Friday, September 30, 2011

Booty: A Picture is Worth 1000 Words

The young man pictured above is Joost van den Brock Kirill Lewerski. He serves as a Cadet aboard the Russian tall ship Kruzenshtern which, as of this writing, is used as a training vessel in the Ministry of Fisheries out of Kaliningrad. Originally built in Bremerhaven, Germany and launched in 1926, the then Padua travelled the world as a merchant class vessel with recurring stops in Chile and Australia. She still holds the record for the fastest voyage from Germany to Australia by a sailing ship at eight months and twenty-three days. Padua was turned over to the USSR by Germany in 1946 as part of war reparations and renamed Kruzenshtern. Though she is now fitted with modern engines, this four-masted, 3,064 ton beauty continues to participate in tall ship events around the world. Find pictures and more information here.

The photograph of Cadet Lewerski was one of the winners of this year’s World Press Photo Awards. To me, it shows the ongoing pride of not only ship but person that has been the hallmark of good sailors throughout history. No wonder this simple yet startling portrait was among the photographs chosen.

Now a warning: clicking the link will take you to the photograph above. I suggest that you peruse the others with caution, particularly if you are at all squeamish about the realities of life around the world. Some of the pictures are serenely beautiful: a Congolese woman playing her cello amid the bustle of daily life (#8), a model before a backdrop of desert sky (#9), swans at a lake in Japan (#16). Some are so mundane as to rise above their own context: models at fashion week (#7), a girl taking her own picture to upload to MySpace (#14). Quite a few are jarring reminders that our world is no better than it was when plagues and famine lurked around every corner, and women were tortured and burned as witches: the bodies of dead children in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti (#10), a man committing suicide in Hungary (#6), the face of a teenage girl from Afghanistan mutilated on order of the Taliban for fleeing her abusive marriage (#1). If any of that troubles you – as it rightly should – feel free to stick to the handsome sailor with the interesting name. Or don’t click over at all.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

People: The Birth of Jove

In her letters to Sarah Nelson, one of the few Nelsons who could tolerate that Hamilton woman, Emma Hamilton repeatedly referred to Horatio Nelson as Jove. While in life he was not so lofty a figure among his countrymen, in death he truly became something of a god.

Born on this day in 1758, the Hero of Trafalgar became the focus of not only a nation’s gratitude but of their curiosity as well. Figuring out what the enigmatic Admiral had been about became a minor obsession with many of the ladies and gentlemen of London’s elite. One of the more popular pseudo-sciences of the era, personology, was repeatedly applied to Nelson posthumously in this generally futile pursuit.

Personology, or the study of birth dates, sprang from the philosophical teachings of Hegel, the father of German Idealism. Hegel, who was perhaps one of the first philosophers to posit the theory that time is not linear, rejected stiff applications of time-based units in history. This was taken a step further by those who leached money from the well-to-do on the pretence of knowing the future and reading minds. Personologists rejected the old standard of astrology and claimed to be able to understand and advise an individual based on their birth date.

Personology and, more appropriately, the study of birth dates, is still practiced today. The most extensive treatise in recent years is The Secret Language of Birthdays by Gary Goldschneider and Joost Elffers. Drawing on both modern understanding and historical descriptions, the book is surprisingly instructive, particularly when one looks at a life from the past, such as Admiral Nelson’s. From the book:

Those born on September 29 fight an ongoing battle to maintain stability in their lives. At times they can feel that they are masters of the universe and at other moments not worthwhile at all. Such swings in their mood and self-image are most often due to an underlying lack of self-confidence.

While at first glance this may seem not to apply to Nelson at all, further insight makes such a statement quite plausible in his case. He certainly had a well developed ego by the time he died fighting at Trafalgar. Doubtless, however, his humble origins made him feel the need to constantly prove himself better than men who, though equals in naval rank, may have come from far more lofty circumstances.

Those born on this day… can oscillate between very intense and very relaxed behavior.

Of course Nelson’s professional and personal life, particularly later in his career, were so polarized as to be almost unimaginable at the time. His scandalous, ongoing affair with Emma Hamilton made him a laughing stock in polite society. But no one dared to laugh in the Admiral’s face out of respect, awe and fear.

The final sentence in the book’s September 29 entry sums Nelson up nicely:

If, however, the unusual people born on this day can take the reigns of their career firmly in hand, without foundering or getting sidetracked, they are indeed capable of extraordinary achievements.

In Nelson’s case, even a major derailment in love did not seem to alter his focus. The brilliant seaman would live and die under the standard of his most famous quotation: “Never mind maneuvers, always go at them.” Those who did not know him intimately would be left to consult astrologers and personologists in an effort to understand where so much greatness originated.

Header: Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, artist unknown, via Napoleon Bonaparte

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ships: Catch Me Who Can

The small, one or two masted ship known as a revenue cutter first appeared in Europe around 1740, particularly in France and England. She was probably the direct descendant of the mail packet, also one masted but undecked due to her lack of armament, and the new cutter continued to be used for this kind of work throughout the period and into the 1800s. The revenue cutter was different in that she was decked, could carry a relatively large number of guns for her size and was often equipped with a numerous crew.

The true revenue cutter was a product of England and her colonies, particularly New England and Nova Scotia. They were fast sailors and generally carried between 10 and 12 guns, sometimes even managing long 9 pounders which could do a deal of damage at a respectable range. Size varied, even in the heyday of the revenue cutter between the start of the American Revolution and the end of the War of 1812. Some of these swift sailers were as large as 250 tons (HMS Ranger, for instance) while others were very light at 75 tons (USS Massachusetts, pictured). General dimensions for a 100 ton cutter were 85 feet length, 24 foot beam and a draft of between six and eleven inches.

Initially used as mail carriers, the era of England’s wars with her colonies, France and the U.S. saw the revenue cutter used for campaigns against piracy and smuggling. Because smuggling ships, particularly in the English Channel but also on the Atlantic coast of the future U.S., were small, fast and weatherly, the ships that chased them had to be just as swift and maneuverable. Since revenue packets could carry a decent armament, they could engage just about any smuggler or pirate they encountered. Their larger crew, made possible by the lack of need for much in the way of provisions, gave them the advantage in boarding and the ability to place prize crews on captured ships without suffering for the loss of hands. Though the compliment of men in a cutter like Massachusetts was only 25 to 30, Ranger carried a crew of up to 100. Revenue cutters did suffer from a lack of ability to pursue too far into open water and generally hugged the coastlines, but this was often true of smuggling vessels as well.

It probably goes without saying that a technological advance in pirate hunting called for a response. Pirates, privateers and smugglers fitted out their vessels with planking, two jibs and small guns, making them faster and more formidable. The use of sailing pirogues in Louisiana and the Carolinas and the birth of the American topsail schooner, one of the fastest ships of its age, were both influenced at least in part by the model revenue cutter.

Eventually revenue cutters came to be used in coast guard service, first in the U.S. and Canada and then virtually around the world. Their fast sailing and armament capacity made them perfect for keeping ocean shores and inland waters safe from predation of all kinds. Small versions of this same design are still favored by sailing enthusiasts as they are generally easy runners and can be handled by a green crew. Unless one hits dirty weather, it is by and large smooth sailing in a sturdy, one masted cutter.

Header: USS Massachusetts via

Monday, September 26, 2011

History: Where Did the Vikings Go?

Now that NASA has shown that “global warming” as an inconvenient truth is an incorrect take on climate change, modern humans might be wise to look at the overall history of fluctuation in temperatures and environments around the world. The story goes that Alaska was once a steamy jungle and the Sahara desert was covered with ocean. Of course that was prehistoric but there are many more recent instances of climate change that may help us to understand our own situation more clearly.

