Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ships: Weigh Anchor!

By now many of the Brethren are probably aware that a particularly piratical anchor, underwater for nearly 300 years, was hauled up last Friday. The event is, of course, dear to all who find the lure of legendary pirates irresistible. Given the recent surge in pop culture interest, the timing seems rather good as well.


The 3,000 pound anchor was part of a ship’s wreckage found off Beaufort, North Carolina near the outer banks island of Ocracoke. The vessel is believed to have gone down there some time in 1718 and evidence points to it being Edward “Blackbeard” Teach’s famous flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge.

According to this article at NewsObserver.com, the anchor was “… atop a pile of debris, which appears to be the remnants of the middle part of the ship.” According to Mark Wilde-Ramsing, director of the QAR Project, researchers will set about digging a small hole in the waist of the ship this week. The article indicates that they are looking for organic material in particular, hoping to find seeds and spores that may help to identify where the ship had been as she sailed around the Atlantic and Caribbean.

Previous artifacts recovered from the wreck have ranged from crockery and ceramics to delicate dagger hilts and jewelry. For information on the ongoing discoveries being found in, around and about the ship and its history, “like” the QAR Project on Facebook.

Header: Queen Anne’s Revenge via Design Context

Monday, May 30, 2011

History: America's Oldest Monument to Those Who Serve

The Tripoli Monument – or, as it was originally known, Tripolitan Monument – now stands on the grounds of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It is situated between Preble Hall and Leahy Hall in a place of prominence but it was originally located in the Washington Navy Yard. Erected there in 1808, it was the only monument in D.C. for the next 35 years, and it was America’s first monument to the men and women who served and died for their country.


The Barbary Wars have of course been discussed many a time here at Triple P. The fight against North Africa’s notorious pirates was the young United States’ first major conflict as an independent nation. It also established the United States Navy as not just a little flotilla of six frigates, but a global military force. That tradition continues to this day.

In 1807 Captain David Porter, who himself had been a prisoner in Tripoli in 1803 during the First Barbary War, was given the task of procuring the materials for and erecting the monument. It would memorialize those who lost their lives in the war on piracy and specifically honor six fallen officers: Caldwell, Dorsey, Somers, Israel, Wadsworth and, curiously, Decatur. Stephen Decatur was in fact a flamboyant naval hero who was key to the U.S. success against Barbary. He did not lose his life fighting pirates, however, but in a duel against fellow officer James Barron.

Porter, not only a brilliant naval strategist but a born statesman who would die as the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, managed to recruit the Bishop of Florence to help procure marble and the services of sculptor Micali of Leghorn at very little cost. The monument went up the next year and, according to architect Benjamin Latrobe, was:

…the principle object of view to all those who enter the yard, either by land or water, and to an extensive portion of the City and of the port.

By 1831 the Navy Yard was in decline and Congress moved the monument to the west end of the city. Its new position was offensive to many in D.C. and to most all of the naval men who held it dear. Porter wrote of it to Daniel Tod Patterson:

And to cap the climax of absurdity, the Naval Monument had, as an evil omen I presume, been placed in a small circular pond of dirty fresh water – not large enough for a duck puddle – to represent the Mediterranean Sea!

Porter’s indignation was shared by many and in 1860 the monument was moved to Annapolis. Though it has been moved within the grounds of the academy since, it holds a place of honor in the hearts and minds of all who appreciate the hard work and sacrifice of America’s military. For more on the monument and her history, see today’s post at The Naval History Blog; and happy Memorial Day to all the American Brethren.

Header: Tripoli Monument at Annapolis via edsel12 on flickr

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: More Trouble for the Colonies

May 31, 1774:  The Boston Port Bill, the first of the so called Intolerable Acts, took effect.  The port of Boston was closed by the British until restitution was paid for the destruction wrought by the Boston Tea Party the year before.

Header: The Boston Tea Party colored engraving by Currier mid-1800s

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Duck

The beauty of white canvas pregnant with wind high above a well proportioned vessel cannot be denied even by the most seasick lubber. As the painting above, by my talented friend Munin, shows, there is nothing prettier than a sailing ship sailing. The canvas has many names though, and that is but one of the places where today’s word finds a home at sea.


Duck is, erroneously as it turns out, a word for Number 8 canvas from which smaller sails are sometimes made. It is not, in fact, cotton duck but simple a finer grade of old reliable canvas.

Cotton duck was used in the making of what sailors called ducks. These were the shirts and trousers worn in tropical and equatorial areas not only by sailors but by marines as well when not required to wear full uniform. The coats and breeches of late 18th and early 19th century uniforms were usual woolen, making them unbearably uncomfortable in many parts of the world. C.S. Forester has his hero in Lieutenant Hornblower stoically bearing the persistent trickle of sweat down his back as he stands before his captain in full uniform while Renown is anchored off Haiti. No such problems ever arose for our beloved freebooters, who virtually lived in the comfort of ducks when not in port.

Ducks, interestingly, is also part of the name routinely given to the poultry man aboard both Royal Navy and U.S. men-of-war in the 18th and 19th century. This sailor lost his given name when he took up the role of poulterer and became known as Jemmy Ducks even if there were no such waterfowl aboard.

Duck up is a call from either pilot, steersman or gunner to haul a sail or sails out of said gentleman’s sightline. This would have been accomplished quickly as no one wanted to run her aground or waste ball or shot.

Ducking took two forms, one playful and a mild form of hazing, the other potentially deadly. In the former, men who had never passed the equator (or, on some ships, not only the equator but either of the tropics as well) were “ducked” into the scuttlebutt head first and then had more water poured over them. On many ships, the hazing included a haircut and shave performed by one’s drunken mates. This could become a rollicking good time, but it could also lead to some discomfort for the sailor enduring the ducking. Some ships allowed a fine, paid to whoever routinely led the ritual – usually an old veteran – to avoid the worst of the process.

In the latter situation, ducking at the yardarm was a penalty for serious offense and just one step up from the horror of keel hauling. The criminal would be set astride a thick batten which was then, through a system of block and tackle, was suspended from the yardarm. The sailor would be heaved up violently and then let go to drop into the cold ocean. The process very much resembled the older, land based practice of ducking stools, using a local stream or – more terribly – a muddy pond or cess pool to punish women in particular. While the Royal Navy disavowed ducking as early as 1701 calling it a French proclivity, the practice probably continued to some degree after that date as it was one of the specific punishments disallowed in writing by the Continental and U.S. Navy. Freebooters used this treatment as a form of torture to get prisoners to reveal cached goods.

To duck, of course, means to put one’s head down or to dive underwater. Well known in places like Port Royal and Grand Terre would have been the ducat, in both silver and gold form. Less familiar would have been the silver Venetian coin known as a ducatoon.

And that is enough of ducking and ducks for one Saturday. Fair winds to all the Brethren.

Header: Ship in Full Sail by Munin

Friday, May 27, 2011

Booty: Get Ahead

Triple P’s vaguely morbid fascination with venereal diseases springs from the undeniable fact that such illnesses were extremely prevelent among sailors. Dean King in his scholarly and entertaining book A Sea of Words rightly calls syphilis (and by extension gonherrea, chlymidia and the like) “… almost an occupational hazard among sailors”. This would have been true for all men afloat, and for the women they associated with as well, up to and indeed well after the discovery of penisilin. One hopes that the widespread use of the humble condom has shut that door, so to speak.


It was therefor with a certain delight that I discovered this article from BBC News Northern Ireland. According to the brief piece the surprisingly well preserved skull of Saint Vitalis of Assisi will go up for auction Sunday. This is one to keep your eyes on, Brethren, as the dear saint is the patron of “genital diseases”.

According to my dusty and ancient Book of Patron Saints, Vitalis was born in Umbria in 1295. He was a wild young man and actually spent time around the docks of Genoa in sporting houses and gambling dens. At some point he decided to straighten up and a pilgrimage to various holy sites in his native Italy led him to take vows in the Benedictine order. He ended up at the hermitage of Maria di Viole in Assisi where he debased his body regularly and became a sought after counselor. He died May 31, 1370 and miraculous cures of bladder infections and geneital concerns were almost immediately attributed to him. He was cannonized some time around 1390.

The saint’s skull, lovingly preserved among flowers and palm fronds in a Queen Anne case, came into the possession of “… an Anglo-Irish family from County Louth” in the late 17th century. Evidently one of the genteel family’s members acquired the head while on his (or her) European grand tour. Though the relic was originally displayed in the family’s great hall, it was more recently housed in what the article calls “an outhouse”.

A curious aside comes in the form of the local Benedictine monks who, when asked for information about Saint Vitalis, had to Google one of their own prior to declining to make a statement on “… his or anyone elses head.” Now is that gratitude?

