Thursday, March 31, 2011

Women At Sea: "Arctic Diana"

With gusts of snow that bring Arctic isolation to mind swirling outside my window, I feel the compelling need to return to the top of the world again today. This time, however, with a happier and far more life-affirming story. Here is the tale of a woman who went to sea for fun, fell in love with the Arctic, and made it her life’s work to study a place that most people to this day shudder to think of.

Louise Arner Boyd was definitely unusual in her own time. In ours, when heiresses seem bent on contributing nothing more than pictures of their underwear (or lack there of) to E! Online, she would be an absolute white elephant. Her story is one of tragedy, determination, and triumph of will, but it is also one that illustrates how thoroughly an individual can add value to the world in their lifetime. The shameful part of Miss Boyd’s story is that she is all but forgotten by the average American.

Born in 1887 to the gold rush millionaire John Franklin Boyd, Louise was her parents’ third child and their only girl. She grew up on the family estate in San Rafael, California, now part of beautiful (and exclusive) Marin County. Her brothers, John Jr. and Seth, were her constant companions and not surprisingly she took on the role of tom-boy, riding horses and playing baseball with the guys. It seemed that Louise would grow up happy, marry another nouveau riche California gold heir and host fundraisers and balls. For Louise, life was not at all what it seemed.

In 1901 both of her brothers died. The cause of their deaths was heart failure due to rheumatic fever. The family was devastated and local rumors said that neither of Louise’s parents ever recovered from the shocking loss. In 1920, with Louise still unmarried, her parents passed away within a few weeks of one another. Louise, buffeted by tragedy and now supremely alone in the world, inherited her family’s vast millions.

At first she did most of what was probably expected of her – hosting charity events and dinners – but in 1924 she took it in her head to travel. She headed to Norway and booked a luxury cruise that included the coast of Greenland. While taking in the icy landscape with its unique wildlife, dazzling fjords and blue glaciers, Louise became enchanted. As she would later write:

Far north, hidden behind grim barriers of pack ice are lands that hold one spellbound.

Where others saw nothing but grim desolation, Louise saw beauty she had never imagined.

In 1926, after a year in Europe that included her presentation to the King and Queen of England, she chartered Hobby, a supply ship that had previously travelled to the far north. Louise planned to see Greenland up close, hunt, take photographs and poke around for flora and fauna to collect and bring home. Though not a college graduate, Louise was a quick study and soon became a crack shot, capable amateur naturalist and compelling photographer. Her success aboard the ship she had chartered, crewed and provisioned with her own money brought the attention of the worldwide press. By 1927 pictures of Louise in parkas and with massive polar bears that she herself had brought down were being run with captions like “Arctic Diana” and “The Girl Who Tamed the Arctic”

Now 40 years old, Louise was hardly a girl and her accomplishments were only just beginning. She funded more cruises to Greenland including a search for the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen had been lost trying to rescue his Italian counterpart Umberto Nobile but was unfortunately never found. Louise’s heroic efforts, however, were recognized by the government of Norway; they awarded her the prestigious Cross of the Order of Saint Olaf. She was the third woman and the first American to be so recognized.

In 1931, Louise collected scientists to join her in her exploration of Greenland. She would mount expeditions again in ’33,’37 and ’38, funding them with her own money. Any of the professionals who accompanied her, however, needed to understand who was in charge. No scientist, no matter how capable, would be asked back if they underestimated this woman who not only paid for everything but joined them in their efforts. She hiked every terrain, carried her own photographic equipment, collected samples, shot game and stayed awake on deck during storms to ensure the safety of her ship and its crew. As Elizabeth Old notes in her biography Women of the Four Winds:

[Louise] became a true leader, a presiding patron of scientifically trained personnel, a sponsor of science.

Louise continued her trips to the Arctic, even after nearly being trapped in pack ice in the ship Veslekari in September of 1933, and published a book entitled The Fiord Region of East Greenland in 1937. By that time she had the sponsorship of the American Geographic Society. She detoured to Poland just before World War II and documented that country’s agrarian society before it was crushed under the Nazi boot in a book of photographs, Polish Countryside.

When the Nazis conquered Holland and by default Greenland in 1940, Louise’s intimate knowledge of the vast island’s coastland became a strategic asset to the U.S. military. Louise was recruited by the National Bureau of Standards and funded an expedition for them in 1941 aboard the ship Morrissey, again paying for the venture herself. This trip to her beloved Greenland secretly involved gathering information on magnetic phenomena effecting radio waves in the Arctic. She would be commended by the U.S. Army for her work when the war ended. Her third book, The Coast of Northeast Greenland, which had been held back for security reasons, was finally published in 1948.

By 1950 Louise was in her sixties and travelling to the Arctic was no longer a realistic pursuit. She returned to San Rafael and did some of those things one might have expected a belle epoch heiress to do. She did charity work, hosted fundraisers and joined the executive committee of the San Francisco Symphony. She received an honorary law degree from the Cal Berkley and a Bachelor of Science from Mills College. In 1960, she became the second woman to receive the Cullum Medal from the American Geographic Society and she was also elected to their board.

Though how, exactly, Louise managed to lose her fortune remains a mystery, lose it she did some time after 1960. Most researchers put her late-in-life poverty down to bad investments which, as Old points out in her book, seems odd given Louise’s prior capacity as a savvy money manager. Regardless, Louise Arner Boyd, the “Arctic Diana” who trudged through hip-deep snow but never travelled anywhere without a lady’s maid and a flower pinned to her parka, died in 1972 in a San Francisco nursing home. She had long since sold all of her inheritance, including the San Rafael estate, and her rent was paid by caring friends. She was cremated and though she had asked that her ashes be scattered over her beloved Greenland the cost of such a last reward was prohibitive. Instead, her remains were released to the wind over Alaska where, as Old points out, “…at least there is ice.”

I personally understand Louise’s love of the cold North where, within a matter of minutes, nature can change from hostile to glorious. As I look out my window now the blizzard is gone, the sun dazzles off the new snow and I imagine Louise is happy here, too.

Header: Louise Arner Boyd

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

History: Lure Of The Lost

Captain Sir John Franklin was a visionary who, in 1845 at the age of 59, left England to cross the Atlantic and finally find the Northwest Passage. His expedition included two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, 129 men and enough provisions for a year. Unlike all those other men who had attempted to find the alleged river that ran from somewhere on the Canadian coast through North America to Alaska, Franklin was convinced that he would find the prize no one else could locate.

It will come as a shock to no one reading this that he did not find what did not exist. Instead his ships were frozen solid in ice and over the course of the next three years he and his crew died of various miseries including exposure, scurvy, lead poisoning, tuberculosis and starvation. Not one single soul survived the ill-fated journey and – for some reason I cannot fathom – Franklin was elevated to the level of heroism previously reserved for seamen like Drake and Nelson in Britain.

Despite ongoing reports from native Inuit that all the white men had died, wave after wave of explorers retraced the slogging, zombie-like shuffles of Franklin’s doomed crews. Most of these later adventurers were convinced that at least a man or two must have survived but time and again such hopes were dashed. Evidence repeatedly revealed that, instead of seeking out the help of the Native people who lived for centuries in the frozen north, the men of Erebus and Terror tried against all reason to get back home. Some even fell into the horrible last resort of cannibalism.

To this day research on the Franklin expedition continues unchecked, and books – both fictional and scholarly – continue to be written. There is a romantic quality to the idea of exploring, of course, but obviously this specific exploration raises a prurient interest in the unbearable last days and grisly deaths of the men involved. That’s how we humans are. The problem is that once you know, you can’t unknow. For all we wish it did, brain bleach does not exist. And yet we continue to try to find out more.

That’s why this article from Live Science is so interesting. Now, at last, researchers may be having some success at positively identify the departed who lost their lives on a fool’s errand. Attempts to identify the dead who have been found have been ongoing, but modern forensics are shedding some light on previous misconception, as in the example given in the article.

A body found in the 1870s was originally thought to be one Henry Le Vesconte, one of Erebus’ lieutenants, but new findings have put that assumption in question.  The remains, which were made available for study because of renovations to the Franklin Memorial in Greenwich where they were interred, have been put through the paces of modern CSI-style evaluation. The findings are extraordinary, if a little creepy.

Evidently the body is that of a young gentleman, between 25 and 40, tall in stature and possessed of an unusual lower jaw shape and one gold filling. Tests on the man’s tooth enamel showed he would have grown up in northern Britain, possibly somewhere in Scotland, and facial reconstruction experts made a clay image of what they imagine the seaman might have looked like based on a cast of his skull.

