Monday, January 31, 2011

History: The Almost Forgotten Wharf

In November of 1734 Newburyport, Massachusetts resident Ralph Cross sold valuable waterfront property to one of his neighbors, Philip Coombs. The price was a decidedly steep 198 pounds according to records still available for view at city hall but Coombs had grand ideas that were certain to make him back that cost and then some. Over the course of the next twenty years Coombs, with surprising foresight, built a wharf big enough for the loading and unloading of fishing, merchant and privateering vessels. By 1756 the town was, just as Coombs had anticipated, a bustling port and Philip was collecting fees from ship owners hand over fist.

Philip Coombs served Britain during the French and Indian war. He left his family to fight in 1756 and was taken prisoner and killed that same year. Given this tragedy another family may have let the wharf go to seed but not the Coombs. Young William inherited his father’s property and, evidently, his genius for seafaring business. When the Revolution broke out, Coombs wharf became a key landing and departure point for Continental privateers bringing with them the benefits of trade goods like copper, iron, sugar, indigo and yardage which led to a boom in Newburyport’s economy.

William Coombs himself organized some of the privateers into a small flotilla that sailed to the Caribbean and pillaged British stores of gunpowder and shot. Local historians believe this to be the first case of a Continental raid for gunpowder, with many more to come. Coombs became one of his town’s selectmen and eventually represented his area in the state legislature. He died in 1814 when his wharf was again bristling with privateers due to the War of 1812.

His wharf continued in use until the early 20th century, with significant refit including granite slabs undertaken around the time of the Civil War. By World War II, however, the area was filled in for first housing and then businesses and the wharf was largely forgotten by those who strolled, worked and lived just above it.

Last June, digging for a new waste-water operations plant revealed those granite slabs and capping stones from the 1860s refit and further digging took archeologists, who came on scene almost immediately after the first discovery, down to the original wooden structure that was Coombs’ wharf.

Unfortunately, as this
article from The Boston Globe reveals, the entire area was contaminated by oil tanks which rested above the wharf and leaked during the 1950s. This makes what has been and what is being found inelligible for protection under the National Register of Historic Places and too dangerous to move. All the archeologists and local historians can do is document and catalogue without moving most of the actual artifacts they are finding.

The crews on site on doing their best to collect as much data as possible and, as Newburyport Historical Commission member Tom Kolterjahn says in the article, “…trying to preserve what they can and leave as much of it intact as they can.” Perhaps some day soon there will be a way to clean up the area and make it accessible again. Until then, it’s nice to know that a significant piece of American history is being looked after and remembered.

Header: Newburyport Waterfront from a local realtor’s brochure

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: End Of An Era

January 28, 1596: Sir Francis Drake, the unrivalled lord of England's oceans, dies of yellow fever and is buried at sea off Panama. Huzzah!

Untitled and anonymous painting of Sir Francis Drake

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Rum

Kill-Devil: New rum, from its pernicious effects.

The above entry in The Sailors Word Book is, as usual, succinct and to the point. New rum, made with cane molasses and not aged more than a day or two, is not only pernicious in effect but near heinous in taste. This did not stop the largely British and almost universally poverty stricken immigrants in Barbados during the first half of the 17th century from drinking on average 30 drams of it per day, per person. The famous French priest Jean Baptiste Labat who spent so much time among the buccaneers called the spirit “rough and disagreeable”. He would also have called it guildive, the French pronunciation. All the same the habit of downing it like water – for everyone knew water would kill you – spread pervasively. Especially aboard ship.

But why is it that we no longer call this drink kill-devil and now refer to it as rum? Was it a simple transition of language or did something else spark the change? Being a curious student of the etymology of words, I did a little digging and today I’d like to share what I found out.

According to my old mate Webster, the word comes from the French rebouillir meaning to boil again. The dictionary curiously adds that the etymological ancestor of “rum” may actually be the French rumbouillet, meaning gooseberries which became rumbullion in English and was then shortened to rum.

In fact the idea that rum is simply short for rumbullion is posited by more than one expert. In his fascinating if sometimes misleading book about the effects of rum on society, And a Bottle of Rum, Wayne Curtis notes:

The most likely derivation is that rum is a truncated version of rumbullion or rumbustion. [These] both first surface in the English language around the same time as rum, and both were British slang for “tumult” or “uproar”.

Curtis goes on to say that rumbustion would have been used the way modern English speakers use the word “rambunctious” and notes that it “… brings to mind fractious islanders cracking one another over the head in rumbustious entanglements at island tippling houses.”

It was Hans Sloane, a naturalist travelling the Caribbean in the early 18th century, who stated unequivocally that “… rum is called Kill-Devil, for perhaps no year passes without it having killed more than a thousand.” To the Dutch it was kiel-dyvel and the old French guildive is still in use in Haiti today when referencing some of the less than palatable mashes that get passed around at country gatherings and in places like Cite de Soleil, the slum in Port-au-Prince.

The distasteful kill-devil that was imbibed virtually right out of the still was sent all over the world in oaken casks by the 18th century and time in the barrel changed its nature. Aged rum was and is smooth, agreeable and easily transported. It could last for not weeks or months but years aboard ship and where buccaneers and pirates had begun the trend toward its use as a shipboard ration, the Royal Navy, and eventually its U.S. offspring, formalized the habit. Soon enough grog, that mixture of water, rum and citrus, was born. However, as Curtis notes, “If you come across a pirate and he bellows for “grog,” he is, in all likelihood, not a real pirate”. Well said indeed.

Most probably the significantly improved taste of aged kill-devil brought with it the change to rum. Other origins of the word rum mentioned in various sources include the Roma (gypsy) word rhum meaning “potent”. There is also the oft quoted story that rum comes from saccharum, the Latin word for sugar. It was also suggested in the 1820s that the word came from the British slang for delightful or awesome as in “having a rum go”.

Whatever the origin of the name, rum was and is the very favorite tipple of pirates of the New World. As Woodes Rogers, successful privateer turned Bahamanian Governor, once wrote of rum: “Good liquor to sailors is preferable to clothing.” What more is there to say?

Header: Spiced Navy Rum via Feitelogram Files

Friday, January 28, 2011

Booty: Return To Luxury

In 1902 the dockyard of J. C. Techlenborg at Geestemunde, Germany launched the largest and fastest sailing ship ever built. The vessel had five masts, was 408 feet long and registered 5,081 tons. With a surprisingly small compliment of 48 men the ship, christened Preussen, was a dominant force in merchant shipping as the siren song of the age of sail was being sung. She grounded off southern England in 1910 and was unsalvageable for future use.

Fast forward to our modern era and the cruise line known today as Star Clipper. They run three sailing ships for pleasure cruises the largest of which, named Royal Clipper, is a tribute to Techlenborg’s storied Preussen but with the added elegance of a private yacht.

Royal Clipper, seen at the header in full sail, is 5,000 tons, 429 feet in length and 54 feet at her beam with a draft of 18 feet. She carries 56,000 square feet of Dacron in her 42 sails and a compliment of 106, including service personnel. Royal Clipper is the ultimate sail cruise experience according to the line’s website, and it is hard to argue with that statement. Just a few of her amenities include: five decks, three swimming pools, access to lounging in the “crows-nests” located on all but one mast, a sunlit dining room beneath a three-deck atrium, a marina platform that descends from her stern for diving and the Captain Nemo Lounge, a spa that is equipped with portholes underwater. Because Royal Clipper’s passenger list is small, just 227 compared to thousands on the modern tankers advertised on TV, her service is arguably the best in the business.

Of course, all this drool-worthy luxury comes at a price. The starting cost is $2,000 U.S. per person with value packages as high as $6,000 per person. Then too, sailing is not for everyone. Despite Royal Clipper’s state of the art navigation system and anti-roll tanks she is a sailor. You’ll feel the sea aboard her even in the finest weather, unlike the floating warehouses mentioned earlier.