Maybe not, but you can own the relic yourself. The auction that includes the patron saint of genital concerns’ head begins Sunday, May 29 at 3:00 PM (local time) and will be held at Annesbrook House in Duleek, County Meath, Ireland. Bring your debit card as loose change won’t get this sale done. The estimated value is between 800 and 1,200 euros or 1,141 and 1,712 U.S. dollars.

Header: Relic box and skull alleged to be that of St. Vitalis of Assisi via bbc.co.uk

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ships: Royal Warrior

On the 10th of April, 1628, Sweden’s largest and most impressive line-of-battle ship to date was launched at Stockholm. The breeze was light, causing the crew to move the ship, named Vasa after the Swedish Royal family, out of the harbor to Slussen. Without warning the skies around mighty Vasa grew dark, a squall quickly mounted into a gale and the warship was caught with her topsails and courses out and her gun ports open for show. Vasa listed to starboard, the lower decks flooded with seawater and literally within minutes the 1,300 ton vessel sank with a loss of over 400 lives.


Vasa was built on the orders of King Gustavus Adolphus whose navy was the premier fighting force in the Baltic at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. With tensions escalating between Catholics and Protestants, Hapsburgs and Bourbons, Gustavus sought to protect the sovereignty of his country and her territories by increasing his naval force. Vasa, designed by Henrik Hybertson de Groot and Henrik Jacobson was built at the Royal Dockyard in Stockholm in a fairly short time. With the campaign in the Baltic heating up, Gustavus wanted a large warship to take the lead at the siege of Danzig, which his navy had begun to blockade in 1627.

De Groot and Jacobson complied with a 180 foot ship, 38 feet at the beam with a draft of a little over 15 feet. Fully mounted, she would carry sixty-four guns including two 62 pounders, three 35 pounders and forty-eight 24 pounders. Her firepower was formidable but her compliment of men was surprisingly small. Vasa carried only 145 sailing men with the remaining crew being made up of approximately 300 soldiers. She was not only fierce but beautiful, with ornate carvings fore and aft that would serve as models for European royal yachts of the 18th and 19th century.

Because she was a true gem of the shipbuilder’s art, efforts to salvage Vasa began immediately. Englishman Ian Bulmer managed to haul Vasa up on her keel, but the 115 foot depth to which she had sunk was too daunting to make raising her possible. Although some of her guns were salvaged in 1664, further attempts were set aside and Vasa sat beneath the cold waters off her home port for over 300 years.

In 1956 the wreck was “rediscovered” by amateur marine archaeologists who took a sample of the hull to the Swedish Navy. Their divers confirmed the find and immediate plans to raise Vasa were underway. Channels were dug in the mud around her, and straps were placed under her hull which were then hooked to pontoon vessels. Vasa was moved, while still submerged, to a water depth of 50 feet. Over the course of a year, patches and reinforcements were made on her hull and on April 24, 1960 she was not only raised but floated into dry dock on her own hull. This was the first major salvage of an intact vessel attempted in the modern age, and the raising of Vasa has become a blueprint for other salvage projects such as that of Mary Rose in Britain and Whydah in the U.S.

All of Vasa’s remaining elements, from loose artifacts to sails, woodwork and structure were meticulously preserved. The Vasa project has become the gold standard for nautical preservation. The ship in her entirety along with all artifacts associated with her are on display at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. She is a living testimony to the ingenuity, craftsmanship and pride of not only our ancestors but our contemporaries, nautical and otherwise.

Header: Vasa, larboard side and stern, from the Vasa Museum, Stockholm

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tools of the Trade: What's For Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

Food aboard ship in the Great Age of Sail was a balancing act, at least for naval ships on long cruises. There was the obvious line between the largess early in the voyage, when beer, ale, fresh vegetables and meat would have been readily available to all and the kind of food served once fresh stores were used up. Of course stops in ports of various kinds would have allowed provisioning, but in uncharted territory what could be got was hit or miss. Lack of knowledge about local plants in particular could kill you quickly with their toxins or slowly because you overlooked them not knowing they were perfectly edible.


Probably with a fifty/fifty blend of sailors’ humor and a need to break up edible monotony, the names for foods aboard us were often colorful and sometimes unrecognizable to anyone but a sailor. Here are just a few from the Royal Navy of the 1820s:

Biscuit, Ship’s Biscuit, Sea Biscuit or Hardtack: made from wheat flour, water and salt and formed into easy to store crackers, biscuit is twice baked, hard as a board and will last a very, very long time (even when the weevils get into it).

Brews: biscuit soaked in water then stewed with salted pork and fish, usually salt cod.

Bully beef: essentially leftover salt beef that has little or no substance left for being repeatedly boiled.

Burgoo: oatmeal which is cooked overnight in the water used to pull the salt out of meat the night before. Butter and sugar are added before serving. As unappetizing as this may sound, burgoo was renowned on both sides of the Atlantic as a cure for hangovers and seasickness. It was also known as skillygalee.

Crackerhash: pounded biscuit mixed with scraps of pork or beef from another meal and baked.

Dogsbody: biscuit soaked in water with sugar until it has become like porridge.

Fanny Adams: a specifically British term for meat in a tin. The story behind the name has a very Sweeny Todd feel to it. The rumor among seamen said that unscrupulous provisioners for the Royal Navy would kidnap and kill street children in large cities. Thereafter the children’s bodies would be processed, tinned and sold to the Royal Navy as beef or pork. When a seven year old girl named Frances Adams was found near a provisioning house in 1820, dead and partially dismembered, the sailors co-opted her name for their suspicious canned goods. Doubtless they also agreed with one another that they had been right all along.

Lobscouse or ‘scouse: a stew familiar to most navies and freebooters. It took various forms but usually included crushed biscuit, salted meat, onions and spices boiled and served heavily peppered.

Midshipman’s muffin: biscuit soaked in water (or sometimes milk) and baked.

Poor John: salted fish such as cod. The name comes from the sailor’s preference for beef or pork. In the U.S., Poor John was known as Cape Cod turkey.

Salmagundi: a spicy stew that may have originated in the Caribbean but was also popular in most navies by the early 1800s. Several kinds of meat were stewed in wine and spices to which was added things like pickled vegetables, olives, hard cooked eggs and certain fruits like mangos or bananas. It could be thickened with biscuit crumbs or not.

Sea pie: a favorite even at the Captain’s table that allowed a good cook to work magic. Sea pie was layered with meat, fish and vegetables with crusts on the bottom, between each layer, and on top. The layers, which could be as many as four or five, were known to seamen as “decks”.

Slumgullion: this was a common name for anything that was so bad it was worth passing up and going hungry. Mutinies have been made over too many days of “slum”.

Header: Study from Master and Commander by my particular friend Munin (see more of his work here)

Monday, May 23, 2011

History: "Jerked Into the Devil's Arms"

Despite his protests of innocence through four separate trials at Britain’s Admiralty Court in London, Captain William Kidd was sentenced to hang for the crimes of murder and piracy. His largest mistake was his involvement with Parliamentary politicians, who had initially backed him as a pirate hunter and privateer. When things went astray these same men wanted Kidd out of the way before they could be implicated in his crimes. He must be, one asserted before Parliament, “… jerked into the Devil’s Arms”.


On May 23rd in 1701, a procession set out from Newgate Prison led by a deputy marshal of the Admiralty Court. Kidd was in the middle of the parade, chained on an open cart draped with black crepe, a noose already hanging from his neck. Through the good grace of his warden, Kidd was dead drunk. He would vomit more than once along the muddy road to Wapping.

At the shore of the Thames the gallows awaited. Kidd was “turned off” once and, after a moment, the rope from which he was hanging broke. He fell into the mud, was jerked back up and hanged a second time. Twice was the charm for Kidd, but he kicked for some minutes before finally succumbing to strangulation.

His body was cut down and chained to a post below the high water line. There, per Admiralty regulation, three tides washed over it. Once this had been accomplished, Kidd’s carcass was tarred and put in a metal cage. This was hung on a gibbet near the water at Tilbury Point where it stayed for a number of years as “… a greater Terrour to all Persons from committing ye like Crimes…”

Header: William Kidd’s body on the gibbet

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Sound

Let's just get the idea out of the way: the velocity of sound was thought to be around 1,142 feet in the mid-19th century. This was without taking into consideration factors, such as wind, which might inhibit the travel of sound. Aside from that, I shall note that we won’t be discussing sailors shouting at one another on deck. Although that was (and is) not an unusual occurrence, aboard ship there is more to sound than, well, sound.


An arm of the sea over which soundings may be obtained throughout is known as a sound. This is possibly from the Anglo-Saxon word sund which meant to take readings of the depth of a body of water. By extension a sound might be a deep bay; in Scotland the word used to refer to a strait or narrow channel. As an aside Puget Sound in Washington State, which I have navigated a time or two, is named after Lieutenant Peter Puget, Royal Navy, who accompanied George Vancouver on his expedition to the Northwest in the 18th century. Puget was in charge of taking soundings of the coast and coastal inlets along the way.

