Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: The Perils of Boarding

Rene Duguay-Trouin, the French privateer from Saint-Malo who was certainly the successor to the greatness of Jean Bart, got a taste of how awful boarding a prize could be early in his career. As described in his Memoires written in 1741, he had "not yet found [his] sea legs" when the privateer he was aboard grappled an enemy and prepared for the bloody melee of hand-to-hand fighting on deck. When it was the young man's turn to make the leap, a mate next to him slipped, fell between the two ships and had his head crushed. Duguay-Trouin is graphic about the man's brains splattering him and honest about his own hesitation at the thought that he might be dealt a similar fate. In the end, the French took their prize - a Dutch merchantman - but only after three attempts to board her.

The final, usually messy, act of boarding was not the rope-swinging, teeth-clutching-knife, "Who wants some of this!" action-adventure that Hollywood would have us believe. Boarding was a last resort in almost all cases for privateers and pirates. Unless the merchant in question could be easily surprised, was at her most disorganized and, with the luck, very much undermanned, it was far better to get an across the water surrender. The boarding of a warship or - Lord help you - a man-of-war was right out of the question.

When it did come down to grappling your enemy, finesse and seamanship frequently had more to do with success than brute force. Knowing which way the wind was blowing was the first and often most critical factor. The prize should, if at all possible, be downwind or on your lee. This would give the attacker the weather gage and make any movement by the prey more difficult. Attempting to board in a heavy tide was ill advised. The prey could throw out her anchor at the last minute and wave at you as you drifted by. Tide and strong wind could also tug at the ropes of your grapnels, even breaking them and sending men tumbling into the sea or stranding them aboard the enemy. Boarding in dirty weather was a bad idea and only the truly insane attempted to board in a gale.

Three positions were favorable to the attacker with regard to their ship versus the prey's. Having a good leadsman and master, with stout men at the wheel, would be critical for getting you quickly to the right place at the right time. Remember, by the point of a decision to board your prize is doubtless on the run and preparing for attack. First was boarding amidships. Here the corsair placed his bow alongside the middle, or waist, of the prey. The second tack was to board at the bow, with the forecastles of the two ships as close together as possible. Finally, failing these options, boarding alongside would do. In this case both ships were literally lined up next to each other.

But wind and tide are unpredictable even for experts, and a freebooter might find herself across the enemy's bow or stern. Both of these situations were next to impossible for boarding, particularly if the prey was a larger ship. Her forecastle and quarterdeck would be taller than your waist. If she had swivels or other small arms, firing down on you would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Better to veer off and try again, or live to fight another day.

Of course, a thousand subtle combinations of the above ship-to-ship positions are possible on any given day. Knowledge and experience, along with a good deal of discipline and courage, would usually win the day. What happened after the grapples were set and the small arms were in hand is a subject for another post, but the seemingly simple act of maneuvering next to the prey could be half the battle in itself.

Mind the weather gage, Brethren, and watch your footing. A successful boarding could mean the difference between a fine share of prize money and a sadly empty stomach.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

People: The Albanian Captain(s)

Some time in the early 1530s a boy was born in Albania. Neither he nor those who loved him could have known what fate held in store, but it's a certainty that if even half his story is anywhere near true it would make an incredible action-adventure movie.

We don't know what the boy's given name was but it is probably safe to say that he was raised a Christian. This made him a target for the North African pirates who raided his homeland at various intervals. In 1546, the boy was taken up by the raiding party of the pirate Kari Ali and brought to Algiers as a valuable slave. The first years of his life in the busy port city are also lost to history. What we know is that by 1565 Kari Ali Rais ("Rais" being the equivalent of "Captain" or "Commander" in English) was dead and the young Albanian, now calling himself by the Muslim name of Murat Ali, took his place and became Murat Rais.

Murat's first cruise with the small flotilla his mentor had sailed started badly. He shipwrecked his flagship somewhere either on or near the coast of Sicily and things looked bleak. Fortune smiled a few weeks later and Murat's smaller vessels captured a prize and used it to continue their cruise. More prizes were caught off the Spanish coast and he returned to Algiers with ships and slaves to sell.

What we know of Murat personally is that he was a small man, probably no taller than five feet three inches. He was slender and liked to dress richly. Having embraced the Muslim faith - or "turned Turk" as the British would say - he used his ever accumulating wealth to build a large home wherein he is reputed to have kept three or four wives. He seems to have been a live hard/play hard kind of seaman, and he made himself very popular with the local Beys by bringing in prizes on a regular basis.

Murat's reputation for audacity and success got around the North African seaports and men came not only to join his crews but to sail in partnership with him. Murat, however, was not much of a team player. He would routinely disregard the Barbary codes and this behavior made him powerful enemies. One of these was a so called "Captain of the Seas", a title similar to Commodore, from Algiers named Uluj Ali. Uluj accused Murat of losing a rich galleasse of the Knights of Malta by trying to rush to board her, and a long standing animosity developed. It may have been Uluj who used his influence to keep Murat from attaining the title of Captain of the Seas over the course of the next decade.

Despite the political infighting, which it seems no powerful Rais could avoid, Murat continued his astoundingly lucrative raids on Spanish and Italian shipping. When he captured two powerful galleasses, which were ferrying the Viceroy of Sicily home to Spain in 1574, both the Sultan of Algiers and King Philip of Spain took note. The Viceroy and his entourage were ransomed for an exorbitant amount and Philip put a price on the infidel head of Murat Rais.

Four years later, Murat captured a flotilla from France carrying more in silver and gold coins than the previous ransom from the Spanish King. With this, Murat's reputation was sealed. The Sultan appointed him Captain of the Seas of Algiers, although the post didn't actually stick until it was confirmed by the Ottoman Emperor in 1594.

If your doing the math that means that Murat was somewhere around 60 years old when the Emperor elevated him to the new post. To me, this is where some questions have to be asked of the story. Murat redoubled his raids before and after his appointment, sailing into the Atlantic and, using Sale in modern Morocco as a base, raiding Spanish and Portuguese towns for slaves. In 1595, he took his largest flotilla to date to southern Italy where he captured three Sicilian galleasses while destroying a larger fleet of the Knights of Malta.

With this triumph, he was given command of several squadrons of the Ottoman navy. He continued his predations on Christian ships until he was called to assist - almost ironically - in the siege of Vlore, the largest city in Albania. Here he was killed during fighting in 1636. That's right; he would have been over 100 years old.

Obviously this is where the tale of Murat Ali Rais jumps the track. Even in this day and age, 100 years is a long time to live and not a one of us would be capable of going out to battle at that age. My personal belief is that we are dealing with two men, possibly a father and son, who went by the same name and had a similar talent for piracy. Their personalities blended as their legend grew and, like the Laffite brothers, they have come down in folklore as one man. Another possibility is that the deeds of others have been tacked on to the hero Murat Rais and his true dates of birth and death are now unknown.

Either way, there is no denying that the boy kidnapped from his natal home made more than good along the Barbary coast and may very well have seen his son do the same.

Monday, June 28, 2010

History: Pirates Of Cyprus

The first and best ancient pirates were probably the elusive men and women known to the Egyptians as the "Sea Peoples". They came from the coastal areas of the Persian Gulf, or so it would seem, and - like the buccaneers of the 17th century - attacked both ships at sea and settlements by land. They were respected and feared and by the 7th century BCE they were roving over the Mediterranean and parts of the Atlantic in ships by the thousands. By that time they had become a distinct nation that we now know as the Phoenicians.

