Friday, August 31, 2012

Booty: Bonjour Aveline!

I would never call myself a "gamer." We don't own an XboX and, although I did become insanely addicted to "Pocket Frogs" for iPad while recovering from surgery, I tend to consider such things a dangerous pastime that can lead to, well, addiction.

To my intense ambivalence, I was utterly dismayed and delighted to see this post over at The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century. I'll be damned if Assassin's Creed isn't coming out with not only a scenario set in Old New Orleans but one featuring a ball-smashing, octoroon, lady assassin. Well, shit. (As an aside, that paragraph probably contains more blue language than the whole sum of every other post here at Triple P. I'll just go ahead and apologize right now: sorry).

Anyway, here's the gist of Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation:

The year is 1765. As the events leading up to the American Revolution heat up in the north, Spanish forces plan to take control of Louisiana in the south - but they have yet to reckon with Aveline, a deadly Assassin who will use every weapon and ability in her arsenal to win freedom for her land and her people.

Sweet beignets! That kicks all kinds of ass on paper! But watching the reveal trailer will really get you pumped. Also, if you're like me, you might be curious about the weapons wielded by Aveline de Granpre. Thankfully, AC has given us a trailer for that too. My personal favorite may surprise the Brethren. Pistols are nice and all, but you never need to reload a machete and the blood splatter stays further away from you than it does with hidden blades.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I would happily welcome Mademoiselle de Granpre aboard my ship as a mate at any time. She'd need to learn the ropes, of course, but she'd be a decided asset in close quarters right off the belaying pin.

Header: Assassin Aveline de Granpre via the Ubisoft website. AC3 will be available in October

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ships: Old Ironsides vs. Warrior

On August 30, 1812, Captain Isaac Hull brought his now famous frigate, USS Constitution, into the port of Boston with what was then astonishing news. Constitution had quite literally destroyed the British frigate of 38 guns HMS Guerriere in a firefight at sea.

The news was particularly well received in Boston, always a port town full of sailors, where the United States' battle cry of the two-month-old War of 1812 was well known: Free Trade and Sailors Rights. Guerriere had been a particular thorn in the side of U.S. merchantmen. Her captain, James Richard Dacres, was notorious for stopping such vessels, searching them and almost invariable finding men he labelled British deserters. Whether the charge was true or not, these men were immediately impressed for service aboard Guerriere.

The battle between the two ships, which began on August 19th some time after 2:00 PM, saw two fighting captains with well-prepared crews coming together in what seemed, on its face, to be a fairly even exchange. The Americans, whose navy was still in its youth at the time, nonetheless trusted their sturdy frigates built of nearly impregnable white oak. They also relied on their crews' unusual mixture of self-discipline and honest enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy ruled the waves, and did not blink at taking on a similar sized ship from any navy in the world, regardless of firepower.

The inequalities of the two ships, however, would lead to the unfortunate result that the Royal Navy had no doubt secretly dreaded from the beginning of the war. As the records of Captain Dacres' court martial indicate, Guerriere was old and desperately in need of a refit when she met Constitution on her way to the port of Halifax in the British colony of Nova Scotia. Her timbers, and in particular her masts, were literally rotten when all three in rapid succession were torn away by Constitution's guns. Then too, as Dacres would point out, she was a French prize and therefor not built to British standards.

On the other hand, Constitution carried 44 guns in answer to Guerriere's 38. Her crew was itching for a fight as many of them had friends and relatives who had been impressed by the Royal Navy; some had even suffered that ignominy themselves. Her captain was capable and level headed and made only one slip toward the end of the battle, missing stays and entangling Guerrier's bowsprit in Constitution's aft rigging. The most remarkable advantage Constitution had, however, was her tough hull. It was, according to legend, during this battle that she earned her nickname. When a shot from Guerrier bounced off Constitution's side, the Royal Navy gun crews began the rumor that she had "sides of iron."

Though Dacres never raised a white flag of surrender, Hull surmised when Guerrier was done and sent his First Lieutenant across in a boat to address the British captain. When asked if he would care to surrender, Dacres famously replied: "Our mizzen mast is gone, and our fore and main gone as well. I think, sir, that on the whole one might evince that we have struck our flag." And to this day the British are better at sarcasm than we Americans.

Dacres was welcomed aboard Constitution with all civility. Hull refused Dacres' sword as well. He would say later that he was particularly glad of it when the news came to him that Dacres had allowed 12 impressed American sailors to wait out the battle in Guerrier's hold, rather than have to fight against their countrymen. Though Hull had hoped to tow Guerrier to Boston as prize, the damage to her was to great. When it was clear that she would sink, Hull had all her stores and people removed to Constitution and then set her aflame.

Though a few later encounters - particularly the battle between USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon - would not go so well for the Americans, this first decisive victory renewed the American hope for a swift and successful end to the war. It also began, even at this early stage, the British shift from a focus on war at sea - where the Royal Navy was flabbergasted at being regularly defeated - to a war on land. Unfortunately, despite the burning of Washington D.C. which remains the flagship victory of Britain and her colonies in the War of 1812, that didn't turn out so well either.

But the Battle of New Orleans is another discussion for another time. For today, Huzzah! Old Ironsides, her crew and Captain Isaac Hull.