None of the evidence fit Lieutenant Le Vesconte but pointed instead to the 29-year-old surgeon’s mate and naturalist Henry Goodsir, also of Erebus. The reconstruction of the face is compared in the photo above (from the article) to a pre-expedition daguerreotype of Goodsir. It is hard to argue with the distinct similarity and the facts that the surgeon’s mate grew up in Scotland and was from the kind of wealthy family that could afford gold fillings. Le Vesconte, it is worth noting, was a foremast seaman from a middle class family who grew up in Devon.

The article stops short of saying that the remains are Goodsir’s, but you have to wonder at least. Doubtless research, and exploration, will continue in an attempt to find more evidence regarding the Franklin expedition. We tend to feel a pull towards the lost, as people and as researchers, and so the shuffling – and discovery – will go on.

Header: Photo via the National Maritime Museum

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ships: The Clipper's Ancestor

In 1800 Captain Robert Hall Gower, a marine in the service of the East India Company of Britain, had retired and was prepared to launch a new career. He hoped to become a shipping magnet but what he really accomplished was a surprisingly successful invention that never really caught on.
 Gower’s brainchild was a ship he named Transit, which he envisioned as the future of speed in both travel and shipping. The special features of Transit are what made it truly revolutionary. Some of them, however, require a lot of “sailor speak” to describe; I will do my best not to go to far away from shore on this one.

First and foremost, Transit had a long, narrow hull that allowed for ease of loading without loss of sailing ability. The way she was worked in the building process also meant that ordinary carpenters, as apposed to more specialized and therefore expensive shipwrights, could do the framing. A ship built on Gower’s plans – he would complete three of them – could be put together by any woodworker, a shipwright being required only for the fitting of the deck.

Out of that deck sprang the most curious of Transit’s features. The original ship carried five masts (later versions would carry four) with an unusual form of fore-and-aft rigging on all but her foremast. The story goes that Gower ran out of money towards the end of the building process, and had to plunk a borrowed, square-rigged foremast onto his creation.

Regardless of the sails, each mast was self-supporting and independent from the masts next to it. This was a highly unusual design that meant the masts had to be stayed with cables attached at four points to the deck in a fashion known as “flag pole” rigging. Gower’s thought was to give each mast its own movement, allowing for more sail and faster running. The sails then became perhaps the most remarkable innovation found aboard Transit.

While the foremast held standard rigging including jib sails, the four other masts were decked out with sails of Gower’s own design. These were rectangular in shape with the addition of canvas strap pockets on either side of each sail. Sprits, similar to wooden dowels, would be housed in the pockets to keep the sails extended and flat. This innovation would improve both control and speed of running by exposing as much canvas as possible to the available wind. At least in part because of the free standing nature of each mast, the topmast portion of any one mast could be struck without disturbing the sails below.

Gower introduced his design to both the East India Company and the Royal Navy but neither would bite. Even after Transit got into the water and was proven a superior sailor to the naval sloop she was tested against, neither of these old guard organizations cared to back the new technology. Gower’s Transit was taken into the merchant service with her inventor as an independent owner. She routinely sailed faster than any ship in her convoys. The need for a larger crew due to her unusual rigging, however, kept other merchants from commissioning more like her.

R.H. Gower was a visionary ahead of his time. Though his ship was superior to anything else available in the early 19th century, Transit did not catch on as a new technology. It would not be until the 1840s, seven years after Gower’s death, that the great clipper ships such as Neptune’s Car and Cutty Sark would rival the speed and efficiency of their direct ancestor, Transit.

Header: Four Masted Clipper Ships by Donald Anderson

Monday, March 28, 2011

People: D Is For Diablo

The story of today’s pirate, who is often known as “Lucifer”, is full of so much ambiguity that our anti-hero’s actual given name remains in question. He is usually called Diego with various monikers attached to that: Diego Lucifer, Lucifero or Diablo, Diego de Reyes, Diego Martin, Diego the Mulatto and, most common of all, Diego Grillo. His place of origin is also in question. Cuba claims him as born and bred in Havana while other writers see his origins in the Spanish colony of Mexico. All agree that Diego was of Spanish and African descent and that he – much like the more famous buccaneer madman Francois L’Olonnais – hated Spain and all that came from her.

Some careful researches put forth that Diego, what ever his real name may have been, was born in Campeche on the Gulf side of the Yucatan Peninsula. His father was a Spanish Criolo of some standing and his mother was at least partially African. What her status was, slave or free, entirely African or of mixed race, is unknown but even with a wealthy father, Diego’s African blood would have kept certain of Spanish society’s doors closed to him. This seems to be the sticking point that turned a privileged young man into a pirate. Some time in his youth Diego was offended by a Spaniard and, because of the highly stratified cast system in the Spanish New World, Diego could not have satisfaction. Unable to avenge himself on this individual, Diego went to sea to wreak his revenge on all that represented Spain to him.

The first hard evidence of Diego Grillo as a pirate turns up in 1626 when he is sailing in company with the Dutch freebooter Hendrick Jacobson. Jacobson (or Jakobzoon) was known as “the worst shark in the sea” and was often referred to by the Spanish along the Main as “Lucifer”. Where Diego learned to sail is unknown but it might be safe to say that he did some time in the merchant service prior to signing on board a pirate. My speculation is that Diego quite literally “ran off to sea” and, like so many others before and after him, turned criminal after realizing just how miserable working aboard a merchant vessel really was.

Jacobson died in 1627 and by that time, doubtless having learned from the old shark, Diego was ready to take command of his flagship Ter Veer. He sailed in and out of various ports, including Tortuga, Honduras, Havana (where he claimed his mother lived) and Providence, hitting Spanish shipping along the coast of Mexico in particular.

In 1633 his first big land raid occurred. Diego, some speculate returning for the revenge he nursed for years at sea, raided Campeche, plundering the city and burning the fort of San Benito. He killed the illustrious Captain of the Guard, Galvan, who some writers say was Diego’s godfather and may have been the very man who insulted him. An orgy of drunken mayhem ensued and for two days those Spanish citizens who could not or would not escape into the jungle were tortured for information on where their wealth was hidden.

Diego, for his part, spent the time searching for a certain army officer known as Calvo or Galvez. Diego ranted about cutting the man up, removing his ears and nose. This behavior has led certain researchers to conclude that Calvo was the source of Diego’s indignation. If so, the pirate was left unsatisfied: Calvo was never found.
In sharp contrast to his blood lust as Campeche, the story goes that when Diego sailed away from that wretched city he took a Spanish barco that was ferrying the recently widowed Dona Isabel Maldonado y Caraveo to Mexico City. When he discovered the lady and her retinue on board he moved her to his own cabin aboard his ship, treated her with all civility and saw to it that none of her things were plundered. He put she and her ladies safely on land just a few days later, although he did keep their ship for his own use.

Our pirate’s long career had only just begun, however. He is known to have sailed with boucanier Pierre le Grand the following year and Thomas Newman in 1636. In the 1640s he raided Sisal, Trujillo and other cities along the Yucatan, usually in concert with one or more of the Brethren of the Coast. He seems to have sailed with Francois L’Olonnais along the Darien coast and may very well have been among those who deserted the butcher to his fate, cut to pieces while still alive and forced to watch as the Natives burned his flesh to ashes. Or ate it; the stories vary. A Diego the Mulatto, most probably the same man, added his men and ships to Henry Morgan’s raids on Portobello and Panama.

Diego’s successes against the Spanish were so overwhelming that the enemy finally came courting. Spain offered Diego a pardon, money and the title of Admiral if he would stop his pillaging and sign on with the Empire. Diego bit his thumb at the Spanish crown and went back to the Yucatan to plunder more Spanish merchants. But time was not on Diego’s side and the Spanish had certainly had enough.

In 1673, after Diego’s capture of a Spanish ship led to the slaughter of 20 men aboard her because of their Spanish birth, the Crown put a serious effort into capturing the Mulatto. His partner in the heinous crime, Jan Lucas, was captured, sent to the dungeons at Veracruz and garroted without trial, probably after being tortured. Information thus rung from Lucas may have led to Diego’s capture as two months later he was in the hands of the Spanish authorities. The contemporary accounts are surprisingly silent on the details. All we know is that Diego Grillo, who was known by so many names, was hanged at Campeche for piracy.
Given his curious story, whose details may be all, half or no truth at all, maybe that is all we need to know.

Header: Pirates Boarding a Spanish Galleon by Howard Pyle

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: A Decisive Naval Force

Without a decisive naval force, we can do nothing definitive and with it, everything honorable and glorious ~ George Washington March 27, 1794: The U.S. Navy is officially established by an Act of Congress.

