Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Women at Sea: Looking After the Boys

Young men at sea, as we have discussed on more than one occasion, were ubiquitous. From the Royal Navy to the humble smuggler’s pirogue, a child or adolescent of six to sixteen was not at all an unusual sight. In most of the same cases, a woman or two might be aboard as well. Up until the second quarter of the 19th century, women at sea were almost as ubiquitous as boys. It stands to reason, then, that it would be expected that the women would look after the boys. Who better to stand in for their mothers, after all?


What is often forgotten is that, just as in our modern era, not every woman was “Mom material”. More than one would come aboard a man-of war as the gunner’s wife only to find that her new role required her to look after something she may not have a lot of experience with, namely children. Although popular history tends to believe that every family prior to the 1960s was crawling with rug rats and that birth control was unheard of, that was not the case. Some women were only children, had none of their own, or simply did not have the temperament to patiently learn the necessary basics of child rearing. What to do then when a group of two, five or even ten boys was suddenly looking to you to mend their clothes, comfort them in times of trouble and, in particular, tend to their illnesses? With no web search available and the ship’s surgeon, even if he were capable, busy with the mature men, the thinking woman turned to books.

According to some of those surgeons, particularly in the Royal Navy, the book of choice well into the 18th century was The Midwives Book. Jane Sharp originally offered her collective knowledge in 1671 and she was the first woman to publish such in English. Though the book’s focus is labor, childbirth and infant care, it is full of good advice on children’s health as well. Written in plain English, with none of the Latin jargoning that would mark later medical books by men, Sharp’s treatise would have been invaluable to anyone caring for mothers and children.

As a brief example, Mistress Sharp includes remedies for “Hiccough, or Hickets, or Huckets as they call it…” which she says children are “much vexed with”. She recommends dipping a feather in oil and putting it down the throat of the child to induce vomiting. Though this seems extreme to us – wouldn’t a glass of water serve everyone better? – it must be remembered that Sharp was writing in a time when purging and bloodletting were thought to cure fevers and diarrhea. The vomiting, though unpleasant, would indeed stop the spasms of the diaphragm that are the root cause of “hickets”.

Stomach troubles such as might occur from eating something that didn’t agree with him, could be calmed in a young man via a decoction of “Lavender, Fennel and Cummin seed” taken internally. Sharp also recommends soaking a warm piece of wool in olive oil and dill seed and using this much like a hot water bottle on the stomach to calm cramps.

For congestion, Sharp recommends oil of roses and “good Pomatum” applied directly to the inside of the nose. “Gummy eyes” should be washed with rosewater, while ears should be cleaned regularly with almond oil mixed with a drop of honey. All of these remedies have antiseptic qualities, particularly the honey. The pomatum, an ointment with a strong scent made from apple skins, would at least have helped to clear up a clogged nose much like our modern Vicks vaporub.

Some of Sharp’s most helpful advice also came in her recommendations on eliminating lice. Head and body lice would have been hard to control once introduced into a cramped environment like a ship at sea. Sharp notes the commonly held belief that children “are exceedingly prone to breed Lice more than men of age” and attacks the problem with this in mind. She recommends keeping heads and bodies as clean as possible including frequently combing the children’s hair. A lotion to stop the infestation should be made of “Birthwort, Lupines, Pine and Cypress leaves” boiled in water. This decoction should be added to oil of wormwood with ox gall and “quick brimstone” and then applied regularly. Both the oil and gall would help to kill live lice, with the brimstone finishing off the eggs. The herbs probably helped somewhat too. At the very least they made a potentially vile smelling ointment a little more pleasant.

There is so much more to investigate in The Midwives Book but we’ll stop here for now. Perhaps next time we can take a look at Mistress Sharp’s recommendations for labor and delivery, another occurrence that was much more frequent aboard ship than is commonly known. You can find Sharp’s groundbreaking work, edited by Elaine Hobby, online here or it is available from Oxford University Press.

Header: Midshipman by Thomas Rowlandson

Monday, January 30, 2012

History: Piracy Statutes of 1724 and Beyond

The British statute against piracy issued by the Crown in 1724 as an addendum to the nation’s civil law is one of the most far reaching pieces of legal action in history. The law, as it is presented in Johnson’s History of Pyrates effectively ended the so called Golden Age of piracy, leaving only pockets of plundering in out of the way places. A resurgence in freebooting would not occur until the late 18th century with the dawn of the age of privateering that began with the great American revolutions and ended when David Porter’s Mosquito Fleet put down the last of the “Caribbean” pirates.


You can find the statute as set down by Johnson online here. Over the course of a few recurring posts, I’d like to take a closer look at the points of law in the statute, and see how they have effect piracy and the battle against piracy over the course of almost three hundred years.

The first paragraph notes “Though Pyrates are called common Enemies, yet they are properly not to be term’d so.” Sighting Cicero, the law points out that only a group with an “ongoing Government or State” can be called an enemy and uses the example of the Barbary states, who should be afforded the “Solemnities of War, and the Rights of Legation.” It would be another hundred years before the combined forces of British, French, Dutch and U.S. navies put this point to the test in the Mediterranean and at last ended the predations of Barbary corsairs.

This principle was followed in dealing with pirates by almost every nation in the western world within just a few decades of the British statute. A pirate was not an enemy but a criminal; a rogue working under his own auspices and outside any law. This principle “of necessity” allowed privateering but set up a gray area in such ventures as well. “Unrecognized states” such as, at various points in history, Bolivar’s Grand Columbia, Mexican rebels, Texas, and others could have their privateers prosecuted and hanged as pirates because of their questionable status according to established nations. This was certainly the case with the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War.

This idea also, in an even deeper shade of gray, applied to the Laffite brothers Barataria operation. The brothers together, and Jean in particular, claimed Barataria was a sovereign state and therefore above the laws of piracy. Their ships were not engaged in criminal activity, they reasoned, but the taking of enemy ships. It is worth noting that, though the Laffites issued passports to those who wished to enter Barataria, they never went so far as to create their own letters of marque but used those issued from Cartagena, Caracas and Mexico.

The issue of enemy vs. criminal continues to create problems for modern navies battling pirates in Southeast Asia, the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere. The pirates claim they are freedom fighters from nations in revolt; the navies claim they are thugs. Iran’s recent protest against U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf is an excellent example of this ongoing issue.

This idea also applies in part on the issue of “Subjects in Enmity with the Crown of England”, mentioned a few paragraphs later. In this point of law, a foreigner whose country is at war with (in this case) England but is serving aboard a pirate ship run by a British national is not subject to prosecution as a criminal. Though the foreigner would still be tried for piracy, his proceeding would be under the auspices of Martial rather than Civil Law. This may appear to be splitting hairs but it certainly gives the foreigner an out that his mates would not have. Enemies of the state can be exchanged for prisoners of war or espionage.

All this legal jargon goes right out the window in paragraph number six:

If Pyracy be committed on the Ocean, and the Pyrates in the attempt be overcome, the Captors may, without any Solemnity of Condemnation, hang them up at the Main-Yard; if they are Brought to the next Port, & the Judge rejects the Tryal, or the Captors cannot wait for the Judge, without Peril or Loss, Justice may be done upon them by the Captors.

At this point the gloves are off and so are all bets. Those capturing pirates on the high seas may quite literally do with them as they please “without peril or loss”. Since just about every sovereign state with an Atlantic coast established similar piracy statutes by the mid-18th century, piracy was a very dangerous profession indeed. Even men that we think of now as legal privateers – John Paul Jones and Renato Beluche, for instance – could easily have been put to death “on the Ocean” under similar law.

That’s enough for today, I think. Next time, bribes, goods and when ransacking a ship at anchor is – and isn’t – piracy.

