Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Look to the Moon

Recognizing weather signs at sea is something that even the middling sailor became familiar with relatively quickly in the ages of sail. Out in blue water, with nothing between you and disaster but wood, tar, rope, canvas and a hodge-podge of men, you would become acutely aware of your environment and its atmosphere. Knowing how to spot changes in weather before they became a problem was as critical to good sailing as dead reckoning and maintenance.


Since it would be dark, for the most part, twelve hours a day, relying on the sun and the clouds was only worth half your time. Given that fact, it probably comes as no surprise that the largest body in the night sky – the moon – was the first thing a sailor would look to at night for signs of weather to come.

Here, then, for your considerations are the basics of predicting weather by the moon courtesy of that much travelled navigator, privateer and sometimes pirate, William Dampier:

When the moon appears unusually large and bright, particularly if its tint is blue, count on bone-chilling winds.

The full moon in temperate latitudes – between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn – generally foretells fair weather for the three days she sails in the sky.

A pale moon, either purely white or mottled with gray, signals rain.

If the moon takes on a dirty, yellow cast, which Dampier refers to as “dull”, brutal heat and possible dead calms are in the offing.

A red moon, normally the domain of autumn by land but possible in any season at sea, foretells the return of high winds after calms or slow breezes.

Most interesting to me, perhaps because of the meticulous detail applied, is the forecasts possible when a hazy ring appears around the moon. This is a sure indication of stormy weather. If the atmosphere is already cool, look for sleet; if warm or hot, expect rain. Look more closely, though, and count the number of stars present in the ring. This information was thought to tell a sailor the number of days they had to prepare for the upcoming storm.

Thus the moon might save your life at sea, which is probably something moderns hardly think of. It was doubtless, however, a realization that rarely left the back of any historical sailors mind. At least if he knew what was good for him… or her.

Header: The Lovers Boat by Albert P. Ryder via Old Paint

Monday, February 27, 2012

History: The Baratarians Pardoned

On February 6, 1815, the President of the United States did something that had not much been thought of prior to that date. Upon the recommendation of a man who, seemingly overnight, had become a national hero, President Madison pardoned en mass the men who had contributed – according to Andrew Jackson – so much to the victory at New Orleans that ended the War of 1812. Madison put pen to paper and, in one sweeping gesture, welcomed every Baratarian who served under Jackson into the fold of U.S. citizens. Prices on heads were dropped and warrants for arrest were sent to the trash heap; men who once hid in the shadows could now walk freely among their fellows. Here is the proclamation as quote in The Pirate's Own Book by Charles Ellms:


By the President of the United States of America, A Proclamation: Among the many evils produced by the wars, which with little intermission have afflicted Europe, and extended their ravages into other quarters of the globe, for a period exceeding twenty years, the dispersion of a considerable portion of the inhabitants of different countries, in sorrow and in want, has not been the least injurious to human happiness, nor the least severe in the trial of human virtue.

It had been long ascertained that many foreigners, flying from the dangers of their own home, and that some citizens, forgetful of their duty, had co-operated in forming an establishment on the island of Barrataria [sic], near the mouth of the river Mississippi, for the purpose of a clandestine and lawless trade. The government of the United States caused the establishment to be broken up and destroyed; and, having obtained the means of designating the offenders of every description, it only remained to answer the demands of justice by inflicting an exemplary punishment.

But it has since been represented that the offenders have manifested a sincere penitence; that they have abandoned the prosecution of the worst cause for the support of the best and, particularly, that they have exhibited, in the defense of New Orleans, unequivocal traits of courage and fidelity. Offenders, who have refused to become the associates of the enemy in the war, upon the most seducing terms of invitation; and who have aided to repel his hostile invasion of the territory of the United States, can no longer be considered as objects of punishment, but as objects of a generous forgiveness.

It has therefore been seen, with great satisfaction, that the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana earnestly recommend those offenders to the benefit of full pardon. And in compliance with that recommendation, as well as in consideration of all the other extraordinary circumstances in the case, I, James Madison, President of the United States of America, do issue this proclamation, hereby granting, publishing and declaring, a free and full pardon of all offences committed in violation of any act or acts of the Congress of the said United States, touching the revenue, trade and navigation thereof, or touching the intercourse and commerce of the United States with foreign nations, at any time before the eighth day of January, in the present year one thousand eight hundred and fifteen, by any person or persons whatsoever, being inhabitants of New Orleans and the adjacent country, or being inhabitants of the said island of Barrataria, and the places adjacent; Provided, that every person, claiming the benefit of this full pardon, in order to entitle himself thereto, shall produce a certificate in writing from the governor of the State of Louisiana, stating that such person has aided in the defense of New Orleans and the adjacent country, during the invasion thereof as aforesaid.

And I do hereby further authorize and direct all suits, indictments, and prosecutions, for fines, penalties, and forfeitures, against any person or persons, who shall be entitled to the benefit of this full pardon, forthwith to be stayed, discontinued and released: All civil officers are hereby required, according to the duties of their respective stations, to carry this proclamation into immediate and faithful execution.

Done at the City of Washington, the sixth day of February, in the year one thousand eight hundred and fifteen, and of the independence of the United States the thirty-ninth. By the President, James Madison. James Monroe, Acting Secretary of State.

According to Winston Groom in his unfortunately historically flawed – he relies heavily on the so called “Diary of Jean Lafitte” written by Laffite maniac John Lafflin – but well written book Patriotic Fire, the proclamation reached New Orleans on February 27th. The stories of what each individual Baratarian did –or didn’t do – with his Presidential pardon will continue to be told here at Triple P, and elsewhere, for a long time to come.

Header: The Battle of New Orleans via alomani.com

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Leaving Panama

February 26, 1671: Over a three day period beginning February 24, Henry Morgan and his band of buccaneers left Panama City, Panama.  They had spent four weeks looting, pillaging, drinking and generally destroying the Spanish city on the Pacific.  They would march back across the Isthmus of Panama and depart for Port Royal, Jamaica, whence they had come.

Header: Henry Morgan in Panama via Getty Images

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Alarm

Today's adventure into the etymology of words is a curious mix of marine and land-based warfare. As anyone who knows the history of seafaring will tell you, there are times when a sailor is required to fight and at least some of those actions will occur on land. Sometimes a sailor is a soldier – and vice versa really. From Morgan’s buccaneers to Daniel Tod Patterson’s raid on Barataria to the U.S. Navy battling Somali and other pirates as we speak, the line between seaman and grunt is often nonexistent. Go see Act of Valor if you doubt me at all.


So it is that one can raise an alarm and/or be alarmed on land or at sea. But where did all of this alarming voice raising come from? I’ll say that none of the Brethren will be surprised when I tell them: Italy.

