Saturday, October 31, 2009

Horror On The High Seas: The Flying Dutchman

Everybody has heard, at one time or another, some reference to The Flying Dutchman. He's basically the high seas version of The Wandering Jew, doomed to sail until Judgement Day because of a deal with the Devil gone horribly wrong. But where did the legend really come from?

The first written reference to The Flying Dutchman came in 1795 in George Barrington's sea tale Voyage to Botany Bay. This was one of the first "sea novels", although it purports to be a true account, and Barrington is rightly referenced as the progenitor of seafaring writers like Marryat, Forrester and my hero and patron saint, O'Brian. From the book:

In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale... and the supposed phantom was the Flying Dutchman.

The phantom ship is most usually said to be spotted off the Cape of Good Hope and her Captain - who is the actual Dutchman in question - has been given various names. The oldest reference is a 17th century Hollander named Bernard Fokke who was rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil in return for the supernatural speed of his merchantman on cruises between Holland and Java. Later the Captain is given the generic name of Van Der Decken ("of the decks").

An eye witness account of the Dutchman was written down in 1880 by Dalton, the tutor of the future King George V of England. From the account off the coast of Australia:

At 4 AM the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her.

Most skeptics dismiss the Dutchman as a refraction of an existing ship visible, it seems, in the sky or just above the water. The phenomena, known as a superior mirage, is common especially in icy waters at dawn or dusk. That's as may be but the legend continues among sailors that sighting the Dutchman - whether she is real or ghost - is a sure omen of doom.

Many great works of art have been inspired by the Dutchman, not the least of which is Howard Pyle's eerie painting at the header. Richard Wagner wrote an opera about the ghostly ship. Marryat's novel The Phantom Ship and Washington Irving's The Flying Dutchman on Tappan Sea both deal with the high seas spook. And the great master of all things cringe worth, Edgar A. Poe, wrote about her in his The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

On a less highbrow note Disney's The Pirates of the Caribbean series of films has Davy Jones and his calamari-esque self captaining a ship named The Flying Dutchman. And then there's this:
So there it is in a nutshell - or crab shell if you like. The Flying Dutchman may be just a legend or may be more but one thing's sure, if you see her out there on the waves say a little prayer. Better safe than sorry, mates.
Happy Halloween my Brethren and thankee for joining me for Horror on the High Seas week. Let's do it again next year. I'm off to lace on my costume. I'll be a Lady Pirate... but you knew that, didn't you?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Horror On The High Seas: The Terrible Whaleman

In his page turner Mutiny on the Globe: The Fatal Voyage of Samuel Comstock, Thomas Farel Heffernan gives us a detailed picture of whaling and life at sea in general. He also shows how the riggers of such a life could turn a man from quirky misfit to bloodthirsty monster in less than ten years. The book is well written but obviously edited with grim resolve. There is a lot to the story and the narrative gives the reader the impression that a lot was left out.

Samuel Comstock was born into a Quaker family at the dawn of the 19th century. The family lived in Nantucket when Samuel, the oldest child, was born and did not move on to New York until he was ten. Samuel seems to have fallen in love with the sea early but he also exhibited some very odd behaviors early too. He was inattentive and unable to keep to the regime of any school he attended (there were at least three). He led other boys in gangs against rivals across town. He was almost impervious to pain: his brother recalls him swigging wine from a barrel in his father's shop while his hand was trapped and obviously bleeding beneath the barrel itself.

Samuel went to sea at 14, first aboard merchants and then aboard whalers. He hated the whaling life and, when he returned home after a particularly arduous voyage, he attempted to sign on aboard a navy ship. His father, who thought the navy was a "bad influence", would not allow it. Samuel, now full of rage on top of everything else, started to fulminate a plan to make his life better, even heroic. He would join another whaler and, when a likely island was found in the South Pacific, lead a mutiny. He would kill the officers, put in at the island, kill his mates and declare himself King. The natives would, of course, recognize him as their lord and he would live out his days as Emperor of a tropical paradise.

The unfortunate whaling ship that took Samuel on as a boatsteerer (the man who kept the helm of one of the small boats from which the whales were harpooned and commanded the men therein) was the Globe of 293 tons out of New York. Her Captain, a veteran of Pacific whaling, was Thomas Worth. The year was 1823.

Samuel was remarked upon by his mates as the cruise wore on. He was seen, particularly at night, ranging the deck in only trousers and shirtsleeves regardless of the weather. He would talk to himself as he paced, working himself into some kind of private frenzy. The men began to avoid boatsteerer Comstock. Globe was not as lucky as she hoped to be and her cruise was prolonged. She put in at Hawai'i to take on provisions and men deserted, forcing Captain Worth to recruit some of the slacker sailors hanging out at the docks. One of these men knew Samuel from time in prison in Valparaiso, Chile. Payne was the man's name and when he and his friend Oliver joined the Globe, Samuel had all the help he needed to carry out his plan.

In January of 1824, the three ringleaders snuck unto the Captain's cabin around midnight and hacked him to death with axes. The first and second mates were next and, despite pleading for their lives, both were killed with equal brutality. By sunrise Samuel was in charge of the ship and he set the unfortunate men who had no part in the mutiny - including his 14 year old brother George - to cleaning the blood and brains off the deck and gunnels and tossing the whale oil in the hold overboard.

On Friday the 13th of February, Globe anchored off the little atoll of Mili Mili north of the equator and southeast of Hawai'i near what was known to whalers as the Japan Grounds. Samuel set up a camp and began enticing the natives with gifts of axes and clothing. He took a local wife almost immediately and, just as quickly, began beating and chaining her when she tried to run away. Meanwhile the sailors who were not part of the mutiny plotted to retake the ship and sail for South America. Early in the morning of the 15th, Gilbert Smith led a group of four other men in cutting Globe's cable and hurrying her out to sea. They left others who would have liked to go with them behind but their plan was to bring back rescue as soon as possible.

On land, things turned ugly. Samuel, angry at being duped and losing a ship he had initially planned to burn, brutalized his fellows. Payne, fed up and wanting to take charge, shot Samuel and then proceeded to hack him up with an axe. He was 21 years old. All semblance of order disappeared after Samuel Comstock was buried on the white beach. Sick of their ignorant disregard for local manners, the Mili Mili natives attacked the remaining sailors, crushing their heads to pulp with rocks.

Only two men - neither one of them mutineers - survived to become slaves of local chiefs. They were treated more like family than chattel and when USS Dolphin appeared at Mili atoll almost two years later, the natives were sorry to see William Lay and Cyrus Hussey go. The two Americans wept at their rescue, happier than they could express to finally be going home.

Samuel's brother, William, wrote a book about the mutiny entitled The Life of Samuel Comstock, the Terrible Whaleman. William, strangely enamoured with his psychotic brother, seems to have tried to work out his conflict over Samuel's actions by writing about them. Heffernan's book is based in part on William Comstock's account.

Tomorrow, Horror on the High Seas week concludes with everyone's favorite ghost ship: The Flying Dutchman.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Horror On The High Seas: Torture - Key To Success?

Most pirates don't come off as well as Henry Morgan in today's popular culture. The King of Rum is portrayed as a handsome swashbuckler, clad all in pristine red, his gleaming boot on the rum barrel rivaling the gleam of his scalawag grin. I would be willing to bet that is an image the historical Henry Morgan - scruffy, portly and generally mean - enjoys to no end. Whose getting the last laugh? The mustachioed Captain sitting on rather than standing over the rum barrel in Howard Pyle's depiction above.

So, while we're talking about horrific acts of violence by men at sea lets hold the microscope of reality over Henry Morgan and then see who wants to answer the question - got a little Captain in ya?

As we discussed on Tuesday, all pirates can be accused of torture unilaterally without very many being able to mount a reasonable defense. It seems, though, that at sea freebooters were more likely to get down to business and just toss you overboard if the most valuable goods on your ship weren't revealed. Time to ask the next guy. By land though, when raiding towns and cities, creativity just seemed to blossom. Maybe it was the lack of urgency, maybe it was the want of salt pork or maybe - just maybe - it was the fact that born sailors get testy by land. Whatever it was, some guys just seemed to really get into making their fellow man miserable.

