Monday, November 30, 2009

Pathetic Pirates: Voted Off His Own Ship

On this last day of November, I decided to end the month here at Triple P the way it started - with a pathetic pirate. The two men in question plied the sweet trade during the same years and in the same waters so who knows, they may very well have known one another.

Charles Vane, pictured here in a woodcut from Charles Johnson's A General History of Pirates, appeared on the Caribbean scene in 1716. What he was doing prior to that is not documented but it is probably safe to say that, like most men we discuss, he was a lifetime seaman. Vane is first documented sailing with the pirate Henry Jennings. Jennings made his mark plundering the salvage ships that worked the Caribbean in the wracking trade, retrieving treasure lost in shipwrecks. Jennings used Nassau port on New Providence in the Bahamas as his base and when, by the summer of 1718, Vane took control of his own ship he did the same.

Vane was at first successful, taking a few Spanish and French merchants, but his timing was bad. New Providence welcomed an English Governor later in 1718 and his first order of business was to boot the pirates from their den at Nassau. Vane sailed away with an attitude, burning his French prize at anchor and firing on the Governor's ship. He set a course for the Carolinas, the outer banks of which were quickly becoming popular as piratical hideaways.

Off Charleston - probably at Ocracoke Island, Vane and his crew met up with Edward Teach and his fellows. The two pirate captains hit it off, evidently, and after a short but successful cruise together they put in at the island and set to a week long party. There was plenty of wine, women and song, so much so in fact that although the fiesta started in September of 1718, neither crew managed to get back to work until October.

It was over the winter that things started to go sour for Captain Vane. First, he put one of his men - probably a Lieutenant - in charge of a captured prize. The man, whose name was Yeats, almost immediately abandoned Vane for greener pastures, taking the prize and at least some of its cargo with him. Vane then ran afoul of the rest of his crew when he chose to flee a French frigate rather then try and take her as prize. This incident so infuriated his men that they voted him off his own ship, electing "Calico Jack" Rackham as their new Captain. Harsh treatment indeed.

Rackham gave Vane a captured sloop and allowed those who wanted to stay with their former Captain to join him. Vane ended up with fifteen men, including new First Lieutenant Robert Deal. The sloop set course for the Yucatan and by early 1719 Vane and his little crew were plundering small, local boats in the Gulf of Honduras. Deal was given command of a prize sloop in the spring and the two Captains decided to try their luck in the waters around Cuba.

They never made their destination. The ships were separated in a hurricane and Vane's sloop was wrecked off a small, uninhabited island. Only Vane and one other man survived and they spent several months on the island without much in the way of supplies. They were at last rescued by a merchant ship who most probably put in at the island for fresh water. Both men seem to have signed on aboard their rescuer as crew members.

Vane's luck went from bad to worse when a chance meeting with another ship spelled his downfall. The other ship was captained by a former pirate named Holiford who knew Vane personally. Holiford had accepted a pardon from the Governor of New Providence and was now in the business of pirate hunting. When he was invited aboard the merchant he spotted Vane and arrested him. The final blow came when Vane was told that Holiford had previously captured Robert Deal who was executed at Kingston, Jamaica.

Vane was taken to Jamaica as well. Within three months he was tried and hanged in November of 1720. A short career with very little to show for it, except maybe that party. That must have been something!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Gawp

In the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Surprise's bosun comes upon his men eagerly watching Dr. Maturin do surgery on Joe Place, who has a depressed skull fracture. Stephen is performing a trepanning to relieve pressure on the brain. The portion of the skull removed will be replaced by a coin. Ol' Doc Maturin does this surgery like five times in the course of the twenty Aubrey/Maturin novels so it's no wonder the scene - which in all fairness does nothing by way of moving the story along or sexing it up with all kinds of actiony goodness - made it into the movie.

But back to the bosun. He looks at the men a moment and then, in the booming voice so common to bosuns in general, says: "Get back to work! Ain't nothin' gettin' done with you standin' around here gawpin'." Everyone disperses except the bosun, who proceeds to stand around gawping.

The word gawp as it comes down to us was born in the Royal Navy and has nothing nice to say. Originally the term was "gawpus", literally a stupid and idle member of a ship's crew. A gawpus is so lubberly that he has no notion how to be helpful so he stands about, probably with his mouth open and possibly drooling. This then became the slang term "gaw gaw" meaning a moron who would be better suited for ballast than crewman. Harsh indeed but then sailors tend to be direct and to the point.

