Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Hatch

In a previous Tools of the Trade post we talked about closed quarters; a crew lying under hatches when their ship is boarded by an enemy to protect men, cargo and, to some degree, ship. But what of those hatches and hatchways; and just what is hatchelling anyway? How glad I am that you asked.


Hatchways, to begin at the beginning, are the openings in a ship’s deck that allow passage of men and goods (sometimes animals as well) up and down between decks. In a ship of frigate size or larger, three hatchways – fore, main and after – can be found on the main deck with others below depending on the design of the ship. Generally speaking the hatchway coverings are made of wood and are called hatches. There are also such things as hatchway nettings. These are sturdy rope nets placed over hatchways to allow for light and ventilation while still obstructing falls of men or objects to decks below. Hatchway nettings were more common in smaller ships – brigs, sloops and so on – in the Great Age of Sail but should not be discounted aboard any ship given the right circumstances.

Hatchway screens are pieces of heavy wool or fear-nought, sometimes purposefully soaked with water, that were put around the hatchways when preparing a ship for a firefight. These would screen the various decks from the black powder magazine, making an unthinkable fire or explosion potential more controllable. In an instance where “battening down the hatches” – such as the aforementioned closed quarters – was necessary, hatch bars would be used sealed most often with chain and padlocks. Hatchway rings were used to lift the hatches off the hatchway. The hatches were not, as is the case in many modern replicas, on hinges but free on all sides. This made them easily removed, despite their weight, by a few men employing the hatchway rings.

Gun brigs and bomb ketches were sometimes fitted with hatches instead of lower decks, forming what was known as a hatch deck. A hatch boat, a small craft that can also rightly be called a pilot boat, might have only one deck besides it hold composed entirely of hatches.

The term to lie under hatches, by the way, generally meant to stow something in the hold. However, it could also mean stowing away or, in the most extreme being gravely ill, in horrible circumstances, or even dead.

Then too, a once forgotten and recently remembered canine can be named Hatch.

Hatchet fashion is a combat term. A cutlass or saber might be used hatchet fashion to hack at an enemy as one might with an ax, rather than thrusting as with a foil or epee.

Finally, hatchelling is the process of preparing hemp for rope making. This is a word not often heard in seafaring today, but it would bring an air of authenticity to historical fiction touching on the nautical, I must say.

Happy Saturday once again, Brethren. May the sea be good to you, and may you may you never lie under hatches, except after a long and fulfilling life.

Header: The Pirates’ Cove by Montague Dawson

Friday, March 30, 2012

Booty: Bravest of the Brave

We've talked a lot about heroes lately; David Porter, Thomas Truxtun, USS Constellation; when dealing with our ancestors at sea the list is endless. Today, the story of a more modern hero whose name I cannot, unfortunately, find (please leave a comment if you know). The handsome gunner pictured above who served in the Royal Navy during World War II.


The picture was taken by Horace Bristol, a member of the RN’s photographers unit. He was in a plane rescuing Allied airman from Rabaul Bay in Papua New Guinea when he took this picture. Here is the brief description from Bristol himself:

we got a call to pick up an airman who was down in the Bay. The Japanese were shooting at him from the island, and when they saw us they started shooting at us. The man who was shot down was temporarily blinded, so one of our crew stripped off his clothes and jumped in to bring him aboard. He couldn’t have swum very well wearing his boots and clothes. As soon as we could, we took off. We weren’t waiting around for anybody to put on formal clothes. We were being shot at and wanted to get the hell out of there. The naked man got back into his position at his gun in the blister of the plane.

When a job needs doing, a guy like this just does it regardless of the circumstances. More often than not, unnamed heroes are the best kind. 

Picture by kind courtesy of Mid-Century via Perpetual Collapse and Miss Folly; many thanks one and all

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ships: America's Flagship

NOLA Navy Week is approaching fast, and in a curious coincidence (or if I am less humble a case of great minds thinking alike), the inimitable Edward Branley came out with an excellent piece on USS Wasp yesterday. That just as I was preparing this post on another ship in the United States Navy’s early fleet: USS Constellation. Though it does not appear that Constellation will be among the 10 tall ships featured at the event beginning April 17th, she is certainly among the brightest lights in navy history.


Constellation was named not for any group of stars in the sky but for the 13 stars in the blue canton of the first U.S. flag. She was the first of the navy’s original six frigates to be launched, on March 27, 1794, and the first to be commissioned. She also was the first ship to see action in the first war participated in by the U.S. as a country, and the first to take a prize. A lot of firsts, and that said without hyperbole.

In construction and size, Constellation did not differ vastly from her five sister frigates. She was heavy hulled, made of the white oak that could only be found in North America and that so confounded the United States’ enemies at sea. Fans of the movie Master and Commander will remember the discussions about “Yankee built” Acheron, with Tom Pullings remarking “you have to wonder about her hull.” Such was the case with most of the frigates that came out of the shipyards on America’s Atlantic coast at the time.

Constellation was built in Baltimore, displaced 1,265 tons, was 41 feet at her beam and 164 feet in length. She carried a compliment of 340 men and 36 guns. She was a fast sailer too; the crew of the French ship La Vengeance, whom she defeated in a 5 hour firefight during the Quasi-War, nicknamed her “Yankee Racehorse.”

Thomas Truxtun, a leading light in the new navy, was Constellation’s first commander and he whipped her crew into shape immediately. Truxtun was a veteran of the Continental Navy and he held dear the Royal Navy traditions of honor, conduct, gunnery and – where necessary – discipline. He expected great things of himself, his crew and his ship, and all delivered.

Truxtun and Constellation won the first battle in the United States’ so called Quasi-War with France. The war began in 1798 and was almost exclusively engaged with issues of free trade on the high seas. On February 9, 1799, Constellation defeated and captured the frigate L’Insurgente, said to be the best sailer in the French navy. Coincidently, yesterday’s subject, brilliant naval leader David Porter, was aboard Constellation as a Midshipman at the time.

Constellation continued her successes, serving admirably in both Barbary Wars and the War of 1812. In 1840 she circumnavigated the globe, and became the first U.S. ship to enter ports in China. Here she helped to facilitate the tea trade that would see clipper ships following in her wake for decades to come.

Back home, time was beginning to tell. Constellation was now almost 60 years old and an overhaul was out of the question. She was broken up, but some of her timbers were used to build a sloop of war in 1854. Given the same name, this ship saw action not only in war but in humanitarian efforts as well.

In the 1859, Constellation was put on the West African station where she was tasked with intercepting slave ships, freeing the people therein and breaking up the African slave trade. The History Channel has an excellent documentary available on Constellation’s West African mission. After service as a Union vessel in the Civil War, she was sent to Ireland with humanitarian aid for those stricken by the famine. You can read more about that at the Naval History Blog.

Sloop of war Constellation was eventually used exclusively as a training ship and she is now permanently docked in Baltimore where she is a maritime museum. A subsequent aircraft carrier, port of call San Diego, was also named Constellation.

The true flag ship of the original U.S. Navy thus lives on, not only in memory but in service as well. As President Ronald Reagan told her crew in 1981: “Let friend and foe alike know that America has the muscle to back up its words, and ships like this and men like you are that muscle… you are America’s Flagship.”

Header: USS Constellation by Antoine Roux c 1805

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

People: Death of a Hero

March 28, 1843: David Porter, first Commodore of the New Orleans naval station, hero of the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812, pirate hunter and first Admiral of the Mexican Navy, died at Pera near Constantinople, Turkey, where he was serving as U.S. minister.  He is buried in Philadelphia.

War-doom'd the wide expanse to plow,
Of ocean with a single prow,
Midst hosts of foes with lynx's eye
And lion fang close hovering by.
You, Porter, dared the dangerous course,
Without a home, without resource.
Save that which heroes always find,
In nautical skill and power of mind;
Save where your stars in conquest shone,
And stripes made wealth of foes your own.
~ from Ode to David Porter

Header: 19th c engraving of Porter's monument via Lossing's Field Book of the War of 1812 online

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

History: Piracy Statutes of 1724 and Beyond Part Deux

Back in January we talked about the British statute against piracy issued by the Crown in 1724. As noted then, these laws have had a huge effect on the way piracy is dealt with – as a legal issue – around the world. Even into modern times the laws still apply, if slightly corrected for modern sensibilities (there can be no more hanging at the yardarm, for instance).


Though the laws when read through from beginning to end make perfect sense, there are contradictions. This is particularly true in the issue of when prize goods might be considered legally taken and when the taking of material from a ship is tantamount to theft. All this, of course, outside legally sanctioned privateering. Let us then look at the five paragraphs that deal with the taking of booty, and try to sort them out.

If Merchandize be delivered to a Master, to carry to one Port and he carries it to another, & sells and disposes of it, this is not Felony; but if, after unlading it at the first Port, he retakes it, it is Pyracy.

Here, the statute is taking into account natural and economic hardships. Bad weather might prevent a ship from dropping anchor in a designated port, driving her crew to put her in farther afield. If her cargo can be disposed of for a reasonable profit in this second port, nothing has been done wrong legal speaking. Likewise, if the buyer or buyers in the agreed upon port of sale are no longer able to make a transaction for the goods in a ship’s hold, her captain may legally move on and find a place where a deal can be done.

