Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Grain

Since ships for most of recorded history have been built of wood, the properties of timber were a constant concern in a sailor’s world. The ability of wood to remain sturdy while still bending and stretching make it ideal for the stresses of sea and wind. A good sailor knew just how much his wooden ship, masts and spars were capable of, and that meant knowing the wood and her grain.


Of course timber has a grain, but the language at the dockyard differs, at least in some cases, from that used at the construction site. When a tree trunk is cut horizontally two types of grain are revealed. The silver grain is the circular pattern known as “rings” by which a tree’s age can be discerned. The bastard grain is that which radiates outward and is seen in a plank cut from the trunk vertically. Grain cut timber is that cut through the grain when the grain of the wood does not conform to the shape necessary.

A mast that has buckled is said to have had its grain upset. This is generally caused not so much by a faulty piece of wood but by an inappropriate stepping of the mast itself.

Grained powder is that which has been scraped from black powder cakes for various uses. Sometimes this is known also as corned powder and is distinct from mealed powder. A grains is a lance with five prongs used for catching fish.

Grain is also the French seamen’s word for a squall or water funnel. The term translates to English as a tornado-like weather element that is encountered in the English Channel, particularly off Normandy and Brittany. The grain is said to be preceded and followed by unusual dead calms.

A ship is said to be in the grain of another when is goes directly before it in the same direction. A bad grain is someone who is annoying or troublesome and it is also the term frequently used by sailors of the past to indicate a lawyer.

Fair winds and following seas to you this Saturday, Brethren; and do try not to go against the grain.

Header: Ship at Sea by Edward Moran

Friday, April 29, 2011

Booty: Break Out the Bubbly!

By now all the Brethren have certainly heard of the late 18th century champagne found at the bottom of the Baltic Sea last year. (If not, here’s my original post.) The bottles, hand blown and dated to around the first decade of the 19th century, were pulled up from the wreckage of the ship they were being transported on and their contents caused a bit of a sensation. Not only were the glass bottles themselves in perfect condition, so was the bubbly inside them.


Now, according to this article from Yahoo! News, two of the bottles will be up for auction in June. The historical champagne is the property of the autonomous state of Aland and the government there plans to use the proceeds to fund maritime archaeology and the upkeep of the Baltic Sea environment. They should have no problem with such funding, at least for a while, given that experts are estimating the bottles will sell for $82,000 U.S. (or 500,000 Swedish krona) each. It’s interesting to note that this estimate is up $12,000 U.S. from the original made back in July of 2010.

Experts have tasted the champagne, from other bottles of course, and have some pleasant things to say about it. The bottles up for sale are from two different champagne houses; one is Veuve Cliquot and the other Juglar, a French distiller that the article says “…closed its doors in the early 19th century”. The Veuve is said to be “… more mushrooms” in taste while the Juglar is “…sweet,” with “secondary flavors” of “leather… tobacco [and] dried fruit”. Obviously, very complex indeed. The sommeliers also opine that being in the dark and decidedly cold environment 150 feet under Baltic waters allowed the champagnes to age to their current pallet.

And there you have it, Brethren; your chance to own a little piece of history from a time when pirates and privateers plied the waters of the world and champagne was just one of their sweet rewards. In this case, if you’ve the money to spend, you can have your booty and drink it too.

Header: Champagne Ruinart by Alphonse Mucha

Thursday, April 28, 2011

People: Perpetual Sidekick

The name Olivier La Bouche comes up in stories of more familiar pirates like the name of an actor who consistently plays the wingman. Howell Davis, Sam Bellamy and Bartholomew Roberts are all said to have sailed with La Bouche. After a while, it’s only natural for the curious student of piratical history to wonder about the Frenchman’s story in and of itself. Today, then, I offer what I could piece together.


Some authorities claim that La Bouche was born in France and went to sea early in life. These theories point to a birthplace on the Bay of Biscay, such as La Rochelle, while the minority put the La Bouche family in Saint-Mayo on the Channel. Judging from the dates of known events in his career, however, it is possible that Olivier (or Oliver) La Bouche may have been a native of Saint Domingue, now Haiti. This would have made him a potential son of the original boucaniers, born to be a pirate. Regardless, La Bouche was almost certainly born some time in the 1680s and at sea by the first decade of the 18th century.

We first hear of La Bouche in 1716. By this time he is captaining his own vessel when he meets up with Sam Bellamy. Bellamy, of Whydah fame, had been elected captain of the sloop Mary Anne after her former commander, Benjamin Hornigold, had been marooned by his crew for refusing to attack British ships. La Bouche, who seems to just mysteriously appear in all the stories told of him, hails Bellamy in the fall of 1716 and the two captains decide to sail in company. Whether or not they were familiar with one another prior to meeting is never revealed, but they cruised together with some success until February or March of 1717 when their ships were separated by a storm.

All these exploits took place in the Caribbean and it may be that La Bouche was using one of the French held islands such as Saint Domingue, Guadalupe or St. Kitts as a base. Whatever the case, the captain seems to have set his sights on the slave trade because we next hear of him in 1718 off the coast of Gambia in West Africa. Here La Bouche attacked Buck, the brig of pirate-masquerading-as-slaver Howell Davis. The two captains fired broadsides until both, according to legend, raised their black flags. Recognizing each other as brothers-in-arms, the ships hoisted white flags and the crews settled in to make merry and enjoy the barrels of wine taken from a recent prize. La Bouche informed Davis he was hunting for a new ship and Davis suggested they form a partnership, offering the next prize taken to La Bouche. The agreement was sealed, and the ships began to cruise the African coast.

Perhaps curiously, one of the few details that makes it into every retelling of this story is the ethnicity of La Bouche’s crew. Invariably, although there is no description of La Bouche or even a mention of his ship’s name, historians write that the Frenchman’s crew was half French and half African (with older sources using “negro”). Obviously this is a salient point, or it was at one time, since it comes up so consistently. For me it raises more than one question. Were the black crewmen free or slaves? If they were free men – as I would speculate they were – how did they feel about their French captain capturing slavers and selling the people within for a profit? The list of related issues could go on and on. As usual, history creates more puzzles than it solves.

The next ship La Bouche and Davis met was another freebooter, this one captained by Thomas Cocklyn. The three commanders agreed to sail together with Davis in charge of their flotilla. They captured the English slaver Bird and her captain, William Snelgrave, left a written account of his experiences published in A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave Trade in 1734. Snelgrave basically rates the raiders and their crews on a 1 to 10 cruelty scale, giving Cocklyn and his men a 10 for absolute sadism, Davis’ crew a 1 for good nature and putting La Bouche and his multinational seaman firmly in the middle.

The pirate captains began to disagree more and more frequently as time went on. By the end of 1719, they had gone their separate ways but not before capturing the ship Princess out of London. Her second mate, a sober scholar but snappy dresser, would soon become the infamous Bartholomew Roberts upon the untimely death of Davis.

It seems La Bouche continued to cruise the African coast for he is next documented in 1721 at the island of La Reunion where he is now in company with John Taylor. Here the two pirates happened upon the galleon of the Viceroy of Goa, in harbor for repairs after a storm. She was a virtual treasure ship and La Bouche and Taylor descended on her like ants on a sugar loaf. According to documentation the gold, silver and gems stripped from the ship were worth well over 100 million in modern dollars. Each sailor – approximately 200 in all – received a bag of 40 loose diamonds and La Bouche personally carried away a solid gold cross so heavy that it took three men to lift it. The haul was the stuff of legend, prompting La Bouche to consider retirement or so it seems.

Olivier La Bouche parted with Taylor in December of 1721 but what became of him thereafter is pure speculation. One story says he settled down in the pirate colony at Isle Saint-Mary off Madagascar, living comfortably with a local woman until his natural death. Another says the authorities at La Reunion caught up with the Frenchman and hanged him when they discovered he still owned that enormous gold cross.

Even La Bouche’s name is scrambled like so much gibberish in various stories. In some he is Le Bouche, which is doubtless incorrect. Bouche in French means mouth or muzzle of a gun and is a feminine noun; “la” would be the only prefix possible. In others he is Le Bouse or de le Bouse. Since bouse translates as dung, let’s hope not. Wikipedia tells us authoritatively that Olivier La Bouche was in fact Olivier Le Vasseur, a name I can find in no other source and one which seems to confuse La Bouche with the Tortuga buccaneer Jean Le Vasseur who built the fortress at Basse-Terre. The article proceeds to tell stories similar to what I have recounted with added piratical set-pieces such as an eye patch and an encoded map to “buried treasure”. Finally, a researcher from Louisiana once told me that La Bouche was an alias for Beluche, and Olivier was a relative – possibly even a brother – of my ancestor Charles Beluche. This grandfather to the famous Renato Beluche was born near the Bay of Biscay around 1697 but that’s probably where any similarity, much less relation, to Olivier La Bouche ends.

