Tuesday, August 31, 2010

People: Admiral Of The Treasure Fleet

This post has taken me some time to get to. I like to have a comfort level, based on research and familiarity, with a subject before I write about it. If I’m honest, I’m still not quite comfortable with the great Chinese Admiral Zheng He who more than one Western historian has compared to Horatio Lord Nelson.

Zheng He was born Ma He in Yunnan province around the year 1370. His grandfather three times removed was from Persia and the family continued practice Islam. Having come to China with the Mongol chiefs, Grandpa became an administrator under their regime. He was appointed Governor of Yunnan under the Yuan Dynasty. This made Zheng He’s family a well respected group in their province but, by the time of Zheng He’s birth, attitudes were starting to change. A Muslim Mongol named Basalawarmi rebelled against the rising Ming Dynasty and it may be that Zheng He’s father got caught up in the rebellion.

Though I could find no sources that specifically refer to the senior He taking up arms against the Ming Emperor, most agree that he “was killed” when Zheng was 10 or 11 years old. At that time the Basalawarmi rebellion was quelled, Zheng was taken by the Ming troops to the Imperial Court, made a eunuch and renamed San Bao. If that doesn’t smack of revenge against an upstart family I don’t know what does. But I stress that this is purely my own speculation.

San Bao must have taken to courtly politics like a fish to water. Over the course of the next forty years he steadily rose in rank through shrewd interactions with successive Ming Emperors. In 1403 he assisted in a successful plot that deposed Emperor Jianwen and put Yongle on the throne. At this point, the name Zheng He rather than San Bao begins appearing in court records, leading some historians to believe that He’s family name was restored to him by the new Emperor in gratitude for his service. In 1424 Emperor Jongxi named him Defender of Nanjing and three years later he completed the construction of a sprawling Buddhist temple in that city in honor of Emperor Xuande. In 1430, Zheng He was chosen as Admiral of the Ming government’s well-established and gigantic “treasure fleet”. He would travel the world in the Emperor’s service until his death at sea in 1433.

The Ming Emperor’s began sending naval expeditions to the Indian Ocean’s coasts in 1405. The idea was not only to establish a colonial presence but to open up trade routes and subdue piracy, which was rampant in the area and still is to this day. Some historians believe the missions were also instituted for rounding up slaves and for establishing a system of tribute from the chieftains and kings along the coasts. By 1430 the process was well established, and even infamous, but Zheng He managed to bring something new to the venture.

According to various accounts the treasure fleet was massive with hundreds of ships, thousands of men and animals and room for cargo to spare. Accounts by Medieval eye witnesses Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta (who saw the ships Admiral He commanded) tell of nine and twelve masted ships as long as football fields that could hold upwards of 500 people in private cabins complete with windows, balconies and bathrooms. These Princess Cruise liners of Medieval China are a large point of debate. Since there is no physical evidence of ships that size from the period, no one can say with certainty just how large the ships were. The difficulty of building wooden ships to the specifications mentioned above cannot be stressed enough. Then, too, there is the fact that both memoirists were prone to exaggeration, not out of malice or yellow journalism but simply because they were truly in awe of the culture they were writing about.

Whatever the size and configuration of his flotilla, it is clear the Zheng He took it further afield than any Admiral before him. He certainly touched at Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Calicut, the Arabian Peninsula and Ceylon with other stops on the eastern coast of Africa possible. Some sources assert that he and his men ventured inland as far as modern day Iraq and Iran with even fewer writers maintaining the Zheng He’s treasure fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope and pressed into the Atlantic. Just how far He and his ships went in the years he commanded the fleet is up for debate. What is not in question is He’s martial skill. His documented stops fell under Chinese rule before he left and he always deposited colonists and administrators in his wake to make sure that things stayed that way.

In the summer of 1433, as his ships approached the Strait of Hormuz, Zheng He fell ill. He died aboard ship and most scholars agree that he was buried at sea. Despite this a tomb was erected for the great Admiral in the city of Nanjing. A museum has been built next to it, and He’s personal possessions are on display. July 11th is Maritime Day in China and is dedicated to the memory of Zheng He’s seafaring success.

Some scholars now claim that Zheng He commanded all seven of the great voyages of the Ming treasure fleets. This would mean that the Admiral was on the water almost continuously from 1405 until his death. Whether or not this conflicts with the records of He’s service to various Ming Emperors is another debate all together.

What interests me most about the story of Admiral Zheng He has to do with his background and standing. First, there is very little documentation of seafaring experience prior to He taking up his command at the behest of the Emperor. Unlike so many life-long sailors, He comes across as more of a soldier. Second, his position at court as a eunuch would have conflicted with the position of command required for an Admiral. It seems to me that something has been left out of Zheng He’s story, and that is tantalizing indeed.

It also seems to me that Zheng He is perhaps incorrectly compared to Nelson. A closer look puts him squarely in the realm of another soldier-turned-seaman whose land based conquests far outstripped his seafaring capabilities: Henry Morgan. But then I’m rather partial to buccaneers and, given Zheng He’s attempts to destroy piracy maybe that’s a bad comparison.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ships: The Round Ship

In European history, the Medieval period – that long, Gothic dawn that came after the cold night of the Dark Ages – is considered a quiet time of prayer and study with very little that could be called innovation about it. In fact, that is not the case. Particularly after the leveling scourge of the Black Death, society, art, architecture and religion began to reach toward the impending Renaissance like vines curling up toward the sun. In seafaring, too, a remarkable change took place that would lead to the great ships of the golden age of sail.

What is known in general as the “round ship” and is technically referred to as the “cog” became the workhorse of Europe’s northern coasts some time during the 13th century. From then until nearly the 16th century, the cog was put to multiple uses but for the most part was thought of as a cargo vessel.

Unlike the Viking longboat on which it was based or the galleys that dominated the Mediterranean, the cog was powered by sail. Though longboats and galleys of the time generally shipped a sail, their masts were strikable. In a cog, the mast was fixed and carried a single, square sail. Although this did not maximize wind power by any means, it alleviated the need to make room for men and oars. This left the round bottomed cog’s hold available for cargo. Most items moved by ship in the North Sea, the Baltic and on the Atlantic coast of Europe were carried by cog.

The high fore and after castles that can be seen on the model
above were lightly framed structures that could be used for storage – even the castles could be packed with cargo – or defense depending on need. Cogs were used to great advantage in sea battles. Despite their relative lack of maneuverability (when compared with, say, an 18th century frigate) their castles were perfectly suited for armed men, particularly with bow and arrows at the ready.

Advancing the possibilities of a large ship’s maneuverability, however, was probably the cog’s greatest innovation. Up until the 13th century, ships were steered via a starboard-side oar. Though adequate, the oar made coming about a slow dance in a big circle. The builders of the cog equipped it with a hinged rudder right aft on the sternpost. This was operated via a series of tiller ropes. The Hansa cog above gives a clear picture of this invention that allowed a tighter turning radius and a more responsive helm.

The general build of the cog caught on in the Mediterranean as well. There t was known as a dromon and the general build originated some time in the 9th century. This makes the cog vs. dromon question very much a chicken or egg kind of argument but in the end the point is mute. The mighty cog that changed the way ships were built, carried Crusaders to and from the Middle East and attracted contemporary pirates in their hundreds if not thousands, paved the way for sailing ships that survive today. The humble, cargo hauling round ship is the ancestor of USS Constitution and HMS Victory alike.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: La Nouvelle Orleans

August 25, 1718: Jean Baptiste de Bienville, shown above in a statue positioned at the end of Decatur Street, founds New Orleans with a small settlement on what is now the French Quarter.

August 29, 2005: The storm surge from hurricane Katrina bursts through old and weakened levees and floods much of New Orleans. Over 1,000 people lose their lives and rebuilding is still being done five years later.
Cross erected in Saint Bernard Parish at Shell Beach in memory of those who lost something or everything in the wake of Katrina.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Nook

I have to be honest with you, Brethren. The last thing I used to think of when I heard the word “nook” was the sea or seafaring. Even though blue water seems to have been somewhere in my mind all of my life, nook didn’t make me think of it. Instead I thought of a pacifier for a baby. NUK, after all, is the name of that German company that makes the ones that are supposedly good for palates and future teeth. I gave them to my kids. Don’t judge me.

But as it turns out the Middle English word nok, now spelled nook, has a long seafaring tradition. In fact, the word at sea probably precedes the word as it is used most commonly in modern English.