Morgan surpassed most in this regard. In 1668 he led a flotilla of 700 men to the city of Portobello and, three years later stormed Panama City in Panama. Despite some setbacks in men and ships, both raids were extremely successful and brought Spain to her knees. Even though the Spanish burned Panama City to the ground, Morgan still managed to extract 750,00 pieces of eight and untold gems, gold and silver from the city. He fared even better in Portobello. By the time he returned to Port Royal in Jamaica, Henry Morgan was one of the richest men in the New World. And all this, thanks to torture.

In Portobello things were a little easier than later on in Panama. Find a guy that looked wealthy, tie him up to a rack and get him talking. No rack available? Damned inconvenient but strapado will do, of course. Bind the person's hands behind their back and throw the long end of the binding over a high, sturdy beam or the like. Now yank your victim up off his feet toward the beam. Still won't talk? Let him drop and then yank him up again suddenly before his feet touch the ground. Don't know where that booty is yet? Tie some weight to his feet and repeat until all joints in the arms are completely dislocated. This was another form of racking particularly favored by the Spanish Inquisition, so Captain Morgan loved to use it on his Spanish victims. Not surprisingly, it worked.

Morgan also had a penchant for genital torture and he could probably be called a sexual sadist. In Panama, where the people had a chance to stash their goods in the local jungles prior to his arrival, he had a field day. For the gentlemen, hanging by the genitals until your man either talked or had things ripped off was popular. Lit fuses tucked away in delicate places worked well too. The victim could watch the foot long fuse fizzle and decide which he liked better, his cash or his balls. Sometimes black powder was added at the end of the fuse. Good times.

But then there were the ladies and no one treated them to his own special brand of attention like Henry Morgan. In general, wealthy women had value because their families would pay ransom money, sometimes in huge amounts. The average girl was good for one thing and I don't think I need to explain that here. Morgan had some close pals that he liked to gang up on a particularly pretty girl with. If she cooperated, he might even pay her. If she didn't, he might rub her down with animal fat and stick her in a bread oven or, in less civilized scenery, grease just her face and hold it in an open fire.

Women held for ransom were frequently starved and, after the sack of Panama, more than one was made to march tied at the hands and barefoot (if not naked) across the isthmus of Panama back to the Atlantic. Those that did not or could not keep up were cut lose from the herd and left to die in the jungle. Many of these unfortunates, upon returning to their families after the ransom was paid, were locked away in convents against their will. Their ability to draw a wealthy and powerful suitor gone through no fault of their own, parents and guardians washed their hands of the young women and abandon them to the Church. The torture continued for them just as it would for a slave. Only death took care of their suffering.

Sure there's more but I bet your imagination can fill in the blanks. Henry Morgan never met the kind of dramatic and fitting end served up to Francois L'Olonnais. He died, most probably of cirrhosis of the liver, in his bed in Kingston with the title of Governor of Jamaica after his name. He was arguably the most successful pirate that ever lived. If nothing else, his story seems do confirm that you don't get anywhere by being nice.

Tomorrow, Horror on the High Seas presents the strange and violent story of Samuel Comstock, savage mutineer.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Horror On The High Seas: The Day It All Went Wrong

The picture above certainly belays the events we are going to talk about today, but it is fitting none the less. Today's horror took place in the Pacific Ocean on a windjammer differing from this one only in its size. Her name was Frank N. Thayer, she displaced 1,600 tons and as 1885 drew to a close she was carrying a cargo of hemp and tar from the Philippines to the United States.

The merchant vessel was Captained by Robert K. Clarke and on this voyage he had company. His young wife, whose name comes down to us only as Mrs. Clarke and their five-year-old daughter Carrie were also on board. The cruise from New York to Manila had been relatively uneventful until an outbreak of cholera struck the ship. Captain Clarke was forced to leave ill crew members on shore at Manila and take on new - and unknown - hands for the arduous trip back to the States.

The events that followed are discussed in detail in Joan Druett's Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail and her research and descriptions are brilliant. One thing that Ms. Druett does not discuss in detail is the not uncommon event that seamen recruited in South Sea ports often had ulterior motives besides simply shipping out and getting paid. As we will see again on Friday when we discuss the bloody mutiny on the whaler Globe, many times the new hands were old criminals. I would purpose that this was the case on the Frank N. Thayer as well.

The men, described as "Malays" by Clarke, were most probably a mix of odd sailors who had previously deserted or been dismissed from other merchantmen. One of the new men, who appears to have been the sort of guy who stepped up to "ringleader" early on, fell ill as the ship cruised out into the Pacific. Clarke did not ship a surgeon but did carry a medicine chest and the man was treated to the best of the Captain and his wife's ability. Evidently the treatment worked, but not to the ringleader's satisfaction.

The new men probably already plans in place to take the ship and her cargo, however our now recovered ringleader got out of hand. Angry at the Captain's medical administrations, full of rage already or just insane, the man persuaded the others who had been picked up in Manila to not just mutiny but to riot. In the middle of the night, the sailor at the wheel had his throat cut. He was tossed overboard to be followed by the slashed and bleeding bodies of the first and second lieutenants. Other long time members of the Frank N. Thayer crew who tried to stand up to the mutineers were treated to the same.

Captain Clarke came up on deck to see what the trouble was. He received a cut across his chest so deep and so broad that his lung was exposed. As the chaos continued on deck, Clarke managed to retreat back to his cabin, rouse his wife and child and load two revolvers which he then handed to Mrs. Clarke. He instructed her to shoot on sight any man who came at her with intent to harm, but to save the last rounds for herself and Carrie should the worst occur.

Meanwhile, someone - either the now frenzied mutineers or the regular crew - had set fire to the extremely combustible cargo. What was left of the old time Frank N. Thayers managed to launch a boat from the fo'csul. The Captain's wife saw her now fading husband and her daughter into the boat and then she turned back into the mayhem.

Mrs. Clarke ran through the black smoke, gore and rioting on deck to the great cabin. She retrieved the necessary instruments of navigation - the sextant, chronometer and charts - and hurried back to the boat. Once Mrs. Clarke had returned, the boat was launched into the black ocean. Mrs. Clarke bandaged her husband's crippling wound, settled her daughter in and then stitched blankets together to make a sail. Six days later what remained of the crew made it to shore with only dehydration and sunburn to show for it. Captain Clarke survived his wounds.

Frank N. Thayer most probably burned to the waterline and what became of the men on board her is undocumented. The area of the Pacific where she went down is notoriously full of sharks, however, so it is very possible that at least some were devoured. The insurance company declared the ship a total loss.

Mrs. Clarke - the woman without a first name - is one of those unsung heroes of the sea that did what was necessary at the time, most probably without giving it a lot of thought until after the fact. That she made sure her family survived may very well have been her greatest reward.

It may be over for Mrs. Clarke but we're only half way through Horror on the High Seas Week. Tomorrow: Torture Porn Part II - Henry Morgan loves the ladies!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Horror On The High Seas: That One Guy That Takes It Too Far

Pirates liked to torture people. That is one of those statements that is hard to refute. Its right up there with dinosaurs roamed the Earth. It happened a lot and no amount of argument will take away the hard evidence.

There were standard tortures that just about every pirate utilized at some point without much thought. Beatings were popular. Fists and pieces of wood or the flat of a cutlass you already have are pretty economical ways to get information out of another person. If we're to believe The Sopranos the mob still takes that approach today and the bos before there were "bosses", Jean Laffite, kept a hulking rock of a blacksmith name Thiac around to dole out the occasional dose of piratical justice.

More inventive but equally common tortures were "sweating", in which the generally naked prisoner was forced to run around a tree, stump or the mainmast while the pirates poked and jabbed at him with lances, swords, bayonets and even forks. Flogging always won the day and was a particular favorite to use on merchant or navy Captains who were found to be excessively fond of the same sort of punishment for their men. Usually the torture was applied to extract information about treasure hidden either aboard ship or in the town being raided. Sometimes, though, it was just a slow day and what else is a sociopath gonna do? No hard feelings, mate.