I’ll leave you this Friday with a few more magnificent views of a magnificent ship. Pop over to the
website for more of the same and information on all destinations available. Though I’ll surely never climb aboard her, I salute Royal Clipper and her sisters for keeping the dream of elegant sailing ships alive. Long may she sail.

Pictures via

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sea Monsters: All Aglow

Bioluminescence is defined as the generation of light by living organisms. While there are animals on land that depend on this process, lightening bugs for instance, the vast majority of bioluminescent creatures are found in the ocean.

article from the good folks at Wired gives us a glimpse of the beauty found in these glowing animals that tend to inhabit the deepest parts of the seas. From the article:

Researchers estimate that between 80 and 90 percent of deep-dwelling animals are bioluminous, creating light by mixing the pigment luciferin with luciferase, the enzyme that makes it glow. The light tends to green and blue, colors that travel far in seawater. Glowing helps attract mates, lure prey or confound predators.

There are actually two types of bioluminescence which both work on the principle of mixing pigment. The most predominant, particularly in the ocean, is intracellular. The animal in question generates the light itself in special cells known as photophores. The other type of bioluminescence is extracellular and is made by symbiotic bacteria within the body of the host.

Scientists believe that the primary reason for the evolution of photophores in sea creatures is camouflage. A fish or squid that can mask its silhouette by matching the background of its environment is counterilluminated and will therefore blend in. The fact that most bioluminescent fish have photophores located on their ventral surface lends credence to this theory.

As noted in the article, ocean dwellers also attract prey with glowing lures. A good example of this is the deep sea angler fish with its horrific teeth and glowing lantern. Although the theory of using bioluminescence to attract a mate or mates seems reasonable on the surface, some scientists argue that the same sexy glow that got the girl could also easily attract predators, and get you eaten. Most fascinating of all, at least to me, are the mobile sea creatures that use bioluminescence as a kind of flashlight to illuminate their environment. Notable among these is Histioteuthius, a type of squid with photophores around one eye.

Click over and spend a minute or two marveling at, and learning a little bit about, just a few of these fascinating and beautiful fellow sons and daughters of Neptune. We’re all sailors, after all, but only these guys can light their own way in the dark.

Header: Deiopea Jellyfish via

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Women At Sea: The Female Shipwright

Doubtless more than a few of the Brethren have at least some passing knowledge of the famous 18th century woman known to us as Mary Lacy (or Lacey). Mary went to sea under the name William Chandler and then apprenticed as a ship builder in Portsmouth. Her story – or the parts that can be documented – is a true one and certainly shows that women were not as uncommon at sea as Victorian editing would have us believe.

Mary was born into a poor family in January of 1740. Her mother, Mary Chandler, was the daughter of a roof thatcher and her father, William, may have worked in that trade as well. Mary was the youngest of three and precocious from the get go. She freely admits to her early transgressions against her parents and the village of Ash, Kent, in her autobiography, The History of a Female Shipwright Written by Herself and, though she was relatively well educated not only for someone at her economic level but for a girl, she was put into service at the age of twelve. She continued in this form of employment for seven years.

Her book refers vaguely to an “unrequited” love that occurred when Mary was around eighteen. The small but telling interlude is probably one of the few fictions in the book. Throughout the tale Mary has a decided taste for other ladies and it seems that her publisher, Mr. Lewis, used this opportunity to sanitize later vignettes of lesbian interaction as he would again at the end of the book. In fact, girls like Mary were fair game for their wealthier, more privileged employers and the instances of young servants being exposed to lewd proposals if not out right raped is so extensive in the literature that it need not be delved into here. Mary, who seems to have been charming and witty, may very well have been prey for such predators and chose to extricate herself from the situation the best way she knew how.

Whatever the actual reason, Mary rose early on May 1, 1759 and walked away from Ash forever. When she was far enough afield she changed into a set of men’s clothes, left her women’s attire under a hedge, and marched forward. By May 10th Mary was in Chatham, one of the large Royal Navy dockyards, with no money and an empty belly. Britain was in the middle of the Seven Years War with France and very much in need of men for ships. When Mary approached the gunner aboard the 90 gun man-of-war HMS Sandwich, the man asked few questions, gave her biscuit and cheese and then sent her off to apply to the ship’s carpenter Richard Baker.

Baker took the person he knew as William Chandler on as his servant but he was no gentle master. If Mary did not jump too quickly enough he would kick and beat her with very little remorse. For the next ten days, though, Mary was housed at Baker’s home in Chatham and the carpenter’s wife was kind to her making her a suit of clothes and a red nightcap. By the time Sandwich weighed anchor, Mary writes that she looked like a sailor “every inch of me”.

Sandwich, under the command of Richard Norbury, joined Admiral Hawke’s squadron off Ushant in the Bay of Biscay. This notoriously stormy bay was a school of hard knocks for Mary. Though she was a quick study and well liked by her peers – despite one scrap with Rear Admiral Geary’s “young gentlemen” that she managed to win – Mary’s young body betrayed her early and often. She began to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis that at times made walking impossible. As the mother of a daughter with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, I have to wonder if young Mary wasn’t another stoic survivor of that same disease which most often affects the lower extremities of girls and women.

One flair of arthritis was so bad that Mary found herself in the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth. She was there until the autumn of 1760 but when she was finally released Sandwich had gone back to Ushant without her. Though her book does not make comment on this situation, I have to believe that at least a few of Mary’s mates knew she was not William Chandler by this time. Certainly the hospital staff must have had a clue, but no one spoke up it seems. Either that or a woman in men’s clothes aboard a Royal Navy ship was nothing to bat an eye at.

Mary joined the company of HMS Royal Sovereign as a supernumerary. She was aboard her new ship, on guard duty off Spithead, for over a year without shore leave. She was befriended by many of the men and made close contacts with the ladies aboard. Mary was particularly attached to a woman who was on board with a foremast jack named Grant. The fact that these two weren’t married, and that Grant was not even a petty officer, speaks volumes about the number of women to be found on any given ship. Grant became jealous of this relationship and began beating his mistress at every opportunity, although he seems not to have confronted Mary.

Mary suffered a severe head injury due to a fall in late 1762 or early 1763 and she returned to Portsmouth Dockyard, perhaps to spend a bit more time in the hospital. By March of 1763 she had been accepted as apprentice to William McLean, a carpenter, who was working on the refit of HMS Royal William. Mary clearly wanted to become a shipwright for her next seven years were an endless round of toil, servitude, deprivation and the indignity of being passed from one “master” to another as payment for debts. Her wages went to the carpenter to whom she was apprenticed. Her hours were long, sometimes up to twelve a day, and she was expected to run errands, cook and wait at table for the carpenter as well. Given her previous infirmities, only an iron will to succeed could have kept her going.

That, and the help of friends. Mary writes of the women who helped her through and, it seems, loved her. There was Sarah How, with whom she was “very free and intimate”, Sarah Chase, a girl that Mary’s mates imagined “William” would surely marry, and a prostitute named Betsey of those delineated by name. While Mary’s prose does not spell out the relationships she had with these women, and assuming is always a bad idea, one can imagine what “very intimate” meant.

Mary received her shipwright’s certificate in 1770 making her a valid ship’s carpenter who could legally set up shop at any Royal Navy dockyard. Unfortunately the hard work it took to finally achieve success came back to haunt her. She was again hospitalized with arthritis and, though she tried to return to work, she could not. This time she applied to the Admiralty for a pension. It is particularly interesting that Mary makes no pretense as to her gender in this legal document. Neither does the Admiralty in their consideration and reply. Through out, Mary Lacy is referred to by her given name and as “she” and “her”:

Resolved, in consideration of the particular Circumstances attending this Woman’s case, the truth of which has been attested by the Commissioner of the Yard at Portsmouth, that she be allowed a Pension equal to that granted to Superannuated Shipwrights.