On the water nooks are defined as small indentations of land within a larger bay or harbor. They are comparable to cays or coves but are technically smaller. Nooks are the bane of the cartographer and the soundings-taker. Each one needs to be fathomed and then delineated on a chart in order to make accurate and safe navigation possible. Because of their size and the unpredictability of the depth of the water within and around each one, however, that task can be daunting.

Shakespeare himself, who from his writing comes off as a closet seaman, hints at this in Henry V. Here the character of the Duc de Bourbon speaks of “… that nook-shotten isle of Albion” with undisguised frustration. So many places for the enemy to hide, he seems to be saying, and so little we can do about it.

As nook fell out of favor aside from within the technical language of shipping, its use continued on land. We all know of the dresser or closet filled with nooks and crannies for hiding trinkets and billets. Or a quiet nook in a room where one might think or read. Webster’s even gives us the word “nooky” defined as “like a nook; full of nooks.” I am not going any further than that.


Happy Saturday to one and all. May you find safe harbor, and a calm nook to spend a quiet night.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Booty: The Folger, The NYT And Bloggers Beware

First and foremost, if you clicked on this post in curiosity at the last two words in the title and aren’t one bit interested in the current exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC than skip to the last paragraph now. Especially if you are a blogger. I’d rather have you know the insidious things potentially on the horizon for those of us who offer our writing (currently) free of charge than click out and miss it. Forewarned is forearmed, as Nelson would say.

And speaking of Nelson, through September 4th of this year the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibit “Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550 – 1750” is on glorious display in the U.S. capitol. The library has a tremendous amount of Shakespeare related items that have seafaring connections (or, as the Bard would have written it, “connexions”) and they have borrowed other items to round out this thought provoking exhibit.

Nothing among the charts, instruments, books and even household items is unremarkable, or even homely. Everything is lovingly currated. Whether it be the glorious Dutch atlas known as The Mariners Mirrour or this delightful model of the 1637 man-of-war Royal Sovereign:Which I would personally love to display in my own home, there is very little here that is not breathtaking. That which does not take one’s breath makes your heart skip a beat. The ring at the header, for example, is a woman’s posey (or memory) ring from 1592. The inscription reads “The cruel seas, remember, took him in November.” A small, homey testament to just how unpredictable and all powerful the vast ocean can be.

That, though, is not the theme of the exhibit. Despite what this
article from the New York Times would have you believe. The writer begins and ends with the oil spill in the Gulf and the post-Katrina devastation of New Orleans. What either of those modern tragedies have to do with the English – and particularly the Shakespearean – view of the vast ocean escapes me. Even when the article tries so desperately to tie them together. Beyond that the assertions that our ancestors were “… far more ignorant in many things” and that we as modern people are “… preoccupied with issues of blame” are insulting at the very best. If our ancestors were troglodytes this exhibit wouldn’t exist and I know for a fact that the thousands of people – most of them volunteers – who save lives, both human and animal, after any disaster are too busy to worry about blame. Sometimes we trip on our tongue when we speak too “loftily” and the words and actions of our politicians rarely – if ever – reflect what we say and do out here.

Be that as it may, from going through the online
catalogue of the exhibit, it seems to me that the theme is simply the English view of the sea seen through the lens of Shakespeare’s prose and the tools used by our ancestors. It is England on the cusp of becoming the international ruler of the waves; a supremacy that affected every corner of the world in one way or another. No hidden agenda, no “bad guy” malignity, just an honest respect and perhaps even awe for the people who came before us. Something Triple P tries to dish up every day, although you’ll find no Shakespeare here (I’m not up to that by half).

If you can’t get to the Folger in the next week or so, do check out the online exhibit. I think you will find it well worth your while but beware: a whole day could be lost browsing this fascinating collection of our histories.

And speaking of being aware, read this
article from Broad Street Hockey at the peril of your blood pressure. It seems the city of Philadelphia is charging some bloggers within the municipality a $300 per year fee to write and post on the Internet. This decision is based on unreleased numbers gleaned from tax records. Read the article yourself and form your own opinion but to my mind this is only a first step. Keep an eye on this one, Brethren, because I promise you the city, state and federal governments in the U.S. at least are. If it flies in Philly, where might it land?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Bring 'Em Near

In 1608 Hans Lippershey, a Dutch naturalist who had a nagging interest in the heavens, invented the telescope. It was a series of glass lenses set in a wooden tube that allowed Lippershey to gaze at the planets with fascination and wonder. This initial invention is what is known today as the “refracting telescope” and was quickly seized upon by Dutch mariners who passed the invention on to other Europeans. At this point, the tool became known as a “Dutch telescope”. With a little tinkering by Galileo, the telescope took off.

The uses of these first telescopes were different from the Hollywood vision. No lookout in the tops of a buccaneer ship was scanning the horizon for prey with his “bring ‘em near” pasted to his eye. Telescopes were expensive items and reserved, at first almost exclusively, for celestial navigation. This held true for navies and freebooters alike for the rest of the century. Should you ever be so unfortunate as to pick up a book that offers Laurens de Graff first seeing Veracruz through his telescope, for instance, my advice would be to put it down and back away. You don’t know where that story has been but it’s quite certain that it has never touched reality.

In 1666 Isaac Newton took up the project of improving the telescope. The problem with the original designs was the glass lenses. These caused what is known as spherical and chromatic aberration. Basically this amounts to something similar to the refraction that occurs when an object is looked at through water. Because of this, corrections had to be made in order to navigate using a telescope and an objects would look closer and off center in relation to their actual position. It was rather the seafaring equivalent of “objects in mirror are closer than they appear”.

Mirrors were, in fact, the way Newton solved the problem. To some degree, at least. Knowing that reflection did not cause chromatic aberration and that mirrors could focus light, Newton devised the “reflecting telescope” which used a combination of glass lenses and mirrors – most notably a mirror diagonal to the eyepiece – to correct for chromatic aberration. This “Newtonian telescope” was an improvement on the original but it was bulky and awkward, having to be mounted on a tripod for use. Its updated version, however, is still in use today.

But what of our mariners? The telescope one pictures in the sailor’s hand came into common use later in the 18th century. In 1765 Peter Dollond, building on the work of his father John Dollond, produced the triple objective telescope. Using Dollond’s design it was possible to build a brass tube that would collapse for storage and would utilize Newton’s reflective design. By the end of the century, telescopes could be carried in one’s pocket.

Sailing men of all stripes were using these handy telescopes by the 1780s. Many were reasonably priced, although the truly fine versions owned by the wealthy were almost more like jewelry than tools. The word “telescope” quickly went by the board at sea as well. Spy glass was used; glass was a more frequent term. Perspective was also used in English. The French called telescopes lunette d’approches (literally “access glasses”) shortened quickly to lunette. The Spanish called them vidrio de espía or simply d’espía.

The habit of spy glasses not being used for keeping an eye on the horizon continued. Despite their compact size and relative economy (compared to the originals) they were still expensive things and most often a keen and usually young set of eyes was more effect. Especially for sighting prey. Once something seen, an officer would take up his glass and determine who or what it might be. The perspective also came in handy when charting coastal areas, islands, inlets and so on.

On a final and perhaps disappointing note, La lunette was probably never referred to in reality as a “bring ‘em near”. Though it sounds colorful in a Treasure Island sort of context, it simply wasn’t language as it was actually spoken. Sorry mates; you’ll have to stick with glass.


Header picture: "No Prey No Pay" by Don Maitz from his 2006 Pirates! calendar.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

People: Almost The End Of An Era

Today marks the 322nd anniversary of the death of one of the great names in pirate history: Henry Morgan. After a life full of enough swashbuckling to fill ten Errol Flynn movies, a near-prison experience in Restoration London followed by the gratitude of Charles II and a stint as a pirate hunter and Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, the old buccaneer finally succumbed. And, in large part, he succumbed to his buccaneer lifestyle.

Once he was unceremoniously kicked off the colonial council by old enemies, Henry Morgan retired ostensibly to tend to his four sugar plantations in Elizabeth County. In fact he returned to the life he had always led – late nights at cards and hard drinking with some of his old cronies from the days of Portobello and Panama. The only thing missing was command of an army of freebooters aboard a flotilla of ships and the promise of yet more booty.