Whether its sucking up to the boss or torturing prisoners, there's always that one guy who has to take things right to the edge. The guy who isn't satisfied with the "usual" and really dips deep into the well of creativity for all he's worth. In the case of pirates and torture, that guy was Francois L'Olonnais.

We've spoken about The Man from Olon, who was born Jean-David Nau in Brittany, France, before so I won't get caught up in the details of his life. What is pertinent to this discussion is that L'Olonnais - or L'Olonnois if you prefer - was sold into indentured servitude at a young age. His master took him to one of the Spanish holdings in the Caribbean and he was worked mercilessly and beaten regularly for years of his life. He was probably a few fries short of a Happy Meal from childhood but this brutal treatment turned him from slightly tweaked to psychopath. When his indenture was up, he went to the island of Tortuga and began a bloody career whose savagery and success would be surpassed only by Henry Morgan.

But back to the torture. L'Olonnais was very probably an extremely intelligent guy and he had the kind of insight into human nature that allowed him to manipulate others without even taking out a sword. L'Olonnais had a penchant for torturing one prisoner with extreme prejudice while his or her friends and neighbors watched helplessly, wondering who would be next.

Alexander Exquemelin, who sailed with L'Olonnais as ship's surgeon, wrote quite candidly of his murderous habits in Buccaneers of the Americas. From the book: "It was the custom of L'Olonnois that, having tormented any persons and they not confessing, he would instantly cut them in pieces with his hanger and pull out their tongues." He frequently racked prisoners and, notorious for his impatience, just got fed up when they tried to fight the torture. On one occasion he dismembered a man on the rack and licked the blood from his sword while the man's associates stood by, probably soiling themselves.

Other tortures favored by L'Olonnais included slow, keep-them-alive-as-long-as-possible dismemberment. Again from Exquemelin: "...to cut a man to pieces, first some flesh, then a hand, an arm, a leg..." L'Olonnais also employed the torture of woolding which involved tying a rawhide or rope tightly around the head with knots over the eyes and tightening it with a stick until the person's eyes popped out of their skull. Unlike many other pirate leaders, L'Olonnais often performed the tortures himself and only on Spanish citizens. Hatred combined with insanity turned a man into a demon.

His most notorious act of torture, pictured above in a woodcut from Exquemelin's book, took place in Central America while he was trying to avoid the Spanish army. His prisoners, taken from Nicaragua, led he and his men into a Spanish trap. When the pirates managed to beat back the Spanish, L'Olonnais secured his prisoners and asked them what route would be safe on his march back to the Gulf. When one of the men said that no one knew a safe route, L'Olonnais opened the man's chest cavity with his sword, pulled out the beating heart, gnawed on it a moment and then shoved it in the face of another prisoner. "Tell me the way," he screamed. "Or I shall do the same to one and all!" No further Spanish ambushes were encountered.

The history of piracy is generally awash in blood and guts and not a jolly three hour cruise where we all talk a little funny. The story of Jean-David Nau surely brings that point home. Though in possession of wealth beyond most men's wildest dreams, Francois L'Olonnais met an end that befit his reign of terror. He was slowly cut to pieces by angry Darien natives whose villages he had previously raided. His body parts were burned while he watched and his ashes scattered to the winds. I often wonder if he died well. The surviving members of his crew do not say.

Tune in again tomorrow when Horror on the High Seas takes us out to the great South Pacific where we meet a very young woman who courageously faced down Malay pirates.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Horror On The High Seas: The Hermione Massacre

In the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin tells Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey that he is "rather understanding of mutiny." I think that is a modern concept that holds true particularly in the U.S. where we tend to glorify rebellion as a demonstration of freedom. We all know (or think we know) the story of evil Captain Bligh and heroic Fletcher Christian from that Mutiny on the Bounty movie. Mutinies in fact are not glorious at all but bloody messes that usually end badly. One of the most notorious, although virtually forgotten today, occurred on board HMS Hermione in 1799.

In 1797 the ship changed command and Hugh Pigot took charge of her as Captain. Pigot was the son of an admiral who went to sea at age 12 and was appointed Post Captain at age 24. He was a martinet whose spit and polish and flog because they looked at you funny style of command was unfortunately typical of Captains serving on Britain's Jamaica station. On his prior command, HMS Success, Pigot had ordered over eighty floggings and two men had died for the unreasonable number of lashes (as many as 500) they received.

The Captain did not change his ways aboard Hermione. Men were flogged virtually daily and unrest began to brew almost immediately. The incident that seemed to put the men in the mood to mutiny is telling in and of itself. Hermione ran into a squall off Haiti and men were ordered aloft to reef sail. Pigot barked like a dog from the deck that the men needed to hurry up and that the last man down would be flogged. In their haste to complete the taking in of sail, three green hands fell to the deck. Pigot had each man shot and then ordered: "Throw the lubbers overboard!" He then sent the bosun and his mates up to flog the remaining men into quicker activity. The scene was unprecedented to most ordinary sailors and the men decided they had had enough of Captain Pigot.

At eleven the next night, a gang of seamen armed with cutlasses and boarding axes gathered outside the Captain's cabin. The fact that they had weapons indicates that the bosun himself - who kept the key to the arms locker - was in on the mutiny. They knocked the Royal Marine outside the cabin on the head with the flat of a cutlass and rushed in on Pigot. The Captain was hacked up mercilessly and the cabin was awash in blood before someone broke out one of the stern windows and tossed Pigot, who may or may not have been dead, into the sea.

The next few hours saw the Hermione turned into an abattoir. The mutineers got into the rum and the killing escalated with their frenzy. It wasn't just about getting rid of Pigot now. It was about killing anyone you didn't really care for. All three lieutenants were thrown overboard and left to drown in the dark ocean. The surgeon, the purser and the Captain's clerk were pushed into the sea through Hermione's gun ports. The Marine Sergeant - dying of yellow fever in the sick berth - was hauled up on deck, gutted like a fish and thrown overboard. Two other men soon followed including the bosun who evidently was the target of the ringleader Richard Redman.

Redman, after killing the bosun, grabbed another bottle of liquor and went down to the bosun's cabin. The bosun's wife was on board. From the records of the subsequent court-martial it appears that she was raped repeatedly by Redman and may very well have been his sex slave for the duration. One has to feel particularly for innocent Frances Martin, the bosun's wife.

Six months later HMS Hermione turned up at the Spanish port town of La Guaira, Venezuala. The mutineers turned their ship and themselves over to Spain, then an enemy of Britain, and probably imagined that they were safe. The then greatest navy in the world would have none of it, though. Not a month later HMS Surprise showed up and, in a clever attack under cover of night, took Hermione - along with much of her mutinous crew - back to Jamaica. A court-martial was held and twenty four men hanged for their crimes including Richard Redman, Master's Mate.

The post script to this tragic story of slaughter is Mrs. Martin. She evidently managed to escape Hermione in Venezuela. She made her way to the U.S. and from there managed to return to England. In August of 1803 she applied to the Court of Commissioners in London for the pension granted widows of naval officers. "Frances," the entry reads. "Widow of Wm Martin who was murdered while acting as Boatswain of the Hermione." Mrs. Martin was granted her pension from March 15, 1799, the date of the mutiny.

If you want to read all about the mutiny on the Hermione, head out to your local bookseller and have them order you a copy of The Black Ship by Dudley Pope. It will enlighten you not only about the Hermione massacre but about the Royal Navy in general.

Check back tomorrow for a very special Horror on the High Seas: Torture Porn Part I - Francois L'Olonnais.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

This Week At Triple P: Horror On The High Seas

The upcoming week is the most wonderful time of the year at my house. Now is when I let my fright freak flag fly and I want to share the Halloween love with you, Brethren. Why should the horror-centric parts of the web have all the fun? What with mutinies and rapes, ghost ships and more torture than you can shake a flaming log at, sailors in general and pirates in particular can offer up more gruesome terror than Jack Ketchum and Stephen King combined.