All’armi! That was the call to arms in Italian city-states and aboard their vessels of the pre-Renaissance era. It literally translates as “To the weapons!” and was therefore both an alert of impending danger from an enemy and a rallying cry. Some time around 1300 French speakers took up the call as Alarme! With all the inter-cultural mixing of warriors that went on at the time, the English brought it home by the end of that century with only a missing e to make it their own. Just as a curious aside, the Dutch jumped on the alarm bandwagon as well, spelling it as the English did, but the German speaking Holy Roman Empire did not. Their original “Warnung!” has come down to us today.

At sea or on land, the alarm is sounded by use of bell, drum or horn; a set noise allows men to know exactly what is in the offing and what is expected of them. Anyone who has seen the movie Master and Commander is well aware of what happens when the order “Beat to quarters!” is given.

And this brings up an important point peculiar in some ways to naval discipline. Bringing men to battle stations aboard ship was done with frequency – threat or no – by fighting captains who chose to keep their ships and men ready for action. The application is based on the undeniable fact that people cannot do under stress what they have not done in practice. Much like learning to shoot a gun or drive a car, you’re reaction time in a dangerous situation will be hindered if you have never done such a thing before. Thus scheduled alarms and sometimes unscheduled false alarms, were routine on well-run ships. Even privateers and, on rarer occasions, pirates worked their guns now and again. Every man to his station and no confusion when the “real thing” comes to pass.

On the same subject, to some degree at least, Bill Brohaugh points out in his book Unfortunate English: The Gloomy Truth Behind the Words You Use that alarm became more associated with fright or startle around the 1500s. At the same time, English speakers began to use the word afraid to mean scared. Its original meaning though, in the form affray, was to disturb or unsettle people. Thus people who were unsettled –literally driven from their land and homes – were affrayed. The etymological jump to scared, in fact alarmed, makes perfect sense doesn’t it?

But now I’ve veered dangerously off course, and should wisely avoid the lee shore. Happy Saturday, Brethren; is you’ve an interest in exploring more strange and wonderful English etymologies, find Mr. Bohaugh’s fascinating website here.

Header: Jack Aubrey calls out the alarm; Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Friday, February 24, 2012

Booty: Memorial Medallion

While researching last Tuesday’s post, I came across a reference to a memorial medal minted in honor of Captain James Cook. Begun almost immediately after his expedition returned to England with the news of his death, the rare medallion also has a curious – if tenuous – Aubrey/Maturin connection.

Cook’s three major voyages contributed vastly to European knowledge of global flora and fauna. The Captain himself spoke before the Royal Society about his findings, an honor bestowed on only the most capable of scientific and mathematic researchers. It should come as no surprise, then, that is was the Royal Society – and not the Admiralty as in the case of Horatio Nelson – that honored Cook with the minting of 20 gold medals.

The artist responsible was Lewis Pingo, chief engraver of the Royal Mint, and the medals were completed in 1784.

The medals show a profile of Cook on one side with the Latin honorific “The most intrepid explorer of the seas” surrounding it. On the reverse, an image of Fortune holding a rudder is decorated with the motto “Our men have left nothing unattempted.” High praise indeed.

As to the connection with O’Brian’s timeless novels, at least two of the medals were originally given to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society. Lovers of the Aubrey/Maturin series will remember Banks as a close confident of Stephen Maturin. The medal pictured above was bestowed upon the British Museum by Sir Joseph’s sister, Sophia.

It seems that the location of only a handful of these now quite valuable medallions is currently known; some are in the British Museum and others are in private and public collections. It is certainly something for the coin and medal collectors among the Brethren to keep in mind. What a splendid find one of these memorial’s to a great seaman would be.

Header: Memorial Medal of Captain James Cook via The British Museum

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Women at Sea: Great Whore or Selfless Heroine

The story of a humbly born Irishwoman in the 19th century could have been very boring indeed. Opportunities for such a personage were limited but, as today’s curious example shows, perhaps only by the imagination and ambition of the specific individual.

Elisa or, alternatively, Eliza Lynch was born in County Cork some time in 1835. Her origins are dim and she seemed to have preferred to keep them that way. When she spoke of her parents at all it was to tell a tale of illegitimate birth; she was, she claimed, the daughter of an Irish housemaid and a very aristocratic gentleman. No later researcher seems to be able to verify this juicy tidbit.

In 1850, Elisa and her mother showed up in Paris. The fifteen year old was a striking beauty with auburn hair and skin so white that the blue veins showed through at her neck and temples. Mother must have been in the market for a good catch for strolls in the more fashionable districts were a daily entertainment for the pair. This was the great age of Paris courtesans in the mold of Marie Duplessis, La Dame aux Camelias, and one wonders if Mom wasn’t looking to turn a profit on her lovely daughter. If this was the case, Elisa foiled her plans; she eloped with a French soldier, Lieutenant de Quatrefages, and followed him to his post in Algeria.

The life of a soldier’s wife in North Africa did not suit Elisa, however, and within three years she was back in Paris pursuing the life of a demimondaine. Within this glittering, sordid milieu, Elisa came into contact with a visiting dignitary from one of the newly antonymous states in South America, Francisco Solano Lopez. The illegitimate son of the dictator of Paraguay was nonetheless next in line for the seat of power. The two could not have been an odder couple. He was short, perhaps even a dwarf, ugly, and ill-mannered; the notorious wit Theophile Gautier called Lopez “a barbarian.” Elisa, on the other hand, was poised, well-spoken and tall; she was also hungry for both power and wealth. The two became lovers in short order.

When Lopez was called back to Paraguay, Elisa packed up her belongings and followed him within a few months. The crossing was abysmal, with Elisa seasick most of the voyage. Because Paraguay was landlocked and in constant conflict with its coastal neighbors, Elisa met obstacles to entering the country upon arriving in Brazil. These hardships seemed only to have hardened her resolve; she was reunited with Lopez not long before he became Paraguay’s “El Supremo” with the death of his father in 1862.

Elisa set to work immediately. Styling herself as “Empress”, she began systematically controlling access to Lopez. Bribes had to be paid directly to her in order for officials to see or even petition the dictator. She amassed large tracks of arable land at scandalously low prices and launched into a mania for building. Theatres, opera houses and mansions in the French style went up brick by expensive brick, only to stand either unfinished or empty. The backwater capitol of Asuncion became like a Hollywood sound stage, all show and no substance.

Meanwhile, Lopez became more and more megalomaniacal. He ignored the needs of his people, who lived – for the most part – at the very edge of subsistence and lined his pockets at their expense. Elisa was given the jewels and clothing of women whose husbands had been declared “enemies” of Lopez who included his own brothers and sisters. El Supremo’s final bungle, the one that would nearly destroy his country, was declaring war on his neighbors, Uruguay, Argentina and most disastrous of all, Brazil, over access to the Atlantic Ocean.

