Thursday, December 31, 2009

History: Superstitious To The End

I've said more than once that there is probably nothing on Earth more superstitious than a sailor. I'm pretty sure athletes run a close second in our current era but even now sailors take the prize. Since we're celebrating a New Year tonight, and there are a lot of superstitions that surround that as well, I thought I would offer some shipboard "do's and don'ts" for your enjoyment and edification.

Let's start off with the do's:
Bring only odd numbers of things on board (eg: barrels, sails, some even include shoes and bring three).
Invite children to sail with you (remembering that boys as young as seven or eight were frequently aboard ship).
Throw bread overboard in a storm (an obvious sacrifice to the Gods of the sea).
Place a coin under the heel of the mainmast (as above).
Put a naked woman on deck during a storm (ditto; the upshot of this one is that so many figureheads are half-naked women).
Step on board with your right foot first (probably a variation of the Celtic "first foot" tradition where one should step over the threshold of a new house - or a friend's home on New Years Day - with the right foot first).
Get underway on a Tuesday (very good luck!)
Name your ship after a place (eg: USS Philadelphia, Renato Beluche's La Popa, etc.)
Give your ship a woman's name or - even better - name it after a specific woman (to a lesser degree, after a specific man.)

And here are a few don'ts:
Carry an empty coffin on board (coffins were pariah to seaman, who generally wrapped their dead in hammocks and buried them at sea).
Sneeze.
Say the word "pig" (if any of you all know why, leave me a comment).
Lose a water bucket overboard (this had to do with angering the sea Gods for mucking up their home with human detritus. Interestingly, they didn't seem to mind sailors using the head.)
Comb out and braid your hair at night (hair and the Devil have a long coexistence at sea so best be careful.)
Step on board with your left foot first.
Get underway on Friday (this is still considered "bad juju", as anyone who has watched Deadliest Catch - or Danger Crabs! as we call it around here - knows.)
Speak of a prize as yours before she's taken (this is the same as not counting your chickens, etc.)
Name your ship after a storm (either the storm itself - Typhoon - or, in the modern age, the storm name. Stay away from Katrina, mates.)

And finally, some simple ways to improve luck or turn aside bad luck:
Whistle when in a calm to call the wind.
Touch wood if you have said or done a "don't" (the wood absorbs the negativity of your thought or action).
Sneeze to the right (this somewhat minimizes the bad luck of the sneeze.)

Happy New Years Eve, Brethren. I hope that your evening is full of love and laughter and at least one little superstitious tradition that will bring you luck in 2010. Huzzah!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pathetic Pirates: Bad Company and Good Intentions

Today's entry under the Double P title is not as pathetic as some of our previous guests. He seems like a diligent sort, brave under fire and capable of command. All the same he ended up far worse than many less famous than himself. His two fatal flaws - neither of which might have bothered him much in another profession - were being a bad judge of character and lacking natural cruelty. And so, a brief look at the life of Edward Seegar known as pirate Captain Edward England.

Born some time around 1700 and probably in Ireland, Edward Seegar joined aboard a merchant ship as a young man. Like so many others whose stories will never be told, Edward was just doing his duty when his ship was taken by pirates. In 1717, Captain Christopher Winter captured the merchant vessel in question and took it back to New Providence, Bahamas as prize. It seems that Seegar voluntarily joined up with Winter and then changed his last name to England.

England crewed with Winter until that fateful August in 1718 when Woodes Rogers showed up and kicked the pirates out of their base on New Providence. England, perhaps seeing an opportunity in the chaos, took a prize sloop with a small crew and became Captain. Shrewdly seeing that the Caribbean would be crowded with displaced pirates, England set out for the west coast of Africa to plunder the rich slave trade.

The new Captain cruised the African coast for some months and took several prizes. He began to amass a small fleet as he went along, always moving to a larger and more heavily gunned flagship as he captured them. Eventually he headed south and rounded the Cape of Good Hope, intending to begin plundering the merchant fleets in the Indian Ocean.

By now, England had given a captured sloop - Victory - to a man he thought he could trust, John Taylor. The two Captains put in at Madagascar for victuals and the careening of their ships. Some surviving documentation of their extended visit recalls that they partied hard with the spoils of their hunting and "...[made] free with the Negroe women." Good times, evidently. But not for long.

Back at sea, England's little flotilla captured his new flagship Fancy of 34 guns. She was certainly a frigate and therefor unusually large for a pirate ship. Taylor moved into England's former ship, Pearl, and the hunting continued. In August of 1720, England and his boys ran into three East India merchants off Johanna Island, north and west of Madagascar. Two of the ships chose to run but the largest and best armed, Cassandra, stood her ground.

While Taylor gave chase to the other ships, the fighting between Fancy and Cassandra was brutal and bloody. The ships exchanged broadside for broadside at close range. Hours later, Cassandra was forced to limp off to Johanna where her Captain, James MacCray (or Macrae) beached her and off loaded those of his crew that survived. Cassandra suffered 37 dead and Fancy lost upwards of 85 men.

While MacCray hid in the jungle, England's men ransacked Cassandra. Goods inside were estimated at a worth of 70,000 English pounds but the magnitude of the prize did not quell the blood lust of the pirates. Some of Fancy's crew grumbled about revenge for their lost mates.

By the time MacCray and his men were forced to reveal themselves for lack of fresh water, Taylor had returned. England took the merchant crew as prisoners and Taylor suggested death for one and all. England put his foot down and, as commander, allowed MacCray to leave the island with his remaining crew. This set Taylor's teeth on edge and he began to suggest mutiny to England's pirates.

It didn't take long for the men to be convinced. England and three others still loyal to him were marooned on a small island not far from Madagascar. Somehow the men managed to make it to the pirate port on the larger island but the damage had already been done. His spirit broken, England was reduced to begging on the streets at Madagascar. In 1721 he died, either of some illness or outright starvation.

Edward Seegar England appears to have been a thoughtful, intelligent and inappropriately kind hearted man who simply couldn't pick a trustworthy second in command. Unfortunately, his shortcomings in the pursuit of pirate glory eventually made him pay the ultimate price.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Getting Through Safely

When modern people hear the word pilot they naturally assume one is talking about an individual who handles an aircraft of one kind or another. Just 100 years ago, and certainly before that, the word would have brought something different to mind. Different and yet oddly similar.

A pilot, from the early sea peoples through Viking days and on into the ages of the buccaneers, pirates and privateers, had the specific job of keeping the ship safe and on course near land. Out in open water navigation was done with the aid of the heavens and the compass but near land, particularly in times when accurate charts were a relative rarity, you needed someone who knew the coastal waters like the back of their hand.

In established waterways, a local pilot could be hired. This was a person, usually designated by whatever navy had control of the coast, river road, delta etc., who was an expert on the shoals, bars, sandbanks, coral reefs and so on that might cause harm to a ship. He would not only know the best routes of navigation in the area, but also which specific ways were clear for deeper draft ships such as frigates or men-of-war. As an example the station known as the Balize, at the conjunction of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, has had a Master Pilot since the French established the territory, and probably before. His job being to see ships safely in and out of the river. A pilot's fair way was a body of water designated as impassable without the help of a pilot. The fee paid a pilot was known as a pilotage.

The hiring of a pilot was not, however, reserved only to "legal" waterways. Pilots worked the harbors of Tortuga in buccaneering days and Port Royal, Nassau, Charleston and the Outer Banks of the Carolinas during the Golden Age of piracy. The Laffite brothers employed local sailors at their bases in Barataria where the pass between the islands of Grand Terre and Grande Isle can be treacherous, and Galveston where the bar is so high and the pass so narrow that only one ship could enter or leave the harbor at a time.