So join me here at Triple P for Horror on the High Seas Week. The fun starts tomorrow with the bloody mutiny on the Hermione and we'll wade through the gore straight on to the 31st. Bring a strong stomach and a taste for shudder inducing voyeurism. I promise, you won't be disappointed!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Dredge

Ahoy Brethren and happy Saturday! I know what your thinking. Pauline, you say, one eyebrow cocked, that picture isn't of a dredge and its a bit spooky. You're right on both counts (of course you are; all my readers are smarter than average). Come along for this short cruise and all will be revealed.

When we think of a dredge or dredger these days we are thinking of a dredging machine with an engine and buckets. Back in the day, though, a dredge was a different thing entirely. The apparatus was a triangle framed iron scrapper with a bottom of hide and a topping of net. More like what we would now call a trawl, a dredge was dragged along behind a ship's boat to see what was on the ocean floor, collect specimens for scientific research or grab dinner. The boat utilized was known as a dredge boat.

And the reason for the ghost ship at the header? Well the best part - and the real purpose for talking about dredges today - is that sailors whispering about the ghost of a drown person would call it a dredgy. There's a little hint about what's coming up in the Halloween week ahead. Check back tomorrow for more details.

Friday, October 23, 2009

People: The Father of the U.S. Navy

Hero or scoundrel, Commodore or pirate? These are questions that were surely asked about today's privateer in the tumultuous era in which he lived. The answer to what John Paul Jones was is probably pretty easy for the average American to rattle off: the father of the United States Navy. No argument there. But he was a man, too, and its interesting that his career starts and ends with questionable situations that, on the face of them, are pretty deplorable. If nothing else, JPJ is still controversial and that may be why - more than so many other U.S. heroes of the waves - many people still know his name. Many of them, though, don't really know the controversy.


John Paul was born in Scotland in 1747. By 1760 he signed on aboard a merchant and by the early 1770s he had attained the rank of Captain. 1773 found him in charge of the merchant Betsy who plied her trade from the southern coast of the American colonies to the West Indies. At some point in that year, descent boiled aboard Betsy. Captain Paul claimed that an outright mutiny took place while some of his surviving men claimed that no such thing occurred. The Captain shot and killed a man and, when the ship reached the Carolinas, was accused of murder. He fled to Philadelphia, added Jones as a last name and evidently laid low.

In 1775, John Paul Jones reemerged, signing on with the newly christened Continental Navy. War was in the offing and JPJ was probably eager to get back to sea. He was immediately given a lieutenant's commission but by 1778 he was given command of the 18 gun sloop Ranger. His orders were to sail to France and from the port of Brest in Brittany harass British merchants and the Royal Navy in her own waters. Jones was so successful in his pursuits that he was promoted to Commodore the following year.

The English, of course, thought of JPJ as a criminal. One notorious action made them particularly righteous in this claim. Ranger put in at Kirkudbright on the Scottish coast during 1778 with the express intent of kidnapping and ransoming the Earl of Selkirk. When Jones and his men broke into the estate, they found only the Countess and her maids at home. Frustrated, the house was ransacked and Jones took the lady's silver service. It wasn't the act of a gentleman, the British huffed, but the doings of a Scottish pirate. They left out the fact that no one laid a finger on the women and that JPJ later sent Lady Selkirk's silver back to her.

By September of 1779 JPJ was in command of a French built frigate which he named Bonhomme Richard (after Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac). It was in this ship that his most famous engagement - and most quotable misquote - would take place.

Bonhomme Richard sailing in consort with the French Navy's Pallas, met HMS Serapis who was escorting an armed merchant ship, Countess of Scarborough off Flamborough Head on the English coast. The ships seem to have suddenly come up on each other because fighting in close quarters immediately began. Bonhomme Richard engaged Serapis and broadsides were fired with less than 50 yards between ships for nearly three hours. Both ships were torn to pieces and the dead and wounded lay scattered across equally blood soaked decks.

At some point, Captain Pearson of Serapis called across to Jones "Has your ship struck?", asking if JPJ had taken down the Stars and Stripes in surrender. Jones is quoted as replying "I have not yet begun to fight!" but witnesses say his response was: "I'll sink, but damned if I'll strike!" Eventually neither ship could carry on and Pearson, who had suffered more life lost than Jones, struck his colors and limped home to Britain. Though all surviving hands made it back to France, Bonhomme Richard sank.

With this success under his belt, JPJ was a huge hero in France where he was the "it" guest at parties and dinners and a popular song celebrated him as "the great American pirate". Good times, at least for a while.

After the war, Congress didn't have the cash to pay for a standing Navy and Jones decided to find adventure elsewhere. He joined the Russian Navy and captained ships for them in the Black Sea during their engagements with the Ottoman Turks. When that was over, JPJ took a house in St. Petersburg and the final unfortunate chapter of his life unfurled.

A local dairyman, who may himself have been of questionable morals, knew of Jones' lusty way with the ladies and may have used his daughter as bait to ring money out of the Captain. Either that or Jones was a pedophile. The daughter, who was under age, delivered the Captain's milk daily and struck up a flirtation with Jones. JPJ and the girl fell into bed at some point and when the dairyman turned to extortion the authorities got involved. Jones protested that the girl claimed to be 17 (she was probably 12 or 13 in fact and the age of consent was 15 for girls) and had encouraged his interest to the point of undressing in front of him.

All his indignity fell on deaf ears, however. Much as he had when he changed his name, Jones fled to Paris. Unfortunately, though, the rumors followed him. He died in Paris in 1792, alone and nearly forgotten. Time took care of Commodore Jones though and the Victorians - who were so fascinated with the heroism of their founding fathers - rediscovered his success at sea while ignoring all that other nonsense.

Today if you say "Oh yeah, John Paul Jones who committed statutory rape," most Americans would look at you as if you'd turned blue. "No, John Paul Jones, the father of our navy." You'd have to say both but I'll leave it to you to decide, Brethren, and I'll see you tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Stick It...

Everyone who hasn't been in a coma for the last seventy odd years is familiar with the image above in some form or another. It just happens that I've chosen the best form possible - Errol Flynn as Captain Blood. There he is, the pirate in all his antiheroic glory. His rapier at the ready and his fist to the shrouds. A moment more and he's swinging across to board the enemy followed by a scruffy crew with flintlocks in hand and knives clutched in their teeth. The games afoot.


Did it really happen that way? No. Whatever "it" might be, it didn't. Rapiers are awful when it comes to close combat aboard a crowded ship and a knife in your teeth is going to spell more trouble for your face than the enemy's gut. So what were the pointy weapons of choice for freebooters down through the ages? Let's dive in and have a close look.


Before we start analyzing the weapons themselves, it should be noted that most pirates probably didn't sign on with a gentleman's knowledge of hand to hand combat. Weapons, up until the 19th century and then only in a limited number of countries, were for the powerful and wealthy. There's a reason why torches and pitchforks were the go to items for angry peasant mobs. They weren't allowed anything else, except rocks. Allowing the plebs arms means the government's authority can be questioned by one of those pesky revolutions and that will never do.


Even men who came from navy ships probably had only a slight advantage in the sword handling department. Officers couldn't risk men carrying swords or dirks for fear of mutiny. A foremast jack was allowed only a sailor's knife, which resembled a modern mat cutter, to be used for slicing rope and sail as needed. Boarding weapons were locked up until combat loomed.


A green hand aboard a pirate or privateer had to rely on a veteran to show him the ropes when it came to swordplay and it must have been a very odd feeling to hoist a weapon at first. Which is why the choice was clear. Get your hands on something that didn't require finesse but could easily mutilate unmercifully.


It is no surprise, then, that the slicing weapon of choice was the cutlass. This compact and deadly sword was the descendant of a Medieval weapon called a curtal axe. The rounded blade, sharpened like a razor, was approximately a yard long and could cut right through a man if enough force was applied. Blades were frequently painted to keep salt spray from causing rust. The brass hand guard kept others from cutting up a man's fingers as he came at them and the shorter blade allowed for a good, hefty swing even in close quarters.


