Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ships: The Lady Of Bordeaux

In the French port city of Bordeaux on the Bay of Biscay the Governor, Louis Urbain Aubert, Marquis de Tourny, was full of big ideas. The Marquis, who was of royal blood even if it was only a drop or two, wanted his city to rival Paris in her grandeur. The way he financed his ambition was by backing and increasing the fleet of privateers that sailed from the port against that perpetual rival of France, Britain. The Marquis handed out commissions and encouraged ship building beginning immediately after he took office in 1743.

In 1744 one of the first new ships to slide out of dry dock into the Bay was a 460 ton, three-masted brig armed with 24 guns and a crew of approximately 150 men. She was christened that spring in honor of Louis’ wife, Jeanne Claude Cherouvrier des Grassieres and the lady’s full name was molded onto the shiny brass of the ship’s bell. La Marquise de Tourny set sail in search of British merchants, navy ships and privateers.

Fast forward to 2008 when a sizeable wreck, previously undocumented, was discovered in the English Channel by the famous exploration group Odyssey Marine. The ship lay on the bottom of the Channel approximately 60 miles off the coast of Devon and she was unfortunately disturbed by previous trawling. The Odyssey team at first thought they may have found a British merchant from the Napoleonic era, but closer inspection revealed a different story. The wreck carried mounted guns numbering 25 and no reasonable cargo could be located although heavy ballast was everywhere. Odyssey began regular dives in preparation to pull up the artifacts related to the ship and found the answer to the mystery. There among the blue glass bottles of French origin and the ten foot long cannons, was a brass bell now verdigris green. On the bell was the name of Madame la Marquise and from there the identity of the ship was only a few hours of research away.

La Marquise de Tourny had been a privateer masquerading as merchant. She may very well have been carrying “organic” cargo such as coffee, indigo and/or sugar which would, of course, no longer be detectable. Her voyages would have taken her from the Bay of Biscay through the English Channel into the French ports of Saint-Malo, Calais and Dunkirk. On her way she would have passed two of the outposts of British privateering, the islands of Guernsey and Jersey. There is documentation that she took at least one prize in the area in 1749 during the War of Austrian succession.

But did the French privateer succumb in battle? Did she go down fighting, so to say? The evidence says no. Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm and his team think the sea and the weather were the end of their find. La Marquise de Tourny was probably playing merchant on her last voyage when she foundered in a storm. The sinking is currently dated to some time between 1749 and 1755. Regardless, the find is remarkable. As Stemm points out in this
article from BBC.co.uk, she is “… one of our most important discoveries in the English Channel.”

As a superstitious sailor myself, I feel compelled to note an interesting dénouement to this story. After taking part in the christening of the ship that sailed with her name, Madame la Marquise went back to the business of being a gentlewoman. Almost exactly two years after her namesake sailed, on March 17, 1746, Jeanne Claude died suddenly at the age of 50. Was it an ill omen for La Marquise de Tourny? One way or another, you would have to think so.

Header: La Marquise de Tourny in situ

Monday, November 29, 2010

People: The Orkney Pirate

John Gow is a name that one hears frequently in the “annals of piracy”. Despite a few distinctions that line him up with some of the more colorful and well documented pirates of the Golden Age, Bartholomew Roberts and William Kidd most notably, there is very little documentation about Gow himself. Aside, that is, from his rather hideous death.

The place and date of Gow’s birth are the first things up for debate. Some researchers simply go with “unknown” while others state where and when. The general consensus is that he was born in the later part of the 1690s and the port city of Stromness, Orkney seems proud to claim him as a native son. Gow’s education is also a mystery. There are writers who mention him having “school mates” which would lead one to believe he actually went to school. The area he grew up in and his family’s station in a highly class oriented society puts that theory on wobbly legs as well. What is certain is that Gow went to sea at a young age.

By the summer of 1724, Gow was on the books of the merchant vessel Caroline as Second Lieutenant. Her home port was listed as Dunkirk and her Captain was a Frenchman named Ferneau or Furneaux who seems to have followed the general pattern of merchant captains of the era. He shipped a surprisingly small crew, put in light and at least partially rotten stores and kept his people hard at work to meet delivery deadlines. By fall, things aboard Caroline were anything but pleasant. As the crew began to mutter about mutiny over their salt horse, Ferneau doled out pistols to his Lieutenants for protection against the men.

After delivering cargo in November, Caroline lay at anchor off Vera Cruz when the discontent among her crew came to a head. Late on the evening of the 3rd, crewmen slit the throats of the First Lieutenant, Master and ship’s doctor while they lay asleep. The doctor managed to stagger up on deck and sound the alarm before being thrown overboard. Captain Ferneau came up to see what was amiss and was shot in the face by John Gow. Though certain writers spend a lot of words arguing that Gow was more or less drawn into the mutiny against his better judgment, three facts tend to argue against that scenario. The first is that Gow killed his Captain, the second is that Gow was elected commander by the mutineers and the third is that Gow led his men straight into prize taking. It could easily be argued that Gow led the mutiny himself and perhaps even proposed turning pirate thereafter.

On November 18th Caroline, now renamed Revenge, took a small fishing or merchant vessel off Cape St. Vincent. Everything – including men – was commandeered and Gow had the prize scuttled. Thus began a series of progressively larger vessels taken, boarded, ransacked for plunder and then sunk by Gow aboard Revenge. The Bay of Biscay was a particular favorite hunting ground and within two months the French Navy was hot on the trail of the pirate ship Revenge.

Knowing the political situation between Britain and France, Gow turned his ship home to Orkney where he figured the French would not follow. His hunch paid off. Revenge – again renamed, this time as George – masqueraded as a merchant and dropped anchor in the port of Hamnavoe in January of 1725. Gow went ashore as Mr. Smith, owner but not captain of George, and spent money like landed gentry. The authorities began to take note of this odd behavior when a member of Gow’s crew deserted to another merchant vessel and told the bloody tale of the former Caroline’s exploits.

Gow weighed anchor and began to cruise the local coast, raiding wealthy homes rather than taking prizes on the water. The authorities issued warrants against Gow and his men after they plundered the country home of Robert Honeyman of Gramersay taking away plate and linen and scaring if not actually accosting the gentleman’s wife and daughter. This ill advised act was followed by the kidnapping and brutalization of two girls from the village of Cava. Gow then planned another land raid, seemingly without thought of repercussion, but this time his luck ran out.

Revenge grounded within sight of Gow’s target, Carrick House, and the King’s guards rushed in to take the ship. Gow escaped with some of his crew, but they were hunted down, put in chains and shipped to London’s Marshalsea Prison. Most of the prisoners confessed their crimes out right and all pointed to Gow as their commander. For his part, John Gow refused to plead guilty or not guilty. In the legal jargon of the era, this meant that the courts could not mount a trial against Gow. The only recourse was torture.

The thumbscrews were used first to no effect. Apparently years at sea hardened a man to certain discomforts. When the bailiff became frustrated and threatened Gow with the torture of pressing – being laid out naked on a stone floor with a board the size of a door on top of one whereon progressively heavier weights would be piled until one died – the pirate cracked. Hanging must have seemed far more attractive than days of misery under the press board. Gow pleaded not guilty.

The outcome of the subsequent trial at the Old Bailey was a foregone conclusion. Gow and his men were found guilty and sentenced to hang on June 11, 1725. Gow must still have had a few coins in his pockets because he paid off the executioner to have a man hang on his legs while he dangled at the end of the rope to ensure a quicker, death. The plan backfired when the rope broke. Gow, dazed and purple, was herded back up the gallows, fitted with a new noose and hung again, this time without benefit of added weight. He reportedly continued to kick for some eight minutes.

Gow’s body was tarred, gibbeted and displayed on the banks of the Thames for over a year. A romantic story sprang up during that time that Gow’s lady love from Stromness sailed and then walked to London. There she found her intended’s body and touched its hand in order to release herself from the promise they had made to marry at the so called Odin Stone near Stenness, Orkney. What became of the lady, whose name is given as Helena Gordon, is unknown.

John Gow’s short and decidedly brutal career is not terribly unusual in the big scheme of piratical events. But his name is remembered and, in large part thanks to Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Pirate in which Gow becomes the elegant Captain Cleveland, his legend lives on.

Header: John Gow, Pirate, from a copy of Johnson’s “History of Pyrates"

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Beginning Of A Legend

November 22, 1718: Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, is killed via gunshot off North Carolina's Ocracoke Island by Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard. Maynard was sent by the Governor of Virginia to apprehend or kill Teach at sea or by land. Teach's head was chopped off and hung from the bowsprit of Maynard's ship for the return voyage to Virginia.

Pictured: Blackbeard in Smoke and Fire by R. Schoonover

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Dock

We all know what a dock is, don’t we? It’s that long thing made out of worm-eaten wood that allows you to walk out over the lake/bayou/ocean/sea, sit down and fish. Or maybe jump off and go for a swim. Or just tie up the family dory. That is the experience that most of us have had. For me, a dock is a welcoming place of solitude and communion with the water. Or it’s a place of so much bustle and energy that the air fairly crackles.