Mary was given 20 pounds per year for life, a tidy sum for someone of her class. Her book ends with her convenient marriage to one Mr. Slade, with whom she settles down in Deptford. In fact, according to historian Margaret Lincoln, “Mr. Slade” was probably Elizabeth Slade with whom Mary cohabitated in a house on King Street as of 1777. According to Lincoln, Mary took her friend’s last name and they lived as sisters, keeping a shop in town until Mary’s death in 1797.

Mary’s autobiography was popular not only in Britain but in the U.S. as well, where it was published in 1807. Her story, even with the obvious attempts to make it more palatable to the audience, is remarkable. But, perhaps, not quite as remarkable as we of the modern era would like to believe.

Header: Portsmouth Point by Thomas Rowlandson c 1811

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Iron Men

It's my Birthday and Triple P is celebrating with pictures of my favorite sailors. First, Renato Beluche in his uniform as Commodore of the Navy of Grand Columbia. Those pants are something, aren't they?
Next, Commodore David Porter looking stunning in his U.S. Navy dress. And:
His son, David Farragut, the first Admiral in the U.S. Navy. Finally, fiction:
How could I leave Jack Aubrey out, for all love? Happy Sunday, Brethren. I'll be off tomorrow but back at it on Tuesday. Huzzah!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Dog

Anyone who stops by Triple P regularly knows I have a fondness for dogs, the more mastiff the better. Dog is a word with many uses at sea, and not just when speaking of the companionable animal that keeps the rodents down.

Dog in general refers to any number of iron hooks or bars with a sharp “fang” at one end. The fang is driven into a piece of wood and then a rope for pulling can be attached to the other end of the dog. In this way a large block or plank can be moved by a number of men. They can be used in pairs for yet more leverage.

The hammer of a firelock pistol, the portion which holds the flint, was at one time called a dog or dog head, probably because its shape is vaguely similar to the head of a hound.

A dog bolt and a dog-bitch thimble are used in a ship’s running rigging, usually to prevent the half-turn or “cant” of the clue line which can take the wind out of a sail.

There are at least a dozen fish known as dogs, most of them from the shark family. In the Caribbean of the Golden Age a dogg was a silver coin that could be broken up into six pieces, each of which amounted to a bitt. And yes, the average cost for a glass of rum was two bitts, thus the modern inference that one might purchase a beer for same.

Dogs are the last supports knocked away when a ship is launched. Dog’s body is a dish like duff but made with peas boiled in cloth. Dog stoppers are put on before men bitt the cable, a process by which a rope is turned around a bitt in order to slacken it gradually. Dog stoppers can also be used when fleeting the messenger (as we discussed in the SMS post about fleet). A dog vane is a handy tool for telling the direction of the wind. A thread holding cork, feathers and/or bunting is tied to the top of a pike and secured at the gunnel, usually near the bow, where the blowing of the light objects can be easily seen. In navy parlance, a cockade might be referred to as a dog vane.

The dog’s tail is a name for Ursa Minor, the Little Bear constellation. Dog might also be a reference to the lower part of a rainbow seen near the horizon. This is said to indicate a squall in that direction. On the great Newfoundland banks, fisherman say they foretell clear weather, however, and there they are known as fog dogs.

Dog sleep is usually just the opposite. It speaks to the lack of rest that amounts to little more than a nap and which occurs when officers and men are stressed over weather, the enemy or some other worrisome occurrence. Common to all sailing ships are watches, of which two are termed dog. The dog watches occur from 4 to 6 and 6 to 8 in the evening. All other watches lasting four hours, these two hour watches provide that men will not have the same watch each day thereby easing monotony and the imbalance of night vs. day watches. As those who read O’Brian may recall, Stephen Maturin opined that they were called dog watches because they were “cur-tailed”, sending Jack Aubrey into a fit of hysterical laughter. This observation was in fact originally made by one Theodore Hook according to The Sailor’s Word Book. Regardless, it is amusing.

And of course, dogs were a welcome addition to many a ship’s company, sailors believing they brought luck and filial feelings aboard. Just as they do at home.

Go pet your dog if you have one, Brethren. Never forget that, for our own advancement as primitive hunters, we humans made them what they are and therefore owe them a decent living in return.

Header: Pierrepont Lacey and Gun by Milton Hopkins c 1805

Friday, January 21, 2011

Booty: Pretty Pirate Pictures Part IV

It's that time again, Brethren. Yes, lovely ladies in seafaring situations offered for your delight. I’ve started off with my favorite pinup artist Gil Elvgren’s painting entitled “Sailor Beware”. Clearly, Mr. Elvgren is referring to his subject. Climbing a rope ladder in heels is asking for a salt water bath. See more of his work here.

Our next two pictures are photographs from fashion magazines of the ‘20s and ‘30s respectively. I found them both at Mariana’s wonderful blog The Flapper Girl where she features a wide selection of pictures from the jazz age. Stop by and look through her posts when you have a minute:An unknown model aboard ship. Doubtless that knit bathing suit was at the very least uncomfortable after a dip, but the sail is neat and trim.
Marie MacDonald looking quite nautical in front of an old style life preserver. Her smile is adorable and her suit looks a lot more practical than the last one.
And, as I’ve a lot going on, that’s all for today. Given the loveliness of the pictures, you’ll forgive me I’m sure. Happy Friday; see you tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Pirates Own Book: Captain White

"The Life, Career and Death of Captain Thomas White” is the 20th chapter in The Pirates Own Book by Charles Ellms. I can find very little documentation of a pirate named White in and around the waters of Madagascar during that island’s piratical heyday (the late 17th and very early 18th centuries), but the story as Ellms tells it has value in the broad sense. Though the twenty pages devoted to White’s life read more like a local travel brochure than anything else, the main theme has a ring of unusually common truth.

According to Ellms, White was born in Plymouth, England. His father is never mentioned but evidently his mother kept “a public house” so we can reasonably assume that she ran a tavern and inn which probably catered to sailors and dockworkers. Mrs. White “took great care” with her son’s education and, when he announced his intention to go to sea, she “procured him the king’s letter”. White served aboard a man-of-war and then joined the merchant service, eventually taking command of a brig. He moved to Barbados and married, but his intentions to settle down in the Caribbean never bore fruit.

Instead, while sailing off the Guinea coast of Africa, his ship was taken by French pirates. These men were the picture of barbarous terrorists. Ellms, insinuating himself into his prose on a number of occasions in this particular chapter, tells us:

…I beg leave to take notice of their barbarity to the English prisoners, for they would set them up as a butt or mark to shoot at; several of whom were thus murdered in cold blood, by way of diversion.

White himself was marked for death but saved by a friend he had made aboard the corsair. The Frenchmen, being as drunk and incompetent as they are sadistic, manage to run their ship aground and sink it off Madagascar. White finds a friend ashore in another captain named Boreman and the two, along with a Captain Bowen, take a boat from local natives and make with their remaining crews for St. Augustine Bay. Here they are welcomed by a native king who, evidently tiring of feeding them, eventually pawns them off on a passing pirate ship captained by William Read. In this way, White begins his pirating career, as Ellms says, “…before the mast, being a forced man from the beginning.”

This is probably the most historically accurate observation in the entire chapter. Pirates, privateers and those straddling the invisible fence that separated the two frequently found themselves short of men. A prize ship worth keeping would need to be manned and, in the case of legitimate commissions, sent back to the prize courts for legal libel so that its goods, and possibly even the ship, could be sold. The idea of “forcing” men into service aboard them was in no way unusual for pirates. Ellms’ White, though he is referred to as “Captain”, is actually the picture of a typical jack in the wrong place at the wrong time who ends up a pirate without his consent.

Captain Read is lucky not only in the Indian Ocean but in the Red Sea as well. At one point the pirates come into contact with a French slaver and, boarding her as friends, are asked to dine. When gunplay erupts, the French Captain and his men rather amusingly try to stab one of the pirates at table with their forks. As Ellms tells it, “… but they being silver, did him no great damage.” This is why you can’t have nice things at sea! Needless to say the French ship is taken as prize and the Captain and some of his crew are given a small boat.

