Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Pirate

Today is another milestone for Triple P. This post marks the one year anniversary of Sailor Mouth Saturday. Traditionally a favorite (if number of hits are any indication), this is my 53rd SMS post. So what better word to delve into than pirate? The very essence of Triple P. And, of course, who else but Jean Laffite, pirate, privateer, racketeer and smuggler, to grace the header? Between the jaunty hat, the moustache, the tiny hands and the anchors on the coat, that picture (produced in 1873, approximately 50 years after the subject's demise) never fails to crack me up.

So pirate. A pirate is a thief at sea. Essentially a highwayman of the oceans, there have been pirates as long as there have been floating objects to plunder. The word has jumped from one language to another, changing subtly but generally carrying that basic meaning.

It looks as if the original word was Greek coming from either peiran, meaning to attempt, or peirates, meaning to attack. Peirates seems to have come out on top and migrated into Roman Latin as piraicos, a sea robber or his ship or both. As Latin continued to evolve into the Dark Ages the word kept the same meaning but began to be pronounced piratia.

The word continued to evolve, becoming pirata in Italian and other Mediterranean lingua franca both in Europe and Africa. Sometimes pirata meant simply a sea captain but eventually the definition of a robber of ships on the high seas stuck.

Pirate entered Middle English during the Medieval period while corsaire, meaning a pirate but morphing in and of itself to mean a privateer, joined the French cannon sometime in the early Renaissance. Once Elizabeth I christened her privateers "sea-dogs" the cat was out of the bag. Now we have buccaneers, freebooters, Barbary corsairs, filibusters and even swashbucklers. The last, interestingly enough, actually meant "highwaymen" until the birth of the English novel in the 18th century. Now Errol Flynn as Captain Blood is thought of as swashbuckling.

Finally, of course, there are the brand of pirates that we know today (with the tag "Somali" so frequently accompanying the word). These are pirates only in the sense that they work from ships. If we're honest in our language, they are thugs and terrorists. But I suppose a victim of Blackbeard or Henry Morgan might have said the same thing.

Not so for our man Laffite, however. Ask those romance novelists and they'll tell you; he was a gentleman to the very end...

Friday, July 30, 2010

Booty: Celebratory Feasts

"It is only a woman's cookery, to be sure," [Stephen] said. "...but how very good it is! She must be a knowing old soul, with great experience... Perhaps something of a slut: your amiable slut makes the best of cooks."

Thus spoke Doctor Stephen Maturin in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novel The Surgeon's Mate. Stephen and Jack are prisoners in Paris eating the "very good" fare of the widow Lehideux whose "cookery" is across the street from the fortress of their incarceration. I won't go into further detail other than to say that Stephen's comment about sluts is particularly amusing given his own infatuation with Diana Villiers. At any rate, Madame's Poule au Pot (chicken in a pot) sounds far more delightful than your usual prison food.

Probably much like the widow, cooking is something I like to do. I won't call myself a "foodie" but I do enjoy the home cooked goodness of a dish right out of the oven. I'm particularly fond of the cooking of my Creole ancestors. The kind that would have shown up on the plates of rogues and corsairs like the Laffite brothers - particularly stout Pierre, whose quadroon mistress was spoken of as an excellent cook - and my own Beluche family. The famous Renato had seven brothers and sisters so a family meal, say Easter dinner or reveillon in old New Orleans, must have been quite the offering.

Since the celebration of Triple P's first anniversary will doubtless go on into the weekend (for instance, I've yet to raise a glass in toast!), it is also a sure bet that one of those Louisiana classics will come out of the pantry and make it's fragrant appearance on the table. While Poule au Pot is nice, I was thinking more along the lines of the master Leon Soniat, Jr's Chicken Creole. If you'd like to celebrate something of import to you as well, or just need a good recipe, may I suggest this warm but surprisingly summery dish that is perfect over fluffy white rice:

6 to 8 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (note that the original recipe calls for a 3 to 4 pound frier cut into pieces - go for it if you are handy with a knife)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 16 oz. can tomatoes (or four-ish fresh tomatoes, diced)
1 tsp. salt
pinch of pepper/pinch of cayenne (both to taste)
1/2 tsp. powdered thyme
1 tbsp. minced parsley (fresh if possible)
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp. flour
6 shallots, chopped
1/2 cup minced onion
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine (I like a Pinot Blanc for summer)
2 10 1/2 oz. cans of beef consomme (you can use beef stock but the consomme gives a heartier flavor)

Wipe chicken with a clean, damp cloth. Saute in olive oil, turning to brown both sides. Remove the chicken and add onion, shallots and green pepper. Saute slowly approx. 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, garlic, parsley, bay leaves, thyme, pepper, salt, wine and consomme. Let simmer for approx. 10 minutes, then add chicken. Cover and slowly simmer for about 45 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Serve over rice, as noted. Soniat recommends a garnish of avocado slices and parsley sprigs which is a great treat, perfect for summer.

This is essentially a chicken stew but a few additions, like the cayenne pepper and beef consomme, make it distinctly Creole. Give it a try. I think you'll be quite delighted.

Happy Friday, Brethren. May all your celebrations be full of joy and the people you hold dear. And just in case you are wondering: I do tend to agree with the good doctor - a bit of a slut does make a better cook. I'll leave it at that.

Recipe courtesy of La Bouche Creole by Leon E. Soniat, Jr. Originally published 1981; current printing by Pelican Publishing, 2006. Picture via Avenue Inn B & B, New Orleans.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lady Pirates: Mary, Marianne, Anne And A Side Of Jesse

It's time to enjoy the second half of CRwM's take on Anne Bonny and her lady pirate mates. Enjoy, Brethren:

There's Something About Mary

Still, during the Golden Age of Piracy, female pirates did make it onto ships. In the case of Mary Read, the female pirate whose story is tangled up in the fate of our Anne, she joined under the guise of a man. (Allegedly.) Mary Read often gets short shrift in the story of Anne and Mary. But, in fact, she was most likely kind of a total badass. Whenever we’re talking pirates, the records get questionable, but the best story arc for Read suggests a woman with astounding reserves of strength and an unquenchable drive to survive. When Mary was a child, her older brother died. In order to get a debated inheritance in an age when only males inherited, Read’s mother started to dress her as a boy and passed her off as her dead brother. Read took to it, and despite the money her drag act earned her and her mother, Read took work on a ship, still disguised as a young man. She ended up jumping ship and joining up with a British warship. Then she ended up in conflict in Holland. The tangled conflicts of the Nine Year’s War were one of those absurd and nasty slaughters fueled by royal nonsense Europe used to specialize in. The battle came to be known as “the college” among military men because it produced a generation of ambitious military men. Read, crypto-male, was one of that generation.

After the war, Read fell in love with a Flemish soldier who, one imagines, eventually figured out she was a girl. In peace time, they realized there was no way for killers to advance, so they left the armed forces and opened an inn. Her husband died young of unknown causes. Faced with widowness, Read donned male garb again and joined a commercial ship. She was captured by pirates, but unlike most women captured, she could offer combat experience. She joined with the pirates. Then, during yet another absurdly complex squabble between kings, she became a privateer. Legitimacy didn’t suit Read and her mates, so they mutinied and went criminal again. In 1720-ish, she - still under guise of manhood - joined the crew of John “Calico Jack” Rackham. It was on that ship that she crossed paths with Anne Bonny and was finally unmasked as a woman.

Mary is depicted in contemporary illustrations in terms similar to Anne. In some images, like Anne, she’s depicted wading into battle with her breasts exposed. However, the most famous image of her depicts her fully clothed, running a man through with a sword. At the risk of sounding sexist, there’s something about her legs that strikes me as essentially feminine. And, of course, there’s the notable lack of face fuzz, a coded gender reference in pirate images. Still, this depiction of Read shows that there’s not the technical demand that an artist depict a female pirate with her breasts exposed.