In the great age of sail, and to men who went to sea in ships, it was more often the latter. A dock proper is a receptacle for ships where they can quite literally park to take in cargo or to refit. A dry dock, where ships could be built and/or repaired, was usually a deep trench with strong flood gates at one end. The ship, depending on size and the capacity of the dry dock, could be towed in, the water let out, the flood gates closed and work begun. By the end of the 18th century most blue water navies had large dockyards to support their fleets. Some of the most famous are Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans and San Francisco in the U.S., Deptford, Sheerness, Chatham and of course Plymouth or Pompey (from whose wonderful
website the above picture of HMS Warrior comes) in the U.K. France had Dunkirk, Brest and Marseilles while Spain had Gibraltar and Malaga and Cartagena. Algiers, Tripoli and Sale kept things up on the Barbary Coast.

An entire language and culture sprang up in and around dockyards that was separate from but cousin to the culture of the sea. Dock dues were monies paid to the commissioner of a dock for use. Dockers were the inhabitants of a dockyard’s wider area. This term sprang up in England around the town of Plymouth in particular with a docker being anyone who had a residence between the dockyards proper and the town. Baltimore and New York also had “dockers”. In France they were known as diminuers – “diminishers”.

This derogatory sounding epithet may have stemmed from the distrust and sometimes outright hatred sailors felt toward dock workers. Dockyard duty was almost always the purview of a ship’s lieutenant or midshipman who commanded a gang of his mates ashore. They would be stationed at dry dock with their ship to keep an eye on the men working on her, frequently called “dockyard maties”. The artisans in particular – wood and metal workers – were considered dishonest and prone to steeling. Fights sometimes broke out between ship’s men and dockyard “artificers” that could end in serious injury or even death.

A ship is said to dock herself up when she has eased onto an underwater bed making her temporarily stationary. Docking a ship can occur elsewhere than a dock yard. A good example would be careening where in a ship is literally hauled up onto a beach or other shoreline and laid on her side for “breaming”. This is the process of getting the muck off her bottom by melting the tar and paint on her keel with fire which in turn removes seaweed, grass, lipids and worms from her bottom.

Though helpful for his ship the dockyard was generally no friend to a sailor, who felt he had to keep his guard up and an eye on his beloved ship at all times. The only exception being, it perhaps goes without saying, the taverns and the ladies. There at least, a seaman could find welcome and a good time.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Booty: Shipwrecked Champagne

Back in July I posted about the 30 odd bottles of champagne found amid the wreckage of a merchant vessel which sank in the Baltic some two hundred years ago. The bottles in question were in tact and their contents apparently undisturbed. The divers, who were also archaeologists, even opened one of the bottles to sample its still tasty if less-than-fizzy champagne.

The official opening of these as yet undated bottles occurred in Finland – the country that now owns the wreck – earlier this month to great fanfare. Select sommeliers and champagne specialists were invited to taste from two of the bottles; one a Veuve Clicquot and the other from the now defunct house of Juglar. Louise Nordstrom was among those on the short list of tasters. You can find her article about the experience
here.

The vessel which carried the elegant cargo was originally thought to have gone down some time in the 1780s but the champagne has changed that estimate. The bottles of Veuve Clicquot have distinctive corks that date them definitively to no earlier than 1811. It was then that the winery, located in Champagne, began putting a picture of a famous comet that passed over the region in that year on its corks. The comet “… was rumored to be the cause of a harvest of remarkable quality”. Based on this, experts now estimate that the champagne and the vessel on which it sailed probably went down in the icy Baltic off the Aland Islands some time in the 1820s.

According to champagne expert Richard Juhlin, who had the pleasure of sampling both the Juglar and the Veuve Clicquot, the bubbly was:

Great! Wonderful! What strikes you the most is that it’s such and intense arome. It’s so different from anything you’ve tasted before.

Aside from having only a minor amount of effervescence, probably due to changes in pressure when the bottles first sank and then were brought back to the surface, and a dark yellow color, the big difference between these early 19th century champagnes and our modern beverage would be sweetness. As Ms. Nordstrom notes:

A standard bottle of champagne now has about 9 grams of sugar, said Stephane Gaerschel, a spokesman for Veuve Clicquot, founded in 1772. In the 1830s, the house used more than 100 grams of sugar per bottle.

For most of us the taste would probably be a little syrupy. For the experts, however, both bottles of shipwrecked champagne gave up a veritable pantry of flavors: lime peel, coffee, chanterelles, linden blossom, peach, orange and honey to name a few. Ms. Nordstrom, who sampled the Juglar, detected yeast, honey and manure. She excused herself by ending her article with this insight:

And about that hint of manure? It doesn’t necessarily put me among the philistines. Sommeliers do find whiffs of cat bee in some French wines.

I’ll stick to the Michel-Schlumberger and Korbel,
merci.

Header: The Widow Clicquot, matriarch of the house of Veuve Clicquot

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Mythological Meals

There is a strong and persistent belief among moderns that freebooters didn’t eat very well. When, in the late 17th century, seaman James Yonge wrote in his journal about meals of “… water, gruel, rusty pork and sad beef, filthy peas and Cascan bread made of roots of trees” most people tend to imagine he was the voice of reason on the subject. The situation in which Yonge and his mates found themselves – crossing the Atlantic from the Caribbean in a small ship which was sadly under-provisioned – necessitated the kind of meals he groused about. But in the big scheme of things, food aboard a buccaneer or privateer was surprisingly luxurious and fit for any modern table.

The original boucaniers who became the buccaneers ate more than their share of smoked boucan. Originally made from the black pig native to what is now Haiti, boucan evolved into a versatile way of preserving meat. Fowl and fish could also be smoked and a favorite boucan meat among sea raiders of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico was turtle. Large sea turtles were easy to catch on land and their meat was considered healthier than pork. Not for any reasoning about cholesterol or high blood pressure though – boucan in all its forms was heavily salted – but because pork was thought to make a man more prone to the pox. Though it would mean an overnight by land to achieve a good supply of boucan, the meat, which was similar to Native American pemmican or modern jerky, would keep a long time and was easy to store and carry.

Along with their pork and turtle, the buccaneers on anything but the most meager rations tended to eat a balanced diet. Many of them were from Mediterranean backgrounds and they brought the pallet for olive oil and wine to sea. Olives, olive oil, vinegar, onions, shallots and garlic all figured strongly in the dishes of Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese freebooters. A lot of fresh fish was on the menu of all pirate ships, for obvious reasons, and no one will deny their healthful qualities. Cheese was also a frequent addition to meals, and since hens were often kept aboard most ships but the smallest pirogues, fresh eggs were a staple.

Pirating sallies were short – four months was considered a long haul – and involved putting in frequently to freshen water or deal with prizes, so fresh vegetables were not as unusual as they would be aboard a Royal Navy man-of-war. Along with garlic and onions, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, radishes and squash would have been readily available depending on where your ship sailed. Fresh fruits were plentiful all over North and South America. In the north berries, especially blueberries, raspberries and cranberries, were relatively easy to come by. Cranberries in particular were a high source of vitamin C, keeping scurvy at bay in colder climates. In the tropics, all manner of citrus fruits along with bananas, avocados and melons could be easily had.

Dutch, British and Northern French corsairs tended to appreciate a slightly different diet if available. The boucan, fish, fruits and vegetables would all be consumed but cooking fats like butter and lard (even ship’s tallow in a pinch) were preferred. Beef figured more prominently in these diets as did hard tack or ship’s biscuit, frequently made from corn rather than wheat flour. Many buccaneers also ate the “cascan bread” that Yonge mentioned. Made from the cassava, which is similar in texture to the jicama or turnip, the “bread” was more like a tortilla then a loaf of wheat bread.

Of course a pirate needed something to wash his meal down with and, as with food, the choices tended to reflect European or Creole origins. The British came to the West Indies with their love of “beere” in tact. Ales, ciders and beers were all popular in more Northern European colonies and aboard their ships. As they colonized places like Jamaica, however, the settlers developed a strong hankering for rum. Rum punch, bomboo, flip and black strap were just a few of the variations that could be found by land and at sea. Henry Morgan toasted the decision to take Porto Bello with rum punch.

Because rum kept so well in casks, it was a staple of marine life by the mid 18th century, but Creoles of Mediterranean descent still preferred their wines. Sangria was popular and had the added advantage of upping one’s intake of fresh fruit. Champagne, often served with a chunk of sugar loaf, was not unheard of but wines like Madeira, Canary, port, Sillory and claret along with sherry (generally thought of as a “lady’s cordial” by the 19th century) were most common. Renato Beluche reportedly would not leave port without a good supply of Sillory or Madeira. His dear friend Dominique Youx preferred to provision with whisky, which was on the rise as a piratical beverage by 1800.