As often happened, though, goods could be moved from ship to ship and then retaken in an act of piracy. Also, a particularly rich cargo may prove too tempting for captain and crew, and a raid on land might be staged to take it back. Both would fall under the umbrella of piracy. What is not specifically addressed, perhaps curiously, is the simple act of running off with a cargo and selling it abroad. This may speak to the point of Britain’s wide reach as an Empire at the time the statutes were written more than anything else.

If a Pyrate attack a Ship, & the Master for Redemption gives his Oath to pay a Sum of Money, tho’ there be nothing taken, yet is it Pyracy by the Law Marine.

In this case the statute is addressing ransoms, either for goods, the ship itself, or passengers. Regardless of the item or person in question, demanding ransom on the high seas is the same as piracy under the law.

If a ship is riding at Anchor, & the Mariners all ashore, and a Pyrate attack her, and rob her, this is Pyracy.

As we have seen on more than one occasion, this point of the statute was often taken to extremes. A man – or woman for that matter – could hang simply for wading out into the filthy water of the Thames and stealing food from a boat. A loaf of bread in hand and muck on your bare feet suddenly turned you into a “dread pyrate.”

If a Man commit Pyracy upon the Subjects of any Prince, or Republick, (though in Amity with us), and brings the Goods into England, & sells them in a Market Overt, the same shall bind, and the Owners are for ever excluded.

Being that the ship or ships raided by a freebooting Englishman are not English, the Crown is willing to be a little wishy-washy on this point of piracy. The sale of goods is spoken of only in a “Market Overt”; a public, legal market. There is no mention of smuggling or black market trade. And although the Crown may prosecute for piracy, the “foreign” owners are “for ever excluded.”

If a Pyrate enters a Port of this Kingdom, and robs a Ship at Anchor there, it is not Pyracy, because not done Super Altum Mare; but is Robbery at common Law, because infra Corpus Comitatus. A Pardon of all Felonies does not extend to Pyracy, but the same ought to be especially named.

For the finale, and in legal jargon that would make any modern big name lawyer rub their hands together with glee, that “pyrate” who wandered out into the Thames is no longer a pirate, but a thief. Thus, he – or she – would have the option to pay with cash rather than their life. Here, the statutes protect the “gentlemen” pirates and smugglers in perhaps the most blatant way possible. Only a wealthy freebooter would have the kind of cash necessary to pay someone for finding, and arguing, this loophole. To mix metaphors and borrow from Hugo, the Jean Valjean who simply needed to feed his family would still find himself put to hard labor. And he would still be called a pirate for his trouble.

Header: Engraving of Henley on Thames c 1820

Monday, March 26, 2012

People: The Curious Captain Condent

Christopher Condent is a name that gets tossed around a fair amount when discussing the Golden Age of Piracy. Condent, apparently another native of that great breeding ground of sailors, Devon, has his story told with the same consistency we find in tales of bigger names like Blackbeard, Roberts and Morgan. From Charles Ellms to Philip Gosse, all the high points in Condent’s life are hit consistently. Does this mean that they all occurred as they have come down to us? No, but it certainly makes them a bit more creditable.


In The Pirate’s Who’s Who, Philip Gosse does not give a date of birth for Condent. As he was quartermaster aboard a New York merchant when Governor Woodes Rogers sailed into New Providence in 1718, it is probably safe to place his natal year some time in the 1690s. It is a consistent point in Condent’s story, regardless of who is telling it, that his anonymous captain saw fit to hightail it out of the Bahamas when privateer-turned-pirate-hunter Rogers showed up. This is probably a good indication that the New York “merchant” was already a practicing pirate at the time.

According to Gosse and Ellms, the ship was not a happy one. A Native American aboard her had been mistreated by other crew members and, in his rage, decided to take his revenge by blowing up the ship. The sloop had a fair amount of black powder aboard – another good but not altogether telling indication of piratical activity. The injured sailor locked himself in the powder magazine with intent to ignite the powder and blow up the ship. Condent took it upon himself to curtail the man’s plans, jumping into the hold through a hatch and dispatching the malcontent with a pistol shot to the face.

The rest of the crew, still obviously harboring a grudge, hacked the man’s body to pieces. Both Goss and Ellms tell us that the gunner went so far as to remove the man’s heart from his chest cavity, boil or roast it and serve it up for supper. This consistently retold vignette has a curious ring of truth if for no other reason than it is never thoroughly explained. Why eat a man’s heart? The answer, one imagines, might be why not.

After this bloody episode morale seems to continue to flag aboard the merchant-cum-pirate. An English prize, Duke of York, is taken in the Atlantic and a dispute over something to do with it splits the crew down the middle. The captain and his faction take the prize and sail away, while the remaining crewmen elect Condent their new captain.

Condent sets a course for the Cape Verde Islands and manages to take a number of small ships from the “salt fleet”. Next he is cruising near the island of St. Jago where he takes a Dutch ship. He likes this vessel more than his old sloop and trades up, naming her Flying Dragon and hoisting a black flag decorated with three skulls and crossed bones.

Heading back to the New World, Condent begins cruising off Brazil, taking Portuguese ships and torturing their crews. His ruthlessness earns him a reputation but he is clever enough to continue taking prizes in the area by pretending to be a harmless and friendly English merchant. Eventually his tactics earn him a firefight with a Portuguese warship, and Gosse tells us that Flying Dragon is lucky to escape.

Condent sets a course for the Indian Ocean and arrives at the island of Johanna near Madagascar. Here he runs into the former crew of Captain John Halsey who died in 1716. These men were probably happy to join Condent, and Flying Dragon proceeded to take more than one East Indiaman, using the nearby Ile Sainte-Marie as a base of operations.

It appears that the greatest prize of Condent’s piratical career was a galley carrying the Viceroy of Goa. What became of the official is not mentioned, but Gosse indicates that Condent and company took their prize to Zanzibar where “they plundered her of a large amount of money.”

Back home on Sainte-Marie, Condent seems to have second thoughts about piracy. He pays off his men, some of whom chose to settle on the island. Condent and a few others petition the French Governor on Mauritius for a pardon. The Governor is amenable as long as the pirates will break up their ship when they arrive on his island. This they do and they are allowed to settle down. Christopher Condent, now on the straight and narrow, courts and marries the Governor’s sister-in-law.

“A few years later,” Gosse says in summing up his entry on Condent. “The captain and his wife left the island and sailed to France, settling at Saint Malo, where Condent drove a considerable trade as a merchant.”

A rare and curiously happy ending to the story of another brutal freebooter.

Header: Replica of Christopher Condent’s flag via Black Flag Trading Co.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Another Arrival

March 25, 1634: A mixed group of Catholic and Protestant Englishmen, led by Father Andrew White, disembark from the ships Ark and Dove on St. Clement's Island in what is now the state of Maryland.  Puritans from the Boston area will later try to revoke these settlers charter in order to remove anyone not practicing their religion from the Atlantic seaboard.  This will lead to a brief civil war between the colonists, which will end in 1655 with the Toleration Act passed by Governor William Stone.

Header: Boats in Port by Andre Lhote c 1918 via Old Paint

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Z

Words that start with the last letter in the English alphabet are not all that numerous at sea. The Sailor’s Word Book lists a mere 21, and some of those are either referring to land-based military action, types of fish or have no description at all aside from “see …” Removing these we are left with only 15 words in all; barely two handfuls. But if we dig about in the etymology barrel, we find that the very letter itself has a military background which fits in nicely aboard a man-of-war… or a trireme. Thus today, in a departure from the usual, let us explore those dear 15 words that begin with Z.


Some of the words have come to the English language from other climes. A zafar is a coil of Spanish rope. A zechino is an Italian coin, while a zechin (sequin in Venice) is a coin from Turkey. Zumbra is a kind of yawl or skiff seen on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Zopissa is pitch scraped from the bottoms of aging ships which old salts used on ulcers as a curative. It is also a word for a kind of varnish used in ancient Greece and Rome for not only making ships water-tight but also sealing things like food containers and crypts.

A ship is said to be on a zig-zag course when she is working to windward on short tacks, a difficult and arduous way of sailing.

In navigation, the zenith is the pole of the horizon or the area of the sky directly above the ship. When the sun has reached its zenith, it is time to call noon and begin the ship’s day in the log. Geographical zones constitute longitudinal belts wrapping around the globe including the torrid zone between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, the temperate zones just above and below the torrid zone, and the frigid zones at the polar ends of the globe.

Zephyr is the name of the west wind as designated by Greek mythology. Aboard ship it is often the word of choice for any delightful and welcome breeze.

Admiral Smyth includes an entry for the word zeal, which is so well written as to necessitate a quote:

A quality essentially requisite in forming the character of an efficient officer, since it comprehends ardour for the services, prompt obedience to orders, cheerful disposition, and a studious application to professional science.