Independent freebooters who had no steady base might pay a resident fisherman or even kidnap a native of the area to pilot their ship for them. Doubtless this thankless and nerve racking situation would leave the pilot in question shaken if he succeeded and dead if he did not.

Pilots had to be clear headed and knowledgeable and, particularly in the case of the smuggling operations that supported the pirate and privateering industries, prepared to encounter the aggression of the authorities. At least the task was not thankless. A good pilot, like a good surgeon, was highly regarded by seafaring men.

Monday, December 28, 2009

People: Pass The Aloe

In my wayward travels through the many pirate places in the World, I have only encountered the tale of Captain Red Legs Greaves twice. That's a significantly small number given the exciting life the Captain lived. No one is even able to give me his real first name. All of which leads me to believe that Captain Red Legs may be a piratical myth like Charlotte de Berry, buried treasure and the walking of planks. Whether fact or fiction, the story of Red Legs Greaves is as full of swashed buckles as any Errol Flynn movie and I submit it to you, Brethren, for your own consideration.

Greaves was born to Scottish parents en route to a life of slavery in Barbados. It seems that Mum and Da backed the wrong side during the English Civil War and were promptly indentured to a planter in the West Indies. Life on the plantation was decidedly miserable and, when still a teenager, Greaves ran off and stowed away aboard a ship.

As luck would have it, the ship's business was piracy and her Captain - a man named Hawkins who is also mysteriously lacking a first name - was as cruel as any pirate this side of Francois L'Ollonais. Hawkins forced the young man to sign on at gunpoint and Greaves' adventures as a pirate began. The year was approximately 1670.

Greaves chaffed under the leadership of Hawkins. The young man objected to the Captain's brutal treatment of prisoners and crewmen alike. Eventually the two faced off. Greaves killed Hawkins and was promptly elected the new Captain.

As a leader, Greaves seems to have been one of those big thinkers who didn't trouble himself with small prizes. He planned a daring night raid on one of the pearl diving centers on the island of Margarita off the Venezuelan coast. Managing the capture of a Spanish galleon, he turned her long guns on the fortress overlooking the harbor and the Spanish surrendered. Greaves and his crew sailed away with a fortune in Venezuelan pearls and silver. So much, in fact, that Greaves decided to retire.

The Scottish pirate set his sights on becoming a planter himself. He bought a plantation on the island of Nevis and prepared to settle down. Unfortunately he was recognized by one of the locals as a wanted freebooter. Taken into custody, he was jailed at Jamestown, the island's capital, with no more promising future ahead of him then hanging.

Luck always seemed to be with our red-legged hero, however, and a huge earthquake followed by a tsunami hit Jamestown just as Greaves' trial was about to begin. Unlike most of the island's population, Greaves survived. He was picked up, half-dead and clinging to debris, by a whaling ship. Recovered from his ordeal, Greaves joined the ship's crew. Some time later, the ship with Greaves as crewman, captured a pirate vessel that attacked them.

Greaves evidently revealed himself at this point, and was given a pardon for his part in rounding up the pirates. At last, Greaves retired as a planter and died happy and elderly on land.

The story is pretty hard to swallow at just about every turn. All the same, I hope that at least some of it is true. Oh, and finally there's the bit about Greaves' nickname. It seems he liked to wear short breeches - as so many seaman did - and his pale, Scottish skin was almost permanently burned red by the West Indian sun. Pass the aloe, indeed.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Pummel

When we as modern English speakers think of the word "pummel" we generally think of beating someone to a bloody pulp. Look, it's not a pretty image but isn't that what you're envisioning, mate? Well there's a reason for that and here it is.

Originally the word pummel meant the hilt of a sword (like the hanger pictured above) or the butt of a flintlock. You can see where this is going, can't you?

Swords - relatively fragile items - would break, and that was a far more frequent occurrence in hand to hand combat than Hollywood would like you to believe. Guns, of course, were one shot wonders back then and after you discharged her there you were with a potentially useless piece of wood and metal in your hand. Damn it just doesn't cover it. But our seafaring (and, in all fairness, lubber) ancestors were delightfully resourceful and pirates of the Golden Age didn't take to calling the handle of a flintlock a "skull crusher" for nothing. That's right, kids. They'd just turn their weapon around and beat the living daylights our of their adversary with the pummel.

Eventually, by the early 1800's anyway, pummel was an interchangeable word. It might be what you held your sword with, or it might be the time you had to break that-guy-who-said-that-thing-about-your-mother's nose. Either would work. After roughly the 1870s the former meaning had virtually disappeared and only the latter remained. So while "hand me the pummel of the gun" would be archaic, "look at me funny and I'll pummel you, mate, and no lie" would be easily recognizable. Just as it is today.

Another SMS successfully wraps up and I'm off to shower and change. It's my 22nd wedding anniversary and it's time for Pauline to pay a little attention to the first mate. Spy ya in the week ahead, Brethren!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Booty: It's Still Christmas Here

To all of you who stop by - it's still Christmas in Alaska. Many, many wishes of joy and peace to us all... Until we sail again.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ships: Huzzah For Brined Vegetables!

It's Christmas Eve which is a pretty big deal for many people across the world. So, in that tradition, I thought I would launch a new feature here at Triple P: ships. I got some positive feedback on my post about the old Mayflower and that made me realize how many famous and fascinating ships there really were. To start the show, I offer you the handsome schooner reconstructed above. HMS Pickle.

Pickle was built in Plymouth, England as a two masted schooner, 73 feet in length and 20 feet across her beam. Originally intended for the role of mail carrier, she was purchased by the Admiralty in 1800 and tweaked a bit. She was put to sea the same year as a scout and dispatch packet of 8, 12 pound guns. She held a complement of forty men.

By 1803, Pickle was in the middle of the Napoleonic wars. She worked the blockades of Brest and Rochefort not only delivering messages but also doing reconnaissance of the French shore. Her small size - she displaced 127 tons - made her perfect for this kind of covert operation. While busy doing surveillance in March of 1804, Pickle rescued 650 men from the man-of-war HMS Magnificent which was foundering on a French shoal. Where she managed to put all those sailors, even for a short time, is a mystery to me.

By 1805 the climactic sea battle at Trafalgar was in the offing and Pickle, commanded by Lieutenant John Lapenotiere, was part of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson's squadron. Before the battle she captured a Portuguese setee off Cadiz from whom Lapenotiere learned of 33 line of battle ships lying in wait for Nelson. He reported this to the Admiral directly, and his career was guaranteed.

After Trafalgar, with the French defeated but Nelson dead, it was Pickle that was chosen to hurry home to England and impart the news to the Admiralty, the Prime Minister and the King. She left the fleet on October 26 and arrived at Falmouth harbor on November 4. From there, Lapenotiere famously took a post-chaise to London which flew a Union Jack over a torn and scorched Tricolour on a broomstick. Though the chaise route usually took a week, Lapenotiere's coachman made it to London in 37 hours (with the help of some 19 changes of horse).

Lapenotiere was awarded the rank of Post-Captain for his efforts and returned to the command of Pickle. She went on with her dispatch work and also captured more than one foreign privateer before she was wrecked on a shoal - ironically in Cadiz harbor - in 1808.