Header: 19th century engraving of a pirate via gutenberg.org

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Around the Horn

January 29, 1616:  Dutchman Willem Cornelius Schouten and his colleague Jakob Le Maire "discover" Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America.  Schouten names the cape after his home town in Holland: Hoorn.

Header: Willem Cornelius Schouten, an engraving from his book on his adventures on the high seas, navigation and South America, among other things, c 1619

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Plain/Plane

Plane and plain when used at sea mainly reference navigation. Both words derive from a common Latin root: planus meaning level or flat. This connotation serves them well at sea but also makes their usages a bit confusing when you consider that our world is a globe.


Plain, of course, is a form of terrain and the opposite of mountain or hill. It may not be perfectly flat, but it is generally an open area with no more than fauna, berms or divets to obstruct forward progress. There is no “climbing” a plain.

By comparison plane does indicate a flat, level surface.

In ancient times, navigation often depended on what is now known as a plane-chart. This form of mapping supposes that the world is a level plane; in essence, flat. Needless to say such charts, though still produced, were out of favor with seamen by the dawn of the medieval period. Contrary to popular belief, it was hardly Columbus that “proved” the world round.

More progressive navigation was later done based on the all important meridian. This is an imaginary line at certain points on a chart or globe that bisects the Equator as it travels from one pole, through another and back around. Noon at any point on a map occurred at its meridian, and therefore in sailing points directly north and south of that point shared the same time of day. Since “calling noon” began a ship’s day, knowing the meridian was a powerful tool not only in navigation but in keeping precious order, especially in blue water. The meridian transits of planets and stars were also an aid to navigation. It is from the marine use of meridians that we get our abbreviation for before and after noon: A.M. being ante meridiem and P.M. being post meridiem.

Plane sailing is a term that those who have read nautical fiction may be familiar with. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it was a euphemism for anything simple, easy to understand or impossible to mess up. Plane sailing was – and to some degree still is – a form of navigation that Admiral Smyth describes as:

That part of navigation which treats a ship’s course as an angle, and the distance, difference of latitude, and easting or westing, as the sides of a right-angled triangle. The easting and westing are called departure.

This is a general way to gage a ship’s direction that will suffer in accuracy with even the slightest bit of foul weather or wind. It was by and large the go-to form of navigation, along with dead reckoning, for centuries of sailing.

I hope that’s plain to one and all. Far winds and safe to your port of call, Brethren; I’ll raise a mug o’ grog to you sooner than later.

Header: 18th century Spanish map of the Americas, showing the established meridian lines

Friday, January 27, 2012

Booty: Not Just a Job

Of course sailing is one of Triple P’s favorite subjects. There is truly nothing as exhilarating as being aboard a ship with fair weather above, favorable wind in the sails and a following sea. If she’s chasing a prize, so much the better. It goes without saying that you all share that passion or you wouldn’t be here now. So when I saw that the Historical Seaport in Grays Harbor, Washington is offering the chance to sail aboard not one but two tall ships as a paid crew member, I figured I had no choice but to pass the news on to the Brethren.


The beautiful Lady Washington and her sister Hawaiian Chieftain are in need of a First Mate, and a cook. The First and Slushy would sail aboard both tall ships, participating in the frequent mock battles and pirate cruises that have made the ships so popular up and down the west coast of the U.S. Full details and how to apply are available here at the Historical Seaport’s blog.

Even if you don’t plan to apply, click over and follow the blog for updates on events and fundraisers, as well as beautiful pictures of these two wonderful ships. The Historic Seaport is keeping our seafaring heritage alive with a little help, I hasten to add, from our mates Blue Lou and the lovely Zane. That is something to cheer for.

Header: Fan photo by Bob Jensen via the Historical Seaport blog

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Point Her Rudder

One of my favorite reference books on the Great Age of Sail is Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s The Seaman’s Friend: A Treatise on Practical Seamanship. Though most people are familiar with Dana’s seminal work Two Years Before the Mast which is really required reading for anyone studying sailing in the first half of the 19th century, The Seaman’s Friend is a far more instructive piece. Full of everything from use of sails to ship’s articles to ways of making and tying rope and cable, the book is invaluable to researchers and writers alike. It stands to reason that when researching the appropriate use of rudders, I reached for Dana.


The rudder of a ship is, it goes without saying to the Brethren, the piece that directs her. Sizeable ships, usually of brig size or larger, worked their rudders through the use of a series of cables connected to a wheel. The famous picture of a ship’s gleaming wooden and brass wheel is iconic, but the icon in and of itself is often mistaken. Smaller vessels such as sloops, schooners and pirogues – those favored by pirates, privateers and smugglers – controlled their rudder through the use of the more straight forward tiller.

Dana’s take on the workings of a ship’s rudder is so pure in its description and no-nonsense in its language that my paraphrasing it would be criminal. Besides which, I can wrap my head around how a rudder works and use one without going astray but the intricacies of steering a sailing ship can be difficult to put on paper. Unless you happen to be a genius at such things, as Dana surely was. Here then, from Chapter 10 “General Principles of Working a Ship” in The Seaman’s Friend, a few paragraphs on the all important rudder:

A ship is acted upon principally by the rudder and sails. When the rudder is fore-and-aft, that is, on a line with the keel, the water runs by it, and it has no effect upon the ship’s direction. When it is changed from a right line to one side or the other, the water strikes against it, and forces the stern in an opposite direction. For instance, if the helm is put to the starboard, the rudder is put off the line of the keel, to port. This sends the stern off to starboard and, of course, the ship turning on her centre of gravity, her head goes in an opposite direction, to port. If the helm is put to port, the reverse will follow, and the ship’s head will turn off her course to starboard. Therefore the helm is always put in the opposite direction from that in which the ship’s head is to be moved.

Moving the rudder from a right line has the effect of deadening a ship’s way more or less, according as it is put at a greater or less angle with the keel. A ship should therefore be so balanced by her sails that a slight change of her helm may answer the purpose.

If a vessel is going astern, and the rudder is turned off from the line of the keel, the water, striking against the back of the rudder, pushes the stern off in the same direction in which the rudder is turned. For instance, if sternway is on her, and the helm is put to the starboard, the rudder turns to port, the water forces the stern in the same direction, and the ship’s head goes off to starboard. Therefore, when sternway is on the vessel, put the helm in the same direction in which the head is to be turned.

A current or tide running astern, that is when the ship’s head is toward it, will have the same effect on the rudder as if the ship were going ahead; and when it runs forward, it will be the same as thought the ship were going astern.

Sternway is, of course, the opposite of headway; an action whereby the ship is moving backwards instead of forwards. Thus the need to change the way in which the rudder is handled.

If you’ve an interest in Dana’s comprehensive work, The Seaman’s Friend is available online at the California Digital Library and in plain old cover-to-cover book form from Dover Publications.

Header: Cover of the 1997 addition of Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s The Seaman’s Friend

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

People: Fly in the Ointment

Today's Golden Age pirate is famous, not for plunder, seamanship, or success, but because of his actions prior to his execution. He is mentioned briefly in Captain Johnson’s History of Pyrates, dwelled on at length in Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations and written about by Cotton Mather. As is so often the case, we know next to nothing about William Fly’s background, but his death made a splash that resonates into our own time.


Fly, according to Johnson, was born to “very obscure parents” probably around the turn of the 17th to the 18th century. By 1726 he was bosun aboard Captain John Green’s brig Elizabeth headed out from New England for the coast of West Africa. Many who have written about Fly assume that Elizabeth was one of those ships involved in the so called “triangle trade” carrying rum to Africa where it would be traded for slaves. There is nothing specific in the record to confirm this, but it is certainly a possibility. What we do know for sure is that Elizabeth was involved in some sort of merchant endeavor and that Green did not run a happy ship.