The successes continue to rack up while White toils away before the mast. At one point a young sailor named Hugh Man aboard the British slaver Speaker is bribed to wet the priming on his ship’s guns so that, when Read’s ship attacks, Speaker cannot answer. The humor of both the sailor’s name and that of his ship is a puzzle. Whether or not it was intentional is something only Ellms himself could speak to.

Captain Read seems to get a little full of himself after his success with Speaker which he fits out with 54 guns, 240 men and 20 slaves. Landing at “Zanguebar” his men go off to the “public houses” while he accepts an invitation from the local governor. The entire thing is a trap. Read and his entourage are killed by the governor’s men while the rest of the pirate crew is picked off as they flee toward their ship. Some of the men manage to escape in a smaller vessel where they elect Bowen as their Captain and make for the Red Sea to continue their piracy. White is evidently among them but Ellms does not return to him immediately.

Bowen leads his crew to great success in the Red Sea where the Mogul treasure ships sailed back and forth from Arabia to India. Eventually, with over 500 pounds each, Bowen’s crew decides to disperse. On St. Mary’s Island White is elected Captain of one of the groups and he proposes returning “home”. This is the first and last mention of what must have been White’s fond desire to see his wife and Barbados again. His crew, however, is eager for further booty and they return to the Indian Ocean in search of same.

The rest of the chapter is a catalogue of prizes, each it seems more grand than the last. White eventually is back “before the mast” under Captain John Halsey but the prize taking in no way slows down. The last paragraph wraps things up with ruthless efficiency. White returned to Madagascar after becoming ill with the flux “… which in about five or six months ended his days.” White provided for a son whom he had with a “… woman in the country” and asks that the three guardians chosen for the boy see to it that he is put aboard an English ship bound for England to “… be brought up in the Christian religion.” This done and seen to, the story simply ends.

The potential numbers of nameless “Thomas Whites” throughout the historical high points of piracy – including the one we are currently experiencing – are probably beyond imagining. Perhaps at some point the prospect of wealth or the idea of adventure sparks an interest where there never was one. Or perhaps a person simply adapts and evolves, just as all living things at sea always have.

Header: Hugh Man wetting the Priming of the Guns from The Pirates Own Book via Project Guttenberg

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

History: On Stormy Seas

During the War of 1812, which began and to some degree ended at sea, both sides gave out letters of marque to virtually any sea captain with an armed ship and a little experience who chose to apply. My own ancestor Renato Beluche was one of the few (in fact, he may have been the only) Baratarians who applied for and was given a U.S. letter of marque. His brig Spy, which he captained, was relatively successful against the British in and around their Jamaica Station. She was also patently illegal according to international maritime law as she carried not only her U.S. commission but one from the free state of Cartagena as well. This got Uncle Renato in trouble in the Bay of Biscay in 1813 when he dismasted in a storm while being pursued by a British frigate. He was boarded and Beluche lost his ship and got a few months in jail at Plymouth, England. I’m sure he would have agreed that some time in a dank British gaol is still better than a hanging.

Around the same time American Captain George Coggeshall found himself in a similar situation aboard his privateering schooner David Porter. Named after the Continental Navy hero and father of Commodore David Porter, who himself sired naval heroes David Farragut and David Dixon Porter, the schooner found herself caught in a terrifying blow in the Bay of Biscay on this day in 1814. Here is Coggeshall’s log entry from that day:

It blew a perfect hurricane, which soon raised a high cross-sea: at 8 o’clock A.M. I hove the schooner to under a double-reefed foresail, lowered the fore-yard near the deck and got everything as snug as possible. At 12 o’clock noon, a tremendous sea struck her in the wake of the starboard fore-shrouds. The force of the sea broke one of the top timbers or stauncheons and split open the plank-sheer, sot that I could see directly into the hold from on deck. As the gale continued to rage violently, I feared we might ship another sea, and therefore prepared, as it were, to anchor the vessel head to wind. For this purpose we took a square-sail boom, spanned it at each end with a new four inch rope, and made our small bower cable fast to the bight of the span, and with the other end fastened to the foremast, threw it overboard, and payed out about sixty fathoms of cable: she then rode like a gull in the water.

The staccato prose does not diminish the anxiety that must have been felt by every member of the crew in that storm. Coggeshall’s David Porter road her out, as he said like a gull, bobbing in the green water with his ship safely secured to her bower anchor. Thank goodness he had new cable. David Porter managed to slip past the blockade at Brest, France – to which port Renato Beluche was running when Spy was overtaken – and refit before heading back toward home. Every man aboard her would have a tall tale to tell, with the need for very little embellishment, once they got back to Baltimore.

Speaking of Baltimore – and completely off the subject – Happy 202nd Birthday to the inventor of modern horror as well as the detective story: Edgar A. Poe. Rest well, Laureate.

Header: Norwegian Harbor of Refuge by Hans Gude c 1873

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tools Of The Trade: Block And Tackle

The sometimes surprisingly massive blocks seen aboard sailing ships (as in the picture above from Getty Images) are readily recognizable even to lubbers. They are understood to be part of a ship’s rig but ask anyone what they actually do or what the individual parts of this system of pulleys might be called and you may get no more than a shake of the head. Here’s a little insider information on these ancient machines as they relate to ships and shipping.

Blocks are oval pieces of wood with wheels commonly referred to as sheaves inside them. They are used to facilitate the movement of most, if not all, of the running rigging on sailing ships. They are therefore responsible for the setting of sails to the ship’s best advantage as long as she is at sea.

These pulleys come in a number of sizes and, as is so usual at sea, each has a name. A single block has one sheave, a double has two, a treble has three and a fourfold block has four. A fiddle block has two sheaves, one on top of the other, which makes it look rather like a violin or viola. Other forms of block include a cheek block which has a wooden guard, or cheek, on only one side of the sheave. The other side is mounted flush to a surface, like the gunnels. A shoe block has two sheaves that turn at right angles to one another. A snatch block has a strap that allows the cheeks to be opened for maintenance to replacement of the sheave inside.

Blocks can also be called by the name of the rope they carry so that there are clue-line, halliard, brace, blowline and so on blocks. With regard to manufacture, a block is termed a made block when it is put together from separate pieces which include the shell or cheeks, the sheave or wheel, the pin or axel on which the wheel turns (generally made of iron) and the strop, a rope by which the block is attached to its stations. A morticed block, on the other hand, is chiseled out of a single piece of wood.

A block can be used on its own or with a tackle, which is essentially another block that will allow a single man to lift far more weight than he would be capable of lifting without the mechanisms. The Sailor’s Word Book of 1867 explains it this way:

When a power sustains a weight by a rope over a fixed sheave, the weight and power will be equal; but if one end of the rope be fixed, and the sheave be movable with the weight, then the power will be but half the weight; but in a combination of sheaves, or pulleys, the power will be to the weight as 1 to the numbers of parts of the fall [rope].

The mathematical formula involves three steps. First, determine the amount of weight one part of the rope must life. Next, multiply this by the number of parts at the sheave of the block. Finally, subtract one quarter from this amount to account for resistance. This sort of calculation was done daily on any ship with sails, making the image of the ignorant sailor – particularly aboard a pirate or privateer as we are so often led to believe – a bit of a stretch if you ask me.

Keeping blocks in good working order was an absolute necessity and would have been part of daily maintenance on any ship. As with so many other things, a ship is only as good as her rigging and the myriad blocks she carried would be a vital part of same.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: On New Shores

January 18, 1671: Henry Morgan and an international army of buccaneers sack the previously unassailable city of Panama on the Pacific Coast of the Darien Gap.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Rig

Rigging is a familiar seafaring term even to landsmen, although they frequently err in the belief that it means anything aboard a sailing ship that isn’t her hull. Rigging is in fact specific to the rope, cable and chain used to support masts and arrange sails. Thus standing rigging is that used for keeping tension on the masts so that they remain upright – standing. Running rigging is that used to direct and adjust the sails so that the ship runs to best advantage.

