my head - comes during the battle between the Surprises and the Hermione mutineers. Jack is fending them off heroically and O'Brian notes - almost off-handedly - that "...Jack's sword arm was red to the elbow." No unnecessary exposition but such a powerful picture that you just know an epic struggle is taking place. That is the freaking genius of O'Brian.

Really, I could go on and on but that's tacky. Weir took handsome dialogue from all 20 books and spliced it into a story, largely of his own making. That doesn't make the movie bad at all. Its a wonderful introduction to Nelson's Navy and the ideas of O'Brian and if you haven't seen it, I encourage you to do so. The acting is impeccable and the action is fun. Plus Russell Crowe is truly large and in charge here while Paul Bettany as Maturin is equal to the challenge of standing up against him (no small task).

Most of all, though, don't think that the movie is the book(s). O'Brian's work is the perfect combination of Conrad and Austen and his impeccable research brings that time of wooden ships and iron men to life. Read Master and Commander or The Far Side of the World and see for yourself. I promise you, it will be time well spent.

And to Admiral Nelson - Huzzah!

Monday, September 28, 2009

History: Man Overboard

The deck of a ship at night can be a pretty inhospitable place, especially in cold or inclement weather. As the illustration above, entitled Nightwatch, shows admirably. There's the midshipmen in the foreground, poorly outfitted to the point that he lacks a boatcloak (until the latter part of the 19th century, each individual sailor including officers was responsible for his own wardrobe). The officer of the watch and the sailing Master, with his top hat and speaking trumpet, look a bit more appropriately dressed. Most discomfited of all, though, is the steward, racing toward the Captain's great cabin with a bottle in his hand and only his shirt to keep him warm.

All this is bad enough but add to it the dislike and distrust of your shipmates and you could really be in a terrible position. Terrible enough to end up dead.

In seaman's terms a Jonah is someone who brings bad luck to the ship. Usually he is a man who is perceived as personally unlucky. Maybe a midshipman who has not been able to pass the Lieutenant's exam and now, late in his twenties he is still in a position generally reserved for boys in their teens. Maybe he's come from more than one ship that wrecked or sank and he's become a walking ill omen. Maybe he's just that jerk nobody wants to sit next to at dinner. The politics aboard ship could be surprisingly similar to that of our modern cubicle farms. What ever the reason, the Jonah takes the ship's wind, lets the enemy find her and allows prizes to escape unmolested. As one disaster piles up on another, superstitious seamen start to plot a way to turn the ship's luck.

The term Jonah comes, of course, from the Old Testament. Jonah was a prophet on a sea voyage who managed to call up a storm by offending God. The seamen aboard, in the hope of saving their own skins, tossed Jonah overboard where he was famously swallowed by a whale. For those of you of a certain age, that Burning Sensations song is going through your head right now. Suddenly, you feel like Jonah in the belly of the whale.

Just like in the Bible, the cure for the Jonah's ill luck was to cast him overboard to drown. This frequently occurred at the head and late at night when help would not be immediately available if the victim put up a fuss. Men who thought themselves targets would try to avoid going to the bathroom at all costs, which must have been decidedly uncomfortable. The actual act of tossing the bad luck overboard was called a Jonah's lift. This referred not just to lifting the man in question over the rail but lifting the cloak of misfortune from the ship as well.

Life at sea wasn't just hard it was harsh. Keep your noses clean, Brethren. Its worth it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Touch and Go

"It's touch and go," said Dr. House, the patient hearing him as he left her room.

The only TV I ever watch is Discovery Channel... and sometimes Oxygen (my dirty secret is out - I love that Snapped show) but the media are pretty consistent so I'm confident in my opening sentence. From hospital television to big screen blockbusters and on to graphic novels, they love the phrase "touch and go". The tension inherent in the term comes from its origins. In its nascent form it could literally have referred to a situation of life or death. Thank a sailor if you ever run into one, media (judging from the stuff you write, you don't get out much). Particularly an old school sailor.

The painting above, entitled Clawing off a Lee Shore, is an extreme example of touch and go. The ships are in trouble as they battle a hard wind blowing them toward land. The wind comes from windward and the land is to leeward, thus a lee shore. The object, of course, is not to touch land at all but more than one sailor would call the situation (in a hopeful way) touch and go. If you do touch, you would certainly wish to go directly and not be battered to splinters on the coast.

Less extreme cases of touch and go at sea would include tacking or rounding a ship and just missing a rock or other outcropping as the ship comes about. Also, when a ship's hull scrapes a shoal or sandbar. And finally - most interesting - a whale may touch a ship and go. In deep seas, whales will scrape their hide along the hull of a wooden ship to clean themselves of barnacles and, possibly, because whales also enjoy a good itch. A very, very cool thing to experience.

The term was brought to land where it came to mean something was hanging by its toenails and only time would tell whether or not the optimal outcome could be achieved. Touch and go.

The patient threw her flower arrangement, hitting Dr. House in the back of the head. I'll go with that touch.

Friday, September 25, 2009

History: Sometimes Its Happening Right Now

I was browsing around yesterday, reading blog posts from those I admire and follow, and I found this over in one of the most random places possible. I can't thank the creator of Random Picture Day enough for making life on the web a little more fun. Click over. The whole thing will fill your Friday with joy!

Without further ado I offer you history in the making. Not since George Washington shook hands with John Paul Jones have we seen this:

Not just the leader of the free world, but a guy who is not only brave enough to talk like a pirate, but to talk to one as well.

Happy Friday, Brethren. Check back tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pathetic Pirates: Life Isn't Fair

Life isn't fair. I don't need to tell you that. Just because you have pride, ambition and a deep desire to lead men to glory doesn't mean that you will. We can't all be rock stars, as Louis Aury found out so very, very painfully.

Aury was a privateer in the last great days of that swashbuckling profession. If you asked him, he would doubtless have called himself a corsair and freedom fighter. He lives in history - particularly American history - in the shadow of Jean and Pierre Laffite. In South American history, he is eclipsed by men like Renato Beluche. Blood is thicker than water, of course, so some of you might say I'm bias but let me give you the facts we know and you can sort it out for yourself.

Aury was probably born somewhere in France, although we cannot rule out Haiti as his birthplace. His date of birth is unclear as well but it was probably some time around 1785. He turns up before the Haitian Revolution sailing a privateer for France. After the Revolution his home port is the Island of Guadeloupe where his ship was lost either to the Spanish or the invading British.

By 1809 Aury has a new ride and is bringing prizes into Barataria Bay where he is, according to William C. Davis in The Pirates Laffite, "...surely a Laffite acquaintance." This is the year that Aury brings a cargo of slaves worth $17,000 into port. The humans are sold directly to another Laffite acquaintance but are rounded up on their way to the buyer's plantation on Bayou Lafourche. Aury is arrested and his ship is impounded. While he is eventually acquitted, Aury's ship is sold at government auction. Strike two.

