Monday, April 5, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Watch Yer Lingua

Picture via

Your humble hostess is always a little surprised by people's general opinions of our freebooting ancestors. I'll get into a nice conversation with someone, discussing the incredible skills that these men and women had, from seafaring knowledge to Bear Grylls-style survival capability to their innate abilities to interact with each other and the vast numbers of other cultures their vocation would require them to come into contact with. I'll start talking with my hands, all aglow that I've found a like-minded mate who understands what I'm all about. Then they'll hit me with something akin to "Yeah, but they were big dumb animals". And there goes that.

The fact is that these guys and gals, from boucaniers to Golden Age pirates to 19th century privateers were pretty cagey if not always "literate". They survived on their wits, of course, but many of them - contrary to the popular picture - could indeed read and write. They kept logs aboard ship and signed contracts by land. They knew how to run a ship and navigate by d'ed reckoning (try that some time and then tell me about how stupid pirates were). One of their most astounding talents, at least to me, was that they were frequently accomplished linguists.

The New World was a melting pot of languages and customs. By the time the buccaneers of Tortuga were spreading out along the Main, the foremost European language on the Atlantic's shores was Spanish. New England and Canada notwithstanding, overwhelmingly from the Carolinas to Tiera del Fuego, Spanish was the one language that could get the job done. If you wanted to interrogate hostages, make friends with the natives, find a reliable local pilot and so much more, you better habla espagnol.

Most buccaneers could do far more than just get by with a few words, and that was true, too, of some of the more common native languages. Francois L'Olonnais, according to Exquemelin, spoke French, Spanish, Dutch and Darien. Also according to the good Doctor, Laurens de Graff was fluent in Dutch, Spanish, French and English. Bartholomew Sharp could speak Spanish, English, some French, Moskito and Cuna. Interestingly, Exquemelin makes a point of excluding Henry Morgan from this Tower of Babel. He says that the famous buccaneer's Welsh accent was so heavy that he could not "...wrap his tongue around French" and needed a "linguister" or translator to be able to make himself understood by the boucaniers that joined him at Portobelo and Panama.

It's said that Edward Teach understood and read French but spoke only English. Bartholomew Roberts spoke Ibo as well as English and Dutch. Henry Avery was perfectly capable of switching from English to Spanish to the local Madagascar dialect without batting an eye.

By the era of the privateers, new dialects and regional variations had been added to the mix, but no one seemed to mind. John Paul Jones spoke English, French and Russian capably. By the end of the Napoleonic wars many Royal Navy men could hold their own in French. The Baratarian privateers in Louisiana were a microcosm of the future melting pot of America. There Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Creole, Cajun and English would all be familiar. Dominique Youx was said to speak only Haitian Creole but he seems to have been perfectly capable in Spanish and English, too. Certainly Renato Beluche spoke French, Spanish and English. Despite the scepticism of some historians, I personally find it impossible to believe that the Laffite brothers could have had so much success speaking only French. Surely they too would have been capable in English and Spanish at the very least.

The list goes on, of course, and if you've a particular freebooter whose linguistic skills you're curious about leave me a comment. If I know anything about it I'll surely let you know, too. Just remember, though, how hard it was to digest a second language back in school and then imagine our intrepid sea rovers out there quite literally in a sea of languages. If their skill communicating doesn't at least somewhat refute the "dumb brute" stereotype well, maybe nothing will. And in that case, we just need to change the subject.


Ozarklorian said...

The Laffite brothers were both polyglot, Pierre could speak Spanish, French and Creole, with a little bit of English, and Jean could speak and write French, Creole, Spanish, Italian and English. Jean was highly proficient in English, and could read and understand such political editorial newspapers as the Philadelphia Aurora.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! "He's a big dumb animal isn't he folks?"... So the freebooters were all just like Tommy Boy on ships at sea? "Ow! That's gonna leave a mark."... That seems pretty silly to me. I agree with you about the Laffite brothers; it wouldn't make much sense for them to only be albe to speak French. I don't have a particular freebooter whose linguistic skills I'm curious about, though. You've covered pretty much all of the ones I was most curious about already in your post, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy ladies and gentlemen!

Ozarklorian: of course that would make sense. Both Laffite brothers spent time on the east coast of the U.S. as well as in predominantly Spanish speaking areas like Texas, Mexico and South America. And they were French. Why there are still historians who can't get the obvious fact of the matter through their heads is beyond me.

Timmy!: OK, fun fact: despite being Dutch, Rock Brasiliano spoke Spanish so well that many of his compatriots assumed he was from Spain. True story.

Timmy! said...

I did not know that.