Riggers are those men whose shipboard occupation involves fitting or taking down both standing and running rigging. Riggers are employed in naval yards not only to fit out and strip ships of rigging but also to see to anchoring and mooring duties as well.

In large shipyards a rigging loft was a necessary space. This was usually a long hall or gallery where rigging could be stretched, spliced and braided for new ships and those that needed refitting.

To rig is to fit all shrouds, stays, braces and so on to their masts, sails and yards. To rig out a boom is to run it out from its yard as when fitting studding sails; to rig in a boom being the obvious opposite action. A ship was said to be rigging out when in the process of outfitting her rigging. Once fully equipped, a ship was said to be rigged.

On large ships, rigging mats might be used when working the rigging to prevent chafing of both man and rope.

A man might be ordered “to rig himself”; to get dressed. A sailor, particularly an officer, in fancy dress is said to be rigged out. The boys might also rig, get themselves up to mischief about the ship but refrain from taking it to the level of unacceptable behavior.

Finally, on an entirely different note, the brightest star in the constellation of Orion is known as Rigel.

Follow your star, Brethren, and happy Saturday.

Header: The ship Rose costumed as HMS Surprise at dock in Mexico via Webshots (click to enlarge and enjoy the detail of the rigging)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Booty: Captain Teach Wonders Too

Fellow Pirate of the New World, founder of NOLA Pyrate Week (March 25 to April 4 this year) and dear friend Captain Swallow inspired today’s post with this tweet on Wednesday:

What the flaming hell is this misbegotten bit o' tat?!? That's not bloody Blackbeard’s flag! (link redacted for the sake of brevity) THIS IS! (again with the link)

The good and true Captain’s outrage is well founded and based on this:That is the “flag of the famous pirate Blackbeard” according to this article from The flag has no historical link to Edward Teach but is in fact the design that will be used in the upcoming movie Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Teach’s actual flag is displayed at the header.

Now, before you PoTC fans start huffing and fuming, allow me to point out a few crucial issues. First and foremost there has never been much in the way of accuracy in any of the PoTC films. I know that for a fact. I don’t know everything, in fact I’m ignorant on many scores, but the PoTC franchise is not and never will be history. It’s entertainment. So please stop brow-beating us about its historical relevance.

Second, I understand very well that this movie is based (very loosely it seems from the synopsis in the article) on Tim Powers’ novel On Stranger Tides. And that is a step in the right direction if you ask me; Powers obviously did his research. Also, as a writer, I salute Mr. Powers for his savvy attachment to Disney but allow me to point out that he knew what Blackbeard’s flag looked like according to his prose.

Third, I have no problem with fictionalization and the need to tell a good story but why mess with perfection? Captain Teach, like his contemporaries, chose the design of his flag with care in an effort to frighten and intimidate with symbols that would be readily understood by anyone of the era. An hour glass, a skeletal figure with a spear and a bleeding heart are hard to miss: your time is short, surrender your ship and your goods or meet bloody death. Frankly all the Disney flag imparts is step aside for sparkly vampire zombies. Which, I believe, brings us back to my first point.

I can hear the arguments already and still they fall on deaf ears. Captain Swallow, very much as usual, I’m with you on this one.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

History: Queen Anne's Revenge

For those of the Brethren lucky enough to be anywhere near Raleigh, North Carolina between now and January 30th, I’ve outstanding news. Make time to spend at the North Carolina Museum of History where a case exhibit of small artifacts from the ship thought to be Edward Teach’s Queen Anne’s Revenge is currently on display.

The ship ran aground at Beaufort Inlet in June of 1718 due to her large size and deep draft. Though Teach made an attempt to haul her off the effort was futile. The great Blackbeard had to salvage what he could in a relative hurry and leave his beloved flagship behind.

An unfortunate circumstance for the mythologized pirate has become a boon to modern marine historians. The ship was discovered in 1997 and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in conjunction with the state’s Maritime Museum at Beaufort has been studying the wreck ever since. The last extensive dive for artifacts occurred recently and referred to as the Fall Field Season 2010. Some of the treasures collected from those dives include large items like part of the larboard (port) main mast chain, cannon balls, a 33.5 pound lead sounding weight and pewter plate. Smaller artifacts such as ceramic shards, ballast stones, bone and pins were also collected and brought up for study.

The exhibit at the museum in Raleigh will feature various smaller items brought up during past field seasons. The Queen Anne’s Revenge website lists only a few but the items spark the imagination even on the page: a handblown blue-green window pane probably from the great cabin, a brass buckle used to fasten a belt or bandolier, brass scale weights for weighing coins and a hand guard from a small sword that is beautifully gilded and decorated with scroll work. Who might have used, appreciated or simply ignored these amazing pieces of our history? Any of a hundred pirates whose names are now lost to us, or maybe one of the few whose names we know. Black Caesar? Mr. Hands? Perhaps even Blackbeard himself?

The exhibit runs January 7th through 30th and more information is available locally by calling 919-807-7349. For those of you who can’t make it to Raleigh, your humble hostess empathizes as I won’t be going either. But fear not. Click over to and explore fascinating articles and particularly breathtaking pictures of the myriad things that made a pirate ship run 300 years ago. For those of us in the hinterlands, it’s almost like being there.

Header: Hand guard of a sword on exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh via; see more detail here

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Movies: Rum On TV

Just to clarify before we start, Triple P doesn’t really have a “TV” title so we’re stuck with Movies.

I had an informative piece all thought out for today and, as I settled in last night to do a bit of research for same, all that changed. My habit on Tuesdays, nay indeed my chiseled-in-stone must do, is to watch “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel. I don’t watch episodic TV at all and, aside from football during the season, I don’t really have any shows I just can’t miss (although “Deadliest Warrior” on Spike might actually be one if I’m honest). That said, I don’t miss Mike Rowe on “Dirty Jobs”. So imagine my surprise – and delight – when last night’s episode was all about making rum.

And not just any rum, Brethren, but a rum named after the infamous “Rhode Island Pirate” Thomas Tew. The label features Tew’s menacing flag (above) and the rum’s manufacturer, Newport Distilling Company, is itself in Rhode Island. Find out more about them at their

Of course there were many an off-handed reference to pirates and piracy but what struck me the most was Mike and his crew’s willingness to drink like pirates. The company also runs Coastal Extreme Brewing Company and Mike and his colleagues sampled their Newport Storm Beer to kick off the morning. Sure, it was 8:30 in Rhode Island but damned if the sun’s not over the yardarm somewhere, mate. This was all done under the auspices of a specific brewer’s privilege which evidently dates back to Colonial times and whose name Mike mentioned more than once but your humble hostess didn’t bother to write down. Leave me a comment if you know what it’s called; I’ll make a note of it.

Update: Triple P's good friend Timmy! tells us the right to drink beer while working at a brewery is known as "The Sternewirth Privilege", so now we know. Thankee, Timmy!

At any rate, as the day wore on Mike began sampling the rum and became – for lack of a better phrase – a very happy pirate. Of interest to pirates of the New World, though, is the fact that the folks at Newport Distilling Company are bringing back an old tradition of rum making in Rhode Island. In the last half of the 18th century Rhode Island could count over 20 rum distilleries within its boarders at any given time. Thomas Tew is hand crafted, made with molasses and aged on site in oak barrels just like the kind of rum its namesake pirate would have been accustomed to. While Thomas Tew rum is not currently available outside of its home state, the company hopes to change that within the next couple of years.

Here are four videos from the show over at Discovery’s
website (the "Alcohol Pop Quiz" is particularly funny). Waste a few minutes today watching the way rum used to be made, and then raise a tankard to our ancestors and those who are keeping the old ways alive, by land and at sea. Oh and raise one to Mike and his crew as well. They’re clearly good and game lads one and all.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tools Of The Trade: What's For Dinner

The Sailors Word Book defines “salmagundi” as “A savoury sea dish, made of slices of cured fish and onions”. Dean King in A Sea of Words says the dish may also be known as “solomongundy” or “solomon gundy” and is “A dish made of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, and onions with oil and spices. At sea, more often boiled salted or cured fish and onions.” This is the dish as it was known in the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy as well.