Whatever the facts, La Bouche, the perpetual sidekick, will be remembered if only by association.

Header: Attack on a Galleon by Howard Pyle c 1905

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

History: Piratical Insurance

I did the corporate grind, as they like to call it now, for something like fourteen years and all of that working for the same workers’ compensation insurance company. Initially it was a way to pay for college but I got good at it and eventually carved out what must have looked like a nice career. Because of my knowledge – and the first mate’s as well – of the WC system, I have always maintained that pirates were the first providers of work comp in history. Apparently, the insurance industry now agrees with me.


The first mate sent me this article yesterday regarding the 100th anniversary of the first WC law in America, enacted in Wisconsin in 1911. The author, an insurance attorney, points out that:

Pirates in the 18th century looking to protect their employees (scurvy mates) from a loss of income (booty) as a result of job-related injuries (there were many) instituted the precursor to modern day workers’ compensation laws.

Even with the farcical tone, the point is very well taken as well as accurate. Perhaps my only issue with that statement would be the “18th century” exclusion. Ship’s articles delineating remuneration for lost time, lost limbs and even loss of life continued into the 19th century. The finest but perhaps the last example of pirate work comp was authored by Jean and Pierre Laffite and applied to both their Barataria and Galveston operations. In fact, these articles were even more broad and inclusive than those of 18th century pirates. Captains like John Philips and Bartholomew Roberts had signed articles, of course, but they only applied to their own ship and perhaps a small group of accompanying prizes. The Laffites’ articles, which should more properly be called commissions, were required to be carried by any captain who wanted to do business with the brothers.

These commissions became almost excruciatingly detailed, naming specifics such as what color flag a ship was expected to fly when it entered the Laffites’ bay (particularly at Galveston) and where it might anchor. Percentages of prize profits were meticulously dolled out to captains, officers, ship’s owners, crews and the Laffites with no room for negotiation. Commissions were executed in triplicate and captains were expected to sign a new one each year with the expectation that each point would be strictly adhered to. The brothers ran a take it or leave it operation and Jean in particular was not above simply revoking a commission and kicking a privateer to the curb if anything shady went on.

Specific percentages were set aside for those injured. These, which generally appear as five percent of total prize value, were turned over to Jean or one of his lieutenants and held for future use. Any man injured in the taking of a prize or the working of a ship would be paid out according to his injury. An eye, for instance, was of more value than a thumb but an arm netted more than an eye.

The Laffites’ commissions were unique in that they also provided for the living relatives of a man who died at sea. There were certain parameters around this – death by suicide or in a duel were specifically excluded, for instance – but generally speaking a man who lost his life in service to his ship could expect any family he had to be taken care of.

More than one interesting point can be raised here. First, although surely the majority of men who sailed on Laffite ships had no family at all, there were enough who did to warrant inclusion of the point in the first place. This gives us an idea of the settled nature of the communities that grew up around the Laffites’ operations. Second, this clause in their commissions speaks volumes with regard to the Laffites’ business savvy and insurance underwriting skills. Of course it was a calculated risk, but if only one in ten men had a relative to claim their death benefit, then a profit could be made.

Perhaps one could go so far as to say that Jean and Pierre Laffite, in their time and turn, went further than simply providing for their men and developed the seed of modern insurance risk taking. At least we can say that their structure of risk vs. retention is the nature of insurance even today.

Header: foundation of what is believed to have been Jean Laffite’s “Maison Rouge” in Galveston, Texas

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tools of the Trade: A Spotless Deck

Keeping a ship in good running condition is a full time job. The running comment by experts on the great age of sail regarding the “boredom” suffered by sailors of all persuasions is a bit perplexing to me. As I see it, unless the entire crew was literally letting their ship rot out from under them, there wasn’t much time for boredom.


Maintaining a wooden deck in and of itself would probably take a crew a week, and then they’d have to start over. This was particularly true in large men-of-war and all that maintenance was over and above the morning swabs and holy stones that kept the deck spotless. Here are just a few examples of what would have been considered routine deck maintenance in the great age of sail (from a post Civil War American manual).

To keep away mildew, mix half bleach with half water and splash the deck daily before a saltwater rinse.

To remove mildew, mix three parts water to one part bleach and scrub the surface thoroughly with it using a very stiff brush (a wire bristle brush is recommended if the mildew is particularly bad).

To take off an oil spot, cover the spot with talc and allow it to set for twelve hours. Brush the talc and oil off with a hard bristle brush (cornstarch will also work for this process if talc is unavailable).

To uniformly whiten a deck before painting, use a 4 to 1 ratio of water to unslacked lime mixed thoroughly. Lay the mixture on the deck as sunset and leave it on overnight. Next day, wash this off before the sun hits it. Scrub the entire deck well with a stiff bristle brush and then rinse it with plenty of water. If small stains persist, lemon juice should take care of them. Allow to dry thoroughly before oiling and painting.

If you find a minor leak in a deck seam, soak it with linseed oil for some time. This will hold until more thorough maintenance can be applied.

Finally, here are two probably ancient recipes for deck oil:

The first is what is now known as teak oil and is made with a 50/50 blend of tung oil and turpentine. Mix and apply with a clean rag. Let sit fifteen minutes and then wipe off with a second clean rag.

The second is a generic deck oil, and it is probable that many ship’s bosuns and/or carpenters had their own version of it. For this one, mix a pint of turpentine and a pint of pine tar in a gallon of boiled linseed oil. Apply this with a paintbrush in liberal amounts and allow it to sit fifteen minutes. Wipe off with a clean, dry rag. This mixture can also be used as a soak for leaky seams.

Of course this is only a small portion of ongoing deck maintenance in truncated form. Though the work would not have been intellectually stimulating, it would most certainly have kept a man busy and tired him out. The question at that point would not have been one of boredom but one of bone-deep exhaustion. Four hours of sleep hardly seems like enough.

Header: Ships at Anchor by R.P. Bonnington

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Farragut's Triumph

April 23 and 24, 1862: The future first Admiral in the U.S. Navy, David Glasgow Farragut, defeats the Confederate Navy in the Gulf and the Confederate Army along the Mississippi to take the Jewel of the South, my home town of New Orleans.  Read more about Farragut's brilliant victory here.

Header: Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut in a contemporary photograph

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Broad

Todays is a word that everyone who has seen an historically set nautical movie has at least a passing familiarity with. Who, after all, has not heard the term “broadside’? But let us save that for last, and look at other seafaring meanings of the word broad first.


Square sails, particularly on a ship-rigged vessel, were often referred to as broad cloth even though they were almost universally made of canvas. A broad pennant is the familiar long, swallow-tailed piece of cloth at the masthead of a man-of-war. This pennant was the signal that she was the “flag” ship of a Commodore and in both the Royal and U.S. navies one speaking of a “broad pennant” might actually be discussing the Commodore himself. This pennant is long and tapers to its end, marking it as distinct from the triangle flags known in Britain as cornets.

Also a Royal Navy term is the Broad R (or Broad Arrow). This is a seal placed on government stores to mark them as royal property. To remove the mark was a felony. According to The Sailor’s Word Book, the seal’s design was originally a Celtic rune. A broad axe is one used for the making of masts by carpenters. They were also kept on ships particularly to cut away tangled rigging or even masts that might put the ship in danger of capsizing. This axe may have been the original beheading axe. It struck fear into nobles who ran afoul of their king because of the axe man’s propensity to strike not once but twice before finishing the job. A French swordsman was considered far more capable, and humane.

Broads were fresh water lakes and the term was used to distinguish them from rivers or inlets. A broad of water was then a very large lake that had access via a river or channel to the ocean making it possible for shallow draft ships to find safe anchor therein.

A broadsword was originally a medieval two-handed sword which most people will recognize in the Scottish claymore. The term was often used during the heyday of the buccaneers to indicate a cutlass, the sword we know today as having a curved blade and heavy pommel. These were extremely popular aboard ship because one did not need much room to wield them with deadly force.

And now for the broadside. Originally, doubtless before the advent of cannon, this was the side of a vessel above the waterline. It came to also mean half the guns on the vessel but is usually thought of in our modern day as the discharging of all guns on one side of a ship. The weight of metal or broadside weight of metal is the amount of iron, by weight, that can be discharged from those guns when all are loaded with single shot. As an example, a broadside of ten twelve-pound guns would equal a weight of metal of 120. A broadside, in naval speak, is also a dressing down or verbal castigation from a colleague or – in particular – from a superior. Interestingly, what we now refer to as broad sheets were called broadsides prior to the 19th century.

And that is a broad enough overview, I should think. Keep yer broadsides loaded, mates and far winds and fat prizes to all the Brethren.