By 1813, Aury has turned freedom fighter. Along with my Uncle Renato he has achieved the rank of Lieutenant in the Cartagenan Navy and his ship carries a letter of marque from the fledgling state. Things are turning around until the Commodore of the New Orleans Naval Station, Shaw, catches Aury's ship off the coast of Louisiana. Aury is run aground and his ship is burned. By now, finances have got to be an issue.

Our intrepid if hapless hero is back on the horse by 1814, sending prizes into Cartagena and Barataria. According to Davis he is boasting now that the South Americans have "...filled my strongboxes." It must have been a relief considering that a small sloop could cost well over $50,000 to acquire, refit and man at the time. An independent like Aury would need full strongboxes indeed.

No mention is made of Aury joining Laffite's men against the British at the Battle of New Orleans but I wouldn't discount the possibility. A lot of effort on the part of the Baratarians went unsung and, though Aury probably wouldn't have liked to be called one of "Laffite's men" he may very well have stood with them against the redcoats.

By October of 1815 Aury is in charge of the Cartagenan Navy. Cartagena is under siege by land and blockade by sea. Aury and such familiar privateers and Beluche and Jannet are running the Spanish blockade with food for the inhabitants of the city until the Spanish send reinforcements. Cartagena degenerates into disease and starvation where the population, according to Aury, is eating animal hides and "a thousand other filthy things". Aury and his boys bravely run the blockade, cram the survivors of the siege into fourteen privateers, run the blockade again and head for Haiti. A storm founders some but others make it through to meet Bolivar in Aux Cayes.

The trouble begins again for Aury when, in early 1816, he decides to denounce Bolivar for a coward and says he will no longer follow The Liberator. In his usual straight forward fashion, Bolivar shows Aury the door with nothing but a ship and the loss of $25,000 in the rescue of the refugees.

Aury returns to New Orleans and does some finagling with a shady group of investors known only as "the associates" to make himself "El Supremo" of the currently unclaimed "Galvez Town" and its safe harbor in the Spanish territory of Texas. Here he will represent the Congress of Mexico, print letters of marque and eventually transport men and arms into the interior of Mexico via Matagorda Bay. Things work out for a while, but Aury's heavy-handedness and indecision catch up with him fast. A mutiny ensues. Aury is shot in the chest and through both palms and, when the men and arms show up, he refuses to transport them.

At this point the Laffites, who are among "the associates" appear and sow dissension. It doesn't seem hard to do since Aury is so unpopular but what is interesting is that Jean Laffite manages to talk Aury into transporting those troops to Matagorda. While Aury is away, Laffite steps in as Governor and the privateer community of Galveston is born. Aury returns, only after falling under attack by the Spanish, loosing ships and setting adrift a prize full of 700 sick slaves. He grumbles about his "El Supremo" claim but no one pays much attention. In short order, he hits the road and the Laffites start making money in earnest.

Two more stops await our indefatigable hero. The first is Amelia Island off Florida where he is again made Governor by the Mexican junta. The problem is that the U.S. wants Florida for its own and will not put up with it as a Spanish or Mexican colony. A U.S. Navy force shows up in September of 1817 and Aury is out of a job once again.
Tenacious as a bulldog, he heads for New Providence Island off the coast of Columbia (shown above) where he is given a Governorship by Jose de San Martin of the Argentina junta. He attracts privateers, hands out letters of marque and starts selling prize goods on the mainland. At last the power, the prestige, the recognition. Some even speculate that the mighty Laffite brothers came grovelling for letters of marque after Galveston fell. It seems too good to be true...

In August, 1821, Louis Aury took a tumble, either from his horse or down a set of stone stairs at the fortress of New Providence, cracked his head open and died. After what most would consider a life full of both adventure and disappointment, even a noble demise at sea was denied Louis Aury. Life isn't fair and, apparently, neither is death.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Know Your Oc from Your Sex

When I was learning to drive in the greater Los Angeles area, we used Thomas Guides to find our way around. For those of you too young to remember albums, the TGs were cumbersome books full of maps that allowed one to navigate the highways and byways of their city simply by knowing the address of their destination and how to run their fingers down column "F" and across column "C" until they met. Voila! Somewhere in that square was the place you wanted to be. Try to find an apartment complex in Silverlake that way these days. Let me know how that turns out.

Now, of course, GPS is the way to go on land and at sea as well. But what did a seaman do prior to such inventions? He used the latest technology available, of course. Seamen aren't dumb.

We have already discussed the cross-staff, which required a navigator to look directly into the sun (ouch!) and the back-staff, which took the pain away but was not the most accurate of navigational tools. Things really took a leap ahead in 1731 when John Hadley invented the octant, an example of which is pictured above. The octant essentially stabilized the process of taking sightings by improving on the human eye and hand with the use of two mirrors. This allowed the navigator to view the sun without looking directly into it, and then to view the horizon without having to change the position of his eye or hand. It was a major breakthrough in sailing technology.
Always trying to improve on a good thing, the seafaring scientist of The Enlightenment continued to struggle over the problem of getting a ship to its exact destination. Perhaps even more important was the need to document and map all the new places that (European) men were traveling to and accurate sightings were a must for accurate mapping. The real issue was not latitude, which could be calculated by measuring the sun in relation to the horizon, but longitude, which kept shifting with the Earth's orbit.

In 1757 John Hadley did it again and introduced the sextant (the one shown having belonged to Captain James Cook, whose first voyage was one of the initial long term trials of the invention). This instrument worked on the same two mirror principle as the octant but, with the addition of a wider arc and a telescope, it allowed the navigator to take sightings between stars, planets, the moon and the sun rather than just between a heavenly body and the horizon. As long as a ship knew the exact time of day when a sighting was taken (thus the sailors' obsession with "turning the glass and striking the bell" even aboard pirates and privateers), accuracy could be assured within one tenth of a degree. The sextant, like the octant, was a highly sensitive instrument, particularly to vibrations. Inaccurate readings continued to occur but, in skilled hands and until modern technology took over, the sextant was the best device for determining a ship's position at sea.
GPS is fine and all, and so is accuracy, but sometimes a piece of history is nice to hold. I kinda miss my sturdy, well worn Thomas Guide. And a shiny, brass sextant.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lady Pirates: Arguably the Most Successful Pirate Ever

Cheng I Sao's name seems like it would make today's tenacious heroine fall by the wayside of history's long road. It means simply "Wife of Cheng". Her own given name is lost to us entirely. Fortunately, though, her amazing exploits are not.

Cheng I Sao was born in China, probably around 1775. There seems to be no real documentation of her family's standing or station but they probably weren't living high on the hog. At some point in the late 18th century, Cheng went to work in a brothel.

These kind of establishments attract some colorful characters and it was here that Cheng met her future husband, Cheng I. By the time he hooked up with Cheng, Cheng I was a powerful pirate king, in charge of a loose confederation of hundreds of junks and thousands of men that raided local and foreign shipping out of a base in Macao.

Upon their marriage, Cheng I brought his new wife into the business and she seems to have gone at it with gusto. She was not from a piratical family as far as can be told but, by the time her husband died somewhere off the coast of Vietnam in 1807, she had the pirating thing down. Cheng stepped up to take her husband's place and work the Pirate Queen angle for all it was worth.