Now known as the War of the Triple Alliance, this six year holocaust would wipe out 90 percent of the male population of Paraguay. Women and young boys were reduced to fighting crack Brazilian units with rocks and bottles. All the while, Elisa continued her grasping, greedy bid for personal wealth. She collected silver and gold from citizens. This was ostensibly to fund the war effort but, more often than not, the wealth was shipped to her bank accounts in Europe. Occasionally she would appear in the military camps, dripping with jewels and wrapped in silk, to play her piano which went with her everywhere along with a retinue of innumerable servants and slaves. Doubtless her visits did not bring the good cheer she imagined they might.

Personal tragedy struck the “Empress” when her lover and their oldest son were killed at the Battle of Cerro Cora, which ended the ill-advised war in 1870. Elisa, in a fashion unfamiliar to her character, personally buried the bodies near the battlefield. She attempted to keep vigil over them but Lopez was dug up and mutilated overnight. Elisa again buried the body, but her troubles were just beginning.

Elisa’s assets were almost immediately frozen by the new rulers of Paraguay and she was accused of war profiteering. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, she left for Europe, arriving in London and then heading for Paris where she arrived in the winter of 1870. Her prospects were bleak; the Franco-Prussian War and the rise of the Paris Commune were giving the boot to the Golden Age of Courtesans. Old friends like the notorious Cora Pearl were as destitute as “Madame” Lynch; living in a garret did not appeal at all.

In 1875, Elisa returned to Paraguay to try to regain some portion of her vast, ill-gotten wealth. She was jeered as a “whore” and booted from the country with very little ceremony. She died in Paris of stomach cancer at the age of 50, a lonely woman living hand to mouth.

Perhaps surprisingly, Elisa’s legacy turned on a wave of nationalism and historical fantasy in mid-20th century Paraguay. Both she and Lopez were remade as national heroes. A monument was built to Elisa in one of Asuncion’s cemeteries, her remains were brought over from France and the inscription praised her as courageous, loyal and – perhaps most surprisingly – selfless.
As Robin Cross and Rosalind Miles assert in Warrior Women, Elisa Lynch may arguably have been one of the greatest adventuresses of the 19th century. She was certainly a force to be reckoned with, if not in the most altruistic of ways.

Header: Elisa Lynch as Empress of Paraguay c 1864 via Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

History: A Death in Paradise

On this day in 1779, the crew of HMS Resolution buried what remains of their beloved captain were left to them at sea. The place was somewhere east of Hawai’i and the commander was James Cook. He had died seven days before at the age of 50.

The mechanics of Cook’s death at the hands of Hawaiian natives are not really in question. What remains up for debate is why the islanders killed a man who they had once welcomed as something akin to royalty.

Cook, arguably one of the greatest European explorers of the Great Age of Sail, had visited what was then known as the Sandwich Islands on more than one occasion. He had anchored Resolution and HMS Discovery there early in February of 1779 after exploring the coasts of modern day Canada and Alaska. There he had taken soundings in what is now known as the Cook Inlet which is only a stone’s throw from where I sit typing. Contrary to the opinions of modern Native Alaskans, Cook did not “colonize” Alaska and may, in fact, never have left his ship while mapping the area. The Russians were way ahead of the British in exploration of the Alaskan interior.

Cook and his crews did interact closely with the Native Hawaiians, however. Some biographers, such as Marshall Sahlins, have hypothesized that Cook was associated with the Polynesian god Lono by the islanders and that his unexpected return to Hawai’i in mid-February jarred their sensibilities, leading them to test their theory by killing Cook. Later writers such as Vanessa Collingridge call this into question as based on Cook’s own view of his interaction with the Hawaiians.

In fact, the whole incident may have been as simple as a misunderstanding over a “borrowed” boat. Cook, who was familiar with Polynesian views on ownership and their differences from European ideas, seems to have over-reacted when the Hawaiians took one of his ship’s boats. He ordered one of the island chiefs, Kalaniopu’u, taken hostage to hold as leverage for the return of the little craft. The taking of the chief seems to have been botched and Cook and his men were forced to retreat to their ships. In the process, probably while helping to launch another of his ship’s boats, Cook was clubbed over the head. He was stabbed to death where he lay in the surf and though all his men managed to retreat with the loss of two Marines, Cook’s body was left on shore.

The curious issue arises, to my mind, in what the Hawaiians did with the body of their erstwhile enemy. Treating it as they would the remains of anyone of high rank among them, the islanders cremated Cook’s body. They carefully cleaned and enshrined his bones and would not turn over these relics in their entirety to Cook’s crew. Only some of the bones were given to Resolution’s new commander. These were formally buried at sea as Resolution and Discovery left the Hawaiian Islands for good. Both ships were back in England by October of the following year.

Why James Cook met his end on that beach in what we now consider a little corner of paradise remains a bit of a mystery. For better or for worse, the world lost one of its most accomplished seamen in a place that he seems to have loved.

Header: The Death of Captain Cook by Johann Zoffany c 1795

Monday, February 20, 2012

People: You Wouldn't Like Him When He's Angry...

It's “Presidents’ Day” here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and Triple P would like to take this opportunity to celebrate our favorite Leader of the Free World: Andrew Jackson. I’m not particularly fond of his chattel owning or Native American slaughtering, but I will always admire the man who had the good sense to see past the “hellish banditti” label and call up some of my ancestors to defend New Orleans and the young U.S. Plus you have to admire a leader who gets stuff done without adding to ignoble pursuits like the national debt. Andrew Jackson was, after all, our last “debt free” president.


So, on that note and just for fun, allow me to redirect you to Daniel O’Brien’s Friday offering over at the always hilarious – and frequently informative – Cracked.com. Here is “How to Fight Andrew Jackson: The Deadliest President Ever”. Spoiler alert: you will get your butt kicked.

Header: Equestrian Statue of Andrew Jackson, New Orleans, Louisiana

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Rigging Church

Being Sabbath day, a church was rigged out and divine service performed on board the Caesar for the first time since I had belonged to her.  The Rev. Mr. Jones, the chaplain, preached an excellent sermon.  The ship's crew were very devout and attentive.  The rear-admiral was on his knees at prayer time; but it was funny enough to see our captain, how fidgety he was: he neither sat nor stood, and was as unsteady as a weathercock.  Some of our nods thought that a man could not be a good seaman without swearing, but the admiral let them know the contrary.  In the afternoon we saw some chasse-marees stealing along shore, and sent the boats of the squadron after them; they captured two, one laden with rye and the other with sardinian, a fish like dried herrings.  The whole was shared out to the squadron and the vessels broken up for firewood, as their condemnation in England would have cost more than they were worth.

~ William Richardson, gunner aboard HMS Caesar off the coast of France, February 19, 1809

Header: HMS Artemis by Geoff Hunt

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Prize

Talk of prizes is cheap when one is around pirates and privateers. Seemingly contradictorily, it is dear as well. All sailors – even as recently as 100 years ago – loved a prize. But what exactly was a prize, legally? Was there even such a thing? As long as there have been ships at sea, the answers have been more complicated than one might imagine.