When, in 1687, the new Governor of Jamaica arrived on her shores, he brought with him a physician who would soon be looking after the former Lieutenant Governor. Hans Sloane, a young doctor and naturalist along the order of Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin, had already successfully treated members of the Royal Family when he signed up with the Duke and Duchess of Albemarle. The Duke, a notorious Restoration rake who had shown Morgan around the seedier delights of London a few years before, was quite literally dying of sexual excess. His wife, the former Lady Cavendish, needed a physician as well. Though not necessarily insane – as yet – she was certainly a giddy shopaholic who could not help but catch her husband’s syphilis and eventually languish in the backwoods of Jamaica.

Though Sloane certainly had his work cut out for him with the Albemarles, he took Henry Morgan on as a patient as well. Not long after his arrival, the doctor began keeping notes on his new charge. He wrote of Morgan as:

… sallow-coloured, his eyes a little yellowish and belly jutting out… He had a… roaching to vomit every morning and generally a small looseness attending him and withal is much given to drinking…

Sloane noted that, though Morgan had constant diarrhea, he could not urinate and that he had enormous trouble sleeping. Purging was prescribed along with Madeira wine (rather than the almost perpetual flow of rum that went down the patient’s throat), “tops of centaury” and bleeding.

Morgan was in a bad way. He was uncomfortable all the time except, of course, when drunk. He was also a terrible patient. He refused to listen to Sloane’s advice and after a few months he abandoned the young doctor all together for a local quack. The new “doctor” called Morgan’s problem, rather colorfully, “timpani” meaning an over-abundance of “wind in the belly”. How Morgan must have delighted in returning to his friends and his rum without having to listen to that peevish puppy Sloane yapping after him all the time.

But things only got worse. Morgan’s belly distended to the point that his tailor could not make him a waistcoat or coat that would button over it. He could not walk without a cane, and then only very short distances – usually from his hammock to the rum bottle and back again. Things looked bleak but the stubborn leader of hundreds of buccaneers would not give up the very thing that we know today was killing him.

Finally, perhaps on the insistence of his cousin/wife Mary Elizabeth Morgan, Henry was examined by an African doctor who looked after many of Morgan’s own slaves. This physician prescribed clay plasters to draw out the festering waters in his master’s body. Morgan was also treated with urine enemas (the historical record doesn’t tell us what species of animal provided the contents of this treatment but it is safe to say that it wasn’t Henry’s own). In the end, these treatments failed as well. In fact, Morgan complained that the enemas gave him a bad cough.

With no other medicine to turn to, and no intention of giving up his rum, Henry Morgan finally died. The cause of his death was most probably cirrhosis of the liver. He passed away at 11:00 in the morning, August 25, 1688. He was 53 years old. Morgan lay in state in a lead lined coffin at the Governor’s house until his funeral the following day. Interestingly, Albemare issued an amnesty to any pirate who wished to attend Morgan’s funeral. Men that Morgan as Lieutenant Governor would have gleefully hanged shuffled past his coffin and paid their respects. Or muttered their lingering hatred depending on the man.

Henry Morgan’s passing marked the beginning of the end for the great days of the buccaneers. With the ports of Tortuga and Petit Goave now closed to them, men would continue to use Port Royal and its surrounding area as a pirating port for only four more years. In June of 1692, cataclysmic natural disaster would do what even the death of Morgan could not. But that is another story for another time.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

History: Close To Lost

As many of the Brethren are probably keenly aware, when times get tight for local and Federal governments, one of the first things to go is a budget for history. Museums shorten hours or close as do historical spots like homes, monuments and so on. Ships, of course, are no exception and in fact may be more susceptible to the creep of economic decline than land-based history. The push to privatize historic ships on display began some twenty years ago. The current economy hasn’t helped the situation much.

This
article from the New York Times of last Wednesday points up in microcosm a situation that is going on across the country. The story focuses on three ships: USS Olympia (shown in the picture above, from the article), United States and USS New Jersey. All three of these ships are in peril of being scrapped or scuttled, some more than others.

USS Olympia was built in 1892 and, according to the article, is the oldest steel warship afloat. She was involved in the Spanish-American War, among her many duties during her prime. The ship is a National Historic Landmark and is owned by the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. Unfortunately she is in need of $10 million in exterior repair. Failing the sudden generosity of a very wealthy benefactor, the Museum will close Olympia to the public November 22nd. The plan, as of the writing of the article, is to scuttle her to make an artificial reef. U.S. history’s loss will be the fishes’ gain.

The cruise liner United States, which was summarily gutted and left to rust in 1996, was just about to hit the scrap heap. Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. Lenfest, whose father built parts for the ship back in 1952, infused the ship with a jolt of cash to the tune of over $5 million. A conservancy has been set up. The current plan is to refurbish the ship and turn her into a floating hotel and/or casino.

USS New Jersey, a World War II era battleship, is docked in Camden, New Jersey and gets 250,000 visitors a year. The state, who funds the ship as an historical landmark, threatened to cut financing and the ship’s executives had to scramble. The staff was reduced by half. Now, creative fund raising ideas include “Battleship New Jersey” wines with beers in the works.

The article notes that “… many of the 100-plus historic Navy ships in American ports are in need of money.” There does not seem to be a cheery outlook for the problem, either, particularly when one considers the drastic (some would say frightening) cuts being perpetrated on the modern U.S. Navy. The Olympia, whose interior is in tact and an historical treasure, is just one example of the potential carnage that will occur over the next few years.

The article is a good reminder that there is a lot to lose in our history, seafaring and otherwise, and that it may be time for the citizens of our country to take the reins – as we have so often in the past – and save at least some of our floating landmarks. It seems to me that the formation of conservancies (as with United States) or not-for-profits could raise private money and make viable the rescue of so much history. But then I hear Mike Rowe’s basso voice quoting once again: “Opportunity is often missed because it shows up wearing overalls, looking like work.” And all that would be a ton of work, wouldn’t it?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: A New World Order

August 19, 1812: USS Constitution utterly defeats HMS Guerriere in the Atlantic off the coast of Massachusetts. The sea battle and its outcome stun the Royal Navy and the British people. The U.S. Navy is no longer a joke, but a legitimate international force to be reckoned with. Read more about the battle here at the U.S. Naval History Blog. Huzzah for Old Ironsides!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Bilge

The bilge, sometimes spoken as "bulge", of a ship is its lowest deck. The lowest useful deck on ships of brigantine size or larger is the orlop. This is generally used for storage and cargo. In naval sailing ships, frigate size and up, the fore of the orlop deck is also used for the sick berth because of the potential for good ventilation in that below deck area. The bilge sits below the orlop and, though it has a horizontal floor, is not put to use.

The main reason for this is that the bilge is where water (and other less appealing detritus) from the usual running of a wooden ship collects. The bilge has an important job keeping the keel together and if it is fractured, repairs need to be effected immediately to avoid foundering. A ship with an injured bilge is said to be bilged.

The bilge of a cask or barrel is the area where it is the largest around, usually in the area where the bung hole is drilled. (Yes, I did mention that solely to be able to use the term "bung hole". Sue me.) Casks are said to be "bilge free" when they are stowed on their foot or head rather than lying sideways.

Flatter bottomed boats can be fitted with bilge-keels, sometimes called bilge-pieces, to help them run better in the wind. Bilge-keelsons can be fitted on the interior of any ship to help support the orlop deck when heavy cargo is being shipped.

Bilge water, of course, is that noisesom mix of effluvia that collects in the bilge. Usually this is water that has run down the walls of the ship from the main deck, not leaked in from below, and sits stagnant because the flat floor of the bilge prevents it from running out to the well of the ship's pumps. Other things can seep into the mix, from tar to human or animal waste to food stuffs depending on the nature and duties of the ship in question. As The Sailor's Word Book tells us "The mixture of tar-water and the drainings of sugar cargo is about the worst perfume known." Even worse, though, was the bilge in a slaver. Of course truly horrific buildup in the bilge will cause bilge-fever, killing living cargo and sailors alike.

Most ships have a bilge pump separate from the main pumps. In the popular mind "the pumps" and "bilge pump" mean the same thing but that is erroneous. The bilge pump is sometimes referred to as a bilge monkey. This reflects the fact that younger reefers, known as "monkeys" because of their simian-like skills among the tops, were frequently given the task of pumping the bilge. It is now the moniker for a fine pirate website/radio as well. Find Bilgemunky here on Twitter.

Finally, the word bilge comes in handy when cursing. How many men have been dubbed scurvy sons of bilge rats can only be guessed at now. Hardly a single pirate movie or novel misses that chance, it seems.