No fool Cheng, she knew that many of the 50,000 or so pirates that now reported to her would never agree to a woman as their leader. Using the same shrewdness that would see her through to a ripe old age, Cheng called up her husband's adopted son to become the ostensible leader of her Red and Black Flag Fleets.

The young man, who was around twenty years old at the time, was named Chang Pao. He was a fisherman's son who had been captured by Cheng I and looked on fondly by the pirate king. So fondly, in fact, that gossips said there was a sexual relationship between the teenage Chang and Cheng I. Whether or not that was true, it is known that Mrs. Cheng and Chang became lovers not long after Cheng I's death and eventually the two were married.

With her power over the pirate confederation now secure thanks to her relationship with Chang, Cheng set about strengthening her operation through written laws. The standards of pirate codes were there: distribution of booty, respect for superiors, etc. but Cheng added some interesting points that are worth a mention. Several capital offenses were noted, with beheading being the standard form of execution. These included failure to report for duty, refusing to act on a direct order and raping female captives. Interestingly, if it was determined that the female captive had consented to sex, the pirate would be beheaded anyway. And the female captive would be tossed overboard with a weight around her legs. Also written in the code was the pirates' right to leave homely female prisoners on shore and keep only the pretty ones. I'm getting a mixed message here, Mrs. Cheng.

Under the impressive leadership skill of Cheng, the confederation thrived. Protection money became the order of the day and certain industries routinely paid Cheng and her boys not to raid their ships. By 1809, the salt trade was virtually in the Pirate Queen's hands as her ships escorted salt junks where ever they went. Even the Chinese military tried to avoid Cheng and her pirates with stories of Army Generals sabotaging the ships they were supposed to sail on to stay out of Cheng's way.

Eventually the Government of China got fed up and, in 1810, Cheng agreed to sit down with officials and make a deal. It was agreed that no moneys would be repaid by the pirates and that none of them would be prosecuted in court. Many of Cheng's Captains were welcomed into Navy service. Her own husband was given a cushy government job that set the couple up for life. Add negotiation to her long list of accomplishments.

Mrs. Cheng took her fortune and invested in a brothel and gambling house which she ran until her death around 1840. She may very well have been the most successful pirate that ever lived, especially considering the complete lack of reprisal by China's officials. Even the Pirates of the Caribbean movies gave her a nod in the formidable character of Mistress Cheng. I wonder what Cheng I Sao would think about that.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sea Monsters: "It Was Weird"

I live in what amounts to a wilderness. They don't call it the Last Frontier for giggles, Brethren. Nothing makes you feel small and vulnerable like staring out your window on a frosty January afternoon and seeing nothing but dark staring back at you. Nothing, that is, but maybe finding this picture in the local Sunday paper. Welcome to Alaska!

The creature here pictured was found in a crab pot that had been soaking for four hours in Tutka Bay. Anchorage Daily News picked up the story from The Peninsula Clarion and reporter Joseph Robertia. I bet there weren't any sea monsters in your local paper yesterday.

Crab fisherman Bill Coghill of Soldotna pulled this thing out of his pot and is quoted as saying rather succinctly that "It was weird". The fish-like creature was pinkish beige, according to Coghill, and had no teeth although the inside of its mouth was like sandpaper. Coghill reports that the animal was approximately five feet long. It was not attempting to eat the crab that were in the pot with it, so I will venture to say that it was also polite. Coghill and his companions decided they didn't want to find out what the critter tasted like, so they returned it to the doubtless chilly water of the Bay.

By coincidence, the ferry driver on their trip home across Kachemak Bay was a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist. When Coghill showed him the pictures he had snapped of his unusual catch the man knew what it was right away: a giant wrymouth. It was the largest one the biologist had ever seen.

Giant wrymouth are known to live in deep water in the Bering Sea and as far south as Northern California. They are bottom feeders who lie in wait for prey such as shrimp and are rarely seen outside their dens on the ocean floor. This guy seems to have gotten lost.

"We felt good about letting it go," Coghill is quoted in the article as saying. "Because the world should have sea monsters and things you don't see everyday."

I could not agree more.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: &*$#!

Brethren, it's finally here! International Talk Like a Pirate Day! And I'm already celebrating (thus the picture above: an artist's rendition of the scene currently unfolding in my back yard). Most people imagine that if you're really going to talk like a pirate, there will be some swearing. They don't call it "cursing like a sailor" for nothing, right? Or do they?

Sailors in general are a superstitious lot, as we have discussed on more than one occasion. Certain things were absolutely mandatory aboard ship in a given situation lest tragedy befall the ship and crew. As an example, whistling was almost required during a dead calm in order to "whistle up the wind". A sailor not whistling in this situation was thought of as suspicious at best and crazy at worst (the mentally ill were bad luck in any circumstance). On the opposite side of the coin, there were innumerable things that could bring the wrath of God down on the ship and her company. One of these things was swearing.

You might hear a sailor curse a blue streak by land, but aboard ship very few things were more unacceptable than taking the Lord's name in vain with the bodily function kind of swearing coming in a close second. This is not to say that "Hell and damn!" or "shit" weren't heard on a regular basis, but there were limits. Many of the colorful "isms" that we routinely consider to sound piratical are actually just homespun ways of getting around the seven words you didn't used to be able to say on television.

Nobody ever imagined that dogs got scurvy, but scurvy dog was far better than God damn dog any day. Routine sailor euphemisms included thundering, bilious, rot it, dash it, dang, darn, gosh and so on. Next time you tell your kid to use dang instead of damn, spice it up with some pirate talk. It might help.

The Devil and God had a plethora of aphorisms that allowed the sailor to speak with intent without offending any potentially harmful spirits. Deuce was favored for the Devil as in deuce take it or deuce have your hide. God, less colorfully, simply had the first letter in his name amputated: od rot it, od's death, down to the od place.

The last had other connotations as well. Hell was one of the worst things to evoke verbally and the "od" place in that curse may have in fact been more like the "odd" place: Hell. Davy Jone's locker was another such euphemism that implied not a relaxing, scented candles and foot massage post-death experience but the kind of sulphur burning and whip cracking that one saw in Medieval paintings. Disenchanting at best.

The fact is, people swear and sailors perhaps more so than others (at least until long-haul trucking became a viable profession). Be darned if its not cheerful to have some less ear assaulting options to use, though. And it may very well be that we have sailors - and pirates among them - to thank for it. I bet you weren't expecting that, were you, Brethren?

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day, me buckos! Raise a glass o' grog to the Brethren in the od place, and I'll spy ye in the week ahead.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Toys: You Know You Can't Live Without These

Glow In The Dark Skeleton Pirates. Brethren, these are not children's playthings. No. They are an intensely spiritual altar of sorts in the making. And they glow in the dark. Really. Words fail me. Keeping in mind that Halloween is only 43 days away all I can say is: go get some.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

People: "He Would Neither Give Nor Take Quarter"

Brethren, its the First Mate's birthday today and, since I was planning on a post about a really famous pirate in anticipation of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I thought I'd poll the birthday boy for a suggestion. I asked him who his favorite pirate was and, without the slightest hesitation, he replied: "That would have to be Blackbeard". I love my husband.

Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, is more legend than man now. When people find out about my love of all things pirate and privateer, nine times out of ten Mr. Teach comes up. The picture above is recognizable to even the youngest of school children and, though I will sadly acquiesce that Jack Sparrow is the prominent piratical Halloween costume, I was pleased to see two little Blackbeards show up at my door last year. He's bigger than the Beatles in the circles I run in. We're all waiting for "Guitar Hero: Blackbeard", frankly.

Of course, this means there is a whole mythos built up around the man, some of which is a little hard to swallow. Let's start with the facts we know with certainty, and then we can move on to the bigger than life stuff that each of you must sort out for yourself.

Edward Teach was most probably born in Bristol, England some time in the late 17th century. He made his way to the West Indies and apparently served aboard a British privateer until peace broke out in 1714. There is documentation of Teach in New Providence (now Nassau), Bahamas in 1716 where he joined the ship's company of the pirate Benjamin Hornigold. Teach must have distinguished himself because he was commanding his own sloop under Hornigold's tutelage by the following year.

There is no discrepancy as to Teach's personal charisma and gift for leadership. Despite the stories of cruelty to his crew, Teach had a loyal group of men who would follow him without question. The most famous of these is Israel Hands who eventually became Teach's First Lieutenant and who fictitiously scared the socks off young Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island.

By 1718, an official, British Governor had come to the Bahamas and New Providence was no longer pirate friendly. Teach, who was now a free agent, moved his base to the Carolinas where he established a base on Ocracoke Island in the outer banks. Ocracoke was across the inlet from Bath Town and the citizens there welcomed the pirates and sold their goods for a tidy profit. The goods started coming in larger quantity when Teach took a French slaver off the coast. The ship, one of the most lavish pirate vessels ever, was renamed Queen Anne's Revenge, and the Captain's legend began to take shape after her capture. Blackbeard was born.

Around this time a captured passenger described Teach as being a "...tall, spare man with a very black beard that he wore very long...". Others said the pirate tied his beard in red ribbons and wore two baldrics crossing his chest, each fitted with three pistols, while carrying a sword in one had and a dirk in the other. More than enough to make you need a change of underwear once that guy boarded your ship.

As the prizes and prize goods continued to roll into Bath Town, the Governor of North Carolina decided he wanted a piece of the pie. Teach agreed to pay a regular "fee" so that the Governor would turn a blind eye and the pirate continued to ply the trade. Teach took his ship to the Gulf of Mexico where he briefly used Barataria Bay as a base of operations. At this time he took the schooner Revenge from one of the most pathetic pirates ever, Stede Bonnet. That has got to hurt.

Returning to the Carolinas, and evidently feeling his oats, Teach decided to blockade the port of Charles Town. He took several British ships and in the process managed to capture some of Charles Town's wealthier citizens. These he ransomed to the town for food, water, liquor, gold and, interestingly, a chest of medicines. The gossip is that Teach was beginning to suffer from one STD or another. Teach headed home where his ship rammed a sandbar in a storm and foundered. Perhaps due to loss of his ride or because he really was ill, Teach decided to quit his pirate gig. With the Governor of Carolina's urging, he was given a pardon for his misdeeds. He bought a house, got married and tried to settle down. Tried being the operative word.

It seems that Teach couldn't stay away from Ocracoke, where many of his men still lived. At some point he met up with his old piratical friend Charles Vane. Flush with cash and booze, the two Captains and their crews put on a week long pirate party that scared the locals into thinking maybe all this chumming around with criminals wasn't such a good idea after all. Meanwhile, Teach went back to sea aboard his sloop Adventure where he raided English shipping just as he always had.

At this point, whether because of solicitation from the leaders of Bath Town or out of jealousy over Teach's deal with his rival in Carolina, Virginia's Governor Alexander Spotswood determined to take care of Teach once and for all. He sent two Royal Navy sloops of war commanded by Lieutenant Maynard to put Blackbeard out of business one way or another.

In November of 1718, Maynard's ship Ranger engaged Teach's Adventure. Maynard wrote that Teach called out he "...drank damnation to me and my men..." and that "...he would neither give nor take Quarter." Teach underestimated Ranger's numbers and boarded her after an initial bombardment from his cannon killed most men on Ranger's deck. The larger part of Maynard's company came up from below decks and the engagement turned to close, bloody combat. Teach was wounded by several pistol shots but he managed to make his way to Maynard and they hacked at one another until it appeared that the pirate would be victorious. A British sailor interceded and dealt Teach a death blow with his cutlass.
Teach's remaining crew was taken into custody and Ranger sailed back to Virginia with Teach's head hanging from her bowsprit. The prisoners were tried in Williamsburg and all thirteen men were hanged in March of 1719.

The legend of Blackbeard, of course, was only getting started when his livid head appeared dangling over the water in Williamsburg harbor. He is now remembered for all manner of antics and atrocities that cannot, at this late date, be sorted out. Did he really stick lit slow match out from under his hat to look more fierce in battle? Did he pass his wife (or wives, as some say) around to his crew without batting an eye? Did he blow off the knee caps of his drinking buddies with his pistol? Did he light sulfur in the hold of his ship and dare his men to outlast him in the hellish atmosphere? Only Teach and his close compatriots can say for sure.

Much has been written about Teach and a quick search will turn up several worthy books. If you'd like a quick fix though, consider watching National Geographic's "Blackbeard: Terror at Sea". Its informative, well researched and produced and James Purefoy is absolutely perfect as Edward Teach. Along those same lines, I heard that Dreamworks is in the process of producing a movie about Blackbeard to be written by David Franzoni ("Amistad", "Gladiator") and produced by Barry Josephson. All I have to say to you, Mr. Katzenburg, Mr. Josephson and Mr. Franzoni, is don't f**k this up. And a very famous pirate's curse on you if you do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Have We Been Introduced?





It would be erroneous of me to imply that every sailor aboard every pirate or privateer that ever sailed had a snappy nickname like Billy Bowlegs, Jim Jib or Tom Topman, but it happened more than you might think. Many men took names other then their own to avoid punishment if they were captured by the navy they deserted. Others used their nicknames as another way to frighten the enemy. Messing with Bloody Robert, Black Bart or Blackbeard sounded like a bad idea, even on paper. Let's face it, though, not everyone has that special ear for euphonious monikers. Still, there were a lot of funny names floating around and a certain amount of standardization eventually occurred.

After a while - as usual, just like in the large navies of the day - guys started to take their nickname from the job they did. Since turnover was not unusual on a pirate crew, men being free to come and go as they pleased, knowing each man's name was probably even less feasible than it was aboard an 800 soul man-of-war. Easy identification was essential in tight quarters and tense situations and, just like today, men who took pride in their speciality probably identified with the words used to define it. So here's a little list, Brethren; a quick overview if you will to help you decide what to call your family members, friends and coworkers this Saturday on International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Captain: of course this one is relatively self-explanatory. Keep in mind that the Captain was an elected official, especially in the Golden Age of Piracy and, though his word was law during the taking of a prize or a storm, he rarely expected the kind of respect that would be found in the naval or merchant service. (Note: Skipper is not an interchangeable term. If you want a "Skipper" jump on a fishing or whaling boat... or take a three hour tour and get lost on a deserted island).