Because their own land was mostly desert, the Phoenicians were prone to colonization as well as raiding. They established outposts, many of which would become cities, in places as far afield as Chelah (the future Sale port in Morocco) on the Atlantic coast of Africa and as close to home at Tripoli in modern Libya. Now a new and surprisingly large Phoenician battle complex has been unearthed near Nicosha, Cyprus.

This Reuters article gives a quick glimpse of the archaeological excavation and the complex itself. The buildings are over 2,000 years old and were built by the Phoenicians on to the existing city of Idalion. The Phoenicians, according to the article, captured the city in the 5th century BCE and governed it for 150 years. Interestingly, Idalion was originally founded by Chalcanor, a descendant of King Priam of Trojan War fame. The Minoans, who may have been related to the Trojans, were one of the great rivals of the Phoenicians for seafaring dominance in the Mediterranean and beyond.

The fort was found to contain a large cash of metal weapons and bronze shields which have been collected for study. The sight, which has been under excavation since 1991, will eventually be open to the public. "Soon," according to the article. This will make it possible for modern people to walk the streets and stand in the courtyards once populated by some of the first pirates in the world. And that is certainly something worth considering for the ubiquitous bucket list.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Queen Of The Waves

June 19, 1852: The now famous American clipper ship Sovereign of the Seas is launched from Donal McKay shipyard, Boston. She is pictured above and here is a contemporary description:

There are doubtless many ships more tastefully ornamented...; but for beauty in model, strength of construction and completeness of equipment aloft, she has no superior... She is well named the Sovereign of the Seas of Boston.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Truck

I know what you're thinking out there, Brethren. A truck is a big vehicle with as many as eighteen wheels that barrels down the highway carrying goods who knows where but, at least in the States, probably to WalMart. What in heaven does that have to do with sailors? Or those lovely waves? Wait and see.

According to Websters the word truck, meaning the vehicle, comes from the Latin trochus meaning a hoop. In this sense a truck was originally a wheel and it grew from there. Masts often had trucks, either as caps at the head or as a block or disk made of wood with holes for rigging to pass through. Guns (meaning cannons) had trucks on which they rolled to accommodate their recoil. All of these then became our English word truck, the vehicle.

But maybe there's more to it. Another use of the word truck, though somewhat antiquated now, meant to barter or exchange. As the sailors word book puts it: ... as to truck fish for grog. Spoken like a seaman. Here Webster puts the origin of truck on the shoulders of the French troc; the verb troquer means to exchange. Truck could also mean wages, especially to a sailor. "Half-truck" meant a man was paid half his standard due on signing aboard and the rest on successful completion of the cruise. Truck was sometimes a word for garbage which may be the origin of "I will not truck with him", although most sources say that usage comes from the bartering meaning.

Finally, truck is a very old Cornish word for the trough between two waves. It was probably pronounced more like trock or troock than our modern truck and may have been the origin of the word trough itself.

Something to think about. Happy Saturday, Brethren. I'm off to truck with a mug of grog.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Booty: A Drink With You

Summer at sea puts a sailor in a happy mood. Well, unless he's becalmed near the equator or on the tropics. No one enjoys the prospect of - as such miserable delays were known in the Royal Navy - "sailing with Admiral Brown". Think about the general toilet facilities on a man-of-war with a crew of 500 and it doesn't take much to figure out why.

But there was always grog to hand, or one would hope so anyway, and the doldrums pass sooner or later. As everything does.

In the great cabin and the gunroom, officers supplied their own spirits and there was usually no shortage, particularly if said officers were wealthy. The same was true in other navies as well. Aboard a pirate or privateer, things tended to be a bit more egalitarian. Captain and officers drank what the men drank and, once we head into the 18th century, that meant rum. Rum is easily stored for years if not decades and easy to transport in large (sometimes not so obvious) containers. It fell out of favor in higher society - even among sailors - in the late 19th century. However, at least in the U.S., it saw another heyday during prohibition for all the obvious reasons.

So today, after a few warm, sticky days here in my neck of the woods (stop snickering!), I humbly offer two delightful summer drinks that were popular with sailors and others in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Variations of both can still be found regionally today and they can be made a number of ways. Many thanks to Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas for their inspiring book Lobscouse & Spotted Dog: Which It's a Gastronomic Companion of the Aubrey/Maturin Novels, from which both originals are taken.

First is a shrub, specifically one made with lemons. Similar drinks are known in Italy (lemoncilo) and France (limonade) and they are all basically alcoholic lemonade. The limonade specifically was a favorite with French Creoles in San Domingue and Louisiana and it is speculated by certain historians that it may be the ancestor of that ubiquitous drink of the Southern U.S., the mint julep. Here is the British recipe:

Zest of 1 lemon, 1/2 cup lemon juice, 3/4 cup sugar, 2 cups rum

Combine all, stir well, bottle and set aside in a cool place for about a week. To serve, mix 2 to 3 parts boiling water to one part shrub. Makes around 3 cups.

In place of the boiling water, Mediterraneans would mix cold or sparkling water. Italians traditionally use lemon liquor rather than rum. The French have been known to nix the water and rum and add champagne (my favorite). Add a few mint leaves and can a refreshing afternoon on the veranda be far behind?

Next is an iced lemonade sweetened with Marsala. This is an obvious result of the British, from society ladies to tars, spending a good deal of time in and around Gibraltar and Port Mahon where Marsala wine would have been readily available. It is still a sweet treat for a lazy day:

4 large lemons, 12 sugar cubes (1 tsp each), 1 quart boiling water, 3/4 cups sweet Marsala wine

Rub the lemon vigorously with a sugar cube or two. Peel the zest from one lemon, squeeze the juice from all four, and combine in a bowl with all the sugar. Pour in boiling water and stir until sugar dissolves. Add the wine. Cool, strain and serve over ice. Serves 4.

Another wonderful beverage that can be served either as an aperitif or after a meal to aid digestion.

Thus on to the weekend, Brethren. May your sails be full of fine breezes and your cup be full of good spirits. Huzzah!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pathetic Pirates: The Ladies' Man

Bless John "Calico Jack" Rackham. If you step back and look at the picture that history paints, he's actually a model for the modern mythology of a Golden Age pirate. Reputed to be charming and handsome, he took on a moniker (given, the story goes, because he favored cotton breeches with "strypes") that has come down to us as the quintessential pirate name. There would be no Jack Sparrow were it not for Jack Rackham. Glorious indeed.

But step up to the microscope and the picture turns from rosy to gunmetal gray. Rackham was nothing more than a small time bootlegger who blew his first command and sought comfort in booze and ladies. The ladies in question, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, are probably the only reason that Calico Jack's name is so widely known today. I'm not sure that's the way he would have wanted it.

John Rackham was probably a child of England's colonies in America but where and when he was born is anyone's guess. Most historians say the Carolinas or Jamaica late in the 17th century. His name first appears historically in 1718 when he is serving as quartermaster aboard pirate Charles Vane's sloop. When Rackham accused Vane of cowardice, the crew agreed. They elected Rackham Captain and put Vane in a small boat with a few loyal men before sailing off.

