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.


Undine said...

"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."

And they all seem to wind up on Wikipedia!

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! In the immortal words of Lisa Simpson, "Maybe people were more easily frightened back then"... As we have discussed, though, I'm pretty sure the opposite is true, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Undine and Timmy!

Undine: No kidding! Some of the "facts" on that over-consulted area of the web are shudder inducing at best.

Timmy: I'm pretty sure the opposite is true, too. Or else, just as a for instance, all my ancestors would have stayed in Europe and, by default, Africa.