This article from speaks somewhat to that sort of approach. It tells of a small but successful Norse settlement near modern Qagssiarssuk, Greenland that prospered for close to 400 years. Then, in the mid-14th century, the village society quite literally collapsed; people picked up and left, never to return. The cause of such a drastic action by hearty souls used to tough weather and conditions appears to have been climate change.

Science has known for some time that the mild climates of Europe during the Dark Ages shifted some time in the late 13th century. Overall, median tempers in Eurasia dropped between ten and fifteen degrees with even wider fluctuations occurring in the far north. According to the study done by the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, that was also the case further west.

Dr. Sofia Ribeiro, who led the Greenland research team, is quoted in the article:

Our study shows a major shift towards cooler conditions and extensive sea-ice which coincides with the estimated time for the collapse of the Western Settlement in… 1350.

The theory goes that the Norse villages who, according to Dr. Ribeiro, were “… proud of being Europeans, farmers and Christians…” could not effectively farm or breed cattle once the climate cooled. Their nearness to local fjords didn’t help as, according to the theory, heavier sea-ice kept local walruses and seals – which the villagers hunted – from moving up the fjords. The same situation limited or stopped trade with Europe as well. Unwilling to change to a nomadic existence such as that of the local Inuit, the Norse settlers left their village behind, either returning to Scandinavia or moving on to Iceland where Norse settlements continued to thrive.

The article concludes with a little insight from Dr. Ribeiro:

There is perhaps an important lesson to learn from the Norse collapse and that is a lesson of adaptation, of being able to adjust our values and life-style in times of change. That is an important challenge we face today as a society.

A wise man once said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Let us hope we fair better than our lost Viking ancestors.

Header: Ruins of a Norse settlement near Quagssiarssuk, Greenland via

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: The Conqueror Sets Sail

September 28, 1066: William of Normandy's fleet sets sail for Pevensey, England.

Header: William the Conqueror's ships on the Bayeux Tapestry

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Waist

For those of us who pour over nautical fiction, words like waist and waisters come up a good deal. What they are referring to may not be so readily discernable. That said, I fully imagine that the Brethren have no trouble with them but educating a green hand is what we’re about around here, right mates?

The Sailor’s Word Book defines waist as:

That portion of the main deck of a ship of war, contained between the fore and main hatchways, or between the half-deck and galley.

While the right Honorable Admiral Smyth’s book generally deals with men-of-war, explaining the focus of that excerpt, most ships of one or more masts have what is referred to as a “waist”; that is, literally the middle of the ship or midships.

It probably goes without saying that the waist, like any other portion of a ship, comes with its own accoutrement, if you will allow. Thus there is the waist anchor, a spare stowed in the ship’s waist. Waist boards are the notches wherein a ship’s gangway can be secured. Waist cloths are the canvas that cover rolled up hammocks, particularly when preparing for battle. They are often painted to match the ship’s hull colors or chequering. The waist rail is the molding on a ship’s side. A waist tree, more commonly referred to as a rough tree, is an unfinished mast or spar stored in the waist. This is brought out, finished and set as a replacement when a mast is shattered, broken or lost.

And waisters? Well, much as their name implies, these are lubberly or elderly crewmen stationed in a ships waist where they could haul on ropes, swab decks and stay out of the way of able seamen at work. Though not as offensive as lubber, being called a waister is no compliment to a true seaman.

Happy Saturday, mates. I hoist a cup of grog to you one and all, and wish you fair winds and following seas until next we meet.

Header: An August Morning With Farragut by William Heyshand Overend c 1883 (working the great guns in the waist of future Admiral David Farragut’s flagship during his Civil War assault on Louisiana and yeah, that’s him out there on the rigging; he was his father’s son through and through)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Booty: Wrapping Up ITLAP Week

International Talk Like A Pirate Day was officially on Monday and, to my way of thinking, today closes a full week of piratical celebration. This was a time to “get yer pyrate on”, whether you simply want to spice up your morning hellos with a few “me hearties” or go full force in “pirate drag”, now’s your chance. As The Pirate Guys, who started this brilliant annual festival in 1995 on a racquetball court in the Pacific Northwest, have noted it is all in good fun.

That’s why I have to be honest in my reaction to this article over at the usually informative and unbiased NatGeo online. Entitled “Talk Like a Pirate Day Busted: Not Even Pirates Spoke Pirate”, the piece basically begins with “Brace yourself…” and then goes on to tell us that *gasp* no one knows how “real” pirates spoke. In fact, our modern interpretation of “pirate speak” comes down to us from the 1951 Disney movie Treasure Island and specifically Robert Newton, the actor who played Long John Silver.

Forgive me while I say, well blow me down.

Curiously, while the article gets the general gist of pirate language – if such ever existed – correct, they throw in - and omit - a few curious facts. One in particular jumps off the page:

The Golden Age pirate… included large numbers of Scots, Irish, Africans and French, as well as a smattering of Dutchmen, Swedes and Danes.

While, to be fair to NatGeo, this quote is from historian Colin Woodward who authored The Republic of Pirates, it seems like we’re leaving a huge chunk of the pirate population out as well as marginalizing another. From the buccaneer era on piracy was largely a New World profession. Not only were there plenty of English, Dutch and Scandinavian pirates, men (and women) of Native, Spanish, Portuguese and especially Creole descent were represented. Many Golden Age pirates were born in the New World; many pirate and privateer crews were such a polyglot mix that “talking like a pirate” might mean speaking either French or Spanish derived Creole almost exclusively.

The most glaring omission in the article is any mention of The Pirate Guys aside from the introduction. In their book Pirattitude! So You Wanna Be a Pirate? Here’s How! John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur and Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers have this to say about the origin of the language of the holiday they invented:

… Robert Newton [is] the reason we think of pirates talking the way we do. He did it single handedly.

The English character actor was a ham and, as one critic enthused, “a succulent one!”…

So when he played Long John Silver in the 1951 Disney version of Treasure Island, he drew on his Cornish background and its distinctive dialect to make the peg-legged pirate something truly memorable. He came up with a performance that was all growls and rolling eyes and “Arrr, me hearties.” It made an indelible impression. Even people who never saw Newton’s inimitable performance know that THAT’S what a pirate is supposed to sound like.

To pay the man his due for his influence on piratical speech, we have declared him the patron saint of Talk Like A Pirate Day.

If that isn’t giving the origin of “pirate speak” as we know it its due, I’m not really sure what it is that NatGeo and Mr. Woodward are looking for.

The bottom line: this is all in fun, y’all. I think we can agree that Laurens de Graff never called Nicholas Van Horn a scurvy dog and the Laffite brothers didn’t greet one another with “Ahoy!” Does that make using such language on September 19th less enjoyable? I certainly hope not.

Header: Pirattitude! by The Pirate Guys (find all their books here)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

History: New Finds Tell New Stories

For archaeologists studying maritime history, the lack of extant artifacts can be a massive frustration. Most of what our ancestors’ ships were made of – wood, rope, canvas and so on – was destined to deteriorate and disappear. Although an abundance of ship remains from the early modern era forward do exist, it is a rare thing to find a pre-modern or ancient ship in tact. Besides cargo in the form of things like pottery and metal, one vestige of almost any ship that can be relied on to stand the test of time is its anchor.

Two recent finds in the Middle East have proven that fact once again.