Want did occur and Yonge’s documentation of meager rations was certainly an ever present possibility. In truly bad times, crews would eat the ship’s animals – including rats – tanned leather and tallow. Sometimes lack of water was more terrible than lack of food. The worst instance of buccaneer hardship was probably the one documented by Alexander Exquemelin during Henry Morgan’s march across the Isthmus of Panama to take Panama City. The buccaneers, barefoot, miserable from heat and insects and out of supplies, began gnawing on whatever leather they had. Exquemelin gives this recipe for making an ammunition satchel relatively edible:

Slice the leather into pieces, then soak and beat and rub between stones to tenderize. Scrape off the hair and roast or grill. Cut into smaller pieces and serve with plenty of water.

Since it is Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S., I plan to be particularly thankful for a meal that does not require tenderizing and the scraping off of hair. I hope that, where ever you are, you can say the same.

Header: Madness at the Dinner Table by Rowlandson c 1816

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

History: The Siege Of Guayaquil

The story of Woodes Rogers’ circumnavigation of the globe is old news to those who take a shine to the Golden Age of piracy. There were the generous merchants of Bristol, England who mounted the privateering expedition, the inclusion of French privateer, expert pilot, writer and naturalist Guillaume “William” Dampier, the surprise rescue of Alexander Selkirk who later became the model for Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and of course the nearly bungled taking of the City of Guayaquil on the Pacific coast of what is now Peru. The story is larger than the sum of its parts as Rogers made history – and a fortune – raiding Spanish interests in the Pacific, a first for any British privateer since Drake. But the parts are pretty interesting in and of themselves. Today, let us focus on the raid at Guayaquil using Dampier’s journal as our always accurate and frequently amusing guide.

The expedition set out in 1708 and rounded Cape Horn at the base of South America in early 1709. The timing was good from a standpoint of season but conditions are never amicable off Tierra del Fuego and by the time Rogers’ brigs, Duke and Duchess, had made the Pacific Ocean they were both in need of repair. The expedition was also short on prizes, not having spotted one Spaniard between Bristol and Chile, and the hands were starting to grouse. Rogers tightened his discipline but prayed for a prize.

On March 15th, things started to look up in the form of “…a scrap of a vessel” that Rogers had no trouble taking. The prize ship and her crew were of more interest to the privateers than anything aboard her and, with a refit, Rogers planned to use her “… as a courier or for river work”. Under the light of a full moon, Dampier writes poetically, Rogers put his flotilla of three in at the Islands of Los Lobos.

Los Lobos, interestingly, was not named for wolves but for sea lions known as lobos marinos or sea wolves. Dampier, with his naturalist flare, writes of these animals as “… noisy stinking brutes so fierce that one of them painfully mauled a Dutchman off the Duke, and nearly dragged him to his death in the surf.” He then disdainfully tells us that a hunting party brought back what they thought was a turkey. It turned out to be a vulture, “… smelling worse than the seal.” Despite these troubles of a seafaring life, the new ship – christened Beginning – was refit, Duke and Duchess were patched up and the expedition continued.

The prizes began to mount but, along with them, so did scores of Spanish hostages, seamen and African slaves. By April 12th Rogers had three new prizes but was running out of water. Pulling his officers together, including Dampier and Selkirk, now master aboard the prize renamed Increase, he came up with the plan to raid the city of Guayaquil. The officers agree but the crew has other ideas. As Dampier puts it, they were seamen and “… would fight any ship afloat, but they had not signed on with the intention of storming towns ashore.” Unlike Morgan’s hearty buccaneers, these English sailors weren’t eager to become infantry.

Rogers quickly hit upon just the thing to turn his men to his way of thinking. He upped the ante on prize goods by changing his Articles’ rules on plunder. It was written down that anything a privateer seaman could carry out of Guayaquil, with only a few exceptions including “… Women’s earrings with loose diamonds, pearls and precious stones”, would be his to keep. One has to imagine that the exceptions would be put into the general prize pot to be sold for hard cash which would then be distributed.

The men went for it and, rubbing their hands together at their potential haul, set a course north and east for Guayaquil. The port lay beyond the Island of Puna which was used as a look out spot, and a wide gulf beyond. Rogers’ plan was to use pinnaces armed with swivels as transport for the first wave of his men, with backup behind them in the form of Beginning and her crew. Two more ships were sighted and eventually taken on the way to the coast. The boarding action saw the unfortunate death of Rogers’ younger brother, John. Now burdened with over 300 Spanish prisoners, Rogers had no time to mourn. He stuck with his plan of attack which would occur under cover of night, secured most of his prisoners aboard his ships and dropped anchor just beyond Puna.

The island put up little resistance and Rogers collected the captured Lieutenant from the outpost there to use as a translator at Guayaquil. The crossing of the gulf, however, was not so smooth. Rogers said in his journal: “I had rather be in a Storm at Sea than here” and Dampier grumbled of days passed “… swatting mosquitoes in the mangrove shallows” so as not to be detected. Finally the opportunity to attack came but, as the boats rounded the last point toward the city, they found it alight at midnight with church bells ringing, people in the streets and beacon fires blazing. Not knowing if they had been spotted, the privateers fell back.

Though Rogers strongly advocated for an immediate attack, his officers decided that negotiating a ransom would be more prudent. The local Governor, who comes off as a cagey but decidedly dishonest sort, initially proposed a payment of 50,000 pieces of eight along with purchase of any stores the privateers might have in their prize ships. This was music to British ears and they agreed to the terms immediately. Just as immediately, Governor Solis y Pacheco began to stall. He failed to call aboard the Beginning at the designated time and sent an emissary with a clearly manufactured story that turned Rogers’ attitude sour. The emissary was given an ultimatum: either the Governor appeared with the promised specie by 7:00 the following morning or the privateers would storm the city.

The Governor showed up but with a much less attractive ransom – 30,000 pieces of eight and no mention of prize goods at all. Rogers had enough at that point. He allowed the Governor to pull back to his city while the privateers prepared to attack. As Dampier puts it, the Guayaquil militia “… made a formidable Show in respect to our little Numbers” but when Rogers’ men faced down the cannons in the church square, the militia scattered. Rogers took the city without a man lost, but the Governor’s stalling had allowed his wealthier citizens to gather up their treasures and evacuate.

A day of ransacking turned up nothing until Lieutenant Connely and Master Selkirk got a tip from a local Native as to where the prominent citizens may have run off to. This led to the amusing antidote pictured at the header (an engraving use in the published version of Rogers’ own journal). They found houses up river from the city wherein were secreted the Donas of Guayaquil. These ladies had their family jewels wrapped “…about their Middles, legs and thighs…” beneath their clothes. As Dampier tells us, clearly with a grin:

… the Gentlewomen of those hot Countries being very thinly clad … our Men by pressing felt the Chains etc. with their Hand on the Outside of the Lady’s Apparel…

This quick frisking led not only to a sack full of booty but a thankful response from the ladies who were allowed to remove their valuables themselves rather than being stripped or worse. They offered Rogers and his men a splendid luncheon and “… broke out a cask of choice liquor."


At last the Governor relented and agreed to pay the 30,000 pieces of eight to Rogers at Puna Island within six days. The British privateers had their hands full getting load after load of plunder out of Guayaquil and Dampier notes that more than one fainted due to exhaustion and the “… deadly heat.” Rogers and his men made Puna on April 28th. The ransom was delivered as promised and the expedition turned west into the Pacific. Rogers would return to Bristol in 1711, 150,000 pounds richer than when he left.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lady Pirates: The Queen Of Illyria

Pirate queens are actually far more numerous in the annals of history than the average American education would have us believe. From Grania ni Maille to Cleopatra VII and everyone in between and beyond, they are a colorful bunch who have been rather shamefully hidden under a sturdy bushel because of misogyny and religion. So today, I'm turning the bushel over to reveal the high spirited pirate queen who took on mighty Rome before Rome even knew what hit it.

The Illyrians, whose territories in 232 BCE covered roughly the area now occupied by modern Albania and Serbia, were a seafaring tribe. Perhaps descendant from the ancient Sea People, they made their livings in boats. They were aggressive and warlike and fond of leaders who held to the same code. So when King Agron returned from a hugely successful raid loaded down with booty in that same year, no one batted an eye his order of hard partying in celebration. Probably least of all his second wife and Queen, Teuta.

Agron, who may very well have had an upper respiratory infection when he began his week or so long binge of drink and debauch, eventually developed pleurisy and died. Thanks to the rather snotty parts about Agron and Teuta in Roman historian Polybius' Universal History, we know a lot about what happened after the King of Illyria passed away, drown in his own fluids.

Teuta seems not to have spent much time mourning her husband. Though Polybius doesn't say where she was from originally, Teuta may have been of Hittite stock and so her own warrior spirit was certainly equal with that of her people. She took up the reins of government and almost immediately turned the Illyrian navy into a privateer fleet. From Polybius:

Her first measure was to grant letters of marque to privateers, authorizing they plunder all whom they fell in with...