On the freebooting side, salmagundi was a favorite of the largely French boucaniers of Tortuga and beyond. Through the hybridization of piracy, with men of all nations and creeds working together for the common goal of a prize, what was once known to these Frenchmen as salemine or salmigondis became salmagundi and, in its truly Anglicized form, Solomon Gundy or Grundy. This individual was, by the mid-19th century, thought of as an actual person who served as a cook in the Royal Navy and invented the dish.

In fact the history of the salmagundi is far broader than one man’s life could encompass. It probably started as a stew in southern and southeastern France where leftover or hard to prepare parts of animals would be tossed into liquid to simmer for long periods of time along with any spices and vegetables that might be handy. Bread may have been added as a thickener and/or used as a serving dish. The closer to the coast one got, the more likely fish and shellfish would be included. Much like bouillabaisse and its North American cousin gumbo in their original forms, salmagundi’s long, slow cooking and the addition of strong spices would make cuts of meat and fish which would be nearly inedible roasted quite appetizing.

A list of famous pirates and privateers who enjoyed salmagundi, at sea and by land, would be prohibitive but here are a few highlights. It is known that Henry Morgan appreciated the stew, which was often made with turtle in the age of buccaneers. Blackbeard certainly enjoyed it, serving it to the Governor of Virginia at one point as an exotic first course. Bartholomew Roberts was allegedly breakfasting on salmagundi the morning his ship was overtaken by the British in 1722. Renato Beluche wrote to his future wife of being served a gumbo-like salmagundi over rice while he was in Aux Cayes, Haiti in 1819.

Recipes for this dish abound but I’ve had a devil of a time trying to find one that fits the old mode. In all honesty, one could probably simply start from scratch and throw whatever leftovers, vegetables and spices were handy into a pot of stock to await the outcome. While I love to cook, I am in no way that adventurous and so I will offer you a tested recipe for a latter day type of salmagundi.

This comes from Anne C. Grossman and her daughter Lisa G. Thomas and is in their book Lobscouse & Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels. The recipe is one of four featured in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 volume The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. This is no longer the rough boucanier stew. It has morphed into a kind of chopped salad complete with flowers for garnish that would look beautiful in the center of a summer buffet. The transformation clearly speaks to the ancient age of the original recipes.

1 head romaine lettuce cut in thin strips
8 hard boiled eggs
1 pound boneless breast of chicken cooked and cut in thin strips
1 pound smoked ham cut in thin strips
2 pickled cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced
3 ribs celery, thinly sliced
3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tbsps nonpareil capers
2 tbsps chopped, fresh parsley
½ pound snap peas or French beans, blanched
1 2 oz can flat anchovy fillets
6 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp vinegar
1 tbsp lemon juice
½ tsp dry mustard
Salt and pepper
Nasturtium blossoms for garnish

Line a large serving dish with the lettuce. Chop the egg yolks and whites separately. Arrange the meats, vegetables, anchovies, yolks, whites and herbs in “pleasing and fanciful groupings”.

Combine the oil, vinegar, lemon juice, and mustard and mix vigorously. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the dressing over the dish. Garnish with the nasturtium flowers.

From buccaneer’s cauldron to Admiral’s table, salmagundi has been all over the world and back again. Regardless of whether you try a stew of your own or venture into salad territory, bon chance et bon appetite. For myself, I’ll stick with gumbo.

Header: 19th century engraving of a ship’s cook

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ships: Wreck Of Revenge

In 1811 then Captain Oliver Hazard Perry was in command of USS Revenge off the coast of Rhode Island when the ship wrecked and went down. Though Perry and his crew managed to survive, the young U.S. Navy was not at all happy about losing one of her frigates in that tense time before the War of 1812. Finding Perry at fault, the Naval Board assigned him to the Great Lakes command where he was essentially squirreled away in a forgotten backwater while his contemporaries, like Stephen Decatur and David Porter, sailed the high seas to fame and glory.

Of course Perry showed what he was made of in 1813 at the Battle of Lake Erie where he became the first American naval officer to defeat a British squadron. Perry would thenceforth be known as “the Hero of Lake Erie” and his signature flag, which read “Don’t give up the ship”, would become a motto for the U.S. Navy.

Becoming a national hero is a great way to get the pesky media – and your peers – to forget your mistakes but, according to this
article over at Yahoo! News, not everyone misremembered the wreck of the Revenge. And, for history’s sake, that’s something to be thankful for as it appears that three men have found Perry’s lost command right where the Commodore left it.

Mike Fournier, Charles Buffum and Craig Harger (who, as an aside, has a day job I didn’t even know existed: carbon dioxide salesman) have located what they believe is Revenge. In a series of dives begun in 2005 the three men have found various metal articles that could be from a ship of the early 19th century. The article mentions:

… four… 42-inch-long cannons, an anchor, canister shot, and other metal objects that they say they’re 99 percent sure were from the Revenge

While the area in question is appropriate to where Revenge went down 200 years ago, it appears that no actual dating of the site has occurred and the dives have not yet located a ship’s bell, which was usually engraved with the name of its ship, or cannon that bear similar engraving.

If the ship is indeed Revenge, the Navy would have first right of salvage. Either way, the find could certainly yield new information not only about the wreck of Revenge but, to my mind more importantly, about the daily goings on aboard a U.S. naval vessel of the era.

Click over and check out the article and the fascinating related pictures, and keep a weather eye out for more information as this story develops. It will be interesting to see if these three dedicated guys from Connecticut actually have their Revenge just as, we can reasonably say, Commodore Perry eventually did.

Header: Oliver Hazard Perry by John Wesley Jarvis

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: The Buccaneer

And here, to round out Baratarian Week, the before the Battle of New Orleans scene from the 1958 version of The Buccaneer. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Gunner

We talk about guns, or as they were once known great guns, here at Triple P often. Of course, as the Brethren know, a “gun” at sea is what a landsman would call a “cannon”. Any artillery can be referred to as a gun and anyone who works a gun can be referred to as a gunner. Since my ancestors worked the guns on Rodriguez canal 196 years ago today at the Battle of New Orleans, today’s discussion is entirely in celebration of them.

Gunner was a designation aboard any ship carrying cannon and aboard navy ships was a warrant officer. He was in charge of not only the artillery itself but ammunition as well. He was ultimately responsible for the performance of all the ship’s gun crews, which was no mean task in a man-of-war which might ship as many as 120 guns. In such cases a chief gunner (now, I believe, gunner first class) would have quarter gunners under his command, each quarter gunner being in charge of four guns. The gunner’s mate was a petty officer appointed to assist the gunner and a gunner’s tailor was once the man who made bags and filled them with small shot to make cartridges.

Gunnery ships are those specifically designated for training men in gunnery. Here Gunnery Lieutenants could be trained for service aboard the large men-of-war previously spoken of. In general, though, officers learned gunnery on the job and many times midshipmen would be given the task designated to a Gunnery Lieutenant in a larger ship. This duty is beautifully illustrated in battle scenes in the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

A gunner’s handspike is thus named to differentiate it from a marline spike. The gunner’s handspike is shorter and flatter than the marline and it is covered with iron at the point so that it can be used efficiently to dig out the touch hole and move the trucks of the gun. A gunner’s daughter is the gun to which boys and midshipman are “married” i.e. tied in preparation for punishment.

Along those lines, gunners were traditionally the officers in charge of the ship’s boys. Prior to the Victorian era, when women routinely sailed aboard Navy vessels, the gunner’s wife would be a kind of mother to these children, some as young as eight. Men like Horatio Nelson in the Royal Navy and Daniel Tod Patterson in the U.S. Navy remembered with fondness the gunner’s wife who mended their shirts and comforted them in their homesickness.