Header: An anonymous painting of USS Constitution, one of the US Navy's initial six frigates

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Bitt

A bitt is a piece of ship’s equipment that cannot be done without, especially in regards to her anchors. The word is often attached to another to describe it as in bitt-stopper. But I’m running ahead of myself. Let us start at the beginning.

A bit is a piece of eight amounting to what the Spanish called a reale and 12 and a half cents in American money circa 1790 until 1857 when Spanish money was no longer accepted as legal tender in the U.S. Two bits constituted 25 cents, the cost of a mug of ale. This “cut money” came in eight rectangular pieces that could be handily broken apart as a person’s spending needs dictated. Interestingly, bits were sometimes chiseled down by unscrupulous merchants, reducing their value and giving us our modern word for a swindler: “chiseller”. Though we think of pieces of eight as the gold coins pictured here:In fact, cut money was by and large made out of silver.

An anchor is said to bite when it catches the ground and holds fast. Because of this, a Bite is also a harbor where a ship might anchor securely as in the Bite of Benin off West Africa.

Bitts are frames made of two sturdy pieces of oak fixed upright in a ship’s bow. They are securely bolted to the beams and have the function of holding the anchor cables when a ship is riding at anchor. In large men-of-war, two sets of cable-bitts are necessary. With the use of chain to carry modern anchors, bitts began to be coated with iron to prevent untimely wear on the wood. Many times these items are not referred to as bitts at all, but as bitt-heads.

Bitt-pins are very similar in shape to belaying pins but are much larger. These are used to wrap the ends of the anchor cable – the bitter-end if you will – that stay inboard and do not go over the side around. This action produces the bitt-stopper that holds the anchor to the ship. A bitter is a turn of the cable around the bitts and/or the bitt-pins. Of course the bitter-end is the final length of the anchor cable that usually gets less wear than the portion that is exposed to water. Bitter-ends are therefore said to be more trustworthy. And yes, our modern expression about sticking with something to the “bitter end” comes from this nautical reference: if you are down to the bitter-end you’ve no more cable to let out and the effort is over.

To bitt the cable is to wrap it around the bitts. To loose the cable gradually once it has been bitt is known as veering away since the ship is, in such a case, slowly moving away from its anchor.

And that is enough of bitts and bites for one Saturday, I think. On a completely different note, if you’re in the neighborhood of the finest city in the U.S. at any point this week, pop in and visit
NOLA Pyrate Week. While yer there, give a hale to my dear friend Captain John Swallow and his lovely Quartermaster, Seika Hellbound. Huzzah!

Header: Under Way by Gordon Grant c 1860

Friday, March 25, 2011

Booty: Painting Time

With the advent of spring, many of us are thinking about sprucing up our surroundings. Often that includes paint, an ancient way of sealing wood and making it last longer. Ships, of course, are no exception and – aside from varnish – there is hardly anything more important to a wooden ship than good, old fashioned, oil based paint.

Ancient ships were frequently painted rather fancifully with the Sea People, Egyptians, Greeks and Chinese favoring large human eyes on either side of the prow. The Vikings liked dragons at the head of their longboats and these were usually painted to look as realistic as possible. During the Medieval period cogs and cinque ports ships were usually painted either deep green or ochre because these pigments were easy to come by in nature. Some time during the Restoration era in Britain, more brilliant colors came into favor. Ships painted scarlet red, purple and sky blue were not uncommon. Patterns began to emerge during the 18th century. Nelson famously favored black and white checkered gunnels with a black or blue hull and the mania for “chequering” took off in the Royal Navy, continuing well into the 19th century. Pirates, it goes without saying, generally used what they had on hand. The worst of the worst would forego painting all together, and simply move to a newly captured prize when their current ship began to rot.

The colors that were popular in the Great Age of Sail are much harder to come by now, but you can obtain the elements needed in modern oil based paints and mix them yourself. Here are a few recommendations from Chambers’ Encyclopedia of 1882:

Cream: white lead, chrome yellow, and Venetian red
Drab: white lead, burnt umber, four or five drops of Venetian red
Fawn: white lead and burnt sienna
French gray: white lead, Prussian blue, two or three drops of vermilion
Imitation gold: white lead, chrome yellow and burnt sienna
Purple: white lead, Prussian blue and vermillion
Carnation pink: white lead tinted with Venetian red
Violet: white lead, Prussian blue, vermillion and two drops of black

White lead, incidentally, was the favored color for decks and other trimmings. Another good point to keep in mind is that most ship’s hulls would receive no fewer than six coats of paint along with varnish. Remember, as the old salts say, save the surface and you save all.

Header: Painting the Flagship Royal Navy c 1905 via

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Pirates Own Book: The Dread Pirate Davis

One of the most endearing things about Charles Ellms is his certainty in his facts. As a writer, he is solid, even emphatic, about every story he tells. The tales in his The Pirates Own Book are one hundred percent true if you base that statement solely on the sincerity of the writing. Even the fact that the book is over 150 years old does not cloud his certitude. Given all that, it is at least a little bit of a let down to find out that Ellms’ information is, for the most part, flawed.

Those flaws come across most clearly in chapters about pirates whose careers we are most familiar with. Take, as an example, Howell Davis. This Golden Age of Piracy freebooter is probably most famous for mentoring one of the most successful pirates of all time: Bartholomew Roberts. Davis was, by all accounts, an intelligent opportunist who liked to masquerade as a legitimate privateer or pirate hunter to get into the good graces of local authorities. Unfortunately though, he tried this trick once too often and got burned. Let’s look at the chronology of this short but merry life as Ellms lays it out, and then backtrack a little.

According to Ellms, Davis came out of Monmouthshire and was “… from a boy, trained to the sea”. He had his first brush with freebooting aboard the merchant sloop Cadogan when she was captured by pirates. The raiders killed Cadogan’s captain and installed Davis in his place. Though Davis would later claim to have been forced into piracy, it was the crew of his new command that rebelled against the idea. Arriving in Barbados with the ship’s cargo in tact, the crew ratted out Davis to the authorities saying he tried to exhort them to piracy. Davis was jailed but was later “… discharged without trial.”

Davis made for New Providence, which he had heard was a hotbed of piracy. He was a day late and a dollar short, however. By the time he arrived new Governor Woodes Rogers had rounded up any wayward pirates who would not accept the King’s pardon. Undaunted, Davis signed aboard Rogers’ own Buck as an able seamen. Once he found that a number of his mates were former pirates, he instigated a mutiny, set those who did not care to join him aboard a companion sloop and made for Martinique. Davis was duly elected captain and, after “… a short and appropriate speech” which was a rousing “… proclamation of war with the whole world” the men set out a-pirating.

As is typical with Ellms, a laundry list of engagements and prizes commences in the prose. Davis trades up to larger and larger ships with more and more guns, eventually captaining a flagship he named King James that could easily pass for an English sloop-of-war. He then crosses the Atlantic to the West African coast, planning raids on the wealthy forts of the Portuguese.

Several of the raids come off literally without a hitch. The general MO has Davis and a few of his officers dressing as gentlemen and going ashore to present themselves to the local Governor. Once the dignitary is comfortable that Davis is legitimate – either as privateer or pirate hunter – the wine begins to flow. Davis sends a signal to his men, the fort is captured with little resistance, and an orgy of pillaging and rapine ensues.

This general pattern continues until, after meeting up with an English pirate named Cochlyn and a French corsair named La Boise, Davis reveals his plans to attack the large fort at Sierra Leon. The two other pirates want no part of the scheme and sail off. After some entanglements, including the taking of the ship that would become Bartholomew Roberts’ Rover, Davis sets his sights on the Isle of Princes. Here he takes a French ship in the bay of Acra, claiming she was suspected of piracy and then sends his respects to the local Governor. This time, however, he invites the man and his retinue to dine aboard his ship.

The change in approach did not serve Davis well. Ellms tells us that a slave from the captured Frenchman manages to jump ship, swim to shore and worn the Governor of Davis’ plans to clap him in chains and hold him for ransom. When the Governor does not appear for dinner, the decision is made to attack the fort outright. The pirates storm the walls with Davis leading them but the Portuguese are ready for the attack. Davis is stuck, “… mortally wounded by a musket ball in his belly.” His men, confused and disheartened, drag their commander and the others who have been wounded back their ship. Meanwhile the Portuguese continue to pursue them, firing muskets as the pirates attempt to reboard their vessel.

In the end, Davis dies and his men sail away. As Ellms so eloquently ends this chapter:

And those on board, who expected to hoist in treasure had to receive naught but their wounded comrades and dead commander.

