Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Purchase

Perusing Webster's Unabridged Dictionary is one of those things that I honestly enjoy. I also love thesauruses. Don't judge me. That's why I can tell you that there is more than half a page in my door-stop-sized Webster's devoted to the word "purchase" with at least a dozen varied meanings given. Our concern here, of course, is the vocabulary of freebooters in particular and sailors in general and in that sense a couple of etymologies stand head and shoulders above the rest.

To the flibustes and boucaniers of old Tortuga, purchase was defined as all goods and cash obtained during a raid, by sea or land. The ancestor of that usage is undoubtedly the French word pourchasser meaning to pursue. Of course, most people know the piratical bon mot about no purchase no pay. I've a hunch that came down to us from guys like Francois L'Olonnais via Henry Morgan and his ilk. Find a prize or go hungry, mate.

In the over-arching nautical sense, purchase is much harder to pin down. The word started out meaning any mechanism which increases the force applied to an object. In this sense "a purchase" might be a block-and-tackle, pulley or capstan. "Light along and bring us a purchase to pull this tortoise aboard."

As the English language evolved, this definition morphed into one of the ways we use the word now. As Webster puts it: a fast hold applied to move something mechanically or to keep from slipping.

From what I can tell, the buccaneer use of the word is entirely of French origin, while the other two seem to be English speaking inventions. That's just the way I'm seeing it, though. If you've another thought on the matter, chime in on the comments.

Happy Saturday, Brethren. Enjoy!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Booty: D*U*T*Y

For many in Britain it was the happiest and the saddest of days - the best of times and the worst of times if you will allow. October 21st, 1805 was the day that Britain thoroughly and finally crushed Napoleon's naval might at the Battle of Trafalgar. It was also the day that Horatio Admiral Lord Nelson was shot by a French sniper and died on board his flag ship, Victory. The picture above, by the painter Arthur William Devis, shows the martyr in his death throes. England mourned.


Earlier in the day, however, something else of interest occurred aboard Victory. This relates to our post yesterday about flags, colors and pendants. In 1800, Rear-Admiral Home Popham (who followed the general Royal Navy trend by having a very cool name), standardized and expanded the system of telegraph flags for the Royal Navy. This form of communication was used extensively by British ships during the Napoleonic Wars, and Trafalgar was no exception. Before the battle, Nelson ordered the following signal to be sent to his fleet:

England expects that every man shall do his d*u*t*y.

Of course she does. The interesting point here is that Popham, who devised such intricate combinations of flags and colors that 3,000 words could be spelled out, neglected to include "duty" in the lexicon. Duty! Seriously, if there is anything the Royal Navy in the great age of sail was based on - besides rum - it was duty. What were you thinking, Sir Popham?

So, as you can see, Nelson's telegraph Lieutenant had to spell out the word.

The effect - as with everything Nelson touched - was inspiring and the British won the day. Nelson died and his body was packed into a barrel of rum for the voyage home. The rest is history, as they say.

Allow me to propose, Brethren, that we raise a mug of Nelson's blood (that's right - rum) this Friday evening to d*u*t*y and to Victory. Huzzah!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: "Run Up The Colours!"

The drama of the sea battle, as Hollywood would have it anyway, is enhanced by the giant flag that unfurls from the tall ship as she comes into view. As Benerson Little quips in his excellent book The Sea Rover's Practice: "We are all familiar with the flag waving in the representation of a spy glass lense, an unknown sail now recognized." Well said. In fairness, some movies do manage to get it right. When Jack Aubrey turns to his midshipman and says "Run up the colours, Mr. Boyle," as Suprise engages Acheron, you know Peter Weir has been reading his O'Brian. Master and Commander, once again, gives us a glimpse of life as it really was at sea.


In fact, the use of "flags" as true identifiers of nationality was virtually unthinkable until the Napoleonic era. Flags, which were almost always referred to as "colors" at sea, were constantly changing prior to roughly 1780. The colors that we might recognize - the tricolour of France shown above, for instance - were unknown in the 18th century and unheard of prior to that. As an example, French ships were generally flying the pavillon blanc which was nothing more than a white flag perhaps kissed with an embroidered fleur-de-lis in one corner. Even close by it would be nearly impossible for an untrained eye to tell whether the ship was a French merchant, French man-of-war, or a freebooter using a ruse.


Another argument against routinely showing one's colors was expense and handling. Flags were made of hand loomed wool originally and in heavy weather or high winds they would unravel alarmingly. The cost of flying one's flag regularly was so prohibitive that even war ships were restricted to flying their colors when engaging an enemy or at anchor in a neutral port. Then, too, these flags were necessarily large - sometimes the size of the main and course sails on a mizzen mast - so they added weight, befuddled rigging and robbed a ship of speed and maneuverability.


Before the 19th century, ship's flags were called "ancients" (from which the English word "ensign" for an identifying flag is descendant) and - in theory at least - ships were to fly the ancient of their nation, home port or merchant company. Even in honest circumstances, however, this could turn into a confusing quagmire fairly quickly. Just as an example, here are some pendants and ancients from the Dutch merchant service of the 18th century (courtesy of the Heilongjiang Archives):

All of these colors would have been perfectly legal for the appropriate Dutch merchant to fly, but trying to discern the subtle differences at any reasonable distance would have been maddening. When one considers that the spy glass was rarely taken into the tops due to it's extreme cost, the impossibilities are clear. Add the fact that a pirate carried several flags aboard her to run up as ruses to catch prey and you can throw colors over the taffrail as far as identifying another ship. Your best bet was to know what types of ships came from what countries and watch the handling of the ship. Merchant seamen were - due to routinely small crews - unfortunately lubberly in the handling of their ships.

As another example, here is the evolution of the British Union Jack:

Some or all of these flags would have been flown at the same time and the designs were never in the main body of the flag itself. The field of the flag would have been red or blue while the canton (where the stars are on the U.S. flag, for instance) would have held the precious identifying symbol. Honestly, gentlemen, why bother?

Pirate flags as separate entities did not appear until the early 18th century. Most began simply as the red flag, pavillon rouge or sometimes jolie rouge which was understood as a sign that no quarter was expected and none would be given. Fancy flags, some black (originally a signal of plague aboard the ship) and some still red, with skulls and swords and the like began to develop during the Golden Age of Piracy and we've talked about them before. Even so, many pirates chose to sail under the legal ancient of a country or countries. Bartholomew Roberts flew a Dutch flag routinely and Michele de Grammont only ran up the French pavillon blanc if he bothered with an ancient at all.

As the age of nationalism dawned in the early 19th century, it became more common for ships to fly the flag of their country. Improvements in textiles made it possible to unfurl your ancient more frequently and the new countries in the Americas - born of hard fought revolutions and proud of their accomplishments - embraced and honored their colors as symbols of freedom. Francis Scott Keye's poem about seeing the U.S.'s Star Spangled Banner from the British prison hulk where he was being kept during the bombardment of Washington D.C. is just one example of the feeling a country's colors could inspire in it's people.

This new nationalism changed the way that the ruse was used in naval engagements and by the 1850s it was no longer considered honorable to sail under false colors. Such things didn't bother the pirates and/or privateers of the era, however. The Laffite brothers and their associates, for instance, happily sailed under whatever colors would buy them a hint of legitimacy. During the Galveston days they raised the ancient of the Congress of Mexico - a red and green checkered flag. The Congress, unfortunately, existed for only a few months and never actually issued a flag but why worry about details, mon frere?