Sounding is, of course, the ascertaining of the depth of the ocean or sea and the properties of the ocean floor. Both of which are necessary information to keep a ship running and in good condition afloat. This is done through the use of a lead line. The line has a weight tied to the end and the weight has a hole at the bottom into which sticky tallow has been placed. When the weight – lead – hits the sea floor the tallow picks up some of the sand, shell, mud or what have you which can then be analyzed when the line is pulled up. In whaling, sounding is also the word for the diving behavior a while exhibits once it has been hit with a harpoon.

To be in soundings a ship is within 100 to 80 fathoms of water near shore. The expression literally means that a ship is so close to shore that a deep sea lead will touch bottom without letting out much line, but practically the above is the case. Soundings are also the term for the muck brought up from the sea floor with the lead, which by the way is pronounced like the metal not like something you do at the front of a line.

Soundless is a pre-20th century term for parts of the ocean that were thought to be bottomless because no deep sea lead could find their floor. We know now that there are no bottomless areas of the ocean, but the depth of some bodies of water is staggering to think of.

A sounding rod is a skinny rod of iron on which feet and inches are marked. This is dipped into a groove in a ship’s bilge pump to determined the level of bilge water and whether or not pumping is necessary. Interestingly, sound dues were a toll collected from merchant ships by the people of Denmark when the ships passed in or out of the strait between the Baltic and the great North Sea. Clever Vikings.

And that concludes Triple P's 600th post, a milestone of which I am rather proud.  Happy Saturday, Brethren. May your soundings find nothing but deep water and soft sand and may your ships run fast and true.

Header: Sunrise on the Bay of Fundi by William Bradford

Friday, May 20, 2011

Booty: Hair (and Sail) Raising

Over at The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century, the lovely Heather posted recently about a fashion statement from her era of expertise that is making a bit of a comeback. 


Of course, the enormous mounds of hair that crowned wealthy European heads in the late 18th century are quite recognizable to just about everyone. In fact, replicas have become somewhat of a staple in the Goth revival of the last ten years. Known in their heyday as perruques (which simply means “wigs” in French), the eye-catching if sometimes ridiculous hairstyles were said to be inspired by Queen Marie Antoinette’s unflatteringly high forehead.

The fact that some featured amazing architecture was a point of scorn even in their own time. When the French Queen appeared at a ball wearing a three-masted frigate in full sail on her powdered hair, the pundits went wild. Of course so did the fashionistas on both sides of the Channel, scrambling to anchor a ship on their own hair ASAP. The fashion passed as quickly as it came, no doubt hurried out by the French Revolution’s egalitarian way with noble heads.

So it is at least somewhat amazing that the design house of Victorio and Lucchino featured the “ship wig” at Bridal Week in Barcelona. The model strutted the runway with a frigate in full sail firmly (one hopes) attached to what appears to be her own hair. Click here to see Heather’s post and the picture of the wig in question.

While I personally would rather climb rigging than sport it on my head, I do have to say that anything that gives a nod to the Great Age of Sail is always a welcome sight.

Header: 18th century caricature of the mode for perruques fregate

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Sea Songs

Almost everyone has some familiarity with sea chanteys (or shanties, or chanties). They are those handsome melodies sung by deep throated sailors in remembrance of home, hard work, and battles won. Though the songs may be somewhat familiar, the general knowledge of what a chantey actually is tends to be surprisingly incorrect. From “Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum” to “Sixteen men on a dead man’s chest”, there’s no room among the fiction to swing the historical cat.


Frankly, a chantey is a musical way of keeping time while working on a repetitive task. Since there are plenty of those at sea, music – which lifts the spirit and encourages camaraderie – is a fabulous grease to oil the machine. But before we go further, let’s get the English pronunciation right. It’s not a hard “ch” sound, as in chat, but a soft one, as in shanty with which chantey also rhymes. This foible is thought to come from the origin of the word which was the French chanter, to sing. Though shanty in and of itself is now thought acceptable, I prefer the older spelling.

Chanteys boil down to two categories: those that accompany a task that has pauses in its rhythm (as in heaving on a line) and those that go with work requiring a smooth, continuous effort (like working the capstan). Within these two segments of chanteys there are various sub-categories such as:

Halyard chanteys, used for tasks with pauses. These were for work that was expected to last some time and that men would truly need to put their backs into.

Sheet chanteys, wherein the task at hand – again, usually hauling – could be done quickly but only if every man applied his full strength.

Capstan chanteys were more like songs any lubber would be familiar with and allowed the men to not only sing while they set to a task, but also to tell a story.

Walkaway chanteys were used as a device to allow men to keep time while they literally walked up and down the deck heaving a long line. These were also known as stamp and go chanteys as the stomping of bare feet on the deck helped keep the rhythm of both the song and the work.

Pumping chanteys had an obvious purpose: to keep the rhythm of the pumps as water was expelled from the bilge and/or hold. Men might sing these types of songs during routine pumping to maintain the seaworthiness of the ship, but when leakage became dangerous a stern quiet often prevailed at the pumps.

Almost all ships would have had a self-designated chanteyman who led the songs and sang out the lines before the chorus. Capable chanteymen were good for morale and frequently received a small increase in prize share once they had proven themselves.

Aside from proper chanteys, men also sang together when not at work. This kind of musical relaxation was referred to as fo’csle (forecastle) singing or foc’sle songs and would often be accompanied by fiddle or guitar depending on the talents of the men aboard. The Royal Navy banned chanteying in the late 18th century, believing that it would hinder the men’s ability to hear and obey commands. Royal Navy ships continued to carry musicians, however, and foc’sle singing was encouraged to lift moral (and work off the grog ration). A fine example of a British foc’sle song is “Spanish Ladies”, which anyone who has seen the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World will doubtless recall.

Buccaneers, pirates and privateers brought familiar songs (mostly from merchant service) onto their ships and no doubt made up a few of their own as well. These, are unfortunately lost to us for the most part. I hold fond the memories of John Randolph Grymes who, while travelling to Mexico aboard a sloop captained by Dominique Youx, wrote of the largely Haitian crew singing “… Creole chants in handsome, low tones.” Even more so the passenger aboard Renato Beluche’s Mizelle who recalled the captain himself singing Italian songs on deck after supper.

With the release of Disney’s latest pirate fantasy tomorrow will doubtless come the humming of Jack Sparrow’s favorite chantey about men on chests and bottles of rum. In fact Sparrow, were he to live in the era that his clothes – if no his makeup – suggest, would know nothing of the song at all. It is an entirely fictional chantey that did not appear until 1883, penned by Robert Lewis Stevenson for his far superior pirate fantasy Treasure Island.

If you have an interest in historical chanteys sung with an ear for their original sound, here is a link to some videos featuring Triple P’s resident chanteymen, The Corsairs. Enjoy!

Header: Saturday Night at Sea by George Cruikshank c 1840

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

History: Dublin Vikings

The Vikings, those hoary Scandinavians who legend tells us stood well over six feet tall and wore heavy helms encrusted with horns, were some of the most successful sea raiders of all time. They combined the swift and merciless attack strategies of buccaneers with the organized mercantile machinery of privateers. But, for many of the same reasons that saw their figurative descendants leave freebooting behind, the Viking penchant for piracy eventually went by the wayside.


What set the Vikings apart was their commitment to colonization as well as raiding, and one of their favorite places to settle down and put their doubtless enormous feet up by the fire was Ireland. Around my house, we hold a fond belief that Scandinavian men just really liked Irish girls but that’s speculation on our part.

It is no surprise then, but certainly a delight, to hear that a new Viking settlement has been discovered in the Temple Bar area of Dublin, Ireland. This article from Archaeology Daily and this one from Irish Central report that, while building retractable canopies over Meeting House Square, workers discovered a timber structure. Work stopped and archaeologists were brought in.

So far two Viking buildings dating from the 10th or 11th century have been found as well as pottery shards which are probably from a later era. Active excavation is underway now and the planned Temple Bar 20th Anniversary celebration set for this July will probably be postponed or moved to keep from disturbing the area.

Because Viking settlements were often built entirely of timber with thatched roofing, many of them are no longer available for study. This makes the Dublin find all that much more exciting. I’ll surely be checking back on this one, and will update when new information is available.

Header: Viking Village via io9.com

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Women at Sea: Ladies of The Big Easy

Not long after the horrific ravages of hurricanes Katrina and Rita washed through the Mississippi Delta, I read a comment at the bottom of an online article about the devastation. The commenter, a man from Nebraska, spoke only of New Orleans. He said in no uncertain terms that NOLA, which he called a “cesspool of vice”, had “gotten what the city and its people deserved.” “Let us hope,” he concluded. “That this finally wipes New Orleans off the map forever. That’s what Americans want.”