Header: USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere by Michel Felice Corne via Wikipedia 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tools of the Trade: In A Fog

Fog can be one of the most deadly atmospheric developments that a ship can meet. This is particularly true along coastlines, which - it should come as no surprise - is where the condition tends to be found. Felix Riesenberg's late 19th century advise that speed in fog should be moderate still applies today. Even with GPS and other high-tech navigational tools, there is always the potential for things to go horribly wrong.

That is no doubt why our seafaring ancestors had fairly stringent rules for how to navigate in fog. As Peter H. Spectre notes in his A Mariner's Miscellany, one should always remember four simple things when caught in a fog on the water: keep your eyes open, keep your ears open, keep your dead-reckoning plot and keep your head.

The conditions that lead to fog are almost standard. Regardless of where one is on the globe, these weather signs will apply. The largest issue is the contact of warm with cold. Warm air flowing over a cold surface, such as water or land, will cause fog. This is particularly true if humidity is high. Likewise, cold air coming into contact with warm land or warm rain will usually lead to fog. How dense the fog is depends on the temperature differential for the most part and to some degree a lack of wind as well.

Sailors identified certain particularly difficult fog conditions by name. The condition known as foggy breath arises when one can see their breath in warm weather, as if the air were in fact cold. Seamen agree that when this situation, which is usually a result of high humidity, occurs, fog will accumulate soon.

Advection fog is the thick, pea-soup fog commonly found off shore. This is caused by warm, humid air blowing over cold water. Radiation fog, on the other hand, is the type that clings to the ground or the water. Familiar to anyone who has spent time in bogs, bayous or swamps, this fog is caused by land that has been warmed during the day cooling down and cooling the air just above it as well. The air farther up remains warm, causing the type of fog which has been both the friend and foe of inland smugglers but is not as troublesome for the seagoing freebooter.

Knowing the conditions that can cause fog, feeling them in the air before the actual situations arises, can go a long way to keeping a ship safe at sea. Even in the thickest of fogs. Fore warned, as they say, if fore armed.

Header: Homeward Bound After the Storm by Monica Vanzant. This lovely piece is available for purchase at Fine Art America

Monday, August 27, 2012

Literature: Of Sailors Old and New

Alexis de Tocqueville, who was born in Paris in 1805, was a brilliant observer of his fellow human beings. He traveled extensively in the U.S. between the War of 1812 and the American Civil War and left his thoughts to posterity in his seminal work Democracy in America. At a time when almost any travel had something to do with getting on a ship and being in close proximity with sailors, Monsieur de T had some thoughts about that, too:

The European sailor navigates with prudence; he only sets sail when the weather is favorable; if an unfortunate accident befalls him, he puts into port; at night he furls a portion of his canvas; and when the whitening billows intimate the vicinity of land, he checks his way and takes an observation of the sun.

But the American neglects these precautions and braves these dangers. He weighs anchor in the midst of tempestuous gales; by night and day he spreads his sheets to the winds; he repairs as he goes along such damage as his vessel may have sustained from the storm; and when at last approaches the term of his voyage, he darts onward to the shore as if he already descried a port. The Americans are often shipwrecked, but no trader crosses the sea so rapidly. And as they perform the same distance in a shorter time, they can perform it at a cheaper rate.

As Benjamin Franklin once noted, the Americans - as de Tocqueville would call us - had become an entirely different race of people. And that went for sailors, too.

Header: Alexis de Tocqueville by Theodore Chasseriau c 1850, just six years prior to his death, via Wikipedia

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: An End of Long Strife


August 26, 1865: The Civil War ends with the U.S. Navy at its highest numbers to the day: 600 ships and 58,500 sailors.

Header: Battle of Mobile Bay by Xanthus R. Smith c 1890 via Wikimedia

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Pick/Pike


I was inspired to pick today’s words by U.S. Navy pikes. Trust me, that insane sentence will make sense by the end of this post.

In sailor-speak, pick means the usual things it does on land. Even at sea you can pick your nose and you can pick your friends but I’m not going to finish that old canard. Canard, as an aside, means duck in French; while ducks have beaks and friends, they have no noses. It is only at sea, however, that a ship can pick up the wind. This is a term for a sailing ship going from one trade or other reliable wind to another while avoiding calms as much as possible. This was a favorite tactic of clipper ships in their heyday as they ran from New York to San Francisco then on to China and around to New York again.

Pickets are pointed staffs thrust into the ground to demark military terrain, or even just tie a horse to. Pickets may also be markers for pointing a mortar towards its target, even if same is not visible from the weapon. Piquet is a group put on watch at a distance from the main body of military to sound the first alarm in case of approach by the enemy.

A picard was a type of barge or boat once used for shipping materials and livestock on the Severn river in England. The word’s origin may or may not be related to the French word for a native of Picardy. A picaroon was a small vessel used for piracy in the New World whose name probably originated with the Old World term for petty theft. Piccary was petty thievery on the High Seas and in England pickerie was the theft of small items – a loaf of bread or an apple – that was usually considered the act of women and/or children. The long-standing sentence for pickerie was the far-worse-than-it-sounds punishment of ducking or swimming. Usually carried out in either very cold and/or filthy bodies of water, this form of torture could lead to death outright or infection that essentially amounted to a death sentence.

Pickling for sea voyages was done not only to food but also to wood. Pickling of timber in order to make it more durable was often accomplished with Sir William Burnett’s fluid, a solution of chloride and zinc. Because of this method, pickling was sometimes called Burnettizing.