Teuta declared all the world her enemy and she gave free license to the sailors in her fast, one-masted galleys known as lembi to prey on all at sea and on land. The Illyrians struck hard and often, taking port cities and villages along the Ionian and Adriatic coasts. They brought home ship-fulls of loot and Illyria prospered as she never had under King Agron.

Famously, Teuta enjoyed leading some of the inland raids personally. One attack on the city of Epidamnos in modern Albania found Teuta leading her sailors (men and women) inland with water jars on their heads or shoulders. Teuta herself called up to the Epidamnosians for help, saying that her people lacked water and were dying of thirst. As the Illyrians wailed beneath their city walls, the Epidamnos guards gave in and opened the massive gates. Teuta gave her order, the jars were dashed to the ground revealing the swords they held and the Illyrians attacked. Though Epidamnos managed to repulse Teuta, many more cities were not so fortunate.

The local tribes lived in fear of the Illyrians by 230 BCE and they began to call out for help to the new power player on the Mediterranean: Rome. Rome, of course, saw an opportunity to not only halt rampant piracy but to annex more territory in the form of these desperate cities and villages. Illyria's enemies agreed to become "Roman" if Rome would stop Teuta.

Two silver-tongued brothers, Gaius and Lucius Coruncanius, were sent to Teuta as "ambassadors". In fact, they were to put the upstart Queen in her place and make sure she understood that further affronts to "Roman citizens" would lead to horrible punishment. Teuta listened to the Coruncanius brothers and then told them flat out that there was absolutely nothing the Queen of Illyria could do about private citizens raiding ships at sea. Hearing this, Lucius lost his cool and insulted Teuta. She made no effort to respond in kind, but simply thanked and dismissed the Romans. Unfortunately for Lucius, Teuta had a long arm. On the caravan back to Rome, Lucius was killed by a group of Illyrian strong men.

Rome had now been personally affronted and reacted with typical aggression. 200 ships and 20,000 infantry were sent against Illyria with the result that her fleet was virtually destroyed. Queen Teuta was forced to retreat to the nearly impregnable fortress at Rhizon where she and her people became the victims of a year long siege. Finally, in 228 BCE, Teuta cracked. She conceded to every Roman demand, including giving up all her lands but the city of Rhizon itself. No further sallies went forth from Illyria except unarmed merchant galleys that were a pitiful shadow of their former privateer glory.

Teuta, the pirate Queen of Illyria, faded from memory and has almost been forgotten. Thanks to her enemy, the Roman Polybius, we still know of her and her few spectacular years of domination at sea.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: The First Prize

November 18, 1724: After taking part in a mutiny aboard the merchant vessel Caroline, new pirate Captain John Gow takes his first prize off Cape St. Vincent. She was carrying fish, but Gow managed to enlist men and take anchors, cables, spars, sails and water before scuttling the prize and sailing off into a life of crime on the high seas.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Trim

The word trim is heard, usually in company with the word neat, coming from old time sailors on occasion. Where a landsman might say “ship shape” to mean a place for everything and everything in its place, a sailor will use neat and trim. It’s one of those contradictions that are so typical of the sea.

The use of the word trim at sea is reflective of its Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Trymian, or trymann, meant not only “to make firm” but to set in order. This is the etymology that works best for most of the uses of the word aboard ship.

A ship is judged trim by her set on the water, either by her head or stern or on an even keel. The trim of the ship depends on the placement of her ballast, cargo, masts, armament and even her people and livestock. Packing a sailing ship on every deck just so is an art form and can mean the difference between a sluggish passage or a speedy arrival. In terms of a freebooter, it could surely mean catching a fat prize or being left empty handed and well behind.

Trim also means the finishing of a piece of lumber, be it planking for deck or gunnel or spars and masts. The trim of a ship’s wooden fittings could also affect her seaworthiness.

To say a ship was in trim indicated that all was neat and regular as in a man-of-war. To trim is to arrange the sails so that they are perfectly suited to catch the full advantage of any breeze. Trim of the hold also referred to the stowing of objects aboard, particularly ballast, stores and cargo. Trimmed refers to the sails being properly set so that they remain taught and do not miss stays when tacking. Similarly, trimmed sharp means arranging the sails so that in an unfavorable or “slant” wind the ship is still able to keep close to the breeze.

Trim the boat is an order for all oarsman and others aboard a ship’s boat to sit in such a uniform manner that the boat is in no danger of listing or capsizing. Though this may sound relatively simple it is, in fact, no mean feat particularly if one is rowing lubbers to or from shore. Best to put them in the middle, if at all possible.

Finally, and really only because of the sound of it, there is the word trimonier. This is the original French version of the Royal Navy rated post of timoneer. In the U.S. Navy such a one would be designated as helmsman or pilot or both.

Mind your trim then, mates, in every aspect. Fair winds until tomorrow at the very least.

Header: U.S. brig Niagra
from the wonderful Historical Navy Ship Assoc website (which is serious porn for seafaring enthusiast, trust me)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Booty: Surprise!

It's Friday, and I’m seriously happy to be off the research train for a day. It has been a few weeks of some pretty intense tracking and study for your humble hostess – not only in the blogosphere but in the land of historical fiction as well – and it is past time for a break. Thankfully, we’ve today’s unusual gem.

The video below was spotted by the First Mate over at the Facebook
page of pirate Brethren and friends of Triple P Under The Black Flag (find their website here and follow them on Twitter here). The song is by the group Running Wild, of whom I must confess to knowing absolutely nothing. The images, however, are from a movie with which I am very familiar: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. So really, what could go wrong?

Well, if you’re at all like me, a thing or two. I got about a minute into this and had to pause it, mute the sound, and put on some Boccherini. There was something terribly jarring to my sensibility about the combination of modern metal and early 19th century seafaring. Now, before you go pegging me as a music “snob” allow me to say in all honesty and humility that I have a pretty eclectic musical pallet. I’m equally at home with Metallica and Mozart, Billie Holiday and Bauhaus, Danzig and Dr. Dre. Come to think of it, that sounds like an awesome mix for the old iPod.


But when I’m dealing with either O’Brian or my own fiction, I want the music of the era from which the story comes. Which, of course, is another reason why I love M & C. All the classical music is pulled directly from the novels, the popular music is well researched and accurate and the incidental music, by none other than former Icehouse front man Iva Davis, works seamlessly with the other two. Basically what I’m saying is I’m sure Running Wild rocks. But Jack Aubrey rocks, as we used to say, way harder. Enjoy Brethren. And happy Friday.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: The Buccaneers Gun

They name the musket their gun and have used it with great ingenuity to make up for their lack of resources.

Thus wrote Triple P’s house physician Alexander Exquemelin of the famous boucaniers of Tortuga. They were, said the Doctor in his eye-witness accounts, reliably efficient marksman who could be compared to “… the finest of the French Musketeers”. This is a statement not to be taken lightly when one considers the facts surrounding it. First, the flintlock musket, with its long barrel, smooth bore and uneven shot, is ungainly and ill suited to accuracy in the eyes of modern marksmen. Second, the French Musketeers had a reputation in their day comparable in many ways to modern special ops snipers.

So what was the draw of the musket for men who roved the sea and land looking for plunder and rarely settling in to one place? The answer to that question is surprisingly complex and yet perfectly logical. But it does require a familiarity with the weapon and its uses.

The long musket was the son of the matchlock. Aside from line-up-and-fire-on-command military actions based on land there was really nothing the matchlock could do. With its slow loading and lit match waving dangerously off to the side of the gun itself, the matchlock was always a fire or even explosion waiting to happen. Particularly aboard a close-packed ship made of wood and smeared with combustibles like tar and tallow, the matchlock was beyond impractical. All that changed with the simple but profoundly brilliant mechanism of the striking flint.

A flintlock musket had the advantage of being easy to carry first and relatively inexpensive second. Though cannon can do tremendous damage on land and at sea they are hard to come by and even harder to steal. Then too not all buccaneering ships – some of which were no more than simple canoes – could carry cannon. But a pirogue manned with ten superior boucaniers marksmen could inflict a lot of damage on the men aboard a much larger prize. And that even before the prize knew what was upon them.

The musket Exquemelin and his mates dubbed the fusil boucanier, or buccaneer gun, was originally of French or Dutch origin. By the time of Exquemelin’s writings in the late 17th century, this specific type of musket was in use throughout the New World with the notable exception of Spanish territories. On average the gun was about four and a half feet long with a smooth bore and fittings made of brass or more infrequently iron. It resembled the hunting guns favored in Europe but not the blunderbusses so familiar to American children from Pilgrim themed cartoons. At first glance the musket would appear to modern eyes like an unusually long rifle with very fancy fittings.

The musket had a front sight but no rear sight and the best marksman would use a rest of some kind – a fence or tree crotch or the rail of their ship – when firing. The caliber of the gun was not set but based on the bores of guns still in existence ranged from .73 to .78. It is worth noting that there are no examples of the fusil boucanier proper available today, so all of this is well informed speculation. Loading was a complicated process that will need an entire post of its own but contemporary reports and modern research indicated that an accomplished buccaneer could potentially complete the task within twenty to thirty seconds. Effective deadly range in the hands of the same man would be approximately 200 yards but up to 300 yards the ball (or balls, frequently the muskets were double or triple loaded) could cause serious though not necessarily life-threatening injury.