Before the ship left for blue water to cross the Atlantic, Fly and his captain were butting heads. At his trial, and even before, Fly complained bitterly of the “bad usage” suffered under Captain Green by him and his mates. Fly’s comments are in line with the classic argument as to why merchant seamen turned pirate. Small crews, low wages, grueling schedules, unreasonable discipline, poor food and a host of other trials sent men over the edge to desertion, mutiny and even murder.

Fed up from virtually the start of Elizabeth’s cruise, William Fly organized a mutiny. One night in the spring of 1726, he and fellow crewman Alexander Mitchell pulled Captain Green out of his cot, dragged him up on deck and subjected him to a beating. When he was half-unconscious, they and others tossed Green over the ship’s side. Still prepared to fight for his life, Green caught part of the rigging and held on tight. One of the mutineers grabbed an ax, several of which would have been kept handy to cut away rigging in foul weather, and chopped off his captain’s hand. The first mate, Thomas Jenkins, followed the captain over the side. The final target of the men’s ire, an unnamed surgeon, was spared as “they might find him useful”. He was shackled in bilboes instead.

Fly was quickly chosen as the new captain of Elizabeth. He immediately changed her name to Fame’s Revenge and he and his men set out a-pirating. They took five prizes in all and each one appears to have been a poorly laden merchant. Fly made it his signature move to torture or in other ways punish the captains he took hostage. He notoriously whipped Captain John Fulker of the John & Hannah so viciously that the man nearly died.

It seems that William Fly was no more popular as captain than Green had been. A group of his men, possibly those pressed into service from prize vessels, rose up and took Fly’s ship. They turned it over to the authorities of Boston in June of 1726. Fly and a dozen of his crew were incarcerated and set to be tried for piracy and murder on the high seas.

At this point, the notorious Puritan minister Cotton Mather enters the picture. Sent by the judge in the case to exact confessions and guide penitence in the pirates, Mather ran into a man that he himself called “a most uncommon and amazing instance of impenitence and stupidity and what spectacles of obduration the wicked will be” in William Fly. Mather writes that, when confronted with the crimes of mutiny and murder, Fly would, no pun intended, fly into an uncontrollable rage. At one point the pirate ranted that he “… would not own myself guilty of any murder, our captain and his mate used us barbarously…” While Fly does not list specific actions, he laments that “… poor men can’t have justice done us…” no matter how badly they are treated by their nominal betters.

Fly continued his obduration straight up until his conviction and execution. While others convicted with him stood on the gallows and “preached” to the crowd – as Mather had hoped – the ills of drink and rebellion, Fly did exactly the opposite. He came to face death with a “smiling aspect” and eyed the crowd “unconcerned”.

Fly even went so far as to chastise the hangman for “not understanding his trade” and stepped forward to retie the noose with which he would be killed. He then addressed the crowd as he had Reverend Mather, saying frankly that he had “wronged no man”. He went on to say that he wanted those who commanded vessels to “… take warning by the fate of [our] captain… and to pay sailors their wages when due, and to treat them better”. It was an ominous warning from a man who had taken the ultimate step in eliminating his tormenter and was facing death because of it.

Some writers and historians, notably Rediker, have used Fly as an example of the underlying reason for piracy as a life pursuit. In this scenario, William Fly and his fellows stand as anti-heroes bucking the “barbarous” establishment. As this post at Executed Today puts it “… the radical doomed sphere of resistance pirates offered to the enormous cruelty of the developing Atlantic economy…” To my mind, this is overstating the case. From Barbary to the buccaneers, through the Golden Age and into the last days of the privateers, most of the men who went out seeking prizes on the high seas were no more freedom fighters than modern day drug dealers. They were in it for the simple reward of cash. While some men may have had good intentions, it is important to note that Fly’s short career as a sea captain turned out to be no more glorious than that of the commander he killed.

Fly’s body and those of his compatriots were gibbeted on the little island in Boston Harbor known as Nix’s Mate as a “warning to other seamen”. To this day, stories of strange lights around the island – particularly on summer nights – lead some to believe that his ghost still haunts the rocky outcropping. While that, too, is probably overstating the case it is a possibility worth imagining.

Header: Engraving from The Pirate's Own Book

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ships: Tragic Queen

In the epic Greek poem The Aeneid, Queen Dido of Carthage is the tragic love of the hero Aeneas’ life. Dido’s name in Greek was Elissa and today’s focus is on the ship that shares her name, as well as an equally heart wrenching tragedy.


Elissa is a 620 ton three-masted barque who currently calls the port of Galveston in Texas home. She was built in Aberdeen, Scotland and launched in October of 1877, a fact that started out with sad potential. The beautiful merchant sailer was sent to sea just as steamships were coming into their own. Elissa, despite her swift running and fine lines, would never truly rule the waves.

She sailed under Scottish, Norwegian and Swedish colors until finally docking at a salvage yard in Greece where she was set for the scrappers. Through a minor miracle, she was discovered by the Galveston Historical Foundation who saw in her the type of ship that brought goods into their port from around the world. Galveston, of course, has a long history of piracy and privateering that began with Louis Aury and grew to illicit success under the mastery of the Laffite brothers. From the 1820s, Galveston became a haven for gambling and other forms a debauch; a reputation that led her to be christened “The Little Big Easy.” And throughout, ships like Elissa came and went and came back again.

The Historical Foundation purchased her for $40,000 in1975 and did extensive refitting, particularly on her iron and steel hull. Masts of Oregon pine replaced her old timbers, sails were shipped in from Maine and her teak and fir deck and gunnels were lovingly restored. She was re-launched in 1982 and has since become a National Historic Landmark. She is the “official” tall ship of Galveston and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Elissa is inspected by the Coast Guard every two and a half years for seaworthiness. Her last inspection in the summer of 2011 turned up a heartbreaking surprise. Her hull was rotten and so close to rotting through that the Coast Guard declared her unseaworthy. Since Elissa is maintained on donations by volunteers, the $3 million dollars to repair her hull is a staggering expense that is not readily obtainable out of hand. As this article from the Houston Chronicle notes, the Texas Seaport Museum immediately began fundraising. The hope is to have Elissa back in sailing form this year.

Of course, tragedy is unavoidable and is part and parcel of the long history of the sea. Triple P will keep the wish for Elissa’s full recovery close to our hearts, and keep the Brethren informed as her journey continues.

Header: Elissa by Don Scafidi via her official website

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Falkland Crisis

January 22, 1771: After what would come to be known as the Falkland Crisis, a stand off between Spain and Britain over the tiny islands off the coast of Argentina, Spain cedes the islands to Britain.  The Falklands, originally claimed by France, would eventually become part of the independent country of Argentina, but not without another crisis involving Britain.

Header: Edward Hawke, the First Lord of the Admiralty who sent the Royal Navy to the Falklands against Spain, via Military Photos (note: this site has some pictures that may not be suitable for all ages and/or sensibilities; go ask your parents before you click, kids)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Furl

When we use words like furl, furling or unfurl, we generally think of a flag or flags. While flags were unfurled at sea – although far less frequently than in the popular imagination – these words refer more often to controlling the bounty of a ship’s fair sails.


To furl is to roll and tie a sail evenly on its yard. This is a far more treacherous occupation in high winds than one might imagine, as more than one scene in well done movies (Captain Blood, Master and Commander etc.) has shown. In such cases, when dirty weather is current or threatening, the men are often set to what is called furling. Here, the sail is rolled close to its yard or stay by hauling on the lines. A cord is then wound over the full length of the rolled sail keeping it even more secure.