Header: Lady Washington and Lynx exchanging broadsides via The Historical Seaport Blog

Friday, April 22, 2011

Booty: Ask the Captain

Over at one of my favorite websites The Dear Surprise, Royal Navy expert, student of O’Brian and particular friend The Dear Knows has put out a call to readers. The subject could not be dearer to my heart and I’m hoping that some of the Brethren would like to participate as well.


The Dear, who is very worldly indeed, has a connection (or as Stephen Maturin might write in some encoded missive, “connextion”) with none other than the man who helped to train the cast of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in all things seamanlike, Captain Andrew Reay-Ellers. The Captain is willing to answer questions regarding the movie’s production, which The Dear will then post. Such opportunities rarely come along for fans of films, O’Brian and/or seafaring and as such they should not be passed up.

Do you hurry over to The Dear Surprise and post your question(s) in the comments (where you will find mine already waiting eagerly). Then be sure to favorite or follow for not only the answers but future updates to this wonderfully informative corner of the web as well.

Happy Friday one and all; and tomorrow it is Sailor Mouth Saturday.

Header: Peter Weir on the set of M & C

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Home Ports: Cradle of Buccaneers

The island of Hispaniola, which today holds the countries of Haiti and Santo Domingo on her shores, has for centuries been a base camp for all manner of freebooters. Stomping ground, home port and mother island, Hispaniola and in particular the French third of her land, has given us a myriad of colorful characters who are often spoken of here at Triple P. Tortuga, Petit Goave, Basse-Terre, Leogane and even Port-au-Prince were all used by high seas renegades as staging areas. So today, as a bit of a tribute, the history of forgotten Haiti and the contribution of her pirate progeny.


Centuries before Columbus, who “discovered” Hispaniola in 1492, the Taino people arrived. They most probably came in long canoes – similar to Polynesians in the South Pacific – from what is now Venezuela. They spoke an Arawakan language and are therefore sometimes mistakenly referred to as Arawaks themselves. These people named the island “Ayiti” which is where the modern name Haiti comes from.

The Taino had a complicated system of government that broke Ayiti into five kingdoms ruled by caciques. Twenty years after Columbus’ first landing the Spanish decided to wrest control of the island from the Taino. Not necessarily warlike by nature, the Taino were also not about to back down to the invaders and destroyed both the settlements of Saint Nicolas and La Navidad. All this was done under the leadership of Taino cacique Anacaona, the widow of Caonabo. Despite her valiant resistance, Anacaona was captured and hanged with all ceremony. The message was clear and the Taino people, for the most part, fell under the rule of their new overlords. The majority of the population was wiped out by smallpox, pneumonia, gonorrhea and other decidedly European diseases.

In 1517, with the indigenous population rung out as a source of free labor, Charles V of Spain authorized European indentured servitude and the importation of African slaves to Hispaniola. This decision would bring a fatal mix of disgruntled people, mostly male at first, to an under-protected backwater, leading to runaways and even small revolts. The men ran to the island of Tortuga where they became the original boucaniers, hunting black pigs and raiding small merchant craft.

Interestingly, a good many of the indentured servants in Hispaniola (and on surrounding Caribbean islands) were French. They set up shop on Tortuga, creating their own outlaw paradise that saw the inclusion of women – at this point, often runaway slaves – by the mid-16th century. By 1600, these people were heading out in ships and striking in particular against the Spanish. The most infamous of the era was Francois L’Olonnais. Born David Nau in the Olon region of France, indenture under a brutal Spanish master seems to have driven him insane. When he took up buccaneering he became a brutal monster, torturing Spanish captives without remorse and licking their blood from his sword.

By the 1660s the fame – and success – of these buccaneers had spread prompting French, Dutch and English adventurers to voluntarily travel to Tortuga and take up the black flag. When former buccaneer Bertrand d’Ogeron settled in the Massif de la Selle above Petit Goave and began successfully growing tobacco, France herself took note. Colonists immigrated to Hispaniola from France and French islands in the Caribbean. Spain naturally saw this as an invasion (as they had always imagined the buccaneers to be invaders, it was a natural progression) and hostilities on the island reached a fever pitch in the 1690s.

In 1697 the Treaty of Ryswick officially divided Hispaniola, with the western third going to France and becoming Saint Domingue. Immigration boomed and by the start of the French Revolution in 1789 there were upwards of 40,000 colonists of French descent on the island (by comparison, French Canada had a population of approximately 63,000 Europeans at relatively the same time).

With the Revolution, though, came the breakdown of the institutions that had made Saint Domingue a wealthy colony. When Robespierre announced the abolition of slavery at the end of 1793, the slave revolt led by Jean Jacques Dessalines in 1791 was confirmed as valid. By the end of 1794 Saint Domingue was at peace and under the capable governance of Toussaint Louverture, a former slave and brilliant military leader.

This taste of freedom was short lived, however. Bonaparte, in need of income for his war machine, reinstituted slavery and the plantation system in France’s Caribbean colonies. Louverture was hauled off to France in chains and died in a dungeon. The now free black Saint Domiguens, unwilling to return to slavery, revolted again and this time the consequences were brutal. Out of this unfortunate bloodbath, which saw an unprecedented exodus of white, mixed race and free black people from the island, came men who are surely familiar to the Brethren. The Laffite brothers, who were certainly not born in Port-au-Prince as many writers would have us believe, may very well have done business – possibly piratical business – out of the city prior to 1804. Dominique Youx, that old sea dog and “bravest of the Baratarians”, was almost certainly born in Saint Domingue. Other privateers of the era were probably the product of the upheaval on the island as well, though their names are lost to us.

When the dust settled, the newly christened Haiti became the first and only free nation born of a slave revolution. At the height of the privateering era, in 1817, Haitian President Alexandre Petion would first welcome the Liberator Simon Bolivar at Aux Cayes and then supply him with ships, men and arms. All in exchange for the promise that slavery would be abolished in Grand Columbia once Bolivar’s revolution was successful. The privateer that saw Bolivar safely to and from Haiti was none other than Renato Beluche in his sloop General Arismendi.

The story of modern Haiti is less glorious than her past, of course, but that is due in large part to foreign influence and not her generous people. Personally, I feel that historians – who tend to glorify New Providence and Port Royal as the crown jewels of pirate ports – should give a little more attention to the western third of Hispaniola, where buccaneers and privateers were born.

Header: Navigational map of Hispaniola c 1639

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ships: Armada of Spain

For over a century the Spanish Navy with its enormous fleet of warships was the largest and most expensive part of the greatest war machine of the era. From approximately 1492 until well into the 17th century, the fleet which we now collectively refer to as the Spanish Armada, ruled the waves by transporting conquistadors to the New World, assisting in their conquests and then hauling the unimaginable wealth collected from Caribbean islands and North and South America back to Spain. The first chink in the armor of Spain’s fleet cracked open in 1588 when England bested her soundly in the English Channel. But what kinds of ships made up the Armada? More than you might imagine.


When we think of the Spanish Armada we generally imagine the 130 ships that were sent toward Britain in July of 1588 under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia. In fact, more than one Armada – which means fleet in Spanish – was on the water at any given time. The treasure armadas that were such popular targets for buccaneers and pirates usually consisted of four or five ships lead by a large galleon named for the Virgin Mary as in Nuestra Senora del Rosario built in 1587. The Armada de Barlovento was a flexible fleet that patrolled the waters of the New World routing out said pirates and buccaneers as well as putting down any unrest in Spain’s colonies. In particular, the Armada of Medina Sidonia was a specially assembled flotilla and its many ships give us a good glimpse of the kinds of sailing vessels favored by Spain.

The 130 ships that sailed north toward the enemy that summer broke down this way: first, there were 20 large galleons ranging in size from 250 to about 1,000 tons. The largest, the previously mentioned Nuestra Senora del Rosario, displaced 1,150 tons, carried 50 heavy, short-range guns and was crewed by 445 men. These galleons, which are the types of ships most people imagine when they hear “Spanish Armada”, were lumbering behemoths compared to the smaller, spritely, and easily maneuvered galleons of the British fleet. They could pound away on an enemy but they were often crewed by inexperienced men pressed into service or even enslaved. This was particularly true of Medina Sidonia’s Armada, and the lack of experience had devastating consequences.

Next, eight oared galleys attended the mighty galleons. These were shallow-draught vessels of about 150 feet long and very much modeled on the Barbary galleys of the Mediterranean. They were completely unsuited to the tribulations of northern waters, however. By the time the Armada limped home all had been wrecked or sunk.