With all this in mind the answer to the initial question seems a bit clearer. The musket was relatively easy to carry. In fact, on Morgan’s march across the Isthmus of Panama many of his men, particularly the French boucaniers from San Domingue, carried two or three at a time. Not surprisingly these were Morgan’s go-to marksmen who equalized battles and fed their fellows when game or cattle were available with their beloved muskets. This weapon was also easy to come by. They were relatively affordable and it goes without saying that taking them from a prize or off a fallen foe or comrade was easy work. The guns were surprisingly accurate in the hands of a seasoned marksman. Even aboard small vessels, as long as the musket was double loaded, a good shooter could hit a man somewhere in his torso three shots out of six at a reasonable distance.

Of course the muskets had their drawbacks. They had to be kept meticulously clean and oiled to avoid the ubiquitous rust that dogged all metal items in the tropics and particularly at sea. Interestingly, the buccaneers routinely allowed their muskets’ brass fittings to tarnish, presumably to cut down on any tell tale glint that might give them away in an ambush situation. Then, too, there was the issue of firing with a fouled barrel. Even dry black powder would build up in the barrel of a musket with each firing and eventually the marksman would have to take a moment to scour his barrel with linen or tow wrapped around the ramrod and soaked with any available fluid (yeah; any available fluid). Failure to do so could result in a jammed ball and the potential ruin of the weapon.

For a superior and detailed discussion of the particulars of buccaneer muskets, see Benerson Little’s book The Sea Rovers Practice, which your humble hostess consults quite frequently. Little, a former Navy SEAL, has done tests with guns comparable to these muskets both on land and afloat, and his findings are well worth the time of any researcher, novelist, enthusiast or re-enactor. Plus the book is a very enjoyable read; find it
here.

The days of the flintlock mechanism, and the muskets it informed, continued into the pre-modern era. Infamous pirates like Roberts and Blackbeard were good with their muskets and, at least in the case of Edward Teach, died at the point of the same weapon. And of course it was the need for rifle flints that first drew Andrew Jackson into the confidence of that “hellish banditi”, Jean Laffite. Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, your average freebooter was probably better with a buccaneer gun than he ever was with a sword.

Header: The Buccaneer by Howard Pyle

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ships: Chase The Tide

The little ship that could – be a mail packet, a revenue runner, a privateer or a smuggler, that is – was known to the French as a chasse-marée and to the British as a lugger. Chasse-marée (chaz mar-AY) translates as tide chaser and the ships were originally developed in the 16th century as coastal fishing vessels. Used initially around the coasts of France (and possibly developed in my paternal ancestral home, Bordeaux and Gascony), the ships caught on in other coastal countries like Holland and England. By the early 18th century, they were ubiquitous to the English Channel.

Chasse-marées (or, as the French derogatorily referred to the British version, lougres) were smallish, three-masted vessels square rigged on fore and main with a Mediterranean style lateen rig on the mizzen mast. Though the rigging was effective for the slow work of fishing, it would not do as the vessels evolved into privateers with the almost constant wars going on among European nations heading into the 18th century. The rigging evolved along with the chasse-marée’s duties and the lateen sail on the mizzen was replace by what is known as a lug sail (thus the name lugger). This type of sail, which resembled the more common gaff sail, allowed for ease of handling that the lateen sail did not. In fact, by the end of the 18th century the chasse-marée developed a short spar extending directly over the stern that carried a block. The lug sail’s sheet was carried inboard through the block and the mizzen was stepped very close to the stern. With this rig the chasse-marée could virtually turn on that proverbial dime.

Always a small ship, the general dimensions for a chasse-marée were comparable to a sloop of the same era. The length averaged about 75 feet, beam width at about 20 and tonnage just above 100. The draft of the ship was necessarily shallow, about 3 to 4 feet, and she was often packed to capacity with men when sailing as a privateer. The French in particular, during the Napoleonic Wars, would cram 50 or 60 men onto these little ships and then set prize crews aboard ships they took. Documents from the era show privateering chasse-marées leaving ports like Dunkirk and Saint-Malo with 55 men and returning with only 20.

It was during the Revolutionary War era that the British began to toy with their luggers’ rigging. They drastically raked the masts, pulling them backward to improve the weatherliness of their ships, and then added huge sails to afford all possible wind and speed. The French caught on and, finally taking one of these British luggers as a prize, began to pattern their own chasse-marées on their enemy’s version. The first such built for French naval service as a mail packet and tender, L’Espiegle (which means The Mischievous One), was based on the plans of a British lugger.

The chasse-marée was adopted and manipulated by the 19th century privateers of the New World, finally becoming the hermaphrodite brig. Slightly larger than her Old World cousins, and shipping just two masts, she was perfectly suited to the conditions of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and she too was frequently jammed with men going out and surprisingly sparse on crew coming in. Unlike the chasse-marée, however, the hermaphrodite brig could carry a relatively large compliment of guns and was therefore also favored by the emerging navies of Argentina, Chile and Bolivar’s Grand Columbia.

Modern forms of the historical chasse-marée have become more like racing schooners and are popular with yachtsmen around the world. The traditional ship, with her long bowsprit and unusual lug spar at the stern, is more handsome to my eye. But then, I’m a sucker for history, particularly at sea.

Header: Revenue Cruiser Chasing a Smuggling Lugger by Charles Dixon

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

History: Going Rogue

Our local paper, Anchorage Daily News, had a McClatchy Newspapers article in its Sunday Nation & World section that caught my eye right away. Entitled “Ocean waves picking up power” and written by Les Blumenthal, the article has two points of particular interest to me. First and foremost, of course, is the over arching issue of what are now known as “rogue waves”. These are huge walls of water, sometimes reported to be as tall as a ten story building (approximately 100 feet) that can appear out of nowhere, even in a seemingly calm sea, and take out any ship in their path. The second was an issue of specific place.

First, the article indicates that waves in general and coastal waves in particular are getting “bigger”. My second point of interest comes in from the area where the data on waves specific to the bulk of the article has been collected. The area known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” is at the mouth of the Columbia River in the U.S. State of Washington. For years pilots have navigated these treacherous waters to ride out to large ships at anchor well off shore. My mother’s father was a caulker of ships by trade and he worked in dockyards in both Washington and Oregon. I remember him telling of ships he’d worked on and men he’d known going down in the area, part of which is known as Cape Disappointment. So the unusual waves in this area are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a new phenomena but the data being collected on them is.

As the article eventually gets around to telling us, the truly frightening “rogue waves”, which are really the standard for any wave that wants to call itself “large”, began to be seriously studied only recently in 2004. Any data prior to that is eye witness evidence or hearsay. Documentation of large rogue waves, however, goes back to Ancient Roman times when Pliny spoke of enormous waves swamping whole fleets of Roman triremes. The waves, which not only loom large but create unusually shallow troughs before and after them referred to by seamen as “holes in the sea”, seem to have no rhyme or reason. They are not something a ship can prepare for, although they are more common in storms for obvious reasons, and are therefore particularly deadly.

Rogue waves occur all over the world and in places other than the oceans. As noted above, the Mediterranean has known such monsters in the past. The Great Lakes are no strangers to the phenomena and in fact a specific type of rogue waves, known as the Three Sisters, is right at home in that vast, interior sea. The Sisters are a group of three waves, each a bit larger than the one ahead of it, that wash over a ship in rapid succession, effectively scuttling her in a matter of minutes. Some experts speculate that the famous Edmund Fitzgerald may have been hit by a Three Sisters formation of waves before she went down in Lake Superior in 1975.

Initial estimates quoted in the article indicate that wave height may be increasing as much as 4 inches a year off the coast of the Northwestern U.S. Buoy data regarding this goes back to the 1970s and scientists are anticipating that the numbers will continue to increase. The main culprit is thought to be climate change which is a very real issue with continuing repercussions for all the Earth’s bodies of water. Although I will never be a climate change apologist (I find that as ludicrous as believing in “intelligent design”), the article made me think that some unnecessary conclusions are being made prior to more thorough study. I also wonder how much historical research has been done and applied. Sailors like to tell tall tales and always have, but most of it comes from a grain of truth that should be considered. Of course, that may just be my personal bias.

The last four paragraphs of the article seem, however, to pull the findings back to reality. Peter Adams of the University of Florida is working on a 30 year wave height study which finds waves increasing by about a couple of centimeters a year. As he notes:

Given that there are 3 million waves a year, one wave every 10 seconds, it’s not that alarming.

What Adams does find disconcerting is the relative increase in the height of those rogue waves, which may be growing more rapidly than the average breaker. As he indicates the changes in storm formations as well as increasing intensity of winter storms in both hemispheres may mean bigger rogue waves and deeper holes in the ocean. Mind your way out there, mates; forewarned is forearmed.