My advice to you, mate: keep a young man with good eyes in the tops and trust no one out there. To paraphrase Nelson: all are foes until proven friends. If it's good enough for Britain's God of War, it's good enough for me.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pathetic Pirates: "Dead Cats Don't Mew"

It seems like I've been fortunate enough to have lots of foot traffic to these Pathetic Pirate posts and it occurs to me that not everyone is going to agree with the moniker "pathetic" in every instance. Everyone is entitled to their own spin on history - that's part of the fun. These are just my opinions and I hope the facts speak for themselves, whether you're standing on the neutral ground side or the sidewalk side of the parade (Mardi Gras reference!). Today, though, we have one of those few guys that fits the pathetic pirate mold to a tee. It seems that only one off-the-cuff action on Pedro Gibert's part earned him the title "pirate" and in the end it cost him more than it was worth.

Pedro Gibert, a small time smuggler operating mostly in the waters around Florida and Cuba, liked to tell people he was born to an aristocratic family in Spain. He even insisted that his men call him "Don Gibert" to enforce his tale of regal ancestors. In fact the ersatz Don was probably born around 1800 somewhere on the Atlantic coast of South America. Like so many of the men we discuss here at Triple P, he took to the sea as a boy and may have participated in the legitimate privateering that operated out of Cartagena and Maracaibo under Simon Bolivar.

When Bolivar and the other heads of state down south stopped printing letters of marque, Gibert made his way to the St. Lucie Inlet area of Florida. Here, he and his mates set up a one ship smuggling operation. They ferried goods back and forth between their base and Cuba in Gibert's sloop Panda. By now it was the 1830s and Gibert was a poor shadow of men like Jean Laffite, who had died in Bolivar's service in 1823.

Out cruising the Florida Straights in September of 1832, Panda sighted a US merchant brig. Mexican was her name, and she was headed from Massachusetts to Argentina carrying little in the way of cargo but a considerable amount of hard coin. It seems that Gibert made the executive decision at this point to turn pirate, and Panda gave chase to the merchant. Though technically better armed, Mexican was not prepared to fight. In fact, it turned out that the roundshot aboard her was too large for the two cannons she carried. She was also slow and Panda caught and boarded her within the space of an hour.

Gibert showed his brutal side once he and his crew had taken the merchant. The crew was questioned, probably under torture, and something about a chest of specie hidden by their Captain - a man named Butman - slipped out. The men were locked in Mexican's hold and Gibert turned personally to the serious work of torturing Butman while his men ransacked the ship. Butman finally acquiesced to Gibert's inhuman treatment and a chest of $20,000 in silver coins was turned over to the pirate.

Gibert, chest in hand, prepared to row back to Panda. His men - unaccustomed to piracy - asked what to do with the merchantmen and their ship. "Dead cats don't mew," he replied. "You know what to do."

But clearly the Pandas weren't really sure about what to do. They secured the entire crew in Mexican's hold, set her on fire and followed their Captain back to Panda. The pirates sailed away with their plunder, completely unaware that one wiry victim had managed to shimmy out of a skinny hatch and set his mates free. While Panda dipped behind the horizon, Mexican's people put the fire out. Captain Butman got the ship to New York harbor where the story of Don Gibert and his pirate sloop became news-worthy.

Once the loot from Mexican was spent, it appears that Gibert's Florida/Cuba operation went bust. He turned his sights to the now dwindling - and very illegal - slave trade off the West African coast. His men loaded Panda up, and set off for Sierra Leone. Here they arrived in March of 1833 and began cruising the coast for slave ships.

What they ran into, instead, was a Royal Navy frigate of war on routine patrol for smugglers. Suspicious of Panda, the British ship ordered her to heave to and then proceeded to board and inspect. Convinced she was a slaver at the least if not an outright pirate, the British arrested Panda's men and took her as prize. The frigate returned to Sierra Leone, where some of Gibert's crew escaped. They were recaptured, however, and the British learned that Panda, her crew and her Captain were wanted for piracy in the U.S.

12 of the prisoners, including Gibert, were sent in chains to Boston where they would be tried. Butman - who showed his scars from being tortured in court - and his crew from Mexican testified at the trial. Two of the twelve defendants were acquitted but the rest were found guilty. Six of the men were remanded to the newest form of punishment - prison. All received long sentences and five died while confined. The three remaining crewmen and Panda's Captain would hang.

"Don" Pedro Gibert, the smuggler and unfortunately pathetic pirate, died in Boston in 1835. He and his mates carried the distinction of being the last men executed for piracy in the United States to their unmarked graves.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

History: Are You All Right?

Seasickness, as I understand it, is a very personal thing. There are people - like your humble hostess - who just don't seem to ever be afflicted. There are others - my first mate for example - who get queasy looking at the Dore engraving above. I understand that and my heart goes out to people who get really seasick. As Charles Darwin, who did his share of sailing, once said: "If a person suffers much from sea-sickness, let him weigh [sailing] heavily in the balance." To have to abandon sailing all together would kill me. I'm sure I'm not the only one, but for many seasickness is worse than death.

Seasickness, of course, is a malady that has plagued humans since they first ventured out on boats. Even animals can get seasick. The horses brought by the English from Jamaica to Louisiana during the War of 1812 were notoriously seasick. So much so, in fact, that they were left at bayou Terre Beouf when the British departed. Patrick O'Brian has a giant tortoise in the hold of Surprise throwing up with regularity in HMS Surprise. That is also the book where poor Mr. Stanhope dies of complications having to do with perpetual and violent seasickness.

Generally speaking even the most heavily seasick get over it after a day or two at sea. The inner ear relaxes into the motion of the ship and one gets attuned to what it going on around them. Unlike air sickness, which has as much to do with altitude as motion, seasickness is, for the most part, a temporary condition. On the opposite end, serious salts can sometimes suffer from land sickness upon feeling the ground under them again after a long voyage. Not fun.

Remedies and suggestions for avoiding that awful, ill feeling abound. Ginger is an old trick and to this day chewing ginger is recommended for those who get seasick. Avoiding alcohol, spices and coffee and loading up on carbs before embarking are also considered wise. Once under way, keeping to the deck is said to be the best idea, thus allowing the eye and the inner ear to come to terms with one another. That does help unless the sea is very high or the weather is particularly inclement, in which cases I understand that hanging over the gunnels just makes it worse. Ah well; at least you can feed the fishes until there's nothing left to heave up.

In his 1884 journal of his first voyage aboard a whaler, David M. Lindsay left his description of the dreaded affliction:

Footsteps overhead and the singing of shanties on deck woke me up at daybreak, but I was intensely ill so stayed in bed all day. My room was illuminated by a small light set in the deck overhead and by a partially submerged port, so it was not cheerful. Above my head there was a book shelf. I tried to read but could not feel interested as it was so very depressing to look forward to months and months of this sort of thing.

The whaler put into port that night, and Lindsay found some "respite" from his unfortunate malady.

Next time you're out, feeling a little queasy, just remember it's only temporary. If only laudanum were still legal, you could sleep right through the worst of it which would be a blessing indeed. Instead, keep your ginger cookies close at hand. I understand them to work better than Dramamine.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Lump

From a seaman's perspective, a lump is not that person (husband, child, brother-in-law) that spends most of their time on your couch, in front of your TV, eating. I know how you feel though.

The nautical usage of lump comes to us, as usual, from the navies in the great age of sail. A lump was a heavy, one decked boat that could carry large objects - anchors, etc. - out to ships from dock or levee. They also ferried ballast. In England, perhaps because of the similar shape of the boat and the fish, lump was the name for the baggety or owl fish known to naturalists as Cyclopterus lumpus. I love that name.

Lump was the term used for a sudden and unexpected fall from the rigging or slings which, doubtless, left one with at least a lump if not much worse.