And, more notably, why is Read’s iconic depiction fully clothed, but Bonny’s depiction has her breast exposed?

Symbolic Breasts

My evidence for this is completely circumstantial, but I’ve always seen the iconic image of Anne Bonny as a sort of nexus of all the ideologically potent imagery associated with piracy. First, she strikes me as an image of class struggle. Specifically, the image of her with tits rampant reminds me of French class struggle imagery. To get even more specific, she seems like some prototype for 19th Century imagery of Marianne at the barricades. Marianne is, to France, something akin to a cross between Uncle Sam and Athena, at once a nationalist image and a critique that suggests what the nation should be at its best. During the French Revolution, artists often depicted the abstractions of Liberty and Reason as female characters. These eventually fused into a single figure: Marianne, the avatar of the Triumph of the Republic. Why should the symbol of republican government, rule by the people, be female? French historian Maurice Algulhon gave an intriguing answer. The ancien régime was all about the rule of kings. It was, at its core, about the rule of a line of aristocratic men. Marianne was their opposite: the queen of the masses.

For me, the quintessential image of Marianne appears in Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” This 1830 painting features a woman armed with a rifle and carrying the tricolor French flag leading a working class mob over a barricade. Like Anne, she strides somewhat towards the viewer with the same X dynamic motion. But, unlike Anne, her attention is drawn over her shoulder towards the men behind her. She advances over the bodies of the fallen revolutionaries. Like Anne, her breasts are exposed. I have no evidence that Delacroix knew of the images of Anne Bonny, but the odd visual link is there. Exposed boobs as a blow against the rulers and a symbol of working class revolt. Who knew?

Another odd connection is the visual of Jesse Jane in Pirates, the 2005 porno adventure flick that, up to that point, was the most expensive pornographic film ever made. (Ironically, part of the goal in producing the film was to fight “pirates,” the low-budget porn producers and content thieves that are draining large porn producers’ coffers.) The plot of Pirates involves a crew of pirates attempting to harness a mystical South American supernatural power source for reasons unclear, but certainly diabolical. They are pursued by the world’s least competent pirate hunter. And there’s lots and lots of sex. ‘Cause it is a porn flick. In said flick, Jesse Jane plays Jules, the oversexed first mate of the pirate hunter. The details of her debauchery are not entirely pertinent to the story, but it is important to understand the porn function of Jesse Jane. Like 1970’s film stars, porn actors are hired primarily to play themselves. This pseudo-character - the pre-character setting they bring to their “role” - is their porn function. Ms. Jane’s porn function is the female predator. She growls, spits, slaps, bites, and generally acts as if the main function of intercourse is to exorcise whatever horrible things happened to you as a child through the domination of others. For the purposes of this essay, the important thing is that, in the last action scene of the film - an unembarrassed rip-off of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean - Jane appears in a fight scene, breasts unnecessarily exposed, right arm extended, shooting a pistol. She looks remarkably like Anne Bonny.

Oddly, the allure of the lascivious, with a dash of curious 18th Century proto-feminism, has always been part of the Anne Bonny story. Bonny’s origins are obscure, but the best records suggest that she married as part of plot to snag her parents’ fortune (shades of Read’s history). When that went bust, she set her parents’ plantation on fire and fled with her husband to a pirate hub. Her husband became an informer, but she started spending more time with pirates and eventually became the mistress of Calico Jack. Bonny’s husband brought her before the judge to have her whipped for adultery. The judge agreed, but made Calico Jack the offer to buy her, sparing her a flogging. Bonny, the story goes, refused to be bought or sold. She chose a whipping rather than being owned. Whipping it would be. But Bonny escaped before the whipping and joined Rackham’s crew. Then things get porny: Bonny took a liking to a crew member by the name of Read, with his girlish good looks. Eventually she pressed the issue far enough to discover that Read - who, unlike Bonny, was disguised as a man all this time - was actually a girl. When Rackham discovered that Bonny was getting it on with another man on the ship, he threatened to slit Read’s throat. Until he discovered that Read was a woman. One can practically hear the bass guitar give a bwa-bwah-bwa-bwhan-bhan lick.

That seems almost cute now. Imagine the sort of scandal that story provoked in the 18th century.

This strain of sexually charge energy speaks to the question of the difference between Bonny and Read’s most iconic images: Anne’s is ostentatiously female because Anne never hid here gender. Her being a pirate is specifically tied her rejection of her role as daughter and wife. It’s also linked to a dangerous, aggressive sexuality that scandalized her era. Her breasts are bare because she’s not just a person in revolt, she’s a woman in revolt.


Pirates were thugs, thieves, and brutal mercenaries. But the moment they unintentionally wrote themselves into history, they, like all other authors, became the property of their readers. We see our issues and concerns, our fantasies and politics in what they wrote. In the odd image of Anne Bonny - gun drawn, hair loose, breasts bared - I see the struggle of the have-nots and the allure of the sexual predator. Is that my imagination? Probably. But that’s where these pirates sail now: in the vast sea of our collective desires, theories, and needs.

Godspeed Anne Bonny.

Many thanks all over again to CRwM for the wonderful posts yesterday and today. Be sure and pop over to And Now The Screaming Starts for more of his creative takes on horror, movies, literature and the big rock we live on. My thanks to you all for your support of Triple P. Now forward, mates, into another piratical year!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lady Pirates: Bonny And Beyond

Well, it's official Brethren: Triple P has been up and running for exactly one year. That's right; it was July 28, 2009 when your humble hostess began this little experiment in all things afloat. To mark the occasion and to thank each and every one of you for your continued support, a special treat is in order. Allow me to offer a guest post from one of my favorite writers on the web or anywhere else. Check out the sometimes funny, sometimes thought provoking and always masterful CRwM at his wonderful blog And Now The Screaming Starts at your leisure. But today and tomorrow, I proudly encourage you to check him out right here:

The Naked Breast of Anne Bonny

The most famous image of Anne Bonny is an etching created sometime in the 18th Century. It’s possible that the image was created during her lifetime, but it was most certainly created after Bonny’s career as a pirate was over. The date is important to understanding the picture. Even if Bonny was still alive when this picture was created, the artist was capturing a vibrant, violent Anne who had passed into the pages of history decades ago. The picture isn’t a representation of Anne Bonny. It’s a representation of what the artist imagined when he thought about Anne Bonny.

In the etching, she stands in awkward mid-stride. The artist has trouble with rendering depth (no doubt this was a fairly down and dirty quick rendering for some disposable bit of scandalous proto-pulp writing) and, without paying close attention, it appears as if she’s not in a contraposto stance. Though her left leg is forward, it looks at first like her left arm is forward as well. In fact, after some close study, one comes to the conclusion that her left arm is slightly behind her and her raised right arm is shooting at someone positioned at her one or two o’clock. Viewed from the top, the dynamic lines of her motion would form an X, with her top and bottom halves going in opposite directions.

Bonny is depicted in the middle of some piratical action. She’s well armed: a drawn sword; two pistols, one drawn and firing; and a hatchet. She’s advancing towards the viewer, but not directly. Her attention is on a theoretical figure to the viewer’s left. Given the angle of Bonny’s arm, we have to position this target somewhere in the extreme foreground. Or, more curiously, we can imagine that, like the viewer, this target is supposed by the author to be outside of the frame of the picture, looking in just as the viewer is. It’s a pop trash version of the the depth of space play one finds in Velasquez’s Las Meninias.