First, off the coast of Israel at the resort town of Bat Yam, lifeguards on the beach found three very old, encrusted anchors submerged in clear, shallow waters not far from where locals and tourists regularly frolic in the Mediterranean. According to this article at English News online, the anchors are similar in shape and size, approximately 300 kg (660 lbs) and 2 meters (6 and a half feet) tall, and between 1,700 and 1,400 years old. The lifeguards reported their find to the Israeli Antiquities Authority who immediately, and no doubt thankfully, recovered them for study. As the article notes, the area is full of ancient artifacts which are often appropriated by those who find them rather than being turned over to authorities.

IAA archaeologist Dror Felner speculated that a port may have existed near modern Bat Yam in Byzantine times, which until now was unknown. He points up another possibility very familiar to sailors: a vessel may have anchored in an uninhabited harbor when faced with dirty weather, hoping to ride out a storm. The fact that the ancient port of Jaffa was not far from the location where the anchors were found certainly makes either theory plausible.

Next, this piece at gives a short but tantalizing summation of an interesting find in the Black Sea. Off the coast of Sozopol, Bulgaria marine archaeologists found “beautifully ornamented” stone anchors. The anchors have two holes which, according to the article, were drilled for the anchor rope and a wooden stick. The importance of the stick is not mentioned but one imagines it was put in place either to catch hold of the sea floor or to aid in retrieving the anchor from the water, or both.

The anchors are 200 kg (440 lbs) and the article says they were:

… used for 150-200-ton ships that transported mainly wheat, but also dried and salted fish, skins, timber and metals from what now is Bulgaria’s coast.

Current speculation about the origin of the anchors is really the interesting part of this story, aside from their design of course. According to the piece the anchors appear to be “Creto-Mycanaean, Phoenician or Carian” and date to between the 15th and 12th centuries BCE. In what seems a significant leap of scholarly faith, the article goes on to say:

The anchors are also said to show that the Trojan war may have started because of excise duties imposed by the Trojans, who took advantage of their control over the Dardanelles – and not because of Helen of Troj [sic].

Who actually posited this theory is not revealed in the article, but it is certainly something for those with an historical appetite to chew on. As so many who study mute testaments to our collective history have imagined about a million little pieces of past lives, if only these anchors could talk.

Header: Black Sea anchor via

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

People: The Pirate Corso

When we speak of pirates and privateers during the age of buccaneers we tend to gravitate to British, Dutch or French names. Henry Morgan, Laurens de Graff and Michel de Grammont come to mind readily. It is rare that a Spaniard – whose holdings in the New World were usually the targets of plundering buccaneer from England, France and Holland – comes to mind. So it was with surprise and delight that I sat down to read a chapter in Benerson Little’s most recent book about a freebooter who called himself Juan Corso.

Corso’s moniker in and of itself is something of a pun. Though, as Little notes, Corso was a common surname in Spain, it also translates literally as “privateer”. Corso’s name is the equivalent of a Frenchman calling himself Jean Corsaire or an Englishman going by Johnny Privateer. Since we know nothing about Corso’s childhood or early life, it is not a stretch to say that his name is an alias if not an out and out joke.

Much of the action that made up Corso’s career is educated guess, but he appears first on the historical record cruising under the command of Captain Felipe de la Barrera y Villegas. Barrera was at the head of a small flotilla of light, shallow draft “half-galleys” that were searching the inlets and lagoons off the Gulf Coast of Mexico for illegal logwood cutters. Men from the British island of Jamaica in particular made a living cutting down, chopping up and selling logwood surreptitiously in these areas. The Spanish, who considered the costly resource theirs alone, hunted these men without remorse. Even during peace with England, Spain marked the men criminals regardless of written passes they may hold from English lords.

This was the case in 1681 when Corso, along with his frequent partner Pedro de Costa, was among Barrera’s men as they cruised into Laguna de Terminos on the coast of Campeche. The logwood cutters were surprised and, though one of their number in the form of a British sloop named Laurel managed to escape, they were rounded up or slaughtered, their camp burned and their goods seized. Though Barrera initially promised the Englishmen safe passage, they were in fact packed into the holds of his ships and taken to Campeche where they were sold to the city as slaves. Most would be worked mercilessly in the sodden swamps around the city with little water and less food, their skin burned black by the sun, their feet riddled with parasitic worms and their bodies infested with fleas and lice.

Barrera made a tidy profit on this enterprise of human misery and Corso and de Costa may have decided they wanted to rake in the same kind of cash. The two men received a commission from the mayor of Campeche and, with a group of small ships or canoes probably amounting to no more than three or four, they headed south for the Gulf of Honduras. Here logwood smuggling was particularly heavy, and Corso and his mate planned to increase their odds of catching larger ships by the capable use of stealth.

Rather ironically they ran into Laurel, the British ship that had escaped Barrera, near Trujillo, Honduras. This time the Spaniards were victorious, boarding Laurel and seizing her small crew. Her captain, Robert Oxe, would later write that he fought two hours with the freebooters and that, when they did board, he offered them his legal commission from the Earl of Carlisle. Corso and de Costa, unimpressed, disposed of the papers. Oxe says:

They said that they would come to Jamaica, too, presently, and that they had taken five hundred English prisoners.

Though Oxe and his men would not fair as badly as the unfortunates who labored in Campeche, he was ordered tortured and beaten by Corso. He complained of being hung up “… at the fore braces several times, [and beaten] with cutlasses…” about the body and face. Little tells us that Oxe and eight of his men were finally set free in a single canoe.

Doubtless aboard their prize ship, now called Leon, Corso and de Costa managed to re-capture a Spanish treasure ship that had been taken off Honduras. They renamed Nuestra Senora del Honhon the Leon Coronado. With these two ships they went to work clearing the Gulf of Honduras of the logwood cutters, tallying up a fortune in prize goods. When they headed back to Campeche in triumph, they were sadly disappointed to find the mayor eager to accept their prizes after which he unilaterally sent them off to Veracruz. Despite Corso’s protests – for which he was briefly jailed – it would be months before the Governor of Mexico finally awarded him and his mates a share of their booty.

In 1682, the Spanish government reclaimed their treasure ship and Leon Coronado was made part of the Armada de Barlovento, the official pirate hunting fleet of New Spain. Probably frustrated at being slighted not only by the loss of his ship but by failure to be asked to join the Armada, Corso gathered a new set of small ships and headed for Cuba. There he began a systematic round of attacks on British and French buccaneers who stopped at the island for water and provisions. Corso sailed under a red flag of no quarter, according to Little, and he made a habit of torturing and killing the crew of ships that dared resist him. His depredations were so successful that the Governor of St. Domingue (modern Haiti) began issuing commissions against Spain at Petit Goave and Britain threatened to declare war against Spain once again. The sack of Veracruz, usually considered to have been mounted after the fate of the unfortunate logwood cutters from Laguna de Terminos was discovered, may have been just as much the result of Corso’s unchecked success in the Caribbean.

Corso retaliated for the brutal raid at Veracruz which, though largely the work of Petit Goave corsairs, he seemed to blame on the British. He raided the island of New Providence in January of 1684, leaving only a handful of people alive and free. The island sat uninhabited for three years thereafter according to Little. Corso also managed to virtually shut down sea turtle harvesting in the Caribbean causing a shortage of meat particularly in Jamaica.

Pressure from the Royal Navy in particular drove Corso away from Cuba and, by early 1685, he was back in Mexico and once again with his old mate de Costa. The two were sent out by the Governor to try and find the Gulf Coast settlement of French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. The Spanish were antsy about any encroachment on their vast holdings around the Gulf. Who better to send as a destroying force than two notorious privateers? Though Cosro and de Costa seem to have thoroughly searched the shores of the Gulf, they missed de La Salle’s sad tent city at Matagorda Bay.