Happy Saturday, Brethren. I hope it is as sunny and breezy where you are as it is here by Turnagain Arm
Header: downloadable wallpaper via Wallpapers Online.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Booty: The Men Who Stare At Goats

Jack glanced at the top of the pile, paused, then cried, “There! There you are. Just so. There’s the service for you from clew to earing – the Royal Navy, stock and fluke. You get into a fine flow of patriotic fervour – you are ready to plunge into the thick of the battle – and you are asked to sign this sort of thing.” He passed Stephen the carefully written sheet.

His Majesty’s Sloop
Sophie,
at sea. My Lord, I am to beg you will be pleased to order a Court Martial to be held on Isaac Wilson (seaman) belonging to the Sloop I have the honour to Command for having committed the unnatural Crime of Sodomy on a Goat, in the Goathouse, on the evening of March 16th. I have the Honour to remain, my Lord, Your Lordship’s most obedient and humble servant, The Rt. Honourable Lord Keith, K.B., etc., etc. Admiral of the Blue.

“It is odd how the law always harps upon the unnaturalness of sodomy,” observed Stephen. “Though I know at least two judges who are pederasts; and of course barristers… What will happen to him?”

“Oh, he’ll be hanged. Run up at the yard arm, and boats attending from every ship in the fleet”

“That seems a little extreme.”

“Of course it is. Oh, what an infernal bore – witnesses going over to the flagship by the dozen, days lost … The
Sophie
a laughing-stock. Why will they report these things? The goat must be slaughtered – that’s but fair – and it shall be served out to the mess that informed on him.”

“Could you not set them both ashore – on separate shores, if you have strong feelings in the moral issue – and sail quietly away?”

“Well,” said Jack, whose anger had died down. “Perhaps there is something in what you propose. A dish of tea? You take milk, sir?”

“Goat’s milk, sir?”

“Why, I suppose it is.”

“Perhaps without milk, then, if you please.”

~ from Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, pp 116-117

Picture from Black and WTF via the National Maritime Museum.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Books: Morgan, Avery, Teach And The Lafitte Brothers


Some novels are too perfect to become movies (anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez), some novels are dragged kicking and screaming to the big screen (Jane Austen’s creations, which usually come out OK but show up with tousled hair and bodice ripped), some are unintentional movie gold (the swashbucklers of Rafael Sabatini) and some are obviously written with Hollywood in mind (Brett Easton Ellis, anyone?). With absolutely no offense to Keith Thomson, today’s subject falls into that last category.

Pirates of Pensacola was published in 2005 and came out at the beginning of that summer. I had my head so deep in William C. Davis’ miraculous The Pirates Laffite at the time that I couldn’t be troubled with a novel, much less one by a screenwriter. Don’t get me wrong, I love movies dearly (see picture at header of yesterday’s post; continue to search for similar throughout this blog). It just sets my teeth on edge when someone who writes for the big screen presents us with a novel. It’s like a newspaper editor putting out a book of poetry (Edgar A. Poe not withstanding); even with a considerable flair, something is going to go horribly wrong. I wasn’t disappointed when I finally picked up Mr. Thomson’s book and tore through it in a week. On all levels of expectation.

The book opens with one of the most hilarious first paragraphs I’ve ever read, but those sentences aren’t about the main character. Morgan Baker is an accountant for the multi-billion dollar acquisitions conglomerate Vail & Co. in Miami, Florida. Our hero is the standard bean-counter type who was evidently abandoned by his father at the age of nine and spent his life in foster care. His only father figure is his boss, Herb Flick, head of accounting at Vail and every bit the weasel. If Pirates of Pensacola were Office Space, Morgan would be Milton Woddoms.

Trouble comes to Morgan in the form of his Dad Isaac, who shows up on his son’s porch after a long stint in a Florida jail. Isaac starts talking about pirates and treasure and being followed by a man with a hook. Morgan, who has no love for his deadbeat Dad, dismisses the tales as lunacy. Through a series of manipulations, Isaac manages to steal Vail & Co’s private yacht and – almost inadvertently – drag his son down to the Caribbean in it. They are off to the fictional Sugar Islands and a world of modern-day pirates with sabers and hoop earrings and fast ships disguised as shrimpers.

From this point, the novel is quite literally non-stop action. The Bakers are actually the Cookes, a dynastic pirate family that have used the Sugars as a home port since buccaneer days. They are in no way special, however. Well, other than the fact that absolutely every other pirate family (and most of the individual pirates) in the islands seem to be out to get them. The Vails are actually the Hoods who made their fortune in the illegal slave trade and turned to cocaine when that market dried up. Then there are the Lafitte brothers, Emildeau and Faldeau. The two are hereditary barbers stuck in the trade because a Cooke injured their ancestor Jean so badly that he had to give up the sea for shaving other pirates. The brothers, by the way, turn out to be even more Milton Woddoms than Morgan.

It is through the Lafittes (as coincidence, not via polite introduction) that Morgan runs into Polly Teach. She’s the requisite lady pirate masquerading as a manicurist and, unlike her employers, she is descendant from the real pirate who shared her last name. Though Polly gets plenty of buckle to swash in the story she stands out like a sore thumb. There are so many peripheral characters that I was disappointed to find a complete lack of other women outside the brothels on Bonney Street. I would have liked to see that Nycroft the boat builder’s descendant was a chick mechanic with a wry sense of humor for instance. But alas, he’s just another dude.

Avery Vail, the scion of the former Hood family, sends his goons after Isaac and Morgan. The goons, by the way, are Bolidar and Rackham and names such as theirs pepper the book. Squid, Fife, Rotunda, Xebec and Burnie (the cook) are just a few of the more amusing examples. When the goons fail, Avery comes after the Cookes himself and everything from exploding engines (one shot from a pistol is all it takes) to a 17th century Spanish dungeon to hilarious whorehouse antics and a clipper ship in full sail gets thrown into the stew. It’s pirate overload beneath a turquoise sky.

And overload it was indeed. Though the book was fun and Thomson has obviously done his research (even if he did sleep through Pirate History 101), the twists became too twisted for me to bear. By the last fifty pages I didn’t care who was in league with whom and what new “they will never get out of this one!” moment was just around the corner. In fact, all the perils pushed so far toward the finale that the end of the book was a let down, at least for me.

I would recommend Pirates of Pensacola as a beach side read, however. It’s popcorn on the page with a pirate twist, and I guess you can’t argue with that. Either way, I’ll only hurry out to see the movie if Russell Crowe shows up as Isaac. The likelihood of which is probably slim to none.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Passing For Lieutenant

Ships have probably always had someone designated as “second in command”. From the first Sea People through the Roman fleets to the Barbary galleys, there was someone to fall back on should the Captain lose his wits, succumb to illness or fall in battle. When Columbus set out to find his passage to India his second would have been known as a master aboard ship and would have had the duties later divided into the purview of three or four men. He was First Lieutenant, quartermast/purser and bosun all in one.

As the great age of sail dawned and ships, along with their companies, grew ever larger, responsibility had to be delegated. The purser began to control the stores, the master became the expert navigator, the bosun looked after the men and so on. The Lieutenant, though, remained second in command and that tradition was almost universal in European and American navies by the 18th century.

The Royal Navy in its Golden Age took stratification of rank to the highest degree. A ship of the line could carry multiple Lieutenants, each in charge of their own gun crews and a division of up to 100 men. Aside from the First Lieutenant, they also took command during certain watches, particularly at night. This put a lot on the shoulders of sometimes very young men, but the Navy had its own way of separating the wheat from the chaff when it came to leaders. No one who held the title of Lieutenant had avoided the dreaded Examination.

Much like that rite of passage for modern teenagers, the driver’s test, Examination for Lieutenant was a cause for much anxiety and potential elation or despair among the population of Midshipmen. The test was taken in two parts. One was a written piece and the other was entirely oral with the young man standing before a board of officers with a rank no lower than Captain and quizzed until the board was satisfied. In his engrossing book Jack Aubrey Commands, An Historical Companion to the World of Patrick O'Brian, Brian Lavery gives a few sample questions from this particularly feared portion of the test and just looking at them hints at how difficult passing must have been:

You are sent in a ship ordered to be fitted out, the Captain not having appeared; the lower masts and bowsprist are in but not rigged: What part of the rigging goes first over the mast heads?
Upon receiving orders to sail from Spithead with a south-east wind, at what time of tide will you begin to unmoore that you may have the advantage of it in plying down to St. Helens?
Your sails are still all set; the wind beings to freshen. What sails will you take in first?