Lieutenant: many pirates and privateers in particular shipped one or even two Lieutenants sometimes known as Mates, 1st, 2nd, etc. (but never "little buddy"). These men would be called upon to fill in for the Captain or command prizes as necessary.

Master: here's a confusing term. In the Royal, American and French Navies a Master and Commander was and officer who did the job of both the Master and the Captain and was one step down from a Post Captain. A Quartermaster was, much like a purser, in charge of supplies including food, rigging, sails, beverages, livestock, etc. A Master was the navigator, and that is how the term was used on pirates and privateers. Generally a seasoned sailor who knew his way around not just a chart but most local shores and rivers as well, the Master was invaluable to the safety of the ship.

Bosun: the word is short for "boatswain" which means the ship's suitor. Kind of romantic, huh? Essentially, the bosun ran the ship. He kept the men working and the ship in good order so that the other officers could get on with the business of finding and taking prizes. Interestingly, it frequently fell to the bosun to look after the cat or cats kept aboard as rat catchers. He also carried out any discipline, such as flogging.

Leadsman: subordinate to the Master but no less crucial to the ship, the leadsman was in charge of keeping track of water depth and the ship's speed. He did this by throwing the "lead line" into the ocean periodically and counting the depth of the consecutive knots made thereon. (This is why a ship's speed is measured in "knots").

Purser: as above, the purser was in charge of all the supplies on the ship. His subordinates included the Cook or Slouchy (so called because he was frequently the guy with the peg-leg and eye patch), Jemmy Ducks (who was in charge of the chickens or ducks brought aboard for their eggs), Sparks, the blacksmith and Sails, the sailmaker.

Other important fixtures aboard were Chips, the carpenter who was invaluable in the case of damage to the ship, and Guns, the lead gunner.

Did you get all that? Start thinking about who's who around your place and slap a tag on them come Saturday. You'll be able to tell them not only what they'll be up to all day, but why you picked the name you did!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Pirates Own Book: "My First Crime Was Piracy"

Its that time again, Brethren! We haven't opened The Pirates' Own Book for a while and I thought the delightful tale of Charles Gibbs might be a handy distraction for a Tuesday afternoon. Without further introduction, here is Charles Ellms' take on the nefarious Gibbs the pirate.

Gibbs was a Rhode Islander by birth, according to the book, although I have seen other historians note that he was born in Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. Either way it appears that he eventually came to call the US home. In the year 1809 he was 15 years old, had been expelled from school and was doing farm labor which did not interest him in the least. He had a "great inclination to roam" and therefor turned to the sea. He signed on board the Navy sloop Hornet and, as so many sailors did, worked his way onto a larger more prestigious ship. Ellms has Gibbs aboard the Chesapeake when she is engaged and captured by the British frigate Shannon. This conflict was the touchstone that sparked the War of 1812 and many of you have probably seen the famous painting showing the valiant Chesapeake trying in vain to overcome the heavier gunned Shannon. It has always struck me as serendipitous that both ships were named after rivers.

At any rate, Gibbs was imprisoned in Dartmoor, England and eventually exchanged. He made his way to Boston where he opened "a drunkery" in a questionable area of town. His establishment catered to the local harlots and it became Gibbs habit to let the girls "pay him in their coin" thus running the place into the ground for lack of funds. Time to go back to sea.

Evidently fed up with the Navy, Gibbs takes passage to Buenos Aires and secures a berth aboard an Argentinian privateer. First Consul Jose de San Martin was handing out letters of marque like Halloween candy around this time, so its not surprising that Gibbs was drawn to the fledgling country. At some point the crew mutinied over prize money and the mutineers turned to piracy. According to Ellms they "steered for the West Indies, with hearts resolved to make their fortunes at all hazards" and in the course of this endeavor they managed to slaughter four hundred of their fellow men. Ellms does not give us dates or even vague time frames but, no matter how you slice it, that's impressive.

Gibbs and his mates end up lodging in Havana for a time, although why is not discussed in the book. The raiding and murder continues until 1819, when Gibbs is in New York with $30,000 burning a hole in his pocket. Gibbs is quoted as saying at the time of his trial for piracy and murder that he "...fell in with a woman, and I am sorry to say that a heart that never felt abashed at scenes of carnage and blood, was made a child for a time by her..." I'm going to read "she took me for all I was worth" into that. The relationship was evidently too much for our pirate, and he returned to Argentina to take a post in the Navy there.

Here, Ellms switches to a first person style of narrative as if he is merely writing down an interview with Gibbs. He doesn't say that he has met or even seen the man, but none the less it is Gibbs' voice we appear to be listening to now. He rambles somewhat, about a trip to North Africa and an attempt to join the Barbary pirates. When this fails its back to independent piracy and, as always with Ellms, we now have the story of an abduction and rape. A "Dutch girl" is
taken by Gibbs and his pirate pals from a ship they raid. They kill all the other passengers - including her parents - and hold her against her will for two or three months until they finally give her poison. The prose is pretty purple here but Gibbs insists that he never touched the girl.

After this heinous interlude, Gibbs makes his way to New Orleans and signs aboard the ship of a Captain Thornby. The ship is not only transporting cotton, sugar and molasses but also $54,000 in "specie" or coin. I think we all know what happens next. Mutiny ensues and the narrative becomes somewhat confused as to who killed who on one fateful night off the coast of New England. At any rate, the Captain and his officers are murdered and thrown overboard, the money is taken to Southampton and buried on the island, and then one of the conspirators blabs to the local lighthouseman, Johnson. The cat is out of the back.

The rest of the story appears to be recordings of court documents with the defendants in the case, Gibbs and Thomas Wansley, accusing their fellows of selling them out to avoid hanging. If there is any truth to what Ellms has written, it appears that's exactly what happened. There is also a frank discussion of racial tensions, with Wansley - who was black - telling the court directly that he was being convicted more for his color than for his deeds. Again, judging from Ellms' account of the mutiny, he might very well have been right. Both men are hanged, and Ellms prints a series of letters attributed to Gibbs, one of which includes this poem:

Rising grief distress my soul
And tears on tears successive roll -
For many an evil voice is near,
To chide my woes and mock my fear -
And silent memory weeps alone,
O'er hours of peace and gladness known.

Pirate poetry, Brethren. You can't beat it. The final note in this chapter is both poignant and indicative of the time it was written. Directly from Ellms: "After the bodies had remained on the gallows the usual time, they were taken down and given to the surgeons for dissection. Gibbs was rather below the middle stature, thick set and powerful. The form of Wansley was a perfect model of manly beauty."

Very little has been written about Gibbs outside of Ellms' narrative so its hard to compare and contrast. It is documented that Gibbs was one of the men operating out of Cuba who was turned over to Commodore David Porter when he was hunting pirates in the Caribbean. From there he was, indeed, hanged. The rest is no more than speculation.