From that, of course, comes gawp. Standing around staring. Probably with your mouth open.

That's all I have for today, Brethren. I will now proceed to stand about gawping at this:

Jack could give Horatio Nelson a run for his money.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Booty: Stay Safe Over There

Most of us here in the U.S. are still full from yesterday's big meal (or meals in some cases) and the only thoughts on our minds are shopping and football. It isn't that way everywhere, of course, and I frequently think of our men and women serving far away from home on a day like today.

On that note, here's a picture sent to me by the ever eclectic master of the macabre who blogs over at And Now The Screaming Starts:
Yep. Our guys are working it under a Black Flag. You can't get much cooler than that. Thanks, CRwM, and thanks especially to our troops. Come home safe.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

History: 100th Post And A Tub

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American Brethren. I'm sure you know exactly what the name of the rebuilt ship pictured above is and, if you don't, you might be a little young for this blog. This post is fine, kids, but ask a parent or guardian first next time, OK?

Yep, she's the Mayflower of Pilgrim fame and my privateer ancestors would have called her a right tub. With her fat, merchant hold she hardly swam at all and how she made it across the Atlantic twice is still one of seafaring's little mysteries. Some of her passengers doubtless saw the hand of God in it. I see a fool and a genius for a Captain. But let's get specific while we're here.

The details are sketchy but Mayflower was most probably built in 1606 in Leigh, England. From 1609 her owner is registered as Christopher Jones with his wife Josian. Jones was also listed as "master" which in this case identified him as Mayflower's Captain. She displaced 244 tons and was approximately 111 feet long with a 9 foot draft. She carried three masts with sails square rigged on her fore and main and fore-and-aft rigged on her mizzen. She was nothing pretentious. Mayflower was a merchant ship built to haul cargo and she plied the trade - mostly moving wine - between Spain and France and England with some forays to Germany and the Netherlands.

A fairly equal number of English religious Separatists and Church of England followers contracted with Jones and the owner of a ship named Speedwell in 1620 to carry them to the Hudson River area of North America. Here they had permission from the Virginia Company to settle. Both ships set out in August but had to return to Dartmouth, England due to leaking, particularly in the Speedwell. The Separatists, according to the Wikipedia article on the Mayflower, later spread the rumor that Speedwell's crew purposefully sabotaged her to avoid the voyage. That sounds fishy to me. Sailors are notoriously proud of their vessels and - unless they had a surprising number of lubbers in the crew - I'd say the Separatists were being unchristian. But then so would those "witches" a few years later, I suppose.

Some folks literally bailed out of the voyage at Dartmouth and Mayflower, loaded up with approximately 20 crewmen and 104 passengers, set sail for what was then Virginia on September 6, 1620. The harrowing crossing has been gone over more than once what with storms and cracked bulkheads and illness so I won't rehash it. In November, after sixty plus days at sea, Mayflower sighted land. She had made Cape Cod rather than the Hudson River mouth and when inclement weather threatened again, Jones dropped anchor in what is now Provincetown Harbor and told his passengers this was where they got off. Literally.

It wasn't until the following spring that the Separatists and pioneers finally left Mayflower for good to start Plymouth Colony. Jones returned to England on an astoundingly quick voyage of only 31 days. This is particularly amazing considering that half of Jones' crew had died over the winter in New England. She made the Thames in May of 1621.

The last legal document mentioning Mayflower is dated 1624 and names Josian Jones as the Captain's widow and part owner. The papers document a survey of the ship. After this, the original Mayflower is lost to history.

Enjoy your Holiday and, if you think of it, raise a glass to the old Mayflower who accomplished more than she was ever intended to. If you're feeling generous, raise one to your humble hostess as well. I just completed my 100th post. Huzzah!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

People: "With Interesting Stories To Tell"

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, Brethren, so I thought an "old-timey" American legend from before the Revolution, Civil War or Wild West might be in order. Today we meet the pirate from Newport, Rhode Island: Thomas Tew.

Tew was born on American shores - most probably right in Newport - in the late 17th century. His family was well to do and he was well educated and gentlemanly. In 1690 , with another war between England and France dragging on, Tew saw an opportunity for adventure and put his mind to taking it. He travelled to Bermuda, then a center of English privateering, and got some time aboard ships under his belt.