A number of prize acts have been passed by the various naval countries on both sides of the Atlantic, with the one that really got the ball rolling issued by Henry VIII of England to institute his all-privateer navy. Elizabeth I solidified these laws, with Queen Anne passing a revised act in 1708 and King George adding to it in 1793.

The next great wave of privateers would sprout up in 1810 when the government of Bolivar’s free Cartagena began issuing letters of marque. In all these situations, legal prizes were required to first be judged so via a libel in a court of the country issuing the letter of marque. Of course, this was not always possible and in some cases – notably the Laffites’ Barataria and Galveston operations – rarely if ever happened.

Prize acts, again often in theory more than practice, technically expired at the end of whatever war they were written for. A good example here is the resending of Queen Anne’s 1708 prize act which contributed greatly to the period known now as the Golden Age of piracy. Many recognizable names of the era, from Edward Teach to Howell Davis, had sailed with legitimate letters of marque and simply continued to take prizes after their papers expired, thus becoming pirates rather than privateers.

Prize goods were those taken legally from an enemy at sea. A prize master is the man given control of the prize ship to see her safely into a port controlled by the privateer’s or man-of-war’s country. Young officers often cut their teeth as commanders aboard prizes. Prize money was the result of the sale of prize goods and sometimes the ship itself, which was then divided according to the articles of the privateer or the navy in question. Prizeage was the share of that money belonging to the government.

No one can put the pieces together quite as succinctly as Admiral Smyth, however, so I offer the entry under “prize” from his The Sailor’s Word Book:

A vessel captured at sea from the enemies of a state, or from pirates, either by a man-of-war or privateer. Vessels are also looked upon as prize if they fight under any other standard than that of the state from which they have their commission, if they have no charter-party, and if loaded with effects belonging to the enemy, or with contraband goods. In ships of war, the prizes are to be divided among the officers, seamen &c., according to the act; but in privateers, according to the agreement of the owners.

And nothing could be more thorough than that in describing a lovely – and legal – prize. Happy Saturday, Brethren; I’m off to dine with the first mate. I’ll spy ye tomorrow for Seafaring Sunday.

Header: Revenue cutter Harpy chasing a smuggler via National Museum of Liverpool Blog

Friday, February 17, 2012

Booty: A Game of Bumpers With You, Sir...



For centuries, bumpers or as it was later known, pool, was a favorite sport among the wealthy and elite.  Most people, not just the male of the upper-crust species, were partial to betting - if not addicted to it - and as anyone who plays these days knows, pool is a great game to bet on.  You don't even have to be playing to lay down the coin.  Many of our seafaring heroes were as wild about the game as monarchs like Charles II, Louis XIV and most of the English Georges.  Horatio Nelson famously played quite well, even lacking an arm.  I understand that wasn't the only thing he was good at despite his so-called "handicap".

Not a one of those gaming enthusiasts could have imagined the device pictured in action above.  From Dman3150 on YouTube via the first mate, I offer a gyroscopic self-leveling pool table in action aboard the cruise ship Radiance of the Seas, and in dirty weather no less.

Warning: if you are prone to seasickness, watching all 1:29 minutes of this curious footage might not be the best idea.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ships: A Bold and Daring Act

On October 31, 1803, the frigate Philadelphia, William Bainbridge commanding, was run aground on a sandbar at the mouth of Tripoli Harbor and captured by the Tripolitans. Her crew was a stellar cast of future naval heroes and some of the 300 who survived to live through nearly a year of torturous captivity will be more than familiar to the Brethren. Among them were Bainbridge himself, his Lieutenant David Porter and Midshipman Daniel Tod Patterson. These men and their fellows would be rescued in a daring raid by U.S. Marines led by William Eaton, the memory of which action remains in “shores of Tripoli” line from the Marine Corps anthem.


Before that was accomplished, however, the Barbary pirates’ possession of one of the United States’ most modern engines of war – a heavy frigate – had to be addressed with all speed. While President Jefferson was ordering Eaton’s top secret mission to Tripoli, Commodore Edward Preble, commanding the Mediterranean station, was planning the best way to either reclaim or destroy the Philadelphia.

It was quickly recognized that trying to recapture the frigate in Tripoli’s heavily fortified harbor would be a disaster of epic proportions. Preble had to realize, however, that destroying the ship would mean at the very least the loss of several men but he had no other options. Unbeknownst to Preble, the Tripolitans did not have the resources to repair and then operate the heavy frigate so this fact was not a consideration in his decision making. In January of 1804, the Commodore called for volunteers to sign up on what could become a suicide mission.

The almost immediate response of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, then in command of the schooner Enterprise, no doubt encouraged others to join the mission. Decatur already had a reputation for intrepid action and fearlessness; by February, 64 volunteers and two ships – Enterprise and Intrepid – had committed to the endeavor. The crews set out with a local pilot familiar with Tripoli Harbor on February 3rd.

Arriving in Syracuse, Decatur transferred his volunteers to the ketch Intrepid, a captured Tripolitan, and headed for Tripoli. They encountered two weeks of dirty weather, a delay for which they were in no way prepared. The ketch, generally manned by a crew of no more than twenty, was overcrowded and leaky and conditions grew worse as the days dragged on. Things did not immediately improve when Intrepid reached her destination, either; Decatur ordered the majority of his crew below and dressed those above as local merchants. On February 16th, he cruised slowly into the harbor at dusk spying Philadelphia at anchor just under the walls of the main fortress.

With his usual panache, Decatur put Intrepid along side the frigate and called over the side to request permission to tie up next to her. This was granted, but moments later an alarm bell was sounded aboard Philadelphia. Intrepid had been identified as a foreign intruder.

Decatur responded by ordering his men to board the frigate. The reaction of the crew was immediate and swift; the Barbary corsairs had no time to respond, and most barely managed to arm themselves. The majority of the men aboard Philadelphia jumped into the harbor and swam for it. Decatur’s crew set the frigate ablaze almost immediately, while the remaining pirates who stayed to fight were quickly overcome. Within twenty minutes, Decatur and his volunteers were back aboard Intrepid, rowing away in the blazing, red light from the dying USS Philadelphia. Decatur did not lose a single American in the action, and only one man was wounded.

Word of the daring raid spread throughout the Mediterranean with the same speed that fire had consumed Philadelphia to the waterline. In one of history’s true moments of well-informed hyperbole, Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson – arguably the most brilliant naval strategist of the era – commented that Decatur’s raid was “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

For an in depth analysis of Commodore Preble’s career as commander in the Mediterranean, including his reasons for ordering Decatur’s action, see today’s post over at the Naval History Blog.

Header: An early 19th c print of Decatur boarding Philadelphia via Navy History

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

History: The Work of Hands

It's Saint Valentine’s Day and even a pirate can get a little sentimental on such an occasion. Certainly being away from home on blue water can make a man – or a woman for that matter – yearn for their sweetheart. While loving the one you’re with when away from the one you love has rarely been above even the most upstanding seamen, remembering the girl back home was a common daydream aboard ship. This romantic notion of men pining away for their dear ones has led to some curious fictions, including the stories told about today’s little curios of nautical history.