Her curious X-stance isn’t the only awkward thing about Anne Bonny in this picture. Her head and chest are curiously too small for the body. This is especially notable because Bonny’s chest is exposed to the viewer. We’re meant to believe that Anne Bonny - specifically this in-the-middle-of-combat Anne Bonny - runs into violent activity with her boobs hanging out. If Russ Meyer had directed Pirates of the Caribbean, you might have ended up with a female lead like the Anne Bonny depicted here. The simple fact that Bonny’s breasts are visible often distracts from the oddness of their size and placement.

Here’s the point where I apologize to Pauline for being the first writer to stain her site with the term “underboob.”

To get a sense of the weirdness of Anne Bonny’s breasts in the picture requires audience participation. Don’t worry: you don’t have to send in pictures. In the famed image, Bonny’s arm is extended straight out from her torso. So take your right arm and extend it perpendicular to your body. Now draw a line from the bottom of your chest. Go ahead and trace your finger across to get a sense of how high up on your chest the line extends. Now look back at Anne Bonny. Her underboob (so sorry Pauline) lines up with the bottom of her sleeve, which means that parallel line you traced across your own chest falls just above that. Even on the gents in the audience, you’ve got to admit that falls a bit high on the body. Though, curiously, her head is in proportion to her chest. It’s everything else that’s out of whack. It’s as if the artist decided that all the things that made her female were one statement and all the things that made her a pirate were another, legitimate but incommensurable, statement.

What makes this particular discontinuity even stranger is that it is based on the odd decision to have Bonny’s breasts hanging out. Why did the artist decide that Bonny would wade into the heat of battle with her chest on display?

When I first saw this image, I came up with a technical theory that explained this odd choice. Given Bonny’s mannish clothing, an absurd display of femme flesh was an easy (and arousing) way to solve the problem of showing that the artist’s subject was a woman. After all, the unbound long hair is no hint: representations of Blackbeard show the infamous pirate with longer, wilder hair than Bonny is depicted with. And that, dear reader, was where I was going to end this post. But on further research, I decided, as we Southern boys say, that dog don’t hunt.

Let’s talk lady pirates.

She Pirates

Women occupy a curious place in pirate history: Female pirates are rare creatures, but the single most successful pirate in the history of piracy is a woman. It’s an odd situation which has, as far as my limited intelligence can encompass, no equivalent. To imagine a parallel, create in your mind an inter-gender boxing league where a random handful of women appear in the sports history books here and there - mostly because they do “pretty good for a girl” - but the unquestioned Ali of the sport is woman. That’s how odd it would be.

The most successful pirate in the world was Cheng I Sao, a former floating brothel whore who took control of her pirate husband’s fleet after his death and turned it into the greatest pirate enterprise the Earth would ever know. Cheng I Sao - her name means “widow of Cheng,” a reference to her dead pirate husband - stepped into the role of captain in 1809. Her first move was to hand day-to-day control of her fleet over to Chang Pao, her husband’s second in command. It was a canny move. In a single swoop, she nipped in the bud any potential mutiny from Chang Pao and left herself free to concentrate on organizing a pan-fleet pirate collective. In less than three years, Cheng I Sao had unified nearly every pirate in the South China Sea into a single organization: the Red Flag Fleet. At its height, the Red Flag Fleet was the dominant power in the waters off Southeast Asia. Cheng I Sao not only organized the fleet, but she brokered deals with local governments, farmers, and merchants to establish an insanely elaborate web of logistical support that was, in essence, a shadow nation of vassals, regulation officials, and paper pushers all serving a single pirate queen.

Cheng I Sao was an effective, but unforgiving leader. She established a universal code of conduct for all ships in the Red Flag Fleet and it could be quite ruthless. Disobedience meant you were beheaded. Go AWOL and the pirates of the Red Flag Fleet would cut your ears off. Notably, the former brothel girl created a detailed set of instructions for dealing with female prisoners: Ugly women were released, without harassment, as soon as possible. Pretty women were kept to be sold. Pirates in the Red Flag Fleet got a special members rate on the pretty women, but if they bought the lovely prisoner, the Red Flag Fleet considered the pirate married. The price for cheating on your newly purchased wife was your head.

Somebody might perhaps argue that these achievements don’t, in themselves, qualify Cheng I Sao for the title of “Greatest Pirate Ever.” Their argument is insane. But, even if I grant it validity, there’s another career achievement that I think pushes her into the top slot. She managed something no other pirate managed. In the struggle between pirates and the legitimate powers of the ocean, Cheng I Sao won. In 1810, an outsmarted, outgunned, outnumbered Chinese royal government made peace with Cheng I Sao. The coldly effective queen fed more than 100 pirates to the government for execution: a sacrifice to public outrage and a peace offering to a government that needed blood to assuage its wounded pride. Another 400 men received some sort of legal sanction. The rest became the royal Chinese navy. Cheng I Sao was put at the head of the navy. Cheng I Sao retired from the pirate game. She married Chang Pao, the dangerous second-in-command she placated the second she took control, and opened a casino. She died peacefully in 1844. She was 69. She was a grandmother.

That’s why Cheng I Sao wins at piracy.

Still, Cheng I Sao is the exception to the rule. Most seem to be like Anne Bonny - oddities in the general pattern. Though this is unsurprising, if you think about it.

So, Like, Why Aren’t There More Women Pirates?

The primary reason there weren’t more women pirates, especially in the era of sea travel that Anne Bonny knew, was that pirates came almost exclusively from the ranks of disgruntled legitimate sailors, and that was an almost entirely masculine realm. Basically, the standard pirate bio goes something like this: A going nowhere laboring class (or, in the pre-capitalist days, sub-laboring class, that is to say slaves or indentured individuals) man joins the navy of some legit naval power. In a short time, they realize that life on a sailing vessel is a true hell on Earth. The food’s horrible, the living conditions are barbaric, and the power the officers wield over you is cruel and absolute. Furthermore, it wasn’t much of a meritocracy. You might move up the ranks a bit, but in all likelihood even the most dedicated member of a national naval force was going to leave the service dead, severely injured, or not much better or worse off than when he first set foot on a ship. From a self-improvement standpoint, it was like choosing to do nothing but increase the chance of violent death for as many years as your luck held out.

Hence the attraction of piracy. While it was generally no better on the economic and health fronts (few pirates retired wealthy and few retired at all), at least you didn’t have to eat the crap served up by the officer class. During the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, the highwaymen of the sea developed a strikingly democratic system of self-rule. Under combat conditions, the rule of the captain was absolute, but in most other cases, the captain could be overruled through majority rule. On many ships, the captain could be replaced through a vote of no confidence. (Blackbeard was replaced and re-elected captain several times.) They pioneered several other workplace innovations that speak directly to the class-based roots of many a pirate, including evolutionary predecessors to modern profit-sharing and workman’s comp plans.

It’s tempting to suggest that pirates were some sort of floating worker’s rebellion, aimed at redistribution of wealth the establishing of a working man’s utopia. In fact, when the academic study of piracy started to gain traction in the late 1990s, the dominant scholarly narrative was one of liberation. For example, scholars used the pirate tradition of willing belongings to male shipmates as evidence that pirates practiced and supported some primitive form of recognized gay marriage. The fact is that we have some informal wills that involve men with no connections outside of their crew leaving their worldly possessions to members of said crew. Could this be the act of gay lovers? Sure. But it just as easily could be what a straight dude who doesn’t have a friend or family outside the crew of his ship does when drawing up a will. The tendency to see pirates through the lens of modern liberal politics evoked a backlash of its own, with the most notable example being the book The Invisible Hook, by economist Peter T. Leeson. Leeson attempts to rewrite the entire liberal take on piracy, replacing it with an image of logical, rational, economically minded criminals whose seemingly liberal deeds were actually hardheaded displays of financial reasoning.