There were also questions about altitude, amplitude, bearings and distances that would certainly make even the most knowledgeable seaman question his abilities at some point. The board knew how the young man had done on his written examination so there was no mincing words at the end of the oral portion. Much like the teenager at the DMV, a man was either congratulated for his capabilities and handed his Lieutenancy, or told he failed. In the latter instance, a Mid could take the examination all over again in six months.

Aboard a successful privateer, good Lieutenants were in high demand. Since the very nature of privateering necessitated having men who could command prize crews, more than one Lieutenant aboard was the norm. Given the fact that more men passed the examinations of many navies than there were positions for, it was not uncommon for good men to sign up on a privateer and make their way at sea in a less formal manner. The chances for actual command were almost guaranteed as well. Sooner or later a prize would be caught and, if the ship was seaworthy, she would most likely be sent back to the privateer’s home port for libel with a Lieutenant at her helm. Under a successful Captain it was lucrative work; men like Francis Drake, Jean Bart, John Paul Jones and Renato Beluche made it worth their First Lieutenants’ while to stay loyal to their ships.

Standing in the stead of any commander has long been the jumping off point from which a career could be made, or broken. Ambition not withstanding, many men were good at being Lieutenants and stuck with it throughout their careers. Whether aboard a man-of-war or a freebooting schooner, a knowledgeable, loyal and capable First mate was always welcome.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lady Pirates: Simply Getting By

Hard times breed hard people and Colonial America was no picnic for most of the citizens living up and down the Atlantic coast. Many were so poor that they had turned to crime in the “old country”, usually Scotland or Ireland, and were shipped off to a life of indentured servitude (read: slavery) in the colonies. Others found themselves in such dire straights that they would sell themselves into indenture for passage to the New World and a shot at a better life. For an excellent commentary on the system of British Colonial indenture, see this article from History.org which also provides the picture at the header.

It was out of the practice of indenture and it’s aftermath that today’s lady came. Rachel Wall was probably born in the late 1760’s to an unwed mother in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Rachel’s mother’s name is lost to history but she was almost assuredly the child of indentured servants and herself a housemaid. Rachel followed suit at a young age, going into service in a household somewhere in or around the Boston area by 1780.

Service in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was not the living wage job that it would become in the Victorian era. The work was just as hard, but the pay was abysmal and most “girls” took up other occupations as well. Theft was one. So was prostitution and Rachel took to both like the proverbial fish to water. She seems to have had a soft spot for sailors and by 1782 she was married to a fisherman and client named George Wall. The other thing Rachel had a soft spot for was rum and she and George got drunk at every opportunity. In fact it appears that she either left her job in favor of the booze or was fired because of it.

George had friends who joined him and his wife in their days long drinking bouts. These men claimed to have been aboard privateers during the Revolution but their inclinations certainly leaned more toward piracy. During one particularly rollicking binge, George and Rachel were talked into leaving land and the fishing trade and turning freebooter. They even had an ingenious idea to incorporate Rachel into the process. But where to get a ship?

George, fortuitously, had an invalid friend whose fishing boat was not in use. Promising a share of the “catch”, George talked the friend into letting him use the boat. It is unclear whether George’s mate thought “catch” meant fish or knew of the Walls’ intentions. Regardless, the five would-be pirates cruised to the islands off the coast, known as the Shoals, and went into action. When a storm came in, they put in at a cay to beat the boat up and make it look like a drifting wreck. Then they set out to look for fishermen and merchants.

When a ship was sighted Rachel, her hair loose and her skirts torn, would stand at the rail of the boat signaling distress. If a ship took the bait, Rachel and her mates would climb aboard posing as thankful survivors then cut the throats of their hosts and take whatever wasn’t nailed down. In most cases they would then return to their own boat and sink their victim. One such outing netted upwards of $350 in hard money as well as saleable fishing gear and fish. Good times were ahead for Rachel and George.

The Walls and their privateer/pirate pals got good at their operation. They went out whenever a storm blew in and tweaked their routine according to the situation. If the ship offering assistance had too large a crew to handle directly, they simply asked that a few men come aboard them to assist with a hole below the waterline. Once the good Samaritans were below decks they were dispatched and then a friendly boarding of the prize could commence without the worry of being overwhelmed.

Eventually the little band of freebooters got cocky. In a particularly rough sea, they sighted a large fishing vessel and misjudged the winds. Pulling out of their sheltering cay, they were dismasted. Waves swept over their deck and two men, one of them George Wall, were dragged overboard and drown. When a passing ship offered assistance Rachel and the others were all too glad to take it. This time without killing those who literally rescued them.

Returned to the port of Boston, the jig was up for Rachel and her mates. They went their separate ways and Rachel returned to the life of a housemaid. It wasn’t long before she was back to her old ways though and, since the rum didn’t come free, she returned to pilfering and probably prostitution as well. Now knowing what to look for, she spent a lot of time on the docks. Here she would climb aboard unattended ships and rummage through the cabins. She claimed to head for the Captain’s quarter gallery first; evidently the most saleable items were in the bathrooms.

Probably through carelessness, drunkenness or both, Rachel Wall was caught stealing aboard ship in 1789. Though she insisted on her innocence throughout her trial, she was convicted and hanged the same year. The story goes that she confessed and repented her crimes before she died. Indeed, this is the alleged source of her story – her own confession – as written down in E.R. Snow’s Women of the Sea published in 1962.

Whether or not Rachel Wall the individual actually existed is open for debate. There can be no question, however, that women like Rachel peopled the docksides of hundreds of seafaring cities and towns. Even if all of these women didn’t actually go to sea, as some of them surely did, they turned pirate in their own way and eked out some kind of living by hook or by crook. For so many of our nameless ancestors, simply getting by had to be enough.

Monday, August 16, 2010

History: Olive Pits In The Saltwater Lake

According to Greek mythology, two of the gods who are favorites at my house didn’t like each other one little bit. The reason is explained as a competition, lost by Poseidon lord of the ocean, over who would be patron in the city of Athens. Each god created a gift for the people of the city and it was based on the usefulness of same that the patron would be chosen. Athena, in her wisdom, presented the olive tree, good for wood, oil and olives even to this day. Poseidon, who must have been out partying with his nephew Dionysus the night before, gave the populace a saltwater lake. Seriously. Athena wins! And a bitter rivalry is born.

Knowing this I couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony of this
article over at Yahoo! News. Apparently the sons of Poseidon were as fond of olives as the Athenians themselves.

Discovered off the coast of Cyprus back in November of 2007, a merchant vessel from the northern Aegean islands has been found to be littered below decks with, of all things, olive pits. The ship dates from approximately 400 BCE and was carrying a cargo made up mostly of wine when it went down, possibly in dirty weather.

At first it was imagined that the pits were rocks used for ballast but examination has shown them to be the hard cores of olives that were certainly eaten by the crew. Probably a supplement to a diet of hard bread, wine, oil and fish, the olives would provide needed vitamin C, particularly after curing in brine.

One wonders if this particular crew’s delight in the gift of Athena made their ship the special target of the ocean god. But only for a moment. That seems petty even for Poseidon. Doesn’t it?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Merciless Torture

August 20, 1722: The pirate Edward "Ned" Low captures the Wright Galley after an arduous chase. For their failure to prudently heave to and surrender, the crew and passengers are horribly tortured by Low and his men. The specifics of the pirates' barbarism will have to wait, though. Horror on the High Seas week returns in October, after all...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Sally

As we know, Sale is a port in Morocco that was once very much favored by Barbary pirates. Sale is pronounce "salay" in the North African languages but was corrupted in English to "sally", like the girl's name. This word seeped into the vernacular, as words will, and was overlaid onto other existing words to mean a variety of things over land and sea.

The French verb saillir means to rush out from, and this was the first origin of the term as used in warfare and aboard ship. In particular, a sally was a rush of soldiers hurrying out of a castle or fortress to attack besiegers. In this sense, the term sortie was also used but has come to be more closely associated with reconnaissance than attack. From the same verb comes the specifically nautical term which means moving something by sudden jerks or through the pooled force of a group of men rushing forward. A crew could sally a ship that had run aground back into deep water, for instance.

A sally-port is an egress cut in a fort to allow the men to sally forth from it. In the case of a fire-ship - one loaded with black powder, sent floating toward and enemy and set ablaze at the last moment - sally-ports would be cut into the quarters of the ship to allow its crew to exit before the big boom. There was also a sally-port at Portsmouth in England whose waters were reserved for the exclusive use of men-of-war's boats.