Rackham headed out for Cuba, which he seems to have always favored as a base, and probably managed to lose his sloop when his crew went ashore. Again this is not a verifiable story but one way or another Rackham ended up in New Providence without a ship just as Governor Woodes Rogers was handing out pardons. Rackham took his and may have made a go of an honest life.

Around the same time, Rackham met pretty Anne Bonny and her husband James. The Bonnys were in New Providence seeking their fortune (James, who is so much of a cypher that one wonders if he ever really existed, is alternatively called a sailor or a pirate). Rackham and Bonny appear to have been attracted to each other, but whether this had to do with love or money is open to speculation. Bonny, in full female dress, boarded Rackham's ship in early 1719. Their plan was a return to piracy.

Rackham's success and failures throughout the year are not catalogued but at some point, Mary Read joined his crew disguised as a man. I won't go into the details of that full-blown fiction as you can read it here. Read was found to be a woman, some say through a friendship with Anne, and Rackham's crew seems to have taken it all in stride. Rackham took some smuggling vessels and/or fishing boats off Cuba, and was back in Nassau by the summer of 1720.

For reasons one can only speculate about, Rackham stole the sloop William and sailed out of Nassau harbor with his crew, including the lady pirates, that same summer. Rackham's escapade was ill timed. Governor Rogers was out for blood and he would not tolerate any backsliding by pirates who had taken his pardon. In August of 1720 he issued a proclamation against Rackham that listed "...Anne Fulford, alias Bonny and Mary Read."

Cruising the coast of Jamaica this time, Rackham got himself into hot water with Governor Lawes when he bungled a raid on a sugar plantation or boat builder (there is no definitive documentation other than a mention of "...Rackham, pirate, raid by land"). Lawes sent privateer Captain Johnathan Barnet to bring William and her crew to justice.

On October 22, Barnet found William hove to in Negril Bay. The crew was celebrating the taking of a fishing vessel found to be smuggling a huge cash of rum. By the time Barnet called for Rackham to surrender, everyone aboard William with the exception of her distaff side was drunk. Barnet boarded and got resistance only from Bonny and Read. By the next day William's crew was under arrest. Their trials for piracy began November 16.

Rackham's fate is, by now, old news. Convicted, he was hanged at Deadman's Cay near Port Royal, Jamaica. His body was tared and gibbeted for display and the spot where he died is now called Rackham's Cay. Anne and Mary, of course, went on to plead pregnancy and escape hanging; Mary via death by fever, Anne, it is widely speculated, via the help of her rich father.

Calico Jack Rackham's career as a pirate seems to be a microcosm of what most pirates would have known. Drunken highs upon capturing a small prize, hungry lows on land and nothing to show for it at the end. His charm left us his name and his "stryped" breeches. And of course, his love for the ladies. Considering that we still know that much, maybe it's enough.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

History: Imaginary Tales

We've talked about piratical myths before but I was inspired to revisit them by this post over at Vast Public Indifference. Caitlin links to a 2008 article from the Colonial Williamsburg Site about "Myths that should by now be history." I'll let you read the article at your leisure; it really is worth your time. Some of the "stories.. told in museums", however, relate directly to the same stories told about seafaring and pirates. But first, my own pare of pet peeves that are entirely pirate-related.

I've been to the Jean Lafitte [sic] Museum in Lafitte, LA. It's a cool little place that has a very local, bayou vibe. The lady who took us to the various exhibits stopped at one point to show us an engraving of a swarthy gentleman with a head kerchief and a hoop earring. "Is that supposed to be Jean Laffite?" one of our group asked. "Oh yes," the woman replied. The guy laughed and said: "Pirates didn't wear earrings." The lady nodded thoughtfully and responded: "I assure you they did, sir. How else would their fellows pay for their funerals?"

Ah, history. I was young then and didn't give the interchange much thought but now it's one of my favorite little vignettes. In fact, few sailors if any wore earrings and hoops would have been right out. There are tens of things aboard ship that could catch a hoop and yank it right out of a person's ear. In a time when a simple cut could fester into a life-threatening injury, no one with any native intelligence would put themselves in harm's way for a funeral (your mates would probably take your bobbles and throw you over board anyway). And I won't even go into the reality that Jean Laffite would have been mortified to be portrayed in either a kerchief or an earring.

Then of course there's the famous walking of the plank, first mentioned by that brilliant writer Robert Lewis Stevenson. Though an excellent set piece for fiction and film, the torture in and of itself would have no value. Getting a person to tell you where they had hidden their valuables was in no way served by using them as live chum for sharks. Better to cut off a finger or an ear and then threaten more of the same. Tossing them overboard once you got what you wanted would be far more expeditious.

The article touches on two myths that relate directly to freebooters. One is the persistent notion the long tips of clay pipes, so common in the 17th and 18th century, were broken off so that men could share a pipe without sharing germs. As the article notes, germs would have been almost universally unthinkable to the smokers in question. Since the bowl of a clay pipe would become extremely hot during a round of tobacco smoking, many men kept a number of pipes at hand. In old Port Royal around Henry Morgan's time, men would keep a number of pipes handy in their favorite punch house so that they could enjoy drinking and smoking over the course of a day and night or more. Later, only the clay bowls were left at the ale shop and interchangeable reed tips were used making it possible to keep only two or three bowls instead of half a dozen.

The second - one of my absolute favorites - deals with the height of our ancestors. Just recently my children were marvelling at the small space between decks in a model of Captain James Cooks' HMS Discovery. The museum docent assured the girls that the headroom would not have troubled Cooks' crew very much because "... people were shorter then." I didn't say anything to the docent but my children got an earful on the way home.

In fact, people's heights varied in all ages and times just as they do today. By the time we get to the 18th century and the traditional Colonial era, studies were being done and records were being kept. As the article points out, the difference in height between 18th century and 20th century men, on average, was less than an inch. There was plenty of hunching over below decks by six feet tall (or better) pirates and privateers like Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, John Paul Jones, David Porter and yes, the inimitable Jean Laffite.

Nothing is given in history, however, and these stories and many others will continue to be passed on just as the Colonial Williamsburg article points out. The stories are probably embellishments whose idea has caught the collective imagination. And sometimes what we like to imagine is the hardest thing of all to let go.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Women At Sea: Aboard Neptune's Car

In the U.S., the pre-Civil War era became a boom time, particularly way out west. With the discovery of huge veins of gold in the California territory, everyone's eyes turned to the Pacific coast. Not only did men (and women) flock in their thousands toward the magnet of possible fortune, but East coast industry made room for providing the necessaries of life and work 5,000 miles away. This was the era of the great clipper ships (like the inimitable Cutty Sark above, painted by Jack Spurling) that went around the horn with supplies for the golden coast of California.

The trips were arduous at best and they were frequently made more so by the need for speed. Captains had deals with ships' owners and insurance companies that they would stop in no other port but their destination (usually San Francisco) and they would race one another to see who could shave off the most time. Trips from the Hudson River to the mouth of San Francisco Bay could take as little as 140 days. 120 days was not unheard of.

Into this environment, and aboard a clipper much like Cutty Sark named Neptune's Car, came the very young Mary Ann Patten. Married at 16 to 26 year old clipper captain Joshua Patten, Mary spent the first year of their marriage at home in Boston. When Joshua was given the coveted command of Neptune's Car, the couple decided that Mary would join him on his voyages. She seems to have jumped in with both feet. On their first cruise, which included not only the stop at San Francisco but also a race to China and a circumnavigation of the globe, Mary learned sailing and the intricacies of navigation.