Items such as that shown at the header are known today as “Sailor’s Valentines”. They has been a revival of this intricate hand work lately, and many fine examples of modern “Valentines” can be found with a quick search of the web. These shell-incrusted trinkets were usually, but not by any means always, octagonal shaped, hinged boxes. They were made of wood and glass that was then encrusted with either dyed or natural colored shells. In many cases, embroidery work was included too as well as sparkling glass beads. In later years, the sailor’s picture might be included.

The prevailing myth was that these impressively delicate keepsakes were made by sailors themselves. Aboard ship for long hours with nothing to do but think of home, sailors would piece together the lovely Valentines for the sweethearts they missed. The work of their own hands thus became the most precious gift, aside from their safe return and undying affection, that they could give.

In fact, as it turns out, the Valentines were only occasionally made by seamen. By the mid-19th century they were almost exclusively made by women native to the Caribbean and particularly the island of Barbados. As Grace L. Madeira points out in her book on the subject, the original shell work items may very well have been done by sailors, but the work was most probably undertaken in port with shells and other trinkets purchased or found while at sea. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, this kind of “small work” became almost exclusively the domain of women. And probably to good effect; there is evidence that the artists of Barbados made a fair wage for their creative efforts.

Anyone who knows anything about working a ship, particularly a sailer, knows that the myth of long periods with nothing to do at sea is just that. There is always something to do, even if it amounts to no more than pumping water or braiding rope. This is not to say that sailors have never been creative or artistic. From some of the shell work mentioned here to beautiful embroidery and carving, sailors have always been good with their hands. But we miss giving credit where it is due if we assume these lovely pieces of art were only made “at sea”.

For more information about or to purchase modern Sailor’s Valentines, allow me to recommend Wendy L. Marshall’s beautiful work; find her here.

Header: Sailor’s Valentine via Historic New England

Monday, February 13, 2012

People: Murdered Husbands and Stolen Nuns

According to Philip Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who, today’s pirate was from a beautiful Caribbean island, but he pursued his violent career in the waters off Europe. Captain Hiram Breakes seems to have been a bloodthirsty sort who, perhaps completely against that nature, fell into melancholy over love at the end of his life. This strange tale has a lot of the Victorian melodrama about it, which leads me to wonder if Captain Breakes was a true person or a latter-day boogey man. Most information available about Breakes is no more than a retelling of the story put forth by Gosse, so it may be fair to say that either is possible.


Breaks, it seems, was born into a respectable family on the Island of Saba. His father was a “well-to-do councilor” and young Hiram was his second son. Saba, which is southeast of Puerto Rico and north of St. Kitts, is still a Dutch island. In 1764 Hiram, who had doubtless known smugglers and bootleggers on his island home, set out to sea as a merchant captain. He ran between the Caribbean and Amsterdam, probably hauling goods both ways.

At 19 Breaks was a handsome young man, “standing over six feet in height” who seems to have had an eye for the ladies. He finally gave his heart to a woman who was not free to return his love, but went ahead and did so anyway. Gosse gives the lady’s name only as “Mrs. Snyde” and offers no further information on her than her ensuing misdeeds.

Perhaps to spend more time with his lover, Breakes acquired a new ship and began sailing from Holland to Lisbon. Gosse tells us he sailed this route “for some time”, doubtless checking in with Mrs. Snyde whenever possible. At some point during this time, Breakes and his paramour murdered her husband. There was a trial, but the two lovers managed to be acquitted.

After the trial, Breakes seems to have turned mean. He stole his employer’s ship and the cargo aboard it, intent on living from then on as a pirate. He named his new vessel Adventure and set out on a daring raid in the port of Vigo. Here he and his men took the merchant Acapulco which had just arrived from Valparaiso, Chile. The captain and crew were all killed and Breakes was rewarded for his cruelty with a fortune in small gold bars, 200,000 of them “each the size of a man’s finger.” Taking the Acapulco as his new ship, Breakes sailed off into the Mediterranean in search of more prizes.

According to Gosse, Breakes ran a religious ship making his crew clean up and rig church on Sundays. Hiram would preach a sermon “after the Lutheran style”, his conviction no less for having recently killed a whole ship full of men.

Captain Hiram Breakes was bold enough to call at Gibraltar and talk the Governor of that rock into granting him an English privateering commission. This seems to have been no more than a formality, however, as Breakes continued to plunder shipping of all nations, even Britain. One of his more curious exploits has him calling at the port of Minorca, where he and his men visited a peaceful sea-side abbey. Welcomed by the Abbess, Hiram exhorted his men to each choose a “wife” from among the demure nuns. This they happily did, carrying the ladies back to their ship to sport with them as they pleased. Whether or not Hiram chose one of these brides of Christ for his own, Gosse does not say.

If nothing else, Breakes must be credited with cleverness. Aside from the brush with the law over the murder of Mr. Snyde, he seems never to have been caught as a pirate. He instead voluntarily retired, returning to Amsterdam and the comforting arms of the widow Snyde. This dream of domestic happiness was not to materialize, however. Mrs. Snyde, it turns out, had been hanged for poisoning she and Breakes’ young son. Gosse does not give a reason for this horrible crime, but the agony of the revelation was more than Hiram Breakes could bear. He “turned melancholy mad” and drown himself in one of the city’s many dikes.

Even a murderous pirate can succumb to the crushing weight of depression. If Hiram Breakes’ story is true, it seems that is exactly what happened to him.

Header: A Pirate by N.C. Wyeth

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: In the Revenue Marine

February 12, 1802:  A report on commissioned officers in the U.S. marine services published on this date indicated the Revenue-Marine Service, precursor of the modern U.S. Coast Guard, was staffed with 9 captains, 10 first lieutenants, 9 second lieutenants and 10 third lieutenants.

Header: Captain Frederick Lee, who commanded the revenue cutter Eagle during the War of 1812 from the USCG website

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Box

Technically a box aboard ship is not a storage vessel. That would more properly be termed a locker or sea chest, both of which would hold not goods but the private articles of an individual sailor. Aboard a sailing ship the box is a designated area on one of her small boats. This is the coxswain’s domain; the space between the backboard and the stern post, where he sits to man the tiller and shout orders to the oarsman.


Compasses may be boxed by the young gentlemen learning their way around same. Midshipmen would be expected to say by memory the names of the 32 points, both in order and backward, and answer specific questions about the divisions between the points asked by their captain or another superior officer. No small task, as anyone who has used a compass can tell.

A boxing is a piece of hardwood, almost exclusively in the shape of a square, used in shipbuilding and repair to connect the framing timbers. Boxing off, on the other hand, is an emergency procedure to correct the direction of a sailing ship when she has got herself “in irons”. This is the ill-fated situation by which a ship has come up in the wind and is in danger of losing her momentum. In such cases, the helm will not answer alone to change her course. Then the head sheets must be hauled to windward while the head yards are laid back to try and release her head from the wind.