While certainly hurtful at the very least, such a comment – particularly coming from America’s “heartland” – is not new at all. Americans have always viewed the Crescent City, its relaxed attitude and languid ease with a certain suspicion. By the time the U.S. took control of the city in 1803, she was poised to become the very center of vice in the new country. New Orleans from the late 18th century has been what Las Vegas only wishes it could be: Sin City.

Of course the sins in question – alcohol (and illicit drugs), gambling, prostitution and paganism – were thought to be a routine upshot of a population of sailors and boatmen. Particularly among the Easterners who flocked to New Orleans in the early 19th century, it was generally opined that were she not a long standing port town, New Orleans would be as sedate as Salem, Massachusetts. The only argument to the contrary was that she was “foreign” with a high population of vice-prone French, Spanish and (gasp!) free people of African descent. We all know about “those people”.

The stories of the ladies who catered to the vices of their city, and how they intersected with sailors, boatmen and pirates, are far too vast to be wrapped in one simple post. So today we’ll focus on the organized bordellos that helped New Orleans attract business of all kinds from her founding to the end of Storyville.

What we now know as the Vieux Carre or the French Quarter was established in 1718 and almost immediately the French government began sending its undesirables to the bayou country. Pirates, buccaneers and other brigands were settled in and around the area even as both Louis XIV and Louis XV sent boatloads of unwanted streetwalkers from France to their namesake territory. The stew was ripe for vice even before the first brick houses went up, and our commenter from Nebraska at the very least believes nothing has changed.

By 1810, some semblance of order was established with regard to how and where a gentleman could take his pleasures. The quadroon system, though often lumped in with active prostitution and bordello life, is a completely unique institution that must be dealt with in history and sociology as separate. That said, it was not uncommon for girls of mixed race to work in bordellos and dives that catered to sailors; not every woman could be Pierre Laffite’s or Bernard de Marigny’s mistress.

The most frequented area of vice for the common sailor was known as The Swamp. Located beyond Rue Rampart and St. Louis Cemetery, this was a seedy neighborhood of ramshackle sheds and lean-tos that housed gambling dens, bars and prostitutes. None of the places in The Swamp were trustworthy, and a boatman flush with cash took quite a risk just stepping into the area. Here the girls worked freelance or for pimps. The pay was deplorable and the conditions more so. Doubtless most of these nameless, faceless women did not last long in the trade if they lived much longer.

In contrast the dives in The Swamp was the famous floating whorehouse owned by Annie Christmas. Reputed to be over six feet tall and 300 pounds, Christmas ran her ship with an iron fist and a bullwhip. Her girls greeted customers on deck and then took them below to curtained nooks in the ship’s hold. During high volume months, Christmas would hire itinerate girls from The Swamp and set them up in tents on the deck of her ship. Business boomed and Annie Christmas, to some degree, ran the underbelly of New Orleans. Christmas, who was a passionate gambler, had her throat slit in a gaming house in The Swamp. Her floating “sporting-house” closed shortly thereafter.

By the 1840s the focus on bordellos shifted to what were known as “dance-houses”. Here the girls were clad in provocative attire that showed shoulders, busts and ankles. Madams with imaginative names like Minni Ha Ha ran halls where liquor and girls could be had at relatively low prices. Fanny Sweet, a noted proprietor of one of the more upscale places, added the titillation of New Orleans Voodoo to her business by including weekly “rituals” upstairs. It seems that Fanny was in fact a voodoo practitioner who frequently consulted the daughter of famous voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. Like so many others, Fanny paid the authorities to leave her and her girls alone. She retired quite comfortably in Pensacola, Florida, where she died in the 1880s.

The most notorious of the “dance-houses” was run by a mean-spirited drunk named Daniel O’Neil. His place opened in 1860 and he catered to the occupying Union Army and Navy throughout the Civil War. O’Neil was notorious for his poor treatment of the women who worked for him and his “claim to fame” reflected that. When one girl talked back to him he drugged her, stripped her naked and threw her into the alley behind his place. She was there molested by passers-by and subsequently died. O’Neil was acquitted of any wrong doing and he went on to write a letter to the Daily Picayune saying that his prosecution was brought on not by any evidence of guilt, but by the fact that he had missed a few payments of bribes to the New Orleans police.

By the 1870s an eager tourist could acquire a sort of Frommer’s Guide to New Orleans sporting houses that ranked them from dive to palace. Clip-joints were a caveat emptor sort of establishment that would more likely lighten a man’s pockets than satisfy his needs. Cribs were small apartments where girls, appearing to be independent but usually run by a pimp, did a brisk trade. Whorehouses were generally along the levee and the particular haunt of sailors. Bordellos were relatively clean but still affordable, while Parlor Houses offered the finest in women, liquor and d├ęcor. Interestingly, so called Houses of Assignation were also listed. These generally did not supply anything but rooms and alcohol and were a discreet place for the middle class and wealthy to carry on illicit affairs.

In 1898 the influence of moralist and Alderman Sidney Story created what became known as “Storyville”. The area, located on Rue Bourbon, was designated for prostitution and ladies involved in the business were technically not allowed to reside or practice outside of it. Here famous houses like that of Nell Kimball did a brisk trade for almost twenty years. Storyville was closed by the U.S. Government with the onset of American involvement in World War I. The War Department wanted to make sure that U.S. doughboys training nearby didn’t fall into the corrupt arms of New Orleans prostitutes.

Of course if the anonymous commenter from Nebraska is to be believed, that strategy failed miserably. Who it failed – the men or the women – is a question for endless debate. The Crescent City’s rich if brazen history, however, is not. Personally, I have kept a copy of that comment among my writings as a reminder and a motivator. When we forget history – or never bother to learn it – we also forget our heritage and our ancestors which in any other place and time would be the most unforgivable of sins.

Header: Ladies of the Paris House New Orleans c 1900

Monday, May 16, 2011

History: Art for Art's Sake

In our culture we have a lot of fascination surrounding big, burly men – athletes in particular – making a hobby of something that we consider a “woman’s pursuit”. Mickey Hargitay creating intricate mosaics on furniture or Rosy Greer having a passion for knitting are just a couple of examples. With that in mind the surprise, and even snark, inherent in this article from The Independent probably should not have gotten my knickers in a bunch. But it did.


Entitled “Wool Work: A Sailor’s Art”, the article is ostensibly an advertisement for a show of embroideries done by 19th century Royal Navy seamen. The exhibit runs through June at what the article calls “… the stately home-cum-gallery, Compton Verney.” The author, however, uses language that implies an “awe shucks; who’d ‘a thunk” kind of attitude toward a long standing art form which helped sailors relax – and remain human – at sea.

Wool work, as it was known among the men who created it, would otherwise be called embroidery. Using muslins and embroidery cloth (not sail cloth – to the mild dismay of The Independent reporter), the sailors would paint pictures with needle and thread. Generally they stuck to depicting what they knew – ships – but there were many instances of allegories (as in this piece from the exhibit entitled “Nelson”) and other bucolic scenes that gave the sailors a chance to envision pretty shepherdesses and milkmaids.

Of course anyone who has experienced a life at sea knows the stress of being constantly at the ready and potentially in harm’s way. While it is common wisdom to believe that sailors lulled themselves into a half-life of acceptance of their anxiety and hardship with unhealthy doses of daily grog, art forms like wool work prove that this is a misconception. At least some of the sailors aboard any given man-of-war found solace in a homey “woman’s pursuit”, relaxing with the rhythm of the needle and doubtless sharing insights and thread with brothers who did the same. Far from being amusing or unusual, I find it poignant to imagine those, as the article calls them, “… large, brown, calloused…” hands working their magic over embroidery cloth and floss.

Then, too, there were doubtless men and boys who practiced wool work for the sake of the art itself. To create something colorful and beautiful, and to be able to appreciate it and share it with friends, was probably a small triumph. To some degree a man at sea had lost more than gained freedom. His days were regulated by authority and bells and he never knew how stern the next set of officers might be. To have just a little control was probably a blessing most of us can no longer understand. Sacrificing a few hours that could have been occupied with the blessed sleep to the creation of beauty would have been not only a personal choice, but a personal triumph. How fortunate are we, the descendants of these men, to have a small glimpse of their talents still available to us today.

Header: HMS Serapis embroidered circa 1850

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Forget Me Not

According to old wives and wise women, a girl who wanted her sailor beau to think only of her while on a long cruise should bury sea sand in a bed of pansies which she has planted.  She should water them only before the sun rises.  Her sailor will not forget her even over many long years.