There would never have been a hell afloat if all officers were possessed of such zeal.

Finally, in Bill Brohaugh’s delightful book Unfortunate English: The Gloomy Truth Behind the Words You Use, he discusses Z the letter as a stand-alone entry:

Our modern alphabet traces back through Latin and Etruscan and Greek to Phoenician. Phoenician letters symbolized some everyday concepts, such as ox, house, water, and fence… All well and good until we get to zayin, the ancestor of Z. The letter zayin symbolizes “weapon” or “sword.”

So Z was once a tool for cutting down an enemy, something every pirate among us is very familiar with.

With that, I wish all the Brethren a pleasant Saturday and soft zephyrs to steer your zumbra back to shore.

Header: On the Thames by Eugene Lawrence Vail

Friday, March 23, 2012

Booty: Chantey Time

Are you currently or will you be in the Seattle, Washington, USA area next month?  Are you a seafaring lad or lass with a passable singing voice?  Would you like to learn to chantey like a master?  Then you need to be at the Willapa Seaport Museum in Raymond, WA on Saturday, April 21st for Sea Chantey Camp.  The Camp will be run by Gray's Harbor Historic Seaport Authority Executive Director Captain Lee Bolton and shantyman Hank Cramer and looks to be full of not only song and sea but history as well.

Details are available here at The Historic Seaport Blog.  This is a daylong event promises fun for the whole family.  How I wish I could be there.  If any of the Brethren do attend, please stop by and let us all know how much you enjoyed it (I'm looking at you, Lou Logan).

Happy Friday, Brethren!  Keep singing; it makes the work a little easier.

Header: Fan photo of the Hawaiian Chieftain in San Francisco Bay via The Historic Seaport Blog

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Women at Sea: "When A Child is Ready to Be Born"

We've spoken about women aboard ship giving birth before, history showing us that it was not as unusual an occurrence as the Victorians would have us believe. We’ve also touched on the great help that Jane Sharp’s 17th century publication The Midwives Book must have been to those women at sea. Combining the two becomes an exercise in understanding just how much intrinsic knowledge our “uneducated” female ancestors really had.


While it must be admitted that women do not always go into labor at the most convenient times – David Cordingly mentions a case during the Battle of the Nile where a purser’s wife almost literally dropped her child on the gun deck as she was helping to carrying water to the gun crews – trying to hurry things along can do more harm than good. Sharp is very clear in her chapter on labor and delivery that midwives should not “force” the process. She speaks of breaking “the waters” with sharp fingernails and giving “harsh” tonics to speed up the process as uncalled for. Sharp even compares the outcome of such procedures to torture:

there is great care and skill to be used, or the woman were as good be set upon the Rack.

Sharp makes clear that the “waters” should break of their own accord, but “if the water break away long before the birth, it is safe to give medicaments to drive the birth…” Again, she is patient in her approach, advising first that the attendant massage the mother’s back with warmed “Oyl of Poppies, water Lillies or Violets”. In this case, Sharp is dealing with the Humeral theories proposed by Hypocrites through Galen, her concern being the “heat” of the kidneys. But the error in origin does not discount the treatment; massage with warm oil – particularly if infused with a mild narcotic such as tincture of poppy or water lily – would certainly alleviate a margin of the back pain experienced by laboring women.

Regular examination of the cervix, or “inward neck of the womb”, is also recommended by Sharp. She admonishes the midwife to “[anoint her hand] with fresh butter or oyl of sweet Almonds” before this procedure. If the infant’s head is present, then delivery is imminent. While Sharp does not designate time frames for regular re-examination, she is clear that this procedure should not be attempted prior to that natural “breaking of the waters.”

Sharp does not recommend that women in labor eat or drink much of anything. Again, this is a good rule of thumb that any modern obstetrician would agree with. For long labors, when a woman is losing her strength, warm broth or a “potched egg” with an “ounce of Cinnamon water to comfort her” is permitted. These recommendations assume the best of conditions, and stories of births at sea include the mother drinking grog or wine rather than water.

If things aren’t going as planned, however, priorities have to shift and Sharp gives more than one recipe to “hasten and ease delivery.” “Featherfew or Mugwort boil’d in white wine” are recommended, as are similar “sirrups” containing tansy, pennyroyal, dittany, betony, cinnamon and saffron. Many of these herbs would have been available at sea from surgeon and cook, and doubtless some of these “sirrups” stood by in the sick birth or a lady’s personal cabinet. Some of the herbs mentioned are well known to modern medicine; “featherfew” for instance is now lumped in with its cousin feverfew which is used in migraine treatments to relieve pain and nausea via its anti-inflammatory properties. Mugwort and pennyroyal can increase muscle contraction; tansy calms anxiety.

Of course the ultimate goal of the entire process is the health of both mother and child, and Sharp keeps this in mind throughout. The knowledge that she set down on paper had been passed from one woman to another and continued to be communicated up until the mid-19th century, when male doctors replaced the helping hands of midwives and friends. It is, perhaps, a curious coincidence that women were far less often aboard ship – other than as passengers – by that time as well. Speculating on any correlation between the two is probably useless, but the rediscovery of just how intrepid our distaff ancestors actually were is gratifying nonetheless.

Header: Taking Caudle by Richard Dagley c 1821 via Ancestry Images

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

History: The Second Sack of Cartagena

The city known as Cartagena de Indias located in modern Venezuela was one of the most heavily fortified ports on the Spanish Main by the mid-17th century. It was from here that Spain sent her treasure fleets off to Europe crammed with gold, silver and jewels from mines in the interior of South America. Since the giant treasure ships only sailed two or three times a year, most other European nations drooled at the thought of the stockpiles of wealth that must have accumulated behind the city’s stone walls.


War has always afforded the strong the opportunity to amass wealth, and when the War of the League of Augsberg sailed from Europe into Caribbean waters, the French had wealth on their mind. The conflict, which lasted a comparatively short nine years, pitted France against England, the Netherlands and Spain in particular. The French holdings in the West Indies rallied against their most formidable foes in the area, with Saint Dominique’s governor Jean Du Casse relying heavily on the aid of Petit Goave’s boucaniers.

Of course, French as well as English buccaneers had been terrorizing the Spanish Main for over 30 years by the time the war began. They had a clear strategy of raid, pillage and retreat that succeeded to the point that Spain’s ability to defend herself was breaking down. Refusing the right to legal trade with anyone but the mother country to her colonies meant that Spain’s towns and cities in the New World were poorly armed and often poorly manned as well. As Juan Perez de Guzman, who witnessed Henry Morgan’s raids on Central America, noted “[the Spaniard’s] firearms are few and bad, in comparison of those the enemy brought, for ours are Carbins, Harquebusses and Fowling pieces, but few Muskets.” On the other hand the French were well armed, and exceedingly expert, with the most up-to-date muskets available to them.

Any weakness should be exploited in war, and Louis XIV saw his chance to pounce on what could potentially be a windfall for not only France but for himself, personally. Accordingly, as Monsieur le Governeur Du Casse was handing out letters of marque to any buccaneer who cared to apply, the King sent a flotilla to Saint Domingue to ramp up for an all out siege of Cartagena.

The leader of this expedition was Baron Jean de Pointis, an Admiral who had seen action on the European front. He had ten men-of-war with him and, through the connections available to Du Casse, managed to enlist another seven ships captained and manned by freebooters. The Governor added his own squadron for a total of 30 ships and over 6,000 men.

Despite his initial hesitancy, the Admiral was convinced by Du Casse to enter into a written agreement with the buccaneers. This ensured them that any loot would be divided fairly, so that – as they suspected might occur – they would not do all the heavy lifting and be left with little or no reward. How satisfied the pirates were with the agreement remains unknown, but they sailed with de Pointis on April 13, 1689 bound for Cartagena.

The city stood on a head shore behind which were an exterior and an interior bay. The Boca Chica passage to the interior bay was heavily fortified but beyond that little if any artillery was available to guard the city’s back. Because of a lack of men and arms, the Spanish could not stop Admiral de Pointis’ entire fleet from breeching Boca Chica. Once he was behind the city, de Pointis began landing artillery and set up a bombardment that lasted six days. On May 6, Cartagena succumbed to the superior firepower of the invaders.

The Admiral and Governor du Casse met with city leaders and, unbeknownst to the buccaneers, agreed to a ransom that amounted to only about half of the wealth available in Cartagena at the time. De Pointis turned his marines on the buccaneers, keeping them in line as booty was loaded onto the French men-of-war. By May 29, de Pointis was ready to set sail after handing over what he felt was a “fair share” to the seven pirate captains.

There certainly must have been protests to both de Pointis and Du Casse, but neither seems to have responded with anything satisfactory. The Admiral and the Governor boarded their ships and departed for Saint Dominique. But the buccaneers, who felt cheated beyond reason, had other plans.

The pirates re-entered Cartagena who, in her weakened state, could hardly defend herself. The men went on a rampage, torturing, looting and killing with the kind of blood-lust that only occurs when people are truly angry. By mid-June the rage of the buccaneers had burned itself out. They took what booty they had managed to dig up and set sail for Petit Goave in Saint Dominique. They left Cartagena almost irreparably broken; it would be another ten years before her reputation as a cultural and financial hub would be restored.