Corso kept up the search and landed at several points in the Florida. At Cape San Blas his flotilla hit rough weather, possibly a hurricane, and was wrecked with the loss of all ships. Little says that approximately 35 men walked ashore alive but without supplies, firearms and little in the way of clothing on their backs. Most died of starvation, injuries and exposure including Corso and de Costa. The rest, Little tells us, set upon the bodies of the dead, carving them up and cooking them “without wasting even the heads.”

Though Corso’s success against just about every nation who colonized the West Indies at the time was matched by very few, he is largely forgotten today. He was, to my way of thinking, a Spanish version of the notorious corsaire Francois L’Olonnais whose hatred for the Spanish led him to torture and murder. Corso, a strident Spaniard if not by birth certainly by nationalization, vented his wrath in turn on the British and French.

Header: Dead Men Tell No Tales by Howard Pyle

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Name It Like You Mean It

Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day and, rather than fall back to the more popular terms sailors in the Golden Age might have used, I thought I’d set a new course. So today, a brief discussion of ships’ names from our seafaring history. Not only is this a fascinating subject but it was one that was quite dear to every sailor’s heart. The name of your ship was your name too, at least to the extent that you were part of that collective body known as a crew.

Many superstitions raged around the naming of ships, probably from very early times. Some of those that were virtually set in stone by the dawn of the 19th century include:

Never give a ship a name that begins with A.

Never name a ship after a reptile (Alligator or Rattlesnake for instance. It should be noted that ships with both names were at one point in Royal and U.S. Navy service).

Do not change a ship’s name for any reason.

Though this last rule was stringently adhered to in the service, pirates and privateers in general renamed their ships with gleeful abandon. This was usually due to the need for covering up the origin of the ship in question as it was often a prize of questionable legality. In the Golden Age names like Frolick, Revenge, Adventure and Royal Fortune were so popular that multiple pirates sailed aboard ships with those names.

In the privateering era, ship’s names became more individualized and, at times, curious. Two Brothers/Dos Hermanos/Deux Frères – depending on what language you were using – was hugely popular throughout the period. More unique names like Philanthrope (“philanthropist” in French), Tigre and La Popa (a fortified hill behind the city of Cartagena) turned up in Barataria and Galveston. Other curiously named vessels included Mousenest, Who’s Afraid (both British privateers), Sturdy Beggar, Grumbler and Growler (both Massachusetts privateers), Catch Me Who Can (a Baltimore privateer), Precious Ridicule, Free Love (both New Orleans privateers).

The list could go on of course but that’s a nice smattering of unique names, I think. When she comes in, name your ship wisely Brethren and you’ll always be luck at sea. Happy ITLAP Day to one and all!

Header: Meditation by the Sea c 1860, artist unknown

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Ode to Slushy

They may do without compass, or do without charts; Trust to tides and the stars when they seek foreign parts.  They may do without ladies - unless they've good looks; But where are the ships that can do without cooks?  ~ Anon.

Header: Ship's Cook by Thomas Rowlandson

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Tail

Welcome back one and all to a celebratory – if necessarily brief – SMS. Not only is this post the 112th outing of one of Triple P’s first recurring subjects, but it is also the 700th post for the blog as a whole. Huzzah!

Tail at sea generally indicates either the end of something or something that follows behind, as in a ship’s wake which is sometimes called her tail. A tail can be left on a rope passed through and around a block so that the entire mechanism is easily attached elsewhere as to spars or rigging. A ship is said to tail down stream when her stern swings in the current of a river while she is at anchor. She has tailed a bank when she has run aground at the aft end only.

Sailors refer to tail-block and tail-tackle both of which, as noted above, have a “tail” of rope streaming off them for use.

The call to tail on (sometimes tally on) is an order to take hold of a rope for the purpose of heaving.

A whale is said to tail up when it dives, showing only its tail above the water. In old whaling vessels, this was a call to alert those who did not see the whale dive, or fluke. It was generally understood that the query would probably reappear in about the same area as it went under.

The tail of a gale or storm is its end game; the last and usually the weakest part of it.

With that, I shall say goodnight but not before wishing Timmy!, Triple P’s most strident supporter, a very happy Birthday.

Header: Morro da Viuva by Luis Graner y Arrufi

Friday, September 16, 2011

Booty: Dog on Board

Last Friday’s Booty post mentioned Lady Washington and her sister ship Hawaiian Chieftain. These two ships offer cruises and lessons that keep the ways of wooden ships alive. They are based in Grays Harbor, where my mother's father caulked wooden ships for many years.  As this post over at their website, The Historical Seaport Blog, indicates, they’re keeping more than just canvas and rope authentic.

The picture at the header is a “fan photo” of Tiller, the official canine of Lady Washington. As the post notes, Tiller is a true seadog who is happy to be of assistance to crew and passengers aboard his home on the water.

Of course dogs have a long and heroic history on wave. In the West, from the fall of the Ancient Egyptian Empire to the 18th century they were the only four legged animals welcome at sea. Cats were considered very bad luck in the open ocean and dogs – particularly the small, stubborn ancestors of modern terriers – were employed to keep vermin at bay. As our old friend Hatch proved, they were extremely good at it too.

Though cats began to be employed as rat catchers at sea during the Enlightenment, dogs continued to find favor with seamen. New World hybrids like Labradors and Newfoundlands were particularly popular with early 19th century sailors. Their ability to rescue drowning men was prized and rewarded highly.

Be sure and support the good work of the Historical Seaport at Grays Harbor and follow their blog for more photos of their ships.  Especially, though, here’s to Tiller and his mates; a mug of grog to you and a hearty thankee from all of those who love the history and the future of the sea.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Women at Sea: The Ladies Blakeley

We've spoken before about the mostly forgotten lives of sailors' women. Whether they were impeccable ladies, ladies of questionable virtue or – most likely – something in between, they all shared the burden of not knowing exactly what was happening to the men they loved. The vast ocean was far more vast a scant 50 years ago, so imagining what it was like to receive only sporadic letters from a husband or son centuries before that is hard for us as moderns. That point is brought chillingly home by the lives of Jane Hoope Blakeley and her daughter Udney Maria.

Jane was born into the family of prosperous New York merchant John Hoope (or possibly Hooper according to Her exact date of birth or even birth order among her siblings is hard to pinpoint, but she was probably born some time in 1794. Since her father was relatively well to do, having profited rather than lost during the Revolutionary War, Jane would have had a liberal education. Though there is no documentation of it, other girls of her station in New York were known to attend day classes to learn deportment and read the classics. Certainly she would have been brought up to be skilled in home keeping and her family would have kept an eye out for a suitable match as she neared womanhood.

It is probable that Jane first met her future husband, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Johnston Blakeley, in 1808 or 1809. Lindley S. Butler in Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast tells us that Mr. Hoope was a business associate and possible friend of Blakeley’s long deceased father John Blakeley. This would have given the young Lieutenant cause to call on the family while he was on the New York station under Captain John Rodgers.

By this time Blakeley was a veteran of the Barbary Wars with much to commend his service to his country. Though he had been orphaned young, his father had left him a decent estate and he had enrolled at the University of North Carolina to study law. A devastating warehouse fire ruined his fortune two years into his studies, and he entered the Navy as a mid in 1800. He was certainly handsome, with dark eyes and hair, and doubtless this eager 27 year old cut a dashing figure in his blue uniform.