The hanger, a shorter cousin of the cutlass, was also popular with pirates in particular. This weapon got its name - or so I'm told - because it hung from a leather belt. Yeah. We'll go with that.


Yet another form of cutlass was the German dusagge which had a larger, scalloped hand guard for diverting sweat and blood away from the fingers and a nasty, double-edged serrated blade that could do even more damage.




Once a man got the hang of handling steel he might want a second weapon for good measure. Daggers, dirks and stilettos were all popular and could easily be concealed in clothing or boots if the need arose. A main gauche (French for "left hand"), pictured above, would be the penultimate in panache. The thin blade and long cross guard or quillon would be ideal for befuddling an adversary's sword momentarily, giving the bearer time to strike with his cutlass or hanger.

Let's face it, though. Not everyone was ever going to get to the cutlass-and-stiletto stage. No worries. There were weapons for those guys who just wanted to hit somebody hockey style.

A boarding axe, as pictured above, was the usual choice. Measuring between two and three feet long and weighing up to seven pounds, just swinging the thing with a reasonable amount of force could be devastating. The hooked side could bash in a skull and the axe could chop off a limb. Added bonus: a boarding axe could cut rigging with one handy chop, disabling the prize.

It goes without saying that anything can be made into a weapon if the need arises. Loading hooks, marlinespikes, belaying pins, block and tackle could all come to the party if the need arose. Just like there are no atheists in the trenches, there are no picky pirates in a brawl for a prize.

Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule. Blackbeard favored two cutlasses and six flintlocks, which struck fear into the enemy without Mr. Teach raising a hand. Just the opposite, Jean Laffite - while he killed more than one man with a pistol - never carried anything but a colchemarde at his side. The colchemarde was the Louisiana Creole sword cane that consisted of a rapier with a silver or wooden handle concealed within a wooden hilt which could be carried as a cane. Jean's, legend has it, had a ruby from India in the hilt. The perfect accessory for a gentleman privateer.

I think I just made my own point moot with that bit about the rapier. Ah well. I'm only sorry that Errol Flynn never played Laffite.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

History: "Hellish Banditti"

I will freely admit that I'm a fan of Andrew Jackson as President and as a man. I know all the arguments against him: the slavery, leaving the Governorship of Florida, the Trail of Tears, "Jacksonian Democracy" (what ever the hell that really is), his "good ol' boy" attitude et al and I don't discount a single one.

Whenever I get into this debate, though (more often than you might think) I bring up the better points that are so easily forgotten: his tenacious love for his wife, his wit and savvy despite what would be called today a "hick" upbringing, his standing up to the British in his mother's home and his fighting as a Patriot while still a boy and the fact that he beat the holy living crap out of a would-be assassin with his cane while Secret Service guys stood around with their mouths dangling open. I'm sorry but if one of our modern Presidents did that I'd paint his mug on the side of my house.

Where I'm ambivalent about old Andy, though, has to do with a decision he made while prepping for the Battle of New Orleans - the big all or nothing brawl against the British that ended the War of 1812 and made Jackson a national hero - in the winter of 1814.

Jackson had a real problem with the Spanish prior to his encounters with the British in the War of 1812. The Spanish held sway over Florida and were largely responsible for stirring up the Native Creeks against the fledgling U.S., leading to the Creek Wars. Major General Jackson's argument to Congress during the wars was that if something would be done about the pirate operation of Jean Laffite in Barataria, Louisiana (which by 1812 was a State) the Spanish wouldn't be so stinking pissed at the U.S. and we wouldn't have all these problems would we?!

Congress responded with a "well, yeah, there is Laffite and all that plundering of Spanish merchantmen in the Gulf but we're in the middle of a war with Britain and... Why don't you write to you're pal, the Governor of Louisiana? Let us know how that works out for you."

Long story short, that is exactly what Jackson did. Governor Claiborne, under pressure from not only Jackson - who was convinced that the Spanish would soon throw all their forces in with the British against the U.S. - but local Laffite antagonists like wealthy merchants, tax collectors and the Commodore of the Navy Station, finally buckled and ordered a raid on Barataria. Laffite's stronghold was burned to the ground, his ships were taken as prizes and his men were jailed in irons. Things looked pretty bleak for the brothers Laffite (Jean and Pierre, by the way, were conveniently nowhere near Barataria when Commodore Patterson came knocking - they left the night before, putting
Dominique Youx in charge).

The brothers were like cats, though and as usual they landed on their feet. They had previously been approached by the British to take up arms against the U.S. and help with the invasion of New Orleans. They warned Claiborne and Jackson that the British were on their way and offered themselves, their men and their ships to the U.S. even before Patterson showed up and tore down their operation.

Jackson, though, would have none of it and he issued what may very well have been the stupidest proclamation of his long career. He held up Laffite and his men to the people of Louisiana as "pirates and robbers" with whom the British had "dared to insult you by calling on you to associate as brethren with them and this hellish banditti." The British were so stupid, he was saying, that they thought the good people of Louisiana would rise up - led by Jean Laffite himself, one imagines - and fight against the U.S. alongside their welcomed British overlords.

One of the first rules of war, laid down by Julius Caesar as I recall who was no slouch himself, is to know the land and its people. Another is to make sure you have tapped all possible resources available to you.

Andrew Jackson sent out a scathing proclamation to a population that viewed the very target of his ire as their own Robin Hood. Laffite and his men made it possible for the people of southeastern Louisiana to avoid high tariffs and taxes, to - in some cases - be able to afford necessities and to be able to have continued access to the European (particularly French) goods that they craved. Smuggling in and of itself was so ingrained in the culture of New Orleans that the citizens probably weren't even sure who Jackson was talking about at first.

Andrew Jackson was also denouncing an offer of powder, arms and sailors when what he lacked most was... wait for it... powder, arms and sailors. Men showed up from Mississippi and Kentucky half naked and without guns, Patterson was wringing his hands for the lack of sailors he had and, though cannon were plentiful, ball, black powder and flints were in extremely short supply. Laffite offered everything Jackson did not have, and more than once too. At this point, Caesar would have smacked Jackson upside the head.

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and Andrew Jackson did meet with Jean Laffite. The details of their discussion are lost to history but a compromise was worked out whereby Jean and his men would receive Presidential pardons in return for supplies and service at the Battle of New Orleans. Good thing too. Jean Laffite's two twenty-four pounder cannon at Battery Number Three devastated the British like no other war machine available on January 8th and 15th 1815. The guns were crewed entirely by Baratarians and Captained by our old friends Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche.

The truth of the matter is that Jackson opened his mouth and inserted his foot on principle before taking stock of the situation. It wasn't like him and perhaps that's why it stands out as such a ridiculous decision. Despite that, the U.S. won the day, confirming her independence from Britain once and for all.

And the Laffites, you ask? Well, that's another story for another day. Suffice it to say that I wouldn't be surprised to know that the brothers had a good laugh at being marked "hellish banditti". If anything, they knew themselves pretty darn well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sea Monsters: "An Incredibly Rare Find"

I'm kind of fond of big animals. Gorillas, whales, mastiffs, they all give me the urge to just grab and hug. My favorite Animal Planet "Growing Up..." show is the one with Maximus (yep, like in Gladiator) the baby elephant whose mother was afraid to let him sleep. Proving that just because you have instincts doesn't mean you know what your doing. Get a grip girl. But it was all OK in the end with young Max. Unfortunately, today's massive critter didn't fare so well.

In July of this year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, was conducting a study on sperm whales and what they eat in the Gulf of Mexico. While cruising along they caught something big in their trawling net and hauled it up from a depth of 1,500 feet. It was a giant squid 19.5 feet long and 103 pounds. Unfortunately, being yanked out of such deep water does a number on animals and our tentacled friend came up bug-eyed and dead. Not so good for him.

