Friday, July 31, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Do You Have Your Hall Pass, Mister?

"Letter of marque" is one of those terms that gets bonked around the piratosphere without anyone really thinking about it. I hear it referred to in
all kinds of goofy ways and kind of wonder if the people spouting the words really know what they're talking about. Now that's not to say that your humble Pauline is all knowing - far from it actually. All the same, Triple P is here to set the record straight and the reality is that a letter of marque is what separates the pirates from the privateers. Let's begin with a little history because oh! how I do adore the history.

First off the name. Marque is a word which in the Norman French spoken in England at the creation of letters of marque meant "seizure of merchandise". Now the story.

In the thirteenth century, King Henry III of England (that's him up there in all his entombed glory) had a cash flow problem. Engaged in never ending wars with both France and Spain, his treasury was getting down to that last layer of gold and England's citizens were shouldering a tax burden the would have made Atlas shrug. Then Henry, or one of his advisers perhaps, got a brainstorm. Why not give private ship's captains the right to raid enemy shipping as long as they share a portion (in this instance a staggering half) of their gains with the crown? Why the hell not! Private Captains quickly pledged their service to a handy piece of paper (vellum actually but who is keeping track, really) that allowed them to get rich and helped their King to not only swell the ranks of his navy but lift some of that clunky tax burden from the folks at home.

When the wars temporarily ceased, Henry saw nothing wrong with issuing a charming and I must say underused form of the wartime letters of marque. Known as letters of reprisal or special reprisal letters of marque, these little gems allowed a merchant captain who had goods stolen by pirates to plunder any ship from the original pirates' country of origin to recoup his losses (and then some, one has to imagine). Brilliant!

Letters of marque were a wonderful way for a cagey King with a need for cash and a few ports at hand to fill out, or even create, his naval presence. Henry VIII essentially created a privateer navy for England with letters of marque (the Henry number 3's navy having gone by the board some time before). His daughter, the clever Elizabeth, made her country rich and heroes of slavers like John Hawkins and adventurers like his cousin Francis Drake by buying into their enterprises and handing out letters of marque.

The French and Spanish were quick to sign on and European waters in the 16th and 17th century were jam packed with legal pirates taking each others' goods and chuckling as they sailed away. The gold and silver found in Central and South America by the Spanish conquistadors upped the ante by ten and it was off to the Spanish Main, papers in hand and high hopes billowing like full sails.

Here's where things got really gray really fast. By this time letters of marque had become like Butterball turkeys. They had a timer - usually set for one calendar year but there were exceptions - and when it popped up you became a pirate if you took further prizes without going back home and renewing your papers. But who has time to run back to England when you are gleefully pillaging Spanish galleons off Panama? You don't, do you? Sometimes even a trip to the nearest friendly port to find the local governor is too much and then a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. So yeah; more gold meant more pirates.

The last great purveyor of letters of marque was the Liberator of Half a Continent, Simon Bolivar. From approximately 1809 to 1820, Bolivar amassed a decidedly rag-tag navy of privateers from all over the Gulf and Caribbean states (including the U.S.). These men harassed Spanish shipping with Bolivar's Cartagenan letters of marque while he fought the war on land and then on paper to liberate Grand Columbia from Spain. Letters of marque were also issued by rebels in Argentina and Chile but on nowhere near the scale that Bolivar achieved. When his struggle, and his life, were finally fading away, Bolivar grew sickened by the majority of the men who claimed him as their benefactor. He withdrew all his letters of marque across the board and ended the last stand of the truly great privateers.

Sure, just because you could obtain a letter of marque didn't mean you were legit. There were forgeries, of course, and that "I left my license at home, officer" excuse came up now and then. For the most part, though, a bona fide letter of marque put you on track for society's smile when you came home rich and ready to settle down (maybe I should say if you came home at all).

Oh yeah, but don't think it will necessarily save you from hanging. One man's privateer is another man's pirate.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

History: Wait, You Don't Look Like Your Picture at That Online Dating Service

The above, Brethren, is a painting of four simple sailors having a drink and a song in the glory days of privateering. Their names? Some of you may know, but keep it to yourselves until I'm done rambling, OK? Many thanks! And now:
I often think of historical research the way I imagine most people perceive online dating. You get a hankerin' and take that leap of faith onto the internets (the equivalent of that first niggle that says - for me anyway - "I'd like to write about this era/person/event in history"). Then, you're given options to chose from (this time that equates to the different views of various first person accounts and historian's interpretations). Next, you have to choose from what you've been offered (which historical account sounds the most plausible and will it work in the medium you've chosen). Finally, you have to commit. Sooner or later, date number one is going to lead to date number two or, in my case, I gotta put it down on paper and make it sound not only convincing but interesting - even gripping.

That perhaps too wordy exposition brings us to the red clad cavalier above. Looking like a constipated reject from an original Shakespeare audition at the Globe Theatre, the captions under the picture all over the web read "Jean Lafitte". I've done my research, I've chosen my story and I've read the first person accounts. I just don't think that's the same guy I'm talking about.