The legacy of HMS Pickle lives on in the Royal Navy as the celebration of Pickle Night - November 5. This is the festivity set aside for warrant officers (Master, surgeon, purser, bosun, gunner, carpenter, etc.) and is similar to Trafalgar Night which is celebrated by commissioned officers. The rebuilt HMS Pickle also has her own website, if you'd like to know more.

But I don't get it, Pauline, I hear you saying. Where's the tie-in to Christmas? Well, it may be a bit of a stretch, but there is the old German tradition of hanging a pickle ornament on the Yule tree. It's said to bring prosperity into the house.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lady Pirates: Discovered By The Locals

In all fairness and honesty, today's woman at sea wasn't really a pirate. She did sail with the French Navy, which puts her more in the privateer category since all standing navies have a penchant for what their enemies would surely call - at the very least - privateering. But she wasn't a pirate. Sue me. I have these titles for a reason and just you wait. Her story is both fascinating and funny.

Jeanne Bare (Baret, Barret or Bonnefoy) was born, by her own statement, in Burgundy, France on July 27,1740. We know very little about her youth since it was really only the then shocking circumstances of her "discovery" as a woman aboard ship that made her a mini-celebrity. She must have been an unusual young woman, though, because some time in her 20's she hooked up with a noted French naturalist, Philibert Commerson (or Commercon). Jeanne became Commerson's assistant, and it seems a naturalist in her own right, and the two became lovers as well.

In 1766, Commerson was tapped by Captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville to join his expedition to circumnavigate the globe and explore the great South Sea in particular. At the time, France was keen to colonize the East and Polynesia and Micronesia fit those plans like a glove. Commerson agreed to join the adventure aboard La Boudeuse (which, interestingly, loosely translates as the pouter or sulky one), signing on as naturalist. In this somewhat exalted position he was allowed an assistant/servant, and the choice must have seemed obvious to him and Jeanne. She put on men's clothes and joined him aboard La Boudeuse.

Joan Druett dedicates an entire chapter in her She Captains: Heriones and Hellions of the Sea to the European obsession with dress as a gender marker. She points out that simply slipping into trousers could frequently fool the European eye into imagining a woman was a man. She goes on to reason that, since there were women aboard European ships from the very beginning of what we now think of as national navies, no one was really looking too closely at the quiet kid in the corner with the high voice and lack of stubble. This must have been the case with Jeanne for, although some of her mates noted that she would not "shift [her] clothes nor join us at the head", there wasn't really a whole lot of suspicion about her gender.

In fact, Jeanne's Captain later testified that she had a reputation for "courage and strength". She evidently blossomed into a gifted botanist on the expedition, and was unafraid to join Commerson in the sometimes gritty and even dangerous work of collecting specimens from the various places where La Boudeuse anchored.

Jeanne's masquerade finally fell apart not due to any shipboard indiscretion - she appears to have been far too careful for that - but due to the different perception of people who didn't trouble themselves with skirts and trousers. Anchored off Tahiti, La Boudeuse's crew was given shore leave. The white skinned Frenchmen, fascinating to the locals, were readily accepted by the Tahitian women and sexual favors were granted per custom. When Commerson and Bare came ashore to begin their explorations, the Tahitian men immediately recognized Jeanne as a woman. They were frankly surprised when she refused to grant them the same hospitality that their women were granting the French sailors and they protested to Captain de Bougainville.

With the cat out of the bag, there was no going back. Commerson and Bare came clean about their ruse and de Bougainville eventually had to separate Jeanne from his crew, some of whom seemed to be just as outraged at her lack of generosity as the Tahitians.

In the end, Commerson and Bare left La Boudeuse before the expedition returned to France, some historians speculate to avoid embarrassing de Bougainville. The naturalists were left at the French colony on Isle de France, modern day Mauritius, and both fell into obscurity thereafter. Some sources state that Jeanne Bare may have been the first woman to sail aboard a vessel that circumnavigated the globe, but the fact that she and her lover left the ship at Mauritius puts that in question to my mind.

And then there's the fact that we just don't know, as I've always said, how many women were aboard any given ship when history was made. Maybe there was a woman with Drake or Vespucci or any of the others who rounded the Earth before the 1700's. Or maybe not. But Jeanne Bare's story opens the window for speculation just that much more.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Bring Her About

The image above is of the helm of the beautiful Star of India. Based out of San Diego, Star of India is the oldest working merchant vessel in the world and she is a piece of living, breathing history. If you've ever seen the "Tar Rigger" episode of Dirty Jobs, you've seen the Star of India. You've also witnessed just a little bit of how hard sailors work to keep up their ships. Especially sailing ships like the one in question.

But back to the helm. On any vessel the helm is simply the mechanism by which the ship or boat is steered. On small boats such as gigs and pinnaces, the helm would consist of a simple tiller attached directly to the rudder. This may also be the case in a smaller sloop or schooner - the kind pirates loved so much. In larger ships, again sometimes schooners and certainly frigate class ships and men-of-war, a wheel did the work. The wheel would control the rudder in such cases through a system of braces, gears and ropes.

The helmsman would be, of course, the man at the tiller or wheel. Orders to the helm indicated which way to move the tiller. As an example, the order "hard to starboard" would require and opposite reaction from the helmsman. The tiller being moved toward larboard (modern day port) would make the vessel turn to starboard. Certainly a confusing situation for anyone who lacked experience and only the most trusted and seaworthy men were given the job of helmsman. Then too there was the whole starboard/larboard thing which could get a little mixed up in anybody's head now and again. Particularly after your grog ration. Better add sobriety to the list of your helmsman's virtues, mate.

Try to keep that in your head as you go about your business today. There was a lot a "simple" sailor had to know, not the least of which was how to keep his wooden world on tack and afloat. And if you're ever in San Diego stop by for a tour of Star of India. She'll take your breath away, I promise. And give you just a hint of what life on the waves used to be like.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Luff

So I'm writing, like I do, and my heroine Juliette Flynn is exhorting her crew: "Luff up! Luff up!!" in that commanding voice of hers and I start thinking. Of course I know what luff means in regards to sailing - bring the ship as close to the wind as possible even though you are sailing into it rather than before it. But how, I say to myself, do I describe that to the reader? How do I impart that moment - really a few seconds only - of urgency as the ship comes around and her sails either do or do not fill with wind? That intense feeling of complete uncertainty that comes with knowing you've done everything correctly and now it's all up to something as capricious and uncontrollable as the wind? It makes my heart skip a beat just thinking about it.

Still chewing my nails, I went to the old dictionary of sailing and nautical terms (originally published in 1867) and looked up "luff". What I found surprised me. So here I am sharing it with you.

First, there was what we already knew: luff is the order to the helmsman to bring the ship to windward. This is sometimes referred to as springing a luff which has that sailory tang to it, doesn't it?

Next is where it gets interesting. The widest part of the bow of a ship can also be referred to as a luff as can the part of a sail that takes the wind. Most curious of all, though, is that luff is the old English word for Lieutenant. And then all of a sudden the light bulb went on over my head. So that's why, despite the obvious lack of any letter even remotely resembling an f in that word, British people to this day say "Lufftenant".

And thus the picture above. Those two guys in fore-and-aft headgear are Lufftenants Mowett (on the left, who aspires to be called a poet) and Pullings (on the right, who marries a young lady named Rose Chub). Dang, Patrick O'Brian had a sense of humor. If only I could write half as well. At least there's always editing, which I'm off to now.

Happy Saturday, Brethren! See you next week here at Triple P!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Booty: A Good Read Of A Long Night

We talked about books for the little buccaneers last week under the flag of "Booty". They were all good, and as enjoyable for adults as for kids, but today it's time for reading of a different sort. Here, Brethren, are your humble hostess' top four pirate books for big kids.