Personally, I think both narratives are true. What liberal romantics tend to ignore is that pirates were brutal crooks who most likely never did anything out of some high-minded ideology about the common good. On the reverse, the idea that the working class rabble that made up the ranks of the pirates should be in control of their own economic destinies was, at the time, a profoundly revolutionary idea. Pirates are a lousy fit with our contemporary political spectrum, but in their time, they were doing something that turned the conventional wisdom about the rights of men upside down. Their revolutionary impulse and its limitations should be recognized.

We’ll get back to this narrow revolutionary impulse shortly, but first we need to settle the primary reason pirates were men: The almost all-male world of the professional navy was the factory of pirates. Most men became pirates when they either overthrew their captains in a mutiny or chose to join with a pirate crew upon their capture. Since no nation employed women in their navy during the 18th Century, the single largest source of pirates was utterly devoid of ladies.

The second reason actually connects back to code of the Red Flag Fleet and shines a clarifying light on the restricted liberality of pirate ideology. The most common situation in which a woman would cross paths with pirates was if she was taken hostage when pirates captured a ship. There were two was this scenario could go. If the captured ship had fought back against the pirates, then things would get nasty fast. We won’t dwell on the details, but suffice it to say that the woman in question was most likely doomed and that her end was almost certainly unpleasant. If, however, the captured craft had surrendered, then it was probable that the woman would be released unmolested. There’s an economic logic to this. Every conflict between pirates and their prey could, conceivably, lead to disaster for the pirates. They could lose key personnel, have their ship damaged in some crucial way, or get screwed in any of a million other nasty ways. Every ship they could take without firing a shot is a boon. And the best way to discourage people from firing at you is to establish a rep for slaughtering everybody who resists, but respecting the rights of anybody who comes peacefully. (In modern terms, think of it like this: The rule in airplane highjackings used to be that you played along with the highjackers to ensure that nobody got hurt, but now, after 9/11, that social contract is broken and any would-be highjacker must now account for the fact that everybody on the plane is going to assume that cooperation means death.)

This brings us back to the captured women. They are simply more valuable to pirates if they do not join the pirate crew. In code of the Red Flag Fleet, the pretty women are a saleable commodity. For Western Golden Age pirates, the strategic release or destruction of captured women helps establish the rep you need to keep potential victims in line. The alternative, make the women pirates, would have rarely made sense. Most women would have had no training in seafaring skills or combat. Adding them into the crew diminishes each pirate’s share in the take, but does not add any particularly important skills to your group’s collective efficiency.

Stunning, isn't it? But our gentleman writer is not done by half. Come back tomorrow for Mary Read, Delacroix's Liberty Leading The People and yeah, more about pirates and boobs. What's not to like?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

People: The Tale Of Half-Arse

The story of Louis le Golif, buccaneer extraordinaire, comes down to us from his own autobiography. Reading Memoirs of a Buccaneer is a little like watching an Errol Flynn movie. Monsieur le Golif was kicking ass and taking names pretty much up until the time he retired to France and wrote his book. Or was he?

According to the memoir, which I will say now is the only definitive documentation of any boucanier named Louis le Golif or going by the moniker Half-Arse (more on that in a bit), le Golif was born in France and sent off to the West Indies as an indentured servant in his 20s. The questions arise early and often. Le Golif tells us he was indentured to a planter named Monsieur Piedouille. A cruel, unyielding sort of fellow, Piedouille eventually drives le Golif to run away. In this he is joined by his "... good brother and matelot" Pulverin. The two men set out in a skiff at night looking for freebooting adventure. The issue here is that Piedouille's plantation is on the island of Tortuga, or so it seems. At no point during the period the story is supposed to have taken place, circa 1665, were there plantations on the buccaneer stronghold of Tortuga.

Le Golif and his pal are taken aboard the freebooting ship Salagrun, captained by a Frenchmen named Bigourdin. Things go relatively well in the prize taking business until a skirmish with the Spanish Navy gives le Golif his nickname. In a firefight, part of one buttock is shot away by grape from a cannon. Though the wound is decidedly painful, le Golif recovers quickly and it's back to a pirate's life for him.

The real set piece in the memoir is the taking of the Spanish man-of-war Santa Clara. Le Golif is forced to step up as commander of Salagrun when Bigourdin is killed by cannon fire from the Spaniard. The prose here is particularly compelling and le Golif gives us a clear-eyed picture of just how horrifying such a close battle at sea could be:

Bigourdin was stretched out in his own blood, without any legs, his belly burst open and his guts exposed, while all around me the deck was strewn with my friends, some without arms, others without heads, not counting those who had been crushed by yards, blocks, the debris of tops and other heavy objects which had fallen from above in great disorder.

A nasty and no doubt accurate picture. Le Golif rallies the men still of able body and cleverly sends a Spanish speaking crewman to the fore to chastise the Spanish over the rails about firing on one of their own merchants. The ruse works and the navy ship sends men and officers out in boats to assist the injured. Here the narrative again falters when le Golif notes that, to his delight, the Spanish "... had to come alongside our port". As you well know Brethren, port was not in common usage when referring to one side of a ship at the time. Though port was occasionally used in writing as early as the late 16th century, larboard would have been the standard language of a common seaman. The Spanish point of entry conceals their activity from the navy ship and allows the buccaneers to kill the enemy one by one as they climb up the ship's ladder. There's even an instance of expert knife throwing that kills the first officer on deck.

Le Golif and his men dawn the Spaniard's clothing and raid Santa Clara with harrowing if successful results. Le Golif himself is a whirlwind, dodging bullets, slicing up four and five men at once and jumping over pikes while lopping off heads. He even cuts down a Spanish boy who mistakes Half-Arse for his father. It's the best part of a Sabotini novel written as autobiography.

In the end, the buccaneers are victorious. They lock the still living Spaniards in Santa Clara's hold, move their wounded from Salagrun and scuttle her before setting a course back to Tortuga. Once there, le Golif and his crew are feted by one and all:

Having learned that a vessel captured from Spain had just dropped anchor below the fort of La Roche, Monsieur d'Ogeron, who was then Governor... did not hesitate to come aboard.

It is important to note here that d'Ogeron in fact governed from the San Domingue (now Haiti) capitol of Petit Guave, not Tortuga. All the same punch and wine are shared, d'Ogeron commissions le Golif as Captain of the ship and imparts the happy news that Monsieur Piedouille "... had passed away, having been quite neatly dispatched by one of his men." Le Golif is cheered by all the Brethren of the Coast on shore, he makes his matelot Pulverin second in command and reminisces about the night he escaped the island and how far he has come.

Le Golif goes on to more swashbuckling adventures with such memorable buccaneers as Rock Brasilliano and that Triple P favorite Laurens de Graff. While the writing is exciting and well informed, it's little details - port not larboard, sabre not hanger, the continued reference to flags (not colors or ancients) as identifying regalia aboard ship - that put it slightly off its time period. The most telling issue about the memoir, of course, is that it was not discovered until the end of the World War II when it came miraculously to light out of a bombed building.

Despite the colorful detail and engaging action, it's probably safe to say that Memoirs of a Buccaneer is a modern invention. Like Charlotte de Berry and Red Legs Greaves, it is a good bet that Louis le Golif, for all his adventures, never actually lived.

Monday, July 26, 2010

History: Know Your Articles

We've talked before about democracy among pirates. Though I don't adhere to the one man/one vote and justice for all picture of pirates in general, there is no denying the ship's articles that have come down to us in writing from the Golden Age and beyond. Captain Charles Johnson in his book The General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, listed three such sets of articles from as many separate ships. They make interesting reading and give a tantalizing glimpse of how these rovers of the sea interacted with their officers and one another.