Header: Mutual Joy by G. Moreland

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Plumb and Plum

Even lubbers have heard of a “plumb line” or a “plumb bob” and know of its use in carpentry. Of course, the same tool is used in ship building. Something is plumb when it is straight up and down and a string with a weight on the end can be used to determine plumb.


The word is also used at sea to indicate sounding water depth. This is where the verbal metaphor of “plumbing the depths” comes from.

A plummet is the hand-lead that one sees cast into the water in films like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in order to determine not only depth but sometimes constitution of the ocean/river floor. Thus the call in the movie of “sand and broken shell”. A plummet may also rightly be the line mentioned earlier, for use in carpentry.

Speaking of O’Brian, a favorite dessert at sea in all of his Aubrey/Maturin series is plum duff. Essentially “duff” is a sailor’s pronunciation of “dough” and the stuff – at least by land – is rather like bread pudding. At sea it is an entirely different concoction and even on the page it sounds unctuous at best. Just in case you are feeling energetic, and you have the curiosity and constitution of Andrew Zimmern from “Bizarre Foods”, here is the seagoing recipe. It is followed by its more palatable and lubberly cousin. Both are from Anne Grossman and Lisa Thomas and can be found in their book Lobscouse & Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels.

4 pounds flour, 2 pounds grated pork fat, 1 cup sugar, 1 quart water, 1 ½ cups raisins or dried currants

Mix all together and knead thoroughly, adding extra water as necessary. When dough is stiff, divide into 8 equal portions and tie each snugly into a floured pudding bag or cloth (such as cheesecloth or gauze). Put the bags in the pot(s) in which the salt meat for dinner is boiling and cook for 4 to 5 hours.

Plum Duff Another Way

1 ounce comprees/1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast, 1 cup warm water, ½ cup sugar, ½ cup warm milk, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons allspice, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 ½ cup raisins, 4 cups flour

Put the yeast in a large bowl with the water and 1 tablespoon of the sugar, stir briefly, then cover with a damp cloth and set in a warm place for about 15 minutes. When bubbles appear in the water/yeast mixture, stir in remaining sugar, milk, salt, allspice and cinnamon. Combine the raisins with the flour, which will keep them from clumping together, and add to the yeast mixture. Stir into a stiff dough. Cover with the damp cloth and set in a warm place to double in bulk (about an hour).

Punch the dough down and turn it out onto a floured board. Knead until smooth and elastic. Tie loosely in a well-floured cloth. Place in a large pot of boiling water to cover. Cover, bring back to a boil and cook rapidly for 1 ½ hours. Note that you may need to add more water as it cooks.

Remove the pudding from the pot, untie and turn it out onto a serving dish. Slice into thin wedges and serve with a sweet sauce of your choice.

Header: Rose as HMS Surprise by Geoff Hunt (thanks, Munin)

Friday, May 13, 2011

History: The Practical Poultice

A surgeon at sea, whether or not he (or she) was practically trained a la Stephen Maturin or was  a person whose relative knowledge of certain tools made them the ship’s de facto healer, had to be creative. While pirates and privateers had relatively frequent access to plants and animals to assist in their cures, naval ships might be at sea for long months with no land in sight. Planning ahead, and being willing to improvise, were vital to anyone looking after the sick and injured aboard ship. That is why the poultice was such a popular medicine for everything from burns to sprains, from gangrene to toothache.


A poultice, though it may take various forms, boils down to a wet compress applied to an injury or wound and then wrapped in clean cloth. This form of treatment has been documented since physicians and nurses wrote down their recipes, and that is a very long time. What may surprise the casual reader about poultices is how carefully they were created and tended to throughout history. As modern people we all too frequently imagine our ancestors neglecting treatment of injuries and even hygiene but in fact that is a myth that only feeds our sense superiority.

According to the documentation that has come down to us, both nautical and home spun, from the 17th through the early 19th centuries, poultices should be applied at body temperature so as not to shock the patient with hot or cold. Recommendations for changing the poultice vary, but Mrs. Childs in her book The Family Nurse (originally published in 1837) says:

[Poultices] are usually changed every two or three hours; but in common cases, there is no need of rising in the night to attend to it. When there is great pain, they should be renewed more frequently.

Alexander Exquemelin, buccaneering memoirist and house physician here at Triple P, noted that gangrenous or “mortified” wounds should have the poultice changed every fifteen to twenty minutes until healthy skin reappeared, when the physician may allow thirty minutes between changes. Foreshadowing Mrs. Childs, the buccaneers used a poultice of animal dung (horse, cow or goat) boiled in urine and applied warm for such injuries. Mrs. Childs sticks with horse manure specifically.

A very common base throughout the era was what is called a bread or biscuit poultice. This is made by boiling milk with either bread crumbs, cracker crumbs or crumbs from ship’s biscuit. Used on its own for common inflammations, insect stings and allergic reactions, the biscuit poultice was also expanded with the use of various additives such as:

Flax seed: used powdered, this would encourage “suppuration” according to Mrs. Childs. It was also thought to pull venom from snake bites.

Sumach: the inner bark would be scraped off and boiled, after which it could be bottled for easy transport. This type of poultice would help boils and other such afflictions come to a head and take down swelling in sprains and strains.

Cinchona: also known as Peruvian bark it was prepared much like sumac and used to fight fevers, although it was far more frequently ingested than applied as a poultice.

Marshmallow and hops: both are listed as “quieting”; hops in particular were used to ease migraine.

Charcoal or black powder: both were considered excellent for “mortification”. Black powder was sometimes stuffed into an open wound and ignited to cauterize it. Curiously, Dave Canterberry and Cody Lundin of the Discovery Channel show “Dual Survival” actually did this in a recent episode, with surprisingly successful – if painful – results (see the video here).

If milk was not available, water could be used. Vinegar was also considered a good all purpose base for poultices.

The list could go on and on, which is why a well made poultice was such a staple of early modern medicine. What ever was at hand could be used as long as the preparer had a general idea of what they were doing and what was ailing their patient. At sea, of course, the options for ingredients might be diminished. All the more reason, then, for creativity and nerve.

Header: Morning Break – Stephen Maturin by kyla79 at DeviantArt.com

Booty: A Novel Delight

I may be mildly self-loathing (which, I quickly add, is probably true of most non-narcissists in modern Western culture) but I am not a masochist so it is with a certain trepidation that I write today’s post. After all, yesterday’s disappeared along with thousands of others from Blogger hosted sites around the world. Why would I try again today knowing full good and well that repeating the same behavior while imagining a new and more rewarding outcome is the definition of madness? Because I’m keen to share.


Above are two clay dolls representing Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey from Patrick O’Brian’s novels. They are the creations of the extraordinarily talented Van over at Van’s Clay Creations and they simply could not be any more wonderful. Van is clearly a student of O’Brian as he has captured the essence of both of our heroes. Stephen is of course slighter and shorter than that great bull of a man who is his particular friend. He also appears skeptical, as if he is currently thinking of a witty sarcasm to throw at Jack. Captain Aubrey, on the other hand, is indeed formidable but somehow more approachable than his companion. The look on his face suggests he has caught sight of a lovely and doubtless buxom young lady. That and a bottle of Madeira will make Jack a happy man.

Click over to Van’s LiveJournal site to see more of his incomparable and whimsical creations.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ships: The Swash Channel Wreck

The oceans are full of ships cast into the depths by violent storms, war or just very unfortunate judgment on the part of their crews. Most probably the majority of same have either rotted down to nothing or are yet to be found. Right at this minute, though, a certain urgency exists for what is known as the Swash Channel Wreck. Without immediate action, this intriguing find is in danger of being lost to sea worms and decay.


Located off the coast of Dorset, England in 2006, the ship is thought to date from the 1620s or ‘30s and has been referred to as the “biggest discovery since the Mary Rose.” Evidently the protective sand which has kept the ship in tact for centuries has been slowly shifting away from the wreck, leaving it exposed to all the damage salt water and sea life can do to ancient wood. Add to this the fact that the wreck lies under a busy shipping lane, therefore making it impossible to mound sand over the ship once again, and you have a recipe for disaster.

According to this article from The Independent online, however, the decision has been made to take immediate action. Through the combined efforts of Bournemouth University, whose marine archaeology department originally discovered the wreck, and the Poole Museum, parts of the ship that cannot be reburied will be raised from the ocean’s grip and preserved at the museum.

The urgency of the mission is palpable in the comments made by David Payton, a senior lecturer in marine archaeology at the University. From the article:

The damage [to the ship] has increased dramatically since we first started studying it. It’s a race – you’ve only got a certain amount of time before it’s too late and there’s no point.