For furling, the line used was known as a furling-line from at least the 16th century. By the late 18th century, it was more commonly referred to as a gasket or en Fran├žais garcette (a word which is, curiously, feminine). This is a long, flat cord the use of which Admiral Smyth discusses in The Sailor’s Word Book thus:

In bad weather, with a weak crew, the top-sail is brought under control by passing the top-mast studding sail halliards round and round all, from the yard-arm to the bunt; then furling is less dangerous.

Obviously, the ship is dealing with very extreme weather in such a case. It is important to note that by using the word “weak”, the Admiral is indicating a ship short on able hands.

Conversely, furling in a body is a way of storing topsails used only in port. This is done by gathering the loose parts of the sails into the top of their respective masts. This is the opposite, essentially, of common furling or “furling in the bunt” done at sea. When sails have been furled in a body they can be covered with tarps and essentially stored in situ, thus keeping them free from vermin and molds.

So ends another etymological foray. May your furling be only common and in fair winds, Brethren. Happy Saturday to you and your mates!

Header: Engraving of hands furling sails via Cindy Vallar’s History of Maritime Piracy

Friday, January 20, 2012

Booty: A Curious Coastline

I have a fascination for old charts and maps of coastal areas, which is probably no surprise to any of the Brethren. When long-time Triple P supporter Dwight sent me this brief article from io9, I thought it worth looking into and subsequently well worth sharing. Particularly since what you are looking at is intended to represent my home state, Alaska, and much or the Pacific Northwest.


The above map is from French philosphe Denis Diderot’s 1772 masterwork, the Encyclopedie. Diderot was one of the founding thinkers of the Enlightenment, a thorn in the Catholic Church’s side and a general Renaissance man. His Encyclopedie is available here online.

The enormous work included maps from all around the world, including this one which over at Frank Jacobs’ Strange Maps blog calls an “eclectic mix of geographic fact and fiction.” As Jacobs notes, the soft edged portions of coastline are a cartographer’s code for areas that have not yet been subjected to the arduous and in that era dangerous process of sounding. In such cases, a ship or ships had not yet been sent to the area to sail the coastlines and document each inlet, bay and islet over a course of months or even years. The mapmaker was simply giving his best guesstimate based on the rest of the known world.

This particular map differs from others of its era that were simply place keepers until further exploration could be done in that it identifies and charts a much wished for but mythological river, of sorts. If you click the picture to enlarge (or go to the hi-res link in the io9 article) you will note the strait that exits the Baye d’Hudson and flows into the Pacific with an outlet just above the word Amerique. That is what was known then as the Strait of Anian and would later be called the Northwest Passage. Clearly the mapmaker was perpetuating a fable that could never – and would never – be charted because it did not exist.

For all his genius, poor Diderot unknowingly perpetuated a scam that would lead to the unfortunate and unnecessary deaths of hundreds of men before Europeans finally gave up the search in the mid-19th century. As funny as this “half-baked Alaska” is, there is a bit of tragedy behind it as well.

Header: Pacific Coast map from Diderot’s Encyclopedie c 1772

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Barometer Basics

Barometers were an important part of keeping track of weather aboard ship in the days before international GPS and other forecasters of potential trouble. When I was young, we had a barometer that as it turns out was more about looks than function. It hung nicely on the off-white walls of what ever house or apartment we happened to be occupying, three clock-like faces announcing simple weather events like “Rain”, “Sun”, “Winds” or “Change”. Little did I know how effectively useless that wood-and-brass showpiece was.


Working barometers tend to look more like thermometers than clocks, with the liquid mercury falling or rising according to the effects of wind or humidity; or both. As Peter H. Spectre wisely notes in A Mariner’s Miscellany, the words and even the number the hand on modern, decorative barometers is pointing to should be ignored all together. “What you are interested in is the rate and direction of change in the barometer readings.”

Here, then, is a by no means all inclusive list of the general changes one might see in a functional barometer and what they indicate:

When the barometer rises, keep these factors in mind: a rise with southerly winds is a sign of fine weather. If the rise comes with winds from the north, note the air and temperature; dry, cold air will portend better weather on the way, particularly in summer, while humid air with cool temperatures is a sign of windy rain. A gradual rise in the barometer usually means the weather will stay steady; a rapid rise means change – and possibly lots of it – on the way.

For a falling barometer, the same types of modifiers apply. Increased humidity and heat is a good indicator of weather coming up from the south. If in the cooler months the air is dry and cold when the barometer falls, snow is on the way. A falling barometer after a lengthy calm spells rain and possible gales, particularly if the air is warm. If the winds are from the north as the barometer falls, plan on rain or hail in the summer, and snow or sleet in the winter. A rapidly falling barometer is a sure sign of a storm.

When the barometer is steady, fair weather can usually be counted on; this in particular if the air temperature is appropriate for the latitude and season.

Keep in mind that all wind directions are for the Northern Hemisphere, and should be reversed when in the Southern.

As noted, these are simply a few points to keep in mind. For more in depth information about seafaring tools and the nautical life in general, Spectre’s book (and his annual Book of Days series) is an invaluable resource.

Header: Weymouth Bay by John Constable c 1817

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Women at Sea: Whaling Wife

Plundering the sea of its bounty is something humans have always been good at, and one of the high – or low depending on your perspective – points of such enterprise was the British and American whaling fleets of the 19th century. In a factory-like process that was both arduous and deadly, men harvested whales in the Great South Sea for oil and baleen. Occasionally, women were aboard these ships to. Sometimes they were disguised as men, like Georgiana Leonard aka George Weldon. Other times they were on board as the “decent” wives of officers, most usually captains.


Such was the case with Mary Brewster, who sailed aboard her husband’s whaling vessel Tiger and kept a journal of her adventures between 1845 and 1851. Her voice is resonant even these many years later as she speaks, in the most ladylike manner, of weather, food and her worries for her husband, his ship and the crew. Today, an excerpt from the page of Mrs. Brewster’s journal dated January 22, 1846:

Great excitement on board during the forenoon. Some one raised a sunfish. It being calm a boat was lowered to strike it. The succeeded in killing and after much labor got it to the ship. The shape is more round than other ways which makes hard towing, going round more than advancing. The boat got alongside with it and it being good size all hands was called to help get it over the ship sides. Such a time and noise. Had it been a whale they could not have appeared more elated. It was not all taken. Part of it was cut off and threw overboard. The part which came in I saw and it looked very little like a fish. We had some of it cooked for supper. I took a piece as I wish to know how good it was in taste. It resembled our lobsters. The meat is very white but coarse. Had I never seen the fish perhaps it would have tasted better, but seeing it was sufficient to produce contrary feelings. The oil of the liver is said to be good for Rhumatism.

The sunfish in question was probably of the type known as mola mola or ocean sunfish. It is, as you can see here, not the most attractive creature and certainly something Mrs. Brewster had not had prior contact with.

If you are curious about Mary Brewster and her fascinating journals, which we will revisit from time to time, Joan Druett’s book on the subject is available online.

Header: Daguerreotype of Mary Brewster via the Mystic Seaport Historical Society

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Cape St. Vincent

January 16, 1780: A Royal Navy fleet under Admiral George Rodney defeated a Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent, Portugal.

Header: The Battle of Cape St. Vincent by Francis Holman c 1780

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Sound

Today's word, as it relates to the sea and seafaring, comes from and Anglo-Saxon root: sund. This, according to Webster’s, is also the root of our word meaning healthy, as in sound mind and body. Apparently the word had two either separate or interchangeable meanings for the Anglo-Saxon. One was, as noted, healthy, and the other was swimming or – more specifically – a place to swim. Perhaps for our far northern ancestors, health and swimming were so closely linked as to be easily identified with one word.