Many merchant carracks, something in the range of between 30 and 40, were pressed into the service of the Armada. They were modified with the addition of heavy guns and high fore and after castles to make space for same. The carrack crews were merchantmen and generally had no training in engagement at sea. Most of these ships were also lost, particularly along the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

The Armada was rounded out by three masted pataches which, though probably as maneuverable as the British light galleons, were used predominantly for carrying dispatches and scouting enemy positions. There were transports as well which carried stores but could hardly keep up with the fleet, many of them falling into the hands of the enemy as prizes.

Though their fleet was indeed formidable, Spain’s mighty Armada was undone by a combination of location, weather, and experience at sea. Not only were many of Medina Sidonia’s sailors inexperienced but he himself had never led a major naval engagement. On the other side, however, seasoned seadogs Howard of Effingham and Henry Seymour commanded 35 and 94 vessels respectively each manned by crews who had sailed with the likes of Hawkins, Drake and Cavendish. Though on paper Spain seemed to hold all the cards, fate had other plans.

In another post we will discuss the details of the Spanish galleon, that workhorse of a mighty empire. For today, though, we will leave with the memory of the great Armada of Spain sailing out of Corunna in the bright, Atlantic sunshine. It must have been something to see.

Header: Small British galleon vs a large Spanish type via WikiHistoria.com

Monday, April 18, 2011

History: A Confederate Ship in the Arctic

A few weeks back we talked about the hardened warrior Confederate Sailing Ship Shenandoah and her foray into Melbourne, Australia. She and her crew were all the rage Down Under, taking on supplies and men even though – technically – Britain was supposed to be neutral with regard to America’s Civil War. The truly funny thing about that is that Shenandoah was built in Britain and illicitly handed over to the Confederate Navy off the coast of Africa in 1864. That’s not exactly neutrality. So the uproar that went along with her stop in Melbourne was a little disingenuous, to put it mildly.


Shenandoah was provisioning for the long trip to icy Arctic waters when she dallied a while in Australia. “Dally” might be the operative word. It was the custom of naval officers at the time to give a button from their uniform to a lady they had “spent time with ashore”. Melbourne legend has it that the officers of Shenandoah left that city with their uniforms held together by string. Clearly a good time was had by all but the mission ahead was one of hard work, attention to duty, and cold. Doubtless those Southern gentlemen wished they had their buttons back when they arrived off the coast of Alaska in 1865.

The warship was on a mission to shut down the Union whaling fleet in the Arctic, and she was tremendously successful. Her Captain, James Waddell, systematically sank, burned or took as prize any enemy whaler he came upon costing the Union close to $20 million dollars in lost whale oil, baleen, ships and men. To his credit, Waddell took as prisoner and ultimately released every man and boy aboard the enemy ships. No lives were lost on either side in any engagement. He and his men were so charming, in fact, that some of the whalers defected to the Confederate cause and joined Shenandoah’s crew.

The problem with Shenandoah’s Arctic success was that most of it occurred after the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865. Even when confronted with newspapers proclaiming the surrender of Lee at Appomattox, Waddell refused to believe that his cause was done. Convincing himself that Confederate troops must be continuing to fight, he came up with a plan to raid the Gold Rush city of San Francisco. He headed south with all sail packed on and was only a week away from San Francisco harbor when Shenandoah was haled by a British ship, possibly a whaler in her own right, who confirmed the news Waddell had tried to ignore. The Confederate States were no more and her leaders, including Jefferson Davis, were behind bars. Worse still, Waddell and his men were now outlaws being hunted by the Union Navy and already sentenced to hang.

Waddell set a course for the Horn and, while at sea, painted and rerigged his ship to make her less recognizable. He avoided the well used sea lanes and, amazingly, sailed into Liverpool Harbor in England on November 5, 1865. Waddell surrendered Shenandoah to the British Navy. He and his men were welcomed, not as prisoners of war, but as guests. The U.S. kicked and stomped and shook its fist but Britain refused to extradite men to be hanged. Eventually most of the crew, and all of the officers, of Shenandoah returned to the states (although many of the Australian crew members went back to Melbourne).

Captain Waddell died in 1886 and, perhaps surprisingly, was remembered as a naval hero. So much so, in fact, that a destroyer built in Seattle in 1962 was christened USS Waddell.

The exploits of CSS Shenandoah, which lasted just over a year, are one of the many fascinating stories from America’s Civil War that most of us are never told. If you’ve a curiosity about Captain Waddell and his ship-of-war, look for the book The Last Shot: The Incredible Story of CSS Shenandoah and the True Conclusion of the Civil War by Juneau author Lynn Schooler. Here, once again, the truth of history is so much better than any fiction.

Header: Contemporary photograph of CSS Shenandoah among the Arctic ice

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Neptune's Car

April 16, 1853: The famous clipper ship Neptune's Car was launched out of Portsmouth, Virginia.

Header: Clipper ship Lightning via njscuba.net

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Sheet

When I saw Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in the theater a not uncommon misconception came up in the audience during the first engagement between Surprise and Acheron. Jack Aubrey gave an order regarding “tacks and sheets” and the gentleman behind me repeated the words as a question. His lady companion, in rather a self-assured manner, said: “He means the sails.” And that was the end of that.


In fact, Jack was not referring to the sails at all, but to a specific part of their mechanism. A sheet is a length of rope or cable attached to one or both of the lower corners of a sail. They are then fastened to a yard to keep the clue, as the corner is known, down and allow the sail to do its job of catching the wind as a means of propulsion. When sailing with a side wind, certain types of a ship’s sails are held down on one side with a tack (which is almost always made of rope) and the other with a sheet. The common usage is to put a tack to windward and a sheet to leeward. While tacks are disused in specific situations (when running before the wind, for instance) all sails’ are held down by at least one sheet while in use.

Sheet may refer to other items aboard us as well. A sheet-anchor is one of the two smaller anchors held just behind (abaft) the foremast. The other is known as a spare. These are used in harbor and particularly in dirty weather to take some of the strain off the bow, where the two main anchors are generally attached. Use of hemp cable almost exclusively for sheet and spare anchors helps as well, as it is more elastic than rope made of some other materials.

A sheet bend is a double hitch in a sheet used for connecting two pieces of sheet together to elongate them. A sheet cable is the hempen rope spoken of before used with a sheet and spare anchor, particularly in deep water.

Sheet copper is that rolled out into thin sheets for coating – or “coppering” – the bottom of a wooden ship to deter worms, seaweeds, barnacles, etc. A sheet-fish is a type found in northern European lakes that was considered a bit of a delicacy by sailors, being as it is not of the salt water varieties that they were used to.

Sheet home! can be an order to extend the sheets as far out on the yards as possible in order to fill them with an advantages wind. It can also refer to driving something home as in hitting a nail with a hammer.

Finally, of course, we have all heard of someone being “three sheets to the wind”. The addition of “three” is a lubberly misunderstanding of what a sheet is. A sheet in the wind, as the saying went at sea, meant that a sailor was half-drunk as a sail was only half-useful if one sheet came loose allowing that corner to flap in rather than catch the breeze.

Happy Saturday, Brethren. I’m for a mug of grog, and maybe even a sheet in the wind.

Header: A Sheet to the Wind by Don Maitz

Friday, April 15, 2011

Booty: "... We Must Fight"

In Rafael Sabatini’s archetypal pirate novel Captain Blood, the titular hero sails his ship between two Spanish galleons, guns blazing both larboard and starboard. The scene is nail-biting in the book but the risk pays off; Blood is successful in his fight with the larger, better armed Spanish foe. The scene was translated nicely to the big screen in the 1935 film of the same name, with Errol Flynn as Blood exhorting his crew through the struggle to ultimate victory.


Though Sabatini claimed that physician turned slave turned pirate Peter Blood and his exploits were inspired by Henry Morgan, it bears noting that Blood is a far better sailor than Morgan ever was – or cared to be. As more than one writer has noted, Blood actually resembles none other than Triple P favorite Laurens de Graff. The tall, handsome, Dutchman whose bravery was legendary among the Brethren of the Coast actually did sail his ship between two galleons of the Spanish Armada and came out the better for it. As all good writers know, you can rarely best history with fiction.

Before de Graff and his crew of French, Dutch, British and African pirates met the famed Armada de Barlovento of the New World, Laurens gave a rousing speech to encourage his fellows to action. Some of de Graff’s impromptu words were documented by Alexander Exquemelin and they ring as true today as they did over 300 years ago:

You are too experienced not to understand the peril we are running and too brave to fear it. It is necessary here to be cautious of all yet to risk all, to defend and attack at the same time. Valor, deception, fear and even despair must all be put to use on this occasion; where, if we fall into the hands of our enemies, nothing awaits us but all sorts of infamies, from the most cruel torments to, finally, the end of life. We must escape their barbarity, and to escape, we must fight.

No matter what life throws at you, Brethren, today or any day, remember the words of Laurens de Graff. Be cautious of all yet risk all but above all: fight.