Monday, September 14, 2009

History: Keeping Things Light Aboard

Things can get pretty monotonous on a long sea voyage, especially back when you had to rely on the wind to get you where you wanted to go. There was always work to do, of course, and storms and the enemy were foremost in the minds of sailors. Excitement didn't come around very often, though, and sailors formed some interesting traditions to keep their spirits up as they faced the vastness of the ocean, sometimes feeling like their little wooden world was the only thing around.


One of these strange but amusing rituals was a hazing of sorts. Those who had never crossed the equator were washed and shaved when their ship did so. It didn't matter which way you were going. North or south, crossing the equator meant you got to mess with the newbies. If no barber was aboard, certain men would be selected to do the shaving. Under what I imagine was almost always a hot sun, the less seasoned hands would come up on deck and queue up for their grooming. The whole business had rather a holiday feel to it and extra grog rations were included. On some ships, the barbers' assistants would drape themselves in sail cloth quasi-Grecian style and be called nymphs or nereids. It must have been quite the spectacle and one wonders how anything got done thereafter.


But don't take my word for it. The following is an excerpt from Captain David Porter's log written aboard the frigate Essex on November 23, 1812. The ship,
commissioned for service against the British during the War of 1812, was off the Canary Islands in the southern Atlantic on her way to the Pacific to destroy the British whaling fleet therein. And boy did she. Here's Dave's "eye witness" account of the shenanigans at the equator:


"We were honoured by a visit from the god of the ocean, accompanied by Amphitrite and a numerous retinue of imps, barbers, &c. &c. in his usual style of visiting, and in the course of the afternoon all the novices of the ship's company were initiated into his mysteries. Neptune, however, and most of his suite, paid their devotions so frequently to Bacchus, that before the ceremony of christening was half gone through, their godships were unable to stand; the business was therefore entrusted to the subordinate agents, who performed both the shaving and washing with as little regard to tenderness as his majesty would have done."

I'm sure it was big fun for everyone but the poor guys getting shaved. But then, each man went through it at some point in their sailing career and a break from the usual couldn't be all bad, could it?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Groggy

The word "groggy" was not going to be today's post when I was lining things up yesterday, believe me. Sometimes serendipity plays a part in all things though, Brethren, and this is one of those times.

The First Mate and I stayed up a little too late last night and had a few too many. No reason to lie about it. When we finally rolled out of bed my husband, as he's pulling on his socks, lets go a little groan. The following conversation ensues:

Him: Groggy.

Me: You are?

Him: Yeah. Too much last night.

Me: A sailor who drank too much grog, was groggy.

Him: There's your post for today.

And so it is. Obviously the word "groggy", meaning cotton-headed, shaky or dizzy comes to us from sailors. In all honesty that was the word to describe being hung-over after too much grog. But what is grog, really, and why does it have that funny name? Thanks for asking.

In 1687 England "conquered" Jamaica and the sugar cane plantations thereon became the property of the King. One by-product of making cane into sugar is molasses and fermented molasses becomes rum which, as we discussed on Thursday, can stand in barrels just about forever without going bad or losing its punch. Rather quickly, the brandy given to average seamen in the Royal Navy was replace by rum.

As we all know (or at least those of us who have sampled the stuff) rum packs a kick and I'm told it was even stronger stuff back in the 17th and 18th century than it is now. I shudder to think. At any rate, one can imagine the seamen abusing their alcohol privileges and nothing useful getting done aboard ship. This situation was remedied to some degree in 1740 by Admiral Vernon who mandated that the rum ration be diluted with water. Vernon was known by the the foremast Jacks as "Old Grogram" because he wore an unusual coat or cloak made from the material. Grogram was, according to Websters, "a coarse fabric made of silk, or of silk, worsted and mohair". Because of the now very unpopular Admiral's funky coat, the beverage he imposed upon the sailors became known as "grog".

A "grog ration" was given to each man and boy aboard a Royal Navy ship (and later American Navy ships as well) twice a day, at noon and 6:00 PM. A ration was one pint per man or a half pint for a boy with one quart of water added per pint. By the 19th century, lime juice was added to grog in the Royal Navy (thus an English sailor was a "limey") while, interestingly, the American Navy favored cranberry juice. This was the standard but some ship's Captains watered the rum more heavily, either to save on alcohol costs or stave off drunkenness, and sailors came up with names for this sort of finagling. "Half and half grog" was the term for equal parts rum and water. "Seven water grog" was the sarcastic moniker applied to any beverage with more water than rum.

Despite orders and standards, sailors were notorious for swapping their grog ration for favors or other items like food or clothing. One sailor might have two or three times his ration on any given day and the outcome, of course, would be a decidedly groggy sailor. This especially since a healthy sailor could sleep a maximum of only four hours at a stretch. That makes me groggy just thinking about it.

I will see you in the week ahead, Brethren. Watch your grog ration, and save some for next Saturday: International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Pathetic Pirates: Maybe The Trade Isn't For You

I have a sneaking suspicion that the star of today's post would have much preferred that I pick someone else to go first. Its probably like that feeling in middle school when you have to give a speech and you want the teacher to call any name that isn't yours. And then it is your name that rings through the air and damn! Shamble to the head of the class and hope for the best. Sorry, Bart, but your up.

Today begins a new feature here at Triple P: Pathetic Pirates. There's a tendency to imagine the historical freebooters as rough and ready and just ahead of the law. At the very least we think of them dying with fortitude on the deck of a ship or at the end of a rope. But, just like every other profession, piracy has its share of Milton Wademses, ineffectually asking for their stapler and their paycheck, metaphorically speaking. So lets kick off our occasional discussions of the less than adept buccaneers with the sad career of Bartolomeo el Portugues.

Bart's early history is a mystery. I cannot find any mention of him before 1655 when he turns up in Port Royal, Jamaica. Given that this was the age of buccaneers, it is entirely possible that Bart had been an indentured servant somewhere in the Caribbean and then made his way to the infamous pirate haven seeking his fortune, but that is purely speculation on my part. At any rate he was keen to get in on the pirate action and he signed aboard a ship heading for the Gulf and Mexico.

Eventually, Bart managed to get his own small sloop and round up a crew of thirty or so men. They cruised the waters around Jamaica and Cuba, hunting for Spanish merchants. Bart got lucky and spotted a ship laden with cocoa beans and chests of silver coin. The merchant chose to fight and, though ultimately victorious, Bart lost something like half his crew in the melee. He put the prize's crew on his sloop and headed back to Jamaica in the merchant vessel. The weather turned ugly, and Bart was forced to turn his new ship toward Cuba. Here, he ran into three Spanish frigates that captured he and his crew and took them to Campeche in Mexico to be hanged.

Bart and his remaining men were held aboard one of the frigates while the gallows for their execution were being built. At some point, they managed to escape and the story goes that, though he couldn't swim, Bart made "water wings" out of two big jars emptied of their contents. He and his crew made it to land and then walked across the Yucatan peninsula (no kidding!) and managed to hitch a ride on another buccaneer's vessel. This may very well have been the luckiest point in Bartolomeo's life.