A picul (or, more properly, pekul) was a commercial weight in China equivalent to approximately 130 pounds. Pictarnie is a Scottish word for the seagoing bird known as a tern.

A pike-turn or a turn-pike is what was known to the French as a chevaux de frise. This was the habit of topping military pikes with iron and standing them upright through beams, much like a fence, to discourage the enemy. In fact, the French term – which literally translates curly hair – is used to this day to denote a certain type of wrought iron fencing.

Finally, a pike is best described by Admiral Smyth:

A long, slender, round staff, armed at the end with iron (as in a boarding-pike). Formerly in general use but which gave way to the bayonet.

And so here is the picture, from the U.S Navy’s Twitter feed, that got me thinking about pikes while picking today’s words. I told you it would all make sense. Eventually.

Header: Engraving of a ducking or water ordeal from the late Medieval period via The Medievalist

Friday, August 24, 2012

Booty: Truly Amazing

As the Brethren are well aware, I am currently spending a good bit of my time kicking cancer's ugly ass in true piratical fashion.  That means that the schedule aboard the good ship Triple P will be adjusting slightly for my early morning radiation treatments. We started yesterday, radiation and I, and should finish up the first or second week in October. Until then, posting may be spotty but I'll do my best and I may occasionally pull an old favorite out of the archives.

For today, though, a truly amazing reminder of just how magnificent - and powerful - the lakes, seas and oceans of our blue planet can be. Watch waterspouts form over Lake Michigan in this video from CNN.

Happy Friday; I'll be back tomorrow with Sailor Mouth Saturday!

Header: One More Step Mr. Hands, illustration by N.C. Wyeth from Treasure Island via Wikimedia

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

History: Harsh Medicine


The work of a surgeon aboard ship in the Great Age of Sail was no picnic. Men were more often ill than injured; statistics kept by the Royal Navy on their Jamaica station from the late 18th century until the end of the War of 1812 bare this out. More men died of yellow fever than of any other cause. In war or peace, men still managed to contract illnesses.

Until the mid-19th century, the essential approach to such issues was one of “imbalance.” The humors, as originally specified by Galen in the first century CE, had to be in perfect order for the body to be healthy. Thus such treatments as bleeding and purging, incomprehensible to the modern mind, were commonly applied to draw out the ill-humors and right the body’s functions.

One of the most wince-worthy treatments of the time was blistering, which is not as often spoken of as bloodletting but was equally popular. This application was used to draw heat out of the body and was therefore applied in the case of fevers, swelling and sepsis. If an area of the body was red and hot to the touch, then it stood to reason – at least when applying the theory of humors – that the heat needed to be taken away with a form of like heat. Enter blistering.

Blistering agents, sometimes referred to as epispastics, were generally made of a wax or lard base. The key ingredient in almost all blistering plasters was cantharide beetles dried and then ground to a fine powder. The beetles, often called Spanish flies, had an irritant in their exoskeleton to discourage predators which would cause inflammation.

Along with use as a blistering agent, Spanish fly was also sprinkled on food or in wine as an aphrodisiac. The painful result, unfortunately, was an irritation of the urethra. Since this would sometimes lead to prolonged erections both in the male penis and the female clitoris, the use of Spanish fly has persisted into the modern era. (Don’t try that at home kids; you can end up needing to be catheterized in order to urinate. Nobody wants that.)

Mrs. Child, in her 1830s publication The Family Nurse, gives a straight forward recipe for a blistering ointment as well as instructions for application:

The common blistering plaster is made of fresh mutton tallow, yellow wax, resin of pine, cantharides, or Spanish flies; equal portions of each. The flies are finely powdered and added to the other ingredients previously melted together and removed from the fire. Usually spread on soft leather or kid, somewhat larger than the hand. If the surface be spread with powdered flies, it is more irritating. If this fails to draw a blister, Venice turpentine, powdered mustard and black pepper are sometimes mixed with it.

The optimal result saw large blisters breaking out on the “cherry red” skin. Mrs. Child goes on to up the teeth-gritting quotient by advising that, should the blisters formed by the plaster refuse to pop in a timely manner, they should be snipped “with sharp scissors” before linen is applied to absorb the desired discharge. She does mention that one should go light on the cantharides in plasters made for children.

The generally soft-hearted and homeopathic-leaning Mrs. Child also gives a number of ways to relieve the inevitable pain brought on by this treatment. These include cabbage or plantain leaves soaked in milk and used as a “soothing dressing.” It is doubtful that any navy surgeon would have troubled himself with such coddling of a patient; one shudders to think of the application of a blistering aboard a pirate vessel.

The distasteful regimen of blistering fell out of favor by the late 19th century, but a far less harmful remnant of the treatment remained. It is no doubt that most of our great-grandmothers applied a “mustard plaster” to their sick children. This smelly but harmless treatment was meant to clear up clogged nasal passages. A form of such home-brewed medicine remains today in the familiar application we know as Vicks Vapo Rub.

Header: Subtraction by H. Heath via Wikimedia (it will take more than a blistering plaster to help those sailors…)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ships: Small but Mighty


On August 21st in the year of our Lord 1607, a group of Englishmen began construction on the first vessel built by Europeans in the New World. She would make her maiden voyage on the Kennebec River in what was then Massachusetts Territory and is now the sovereign state of Maine. Her builders would name her Virginia, after Elizabeth I, and her type would be recorded as a pinnace. Exactly what sort of pinnace, for there were several over the course of history, is open to debate. Two possibilities stand out in particular, so let us explore them both.