It was the couple's second voyage, however, that would distinguish Mary from all her sex once and for all. And so the papers all around the world would say.

Neptune's Car left Hudson Bay July 1, 1856 with a cargo of machinery for the gold mines as well as iron and sheet metal. Her owners had made it clear that the ship was not to be taken into any port aside from San Francisco. Captain Patten set an enormous press of sail almost immediately and the long trip was begun.

Unfortunate trouble with the First Lieutenant began almost immediately as well. Mr. Keeler was found sleeping on duty more than once and he had the infuriating habit of taking in sail the Captain had ordered set while Patten was sleeping or in his cabin. Reprimands only increased the mutinous behavior and Patten finally had Keeler demoted and put the Second Lieutenant, Mr. Hare, in his place. The problem with that was Hare's ignorance of navigation. As the ship came into the dangerous waters at the southern tip of South America, Captain Patten's responsibilities doubled.

He was on deck watch after watch in the cold, icy waters south of Tierra del Fuego. He became feverish, delirious and eventually he collapsed on deck as Neptune's Car ran into one of the almost unnavigable gales in the southern latitude.

Mary had her husband rushed to his cot and strapped in. While she was tending to him, the word was passed that Mr. Keeler was inciting the crew to run for a South American port to save their ship and themselves. Mary left the Captain's side and went up on deck where she bravely faced the old salts down and exhorted them to their duty to ship, cargo and Captain. Slender Mary Ann Patten, with her dark hair, "...large ... luminous eyes and very pleasing features" took command of Neptune's Car that night near Cape Horn. She was nineteen years old and a few weeks pregnant.

The journey north was harrowing for all involved. Men were soaked to the bone with freezing water as they faced 60 foot waves that plowed up from Antarctica. Pack ice was sighted and double watches were posted to keep an eye out for icebergs. The wind shifted east and Neptune's Car had to tack into it despite the 18 day gale that tore at her sails. All the while Mary tended to charts, logs, and her fading husband. Over the course of the voyage he would return to the deck one more time, collapse again and finally loose both his sight and his hearing.

Mr. Keeler attempted one last rebellion, trying to get the men to take the ship into Valparaiso, Chile. The crew rallied around Mary and continued north where they were becalmed near the equator. Mary spent 50 days without changing her clothes, sleeping when she could and navigating Neptune's Car toward safety.

On November 15, after laying off the San Francisco headland in another calm for ten days, Neptune's Car finally sailed into the bay. Mary, now four months pregnant, took the helm and eased her ship into port. The vessel, though ragged and in need of a refit, was in tact. The valuable cargo was safe.

Neither Joshua nor Mary Ann Patten ever really recovered from their ordeal. They returned to New York via Panama. Mary found herself an object of public adulation, and the insurer of Neptune's Car even sent her money - $1,000 - for her unprecedented efforts. She insisted that she only did her duty as a wife, and kept to same by nursing her husband at the Battery Hotel.

The Pattens returned to their native Boston in the spring of 1857 where Mary gave birth to a son, Joshua, in March. Captain Patten died the following July, a little over a year after Neptune's Car set out for San Francisco. Mary contracted tuberculosis at some point during her famous act of heroism. She convalesced quietly in Boston with her son until her own death. From the Boston Daily Courier March 19, 1861:

Mrs. Mary Ann Patten, widow of Capt. Joshua Patten, died yesterday of consumption. She had nearly completed her 24th year.

Mary saw a lot in her short life and probably more than she ever imagined or wanted to. She did not go looking for a hero's adulation, but when circumstances presented themselves she took action and didn't look back. I think it's unfortunate that so many people - especially young women - today know nothing of Mary Ann Patten. Her story is certainly well worth repeating.

(Painting by John Gordon: Mary Patten On the Deck of Neptune's Car)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Something To Grapple With

The ominous looking tool pictured above is a modern version of a grapnel or grappling hook. It has a certain menace about it, even though it's original purpose aboard ship was relatively mundane. As a grapnel, the thing is a form of kedge or anchor for small boats such as a launch. With it's backward pointed spikes, it is easy to imagine how the grapnel would catch on the sea floor or some other likely object (a rock, seaweed, etc.) and hold a vessel in place. A ring at the end of the grapnel would hold a rope, cable or chain and your launch would be quite secure until it was time to move on.

As early as the time of Hannibal and the Carthaginian wars with Rome, navies and pirates began using the grapnel for another purpose. As a grappling (or grapling) hook, the devise was used to "grapple" an enemy ship, bringing them close enough for boarding. In this capacity, the hooks were given spikes and the rope was shortened and attached to the yard-arms of the attacking ship. Sometimes, small grapnels could be shot from guns.

The grapnel was also used to hook a disabled ship for the purpose of towing her. This was particularly useful in the case of a ship on fire, where a very long cable could be utilized to keep the rescuing ship out of harm's way.

Finally, in a pinch a grappling hook could be used as a weapon. As witnessed on the Somali Pirate vs Medellin Cartel version of Spike TV's Deadliest Warrior, the grappling hook, though indelicate at best and certainly unwieldy, can cut up a pig carcass something awful. I'll stick to my cutlass, though, and save the grappling hook for boardings.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Birth Of A Legend

June 20, 1909: Errol Flynn, the greatest actor ever to swash a buckle, was born in Hobart, Tasmania.

Happy Father's Day, Brethren!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Gear

I have teenagers. Well, one so far. The other one just thinks she's a teenager. So I see a lot of commercials (especially this time of year) with teen idols screaming at me to "get their gear!!!" (OMG!). By gear, they mean clothing. And that got me thinking because gear used to have a totally different meaning, at least aboard ship.

Gear was never the things packed in a man's sea-chest. That was his dunnage (which in itself originally meant driftwood or spare wood left over from a project). Gear was the utility name for the rigging of any particular sail, square or fore-and-aft, which was used to make it fast to the mast's rigging. Generally, in older sailing ships, we are talking about rope. Being in gear meant that all was right; being out of gear meant that the rope in question was unfit for use and thus, so was it's sail.

As sailing ships improved and naturally became more complicated, the word gearing came into use. This indicated not just rope but the pulleys and blocks needed to make it hoist sail. Later, it came to refer to parts of an engine - wheels, shafts, pinions, etc. At some point these became simply gears, but that may or may not be borrowed from watchmaking which some etymologists believe adopted the term long before shipbuilding did.

The truly interesting thing is that all of these words in the English language came from the Anglo-Saxon root word geara which means clothing. So, as we have seen on innumerable Saturdays before, what goes around comes around. Now I'm off to get my gear on. I'll leave you to ponder that...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Booty: For The Birds

Pelicans have been a favorite of seamen since ancient times. Unlike storm petrels and seagulls, they don't congregate around ships at sea as a storm comes up. Instead they disappear, almost magically. They have the good sense to find safe harbor and the sailor would very much like his ship to do the same. Pelicans seem common but, in these uncommon times, they need a little looking after. Especially down on the coast where my family comes from.