Meanwhile, the Frenchmen got a bit of their own back at sea. Their ships were hit by a gale and, limping along the coast of Jamaica, they were overtaken by a small squadron of English vessels. Five of the buccaneer’s ships were taken as prizes and their Cartagenan wealth ended up lining the coffers of the Governor of Jamaica.

The only winners in the entire affair were Admiral de Pointis, who managed to wrest most of Governor Du Casses’ share of the wealth away from him on a technicality, and of course the Sun King, Louis XIV. Though Louis did return a portion of what he had accumulated to Du Casse and the buccaneers, it hardly made up for their losses.

The sack of Cartagena, which on every level was a miserable tragedy, sounded the death knell of the buccaneers. Within ten years the Golden Age of Piracy would dawn and a whole different breed of seafaring freebooters would emerge more interested in prizes on the water than booty on shore.

Header: The Sack of Cartagena by Howard Pyle

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Pirates Own Book: When Charles Ellms Met Henry Avery

Most of the stories told of our favorite pirates have trouble at the beginning. No one is really sure where the gentleman rover in question came from. What is more certain is the grisly death met by the dread fellow; from Bartholomew Roberts to Jean Laffite, from Francois L’Olonnais to Thomas Tew, spilled blood and guts come before the end of the story. In other it must be said less frequent cases, the pirate in question fades from history never to be seen or heard from again. From Christopher Condent to that fiction about the Laffite brothers, they simply stop being pirates and “blend in”. Henry Avery was among those “lost to history”, but Charles Ellms tells us that was not at all the case.


In The Pirates Own Book, Ellms begins his chapter on Avery with the usual story of the Captain’s exceeding wealth and marriage to the Great Mogul’s daughter thanks to his capture of one of the ruler’s treasure ships. Ellms quickly sets us straight, however, by informing us that Avery was “… actually starving without a shilling” at the time of his death.

Ellms then launches into the usual routine. Avery was born in Devonshire, he tells us, and went to sea in merchant ships at an early age. Avery was mate aboard the vessel of Captain Gibson when, in 1715, he began to foment mutiny among his fellows. He clearly had the itch to go a-pirating and the rest of the crew, according to Ellms, was just as eager. Gibson was fond of the bottle and one night when he was sleeping off a drunk, Avery and his men cut the ship’s cable and headed out from Corunna in the West Indies. When Gibson awoke, Avery informed him that he had taken over the ship. “You must know that I am captain of this ship now, and this is my cabin, therefore you must walk out; I am bound for Madagascar, with a design of making my own fortune, and that of all the brave fellows joined with me.”

Gibson decides against joining Avery, and is set on shore with a small group of like-minded sailors.

Once in the waters around Madagascar, Avery recruits the captains of two armed sloops to join him in his pirating venture. They form a little flotilla and take a galley of the aforementioned Mogul in the Indian Ocean. The ship is bound for Mecca where the Mogul’s daughter is making a pilgrimage, and it is packed to the gunnels with more riches than can reasonably be imagined. As Ellms points out: “It is a well known fact that people of the east travel with great magnificence…”

Avery and his cohorts plunder the ship of all its wealth and the ship limped home to India where the Mogul immediately protested to the British government. “The noise which this made over all Europe,” Ellms says, “gave birth to the rumors that were circulating concerning Avery’s greatness.”

Meanwhile, Avery was duping the two captains of those sloops out of their share of the Mogul’s treasure. Through assurances of his own ship’s superior sailing and fighting power, he led these captains to understand that their booty would be better off aboard him. When they agreed and transferred their wealth, Avery sailed for the West Indies under cover of night, leaving the unfortunate captains behind.

Convincing his men that their wealth would now allow them to live like kings ashore, Avery first considered settling at New Providence. He then moved on to Boston but was concerned that he would not be able to sell the gems of the Great Mogul without raising suspicions. He sailed for Ireland and eventually ended up in Brideford, Devonshire, according to Ellms.

At this point, most historians agree that further information on what became of Avery is unattainable, but Charles begs to differ. In a wonderful plot twist – which the reader has to hope wasn’t true – he has Avery casting about Devonshire trying to sell his cache of diamonds. “When he unbosomed himself to [a speculator] and other pretended friends,” these men, posing as merchants, assured Avery that they could sell his treasure for the highest possible price. Leaving a deposit with former pirate, they took the diamonds and disappeared with no intention of returning. As Ellms so eloquently puts it: “… the merchants thus proving themselves as good pirates on land as [Avery] was at sea.”

The end of this story is poignant in the extreme. Avery sets out for Ireland in search of the con men. Having no luck, he is reduced to walking home to Brideford from Plymouth. “He had been there but a few days, when he fell sick and died; not being worth so much as would buy him a coffin!”

Thus the man once known as Long Ben and “the Arch Pyrate” ended up buried in a paupers’ field in Devonshire. Or so Charles Ellms tells us.

Header: Captain Avery receiving the three chests of Treasure on board his Ship from The Pirates Own Book

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: A Costly Loss

March 18, 1781: Continental Navy sloop-of-war Saratoga was lost with all hands in dirty weather off the Bahamas.

Header: CN sloop Providence by W. Nowland Van Powell via Naval History

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Saint

Oh, there’s never a saint around when you need one and rarely can a saint be found aboard us. That said, and today being Saint Patrick’s Day, let us look at a few uses for the word saint at sea.


In the north of England, the eider duck of the Farne Islands is known as St. Cuthbert’s duck. Butler’s Lives of the Patron Saints does not list St. Cuthbert, but one has to imagine he had a seafaring bent. Or kept ducks, perhaps.

A popular saint reference is a weather dial at sea and at the sea shore. St. Swithin’s Day is July 15, and it was said that if it should rain on that day “not one of forty days following will be without a shower.” St. Swithin is also unfortunately absent from Butler’s, but Admiral Smyth tells us that he was a bishop.

Many navies, particularly those of Catholic countries, have patron saints. Many call upon the Virgin Mary whose aspect of Stella Maris, star of the sea, makes her an over-arching protector of all who sail the tides. Other, one has to say lesser, saints are popular as well. St. Barbara is the patron saint of the Italian navy, for instance, while St. Nicholas is the patron of the Greek. St. Francis Paola looks after fishermen and St. Brendan, an Irishman himself, is the patron saint of the U.S. Navy. A separate saint – the warrior angel Michael – looks after the Navy Seals.

The most talked about saint aboard our ancestor’s ships, however, was certainly St. Elmo. A bishop from Italy who was martyred in the 4th century, even Butler’s cannot determine why, exactly, Elmo (whose given name was Erasmus) is the patron saint of sailors. The famous electrical discharge which hovers over mastheads is known as St. Elmo’s Fire (or infrequently St. Elmo’s Stars) as it was thought to bring luck to the sailors the bishop shepherded.

Known in later times, and particularly aboard Protestant ships, as compasant (itself a corruption of corpo santo; saint’s body), the odd balls of bluish or white light appear for the most part during electrical storms. Most sailors looked upon them as a sign that their ship would make it through the dirty weather in tact. As Herman Melville described it in Moby Dick:

All the yard-arms were tipped with a pallid fire; and touched at each tripointed lightning-rod-end with three tapering white flames, each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.

A Mariner’s Miscellany gives other names for the compasant, including: St. Helena, Castor and Pollux, Corpusant, Capra Saltante, Corbie’s Aunt, Jack Harry, Sailor Devil, St. Nicholas and St. Hermes. It was said at sea that the more lights that were seen, such as in Melville’s triple flames, the better the luck.

Finally, of course, there is the ship’s dog who was sometimes referred to as a saint. In later years and particularly aboard north sea ships, Newfoundlands and Saint Bernards were particularly prized as they would not hesitate to jump into the cold water and save a man overboard. Napoleon himself was saved from drowning by an unnamed Newfoundland on his return from Elba to France. A saintly act, indeed, if only by the dog.

Happy St. Patrick's Day, Brethren; may the sea always follow and may your messmates be tolerable good fellows.  Slante!

Header: Kay, My Friend by Elizabeth Strong via American Gallery

Friday, March 16, 2012

Booty: Boat Shoes

This lady pirate from the early 20th century seems to know what she's doing on those things.  Fair winds and following seas, ma'am.

Photo via Black and WTF

Thursday, March 15, 2012

History: Unfotunate Remembrances

Today is, to the best of history’s knowledge, the 245th anniversary of the birth of Andrew Jackson. Of course all the Brethren know that General Jackson is a Triple P favorite. This is due, for the most part, to his involvement with the Baratarian “pirates” who helped Jackson and his men prevail at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. From well-knowns like the brothers Laffite to more obscure – and yet more involved – seafarers such as Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche, Jackson used them all to good advantage on the line at Rodriguez Canal. For his trouble, he came away from New Orleans a national hero who was lionized as America’s “New Washington”.