The first type of pinnace built by Europeans would probably be more recognizable to modern historians as a small galleon. This sturdy, useful vessel was originally built by the Dutch, who called her a pinas. These ships were used mostly for the merchant round from the British Isles, around the Iberian Peninsula into the Mediterranean and back. You can see a modern replica here.

According to the Chatham Dockyard website, the first pinnace of the galleon class built in England was named Sunne and launched in 1586. Shipwrecked evidence leads to the conclusion that the British may have been the first country to use the galleon-built pinnace as a warship. An English pinnace, probably from the early 17th century and carrying 12 matching cannon, was found in 2009.

This type of ship-rigged, three masted vessel was also popular with the buccaneers of the Caribbean during the age of Laurens de Graff and Henry Morgan. Its shallow draft and light construction – the ships were often made of pine, which may be the origin of their name – made them ideal from men who were more interested in plundering on land than sailing on wave.

Another type of pinnace was being built in the same era, and its small frame and ease of design make it a more likely candidate as a descendant of Virginia. These were a sturdy ship that must more properly be called a boat and resembled the illustration at the header. Rowed with eight oars or propelled by sails on one or sometimes two masts, this pinnace would become a staple among large ship’s boats in the Great Age of Sail.

These smaller pinnaces were most often used as a tender by larger ships. They were utilized for provisioning, as mail packets, to run men or messages between ships at sea and to carry parties of men ashore when necessary. They were extremely popular with smugglers in Europe and their construction may in part have influenced the pirogue, built in the American south and used for much the same purpose.

This second type of pinnace, a smaller, lighter, less cumbersome invention, was probably what the Puritans at the mouth of the Kennebec River put together in 1607. It was only a matter of time, however, until larger ships were turned out from dockyards along the Atlantic coast. Still, the small but mighty pinnace continued and is still in use today.

Header: An American Pinnace in Virginia 1584 by Seth Eastman c 1850 via Wikipedia

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sea Monsters: Sea Serpent of Portland


Arrived here, schooner Maxamilla, Freeman Smith, master, from Lubeck, with 44 Irish passengers, for New York. Captain S. states that on Thursday about 40 miles S.E. of Monhegin [Island], the weather moderate, he discovered as he judged, about two miles ahead, something he took to be a small boat under sail; but finding it soon disappeared, the conclusion was that the object was the area’s noted sea serpent. In a few moments anticipation was realized: as the monster was discovered about a quarter of a mile to the leeward with his head about 15 feet out of the water, and his tail at the same time about 10 feet out, his breast, or body, near the water, was encircled with a clear white stripe, the diameter to appearance about 6 feet. In this position the monster remained two minutes, as if attentively viewing the vessel; and he then began thrashing the water, with his head alternately upon either side, with the most fury.

~ from a brief article in the Portland, Maine Eastern Argus dated August 21, 1818

Header: Moonrise on the Coast by John W. Casilear via American Gallery

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: The Horrors of War


August 19, 1702: A six day engagement between a British squadron under Vice Admiral John Benbow and a French squadron under Admiral Jean du Casse began off the coast of Santa Marta, Grand Colombia. Benbow vigorously attacked the French squadron, but the refusal of most of his captains to support the action allowed du Casse to escape. Two of the captains, Richard Kirby of HMS Defiance and Cooper Wade of HMS Greenwich were convicted of cowardice and shot.

Header: The Horrors of War by Caroline Tank via American Gallery

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Cheat


As the Brethren are well aware, sailors are a superstitious lot. Today’s word plays in to that mind set. And it also points up where and when a sailor is not afraid to let superstition go by the board to save his skin, or for an extra few minutes of blessed sleep.

The practice known at sea as cheating the Devil has everything to do with superstition. Bringing the Lord, or for that matter the Arch Fiend, into one’s speech was a sure way to court disaster aboard ship. This lead to what Admiral Smyth refers to as the “softening of very profane phrases” in The Sailor’s Word Book. Thus “God’s death” might come out as ‘od’s depth. Other epithets familiar to the seamen that would otherwise feature the word God might include ‘od’s blood, ‘od rot it, or for ‘od’s sake.

On the other hand, calling up the Devil would never do either, except as an absolute last resort. In such cases, a sailor might offer his hair to the Devil, throwing a lock into the water or up into the wind to please Old Scratch in desperate times. Help in a pinch is help, after all; the consequences can be dealt with later. All things being equal, however, sailors would rather not court Satan. Thus phrases like by gosh, be darned and dang you probably had a seagoing origin. More colorful terms such as deuce take you and see you blown first might also be overheard. Better safe than sorry after all.

The habit known as cheating, or flogging, the glass comes from a time when clocks were not a feature on a ship’s deck. The timing of bells and watches was kept by means of a half-hour glass which was usually hung near the binnacle.  General understanding among seamen had it that the sand would run through the glass more quickly if exposed to vibration. A man might “cheat the glass” by jarring it surreptitiously. As Admiral Smyth aptly puts it:

… hence some weary soul towards the end of his watch was said to flog the glass.

Given that the average Jack got no more than four hours at a stretch of free time at sea, one can imagine a tired soul being desperate to hurry time along.

Happy Saturday, Brethren; watch your language – and the glass – out there.