We'll revisit this from time to time because all of the articles in question are fairly detailed and there are others - the Laffite brothers', for instance - that are worth looking at too. All together they would make a prohibitively long post. But separately they're fun to dive into. So today, the articles of Captain John Phillips' Revenge dated circa 1723:

1) Every man shall obey civil Command; the Captain shall have one full share and a half of all Prizes; the Master, Carpenter, Bosun and Gunner shall have one share and quarter.
2) If any man shall offer to run away or keep any secret from the Company, he shall be marooned with one bottle of powder, one bottle of water, one small arm and shot.
3) If any man shall steal anything in the Company or game to the value of a Piece of Eight, he shall be marooned or shot.
4) If at any time we should meet another Marooner that man that shall sign the Articles without the Consent of our Company shall suffer such punishment as the Captain and Company shall see fit.
5) That man that shall strike another whilst these Articles are in force shall receive Moses's Law on the bare back.
6) That man that shall snap his arms or smoak Tobacco in the hold without a cap to his pipe or carry a candle lighted without a lanthorn shall suffer the same punishment as the former Article.
7) That man that shall not keep his arms clean, fit for an engagement, or neglect his Business shall be cut off from his Share and suffer such other punishment as the Captain and Company shall see fit.
8) If any man shall lose a Joint in Time of Engagement, he shall have 400 pieces of eight; if a Limb, 800.
9) If at any Time we meet with a prudent woman, that man that offers to meddle with her without her Consent shall suffer present Death.

These Articles address, perhaps rather severely to modern eyes, the issues most critical aboard a wooden ship about the business of freebooting. Civil behavior, adding to or subtracting from the strength of the company, keeping ready for battle and the abject fear of fire. Shares and compensation are spelled out, as in any contract, and even "prudent women" are looked after. Moses's Law, by the way, means a flogging of 39 lashes; literally "40 stripes lacking one".

Phillips was a small time pirate plying the sweet trade in the northern Atlantic for the most part. Of interest in this case, aside from the articles themselves, is that the men of Revenge swore by their articles on an axe as no Bible was handy. Also the fact that about a year after these articles were agreed to, the men mutinied off the Newfoundland coast. They bound and gagged Phillips and tossed him into the cold ocean.

Among free thinking and generally violent men, even the most carefully written articles were no guarantee of safety, by land or sea.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Two Giant Seamen

July 27, 1718: Former privateer and pirate Woodes Rogers (seated at right) arrives in New Providence, the Bahamas at the head of a flotilla of four warships. He is sworn in as Governor of the British colony immediately, and effectively ends the use of the island as a pirate stronghold.
July 25, 1866: Captain David Glasgow Farragut of "Damn the torpedoes!" fame is commissioned the U.S. Navy's first Admiral in recognition of his heroism and leadership during the Civil War.
His adoptive (rumors said natural) father, Commodore David Porter would have been proud.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Right Part 2

Today at my house is all about a certain hero who appears above in a portrait that hangs on the wall of my bedroom. That's right. Today is the 227th anniversary of the birth of El Libertador: Simon Bolivar. To my mind he out stripes many of the greatest most worshiped men ever spoken of. If I told you some of the guys I have in mind, cries of heresy would rise against me from all over the globe, including my own dear country. Despite Hugo Chavez co-opting the great man for his own bizarre political agenda, I believe as another political leader once said: Bolivar belongs to all those who love Liberty.

So, in tribute to a righteous man, Sailor Mouth Saturday is again about the word right and its application at sea.

A ship is righted, or her men are righting her, when she is pulled up off her keel and into the water after a careening. For a very large ship, this can be a tremendous undertaking requiring the strong arms of every man Jack available. And a staggering amount of rope and tackles. A ship can also right at sea, presenting her masts vertically once again after listing due to grounding, waves or wind. A frightening experience regardless of the ship's size.

Right is most commonly used in reference to a ship's heading. A ship is right on end when sailing straight ahead in line with her masts. Right way indicates the ship's head is pointing in the desired direction. Right sailing means the ship's course is along one of the cardinal compass points: North, South, East or West and straight on it. Right the helm! is an order to bring the rudder in line with the keel causing the boat or ship to head directly forward.

Right up and down indicates that a ship's cable has gone from horizontal to vertical in relation to the water it is in. This occurs when weighing anchor. The capstan reels in the anchor cable and when the ship has reached the place where the anchor or kedge is set, the cable will literally come straight up to the ship from the water. The call is then: "Up and down, sir!" This lets the captain, master, leadsman and so on know that the anchor will soon be out of the water. When she is, the call "Clean (or thick if the anchor has a deal of barnacles, etc. aboard) and dry for weighing!" is heard. The anchor is set in the cathead, and the ship is free in the water. A glorious moment indeed.

Finally, there is the right whale. These gentle beasts are the ones without dorsal fins such as a baleen whale that were so popular with whalers in the 18th and 19th century. Thanks in large part to fossil fuels, we no longer need to hunt our fellow mammals.

And that is enough for today. It's time for me to get ready for a celebratory evening in honor of Bolivar. First, a toast to that portrait in my room. And to all my distant relatives in Venezuela and Panama, Salute!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Booty: Champagne For My Men!

Ahoy, Brethren, and welcome to Friday Booty. After what the First Mate called last week's "depressing for a Friday" post about the Gulf disaster and it's effect on our history, I thought I'd go back to drinking. After all, it is high on the list of favorite pirate pass times.

On Sunday last an article appeared in my local paper via the Associated Press. It reported that on Saturday divers in the Baltic sea discovered a circa 1780 shipwreck off the coast of Sweden. Among the interesting remains therein they found something that took precedence over all others: bottles of old champagne. Christian Ekstrom, the diving instructor on the site, seems to hint that the first part of the wreck to break the cold service of the water was one of those bottles. From the article:

"We brought up the bottle to be able to establish how old the wreck was," [Ekstrom] told the Associated Press. "We didn't know it would be champagne."

Since champagne bottles have always had a distinctively feminine curve to them, with a slender neck on top (see the green and clear bottles on the left at the header), one wonders just what kind of historians are on this treasure hunt.

At any rate, the divers were keen to know the contents of the bottle intimately and they did not hesitate to open it. The cork popped melodiously once everyone was settled on their ship and the team tried the 230 year old beverage of aristocracy. Despite being submerged at 200 feet for so long, the champagne was still delightfully drinkable:

"It tasted fantastic. It was a very sweet champagne with a tobacco taste and oak," Ekstrom said.

Sweet champagnes were the favorites around the world in the 18th and well into the 19th century. What is now referred to as Brut and Extra Dry were the rage up until the Belle Epoque. After World War I the mode began to change and now most people have a taste for much drier champagnes.

It has been suggested that the ship was probably a merchant, hauling cargo to Russia. Where her approximately 30 bottles of bubbly originated is still a mystery. Samples have been sent, of course, to France for testing but experts are already speculating. The oldest drinkable vintage of champagne so far recorded was an 1825 Perrier-Jouet. Swedish wine expert Carl-Jan Granqvist says in the article that, if all the bottles found are as drinkable as the divers say the first one was, each of the bottles of champagne could go for $68,000. Now that's an expensive evening from the start!

Your humble hostess is a great believer in champagne. As the song says, just once or twice, it's good for the soul. I am fond of Veuve Clicquot but it's all good. And a little sparkling wine yet more frequently never hurt anything either.

Finally, and on a completely different note, please consider clicking over to Restore the Gulf and signing the petition to help do just that. Be The One. Babord and his family say merci beaucoup.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ships: Over By The Shoes

The project that is the World Trade Center rebuild is still going strong. Nothing happens overnight, I understand, but this seems to be taking quite awhile. Last week, though, some good news made me glad that the project is going slowly. Haste, after all, destroys history.

This article in the NY Times (July 14) and this one from the Associated Press (via Yahoo!, July 16) tell the tale of a piece of American seafaring rediscovered. To the great surprise of even the archaeologists who are assisting in the WTC construction, part of a wooden sailing ship was found where a parking garage will be. I say part because it seems that the ship was deliberately cut across the beam, possibly in half, before also deliberately being put where it is now.