And that’s enough of gunners and gunnery for today. I’d ask all the Brethren to remember the men who fought and those who died on Chalmette plain 196 years ago today, American and British alike. I will surely raise a glass to my Uncle Renato and his brother Dominique Youx for their heroic efforts at Battery Number Three.

As an aside, and speaking of Commodore Patterson,
here is a post about his contribution to the Battle of New Orleans at the Naval History Blog. It is unfortunate that they left out the fact that Patterson’s sailors were by and large the Baratarians we have been speaking of all week. Ah well; we know and we remember.

Happy Saturday one and all. Look for a last little treat to close out Baratarian Week tomorrow.

Header: Baratarian Re-enactors on Chalmette Jan, 2010 via the Times-Picayune

Friday, January 7, 2011

Booty: Pirate And Patriot

Today, the story of the Baratarians and the Battle of New Orleans in an entirely different form: comics. Above is the first page of Reed Crandall’s “Pirate and Patriot” from the December, 1960 “Treasure Chest” collection. The story is necessarily truncated and features, by name, only Jean “Lafitte” when referencing the Baratarians. It is interesting to note that Crandall was obviously influenced by the movie The Buccaneer which came out in 1958. Andrew Jackson looks suspiciously like Charlton Heston and Laffite surely has a bit of Yul Brynner about him.

Click to enlarge and enjoy, Brethren. I am entirely indebted to Mr. Door Tree whose hard work and dedication over at his wonderful
Golden Age of Comic Book Stories made it possible for me to bring “Pirate and Patriot” to you.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

History: The Battle Of New Orleans

The official date of The Battle of New Orleans is chiseled in the stone of history as January 8, 1815 but in fact the artillery battle began on New Year’s Day and continued on and off until the final bloody horror of the 8th. I won’t recount the battle here; that would honestly be an insult to all the Brethren. I will, however, offer a few tidbits of information that may be unknown to most Americans who, let’s face it, are woefully under informed about their own history (myself included). I hope that these little vignettes inspire you to dig a little deeper into the history of this battle that children are still being taught was unnecessary since peace had already been achieved via treaty.

The state of Tennessee is now known as “The Volunteer State” because of the high number of Tennesseans who signed on with General Jackson to face the British at New Orleans. Then, as now, the U.S. had a volunteer military.

Future U.S. President Andrew Jackson made his name with the victory at New Orleans. Unfortunately, he suffered mightily with dysentery before, during and after the battle. He slept rarely, was frequently snappish and unpleasant and took gin as a tonic. His shocking weight loss at the time led to his nickname: Old Hickory, because he looked tall, thin and brittle like a leafless hickory tree.

Jackson became convinced that the British would enter Lake Ponchartraine via Bayou St. John – despite intelligence to the contrary – and he therefore mounted guns and sentinels at Fort St. John overlooking the lake. He chose Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche, arguably two of the best artillerists in the south if not in the country, to lead this venture. (Look, I know I’m a Beluche but it’s not bragging if it’s true.) Someone, very possibly one or both of the Laffite brothers, at last convinced the General that two such men should be on the line at Chalmette plain. Youx, Beluche and their men arrived at Rodriguez canal on December 28 and immediately took their positions at Battery number 3.

In reference to the incredible effect the Baratarians had on the battle, Jane Lucas de Grummond writes in her book The Baratarians and the Battle of New Orleans (pg 121):

The French genius of Jackson’s cannoniers
is evident in the names of those who directed the gun crews: Dominique You[x], Renato Beluche, Garriques Flaujeac, Bertel and Chauveau. Jackson’s 10 inch mortar was useless until Jules Lefevre, one of Napoleon’s eagles and a veteran marine artillerist, took command of it.

She goes on to point out that official reports after the battle lauded the Americans at the cannons and mortars, but conveniently left out French names like Chauveau and Lefevre.

A fine example of Baratarian determination comes in the form of a vignette about Triple P favorite Dominique Youx. At one point prior to the climactic battle he climbed up onto the earthworks before his gun, opened his telescope and began to sight the British cannon positions. Beluche, at the gun next door, called for his friend to get down. “You’ll get your ass shot off, Youx.” As Youx replied that he would not a British ball came in and grazed the captain’s arm, burning him but doing no other damage. Youx screamed curses in French: “You will pay for that, Anglais!” He turned and ordered his crew to pack their gun with deadly chain shot and ship’s canister and fire. The shot disabled the cannon that had struck him and killed six men. Beluche followed Youx’s lead and opened fire. As British Captain Hill would later recount:

The battery of theirs that did us by far the most damage was the third one from the right… This battery mounted 24-pounders which were fired alternately with great deliberation and with unvarying effect. (also via de Grummond, pgs 116-117)

The Americans used cotton bales to fortify their barricades and support their cannon. These absorbed enemy fire, although the hazard of their being set alight by hot shot was realized more than once. The British used casks of sugar which, when broken open by enemy fire, literally melted into the muddy ground, making their cannon impossible to aim.

While the Royal Navy had dragged cannon and ammunition up Bayou Bienvenue in an heroic effort to empower their army on Chalmette, they had brought very little in the way of provisions to thousands of hungry men. The British suffered with empty bellies in the cold rain, unable to build fires for fear of alerting the enemy to their positions. On the other side of the line, the Americans ate like kings. The storehouses in New Orleans were full to bursting and women came in from town to cook for and provision the troops. The famous
story of Dominique Youx making coffee for General Jackson is just one example of how comfortable the U.S. line was by comparison.

And speaking of the ladies, particularly local men turned their thoughts to them. Not everyone was perfectly certain of victory. The British force seemed overwhelming, as indeed it was, and more than one man made plans to evacuate his family. In particular Edward Livingston, acting as aid to General Jackson, approached Jean Laffite at the line and asked that – should the worst occur – Jean make sure that Livingston’s wife and daughter were safely out of New Orleans. This interchange illustrates that people knew the Laffites had ways of circumventing the usual routes in and out of the city. It also shows that respected citizens would trust their families to the so called “hellish banditti”. Or, as in this case, the Gentleman Laffite.

The misery of war is often best illustrated in numbers and the Battle of New Orleans is no different. When the sun set on January 8th the U.S. would count six dead and seven wounded on Rodriguez canal. The British would suffer over 1,900 dead and wounded including commanding Generals Packenham and Gibbs, killed by enemy fire.

And then there’s the Treaty of Ghent which was signed on December 24, 1814 and allegedly ended the war prior to the fighting at New Orleans actually did no such thing. Signed it was on the 24th, but it was not ratified by the U.S. Congress until after the New Year. The quibble was a clause “ante bellum”, inserted specifically by the British, which stated that any land in North America occupied by the British at the time the treaty was ratified would be ceded to the British. If the British had been on Chalmette plain, and the treaty had been ratified by Congress as it was, they would have controlled the mouth of the Mississippi going forward. This would have effectively closed the Mississippi to trade for the United States, accomplishing the original goal of the War of 1812: economic victory for Britain. It is reasonable to assume that the U.S. would now be part of Canada.

It is a shame that the Battle of New Orleans, which was in fact the culmination of the United States’ second war for independence, is no more than a foot note in our history now. It is even more a shame that very few Americans know the incredible contribution of the combined force of “backwoods rabble” and “pirates” that quite literally saved their country. But, as I noted earlier, we’re not just bad at math, we’re even worse at history.

Header: The Battle of New Orleans by Dennis M. Carter

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

People: Beyond Barataria

Pierre Laffite is most often referred to, at least in general, as “stout”. The wanted poster issued after his escape from the Calobozo describes him as “5 foot 10 inches tall, strongly constituted [usually translated as stout], light complexion and eyes a little crossed”. The last is probably in reference to the residual effects of his stroke. It is interesting to note that, though “crossed” is the common translation of the original French the literal translation is “through”. Generally, Pierre was considered handsome but less refined and more rough-hewn than his younger brother. Jean was referred to as “the Gentleman Laffite” around the French Quarter to distinguish the siblings.