A sally (or sallee) rover was a Barbary pirate ship or, in other instances, the pirate himself. Salleeman was also appropriate in reference to the ship. Since these ships roamed all over the Atlantic, from Ireland to Newfoundland and the Gulf of Mexico to the Mediterranean, the now common term for going out into the world - sally forth - was probably kept alive in the English language by its use in reference to these corsairs and their ships.

Finally there is the sally lunn, a sweet bun slightly larger than a muffin eaten hot with butter. This was originally invented and sold by a lady of late 18th century Bath, England named Sally Lunn. It was a favorite of British sailors who had the good fortune to recuperate from injuries at the famous spa.

I'll leave you with that tasty thought. And for those of you wondering, yes; that is Stephen Decatur up there in the center of that painting once again kicking pirate ass.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Booty: Remembering The Baratarians

I’m a giddy fan of reenactors. They dress up like our ancestors, even on the hottest, muggiest days, and go into the field to show our kids what those battles really looked like, or how a spinning wheel works. I believe that living history keeps history alive for that large group of us that just can’t sit down and absorb a history book or imagine what life was like “back in the day”. Those that forget history are also doomed to repeat it, after all.

For all those reasons and more, I was delighted to see this YouTube video making the pirate rounds on Twitter. It is a snippet from an upcoming documentary featuring the Baratarians, a reenactment group who work cannons, talk privateering and generally bring to life the world of my very own ancestors (and some of yours, perhaps). The doc, about Jean Laffite, the Battle of New Orleans, and Battery No. 3 on Rodriguez Canal, is entitled Robin Hood of the Bayous. Though I’ve a quibble here and there – I always have trouble with Laffite-as-Jack-Sparrow in poufy shirt and doo-rag and, one more time now, he spelled it Laffite not Lafitte – the overarching idea and focus of the project cannot in any way be argued with. More rather than less remembering of the Heroes of New Orleans is always a good thing. Happy Friday, Brethren; and enjoy:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Pirates Own Book: Through The Victorian Lens

The pirates of high Barbary became a particular fascination of Americans during the tense two years when the sailors of USS Philadelphia were imprisoned and enslaved in Tripoli. Once the boys were dramatically rescued by Eaton and his Marines, they came back to the U.S. with stories of savage tortures, from dunking in sewage to forced circumcision, and countless hours of heavy labor in chains. Of course, the American populace ate it up. The Barbary pirates became the slashers/serial killers/demons of their day. They were Jason, Freddy, Jeffery Dalmer and that thing that crawled into Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” all rolled into one.

Even after the U.S. negotiated peace treaties with the North African states in 1815, the fascination didn’t die. In fact, it seems to have increased as the Victorian era gripped the country. Our old friend Charles Ellms took full advantage of this in The Pirates’ Own Book. Two of his chapters are dedicated to Barbary corsairs and their prose may actually be more purple than anywhere else in the book. I am particularly fond of Ellms’ “Sketch of the Jossamee Chief – Rahmah-ben-Jabir” which is short (a mere five pages) but hits on just about every prurient image held so dear by his audience.

According to Ellms, ben-Jabir is an Arab in control of the port town of Bushire on the Persian Gulf. He is from another city, which is just across the bay in fact, but his “…fellow citizens had the honesty… to declare him an outlaw” and he took up the profession of piracy before taking over Bushire. He is in command of five or six vessels, each crewed by two or three hundred men and beyond that he has a following of some two thousand others.

Ellms quickly points out that ben-Jabir has no more concern for his subjects' lives than he might for his enemies':

An instance is related of his having put a great number of his own crew, who used mutinous expressions, into a tank on board [his ship] in which they usually kept their water, and this being shut close at the top, the poor wretches were all suffocated, and afterwards thrown overboard.

This is a great visual to begin with and no doubt riveted Ellms’ audience. He ratchets up the horror from there by informing on ben-Jabir with regard to his personal hygiene:

The butcher chief… carried his simplicity to a degree of filthiness, which was disgusting, as his usual dress was a shirt, which was never taken off to be washed, from the time it was first put on till worn out; no drawers or coverings for the legs of any kind, and a large black goat’s hair cloak, wrapped over all with a greasy and dirty handkerchief… thrown loosely over his head.

Once again, Ellms as a storyteller is getting the most bang for his buck. For Americans in the 1830’s, a man wandering around without pants would probably have been even more off-putting than someone wrapped in goat’s hair. And given the tales of captured virgins kept in locked harems for later defilement by Barbary chiefs, the whole picture would have been both horrifying and titillating.

Ellms also, through prose claiming to be the recollections of an English visitor to Bushire named Mr. Buckingham, tells of ben-Jabir’s amazing strength. Buckingham is a Royal Navy surgeon and is shown ben-Jabir’s right arm which was injured in battle but now healed. According to the account, the Chief of Bushire had his upper arm shattered from shoulder to elbow and nearly died of infection. He recovered, though, and “… the bone fragments… worked out, and the singular appearance was left of the fore arm and elbow connected to the shoulder by flesh and skin and tendons, without the least vestige of bone.” Despite this, ben-Jabir is quite capable of wielding a dagger expertly in his right hand, with a little help from his left.

As we know, no evil goes unpunished in Ellms’ pirate tales and ben-Jabir cannot escape a cruel fate. Neighboring Arab Sheiks blockade his port and attack his fleet. All but one of ben-Jabir’s ships is put to the torch and he is blinded in the action. When he is told that surrender is his only option, he orders his men to lead him down to the powder magazine of his ship. He brings along a torch and, almost heroically, blows both himself and his ship to bits, taking some three hundred of his enemy’s men with him.

The short chapter, which might seem to modern eyes as no more than an afterthought, was tremendously popular in its day. “Sketch of the Joassamee Chief” appeared in periodicals and pamphlets in the U.S. and abroad, and was happily plagiarized by hacks on both sides of the Atlantic. When Ellms’ name appeared in the byline, it doubtless encouraged sales of his book as well. No one seems to have enjoyed being frightened from their comfortable armchairs at home more than our Victorian ancestors. No one, that is, but us.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

People: "... The Most Cruel"

At least 90% of posts on notorious pirates could easily begin with a sentence like: “Little is known about the origins of [insert pirate’s name here]”. Quite honestly, nothing is different about today’s subject. Once referred to by a Spanish spy in New Orleans as “…the greatest assassin among all the pirates [of Barataria]”, Vincent (or Vicente) Gambi became a legend by first cruelty and then by association.

Probably born in Genoa, Italy some time around 1775, Gambi was obviously aboard ship at an early age. He may have worked on merchants going back and forth from Europe to the Americas and ended up stranded or voluntarily chose to stay in the U.S. when Jefferson’s bans on imports took hold in the early 1800s. Whatever the case, Gambi was captaining a freebooter by 1811, as court records in New Orleans clearly state (April, 1813 lawsuit brought by Paul Lanusse against V. Gambi et al). By that time, Jean and Pierre Laffite had a firm foothold in Barataria and their smuggling operation was hitting its stride.

Tradition, if not factual documentation, tells us that Gambi chafed under Jean Laffite’s rule. He may have used Grande Terre Island as a base prior to the Laffites establishing their leadership, and old bayou stories tell of Gambi challenging Jean early on. There is an apocryphal tale of Gambi egging one of his men on to call out Laffite, resulting in Jean appearing on the porch of his house and shooting Gambi’s thug between the eyes. Whether it happened or not, the incident is a favorite of Laffite story tellers; and Gambi seems to have been a favorite corsair in Barataria by 1813.

Small, broad-shouldered and “ugly”, with a scar above one eye (which one depends on who is describing Gambi), Vincent was a frequent visitor to New Orleans. The U.S. merchant Vincent Nolte, whose shrewish nature put him at loggerheads with Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans, famously wrote of “…Laffite the younger, Sauvinet, Beluche, Dominique and Gambi… time and again seen walking about, publicly, in the streets… and sold, almost openly, the wares they had obtained by piracy…” One can almost hear the red-faced frustration in those lines. Nolte, after all, had to add the high tariffs he paid the government to the price of his goods. The brothers Laffite and their ilk did not.

Gambi was also notorious, particularly among the Spanish, for his treatment of prisoners. Rumors held that he had a holding cell or pit on Grand Isle for passengers and crew of captured vessels. Here he could put them either to wait out a ransom or just get them out of the way. William Hosy, in a December, 1814 deposition in New Orleans court, stated that he and fellow passengers of a Gambi prize were kept there in “… the most cruel conditions” for some days.