With the War of 1812 in the offing, Blakeley sailed for New Orleans in command of USS Enterprise in March of 1811. This distracting cruise did not put young Jane out of his mind. He and Jane, who one observer called “a very interesting and amiable woman” exchanged letters while he was detained – to his utter chagrin – in the Mississippi due to an outbreak of yellow fever. When he returned to New York in July of 1813, he promptly transferred command of Enterprise, took command of US sloop of war Wasp, still under construction, and proposed to Jane Hoope.

The couple was married, probably in her parent’s home, some time in the fall or early winter of 1813. The time overseeing the construction of Wasp gave Blakeley the luxury of returning home to his new bride each evening. Whether or not the couple set up housekeeping is unknown and it may very well be that they did not have the time. Wasp set sail for the English Channel on May 1, 1814. Jane Hoope Blakeley was left behind and would only discover that she was pregnant with her first child after her dashing husband – now Master Commandant Blakeley – was well out to sea.

Blakeley’s cruise aboard Wasp was one of the most successful of the War of 1812. He wracked up British merchant prizes the way David Porter collected British whalers in the South Pacific. In June, Wasp met HMS Reindeer, a brig of 22 guns to her 32. The battle was joined after a chase that began before sunrise; within nineteen minutes Wasp’s heavier guns has reduced Reindeer to a bloody hulk. The damage was so bad that all of the surviving British sailors – including forty-two wounded – had to be transferred to Wasp. Though the American vessel suffered some damage as well, she was able to drop anchor at L’Orient, France and begin repairs.

Doubtless Jane eagerly read the news of her husband’s triumphs, which made headlines up and down the Atlantic Coast. Whether or not she received letters from him as she awaited the birth of their child is unknown. Blakeley was literally all over the map in and out of the Channel and his tactics probably allowed little time for haling a mail packet even if he had the good fortune to meet one.

Wasp had a major engagement with HMS Avon, this time near Gibraltar. Though Avon most probably sunk she and her crew was rescued by two British heavy frigates. Wasp hurried off, but shortly took the merchant Atalanta, whose fine lines and expensive cargo made her a prize too dear to sink or burn. Blakeley put a prize crew aboard her in September and sent her back to the U.S. He gave Midshipman Geisinger command and instructed him to inform their superiors that Wasp would herself be turning home in October.

Atalanta arrived at Savannah, Georgia November 4. Wasp was never heard from again.

Of course this prospect would not have been readily apparent to Jane Blakeley as she awaited the birth of her child. A cruise across the Atlantic could take six weeks or six months depending on the hardships – and in Blakeley’s case, prizes – encountered. One hopes that Jane, now about twenty years old, was not too taxed by worry when she gave birth to Johnston Blakeley’s daughter in January of 1815.

The girl was christened Udney Maria Blakeley and that mother and infant lived somewhere in New England is our only relative certainty about that time. It wasn’t until a year after Maria’s birth that Jane resolved herself to the fact that her sailor was not coming home. She petitioned Congress for a Navy pension and her plea was presented by Massachusetts representative Artemus Ward according to William Johnson who wrote about Johnston Blakeley in 1854. As Blakeley was considered a hero, it is not surprising that Jane was awarded not only a pension but a percentage of her husband’s prize moneys as well.

The North Carolina legislature also proposed to help Mrs. Blakeley, widow of one of their favorite sons. They offered her a silver sword and to “adopt” her daughter as their ward, thereby paying for her education. Jane graciously accepted the offer, writing that such kindness “… deprives me of all power to express what I feel on this occasion.” She then went on to humbly suggest that a silver tea service might be more in keeping with her daughter’s future pursuits than a ceremonial sword. North Carolina agreed and the engraved service, presented to Udney Maria Blakeley on her sixteenth birthday, is now in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

Despite the devastation of such a tragedy, life continued on. Jane remarried, to a doctor named Robert Abbott from St. Croix Island. She moved there and Maria joined her after finishing school in Philadelphia in 1828. The accomplished Maria fell for another local doctor; she married Joseph von Bretton in Christiansted, St. Croix in 1841. Sadly, Jane’s final tragedy would stem from this happy union. Maria died while giving birth to her first child, who also died, in March of 1842. Jane, Maria and the last of Johnston Blakeley’s line now rest on the island of St. Croix.

Header: Udney Maria Blakeley by Thomas Sully c 1830

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Pirates Own Book: Bloody Vikings

The first chapter in Charles Ellms’ now famous tome is entitled “Danish and Norman Pirates”. In it, Mr. Ellms sets himself the daunting task of cataloguing the general history of the Viking hordes from the dawn of the Dark Ages to the beginning of the Crusades. Considering that he’s covering something in the neighborhood of 1,000 years of complex history, I have to say he does a rather impressive job.

This chapter differs quite a bit from the others, which are more specific to an individual freebooter. Here, Ellms attempts a dissection of not only the Viking culture and what made them head out to far flung places in search of land and pillage but also the socio-economic outcome of the period they dominated. A huge task that could be – and has been – sorely under-evaluated in a text of hundreds of pages is nicely boiled down to just one chapter.

Ellms starts with the Saxons who he says carried out many depredations in the “German Ocean”. Here he seems to imply, although he does not come out and say, that the barbarian Saxons were the direct ancestors of the Scandinavian Vikings. This is a curious theory that I am not familiar with in modern research but it may have been a pre-Victorian mainstay of general history. On the other hand, Ellms is very confident in his theories throughout the four hundred plus pages of The Pirates Own Book, so this idea might fall into that category.

At any rate, Ellms spends no more than a page on the Saxons before moving on to the adventures of the lady pirate Alwilda whose objection to an arranged marriage with Alf, prince of Denmark, led her to a life of piracy.

Charlemagne is next on the list and here Ellms, quite courageously for his era, castigates the Holy Roman Emperor for his barbaric treatment of pagans in his lands. Ellms proposes that Charlemagne’s policy of “convert to Christianity or die” probably drove some northern people to retaliate, thus encouraging Viking raiding in France. As he puts it:

Another division of Normans, some years afterwards, in the same spirit of emigration and thirsting, perhaps, to avenge their injured ancestors, burst into the provinces of France, which the degeneracy of Charlemagne’s posterity… rendered an affair of no great difficulty.

Ellms talks us through the Viking sieges of Paris and the outrageous sums of money paid to Viking marauders by monarchs like Pepin and Charles the Bald. These ransoms, bribes and tributes, which became known as the Danegelt in England, were very similar to the tributes demanded by North African states prior to the First and Second Barbary Wars.

Alfred of England, who Ellms clearly admires, is highlighted as the first conqueror of Vikings who had settled on his soil “This prince,” Ellms notes, “too wise to exterminate the pirates after he had conquered them, sent them to settle Northumberland… and by this humane policy gained their attachment and serviced.” It would all be for naught when that other descendant of Vikings, William of Normandy, showed up at England’s door.

The Vikings continue to rove and, though Ellms does not touch on their forays into the New World, he does follow them to Russia. From here they descend on Constantinople, where they are “… only… repulsed by the dreadful effects of the celebrated Greek fire.”

By the time the Crusades are in the offing, piracy has become an interest of wealthy coastal lords, particularly in England. The famous Cinque Ports ships are not only preyed upon but take up their own depredations of any unfortunately unarmed vessel they may happen upon. Ellms tells us that Henry the III tried to put these practices down but could do very little in the face of Simon de Montfort’s private fleet which sacked and burned Portsmouth in the mid-13th century.

