Sailing under false colors, that old trick of running up a “friendly flag” to draw a prize in closer and then demanding surrender under threat of fire just as they’ve reached the height of their comfort level, is a tactic we’ve spoken about before here at Triple P. Though pirates and even privateers did this with impunity, international maritime laws stated – as early as the 16th century – that an aggressor must hoist her own colors before engaging in any belligerence. I can almost see Jean Laffite giving a Creole shrug and saying: “Pardon, Messieurs. We forgot, you understand.”
Be that as it may, there are quite a number of uses for the word false at sea as witnessed by its frequent use in shipbuilding and refitting alone. There are false keels which are added to the main keel to protect it should the ship strike ground. False rails, planks of wood fitted to the head rails or gunnels to strengthen them. False stems, sometimes known as cutwaters, which are fitted to the stem with the tail covering the fore end or front of the keel. False sterns and false stern posts are also sometimes fitted to ships, particularly large yachts such as King George III’s Queen Charlotte. The false stern gives more length to the existing stern, improving the appearance of the vessel. The false stern post is added to improve steerage, a virtual necessity on a ship that is grandiosely ornamented so as to become top-heavy aft. This was also frequently added to the impossibly detailed Spanish treasure galleons of the 17th century that were invariably named Nuestra Senora de fill-in-the-blank.
Aside from false colors there is also the false attack, a feigned assault on one ship or group of ships that will cause a diversion so that the actual target might be caught off guard. Pirates approaching one of those treasure galleons are a good example as they would frequently bait her escort so as to separate the very slow sailing and hard to maneuver Nuestra Senora de … and claim her as prize.
Either as a signal to friend or as a deception to enemy false fire, also known as blue flame, was frequently employed from the late 18th century on. This was a combination of combustible agents packed into a wooden tube. The whole was lighted causing a blue flame to burn for several minutes. This must have looked eerie on the black water at night and may have been the origin of at least some of the “ghost ship” stories still told today.
Of course false papers, in the form of faked letters of marque or other commissions, could be carried by any ship that chose to take that risk. Discovery of these attempts at legitimacy would surely lead to trial – and possibly hanging – for piracy. Likewise in the navies of more than one country false muster was not unheard of. In this case a man – or in particular a boy – would be entered into a ship’s muster books so that he may accrue “book time” at sea. While safe at home the boy would appear to be accumulating valuable experience at sea, making him eligible earlier for a Lieutenancy and the opportunities that would come thereafter. A captain caught in this fraud could be prosecuted and struck from the list, a dire fate for anyone with an ambition to hirer rank.
And there we have it for today, falsehoods black, white and gray. Hey, that rhymed. Maybe all the pondering of Poe yesterday has inspired me to poetry. But probably not. Happy Saturday, Brethren!
Header: Lithograph of a Spanish treasure galleon of the 17th century