Finally, our term lump sum for an entire payment seems to come from the dockside. A lumper in the late 18th and early 19th century was a worker who did a specific job or "lump work" rather like our "day laborers". For instance, they might load or unload a vessel. They were then paid a "lump". One payment for the job done rather than a weekly or monthly payment on an ongoing basis. The idea has morphed into the lump sum of money we think of today. Writers get paid a lump sum advance. I could use one of those about now.

So there you have it, Brethren. Call your bother-in-law a Cyclopterus lumpus during the Colts game tomorrow. Let me know what happens.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Booty: Made Of Awesome

Brethren, I'm feeling my age today. There's a good reason for that but I've no intention of burdening you with it. But indulge me a bit, if you will, as I walk down old nostalgia lane.

When I was young, the original Star Trek had already made it's way into syndication. This meant that it was on at just the right time for a 2nd grader: 5:00 PM. After homework but before dinner, a bath and bedtime. Score! My brother and I loved the show and would sit in our living room, as close to the TV as Mom would allow, and absorb every minute of hackneyed moralizing, mini skirts, sailor speak and loyal friendships. I still have a sneaking suspicion that Patrick O'Brian watched the occasional episode of Star Trek. The Kirk/Spock - Aubrey/Maturin comparisons are just too insane to be coincidence.

And, of course, that was the biggest thing. Being aboard USS Enterprise the space ship was like, well, being aboard USS Enterprise the sailing ship. For a little girl in love with seafaring there was nothing to compare with all those naval references. Even then I understood that being aboard a blue water ship in the great age of sail was very much like cruising in infinite space. You never knew what or who you might run into. The world was as vast as space then, and in our ever-shrinking modern version sometimes it's hard to imagine that.

Star Trek helped me with my imagination and my understanding. Sure, it's cheesy, but you love what you love, don't you? So here's the booty for today:
Back when Shatner was awesome. Plus he kinda looks like my Dad so, there's that.

Thank each and every one of you for joining me on this cruise, Brethren. Stick with me; there is so much more to come. See you tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

People: Henry Morgan Part 2

Henry Morgan seems never to have considered himself a pirate. Buccaneer, perhaps; privateer, certainly but never a thief or raider. As we saw yesterday, he sailed out on his expeditions with legitimate commissions from the English government. Throughout the amazing second half of his career, nothing would change - except for his fame and fortune.

The fragile peace between England and Spain had no hope of lasting. By 1667, Morgan had been given the position of Admiral of the Brethren of the Coast. Morgan was ready to lead when Governor Modyford came to him with the news of war. The Captain quickly rounded up twelve ships and over six hundred men and began plotting his next attack.

Initially the flotilla tried to hit Porto Princepe, Cuba, but found that word had come ahead of them and the town was largely deserted. No problem for Morgan. He had a checklist of Spanish cities he wanted to unburden of their treasure, and so it was on to Portobello in modern day Panama.

As he did in Granada, Morgan found local natives who had escaped slavery and were more than happy to give the buccaneers information on how to put the hurt on their former masters. Morgan knew ahead of time what he faced at Portobello, and it didn't take him long to convince his men that the pickings would be ripe.

Morgan dropped anchor away from the citadels of Santiago and San Philipe and his men moved in using canoes as they had in Nicaragua. The forts were captured with only a few shots fired and prisoners in the form of friars, nuns and elderly men and women were rounded up. Morgan had a plan for the swift take-down of the fortress at Portobello, and he wasn't jerking around.

On Portobello plain, the Governor and the Spanish Army were horrified to see the clergy and other prisoners being herded before the buccaneers as human shields. Though there was some hesitation, a cannon was fired on the civilians and some were killed. This spectacle of carnage stayed further resistance and Morgan and his men poured into Portobello. The Admiral allowed his buccaneers to tear the city apart in search of treasure, but he would not allow them to set anything on fire. He would ask for a ransom.

Initially, the Viceroy of Panama refused to pay the demand of 350,000 pesos and responded that Morgan was an "inferior person" that he did not have to bargain with. Morgan waited, comfortable where he was, while the Viceroy believed the Spanish Army in Cartagena would come to the rescue. They never did. The ransom was paid and Morgan sailed off for Venezuela.

At lake Maracaibo, Morgan initially tried a raid on the city of the same name. Unfortunately he came in the wake of Francois L'Olonnais. The buccaneer from Tortuga had stripped the place and Morgan's men were unhappy with the slim booty. They sailed on into the lake and turned their sights on the fortress of Gibraltar, where Morgan allowed his men to chase the frightened citizens hiding in the jungle down and torture them to reveal their hidden treasures.

Meanwhile, the Spanish had blockaded the narrow pass of the lake so that when Morgan tried to return to the Pacific there was no outlet. Through a ruse, he made the small Spanish fleet of three ships think that he was depositing men on shore to attempt an overland escape. This bought him time to dole out each man's share of booty and then ready his ships for a fight. He filled one of his sloops with bombs and black powder and, on April 23, 1669, he sailed out to meet the enemy.

The fire ship, manned by only 12 buccaneers, hit the Spanish flagship first and she burned to the waterline. A second Spanish ship ran aground in the swamplands and the third was captured by Morgan. The remaining Spaniards hurried to the fortress at Maracaibo and prepared for a fight, but none ever came. Morgan, cagey as always, waited for that night's high tide and left the lake under cover of darkness with a new ship and a fortune in each man's pockets.

It wasn't over yet. Morgan dreamed of capturing the treasure city of Panama on the Pacific Coast of the isthmus and - after so much success - his men were ready to follow him anywhere. But Modyford was calling Morgan home. A tentative peace with Spain was at hand once again and Morgan's fleet returned to Jamaica. Fortunately for Morgan and his dream, however, local Spaniards weren't ready to give up the fight. Raids on Jamaica's coastline by Spanish and Portuguese pirates outraged the Governor's council and he was once again in a position to offer a commission to his loyal Admiral Morgan.

This time upwards of 2,000 English and French buccaneers signed on to sail with Morgan. They took the castle at San Lorenzo, Panama and then sailed their smaller vessels into the Chagres River heading west across the isthmus. The dry season was in full bloom, however, and as they went the river slowly shrunk beneath them until they could do nothing but abandon first their boats, then their canoes, and finally trudge like pack animals through the humid, vermin infested jungle. Food ran short since advanced warning had gone out to villages along the way. Alexander Exquememlin, who was on this death march, even left us a recipe for boiling leather bags to eat as it was done by Morgan's men. Delightful.

After seven hellish days the buccaneers finally broke free of the jungle and found not only a refreshing, breezy savanna but a heard of cattle kept for the use of the city of Panama. A respite was declared, beef was cooked boucanier style and the men were again ready to achieve their goal.

The Spaniards did what they could to defend the fort of Panama but the fight was a foregone conclusion. Morgan took the city in two hours, but what he found was not up to expectations. The last of the garrison carried out their final, desperate order as the buccaneers entered the city and put the torch to it. Panama burned to the ground around Morgan and his men. The buccaneers set to picking through the charred ruins and chasing down the townspeople but nothing like their prior success in valuables was achieved. Morgan, in a fit of rage, allowed horrible atrocities to be committed on the local people and took part in many himself (we talked a little bit about Morgan's dark side here). Wealthy women were rounded up for ransom, and more than one civilian was murdered.

The buccaneers began to grumble that Morgan was holding out on them and, despite his protests to the contrary, they never really got over their suspicions. Morgan marched back to the Pacific, loaded up his own ship and sailed off to hit a few more towns and ransom his captives. Most of his flotilla was left behind and to their own devices.