So here are a couple more offerings for you to consider. Two shirts that feature pelicans, those noble seabirds, and whose proceeds will go to help the Gulf Coast in her time of desperate need. First up:
The peliCAN t-shirt from the always reliable and artistic folks over at Threadless. A co-design by Frederik Wepener and Ross Zeitz, the shirt is available in men's and women's sizes and will set you back a delightfully small ten bones. Proceeds benefit the Gulf Restoration Network. And next:
This polo with a matching pelican on the left breast. Pelican Polos is a New Orleans based business who, as of this writing, sells only what their name implies. $5.00 from the sale of each goes to the Gulf Oil Spill Fund. The shirts are $30.00 in navy or green. Pelican Polos is a newer company so, if you'd like to watch them grow and keep tabs on the good they're doing, you can follow them on Twitter.
Thank you once again, Brethren. Keep the pelicans, and all their brethren on the Gulf Coast, in your thoughts. There is a long pull ahead of this boat before she makes the shore. Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Pirates Own Book: "... By Inspiring Terror"

It's been quite some time since I visited Charles Ellms and his delightful The Pirates' Own Book. As you will recall, Brethren, the book was originally published in the 1830s and it is a clear mirror to both the way pirates were viewed in Victorian America and the way those very Americans loved to be titillated and frightened. Inaccuracies aside, the book is still a good read. No wonder it was a best seller.

Last night I delved into the chapter on Captain Low and was not disappointed. Edward "Ned" Low was one of the few pirates of the Golden Age who rightly deserves every ounce of blue prose heaped upon him by Ellms. From what I can tell he was either horribly abused in childhood or a rare "bad seed" because he started treating his fellow man badly at a very young age and only death cured him of the habit. Low's behavior is so over the top that he has already earned a post in this year's upcoming Horror On The High Seas week. But today, allow me to give you Ellms' version of the story.

Charles calls Low a "...ferocious villain" in his first sentence. Born in Westminster, Ellms concludes immediately that Low "...was by nature a pirate". He started fights in his neighborhood and appeared as if he would never amount to much, if anything. When young, Low took passage to Boston with his older brother. The boys were evidently either indentured or apprenticed to a "rigging-house" there but Low chafed at the work and "his master" and took a berth aboard a sloop headed for Honduras.

The Captain was seeking to make his fortune in the "log trade". This was basically a form of poaching; cutting down trees on Spanish land and hurrying them off to islands in the Caribbean where they could be used for structures or shipbuilding. Low again had a falling out with authority. When he tried to shoot his Captain and missed, killing a fellow sailor, he and a few like-minded mates took off in a boat and turned to piracy.

Low met up with the established freebooter George Lowther and the two cruised together for a short while. They were nearly caught by pirate hunters and Low went his own way thereafter. According to Ellms it was at Port Rosemary that Low began using his trademark attack and rounded up several ships at anchor in the bay. He managed to capture thirteen ships and converted some of them into pirates, pressing men to join his crews and intimidated the island Governor into supplying water and stores.

Low was overcome by a hurricane near the Leewards but according to Ellms this was only a minor setback. He is next seen plundering in small boats while his larger ships are being repaired. Once they are he makes for the Azores and "...the great good fortune of Low is now singular". Ellms frequently notes that Low is by now a feared scourge in the Caribbean and " inspiring terror, without firing a single gun" he was able to take ship after ship. Unlike the ruthless Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, however, Low is actually putting whole crews to the sword and torturing those who will not reveal the hiding places of their treasure with what might be termed reckless abandon.

Several cringe-worthy examples of Low's cruelty are served up, as is usual in The Pirates' Own Book. There is the cook on the French frigate that Low's crew find to be "...a greasy fellow" who will "fry well" so they tie him to the mast and set fire to the ship. An unfortunate Portuguese captain who tossed "...a bag with eleven thousand moidores" out his cabin window was treated to special attention. When Low found out, he cut the man's lips off with his cutlass before killing him. Ellms also tells us that Low and his crew very much enjoyed their cruelties and relates the fate of the unfortunate Captain Graves of Virginia. Low offers his captive a bowl of punch and tells Graves: "Captain, here's half for you." When Graves declines the offer, "... Low cocked and presented a pistol... saying 'Either take the one or the other'." Ellms is unfortunately silent on Captain Graves' decision.

At some point Low and the Captain he now works with, Charles Harris, are confronted by the man-of-war HMS Greyhound. Low and Harris make a stand at first but when Harris' mainmast is shot away Low "... abandoned her to the enemy, and fled." This cowardly move brings real venom from Ellms, who seems more outraged at such behavior than he did at the miseries previously inflicted on innocent captives:

The conduct of Low was surprising in this adventure because his reputed courage and boldness had hitherto so possessed the minds of all people, that he became a terror even to his own men; but his behaviour throughout this whole action showed him to be a base cowardly villain...

I think this is telling. Ellms, probably very much like his readers, expects the pirates he writes about to be murderous ruffians. What he does not expect them to be at any point is base, selfish and craven. Perhaps it is this filter of Victorian opinion that is the reason Americans remember Blackbeard and Laffite, but have very little recognition of names like Low and Lowther.

The chapter hurries on to it's end at this point, almost as if Ellms is washing his hands of Low. Finally, Low's crew gets fed up with him when he murders his own quartermaster while the man is asleep. He is put in a boat and a French vessel picks him up. Recognized, he is taken to Matinico (Martinique) where "... after a quick trial by the authorities he received short shift on a gallows erected for his benefit."

And so the villain gets a taste of his own and once again all is right with the world. At least until the next chapter. Thank you again Charles Ellms; you and your pirates always give me something to think about.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ships: Rescued In Time

There's a reason why the nautical studies center at Hatteras Island, North Carolina is called the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. North Carolina's beaches have been quite literally strewn with ships from near and far, wrecked and thrown onto the sand throughout years of hurricanes and Nor'easters. Some of them are surprisingly old. Finding one even relatively intact is unusual at best, but that is what beachcomber Ray Midgett did last spring.

This article from documents the ship and how it was found by Midgett, a former government employee who says "...relic hunting is in my blood." Not only that, but Midgett is a tenacious sort. He followed up with local government officials, including North Carolina state Senator Marc Basnight, until the ship was salvaged. Through a joint effort of the Wildlife Resources Commission, the Underwater Archaeology Branch and the Corolla Fire Department along with local volunteers, the ship was freed from her sandy grave and towed up to a nearby lighthouse. It will be moved from Corolla Beach to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum later this summer.

Many ships, most famously perhaps HMS Somerset, a mid-1700's man-of-war that lies in the sand in Cape Cod, stay hidden under Atlantic coast sand and surf until they are revealed by weather. In the case of Somerset, moving her was determined to be unsound and so archaeologists study the ship when she is visible. The opposite was the case with Midgett's discovery. Once her relative age was determined, experts knew she had to be moved.

Originally those experts imagined the wreck on Corolla Beach might be what was left of HMS Swift, wrecked off the Outer Banks in the late 18th century and then looted and disabled somewhere in the area of the beach. Further research showed that the Corolla Beach ship was in fact a merchant dating from 1650 to 1700. More careful study will be needed but, if the on site dating is correct, that will make Ray Midgett's find the oldest shipwreck yet discovered along coastal North Carolina. Older even than the circa 1719 wreck found near Beaufort N.C. in 1997 and suspected to be none other than Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge.

Midgett and beachcombing colleagues salvaged a number of coins and artifacts, including spoons dating to the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles I, nearby that may have come from the wreck. These will be analyzed by archaeologists but will then be returned to the relic hunters who are entitled to keep their finds.