Another rarely desirable maneuver along the same vain is boxhauling. In this case the ship is turned very sharply on her heel when it is necessary to avoid making the usual large and time-consuming arc to change her course to the opposite direction. Again the head yards are braced flat but here the helm is put to leeward. When the ship gathers sternway, the helm is shifted and the sails trimmed. This is a maneuver to be avoided if at all possible due to its extreme danger in anything but the most favorable conditions. Capsizing is not unheard of when boxhauling in weather.

The pumps of a ship, those blessed instruments that – though torturous to work – keep her bilge and lower deck free of water and filth, have boxes as well. A common pump will have an upper and lower box, one attached to the lower chamber and the other to the piston rod. In the center of each box is an upward-facing valve. Pumps are and were rather complex mechanisms, for all they were run simply by the power of men for most of their existence. They should really have a post in their own right; allow me to see to that.

And so we will bring another SMS to a close, Brethren; fair winds, sweet bilges and clear skies to you all.

Header: Relets sur la Mer by Arsene Chabanian via Old Paint

Friday, February 10, 2012

Booty: Jean Laffite Super Pirate!

Sweet sea serpents the Interwebs are a wonderful, horrible place. Most of us who have lived in the World Wide Web age have seen and read about things that our parents could only imagine. As suggested, that is both good and bad. Sometimes it’s both. As an example, note figure A above.


While browsing images last Saturday for Sunday’s post on Jean Laffite’s untimely death, I came across the magnificent corner of action figure realness known as Mego Museum. They offer a variety of action figure collectibles and, as noted on their homepage, have been serving collectors since 1996. That’s why you have to take the folks at MM seriously when they offer Jean Lafitte (again with the misspelling), Super Pirate.

Yes, as you can see, there is an actual line of “Super Pirate” action figures. It should come as no surprise to anyone in the freebooting community that NOLA’s own Jean Laffite is counted as one of their number. The action figure (don’t you dare call him a doll) wears a brightly colored piratical ensemble that has more of Mardi Gras than the “Gentleman Laffite” to it. He is well armed with accessories and quite obviously ready for boarding (click the link above to see our hero in “action”). He’s wearing his hat athwart ships, Nelson style, which may or may not be accurate given Laffite’s reported obsession with up-to-the-minute style; fore-and-aft being the favored wearing by around 1800. Most questionable of all is the inclusion of that by now standard mustache. Fashion was important to Laffite and the mustache did not return to popularity until at least the 1820s. He may have worn a mustache later in his short life, but side whiskers would be a far more historically correct facial hair choice here. Much like Edgar A. Poe, our dear Jean is forever saddled with a latter day shaving choice.

All that said, there is nothing more enjoyable than knowing that people are learning about – and remembering – our seafaring past. If an action figure Super Pirate is what it takes, I am on board with that. Our gratitude goes out to Toltoys, Ltd. And Mego Museum; the Brethren – and the Baratarians – salute you.

Header: Super Pirate Jean “Lafitte” by Toltoys, Ltd. Via Mego Museum

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Women at Sea: "My life is not accepted..."

Some time in the early 17th century a remarkable woman was born somewhere in England. This vagueness on my part may sound coy but, as with so many biographical sketches here at Triple P, the beginning of the life of Mary Dyer is lost to the mists of time.


Our first historical glimpse of this woman who would change the course of New England’s history is in 1635. In that year Mary and her husband William crossed the treacherous Atlantic Ocean to join fellow Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay colony. The crossing in an unnamed merchant vessel would have been no less harrowing for the Dyers than it was for the original Pilgrims. Fortitude and faith were probably about all that saw them through that wet, sickening, miserable time on the vast sea. Sailors, it must be admitted, these people were not.

Mary and William set up housekeeping in probable relative comfort. Mary at this time, perhaps in her early twenties, would later be described by those who knew her as “comely,” “grave,” and “of goodly personage… fearing the Lord.” A God-fearing goodwife to an up and coming lawyer probably appeared the very root-stock of Puritan society, but Mary was a rebel in drab homespun linsey-woolsey.

Not long after the Dyer’s settled in, Mary met Anne Hutchison. Anne, the now famous Puritan heretic who had the audacity to claim that even women to could have a profoundly personal relationship with the Divine, was probably a neighbor and the two women seem to have become fast friends. Mary began attending Anne’s all-female “Bible studies” where local women sought to understand God’s plan without the guidance of preachers or even husbands.

When Mary went in to labor in late 1637, Anne – who was a practicing midwife – was by her side. The birth was not a joyful occasion; the baby was stillborn and malformed. Anne whisked the infant away and buried the little girl’s corpse privately. This may have been standard operating procedure for midwives of the era, who were often accused of causing children to be born dead, with defects or both.

Little was said of the unfortunate incident until after Anne Hutchinson’s trial for heresy and subsequent banishment. The Dyers chose to follow their friend and her family to the wilds of what is now Rhode Island, where the Hutchinsons established a new colony. Once they were gone, Massachusetts Bay colony Governor John Winthrop had their houses and property searched. Discovering the little grave he had it dug up and distributed his account of the “monstrous birth” locally and in England. The malformed infant was, he assumed, proof of God’s wrath against heretics.

Mary and William, meanwhile, seem to have prospered in the new Rhode Island colony. Life was doubtless hard, but William was successful enough by 1652 to make a trip back to England on business. Mary accompanied him and it was in England that she came into contact with George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends known as the Quakers. Mary was entranced with Fox’s teachings; his doctrine of personal revelation jibed nicely with what Anne Hutchinson had been preaching back home. Mary joined the Society; when her husband returned to Rhode Island, she stayed behind to become a Quaker preacher in her own right.

In 1656, the Massachusetts Bay colony enacted an anti-religious law that included a ban on Quaker preaching and practices. When news that men, women and children of the Quaker faith were suffering mutilation, imprisonment, banishment and threats of death reached England, Mary booked passage straight to Boston. She would arrive there, after another untenable crossing and this time at around the age of 47, in 1657.

Mary immediately began preaching in the city and was almost as immediately arrested. The authorities, led now by new Governor John Endecott, released Mary only when William – who had not converted to the Society – arrived in the city to take charge of her. Both were admonished that Mary should not return on pain of death, a threat which frightened her not at all.

When Mary learned that two of her Quaker congregation who had gone out to preach in Massachusetts, had been arrested, she hurried to Boston to help. She was herself put back in prison and all three were brought before the court in September of 1659. The miscreants were again banished and warned that their sentence would be death if they returned. A short time later Mary’s companions, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson, were back in Boston to “bear witness against” the colony’s anti-Quaker laws. Mary followed them soon after.