The rush to the Holy Land caused by the Crusades turns maritime interest to the business of getting men, arms and livestock to the East. This shift in focus allows for the rise of the Barbary corsairs and in turn the Maltese pirates who fought them. Ellms ends his chapter with a short lecture on how the Crusades, though a political disaster, were in fact a social boon. They allowed the West to not only improve itself through the acquisition of forgotten knowledge but also they broke down the crushing feudal system:

… thus taming the ferocity of men’s spirits, increasing agriculture in value from the safety it enjoyed and establishing a base for permanent prosperity.

Well, at least until the Black Death – born on stout ships – showed up to really change things.

Header: A Priest thrown from the Ramparts of an Abbey from The Pirates Own Book

Monday, September 12, 2011

History: In the Cards

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Returning Defeated

September 11, 1588: Alonso Perez de Guzman, 7th Duke of Medina-Sedonia and commander of the Armada of Spain, returns home after being defeated by the infant English Royal Navy.

Header: Perez de Guzman by an unknown artist

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Crab

It will come as no surprise to any of the Brethren that the word crab at sea very rarely refers to the shellfish. There are crabs which are tools, a ship can crab to it and an individual can even be a crab. In fact our reference to someone being “crabby” probably has an origin at sea.

Crab, according to the dear Webster, comes from the Middle English word crabbe which meant hook or claw and was originally a word for a crowbar-like tool. A similar tool, usually made of iron and used predominantly for pulling long metal spikes out of wood, is still used at sea and still called a crab.

Crab is also used to refer to a large capstan. This is usually fitted into men-of-war of several thousand tons and has between two and four tiers of holes for capstan bars. When pushed upon by a large number of men on numerous decks, it can generate enough leverage to raise the heaviest of anchors and other loads. A smaller, movable version of the same device which is usually fitted out with wheels and used to lift cargo on and off ship is also known as a crab. A crab-windlass is a much smaller version of this device originally used in barges and now seen on yachts.

A long iron bar, known as the crab with three claws, is used in launching ships as well as for heaving them close to a dock.

A crab-boat can be among a ship’s small craft and is similar to a jolly boat in size and sail positioning. Crabbler is the English word for the Russian vessel known as a krabla. These boats were generally used for hunting arctic sea mammals such as seal and walrus and had thick, ice-resistant hulls.

A ship is said to be crabbing to or crabbing to it – “it” being the wind – when she is carrying an overage of sail in high winds. This situation will make the ship move sideways to leeward much like a crab runs sideways across the sand. A crab-yaw is similar but refers to a quick veering of the ship sideways due to unseamanlike use of her helm.

When a sailor does not dip his oar fully in the water while rowing a boat, he is said to have caught a crab. This action is abhorrent as it can potential throw of the rhythm of the entire rowing crew and at the very least it makes one’s mates pull harder. The saying catching a crab thus translates aboard ship as one of the most popular ways to belittle a fellow sailor.

Perhaps by extension, a popular accusation of sullenness or ill-temper in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was to say someone was crabbed. O’Brian has Jack Aubrey frequently asking Stephen Maturin why he is so crabbed to which the general reply is in kind: “I’m not the one who is crabbed, Jack; you are.” I know you are but what am I, if you like. It may be that this meaning translates to our modern reference to people being crabby as noted above. Aren’t words wonderful things?

Happy Saturday, Brethren! I’ll catch you tomorrow for Seafaring Sunday.

Header: Jack and Stephen, neither of whom appears much crabbed; although if I were Paul Bettany I might have some issues with the billing on this theatre card...

Friday, September 9, 2011

Booty: Pyrate Creep

State Fairs are one of the few things that have survived in our highly gadget oriented “I’d rather text you than look at you” world. People still go and slog around in unbearable heat or drenching rain to see farm animals, eat food what only tastes good at a fair and see live shows. While State Fairs seem to have been a hold out for many years, it looks like “performing pirate creep” – as I like to call it – has finally hit the hay bails.

Seeing this article in the Anchorage Daily News last Saturday quite literally brought that home. Evidently the troupe known as “Pirates for Hire” was engaged to entertain Alaskans for the two weeks and three days that our fair was up and running in Palmer. For those of you unfamiliar, Palmer is next door to Wasilla which is where then Mayor Palin married a couple at the local Wal-Mart. As you can doubtless tell by the picture at the header (from their website) “Pirates for Hire” hits all the high notes of our now popular pirate tropes; it’s Disney’s “Jack Sparrow and Friendz” right there in front of you.

While the article does point out that “Pirates for Hire” began doing live shows prior to the release of the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie in 1999, it sure looks to me like they’ve hitched their yoke to that cash cow. And more power to ‘em; even fake pirates have to pay the bills.

That said, all this business of Pyrates in (fill in the blank) is fun but it hardly lends itself to keeping our ancestors’ memories alive. I’m referring here to all pirates, from black hearts like Francois L’Olonnais to descent men like Renato Beluche and everyone in between. None of them were saints but a lot of what was interesting about them is lost in strings of beads and eye makeup. Not to mention some sub-par fencing. At some point our culture – and if you live in the Americas you probably have an ancestor who was touched in some way by pirates and/or privateers – substituted historical pirates with party entertainers. As I noted it is great fun, but there is a lot lost in translation.

What’s the alternative, you ask? I would offer three I’m familiar with, which is only barely scratching the surface. First, the Historic Seaport ships Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain who put on mock pirate battles with great authenticity up and down the west coast. Not only are they teaching the ins and outs of daily life at sea, they’re keeping alive the ancient art of seafaring with wind and sail. Then there is my mate Blue Lou Logan, who offers story telling and history lessons all rolled into one, with no need to mention Jack Sparrow or Elizabeth Swann even once. And why should he when we’ve Bartholomew Roberts and Grace O’Malley just as a start?  Last but by no means least, there is the generous and knowledgable Captain Swallow.  The good Captain is one of my oldest and dearest piratical friends.  He and his mates at NOLA Pyrate Week keep the memory of all our histories alive, and for that I cannot thank them enough!

So go enjoy the shows, Brethren.  Then poke around your area for some real pirate history and share that with the little freebooters in your lives.  Lost history is rarely regained; let's see to it that the wonder of this history never has to be found again.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

History: The Legacy of Intrepid

On Sunday Triple P remembered the anniversary of the explosion of bomb ketch USS Intrepid in Tripoli harbor 207 years ago. Intrepid, a former Tripolitan warship known as Mastico, was captured and libeled in December of 1803. Because she had not been through a refit, she was used in Stephen Decatur’s daring raid on USS Philadelphia, taken as prize by Tripoli earlier that year. This action, which Admiral Horatio Nelson called the “… most bold and daring act of the age,” secured fame not only for Decatur but for Intrepid as well.

A scant seven months after her triumph against Barbary corsairs, Intrepid was returned to Tripoli harbor and fitted out as a fireship. She was crammed with black powder and set to float silently toward a fleet of the local ruler’s pirate ships anchored just below the fortified walls of Tripoli. Her crew was recruited from the American sailors present in Commodore Edward Preble’s squadron and all were volunteers. Ten men and three officers would be aboard, including Master Commandant Richard Somers and Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth (uncle of the famous poet Longfellow).

The mission began well, with Intrepid masquerading as a merchant just as she had in Decatur’s action. What happened before she reached her goal and also before her crew had time to abandon ship is still open to speculation but her cargo was ignited and she was blown to pieces. Commodore Preble would later tell his superiors that he was certain Intrepid had been boarded by the enemy and that valiant Somers had given the order to detonate his ship rather than give up her all too precious cargo.