The ship is ornately carved and made of timber which has been determined to have come from the border of Germany and Holland. Despite this information, no one has yet been able to determine what ship she actually is, or even what country she might have come from. The mystery makes the potential secrets to be revealed by the Swash Channel Wreck all the more enticing.

For more information on previous research, check Bournemouth University’s website from which the eerie picture at the header has been borrowed. According to the University, it is a carving of a merman on the hull of the wreck. One wishes the little merman could tell us all the secrets that the Swash Channel Wreck may never willingly disclose.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

People: Lived Beloved and Died Regretted

So many of the famous pirates whose stories – I will not say “histories” because that’s stretching the truth to the point of breaking – are familiar to us today either did not exist or are so cloaked in the mantel of legend that sorting out fact from fiction seems impossible. Today’s gentleman rogue is part of the latter group, but is unfortunately no exception.


John Halsey (or Halsy or Halsie) was certainly born in Boston in the year 1670. Both Johnson in his General History of Pyrates and Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who tell the tale of Captain Halsey and the stories seem to jibe pretty well. Of course there is the issue that Gosse, writing in the 1920s, may have taken his information entirely from Johnson but let’s be optimistic, shall we.

Halsey was given a British privateering commission by the Governor of Massachusetts during the War of Spanish Succession which began in 1701. Halsey seems to have stuck to taking legal prizes at first. His brig Charles sailed from Boston to Newfoundland where Halsey got his feet wet, so to say, capturing French fishing vessels. He then set a course for the Azores and graduated to Spanish merchants. Along the coast of Portugal, some of Halsey’s men deserted. There was evidently conflict over a disagreement between Halsey and his First Lieutenant, who was put ashore at Cape Verde. There is documentation that some of the deserters were captured by authorities and returned to Halsey’s ship by the local Governor. This would verify the story that Halsey carried a legitimate commission.

Halsey was still hunting in the Atlantic when that commission expired, probably some time in 1705. Rather than turn home or to England to retrieve new papers, Halsey decided to go rogue. He took Charles around the Cape and sailed to one of the many piratical outposts on Madagascar. Here he refitted, watered, provisioned and took on new men. The Captain generously allowed those among his New England crew who did not care to go a pirating to leave his ship. Then Halsey set off for the rich hunting grounds of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Gosse tells us that Halsey decided not to go after “Christian ships” but instead announced his “… sudden determination to attack only Moorish ships in the future.” This decision seems to have enraged his pirate crew for, when they came upon a Dutchman they all agreed was a fat merchant on her way home from India, they threw Halsey and his few loyal mated in chains and proceeded to give chase. Unfortunately for the audacious crew, the Dutch ship was in fact a man-of-war – or at the very least an extremely well gunned merchant. She turned and began to fire on Charles rather than running, as the crew has expected.

A fire fight ensued and Charles was battered to the point of being in danger of wrecking. Halsey was released from irons and took charge immediately, managing to get his ship out of harm’s way. The now contrite crew decided to let their Captain run the show. On the flip side, Halsey seems to have reconsidered his prize taking stance. After a refit near the island of Reunion, Halsey set Charles on a course back towards Madagascar.

En route, the pirates met at least two English merchants, Essex and Rising Eagle, whom they managed to take without much trouble. The captain of Essex turned out to be a friend of Charles’ quartermaster and, due to this connection, Halsey allowed the man to keep all of his personal goods. It did not seem much of a loss to the pirates, however, as Gosse states that Halsey took sixty thousand pounds in “English gold” out of both ships. He also managed to ransom the ships, being paid cash for their return to their owners. Clearly the entire adventure netted the crew of Charles a handsome amount.

Sailing toward Madagascar, Halsey met two more ships. Gosse tells us that one, the Greyhound, was carrying goods from some of Halsey’s previous prizes. Whether or not this coincidence actually occurred, it is a good example of how close the businesses of privateers, pirates and merchants actually were when abroad on the high seas.

Halsey put ashore at last, probably at the pirate haven of Ile Saint-Marie, and settled down with his generous booty. Unfortunately the tropical climate does not seem to have agreed with him as he contracted a fever within a few months. He died, Johnson tells us, in 1708 (Gosse says 1716) and was buried with all solemnity on the island. His funeral included the firing of guns in salute and a church service.

Johnson concludes his chapter on pirate John Halsey with this:

He was brave in his Person, courteous to all his Prisoners, lived beloved and died regretted by his own People. His Grave was made in a garden of watermelons, and fenced in with Palisades to prevent his being rooted up by wild Hogs.

What more could a seaman ask for?

Header: Full Rigged Sailing Ship by C.L. Bille

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Wind is All

Wind is as important to sailing ships as gasoline is to the modern motor car. Without wind you’re not going anywhere with the exception of galleys manned with oars. Most real sailors didn’t think much of that type of transportation, I can tell you.


Knowing the winds around the world could take a lifetime, and many old salts did memorize the wind patterns in various seas and oceans. Some of the most pronounced winds had – and still have – names that allowed people effected by them to identify exactly what was coming, or had come. Here are the major winds around the world, some of which will no doubt be familiar to the Brethren and all of which are very much alive and blowing today.

Chinook: a warm, wet easterly wind off the mountains of south central Alaska that blows into the Cook Inlet and out to the Bering Sea. Generally confined to winter months.

Harmattan: hot, easterly wind filled with dust, blowing off the west coast of Africa into the Atlantic.

Levanter: summer easterly or north easterly wind on the North African coast of the Mediterranean.

Mistral: cold, dry northwest wind in the Gulf of Lyon, the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Norte: a northerly gale in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pampero: southwesterly gales blowing out of the Argentinean pampas into the Atlantic.

Papagayo: strong northeasterly wind with clear weather on the west coast of Central America.

Santa Ana: hot, dry wind moving west from the California desert to the Pacific.

Sirocco: dry southerly wind from Africa’s Sahara, blowing across the Mediterranean.

Solano: southeasterly wind full of dust blowing from Africa across the Mediterranean into Southern France and Spain.

Tehuantepecer: savage northerly wind in the Gulf of Tehuantepec off southern Mexico.

Tramontana: cold and unpredictable wind blowing down the Adriatic. This wind is also known as Gli Secchi.

Willi Waw: wind gusts blowing down steep mountainsides as in the Strait of Magellan and off Gibraltar.

Header: Ships in a Raging Storm by O. Ragstrom c 1690

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Pirate Mothers

YOU Mary Read and Anne Bonny, alias Bonn, are to go from hence to the Place from whence you came, and from then to the Place of Execution; where you shall be severally hang'd by the neck, 'till you are severally Dead.  And GOD of his infinite Mercy be merciful to both of your Souls.

~ pronouncement of His Excellency Lord Nicholas Lawes of Jamaica, 1720

Header: Read and Bonny from Johnson's History of Pyrates

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Limb

Limbs at sea can be arms and legs just as they are on land, but they are a few other things as well. Things you’d have a hard time running a wooden sailing ship without.


As the Brethren are well aware, astronomy plays a big part in navigation; or it did before the dawn of radar, sonar, GPS and what have you. At sea, a limb is the graduated arc of a surveying instrument used to measure the location of planets, the moon and the sun, such as a quadrant. In astronomy proper a limb is the edge of the disc of these heavenly bodies. Thus the sun, a planet, or the moon are said to have reached a limb-tangent when their edge appears to just touch the Earth’s horizon.

The limber boards (or plates) of a wooden ship are those planks closest to the central keelson which are easily removed for cleaning of the area just beneath, known generally as the limber passage. This is where water pushed out by the ships pumps finds passage to the scuppers and off the ship. The limber is known to become clogged with detritus that must occasionally be cleaned out for the pumps to work adequately. A small chain stretching through this passage and known as a limber clearer is hauled back and forth for more frequent loosening of smaller particulate. Needless to say, on an ill-kept ship this area can fester and become not only distasteful in its perfume but a health hazard as well.

A limber is the familiar two wheeled carriage on which a piece of field artillery can be mounted to make it mobile. Limber boxes (or trunks) are attacked to the limber and used for holding ammunition in the case of smaller guns. Interestingly, particularly when we consider the use of the phrase in modern parlance, the order “Limber up!” was given when it was time to raise the cannon and then seat and attach it to the limber. In the case of a large gun, the gun crew would indeed need to be “limber”.

Finally limbo was a word used at sea not to illustrate any specific theological point but to mean being under arrest as in chains or bilboes.

A good Saturday to one and all. Stay limber, mates; it’s good for your health.

Header: One of the blue cannon, on its limber, at Chalmette National Park south of New Orleans, LA

Friday, May 6, 2011

Booty: Pretty Pirate Pictures Part V

It has been a while since we’ve taken the time to stare at lovely ladies in nautical and/or piratical situations. And I find that today is just the right day to rectify that with a bevy of pin up paintings by Triple P favorite, Gil Elvgren. In order of appearance we have:


Foil Proof, Hard to Handle and Splendid View all via Gil Elvgren Pinup

Happy Friday, Brethren!