Header: Sunset by Mykola Yaroshenko via Old Paint

Friday, August 17, 2012

Booty: "Making to You Intimidation"

I don't have a whole lot of time this morning so I am going to let the letter above, from Jamal's Pirate Action Group, speak for itself. Click to enlarge and see what happens when Somali pirates get their business together.

My thanks to the First Mate and the good folks over at Bro Bible for this little piece of "modern history."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Women at Sea: Mademoiselle de la Rocque


On the face of it, the story of Marguerite de la Rocque reads as a simple one. Good girl from up-and-coming family gets knocked up and kicked out of the house. In Marguerite’s case, the situation and consequences of her scandal were so unusual as to be extreme.

In what year and exactly where Marguerite was born remains somewhat of a mystery. We know that her influential kinsman, Jean-Francois de la Rocque de Roberval, was born around 1500 in the ancient city of Carcassonne, located in southern France. We also know that Marguerite held lands in Languedoc, also in southern France, in her own name by 1536. She also jointly owned land in Pontpoint with Roberval. Roberval would have a significant effect on Marguerite’s life but their exact relationship continues as pure speculation. Certain historians call them brother and sister or half-siblings while others say they were cousins. Either way, Marguerite seems to have been under the protection of Roberval by the time she reached maturity.

Roberval was a social climber who wormed his way into a friendship with the young Francois I of France during a brief military foray into Italy in 1524. Francois took a shine to young Jean and gifted him the estate of Roberval in northern France. There, the two buddies spent time hunting and womanizing but Roberval could not keep up with Francois’ expensive tastes. He borrowed heavily on his estates in the south and did a brief but unsuccessful stint as a French privateer when those same estates were threatened with foreclosure.

Desperate, Roberval returned to Francois and proposed that the king grant him a commission to recolonize New France. This was the area of Canada now known as Quebec and Newfoundland. Roberval had help convincing Francois from a shifty individual named Jacques Cartier. Cartier had been to New France, and he enjoyed flashing the “diamonds and gold” – which were in fact nothing more expensive than quartz crystal and pyrite – that he had found there “in great abundance.”

The king agreed and made Roberval Lieutenant General of New France in 1541. At this time, it is reasonable to assume that Marguerite was somewhere between 20 and 25 years old. And it is here that the narrative of her life’s story turns from standard to curious indeed.

For some reason that history fails to mention, Marguerite de la Rocque signed on for her kinsman’s passage to New France. Why a young, unmarried woman from a good family and with land in her own name would do such a thing is a point for discussion. Even if Roberval was her appointed guardian, one might imagine that a good marriage would be a better way to look after her than packing her off to an unknown, inhospitable colony. All the same, that is what Roberval did and Marguerite, along with her maidservant Damienne, boarded the ship Valentine bound for New France in April of 1542.

The passage was doubtless grueling, as all travel was at the time. Three ships held 200 colonists along with Roberval’s men, a few horses and the ships’ sailors. At some point during the months-long cruise, Marguerite began an affair with one of her shipmates. Who this man was remains part of the mystery surrounding her. Speculation makes him everything from a young knight to a hardened soldier. In her novella about Marguerite published in 1559, the Queen of Spain, Marguerite of Navarre, made the young man a poor carpenter.

Who he was not withstanding, Roberval found out about the man’s dalliance with his kinswoman and he did not take it lightly. In true puritanical fashion (Roberval was secretly a member of the Calvinist church in France, known as Huguenots), the new Lieutenant General marooned a probably pregnant Marguerite de la Rocque on a barren island off the coast of Quebec, along with her maid. In some accounts, the offending lover was set down on the island with them. In others, he jumped off the departing ship and swam to Marguerite’s side. Either way the three, or perhaps four, marooners were stuck on the Isle de Demons – island of Demons which is speculated to be the modern Hospital Island.

What exactly happened during the two and a half years that Marguerite was literally stranded can’t be said, but she certainly encountered one hardship after another. Local legend says that the band of three took shelter in a particular cave. It is known that they had a certain amount of provisions, including at least one gun, black powder and shot, one or more knives, a Bible and perhaps bread. In short order they had to turn to hunting and gathering. Before the birth of her baby, both Damienne the maidservant and Marguerite’s lover had died.

Marguerite managed to give birth on her own. If she was indeed pregnant when Roberval marooned her, the blessed event would have occurred in the spring. It is probably no surprise to anyone that Marguerite’s final companion, and apparently only child, died within a month of her birth.

Even in the face of so much loss, Marguerite went on. She wielded the gun with aplomb, even taking down a bear at one point. She was wrapped in its skin when Basque fishermen from Newfoundland happened by in the fall of 1544. She climbed into their boat, clutching her tattered Bible, and never looked back.

Marguerite returned to France, where legend says she opened a school for girls in Picardy. No records exist of any legal action brought against Roberval on her behalf. It seems a certainty that, after failing in New France, he returned to Paris and claimed her lands as his own. This greedy act may very well have been the motive for his brutal treatment of Marguerite from the very beginning.

But karma, then as now, is a hard mistress. Leaving a Huguenot meeting one night in Paris, Roberval and a group of companions were attacked and beaten to death by a Catholic mob. He was 59 or 60 years old.

The unfortunately little-known story of Marguerite de la Rocque, the female Robinson Crusoe who knew the isolation of a marooner years before Alexander Selkirk was even born, remains a titillating fabric whose frayed edges cry out to be sewn up.