Header: Errol Flynn as Captain Peter Blood c 1935

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Women At Sea: The Mysterious Mme Beluche

The private lives of historical corsairs are often lost in the rush to tell of all their daring do. Swinging from ropes a la Errol Flynn is a lot more exciting than drawing room disagreements, but even Hollywood knew that a pretty lady made a pirate that much more appealing. For me personally, today’s story is the kind of mystery that can keep you up at night. So many unanswered whys and hows come up that it is maddening and yet all of what we know is documented. Of course, the family connection only makes me more curious. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.


In 1808 the New World colonies of Spain decided that they would not recognize Napoleon’s brother Joseph as the King of their mother country. Most of them did this without communicating with one another and at a very volatile time in their history. The first hints of revolution would come in the form of Miranda in 1810, and Bolivar’s impossibly successful revolt would begin to percolate in 1811. This first upheaval had world wide repercussions, particularly for France and for her people in the New World.

Those most directly and immediately affected were French citizens who had fled Haiti in 1803. Many had found a home in Louisiana but some had settled in Cuba, which at the time was under the rule of mother France. In 1809 the tide turned, the Governor in Havana declared all French citizens spies and gave them the ridiculous timeframe of 10 days to voluntarily leave the country or be jailed and deported to French Ghana. Even then, no one wanted to go to French Ghana.

Enter those “hellish banditti”, Laffite’s Baratarians. Led by Haitian born Dominique Youx and Louis Aury, any Captain with an available ship signed up to transport the French refugees from Cuba. Some of the refugees would go to Pensacola, some to Mexico, but the majority would seek asylum with relatives in New Orleans. Among the transport ships was the brig Emilie, owned and captained by Renato Beluche.

How many people Beluche took aboard him and exactly when is lost to history. We do know that he was probably at sea transporting refugees in the summer of 1809. We also know that by the fall of that same year he had married a woman of about 27 years old named Marie Magdeleine Victoire Milleret. The new Madame Beluche was born in Port-au-Prince so it is well within reason to assume that she was among the refugees aboard Emilie. While the bride’s age gives us a little hint about her personally – this was an era when a lady would have been considered an “old maid” by the age of 21 – other interesting facts create more questions than they answer.

It appears that Magdeleine and Renato were married in a hurry, within just a month or two of meeting one another. They also went to Campeche, in Mexico, to be married. We know this only from later documentation in legal filings which state that the couple was married “… in Campeche without contract”. In other words, there was no wedding certificate.

At the time Beluche owned property in New Orleans on Rue Esplanade but he and his bride appear to have taken lodgings in an apartment on Rue St. Louis not far from the cathedral. Magdeleine had family in the city, an aunt known as “the widow Thomas” who came to New Orleans – doubtless in the first wave of Haitian refugees – as Marie Catherine Loublan. All seemed rather cozy for a time as Beluche prepared a new schooner, Camillus (or Camille), for privateering and Magdeleine settled in to her role as Madame Beluche.

Almost exactly six months later, Beluche walked out on his bride. He abandoned the St. Louis Street apartment, taking all his doubtless meager processions, and did not make any effort to support or even contact Magdeleine again. Though court documents filed in 1821 state that she approached him whenever he was in New Orleans and begged him to return to her, Beluche would have nothing to do with the woman he had so hastily married.

The court action, a request for separation “…from bed and board”, was filed by Magdeleine who had been living “… quite destitute of any means of subsistence” for the past eleven years. In fact, Magdeleine took up residence with her aunt who, along with Magdeleine and a few friends, gave a deposition in the case. From the widow Thomas’ deposition:

… at that time the witness [Thomas] tried to bring back Mr. Beluche’s sentiments to [his wife], but that it was impossible; that in one conversation in which she strongly insisted on reconciliation, Mr. Beluche replied to her that it was useless, that before he would reconcile himself with his wife the River would cease to flow, and that he would much prefer to face the cannons than have anything to do with his wife…

These are strong words in an equally unusual circumstance. The average number of yearly petitions for separation in New Orleans at the time was two for whites, five for free people of color and – perhaps surprisingly – three for slaves. In a predominantly Catholic culture, such requests were unheard of. Magdeleine, who was by this time approaching old age at forty, was clearly at her wit’s end. But so too, it seems, was her forty-one year old husband who, it is pertinent to note, refused to answer any of the court’s requests appear in the case. His one answer to a summons, written by his attorney, was as brief as his marriage:

This defendant denies all and singular the facts and allegations in the said petition contained. Wherefore he prays to be dismissed of all costs.

What brought these people to this pass? Why did Beluche, by all accounts – including the depositions of acquaintances in this particular case – an honorable gentleman for all the courts might imagine him to be a “pirate”, walk out on his responsibility so quickly after his wedding? One deposition, that of Monsieur Hypolite Vitrac, tells us tantalizingly that Beluche said “… it was impossible for him to live with his wife because of privy causes…” and that is all.

It probably goes without saying that Magdeleine won her suit against Beluche. She proceeded, in 1822, to petition the Louisiana legislature for a legal divorce so that she might sue Beluche for support money. Her petition was in the process of approval when she, suddenly it seems, died. Beluche, always lucky in prizes, got what he doubtless perceived as a break in the muddled case of his first marriage. Marie Magdeleine Victoire Milleret Beluche was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 on March 14, 1822.

Renato Beluche, now legally free to marry his mistress and mother of his two daughters Marie Mezelle Beaudri de Espocita, did just that in 1824. Friends claimed he never spoke of what brought him to the point of abandoning his first marriage and that secret went to the grave with him in 1860.

So what’s my speculation on this marital mystery? It’s really nothing fancy; in fact it’s as old as the hills and as current as reality TV. I believe that Renato Beluche had lost a love to a rival before he set out to assist refugees in Cuba. Vulnerable, he attached himself to Magdeleine who, seeing perhaps her last, best chance at marriage, fell into bed with him and then claimed to be pregnant with his child. Six months would be more than enough time to prove her lie and Beluche, both angry and ashamed at being so easily duped, left and never looked back. It is at least a plausible theory with a little bit of old Hollywood romance to boot.

Header: Young Girl with a Blue Dress by John Lewis Krimmel c 1815 (Magdeleine was described as “pretty, with blond hair and plump features”, much like this anonymous lady)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Smugglers' Roads

We have spoken on many occasions about the great service done to the pirate and/or privateer by the smuggler. It is one thing to know how to run a ship, keep a crew smart and take a prize. That is work a sailor can wrap his brain around. It is an entirely different endeavor to get prize goods from ship to market without the authorities poking their noses into your business, and taking your livelihood right out of your hands. As you stand there on deck looking at your seemingly good fortune you wonder, what to do now?


That’s when the smuggler becomes your best friend.

It goes without saying that some smugglers were independent operators, buying their goods at cost usually from a foreign source and then bringing them into their own country under cover of night to avoid paying tariffs or duties. The majority of historical smuggling, however, was done by experts who worked with freebooters to their mutual gain. Of course the pirate would be expected to give a cut of his prize to the smuggler, but in the end it was very much worth it. Our seafarer could be back on the water taking another prize while his smuggling connection was selling the goods from the last one. Faster turnover meant more profit and a win for everyone.

Smuggling rings fed goods by pirates have existed for centuries. The Romans battled for years with Cilician pirates who also ran a profitable smuggling business. Grace O’Malley headed an outfit of pirates and smugglers that made her family wealthy. Even the infamous Blackbeard worked with a smuggling ring in and around Charleston, South Caroline who readily sold prize goods and slaves for he brought in to Ocracoke Inlet.

The most sophisticated operation in recent memory – and perhaps in history – was the Laffite brothers’ Barataria. Rivaled only by their Galveston network, the Laffites’ system for providing a literal outlet store for prize goods made Barataria a one stop shop for everyone involved in both privateering and smuggling. The location, with it’s innumerable access to the city of New Orleans via bayou and swamp, was unquestionably made for the savvy smuggler. It helped that the city and the entire area had a long history of not only tolerating but embracing smuggled goods and smugglers. The business really took off in Louisiana when the French turned to territory over to Spain who brought high tariffs on all imported goods along with them. The Creole natives, used to getting goods from France almost literally at cost, weren’t about to put up with Spain’s taxes and the rest is history. Smuggling in and around New Orleans has not completely disappeared to date, but it has fallen off considerably since the recall of prohibition.

A fine reminder of this kind of symbiotic relationship was accidently found recently in Hastings, England. Situated on the Channel where England brushes very close to the northern coast of France, Hastings and its surrounding area have a long history of both smuggling and freebooting. Just as one example our friend John Criss of Ireland would have known Hastings well in both his smuggling and pirating exploits.