At no point does Ellms mention young Bartholomew Roberts, perhaps because Roberts is curiously altogether missing from The Pirates Own Book. Aside from that omission, the most glaring fiction in the chapter is the dramatic death of Howell Davis.

The pirate, who is thought to have been born in Wales, was indeed killed by the Governor of Principe’s men but he did not go down valiantly leading his men in battle. In fact he was ambushed and ingloriously slaughtered while out on the town with a few of his crew. This miserable death of someone he obviously admired so enraged Roberts that, once he was elected captain by his mates, he bombarded the capital of Principe. He sailed away without a scratch, leaving devastation and death behind him. As so often happens, the truth is more exciting and grisly than fiction.

Header: Retreat of the Pirates and Death of Captain Davis from The Pirates Own Book

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

History: A Sad Tale And A Happy Find

On February 11th of 1823, six days after legendary pirate Jean Laffite was buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras, the Nantucket whaler Two Brothers foundered and sank in the infamous French Frigate Shoals off Honolulu, Hawai’i. The story of the whaler, like that of so many other American whalers that set out for the Pacific and were never seen again, is a familiar one. In fact the Shoals are a veritable graveyard of ships which, even to this day, are difficult to navigate. Until recently, however, the exact location of the ship, who’s Captain makes the story of particular interest, was unknown.

George Pollard Jr. was originally given command of a whaling ship at the decidedly young age of 28. The ship, named Essex, set out from Nantucket and reached the South Pacific without incident. Pollard and his crew were relatively successful at the mind-numbingly arduous and dangerous work of whaling until 1820. That summer Essex was literally attacked by a whale, resulting in her loss. The horrific details of the incident – which include cannibalism by the survivors who spent weeks in an open boat – are best saved for Horror On the High Seas week. It is enough to say that Captain Pollard was among those who survived to be rescued by another American whaler, Two Brothers.

Pollard returned to Nantucket where, after what seems like only a short time to recuperate from such a harrowing experience, he took command of the ship that saved him in the great South Sea. Pollard was joined in this cruise by some of his former men and they set out for the Japan ground which lay roughly between the Hawaiian Islands and Japan. Though Pollard was known as a stout commander with a keen sense of where to find the “fish”, his luck seems to have been atrocious. He lost his second ship not three years after losing his first. The circumstances so shocked Pollard that one of his mates later recalled his captain standing stock still on deck when Two Brothers began to sink. He was dragged off to a boat before he could go down with his ship.

Almost serendipitously, an unplanned dive brought a group of marine archeologists from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to a sandbar in the Shoals known as Shark Island. There, about 15 feet deep, they found a large anchor. A little more investigating revealed that the find was from the 1820s and probably from an American whaling ship. On February 11th of this year the team announced that they had what was left of Pollard’s ill-fated command.

Artifacts including the anchor, iron trypots used for boiling whale blubber into precious oil, ceramic fragments, and blubber hooks. Because the Shoals are part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the larger items cannot be removed from the water. According to this
article from the NYT, Monument officials are already working with the Nantucket Historical Association to see to it that smaller artifacts will become part of a permanent whaling exhibit in Hawai’i.

Even without the dramatic back story, Two Brothers is a remarkable find. As the article notes, this may be the first Nantucket whaler discovered in situ. The vessels frequently foundered far from shore and in deep seas where whales were plentiful. The artifacts found at French Frigate Shoals will doubtless shed a lot of light on a chapter in seafaring history that was brutal for all involved: the sailors, their families, their ships, and the whales.

Header: A modern view of French Frigate Shoals via their website

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tools Of The Trade: Whistle Up The Wind

It goes without saying that wind in all its glorious forms was essential to the sailing of a ship. Before the dawn of steam and coal engines, and to a large degree even after their use became routine, a ship sat becalmed or ran at her top speed based on the fickle whim of the wind. Man being the control freak that evolution has made him, however, tried throughout history not just to harness the wind but to make it behave as he wanted it to.

Knowing how the wind worked in most cases in any given area of the globe was the first step to controlling it. Learning the patterns of the wind was fairly easy, at least by comparison, when early mariners kept themselves largely confined to seas like the Mediterranean or the China Sea. Things got trickier when ships sailed off toward the ends of the earth. As the Vikings, the Polynesians and so many others set out to a place where no land ahead was ever a certainty, weather and wind became more of an issue.

The patterns of wind in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are actually relatively stable. Of course that stability is challenged by weather conditions whose signs would have been very familiar to seasoned salts. Generally speaking a constant wind will shift in one of two ways. In the Northern Hemisphere those are from left to right (with the sun) or right to left (against the sun).

In shifting with the sun, an easterly wind will shift to the west coming in from the southeast, south or southwest. When the wind shifts in this manner it is said to veer. Conversely, a westerly wind will shift to the east and come from the northwest, north, or northeast. In this case the wind is said to back. For the Southern Hemisphere, simply reverse the directions.

Backing and veering were not the greatest windborne concerns of sailors, however. That was reserved for either ship-destroying storms or their polar opposite: the complete lack of wind. Various beliefs and superstitions grew up around the fear of being becalmed. There were actions that would be undertaken in such a circumstance that would have been sorely frowned upon in a fine breeze. Scratching the mast with a nail or touching or hugging it while whistling were two common remedies. Whistling aboard ship was considered bad luck in any other circumstance. Men might also stick a knife in the mast, pointing the handle in the direction that it was hoped the ship would proceed. A last resort was for the Captain to climb up in the rigging and offer a lock of his hair to the Devil in exchange for fair winds.

Sailors who cared to plan ahead could consult a weather witch whose powers made them capable of controlling the wind. These men and women sold sailors pieces of rope with three knots in them. The sailor was instructed to undo one knot to release a light breeze, two knots would bring a strong wind and three knots would call up a storm. Doubtless many a huckster made a tidy living in busy ports around the world on this scam.

Mind your winds, Brethren, and may the sea always follow where ever you sail.

Header: Sunrise Off Grand Manan by William Bradford

Monday, March 21, 2011

Home Ports: The Island Of Women

Isla Mujeres, off the Caribbean coast of Mexico, may seem inconsequential when one is looking at a map. It’s relatively small, particularly when compared to its southern neighbor, Cancun. It is long and thin, shaped something like a finger, and it is almost entirely at sea level. The location it occupies, however, jutting out from the Yucatan peninsula at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, made it the perfect place for keeping an eye on shipping in the waters near by. The perfect place, in other words, for pirates and privateers.

The incredibly lush, topical island was originally part of the Mayan principality of Ekab. Isla Mujeres was sacred to their goddess of fertility, healing and death, Ix Chel. The Mayans built temples to her on the island, which they did not populate but only visited for rituals dedicated to the goddess whose totem was the rabbit. When the Spanish arrived and explored the island they found the many shrines to Ix Chel with numerous statues of the various forms of the goddess, from maiden to crone. They called the place the Island of Women because of this and the name stuck.

Like the Mayans before them, the Spanish did not populate the island but did exploit its resources including an abundance of fish and the ponds known as “salinas” that produced salt. For centuries the island was a fishing spot for natives of the Yucatan and as European trading vessels began to ply the waters in the straight between Mujeres and Cuba now known as the Yucatan Channel, they began to sell their catches to ships that had put in to the island to refresh their water. With the dawn of the buccaneers, and the raids undertaken at Vera Cruz and Panama by Captains like Laurens de Graff and Henry Morgan, Mujeres became a favorite stop. Ships would drop anchor and men would go ashore not just for food and water but to clean up, rest and divvy up booty from the last raid.

The Golden Age of Piracy saw the same kind of traffic on Mujeres. Some household names probably called at the island, including Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy and Calico Jack Rackham to name just a few. Both Woodes Rogers and William Dampier mentioned the place in their journals. It was also a destination for the runaway slaves known locally as maroons whose word-of-mouth network had it on good authority that they could find help at Mujeres from friendly natives.

The privateers of the early 19th century used Mujeres extensively. Many of them travelled almost constantly from Louisiana, Texas and/or Florida to South American destinations like Cartagena and Caracas, making Mujeres a handy stop. The only known freebooters to take up residence on the island were the Laffite brothers. After they abandoned their Galveston operation in 1820 they moved to Mujeres hoping to establish another privateering stronghold. Their accommodations would have been meager since they apparently never built any proper structures. Jean returned to the sea as a legal privateer for Bolivar and Pierre remained on the island. Native fishermen would later recall him as a friendly gentleman who told good stories. He would die of fever on the mainland in 1821.