Not everyone thought so very much of Jackson, despite the fact that few of his detractors had the stones to confront the General head on. The handful who did, like Louisiana State Supreme Court Judge Dominick Hall, did so in court. The rest spoke unkindly of Jackson in letter, memoir or foreign language – especially French. Some took an even more underhanded – and one would have to say cruel – route and attacked the General’s one true love: his wife.

Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson was born in the same year as her husband and was, like him, a child of the American frontier. Unlike Andrew, however, Rachel had very little in the way of formal education. She could certainly read and write, as well as hold her own in conversation, and she was possessed of an iron will that allowed her to bear up under the strains of illness, childlessness and long periods apart from her beloved husband. That said, she was a hard-drinking, pipe-smoking everywoman who preferred to run her plantation and sew her own clothes rather than mingle in glittering company.

In a place like New Orleans, where even a war on the doorstep could not so much as temporarily set aside a long-standing, European-based codified social structure, Rachel stuck out like a sore thumb. It only took the right sort of individual with an ax to grind to point that fact out, in the meanest way possible, to all of posterity.

Enter Vincent Nolte. Born to German parents in Italy, Nolte was a world traveler who had lived through everything from the Napoleonic Wars to the New Madrid earthquake. He was a banker, merchant and speculator who made a name for himself providing raw wool, cotton and linen to New Orleans and her surrounding areas. As a staunch opponent of the smuggling trade that emanated from the Laffites' Barataria, Nolte was nothing if not happy to see the pirates’ downfall shortly before the war came to his own back yard.

He was also happy to do what he could toward the war effort, offering bales of wool from his warehouses for the making of uniforms and only grumbling when Jackson commandeered his cotton to use as bulwark on the canal.

When the fighting was over, but New Orleans was still under marshal law per Jackson’s orders, Nolte approached the General in an effort to “settle his account”. As Nolte saw it, his had been a business transaction with the military. Now it was time for Jackson to reimburse the merchant for his losses. According to Nolte’s side of the story in his rather pompously entitled book The Memoirs of Vincent Nolte: Reminiscences in the Period of Anthony Adverse, or Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres which was published posthumously in1854, he was out a good bit of cash. He claims to have addressed Jackson with a bill in which each bale of wool cost the merchant 10 cents a pound, and each of cotton up to 12 ½ cents a pound. Jackson, seeing Nolte for what he was – a speculator who would have done business with the British had they won the day, and that without batting an eye – told Nolte in the nicest possible way to go pound sand.

After this, Nolte told anyone who would listen that Jackson was a penurious ego-maniac who would run the city and the people of New Orleans into the ground in his quest for ultimate power. This opinion did not stop Vincent Nolte from attending the balls and dinners given in the General’s honor, however, and one of them afforded the begrudged merchant a chance at ultimate revenge.

Nolte’s comments in his memoir are certainly best left to him:

After supper we were treated to a most delicious pas de deux by the conqueror and his spouse, an emigrant of the lower classes, whom he had from a Georgia planter, and who explained by her enormous corpulence that French saying, ‘She shows how far the skin can be stretched.’ To see these two figures, the general a long, haggard man, with limbs like a skeleton, and Madame la Generale, a short, fat dumpling, bobbing opposite each other like half-drunken Indians, to the wild melody of Possum up de Gum Tree, and endeavoring to make a spring into the air, was very remarkable, and far more edifying a spectacle than any European ballet could possibly have furnished.

Nolte’s unkindness comes down to the modern ear dripping with bad manners and ill-directed spleen. It’s unfortunate given the scope of both his life and his memoir that the above paragraph is one of the most often quoted from Nolte’s book. It is also an abject lesson for those who would leave something of themselves and their era behind them in writing. It probably goes without saying that, if we did not remember the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans and Andrew Jackson, Vincent Nolte would be quoted – at least in the United States – very little if at all.

Header: Possibly posthumous portrait of Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson, artist unknown

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

People: A Buccaneer at Heart

The old saying about greatness can be applied to pirates, too. Some are born, some are made and some have the mantel thrust upon them. Today’s subject was neither alive during the Golden Age nor, in the end, much of a seaman. But his life bares all the earmarks of any raider, from Viking to buccaneer. And most of it was thrust upon him.


Lee Christmas was born at the end of an era in a place that was fading away. He came into the world in Livingston Parish, Louisiana in a plantation house on the Amite River, February 2, 1863. The world he was born into was doomed by changing attitudes and the rigors of war, and the Christmas family fell – had in fact already fallen – on hard times as Lee grew to manhood.

There does not seem to be anything of delusion in Lee’s approach to life, however. Far from mourning the wealth he might have inherited, Christmas as a young man went forth to find adventure, first on the water. He apprenticed with bargemen on the Mississippi and eventually graduated to operating a tug boat on Lake Pontchartrain. Never a strikingly handsome man, Christmas all the same was full of charm and a quirky sense of humor that either endeared him to his fellows or put them off, depending on the man. He was driven to succeed, and when the opportunity arose to get in on the ground floor with the Illinois Central Railroad, Lee jumped at the chance.

He became a brakeman and by the 1880s was instrumental in the building of railroad lines in Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Texas. He was a force in the booming railroad industry, and worked as an engineer aboard a train that ran regularly between Memphis and New Orleans, where he lived.

In 1891 everything changed in the worst possible way for Lee Christmas. Some sources, like Herman Deutsch in his book about Christmas, The Incredible Yanqui, claim that the hard-drinking Louisianan was hitting the sauce at the throttle. His employer, on the other hand, said Christmas had been on duty – and awake running his locomotive – for over two days straight. Either way, Lee fell asleep in his speeding train and hit another engine head-on.

When Christmas recovered from the awful accident he found he had been bared from returning to his job while the incident was “under investigation.” With no means of support and bills to pay, Christmas tramped around Texas and Louisiana doing odd jobs with his hands. At last, in 1894, he was called back by the railroad but just when he could see his life returning to normal his former employer threw him for another loop. The now-required company physical found Christmas to be color blind; the railroad would not rehire him.

Devastated to once again be without income, Christmas managed to hear about the new railroad systems in Central America. Banana plantations, most of which were connected in one way or another to the U.S. company then known as United Fruit, needed their produce transported to the coasts and supplies – including huge blocks of ice – brought back up the mountains. No one would turn away an experienced engineer for a little problem like color blindness. Christmas booked passage on a steamer out of New Orleans and arrived in Puerto Cortes, Honduras late in 1894.

Christmas settled into the routine of engineer fairly quickly. The tiny train on its rickety tracks was no where near the mighty engine he had once piloted, but the work was steady until a pivotal moment in Christmas’ life happened at a gorge known as the Laguna Trestle in the Honduran mountains. The date was April 14, 1897. Christmas’ train was flagged down by revolutionaries with guns who commandeered both engine and engineer. At first, it seems that Christmas had no intention of joining the revolutionaries but, when government forces arrived to do battle, Lee Christmas took the gun the men in his engine had given him and fought along side them. On that day, the man from the Amite River went from locomotive engineer to politician and warrior.

Christmas switched camps often; in 1899 he was working for the Honduran government but by1903 he was again on the side of rebel leader Manuel Bonilla. Christmas adopted a persona of careless ferocity; he continued to drink hard, made a name for himself in Honduran capital San Pedro Sula’s brothels and chewed glass.

When Bonilla tried to encroach into Nicaragua in 1907, Christmas found himself exiled to Guatemala. It was here that he met the United Fruit company’s Central American agent Samuel Zemurray, known – in some cases affectionately, in others sarcastically – as “El Amigo”. While the documentation is slim, it is generally assumed that Christmas was in some way involved with, and probably in the pay of, United Fruit and their bid to monopolize the banana plantations of the region.

From this point on, Christmas’ exploits, either with or without Bonilla, would be heavily armed with guns provided by Zemurray. The famous Battle of La Ceiba in January of 1911 saw Christmas battling Honduran government forces with the aid of U.S. Army Colt machine guns. He used the guns to support rebel infantry in such an innovative way that his tactics would be studied by European and American generals, and used to great success in World War I. Bonilla’s rebels won the day and he resumed control of the government. Christmas was a hero until 1913, when Bonilla’s death changed the political climate overnight. Christmas was again sent packing, this time to Nicaragua.

Lee dropped out of sight, but landed on his feet. For nearly eleven years he worked with Zemurray, manipulating governments and economies in Central America. Rumors swirled in the states and elsewhere that Christmas had become emperor of some banana republic or other or that he was fighting with Zapata in Mexico. One thing we know with certainty thanks to letters home to friends; he married a local girl, Ida Culotta, in Puerto Cortes in 1914.

Lee Christmas was not a healthy man, however. The ravages if a tough life and a tougher lifestyle took their toll. Sick with tuberculosis, Christmas returned home to New Orleans in the early 1920s. He died there on January 24, 1924. The memory of his fascinating life faded quickly as the 20th century pressed on, but his legacy remains in odd corners like this one. Lee Christmas’ life is the story of a man who, if born in the Great Age of Sail, would surely have given Morgan or Roberts a run for their money.