The whole situation exploded when Morgan returned to Jamaica. Peace with Spain had again been declared and Morgan along with Modyford were arrested and taken to London as much to mollify Spanish outrage as to actually be punished. Though Modyford spent time in prison, Morgan instead became a favorite at court. When a new Governor of Jamaica was appointed he quickly made Morgan Lieutenant Governor once again, and Morgan returned to his comfortable life as a Caribbean planter and politician.

Before he left England, Morgan successfully sued Exquemelin for the portrayal of him as a duplicitous, sadistic pirate in the Doctor's book Buccaneers of America. To this day there is a deal of debate as to who was actually right, Morgan or Exquemelin. Probably both of them if the truth could actually be known.

Eventually the ravages of a hard and hearty life at sea caught up with Henry Morgan. After spending time as Jamaica's Governor, Morgan died of an unknown illness at the age of 53. He was given a funeral complete with cannon salutes and he is buried on his beloved island of Jamaica. It can be argued that Morgan achieved all the success anyone could hope for and he was certainly ruthless in his ambition. I like to think, though, that over and above all his faults and flaws what he really did was pursue what he loved - power, wealth and the open, blue water. A good life, if you can get it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

People: Henry Morgan Part 1

Look at him up there. All smug with those ships burning up on Lake Maracaibo in the back ground. There's just no getting around the man if you're going to talk about buccaneers and privateers so today and tomorrow, Brethren, it's one of the greatest of all time: Henry Morgan. (Who, just as an aside, always reminds me of Oliver Reed in his role as Athos in The Three and Four Musketeers movies: portly, scruffy, a little sullen and very apt to kill you just because you looked at him funny.)

Morgan's origins, aside from his birth in Wales in 1635, are rather shadowy. He seems never to have spoken of his youth and many writers, including the famous Doctor Alexander Exquemelin who penned the first bio of our intrepid buccaneer, assume that this is due to humble begins. My take on this is just the opposite.

We know that Morgan had uncles who were officers in the British Army and, at the time of his birth, you didn't get to be an officer in that service without some aristocratic blood swimming around in your veins. I'm not saying Morgan's family was anything more than gentlemen farmers, but I think that Morgan avoided talking about that part of his upbringing so that his leadership among the buccaneers would be more valid. Pirates and privateers - and sailors in general - are far more accepting of an everyman who comes up through the school of hard knocks. And Morgan actually did.

After joining a failed British expedition to capture Hispaniola, Morgan followed the same fleet to an overwhelming victory in Jamaica in 1655. He had learned seamanship and the ways of battle and now he had a stomping ground that was ripe not only as a home port but also as a place where a man could distinguish himself, own land and possibly become someone important. Morgan was certainly one of the most intelligent buccaneers in history, and he set out to do all of those things and more.

By 1661 Morgan was commanding his own ship. He signed on with the privateer Christopher Myngs and sailed in his expeditions against the Spanish. The most notable of these were the successful raids on Santiago, Cuba and San Francisco, Mexico. Under Myngs, Morgan learned not only naval tactics but how to lead large numbers of ships and men. The stage was set for Morgan to come into his own.

After peace with the Dutch was declared, King Charles II sent an edict to the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford, stating that no further raids on Spanish shipping or territory should be carried out by British ships. Modyford, who was living pretty high on the hog off his share of privateered booty, decided to declare what today might be called a state of emergency in Jamaica. He claimed that his island was at risk from Spanish attack and he began handing out letters of marque to buccaneers who would swear to "protect Jamaica" from Spain. Morgan was probably first in line to purchase one of Modyford's commissions. (Yes, purchase; you didn't think he'd give them away for free, did you?)

Armed with a virtual get out of jail free card, Morgan went in search of intelligence. Legends abounded in buccaneer havens about virtual cities of gold on Spanish held ground. Gran Granada, Portobello, Havana, Cartegena and many more were spoken of in hushed tones as if they were El Dorado and, to some degree, they were. Morgan determined to take as many of these fabled treasure ports as he could, and his status as a trusted and successful leader brought him reliable information. By 1664, Morgan, at the lead of four captains and over 200 men, was ready to sail into history on a voyage that would make him rich and famous.

After some quick raids on the gulf coast the privateers hit Nicaragua, where a city inland was said to literally sit on top of a heap of silver. Morgan used native guides who had managed to escape from certain death in these silver mines to lead he and his men up the San Juan River in canoes. A hundred miles inland they came upon the city of Granada whose only occupation was dragging silver from the earth around it. Morgan used stealth to attack the unsuspecting town from the land side and in very short order he had taken the citadel and it's arms. The buccaneers loaded every piece of silver that was not still in the earth into their canoes and left the small Spanish fleet in Lake Nicaragua in flames. Morgan, with very few men lost, returned to Jamaica a wealthy man.

Perhaps to his surprise, Morgan found that his own uncle, Edward Morgan, had been appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica and that he was now living in Kingston with his family. This gave Morgan entree into the elite upper crust of Jamaican society and he took full advantage of the opportunity. He bought a plantation with the spoils from Granada, attended balls given by Governor Modyford and the Duke of Albermarle (a friend of Uncle Edward) and chose a strategic marriage. In 1665 Henry Morgan married Mary Elizabeth Morgan, the daughter of Edward Morgan and his own first cousin. Shortly thereafter, Uncle Edward died and Modyford, impressed with the daring Captain, made Henry Morgan Lieutenant Governor.

At the age of 30, Henry Morgan was a respected landowner with wealth, a wife and a title. Could it get any better? Do you really need to ask.

Tomorrow: all hell breaks loose in Panama and Venezuela, and then Panama again. Come back for Part 2 of the better-than-any-fiction life of Captain Henry Morgan.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: "I Mind My Compass And My Way"

Compasses are pretty cool things. Making use of the magnetic pull of the poles a compass can tell you, at least relatively speaking, where you are even in the empty vastness of blue water. In this age of GPS, the compass rarely comes into play but in the 18th and 19th century it was the height of navigational technology.

Small ships rarely had a compass. The sloops and boats that worked the rivers and coasts - more often full of pirates than anything else - navigated with the assistance of a pilot who knew the coastline and river roads like he knew his toes. Larger ships, brigs, barks, frigates and so on, usually had two compasses on deck and a man-of-war might have as many as four.

A compass, by definition, is a circular box containing a fly or paper card suspended by two concentric rings or gimbals. The card is divided into 32 equal parts representing the points of the horizon. Beginning with north, south, east and west and working up to the minutia of north-north west of south. As noted, each of these positions on the compass was known as a point and was equal to 11 degrees and 15 minutes. With the addition of a magnetic needle that carries the card around with it, north can always be determined. Or almost always since there are seasonal and local variations as well as some deviation caused by metal in the ship itself.

It's a little hard to wrap your head around, isn't it? Navigation by the compass aboard a sailing ship was not a thing that could be taught in a classroom and the apprenticeship of midshipman was vital to obtaining this skill as well as many others.

The compass, being a delicate instrument, was of course easily subject to the vicissitudes of sun, sea water and weather. Partially due to this, the compass or compasses on deck were kept in a wooden box, generally with brass fittings, known as a binnacle. That word is unintentionally cute - it sounds like a good name for a puppy - and evidently derives from the French word habittacle meaning "little house". Two binnacles would be fitted near the wheel in order to check readings for accuracy. In larger ships, a third binnacle would stand in the waist of the ship and would be used by the Master as a piloting tool in open water.

The binnacle had a second purpose as well. Seamen were very distrustful of compasses. Their magnetic pull seemed almost magical and magic, as you know mate, is the tool of the Devil. Better to build a little house for the compass and keep it safely stowed where it's magic can be harnessed for the good of the ship. No reason to take chances.