David Cordingly's Under a Black Flag is, as of this writing, the definitive work about a piratical life at sea. Many other books reference Cordingly and rightly so. He is extremely knowledgeable and his research is excellent. His style is conversational, though, so the academia doesn't get in the way. If you haven't read a book about pirates, this is a great place to start.
The Pirate Coast by Richard Zacks, which is now in paperback, is the fascinating story of America's first war on foreign soil. Held in Tripoli by the Algerian Dey, the crew of USS Philadelphia had little hope of rescue. President Jefferson wasn't going to be pushed around, however, and he sent an elite force of US Marines led by William Eaton to rescue the sailors and potentially overthrow the Algerine government. It's a rousing tale and one that was going to be a movie before 9/11 made this perceived "anti-Islam" moment in history too hot to touch. Read the book and find out why that's a bucket of bilge water.
Next we have The Pirates Laffite. Guess which of these offerings is Pauline's favorite? How did you know? William C. Davis, one of our foremost American historians and a Southern gentleman to boot, brings us the true and untempered story of Jean and Pierre Laffite. Davis is a master storyteller and, though his research is so exhaustive it makes me sleepy, this book is a page turner. Don't believe anything anyone who hasn't read and absorbed this book ever tells you about the Laffites and their ilk. They don't know what they're talking about. Period.
And, on the distaff side, there is Joan Druett's She Captains. Druett, much like Cordingly, is an expert on the history of seafaring and she brings all her knowledge to bare in this wonderfully written book. From ancient history to the modern day, Druett follows in the wake of women at sea. And there have been a lot of them, believe me.
There are my suggestions for the curious privateer in your life. Or maybe it's time to reward yourself after all that shopping and wrapping. Winter is always a wonderful time to curl up with a good read. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tools of the Trade: The Surgeon's Grim Work

One has to assume that it was no treat being injured or ill aboard a seafaring vessel of any kind "back in the day". I certainly wouldn't have wanted to try it myself. Physicians and surgeons, though in fact "trained" as early as the Renaissance, were actually educated through an apprenticing system. Even actual physicians who walked the wards at teaching hospitals were not going to school in the sense that we think of it now. They were observing other doctors at work and then - if they were fortunate - putting their observations to work on illegally gotten cadavers.

Most navies, by the 18th century, had a rank of Surgeon. The ratio in the Royal Navy was one surgeon for each ship that carried 70 men with a surgeon's mate (usually a man of equal capability but, perhaps, lesser experience) added for each additional 200 men. An 800 man ship of the line could ship a surgeon and four mates along with assistants, or loblolly boys as they were known. This meant that "physic" was surprisingly available to men at sea, but many times the cure was as bad as - or worse than - the disease.

While surgeons were so called because they "did surgery" (a nice euphemism for "cut stuff off") the reality was that battle just wasn't as frequent as Hollywood would like us to believe and therefore truly gruesome wounds were not as common as one might think. Of course there were accidents. Falls were a concern but, unfortunate, most of the victims of these sorts of mishaps died out-right. There were burns, from galley stoves and gun practice, which were generally treated with olive oil and could become infected. Sprains and strains were common and commonly faked as well for a few days in the hammock. The vast majority of the surgeon's work, however, focused on illness.

By the early 19th century, a surgeon's medicine cabinet (usually looking very similar to the one above) would include treatments for fever, purging, pain relief and STDs.

The first was a tonic made from cinchona which was usually referred to as Peruvian bark. The bark was brewed into a brown tea and it contained quinine which, as we now know, does in fact help alleviate malaria symptoms. Because it worked on the fever of malaria, surgeons assumed it would work on any other fever, too. In those cases, however, it was simply a placebo.

Purges could be administered to induce elimination or vomiting, depending on the ailment. Enemas were common. Medicinal rhubarb, Castor oil, tartar emetic and ipecac were all used by mouth. Sailors were notoriously fond of purges for some reason, and surgeons kept these goodies under lock and key.

Pain relief was achieved via alcohol originally and then opium tinctured in alcohol, which is known as laudanum. Both were known to be addictive, but considering the potential pain of having an arm sawed off, no one seemed to give that much thought.

Finally STDs, which at the time were strictly considered gonorrhea and syphilis, were treated with mercury. There were oral preparations in the form of daily pills and mercuric chloride suspended in ointment for topical application. Intractable cases were treated to mercury salts injected directly into the ureter. All of these were used on both men and women, although syphilis in particular was hard to diagnose in females.

Then there were the truly grim treatments, pulled from the handy medicine chest only in life threatening situations. Blistering of the skin through the application of plasters made from mustard or cantharides beetles were used for high fevers, the thought being that the "heat" would be drawn to the painful blister formed by the plaster. Bleeding was also frequent. A surgeon would take approximately 12 ounces at a time, but much more could be collected from someone suffering from dangerous diseases such as typhus or yellow fever. Those who survived the disease and the treatment were the strongest of the strong.

Finally, there were times when this treasure chest had to be opened:Saws, knives, scalpels, syringes, probes, retractors, along with needles and cat-gut for sewing things up were all at hand for when the much feared fester of gangrene set in or when a crush injury would surely lead to infection. Of course anesthesia was not an option and most surgeons preferred to offer pain relief only after the procedure was done, for fear of trauma to the patient (I am not making that up). A man's mates or the surgeon's assistants would hold him down. A good surgeon could remove a lower leg in four minutes, bone and all.

While well funded privateers might ship surgeons routinely - Sir Francis Drake and John Paul Jones are good examples - most pirates got by with either a pilfered or make shift medicine chest. If a prize with a surgeon aboard was taken, Bones was usually "encouraged" to volunteer aboard the pirate's vessel. A notable exception is Alexander Exquemelin who voluntarily shipped with both Francois L'Ollonais and Henry Morgan as surgeon. Failing any of that hey, the carpenter had saws.

The history of medicine is frequently bleak, and I've no doubt that the seafaring surgeon's work was often grim and bloody. One thing is for sure, though. Surgeons were almost universally venerated by seaman of all ranks and levels of education, as if they were ancient shamans or medicine men. I guess, to some degree, they were. But no bleeding for me, thanks.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Movies: "The Ruthless Ambitions Of A Man"

1940's The Sea Hawk, a Warner Bros. film directed by Michael Curtiz and staring Errol Flynn as our titular privateer, is not really a movie about a freebooter. In fact it is a propaganda film designed to reference the "Nazi problem" behind a thin veil of England in peril. Americans were uneasy about all the world domination coming out of Germany and the movie was supposed to get them fired up to kick kraut ass even as it entertained. I'll have to ask my Mom if it worked.

Borrowing the title from the seafaring novel by Rafael Sabatini, and nothing else, The Sea Hawk is really just a Hollywood version of some of the exploits of Sir Francis Drake. A lot of liberties are taken - it's Hollywood after all - to the point of naming Flynn's character Geoffrey Thorpe. Why? You're guess is as good as mine.

None of these little nit-picking details detract from the movie at all. Filmed on the heels of that other Errol Flynn pirate movie, Captain Blood (and in fact using some of the footage from same) The Sea Hawk is a feast for the senses and the eyes - even when it comes off as historically inaccurate... or down right corny.