The ship's beam timbers were spotted by archaeologist Molly McDonald after a bulldozer (the horror of all who dig with dental tools for little pieces of history) disrupted the soil on top of them. McDonald works for AKRF, a firm working with the Port Authority to document any historical finds overturned during construction. Thank goodness they have someone on site. As the fascinating slide show that accompanies the NYT article shows (both pictures in this post come from same), it would be hard to discern wood from steel in the muddy ooze 20 feet below street level.

The ship, probably built some time in the 1700s, was evidently junked in the early 1800s, cut up and sunk. The exact purpose is as yet unclear but historians speculate that it was probably either to anchor a wharf or literally extend the Manhattan shoreline into the Hudson River. Marine historian Norman Brower of Mystic Seaport in Connecticut posits that, based on evidence of sea life boring into the timbers, the ship may have cruised in Caribbean waters during her salad days.

The ship's timbers have already begun to deteriorate now that they are no longer encased in their anaerobic blanket of silt and mud. Efforts to move the ship quickly, as well as measure, photograph and excavate, are currently underway.

An interesting aside, or at least to me, is what was found near the ship. Besides an intact anchor there were, as McDonald says in the article:
"...pieces of shoes all over." The article states she "...had no idea how they got there." One thing I know for sure: sailors hate shoes almost as much as they hate to see their ship junked. Something to think about as we wait for more news on this intriguing find.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

People: The Romantic Rover

Samuel Bellamy has come down to general history as the pirate who took a slave ship, lost it in a nor'easter off Cape Cod and drown along with all but two of his men. His story begins and ends there, overshadowed by the tale of treasure hunter Barry Clifford who found the wreck of Bellamy's Whydah and the vast trove of artifacts therein in 1984.

Of course history is easy both to over-simplify and embellish upon. Both things seem to have happened to Black Sam. There is the story as above, and then there is the yarn of the dashing young rover, a virtual bad boy hero from a romance novel, who went off to seek his fortune at any cost for the love of an aristocratic maid.

Sam Bellamy's origins are murky at best. He appears to have been born in the place that spawned so many English seafarers: Devonshire. It's a safe bet that at some point in his youth he signed aboard a merchant bound for the Caribbean and his seafaring days began. While working the islands, Sam learned of the wracking (or wrecking) trade, possibly from his friend and future associate Paul Williams.

The trade involved salvaging sunken ships and the vessels most favored by the wrackers were Spanish treasure ships lost on their way to Havana or Spain. Pearl divers, usually natives from the islands off Venezuela but sometimes Africans who were either free or runaway slaves, were employed to swim down and pick up anything of value - plate, small arms, jewels, coin, etc. The work was hard and dangerous; pirates were not averse to taking the hard earned treasure from wrackers, at gunpoint if need be.

This may or may not have happened in Bellamy's case. Some accounts say that Charles Vane took Bellamy's cargo, turning him pirate in the process. This has a certain logic to it since Vane and Benjamin Hornigold were known to sail together at times. What we do know is that by 1715 Bellamy and his friend Williams were aboard Hornigold's pirate ship.

Hornigold, like Morgan before him, was an English patriot and refused to take British ships. This rankled with some of his crew and they parted company with him, quite civilly in fact. Hornigold sailed off with 26 men and Bellamy was elected Captain of a remaining sloop. He set off in partnership with French pirate Oliver Le Bouche. (As a personal aside, I've heard it suggested that "Le Bouche" was in fact an alias for Beluche and that Oliver was a relative of my own famous ancestor, Renato Beluche. I don't buy it for a minute, but it's a nice story).

Bellamy captured several ships up and down the American coast. At least two were slavers returning from Africa or Jamaica including the brig Sultana, whose command Bellamy turned over to Paul Williams. Aboard Sultana was a young carpenter named Davis. Bellamy had no carpenter and he pressed the man into service. The story goes that Davis was promised his freedom when the next prize was found, but the crew would not allow a good carpenter to leave and so he stayed on.

Bellamy and Le Bouche parted company amicably in early 1717 and shortly thereafter Bellamy came across his greatest score to date. Off the coast of Jamaica he encountered Whydah, an 18 gun merchant and slaver with a compliment of about 45 men. She was headed either for New England or England with a dazzling cargo of gold, ivory, sugar and indigo. She also carried cash from the sale of slaves in the amount of close to 20,000 pounds (well over three million modern American dollars). Her captain, Lawrence Price, packed on all sail and tried to run.

Bellamy and his crew worked three hard days, chasing Whydah in all weather, until they finally overcame her. Impressed with Price's seaworthiness (and doubtless feeling flush with such an enormous prize), Bellamy gave the slaver's captain 20 pounds and Sultana and sent he and most of his crew off on their way.

Now captaining Whydah as his flagship, Bellamy and his flotilla of three other ships hit a storm off the coast of Virginia. They were blown considerably north and Bellamy decided to make for the then relatively unpopulated island of Cape Cod to find safe harbor and careen his vessels. On the way, his took the sloop Mary Anne which was full of Madeira wine. His men settled in to drinking up the prize as they continued northward. It would be the last party they ever enjoyed.

On a late spring evening in 1717, Bellamy's ships were struck by a raging storm. All the ships were lost. Whydah grounded near Wellfleet, was slammed by the surf and capsized with surprising speed. Only two of her men made it to shore: John Julian, a navigator from the original Whydah crew and hapless Davis, Sultana's carpenter.

The few men - nine in all - who staggered up to the beach from the pirate fleet were quickly arrested. All but Davis, who managed to prove he had been forced into service, were hanged in Massachusetts the same year. Until Clifford discovered the Whydah wreck in 1984, locals on Cape Cod would search the beach after storms, picking up coins, silverware and even silver plate that washed up from the wreck. Found out more about the ongoing study of the ship and her cargo here.

And Bellamy's romantic connection? Well, the story goes that young, handsome Sam was taking his prize north for more than just careening. In 1715 he'd left his love, Maria Hallett of Eastham, Massachusetts, to seek his fortune and prove himself worthy of her hand. Her father, a wealthy merchant, would not allow them to marry until Sam could provide for his daughter. Once his ship had come in, so to say, he turned toward Eastham and the promise of marriage. But fate had other plans and lovely Maria died young, probably of a broken heart. Or so they say.

Header picture: coins from the Whydah wreck
Lower right: Taking the Whydah by Don Maitz from his 2006 Pirate Calendar

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

History: The Middle Passage

Growing up in the United States and going to public schools, there were some things that were given as far as your education no matter where you lived. We moved a fair amount when I was young so I know this for fact. Even though math and spelling may have been taught differently in Seattle than they were in L.A., history was largely set in stone. The issue of American enslavement of Africans was particularly unassailable: it was a national sin, almost specific to the U.S. and bred of the infamous Triangle Trade: rum, slaves, molasses. The individual humans packed like boxes into slave ships were passive victims. The slavers were slavering sadists who took every advantage through the middle passage. And that was how it was, children.

I'm not here to apologize for slavery. It is a horror that humans have engaged in since probably before we were technically "human" and it diminishes us all. From Roman gladiatorial exhibitions to the killing fields of sugar cane to modern human trafficking, nothing good ever came out of slavery. But studying pirates and privateers has opened my eyes to the realities of humanity and economy as no amount of discussion in Mr. Peters' 8th grade history class ever could.

Although the initial hauling of humans from Africa to first the West Indies and a bit later the American Colonies was a gold mine for French and English merchants, it quickly became an economic nightmare for those who plied the Triangle. Indentured servitude was the first source of labor on Caribbean sugar plantations and it in itself was a bust. The Europeans dropped like flies due to heat, humidity and local diseases (malaria, yellow fever, etc.) that they had no immunity to. Then too they had by law to be allowed to walk away at the end of their indenture should they survive. Even if you didn't give them the land, money or livestock promised in their initial contract, it was still a loss for you as a plantation owner.