As this article from The Hastings Observer notes, recent excavations in the city revealed a hand-hewn tunnel that archaeologists have determined was built in the 18th century. From the article:

…Archaeology South-East were call in and confirmed the find was likely to be a smugglers’ tunnel built in the early 18th century and used to smuggle goods such as tea, tobacco, alcohol, silk and sugar – usually to avoid paying duty.

Though the tunnels are currently closed to the public, they are open for ongoing research by historians and archaeologists. As the old saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. But for those of us with piracy and smuggling in our veins it’s nice to see how clever our ancestors could be, exasperation of local authorities apologized for, of course.

Header: View of the Hastings tunnel via The Hastings Observer

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

History: Medicine and Memory

On this day in 1861 the American Civil War official began. A bleak and unfortunate conflict in which thousands lost their lives in bloody battle that raged not only on land but also at sea, the Civil War is nonetheless the most written about, remembered and reenacted of all wars in which the U.S. has participated. The problem, at least for me, is that memory serves in much of this specific case very, very poorly.


A small example is this article from Discovery News entitled Civil War Changed Medicine. There is no question that some of the points made in the article are valid beyond question. It was during the American Civil War that doctors – at least those attached to the armies – began to question the efficacy of sanitation. As more and more men died not just of wounds but of infections that developed after those wounds had been dealt with, experts took note. The idea that things like a scrubbed work surface, instruments that had not just been wiped on a bloody apron to “clean” them and washed hands might at least give a patient a fighting chance began to take root. Specialized fields of medicine also grew up around the injuries and traumas of the war including anesthesia, plastic surgery and neurology. Unmentioned in the article but important to remember as well is the beginning of post-traumatic psychology. Men who had been exposed to horrific conditions on battlefield or, in particular, as prisoners of war in places like Andersonville and Camp Douglas needed more than a little help to readjust to civilian life, and medicine began to take note.

The article, though, focuses most specifically on the innovations proposed and implemented by Union Army surgeon Jonathan Letterman, and it is here that more than one contribution by men – and women – who went before Letterman are surprisingly glossed over. You should read the article at your leisure to get a feel for where the author is going with it but allow me to point out a few historical notes that slip completely from view in this case.

First, I feel it is important to mention Florence Nightingale’s groundbreaking work during the Crimean War in the 1850s. Miss Nightingale proved that sanitation and hygiene could improve potential mortality rates in injured soldiers. It goes without saying that the U.S. did not exist in a vacuum and that Nightingale’s findings, and those of others, would have been known to Letterman and his fellows.

The article goes on to completely discount lessons learned during prior U.S. wars. From the article:

Medically, the United States was woefully prepared when the Civil War began… Nearly 80 years had passed since the end of the American Revolution, the country’s last major war.

This aggravatingly off-handed remark, thrown to the author by an expert no less, ignores one of the most vital contributing forces to the revolutionary strides in medicine currently attributed to the Civil War: the Navy.

Between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars the U.S. was involved in the Quasi-War with France and the First and Second Barbary Wars with Tripoli and Algiers. These wars were largely naval in nature and, unlike the remark quoted above, did not see Navy surgeons lacking in injuries to treat or innovations in treatment. The U.S.’s second war for independence, the War of 1812, also goes unaddressed. A bloody conflagration fought on American soil and at sea, this shamefully forgotten conflict also pushed medicine to new discoveries.

Letterman himself was impressed by the Navy surgeons he knew, who were able to “… apply vinegar, set bones and dose with laudanum…” without injured men having to lie in the muck of a battlefield waiting desperately for first transport and then assistance. It was this urgency of treatment and relative hygiene, which saw sailors recovering from injuries far more frequently than soldiers, that probably led Letterman to his “eureka” moment. If he set up triage and treatment tents on battlefields he could help and perhaps even save men whose lives would have been lost in prior wars. Letterman’s system, as the article notes, was a medical breakthrough and is still in use today.

Of course I could go on, but that kind of stomp your foot vexation never proved a valid point. Suffice it to say that we are missing a lot of history, and doing our ancestors a grievous disservice, when we imagine that the sum and all of the American experience culminated at Gettysburg. Those who came before, and those who chose life on the wave, contributed just as much.

Header: Jonathan Letterman via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, April 11, 2011

People: The Thames and Poetry

We've discussed London’s famous, and infamous, river Thames and the piracy that abounded during the hey day of the boatmen who rowed from one shore to another for a fee. This was during the reign of the Virgin Queen and James I and at one point in 1641 there were some 4,000 boatmen in the watermen’s union. Needless to say, not all of these were honest characters but some, at least, were ingenious, talented and quirky.


The man who lives up to all three of those qualities was born in Gloucester around 1580 and went by the name of John Taylor “the Water Poet”. According to one source he attended a grammar school in Gloucester until it was time to learn Latin, a language which the rough-hewn John never got the hang of. As a young man, Taylor first spent time in the 1590s aboard ship as a sailor, serving at the siege of Cadiz. Returning to London, he operated a scull on the Thames, taking passengers for a fee and then regaled his captive audiences with his poetry.

He was, in fact, an excellent poet and his topics ranged from current events to other poets to troubles on his familiar waters. In fact, he pulled the kind of thing that modern writers frequently do when they get a few minutes alone with a literary agent: he pitched his writing to wealthy passengers. Most of Taylor’s 150 publications were accomplished by subscription wherein Taylor would accumulate backers and pay for the printing of his work with their money. In one particularly famous case, some of the backers did not come through with their shares of the funding and received harsh criticism in verse from the injured poet.

Taylor published while continuing to work as a full-time waterman. On top of all this, he had a penchant for performing stunts that drew publicity to him personally and to his poetry. His The Penylesse Pilgrimage told the story of his adventures while walking from London to Edinburgh and back without any cash on hand. As the frontispiece read in part:

The Pennylesse Pilgrimage; or, the Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor, alias the Kings Magesties Water-Poet; How He Travailed on Foot from London to Edenborough in Scotland, Not carrying any Money To and Fro…

The poem was published by subscription in 1618; 4,500 copies in total. This was, incidentally, the subscription that saw about half of Taylor’s backers defaulting on their promised support.

Another stunt, performed the following year, saw Taylor making a scull entirely out of brown paper. Using two dried fish tied to canes as oars, Taylor rowed his friend Roger Bird down the river. The surprisingly seaworthy paper boat was kept afloat by inflated bull’s bladders and it made it from London to Queenborough, 40 miles total, without the least trouble, although the story goes that Bird prayed throughout the entire voyage. Taylor included a poem about the journey in what may be his most famous compendium, The Praise of Hempseed which you can find on the web here.

Taylor had an agile, brilliant mind that served him his entire life. He invented a language which he called Barmoodan and wrote Poem in the Utopian Tongue entirely in it. He is also credited as being the first to write down a palindrome that was actually called by that name: “Lewd did I live & evil did I dwel”. It makes Mark Twain’s “Yreka bakery” look a little weak. Taylor was also the clerk of the Watermen’s Guild during the “great dispute” of 1613. The Guild’s issue had to do with the theater guilds that moved their theaters from the south to the north bank of the Thames in 1612, depriving many boatmen of steady fares. Once again, Taylor put pen to paper and wrote The True Cause of the Watermen’s Suit Concerning Players to inform the public of his guild’s grievances.

Taylor left the Thames in 1622 to devote himself to writing, but events would not let him sit quietly by, pen in hand. He became a publican in Oxford and London under Cromwell and continued in that role until the 1640s, all the while writing. He died, probably well into his 70s, in 1653 and was eulogized by some of the great writers of his day. Ben Jonson, for instance, said that there would never be “… any verses in England equal to the Sculler’s”. High praise for a simple sailor, who wrote more because he loved to than for any real material gain.

Header: Contemporary engraving of John Taylor

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: First Prize

April 10, 1776: Continental Navy ships Queen of France, Warren and Ranger, Captained by John Paul Jones, take the first naval prize of the war with Britain, HMS Hibernia in the Atlantic.  The next day Jones and his flotilla capture seven British merchants.

Header: Anonymous contemporary painting of sloop-of-war Ranger

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Davit

Known before the 17th century as “davies”, davits are generally speaking the curved pieces of wood that project over the side of a ship to hold and haul up and down its boat or boats. Modern eyes are most accustomed to seeing them at a ship’s stern but they are actually moveable, particularly in sailing ships which have brackets in the deck to support them. Modern ships have davits made of iron.


A fish davit is a piece of timber that has a sheave or roller block on the end. This is used like a crane and, with a partner, hoists the flukes of a large anchor up and out of the water so that the anchor does not slam into – and potentially hole – the hull of the ship. The process is referred to as fishing the anchor. The lower end of such a davit rests above the cathead at the fore of the ship where the anchor is secured when not in use. The upper part of the pulley system is secured to a tackle from the foremast head.

