Monday, September 12, 2011

History: In the Cards

The British Museum has a curiously ordinary looking pack of playing cards on display in person and on their website (the picture above is from the latter). They were acquired in the Philippines by a Royal Navy officer named Edward Belcher some time in the 1840s. According to Belcher, he confiscated them from a pirate ship he had engaged and successfully defeated.


Belcher, a fascinating individual who really should be the subject of his own post, joined the Royal Navy in 1812 when he was a lad of twelve. He was quite successful and saw the world aboard ship, exploring such diverse places as the Canadian Arctic and the Great South Sea. He was particularly active off the coasts of China, Japan and the Philippines where he zealously – some historians claim over-zealously – tried to stamp out the rampant piracy that had become an institution by the time he arrived in those waters.

Cards, like dice, were a favorite game for many seamen. They were easy to carry and to learn how to play; gambling with them was easy too. Most pirate articles in the West forbade gambling at sea but that doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t go on. Many famous names in piracy, from Bartholomew Roberts to Blackbeard to Cheng I Sao, were reportedly inveterate gamblers.

Belcher did not say why he confiscated the cards and what he actually did with them – perhaps he was a gambling man himself? Regardless, they now reside in the British Museum for the enjoyment of visitors from all over the world. They’re quite lovely, too, and just one of those many seemingly mundane objects that tie us to our collective piratical past.

6 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Cool cards. Interesting link too.

Cards... dice... next you're going to tell us that sailors liked to drink and womanize, too... Wait, you've already told us that... Never mind.

Pauline said...

Yeah, I thought there was some pretty nifty "stuff" at the British Museum website, too.

Danielle Thorne said...

The card case is quite interesting, too, isn't it? As are the graphics.

Pauline said...

I agree, Danielle. Their authenticity inspires the kind of detail that I always appreciate in a period novel or movie.

Jillian said...

Wow! I love it. Looks really cool. Neat historical fact, too.

Pauline said...

Thanks, Jillian; I very much appreciate you input!