As Matthew Green once rhymed: Though pleased to see the dolphins play; I mind my compass and my way.

And so should we all.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Pirates Own Book: "Are Not We In Sport?"

I've talked about Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts before here at Triple P. Charles Ellms seems to be particularly fond of this man who arguably may have been the most successful pirate of the Golden Age. The chapter in The Pirates' Own Book on Black Bart is entitled The Life of Captain Roberts and, for the most part, it reads simply as a litany of prize taking. The usual inaccuracies and confusing details that pop up in Ellms' prose are all here but, interestingly, the lurid stuff is missing. Aside from boozing the gage fairly heavily, Roberts' pirates are a pretty straight-laced bunch.

Ellms tells the well known story of Roberts as a legitimate sailor who is captured by "the pirate Davis in November, 1719."

[Roberts] was at first very averse to that mode of life, and would certainly have deserted had an opportunity occurred. It happened to him, however, as to many upon another element, that preferment calmed his conscience and reconciled him to that which he formerly hated.

Davis is killed and a long passage ensues documenting Roberts' election to the post of Captain. The pirates, who Ellms referrs to as "Lords", are quite enthusiastic about Roberts and his potential as a leader and his election is unanimous.

What follows is page after page of ongoing prize taking. Roberts is said to have raided upwards of 400 ships in his three year career as Captain and it seems that Ellms doesn't miss a one. Starting in the Caribbean Roberts, despite his initial popularity, is betrayed and abandoned by some of his crew. He is left in a small, unprovisioned sloop and he and the men with him nearly die of thirst and hunger. Roberts manages to come out on top and, to avoid further treachery, writes out a code that all his men must agree to and sign. Ellms seems to find this idea dubious at best as he notes that Roberts pursues his course of action ...under the foolish supposition that any laws, oaths or regulations could bind those who had biden open defiance to all divine and human laws.

Despite Ellms' opinion the whole thing seems to work for Roberts and the prize taking continues on at a pace. Having done what they could in Caribbean the pirates headed up to Newfoundland where they went a little nuts burning and sinking twenty-two vessels. Once they were done at sea they hit the shore to pillage local homes. As Ellms puts it: Power in the hands of mean and ignorant men renders them wanton, insolent and cruel. They are literally like madmen who cast firebrands, arrows and death and say "Are not we in sport?"

The sport continued as Roberts and his crew made their way across the Atlantic to the rich hunting grounds off the coast of West Africa. Nothing slows down in the way of prizes and the crew seems to turn even more cruel in their handling of prisoners. The men are also huge drinkers and, when they find several vessels full of spirits they hit it hard: ...to render their liquor so plentiful that it was esteemed a crime against Providence not to be continually drunk. And so it seems they are. Interestingly, Ellms has Roberts partaking of all this good wine when in fact the man never drank anything but tea.

The debauchery catches up - as it always does in Ellms Victorian world - and in 1722 Roberts' Royal Fortune meets HMS Swallow off Cape Lopez. Roberts is lured into a fight by the Royal Navy frigate and he is ready. Again from Ellms:

Roberts, himself, made a gallant figure at the time of the engagement, being dressed in a rich crimson damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather in his hat, a gold chain round his neck with a diamond cross hanging to it, a sword in his hand and two pair of pistols hanging at the end of a silk sling flung over his shoulders, according to the custom of the pirates. He is said to have given his orders with boldness and spirit.

All that boldness amounted to very little, however. Swallow swept Royal Fortune's deck with a broadside of grapeshot and Roberts fell dead of a wound to his neck. His men, still drunk, are either killed with him or captured and hanged.

At the end of the chapter, Ellms finally quotes Roberts himself. He has the pirate saying: In an honest service, there are commonly low wages and hard labor; in this - plenty, satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking? No - a merry life and a short one shall be my motto!

And so, indeed, it was.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Lubber

It's one of the most derogatory terms that a sailor can use in referencing another and it has probably been around, in one form or another, ever since people took to the sea. Lubber's general meaning is well understood: a person who is awkward, unsure and most probably incapable of doing anything useful aboard ship. Ask any sailor what a lubber is and you'll probably get an answer relative to that sailor's duty that essentially translates as "a good-for-nothing who is in my way". Again, it's not nice to be called a lubber.

The etymology of the word is extremely uncertain but it did not derive from the term "land lover", as many people think. The word is most commonly said to come from the Scandinavian word "lob" which means a clown, dolt or drunkard. This is fitting, too, since there was never a better seaman (or pirate!) than a Viking.

A lubber's hole is the open space between the mast and the top (the top being what is referred to in whaling ships as the "crow's nest"). The space got it's name from the fact that true seamen would never climb onto the top via the hole, but swing out under the top and climb up over the outside. I am not making that up and it is - believe me - quite a feat to accomplish in even the calmest of seas. There's a reason men in the tops are often referred to as "monkeys".

Lubber-land is a seaman's Shangri La. Also known in the Royal Navy as Fiddler's Green, it is a place where no work is necessary and all the best of life is readily available.

Do not confuse a lubber with a landsman - although a landsman can certainly be a lubber. Landsman was a rated position in naval parlance (particularly the Royal Navy where conscription via impressment was common) and signified a person so raw and fresh from land that they were good only for work on the deck. Landsmen were not sent into the tops, or up to work the sheets. The lubbers would just fall and kill themselves anyway and then they're not even good for braiding rope. Tsk.

Finally, in an interesting twist that seems to be common to all languages, sailors would call one another lubber in friendship. If anyone else called a mate lubber it might be time to take a poke at him, but it was all in good fun to joke that a pal was a lubber. No hard feelings, mate.

Now that you've got your terms straight, I say get back to work you lubbers and I'll spy ye in the week ahead!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Booty: "Round About Phrases"



I've always been a big fan of Benjamin Franklin. Say what you want about the man, you'll generally get no argument from me (except maybe over here). He was brilliant, able to see the big picture and compromise for it and prepared to ask the tough questions that no one else seemed to want to deal with. Of course, he was also pompous, crass, undeniably a womanizer and yeah, he drank. There's no question, either, that he was not a seaman. In fact, from what I've read, he was no sailor at all spending most of his time during his trans-Atlantic crossings losing his lunch rather than chumming it up with the crew. He did, however, hang out with sailors. Pretty much everybody did in old Philadelphia which was one of the most prolific port towns in colonial America and later the burgeoning United States.

I'm pretty sure it was probably Ben's close association with not only taverns but sailors that led him to write a piece in his Pennsylvania Gazette in January of 1736. The article was entitled The Drinkers Dictionary and it gave the reader 228 "round-about phrases" which, in common parlance, signified "...plainly that a man is drunk". So basically, it's a list of slang terms for being pie-eyed, and it looks to me like a good many of Ben's choices come directly from the lexicon of the seaman. Here are a few of my favorites:

Cocked, juicy, fuzzled, crampfooted, wamble-cropped, bungey, buzzey (doubtless an ancestor of our own "buzzed"), soft, steady, glad, groatable, been to see the bear, dizzy as a goose, and so on.

Some that come obviously from seafaring references are: been to see the Creature or been to the head (references to the old shipboard latrine), wet, stiff, lost his rudder, boozed the gage or binnacle (referring to the ship's compass and the box in which it was kept), got his topgallants out, or nimptopsicaled, kissed black Betty (alluding to the black tankards kept on board ships), ragged, raised.