Header: Can You Hear Me Now by Christina Ramos via American Gallery

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

History: The Crafty Spy


With the celebratory goings on over the bicentennial of the War of 1812 here in the U.S., I’m feeling the itch to get back to my roots and talk a little bit about the contributions made by a certain pirate ancestor.  Since the war was initially about insults at sea and fought on wave to a large degree, it only makes sense that Renato Beluche would want to get in on the action, so to say.

Beluche, who was at the time of his birth the oldest son of “Big” Rene and Rose Laporte Beluche, took to the sea at an early age.  His father died sometime after Renato’s eighth birthday leaving a pregnant wife and a mound of debts.  The young man went where he could get work, down to the docks, and by the age of 16 owned and captained his own vessel.  By the time the U.S. declared war on Great Britain in June of 1812, Beluche was a seasoned privateer and a lieutenant in Bolivar’s Cartagenan navy.

Probably close to half of the ships that cruised under an American flag during the war were privately owned and holding a letter of marque from the U.S. government.  According to Dr. Jane Lucas de Grummond, who published the definitive biography on Renato Beluche in 1983, six of those commissions were issued out of New Orleans in August of 1812.  One of these went to a schooner named Spy.

Spy was nominally owned by a New Orleans merchant named Stephen Debon, according to the commission.  Debon turned command, and the letter of marque, over to Beluche.  This is perhaps a less curious turn of events than it may appear.  Throughout his career, Renato Beluche owned one or more privateers, sometimes captaining them himself and sometimes turning command over to others among the loose-knit band of pirates and privateers who called Barataria their home port.  Ships were then and still are vulnerable things and, in a pinch, it was always better to sail for someone else than not to sail at all.

Beluche had recently lost his own brig, L’Intrepide, along with a prize to a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.  Doubtless Debon’s offer of a ship and a commission was too good to refuse.  Therein, however, may lay the conundrum of the business relationship between Monsieur Debon and Captain Beluche.

In November of 1812, Stephen Debon brought suit against Renato Beluche in a New Orleans court.  The complaint claimed that Debon, as owner of Spy, had been cheated out of his share of prize money by Beluche.  This had occurred, said the complaint, because Beluche had taken more than one prize into Barataria rather than bringing them into New Orleans as specifically outlined in Spy’s U.S. letter of marque.

On the face of it, Debon appears to be in the right. In order to lawfully libel a prize, the captain of the privateer must bring said prize into the port from which he (or she if you will) received his commission.  Unfortunately for Monsieur Debon, he was dealing with a man who had learned his craft well and whose close friends and associates, the Laffite brothers, had connections in court.

Beluche engaged one of those connections, former New Orleans District Attorney John Randolph Grymes, who went to work rebutting Debon’s complaint immediately.  Grymes argued that of course Beluche had taken prizes into Barataria, no one was disputing that.  Those prizes were Spanish merchants, however, taken under Beluche’s commission from Cartagena.  Should Spy capture a British vessel under the auspices of the U.S. letter of marque, he would bring it to New Orleans for legal libel and Debon would promptly be paid his share.

Another Laffite sympathizer, Judge Dominique Hall, saw things the way Grymes outlined them.  He dismissed Debon’s complaint and, probably in the same pen-stroke, authorized the libel of a British merchant, Jane, recently brought into New Orleans as prize by none other than Beluche aboard Spy.  Perhaps his share of her cargo of mahogany and logwood, which the Louisiana Gazette estimated at “35 to 40$ per ton”, was enough to make Debon realize he needn’t trouble himself further.

The legal wrangling, which only went on until February 1, 1813 when Judge Hall announced his decision, is an excellent example of the crafty use of letters of marque by the men who sailed out of Barataria.  As William C. Davis notes in The Pirates Laffite, international law forbade the holding of more than one country’s letter of marque at any given time.  With this in mind, Debon’s argument was legally valid. 

But, as my dear Uncle Renato clearly knew better than Monsieur Debon, nothing gets shit done like having powerful friends who have friends in high places.

Header: Ship at Sea by Marcia Woodbury via American Gallery

Monday, August 13, 2012

Tools of the Trade: "That Disgust of Existence"


We’ve discussed seasickness, and its causes and cures, before here at Triple P.  As it turns out, almost all animals can succumb to seasickness and humans are not often spared.  That includes, it seems, literary lions from days gone by.  Here is a little insight into the miseries suffered by none other than Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame:

That disgust of existence, which, in half an hour of sailing, begins to come upon you; that strange, mysterious ineffable sensation which steals slowly and inexplicably upon you; which makes every heaving billow, every white-capped wave, the ship, the people, the sight, taste, sound and smell of everything a matter of inexpressible loathing! 

An excellent summation, no doubt.  The great Charles Dickens, however, chose to see the bright side, if you will:

I lay there, all the day long, quite coolly and contentedly; with no sense of weariness, with no desire to get up, or to get better, or take the air; with no curiosity, or care, or regret of any sort or degree, saving that I think I can remember, in the universal indifference, having a kind of lazy joy – of fiendish delight, if anything so lethargic can be dignified with the title – in the fact of my wife being too ill to talk to me. 

That’s one way to get the old ball and chain to shut up, no matter how extreme.  Ernest Shackleton wrote of some of his comrades in Antarctic exploration being “appallingly seasick.”  In particular, the ponies he had brought along on the expedition suffered interminably in high seas.  Creatures of the equine persuasion cannot vomit, so their misery was doubled by a constant nausea that had no release.