The bodies of all thirteen American sailors were washed up on the sandy shore of Tripoli. Feeling quite literally attacked from all sides by the youthful United States, the Pasha of Tripoli unleashed his rage on Intrepid’s fallen crew. He had the bodies rounded up and publicly exposed to a pack of feral dogs that ate some of the waterlogged corpses. As dogs are considered in Islam to be some of the filthiest of animals, this was a particularly nasty desecration. The men’s bodies were subsequently disposed of in a mass grave without ceremony.

While at some point some of the men’s remains were moved to a Protestant cemetery nearby, the rest are still in their pit which is now below Green Square, a favorite site for pro-Gaddafi rallies. For the families of these men, and particularly for the descendants of Somers and Wadsworth, this unacceptable situation has become an ongoing fight. They want their ancestors’ remains returned to the U.S. and buried with honor on their native soil. With the recent turn of events in Libya, their hopes are up for perhaps the first time in a very long while.

In May, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (which provides funding to the Pentagon) requiring that the Pentagon exhume and return all thirteen American sailors’ bodies to the U.S. The amendment includes a provision for appropriate military funerals upon their return. The bill was sponsored by Representative Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and is also endorsed by the American Legion. The bill has not yet been addressed at the next level, and family members remain concerned that future voting will be influenced by opinions from the Pentagon.

To my mind, this is the most ridiculous thing about this story. Evidently the Pentagon has repeatedly rebuffed and apposed the families’ requests for the repatriation of their relatives’ remains. The logic being that the keys to the cemetery in Libya, where some of the men rest, now reside with the U.S. consulate there. I would argue that comparing being exposed to wild animals and then dumped in a pit to a military funeral and a plot on U.S. soil – whether it be in Normandy or New Jersey – smacks of politics rather than the “never leave a man behind” ethos that Representative Rogers has quoted. It falls curiously short as well, since those fabled keys are now missing following the uprisings in Libya.

Of course, the U.S. has a lot on its plate right now what with a stagnant economy, unimaginable debt, nonexistent job markets and a combined group of leaders that seem unable to find their asses with both hands. But sometimes the little things mean just as much as the big ones and honoring those who gave their lives for our freedoms hardly seems a little thing. As a descendant of sailors myself, I fondly hope that what is right, not what is easy, is done in this case.

If you’d like more information about this issue, click over to The Intrepid Project and explore the site at your leisure. More on this story as it develops (if indeed it does).

Header: Bombardment of Tripoli by Michael Felice Corne

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sea Monsters: Rare but Deadly

Before I even get started I want to pull to the fore what this article from left until the final paragraph. According to Francine Cabral, professor of microbiology at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School:

The incidence of this disease is very, very small, but when it happens it’s tragic.

“It” is a disease imparted to humans who have been exposed to a specific type of amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. The amoeba live in fresh, warm water such as lakes, rivers and even poorly treated backyard pools and enter a human body through the nose. Though the article notes that Naegleria are not naturally human parasites, once they are inside you they start poking around for something to eat. The something they generally turn to are the neurons of the host’s brain.

The amoeba multiply quickly once they’ve found a source of nutrition causing the person to become ill with what is known as amoebic meningoencephalitis. The two most unfortunate points about this disease are that it is close to 100% fatal and, in this day and age, it is usually caught by children. Symptoms start out seeming flu like; headache, nausea and vomiting, neck stiffness and a particularly high fever. Later symptoms include much more horrific manifestations such as seizures and hallucinations. Eventually the brain, overwhelmed, simply shuts down usually three to seven days after infection. As of this writing, four young people in the U.S. lost their lives to Naegleria this summer.

The symptoms of the disease, which has been known in the states for over 20 years, sound curiously similar to a fever/seizure disorder described by buccaneer doctor Alexander Exquemelin. Men following Henry Morgan on the trek across the isthmus to the raid on Panama City became horribly ill with these symptoms and died in “half a fortnight” or about seven days. Though Exquemelin does not mention the crossing of or swimming through warm water, Panama is by and large a steamy jungle and doubtless fording streams was part of the hardship. While there is no evidence to suggest that Naegleria was the culprit 300 plus years ago, it’s a curious possibility.

For modern parents, there are simple ways to keep your children out of harm’s way. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Naegleria amoeba is active from July to September. All people, but especially children, should avoid swimming in untreated or poorly treated water during those months and when temperatures are high. Using nose clips in warm fresh water, or keeping your head out of the water all together, is another precaution. Finally, don’t go digging around in those gooey underwater sediments while you’re in shallow, warm, fresh water. That’s where the critters most enjoy hanging out.

While living like a buccaneer may seem appealing, dying like one certainly is not. Stay safe out there, Brethren; you’ll be glad you did.

Header: Amoeba via Jason Champion

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Work at Heights

The bosun’s chair, which on the face of it sounds rather fancy, is nothing of the sort. In fact it is another example of necessity being the mother of invention. Working at heights while either at sea or in port is par for the course aboard ship. Since work can be done better with both hands free, clinging to rope or cable while addressing regular maintenance or unexpect repair in the air would be inconvenient at best. To say is would also be dangerous hundreds of feet up is probably overstating cases. Enter the bosun’s chair.

This is no more and in fact no less than a plank of wood suspended from a series of ropes or cables usually passed over and through a block and tackle to facilitate raising and lowering. The plank is usually fitted out with hooks or other appendages for hanging materials needed for any task such as buckets, brushes, rigging, etc. The sailor simply clambors onto the chair and is then raised up to the appropriate height and tied off.

Historically a man’s mess mates would be responsible for raising and lowering him safely in the device. Modern bosun’s chairs differ from their ancient counterparts very little other than to sometimes be fitted with controlling apparatus that can be used by the person in the chair themselves. This alleviates the need for others to hoist a person up and down. This modern form of bosun’s chair is quite popular with window washers, particularly on mammoth sky scrapers.

The bosun’s chair was also used to move people unfamiliar with seamanship on and off ships. In this instance it was sometimes referred to derogatorily as a “lady’s chair”. Much like using the lubber’s hole when climbing up onto a top, being hauled over the side on a bosun’s chair was only tolerable for a true sailor if he were sick or injured. O’Brian repeatedly has his doctor insensed to the point of fuming for being forced into a bosun’s chair in his Aubrey/Maturin novels. “Am I not a sailor,” he barks red-faced as he is being safely ferried off the ship. “Am I not an old salt?” The response is of course, “Old salt you may be Stephen, but you are clumsier than a drunk monkey on a ladder.” If anyone knew how to shut the beloved doctor up, it was Captain Aubrey.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I offer this video from the Tar Rigger episode of Dirty Jobs. Mike’s struggles with the bosun’s chair are amusing but not at all uncommon. Those things are squirrely, let me tell you.

Happy Labor Day to all the U.S. Brethren! Take a load off and have a pint of grog on orders (just don’t do it in a bosun’s chair, mate).

Header: Using a bonsun’s chair aboard training ship Prince William via Wikipedia

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Seafaring Sunday: Fearless Intrepid

September 4, 1804: Bomb ketch USS Intrepid, fitted out as a fireship to destroy a flotilla of Barbary corsairs, blew up in Tripoli harbor before reaching her target.  Ten men, all volunteers and including her commander Lieutenant Richard Somers, were lost.  Commodore Edward Preble would later report that Intrepid was most probably boarded by Tripolitans and her crew, rather than give up their precious cargo of black powder, chose to destroy her before being able to abandon ship.