For centuries, seamen have told tales of giant, multi-armed monsters rising up from the depths and dragging whole ships down. It would probably be an unusual happenstance if it ever happened at all but certainly a squid as big as the one caught in the Gulf could do a number on a small boat if it had a hankering to.

This giant squid is the first caught in the Gulf since 1954, when a carcass was found floating around off the Mississippi Delta. Squid expert Michael Vecchione told reporters : "This is an incredibly rare find in the Gulf of Mexico." He went on to say that giant squid are more common in waters around New Zealand and Spain. Scientists knew that the squid lived in the Gulf, however, because they have found remains of the creatures in the gullets of other Gulf animals like sperm whales.

The squid, whose Latin name is Architeuthis dux, has been transferred to the Smithsonian Institute for further study. Scientists hope that the big guy, who literally gave his life for science, will tell them a lot more not only about his species but about what is going on down there in the very deep (as low as 3,000 feet in some places) water of the Gulf.

Although I've never had the urge to hug a squid, I salute you Architeuthis dux for your sacrifice. I hope a lot is learned from it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Pirates Own Book: "Good Devil, Take This Till I Come"

Its been a bit since we visited The Pirates' Own Book by Charles Ellms so I pulled it out yesterday and, in between exclamations of "Geaux Saints!" I read up on the short but busy life of Captain Lewis, pirate. Here it is in a nutshell.


Captain Lewis is not given a place or date of birth and in all honesty I cannot find any other references to the man. Ellms doesn't even give him a first name so its a little hard to know which Captain Lewis was "the pirate Lewis". Ellms is quite clear that the man was a Satanist though and, given the lack of ravishment of young ladies in this chapter, that's about as scintillating as he gets.

Lewis signed aboard the ship of a pirate named Banister as a boy. When Banister was hanged "at the yard-arm of a man-of-war" in Port Royal, Jamaica, Lewis followed in his footsteps. He appropriated a canoe and a couple of men and captured larger and larger ships until he had his own brigantine. He seems to have worked the Gulf of Mexico in his early career and taken mostly fishing vessels. When he does capture a merchant off Campeche, he chastises the Captain for not adequately looking after his employer's property. An unpleasant but humorous scene follows in which Ellms has Lewis caning the merchant Captain who runs around the deck attempting to surrender even more goods and cash to the pirate, which in turn only enrages Lewis all the more. Good times.

Lewis then sails to the Carolinas and begins taking merchants in earnest. He works the coast of North America from the Caribbean all the way up to Newfoundland. His largely French crew falls out with the Englishmen among them and Lewis maroons the would be English mutineers on one of his ship's boats with only a small amount of provisions. Ellms tells us that "These men, it is supposed, all perished in the sea".

Shortly after this incident, Lewis takes on a 24 gun merchant who somehow manages to capture Lewis' quartermaster. They keep the man in chains overnight and Lewis is prepared to do a deal whereby the quartermaster would be returned and Lewis would let the merchant go about its business. The news that his man was kept in chains sets him off, however, and Lewis boards the merchant killing any man who will not join his crew.

Generally, though, Lewis is rather gentlemanly to his victims, giving them his ship if he likes theirs and only taking on men who are willing to turn pirate. At some point, he sails for the coast of Guinea. When his ship is in pursuit of a fat merchant and her main and fore topmasts are torn away in a high wind, Lewis climbs to the maintop, cuts off a lock of hair and throws it into the wind saying "good devil, take this till I come". "And it was observed," Ellms says "that he came afterwards faster up with the chase than before the loss of his top-masts".

Off Guinea, Lewis' crew splits up and this time it is the French who cause the trouble. They get a ship and elect as their Captain one Le Barre but Lewis will have none of it. He gives chase and sinks Le Barre's ship, leaving only a handful of Frenchmen alive. While celebrating this victory, Lewis' men inform him that "...the French had a plot against him". His response is that "...he could not withstand his destiny..." and evidently the Devil told him he would die that night.

Sure enough, the Frenchmen board Lewis' ship in the night and kill him as he sleeps. His men take care of the intruders and then elect John Cornelius "...an Irishman..." as Captain. A delightful little poem follows and that's it for Captain Lewis, Satan's pirate.

If you've a desire to read The Pirates' Own Book yourself, it is still in circulation from the Marine Research Society of Salem, Massachusetts or the good folks at the Gutenberg project have the entire book - illustrations and all! - available on line here. Check it out. You won't be disappointed!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Before and After

So much of our common language comes to us from the sea that I'll be well into the hundredth year of my life ('od forebear!) before I run out of words for SMS. The most common of all seem the most interesting to me because the etymology of words is so gosh darn debatable and if there's anything a right sailor enjoys its a good debate. Nothing passes the time quite like it. So let us have a go at before and after, shall we? To me it's obvious where they came from. If you've got a different thought, let me know. The door to the great cabin is open... usually.


Fore and aft are the old sailor's terms for the front and back of anything, usually a ship. As near as I can tell they both come from the Saxon terms fore (front) and abaft (back) which was then shortened to aft. After came along fairly quickly but fore remained the terminology in use for some time and fore and aft are used to this day aboard ship. If you hear some guy call the bow front or the taffrail back, he's a lubber. Period.

Fore was used not just in relation to the ship but in reference to anything that went before. "Boarders to the fore!" was an order indicating the obvious - board the enemy! Fore could be added to almost any word to indicate location - forelock, fore-chains, fore-cockpit and so on. The common seafaring term forecastle - foc'sul - came into use because Medieval ships actually had fore and aft "castles" built on them to protect archers. "Aftcastle" (aft'sul?) never quite caught on and became the giggle inducing poop instead. Anything ahead of fore is before.

Aft is just as handy. Right aft is in a direct line with the keel from the stern. A mast rakes aft when it points to the stern and so on. Aft in particular became part of common terms - afternoon, aftermost, afterguard, afterlife, etc. Anything behind aft is after.

Try using the original terms and you're talking like a pirate without thinking about it. "Get your homework done fore you run out and play." "Let's have some cake aft supper." Try it! The fun never ends!

Happy Saturday, Brethren! Mind your fore and aft sails and they'll get you to the prize all the sooner.

Friday, October 16, 2009

History: Gone to the Dogs

Dogs have a special place in sailors' hearts. There has been a strong belief that dogs bring a ship good luck. Their fidelity and good will toward humans was thought to bring a crew together, making men more like the dog if you will. Seamen were rarely overly affectionate to the ship's dog, however. Like every other manjack aboard, Dog was expected to pull his weight and then some.

It is unknown when dogs began long voyages with man but it can most probably be traced to the first outright pirates, the Phoenicians. Many people imagine that small dogs were the norm aboard cramped and crowded vessels but the opposite is true. A small dog was fine for ratting, but that was generally left to the cats. So what was it that a dog did aboard ship besides eat, sleep and soil the deck? Save your life, mate. And then some.

In the early days of sail - from the Medieval period until the 18th century - mutts were brought aboard. They were expected to move heavy loads, sometimes even being strapped by a harness to the capstan in order assist in pulling up the anchor. These guys were the burly, musclebound mastiffs that are sometimes labelled "pitbulls" today. They could handle a lot of hard work and their short muzzles allowed them to breath more easily while carrying an object in the water. More times than not, that object was some sailor who had tipped overboard, couldn't swim and was fit to drown had it not been for trusty Dog.

Humans can't stop tinkering and the 18th and 19th centuries saw a boom in genetically engineered dogs. These breeds, like their forebears, were born to do specific tasks and the Newfoundland/Landseer (shown above) was particularly popular aboard ship. Bred to pull heavy fishing nets, boats and waterlogged people they were welcomed not just as loyal crew members but as hard workers and lifesavers. On his sail back from Elba to his Hundred Days in France, Napoleon fell overboard and was saved by a Newfie.

Other famous dogs dotted the landscape of the Golden Age of Sail. British Admiral Collingwood had a dog, most likely a beagle, named Bounce whom he refused to sail without. Admiral Lord Nelson had a strapping dog named Nileus, no doubt after his master's glorious victory at the Nile (humble sort, that Horatio) and an interesting - and telling - family story goes along with him if you will permit me to digress.