The movie starts out with an ominous scene of King Philip of Spain discussing his plans to conquer the entire world. The visual punch is evident right away as a giant map on the wall is engulfed by the shadow of the evil King. He is sending his minister Don Alvarez (Claude Rains, appropriately untrustworthy) to England to meet with Queen Elizabeth and, as it turns out, a Spanish spy in her court. The Don is taking along his niece, Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall, who comes off rather well in the soft focus lens, though frankly I was missing Olivia de Havilland), to be presented to the Queen and become her lady in waiting. Of course the young Dona has a duenna played by that usual minder of sweet young things Una O'Connor who, with Alan Hale, becomes comic relief.

Alvarez's ship is overtaken by Thorpe in his carrack Albatross (get it - like the Swan or Pelican of Drake... yeah). Of course there's some awesome boarding and sword play that is well staged and in some cases pretty authentic:
Except for those epee blades. Where's your hanger, Thorpe?

I'm not even gonna touch that one. Anyway, the Spanish ship is jam packed with English slave oarsmen. All of these are set free and marched directly past the indignant Dona Maria who looses some of her self-righteousness when she sees what her country and the Inquisition have been up to.

Soon enough Alvarez is protesting Thorpe's indiscretions to Queen Elizabeth herself. She calls her "Sea Hawks" in to be reprimanded and of course Thorpe is late. The Queen (English actress Flora Robson who chews scenery like I imagine the real Liz the First actually did) pretends outrage but then, when she gets Thorpe alone, reveals her disgust with King Philip and the Spanish in general. This allows Thorpe to tell the Queen of his plans to raid the annual mule train of treasure in Panama. Elizabeth is all for it, but advises that she cannot openly fund or condone the mission.

Meanwhile, Alvarez is meeting with Lord Wolfingham, the Queen's advisor and the spy for Spain. (Though Henry Daniell does a fine job in the role, both the first mate and I agreed that Vincent Price would have been a lot more fun to watch.) They're plotting the invasion of the Armada while, under their noses, Dona Maria is falling hard for Geoffrey Thorpe.

Thorpe sails for Panama but the mission has been leaked to Alvarez who hurries off to undo all Thorpe hopes to accomplish. The New World scenes are shot in sepia tone rather than straight black and white, which gives the action in the close, humid jungles of Panama a decidedly sticky and buggy feel. I'm itchy just thinking about it.

Of course Thorpe and his men are ambushed by an overwhelming Spanish force. Remanded to the custody of the Inquisition, the Englishmen who survive - including of course Flynn and Hale - are sentenced to life in a Spanish galley. No amount of chain will hold our hero, however, and the crew of the Albatross manage to escape their inhuman bondage and return to England. (Ladies, just FYI, there's a lot of shirtlessness in these scenes and you should know it ain't 300... not by a long shot.)

Thorpe reports plans for the Armada's strike on England to Queen Elizabeth and then he proceeds to dispatch Lord Wolfingham in an exquisitely well done dueling scene. He is reunited with Dona Maria - who disavows Spain forever. The Queen recalls all her disgraced "Sea Hawks" and gives a rousing speech about honor to country and what can happen when "...the ruthless ambitions of a man threaten to engulf the world". (Philip or Hitler? You decide.)

Despite it's melodrama, The Sea Hawk is a classic film. Even more than Captain Blood, this film allows Flynn to really shine and play to his strengths. Not since Robin Hood had he been this uncompromisingly charming and swashbuckling.
Of course we all know the December holidays are upon us. A pirate lover in your life would doubtless thank you for a copy of The Sea Hawk and if they don't, keep it for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

History: The King vs Rene Beluche

Look, I've always said I'm an 18th century girl and today proves it once again. I had a nicely scanned picture of my ancestor Renato Beluche all ready for the header of this post and then Blogger goes and tells me the jpg is corrupt and can't be downloaded. Fine. Born on this day in 1780 on the property at 628 Rue Dumaine that is now known in New Orleans as Madame John's Legacy (due to a George Washington Cable story), no word fits my great grandmother eight times removed's big brother less. If ever there was a incorruptible pirate, it was my Uncle Renato.

This statement is clearly illustrated by an incident that occurred over the course of the spring and summer of 1818 when Uncle Renato was in his prime and had risen to the rank of Commodore in Bolivar's Venezuelan navy. He and his old pal Dominique Youx were cruising their schooners - General Arismendi and Guerrier respectively - off the coast of Cuba. They came upon a man in a small boat and, because of reports they had heard about piratical depredations by just that sort of vessel in the area, stopped and detained both. Eventually, Beluche took the boat aboard General Arismendi and allowed the man aboard, James Scott, to leave for Jamaica in the sloop of Scott's acquaintance, a man named Samuel Phillips.

At the time of this interaction, Beluche and Youx held commissions in the Venezuelan navy and were therefore within their rights to challenge pirates in any waters frequented by ships from that country. The irony being, of course, that both men were notorious privateers who - though they only took Spanish ships as per their commissions - were still working with the infamous Laffite brothers who had set up shop in Galveston harbor only two years before. Technically both men were legitimate naval officers, but only if the country they were dealing with recognized Bolivar's supremacy over Spain's.

When Beluche arrived at Kingston, Jamaica in April, Scott appears to have been waiting for him. He ran off to the authorities, claimed to be a British citizen and further claimed that Beluche had stolen his little $50 dinghy in an act of heinous piracy. Since the British did not recognize Venezuela as a country at the time and since Scott had a bill of sail for the boat that was indeed found aboard General Arismendi, Beluche was remanded to the Kingston jail.

The case of The King vs Rene Beluche (as Renato is referred to throughout the documentation of the trial - it was his father's name) became a bit of a cause celebre in New Orleans. Beluche was a hero of the January, 1815 Battle of New Orleans that saved the city - and the country - from British invasion. Now, it seemed to this favorite son's brethren back home, the British were trying to get a bit of their own back by railroading Beluche straight to the gallows as a pirate. The NOLA papers, particularly the French language Gazette de la Louisiane, re-tweeted each article out of Kingston on the subject and people hung on every word. It was, in fact, one of the first big "celebrity trials" in US history.

I won't go through the entire case as it was printed in Kingston and New Orleans. Very simply, Scott claimed to be wronged by both Beluche and Youx (interestingly, no where to be found during the trial) in the issue of the "stolen" boat and Phillips went along with the story. When Beluche's counsel took the stage, however, a very different tale came to light. Impartial witnesses who were aboard Phillips' sloop testified that Scott's boat was in fact carrying only arms, flints, balls and black powder, not the "provisions" Scott claimed Youx had taken from him. Later, an American who had served with Scott on a Spanish vessel testified that Scott was also an American which blew the lid off the British Admiralty's case. Their indignation had been over crimes against a British subject by an American, and now here was Scott an American himself.

Defense continued with character witnesses, mostly merchants that made a ton of money working with the defendant, who repeatedly claimed Beluche "...bore a very excellent character" and was considered "...a very brave and humane man."

Phillips was called back to the stand to account for discrepancies in his testimony but, before the questioning could finish, the jury advised that they had reached a decision. The verdict was not guilty. After over a month in prison, Uncle Renato was exonerated and returned to the sea that he loved.

Beluche took General Arismendi to New Orleans, where his mistress and young daughter were waiting for him. He was welcomed home as a hero, just as he had been after the bloody battle on Rodriguez Canal. Pretty impressive for a guy who went to sea at age 8 just to keep his pregnant mother and younger siblings fed. Happy Birthday, Uncle Renato. Fair winds and fat prizes.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Home Ports: "Heated By Dreams Of Wealth"

I was always taught that the first European settlement in the U.S. was St. Augustine, Florida claimed by the Spanish (who were claiming everything in the New World at the time) in 1565. It turns out, though, that my teachers were wrong. Or perhaps just misinformed.