A sound is a body of water with three sides bordered by land and the fourth fed by the sea. Another less frequent definition is a deep bay skirted by reefs or banks. For the most part, a sound will be composed of salt water and have different levels of bottom from shallow to deep. This makes the sounds around any large land mass perfect for taking soundings.

Sounding is the physical process used to determine the depth of the sea at any given point or points. This was done in routinely by use of a lead line which would be dropped overboard to the bottom of the ocean, inlet, sound and so on, if possible. Tallow would be stuck to the lead in order to determine the makeup of the sea floor, this being considered also part of the sounding. Thus these bits of bottom, whether sand, shell, ooze, etc. are sometimes referred to as soundings.

To be in soundings, a ship would be close enough to land that the lead would consistently touch the bottom. As The Sailor’s Word Book notes, deep-sea leads may touch bottom at surprising depth so being in soundings was understood colloquially to refer to sailing in water with a depth of 80 to 100 fathoms or less.

Along those lines, places in the blue ocean where the deep-sea lead could not find the bottom were referred to as soundless. These were places that our ancestors imagined to be “bottomless” as they had no knowledge of the vast canyons that lurked below the hulls of their wooden worlds. Or, for that matter, the creepy creatures that inhabit such eternal darkness; beyond be monsters, indeed.

The sounding line, along with its attached lead (pronounced “led”), is a very ancient tool. The Romans used it before the Empire; the Anglo-Saxons called it a sund-gyrd.

A similar tool, for use exclusively aboard ship, is a sounding rod. This was an iron rod with markings of feet and inches which was let down into the bilge or well of a ship via a groove in the pump. The result was a measurement of standing water in the well, from which a decision could be made about manning the pump.

In whaling, the term sounding was also used to indicate the vertical dive of a whale after it was struck. The assumption was that the whale would strike bottom – probably rarely the case in fact – and that such a dive would let out approximately four coils or 2,000 feet of the whale-line attached to the harpoon.

I hope this Saturday finds you and yours sound, Brethren. Enjoy, and a mug of grog to one and all!

Header: Moonlight by J.M.W. Turner c 1797

Friday, January 13, 2012

Booty: For Sale: One Pirate Ship

If you’re like me, you have dreamed of owning, and in particular sailing, a fully-rigged, accurate-to-every-detail replica of your favorite pirate ship. Some may wish for Drake’s Golden Hinde, others might long for Black Bart Roberts’ Revenge, Sam Bellamy’s Whydah or Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. Or is a privateer more to your liking; John Paul Jones’ Bonhomme Richard, or a handsome frigate like the dear Surprise perhaps? For me the dream will always be Renato Beluche’s brig General Bolivar, the quintessential Gulf privateer.


Dreams like this are a wonderful way to pass a quiet moment but, for most of us at least, they will remain as formless as the ether. For those of you who are in all seriousness, though, there is a ship in the style of Henry Morgan’s Oxford currently available for sale.

As this listing at Maritime Sales online indicates, the ship is a 90 foot, Santa Maria style galleon complete with kitchen, bathrooms, electricity and a diesel engine. It is outfitted as our seafaring ancestors could never have imagined. Her commission is out of Honduras and according to the listing she can comfortably float 78 hands; pirates not included.

Clearly this is the ultimate fantasy. Her lines are unfortunately wide and her below decks look more like a summer camp cabin than a proper place to hang a cot. I’d hate to be in one of those beds in a high sea; in fact, I’m sure no one would be in them for long. But that’s not the point. This is like owning a floating bed and breakfast, and it can all be yours for the reduced price of $750,000 U.S.

Something to contemplate on this, the first of three Friday 13s in 2012.

Header: Pirate ship via maritimesales.com (click the link above for more pictures)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ships: USS Anchorage

As the Brethren are aware, Triple P rarely dwells on the modern aspects of ships and shipping. There is so much rich history to be explored that it would be a maddening preoccupation to try to keep up with modern navies around the world, especially since none of the big ones are privateering anymore. Once in a while, though, a story of our times will catch my eye and I want to share it with you all. In today’s case, the story merges where I currently live, my ancestral home, and my family’s naval lineage. Now that’s worth investigating!


In May of last year the San Antonio-class amphibious transport U.S. Navy vessel Anchorage was launched at Ingall’s Shipbuilding Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans, Louisiana where she was built. Christened for the largest city in the state of Alaska, she is the second United States Ship to bare the name. The original was launched in 1966 and decommissioned in 2003 after 19 deployments including service in Operation Enduring Freedom.

The new ship, no doubt due to her name, caught the attention of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (to whom I owe thanks for the use of the photo at the header). The Senator wisely saw an opportunity to welcome the Navy, absent in our state since the closing of the Adak Naval Air Station in the ‘90s, back to Alaska. She wrote to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and, as Alaska Business Monthly online puts it, “encourag[ed] him to have the Navy commission USS Anchorage… in Anchorage once it completes its sea trials." From Senator Murkowski’s letter:

Alaskan hospitality is legendary. It is well known through the Armed Forces that no people support our men and women in uniform more enthusiastically than the people of Alaska. … the commissioning ceremony presents the Navy with an important opportunity to reintroduce itself to the people of Alaska. … we remain hopeful that we will be able to welcome the Navy back to Alaska as the U.S. presence in the Arctic develops.

On January 9, Senator Murkowski and her counterpart, Senator Mark Begich, announced that USS Anchorage will be commissioned in its namesake city. The ship is set to arrived in early fall with the commissioning to take place in September or October.

For me, this event is a wonderful full circle of serendipity. From New Orleans to Anchorage comes the ship, via a very round about course no doubt, just like me. She comes all the way from a place that embraces its seafaring history and military presence to another that does the same. It’s thrilling to imagine; I can’t wait to see her in all her glory right here in her adoptive hometown. Thanks go out to the First Mate, by the way, for the ahoy on this story; and if this post seems vaguely self-indulgent, perhaps it is. Yesterday’s was Triple P’s 800th post, and that seems worth a bit of indulgence to me.

For more information on Avondale Shipyard, recently purchased by Ingall’s Shipbuilding, click here.

Header: USS Anchorage via Alaska Business Monthly

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

People: "A Blood-thirste Piratte"

Spanish pirates are not often heard of in the record of the Golden Age. Though Spanish buccaneers were not uncommon, with most of them preying on their foreign Brethren rather than merchants of other countries, they seem to have become almost extinct after the turn of the 18th century. Of course this is probably a simple issue of record; certainly there were as many Spaniards who went a-pirating as men from any other nation. Most freebooters, it must be remembered, slipped into oblivion as far as history is concerned. We can’t all grow up to be Blackbeard.


That is why one brief entry in Philip Gosse’s The Pirate’s Who’s Who is so very tantalizing. The two paragraphs tell the story of the probable grisly demise of a Spanish “piratte” named Antonio Mendoza, and reading the purported original record can lead to some curious speculations on why and when a man might be branded a villain of the waves.

Mendoza is said to be from the island of Hispaniola. There is no reference to ships or a history of freebooting, but only a paragraph from “a very interesting document” which Gosse claims was discovered on the island of St. Kitts by Alpheus Hyatt Verrill.

Verrill was an adventurer, naturalist, explorer and author, among other things, who wrote extensively in genres from anthropology to science fiction. He was also involved in a number of archaeological digs in the Caribbean. Theodore Roosevelt once said that it was “… my friend Verrill here, who really put the West Indies on the map.” While many who came before might disagree with Teddy, Verrill’s experiences certainly make him a creditable source for the information Gosse offers.