Smaller davits, known as boat davits, can be fitted into larger ship’s boats such as a penace to assist in weighing the boat’s smaller anchor.

Davit guys are ropes used to secure a davit for duty. Davit rope is the lashing used to store the davit securely when not in use. A davit topping lift is a rope which is attached to the outer end of a davit. Similar to the system of the fish davit, this rope is passed through a block secured aloft to a vessel’s mast. This davit is specifically used for bringing an anchor inboard for repair or cleaning.

Davies and davits are, of course, no kin to Davy Jones, the origin of whose name remains one of the mysteries of the sea. The Sailor’s Word Book addresses him no further than to say he is “… the spirit of the sea; a nikker; a sea-devil”.

Header: Looking out of Battle Harbor by William Bradford ~ davits can be seen projecting from the stern of the sloop in the foreground

Friday, April 8, 2011

Booty: Intimate Treasures


We are not often privy to the things that our ancestors held most dear, at least as far as their bodies and souls were concerned. Clothes, for the vast majority of history, were made from natural fibers and were worn to virtual rags by the bulk of any population. Even the most glorious gowns and suits needed special tending to bring them through to the modern age. They are relics of bygone eras that actually touched the people who came before us even more closely than cooking and eating utensils, drinking vessels, clay pipes and tools.


That is why I was particularly interested in this tiny article from Yahoo! News about the wreck of the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The ship, carrying an unimaginable fortune from the New World to Spain, wrecked in a hurricane in 1622 and settled to the bottom of the Caribbean off Key West, Florida. $450 million in booty from the ship was recovered in 1985 but part of the wreck has yet to be found and so the search goes on.

The continued investigation turned up an intimate treasure that may very well have belonged to a passenger aboard the doomed galleon. A gold chain, 40 inches long and made up of 55 links, was found on the 23rd of March in the general area where Nuestra Senora de Atocha went down. The chain still has a gold cross with enamel work and a gold medal engraved with the figure of the Virgin Mary on one side and a chalice on the other attached to it. This piece of religious devotion would have been blessed by a priest and worn close to the body just as Catholics continue to do today, but the fact that the entire artifact is made of gold points to a wealthy owner.


Using the circa 1630 portrait of Isabel de Borbon as an example of how the Spanish nobility dressed at the time, it is easy to imagine how a gold cross and medal on a slim chain could get lost in the mix. As R. Turner Wilcox notes in The Mode in Costume:


Also part of the costume were large jeweled brooches, ropes of pearls and knotted loops of ribbon with jeweled points. Both men and women wore heavy gold necklaces set with gems. A favorite feminine ornament was the ornate brooch with pendant, also pearl earrings.

Most of this ostentatious couture would have come from the New World, either as raw material or as already worked pieces. But the gold chain found near Key West would have been worn close to the body, under the shirt or chemise, as a constant reminder of God’s blessing upon the wearer. Most people would not take such religious jewelry off to sleep or bathe.

While it is possible that one of the sailors on the Nuestra could have worn the find it is highly unlikely. More probable is that the chain belonged to a lieutenant, captain or even admiral. But it is also possible that it belonged to a lady passenger. Wealthy girls were often sent from colonies in the New World back to Spain, particularly for advantages marriages, and the treasure flotillas were considered the safest transport at the time.

That’s just speculation on my part but, regardless, such an intimate treasure can only be thought of as priceless. Although the treasure hunters quote its value as $250,000, the chain, cross and medal are worth far more to history.

Header: Isabel de Borbon y Medicis, portrait c 1630 in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain and the Nuestra shipwreck chain from Yahoo! News

Thursday, April 7, 2011

History: La Bamba!

In May of 1683, infamous buccaneers Laurens de Graff, Michel de Grammont and Nicholas Van Horn raided the fortified Spanish city of Vera Cruz in what is now Mexico. They led a flotilla of ships and an army of sailors that rivaled Morgan’s forces at Porto Bello and did a substantial amount of damage, particularly to the unsuspecting citizenry who slumbered peacefully in their beds as the ladrones landed on their beach. An orgy of butchery, torture, pillage and death ensued in what may have been one of the bloodiest raids of the buccaneer era.


As history would have it, most people are unfamiliar with the sacking of Vera Cruz. Even natives of the modern Mexican state of Veracruz have very little memory of what was a major setback to the area’s economy and stability at the time. But music, as so often happens, does remember and a faint echo of the misery that befell Vera Cruz can be heard in a popular folk song which became an international hit in the early days of rock and roll.

Ritchie Valens’ 1958 adaptation of the traditional Veracruz song “La Bamba” is probably familiar to many. The infectious and memorable tune and lyrics came from a song originally played mariachi style to accompany a ballet folklorico performed by couples at weddings in Veracruz. The song’s lyrics address the dance for the most part, indicating that “…to dance La Bamba, you must have a little bit of grace…” One lyric which repeats over and over, however, is incongruous to the rest of the song’s reference to dancing: “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan” which translates in modern Spanish to “I am not a sailor, I am a captain.”

Older versions of the song seem not to have been meant for dancing, but as storytelling ballads. Spain still had a strong tradition of balladeering in the late 17th century, particularly in the Catalan and Basque regions which had been influenced by the Southern French tradition of the troubadours. The guitar was the instrument of choice for these men who were often attached to a nobleman. In the New World, however, they were more paid performer, leaving them free to comment on current events.

“La Bamba”, or what ever the ballad may have been known as in the 1680s, told the story of the sack of Vera Cruz and mocked the town’s lack of preparation for the onslaught of the French and Dutch buccaneers. There is even a hint that the surviving lyric about the singer not being a sailor (buccaneer) but a captain (Spanish soldier) was an indignant reference to Vera Cruz natives joining the rampaging enemy to save their skins. “I am not part of that marine rabble,” the singer says proudly. “I am a soldier of Spain.”

Click here to listen to Ritchie Valens’ rock and roll version of “La Bamba”. It’s like a puzzle made up of pieces of our collective past that you can dance to.

Header: Contemporary engraving of Vera Cruz c 1710

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sea Monsters: Trouble With Jellies

Clicking around the Cracked website, as I sometimes do when life hands me lemons and I need a really good laugh, I found this article: 6 Animals Humanity Actually Made Way Scarier. Questionable grammar not withstanding, most of the logic in the article is pretty sound. Cougars are really losing habitat, making them more likely to have dangerous encounters with humans. Wolves really did crossbreed with coyotes in the northeastern U.S., creating a powerful predator that is blithely unafraid of human populations. I’m not going to argue with that. But the first animal on the list needs to be looked at, and its actually threat analyzed, a little more closely.


The piece is particularly concerned with giant Nomura jellyfish, found largely in the tropical Pacific, and box jellies which are common in the waters of Australia. Both creatures, which are nasty for very different reasons, have seen a decided upswing in population since the beginning of the 21st century. As the article notes there are three pretty clear reasons for this explosion.

The number one reason is ocean warming. Say what you want about climate change, the warming of ocean waters around the globe is a documented fact that has been occurring without cessation since at least the last decade of the 20th century. For reasons we don’t quite understand, jellyfish in general respond to a warmer environment by breeding more and swimming closer to shore. Other factors are pollution, particularly by agricultural fertilizers which encourage growth in plankton, and overfishing of certain jellyfish predators. All bad news on the face of it and the cause of everything from enormous “jellyfish blooms” off the coasts of places as diverse as Australia and Ireland to the complete shutdown of fishing operations in Japan and desalinization plants on the Black Sea. Even the Bering Sea – yeah that “vast Bering Sea” – has seen large trawling nets break due to huge swarms of heavy jellyfish attacking the catch within.

So is it really that bad? Are we doomed to be stung mercilessly by veritable herds of virtually invisible box jellies? Or have our precious Omega 3 fatty acids ripped from our mouths by 450 pound Nomura monsters? In a word, no.

Even though some jellyfish predators have been overfished, others are either doing just fine or coming back strong. Those delightful Opilio and King crabs that you see being hauled up in traps on “Deadliest Catch” are in great shape numbers-wise due to smart conservation and they will happily chow on just about any jellyfish that gets within range. Likewise Blue Swimmer crabs delight in feasting on box jellies around Australia and particularly the Philippines where the highest percentage of deaths by jellyfish sting are reported yearly. Another common predator of the box jellies was once endanger but is now, thanks in part to the large numbers of one of its favorite snacks, growing in population: the sea turtle. Sea turtles, legendarily a delicacy to seaman around the world, are completely immune to the sting of even the most venomous box jellies, Chironex fleckeri and Chironex yamaguchii. Even these guys are no match for the hungry terrapins.

So while cyclical “blooms” of jellyfish will doubtless continue to be a problem worldwide, it may be a little early to panic. Simply minding the good advice on the Australian sign above is probably your best bet, and just in case, put some vinegar in your beach bag. And don’t forget to say thank you next time you run into a crab or a sea turtle.