Gambi obviously had a sense of humor, black though it seems to have been. In his sarcastically named Philanthrope, an hermaphrodite brig, he was notoriously good at bringing in prizes with cargoes of slaves. Like all the Baratarians, he went by several aliases the most amusing of which is probably Vingt-Cinque which means 25 in French and, when pronounced correctly, sounds very much like “Vincent”.

When Commodore Daniel Tod Patterson and Colonel George Ross raided Barataria in September of 1814, Gambi managed to escape. By then he was Captaining a sloop named Petit Milan which was burned or taken prize. The loss seemed not to trouble Gambi at all. By October he was sighted by Ross’ men on Grand Isle sorting prize goods.

When the Baratarians began coming out of the woodwork to sign up for service with Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, Gambi was among them. For $8.00 a month and a potential presidential pardon, Gambi fought the British on Rodriguez Canal. He was part of Dominique Youx’s gun crew at Battery No. 3 and, like Captain Dominique, his service record shows that he was wounded in battle on January 8, 1815.

After the War of 1812 was over Gambi, like the Laffites, Youx, Beluche and so many others, had no time for presidential pardons. By mid-1815 he was back at the business of pirating while also smuggling cannon, small arms, ammunition and powder to insurgents in Mexico. He took command of one of the New Orleans filibuster ships, Eagle, and – though he did deliver the goods “the associates” gave him to the rebels near Texas – he took the ship and went about his freebooting.

He brought prizes into Galveston once the Laffites were in charge there, but it appears that he and Pierre in particular had a falling out. Pierre filed a petition in New Orleans court suing Gambi over a promissory note for $250 in 1816. Despite this, Gambi seems to have been one of the foremost suppliers of slaves to the Laffites’ trading sight on the Sabine River west of Louisiana. A tentative truce must have been worked out for the sake of profit, but there was no more strolling arm and arm in the streets of NOLA.

By 1820 the world of the Gulf coast pirates was beginning to crumble and Gambi, like so many others, would have been close to obsolete. Would have been, that is, if his own greedy and brutal nature had not caught up with him. Some time in September or October of 1819 he was aboard Eagle, by now renamed Petit Milan, and took a prize. He withheld a large portion of the prize money from his crew and, upon discovering this, they conspired against their captain. According to a brief piece in the Louisiana Courier of November 17, 1819, Gambi was sleeping off a binge on deck when one of his men decapitated him with an axe. As the paper puts it “… the very bloody axe which [Gambi] so often used.”

Vincent Gambi is an interesting if unfortunately typical case study of a pirate. Seemingly never interested in the veneer of legality – he rarely troubled himself with the letters of marque that were so important to men like Renato Beluche – his story is almost too bold and violent for his era. Perhaps he was born a century too late. Gambi seems more suited to the Golden Age of pirates than the privateering aspirations of Laffite’s Barataria.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Sleeping Aboard Us

Ah, the hammock. The lazy summer day lounger that swings in that light if sweltering breeze on the porch, deck or between two sturdy trees in the backyard. Storied hammock enthusiasts include artists like Gauguin, writers like Hemmingway, swashbucklers like Errol Flynn and pirates; Jean Laffite allegedly had a red hammock suspended on the deep porch of his Grande Terre home where he would lie of an afternoon strumming his guitar.

It all sounds very idyllic until you run into the utilitarian thoughts of hammocks at sea. The picture above, via the Life Magazine online archive, gives a standard portrait of what most people imagine to be the sleeping accommodations aboard ship for hundreds if not thousands of years. In this, most people are correct. But some distinctions should be made.

The original seagoing hammock was an invention of the Greeks. Made of netting of natural fibers, usually hemp, the seabed was slung very much like the ones we are accustomed to today with a blanket placed inside for the sailor to rest on. When Columbus "discovered" the New World he also rediscovered the hammock and gave the handy device it's current name. The Carib Natives slept in slings of cotton or palm fiber that kept them up off the buggy ground and made all the available breezes accessible during sleep. They called their beds hamacs, and so our word hammock was born.

The traditional hammock is a piece of canvas six feet long by four feet wide. Note the length in particular; if our ancestors were height challenged, why waste precious below deck space on a six foot hammock? The two ends gather up via the use of clews from which they can be suspended under the deck. Most ships of brigantine size or larger had space known as a berthing deck where the sailors slung their hammocks. In men-of-war the allowance between hammocks was from fourteen to twenty inches. Hammocks were hung in a regimented order that resembled the positions Marines and sailors would take during inspection. Aboard a pirate or privateer, the slinging of hammocks was more about seniority then duty. The guy who had been with the ship the longest got that breezy berth under the hatchway. The boys got the ones under the head.

Hammocks, of course, had to be stowed when not in use. Particularly on smaller ships where space was at a premium, this was the first duty of a sailor upon waking. During battle, hammocks would be rolled, netted, covered with hammock cloths to keep them from getting wet and stowed under the railings as a barricade against pistol and musket fire.

A second, more elaborate kind of hammock was also available. This was less flexible and not as easily stowed, but more comfortable:
As we see hear in a screen grab from the movie Master and Commander (via this delightful website, The Dear Surprise, which I cannot recommend enough), the second model of hammock had a kind of backboard and pillow arrangement that made sitting up comfortably possible. These hammocks were frequently used in sick berths (as shown here, with Mr. Blakney recovering from the surgical removal of his arm) and by officers in sloops and schooners.

A third hanging seabed is rarely discussed and little known, although it was used routinely throughout the great age of sail. This is the cot. Exclusive to officers and in some ships passengers, the cot was a wooden bed frame suspended from the deck above by ropes at its four corners. The usual dimensions were six feet long, one foot deep and three feet wide. If cabins were not available, a cot could be encased on all four sides in curtains of canvas with a flap on one side for access so that the cot resembled a chest. By the 18th century, cots could be custom made for captains who chose to bring their wives, or other ladies of their acquaintance, along on cruises.

Of course, whether tattered hammock or cot made to order, sleeping aboard ship was not a night at the Hilton. Most sailors got no more than four hours at a stretch in their berth and officers during battle or a long chase would see even less than that. I sometimes wonder how men could sleep packed in half an inch apart below decks in the sultry tropics. The answer is probably simple. Either they didn't, or they were so bone tired that they would have slept through anything. With luck, their hammock was relatively comfortable.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ships: The Gun Boat

We've discussed the ingenious Native boat that is common all along the Atlantic coasts of both North and South America as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the piragua, periauger or pirogue, these versatile vessels were originally a hollowed out tree trunk. Advances to improve handling resulted in the boats being made from two tree trunks fused together with a keel piece running down the middle.

Around 1800, when the protection of U.S. coasts and waterways became an issue for the young nation, both the Navy and the newly formed Coast Guard began clamouring for small ships that could carry heavy guns but still sail into shallow waters including inlets and rivers. The places most favored by pirates and smugglers. Sloops and schooners could only do so much in this line of work. It was clear that a new kind of boat was in order.

The answer came in 1806 when designer Christian Bergh took the sleek serviceability of the pirogue and married it to the sailing sloop. In Bergh's original design, the gunboat had two masts. Both were given a marked rake with the foremast tipping forward and the mainmast back. This allowed for a large single sail on each mast to maximize wind propulsion. A flying staysail could also be set between the two masts for even faster running.

Unfortunately, the commanders - usually Lieutenants looking to make their mark - of the first 14 gunboats produced complained bitterly about this arrangement. It wasn't speed that troubled them but looks; that staysail in particular gave the initial impression of laundry on a line. The little ships were amazingly effective despite the grousing. They were, on average, about 48 feet long and 18 feet in the beam. Their sturdy hulls generally had a draft of no more than 5 feet and they could support a 24 pound cannon on a swivel dead center. Most had the added armament of two 18 pound guns on either side of the ship. Given her size and small compliment of eight to ten men, this was impressive armory.

So impressive, in fact, that it was almost immediately considered excessive. The guns took up so much room on deck that they were hard to work and harder still to live with on a cruise of any length. By 1810, revisions had been made that gave the gunboat her more familiar mast orientation (as shown above in a model from ModelShips.com) and saw the removal of the 18 pounders. Now pared down, sleek and easy for a sailor to be proud of, the gunboat design quickly spread to Europe and from there all over the world. Britain was using them in India by 1812, for instance.

Gunboats of another sort but in a similar spirit are still in use today by many navies and coast guards around the world. And they can all trace their evolution back to the efficient, beautifully made pirogues and periaugers native to North and South America.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: The Emperor On His Island

August 9, 1815: After his crushing defeat by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte embarks aboard HMS Northumberland for the last sea voyage of his life. Bonaparte will go ashore at the Island of St. Helena where he will spend the rest of his days.