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lady Pirates: Before the Siren's Song

The story of Anne Bonny (or Bonney, or Cormac, or Fulford) is relatively well known to a wide range of historical interests. Students of women’s history use her as an example of the free-thinking, “scandalous” woman who by her very existence proves that not all of our distaff ancestors were crop hoein’, clothes sewin’ baby machines. Students of nautical history point to both her and her shipmate Mary Read as evidence that more cross-dressing women were aboard ships in the great age of sail than most books would have us believe. Students of pirate history just plain love her and, I will admit, frequently overlook how inherently sad her story is in favor of a swashbuckling, sword-wielding female hero with her boobs out. All of this scrutiny has lost who Anne probably really was and some of that, I think, is due to the fact that her “back story” has been misplaced. It is a shame really, because the story has a lot to recommend it.


In 1724 Captain Charles Johnson published the first proper account of female pirates Bonny and Read in his anthology A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. Johnson, according to many scholars, was a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe who, though not himself a seagoing man, wrote of the sea most capably. Defoe also had a reputation for fact checking in a time when writers rarely bothered to spell the names of their “true life” characters correctly, which brings up a point I feel compelled to make. Whether or not Johnson was Defoe is still and issue for debate and I sometimes wonder if scholars cling to the idea simply so that they can jump to the next obvious conclusion: the stories in Pyrates are reliable because Defoe was reliable.

Regardless of actual author, Pyrates tells us a lot more about Anne Bonny’s family and childhood than any book that came after. According to the book Anne’s father was a lawyer in County Cork, Ireland who lived in comfortable circumstances thanks to the wealth and influence of his lady wife. The details of William Cormac’s personality are missing from the story but one gets the impression that he was a rogue.

Cormac and his wife had no children when they hired a maid named Mary Brennan. Johnson calls her a “handsome young woman” but says nothing of her origins. The girl had suitors calling almost immediately and according to Johnson she attached herself to an apprentice tanner who would visit her frequently. The young man supplemented his income by stealing and one afternoon while Mary was otherwise engaged he “whipped” three silver spoons into his coat pocket.

Mary, who may very well have been given responsibility over a very precious household collection, noticed some of the silver missing. She confronted her boyfriend who denied the theft. She pressed him, even threatening to get the law involved if he did not return the purloined items. Johnson tells us that the tanner relented, though not directly to Mary. Instead, he put the spoons in her bed with the thought that she would find them there. She did not.

Here one must step back and wonder a bit about Mary. She was clever enough to be able to count silver and know when it was missing. Even more to the point, she knew her beau well enough to know that he was the thief and threatened him with reprisal. Yet she obviously continued to sleep with him given that he deposited the stolen goods in her bed and then, as if adding insult to injury, she neglected to find them there. Common sense, as the events that followed will prove, was not one of Mary’s strong suits.

Madam Cormac was away during the affair of the spoons and upon her return Mary reported the theft directly to her. Either word got back to him or Mary confronted the tanner’s apprentice again as he in turn went to Madam Cormac and accused Mary of the theft. Not only did he make the accusation but he told her just where she could find her missing spoons. The lawyer’s wife was incredulous until she entered Mary’s room and found the silver exactly where the tanner said it would be. Madam Cormac, who had clearly read Moliere, then feigned a raging fever and – in a wifely effort to keep her husband from falling ill – told Mary to sleep in the stable while the mistress of the house slept in her servant’s bed.

This is a curious move. Was Madam Cormac trying to find out if the tanner and Mary were in cahoots to rob her blind? Did she imagine Mary would secrete more silver in her bed even as the lady of the house slept there? Had all this bad news really made her ill? Whatever her reason, the lawyer’s wife was about to have far more revealed to her than the name of a petty thief.

William Cormac returned home that evening and evidently asked no questions about his wife. Perhaps he imagined she was still away but whatever his thoughts he went about his evening routine as usual. This routine included sneaking into Mary Brennan’s little room in the middle of the night and calling out softly to the person lying in the bed. Madam Cormac, still awake and alert to any further mischief, recognized her husband’s voice. She did not respond and so, as Johnson tells us, her “… husband came to bed and played the vigorous lover”. His wife, whom he obviously thought was Mary, “… bore it like a Christian.” Although one hates to excuse deception, that last point may explain why William was prowling around the maid’s room in the first place.

When William passed out, Johnson implies due to exhaustion, his wife slipped from her maid’s bed. She returned to the place she had been staying, either her mother’s or her mother-in-law’s house, and called for the Beadle to report Mary Brennan as a thief. Mary landed in jail without further ado.

When William was advised of all these goings on, which may very well have occurred while he snored in Mary’s bed, he became enraged. He managed to get Mary out of prison after some time and then he confronted his wife. To his great surprise, and doubtless in a scene that would have made Moliere laugh out loud, both maid and wife announced they were pregnant. The Cormacs argued, as one might expect, and Madam determined to split permanently from her unfaithful husband. In time she gave birth to twins while Mary gave William a daughter they named Anne.

Of course the problem of his wife’s withdrawal from the marriage was that William was left without a proper income. Madam Cormac did give him an allowance for a time but, when she found that he was living with Mary and her daughter, she cut him off for good. At this point, William seems to have pulled himself up by his bootstraps at long last. He sold his law firm, packed up and took Mary and Anne to the colonial city of Charleston in what would become South Carolina.

Here Cormac prospered as a planter, seemingly finding his niche at last. His happiness was short-lived, however. Mary died, very possibly of the yellow fever that often troubled immigrants from cooler climes, and Anne became an insufferable teenager. While never destined for high society – doubtless the elite class of Charleston knew the story of her family and gossiped about it behind their fans – Cormac hoped that Anne would make a good marriage. Instead, according to Johnson, she beat the first suitor her father offered her bloody then turned around and married ne’er-do-well James Bonny who promised her adventure around the world.

In a sad climax to her family story, William Cormac disowned his beloved daughter, and Anne was faced with the reality of having married a gold digger. Bonny was only interested in Anne for her father’s money after all. He dragged his new bride off to New Providence in the Bahamas, hoping to become a pirate hunter. Instead, Anne fell under the spell of handsome “Calico” Jack Rackham and the rest, as they say, is history.

Anne Bonny probably didn’t give much thought to where she came from as she sailed off a pirating with her lover. All the same, it is clear that her background effected who she became. If Johnson’s story has any truth to it, anyway. Even before the siren’s song of the sea called her to infamy, Anne Bonny was foreshadowing more than a few Americans as a bastard child in a new world who refused to follow her society’s rules.

Header: the classic engraving of Anne Bonny

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Pirates Own Book: "A Great Villain"

Charles Vane was one of those who stole away the silver which the Spaniards had fished up from the wrecks of the galleons in the Gulf of Florida, and was at Providence when governor Rodgers arrived there with two men-of-war.


Thus begins the 22nd chapter in Charles Ellms’ The Pirates’ Own Book entitled “The Exploits, Arrest and Execution of Captain Charles Vane”. This particular chapter is surprisingly accurate in its brief retelling of the life a Vane, an Englishman who began his piratical career under Captain Henry Jennings. Jennings is most noted for his 1716 attacks on Spanish wrackers who were pulling up the riches lost when their treasure fleet sunk off the coast of Florida in 1715.

Ellms is usually pretty shy about giving specific dates but he speaks of Vane being at the helm of his own ship by May of 1718. He goes on to note that Vane arrived at New Providence, The Bahamas just as the new Governor was sailing into the bay to put down piracy. Vane, who refused to take the King’s pardon, sailed out to the Caribbean again “… with their piratical colors flying, and fired at one of the men-of-war.” Though in the end Vane would be branded a coward by his own men, he started his pirate career with a defiant lack of reverence for any authority.

Ellms tells us that Vane and his men went out on a prize-taking spree and, as usual, details each prize as if he has a checklist in front of him. In short order, though:

… Vane went to a small island and cleaned; where he shared the booty and spent some time in a riotous manner.

By the end of the summer Vane is leading a small flotilla of prizes that he has given to his various lieutenants to command. Ellms notes that Vane “… always treated his consorts with very little respect…” and his attitude begins to rankle among the men in charge of these ships. The men “…caballed together…” and determined to part with Vane as soon as an opportunity arose. Led by Captain Yeates, the ships did just that and headed for the outer banks south of Charleston in what is now South Carolina. It is here that Yeates petitions for the King’s pardon and in the process appears to inform the Royal Navy of Vane’s favorite hunting grounds.