Fort Caroline was established by French Huguenots in 1564. It is north of what would become St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast of Florida south of Georgia. The man responsible was French Admiral Gaspard de Coligny who financed an expedition of Protestant exiles from France to settle in the Americas. This was not a settlement in the sense that Jamestown or New Orleans would be settlements. This was a fort built for one purpose only: to serve as a base from which to raid Spanish shipping. As de Coligny himself described it:

There were no tillers of the soil, only adventurous gentlemen, reckless soldiers, discontented tradesmen, all keen for novelty and heated by dreams of wealth.

What de Coligny doesn't mention is a visceral hatred of the Spanish. Like the Buccaneers of Tortuga a century later, the Frenchmen of Fort Caroline saw Spain as their mortal enemy.

From Fort Caroline, the freebooters went out and raided not only Spanish merchants and treasure ships but Spanish cities as well. Cartagena and Panama in South America both fell prey to the Protestant pirates. Cuba was hit particularly hard - probably due to proximity - with both Santiago and the well established capital of Havana sacked and plundered.

Of course the Spanish weren't going to hold still for all these Froggy shenanigans. In 1565 King Philip II sent a force led by Captain General Pedro de Menendez of Avilles to deal with the problem. 30 ships left Cadiz in June carrying a force of 2,000 soldiers along with upwards of 500 settlers. The Captain General was charged by the king to handle the pirate problem and establish a Spanish fort in "The Florida". De Menendez was the right man for the job not only because of his ruthlessness but his business interests as well. He owned several merchant ships, one of which had recently gone missing in the area of Fort Caroline with his own son aboard.

By September, de Menendez was reconnoitering Fort Caroline and he didn't like what he saw. The triangle shaped fort was heavily armed with earthworks and high walls on all three sides. It had a good view of it's harbor and sat slightly back on an estuary the could become a tap for the Spanish ships. De Menendez took his men and settlers south and, finding what he referred to as "a good harbor" he officially established St. Augustine.

While in the process of building his own ramparts, de Menendez and his men saw a flotilla of pirate ships from Fort Caroline sail by heading south. He surmised that the fort might be left with only a few men and he marched his soldiers overland to try and take it immediately. His hunch was right and the poorly defended fort was overcome with no Frenchmen left alive.

De Menendez left troops at Fort Caroline and returned to St. Augustine. There he was informed that the French ships previously seen had been wrecked on the coast further south. De Menendez hurried to the site and found 200 surviving pirates. He had them slaughtered on the beach. Shortly thereafter, de Menedez caught up with the last of the Fort Caroline freebooters. All were executed directly, including the commander of the fort, Jean de Ribault.

A mass grave was dug for these men and over it de Menendez erected a marker which read: "I do this not to Frenchmen but to heretics."

As a reward for his effective viciousness, the King made de Menendez Governor of Havana, among other things. The Spanish Main would remain relatively safe for another five years. Then El Dragon, Sir Francis Drake, would pick up where the Huguenots pirates left off.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Fly

Fly is a word that the language of sailing cannot get enough of. Born of the Anglo-Saxon verb fleogan and updated in Middle English to flyen, the modern word may have a hundred uses by land but by sea it must have a thousand.

There is the fly, that arrow known as a compass card in land-based parlance that sits on the pin above the magnetic-needle in a compass and points the way north. Then there's the fly-away, a sea going mirage of land also known as Dutchman's cape in reference to the Flying Dutchman. We fly flags thanks to naval language which spoke originally of the fly of the flag meaning it's side to side length. Up and down was the hoist. Note that you can also hoist a flag. Thanks, sailors.

In reference to a ship she may be flying light, meaning that she is unburdened in the way of cargo, provisions or water. This may sound like a boon to fast sailing but in fact a sparsely laden ship is prone to "crank" or lean precariously to one side increasing the risk of capsizing. On the other hand she may be a flyer, a ship that can hurry along before the wind faster than any other. The original American clipper ship (like the beautiful Cuttysark above in a painting from the Hutton Archive) was referred to simply as a flyer.

Virtually every type of sail has it's smaller, higher "flying" version. Looking at Cuttysark you see flying jibs (the smaller of the fore and aft sails at her bowsprit). These, by the way, are attached to the flying jib-boom which is a spare attached to the bowsprit to elongate it. On her fore the top two and on her main the top three sails would be collectively referred to as flying kites. This term encompasses all very high sails, ordinarily set out only in the best weather, such as royals, skysails and cloud scrapers. Imagine setting those puppies. Away aloft!

And then there was the fly-by-night, a square studdingsail set on a fore and aft rigged schooner when the wind was favorable and at night. Flying such sails in darkness was very unusual and indicated a need to get to - or run away from - something at all cost. Thus our modern term fly-by-night for something or someone decidedly untrustworthy.

Finally in football news, Navy over Army 17 to 3. Non sibi sed patriae (Not self but country). Huzzah for the navy blue and gold!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Booty: Something For The Wee Ones

As promised last Friday, we're "Bootying" all month on potential gifts for those with piratitude. Of course, being a pirate mom my own darn self, I can't leave out the wee beasties. Since I am also addicted to real books with pages - which I honestly believe instill in children a life long curiosity - here are a few of my favorites for young pirates (and the young at heart, too!).
How I Became A Pirate tells the story of a typical soccer-playing elementary schooler who, on a trip to the sea shore with his family, runs into Braid Beard and his comical crew. Jeremy Jacob sails off with the rogues and soon finds out that not brushing your teeth or taking a regular bath aren't as much fun as he thought they would be. The follow up book, Pirates Don't Change Diapers, introduces little sister Bonnie Anne. Get it?
Next is Roger the Jolly Pirate, the first pirate-themed book I ever bought for the young. I love the well drawn cast of piratical characters in this one - from a Barbary version to a very Jean Laffite-esque dandy to a disguised woman. Here we follow the bumbling exploits of Roger who eventually - through no intent of his own - saves his ship from the Royal Navy. Then, guess what the pirates name after him.
My very favorite of the bunch is Jean Laffite and the Big Ol Whale by Frank G. Fox and Scott Cook (whose artwork from the book appears above). The story is a tall tale in the historic American style, following young Jean from mysteriously orphaned baby to teenage rescuer of a whale stranded in the Mississippi. At the end he digs Lake Pontchartrain for the whale to spend time in. The only thing missing is a blue ox (to be played, I have to imagine, by Jean's stout older brother Pierre). Great for critters of all ages.
And don't ever think I'd forget the girls. The Pirate Meets the Queen is my redhead's favorite. It tells the story of Grainne NiMalley (Grace O'Malley to you English), the Pirate Queen of Ireland, meeting with Elizabeth I of England to request release for her imprisoned son. Both women are historical figures, of course, and the book is a great jumping off point for exploration of the "were there girl pirates?" question. Yes, Virginia; there were.
There's something wonderful about the idea of being a pirate and, in this world, a little something to spark the imagination goes a long, long way. Nothing does that quite like books.
Sailor Mouth Saturday tomorrow. See you then, mates!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Pirates Own Book: Another Bloody Career

It's been a while since we've visited the fun and frolic that is Charles Ellms' The Pirates' Own Book and, on a gloomy, icy, cold, dark day, nothing cheers like a good laugh - or at least a good debate. For that reason I give you Chapter 11: Bloody Career and Execution of Vincent Benavides.