As the Spanish in South America discovered much earlier, Africans were far more able to survive the tropical environments and the hard work. And slavery didn't come with a time limit. By the late 1600s all the sugar plantations in the English West Indies were worked by African slaves. Barbados, as an example, counted upwards of 50,000 slaves in her population by 1680 (the European population at the time hovered around 20,000).

This discrepancy in numbers caused problems for white masters. Slave revolts were far more common than history books like to admit. Of course the most famous in the Caribbean was the San Domingue rebellion that made Haiti an independent nation. But elsewhere, less well known uprisings occurred. Over seventy rebellions have been documented in the British West Indies alone between 1685 and 1835. Some historians speculate that the reason colonies like Jamaica and Barbados did not follow the lead of the Americans and revolt against Britain was their abject need of the British Navy to help them keep their slaves in line and their butts safe.

The Andry plantation rebellion of 1811 occurred in Louisiana, north of New Orleans, and was led by a slave from San Domingue named Charles Deslondes. The slaves marched on the city but were stopped by sailors, army regulars and the city militia under Colonel George Ross. New Orleans was thrown into a panic. The Laffite brothers were blamed for the mini-massacre and the incident hurt their trade in human chattel.

Aboard the slave ships things were even harder for a merchant trying to make a buck. The ships coming from New England were always packed to the gunnels with goods for trade: rum first and foremost but also utensils, bolts of cloth, tallow, guns and gunpowder. These costly and easily sold articles made this type of shipping a prime target for both pirates and privateers. And the freebooters wanted the ships as well. Generally speaking they were well armed and under-manned. The first to keep down slave uprisings aboard ship and the second to make more room for cargo. Henry Avery, Bartholomew Roberts and Sam Bellamy - to name only a very few - made careers of taking slavers on their way to or along the African coast.

Then there was the loss of life that inevitably followed the unsanitary conditions aboard a slave ship. It was not unusual for half of the humans in the hold to be dead or too sick to bring a reasonable price by the time the West Indies were reached. Rebellions aboard ship did occur, particularly early in the passage, and the use of force of arms resulted in more loss of life and revenue. No wonder many merchants took what money they could in the Caribbean and went home without the storied molasses. They never completed the ominous Triangle, and fewer and fewer returned to Africa at all.

By the early 1800s, the importation of slaves to the U.S. was banned. The West Indies and Spanish nations continued the trade, though, so smuggling slaves into the U.S. continued as well. A slaver with relatively healthy cargo became a far more attractive prize. Pirates like Vicente Gambi and William Mitchell excelled at spotting them and bringing them in to Barataria for sale by the Laffites.

The whole history of the Atlantic slave trade is more diverse and more horrifying than our children are ever told in school. Maybe that's for the best but to me the stories as we know them now diminish the individuals involved. The slaves were far from passive victims, the merchants didn't always know what they were getting into and the pirates... Well; maybe they're the biggest stereotype of all.

Header painting: The Slave Ship by Joseph M.W. Turner

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Of Trees And Cows

Keeping anything, from human flesh to ropes to wood, fresh and clean at sea is a challenge almost beyond imagining. Water and its salty components like nothing better than to work their way in, causing mold and rot at an alarming rate. Sailors, being resourceful, in love with their ships and unafraid of hard work, developed solutions for such problems. Fresh they will keep the ship; clean is a matter of habit and opinion.

First among the seaman's arsenal against the damaging effects of water is tar. This simple substance is made from the resin collected from the bark of certain pine and juniper trees. It is distilled and heated to make it liquid where upon it can be applied to almost anything as waterproofing. Rigging is tarred regularly so that the ropes stay supple, workable and dry. This is an arduous and dangerous process that involves swinging high above the deck in a bosun's chair holding a bucket in one hand while using the other to tar the ropes.

Canvas can be tarred as well; thus the origin of the tarpaulin which covers things at sea and on land to keep off salt spray and rain alike. Tarpaulin is another name for sailor, as is simply tar or Jack tar. This references not only the fact that some hands never came entirely clean and were perpetually black from tarring, but also tar used as a hair treatment to keep long braids waterproof at sea.

Tar's mate aboard ship was tallow. This, of course, is rendered animal fat, most commonly from a cow. Used in candle and soap making, it was slathered onto masts and booms aboard ship to keep the weather out. This was another hazardous job that again required dangling at precarious heights, this time with your hands covered in one of the slickest substances known to man. It's a wonder any sailor got home whole and hale, frankly.

Tar and tallow have gone by the board in modern fleets, of course. Metal ships propelled by engines don't need such simple if difficult care. But there was a time when no ship could run if both were lacking, and no sailor would think to weigh anchor without them.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: The Mnemonic Device

Stephen: Jack, how is it that you can remember all this true direction against compass direction business? Truly, it escapes me.

Jack: Shall I tell you again then, Stephen?

Stephen: Again? If you please.

Jack: There's a mnemonic device, you see. Simply remember Timid Virgins Make Dull Company, Add Whiskey. Thus, True direction corrected for Variation equals Magnetic direction corrected for Deviation equals Compass direction. Then you Add Whiskey: Add Westerly deviations and variations. You could, if you wish, subtract Easterlies but that would make the phrase far less amusing. Add whiskey to timid virgins. Oh ha ha!

Stephen: Yes well. Never a dull moment with you, is there Jack?

Jack: Ha ha ha!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Right (Part 1)

Today and next Saturday are the birthdays of two righteous gentlemen. One, a hero to millions past and present (your humble hostess included). The other, far closer to home, my own father. Thus our word for today and next Saturday: right. More common at sea than you might imagine.

Right does not mean starboard aboard ship as it would in your car. In that sense it means directly as in right away. You don't ever turn right at sea.

There are right angles and right-angled triangles of course, especially where masts and sails are concerned. Something is right athwart when at right angles to the keel of your ship.

Right ascension is used in navigation and is calculated by the position of the constellation Aries in relationship to the equator and the hour circle which passes through a known star or planet. I am not making that up. Navigation by the stars is one of the great wonders of the human mind.

Right-hand rope is one braided clockwise and is the norm among ropes, most people being right handed. The opposite is not "left-hand rope" but water-laid rope.

Finally (at least for today), right away is a call of orientation when a sail is spotted and it is calculated by the main mast-head: "Right away on the bow" would mean straight ahead, for instance.

Now, if you will permit me: John "Jack" Richard Fletchall was born on this day, 1926, in Amity, Oregon. As it turned out, his father's family came to Oregon around 1842 from New Orleans via Missouri. Our surname was originally Lafleche anglicised for convenience or to hide something vital, possibly at some point on the trail. Dad said he was 18 and joined the Merchant Marine at age 16. He spent World War II in and around the Philippines. He came home, got a master's degree in physical education, married Mom and worked for first UPS and then himself. Dad looked something like the sailor in the picture above, which is why I love that poster. He died January 3, 1983. Fair winds and fine prizes, Dad; you always were a privateer at heart.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Booty: Grande Terre In Peril

The Gulf is lined with wooden shipwrecks, American-Indian shell midden mounds [cheniers], World War II casualties, pirate colonies, historic hotels and old fishing villages. Researchers now fear this treasure seeker's dream is threatened by BP PLC's deepwater well blowout.

Thus begins this article from the Associated Press, available online as of July 5th. Though the well has been successfully capped (as of this writing), there is far more damage ahead than behind. And it's not just to the ecosystem and wildlife that make the American Gulf coast so special.