Header: Lee Christmas in cavalry fatigues courtesy of the Marion Samson Collection, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Ship's Boats

The largest that ships take to sea is the long-boat, built very strongly, and furnished with masts and sails.


The launch is a sort of long-boat, and is now generally taken to sea in its stead; but it is not built upon a principle of sailing, it being more flat, is broader, and more useful for weighing small anchors that the long-boat.

The barge is next in size, but very different from the former in its construction, having a slighter frame, and being more ornamented. It is constructed for rowing or sailing, having conveniences for ten or twelve oars, and two or three masts, and is chiefly used for the conveyance of admirals and other officers of rank to and from the ship.

The pinnace is of the same form as the barge, but is something smaller, and never rows more than eight oars. It is for smaller ships, or for the use of officers of subordinate rank.

A yawl is something less than a pinnace, nearly of the same form, and used for similar purposes. They are generally rowed with six oars.

The above boats are carvel-built.

Cutters are clincher-built, and are used for the conveyance of seamen or lighter stores. They are shorter and broader in proportion to their length than the long-boat, and constructed either for rowing or sailing. ~ from The Shipwright’s Vade-Mecum by David Steel, first published in 1805

Header: Ship and boats painted by Geoff Hunt via Marine Art Gallery

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Dial It Up

Apparently texting aboard ship circa 1880'ish via Two Nerdy History Girls and California Room  That's just the kind of amazement we're looking for around here...

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Hard

It may be that the use of the word hard in modern English came to the lexicon from Gaelic passed through years of seafaring speech. Of course, that statement is debatable but what, one has to ask themselves, in the study of language isn’t?


According to the inimitable Webster’s, hard comes from the Anglo-Saxon word heard meaning hard, firm or brave. In The Sailor’s Word Book, Admiral Smyth disagrees. He tells us that hard derives from the Gaelic aird which meant a rocky promontory that poked out into the water from a shore. This in turn became the sailor’s word ard, a firm beach or shore, or a muddy road path, sloping road or jetty leading into the water that is a prime place to pull a boat up on shore.

At this point, allow me to get the hard part of this post out of the way. It is a certainty that anyone who reads nautical fiction and/or enjoys seafaring movies is familiar with the order “hard-to” or “hard-a” in conjunction with some direction of the helm and/or rudder. In a majority of cases, though not all, there is confusion about just exactly what that order actually meant. If you will allow me to, I will let Admiral Smyth break it down for you as any paraphrasing or attempted clarification on my part can only muddy the waters, so to speak.

Hard-a-lee: The situation of the tiller when it brings the rudder hard over to windward. Strictly speaking, it only relates to a tiller which extends forward from the rudder-head; now many extend aft, in which case the order remains the same, but the tiller and rudder are both brought over to windward. Also, the order to put the tiller in this position. It is critical to remember with this entry that the Admiral was writing in the mid-19th century, so when he speaks of “now” with regard to the positioning of a ship’s rudder, he is talking about a period after 1840 or so.

Hard-a-port: The order so to place the tiller as to bring the rudder over to the starboard-side of the stern-post, whichever way the tiller leads.

Hard-a-starboard: The order so to place the tiller as to bring the rudder over to the port-side of the stern-post, whichever way the tiller leads.

Hard-a-weather: The order so to place the tiller as to bring the rudder on the lee-side of the stern-post, whichever way the tiller leads, in order to bear away; it is the position of the helm as opposed to hard-a-lee.

It is easy to see where confusion could – and does – arise when using the orders in shipboard dialogue. Careful consideration must be applied to the situation by the writer and, as I and so many more capable than I recommend, when in doubt read Patrick O’Brian who invariably got it right.

Stepping away from the helm, we encounter hard and fast, said of a ship which is on shore. Hard fish generally referred to cod or haddock but really encompassed any white fish salted to a jerky-like texture. A hard gale was one whose wind forced a ship at sea to sail under only storm staysails; we would now classify it as a category 10 gale. Harding is a type of light canvas while hards is an old term for oakum.

People are referred to as hard in various colorful ways as well; who would expect less from sailors after all. An old hand who can stand up to anything was called hard-a-weather. A hard bargain was someone useless who spent their time feeling sorry for themselves rather than getting to work. Hard up indicated a person in difficult straights, particularly financial. As Admiral Smyth puts it, a man obliged to bear up for Poverty Bay. Worse still was being hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing. In this case the man is quite literally doomed; there is no way to escape whatever misfortune has befallen him.

With that, I’ll leave it to you, Brethren, to decide where exactly our modern word hard originated. Given my seafaring proclivities, and the fact that March is the month o’ the Irish, I’ll side with the good Admiral if you don’t mind.

Header: CSS Shenandoah in Stormy Seas by Patrick O’Brien via Marine Artists

Friday, March 9, 2012

Booty: From Wench to Queen

It's that time again Brethren; two weeks until NOLA Pyrate Week. Brought to you by the hard work and good graces of the unsinkable Captain Swallow and Quartermaster Seika Hellbound, all things piratical will be swarming the streets of chère New Orleans beginning March 23rd.


This time around, however, a new feature has been added. As the official poster above suggests, it’s the Louisiana Pyrate Wench Pageant and contestants are wanted. Are you planning a trip to NOLA at the end of the month, or are you already one of the lucky ladies who lives in or around my ancestral home? Think you know a thing or two about piratical history and Louisiana lore? Got a costume that would make Anne Bonny hide her head in shame and drink herself into a stupor? Speaking of which, can you drink the average pirate under the table? Then this is the pageant for you. Show those skinny runway lasses that a true pirate wench has more than meets the eye and sign up here. That undeniably glorious Swarovski crystal crown is only a little swagger, a little attitude and a little knowledge away.

Go for it, wenches; your chances are pretty good this year. After all, I – to my great chagrin – cannot be there.

Header: Louisiana Pyrate Wench Pageant poster via NOLA Pyrate Week

Thursday, March 8, 2012

History: A Surgeon Aboard Us

I thank the Lord Serapis that when I was in danger at sea he straightway saved me through the good grace and constancy of our doctor… ~ letter from Roman sailor Apion to his parents, Epimacus and Philadelphia circa 100 CE.


As the above snippet from a short letter home shows, doctors have been sailing aboard ships of all kinds for centuries. Because it was not until the Napoleonic Wars that shipboard doctors were routinely recognized as part of the standing crew, many historians have glossed over or completely ignored the history that led up to that acceptance. Fortunately, some modern writers have endeavored to set the record straight.

As noted by Kevin Brown in his entertaining history of seafaring medicine Poxed & Scurvied, it may have been the Greek poet Homer who first wrote of naval surgeons in his epic Iliad. Here he mentions Machaon and Polidalirus, the medical professionals who sailed with Agamemnon’s fleet when that king set out to start the Trojan War.

As Brown notes, it was during the Imperial days of Rome that doctors aboard ship began to really become a fixture. So much so, in fact, that Caesar Augustus included them in his regulations against doctors going into battle. There were also regulations during his reign that navy physicians be over the age of 21.

In the Medieval period, a barber who could double as a surgeon – essentially, let’s face it, a puller of teeth, stitcher of wounds and hacker-off of limbs – was regularly aboard the merchant vessels of the Cinque Ports and Hanseatic leagues. It may be that at least some of the surgeons who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his post-1492 cruises to the New World were also spies for Spain. In Empires of the Atlantic World J.H. Elliott notes that Ferdinand and particularly Isabella sought to control the unruly mariner by inserting their own intelligencer on his ship in the person of royal doctor Diego Alvares Chanca y Salazar.

True finesse in medicine at sea had already bloomed in the Mediterranean with the era of the Crusades. Here the Knight of Malta and their counterparts, the Knights Hospitaller, began fitting out ships as floating hospitals to treat sick and battle wounded in the 15th century. Though the ships were merchant vessels repurposed as sick berths, they were a decided innovation that probably saved more than a few lives.

It should be noted that the Knights of St. John, an arm first of the Hospitallers and then the Maltese, extended treatment for injury or illness to their Moslem galley slaves. Brown notes that these men were treated, along with Christian sailors, at the Sacra Infermeria in Valletta. Here, such attentions as food service on silver plates and large, breezy wards were denied to no one regardless of societal status, religion or country of origin.

A tremendous amount of information regarding medicine at sea has come from the excavation of Henry VIII’s favorite warship Mary Rose. Launched in 1511 and sunk in 1545, she appears to have gone down with her entire crew (including the intrepid ratter known as Hatch) and all goods aboard. Since 1982, the Mary Rose Project has been revealing her history and what they have found tells us a good bit about the surgeon aboard.

He seems to have occupied two cabins, one perhaps for his own use and the other for any assistants he may have had and/or examinations and surgery. He seems to have been doing a good job too for, as Brown notes, most of the crew of over 400 men “… were large-boned, strong, and fit …”

Brown also gives us a somewhat chilling list of the instruments found in Mary Rose’s surgeon’s kit:

copper alloy mortars, spoons, bandage rolls, pewter syringes for urethral irrigations in the treatment of gonorrhea and for the irrigation of wounds, wooden needles, spatulas, a maplewood feeding vessel, a leather wallet for storing instruments, ear scoops for cleaning out the ear, razors, a brass shaving bowl, and the handles of surgical instruments.