Were I Mr. Midgett, I'd wish I had a garage big enough for the wreck itself. Imagine having your morning coffee with that kind of seafaring history every day? Priceless. Well done, sir. Keep up the good work out there on the beach.

Picture at the header by Ray Midgett of his find on Corolla Beach, N.C.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

People: Naval Officer, Privateer, Pirate

Joshua Barney, who was born in Baltimore in July of 1759, is one of those American heroes that more of his countrymen really should know about. I suspect that on the large scale the fact that he was at sea during the American Revolution goes against him. The U.S. loves her Revolution but, aside from the occasional nod to John Paul Jones, saves her admiration for her fighting men on land. On the small scale, Barney's most notable act of guts and glory occurred during the War of 1812, and most Americans think that is the name for that time when that short French Emperor took a bunch of troops into Russia in the winter and they all died. Then that Russian guy wrote a song about it. With cannons. We are woefully lacking in our knowledge of our own history which is probably why we repeat it so frequently. But I digress.

Barney, as is so common with life-long sailors, started his carrier early. One of fourteen children from a farming family, Barney decided to ditch school at age ten. His father set him up with a desk job in town but Joshua was no Bob Cratchet. At thirteen he went to sea on his brother-in-law's merchant brig as an apprentice to the master. En route from Liverpool in 1775, Barney's brother-in-law died and young Joshua took command of the ship, seeing her safely back to Baltimore.

With the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, war with Britain was well and truly on. Barney took a post as Master's mate aboard the Continental congress sloop Hornet. She joined Commodore Esek Hopkins in Philadelphia and from there cruised to the Bahamas where the squadron captured that old freebooter's haunt, New Providence. The British called Hopkins and his boys pirates, and it was open season on Continental sailors from then on.

Barney was transferred to CCS Wasp upon returning home. She saw action in Delaware bay against HMS Tender and Joshua's valor in battle earned him a promotion to Lieutenant. Wasp captured two more British ships but was herself taken at the Chesapeake in March of 1778. Barney and his fellows were taken prisoner and exchanged within the year. This would happen to Barney three more times - including an uncomfortable-at-best stay on a British prison hulk - within the next two years.

In 1780, Joshua managed to put aside enough time to marry Anne Bedford in Baltimore but he was right back at it before the year was out. As Lieutenant aboard Saratoga, he was again taken prisoner by the British in the same year. This time the Brits hauled he and his mates back to England, tried them for treason and put them away in the damp, wreaking Mill prison in Plymouth. Evidently even double stone walls could not hold Joshua Barney. He had a friend make him a British officer's uniform and, with the help of others including a sympathetic guard, he went over both walls in May of 1781. Barney walked to Plymouth, was literally smuggled across the channel to France and made his way to Philadelphia where he arrived in early 1782.

Barney was made Captain and, upon taking HMS General Monk of eighteen guns, was give her as his command. He was sent on a diplomatic mission to France with dispatches for Benjamin Franklin in November of 1782. He seems to have developed a warm spot for the French Navy, or maybe he just shared their intense dislike for the British. After a few years in business back in Baltimore, Barney joined the seafaring force of the French Republic. He was commissioned Commodore in 1795. After serving in the Caribbean for several years, he was discharged and returned to Baltimore in 1802.

When the War of 1812 broke out, Barney returned to the sea but this time as a privateer. He held somewhat of a grudge against the U.S. Navy, feeling he was slighted after the Revolution when not asked to command one of the first ships sent against the Barbary pirates. His privateering was enormously successful but, when he heard that the British were planning on attacking Washington D.C., his patriotism (Barney was a staunch and active Federalist) brought him back to the Navy.

Barney was made a Commodore and he personally supervised the building of barges and the outfitting of gunboats for the protection of the city and her waterways. His flotilla met the British at the mouth of the Chesapeake in April 1814. He and his men stood firm for months, but the British scorched earth campaign finally overwhelmed the flotilla. Seemingly undaunted, Barney led his marines and sailors onto land where they stood against the British - on direct orders from President Madison - at Blandensburg in August of 1814.

The battle was a gory, hand-to-hand mess and both the British and U.S. forces suffered significant losses. Barney was wounded several times, most notably he took a ball to the thigh, and he and his men were the last to stand against the enemy. They were finally forced to retreat, however. The British burned Washington and moved on to the Gulf where Andrew Jackson would win the war at the Battle of New Orleans.

Barney was recognized for his gallantry and presented a sword by the city of Washington after the war. He took up farming in 1815 and then bought land in Kentucky, where he planned to resettle and see out the rest of his life in 1818. It was not to be. The wound in his thigh, which never really healed as the ball was so deep it could not be removed, had other plans. Joshua Barney died in Pittsburgh on December 1, 1818.

Naval officer, diplomat, politician, privateer, farmer, merchant and pirate, Joshua Barney packed a lot of living into 59 years. The U.S. Navy currently has a commissioned warship named USS Barney, which is the least our country can do by way of remembering such a hero.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Sea Monsters: A Toothy Issue

More leviathans came to the attention of Triple P when I found this article from Scientific America last week. It is about the debate over dinosaurs of the sea and whether or not they might have been warm blooded.

Evidently the dolphin-like ichthyosaur whose skeleton is shown above, along with plesiosaurs and smaller mosasaurs may have been able to regulate their own temperatures to some degree. The process by which they would do that could have been similar to the one used by some modern tuna and sharks. These animals are homeothermic, meaning that they are not "warm blooded" as mammals are but their body temperature does stay relatively high and consistent. On the other hand, researches speculate the prehistoric animals may have been gigantothermic, like leatherback turtles. In such cases the animal's large body mass allows it to stay warm.

The study, led by Aurelien Bernard of the University of Lyon, France, was published online June 10th. The researchers evaluated oxygen isotopes in the teeth of the extinct creatures and compared them with isotope levels in fossil fish found near them. In this way, Bernard's team determined that the Mesozoic sea creatures' body temperatures may have hovered around 100 degrees or 39 Celsius.

There is debate over that finding, however. Ryosuke Motani of the University of California, Davis believes that those temperatures are too high. Factoring in what he calls "time dependent depletion" of oxygen isotopes, Motani figures the animals' body temperatures were more like 85 degrees or 26 Celsius. This is more in line with modern tuna and turtles.

Either way, the benefit to the ichthyosaurs was in where they could hunt. Warmer bodies meant the ability to "cruise" for fish in colder waters. The benefit to science is one of long term study. As Motani indicates in the article, the research gives scientists a "rare opportunity to clarify environmental effects on evolution." And that is timely indeed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: The Voyage Of Savannah

She was seen from the station at Cape Clear, on the south coast of Ireland and reported as a ship on fire. The admiral, who lay in the Cove of Cork, dispatched one of the King's cutters to her relief; but great their wonder at their inability, with all sail set, in a fast vessel, to come up with a ship under bare poles. After several shots were fired from the cutter the engine was stopped and the surprise of her crew at the mistake they had made, as well as their curiosity to see the singular Yankee craft, can easily be imagined.