Header: Destruction of Intrepid from a contemporary engraving via Wikipedia

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Slush

While many of the Brethren are currently cursing me for reminding them that summer is coming to a close and the long months of snow, ice and slush will soon be upon us, others are making a vaguely disgusted face. Those others know exactly what I’m going to talk about today, and why the cook aboard us was once affectionately known as Slushy.

Slush at sea was the domain of the cook, who guarded it like gold in the days of wooden ships and iron men. The stuff was the delight of any sailor who loved his ship and the cook knew that if it were too liberally used it would dry up faster that a fish in the sun.

The fat boiled out of meat while the desalination and cooking process was underway was known as slush. The goo that rose to the top of the pot was skimmed off and kept in buckets for future use. These same, know of course as slush buckets, were then hauled up on deck and even into the rigging where their contents could be used. The slush was applied, usually by hand, to almost everything aboard ship.

The fatty slime could be used as a lubricant to keep rope and cable moving without friction through blocks, tackles and around the capstan. It could be applied to sails to keep them supple in the salt air. It was especially prized for making wood shine and keeping it from cracking under sun and wind. Men even rubbed chapped hands and faces with the stuff; it was possibly one of the original “chapsticks” for painful, cracked lips.

Anything with so many diverse uses was invaluable aboard ship. Because of this, and even though there was never any shortage of simmering salt beef or horse, the cook – Slushy – guarded his greasy prize well. Doubtless, he had the softest face and hands at inspection as well.

Happy Saturday, Brethren; I’m off to tend to more painting. A sailor’s work is never done whether at sea or at home. I suppose that’s how we like it; idle hands are the Devil’s playground.

Header: Sailing Ships at Brighton Beach by John Copeland c 1824

Friday, September 2, 2011

Booty: WTC Ship Update

About a year ago Triple P featured a post about the remains of an 18th century ship found during the ongoing construction work at the former World Trade Center site in New York City. Not only was the ship’s origin an intriguing mystery but other questions arose. Why was it in the spot it was found; and what about all those shoes?

Though none of those questions have yet been answered, more of the ship has been excavated and brought into the light of day. As the picture above, via A Blog About History on Facebook, shows, the full stern of the vessel is now above ground. National Geographic online now has pictures of the ship and of artifacts found nearby.

The area was once a harbor for merchant vessels running up and down the Hudson River. This has led experts to believe that the find was what the brief article at Nat Geo calls a “Hudson River sloop”. She would have been among the merchants who transported goods and people from the frontier of eastern New York State and the Ohio Territory into the city and back out again. As noted in the previous post, she did have evidence of warm water parasites in her hull that may indicate she strayed as far as the Caribbean. The ship was most probably sunk in place to bolster up a new levee or extend livable space in the area.

A new theory, proposed in the Nat Geo article, imagines that the ship was a British Troop carrier during the Revolution. Though the article cleverly tries to imply that duty ferrying enemy troops was the reason she was “deliberately sunk”, such is the stuff of Mel Gibson movies. If she had become property of the U.S. and was still useful she would have been – like any prize of war – put to work for her new owners. Once she was no longer seaworthy, she would have been broken up for parts or utilized for some other purpose, as she obviously was in this case.

Click over and check out the slideshow, Brethren; I can promise it will be worth your while.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

People: Miss Nanny

Today's pirate is a classic child of the Golden Age. He has virtually no origin story – as is so very common – and his name first hits the piratical record in 1720 when he is among the crew of a fishing vessel. Most writers agree that he was probably around the age of 21 or 22 at the time and he would quite literally find a “short life but a merry one” from then on.

The ship upon which John Walden served was called the Blessing and she was taken without resistance off Newfoundland by that famous freebooter Bartholomew Roberts. Roberts, who coined the charming phrase about short and merry lives at sea, was fond of taking men aboard him but only if they were willing to go a pirating. As we’ve discussed on more than one occasion hear at Triple P, Roberts was a fair and sober captain whose one vice seemed to be fashion and jewels. His straight forward, honest attitude probably appealed to men worn out from hard work at scant pay on merchant and fishing vessels; of course the huge, diamond and ruby encrusted cross dangling around Black Bart’s neck was probably some encouragement as well.

Walden joined the crew of Roberts’ Royal Fortune and clearly became something of a focus for the other men. Though few of the doubtless innumerable nicknames shared among pirates have come down to us in the histories, we know that Walden was known to his fellows as “Miss Nanny” (or Nanney). The reason for this moniker has been the source of more than one assumption by modern scholars, but we’ll have a look at that in a minute.

A seemingly capable sailor, Walden was also known for his hot temper and rash action. His fighting skills were more than adequate and he is mentioned in court records as being part of almost all of Roberts’ boarding parties. He was also said to be a brutal man. One fellow pirate alleged under interrogation that Walden had set fire to a ship in which a number of Africans were still in chains, burning the unfortunates alive. Whether or not this story was true, or just an attempt to deflect blame under scrutiny, is still a mystery.

The most famous tale told of Walden concerns the taking of the merchant vessel King Solomon in January of 1722. Royal Fortune met her off Africa’s Cape Appolonia and demanded she heave to and strike. Her captain, a Welshman named Traherne, instead fired upon the pirates while trying to warp his ship out of range with anchor, cable and capstan. This only infuriated Roberts, who seethed to the point of boarding the merchant once she surrendered. “What were you thinking?” he asked the Welshman. “Did you not know you faced the dreadful Roberts?”

At this point Walden raised his boarding axe and cut King Solomon’s anchor cable. “Captain,” he asked Traherne. “What signifies this trouble of yo-hoping and straining in hot weather? There are plenty more anchors in London. Besides which, your ship will surely be burned.”

If the story is true it shows Walden’s place of prominence in Roberts’ eyes. In time of battle, a pirate captain had unquestionable authority. To speak so freely in such a situation – and throw away a potentially valuable piece of equipment without Roberts’ order – Walden clearly felt comfortable in his position aboard ship.

Comfort did not save John Walden from the fate of his mates, however. Royal Fortune famously met HMS Swallow captained by pirate hunter Cholaner Ogle in February of 1722. Roberts was killed by a blast of grapeshot and, seemingly losing their will with their captain, the Royal Fortunes surrendered after tossing Roberts’ lifeless body into the sea. Some 210 plus men were taken in chains to Cape Corso on the West African coast where they were subjected to interrogations, quick trials and hanging. John Walden went to his death in the hot African sun at the stunningly youthful age of about 24.

No mention of what some modern sources now speculate about Walden came out in the course of those trials, though his temper and brutality did. Walden’s nickname and his apparent closeness to Bartholomew Roberts have led to some researchers stating that he was a homosexual and indeed Black Bart’s lover. While homosexual pirates and privateers were certainly no less present than they were in the general population at any given time, the theory has yet to be proven. As Terry Breverton says in his book Black Bart Roberts:

One noted writer on pirates believes that Miss Nanny was an 18th century term for a homosexual, but this author can find no such reference. The writer uses this to make the connection that Walden was Roberts’ lover, but again there is nothing to prove the allegation. Surely this ‘fact’ would have been noted in the interrogation and trial transcripts of over 200 men if it was the case. To this author, it seems that Roberts was asexual if anything.

Why Walden was called Miss Nanny is perhaps the most tantalizing mystery of all the things we don't know about him. Was he indeed gay? Did he have a “motherly” quality or was he the ship’s ersatz surgeon? Or did he simply have an affinity for the ship’s goat, which I must add opens up a potentially off-putting can of worms? Clearly we will never know for sure but then that’s part of the joy of this pursuit; there is always more to learn.

Header: Illustration by Howard Pyle c 1911 from his Book of Pirates