Regardless of appearance or health, when the year 1814 was coming to a close in New Orleans war was at the doorstep and the Laffite brothers were once again refugees. Despite the loss of their Baratarian stronghold to the U.S. Army and Navy, and the arrest warrants at the Cabildo with their names on them, Pierre and his kid brother Jean remained optimistic.

Probably via their association with Edward Livingston, the Laffites managed to get the ear of Andrew Jackson. Livingston, a lawyer from a prominent eastern family who had represented Laffite captains in the city’s maritime courts, was acting as a local aid to the General. There are many fanciful stories of how Jackson met the Laffites – including the absurd but continually retold tale of Jean approaching the General on the street and challenging him to a duel – but the Livingston connection is the most plausible. No one knows where they met or what was said but on or about December 22nd a deal was struck between Old Hickory and the heads of the Hellish Banditti.

Jackson gave the word, for by now the city was under martial law, and the Baratarians were released from jail with a promise of pardon on the condition that they serve their country against the British. Pierre offered his services to the General as a guide, bringing up him and his brother’s legendary knowledge of local bayous and backwaters. Jean was dispatched to Rigolets for gun flints and then to Donaldsonville to retrieve cannon. Over 400 of the Laffites’ men – largely sailors and artillerists, both in short supply – signed up with Jackson. 7,500 flints were retrieved and between seven and fifteen cannon were supplied, predominantly for use on Patterson’s ships Louisiana and Carolina.

Most historians discount the contribution of Pierre and Jean Laffite during the Battle of New Orleans. While in the early 20th century it was common for writers to laud the brothers for fighting against the enemy, it has become fashionable to dismiss them as absent all together. Where that idea came from is still a mystery to me. Pierre was certainly with General John Coffee and Lieutenant Pierre Jugeat in the swamp at the far end of the line while Jean was across the river exhorting raw recruits from Kentucky and elsewhere. Though it is true that Beluche and Youx captained the devastating guns of Battery Number 3, implying the Laffite brothers couldn’t be troubled to dirty their hands when the fighting started is a pitiful travesty of history.

The battle, though virtually ended with the deaths of Generals Packenham and Gibbs, wasn’t over until Jackson said it was over. Men were kept at the line on Rodriguez Canal for nearly the entire month of January, watching as the British evacuated their positions under cover of night. Jackson finally relented in February but it was only through sheer force of will – a trait anyone who has lived in New Orleans will surely recognize – that the populace of the city got him to lift martial law, allowing life to return to normal. Fetes were mounted and Pierre and his brother were popular, exotic guests at some of these gatherings. The social elite got a kick out of rubbing elbows with notorious corsairs. It was on one such evening that Pierre, offended that General Coffee did not recognize him, growled: “I am Laffite, Monsieur; Laffite the pirate.” Coffee, Lieutenant Jugeat’s memoire tells us, suddenly remembered Pierre.

President Madison pardoned the Baratarians, erasing even Pierre and Jean’s murder accusations, and the brothers turned to a brief stint of honest dealing. Jean went east to try and meet with the President himself, hoping to recoup losses from the raid on Barataria. Pierre stayed in New Orleans, working the same angle there. Almost simultaneously while they were apart, the brothers made deals with separate envoys to spy for Spain. The money was good and, for two men who had no qualms about lying and did it extremely well, the work was easy. They would play both ends against the middle and continue privateering for Spain’s rebellious South American colonies while feeding Spain as little actual information as possible. What could go wrong?

While Jean went on a scouting trip in the disputed Arkansas territory, ostensibly to count American settlers and report back to the Spanish Governor in Havana, Pierre began researching ports around the Gulf hoping to quickly establish a new Barataria. He hit on Galveztown, now Galveston in Texas, which was then an unclaimed, virtually unsettled port well out of the reach of both Spain and the U.S. The added bonus was that the Laffites’ old associate Louis Aury was already in the process of setting up a privateering operation there.

Jean was dispatched upon his return from Washington D.C. and he immediately began recruiting Aury’s captains away from him. Aury, never much of a leader especially in comparison to Laffite, was not at all popular in port. Before long Jean was in charge but when a fever overtook him he had to return to New Orleans. Pierre arrived in Galveztown and took charge, recruiting yet more men with the supplies – especially liquor – he brought with him. Unfortunately Pierre was not at all used to roughing it; he wrote his brother complaining of renewed fits of trembling and a nasty rash that sounds suspiciously like scabies. Pierre clearly wanted to go home.

By 1819 Aury was gone and the Laffites were back to the old grind: Jean held sway in Galveztown in a handsome house with all the amenities, including an unnamed but remarkably beautiful quadroon with whom he may or may not have shared a placage. Pierre was back in New Orleans with Louison and their brood, now up to seven children, running the sales end with slaves a particularly hot commodity. Spain was by now fairly certain that the Laffites’ were full of it and the U.S., who was close to a final treaty with Spain that would cede Florida to them, wanted Galveztown shut down to appease their new ally. All this came to head in September of 1819 when a brutal hurricane destroyed the port all together.

Once again the end was in sight, but the drama of the raid on Barataria was side-stepped. Jean managed to put off a U.S. Navy force led by Lieutenant Lawrence Kearney in the frigate Enterprise and bought some time to pack up and save his ships. Pierre, back in New Orleans, quickly booked passage east to begin recruiting more men and with luck purchase a ship. He was in Charleston, South Carolina under the alias of “Mr. Francisco” by October of 1820. The plan was for the brothers to meet at tiny Isla Mujeres off the Yucatan peninsula and start an entirely new operation.

Pierre arrived at Mujeres in March of 1821 and Jean prepared to return to sea. He would take up the role of privateer – and at least for a time pirate – once again. Pierre, meanwhile, stayed on Mujeres with a group of compatriots who began building what shelter they could. Pierre would probably have liked a more civilized arrangement; he brought a companion named Lucia Allen with him from Charleston. While Marie Louise was in New Orleans giving birth to her and Pierre’s eighth child – a daughter named Marie Joseph – Pierre was impregnating Lucia Allen at Mujeres.

Jean, though he had promised to keep to short runs, did not return. Pierre had no way of knowing that his brother had been wounded, captured and was being held in a Spanish dungeon at Porto Principe, Cuba. Income, or at least supplies, were needed regardless and Pierre began leading quick raids on local farms. In October of 1821, despite a fever, chills and a wracking cough, Pierre was out on one such raid off Cancun when he and his men were surprised by Spanish authorities. They managed to escape, but Pierre may have been wounded. Making it back to Mujeres but fearing he was being followed, Pierre hurried Lucia – also ill and pregnant – into a fishing boat at night. They landed at the mainland village of Zilam de Bravo the following evening.

Pierre never recovered from his illness and possible wound. Lucia nursed him at the home of a local fisherman until on or about November 9, 1821 when he succumbed to his fever. He was aged somewhere between 46 and 51. The locals buried him at the village cemetery, which is now underwater. Lucia most probably died in childbirth that December, leaving behind a daughter that someone in the village allegedly adopted. Jean Laffite managed to track down his brother’s grave in March or April of 1822 after escaping from prison in February. Losing the brother who was closer to him than any other soul must certainly have been devastating, overwhelming. Jean returned to sea and was buried there in February of 1823, dead of wounds suffered in a firefight aboard his privateer General Santander.

Though it appears that all Pierre’s male children died before having children of their own, we know his daughters Rose, Catherine Coralie and Adele at least married and had a number of children. The memory of father and grandfather was gone, though, by the time he became great-grandfather. As Davis quotes toward the end of his book, when Alexandrine Farr was asked what her mother Rose Laffite told her of her grandfather Pierre, she answered: “… my mother often spoke to me of Bayou Barataria.”

But even then a legend was growing, taking form, reshaping who Pierre Laffite and his brother Jean really were. Some of the stories are ludicrous, some intense, some funny, some passionate and some are even inspiring. Regardless of what you believe, don’t forget. Once, a long time ago, there were men like Laffite the pirate.

Header: Isla Mujeres today