Today Mujeres is a tourist destination. Less crowded and built up than Cancun, Mujeres boasts only a few luxury hotels, the remnants of a temple to Ix Chel and beautiful beaches. Day trippers come from the mainland but at night things settle down and a visitor can still walk the broad, Caribbean beach where Pierre Laffite told stories and kept an eye out for his brother’s return from the sea.

Header: Isla Mujeres today

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: A Not So Heroic End

March 22, 1820: U.S. Navy hero Stephen Decatur takes a ball in the abdomen in a duel against Commodore James Barron in Bladensburg, Maryland. Decatur will die in horrific agony days later.

Header: Stephen Decatur by Thomas Sully

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Tom

At sea, a lot of things go by various monikers. As we saw on Monday, a rope can be a cable or a hawser as well. In today’s case, tom does a lot of duty away from land. It might designate items familiar to landsmen, like an axe or a drum, or it may go quite a bit further out. Let’s take a look, shall we?

The two most recognizable uses of the root tom at sea are in the tomahawk and the tom-tom. The first is of course the long-handled axe made familiar to Europeans through contact with Native North Americans. While the boarding axe never lost favor aboard ship, the balance of the tomahawk made it ideal for throwing and so it was used by seamen in engagements. The tom-tom is of course the palm drum frequently found among South Sea islanders and in the Indian sub-continent of Asia. Though frequently thought of as a Native American instrument, and thus categorized by old Westerns, it was in fact an Eastern creation. The tom-tom became familiar to sailors visiting India where it was used to alert crowds to public pronouncements or entertainments like snake charmers.

A tompion, or tompkin, is a circular piece of wood resembling a bottle stopper that is used to stop the muzzle of a pistol, gun or even a cannon. The tompion is placed in the barrel and then surrounded by putty, tallow or some similar substance. This process keeps sea water and mist out of the gun, slowing the accumulation of rust. A tompion can also refer to the stopper fitted between the powder and the shell of a mortar. There is some debate among linguists whether or not our modern word “tampon”, which did not come into common use until the 20th century, is a corruption of the word tompion.

Tom is an affectionate name for a favorite gun, usually found on the bow or quarterdeck and of nine to twelve pounds. These guns are also referred to as chasers. A long tom is, not surprisingly, the same type of cannon with a longer barrel.

A tommy cod is a small variety of that fish seen along the Atlantic coast of Canada in the winter months and sometimes called a frost-fish. A Tom Norrie is a British sailors’ term for the puffin, those black and white Arctic birds with surprisingly colorful beaks.

When it comes to sailor-speak, tom really shines in descriptive language that seems to refer to an actual person. Tom Astoner is a name for a dashing or unusually attractive man, “astoner” coming either from the word astound or the colloquial “astony”, to terrify. Tom Pepper was, according to superstitions of the sea, a man who was kicked out of Hell for telling nothing but lies. Thus, a liar is branded Tom Pepper. Tom Cox’s traverse may refer to going up on hatchway and down another or it may point to someone who is all talk but has nothing worthwhile to offer. “That’s Tom Cox’s traverse if he’s ever seen a fighting action.”

And that, dear Brethren, is all for today. Happy Saturday to ye and yer crew.

Header: Tom Norries in conversation

Friday, March 18, 2011

Booty: Tureen Of Turtle

On Wednesday we talked about moon jellies and the fact that they are a favorite food of sea turtles. Sea turtles, in turn, were a delicacy to pirates and privateers. But how, exactly, did our seafaring ancestors enjoy the meat of these massive and now thankfully protected critters?

The answer is really as many ways as you can imagine. As noted in Wednesday’s post, sea turtles often ended up on the boucans of early Tortuga buccaneers. Though the black pig that ran wild on Hispaniola was the usual BBQ, turtle meat was prized as not only healthier than pork but protective as well. The boucaniers believed that ingesting turtle would keep them from getting the pox. When men like Michele de Grammont and Laurens de Graff were out buccaneering, roasting a turtle whole in its shell was an easy and tasty way to enjoy fresh fare. Turtle meat was also enjoyed fried as a kind of fritter mixed with turtle eggs.

Later, in Henry Morgan’s era, sea turtles were cooked according to where on the animal the meat was originally found. Meat from the lower shell was cooked much like a roast with herbs and sauces. The meat from the upper shell, which was thought to be tougher, was slow cooked in a broth to which the turtle’s eggs were sometimes added.

This broth of turtle, which was also cooked in St. Domingue before and after it became Haiti, came to Louisiana shores and morphed into the Creole delicacy known today as turtle soup. Though sea turtle meat is no longer available, some land turtles are still raised for eating and this is what goes into turtle soup today. Like squid and octopus, turtle meat remains enervated even after being chopped up so it can be a little intimidating to deal with. According to Leon E. Soniat, Jr., the Creole tradition is that the meat will stop moving once the sun goes down. You better start working on his recipe for turtle soup before then, though, or it surely will not be ready by supper time. Here it is in all its glory from his definitive book on Creole cooking, La Bouche Creole:

¾ cups butter
8 tbsps flour
½ lb lean ham chopped into small pieces
1 cup chopped onion
3 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
¼ cup chopped celery tops
1 bell pepper, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 lbs turtle meat, cut into small pieces
2 tsps salt
2/3 tsp black pepper
2 pinches cayenne pepper
4 bay leaves
½ tsp powdered thyme
¼ tsp cloves
¼ tsp allspice
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
4 cups beef stock
1 ½ cups water
1 tsp Worcestershire
2 thin slices lemon
4 tbsps good sherry
1/8 cup finely chopped parsley
2 hard cooked eggs, sliced

Melt butter in a heavy soup pot/Dutch oven. Gradually add the flour, stirring constantly to make a roux. When the roux is medium-brown, add the ham, onion, tomatoes, celery tops, bell pepper and garlic. Mix thoroughly and cook over low heat until the vegetables are browned, about half an hour. Next add the turtle meat, salt, pepper, cayenne, bay leaves, thyme, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg and stir to combine. Add the beef stock and water, stirring again to combine. Bring mixture to a boil and then lower heat, cover, and simmer for about two and a half hours.

Come back to your soup and stir in the Worcestershire, lemon and sherry. Let cook uncovered for ten minutes and then add the parsley. If your soup is too thick, you can add water at this point. Let the soup simmer a few minutes more and then remove it from the heat, cover and let it rest for fifteen minutes. Now stir it up from the bottom, plate it in soup bowls, garnish with the hard cooked eggs and serve with French bread. This recipe serves four to eight, depending on serving size. Bon appetite!

Header: 18th century engraving of a freebooter catching a sea turtle

Thursday, March 17, 2011

People: The Irish Bachelor

The story of John Criss, also known around his native Northern Ireland as “Jack the Bachelor” is probably more legend than truth. There are a few key ingredients that fit into documentation that has come down to us, though, so the tale is worth telling. Especially on Saint Patrick’s Day.

John or Seon Criss is listed in the baptismal records of the local Catholic Church in Lorne on the coast of Northern Ireland as the son of Tiarnan Criss. Though a specific date of birth is not given, the year was 1645. He grew up fishing with his father in the tumultuous era when Cromwell conquered and ruled Ireland, driving Catholics underground to avoid torture and death. It seems that young John chafed not only at English invasion but at the hardscrabble life of a fisherman. He may have been the eldest Criss son as it was he who accompanied his father to the nearest town, Derry, to sell their catches on a weekly basis.

Stories tell us that John grew into a strapping and unusually handsome young man with blond hair and eyes as green as the sea. It may have been in Derry that he earned his nickname because of his “love ‘em and leave ‘em” lifestyle. A town chronicler, writing around 1663, mentions a local seaman who had “… many a girl cock cap at him and …great success with the ladies…” Legend has it that the man in question is our pirate John Criss and this would have been about the time that Jack, fed up with the work and low wage of fishing, turned to smuggling instead.

Ireland is a country of smugglers and became even more so once the English settled in. Jack, in the grand tradition of Grace O’Malley, began taking goods usually reserved for English lords from the islands of Jersey and Guernsey to small towns on the Irish coast. There he could sell them without imposition of the high English taxes. He did so well in this trade that he was able to buy himself a small sloop or galliot from the Frenchmen he was trading with. This was probably in the late 1660s and the purchase marked Jack’s turn from smuggler to pirate.

Jack and a small crew of Irish mates began taking French and English vessels in the Channel, using Dunmanus Bay in County Cork as a base. The prize goods, and sometimes the prizes themselves, would be sold in France or England depending on their country of origin. Legend has it that, to avoid any tales being told of his piracy, Criss drown the crews of every ship he took.