As Brown points out, the metal portions of those instruments have rusted away but they certainly included saws, forceps, probes, cautery irons and a trepan for removing parts of shattered skulls. The brutality of such necessary treatment is easily imagined, and thankfully avoided in this day and age.

Of course things were none too pleasant on the Spanish Main of a short 100 years later. Stephan Talty in Empire of Blue Water tells us that Henry Morgan shipped a surgeon on his raids of both Portobello and Panama City. Little good they seem to have done, however, as they turned up drunk and incapable on more then one occasion. Slap dash amputations by carpenters and careless cauterizations with swords led to gangrene and death, more often than not, in the humid heat of the jungle. Only the very strongest could survive the treatment, much less the injury.

As medicine improved so did its availability at sea. The surgeon became the physician, falling eventually into the general group known as warrant officers. And long before Nelson’s navy, the scientist-physician epitomized by real men like James Lind and fictional characters like Stephen Maturin was already starting to take to the sea. Morgan himself, as an aging pirate made good with gout and cirrhosis, was treated by Dr. Hans Sloane. Sloane was the epitome of the physician cum naturalist in 1687 and, though he could not save the decrepit Morgan from himself, he would go on to treat English royalty.

The history of medicine at sea continues to fascinate on so many levels. To each their own, of course, but I always wonder how one would manage to remove a cataract aboard a sailing ship at sea around 1810. The thought that it could be – and was – done is just another example of how hardy and capable our ancestors really were.

Header: Mary Rose by Bill Bishop via The Mary Rose Project

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Women at Sea: Medieval England's Legal Stews

In Roman influenced countries of the Middle Ages such as Spain, France and Italy, prostitutes were considered a necessary evil. No doubt due to actual experience to some degree but also due to the legacy left by the Romans, the officials of these Latinate countries feared that men who did not have legal access to women would turn to rape and sodomy. This was probably overstating the case since most people have a moral compass that prevents them from doing violence and then, as now, homosexuality was a “born this way” issue more than an “any port in storm” sort of thing. That having been said, legalized prostitution in the form of regulated brothels was common on the Continent by 1300.


Not so in England, where the Roman ethic that kept women as prisoners of their fathers, brothers and husbands did not quite saturate into the soil. While women were not “free” per se they were certainly less restricted in society than they were in Europe. Legalized, regulated brothels were uncommon enough to be nonexistent in 1300. But that changed mid-century and, though the institutionalization of prostitution was not far reaching at the time, it did seem to have a very specific reason for appearing. The so called “stews” sprang up in port towns that welcomed and catered to the newly successful merchant Leagues such as the Hanseatic League and the Cinque Ports conglomerate. Sailors and merchants drove the trade in places like Southampton, Sandwich and especially Southwark across the Thames from London.

In Common Women, Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England, Ruth Mazo Karras makes a good argument for the influx of seamen of all kinds being the main reason for the opening of legal brothels in England. Authorities saw a chance to not only regulate a booming trade but to profit from that regulation as well. Southwark is a particularly interesting case as its two dozen or so stews were within the jurisdiction not of secular authorities but of the Bishop of Winchester, who technically owned the land upon which they were built.

This mixture of the sacred and the profane led to particular regulations within the so called Winchester liberty that did not necessarily apply in Southampton and Sandwich. The prostitutes were expected to live off the premises of the brothel but to nonetheless pay rent to the brothel keeper for a room and victuals. The keeper, who was called a “bawd” regardless of their gender, could collect an average of 14 pence per week from the girls according to Karras. As she points out:

[compare] the sixty shillings eight pence paid annually by each prostitute for her room to the twenty shillings per annum for tenements owned by Sir John Fastolf in Southwark.

And the ladies, at least on paper, still had to rent a place to sleep. This particular regulation was meant to ensure that the prostitutes made themselves scarce on holy days and Sundays, but it seems that this was not generally the case. The disregard paid by both prostitutes and bawds to this law meant that the Bishop could collect fines when it was broken; another hefty expense that the working girl had to pay via the bawd.

Regulations also existed to keep bawds and customers from doing violence to the prostitutes and to keep bawds from forcing women into prostitution, either by the threat of violence or debt or by out and out kidnapping. The latter seems to have happened with a frightening regularity that brings to mind the human trafficking extant in the modern sex trade. A specific complaint from the Court of Aldermen in London and quoted by Karras has a distinctly current feel:

John Barton, tailor, confessed that on Thursday last, in the highway coming from Our Lady of Willesden, he faithfully promised to one Joan Rawlyns… to bring her to a good and honest service in the city. Whereupon she, putting her trust and confidence in him, went with him throughout the city until he, unknown to her, brought her to the Stews side and there left her in a waterman’s house, and then went immediately to a bawd there and made covenant with her to set the said maiden with the said bawd

Essentially, Barton sold Rawlyns into prostitution. It was only through the sympathy of the unnamed waterman’s wife that Joan Rawlyns managed to escape becoming a sex slave.

This later example – the case came to court in 1517 and resulted in Barton’s conviction, imprisonment, pillorying and banishment – came at around the time that the legalized brothels were being reconsidered. Despite continued and increasing merchant trade, the Protestant Reformation in England seems to have disavowed the regulated sex trade. Henry VIII issued proclamations against the stews of Southwark. Though they decreased in number, their location in the Winchester liberties meant that they did not shut down all together.

Organized brothels, whether actually regulated or simply a house where prostitutes shared rooms, continued with different levels of acceptance in Southwark into the 19th century. From famous houses like the Holland’s Leaguer to forgotten sites of assignation, London would continue to have a place for the wayward sailor to find companionship with a “common woman”.

Header: A Medieval Stew from a contemporary manuscript via Historum History Forums

Monday, March 5, 2012

Books: Nautical Literature Good, Bad and Ugly

Peter H. Spectre’s A Mariner’s Miscellany is a book that no one writing nautical fact or fiction should be without. Spectre is a wealth of marine information and, best of all for those of us who deal in history, he by no means confines himself to modern ships and shipping.


As with everything, there are drawbacks to Spectre’s tome. He does not site sources, which limits one to what Spectre has to say. Taking his book as a starting point for research is impossible; he will credit individual writers and older books, but you can rarely go further than his book itself. He’s also a little opinionated. We all are, of course, but one of my favorite stands taken by Spectre is his ranking of 20th century writers who touch on the subject of the sea. While I vehemently disagree with Spectre’s assertion that C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series is better than Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, there are some points in his rankings that it is hard to argue with. In particular I am struck by how much I agree with his first and last choices. Here, then, for your consideration, Peter H. Spectre’s entry “A nautical writer Hall of Fame, twentieth century” from A Mariner’s Miscellany:

All Century, Cannot be Topped - Joseph Conrad
Best American, Boating - Joe Richards
Best British, Boating - Maurice Griffiths
Most Entertaining - L. Francis Herreshoff
Most Enthusiastic - William Atkin
Most Inventive - E.H. Morgan
Best Sea Stories, American - Lincoln Colcord
Best Sea Stories, British - "Shalimar" (F.C. Hendry)
Most Entertaining Braggart - Weston Farmer
Brightest Technical Prose - David C. "Bud" McIntosh
Dullest Technical Prose - Howard I. Chapelle
Best Historical, the Grand Sweep - Samuel Eliot Morison
Best Historical, Small Craft - John Gardner
Best Historical, Naval Architecture - Howard I. Chapelle
Best Expository - Hervey Garrett Smith
Hippest - George J. Putz
Artiest - Rockwell Kent
Saltiest - Carl Lane
Most Co-Authors, Books - Basil Greenhill
Most Prolific, Good Books - Alan Villiers
Most Prolific, Bad Books - Bill Robinson
Best Father-and-Son Team - William and John Atkin
Hairiest Chest, Deserved - Uffa Fox
Hairiest Chest, Undeserved - Sterling Hayden
Best Novels, Nineteenth Century Naval - C.S. Forester
Best Novels, Twentieth Century Naval - Nicholas Monsarrat
Best Novels, Tugboats - Jan de Hartog
Most Novels, Good but Impossible to Finish - William McFee
Most Novels, Mediocre But Impossible to Put Down - Alistair MacLean
Best Current Reputation, Deserved - Patrick O'Brian
Best Current Reputation, Undeserved - Tom Clancy

If you have a strong opinion, let me know. I have not had the pleasure – or perhaps pain, depending – of reading all these authors so I’m keen to hear what the Brethren might think. Especially on such issues as, say, hairiest chest…


Header: A Mariner’s Miscellany via Amazon

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Governor Modyford's Action

March 4, 1666: In retaliation for raids on isolated coastal plantations, Governor Thomas Modyford of Jamaica declares war of Spanish territories in the New World and begins issuing letters of marque against Spain to Port Royal's buccaneers.  One of those who receives a commission is the now infamous Henry Morgan, who will go on to become Lieutenant Governor of the island.