The list goes on, obviously, but I would venture to say that close to three quarters of the words referenced have a seafaring origin and why not? For the most part - aside from hard cider - the colonials had to import their spirits and devil rum was on the verge of becoming the most popular drink in the English speaking world. In a hundred years it would be a mandatory privilege to get your tot of grog aboard both Royal and U.S. Navy ships, and in England rum would be Nelson's Blood. But, for now, thanks Ben. As always, you've given us something to smile about.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lady Pirates: Transported To Australia

In an act of mass hypocrisy, the 19th century British were fond of wagging their fingers at the U.S. for her continued dependence on slave labor. Meanwhile, they were transporting their criminals - particularly those undesirable, subhuman Irish - to their new "colonies" in Australia and New Zealand. The actual details of these voyages, which are many times very similar to the African experience of the middle passage, are best left to Horror on the High Seas week. For our purposes today, though, suffice it to say that transportation was frequently a fate worse than death and that people would do just about anything - from selling their souls to suicide - to escape.

In 1806 Catherine Hagerty arrived on the shores of Port Jackson. The Port would eventually become the city of Sydney but when our heroine first gazed upon it, there was nothing but a shanty town. In April, she was aboard the brig Venus when in dropped anchor. The ship's Captain, an American named Chace, did not seem particularly thrilled to be hauling human cargo. He was a humane commander, however, and he allowed his captives to roam the ship unlike some who chained men, women and children in the hold for the entire voyage. To his further chagrin this kindness came back to bite him. Our lady pirate managed to seduce his first officer and the man neglected his duty over her.

Catherine is somewhat of a mystery. There is no surviving documentation as to why she was sent down, but what information we do have about her explains eloquently why she was able to seduce the officer away from his watches in order for her to obtain her freedom. Catherine, it is said, was "much inclined to smile" with a "fresh complexion", blond hair and a husky voice. The word "nubile" is used for Catherine more than once and it isn't hard to imagine that her favors were at the very least promised in exchange for help.

The ship was bound for Tasmania as it's final destination, where an even less hospitable "settlement" awaited Catherine for life. Between the stop over in April and the arrival of Venus at Tamar harbor in June, Catherine's plan began to take seed. She enlisted a fellow convict named Charlotte Badger, convicted of picking pockets, to help her. Charlotte was a thick set woman, less attractive than Catherine and the mother of an infant. Still, it is not hard to imagine that Charlotte also used her femininity to pull crewmen over to the notion of helping the transportees escape. By the time the ship had reached Tamar, Catherine's First Lieutenant was accusing loyal crewmen of infractions against the ship and Catherine herself had somehow managed to obtain ship's papers - possibly the sentences against she and Charlotte - and throw them overboard. Open mutiny was in the offing.

As if unaware of the trouble, Chace allowed shore leave on June 16th and pulled across to spend the night aboard another ship. While he was gone, Catherine's plan went into affect. By now she had three loyal sailors willing to do just about anything for her. They locked up the officer of the watch, Second Lieutenant Richard Edwards. The remaining seamen aboard - eight in all - were given an ultimatum at gunpoint. Three chose to join the mutineers. The remaining five were forced off the ship. Edwards, for some reason, decided to join the group as well and by dawn they had Venus under sail heading out of port for New Zealand. Captain Chace must have been flabbergasted to see his own ship baring away when he came up on the deck of his host the next morning.

The sailors were now just as criminal as Catherine and Charlotte but for most of them it seemed that the whole thing was great sport. They dropped anchor at the Bay of Islands in New Zealand and further deliberation followed. Here Catherine prevailed once again. She and Charlotte were allowed to leave the ship. Along with them came the First Lieutenant, a convict named Lancashire who may, by that time, have been attached to Charlotte and of course Charlotte's baby. They would set up huts above the Bay and live free and easy off the land. Or so they imagined.

Those who did not come ashore sailed off aboard Venus and began a series of raids on local villages, kidnapping Maori women and subjecting them to sex slavery until they were tired of them. They would then sell the women to other Maori's ashore and start the whole process over. This, as one might imagine, incurred the wrath of the native New Zealanders but the seaman and convicts aboard Venus seemed oblivious to the creeping doom they were bringing down on themselves.

No one in our story came to a good end and by 1809 all but one of them was accounted for. Venus was captured by Maoris while taking on water. The men aboard were slaughtered and the ship was dragged ashore and burned. The First Lieutenant and the convict Lancashire were seized by two separate British ships and returned to England for hanging. The Lieutenant informed his captors that Catherine Hagerty, with her ready smile and blond hair, had died of disease soon after arriving on shore.

Only Charlotte Badger managed to escape, or so it seems. What became of this bit player in the great drama can only be speculated at for she was never properly heard from again. An American whaling captain claims to have come across a white woman in Tonga living with a native man. He says she told him she was Charlotte Badger but we've no way of knowing. All we know now is that plump Charlotte, who seemed to simply have followed nubile Catherine's lead, has come down to us with the moniker of Australia's first female pirate.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

History: Surprise And Denial

Alexander Exquemelin, who first published his Buccaneers of America in 1678, is a ton of fun to read. His prose is delightfully fresh and some of his vignettes have become legendary. Whether or not all of them are true and accurate is a point still debated among scholars who study piracy but, to my way of thinking, that's not the point. I'm fairly certain in my own mind that at some point some freebooter did something at least very similar to what Exquemelin describes.

A good instance is today's slice of history from the good Doctor's prose. According to Exquemelin our story occurred around 1602 and was the first instance of a Tortugan flibuste raid on a Spanish ship. Most sources say the date is in error and the incident probably took place in the mid-1600s if at all. What is not open to debate is that Pierre le Grand probably was one of the first successful rovers based on the Island of Tortuga.

Pierre le Grand - another shadowy figure in the annals of buccaneers, pirates and privateers - was a merchant in Dieppe, France at some point in the 1600s. Rather romantically, he is said to have lost everything to freebooters and speculation whereupon he pulled up stakes and made his way to Tortuga. He assembled a crew of 30 and headed out into the Caribbean in what was then referred to as a chaloupe - the precursor of the 18th century sloop.

Time dragged on in the small, close packed boat and provisions and water went from low to nonexistent. Desperately, the men scanned the horizon for a ship to raid. As the old sea chanty tells us: "...no purchase no pay" and the men aboard le Grand's chaloupe were quite literally starving for a prize. When things seemed at their most dire, the buccaneers spotted a large Spanish merchant and decided unanimously to take her or die.

They immediately packed on sail and went after the merchant with no pretense as to their intent. The people aboard the Spanish ship could certainly ascertain why the little chaloupe was giving chase but when the situation was reported to the Captain he refused to take it seriously. What cannon the merchant had were stored in her hold and, despite advice to the contrary, the Captain would not have them brought on deck. He acquiesced somewhat by ordering tackle rigged to pull the guns up if necessary, and then retired to his great cabin to play cards with some of his passengers.

Le Grand and his men were not letting up and they eventually came alongside the merchantman. Le Grand, in order to avoid any last minute attempts by his crew to second guess the plan, had his surgeon drill a hole in the hull of the chaloupe. Now it truly was an all or nothing game for the flibustes. Their ship was sinking. Taking the merchant was their only option.

Grabbing every portable armament they had at hand, le Grand and his men boarded the Spaniard. A bloodbath ensued, with everyone who showed any resistance slaughtered. Without much trouble, le Grand made it down to the great cabin where the merchant Captain was still at cards. Leveling a pistol at the Captain, le Grand demanded unconditional surrender. As the sun set and the merchant Captain no doubt contemplated his own foolish hubris, the buccaneers stowed their prisoners in the merchant's hold. Exquemelin notes that the Spaniards grumbled to one another as they went below: "Jesus! They are demons."