Perhaps Hippocrates put it most succinctly when he quipped “Sailing on the sea proves that motion disturbs the body.”  One wonders if it got his wife to clam up for a while as well.

Header: Sunrise on the Bay of Fundi by William Bradford

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Daring Hull

August 12, 1812: America’s flagship, USS Constitution, captured and destroyed the British brig Adeona.  This a mere week before her captain, Isaac Hull, would become famous in the U.S. for his ship’s decisive action against HMS Guerrier.  Find out more about Hull at the Naval History & Heritage Command.


Header: Contemporary portrait of Captain Isaac Hull from NH&HC

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Service


Two weevils crept from the crumbs.  “You see those weevils, Stephen?” said Jack solemnly.

“I do.”

“Which would you choose?”

“There is not a scrap of difference.  Arcades ambo.  They are the same species of curculio, and there is nothing to choose between them.”

“But suppose you had to choose?”

“Then I should choose the right-hand weevil; it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.”

“There I have you,” cried Jack.  “You are bit – you are completely dished.  Don’t you know that in the Navy you must choose the lesser of two weevils? Oh ha, ha, ha, ha!”

~ from The Fortunes of War by Patrick O’Brian

What one should do in the Navy was always uppermost in Triple P’s favorite fictional captain’s mind.  Jack Aubrey was bred to the service, knowing very little of life away from his familiar wooden world upon wave.  And service, in the form of word and action, would have been equally dear; it was and still is to men and women like Captain Aubrey.

Service is, as Admiral Smyth notes, the “general term” for the profession of military men and women.  But the word had other meanings aboard ship in the Great Age of Sail that may seem unusual, perhaps even surprising, to the modern mind.

To see service was a well-used term at the time for being involved in fighting action.  The risks of same, of course, were and still are part of the general term.

A serving board was a flat piece of wood with a handle, vaguely resembling a pizza board, which was used for passing items from one man to another while working in the rigging.  The handle was usually attached to a so called served rope, which kept the board or other tools from toppling to the deck.  This rope, made of old yarns, was sometimes simply referred to as a service.  The making of such a rope, and others besides, was accomplished in part with a serving mallet.  This had a groove on one side and was used to wrap the yarns tightly to form a rope.

Serving out slops is the ancient phrase for handing out clothing from the stores to men aboard ship.  This is not the same as the auctioning of personal effects that sometimes occurred after the death of a mate at sea.  The phrase became a euphemism for flogging or other punishments on both sides of the Atlantic by the middle of the 18th century.

Gun crews were said to serve their gun.  Originally this meant supplying each individual cannon with shot, powder and light but eventually the phrase took on the meaning of the crew working together to see that their gun was fired fast, clean and true.

Aboard ship, too, men, machines and stores were referred to as serviceable.  A man was serviceable if he was able, stores serviceable if fit for use, and those aforementioned guns serviceable if they could be used without fear of misfire or explosion.

And so then as now – keeping in mind that military service has been voluntary in most places throughout most of history – those who choose to serve deserve our thanks, respect and admiration.  Triple P salutes you all; you are the true heroes in our world.

Finally, just in case you were wondering, Dean King kindly enlightens as to the meaning of the Latin phrase Arcades ambo in his A Sea of Words:

Two people of the same tastes, professions or character, often used derogatorily.  The Latin means literally “both Arcadians,” i.e., two pastoral poets or musicians.

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

Friday, August 10, 2012

Booty: Come Hell or High Water

So it looks like the good folks at Diageo, the company that makes and distributes Captain Morgan's Rum, are going to make the odd jumble of artifacts found over a year ago in Panama's Chagres River the remains of Henry Morgan's fleet.  And that, as this oh so well researched article from the Huffington Post lets us know, is just about that.

I've gnashed my teeth over this before so I won't trouble the Brethren with the many, many reasons why we are rushing to judgement by naming the artifacts as Morgan's.  I have yet to see an article that mentions carbon or any other reliable form of dating of these items.  As an old archaeologist that grinds my bones but, basically, what we have here is corporate sponsored history.  And those cannon and stuff are Morgan's, come hell or high water.

Click over to the article, which is basically just a mish-mash of quotes from other equally reliable news sources (Fox News and Popular Mechanics figure in the mix), if you are so inclined.  The only thing I can personally vouch for there are the pictures; those, it must be said, are quite lovely.

Header: The Ruyter map of the West Indies c 1747 via Wikimedia

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

People: The Devout Buccaneer


Today’s pirate is of the boucanier variety.  Known only by his surname, as Captain Daniel, the historians who have written about him agree that he was from France.  His exploits seem to have occurred in the French islands of the Caribbean and it is possible, from one specific connection, to speculate that he may have dealt in slaves.  However, only one story of Captain Daniel has come down to us in tact.  Fortunately, it’s a good one.

In Philip Gosse’s The Pirate’sWho’s Who, Gosse quotes the now famous Pere Labat who was the Procurator General of the Antilles by 1696.  This priest, who lived many years in the Caribbean, owned a large sugar plantation and devised new ways of harvesting and processing the cane.  He kept a large number of slaves, the bulk of whom he is said to have treated with uniform brutality (for more on the life of a slave on Caribbean sugar plantations, see this excellent post by my friend Leah Marie Brown).  With that, or perhaps because of it, he was particularly fond of the buccaneers who sailed in and out of his island’s ports, and wrote of them in his book A New Voyage to the Islands of America, published in 1722.