The overarching theme of the distressing article is that the combination of settling oil in the Gulf and cleanup on the shore will either completely destroy or make dangerous to research historical sites from Pensacola to Galveston. Read the article for an outline of some of the interesting pieces of history that are jeopardized. Here are just a few that your humble hostess holds dear:

The Mardi Gras wreck: found in 2002 by oil workers at a depth of 4,000 feet and a little over 30 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The wreck, named for the pipeline where it was found, has been called by researches from Texas A & M University a "gun runner" from the War of 1812. She's a two masted brig of under 150 tons. Only one group of ships was running the British blockades down there during that war. Given these two facts, my guess is she's a Baratarian.

Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi: also known as the "Plymouth Rock of the Gulf", the island welcomed Europeans to the area beginning three hundred years ago and was the only deep draft harbor west of Mobile before a ship arrived at the river. The island was also the Civil War base of Union naval hero Admiral David Farragut.

Grande Terre and Grand Isle Islands, Barataria Bay, LA: archaeologists have only scratched the surface of the sandy ground on Grande Terre. They were beginning to uncover the remains of Jean and Pierre Laffite's famous privateer haven on this and her sister island when Deepwater Horizon exploded. Now, the broken crockery and charred remains of structures may be lost to the very thing that is so urgently needed: cleanup.

The article ends with the comments of John Rawls, a marine archaeologist whose firm, Earth Search, Inc., was involved in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. He points out that cleanup workers, under-trained, underpaid, in a hurry and sometimes looking for a souvenir or a quick buck, disturbed sites in and around Valdez.

He gives the example of the Chugachmiut cave, a prehistoric burial site found by cleanup workers who removed artifacts and bones before calling a supervisor. Local authorities then scooped the remains into trash bags and hauled them off. No one was able to document the site as it was found. To quote Rawls: "The site was pretty much trashed."

Bulldozers, settling oil and ignorance. A lethal combination for a history that is already sorely forgotten. Let us hope that the lessons learned elsewhere are applied on the Gulf. And pray for a break this hurricane season.

Header photograph of pelicans over Barataria Bay by C.C. Lockwood.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sea Monsters: "...They May Have Fought Each Other"

A while back we talked about C. megalodon, the giant, prehistoric shark that could have swallowed a modern submarine. It's a little terrifying to imagine critters that big roaming the oceans but when I do I console myself with the fact that modern whales, now the most common large sea creatures, are some of the gentlest animals on the planet. Modern whales being the operative phrase.

Last week I found this article from BBC online which tells us yet again about a huge carnivore that once roamed the seas. In this case, the creature was a giant whale with teeth in the neighborhood of a foot long. From the article:

[The whale] is thought to have been more than 17 m long, and might have engaged in fierce battles with other giant sea creatures of the time... Leviathan was an aggressive predator.

You read that correctly, by the way. Dr.Christian de Muizon of the Natural History Museum, Paris, who led the excavation team that found the mega-whale's skeleton in Peru, named the creature Leviathan. As he tells us:

It is interesting to note that at the same time in the same waters was another monster, which was a giant shark...

That would be our pal C. megalodon and that's just plane shudder inducing. Honestly, it is no wonder our seafaring ancestors got a little sketchy when they lost sight of land. Maybe, like fear of the dark, a primate instinct to fear huge, sharp-toothed monsters followed them onto the ocean.

The fossil skull of the whale, which is approximately 9 feet long, was found in 2008 on the last day of de Muizon's team's dig. The scientists immediately recognized it as similar to the skull of a sperm whale but, once they examined the teeth, they knew that they were dealing with a very different animal. Individual whale teeth of the type found with the skull had been identified before, but this discovery confirmed the speculation that they belonged to an aggressive carnivore.

Since Leviathan so resembled another legendary whale whose ferocious behavior is famous, the researchers almost immediately gave their find it's current scientific name. Many of them were fans of Herman Melville's classic Mody Dick. So now this great monster will go down in history as Leviathan melvillei. I'm sure Mr. Melville, whose book was so unjustly panned in his lifetime, would be proud.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

History: On Barbary Shores

We are certain that it is not in our best interest that all the Barbary corsairs be destroyed since then we would be on a par with all the Italians and the Peoples of the North Sea ~ anonymous correspondence from a French operative in Algiers to Louis XV's Foreign Minister

In 1784 the U.S. merchant vessel Betsey was captured off Morocco not far from the port of Sale. The prize was taken to Tangiers and her crew was imprisoned there. A ransom demand was issued and the U.S. paid 10,000 dollars for the sailors' release. It was the first instance of an American vessel being attacked by Barbary pirates and it sparked a long running hostility that would not be resolved until after the War of 1812.

With the independence of the American States from Britain, the rulers of the Barbary strongholds of Tunis, Tangiers and Algiers in particular saw a chance for new and potentially extensive revenue. Prior to 1784, the Deys and Sultans had considered American ships protected under their treaty with Britain. As with most other European countries, Britain paid tribute to the North African rulers in exchange for free passage along their coasts. Since the new U.S. had no such treaty, their merchants were fair game. In 1785, two more merchants were taken by the Algerines.

The problems for the U.S., in this as in so many other issues of nation building, were complicated at best. First there was the issue of depleted funds after the Revolution. Alexander Hamilton was, of course, firmly establishing his maniacal platform of National Debt at the time so borrowing from foreign banks was a drop in the bucket. The problem with that was Congress insisting that paying off the pirates now and then was a far better investment than building a blue water navy. Finally, and perhaps most maddeningly for the U.S., there were the intrigues going on between the European powers that used the Barbary treaties as a political football.

As noted by the memo quoted at the header, Mediterranean states in particular were not eager to discontinue the status quo with regard to the African tribute payments. By 1790, the Portuguese navy had blockades at the entrance of the Straits of Gibraltar and the corsairs who could not access the Atlantic virtually had to do business with Italy, France and Spain. It was a neat economic trick that turned a blind eye to the predations still going on outside the blockade. By 1793, over a dozen American ships had been captured by Moroccan pirates.

When the British consul in Algiers, Charles Logie, negotiated a one year treaty of non-hostility with the Algerine Dey the entire mess blew up in everyone's face. Algiers asserted that the treaty included all European nations, broke up the Portuguese blockade and redoubled their predations on the still treaty-less Americans.

Finally seeing the problem for what it was, the U.S. sued for a tentative peace with Algiers while building warships. In March of 1794, the U.S. Navy was officially established and, by the following year, her famous six frigates were afloat. This mollified the Barbary corsairs for awhile, even as the U.S. paid a then ruinous 6% on it's London back loans to fund tribute to the Dey.

When the ruler of Tripoli stepped in to complain that the U.S. wasn't paying him enough, the U.S. blockaded the Tripolitan harbor in 1801. This action, though tedious, managed to keep a restive peace with the North Africans for two years.

In October of 1803, this fell apart as well. William Bainbridge's Philadelphia, in trying to keep a large galley from leaving Tripoli's harbor, ran his ship hopelessly aground on the shoals off the harbor's coast. The pirates swarmed the frigate and a bloody hand-hand-combat ensued. Barbary was victorious and Philadelphia's surviving crew including Bainbridge, Lieutenant David Porter and Midshipman Daniel Patterson, were taken prisoner. The postscript to this unfortunate incident occurred four months later when Stephen Decatur, then a Lieutenant commanding the Barbary prize Intrepid, led a night raid to deny the Algerines the American vessel. He and his men set fire to Philadelphia and she burned to the water line.

And that, in a nutshell, is how the U.S. backed herself into her first foreign war. Not glamorous at all but by 1804 Americans wanted their sailors home and the trouble with Barbary over. What happened next, though, is grist for another post.

Happy Wednesday, Brethren, and Bon Fete Nationale a France!

Header painting: Burning of the USS Philadelphia by David Geister.