One Colonel Rhet is dispatched to find Vane and bring him to justice but he was given false information by a merchant ship previously taken by Vane. This was not through any fault of the seaman aboard the merchant but in fact a clever ruse by Vane: he had fed his prisoners incorrect information on purpose. As usual with Ellms, the plot thickens.

Meanwhile, heading in the opposite direction from Rhet, Vane has met up with Blackbeard himself, Edward Teach. Both pirates having had good luck with prizes, they decide to take a break from plundering “… and mutual civilities passed between them for some days.”

Back out at sea in October, Vane’s ship meets a French man-of-war. Though Vane and his First Lieutenant Robert Deal want no part of the Frenchman, quartermaster Jack Rackam and several members of the crew argue otherwise. Though the French Navy ship is avoided, the discussion turns to argument and Rackam accuses Vane of cowardice. A vote is called for and the majority decide with Rackam, who is made captain in Vane’s stead.

Vane and his few remaining followers, including Deal, are given a provisioned sloop and sent off on their own. They head for the Bay of Honduras and have a little luck there, finally deciding to winter at the Island of Barnacho. Setting out in February, Vane’s sloop is hit by a hurricane and wrecked. Ellms tells us that “most” of the men drown but that Vane survived “… reduced to great straits for want of necessaries.”

In fact Vane’s sloop did wreck off Honduras and he and one other man were cast ashore on an unpopulated island where they survived alone for some time. Ellms adds a nice twist to this final stretch in Vane’s career by having a ship captained by an old “acquaintance” of Vane’s put in at the little island for water. Captain Holford immediately recognizes Vane but refuses to rescue him saying:

“Charles, I shan’t trust you aboard my ship unless I carry you as a prisoner, for I shall have you caballing with my men, knocking me on the head, and running away with my ship pirating.”

Vane, of course, wants no part of being taken prisoner and makes a show of outrage at Holford’s accusation. A rather amusing exchange ensues in which Vane asks Holford how he should get off the island and Holford tells him to steal a fishing dory from one of the locals. When Vane says he couldn’t steal a boat Holford replies:

“Do you make it a matter of conscience… to steal a dory, when you have been a common robber and pirate, stealing ships and cargoes, and plundering all mankind that fell in your way? Stay here if you are so squeamish!”

The point is well made but this entire interlude appears, unfortunately, to be a piece of fiction. Needless to say, Holford sails away leaving Vane to argue with his conscience. Another ship soon appears and rescues Vane but the pirate’s luck has run out. Wouldn’t you know that this ship’s captain is a close acquaintance of Captain Holford, and that the two friends’ ships meet, and that the captains get together for a meal, and I’m quite certain you can figure the rest out.

In fact Vane was rescued only to be recognized by one of the rescuing ship’s crew who served on a merchant taken by Vane in the not so distant past. Either way, Vane is brought in to Jamaica, tried and hanged along with his friend and former first mate Deal. Ellms ends this chapter with the thought that:

It is clear from this how little ancient friendship will avail a great villain, when he is deprived of the power that had before supported and rendered him formidable.


Header: Vane arrested by Captain Holford from The Pirates Own Book via Project Guttenberg

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Pathetic Pirates: The Good Puritan

Most people have some inkling of the famous marooner Alexander Selkirk whose adventure in the wild islands off the coast of modern day Peru would become the basis for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. What many people are not aware of is that Defoe wrote about another man who voluntarily marooned himself rather than join the piratical crew of a captain he found morally reprehensible. Today then, I offer the story of Philip Ashton and his sixteen months on the island of Roatan in the Bay of Honduras.


Ashton was a New Englander from the area of Salem, Massachusetts who was raised in the Puritan faith. He asked for and received his parents’ permission to sign on aboard a merchant as an able seaman some time in his late teens. By 1722 he was a capable hand at sea aboard a schooner plying the Atlantic and Caribbean waters up and down the coasts of Central and North America. That summer, in early June, fate changed everything for Ashton and his mates.

The merchant upon which Ashton sailed was taken by the notoriously sadistic pirate Ned Low and her men pressed into his service. Ashton did as he was commanded, working Low’s Fortune along side others more enthusiastic than he for a pirate’s life, but he refused to sign Low’s articles and actually become a pirate. He saw in Low everything “reprehensible in the eyes of God”. Ashton determined to escape rather than sail under Low’s black flag.

His escape attempts proved futile time after time and his continued bids for freedom enraged one of Low’s lieutenants so thoroughly that the man tried to shoot Ashton not once but four times. When the pistol misfired each time, the man drew his cutlass. Ashton escaped his assailant, according to Defoe, by jumping headlong into the ship’s hold. Other incidents had similar results and, though Ashton was a decent hand aboard ship, Low’s men came to despise him.

After being party to the taking of a dozen prizes, Ashton saw another opportunity for escape when Low put in to a little archipelago now known as the Bay Islands off the coast of modern Honduras. Ashton was selected to go ashore with a party to refresh the ship’s water and, through a ruse of looking for coconuts, he managed to hide in the dense forest of Roatan Island. Though his mates called out for him repeatedly, Ashton refused to rejoin them. As Defoe writes in Ashton’s voice:

Thus was I left on a desolate island, destitute of all help and remote from the track of navigators; but, compared with the state and society I had quitted, I considered the wilderness hospitable and the solitude interesting.

Ashton’s real problems came from the fact that he had nothing with him but the shirt and breeches he wore. Barefoot, without arms or a way to start a fire, he was in worse shape than Bear Grylls on a particularly harrowing episode of “Man vs. Wild”. His Puritan resolve seemed to help him get on with life, though. He had the attitude that doing the right thing was far more important than personal comfort. At least in the beginning.

Ashton became an involuntary vegetarian, eating only fruits including coconuts, figs and a strange, brown fruit with red, juicy insides that he only tried after seeing the local wild boars feast on them. Fresh water was plentiful, and Ashton managed to build shelter, but his feet took a beating from broken shells on the beach and sticks and rocks in the forest. He had days were he could do nothing but sit “… my back leaning against a tree, looking out for a vessel…” His meager diet took a toll on his health and the local flies became an unbearable annoyance.

In a desperate bid for relief from the insect horde, Ashton learned to swim. He at first used a bamboo limb as a float to kick his way to a small sandbar where the constant sea breezes kept flies and mosquitoes away. He returned to Roatan for food and water, and to sleep in his shelter at night, but his days were passed on the sandbar under the shade of some palm fronds.

Ashton began to succumb to depression, no doubt encouraged by his poor diet and the wounds festering on his bare feet. Nine months into his ordeal, though, another soul appeared on the island. An Englishman pulled up in a canoe baring firearms, powder, flint and a good deal of smoked pork. He met Ashton genially, saying he was on the run from mainland Spaniards who had determined to burn him at the stake. Ashton welcomed the man, whose name we are never told, and passed three days with him before his new companion set out in his canoe on a hunting foray. A storm blew up that night, and Ashton never saw the man again.

Another three months passed, with Ashton returning to a semblance of health thanks to the provisions left behind by his anonymous friend. When he found a canoe at the water’s edge one morning he began to paddle to other islands in the archipelago. Though he saw sailing vessels, he was repeatedly disappointed to find them either Spanish (he was almost killed by a party of Spaniards on the island of Bonacco) or freebooters. Time crept by, Ashton’s person became wild looking and his clothes rotted off his body but still he soldiered on.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, a small party of Englishmen appeared on Roatan. They assisted Ashton, who was nearly ready to die, giving him clothes, food and rum (which itself nearly killed him). They were forming a settlement – “plantations” they said – on Barbarat Island and they gladly took the castaway back home with them. As luck would have it, though, Ashton’s comfort was short lived.

Captain Spriggs, a former associate of Ned Low’s, anchored off Barbarat in his pirate schooner Delight. He raided the settlement and captured some men, but others – Ashton among them – escaped to the dense jungle. One man of the Barbarat settlers was killed but Ashton and his fellows managed to avoid capture. Spriggs sailed on with a few of the settlers and the remaining men seemed to count this experience as the end of their settlement. All but one returned to the mainland.

Ashton and a man named Symonds began an enterprise of collecting tortoise shells for sale to passing Jamaica-bound ships. This is where Philip Ashton’s luck finally turned. Sixteen months after deliberately stranding himself on Roatan, a Salem schooner captained by a man named Dove dropped anchor off Bonacco. Coincidently, Dove knew Ashton and he happily took the marooner on as a hand aboard his merchant vessel for the trip back to Massachusetts. Ashton arrived in Salem Harbor on May 1, 1725. One of the last sentences in Defoe’s retelling simply says:

That same evening I went to my father’s house, where I was received as one raised from the dead.

After an ordeal that would have done in lesser men, pathetic pirate but righteous Puritan Philip Ashton returned home. It probably goes without saying that he did not return to sea again.

Header: a beach on Roatan Island from a local realty website, Roatan Dreams