Returning to Port Royal, Bart plotted revenge on the Spaniards who had taken "his" wealth. He managed to score a canoe and twenty guys and headed back to Campeche where he once again attempted to take a Spanish merchant. This didn't work out so he returned to Port Royal. He somehow got another ship and went back out but was wrecked on an island off southern Cuba after taking a prize. He made it back to Port Royal once again, this time in one of his ship's boats.

At this point, specifics about Bart's career drop off. I imagine that might be simply because every attempt ends the same way: in disaster. Alexander Exquemelin, a former buccaneer whose book "The Buccaneers in the Indies" gives us most of our knowledge about Bartolomeo el Portugues, closes out his segment on the unfortunate pirate with a literary shake of the head. "He made many violent attacks on the Spaniards without gaining much profit from marauding, for I saw him dying in the greatest wretchedness in the world."

It seems that Bart was so unlucky that he couldn't even die quickly. I hope he, at the very least, rests in peace. Happy Friday, Brethren! See you tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

History: "Whiskey! For all hands!"

After posting last week about pirate grub I started doing a little more research into pirate grog and was not the least bit surprised by what I found. Shall we talk about spirits, of the sea and otherwise?

First and foremost and probably most important of all, pirates and privateers drank. Early and often. Usually to excess. It was an entitlement issue, and with some grounding in reason.

Most sailors in the trade started their careers at sea with one navy or another. While drinking was sanctioned and regulated in the Royal Navy from the 17th century on, for instance, many a Captain or Admiral became notorious for his insistence on watering the beer and wine and then later the pervasive rum. Sailors grumbled at the muck that these commanders passed off as "tot" and lack of a decent drink at dinner and supper was commonly spoken of as another good reason to join a pirate crew. Because of the egalitarian attitude aboard ship, and also because more than one piratical Captain was fond of spirits himself, no one tried to curtail the debauchery that went on.

Then, too, there was the fact that people honestly drank more back in the day. Water was untrustworthy. Just because our ancestors didn't know about parasites and bacteria doesn't mean they couldn't put two and two together and get four. Drink from a certain well or ditch and you get the runs for days. Ergo: don't drink from the well or ditch. Have a beer instead. Sure, it needed water to make but the fermentation process cured all ills. In a time when "Let us liquor!" was a common greeting among respectable men, it can be no surprise that a bunch of guys who were in a gray area of their society ethically and morally speaking drank their fair share.

Pirates and their privateer cousins didn't seem to be particularly picky about their spirits. Beer was popular for short journeys or at the beginning of a long one, but it soured fast and had to be consumed first. Wine would of course last longer in bottles, which were comparatively fragile, but in large casks it not only took up room but turned to vinegar eventually. Sherry and brandy were also drunk and during the privateering era in the early 19th century, whiskey was popular. Nothing beat rum for its staying power, though. First mentioned in Spanish manifests in the mid-17th century, it was made from molasses and not only did it not sour it didn't lose its kick with time. Plus it became extremely affordable once the slave trade and sugar cane began to boom in the Caribbean. The Brethren of the Coast couldn't get enough of the stuff.

Unfortunately, the price for drunkenness was sometimes life. There are no statistics available analysing how many pirates and former pirates died of alcohol related illnesses, but more than one man surely met Davy Jones with the help of the grog. Henry Morgan died in his fifties of a disease that sounds suspiciously similar to cirrhosis of the liver. Even so, he was unusually long lived for one who plied the trade.

Calico Jack Rackham, Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts (despite his own personal habit of never touching liquor) are just a few of the famous who were caught off guard with drunken crews and no way to effectively fight back when the enemy came calling. If life and limb weren't lost, a valuable ship might very well be. Dominique Youx, off the coast of Mexico and celebrating the taking of a prize, notoriously called for barrels to be brought on deck and opened: "Whiskey! For all hands!" The sailors set to drinking and Dominique's sloop Tigre ran aground on a sandbar, cracking her hull in half. The drunken crew might very well have drown had some locals not sent boats out to collect the victims of the shipwreck. As we like to say here at Triple P: don't drink and navigate.

Time ashore, though, was virtually made for imbibing and mixed drinks were not unheard of. Rumfustian, notable not only for its funny name but for the fact that it did not contain rum, was a mixture of beer, sherry, gin, sugar, cinnamon and a raw egg. The entire conflagration was served hot, and was therefor more popular in the colder months and around the Holidays. Another delightful concoction was bumboo, said to have come to the Caribbean with West African slaves. This was a simple mix of rum, water, sugar and citrus fruit which probably morphed into what we think of today as the classic grog.

Cheers to you, my Brethren. What ever your choice of drink, may it always be fresh and tasty!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Home Ports: Pearls of Wisdom

Because of my familial relationship to Renato Beluche, whose children lived most of their lives in Venezuela where they had families that are still living there today, I hold the country dear. Uncle Renato's remains are in the Pantheon National in Caracas and my fear is that I will never see his memorial or meet my family. Not because I can't find a way, but because the Government of Venezuela tightens its grip on its land and people more violently with each passing day. As my blogging hero CRwM once said over at his wonderful And Now The Screaming Starts: "...there are few pits of rabid prejudice, poisonous spite, and crippling ignorance deeper than the political-blogosphere." I could not agree with him more and I'm not about to go down that path. Suffice it to say, a little bit of my heart bleeds for Venezuela and her people.

In different - not to necessarily say better - times, there was a pirate port on the coast of Venezuela known as La Barburata. The name has changed a little, but the appeal of the lush beach and blue ocean sure haven't. Originally a Spanish holding, the port was part of the vast pearl fisheries that dotted the Atlantic Coast of South America. La Barburata became rich on the hard work of local shellfish (and native pearl divers).

The French, who at the time were in open conflict with the Spanish, had a bit of an inferiority complex over the whole "colonize the New World, enslave the locals and get rich quick" thing that Spain, Portugal and England seemed to be excelling at. So, in the mid-16th century, France decided that if you couldn't get your own ill-gotten land, you should just take it from someone else. The famous privateers of Saint-Malo and Dieppe crossed the Atlantic and began to raid Spanish ports in Central and South America for gold, silver, and jewels. The raids were surprisingly systematic and word spread down the coast that the privateers were on their way and they weren't inclined to bargain.

The people of La Barburata, used to being picked on by raiders looking for a quick buck in pearls, decided they weren't going to sit around and wait to see who got tortured or killed. In 1553 the entire population of the port city evacuated inland, leaving buildings and furnishings and supplies and native pearl divers behind. When the corsairs arrived they found the situation quite to their liking and they made La Barburata a quasi-French holding.

Word spread inland and up and down the coast that corsairs were now in charge and that they were willing to trade tax and tariff free with anyone who had goods to sell. Like the Laffite brothers in Barataria 250 years later, the French settlers in La Barburata established a thriving business in all types of goods. They traded with Spanish merchants who, in any other town, would have had nothing to do with the privateers, considering them criminals. Saving the merchants the middle man cost of Spanish taxes made the Frenchmen a little more palatable in La Barburata, though. Especially since the Spanish government had no say in the matter.