As good as their word, the authorities arrested the three Quakers again. This time Robinson and Stephenson were hanged while Mary stood by with a noose around her neck. An 11th hour reprieve was staged by Endecott and Mary was again remanded to the custody of her husband. Obviously, the Governor imagined that this brush with death would put Mary in her womanly place. Clearly, he wasn’t paying attention.

Mary continued to preach in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and elsewhere but ongoing persecutions in Massachusetts drew her back to Boston. Horatio Rogers says in Mary Dyer of Rhode Island that she stated her mission at her final trial before the Governor:

I came in obedience to the will of God… desiring you to repeal your unrighteous laws of banishment on pain of death. And that same is my own work now, and earnest request, although I told you that if you refused to repeal them, the Lord would send others of his servants to witness against them.

This time Mary had gone too far. Endecott, who at her trial became so infuriated with Mary that he screamed “Away with her,” ignored her family’s pleas and sentenced her to hang. She was marched to the tree at Boston Commons, all the while refusing to repent. Mary Dyer died by hanging in May of 1660.

Mary’s fight for religious freedom in New England was won only after – and to a large degree because of – her martyrdom. A year later, King Charles II forbade imprisonment, banishment or execution on religious grounds in his colonies. In 1686, the Massachusetts Bay colony’s charter was revoked, an English Governor was set in place and the reign of terror instigated by the “Pilgrim fathers” was brought to a halt.

All this because a “goodly personage” had the courage to cross the ocean and stand up for what she believed.

Header: “I Have Been Preserved for This”, a portrait of Mary Dyer by Howard Pyle via Ideas Made of Light

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

History: Minoan Mariners

Over at the always interesting Nature website Jo Marchant took a good deal of time to discuss in depth the modern race to find Bronze Age shipwrecks. The ongoing search for deep water wreckage that once called the now Greek island of Crete home is fascinating in the extreme. It points up not only the need to find out more about the pre-Hellenic civilization of that island but also the mind-bogglingly high tech ways that marine archaeology is going about the search.


The article focuses on two experts in marine artifact finding, Robert Ballard whose team discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 and his former graduate student, Brendan Foley. Both men are turning to deeper and deeper wasters, with the help of such futuristic marvels as remote operated vehicles and autonomous diving robots, in the hope of finding several Minoan wrecks and learning more about these amazing deep-sea mariners.

Two decades ago it was a commonly held belief that Minoans in particular and Bronze Age mariners in general hugged the coasts of the Mediterranean and Aegean with their ships. All that changed with the discovery of a wreck now known as the Ulu Burun or Uluburun off the coast of Turkey. The wreck was found some five miles off the coast. Though this is not a tremendous way from shore, the area and situation in which the wreck was found – and the amazing treasure trove she carried – got archaeologists thinking.

The Uluburun was literally packed to the gunnels with wealth from cultures all over the Mediterranean. There were spices, cloth, weapons, ebony and ostrich eggs among other things. A vast horde of jewelry was aboard as well, much of it from the expert goldsmiths of Ancient Egypt. One gold scarab bore the name of Queen Nefertiti. In all eleven different cultures were represented in the cargo aboard Uluburun. You can see some of these beautiful artifacts here.

This may all sound like nothing more than pirate booty – and in fact trawling for artifacts in the Aegean is big business – but there is a deeper significance. Through wrecks like the Uluburun, modern science begins to understand the economies and movements of ancient cultures, shedding light on where we came from. As Foley notes in the piece from Nature, “Ships were the way that people communicated and moved about the ancient world. So if we can find these ancient wrecks, we get a much clearer view of the very dim past.”

As a very wise man once said, history is a vast early warning system and forewarned if forearmed. The more attention we can pay to our rich seafaring history, the better off we will all be.

Header: Minoan vessels at sea; 16th c BCE wall mural from the island of Santorini via Nature.com

Monday, February 6, 2012

Ships: USS New York

The U.S. Navy, in their own inimitable way, pay tribute to the Superbowl winners here.

Header: USS New York via CNN

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: A Death Forgotten

February 5, 1823:  According to the Gaceta de Colombia via the Gaceta de Cartajena, Jean Laffite died aboard his Colombian privateer General Santander after a firefight with American or British pirate hunters off Isla de la Bahia.  He was buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras.  Repos dans la paix ~

Header: Jean Laffite by N.C. Wyeth

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Larboard

The opposite of starboard, what we now term “port”, used to be larboard. An editor I’ve worked with made the obvious but important observation that the two words could be easily confused, particularly in a tense situation aboard ship. I had to agree with him, even though there wasn’t much I could do about it as far as my prose. This fact was not lost on a far more capable nautical novelist than I: Patrick O’Brian:


All at once her bowsprit was pointing straight into the roaring gale, though the heavy seas tried to force her head to leeward. ‘Up maintack… haul of all. Cut.’

The axe flashed down on the cable. She was almost round, in the balance. Already she had a prodigious sternway, moving straight for the Thatcher. ‘Fetch a cast aft, far aft,’ cried Jack to the leadsman, leaning out over the quarter-rail to judge the last possible moment, the greatest possible impetus to the full starboard helm that would bring her right round. The leadsman turned, swung with all his might: the leadline caught the bellying ensign-whip, the lead shot inboard, struck Jack down to the deck.

On his hands and knees, through the crash of the blow and the roar of the sea he heard Hyde’s voice at an infinite distance shout ‘Larboard all – I mean starboard,’ then an all-embracing thunder as the Ariel struck the Thatcher full on, beating her rudder and staving in much of her stern.

This typically gripping moment of action from The Surgeon’s Mate illustrates the point all too eloquently. Poor First Lieutenant Hyde, a bit of a ding-a-ling to begin with, wrecks Jack’s ship on the coast of France with his hasty and ill advised command. A simple mistake and the entire crew are prisoners of war.

But why larboard originally when the potential for error in a command was so great?

According to our mate Admiral Smyth, the English word may come from Latin via Italian. The Romans were nothing if not direct and, when facing the bow of their triremes or merchant vessels, they simply called the right side “this side” or questa borda in Italian and the left side “that side” or quella boarda. These two were shortened to sta borda and la borda – thus starboard and larboard.

Port as the indicator for “that side” did not come into common use until the mid-19th century. The Sailor’s Word Book notes, however, that it was being used indifferently as early as the late 16th century aboard English vessels.

The use of larboard for left side of the ship also bleeds into the common name for watches. Two watches, the group of men on duty at any given time, was the general rule on ships of frigate size or smaller in the Great Age of Sail. They were named for the sides of the ship; thus a starboard watch and a larboard watch. In the Royal Navy of Nelson’s era and before, the men attached to each watch were often known as the starbolins and the larbolins. Thus the chanty: Larbolins stout, you must turn out; And sleep no more within; For if you do, we’ll cut your clue; And let starbolins in. No man cares to have his hammock cut down from under him.