Header: Sign at Cape Tribulation, Australia via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

People: The Couple That Plunders Together...

The story of the married piratical team of Eric Cobham and Maria Lindsey first came to my attention in Philip Gosse’s delightful 1924 publication The Pirate Who’s Who. Now reprinted as The International Directory of Pirates, Buccaneers and Other Rogues, the book is worth getting if you are at all interested in our freebooting ancestors. The Cobhams get a relatively lengthy entry of two pages, but their story is largely unverifiable despite being discussed in literature aside from Gosse.


Eric Cobham was allegedly born into a poor family in Poole, England around 1700. He grew up largely on the streets, pilfering what food he could and it seems rarely returning to the lean-to that amounted to home. His parents had a number of children and were evidently in the business of picking up animal waste at night for delivery to a local tannery at dawn. This work was not uncommon for the poor in large cities at the time; the tanneries fermented the waste and used it to remove hair and fat from animal hides.

By the time he was a teenager, Cobham was involved in a local smuggling ring that brought goods from the continent into Poole. His cleverness and charisma ensured that young Eric would soon be a leader among his fellow smugglers. His largest success appears to have been a shipment of some ten thousand gallons of brandy which arrived in Poole safely and was sold quickly.

Not long after this remarkable achievement, however, Cobham’s small penace was found and confiscated by the King’s men. Though neither Cobham nor any of his associates were arrested, this incident seems to have steeled the smuggler’s resolve. He bought a sloop, fitted it out with ten fourteen pound cannon and went a-pirating.

Cobham’s first prize was an East Indiaman that yielded 40,000 pounds in specie and saleable goods. Feeling flush and, Gosse tells us, having a way with the ladies, Cobham went ashore at Plymouth and met a native girl down by the docks: Maria (or Mary) Lindsey. Maria’s background is completely unknown but she is always described as “young” and, given her whereabouts when she met her future husband, it is not going too far out on a yardarm to speculate that she was a prostitute.

Eric and Maria hit it off and she boarded his ship with her meager belongings in tow just a few days later. This new arrangement caused some grumbling among Cobham’s crew. As Gosse describes it:

… where a man is married the case is altered, no man envies him his happiness; but where he only keeps a girl, every man says ‘I have as much right to one as he has.’

Maria seems to have managed this problem herself not only by marrying Cobham (thus diluting the envy a good deal, it goes without saying) but also becoming a valuable member of the crew. She knew her way around a ship, stood up for men who enraged her quick-tempered mate and showed herself perfectly lethal if the situation called for it. And later on, even if it didn’t.

When pirate hunting in the English Channel made those waters unattractive, the Cobhams crossed the Atlantic and set up shop in Newfoundland. It was here, hunting between Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, that they became notorious. The Cobhams embarked on a career as “no quarter” pirates, killing prize crews to a man seemingly without remorse. Stories abound of men being tied up in sacks and thrown overboard, stabbed, torn limb from limb or hoisted up on the yards to be used as targets for the pirates’ pistols. In most of the tales it is Maria who proves herself the most bloodthirsty. At one point, we are told, she poisoned the entire crew of a captured East Indiaman as they languished in chains in her husband’s ship’s hold. This act was apparently committed for no other reason than it pleased Mrs. Cobham to do it.

The pirate couple, managing somehow to avoid being caught, finally retired with an enormous amount of wealth to an estate at Le Havre in France. Cobham bought a yacht, became a French citizen and rose to the position of local magistrate. Life on the Bay of Biscay did not suit Maria so well, however. She became reclusive, going out only to cruise on the family’s ship. The couple had three children but this did not seem to help Maria’s state of mind. She descended into madness. Gosse claims she killed herself, taking huge doses of laudanum to dull her aching conscience. Others, including Howard Pyle, tell us that Eric got fed up with his wife’s ravings and dispatched her himself.

Only Eric Cobham seems to have escaped a bloody end. He lived, Gosse says, to a “good old age”. His descendants were, by the dawn of the French Revolution, “…moving in the first grade at Havre”. A history maven like me has to wonder if, in the final irony, the Cobham’s children’s children had to flee back to their parents’ native England in the face of Robespierre and his Terror. Unfortunately none of the sources say. Whatever the family outcome it would appear that even the couple that plunders together will not actually stay together. Particularly if we favor Pyle’s telling of the story.

Header: French Couple c 1730 from a Victorian engraving

Monday, April 4, 2011

History: The First Sack of Cartagena

By the mid-1500s, the city of Cartagena was the jewel in Spain’s New World crown. The city, which would rival Havana in its cosmopolitan splendor, was awash in wealth of every kind imaginable. As a large port, Cartagena was a destination for goods and raw materials from all over South and Central America. Spices, exotic animals, gold, silver, gems and people, just to name a few, would be loaded onto the infamous treasure galleons for shipment first to Cuba and then on to Spain. It is little wonder that over the course of two hundred and fifty years Cartagena was a consistent target for seadogs, buccaneers and pirates.
Many of the attempted raids were repulsed, or never got off the drawing board at all. Henry Morgan thought about it but decided on Panama instead. Treasure ships were taken as they left Cartagena by men like Woodes Rogers and Laurens de Graff. Then, in 1811, Cartagena turned the tide and declared her freedom from Spain. At that point the Governor began handing out letters of marque to men like my own ancestor Renato Beluche, sending them ironically off to prey on Spanish shipping. But before all that, in 1586, Francis Drake proved that the infamously well fortified city could be taken, emptied of its riches and ransomed by the right leader with the right force.

By January of 1586 Drake, the once and future pirate, was in possession of a letter of marque from Queen Elizabeth I. He commanded a fleet of ships headed by his six hundred ton flagship Elizabeth Bonaventure. 2,300 soldiers accompanied his equally numerous sailors and the air of a naval presence settled upon his flotilla. Having proven that piracy and/or privateering against the Spanish could be both personally profitable and patriotic, Drake was a national hero with no intention of slowing down. England and Spain were at war, and the seadog was bent on doing every damage possible to the enemy. Particularly the enemy’s wallet.

On January 10, Drake and his men landed at Hispaniola, captured and sacked the capital of Santo Domingo. The city was burned, everything not nailed down was loaded into prize ships and sent back to England and Drake was paid a ransom of 2,500 gold ducats. The carnage and rapine ended on February 11, when Drake and his army sailed off to the next golden shore.

That unfortunate harbor was Cartagena. Considered virtually impenetrable until the fateful morning of February 19, 1586, the city’s fall was a combination of excellent strategy on Drake’s part and horrible bad luck on the Spanish side. Cartagena’s Viceroy Pedro Fernandez de Bustos had plenty of warning regarding Drake’s assault on Santo Domingo as some of the wealthier refugees had fled to his city. He had managed to assemble a force of some 500 armed soldiers and enlisted the aid of the well known and mellifluously named Admiral Pedro Vique Manrique who had two large galleons at anchor in the harbor. Unfortunately, the stories of Drake’s massive flotilla seemed to erode the courage of both leaders, and their men grew just as anxious.

Drake sailed right into Cartagena’s outer harbor on the evening of the 19th. He immediately landed 600 soldiers under the veteran Christopher Carleill who took his men north to assault the city from the inland jungle. Meanwhile Drake’s sailors took boats out to scout the fort of Boqueron under cover of darkness. At dawn, Carleill engaged a group of Bustos’ soldiers, causing a break in ranks that scattered the Spanish.

Meanwhile, Admiral Manrique grounded both his galleons and his men, too, left their posts. Jumping ship, they ran for the jungle rather than face the ruthless ladrons. Drake won the day through terror more than muscle. By the 21st the city had officially fallen. Interestingly, only seven Spaniards were killed in the two day engagement while some 30 Englishmen lost their lives. The citizens who could escaped to the jungle. Those left behind were “persuaded” to give up anything of value. Buildings – including the Cathedral – were stripped of all their wealth. Finally Bustos met with Drake and ransomed his unfortunate city for 107,000 gold ducats. Drake, being a businessman, gave Bustos a receipt for his payment.

Drake and his men sailed off with their haul in April, touching at Virginia before returning to England. The unprecedented success of Drake’s cruise brought him further recognition from his monarch and drew the attention of other like-minded men. Privateering became a respected profession in Britain, eventually leading to the establishment of one of the greatest Navies the world has ever seen. Modern scholars estimate that during the period from Drake’s sack of Cartagena to the end of England’s war with Spain in 1603, around 150 privateering ventures were mounted in Britain every year bringing home an average of 200,000 pounds per year in Spanish prizes. And only the Spanish could argue with that.

Header: Chart of Drake’s Raid on Cartagena by Baptista Boazio