That information is in the form of an English indictment against one Antonio Mendoza from the year 1701. It reads as follows (note that the English here is updated to the best of my ability for the convenience of the reader; should you care to read “ye olde originalle”, Gosse’s book is available online here).

An assize and general gaol delivery held at St. Christophers Colony from the nineteenth day of May to the 22nd day of the same month 1701 Captain Josias Pendringhame Magistrate etc. The jury of our Sovereign Lord the King do present Antonio Mendoza of Hispaniola and a subject of the King of Spain for that the said on or about the 11 day of April 1701 feloniously deliberately and maliciously and in contrary to the laws of Almighty God and our Sovereign Lord the King did in his cups saucily and arrogantly speak of the Governor and Lord the King and by force and arms into the tavern of John Wilkes Esq. did enter and there did horrible swear and curse and did feloniously use threatening words and did strike and cut most murderously several subjects of our Sovereign Lord the King. Of which indictment he pleads not guilty but one present Master Samuel Dunscombe mariner did swear that said Antonio Mendoza was of his knowledge a bloodthirsty pirate and guilty of diabolical practices and the Grand Inquest finding it true bill to be tried by God and the Country which brings a jury of 12 men sworn find him guilty and for the same he be adjudged to be carried to the Fort Prison to have both his ears cut close by his head and be burned through the tongue with a hot iron and to be cast chained in the dungeon to await the pleasure of God and Our Sovereign Lord the King.

It is curious, or telling, that at no point in the indictment is Mendoza himself referred to as a seaman. It is only the testimony of “Samuel Dunscombe mariner” that puts Mendoza plundering on the high seas. Aside from that, the Spaniard’s only crimes appear to be drunkenness, ill-advised language and a bar fight. The question that arises, at least for me, is how many men “in their cups” were fingered as pirates so that the law could take them in hand and subject them to what can only be called ghastly torture?

What became of Antonio Mendoza of Hispaniola is lost to history. It is not hard to imagine his possible death in the dungeon at Fort Prison, however. One hopes that it was quick given what he had to suffer beforehand.

Header: Brimstone Hill Fortress on St. Kitts via Wikipedia

Monday, January 9, 2012

Home Ports: At the Lizard

The rocky coast of Cornwall in Britain is pitted with inlets and harbors tailor made for piratical activity. None, it seems, more so than the harbor known as Falmouth at whose entrance stands the rock called the Lizard.


The name “lizard” is most probably a corruption of the original Cornish name for the place Lys Ardh which may mean “high court” or “old court”. The rock now has a lighthouse upon it which is absolutely necessary given the surrounding coastline. The over a mile stretch known as the Manacles sits beyond the Lizard. Here hull-tearing rocks lurk just below the water, and horrible tidal shifts make it impossible for a ship, once caught in the jaws of the Manacles, to set itself free. Shipwrecks causing the loss of hundreds of lives have been documented in this area since before the 18th century.

Given these awkward conditions, one might imagine that the boom in smuggling that began during the reign of Henry VIII would have avoided Falmouth. Just the opposite was the case. In the last half of the 16th century the Killigrew family, led by Sir John who was hereditary governor of the county of Pendennis, began a lucrative smuggling business that included the taking of both foreign and domestic merchant ships. Sir John’s wife, Mary, got so deep into the less gentile aspects of piracy that she may have committed murder in an effort to take a prize. She spent over two years in prison on this charge before her son, the second Sir John, successfully petitioned Elizabeth I for his mother’s freedom.

The freebooting at Pendennis settled down for a while but, after Mary’s death in 1617, Sir John the Younger seems to have gotten back into the family business. In 1619, at the expense of lesser nobles in thrall to him, Sir John erected the first light at the Lizard. Ostensibly an altruistic offering to help ships avoid the rock itself and the Manacles beyond, local gossip said the governor had erected the light to lure ships into Falmouth where he could then plunder them at will. There is no documentation that such was the case, however. Unlike his mother, Sir John was never brought up on charges. Either he was on the up and up, or he was slyer than she.

The entire enterprise fell apart when King James I, always hungry for cash, informed Sir John that he would confiscate the light for Britain and begin charging vessels to pass it. Sir John, rather than turn his clearly profitable light over to the feds, demolished it instead. James reaction to this is open to speculation but another lighthouse was not erected until1751 by then governor of Pendennis Thomas Fonnereau.

This light still stands at the Lizard, virtually unchanged from the time of its erection. The Lizard’s brief brush with piracy came and went but the light initially put up by Sir John Killigrew continues to shepherd ships around and away from the heinous jaws of the Manacles off Britain’s Cornwall.

Header: Lizard Point, Cornwall via Wikipedia

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: On Battery Number 3

... artillery could be decisive, and the Baratarians manning Battery Number 3 with their three cannon could speak with a voice far greater than their numbers.

Indeed they did.  On January 8 the British launched their attack, and almost from the first it became apparent that everything was against them.  Dense fog obscured their view of the Americans in their works behind the canal, while Jackson's artillery poured salvos into the mist and the British ranks.  Mismanagement at high levels exacerbated the Redcoats' problems, as did the fall of several high-ranking officers, including the British commanding general.  The enemy never even reached the American line, only a few men gaining the canal before being cut down or pushed back.  Within half an hour, two-thirds of the three thousand soldiers who began the attack had been killed or injured.  Though skirmishing continued for some hours afterward, the battle was over, and the Baratarian gunners had played an important role in breaking up the assault, with Dominique taking a second wound and Gambi shedding his blood as well.

~  from The Pirates Laffite by William C. Davis

Header: The Battle of New Orleans via Haysville Community Library

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Elevate

Generally speaking when using today’s word, a seaman is referring to the “great guns” aboard his ship. In navies around the world during the Great Age of Sail, exercising the gun crews was habitual among captains who were obsessed with not just accuracy but even more so timing. The faster guns could fire, reload and fire again the more likely a ship was to attain victory in a firefight. The Brethren will remember that very well done scene in Master and Commander where Jack Aubrey, if nothing else a fighting captain, is working his gun crews to the limit; and how well it pays off.


According to Webster, the word comes from three Latin roots. Elevatus, meaning to raise or lift up, and levare, to make light, or levis, light. This will become an important point as we go along; bear with me.

First, a few meanings not related to artillery. The elevated pole is either the terrestrial pole north or south, depending on the perspective of the individual or ship. In all cases, the elevated pole is the one which appears above the horizon. In ship building, an elevation is the vertical and longitudinal view of a vessel. This is the same as a sheer draught; the part of the design concerning height and length.

In gunnery, the angle of elevation is elegantly explained by the dear Admiral Smyth:

that which the axis of the bore makes with the plane of the horizon. It is attained by sinking the breech of the gun until its axis points above the object to be fired at, so that the shot may describe a curve somewhat similar to a parabola, counteracting the action of gravity during its flight, and alighting upon the mark.

This is a little bit of physics at which truly gifted artillerists, like our old friend Dominique Youx, excel. It is also the same principle that allows another truly gifted adoptive son of New Orleans to complete a pass with such accuracy and elegance.

Finally, the order “Elevate!” is an artillery call signaling the gun crew to adjust the quoin of their weapon, not just up necessarily but perhaps down depending on the need. This may speak to the Latin root word levare, to make light; repositioning the quoin is sometimes said to “lighten” it, thus the possible reference. Given tomorrow’s auspicious anniversary, I feel compelled to note that many an historian has referred to Andrew Jackson’s “malapropism” at the Battle of New Orleans when he called out: “Elevate them cannons a little lower!” This was, in fact, no goofy error on the part of the General, but an absolutely correct artillery order. Aside from grammar, which one imagines was the last of Old Hickory’s worries at the time, Jackson’s order was perfectly understandable to every gun crew within earshot.