Local islands soon fell to the corsairs as the base on the coast of Venezuela became more powerful. Even noted sea dogs like Francis Drake came to La Barburata to trade his goods for the provisions and services available in the city. The Spanish got fed up with the whole thing eventually and took the city back by force in the early 17th century. The French people who remained were assimilated and life went on under Spanish rule until the great Liberator Simon Bolivar removed the yoke from his people's shoulders.

That's all I'll say about that. Fair winds until next time, Brethren.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lady Pirates: "...Thy Bride, Charlotte, The Female Pirate!"



So people make up stories all the time. I'm never surprised by that since I do it my own darn self (and then have the temerity to ask people to pay me for them). With this in mind, I find it kind of amusing that the piratosphere gets so huffy about the story of Charlotte de Berry. Sure, its probably pure fiction but so what? Its a good story, even if it is a little over done and heavily sauced with Victorian details. Lighten up, kids. Nobody seems to mind that Jack Sparrow is likewise fictional. Give the lady her due, will ya?

In 1836 Edward Lloyd published his "History of Pirates". Hot on the heels of Charles Ellms' "The Pirates Own Book", Lloyd cashed in on a titillating subject that the Victorians were just bonkers for. Lloyd's book is the first place that de Berry is mentioned and, though he is heavy on "facts" he leaves some pretty critical information out. All the same, here's what he has to say in a nutshell.

Charlotte de Berry was born to poor "but still most respectable" parents in an anonymous English port town in 1636. The girl was an only child and she grew up wild and free, idolizing the sailors around her and dreaming of going to sea. When she was 14 she started dressing in drag and hanging out in bars with the rock star sailors she loved. It was in one of these haunts that she met Jim Jib, whose real name appears to have been de Berry and - you guessed it - eloped with him to sea. Her parents never saw her again and Lloyd has them dying of broken hearts for the loss of their child.

Charlotte, of course, distinguishes herself aboard her husband's vessel. She is involved in multiple sea battles and no one ever suspects her for a girl. The ship's Lieutenant takes a set against Jim Jib at this point and has him brought up for court martial for some imaginary infraction. What ever the charge it must have been serious because Jim is given the brutal sentence of flogging around the fleet. In this nightmare that usually killed the prisoner, a man was rowed from one ship at anchor to another, flogged on board each ship with a set number of lashes, and then returned to his own ship for the final flogging. While this punishment was certainly carried out occasionally, it is not recorded by the Royal Navy until the late 18th century.

Jim dies a week after his ordeal and Charlotte plots revenge. Once her ship has returned to England and the sailors are paid out, she lies in wait for the Lieutenant, shoots him in the street and takes his money. She then runs off to London where she returns to women's clothing. She takes rooms, one imagines near the water. Of course, Charlotte is a beautiful woman and the local guys go nuts for her. One merchant Captain in particular won't take no for an answer and he manages to trick Charlotte into coming aboard his ship, which immediately sets sail. Charlotte is now Captain Wilmington's sex slave. Don't you love Victorian prose?

Wilmington, it turns out, is a cruel Martinet who punishes early and often aboard ship. His men can't stand him but no one wants to take the lead in a mutiny. No one, that is, except Charlotte. She kills Wilmington while he sleeps and becomes Captain of the merchant which now turns pirate. The ship is wildly successful in raiding merchants off the coast of Africa and things are going splendidly until Charlotte sets her cap for a heavily armed merchant that refuses to go down without a fight. The ensuing melee kills most of de Berry's crew, cripples her ship and sinks the prize with all hands aboard. Bummer.

Charlotte manages to limp her ship into Grenada - which at the time was not a colony of any European country, keep in mind - where she puts on her dresses once again and starts charming the local boys while the ship is being refit. She meets and falls in love with a "planter's son" who agrees to marry her and join her in her piratical adventures. He even generously re-mans Charlotte's ship with some of his Dad's slaves. And so, the pair head out for more prize taking.

The luck is not in it for Charlotte, though. The ship is beat up by a gale and blown out to sea where the crew quickly devours all available provisions. When hunger bites too deeply, the men agree to draw lots Monty Python style to see which man will be killed and cooked for dinner. The shortest straw goes to Charlotte's husband and she, understandably, tries to keep him from going in the stew pot. Fortunately, one of his faithful slaves steps up to take his place and the crew's hunger is sated... for now.

Soon, the lot drawing resumes and wouldn't you know Charlotte's husband is on the menu again. This time, another slave steps up and the crisis is momentarily averted. I know you can see this coming. A third drawing of lots turns up the Captain's mister once again and this time there is no generous slave to sacrifice. Charlotte talks the crew into eating only the hub's calves - seriously! This doesn't hold back their hunger for long, though, and eventually Charlotte's husband is killed and eaten raw while she watches. Needless to say, she goes insane.

The ship is eventually rescued and returns to pirating but Charlotte is now out for revenge on her own crew. They know what she's up to and some propose throwing her overboard. Cooler heads prevailed and she was "suffered to wander about the ship in undisturbed enjoyment of her wild ravings." I don't know. Maybe enjoyment wasn't really the right word there, Ed.

The pirates attack a Dutch ship "of large size and force" and nothing good comes of it. Charlotte kills anyone she can shoot and eventually is struck with a cutlass. Falling overboard, she calls out: "My husband! thy bride, Charlotte, the female pirate, comes to join thee!" Then Charlotte's ship blows up and everyone dies. The end.

And that's the rather sleazy story of Charlotte de Berry as told to us by Edward Lloyd. No, I don't believe it. But its still a ton o' piratical fun.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Tools of the Trade: You Wouldn't Want That to Happen

Here in the US today is an iconic day. Labor Day. A celebration of America's workforce and, traditionally, the last day of summer. Time for one more trip to the State Fair, one last cook out and one final warm night of star gazing. As the old sailors adage goes, Oh! That it were ever September.

So, with that in mind, I thought I'd mention an iconic sailing image and how odd it is that such a thing would be so iconic in the first place. The "foul anchor", an example of which is seen above on a piece of French copper, is one of the most recognizable nautical symbols around. It is used routinely in naval and merchant insignia - in fact, I still have my Dad's foul anchor pin from his time in the Merchant Marines, may he rest in peace. The symbol represents an anchor around which the rode - either rope or chain - to which it is attached has wrapped.

Although lovely to look at in representational form, there's a good reason why such an anchor is known as "foul". The entangled anchor is a pure nightmare for seaman. The anchor fouled by rope or chain loses its holding power, allowing the ship to drift. Retrieving the anchor is difficult at best and sometimes impossible. More than one cable has snapped and the anchor lost for fouling. This is an expensive proposition for the ship and frequently cause for disciplinary action on those responsible. Generally speaking, sailors see an anchor fouled as a sign of inattention to duty and just plain poor seamanship. Nobody likes a bad seaman, after all.

Enjoy the holiday, my American Brethren. Keep your anchor clear of rode, and smooth sailing to one and all.