The point of the story, as I see it, is that a large ship could be overcome by a much smaller and more poorly armed vessel if the attitudes of both crews were in line. Le Grand and his men needed a prize at any cost and were willing to sacrifice all for it. The Spanish merchant imagined herself impenetrable to such a small force, and took no heed of them until it was way too late. Hollywood broadsides and rope-swinging boarding not withstanding, I've a feeling that the incident Exquemelin described occurred over and over on more than one coast.

So stay a little hungry, Brethren, and keep your eye on the horizon. You never know when that rich merchant that imagines you pose them no threat might appear.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ships: The Galleon That Conquered The World

Originally named Pelican, Sir Francis Drake's three-masted galleon Golden Hinde was one of the first of her kind and is famous to this day. A hybrid of the older caravel which, along with the carrack, worked the seas of Medieval Europe and beyond, the galleon was at least partially developed by Drake's cousin and fellow sea dog, John Hawkins.


In 1576 the ship and her entourage left Plymouth harbor in search of plunder and new worlds to conquer. Drake's mission, given to him directly by Queen Elizabeth I, was to navigate around the tip of South America into the Pacific Ocean and head north to find the fabled Northwest Passage by which he would then return to England. Along the way he was to take as much in the way of Spanish wealth as he could reasonably carry.

The Golden Hinde was a good choice to the job. She displaced approximately 150 tons and was 70 feet long, only 19 feet across her beam and had a shallow 9 foot draft. She carried 18 cannon and up to 85 men when crewed optimally. Her hold was solid and round, perfect for filling up with all that delicious Spanish treasure.

By September 1578, Drake made the Pacific Ocean. Golden Hinde was alone now, her sister ships either having turned back to England or been sunk in stormy weather. By March 1579 he had captured a Spanish treasure galley whose wealth was so immense that Drake had Golden Hinde's ballast tossed into the sea and replaced it with silver bars.

Flush with success, Drake was disappointed in his search for the nonexistent Northwest Passage. Golden Hinde got as far north as the U.S. state of Washington and then turned back south. In June he put into a sheltering inlet that he named Drake's Bay, probably for provisioning and repairs. There is still a raging debate in Northern California about where exactly the bay was/is located. After this stopover, Golden Hinde headed west and became the first British ship to circumnavigate the globe. She returned to Plymouth, and a hero's welcome, on September 26,1580 in good condition and with 59 men aboard her.

The story goes that the old ship ended her days after running aground in the Thames within sight of London. Allegedly she was left where she lay and became a sort of hostel for sailors who were by land until she deteriorated and her lumber was scavenged. Two pieces of furniture were supposedly made from her wood: a chair in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and a table now in Middle Temple Hall, London. These stories may be apocryphal but, I'd still lay a hand reverently on either chair or table and say Drake's name. And the name of the Golden Hinde, who was once the Pelican.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Crank

Brethren, this Saturday has been kind of a ball buster and your humble hostess finds herself using words that would make a sailor blush... or at least nod thoughtfully. Thus our word of the day, because that's exactly how I feel.

The word crank meaning the handle of something mechanical that is turned repeatedly, according to Websters, has the same Greek and Latin origins that the word cringe and crinkle have. But, from a nautical standpoint, the word is probably from the Anglo Saxon cranc or the Danish krank, both of which mean weak.

A ship is crank when, either due to the way she's built or because of the way her load and ballast are stored, she is prone to listing heavily to one side. Sailing ships can be crank because they are not laden with enough ballast and carrying sail in such a situation puts the vessel in danger of capsizing. Ships with deep and narrow hulls are virtually always crank.

The opposite of crank is stiff as in: "She is a stiff and weatherly ship." In lubber's terms she is capable of standing in the wind with all sail packed on. Just the thing to warm a seaman's heart.

It is not a certainty that our word cranky for someone who is grouchy and out of sorts - like me - is a direct result of the sea verbiage, but I imagine it as entirely possible. "The ship is crank and the Captain's cranky." Exactly.

What does cheer your humble hostess, however, is the lovely Danish tall ship Danmark pictured above. That and a mug of grog should make it all better.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Booty: Game On

When I was little, probably before middle school, I remember my Dad (peaceful sailing, Jack) telling me about a game his father had described to him. It was something like Hang Man, from what I could tell, and was played with dice. Dice, as my father pointed out, were always a sailors' favorite. "Easy to carry and bad for the soul."

A little research later in life led me to believe that the game my grandfather knew about was probably an old mariner's diversion that was known, by the 18th century, as "Shut the Box". The beauty of the game was that all the pieces with the exception of the dice were contained in a wooden - or in the case of very ritzy sets, ivory - box. Dice could be stowed in the box when play was done and even while playing there was no worry about losing parts of the game in rough seas. Beats chess or checkers.

Imagine my surprise when I found this very game at the National Geographic store online while shopping for my daughter's Birthday (1/24 - the day after mine). As you can see, it is a nice replica of the old game complete with a weathered looking wooden box and dice. There is more information about specifics of the game at the website and, at $28, it looks to me like a good investment. One wonders if a girl of 13 would appreciate a game her great-grandfather might have played. I'm betting she will.
Fair winds today, Brethren. See you tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

People: "With The Look Of A Warrior"


Second only to the corsairs of the Gulf in Pauline's piratical heart are the precursors of the Golden Age of piracy: the buccaneers. These guys were flamboyant, cruel, loyal to one another and probably a whole lot of fun to hang out with (provided you didn't piss them off, of course). Most people who have even a passing knowledge of pirates know of Henry Morgan and many imagine him as the rightful king of the buccaneers. Today, Brethren, allow me to challenge that thought with this brief biography of the man I consider to be Le Roi des Boucaniers: Chevalier Michel de Grammont.

De Grammont was probably not born into nobility, although he liked to let people think so. He obtained the title of Chevalier from his mates on Tortuga and was known as Le Sieur - the Lord - when he made his base the port of Petit Goave (check out Monday's post for more on that).

Aside from France, there is no definitive documentation as to where Michel de Grammont came from. He claimed to have been born in Paris and to have served in the French navy. Some sources, including that buccaneer doctor turned biographer Alexander Exquemelin, state that de Grammont had been a privateer for France who went rogue by taking ships outside the reach of his letter of marque. The point is moot, really. By 1678 de Grammont was raising hell on the Spanish Main and, to Spain in particular, that was really all that mattered.

Le Sieur seems to have been a natural leader. Exquemelin tells us that he "was beloved of the buccaneers at San Domingue" and that these men "gladly followed his every command." He is described as handsome with dark hair and complexion and "with the look of a warrior". He made such an impression on his men that even when he teamed up with other famous buccaneers - the Ducthman Laurens de Graff in particular - his were the only orders obeyed.

In 1678, with France at war with the Dutch, de Grammont led buccaneers on a sanctioned raid on the Dutch held island of Curacao. A storm blew in, sending the French navy ships along on the expedition hurrying for safe ports and nearly wrecking de Grammont's flotilla off the Aves Islands. Dutch ships did sink in the storm and, with the navy gone, de Grammont and his men began a wracking operation to salvage the goods and munitions from the enemy fleet. The operation paid off well, and de Grammont returned to Petit Goave a hero.

Upon his return to port, de Grammont and de Graff got together and planned a raid on the rich Venezuelan coast. They hit the city of Maracaibo first, which had only recently been plundered by their brutal compatriot Francois L'Olonnais. The Spanish in the fort at the mouth of Lake Maracaibo watched the buccaneers begin building a trench around them in preparation for siege and decided to give up without a fight. To de Grammont's consternation there was little or no booty left after the previous raid. He and de Graff decided to turn inland.