Header: Replica of the letter of marque issued to Henry Morgan and signed by Modyford from the wonderful craftsman at Pirate Documents

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Mess/Messenger

Mess, in modern English, generally denotes that thing that your roommate/spouse/child (depending on what point in life you have reached) left behind in the kitchen or the bathroom. As 21st century English speakers we almost always assign blame when we use “mess”; it’s something someone else did that we now have to clean up. Back in the days of wooden ships and iron men, it had a much more friendly tone. That said, it is almost certain that one particularly meaning of the word at sea evolved into our current version. And then there’s messenger…


Shooting the messenger would be vastly ill-advised at sea given that the word most frequently refers to the cable used to pull a ship’s anchor out of the sea. The messenger is attached to the capstan by way of a clever series of nippers and lashings which can keep the capstan turning, or “walking” as they call it at sea, continuously until the anchor has been securely “catted” in its cradle, which is known as the cathead.

Actual messages aboard large men-of-war were sometimes carried by boys who were expected to run at top speed from point A to point B. A curious conceit in some Royal Navy ships, according to Admiral Smyth, was to have the boys wear “winged caps of the Mercury type.”

A mess proper was any group of men, be they officers or jacks, aboard ship who take their meals together. Generally these men shared the same watch and spent their down time outside of breakfast, dinner and supper together as well. Thus, a man’s messmate was one of this number. As The Sailor’s Word Book notes, these were associates so trusted that the common thinking became:

Messmate before shipmate, shipmate before stranger, stranger before dog.

Personally, I’d trust a dog before a stranger, but times have changed.

A mess-kid, which we now think of as a messkit, was originally not a receptical for holding eating and drinking utensils but a tub made of wood used to hold cooked food. Mess-trap was the name for the thing we now imagine more as a messkit, it being the bowls, utensils, cups, etc. used to eat with. The mess-deck of a ship was where the crew messed and on larger ships was frequently the same as the gun-deck. Officers and warrant men ate elsewhere, often in the wardroom, with the captain keeping to his cabin and inviting certain officers to join him at his pleasure.

As to that early connotation of mess that may have led to your use of the word, mess indicated the look of a ship hit by unexpected dirty weather. In such cases nothing would be set to rights before the trouble hit, and everything would be “all ahoo” when the squall passed.

And so another SMS has come and gone. I wish you a good mess, Brethren, with cheerful, honest messmates and an extra ration of grog.

Header: Saturday Night at Sea by George Cruikshank c 1840 ~ a good storyteller is always a welcome messmate

Friday, March 2, 2012

Booty: Seeking Experienced Sea Captain

Buxom, stylish and well-spoken Englishwoman seeks naval commander of experience.


Currently in a marriage of some convenience and living abroad. Both are easy work-arounds. Willing to travel, and dress like a midshipman while doing so. Slightly fading looks offset by charm, wit and shameless willingness to do just about anything.

Ideal man will be captain with impressive record. Wounds and amputations a plus. Must be willing to risk career, marriage and social standing for me. Peerage preferable; potential for future titles a must. Gifts of all kinds including but not limited to jewels, gowns, hounds, horses and estates easily accepted and generously rewarded.

Must be English; no exceptions.

Contact Emma, Lady Hamilton, Palazzo Sessa, Naples, Italy.

Looking for your own sea captain, perhaps one just like Lady Hamilton’s Horatio? Well don’t hold your breath. If, however, you are willing to adjust your expectations, there is an honest-to-goodness website where both women and men can find seafaring leaders online. As this article at Jezebel (sent to me by ever vigilant Triple P supporter and member of the Brethren Dwight) points out, Sea Captain Date is a real, live “thing”.

Note: Unlike other sites mentioned here, I have no experience with SCD and cannot vouch for its integrity. Caveat emptor, so to say. And should you find your master and commander, I wish you a much, much better outcome than that of the star-crossed Emma and Horatio.

Header: Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Thursday, March 1, 2012

People: 16 Cups in One Gulp and A Headless Stroll

When we think of Medieval Europe we are more likely to envision castles and knights, fair damsels with impossibly tall headdresses and maybe a burning witch or two. What we are not likely to have in the forefront of our thoughts are pirates. Perhaps that should change, as the story of today’s curiously mythologized sailor points up.


Klaus Stortebeker or, alternately, Stertebeker, is thought to have been born in Wismar, Germany sometime in the 1360s. He grew up in a frenetic time for merchants and seaman alike, an era that saw the first bloody birth pains of capitalism in the western world. After over 300 years of unending Viking raids, Europe had finally buttressed itself against the invaders of the north by formulating the feudal system. This, for many people, seemed like trading one master for another and in fact it was. Through uprisings of serfs and the expansion of a merchant class, some cities in Europe began to shake off the feudal yoke and supplant it with a new system: free trade.

Of course, as any of the Brethren will tell, once there are merchant vessels on the high seas there are pirates to take them. One of the earliest of these Medieval freebooters, Eustace the Monk, has been discussed here before.

With all this potential wealth in jeopardy, the merchants began to form a safety net. Known initially as Leagues, these groups of coastal cities with ports banned together so that they could afford protection, usually in the form of arms but sometimes including men-of-war as escorts, for their vessels and merchandise. The first successful group was known as the Hanseatic League. Begun to protect commerce between the cities of Hamburg and Lubeck on the Baltic in 1241, the League included 19 other “free” cities by the turn of the 14th century. You can find a map of the area protected by the League, known in its time simply as “The Hanse”, here.

Because of the instability caused by constant warfare in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries, piratical activity was not only hard to stop but frequently encouraged. Though commissions and letters of marque proper were not yet in use, certain vessels were granted “rights of reprisal” against the ships of enemy countries. Our man Stortebeker, who probably began his career at sea aboard merchant cogs, was given such an order of reprisal by the city of Stockholm some time in 1392.

Stockholm was under siege by Denmark’s Queen Margaret, who seems to have been both power-hungry and clever. To her doubtless frustration, Stortebeker and his boys managed to keep Stockholm so well fed, at least in part by attacking Margaret’s own ships, that she eventually had to give up the siege. Stortebeker’s success would earn him and his men the moniker of Vitalienbruder: the Victual Brothers.

Stortebeker is himself more legend than man. Even his name comes into question when closely examined. It seems to mean “empty in one gulp” or “a cup in one swallow”. Allegedly this comes from the pirate’s ability to gulp down sixteen cups of beer from one stein. Whether or not his first name was really Klaus or Niklaus is open to debate as well. He is now held in great esteem as a folk hero by certain factions, particularly in Germany where he is considered a “freedom fighter” and compared to Robin Hood or – perhaps unfortunately – Che Guevara. All the requisite trappings are along for the ride: Stortebeker was incredibly strong, an honest friend, married to a beautiful woman of higher station and sailed from an impenetrable stronghold, possibly located in Frisia.

In fact, it seems that Stortebeker and his cronies, sometimes given names like Hennig Weichmann, Magister Weigbold and Godeke or Godekins (the last is mentioned by Philip Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who, though Stortebeker himself is not), decided to turn pirate after their success in Stockholm. By 1398 these men were raiding the ships of the wealthy and powerful Hanse. Probably because of Stortebeker’s success, his pirating could not be tolerated.

War ships were sent out from Hamburg and they managed – how has not come down to us other than a legend that says Stortebeker was betrayed by a traitor aboard his ship – to capture over 50 of the pirates including their hard-drinking leader. The actual number of men arrested is still debated, but legend says 73. These men were taken to Hamburg and sentenced to death by beheading.

Historians agree that the pirates now known as the Likedeelers because they shared their prizes equally were beheaded in October of 1401 in Hamburg. Beyond that, the details are again most certainly legendary. The story goes that Stortebeker made a pact with the headsman; asking to be beheaded standing on his feet, he made the executioner promise to spare as many of his men as his headless corpse could walk past.

The man agreed and proceeded to disengage Stortebeker’s head from his neck. The body then lurched forward, passing 11 men before the executioner finally tripped it up himself. In a second act of treachery, the headsman turned and lopped off the heads of all of Stortebeker’s men, those 11 certainly astonished sailors included. The legend adds a bit of irony, though; when asked by the Hamburg senate if he was not tired after so much exertion, the executioner replied emphatically no. He felt quite refreshed, and could cut off the heads of all the senate if asked. For this response, the executioner lost his own head, some stories say at the hands of the youngest member of the senate.

A skull, which eventually became associated with Stortebeker, was found in Hamburg in 1878 and placed in a local museum. There it remained, with a huge spike through it, until it was stolen in 2010, possibly by a gang of bikers. This defilement has led to even more ghastly tales of the pirate’s headless corpse being spotted near his execution site, probably in search of his head.

So much of Stortebeker’s story is shrouded in tall tale and legend that picking out the bits that might be true are quite literally impossible. All we can say for sure is that there was once a group of seamen known as the Victual Brothers, who became equal sharing pirates in the cold North sea and paid for their success with their heads.

Header: Reconstruction based on the skull found in 1878, allegedly belonging to Stortebeker, via Wikipedia