By 1692, Tew was ready to step up to Captain. He obtained a letter of marque from Bermuda's Governor Richier. The letter specifically tied Tew and his ship, the Amity, to the Royal African Company of London who probably put down the cash for the ship, men and stores needed for the voyage. The Company was in direct competition with French slavers on the western coast of Africa and Tew was engaged to raid and plunder French settlements and take French slave ships as prizes. With a crew of 60, Amity set out from Bermuda bound for Goree on the coast of Guinea.

At some point during the crossing of the Atlantic, either out of altruism over slavery (probably not) or pure greed (that's my bet), Tew proposed turning pirate to his men. Given the restrictions of Amity's letter of marque, he reasoned that they would be better off as freebooters. Any success that they had would be cash in their hands and not in the pockets of an already rich Company in London. The crew agreed without descent, and Captain Tew set a course for the rich hunting grounds of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

There appears to have been some dawdling involved and in Charles Johnson's A General History of Pirates, published in 1724, Tew puts Amity in at Madagascar more than once between 1692 and 1693. Eventually the decision to turn pirate paid off in the biggest way possible. In 1693, Amity met and engaged an Arab galley in the Straits of Bebelmandebin in the Red Sea. The galley was laden with treasure bound for the palace of the Arab Grand Moghul and her crew put up very little resistance. Without injury to a single man, Tew's crew took the galley. Her cargo amounted to approximately 16 million modern US dollars.

Amity sailed home, not to Bermuda but to Newport. They reached Rhode Island in April of 1694 and were hailed locally as heroes for their success against the "Musilimen". Merchants from up and down the American coast flocked to Newport to purchase Amity's goods. Each crewman was paid between $192,000 and $480,000 in modern coin with Tew receiving even more. History mentions very little about the Royal African Company's reaction to this turn of events, so I have to imagine that Tew slipped them some cash as well.

Tew was feted in New England and he spent time at dinners and parties in Boston, Philadelphia and especially New York where he was a favorite guest of Governor Fletcher. Tew made an impression on the Governor, who is quoted as remarking that he found the pirate "...quite agreeable and companionable, with interesting stories to tell."

After less than a year of partying by land, Tew got the itch to return to sea. He acquired a new ship and a letter of marque - most likely with Governor Fletcher as a patron - and returned to Newport to crew and stock. Men flocked from as far away as the Bahamas to sign on with Tew. His reputation had be made with the enormous wealth allotted to his previous crew. In November of 1694, Tew's ship - again named Amity - set out across the Atlantic this time with two others Captained by Thomas Wake and William Want.

While Johnson's History tells us that Tew met up in Madagascar with a French pirate and started a pirate settlement they named Libertaria, the story is most probably apocryphal. There is no solid documentation of the establishment of a "pirate nation" on Madagascar, and most historians feel that Johnson was trying to illustrate the democratic nature of pirate society with his tall tale.

Although the dates are sketchy, it is clear that Tew again engaged an Arab galley in the Red Sea some time in either late 1695 or 1696. This one was not as agreeable as the last, and cannon fire was exchanged. The fighting was bloody and it appears that Johnson gets Tew's final moments right:

In the engagement, a shot carried away the rim of Tew's belly, who held his bowels with his hands some small space.

Tew died of his wounds aboard Amity. Those of his crew that survived were most probably either executed or enslaved by the Grand Moghul.

Thomas Tew, though largely forgotten in our time, was the quintessential romantic pirate for Americans of his day. Successful, dashing and well spoken, he made a fine impression on deck and in society. In the end, too, he died in action rather than swinging from a rope. That's what legends are made of.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Home Ports: Large Ground

There are all kinds of legends of famous pirates hiding treasure in and around their home ports for later use. These always tickle me because the prevailing notion seems to be that pirates were like dogs: just burying the bone for later. In point of fact pirates spent the money they got and that was that. Even in one of the most sophisticated pirate ports ever - a place that was more akin to a small country than a simple stomping ground - there's no cache of buried treasure. The Laffite brothers had better things to do with their coin.

Barataria Bayou is located south of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico. Two large islands, Grand Isle (shown above looking out to the Gulf) to the west and Grande Terre to the east form a barrier between the sea and Barataria Bay. There is a narrow pass between the two and only sloops, schooners and brigs with shallow drafts could navigate into the safety of the bay. Barataria is perfectly situated to become a piratical kingdom.