Of interest to me, as a sailor who will not go out without a dog aboard, is the fact that if it hadn't been for a dog, Napoleon's storied Hundred Days would never have occurred. When sailing from Elba back to France, the Emperor, never much of a sailor, fell overboard. He was followed into the water and rescued by:
A Newfoundland whose name is lost to history. Once again, dogs at sea bring good luck, at least for Bonaparte if not for Europe.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Land

I hear you Brethren. Land, Pauline? Seriously? Yes indeed; land. There are, in fact, so many ways to use the word land aboard ship that this may very well turn into two posts. (Plus, I'm missing a TCM Errol Flynn marathon right now so I'm not inclined to be "long winded" - another sailor's term!)

Of course first and foremost land is, well, land. Land ho! is honestly the first cry upon sighting land (although I have seen disagreements on that statement, I stand firm in the call's general, over-arching use aboard the majority of sailing ships).

Lay the land means to lose sight of it. This is almost virtually in direct opposition to the very similar lay of the land, used by land when one is out to get a feel of terrain, as in preparation for farming, battle, etc. Land locked means a ship in harbor with, by all appearances, land all around. In fact there will be a channel or pass in and out but when aboard the ship, a first glance would make it seem otherwise. Both Barataria and Galveston Bays fit this description, for instance.

To land on deck means to lower heavy items onto the ship from the wharf, dock or another ship via block and tackle. Set land means to find the nearest land by the compass. A ship lies land to when it is far enough out at sea to barely see the land on the horizon. To make the land is to see it clearly; time to call "Land ho!"

A land breeze is a particular issue in warm and tropical climates. Written of by many freebooting authors, including Alexander Exquemelin who grouses about it's inconvenience (at best), the breeze is a result of land cooling at night faster than a large body of water near it. The heavier air rushes out from land over the sea, often in various directions, playing havoc with ships sailing or anchored off shore. Experienced sailors know to plan for this eventuality in hot weather. Since most if not all of the buccaneers were not much for sailing, it is no wonder that the good Doctor found the land breezes off Panama and Maracaibo vexing.

But that's enough of land for today. I'm off for a date with Robin Hood, followed by Sir Francis Drake. A wonderful rainy Saturday indeed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Booty: Honoring The Coasties

The United States Coast Guard turned 220 on August 4th. Begun with the help of such American Navy luminaries as Joshua Barney, the Coast Guard has protected the nation's waterways and right of way in foreign river roads unflaggingly for almost as long as the U.S. has been independent. Living in Alaska, where both legitimate livelihoods and ridiculous stupidity put people in harm's way on the open ocean all too frequently, I'm particularly fond of the Coasties.

Being particularly fond of art as well, I was pleased to see that the Coast Guard offers beautiful artwork by volunteer artists that commemorates the CG of yesterday and today. The above painting, "Defeat of Privateer Dart" by Dean Ellis, is just an example. It shows the nighttime firefight between a Coast Guard sloop and a British privateer during the War of 1812.

The Coast Guard Art Program now includes over 1,800 works which are displayed all over the country from the halls of Congress to the offices of various CG officers. There is also a movable display of selected works that travels to museums and elsewhere upon request. Best of all, though, you can own reproductions of the art yourself. Click over to the U.S. Coast Guard website and the article about the art program. There you can view and purchase some of these amazing pieces whose subjects range from the early history of the CG to the rescues and missions taking place right now.

It's worth taking a look, not just for the beautiful artwork but to appreciate the men and women who work so hard to keep us safe. Happy Birthday, Coast Guard; here's to another 220 years!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Women At Sea: On Ratcliffe Highway

Sailors and women of loose morals seem to go together in the popular imagination if not always in "real life". Of course there have been, are and will be happily married seamen, gay sailors and the celibate upon the waves. Generally speaking though, when we think of sailors on leave we think of a picture much like Thomas Rowlandson's "Sea Stores". The officer clearly negotiating best price (note the "jaunty" turn of the dirk at his waist), while the lady next to him stands silent with a smile and an upturned palm, waiting for his prize money before she and her friend promise anything.

Rowlandson is famous for pictures like this one not only because he was an astute observer of seaside life both in London and in Plymouth. There is also the fact that by the time Rowlandson was producing his work (the late 1700s and into the 19th century) the Royal Navy was setting the tone for just about everything seagoing in Europe. The scene above, dated around 1803, could have happened in Wapping, Brest, La Rochelle, Gibraltar, Port Mahon, Naples, New York or New Orleans. And the officer could just as easily be a pirate or privateer.

But what about the ladies themselves? The lens of Victorian moralizing has turned them into soiled doves, broken by some first encounter with a cad - probably a seaman himself - and from then on forced to ply the filthy trade of fallen women since the time of Magdalene. The problem with that scenario is the complete denial of these people as individuals, some of whom certainly chose to step out with sailing men and make their way. For the purpose of this post, we will keep to Rowlandson's backyard. The history is so vivid and interesting that it would be a shame to gloss over all the characters in the many ports of call known to navies and privateers. Whores, it seems, are destined for many a post here at Triple P.

Initial documentation of professional ladies hanging out near the docks of London turns up in the Medieval period. Even though it was illegal, the "stew girls" who usually lived near the city's gates would wander down to the Thames in their distinctive yellow wimples and pick up incoming sailors with the promise of a bath. The ladies were rounded up and kicked out of town occasionally but, since nature abhors a vacuum, more took their place seemingly overnight.

By the time of Elizabeth I the brothels, still at that point known as stews, had moved closer to the the river. These began to be pushed more and more toward the East End and the ladies in question were the favorites of the crews of sea dogs John Hawkins, Francis Drake and their ilk. The story goes that Drake himself had a favorite, kept in a cozy nest not far from the theatre district, who may have gone by the colorful name of Scarlet Jane possibly because of her red hair.

The punch houses that kept bawdy women were firmly established along Ratcliffe Highway by the mid-1600s. Here, the actual stories of individuals began to pour out like the tide. One of note was Damaris Page, whose name alone must have made her interesting. Pepys called Page "... the great bawd of seamen" and her colorful career spanned two marriages, prostitution, motherhood and brothel ownership. She kept a house in Ratcliffe for ordinary seaman and another in Rosemary Lane for naval officers and successful privateers. She was charged with bigamy after her second marriage but the case was dismissed. When she was charged with the murder of one of her girls, things got sticky. Damaris was found guilty of killing the woman while trying to abort an unwanted fetus with a fork; she was sentenced to hang. Page plead her belly and, found to be pregnant, she gave birth in jail. She was released from Newgate three years later. Damaris returned to the work of a madam and died in comfortable circumstances in 1669, still in her house on Ratcliffe Highway.

Many girls, rather than actually marrying, were simply considered the spouses of one or more sailors who turned over their prize money to their "wife" when they returned home from sea. The ladies often had small townhouses along the wharves and some may have had as many as three or four "husbands". Though Victorian writers frequently tell us that the men knew nothing of each other and the women had to keep up a precarious juggling act to ensure their ignorance, it seems, generally speaking, that was not the case. In contrast, there is documentation of ladies having more than one "husband" at home at any given time and no one being particularly put out by the arrangement.

By the 1750s, there was a place for more discrete connections to be made between sailors and women. Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies gave men of the sea, usually officers judging from the prices listed, a literal directory of belles to choose from. The language of the advertisements often had a sea going flare. For instance, Miss Devonshire (perhaps a nom-de-guerre used as a nod to the famous Duchess?) is listed in 1788 as "... fair of complexion with cerulean eyes... fine teeth and a good figure". The listing goes on to euphemistically say that "... she is brave, that she is ever ready for an engagement, cares not how soon she comes to close quarters and loves to fight yard arm and yard arm, and be briskly boarded." Nothing is left to the imagination; we are told the lady's pubic hair is light brown and her price is 5 shillings.

Of course there were always the women who would entice sailors away from an ale house and steal anything not attached to the man's body without providing the promised sex. These were the storied ladies so often sung about in chanties wherein it was all a woman's fault that a poor lad had to return to the sea with nothing in his pockets but his hands. They were also the frequent focus of Victorian reformers, described as filthy, debauched and drunk.

Whatever the woman's condition, be she a simple "bawd" or a widow advertising on Harris's list to make ends meet, all of them were people who contributed in their own way to the life and livelihoods of seamen. More on this subject in the future. For now, Huzzah! for the ladies.