Header: Cape Disappointment, Washington via Wallpaper.org

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Pirates Own Book: The Ghost Of Thomas Veal

The very short tale (it takes up only three pages in Charles Ellms’ book) of the Lynn Pirates reads like an autumn night’s ghost story. In fact I had planned on including it in Triple P’s popular Horror on the High Seas week but with so much misery to hand it fell by the wayside. Here it is, then, as I sit typing in the dark and listen to the icy snow tapping at my windows. A perfect yarn for this kind of morning.

The story begins with a “great earthquake” in New England. The year is 1658 and “some time previous” a vessel dropped anchor at the mouth of the Saugus River. Four men came ashore from her and beat a path into the woods. Though the villagers who lived nearby were aware of what had happened, there was no sign of the small ship the next dawn. Interestingly, a note was found at the local “Iron Works” describing a need for shackles, hatchets and “other articles of iron manufacture” that should be left at a designated spot where upon silver would be put in their place. This was done, seemingly without question, and the silver appeared as promised. A few weeks later the four men emerged from the woods and “… selected one of the most secluded and romantic spots in the woods of Saugus, for their abode.”

It is curious to me that the locals, who at such a time and place one would imagine to be deeply suspicious of interlopers, seem to have accepted the presence of the four sailors. They not only had an iron works, which seems almost unbelievable, but simply made hatchets on demand for strangers. A questionable move to my mind but perhaps I have too much “modern” skepticism.

The area around the “romantic spot” in the woods became known in short order at the Pirates’ Glen which makes it easy to imagine what the villagers thought of their new neighbors. Ellms tells us that in his own day the glen was “a lonely and desolate place”. It appears that the sailors set up shop as smugglers and their location had a particularly good view of merchant vessels going back and forth from the large ports of Salem and Boston. At some point “one of the King’s cruisers” came to the mouth of the Saugus, hauled off three of the four strangers and set sail. The neighbors speculated that the men had been taken to England to hang.

The fourth “pirate”, Thomas Veal, escaped to a cave two miles north of the glen where Ellms tells us “the pirates had previously deposited some of their plunder”. He set up a home in the cave and curiously began to work at the trade of shoemaking. Veal became known in the village, evidently, but never moved to town preferring his cave to a home on the high street. The story goes that when the earthquake hit in 1658, part of the rock outside the cave tumbled down and Veal the shoemaker, who had once been a pirate, was trapped in his unorthodox home. The cave has “… ever since been called the Pirate’s Dungeon”.

Ellms then goes into detail with regard to the area as it appeared in his own day, writing as if he himself had been there:

On an open space in front of the rock are still to be seen distinct traces of a small garden spot, and in the corner is a small well… The Pirates’ Glen, which is some distance from this, is one of Nature’s wildest and most picturesque spots, and the cellar of the pirate’s hut remains to the present time…

Though Ellms stops short of saying the place is haunted, it certainly seems like an opportune area for the specter of Thomas Veal to wander on a misty night, perhaps rattling the mysterious, locally forged chains that he paid hard silver for. A death such as his would make eternal rest very hard to come by.

Header: Dungeon Rock and the Pirate’s Cave in Lynn, Massachusetts from The Pirates’ Own Book

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Treasure Island

November 12, 1850: Robert Louis Stevenson, creator of the seminal pirate adventure novel Treasure Island, is born.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Haze

Here's a funny thing. As the Brethren know, I rarely plan further ahead than a few hours for SMS. I usually pick a word randomly and do my research from there because I have the great good fortune to be possessed of a tremendous library fairly bursting with nautically themed books. But for today I actually had some time early on, Thursday to be precise, and I got SMS all set up. So what to my wondering eyes should appear but this delightful and in depth post from The Dear Knows over at that Triple P favorite, The Dear Surprise. As you can see it’s all about commonly used words and phrases with seafaring origins and there in the “H” section is today’s word: Haze. You cannot make this stuff up.

Webster’s literally states that the word haze came to English from Low German and Anglo-Saxon as a “… nautical borrowing”. The etymology here is interesting. Webster argues that haze may have come from Anglo-Saxon hasu, meaning gray, but “… probably via the Low German proverb de hase brouet literally “the hare is brewing” as applied to a mist”. Now that’s interesting and, for those old enough to remember, has a “bunny boiler” connotation that certain women will doubtless find an affinity with.

So haze can mean a thin layer of mist in the air or a “vagueness of mind” alternatively. But specific to nautical usage, haze means “to oppress, punish or harass by forcing to do hard and unnecessary work”. As noted over at The Dear Surprise, this form of hazing frequently included keeping men not only working but awake watch after watch with only a very minimal amount of sleep allowed.

The deprivation of sleep is, of course, an ancient torture used to this day and the logic behind its use at sea was to break sturdy men and – in particular – make them incapable of mutiny. Unfortunately it proved on more than one occasion to have just the opposite effect. The infamous Captain Bligh, who is all too often apologized for in modern writing, was fond of hazing new men at all levels of service. Hugh Pigot, the brutal Captain of the Hermione, used hazing as well and the horrible mutiny aboard his ship, which included his own bloody death, was the result.

Modern hazings, particularly popular among the educated elite who join “Greek” houses on larger college campuses, can be just as brutal as those of our nautical ancestors and can have equally tragic results. It is all too clear to my mind that our society is falling into disrepair at best when the same colleges feel compelled to offer their “adult” students empathy training to avoid such unnecessary misery. It might be time for modern parents to step up and stop making excuses for their miserable, self-centered, blog post plagiarizing br –

[Ed note: the rant above has been cut short in the interest of time, space and staying on topic.]

Anyway, to end on a humorous note, 19th century sailors began referring to the marriage of one of their own as a hazing. The inference being, of course, that the new wife would doubtless put her husband to a hard task, and keep him up all night. No further comment seems necessary.

Header: The Sailor’s Wedding by Richard Woodville 1852 (click to enlarge as the painting is full of amusing details; I’m particularly fond of the sailor, who looks very much like my Dad)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Booty: Semper Fidelis

Wednesday, November 10th was the 235th Birthday of the United States Marine Corps. The USMC was formed to serve as infantry units aboard U.S. Navy vessels. The Sergeant at Arms (in charge of the Marines on any given ship) was responsible for not only defending the ship and her crew during boarding or landing actions, but also the safety of the ship’s officers in the event of mutiny. The USMC – like the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy – was patterned almost directly on the British Royal Marines. Why reinvent the wheel, after all?

Being a Navy brat (from long back in my ancestry and, in fairness, not just of the U.S. variety) I feel compelled to point out that the USMC claim to being the “oldest military branch” in America is a bit erroneous. Both the Marine Corp. and the Navy were established in 1775 and disbanded by Congress after the Revolution. It wasn’t until the 1790s that the two branches were reinstated, again by act of Congress.

From the beginning, Marines were frequently part of landing and raiding parties abroad. Their first remarkable success came during the Revolutionary War when Navy and Marine forces took a large British munitions depot at that old pirate haunt, New Providence, The Bahamas. Marines served during the Quasi-War with France and were an enormous factor in American success during the First Barbary War (1801-1805). The culmination of that action saw William Eaton lead 500 Marines and mercenaries into Tripoli to liberate the captured sailors from USS Philadelphia (Triple P favorite David Porter among the latter). This aggressive response to hostility abroad showed the world that the U.S. was more than capable of standing up for herself. It is also the event that led to the “shores of Tripoli” line in the Marine hymn and the distinctive Mameluke Sword carried by Marine officers.

Marines were once again in the thick of it during the War of 1812. Their involvement in the legendary frigate actions that characterized the war at sea were too numerous to mention here. USMC fame was sealed at the Battle of New Orleans, where they held the very center of General Andrew Jackson’s line on Rodriguez Canal. With the close of the War of 1812, the U.S. Marine Corp. held a reputation world wide for their marksmanship, both at sea and by land.

The USMC has gone through their ups and downs but consistently throughout America’s history they are the ones to call when the tough jobs need doing. It’s not always a popular business they are in but, as we like to remind the kids around my house, freedom isn’t free. I will close then with a hearty Huzzah! for the USMC, her veterans, current actives and reserves and for all who serve. Thank you.

Oh, and if you’re a realist like your humble hostess, hop over to the always interesting and informative Navy Historical Blog and enjoy their
tribute to the Marine Corp.