Jean Laffite (there is some debate about the spelling of the name, but we'll save that for another time), along with his older brother Pierre, ran the last great privateer/pirate base in North America. From their original port of Barataria Bay (proudly pictured on the Triple P banner) they oversaw a small fleet of privateers and then sold the corsair's booty to the citizen of Louisiana. Jean was the big dog in Barataria, working from his base on the Island of Grande Terre. Pierre was the numbers guy, keeping track of stock and sales from his home in New Orleans. It was a slick, profitable outfit that preceded the modern racketeer game by over 100 years. Heros? That debate is a post in itself. Savvy business men with a gift for leadership? No doubt what ever. And handsome? Ladies, let me tell you.

My arguments about the portrait above go beyond a special affection for the bos of Barataria. There are historical precedents that will easily refute the authenticity of that painting, nice though it may be. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.
In his delightfully written and exhaustively researched book "The Pirates Laffite", William C. Davis picks at every myth about the brothers from Barataria and turns up historical documentation for and against without batting an eye. Davis is a consummate historian and a wonderful writer to boot and I'll review his book here in the future. Specific to the appearance of Jean Laffite in his days as the "gentleman" of New Orleans, Davis makes reference to a letter written by Esau Glasscock from Concordia Parish, Louisiana. The letter describes eighteen-year-old Esau's meeting with Laffite in New Orleans and was originally quoted by Lyle Saxon in his historically flawed but cheerfully purple "Lafitte the Pirate". In the letter, Esau and his father have come to NOLA to buy slaves from the Laffite brothers, and the young man meets Jean at one of the Black and White balls where wealthy white men mingled with the most beautiful mixed race "free women of color" in the hope of finding a long term mistress.

Esau is very clear in his description. Jean is tall, over six feet by an inch or more, and "well proportioned". He is handsome by the standards of the day with remarkably pale skin, dark hair and dark hazel eyes. His hair is worn longer than "the fashion" according to Esau and his face is shaved clean except for a set of whiskers that follow his jawline toward his chin. His hands and feet are unusually small and his teeth are unusually white. He is dressed in the height of style and his manners are impeccable.

While I understand that the portrait is usually referred to as having originated from Jean's time at Galveston, some ten years after the above description was written, I can't see the man turning into Sir Francis Bacon just because he moved to Texas. A gentleman - and Jean was always referred to as a gentleman - who prides himself on his fashion sense in his twenties isn't going to quit doing so in his thirties or forties. Let's be honest.

Then too there's this: the painting up there is the only confirmed portrait, from life, of three of the four men pictured. It hangs in the Cabildo off Jackson Square in New Orleans and it is taken as a matter of course that the men pictured are as follows: In the murky shadows of the far left is Renato Beluche who we will discuss at length in the future. He's been painted more than once, so its kind of OK that he didn't come off so well here. Standing is Pierre Laffite, with an endearingly goofy smile that makes you want to squeeze his cheeks. To the far right is Dominique Youx. Youx and Beluche were the Laffites' most trusted privateers. He's another guy we'll talk more about. Finally, sitting there with his cup raised singing rather purposefully is Jean "the bos" Laffite.

Pass the bottle, Jean, and don't trouble yourself duelling with that poser in red.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

People: Because Deep Down, We Might All Be Pirates

You gotta love Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. She had style, wit and an incomparable ability to remain graceful regardless of the situations
she found herself in. Issues like political opinion and religion aside, that's something I think we can all aspire too. Well, I'm pleased to say that we here at Triple P have found another reason to really, really adore America's favorite First Lady: she loved her the pirates! That's right, my Brethren. When little Jackie was just a girl she hung a Jolly Roger in her bedroom and declared her allegiance to the pirate's life. How cool is that? Wait. It gets better!

In a 1965 article for "The New Yorker", George Plimpton recalled assisting Mrs. Kennedy in putting together a children's party at Newport, Rhode Island. The party had a full blown pirate theme and he muses over the "glee" with which she paid attention to the details. Mr. Plimpton shows his share of glee as he recounts such spectacular goings on as a treasure hunt complete with digging in the sand for a chest of booty. While the kids searched, a boat full of buccaneers (the First Lady's friends in pirate gear and sailing in a borrowed Coast Guard pinnace) showed up to claim the treasure. A happy melee followed and the pirates were beaten off by the youngsters. The First Lady even managed to talk one of the First Family's Secret Service escorts into "walking the plank" into the Bay, to the delight of all assembled.

What I take away from this little story is a bit of humor and a lot of inspiration. Even in the face of an often thankless and certainly grueling job like that of partner to the Leader of the Free World, Mrs. Kennedy found time to be a pirate and bring her friends along for the ride. Sure, we can't all borrow a pinnace from the Coast Guard, but we can growl a heartfelt "Arr!" now and then... Even if it does embarrass the little buccaneers.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Movies:"Who is to say the Devil doesn't exist?"

Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm not a huge geek for the Golden Age of Piracy. Don't get me wrong, you wouldn't have Jean Laffite if there wasn't a Henry Morgan before him - and how cool would it be to sit down with those two chuckle heads and crack open a bottle of wine? - but I personally tend to identify with the privateers of the late18th and early 19th century first and foremost. There, now you know my filthy little pirate secret.
That said, you can't really write about pirates and privateers and ignore the greatest ever to ply the trade in the waters of North America, Edward Teach himself. So, to kick things off right brave Brethren, today we take a look at National Geographic's docudrama "Blackbeard: Terror at Sea."

Now, NatGeo is good with the documentaries. From "Battles B.C." with the taught abs and flying swords to "Locked Up Abroad" which will make you swear off travel for life, they rarely disappoint and this little gem is no exception. Blackbeard's story is told by narrator Israel Hands who, when we first meet him, is Master aboard a sloop Captained by a man named Vane. The year is 1715 and another of the innumerable wars between Britain and Spain has ended. The privateers for the Crown are losing their letters of marque which allowed them to legally raid Spanish shipping. Some will give up The Life but others will turn pirate. Enter Edward Teach.

Teach is Captaining the sloop Revenge of twelve guns and, in a typically questionable tavern in Nassau, Bahamas, he's rounding up crewman. Hands decides to sign on and, in a memorably threatening exchange between Teach and Vane, our favorite antihero reveals that he won't turn pirate for the cash per ce. He's angry that England would expect men to build their Empire for them and then turn right around and sweep their livelihoods out from under them without any compensation. He'll go to sea again, but not for the reasons everyone imagines. "I just want to be remembered," he tells Hands. Evidently his strategy worked.

Teach progresses from small time pirate to public enemy number one in short order. When he takes a French slaver and turns her into his now infamous Queen Anne's Revenge all hell quite literally breaks loose for the Caribbean and the southern colonies. There are side stories about the ruthless Governor Spotswood of Virginia who means to see Teach dead at any cost, the cabin boy "Frenchie" who stays with Teach when he takes the slaver and the cruel bosun Mr. Givens whose favorite fantasy revolves around taking Teach's place as Captain. Good luck with that, Givens.

All the while Hands is keeping the viewer up to date on the rules that governed piracy. The lack of hard currency is pointed out, with prizes generally offering up goods and foodstuffs -and,unfortunately, human chattel - instead of the usual fantasy chest of gold. The rule of equal shares comes up as does the fact that pirate Captains in the Golden Age were elected and had to be successful or risk losing their station. The information is accurate and clear but, thankfully, never turns into a lecture. The narrator's conversational tone keeps the story moving forward without getting clunky or preachy.

Many interesting asides come up about the titular pirate as well that might make a scholar want to do a little more research. Was he really more about the fame than the fortune? Was he a reader of history, as the film implies? Did he really admire Black Sam Bellamy, that famous and allegedly handsome rogue who went down off Cape Cod aboard his Whydah? Did he really turn out his wife to his crew with the admonition that each man should wait his turn for his equal share? It all makes for wonderful storytelling but where does the myth meet the man?

In the end, Teach takes the pirate pardon offered to all who ply the trade by King George only to find that life as a country gentleman does not suit. When his wife, Mary Ormond, insults him in front of the Governor of North Carolina he snaps. Mary is introduced quite intimately to the crew who have been hanging out on Ocrakoke Island and Edward gets back to what he's good at. Unfortunately the days of great pirates are numbered and two Royal Navy sloops are sent to engage the Queen Anne's Revenge and end Teach's career. Seeming to know that the jig is up, Teach wounds Hans and leaves him on land with Frenchie to look after him. This is an interesting scene that plays to the legend of an apparently heartless Blackbeard randomly shooting one of his crewmen while the viewer understands that Teach is in fact trying to remove Hands and Frenchie from harm's way. Its an interesting touch, but it might be more wishful thinking than history.

Finally, the Devil gets his due. Teach and his men board the Navy sloop Ranger. Teach is engaged by Lieutenant (remember, pronounce if "Leftenant") Maynard. Swordplay ensues and legend tells us that Blackbeard is shot five times and suffers twenty cutlass strokes before finally succumbing. His head is lopped off and hung from Ranger's bowsprit. His body swims around the ship seven times before sinking into the depths. His ship is captured, his men are hanged and farewell to the Golden Age. Its a great ending and one that the film wisely chooses not too scorn.

All in all the DVD is an hour well spent. The research is impeccable, the costuming and ships are spot on and the acting is solid over all. The only actor credited is James Purefoy and he chews up the screen as Blackbeard, his persona and his beard growing bigger with each scene. There is also a "Fact and Folklore" special feature on the DVD that gives more insight into the pirate life in its heyday. Check it out if you have a chance. I think you'll be pleased indeed.