Happy Saturday, Brethren; and Geaux Saints!

Header: The Battle of New Orleans by E. Percy Moran c 1910 via Library of Congress

Friday, January 6, 2012

Booty: Laffite's House

New Orleans is alive with legends of past glory. Embelishing the truth is an old Creole talent, so why not spice things up with a few extra – if patently untrue – details? These stories are just one of the many charms of La Nouvelle Orleans. In that vein, and speaking of the Laffite brothers as we were yesterday, here is another interesting point of legend vs. reality.


Of all the places that claim a Laffite connection, from those of ancient origin (Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop) to those that have jumped on the bandwagon more recently (“Jean Lafitte’s” Old Absinthe House) only one, it seems, has a legitimate, historical claim. That is the three story Creole town house located at 1003 Bourbon Street and now known as Lafitte Guest House.

The building is mentioned briefly in the 1936 publication Walking Tours of Old New Orleans by Stanley Clisby Arthur. He states that the current building (pictured above) was built by P. J. Gleisses in 1849; a “comparatively recent construction”, Arthur notes. It is now split up into 14 elegantly furnished guest rooms and, according to Lonely Planet, will run you from $190 per night including breakfast. Find more information at the Guest House website.

Given that the house itself was built in the mid-19th century, it seems a Laffite association would be tenuous at best, but in fact looks can be deceiving. According to endnote number 37 to Chapter 14 of William C. Davis’ The Pirates Laffite, the lot has an impeccable bond to both of the brothers. From the book:

where today stands the Lafitte Guest House at 1003 Bourbon Street, Laffite residence is confirmed by Marie [Louise} Villard’s August 16, 1816 purchase. The association of the Laffites with her and the property, even if one does not assume that Pierre bought it for her in their placage arrangement, is confirmed three years later after she sold and then repurchased it in 1819, paying in part with a promissory note guaranteed by Jean Laffite

As Davis notes Marie Louise “Louison”, a quadroon in a placage living arrangement with Pierre Laffite and mother of seven of his children, had a sibling, Catherine “Catiche” Villard. Catherine lived with her sister – possibly at this location – when she gave birth to Jean Laffite’s son Jean Pierre in 1816. None of the other so-called “Lafitte” locations have anywhere near that kind of authentic pedigree.

As a curious aside the Guest House is said to be haunted by a little girl who died of yellow fever there some time in the late 19th century. The girl is known to locals as “Marie”.

The hotel was put up for sale in 2009 and I could not find any information about whether or not it has a new owner as yet. If anyone knows anything more, please leave a comment s’il vous plait.

On a final tenuously related note, today marks the anniversary of the birth of Saint Jeanne d’Arc, the Maid of Orleans. May she smile on the New as well as the original.

Header: Modern photo of Lafitte Guest House via their website

Thursday, January 5, 2012

History: The Battle of New Orleans and the Brothers Laffite

Sunday marks the 197th anniversary of the decisive battle fought on Chalmette plain that ended the War of 1812. We refer to the Battle of New Orleans as occurring on January 8, but in fact skirmishes, feints and brutal gore took place for almost a three week period beginning before December 21 and ending with a definitive surrender by the British on or around January 15. Unfortunately, most people today believe that the Battle of New Orleans was a futile waste of life, the Treaty of Ghent having been “signed” on December 24. As we’ve discussed before, the Treaty was not ratified by the U.S. Congress until after January 8. This was due to a clause ante bellum in the Treaty that would cede all territory occupied by the British on or after December 24th to their sovereignty. This included the areas in and around New Orleans.


But that piece of misinformation is just one of the many puzzling things to come out of one of America’s most easily forgotten “darkest hours”. So let’s pick another one to examine, and let’s keep it close to our seafaring hearts. May I suggest where the heck Pierre and Jean Laffite were over the course of those fateful three plus weeks?

At the Centennial of the battle, it was popular to attribute much of the victory to the combined efforts of one brilliant General and a rag-tag, polyglot group of local Louisianans, volunteers from Kentucky and Tennessee, enslaved and free blacks and, of course, pirates. The seamen of Barataria as a group and the Laffite brothers in particular were singled out as one of the most influential reasons for the victory. At that time, as was the case only a few years after the war, “the Laffite brothers” was translated in popular culture and imagination as “Jean Laffite.” The tide has turned now, with modern historians claiming that the Baratarians had little if any impact at Chalmette plain – William C. Davis, for instance, claims that only two percent of Jackson’s forces were actual Baratarians – and the brothers who commanded them had even less. I would argue that the truth is somewhere in between these two radically different opinions. But let us first examine what the experts have to say.

Lyle Saxon, who’s Lafitte the Pirate was first published in the late 1920s, is certainly the least reliable of our sources. His book is more storytelling than history and, although it is a wonderful read, it is full of the myths and legends about the Laffites – and Jean in particular – that are now so engrained in the popular imagination that they have become de-facto facts. Even so, his only comment on what the Laffites were up to amounts to no more than a paragraph explaining that “Pierre Lafitte was given a position of trust on [January 8]…” and Jean was in the Gulf, guarding against a “rear attack”. He goes on to defend Jean against the label of evading service, but he has nothing further to say on the matter.

In The Baratarians and the Battle of New Orleans, masterful historian Jane Lucas deGrummond argues that – as her title implies – those pirates from Grande Terre were a big part of Andrew Jackson’s victory on Rodriguez Canal. DeGrummond was a more than capable researcher who sighted sources religiously and argued with a very convincing voice. Still, in the thirty plus pages devoted to the three weeks of battle, she has nothing to say about any contribution made by the Laffites aside from them providing a significant amount of flints, shot and gunpowder to the effort.

Next we have Jack C. Ramsay, Jr. In Jean Laffite, Prince of Pirates, he devotes a full chapter to the Battle of New Orleans. Though his overview lacks the detail of deGrummond’s, it is concise enough. This makes the omission of any specific action by the Laffite brothers during the fighting particularly glaring. He brings them back to the fore of his narrative only at the end of the chapter, noting that General Jackson praised their “courage and fidelity” in his famous speech on January 21.

The definitive modern work on the Laffite brothers is William C. Davis’ The Pirates Laffite, and Davis puts a new spin on what the siblings were up to at Chalmette. The entire book, well researched and documented to be sure, is skewed toward Pierre. Davis is not an apologist but a sympathizer; he is clearly trying to return Pierre’s memory to our consciousness, it having been overshadowed by Jean’s for almost 200 years. It is a commendable endeavor to be sure but it has a fatal flaw: wherever there is ambiguity in the record as to which Laffite a document or memoire is referring to, Davis gives the nod to Pierre.

So it is that Davis presents us with Pierre not only as close, personal advisor to Andrew Jackson but as tracker for General John Coffee in the swamp beyond Rodriguez Canal. Late in the battle of January 8 he is a commander of men, sent with General Humbert to assist General Daniel Morgan on the west bank of the Mississippi. Pierre even delivers a speech to Morgan’s men, penned by Jackson himself. Meanwhile Jean, whose mission to General Reynolds at Little Lake Barataria is well documented by orders written in Jackson’s hand, is skulking around Grande Terre and presumably up to no good. Davis mentions that Jackson’s orders of December 22 required Jean to return to Chalmette as quickly as possible but then seems to toss that fact out the window. Like the proverbial baby with the bath water, he throws Jean back into the ignominy of evading service that Saxon once argued so vehemently against.

What then is the truth of the matter? Were the Baratarians a help or a hindrance, or of no consequence at all? And what of their leaders, the men who spelled their last name differently than any other “Lafitte” in Louisiana? As I said early, the truth must be somewhere in the middle.