Some time in the early 19th century, probably between 1805 and 1807, Jean Laffite moved to Grande Terre and became bos (which loosely translates as boss in a Sopranos sort of sense) of an already establish pirate haven. His elder brother, Pierre, lived with his growing family in New Orleans. Jean, himself a sailor, saw to the privateering end of the business. Pierre was in charge of sales. By 1809 Pierre and Jean ran one of the largest and most organized smuggling operations ever managed in the United States.

The area, it must be said, was ripe for just such an operation. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the territory and particularly the area around New Orleans went from a sophisticated if under governed Spanish holding to a potential State. The US was quick to impose her laws, and that included tariffs and sanctions against foreign merchandise which then led to an all out effort to curtail the smuggling that was literally ubiquitous to the area. The local Creoles, accustomed to European goods and considering themselves French anyway, turned to the Laffite brothers and their privateers to maintain the status quo with regard to all available goods, including slaves banned from import. The Laffites, of course, readily obliged.

From the base on the flat, breezy island of Grande Terre, Laffite held regular markets of goods plundered from Spanish shipping in the Gulf. Everything from foods, wines, cloth, jewelry, and spices to living purchases like exotic animals and slaves was available and all for a price that would be unimaginable from an American sanctioned merchant in the city. Laffite signed "passports" for those visiting Barataria. He called his kingdom "New France" and referred to Napoleon Bonaparte as his "Uncle", assuring people that Barataria was never intended to be part of the deal with Jefferson. Say what you will about his brand of crazy, Jean Laffite had balls.

For five years the operation on Grande Terre prospered as did the Laffites. Their lieutenants included Renato Beluche, possibly a distant cousin who supplied the Laffites with letters of marque from Cartagena, Dominique Youx, the mysterious privateer who is erroneously tagged as Pierre and Jean's brother, Vincente Gambi, a nasty little man who kept the Laffites in slaves and Louis Chighizola, a jovial if ugly local who appears to have kept things in order when Jean was away. It was good times for a while. The money flowed in and the privateers walked arm in arm down the streets of New Orleans, to the utter dismay of the American merchants.

By 1814 the climate had changed and the War of 1812 brought the hens home to roost. Concerned that the Spanish government would assist Britain due to the continued predations of the Baratarians, President Madison gave the order to raid Barataria. Commodore Daniel Tod Patterson led a flotilla of gunboats with Colonel George Ross at the head of Army troops into Barataria. They took ships as prizes, men as prisoners and torched the settlement on Grande Terre. Though some of the pirates returned after the Battle of New Orleans - won with the Laffite brothers' help despite the raid - Barataria never returned to her glory days as a pirate port.

But what about treasure? Did the Laffites secrete something in the bayous? In fact, they did. The family of Louis Chighizola still lives on Grand Isle as their ancestors did. They will show you his grave on the island, with his wife beside him, and then they will show you the treasure. A golden thimble, made from a Spanish coin specifically for Madame Chighizola on the orders of Jean Laffite. Legend has it that Laffite had the thimble made to keep Louis from spending money intended for his wife. If that isn't a treasure, I don't know what is.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lady Pirates: Hey, I'm A Guest Blogger!

Your's piratically has earned her first guest blogging stint! Elizabeth Kerri Mahon over at Scandalous Women has kindly published my piece on Elizabeth "Cutlass Liz" Shirland. Cutlass Liz is legendary, but was she real? History has a hard time answering that question but the idea sure is fun. Click over and check it out. And while you're there, poke around. Elizabeth shares a lot of great stuff about the distaff side of history. Enjoy, and look for Elizabeth's book, of course entitled Scandalous Women, due out next year.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Ahoy! Avast!

Aside from Arrr!, which is essentially a glorified grunt, nothing brings to mind piratical speak like the words Ahoy! and Avast! (both of which have to, for some reason, have an exclamation point after them). Ahoy and avast as they have evolved are, in fact, the quintessential nautical words used exclusively in their appropriate context by seamen of all sorts.

Ahoy was originally two words, or so it seems. Ho! or Hay! was an exclamation meaning Stop! used by our seafaring ancestors from Medieval times and apparently deriving from Old German and Dutch, neither of which were too different from Saxon English. Hoay! or Hoy! was a word added to an exclamation for purposes of drawing attention during the same era as in: "Foremast top, hoay!"

The two words seem to have gotten together some time in the 15th century to become Ahoy! which began to be used as a hail. "The ship ahoy!" was (and still is to some degree) a common salute over the rail from one ship to another upon meeting at sea.