After securing Gibraltar on the other side of the lake, the buccaneer commanders hit La Guayra further south. Here they found the treasures they were looking for, following the hapless locals into the jungle and wringing their money and jewels out of them. A Spanish force, sent from Caracas, intercepted de Grammont outside of the city and he was forced to retreat. Unable to load most of their booty on their ships, they took prominent citizens as hostages. One ship - of course the one most richly laden with goods - was sunk and de Grammont was wounded by an arrow to the neck. Legend has it that he simply snapped the thing in half and went back to the fight.

After recovering at Petit Goave, de Grammont took to the sea again with his sights on the port town of Campeche in Mexico. He teamed with de Graff once again and they captured the town in the summer of 1685. The municipality was not as rich as they had hoped and they decided to hold the city for ransom. Though they managed to repulse the Spanish army, the Viceroy of the territory refused to concede to their demands. In a rage, de Grammont had several prominent citizens beheaded in the town square. Though some sources claim it was only de Graff's intercession that stopped the bloodshed, Exquemelin is clear that de Grammont chose only those involved in the governance of the town - and only men - to be executed. Eventually the buccaneers burned Campeche and sailed away.

In 1686 de Grammont was offered a pardon and land by the French government in an attempt to get him to quit enraging Spain. He would have nothing to do with the offer and returned to sea with another flotilla. This time he hit the Yucatan peninsula and then sailed for Spanish Florida. It was hurricane season and the ships were caught off guard in the Gulf. De Grammont's ship was separated from the others and disappeared, presumed sunk. Never captured by the enemy to hang as a pirate, never left to grow old on some hunk of land, Michel de Grammont died the way great warriors want to die - right in the thick of what they love the most.

A master tactician, a man who literally led his men into battle rather than just exhorting them from the rear, an able seaman and a relatively humane enemy, the Sieur de Grammont seems to me the very model of the old school buccaneer. And that pretty much kicks ass.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sea Monsters: Bet On The Leviathan

As usual, I'm up to my elbows in research the other evening and I happen across this headline from an 1875 issue of the Illustrated London News: Merchant Sailors Witness Struggle Between Sea Serpent and Whale.

OK, I think to myself, that's intriguing. So I keep reading and find that the merchant ship in question, a brigantine out of Liverpool bound for Buenos Aires, is graced with the name Pauline. Now, of course, I'm hooked and here is the interesting story of what Captain George Drevar and his crew thought they saw. This is followed by the even more interesting story of what they probably actually witnessed.

In July of 1875, Pauline was some 25 miles off the coast of San Roque, Brazil when her people spied, per the article according to the Captain's log, a "monstrous sea serpent coiled around a large sperm whale." The log entry is quite clear that the thing wrapped around the whale is a serpent "somewhat in the shape of an enormous eel". Drevar goes on to say that this eel-like Gargantua dragged the hapless whale below into the depths "...where no doubt it was gorged at the serpent's leisure." It's fairly sensational stuff, even for it's time, but the News makes no effort to interview naturalists to comment on the possible veracity of such a sighting. The article comes off very pulp but one must recall that as late as the early 20th century many sailors firmly believed in the existence of mammoth, snaky sea monsters.

The reality, as we know it now, proves Captain Drevar and his mates both right and wrong. Science has at least partially vindicated the reporting of the Illustrated London News.

Sperm whales, so gigantic in size that they were referred to up until Medieval times as Leviathans, are in fact fond of making a meal of an animal that could easily be mistaken for a serpent of the sea. As the illustration above from the American Museum of Natural History's website shows, sperm whales very much enjoy calamari, and particularly the giant variety. The old whale vs giant squid, of which both Jules Vern and Herman Melville wrote, is more fact than fiction.

As it turns out, male sperm whales can dive deep enough and swim fast enough to catch a giant squid. Apparently they get the main body of the animal in their jaws and the struggle is on. The whale drags the squid up toward the surface - not the other way around as Drevar imagined - which disorients the deep water cephalopod even more. All the while the squid is fighting back, surrounding the whale with his tentacles and gouging great hunks out of the mammal's hide with it's spiked suckers. Male whales frequently carry the scars of these life and death struggles the rest of their lives.

In the end, a healthy sperm whale will have a nice giant squid meal. Though doubtless Drevar only reported what he saw, the conflagration he and the men of Pauline witnessed most probably ended with the whale victorious. Here's a tip from your humble hostess: at that next whale vs squid throw down, put your money on the Leviathan.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tools of the Trade: The Smugglers Craft

OK, I've said it before and I'll say it again: without smugglers and merchants, you get no pirates and privateers. It's just that simple. Catching a prize full of gold bars was every freebooter's dream. That goes without saying. It didn't happen very often, though, and for the vast majority of pirates and privateers it never happened at all. That meant that when you brought in that merchant dogger full of coffee, oil, silk and indigo, somebody had to sell it for you. And before they could even do that they had to get it to market. Enter today's handy, weatherly and very American boat.

Known as a periauger in the Chesapeake, Carolinas and Georgia and a pirogue in Louisiana, Mississippi and eventually Texas, the little work horse shown above excelled at her designated job. Originally a Native American vessel, she was hollowed out of half a cedar or cypress tree trunk and used to carry provisions and people through the backwaters and bayous of her area. These kind of surreptitious waterways are, of course, the chosen routes of smugglers so they latched on to the handy boats fairly quickly.

During the Golden Age of piracy, the smugglers of Carolina and Georgia improved on - for their purposes anyway - the original Native design. They split the hollow tree trunk lengthwise and added a keel log in the center. This allowed for better maneuverability under sail, particularly near shore where oyster beds and other hazards could otherwise tear up the round bottom. When no wind was available, many periaugers had room for up to four oarsman per side. The boats ranged in displacement from 3 to 7 tons and they could carry a surprising amount of booty swiftly over otherwise hard to navigate river roads.

In Louisiana during the late 18th century, the pirogue became virtually the only vessel in the bayous and swamps surrounding New Orleans. The brothers Laffite, always sharp as tacks, put these boats to good use in their operations, first in Louisiana and then in Texas. They had warehouses not only in their base at Barataria south of the city but up and down the Mississippi as far north as Donaldsonville (and possibly even Point Coupee and Baton Rouge). Therefor they needed swift, reliable boats that could haul men and goods in both the open river and the most shallow of bayous. The pirogue served this purpose so admirably that there is now a variation specific to Louisiana known as a "Lafitte Skiff":

According to this website, which has some fascinating detail about her construction, the skiff is named not after the brothers (good thing too, since that would make it unfortunately misspelled) but after the fishing village of Lafitte. In this incarnation she is perfect for the fast sailing required by shrimp and crab fisherman along the Gulf coast.

Of course the U.S. Navy, once she was well established, wasn't going to take all this smuggling nonsense lying down. Being almost as clever as the Laffites themselves, the Navy modified an earlier version of the periauger and married it to the local pirogue. Adding a heftier, flatter bottom so that a twenty-four pound cannon could be mounted in her waist and fore-and-aft schooner rigging turned the smuggler's pirogue into a U.S. Navy gunboat.

By 1810 the early Commodores of the U.S. Naval Station in New Orleans - Porter, Shaw and Patterson - could meet the smugglers in their own waters. This was surprisingly effective until the Laffites moved their operation to Galveston and out of the U.S. entirely. The gunboats - or perry-augers as they were called in New England - remained a vital part of naval sailing. As an interesting aside, these gunboats were never given names but assigned numbers instead.

Next time you return from the pirate rounds, Brethren, remember to thank your local smuggler. You couldn't do it without him or her, and it may be that they couldn't do it without this delightful little vessel.