~ Steven Rogers, navigator of the English revenue cutter Kite, June 19, 1819

The U.S. steamship Savannah arrived in Liverpool, England from her namesake in Georgia on the following day. She was the first of her kind to sail across the Atlantic.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Midshipman

We talk about Mids all the time around here at Triple P and it occurred to me this morning that I've never actually defined the term. Dragging out the Sailor's Word Book, I went straight for the M's and found that there's more than one way to use this officer's title aboard ship. So it's Midshipman today, Brethren. Plus, it gives me a chance to use this picture of cute-as-a-button Mr. Blakney from Master and Commander. (In the books, he wasn't the Mid that lost his arm by the way; that was Mr. Reade.)

A Midshipman is essentially a naval cadet. They are appointed to their ship and can number as many as the vessel has room for. The Captain is given the right to bring one Mid of his choosing aboard ship with him. Boys as young at seven might be appointed to the post but generally the age for entering the service was between ten and thirteen.

In theory, a Mid had to pass an exam before joining a ship's company. Some boys from well established families, however, got to skip this formality (Thomas Cochrane is a good example). A boy who had a fair amount of merchant service under his belt might also have the exam waved (David Porter, who had been at sea for close to seven years prior to joining the U.S. Navy, for instance). Finally, there was the trick of logging "book time" where a boy's name would be entered into the ship's books even though he was at home attending to his studies. This made him eligible for the rank of Midshipman despite never having been at sea before (this was the case with William Hoste).

There was no getting past the Lieutenant's exam, however. A young man ready to move up to the next level had to pass two strict tests, one on gunnery and one on seamanship. It was no easy task and, much like modern driver's tests, many a young man failed and had to come back six months later to try again.

On a ship with a good Captain, Mids were well educated. They learned not only seamanship but reading, writing, manners and sometimes even music. Frequently, the ship's Minister or Priest looked after the young men's education but sometimes the Captain took it on himself. The gunner, or in many instances his wife, was in charge of their personal well being (thus, some say, the moniker "son of a gun").

Midshipmen, whose title comes from the middle part of their vessel also known as her waist, were a source of amusement for old salts. Many a joke was made at their expense. A Midshipman's roll was a poorly stowed hammock. Midshipman's nuts were hardtack broken into pieces and eaten for dessert.

Finally, the U.S. Naval Academy sports teams are known as The Midshipmen. Or, more familiarly, the Goats (because goats were often taken aboard men-of-war for fresh milk and cheese - and in a pinch, meat). Beats that Army Mule, I'd say.

Fair winds this Saturday, mates. I'll spy you in the week ahead.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Booty: Pretty Pirate Pictures Part II

Gil Elvgren was an incredibly talented artist who worked for book companies, periodicals, advertisers and Hollywood from the 1930s until his death in 1980. Born Gilette Elvgren in March, 1914, he was influence by artistic giants like Charles Dana Gibson and - a Triple P favorite - Howard Pyle. He is best remembered, despite the broad sweep of his brush, for his gorgeous pinup paintings of the '50s and '60s. He is my favorite painter of the genre and many a current photographer and artist have Elvgren to thank for their own style.

Aside from loving the ladies (like any self-respecting freebooter), Elvgren seems to have had a special place in his heart for the sea. Many of his pinups depict gorgeous gals in nautical situations. Allow me to offer just a few.

Did I mention his work was delightful? If you want to know more about the talented Mr. Elvgren, would like to own copies of some of his work, or just want to see cowgirls, lady traffic cops and a whole lot of black and pink lingerie, click over to the wonderful Elvgren Pinup website. You can't go wrong.
Finally, on another note all together and if you haven't yet, please consider donating as little or as much as you can to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. The little guy in our last painting (and his family and friends) need a lot more help than Gil Elvgren's model can supply. Thank you Brethren; Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

History: Bayou Hoodoo And Maroon Songs

Last Thursday we talked about seafaring and piratical Saints, those bastions of old Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy that so pissed off the original Protestants. We also talked about similar holy people in the Islamic world. The "Old World Saints" if you will.

In the New World, however, sailors in general and pirates and privateers in particular came into contact with a far more varied realm of religious thought. Many towns didn't have churches, or if they did they were shy a priest, rabbi or minister. Prayer outside of established Spanish colonies came to be more of a personal experience. And aboard ship or in some lonesome cay or bayou where goods could be dropped off and your vessel could be hauled up for a careening, the locals - if there were any - might introduce a seaman to a whole new religion.

It should come as no surprise that pirates, who were generally a mixed bag of outlaws in the first place, gravitated to the "exotic" religions being practiced in secret on plantations, in runaway camps and at sea. These were the roots of what we know today as Voudon (Haiti), Voodoo/Hoodoo (Southern U.S.), Candomble (Cuba), Santeria (Brazil), and many others throughout the Americas. Like that favorite pirate stew salmagundi, they are a heady mix of African animism, Native American spiritualism and Catholic ritual and imagery.

I say Catholic not because Protestants didn't own slaves. But these religions tended to thrive in places where Master followed the Roman religion. Catholics rarely paid attention to the religious feelings of local Natives or slaves. If the heathens went to church now and then, good enough. On the other hand, Protestants felt a moral obligation to convert the godless and keep them away from their soul-withering Devil worship. Lest we forget, Tituba the preacher's slave was the first witch named at the Salem trials.

Out of this melting pot bubbled a slew of appropriate spirits for seamen to devote themselves to and many did so with gusto. In Voudon, the lwa (or loa which roughly translates to spirit) of the seas were a married pair, Agwe and La Sirene (shown above on a hand-sequined prayer flag or drapeau). Agwe, who was frequently represented by the Catholic Saint Ulrich, was a sailor and Admiral. He was a favorite of most Haitian seamen and one legendary privateer at the very least - Dominique Youx of Baratarian fame - was devoted to Met Agwe. La Sirene the mermaid, sometimes shown as Stella Maris or Saint Martha, was invoked to prevent drowning and, along with her husband, for safe passage.

In Santeria, Yemaya was the queen of the seas. She was represented as the Virgin Mary and her statue was often kept aboard even the smallest fishing vessels for protection. Conversely, the married pair Oya and Shango were favorites of the bloodiest brigands. Their anger was thought to manifest itself in lightning storms and the St. Elmo's fire we discussed last week was believed to be their way of ensuring pirates that their ship would find a fat prize. Some legends say that Francois L'Olonnais invoked the pair as did Black Caesar who was one of Edward Teach's lieutenants. They are frequently prayed to in their Catholic guises of St. Barbara and St. James.
In New Orleans, where what Americans now call voodoo came with Haitian refugees and intermingled with the local hoodoo to become something similar to and yet different from Haitian Voudon, Baron Samedi reigned supreme. One of the three major Ghede Barons (as shown above in a painting by Voodoomama) that ruled the land of the Dead, Baron Samedi has become the official lwa of the Crescent City. Stories are told that Marie Leveau, the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, introduced Jean Laffite to the Baron. Laffite, who is himself a folk hero in the bayous, became so devoted to the lwa that their personalities intertwined. Like Baron Samedi, Laffite became sophisticated, charming, amusing, uncanny and wildly successful. It wasn't until he lost the Baron's favor that Jean Laffite was finally overcome. It certainly fits the tale that Laffite, who angered the Lord of the Cemetery, has no known final resting place.

Of course the stories go on and on, multiplying in the warm, tropical breezes and humid cypress swamps. But we'll stop here for now. The legendary heroes of freebooting around the world probably each had their own God or Saint. Who they all were, we'll never know. But some of the folktales will always fascinate, and make us wonder.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Movies: Nice And Messy

Spike TV, the channel that brought you "Whacked Out Sports" and Pamela Anderson as an animated crime fighting stripper, brings us the "historical accuracy of battle" with it's series "Deadliest Warrior". (Yes, I know the title says movies and technically we're talking about TV here but you can now rent season one on Netflix and I think that counts for something.) Look at the abs!