Nelson carried on an open liaison with Emma, Lady Hamilton, until his death at Trafalgar. Their affair produced a set of twin girls but Emma felt she could only handle one child. She abandon one girl to a foundling hospital. The other she named Horatia and raised without informing Nelson of her twin. Horatia spent her young life in privileged surroundings and despite her mother being married to Lord Hamilton, Horatia knew who her father was. She believed to her dying day that the Hamiltons had adopted her. Even though she already had a pony, the girl begged incessantly for a dog. Her father, who wrote her frequently, sent her a gold locket with a dog's picture inside and told her it must replace the dog he "could never have promised" her "as we have no Dogs on board ship..." Lying, like fame, seemed to come quite easily to Horatia's parents.

Pirates and privateers were very similar to their naval cousins and dogs were a common sight aboard them. The canine crewmen did the same jobs they did in the navies - just like the men. Unlike cats, though, they rarely came in multiples. One dog was surely more than enough in the close confines of a ship, especially since he or she would spend a lot of time wet. Even dog lovers are not very tolerant of that smell.

A famous Newfoundland named Bosun accompanied Lewis and Clarke on their expedition west and George Gordon Lord Byron, the poet who authored The Corsair, had a landseer named Boatswain.

Like their feline compatriots, dogs got the official boot when the navies on both sides of the Atlantic branded them "unhygienic". Also like their kitty friends, however, dogs are still carried aboard ship in other parts of the world and probably will be until there are no more seas to sail. Let us not forget, though, that a cat might keep the rats down, but he won't fetch your Emperor - or you - out of the drink.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

People: Is There a Doctor in the House?



The man we're going to discuss today is one of those people that would be on my "who would you invite to that hypothetical dinner party, living or dead" list. I think the exercise is silly, really, because most of us would end up entertaining about twenty or thirty and at that point you're never going to be able to really talk to each person and get the goods on their life. But so little is known about Dr. Exquemelin that he would definitely stay on the guest list even after the initial culling process.

Alexander Exquemelin was born in Honfleur, France around 1646. Honfleur is a port town on the northern coast so it is safe to say that young Alex was exposed to ships and shipping - and very likely privateers - from an early age. Some historians claim that the young man had a hankering to become a ship's surgeon. Others go so far as to have him studying medicine in France. While Alexander may have set his sights on doctoring early, his later life hints at a pauper's youth and in all probability school of any kind was out.

At some point in his early life Alexander really hit the skids and either sold himself or was sold into indentured servitude. He sailed to Hispaniola and there was put to work at hard labor for his new master. Indenture in the Caribbean was nothing more than slavery and Alexander was worked so hard that he fell deathly ill. Seeing that the young man was of no further use, his master put him up for "resale".

At this point, Alexander's luck began to change. A local physician took up his indentured, saw him through his illness and made the young man his assistant. Alexander learned the skill of doctoring over three years and the elbow of this unknown gentleman and, when the term of indenture was up, Alexander's benefactor gave him not only the money he was owed but a set of surgical tools as well. What had started out as a potential death sentence became a door to an entirely new life.

With the proliferation of buccaneers on the local islands, it wasn't hard for Alex to find work as a ship's surgeon. By his own account he sailed with the psychopathic Francois L'Olonnais and witnessed his horrors at Maracaibo. It is documented that Exquemelin was with Henry Morgan when he sacked Panama in 1671. The doctor also claimed to know other buccaneers personally, including Rock Brasilliano and Michel de Grammont.

Evidently Alexander came to a point where enough was enough and some time between 1671 and 1678 he returned to Europe. He settled in Holland, where the Amsterdam Surgeon's Guild Book indicates that he passed his exams and become a legal surgeon in 1679. Before that, though, Exquemelin published the book that would make him famous to this day.

Buccaneers of America, first published in Holland in 1678, would be a runaway bestseller in Europe for the next ten years. A lot of the stories still told about the men Alexander knew and claimed to know come from this original work. While many historians have tried to discredit Exquemelin's work as pure fantasy, more and more information comes to light that proves them wrong.

In fact only one man has managed to successfully challenge Exquemelin's description of a buccaneer. Henry Morgan, who did not care for the way he was portrayed in the book, sued Exquemelin for slander and won (of course, it probably helped that Morgan was Governor of Jamaica at the time).

Alexander Exquemelin's book is still in circulation today and it is a fascinating read. All the same, I think it would be even more fascinating to hear the Doctor's stories first hand. I'll seat him between Andrew Jackson and Horatio Nelson. His sense of humor might keep the dueling to a minimum. Crack open the wine and let the good times roll!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Lady Pirates: And A Right Real Lady, Too

I made my way down to the orlop for a consultation with the surgeon yesterday. Ours is an old, crusty sort, highly religious and probably close to retirement. I got pushed and prodded and swabbed and when all was said and done he looked at me and said: "Well, you've got what we used to call 'walking pneumonia' which is just an inflammation of the mucous membrane and the bronchi." Of all the words in that sentence, my favorite is the word "just". So that's why there was no post yesterday, Brethren and why I apologize for any errors in this one. "Just" having your breathing apparatus inflamed means that you score good drugs, at least, and I'm on 'em!

The woman pictured above is not today's topic in the flesh. She is Lady Elizabeth Vernon who lived at the same time. I hope she doesn't mind me appropriating her portrait to give you an idea of what out own Lady Mary Wolverston Killigrew would have worn en deshabille. So stylish! Her wardrobe aside, whether or not Mary Killigrew was actively involved in piratical goings on is open for debate. There can be no doubt that today's heroine was from a family with a piratical tradition and that her second marriage took her to a place that shared the same.

Mary Wolverston was born in Suffolk in 1540. Her father, Sir Philip Wolverston, was what was known in that time as a "gentleman pirate". Henry VIII, in his hot and heavy lust for Anne Boleyn, had essentially turned his back on Europe and European trade when he broke with the Catholic Church. Only the budding Protestant countries such as Germany would consider above-board trade with England and this opened the door for smuggling operations that made more than one indebted nobleman rich. Along with the privateer navy, the "gentleman pirate" was born.

The gentry who had the good fortune to own estates with ports or harbors would basically rent out space in their waters to pirates. The Lord would bribe local officials, help the pirates sell their goods at market and take another cut on the back end. There are ledgers and books still in existence today that document these operations all along the British coast and they continued well into the reign of Henry's daughter, the great Elizabeth.

Born at Wolverston Hall, young Mary would have seen this kind of racketeering from an early age. In her youth she was married to Thomas Knyvett who died in short order. Her second marriage was to Sir John Killigrew. He was the hereditary governor of Pendennis in Cornwall, a vice-admiral and the lord of Arwennack Manor. The Killigrew lands included the harbor of Falmouth and the Lord was as deep into the smuggling business as his father-in-law had ever been.

It seems that Mary dug right in to the family business and the business of growing a family once she was mistress of Arwennack. By 1562 she and John had five children and Mary was keeping the books and entertaining the more gentile freebooters that frequented Falmouth Harbor. She was known in the area as an excellent hostess and, given the fact that her husband died ten thousand British pounds in debt, it seems that no expense was spared.

Perhaps because of their precarious financial position, Mary is reputed to have gotten her hands bloody in 1582. A large merchant full of goods took refuge from a storm in the harbor on New Years Day. The story is very muddled. Some historians say the ship was Spanish, some Dutch, but they generally agree that the Captain felt safe where he was and allowed shore leave for all but a very few crewman. The story goes that Mary was introduced to the Captain, heard of the skeleton crew, and hatched her plan then and there.

Under cover of night Mary took two servants, rowed out to the merchant, killed the crew - some say herself - and put her own men aboard. The merchant disappeared from Falmouth harbor that night, allegedly on her way to Ireland where the Killigrew's men would turn a profit from her as prize. Whatever actually occurred, the ship did disappear and the Captain made protest to the local naval commissioner.