Sailor Mouth Saturday will be up tomorrow; I’ll spy ye then, Brethren.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Women At Sea: History Misremembered

Though today's lady gets a lot of attention in her home state of Texas, she is not (as she and her Texan brethren would have you believe), all that famous. Like Hannah Dustin and Diamond Lil (oh how Mrs. Long would cringe at that comparison), she is essentially a product of her time and place, no different in many ways than any other Anglo-American, female pioneer. She seems, however, to have had a snappy gift for self-promotion that foreshadowed future American idols like Joan Crawford, Madonna and Lady Gaga. My personal interest in Mrs. Long lays not so much in her many travels, the bulk of which were by sea, but in one particular meeting with an international pirate superstar. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

Jane Herbert Wilkinson was born July 23, 1798 in Charles County, Maryland to Captain William MacKall, who served in the Revolutionary War, and his wife Anne (or Ann) Herbert Wilkinson. As an aside, I can find no explanation for the confusion in surnames in this family of 14. Some children are listed as MacKall or Mackall while Jane and some others are Wilkinson. A comment on this anomaly would be more than appreciated if anyone knows the answer. MacKall was a leading figure in the County but Anne does not seem to have been a popular hostess or even neighbor. She kept to herself with her large brood, of whom sturdy Jane was the tenth. It is telling that when MacKall dropped dead in 1799, Anne packed up the family and moved to Washington in what was then Mississippi Territory.

Having a fair number of strong boys to manage a farm, Anne and her children did relatively well on the frontier with 10 of her 12 children surviving to adulthood. By the time Anne died in 1813, many of Jane’s older siblings were married, established and able to take the younger children in. Jane went to live with her oldest sister Barbara, who was married to one Alexander Calvit. Calvit was a relatively wealthy landowner and her sister’s home on Prospinquity Plantation on the Natchez Trace must have seemed as grand as any palace to Jane.

By the time she arrived, Jane was pushing the envelope of marriageable age at 16. Never remarked upon as a beauty, there must have been grumblings at Prospinquity that Jane might languish into spinsterhood. Fortune smiled on both Jane and the Calvits when Dr. James Long, who had been serving as a physician under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, stopped in at Prospinquity on his way home to Virginia. He was welcomed at the plantation and stayed to help tend an outbreak of fever among the slaves. Jane and the good doctor (perhaps through the machinations of Barbara and Alexander) found each to the other’s liking. They were married in May of 1815. Considering that the Battle of New Orleans technically ended in mid-January of that year and that the need for doctors continued well into February and even March, it seems a rather hasty union.

Probably while in New Orleans James, like so many others, caught the filibustering bug. He was gung-ho to free Mexico from Spanish bondage but, rather than put up his money for arms, munitions and privateering commissions, James sank everything he had into a private army. He rounded up disenfranchised men who milled about the Natchez Trace after the War of 1812, armed them, supplied them and would himself lead them into Texas and establish first one fort and then the entire Territory as a free and independent state. Jane had hitched her future to a man full of dreams and prepared to die for them. Fortunately, she was hardy, loyal and blind to her husband’s follies, or so it seems.

Long left for Nacogdoches in June of 1819 and Jane stayed behind to give birth to their second child. It is interesting to note that their first daughter, Ann Herbert, was born in November of 1816 (you do the math) and that by the time James headed off Jane was no longer living at splendid Prospinquity but in the more humble house of her widowed sister Anne Chelsey. Rebecca was born shortly after her father’s departure and six days later her mother packed her things, climbed aboard a merchant vessel and followed James Long to Nacogdoches. Ann was left with Anne Chelsey.

Not surprisingly, illness dogged Jane’s journey. The Calvits had by now established another plantation in Alexandria and Jane was forced to seek refuge there. In short order, though, Jane dropped her infant off with Barbara and continued on to meet her husband, although she was still ill. Jane arrived in August to find her husband’s people living on the edge of subsistence. By October James was in Galvez Town making nice with the local pirates. The Spanish stormed the Nacogdoches fort and Jane and her fellows had to flee to the Sabine River. Long met Jane there and they returned to Alexandria and the Calvits, only to find that baby Rebecca had died.

The couple retrieved Ann, now three, from the newly married Anne Chelsey Miller and James turned back to Texas. Now that he was chummy with Jean Laffite at Galvez Town, he dragged his family, their one slave, a twelve-year-old girl named Kian, and his remaining men to Point Bolivar northeast of what is now Galveston Island. James seems to have been enchanted with Laffite, who – as he was packing up to leave the island – invited the Longs to what Jane remembered as a “sumptuous feast” aboard his flagship General Victoria (remembered by Jane as La Fierté: The Pride).

None of it amounted to much as Long, driven now to personal destruction in liberty’s cause, hauled his family back and forth to New Orleans, Point Bolivar and various places in between. By 1821 they were back in the tent city at Point Bolivar which now boasted a half dozen families as well as military men. James followed Laffite off to Mexico that September, leaving his pregnant wife with pubescent Kian and four-year-old Ann. He would be captured by the Spanish, taken to Mexico City and killed – the Spanish called it an “accidental death” – April 8, 1822.

Jane knew nothing of her husband’s death until the summer of 1822 and, though the others slowly sailed away from the lonely “fort” at Point Bolivar, she waited dutifully for James to return. She gave birth to another daughter, Mary James, on December 21, 1821 under an ice-encrusted tent. She managed to fool the local natives into believing the fort was still full of militia and she and the girls with her almost starved until March of 1822. A party of retreating settlers found them and convinced Jane to come east. The trek was slow and Jane did not return to Alexandria and the comfort of her sister’s home until September of 1823. By that time she seems to have resigned herself to her fate and, though she did return to Texas to first open boarding houses and eventually run a ranch and cotton plantation that succeeded for a while, she never really attained the station in society that her birth and marriage must have given her leave to imagine.

Both Mary and Ann married well. Ann and her husband Edward Winston moved to Texas and started their own ranch not far from Jane’s in the late 1830’s. It was at this time, with her children grown and her life settled if not terribly prosperous, that the men (according to Jane, anyway) came calling. Famous Texans like Sam Houston and Ben Milam courted her aggressively but she refused them all as she was still mourning James Long. Only Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar (who, if his parents had added Robespierre, would have had the entire French Revolution in one name) was given Jane’s confidence, if not her hand. He listened to and wrote down her stories of pioneering in Texas. He promoted her assertion that she, as the first white woman to give birth on the Territory’s soil, was the “Mother of Texas” (in fact there is clear documentation that at least six Anglo-American babies were born in the Territory between 1807 and 1821). And, most fascinating of all to me, wrote down her recollection of the pirate Jean Laffite:

He was of middle stature, perhaps a little above it, graceful, well-spoken… dark hair, brown complexion and a pair of eyes as vivid as the lightning and as black as ebony. In conversation he was mild, placable and polite; but altogether unjocular and free of levity. There was something noble and attractive in his aspect in spite of its occasional severity; and between the fierceness of his glance and the softness of his speech, the disparity was striking…

Mrs. Long told Lamar she heard Laffite’s many stories of his life at sea but that she found him frustrating in conversation. He would not reveal “… important information… respecting himself” despite his tall tales. In this Mrs. Long and Jean Laffite seem very similar to me. What did the “Mother of Texas” really think about the life she had quite literally been dragged into by her dreamer of a husband? Lamar does not say, and doubtless neither did Jane.

Jane Herbert Wilkinson Long outlived both her daughters and fell into the care of Ann’s children. By 1877 she was living with one of Ann’s sons, James Winston, and his family. Mrs. Long died there December 30, 1880. She is buried in Morton Cemetery in Richmond. Jane remains a fascinating study of pioneering America and a heroine of early Texas with statues and markers scattered around the state, particularly in Fort Bend County. How much truth there is to the stories she told Lamar is open for debate. But then so are a lot of things we call “history”.

Header: Jane Long c 1870

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

People: The Brothers Barbarossa Part II

Yesterday we saw the rise of one time galley slave Uruj known as Barbarossa from merchant’s son to governor of Algiers. And everything owed in large part to piracy. But when the elder brother lay in the Moroccan sand with a Spanish pike through his body, the younger took up the leadership, the war and the name with a vengeance.

When word of his brother’s death reached him in Algiers, Hizir cagily decided that it was time to bring in the big guns. He sent messengers to Istanbul asking Sultan Selim I for reinforcements to help in the fight against Spain. Hizir promised nothing less in return than “… all or the greatest part of Barbary” for the Ottoman Empire whose only holding in Africa at that time was Egypt. The Sultan jumped at the chance. Selim immediately declared Algiers an Ottoman province and made Hizir the official Governor. After that, he sent thousands of elite Turkish troops to reinforce Hizir’s new province, particularly the coasts.

Hizir managed to retake Tlemcen with his larger forces. Once that old score was settled he turned to making a navy out of his corsair galleys. By 1529 he was spoken of as “… nothing less dreaded” than his famous brother. He took the fortress of El Penon at the head of the harbor of Algiers from the Spanish and shortly thereafter began construction on what would be known as the Great Mole. The 300 yard long earthwork connected the island of El Penon with Algiers proper and enclosed the harbor against both storms and invaders. With things secure at home, Hizir returned to the sea.