The whole point of "Deadliest Warrior" is to round up "experts" and have them throw around the weapons of various legendary fighting men while thumping their chests about how awesome their guy was and what a pansy their opponent must have been. Afterwards, a doctor comes in and tells you how very gruesome the damage to the ballistics gel dummy or pig carcass is. At the end a computer takes over and generates 1000 theoretical meetings of the two warriors to determine who would win in "real life". The match ups are right out of an historian's fever dream: Spartan vs Ninja, Samaria vs Gladiator, Viet Cong vs Nazi SS, etc. It's crazy good guy stuff all around.

Last night, seemingly out of the blue, Spike served up "pirate night" with two pirate-centric "Deadliest Warriors" back to back. Though I watched them both, I'm only going to discuss the first one here - Pirate vs Knight. The second one - Medellin Cartel vs Somali Pirate - seems more like a terrorist skirmish than a meeting of warriors so we'll just reveal the outcome to that one (spoiler alert!). But first, the Caribbean Freebooter meets the French Soldier of God.

The pirate in question is your classic Jack Sparrow-y pirate of the Caribbean right down to his buckled shoes, Louis XIV-esque coat and tricorn hat. He is also the cleanest pirate you will ever meet this side of Jean Laffite. He is referred to by the experts representing him as a trained naval specialist, warrior and go-getter of the first order. We are told that the 18th century pirate is the equivalent of a modern Delta Force soldier. He's an expert in shock and awe and he would like nothing better than to kick the snot out of a sissy boy knight and take his candy from him.

The knight, on the other hand, is from 15th century France. Sealed in plate armor he is unrecognizable under his thick helm. His armor shines in the sun and never a dent is seen. The experts on his side make sure we are aware that he is of the nobility, highly trained and fighting for honor and God. He is the Green Beret of his era. In reference to his opponent, he might as well be going up against a rat. Pirates are just the sort of godless vermin a knight would love to wipe the floor with.

Now that the initial insults have been exchanged, it's time to trot out the weaponry. On the knight's side we have: the morning star (that club with a spiked ball-and-chain dangling from it), plate armor, the crossbow, the halberd (a lance with a pike and axehead at the end) and the broadsword. For the pirate: the grenado (filled with shot, nails and black powder), the flintlock pistol, the blunderbuss, the cutlass and the boarding axe. Yes, Brethren, many a pig carcass suffered mightily in the ensuing tests.

Although at the outset the experts make a show of the fact that "pirates love things that go boom", the whole issue of superior technology in the form of guns is downplayed in favor of the knight's impenetrable metal skin. At no point - other than one very quick mention - does anyone point out that the reason the era of knights in shining armor passed into oblivion was black powder weapons. There is also never any talk about the knight's inherent immobility and his helmet's overt restriction of visibility. It's all about the armor, baby!

Then we are treated to actors performing the results of the computer generated battles. The pirate is stabbed, quarrelled (in the thigh - ouch!) and generally knocked about but, lo and behold, shooting the knight directly in the face with that flintlock seems to do the trick. The computer, evidently, saw all the things the experts didn't. The pirate prevailed in a surprisingly high 63% of one-on-one battles.

See the entire conflagration for yourself on the Season 1 DVD of "Deadliest Warrior" which, as noted, is now available. Or check it out at the "Deadliest Warrior" webpage. It's good fun for the most part. I just couldn't help feeling a little smug when they revealed that the pirate won. On the other hand, I was surprised to see the Somali pirate best the Medellin Cartel, although by a much slimmer margin of 53%. Maybe it was the AK47 and the rocket launcher? Who can say.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Tricks Of The Eye

Being about the latitude of Barbados, we met an English frigate, or privateer, who first began to give us chase; but finding himself not to exceed us in strength, presently steered away from us. This flight gave us occasion to pursue the said frigate. As we did, shooting at him several guns of eight-pound carriage.

Thus reported Alexander Exquemelin in his Buccaneers of America, published in 1684. In the days before binoculars and sonar and the like, knowing what you were looking at out on the vast, open sea was not just handy but a matter of life and death. A ship like the American schooner Enterprise above might sail for weeks without spotting another. And since life at sea wasn't always full bellies and a good night's sleep, hungry, sleep deprived men had to be trusted to spot the enemy or - probably even more importantly - a prize.

As Exquemelin noted, the English privateer in question did not initially know what she was up against. As it turned out, the buccaneer ship was better armed and, in the end, faster than she was. Her initial impression, however, was of a fruit ripe for picking. How did freebooters in particular and any ship in general manage to avoid such situations? The answer in most cases was pure luck.

As we've seen in other posts, many navy ships and most raiders were not of local construction. A French privateer may have been built in Plymouth; an American sloop may have initially been a French privateer. The domino effect can easily be imagined. Trying to tell the nationality of your prey by build or set of sail was virtually impossible, at least until you got too close for reasonable comfort. And of course, her colors were of no use in identification.

Seeing another ship, particularly in fair weather, might be surprisingly easy if she had all her sail set. Pirates and privateers in the Northern hemisphere used the simple trick of staying to the south on a sunny day or even in a light haze. Particularly toward midday, the sun would hit the sails of the ship further north so that the glare would be unmistakable to a man in the tops on the southern ship. The opposite strategy (staying north to spy ships in the south) would work almost as well in the Southern hemisphere, with slightly different atmospheric conditions offering somewhat of a hindrance.

Giving chase could and many times would become a simple game of surprise. In the example above for instance, a well handled freebooter could stay just over the horizon for as long as he needed to, eyeing the sails of his prey while keeping his topsails reefed and his existence unknown. It's important to keep the spherical nature of our Earth in mind, something our ancestors understood far better than we give them credit for. The problem arose when the predator was the one surprised.

In inclement weather, chance meeting or complete misses were more likely. These conditions didn't help in the identification of your neighbor, either. William Dampier tells in his Voyages and Discoveries of sighting what he imagined was a convoy of Dutch merchants in a heavy mist. Upon sailing closer the mist lifted and he met, to his dismay, a flotilla of fifteen Dutch men-of-war. He beat a hasty retreat.

At night, things grew even worse from the standpoint of visibility. More than one log has noted that ships have, quite literally, passed in the night within one or two miles of each other without noticing. Ships were more likely to actually collide at night as well, one of the reasons that reducing sail in the late watches was the norm. The dark was the friend of the prey, as well. Dowsing all lights and changing course could save a ship from a larger or faster predator.

Of course that now famous Hollywood prop, the telescope, was available in some form aboard most ships. Known as a spy glass or simply a glass in English (or, in French, une lunette), this tool was more likely to be used to identify a ship once sighted than to find sail in the first place. Particularly for freebooters the instruments were fantastically expensive and dear even if taken in a raid. Dropping one from the tops would be a sin of the first order.

In the end, a ship - whether merchant, navy, privateer or pirate - would fare best with young, alert eyes in the tops. From there, more sober and experienced gazes could be consulted and the glass applied. Even then, mistakes were made. And one has to imagine that nothing stings quite like suddenly realizing you have gone from predator to prey.