Once again, success pushed Criss to go farther afield and he took his seagoing predations south to the Mediterranean. Finding little to his liking along the coast of Spain, he moved on to Italy where, perhaps due to lack of prizes on the water, he began raiding local villages. One raid in particular, at Amalfi in 1671, is blamed on a Jack Crist from England. Whether or not this is our Jack the Bachelor is up for debate.

Jack seems to have enjoyed the warmth of the Italian coast as he is next found in Naples at a lodging that is sometimes called the Ferdinand. This may be a reference to the Hotel Ferdinand II which operates in Naples today and which was supposedly built by Ferdinand II in the 15th century. It is here that Jack’s lifestyle – surprisingly not piracy but womanizing – catches up with him. John Criss was stabbed to death in his bed at the Ferdinand in 1672. After his body was discovered the authorities found that he was married not just to one woman but to three or possibly four. The story seems to correspond with the killing of another Irish sailor, called Sean Criss, in the 1720s, leaving the identity of the pirate John Criss in question.

What became of Criss’ ship and crew has not come down to us. Neither has the exact identity of his murderer as it does not appear that any of his “wives” were prosecuted. But then it could be that another woman in his life – or perhaps a jealous husband – took care of the Irish pirate erroneously remembered as “the Bachelor”.

Header: Coast of Northern Ireland via

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sea Monsters: A Sea Of Moons

Last week my younger daughter’s birthday coincided with spring break so we all took a little time off and spent it having fun. One of our outings was to the Anchorage Museum to see the new Mammoths and Mastodons exhibit (find information here). While we were at the museum we had to pop in at the Imaginarium and that meant I could visit one of my favorite exhibits: the tank full of moon jellies. There in that dark water, lit from above, the translucent, floating orbs appear to glow from within. They undulate slowly and move even more so, bringing to mind a ghostly apparition. They are spellbinding.

In fact moon jellyfish are a pretty simple organism whose scientific name is Aurelia aurita. Most average about six inches across, although they can be as large as ten. They, like all other forms of medusae including the Portuguese man-of-war which we have discussed before, are not technically one living organism but a set of groups of cells that manage to work together. They have no respiratory, excretory or circulatory systems, although they are equipped with a neural net and gonads. There are, surprisingly, male and female moon jellies but only they know how to tell each other apart. It’s sort of mind boggling if you think about it too long.

These interesting critters are mostly found in tropical and subtropical waters with the Aurelia aurita being common to the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. There are other species of Aurelia – which are impossible to tell visually from the aurita type – that inhabit the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They consume a surprisingly varied diet of mollusks and other crustaceans, larvae, protozoa, fish eggs and even smaller medusae. The food is basically wrapped up in mucus and then directed via a tentacle to the gastro-cavity where it is dissolved by enzymes amoeba-style. Moon jellies can live over a year in good conditions. They live only about five to six months in the wild where, if they are not consumed by the many predators that find them tasty, they generally die from the effort of daily reproduction. That’s right; these guys reproduce themselves on a daily basis so after a few months they are so worn out that they are completely susceptible to infections and cellular degradation.

The thing that makes me particularly fond of moon jellies – aside from how darn cool they look – is their historical ties to seafaring in general and the old school buccaneers in particular. Moon jellies aren’t really capable of swimming per ce and have to rely on the tide to keep them moving. Because of this, and doubtless as a form of protection, they congregate together in groups that reflect moon and starlight at night. Frequent notations in logs and journals about great shoals of jellyfish glowing offshore are probably references to moon jellies. And they would have been a happy sight, not only as an extra source of light on a very dark sea but as an indication of something even more valuable: fresh food.

One of the moon jelly’s most common predators is the sea turtle, particularly the leatherback sea turtle that was a favorite delicacy of boucaniers and buccaneers. Considered healthier than pork, the turtles were savored boiled in stews, fried, roasted and smoked over a boucan to make a form of jerky. They were an all purpose food, and since they were large a few turtles could feed a whole ship’s crew. In the Great Age of Sail, turtles were caught whenever possible by both freebooters and navy ships as a welcome fresh meal. It may be as much an influence of seafarers as location that New Orleans in particular is fond of turtle soup to this day. More on ways to prepare turtle will be forthcoming on Friday.

Moon jellyfish are, thankfully, still relatively numerous all over the world. I’ve yet to see a large group at sea at night, but I hope to. Just another thing on the bucket list, but I’d count such an experience as a little gift from the gods of the sea. Until then, there’s always the museum.

Header: Moon jellies at the Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, Alaska

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

History: Jackson Meets Laffite

On this day in 1767, Andrew Jackson was born in South Carolina. It goes without saying that I love Old Hickory and one of the main reasons I’m a fan is the smarts he used to defeat the overwhelmingly invasion force mounted by the British at the Battle of New Orleans. The 38 year old U.S. Major General had the forethought to enlist the help of those “hellish banditti” he had once decried in the persons of Jean and Pierre Laffite. The mystery of this decision is not why Jackson decided to get in bed with the Devil, so to speak, but how. No credible history remains of when, where or how Jackson met the Laffite brothers. That’s why writing historical fiction is so much fun. If you will indulge me, Brethren, I’ll offer the meeting of Andrew Jackson and the Laffites as imagined in my novel The Heroes of New Orleans. Included in this scene are my fictional heroines doctor and spy Joelle Flynn and her privateering younger sister Juliette who, though not married to Monsieur Laffite, is referred to by him as his “wife” when the situation calls for it:

The carriage pulled up to a house on the dark street. There were no oil lamps along the way to light the mud beneath the horse’s hooves, and the sidewalk at which they stopped was nothing more than wooden planking. As General Jackson looked out the carriage window he could not contain a smile. The two story house, which looked gray and white in the drizzly dusk, had a welcoming feel about it. The windows glowed yellow, like ships’ lanterns in a mist, and even now in the dead of winter daffodils bloomed on the sill of one of those windows.

“We are here, General,” Edward Livingston said.

“I gathered as much, sir,” Jackson replied, the smile still gracing his face as he put his hat on his head. “I have heard much about this lady doctor who is also a spy, and I like what I hear. It does not surprise me in the least that her house has such charm.”

“Shall we? We are right on time.”


Jackson stepped from the carriage and began up the brick walkway to the house without waiting for Livingston or the aid that had accompanied them. He knocked on the door and stood tightening his gloves as he waited for a response. The sound of the lock sliding open could be heard. Livingston and Reid joined the General on the porch and the three of them stood still in the pool of golden light as the door opened.

“Bonsoir, Monsieur le General.” A tall, elegant woman with pale skin, red hair and blue eyes greeted them. She was dressed in a simple, sage green gown with cream lace at cuffs and collar and her bearing was regal. She dipped a curtsy and then stepped back with a wave of her hand. “Bienvenue chez Capitaine Lecavalier.”

“Madam,” the General swept his hat from his head and gave her a bow before stepping into the house. “Do I have the honor of addressing Doctor Lecavalier?”

“Yes General,” Joelle watched Jackson make a leg over her hand and a smiled. “I am Joelle Flynn Lecavalier.”

The other two men had followed the General into the house and Mrs. O’Liddy and Lazare set to work silently collecting everyone’s outer clothes. Once this was done and the guests began to appreciate the warmth of the house, General Jackson took Joelle’s hand once again, this time holding it between both of his.

“Doctor,” he began in a sincere tone. “Allow me to say how very thankful I am to you for the work you have done against our enemies, not only in this state but on the sea as well. While I have not come to the point of condoning the actions of your Baratarians, I find that they must have some redeeming quality if a woman like you speaks so highly of them.”

“My thanks, General, and my thanks for your willingness to meet with my brothers-in-law.”

Jackson’s smile fell away. “Forgive me madam. I’m not as young as I used to be. My hearing sometimes – ”

“You heard me right, General. My sister is the wife of Monsieur Jean Laffite. Now,” Joelle took General Jackson by the arm and, picking up her skirts in her free hand, began to walk toward her study. “Do you come with me if you please and I will introduce you straight away.”
* * * *
Nelson, Juliette’s Bordeaux mastiff, sat quietly next to Jean Laffite. He let go a muffled bark when he heard the knock at the front door. Jean rested his small hand on the dog’s head and said: “Silence, mon ami. C’est Monsieur le General.

“He is here at last,” Juliette said almost to herself.

Pierre shifted in his chair, pulling at his cutaway and smoothing his curly, black hair.

“This is our moment, frère,” Jean murmured without taking his eyes off the door. He stood and fussed a bit with his clothes before continuing. “This meeting will determine the fate of hundreds of men. You had better leave the talking to me.”

“What?” Pierre looked at his brother with frank disbelief. “Let you do the talking on so important an occasion? I hardly think so.”