Avast has a slightly less defined etymology but it's meaning is unequivocal: Stop! Some dictionaries give the origin of the word as purely English and say that it derives from the shortening for convenience of "have fast" with have meaning "hold". In fact, it appears that avast is the English corruption of the Italian word basta - enough!

The use of avast became widespread by English mariners in the 17th century, when Britain had established naval bases in the Mediterranean. Here the Royal Navy would have heard Italian spoken regularly, and sailors are notorious for adapting their language to the local lingua franca. Avast is most frequently used in it's shortened form and in a battle or other situation where brevity is imperative: "Vast firing!" or "Vast that!" for instance.

So there you are, Brethren. Sprinkle a few ahoys and vasts into your speech, and sound salty without even trying! Salute to you. I'm for a mug o' grog.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Booty: Pirates and the No Fun League

I am going to go out on a limb and say that no introductions are necessary for the guy pictured above. Yes! It's Captain Morgan, purveyor of fine rum. I'll leave it at that for now. But Pauline, you say, aren't you all about images like this being untrue to the actual vicissitudes of piratical life? I am. But I'm also all about the football, baby.

On November 12th Charles Robinson over at Yahoo! Sports posted an article entitled NFL shipwrecks Captain Morgan campaign. In it, Mr. Robinson specifically addressed this:
That is Eagles tight end Brent Celek taking a Captain Morgan-esque stance in the end zone after scoring against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. Of course, the first mate and I were watching the game and I said in passing: "He's getting fined." I'm full of understatement like that.

Robinson's article goes on to say that essentially the NFL came unglued and went straight to work banning rum-soaked, piratical shenanigans of any kind. Celek, who was penalized 15 yards on the field for demonstration, became a target for a holier-than-thou NFL rant about players not being allowed to promote products.

As it turns out, Captain Morgan was in fact encouraging players to take the lifted knee pose not only for promotion but - here's the kicker - to help an NFL charity. The rum brand was offering contributions to the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund which is a nonprofit organization that helps retired NFL players with such diverse necessities as housing and medical care. The contributions were set to be significant and would be made each time a player was caught on camera imitating the Captain. The final pay-out was to include $100,000 dollars to the GGAF each time a player participated during the Superbowl. Check the article for further details.

The NFL's response was typically hypocritical and made no mention of corporate support for a charity the NFL touts as close to their heart. According to Robinson's post, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello was quoted as saying:

Whether it's rum or soft drinks or any other commercial product, that type of promotion is prohibited.

By "that type" he meant "support of a commercial product during a game". My curiosity is why the NFL isn't currently in talks with Captain Morgan to work out another way for the rum brand to donate to GGAF. Maybe it's time for the NFL to meet this guy:With the real Henry Morgan as NFL Commissioner, mates who needed help would get it regardless of the source. Then, too, things would be a whole heck of a lot more fun... more bloody and violent, but fun. Oh, and since we're talking about football, I'd like to say one last thing on a personal note:


Happy Friday, Brethren!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sea Monsters: "Looking Earnestly On The Men"

Most people don't think of mermaids as monsters, per ce. In fact, mermaids have morphed in popular culture from uncommunicative, blond haired harbingers of storms at sea to red haired moppets who want only to walk and talk just like humans. (Who remembers that The Little Mermaid died in Hans Christian Anderson's story? Me too!)

Seafaring lore is full of stories of merfolk, though. Up until the Enlightenment, merpeople were taken as fact and there were actually two classifications in Ancient and Medieval science: the one with the human torso and the tail like a dolphin and another that looked entirely human but was seen too far away from shore to be a person out for a swim. Both were considered relatively benign except if hooked or caught in a net. Then there was their singing. The mermaid's song called up storms, and ships would hurry to safe harbor if one of their company claimed to hear one or more of the female merpeople singing.

Merfolk, as reported by sailors in particular, seem to be curious about humans although there is never any mention of spoken communication between the species. They would swim to boats and stare up at the men on board as if they couldn't quite figure out what the hell had invaded their territory. An account from Henry Hudson's log kept during his second search for the Northwest Passage is almost ubiquitous:

This morning, one of our company looking overboard saw a Mermaid, and calling up some of the company to see her, one more came up, and by that time she was come close to the ship's side, looking earnestly on the men.