The switch to port from larboard was made purposefully to avoid mistakes such as the awful error made by Mr. Hyde. Keep in mind, though, that any nautical fiction using “port” pervasively prior to the 1850s is wrong outright. You might want to put that book down and reach for something a little more authentic. Try that Patrick O’Brian fellow; I hear he had a knack for that sort of thing.

Header: A Gaffer near land via In the Boat Shed

Friday, February 3, 2012

Booty: A Hero's Cutlass

Speaking of David Porter, Thomas Cochrane and Jack Aubrey, as we were on Wednesday, I thought it only fitting to introduce you to the kind of cutlass that the former would most probably have carried. Porter’s handsome sword would, sorry to say to the British Brethren, have made the other two pea green with envy.


Pictured above is the now very rare but in its heyday surprisingly ubiquitous “Baltimore pattern” naval cutlass. This sturdy and gorgeous piece of steel was the go to sword for naval officers from 1804 on. The one shown above is in the collection of our mate Mike over at The Pirate’s Lair. According to their website, it was acquired by them from the Drechsler Collection; prior to that it was in the possession of Samuel Kaplin.

The Baltimore cutlass was developed in the fledgling U.S. from designs popular in both Britain and France, but with improvements that proved very worthwhile. One of these was the so called figure eight handle made of metal rather than wood, to better protect the user’s hand. Some grips were of turned wood, usually oak, covered with metal. These would probably have been made custom for well to do officers. Men like Porter, who had known the life of a foremast Jack, would have carried the standard issue weapon, at least early in their careers.

Another improvement was the blade. Earlier cutlasses which had one edge that was “false” while the other was sharp. In the case of the Baltimore pattern, both edges were sharp, making the cutlass twice as deadly. The point of the blade was also “clipped”. This point was sharper and less rounded, making stabbing as with an epee blade more effortless and, again, deadly.

Authentic Baltimore cutlasses are stamped, usually on the hilt, with the initials “US”. As noted over at The Pirate’s Lair, this is an indicator that the sword was indeed issued for military service. Of course, these types of cutlasses are very rare today. Most of those in private collections that are not family heirlooms turned up in or around Baltimore, thus the modern name. Baltimore was a central port for the U.S. up until the Civil War and may very well have been a common place to stage sales of surplus naval equipment from the late 18th century until the mid-19th. This may explain the concentration of surviving cutlasses in this area, but that is pure speculation on my part.

Having only ever fenced with an epee Musketeer-style myself, I would love to get my hands on one of these testosterone-fueled weapons. I can only imagine the satisfying – if gory – hacking that such a hefty, double-edged sword would afford. But, alas, my wallet is far lighter than my ambition. Should any of the Brethren have upwards of $16,000 U.S. to invest, however, Heritage Auctions has a Baltimore pattern cutlass fit for a Commodore available here.

Header: Baltimore pattern cutlass via The Pirate’s Lair website where you can find more pictures and links to more information about these swords

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Books: Curious Connections

I'm not one of those people who looks for links and conspiracies in everything they see, trying desperately to connect the unconnected dots of life and research to make some sort of sense out of nonsense. That’s just silly. But when there is a legitimate connection between things and/or people I find fascinating, I get genuinely excited. Today’s post is about one of those curious connections.


On February 1, 1780 David Porter Jr. was born in Boston. Porter’s father served in the Continental Navy. Two of Porter’s sons, David Farragut and David Dixon Porter, would go on to achieve greatness in the U.S. and Union navies. Porter himself was held prisoner in Tripoli during the Barbary Wars, was the first Commodore of the New Orleans Naval Station and, as captain of USS Essex, all but wiped out the British whaling industry in the South Pacific during the War of 1812. With all that success, Porter was an outspoken leader who was not well liked by his peers or superiors; his unfortunate propensity for speaking the truth made them skittish at best. After what he felt were unjustified reprimands following his pirate hunting success commanding the Mosquito Fleet out of Key West, Porter left the U.S. and took command of the fledgling Mexican navy. This operation would find but little success and Porter eventually returned to his natal country. He died in Turkey in 1843, where he was serving as U.S. Ambassador. He is buried in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Porter’s brilliant if unstable career is oddly mirrored by a well known seaman from the other side of the pond: Thomas Cochrane. Both found success and then vilification in their countries’ navies. Both moved on to command the maritime forces of rebellious Spanish colonies. And both returned to their countries to take up positions of state rather than turn back to the sea. The two men, according to their biographers, admired and envied one another, even exchanging correspondence on more than one occasion.

These facts in and of themselves stand as curious connections but, to my mind, it gets better. Enter the literary genius who was known as Patrick O’Brian.

O’Brian is often disdainful of Americans in general and the U.S. Navy in particular in his Aubrey/Maturin novels. Two of the nastier intelligencers in the series, Henry Johnson and Louisa Wogan, are from the U.S. Stephen’s beloved Diana is whisked from his grasp by the treacherous Johnson. Jack thinks so little of the U.S. Navy that he asks British women aboard HMS Java if they have been raped by the Americans after they capture the ship. These are just a few highlights. All that said, it is to David Porter – not Thomas Cochrane – that O’Brian turns for inspiration in more than one of his wonderful books.

Anthony Gary Brown addresses this point directly in The Patrick O’Brian Muster Book. Of The Far Side of the World he notes:

In this book O’Brian states his inspiration as the pursuit of USS Essex by HMS Phoebe in 1814; the American intent to disrupt the valuable British whaling trade was real enough, but O’Brian’s plot is almost entirely of his own invention (and Peter Weir’s version of it in his 2003 movie based on the book was largely that director’s own creation).

The pursuit and eventual destruction of Essex by Captain Hillyar’s Phoebe was one of the low points in Porter’s career, despite his huge success in the Great South Sea. He lost a number of officers and men in the battle at Valparaiso Harbor and only barely made it home in a leaky whaling vessel.

Brown also points out that the “battles between English and French surrogates at Moahu” in The Truelove (published as Clarissa Oakes in Britain) were most probably inspired by direct action on Porter’s part. In 1813 Porter and his crews assisted in a mĂȘlĂ©e between Typee and Happah tribesmen on the island of Nooaheevah in the Marquesas. The hope was to secure the island itself and eventually the entire chain under U.S. protection but the bloody action eventually came to nothing. Virtually the same situations – right down to a brutal slaughter of natives with cannon and a compliant lady companion for Captain Aubrey – are detailed in The Truelove. The similarities here are even more striking than they are in The Far Side of the World. The ultimate failure of Aubrey’s bid for British control of the island mirrors Porter’s experience.

O’Brian was not only a master story teller but an excellent researcher who knew that fact was usually more interesting than fiction, if told the right way. It’s not surprising that he saw the similarities between his larger-than-life hero Aubrey and David Porter, USN. For me personally, it remains one of those delightfully curious connections that keep me excited about history and literature and writing year after year.

Header: Master and Commander desktop via dutchtilt