According to Ellms the Benavides in question was born in Chile (which Ellms spells like the spicy stew) some time in the late 18th century. By 1816 he is a traitor to the Chilean revolution, having gone over to the side of the Spanish, and faces death for his crimes. He and others, including his brother, are shot in a public execution. Though "horribly wounded by the discharge", Benavides remains alive. Like Guy Pierce's character in the movie Ravenous, he plays dead and "lays in the heap of carcasses" until nightfall when he manages to crawl off and get help.

Recovered, he meets with a Spanish officer and is sent off to harass the Araucan Indians. Ellms doesn't address why the Spanish are so enamoured with Benavides that they would put him in charge of what appears to be a covert operation so I have to say that the whole thing sounds a little made up to me. Also, so far anyway, Benavides story is distinctly lacking in the piracy department.

Once among the Araucan tribe he persuade them and the Spanish in his command to form "a band of armed robbers who commit every cruelty and were guilty of every perfidy". Essential, Benavides has become a bandit chieftain at this point which is entirely possible given the unstable nature of governments throughout South America at the time. Benavides starts slaughtering people wholesale, leaving a trail of blood miles long behind him. At this point, Ellms tells us that Benavides "when he had rendered himself powerful by land... resolved to be equally powerful upon the sea."

Without going into any detail as to how, Ellms has Benavides obtain a ship and start taking prizes off the island of Santa Maria. He seems to focus on American ships, whalers in particular, and the prize Herculia is of particular note. Benavides forces the sailors aboard first into slavery and then into joining his pirate crew. He seems to make friends the Herculia's captain, who is never named, and Benavides trust gets him into trouble.

The Captain escapes with nine of his crew in unattended whale boats left on the beach. After a harrowing voyage they arrive in Valparaiso. There is at least one American ship in port and, upon hearing of the depredations of Vincent Benavides, Captain Hall sets out to find the pirate and bring him to justice.

Here, the story becomes jumbled and confusing. Benavides has been beset upon by Chilean forces at Biobio (I love that name!) and is on the lamb and on his own. The Arauca are now referred to as unwittingly connected to Benavides and when Hall stops in to talk to them they have been ousted from their village, which Benavides has put to the torch one assumes during the engagement with the rebels. Ellms blue prose comes out at last in this passage. The natives are drunk and their chief, a man named Peneleo who has not been mentioned earlier, is keeping a young native woman - possibly against her will. We knew we could count on you, Charles!

Hall seems unaffected by these goings on and continues in his search for Benavides who is still by land. The pirate sends word in December of 1821 that he is ready to give himself up. Meanwhile he takes a launch down the Lebo river in an attempt to join with Spanish forces. Such treachery is probably to be expected and, when he cannot find the Spanish, he apparently becomes abusive to what mates he still has. Eventually the launch puts ashore for water and Benavides is "... now arrested by some patriotic individuals."

Needless to say, Chile's government won't put up with any more of Vincent Benavides' nonsense. He is tried, and his judges decide to make an example of him. He is "... hanged in the great square; his head and hands were afterwards cut off, in order to their being placed upon high poles to point to the places of his horrid crimes..." So ends the profligate life of another brigand.

Ellms obvious distaste for Benavides stems not so much from his criminal behavior but from his disloyalty to a revolution. American Ellms is, of course, writing well after the fact in the 1830s, but he comes off as a typical man of his era. By that time the Spanish had been summarily ousted from power in most of South and Central America (only Mexico was still held by Spain while Brazil was ruled by a Portuguese prince) and Americans were big on cheering for revolutions against tyranny. The interesting point is that during the struggles led by Jose de San Martin in Argentina, Bernardo O'Higgins in Chile and the Great Liberator Simon Bolivar everywhere else, the U.S. government refused to recognize the independence of South American states for fear of pissing off Spain. Ellms righteous American disgust at one little loyalist brigand is pretty ingenuous.

Plus, Charles, I'm not getting a lot of piracy here. Try to address that next time.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

History: The First Pirate Culture

In popular culture, pirates are 18th century guys with tricorn hats and curved cutlasses on three masted frigates that have surprisingly large cabins below. We've talked about how ludicrous that is so I'm not going to go there again. But even among those who claim a certain amount of piratical and seafaring knowledge very little is ever said about piracy in the Ancient world.

Most books and websites on the subject hit the Cilician pirates of classical times briefly. This is probably due either to the fact that they famously kidnapped Julius Caesar for ransom or because they (also famously) betrayed Spartacus and his band of rebel slaves. Either way it's a swift nod and then we're on to bigger and better things. But before the Cilicians started nabbing Romans for pay, there was a group of sea rovers who can technically be called the first organized freebooters on Earth.

Known to their arch enemy, the Ancient Egyptians, as the Sea Peoples they are now loosely referred to by historians as Phoenicians (and may possibly be the ancestors of the Biblical Philistines). The group was actually a set of five or more tribes displaced from the Adriatic and Aegean areas of Greece and Italy. Some scholars even speculate that one or more of these tribes were Mycenaean and/or Hittite peoples displaced by the Northern invaders who later became the Classical Greeks.

Most of what we know about the Sea Peoples comes from the Ancient Egyptian temples at Karnak and the tomb of Ramesses the Great and is therefor probably skewed due to the hostility between the two groups. These highly skilled seafarers used ports in modern Turkey and Israel as their bases and from there they launched piratical attacks, particularly on Egyptian merchant ships, in the eastern Mediterranean. They returned to their ports, or others nearby, and bartered with the local Cannonites and Libyans in particular.

The people of the sea were so much trouble, in fact, that the ultimate Egyptian warrior, Ramesses, finally took matters into his own hands and sent his navy against them. The two forces met off the Nile Delta in 1186 BCE. According to Ramesses' tomb, things went very badly for the Sea Peoples but we can now recognize this as Egyptian spin doctoring. Not long after the battle the Sea Peoples were back in business - if to a somewhat lesser degree - and a few years later they were hiring their ships and services out to the Libyans and the Egyptians as well.

Cultures aside from the Ancient Egyptians praised the Sea Peoples as skilled seamen and fearsome warriors who not only preyed on ships and shipping but sacked port towns for plunder in organized, well-timed raids. The result appears to be a culture of seafaring that was at the very least similar to the Buccaneer societies of Tortuga and Port Royal in the 17th century.

Proof, once again, that there truly is nothing new under the sun. Except maybe the Sea Peoples.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

People: The Original Sea Hawk

Above, looking surprisingly like Paul Giamatti (who knew?) is the original Sea Hawk, Sir Francis Drake, whose youthful distaste for all things Catholic and Spanish spurred him on to wealth and fame. What ever it takes, I guess.

Drake was born in that most seafaring of English provinces, Devon, probably some time in 1540. His father was a protestant preacher and during the bloody persecutions of Catholic Mary I the Drakes were forced to flee their home and take up residence in an abandon ship. Young Francis blamed not only the Catholic church for his family's misfortune but also Queen Mary's suitor, Spanish monarch Philip, and his urge for revenge began to smolder.

In his twenties, Drake went to sea with his cousin John Hawkins. Hawkins amassed a small fortune working the slave trade and Drake eventually became Captain of one of Hawkins' ships. They sailed the perpetual triangle from Africa to the West Indies to England and so on until 1568 when hurricanes forced Hawkins' small flotilla into the Gulf of Mexico. There, on the island of San Juan de Ulua off Vera Cruz, Hawkins was refitting his wounded ships when a surprise attack by the Spanish navy decimated his fleet. Only Hawkins and Drake managed to get their ships out to sea and Drake's hatred was now set in stone. Hawkins had been promised an armistice by the Governor at Vera Cruz. The Spanish had lied, and Drake was now their sworn enemy.