The mermaid, claimed to have been seen clearly by able seaman Robert Raynar and Thomas Hilles in the forenoon watch, was described as the usual: human in appearance "from the navel upward" with a tail "like a porpoise". It should be noted that there is no reason to believe either or both sailors were drunk, the first grog ration not being served out until dinner, which would be had after noon. As John Michael Greer says in his 2001 book Monsters: An Investigator's Guide to Magical Beings:

If Hilles and Rayner had reported any other kind of marine life, it's worth noting, their report would be accepted as valid evidence by modern scholars without a second thought.

Compellingly put. But what about the old story of seals, manatees or dugongs being mistaken for mermaids? I suppose that a lubber by land might mistake a curious seal or manatee for a woman with a tail... I suppose. Experienced sailors though, unless they were stupid hallucinating drunk, would certainly know the difference. Then, too, there is the reality that the documentation of mermaid sightings comes overwhelmingly from the North Atlantic. Only seals and whales populate those cold waters.

Am I saying merfolk are real? Not at all, but it's something to ponder. The ocean still has her secrets. And that's what makes it fun!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Stepping Out

As Angus Konstam so appropriately notes in his book The History of Pirates, what we believe we know about pirate clothing is almost entirely dictated by Hollywood. And Angus was writing before Disney jumped on the bandwagon (aside from Captain Hook, of course). Now every wanna be Jack Tar swaggers around in Captain Sparrow regalia, the quality of which varies widely. But not all pirates and privateers plied their trade in the Golden Age of free booting and pirates, it must be recalled, were sailors first and foremost.

In general, pirates, privateers and even the average foremast jack aboard a man-of-war wore clothes that were practical for their profession. The petticoat breeches and cotton shirt on the seaman above at far left were so common from the 17th to the first half of the 19th century that any landsman would know that guy for a sailor. Whether or not he was a pirate would be open to debate. Along with a neckcloth that could be tied around the head for hands-free sweat absorption and the ubiquitous bare feet that were the number one form of safety gear aboard ship, no further outfitting would be necessary in the tropical oceans that pirates favored. A woolen coat - known as a jack which evolved into the word jacket - might be added for runs up to England or Rhode Island.

There was one obvious exception to this general uniform. When a pirate went ashore to spend his loot, he would dress to impress if he could at all.

As we've discussed before, pirates were unusually lucky if they took a ship with a great deal of hard money aboard. Generally the prizes taken carried goods that had to be sold in order to make a profit but some items were almost as attractive to the buccaneers as specie. Alcohol, of course, had a hard time finding its way back to land. Jewelry was the next best thing to cash, gold, or silver because in most pirate haunts it could be spent with equal result. Gold and gemstone rings, necklaces, bracelets and so on were like pirate debit cards. And then there was clothing.

The cargo of a ship might include bolts of cloth but it might also include wardrobe items done up in part or in total that the pirates could commandeer. Most sailors were good with a needle - due to the frequency of work involving the mending and sewing of sails - so they would have no trouble putting together a fine coat, breeches or waistcoat from already cut pieces. Failing that, one or two passengers or the prize's captain might have a few fancy things in their sea chests. Add the typical tricorn hat with a feather and a ring on every finger (maybe a pair of boots or shoes if you could get them) and you were good to go.

The impetus for dressing flashy by land was two fold. First - and most importantly - it told the locals that you were a man of means. The tavern owners and working girls liked to cozy up to a guy with expensive clothes and lots of jewelry. The more the better because at least some of it would end up in their pockets. The second purpose was, quite literally, to piss off the establishment. Sumptuary laws in Europe frequently forbade the wearing of such diverse items as velvet, linen, pearls and leather by the common folk. And of course, carrying a weapon was unthinkable for the rabble. Pirates and privateers - some of the first citizens of real democracies since Rome hired an Emperor - were thumbing their nose at the governments that had, in many cases, turned them rogue in the first place.

Even in the heady post-revolution days of the early 1800s, privateers continued to flash their bling. Jean Laffite, arguably the last great pirate, was known as "The Gentleman Laffite" around New Orleans. The moniker not only distinguished him from his stout older brother Pierre, but spoke to the well tailored and expensive clothes that his profession gave him access to. In a time when Jefferson had banned all foreign goods from the US, Jean could appear at the Opera wearing French silk, Belgian lace and Spanish silver. Oh, and then there were the Italian perfumes and Swiss chocolates for the ladies. No wonder he was popular.