Wouldn't you know that said commissioner was none other than John, Mary's son. Of course the plea was dismissed on the grounds that there were no witnesses to the theft of the ship and the merchant Captain was sent packing. The merchant's owners were not so easily put off, however, and they put their protest before the Earl of Bedford of the Queen's privy council. An inquiry was launched and Lady Killigrew, along with two men named Hawkins and Kendal, were jailed. All three were sentenced to be hanged for piracy.

Mary's son set to work trying to save his mother and, though the two men were hanged, Mary remained in prison while John appealed, finally to the Queen herself. Mary's sentence was reduced to time served and she was released in 1585. She returned to Arwennack to find her husband dead and her estate in debt.

There is no further mention of Mary Killigrew in connection with piracy. She died in 1617 and her son, John, became Lord Killigrew. If he continued the family's piratical dealings, he did so without attracting the attention of authorities.

To me, the story of Lady Killigrew is interesting for what it lacks. Did she really have a hands on involvement in the smuggling trade? Was she guilty of murder? And how many other "gentlewoman pirates" were out there? Its something to think about, but not too hard. Thinking makes my head hurt right now.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tools of the Trade: What's In A Name?

Ahoy Brethren and happy Columbus Day! When I was a wee cabin girl this was a day of celebration. Banks were closed, the mail didn't come, but you still had to go to school. And there, in the halls of Newport Hills Elementary School, we learned a thing or two about Cristobel Colum. And not just the 1492 rhyme either. We had to know the names of his ships. Do you remember them?

That memory got me thinking about ship names and naming ships and the pirates and privateers who sailed aboard them. Most sailors have a superstition against renaming a ship but our Brethren were a different breed. A new name for a prize covered your tracks and made it harder for the rightful owner to reclaim the booty. A new name and a refit could virtually make a ship disappear. But what names did the freebooters favor over the years? Here's a handy list by way of an answer:

Sir Francis Drake, The Golden Hinde
Francois L'Olonnais, Olonne
Christopher Myngs, Marston Moor and Centurion
William Kidd, Adventure Galley
Edward England, Fancy and Pearl
Thomas Tew, Liberty
Henry Avery, Fancy
Bartholomew Roberts, Fortune renamed Good Fortune renamed Royal Fortune
Edward Teach, Revenge and Queen Anne's Revenge
Charles Vane, Ranger
Sam Bellamey, Mary Anne, Sultana and Whydah
John Paul Jones, Bonhomme Richard
Jean and Pierre Laffite, La Seour Cheri, Dorada, Dos Hermanos, and General Santander (only the first and last of these ships were actually Captained by Jean Laffite)
Dominique Youx, Tigre and Mexicaine
Renato Beluche, L'Intrepide, La Popa, General Bolivar, General Arismendi, Mizelle (the last ship was named for his wife)

Of course I could go on but you get the idea. Maybe when you decide to invest in that dream ship you'll consider one of these historical monikers. Or you could go with one of Columbus' ships - Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Bugger

Let us just get the unpleasantness out of the way so that we can move on. Today's word is bugger and yes it does mean what you think it means. No reason to dance around it. They didn't refer to the Royal Navy as being built on rum, buggery and the lash just for giggles. Sometimes a man gets lonely and a goat looks pretty. I'll leave it at that.


The actual origin of the term is pretty hard to get your fist around - no pun intended. Webster's doesn't even give an original language or colloquialism. I've an idea though if you will indulge me.


Beginning in the Middle Ages, seafarers from Brittany in France fished out of small, two masted and square rigged vessels that were called "bugalets" by the English. Doubtless this is a corruption of a French term now lost to the ages (chime in on the comments if you know!) but by the 17th century even the French called such a boat a bugalet.

The name for the little boat was shortened to "bug" by the Elizabethan era. This held a derogatory connotation that could not be missed so it began to be used more broadly to indicate a vessel that was bigger than its capability. In other words a bug was a ship that looked impressive but was only marginal in maneuverability and speed.

In particular the derision was cast onto the Spanish galleon. These were originally caravels, like the painting shown above, that grew larger and more rounded in design until they became the Spanish Armada kind of galleon shown at the header of this post. They were handsome, could carry a grand compliment of men, cannon and treasure, but they weren't going anywhere fast and turning on a dime was right out. When Sir Francis Drake first encountered this type of ship at Cadiz he called them "mere great bugges". Nothing to worry about, in other words.

Of course, we all know that the enemy - whoever they are - is more prone to vile and unthinkable habits than we will ever be. Therefor, it wasn't much of a stretch to imagine that those aboard the bugs were buggers prone to buggery. The idea and the word stuck until, by the 18th century, a man could be flogged or even hanged for such an offense with the term being use specifically in the court documentation.

Is that how we really got the word? I can't say for sure but I will say that it is very likely indeed. Happy Saturday, Brethren. And keep your mouth clean.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Home Ports: On The Turtle's Back


There are a lot of islands named Tortuga in the Caribbean and beyond. Most notable, I think, is the touristy/resorty Tortuga Island off the coast of Costa Rica. That one claims a piratical heritage and doubtless some freebooters stopped there to freshen their water now and again. That claim, though, is largely for the tourist trade and I'd bet money you'll see wannabes swaggering around wearing eye makeup and speaking with fake British accents. Don't get me started. The real Turtle Island, as far as our pals the boucaniers were concerned, is located off the coast of what used to be known as Hispanola and what is now Haiti/Dominican Republic.

How the buccaneers came to the little island that is quite literally shaped like a turtle is a convoluted story of Spanish hatred for anyone that wasn't Spanish. When an English adventurer named Warner and a French privateer named Belain agreed to establish a settlement on St. Christopher Island (now St. Kitts), the Spanish took note. When the island became a haven for buccaneers, the Spanish sent men and arms to route out the hated foreigners. In 1629 a huge contingent descended on the island, killing or taking prisoner most of the population. Those who escaped went to Hispanola where they were again attacked. Now the buccaneers were pissed.

The boys moved to Tortuga del Mar, the island they called Ile de la Tortue, just off the coast and they settled in to take their revenge. They booted or killed any Spanish they found, got chummy with the local Arawak natives and started a campaign of striking out against Spanish ships in small, easily maneuverable canoes and pinnaces. In 1635, when French pirate Pierre le Grand appeared on the scene, things really heated up. He began attacking Spanish treasure galleons from a light sloop and the other buccaneers soon followed his lead.

Of course, the Spanish would have none of that. A raid on the island in 1638 nearly wiped out the largely French as well as Dutch and English population. The remaining citizens appealed to the re-established and now fortified French settlement on St. Christopher for help. Jean le Vasseur was sent as Governor of Tortuga and he built a stone fortress overlooking the main harbor. He armed his outpost with 40 guns and provided letters of marque to the buccaneers, encouraging them to raid Spanish shipping and towns along the Main in the name of France. The heyday of the boucaniers was on the horizon.

The Spanish, who were nothing if not tenacious, laid siege to the fort and effectively starved out the population, sending those they captured back to France in 1654. Some of the buccaneers escaped, however, and they waited on St. Christopher and Jamaica waiting for the opportunity to return to what they considered their home.

That opportunity arose when England attacked Jamaica in 1655. The Spanish ships and troops on Tortuga were called to action and the buccaneers returned to their old port from which they plied their trade for another ten years. The island was a base for respectable privateers like Michel de Grammont and infamous pirates such as Francois L'Olonnais.

In 1665 the island of Hispanola officially became the French holding St. Domingue and Ile de la Tortue came under French control. The buccaneers slowly morphed into the pirates of the Golden Age and Tortuga was replaced by first Port Royal, Jamaica and then New Providence (now Nassau) in the Bahamas as a major base. It remained in use by pirates and privateers into the early 19th century, however. My privateer hero Dominique Youx told stories of spending time on the lovely Turtle Island.

Isle de la Tortue is one of the blue pins on my travel map. Someday, I'll got there. I'll speak French, though. No British accents allowed.