Thursday, October 6, 2011

History: Puzzles at the Logwood Camp

Over at the always thought provoking Live Science online, an article about “real pirates of the Caribbean” has some interesting insights into a little-discussed area of piratical life: time by land. Though much has been written about “famous” pirate haunts like New Providence, Madagascar and most especially Jamaica’s Port Royal, scholarly commentary on other less developed pirate settlements is not readily available.


The article focuses on the archaeological findings from a circa 1720 encampment of pirates known as Barcadares. Located in modern Belize on the Belize River about fifteen miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, the place seems to have been chosen by men of various nationalities as a logwood cutting site. The logwood trade, begun during the age of the buccaneers and continuing well into the 18th century, was an illegal operation that plundered logwood from Spanish territories for shipment to English, French and Dutch islands in the West Indies. The wood was used for building and to make expensive dyes, and more than one freebooter subsidized his time at sea by working in these covert encampments.

Excavation at the site was begun in the 1990s by archaeologist Daniel Finamore and the artifacts he and his team uncovered have been analyzed by Heather Hatch of Texas A & M. Ms. Hatch’s findings were recently published in The Archaeology of Maritime Landscapes. According to her, the Barcadares is “… the only clearly pirate-associated site from this period excavated to date” making it, of course, a source of real interest for historians of both nautical and pirate life.

Unfortunately, the veracity of that statement is suspect given the current and ongoing projects both above and below water in and around the Bahamas and North Carolina, just to name a few. The specifics detailed in the article also raise some serious red flags about the analysis as a whole.

The artifacts discussed in the article are fairly specific and sample only two items: pottery/porcelain and clay pipes. Glass bottles which doubtless contained liquor are discussed only in passing and at the end of the article. The one mention of drinking habits in a logwood encampment such as Barcadares comes from 18th century merchant captain Nathaniel Uring who is quoted as follows:

[The men of the logwood camps’] chief delight is in drinking; and when they broach a quarter cask or a hogshead of Bottle Ale or Cyder, keeping at it sometimes a week together, drinking fill they fall asleep; and as soon as they awake at it again, without stirring off the place.

This rings uniformly true from research done by various authorities from Benerson Little to Stephen Talty and beyond. The logwood trade was sporadic, with cutting done at certain times followed by loading onto vessels. The wood was usually paid for in trade with necessities, provisions and especially alcohol. A good sale would be followed by a long bout of drinking. When the liquor was gone, the whole process would start over again.

The finds of pottery and in particular delftware and some Chinese porcelain lead Ms. Hatch to believe that the men of the logwood camp were using goods captured from merchant ships for their daily meals. She compares this fine tableware to the more workaday items found in two sites on the island of Nevis dating from the same period and posits that the pirates were eating communally, mostly from bowls, but trying to give themselves an air of sophistication.

While it is not mentioned anywhere in the article, I feel it is important to note that the sites on Nevis were both centers of sugar production and shipping. These would have been areas were a high concentration of slaves lived and worked. Certainly this does not negate the comparison, but it does raise questions not addressed in the article. Free men, no matter how mean their situation, may do as they please; slaves must eat from the plates and bowls they are given. I would counter here that the men of the logwood camp were simply using what was available to them and that happened to be “nice” china possibly taken during offshore raiding or given to them as payment. It’s hard to imagine men eking out a living in a mosquito invested swamp putting on much in the way of airs.

The questions continue to arise with the conclusions based on the seemingly high number of tobacco pipes found at the Barcadares site. From the article:

Pipes make up 36 percent of the artifacts found at the pirate site, compared with 22 percent at the Ridge Complex [a sugar mill and related dwellings on Nevis] and 16 percent at Port St. George [a sugar processing and transport site on Nevis].

From this, Ms. Hatch postulates that the pirates would have spent most of their time at sea smoking. She is quoted as saying:

They’re not going to be sword fighting all the time… There’s a lot of down time when you’re a pirate, when you’re sitting around in your ship, when you’re waiting for prey, waiting for someone to attack or when you’re sailing from point A to point B.

She goes on to say that pirate crews were large and postulates the “many hands make light work” theory of sailing in such a case.

I won’t go into the obvious problems with this assumption in any detail – work aboard ship is never done and only motorized ships “sail themselves”. I will address the very specific issue at hand: tobacco use and smoking aboard ship. According to Gail Selinger, an acclaimed expert on piracy and sailing who teaches a course entitled “Real Life on the Rolling Sea”, such habits were saved for time by land. In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates she writes:

Smoking tobacco was a luxury done mainly ashore. With the uncertainty of wind and wave, tobacco aboard whip was chewed unless one owned a covered pipe. Clay pipes were the most commonly smoked… [and they] had one drawback: the bowl had to cool after each smoke.

As Ms. Selinger notes, smokers would keep several pipes and use them interchangeably. The ends would be snipped off periodically and eventually the pipe would be discarded. Excavations at Port Royal have turned up thousands of clay bowls from 66 different manufacturers.

Once again, we have an issue of convenience. The finding of more pipes as artifacts does not necessarily indicated heavier day-to-day habits, just more leisure time and most probably more access to convenience in the form of numerous clay pipes.

The whole article was a bit puzzling to me as it feels like a lot of things, both physical and historical, about this site need further exploration. I’m hoping that more experts will take a look at the fascinating artifacts that have turned up at Barcadares. There is certainly a story there, but it seems that it has not yet even begun to be told.

Header: Kidd on the Deck by Howard Pyle

4 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I agree, the analysis in that article appears to be questionable at best and severely lacking in a lot of areas, as you pointed out.

Pauline said...

I was kind of going along with it until I got the analysis of the clay pipes. Reading that made me look at the other assertions and eventually question the entire premise.

Le Loup said...

Good post Pauline, thank you.
Le Loup.
http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com/

Pauline said...

Much appreciated, sir; thankee indeed for passing it on to your readers, too!