Gosse tells us that Daniel put in to “one of the Saintes” in the Caribbean in search of “wine, brandy and fowls.”  Though the locals were at first skittish about the pirates rummaging around their town for supplies, Daniel was adamant that he had no intention of doing violence upon them.  Apparently to show his good will, he invited the town’s elite to board his ship and be his guests.  One of those herded onto the pirate vessel was the local priest. 

While the provisions were being loaded aboard ship, Daniel showed his guests around.  At some point, apparently focusing his attention on the terrified priest, he asked that the man say Mass for his guests and his crew.  A request “which the poor priest dared not refuse.”  Going on to quote from Harling, who is probably paraphrasing Labat, Gosse gives us a clear picture of what happened next:

So the necessary sacred vessels were sent for and an altar improvised on the deck for the service, which they chanted to the best of their ability.  As at Martinique, the Mass was begun with a discharge of artillery, and after the Exaudiat and prayer for the King, was closed by a loud “Vive le Roi” from the throats of the buccaneers.  A single incident, however, somewhat disturbed the devotions.  One of the buccaneers, remaining in an indecent attitude during the Elevation, was rebuked by the captain and instead of heeding the correction, replied with an impertinence and a fearful oath.  Quick as a flash Daniel whipped our his pistol and shot the buccaneer through the head, adjuring God that he would do as much to the first who failed in his respect to the Holy Sacrifice.  The shot was fired close by the priest who, as we can readily imagine, was considerable agitated. “Do not be troubled, my father,” said Daniel; “he was a rascal lacking in his duty and I have punished him to teach him better.”

Presumably, Mass went on and afterward the offender’s body was tossed into the sea.  The guests, who surely had a story to tell for years to come, were thanked and excused.  The priest was paid for his service, Gosse says, in “some goods out of [the pirates’] stores and the present of a negro slave.”

This last point makes me wonder about the Labat connection.  The Procurator General’s ill treatment of his own slaves meant he would have needed a steady supply of new ones coming in.  Did men like Daniel help the priest turned planter out with human chattel at lower prices than the market had set?  I have no proof of such dealings with buccaneers, but it would explain Labat’s soft spot for the violent freebooters who roamed the Caribbean when he was there.

Header: Looting Buccaneers by Howard Pyle via Wikipedia

Monday, August 6, 2012

Literature: "Cans of Grog"

When sailing orders do arrive
Bold Jack he takes his leave
My dear sweetest Pol he cries
I pray now do not grieve.

Thy Jack will take his daily can
Of grog and drink to thee
In hopes that thou will n'er forget
Thy sailor who's at sea.

But should thou false or fickle prove
To Jack who loves thee dear
No more upon my native shore
Can I with joy appear.

But restless as the briny main
Must heartless heave the log
Shall trim the sails and try to drown
My sorrow in cans of grog.

~ Cans of Grog; a sea chanty dating back to the late 18th or early 19th century

Header: Foam Study by my dear friend Munin

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: "Damn the Torpedoes!"


August 5, 1864: Union Navy Rear Admiral David Farragut wins the Battle of Mobile Bay, closing down the last Confederate port on the Gulf Coast.  He famously tied himself into the rigging of his ship during the action to guide his fleet through Confederate torpedoes and uttered the memorable line “Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed (or go) ahead!”

Header: World War I U.S. Navy recruiting poster featuring Farragut at Mobile Bay from the author's collection

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Room


The word room was familiar to English speaking seamen in various capacities when Drake ruled the waves.   As Admiral Smyth notes in The Sailor’s Word Book, the word was interchangeable – or perhaps stood in the stead of – the more modern term large in regard to sailing.  The term going room, according to the Admiral, was documented in England as early as 1578.  Used in this sense, the phrase meant the same as going large: sailing “with the wind free when studding-sails will draw.”  This might also be expressed as rooming or running to leeward.

Larger ships of old and to some degree to this day, had rooms.  They were, of course, not proper rooms as in a home or even cabins per se, depending on the type, but were nonetheless referred to as rooms.  In no particular order, and doubtless with a careless omission or two, one might find in a frigate or particularly a man-of-war such rooms as:

Cook room: another, more ancient, term for the galley.
Sail room: generally on the orlop deck, an enclosed space where spare sails can be kept clean and – in particular – dry, thus free of mold.  In very large ships more than one sail room might be kept.
Light room: attached to the powder room or magazine, this was where flints and slow match would be kept for the great guns.
Powder room: where the volatile black powder was kept for guns and small arms.  Like the sail room, dry conditions here and in the light room were absolutely necessary.
Gun room: located on the after-gun deck of larger ships, this was where gun deck officers and/or warrant men would take meals.  In frigates and smaller ships, this room might be located in steerage.
Ward room: generally above the gun room, this was where lieutenants and midshipmen slept and ate.
Bread room: another dry room often lined with sheeting of some kind and used to store bread and ship’s biscuit.
Spirit room: often located next to the bread room in the hold, this room contained the ship’s liquor and was frequently kept under lock and key, for obvious reasons.

The term sea room, still used today, indicates a ship running along free of seen or unseen dangers such as shore, shoals, reefs etc.  In such case, she is said to have “good offing”.

Happy Saturday, Brethren, and a mug of grog to y’all.

Header: Lee Shore by Edward Hopper via American Gallery