The Baratarians were most effectual as artillerists, on Battery Number 3 in particular. These two twenty-four pound guns, commanded by Renato Beluche and Dominique Youx, were the bane of the British throughout the fighting. Also, most of the sailors aboard Commodore Patterson’s frigates Carolina and Louisiana were Baratarians; both ships bombarded British encampments on Chalmette with great success. The brothers themselves, aside from providing men and material, were certainly put to active duty if not directly on the line or aboard ship. Were the Laffite brothers heroes? Oh no. Were they at the battle with men they knew and called “brother”? Most definitely. Anything more specific than that is open to interpretation.

Header: Fredric March as Jean Laffite in The Buccaneer c 1938

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Seabird Messengers

Something we rarely hear about in the history of seafaring is the use of birds as carriers of information from ship to ship and from ship to shore. More people are familiar with the heroic actions of carrier pigeons by land in war time, particularly those used in Europe during World War I. As early as the 17th century, however, clever sailors devised ways to use seabirds as messengers.


An example of this was written about by Lieutenant Vaillant who was aboard HMS Ganges off Gibraltar in 1784 with a small squadron of other ships. He writes of the use of wild birds for signaling in this excerpt from his memoires:

The four vessels sailed in company; without losing sight of each other: and we even visited one another, when the weather was calm, and we could hoist out our boats. When this kind of intercourse was rendered impracticable by high winds and too stormy sea, we had recourse to another, that of mutually writing letters, of which the gulls and terns were carriers. These birds, beaten by the winds, and tired with their flight, would pitch upon our yards to rest themselves, where the sailors easily caught them. Having fastened our little epistles to their legs, we then let them fly: and, making a noise to prevent their alighting again on the vessel, obliged them to wing their course to the next. There they were caught again by the crew, and sent back to us in the same manner with answers to our letters.

Though this was certainly not a standard or even habitual way of getting information from one ship to another, it is an ingenious one. Although it is worth pointing out that it was a difficult service for the birds, no doubt.

Header: HMS Ganges (1856) via royalengineers.ca

Monday, January 2, 2012

Books: 21

Today is the twelfth anniversary of the much-mourned passing of one of nautical literature’s greatest sons: Patrick O’Brian. In honor of an occasion I remember the same way I do the anniversary of my own father’s death – coincidently, tomorrow – I offer the Brethren a bit of the master’s genius. An excerpt from O’Brian’s last Aubrey/Maturin novel, 21 The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey:


Very soon they had explored almost every part of the ship from the safer tops (propelled by Padeen and other seamen) to the echoing vaults of the darkened hold, where facetious midshipmen and first class volunteers would terrify them with sepulchral moans and waving sheets.


‘Dearest Stephen,’ said Sophie, passing him a cup of tea in the cabin. ‘I cannot tell you how glad I am that our daughters are friends again: there was a time when I almost despaired – when I should have whipped them if I had not thought it would do more harm than good. It only made me dogged when I was young.’


‘I cannot imagine you being whipped, Sophie,’ said Christine.


‘But I was, and quite often too. My mother would make us stand with our faces to the wall and whip the back of our legs with a thin sheaf of willow-wands. I do not think it ever improved my French verbs or arithmetic or even my manners.’


‘I knew some Dominican nuns who did that,’ said Stephen. ‘They whipped my Saavedra cousins until they bled: I had thought it was only Catholic. Jack hardly ever flogs: discourages it, indeed. How do you find him, my dear?’


‘Oh, very well, I thank you,’ said Sophie, blushing. ‘I must admit he is rather thinner than I could wish: but he does love having his flag, and I am so very, very happy for him. It was Prince William who sent the news, with his best compliments, which I thought wonderfully polite.’


The three little girls came in, since if there was tea there might also, in the nature of things, be cake, or at least muffin. On seeing Stephen they stopped, not looking very wise, and made a concerted bob: then Brigid ran over to him and said, ‘Oh sir, the Admiral says a Portuguee came in with the flood and he hopes there may be some mail. A boat pulled across to the flag not long since.’


‘I shall go upstairs – I shall go on deck, and ask whether it would be proper to enquire. Ladies, forgive me, I beg.’


No. It would be most improper. Jack was surprised that a man who had seen so much sea-time could suppose the thing possible or even decent – it was not exactly mutinous but it would deserve and certainly receive an exceptionally harsh reproach. But in any case Stephen was talking great nonsense. The Portuguese had been aboard Lord Leyton this hour and more and there had been no sign of mail – nothing handed up the side, no passing out of bags, no hurrying to and fro. No. The boat had done nothing more than deliver a gentleman, the gentleman in regimentals who was now walking up and down the quarterdeck with the Admiral arm in arm. ‘I have been staring at him with my glass, in this illbred fashion, for some little time,’ said Jack. ‘For although I think I know the face and the carriage I cannot put a name to either. Should you like to take a look?’


‘Sure, it is very ill-bred: but I might, to make you easy.’ Stephen took the telescope, focused it, and almost at once, as the two men on the far ship turned, he said coldly, ‘It is Henry Miller. He was at Trinity in my time and he killed Edward Taaffe in the Fifteen Acres when I was in my last year.’


‘Miller? Yes, of course, my neighbour over at Caxley. He must be related to the Admiral – Miller is Lord Leyton’s family name, and that person over there often spoke of a peerage going to some fairly close connexion. Cousin, of course: they would not be walking arm in arm, otherwise.’ After a pause Jack went on, ‘What do you mean by your Fifteen Acres?’


‘It is a space on the Phoenix Park – you know the great park in Dublin, I am sure?’ Jack nodded. ‘And that is where people go, particularly the young men of Trinity, to settle matters of honour.’


‘Just so: and he killed a gunner officer in Malta, too. He is said to be a very good shot; and he has capital pistols. I have heard him called Hair-Trigger Miller, and to be sure I have seen him bring down a great many pheasants.’


‘Would you say he was a quarrelsome man, at all?’


‘I scarcely know him. We are necessarily acquainted, but he is not the sort of man whose acquaintance I should value – in short, I do not like him. It is not the fighting. As you know, duels are much more usual in the army than with us, or even the Marines. And anyhow you and I have both been out from time to time… cannot top it the Holy Joe.’


Jack stared out over the water and went on. ‘For all I know he may be well enough liked in his regiment: but his reputation in the neighbourhood is so indifferent that I was astonished to learn that he had called on Edward and Christine when they settled in Medenham, and then at Woolcombe when Christine was staying there, with Edward so far in the north. I have no room to blackguard a man for incontinence, being no model myself: but there are limits… You know very well, Stephen, how much influence a man with a large household and a considerable estate can bring to bear on his dependents – his dependents’ daughters – and there were some very ugly tales of girls in child being turned away. I know very little: yet his conduct does seem to match with the general reprobation.’


‘He is not married, I take it?’


“No, nor ever has been. Being almost next in succession to the Leyton title, he is said to be saving himself up for some very brilliant match.’


‘Can you square a man’s valuing a peerage very highly with his going out and risking his life so often?’


‘Yes, if he is an unusually resentful unloved creature and at the same time an uncommon good shot.’

On a final note, 21 is an uncommon opportunity for writers to observe a true master of that craft at work. O’Brian’s original handwritten manuscript – a first draft no less – is included side by side with the typescript. Seeing how he edits as he writes is like watching Mozart scribble off a concerto. Brilliant!

Header: Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin and Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey from the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: A Look at Pepys

January 1, 1660: Samuel Pepys (pronounced "peeps"), who was at the time the first secretary to the British Admiralty, began his famous diary.  To keep up with Pepys diary, follow him here.

Header: Samuel Pepys by John Hayls via Wikimedia