The younger Barbarossa set up a campaign of terror against the European coast. He raided Gibraltar, Southern France, Italy, Sardinia and Sicily, destroying harbors and towns as he went while amassing enormous wealth in loot and particularly slaves. The governor of Algiers’ consistently large tribute payments caught the attention of the new Ottoman Sultan, Sulaiman, who called Hizir to Istanbul in 1533. Overjoyed at the success of the now middle aged corsair, Sulaiman made Hizir Admiral of the Ottoman Navy, governor not just of Algiers but all of North Africa, and bestowed on him the title of Khair ad-Din which loosely translates to “Upholder of the Faith”.

Hizir, now known as Khair ad-Din Barbarossa, spent some time in Istanbul evaluating the Empire’s naval strengths and weaknesses. When word reached the capital that Tunis had fallen to the Spanish, Hizir decided to see what his navy could do. With a force of 20 war galleys and over 50 smaller ships, he successfully lead his forces in retaking Tunis. It was a shallow victory, however. Hizir returned to his raids on Europe and the King of Spain Charles V, who had recently been crowned Holy Roman Emperor as well, retook the city within a year. Certain that the populace had something to do with Hizir’s success, Charles had all Muslims expelled. When Hizir heard of this affront, he vowed revenge.

By now the Ottoman navy could claim over 100 massive war galleys and Hizir Khair ad-Din turned them en mass against Spain. He raided Charles V’s coast from Portugal to France, taking foodstuffs, livestock, goods and humans away with him. The final blow to the Spanish King came when Francois I of France, who was grumbling about being left out of all the pillaging over in the New World, entered into a treaty with Sulaiman against Spain in particular. Part of this pact was France’s agreement to pay the Ottoman Empire a yearly fee (which amounted to a bribe) for safe passage of her ships in the Mediterranean and beyond. Thus began the long-standing system of payments to Barbary that was only broken up by the Second Barbary War in the early 1800s.

By the winter of 1543, the Barbary corsairs were so chummy with the French that the majority of Hizir’s fleet, and the Admiral himself, spent the winter in Toulon. Francois even ordered his own subjects out of the city, effectively forcing them to give up their homes to the pirates. The walled city could not contain the vast horde, however, and a sea of brilliantly colored tents sprang up around Toulon’s walls.

Having amassed an unimaginable fortune, embarrassed the crown heads of Christendom and wrecked havoc in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, Hizir returned from Toulon, paid his respects to Emperor Sulaiman in Istanbul, and retired to a palace built for him on the Bosphorus in 1545. The merchant’s son turned pirate, Admiral and Governor, who was described in his lifetime as tall, “… portly and majestic, well-proportioned and robust” died at his home on July 4, 1546 at around the age of 68. His son Hasan took over the Governorship of North Africa.

Throughout the glory days of the Barbary corsairs Hizir Khair ad-Din was something of a seafaring saint. In the 18th century a European traveler wrote that “… no voyage is undertaken from Constantinople by either public or private persons without their first visiting [Hizir’s] tomb.” The pirates that sailed from Algiers, Tripoli and Sale were said to offer prayers to both brothers’ names for safe passage and rich prizes. Pretty impressive for a pair of boys from a small island village.

Header: Hizir Khair ad-Din as an elder statesman (the trident in this and the painting posted yesterday indicates his status as a corsair)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

People: The Brothers Barbarossa Part I

When speaking about piracy, one usually hears the same names thrown out as shining examples of successful high seas thievery and debauch. Henry Morgan and Blackbeard always jump to the fore. Mary Read and Anne Bonny come up invariably and they drag their pathetic pirate pal Jack Rackham along with them. Sometimes more seaworthy names come up, Jean Bart, Francis Drake, Bartholomew Roberts or Jean Laffite (who has become the go-to name for any of the great privateers who sailed from Barataria when they are spoken of at all), and sometimes “exotic” names are raised like Cheng I Sao.

What I find unfortunate is that two of the most successful pirates that every sailed, the men who virtually singlehandedly and overnight turned the Barbary Coast into a corsair monopoly, are almost never spoken of. If Barbarossa comes up at all, someone has veered off into the Disneynified fiction of piracy. And at that point, I’m out.

The Barbarossa brothers, who were called that by their Italian enemies once their careers took off (Barbarossa, of course, means Red Beard), were born in Greece at some point in the late 1400s. Where in Greece they were born and what ancestors they could claim is open for debate. Some sources say they were Greek or Albanian or both and most of those sources claim the brothers were baptized Christians. Others say they were Islamic, of Turkish descent, and many of these place their natal region as the Greek island of Lesbos. Some claim their father was a seaman, either a fisherman or a privateer. Others put forth that he was retired from the Turkish army and he ran a business, perhaps as a potter or merchant or both, in Greece. Even the brothers’ names are a confusing jumble of spellings and monikers that becomes hard to wade through. Really, the story is open for debate up until one fateful incident that changed the lives of the brothers permanently.

Uruj, the older of the famous brothers whose name is also given as Oruc, Horusce and Aruja, was on one of his father’s boats some time around 1490. The most plausible story to my mind is that he was in charge of the boat which was returning from delivering his father’s goods to an unknown port. With him was his youngest brother Ilyas. The boat came into the waters around the Island of Rhodes and was attacked by a galleasse of the Knights of St. John – also known as the Knights of Malta – who had held Rhodes since the crusades.

Uruj Barbarossa and his men put up a valiant fight but their numbers were slim and they were easily overwhelmed. Ilyas was killed in the mêlée and those who remained alive among Uruj’s crew were stripped and chained as galley slaves. It is at this point where the story of the brothers being born Christian rings false, at least to my way of thinking. Male prisoners were stripped by both Islamic and Christian pirates in the Mediterranean not only as a form of humiliation but also as a way to identify their religious proclivities. Muslims would be circumcised; Christians would not. If the Knights of Malta had found Uruj to be a Christian, it is highly unlikely that he would have been put to the oar.

During the three to four years that Uruj labored as a slave, he occupied his mind with the strategies and seafaring capabilities of his enemy. He learned their language and their way of piracy and stored this information away in what must have been a remarkably intelligent brain. Meanwhile his remaining brother, Hizir (Khizr, Horuk or Hareaden), went into the business of privateering for the Ottoman Empire. It does not appear that Hizir held a base in Greece and in fact, by the time he was able to buy his older brother’s freedom, he seems to have been using the Turkish port of Anatalya as a base.

Once Uruj recovered from his ordeal the brothers went to sea together, establishing what author Adrian Tinniswood describes as a “sea-jihad” against all Christians and the Spanish in particular. While Uruj had been suffering under the oppression of the Knights of Malta, Spain’s King and Queen had accomplished their reconquista and kicked out all the Jews and Muslims they had not imprisoned or killed. The Spanish Muslims moved into North Africa, particularly Tunis where the brothers set up shop around 1504, and their horror stories only encouraged Hizir and particularly Uruj in their hatred of Christendom.

The brothers, who by now were known in the Mediterranean as “Barbarossa” collectively (much like the Laffite brothers are known now almost exclusively as “Jean”), were well established privateers by 1510 and they ran the Island of Djerba fifty miles from the coast of Tunis. Though neither of them had been recognized by the Ottoman Empire, aside from their commissions, they became the go-to defenders of their area from invasion by the Spanish.

Spain, who was experiencing great success in colonizing the New World, began to move in on North Africa as well. The brothers repulsed Spanish attacks in modern Morocco and Libya with the help of local warlords. Uruj led more than one assault on the Spanish held Algerian port of Bejaia between 1513 and 1515, even losing his left arm in the siege of 1513. He wore a false arm made entirely of silver, including articulated fingers that could be manipulated to hold a goblet or pick up grapes, for the rest of his life.

Though he could not retake all of Bejaia (Spain continued to hold a large fortress there until 1530), Uruj had been largely successful in the endeavor that lost him an arm. And he was not ready to stop. Along with Hizir he took Algiers and became its de facto ruler. From there he moved his forces westward and Christendom became fearful of the seemingly unstoppable brothers Spain had once called “pirate rabble.”

In 1517 the brothers set their sights on the religious center of Tlemcen which was also held by the Spanish. Though the town was easily overcome the Spanish were not finished. They appeared to retreat into the Moroccan desert where they came to an agreement with local Bedouin chieftains who were not entirely on board with Islam. Spain and her Bedouin allies mounted an attack on Tlemcen and a horrible, six month siege ensued.

Hizir was in Algiers during the time, and probably most distressed at the lack of word from his brother. He appears not to have known about the siege of Tlemcen and besides, he had his work cut out for him with the Spanish still in Bejaia.

At some point in early 1518, Uruj seems to have tried to escape the siege and take his best warriors back to Algiers for reinforcements. The plan failed when Spanish troops overtook Uruj and his men. A day long battle ensued but only death awaited the silver-armed pirate and his men. Uruj’s forces were slaughtered including Barbarossa himself. Legend has it that he was pierced through with a pike but continued to fight for another half an hour before falling dead.

The death of Uruj Barbarossa is by no means the end of the story, however. Come back tomorrow and find out what happens to Hizir who will become known as Khair ad-Din Barbarossa.

Header: Contemporary portrait of Hizir Barbarossa in his prime