Jean turned to Pierre with a frown. “There will be no debate, frère. Your letters are always better than mine without question, but when it comes to making a sale, no one can best Jean Laffite.”

Juliette chuckled and folded her hands in front of her unusually demur navy blue gown and watched the study door open.

Joelle stepped in first followed by tall, thin Andrew Jackson. Livingston and Reid slipped in behind them and Mrs. O’Liddy, who had followed them down the hall, closed the door discreetly.

The two groups stood looking at one another for a moment.

Jackson eyed the brothers Laffite, so similar in coloring and height but so markedly different in body type. His first thought was how very French they appeared, as if they had not lived in his country for more than a short time. His second was that the taller one had the unquestionable air of someone who thought himself above the demands placed on the average man, and that the shorter one looked forever in the world like a pirate with his closed left eye and wide-legged stance. He found this off-putting, and he immediately imagined both brothers as shifty, grasping and out for no one but themselves.

Jean and Pierre stared back at the General, thinking very little of him one way or another. Both knew from long experience that their opinions were of no consequence in this instance. They were here to seal the amnesty promised for themselves and their men. The rest would take care of itself.

Monsieur le General,” Jean said at last as he made a deep but dignified leg to Jackson. “I am Jean Laffite and it does me great honor to meet you face to face at last.”

“Mr. Lafeet,” Jackson said as he took Jean’s hand and shook it. “A pleasure sir.”

“Allow me to introduce my brother, Pierre.”

“Sir,” the General said, shaking Pierre’s hand as well and staring into his unusual eyes.

“And my wife, Juliette Flynn.”

Juliette stepped forward and offered her hand to the General. She smiled charmingly as he made his leg and then she said: “We are most privileged to welcome you into my sister’s little home.”

“Thank you indeed, Mrs. Lafeet. I feel it is my privilege to be her guest. I understand ladies,” he turned to Joelle. “That you are the fair product of my own home state.”

“That is true indeed, General,” Joelle said. “Our father’s plantation is located at Glennville, on the Atlantic coast south of Charleston. As I understand it, you hail from the north and the Waxhaw District.”

“Well, you’ve done your research Dr. Lecavalier. I must say I am flattered.”

“Nonsense of course. But enough. My sister and I will leave you gentlemen to your business.”

“Actually, Doctor,” General Jackson said. “I was hoping you would stay. Your advice would be very much appreciated.”

“As you wish.” Joelle did not act in the least surprised by this request, but moved to stand next to Edward Livingston as if she had entirely expected to stay. “What ever I can do.”

“Then I will go.”

Non, Juliette,” Jean said, his eyes narrowing at the General. “Do you stay. Perhaps I will need your advice, oui?” Jean was playing tit for tat and making sure that the number of bodies on his side of the room more evenly matched the ones on the General’s. Juliette moved back to her position behind Jean’s chair. “Now, Monsieur le General,” Jean continued. “Please to have a seat and we can speak of this invasion of the English.”

Jackson took a chair and then he waited a moment or two for Jean or Pierre to begin speaking. His blue eyes stared impassively at Jean as if he could wait much longer if they so desired.

“Monsieur,” Jean began at last. “Allow me, first of all, to congratulate you on your foresight and courage.”

“And how is that, sir?”

“Well, who before General Andrew Jackson has had the good sense to realize the benefit that my brother and I, along with our men, bring to this Herculean endeavor? Prior to this we are treated as outcasts who have no value to either their state or their country. But you, General, you see potential where all others see nothing at all.”

“Except perhaps an opportunity for their own gain,” Pierre added.

“Ah,” Jackson let go a rueful chuckle. “Thusly do we come directly to the issue of Patterson and Barataria.”

“That is water under the bridge, Monsieur,” Jean said with a wave of his hand. “What was taken from us will be returned. I have every faith in the legal system of this fine country. I would prefer to focus on what my brother and I can do for you, General Jackson, and where our men will be of the most advantage.”

Jackson had expected an argument at this point or perhaps a laundry list of ships and goods that should be immediately returned before any thought of service could be considered. “I see,” he said after a moment. “Then let me get straight to the point. Commodore Patterson came to me only yesterday and laid out the desperate state he is in. The Commodore has ships, both frigates and gunboats mounted with cannon, but not enough men to work them.”

“And here we are,” Jean sat back in his chair, crossing his long legs with a smile on his handsome face. “With sailors aplenty and no ships to speak of.”

“Sailors are one thing of course, and would be most welcome, but ships are a limited resource. We need soldiers more than anything sir, men to work our cannon in the forts and men who can shoot.”

“We’ve that in spades as well. Why, two of my finest artillerists have already pledged their service to this cause, Monsieur le General.”

“This brings me to another question, Mr. Lafeet, and one I am hoping you and your brother can answer.”

“I will say with some certainty that we can answer any of your questions.”

“Well good, then. I like a man who does not hesitate.”

Pierre shifted nervously in his chair making it creek under his girth.

Jean ignored his brother.

“Just how many of your men do you believe will take the oath and serve their country against the threat of English invasion?” Jackson asked.

“While it would be impossible to give you an exact figure, Monsieur, I can say without hesitation that the vast majority of the men of Grande Terre will happily fight the English for no more than a simple pardon of their supposed sins.” Jean allowed himself a grin and leaned toward the General conspiratorially. “French blood runs in many of our veins, you see, and there is nothing a Frenchman enjoys so much as killing Englishmen.”

“How many men would you estimate took orders from you on Grande Terre, sir?” Jackson asked, trying to pin down some kind of number that he could apply to the current state of his troops and Patterson’s lack of sailors.

“Oh,” Jean sat back again. “What would you say, Pierre? Four, five hundred perhaps?”

“More like six,” Pierre said.

“Do your men know the terrain?” Jackson asked without revealing his skepticism. “I freely admit my ignorance of all these swamps and bayous other than what I have seen on maps.”

This comment elicited a chuckle from both Jean and Pierre. They exchanged glances and then Pierre said: “Monsieur le General, no one knows the bayous on any side of this city better than my brother and I.”

“Is that true indeed?”

“It is Monsieur,” Jean nodded. “We have navigated these waterways since our youth. There is a saying among the Cajuns and Choctaws that only alligators and ducks are acquainted with the waterways known to les frères Laffite.”

“And you were forthright, of course, when you told Governor Claiborne that you did not pass any of that knowledge on to our enemy?”

The brothers both sat up straight, at the edges of their chairs, and their cool gazes focused indignantly on the General.

Joelle saw the potential trouble brewing and she jumped into the conversation without thinking. “The General is only reassuring himself that nothing slipped into enemy hands unintentionally, I am sure.”

“I was there, General, throughout my husband’s afternoon with Captain Lockyer and his men,” Juliette said. “I can assure you without hesitation that nothing that would in any way compromise our country was offered to the British.”

Jackson looked from Joelle to Juliette and he nodded. Their lovely faces, steady gazes, and familiar accents reminded him of home. “Well, I thank you Mrs. Lafeet. I do not doubt you for a minute. And Dr. Lecavalier is right. Someone like yourself, Mr. Lafeet, must understand my need for reassurance. Particularly given the size and capabilities of the enemy in question.”

Bien entendu,” Jean replied after glancing at his brother. “Do you forgive us any offense.”

“No offense what ever, sirs.” Jackson thought how very cleverly the entire issue had been deflected by the Flynn sisters, and he had no trouble imagining why the Laffites’ had attached themselves to these women. “I have heard,” he continued then, in another tone all together. “That you gentlemen have a number of caches of munitions, gunpowder and flints. I wonder if there might be any truth to such rumors?”

“Have you a lack of arms?” Pierre asked, knowing full well that the General was hungry for every item he mentioned.

“Due to unfortunate delays we are short here and there. I find that good flints are in particularly short supply but we could surely use rifles as well and I am sure I needn’t mention that, with cannon, one can never have too much powder.”

“That is certain,” Jean nodded. “And we are in a position to provide you with all of the items you mention. I remember an inventory of 7,500 flints alone in a warehouse only a day outside the city.”

The General did not try to conceal his amazement or gratitude at this point. Though he was a laconic sort and had never been known to gush, he did smile as he said: “The very mention of so many flints is a great relief to my mind, sir.”

“Then consider it done. I will send a pirogue to fetch the supplies immediately, and you will have them at your headquarters by tomorrow.”