By 1570 Drake had a privateer's commission from Elizabeth I and he set out for the Spanish Main in a caravel named Swan. Drake had no interest in the commerce that made his cousin rich. He was interested only in plunder. He set up a base at Port Pheasant in the Gulf of Darien and, with the help of local natives and the run away slaves known as Cimarrons, he attacking Spanish shipping.

Drake was nothing if not ambitious, and he began to sack Spanish cities along the coast as well. In 1572 he was able to capture the city of Nombre de Dios. He was severely wounded in this raid and needed time to recover. While he patched up, he formulated a plan to attack the Spanish mule train that regularly carried gold, silver and jewels from the mines in Peru to Panama for shipment to Spain. During this time he also became partners with a French pirate named Guillaume Testu. The two freebooters tried to raid the mule trains twice before finally succeeding and capturing thousand of pounds of gold and silver.

Unfortunately, Testu was badly injured during the raid and he was left behind with the silver and some trusted mates. Although Drake did come back for the men after hauling the tremendous amount of gold captured to the Swan, the men and the silver had disappeared. Most probably, they were taken by the Spanish.

Drake sailed back to England and, though the local people of Devon hailed him as a hero, Elizabeth had to pretend shock and disappointment. She was trying to work out a peace with Philip of Spain and so, to avoid having to hang Drake as a pirate, she sent him off to Ireland until things cooled down politically.

By 1577 any hope of settling amicably with Spain had fallen apart and Elizabeth "unofficially" sponsored Drake for another voyage to the Main. This time he had five ships including his flag ship Pelican, which he would rename in tribute to the "official" patron of the cruise Sir Christopher Hatton. (Sir Chris' coat-of-arms featured a gold stag at the top, thus the Golden Hind.) The flotilla sailed to North Africa and then on to South America. They hit heavy weather off Tierra del Fuego, where three ships sank with all hands and a fourth had to turn back to England. Golden Hind pressed on, though, making it into the Pacific and up the coast where Drake sacked Valparaiso in Chile. The Spanish now referred to him as the Dragon - El Dragon.

It was in the Pacific that Drake hit the big time. He took the enormous treasure ship Cacafuego (and yes, that means "shit fire") as she was leaving Peru on her way to Spanish holdings in the far east. She was so full of gold and silver bars that Drake emptied the balast from Golden Hind's hold and filled it with Cacafuego's treasure. Drake then continued up to the California coast and on east, circumnavigating the globe before returning to Plymouth in 1580, a hero and a millionaire. Elizabeth knighted him the following year.

Unhappy by land like so many other sailors, Drake never did settle down. In 1586 he mounted another successful trip to the Spanish Main, this time with 25 ships under his command. He was back at it again in 1595 with 27 ships. This cruise was much less successful than his previous endeavors and it seems the writing was on the wall for Sir Francis Drake. In February of 1596 Drake died of "fever and the bloody flux" off the coast of Panama. He was buried at sea with full naval honors.

From preacher's son to sailor to knight and national hero, most people in the English speaking world at the very least recognize the name of Francis Drake. And in the Spanish speaking world he is sometimes still referred to as El Dragon. I think he would appreciate that.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Mind Your Bells

I don't think I need to tell you, Brethren, that ships don't run themselves. Being the original "don't drink and drive" vehicle they had to be watched constantly (and soberly) during the age of wooden ships and iron men. And watching the ship gave us the term "watch" and being on watch meant that the ship was at no time left to her own devises.

Watches, originally adopted of course by the great navies, were - and still are - common to all ships. Even the most undisciplined freebooter afloat had a watch system of some kind. There's no pay in running aground or wrecking on a reef regardless of your chosen profession. The general watch system was simple and easy to follow, and it ensured that no man had the same watch two days at a time. This was helpful given that sleep could only be got in a maximum of four hour increments for the average, healthy sailor. Here's how it worked.

A ships company was divided in half, each half being a "watch" (on very large men-of-war and ships of the line which could carry upwards of 800 men, the company might be divided into thirds). They were named for the sides of the ship with one being the larboard (now port) watch and the other being the starboard watch. A man identified with his watch and there was often a friendly rivalry between them. Each group stepped in to mind the ship alternately during the periods - also called watches - that divided the day. They were as follows:

Middle, or Graveyard, watch: midnight to 4:00 AM
Morning watch: 4:00 to 8:00 AM
Forenoon watch: 8:00 AM to noon
Afternoon watch: noon to 4:00 PM
First dog watch: 4:00 to 6:00 PM
Second dog watch: 6:00 to 8:00 PM
First watch: 8:00 PM to midnight

As you can see, the "dog watches" were each two hours long and they were the mechanism by which no man had to serve the same watches two days in a row. Obviously it was a grueling schedule but doubtless once the daily routine set in no one thought much about it.

Virtually everyone aboard ship was subject to the watches which were kept on track by careful timekeeping (with a half hour glass) and a system of bells (which is another topic all together). While the Captain was entitled to take watches as he saw fit, and non-service officers like surgeons and chaplains did not participate in the system, every other healthy soul aboard - even boys as young as seven - were subject to their watch.

Makes you appreciate an eight hour day and a good night's sleep a little more, doesn't it mate? Me too!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Job

Well we all have a job, don't we? Kids have school, carpenters have carpentry, nurses have nursing, politicians have lying, even the unemployed and "domestic engineers" have stuff to do. But why do we call it a job? Glad you asked.

Job comes from the Saxon word "job". Saxons were pretty straight forward guys and gals. Unlike their Celtic neighbors, who felt the need to spell everything with two l's, three n's and a y, the Saxons eschewed "bonus" letters. If English were more like Saxon, I wouldn't have to rely so heavily on spell check. Anyway, that was it: j*o*b, pronounced like it sounds and meaning nothing more than a specific task someone would be set to. It had none of the overarching "this is what I do everyday" inference that the modern word entails. Your job might be watching the geese one day and thatching the barn the next. And that is the meaning that came down to the navy and merchant service in Britain.

Aboard ship a "job" was a stipulated work such as swab the deck or take in the foremast top-gallant sails. Cook, for instance, did not consider being a cook his "job". Making supper was his evening job. His title was cook.

In fact job began to have some rather unflattering overtones during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For instance, a job Captain was one who basically temps aboard another Captain's ship. This happened frequently during the blockades involved in the Napoleonic wars, the War of 1812 and even into the Civil War in the U.S. Generally a job Captain was substituting for a man who had other business by land such as a seat in Parliament or Congress or similar issues. Because the pay scale for job Captains was low and they were notorious for harsh discipline, they rarely gained their temporary crew's respect and, in consequence, rarely found a permanent gig.

Perhaps because of the job Captain stigma, the word jobation arose. This meant a harsh lecture or reprimand from a superior that, though given in private, was a general embarrassment to the officer receiving it. Both Thomas Cochrane of the Royal Navy and David Porter of the American version, contemporaries and equally controversial in their respective service, wrote disdainfully of uncalled for "jobations" they had received.

The seafaring term eventually made it's way to land in the late 19th century and was used to mean gainful employment, especially by immigrants to the U.S. who had probably heard the word aboard ship and misinterpreted its meaning. And so, the word "job" morphed from a one-time assignment to a vocation. Isn't language cool?

Happy Saturday, Brethren! I'll see you next week.