“I thank you.” Jackson rose to his feet and so did everyone else in the room. “I will not keep you then, sir, or your charming family. I will pledge without hesitation that any man from Barataria who enlists within the thirty day window will be given at least temporary amnesty. I will also evince that once this bloody business is done, President Madison himself will have a petition from my hand requesting a pardon for all those who served. I plan on beating back these invaders who threaten my country, or die in the effort. I shall count on your help to assure that they will come no more to fight on our soil.”

Jean’s chin went up and a small smile came to his lips as he offered the General his hand. “You have my word, Monsieur le General, as a gentleman. My brother and I will bring all our forces to bear to insure that yours is a victory that history will never forget.”

“Well, as long as the English never forget it, I’ll be quite happy,” Jackson said with a chuckle. He shook Pierre’s hand and then turned to the ladies. “Mrs. Lafeet, Dr. Lecavalier, may I say what a great pleasure it has been.”

“For us as well, sir,” Joelle said as she and Juliette curtsied.

“Now, before I go I must ask.” Jackson turned toward Nelson who sat on his haunches throughout the meeting panting quietly and eyeing the General. “Is this handsome animal yours, Dr. Lecavalier?”

“Not at all, General, although he is quite certain that my house is his,” Joelle replied. “He is my sister’s dog. A gift from her husband after her recovery from the fever some years ago.”

Jackson looked to Juliette. “The world is a better place for your recovery, madam.”

Juliette gave the General a coy smile and tilted her head.

“What ever type of dog is he?”

“He is a Bordeaux Mastiff, sir,” Juliette replied. “His name is Admiral Nelson.”

“Admiral Nelson?” Jackson frowned as he looked at the enormous, drooling dog once again. “That is unfortunate.”

Juliette, completely unabashed by the comment, giggled. “While I understand your objection given the circumstances, General, allow me to be clear on my intentions in naming so noble a dog. This creature is my best friend, aside from my sister and my husband, and I shouldn’t like to have you in particular go away with a bad impression of him.”

“Well then continue madam. Tell me what prompted you to name your handsome dog after a British Admiral.”

“Even though it must be said that he would be our enemy were he still alive, Horatio Lord Nelson was nothing if not a great naval strategist. His genius can teach us all something, regardless of his country of origin. Then too there is the fact that my dog very simply looks rather like the Admiral for all he has two eyes.”

General Jackson could not hold back a laugh. “Very well put indeed, madam. You have given me something to think about.”

“Oh General. I am certain that you have far more important things to occupy your very capable mind than the naming of my beloved dog, and if you were not so handsome I might let you go without another word. I do hope, though, that you will allow me to escort you out, sir, since my sister had the great honor of escorting you in.”

“By all means, madam.” Jackson offered his arm. “The pleasure is mine.”

“It appears Miss Flynn has the General wrapped around her finger already,” Livingston said quietly and in French once Jackson was out of the study.

“Are you at all surprised?” Jean asked with a grin. “Why do you think I asked her to join us, Edward?”

“Diversionary tactics aside,” Livingston continued. “You have promised the General a great deal, mon ami. What will you do now?”

Jean looked at Pierre, who simply raised his black eyebrows.

“I think it is time for a meeting, mes frères,” Jean said. “And since we have promised flints and munitions, it seems the Temple is the logical place for same.”

Header: Major General Andrew Jackson, a portrait completed after the victory at the Battle of New Orleans

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tools Of The Trade: Cable, Hawser, Rope

Rope is, to this day, a staple aboard sailing ships. The only difference, in that regard, between the average pirate schooner and a modern sailing yacht is what the rope is made from. The subtle variations in the different kinds of rope also continue to apply. Here then is a by no means complete look at rope aboard ship.

There are three types of rope, broadly speaking, used at sea. Most of the rigging used aboard ship would fall under one of these categories. First is plain rope, which is also referred to as common rope. This is the stuff familiar to anyone. Made up of three strands of fiber braided or twisted together, plain rope is sturdy, useful and easy to store. It is not always practical for heavy work, however. In such cases shroud-laid rope comes in handy. Shroud-laid rope consists of four strands of fiber twisted around a fifth, which is referred to as the heart. This type of rope would be used for stays, manropes and so on. When tarred or otherwise weatherproofed, it can last for an entire voyage. Finally there is hawser and cable, which are the sturdiest of the lot. Hawser is made with nine strands of fiber. Basically it is three plain ropes twisted together. Larger rope, sometimes called anchor cable and consisting of twelve strands, is commonly known simply as cable.

The fibers used to make rope have, not surprisingly, changed quite a bit over the millennia that man has been at sea. Most of the changes occurred over the course of the 20th century but those sailing more authentic vessels, even today, tend to stick to rope made of the natural fibers used in the Great Age of Sail. Hemp is one of the most popular historical fibers because of its tenacious strength. Coir, which comes from palm fiber, is relatively strong too and was frequently used in areas where palms were plentiful like the Caribbean. Common cotton was used to make showy, white rope that was good for the day when a dignitary came aboard you at anchor but useless for sailing. Linen, on the other hand, could be made into a somewhat limp but substantially flexible and strong rope.

Modern synthetic fibers used in nautical rope making are as follows: nylon, which is stretchy and strong, Dacron polyester, which has surprisingly little give but is very strong, polypropylene, a lightweight fiber that is not as strong as nylon or Dacron but will float, and most recently Kevlar which is stronger than Dacron but has virtually no stretch what ever.

Choosing the right type of rope for any given task is a critical piece of seafaring knowledge that can make or break not just the work to be done but the vessel itself if one is not careful. Personally, from plain rope to cable, I like hemp or Dacron but to each their own.

Header: Up in the rigging aboard a restored frigate

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Dateline Barataria

March 15, 1809: President Jefferson finally lifts the disastrous United States Embargo Act of 1807, ending what was known as "the long embargo" against the importation of goods from any foreign nation.

For Pierre and Jean Laffite, whose smuggling operation in Barataria was providing New Orleans with all manner of foreign trade, this must have seemed like a blow to their future profits. In fact with continuing tensions with France after the Quasi-War, open hostility against Spain in Florida and Texas, and the imminent War of 1812, the brothers and their band of privateers had nothing to worry about. Business would boom until Daniel Tod Patterson and George Ross destroyed the Laffites' Baratarian base at Grande Terre and Grand Isle in September of 1814.

Header: Grand Isle, Barataria Bay, Louisiana

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Cockade et al

According to Webster’s, the English word cockade comes from the French cocarde which itself originated from the French word for rooster: coq. The item is a badge, originally of ribbons knotted together, that was first worn by French King and eventual Saint Louis IX as a symbol of his commitment to the disastrous Seventh Crusade. The term cockade is often shortened to cock at sea, probably derogatorily as it was unusual in the Napoleonic era for anyone below the rank of Rear-Admiral to dandify their uniforms with such fluff. The U.S. Navy in particular abhorred the things, imagining them as signs of status and class. All that said, there are more cocks to deal with at sea than just those made of ribbon.

Of course there is the cockswain or coxswain who is in charge of any given crew aboard a ship’s boat and often reports directly to the captain. Then we have the cockpit in a man-of-war, and sometimes smaller ships as well, which is the area below the afterhatchway and under the lower gundeck, right next to the orlop where the ship’s surgeon tends the ill. This was generally the place where midshipman, warrant officers and any civilian passengers would berth; in ships of the line they might even have small cabins. The forecockpit near the manger was often the location of storage for the bosun, gunner and carpenter’s supplies. Midshipman and warrant officers mates were sometimes referred to as cockpitarians.

A cock boat is small and used for going inland by river. Originally, any yawl sized boat was called a cock. Fish often get tagged with the moniker as in the cock paddle, which is a type of lump, or the cockle, a familiar mollusk in the northern seas. A cockandy is a British term for the bird we Alaskans know as a puffin.

Cockets are lists of items that should be allowed aboard a ship inspected by revenue officers or custom house men. It is also a term for counterfeit papers and in the galley cocket bread is the same as hard tack.

A cockling sea is one that shows persistent waves that go in various directions, actually breaking against one another. A cocksetus is a boatman. A sailor in high spirits is said to be cock-a-hoop. Cock bill refers to an anchor out of its cathead and ready to drop. Cock-a-bill, on the other hand, is things in a bit of a shambles and at sixes and sevens, a situation to be addressed immediately. Yards a-cockbill are topped by one side being lifted to an angle as illustrated at the header. This is a sign of mourning for someone of extreme importance to ship and crew. Finally, from the days of muskets onward, guns and pistols have a cock to discharge the piece by percussion.

Fine weather and fair winds, Brethren. I’ll see you on the morrow for Seafaring Sunday.

Header: HMS Surprise in mourning by Geoff Hunt, drawn to commemorate the death of the master, Patrick O’Brian, January 2, 2000