Don't be fooled by Hollywood imitations, Brethren. For the most part, our seafaring ancestors looked pretty scruffy and work-a-day. But when stepping out, a freebooter could really shine.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

People: A Questionable Choice

In a few recent posts I mentioned Alexander Selkirk, the man who inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe. The historical narrative of Selkirk's marooning and eventual rescue is, I think, far more interesting than the novel. But then I'm a history geek. See if you don't agree with me.

Selkirk, whose name is sometimes noted as Seleraig, was born in Scotland in the late 17th century. He was a lifetime seaman and by 1704 he was a carpenter's or bosun's mate aboard the Danish privateer Cinque Ports, of 16 guns. Her captain, Thomas Stradling, was a woeful excuse for a sailor much less a privateer. He held a letter of marque against Spain but had nothing but bad luck. Rather than take Spanish ships off South America, his own ship was repeatedly beat up by them.

The result was that Cinque Ports was nothing short of a leaky tub. Selkirk, who was obviously a temperamental sort, repeatedly complained to Captain Stradling about the upkeep of the ship. Stradling told Selkirk to take a hike but Alexander would not be silent. Selkirk communicated to his mates that he would rather be marooned than take his chances aboard a ship that was sure to sink. The final stand off with the Captain nearly brought the men to blows and Stradling took the next step. Selkirk would indeed be put ashore.

Selkirk appears to have chosen the spot himself and it was agreed in October that he would be left ashore on Mas a Tierra in the San Fernandez island chain approximately 400 miles west of Chile. Selkirk was pleased with this decision and told his doubtful mates not to worry about him. Shipping went right by the island frequently. Doubtless, he'd be aboard a vessel within the month. He was given rifle, ball and powder along with his sea locker and some provisions. Then Cinque Ports sailed away.

In 1708, Woodes Rogers - the future Governor of New Providence island in the Bahamas - left England for a privateering expedition to South America. He had two ships Duke, his flag ship, and Duchess. Curiously, William Dampier, who would one day be a celebrated French privateer, was aboard Duke as navigator. He had been among the Cinque Ports' crew when Selkirk was marooned.

On February 2, 1709, Duke sighted a signal fire on Mas a Tierra and hove to under the island's lee. Sure enough, there was a European man on the island and once he was bathed and shaved Dampier in particular was flabbergasted to see his old mate Alexander Selkirk. Dampier was able to vindicate Selkirk somewhat with the news that Cinque Ports had indeed sunk off Peru some time after her carpenter's mate was left on Mas a Tierra.

Daniel Defoe got wind of Selkirk's story and publish the interminably titled The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner in 1719.

Once again, Brethren, truth is so much stranger (and more interesting) than fiction.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Locker

The word locker as it is used today comes directly from the jargon of the sea. But what we now think of as a "locker"is a sterile, sad shadow of what seamen meant when they said: "I'll fetch my sextant from my locker, shall I?" Or something like that.

Above is a sea locker. The word locker specifically came from the fact that the box could be locked (seriously!) with each man usually wearing the key on a cord around his neck. Locker took on the meaning of not only the oak box itself but the fact that everything in it would be reliably there and unmolested the next time you dipped into it. Locker became a euphemism for something sound, trustworthy and kind of "a place for everything and everything in its place." Sailors are notorious for their love of neatness, reliability and routine.

Each man had his own locker and the accumulated baggage of all the men aboard (or one man, depending) was known as dunnage. The one above is relatively large and fancy. This kind would doubtless belong to a warrant man, Midshipman or surgeon at least. The average foremast jack would have a smaller version, sometimes no bigger than a bread box. Jack didn't have more than one shift of clothes and he certainly didn't have weapons, uniforms or medicines to worry about.

Locker took on other meanings as well. The divisions in storerooms, such as the pantry or powder room, would be called lockers. The bosun had separate lockers for cordage, arms, etc. that belonged to the ship. And then of course there was Davy Jones locker. This referred to the bottom of the sea where nothing is ever lost because you know exactly where it has gone.

Now, unfortunately, this is the meaning of locker:
And, for some of us anyway, it doesn't conjure up neatness or security but a time in our lives we'd rather forget. There's a reason the sea is romantic.

Happy Saturday, Brethren. I'm off to volunteer at the RCCA Christmas Towne Bazaar at South High School in Anchorage, AK. I plan to avert my eyes from the lockers, and think of sea chests instead.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Booty: "Absolute Divine Beings"

I've talked about my friend Laurel before. She is a tremendous person and a much appreciated supporter of Triple P. So much so, in fact, that she found the little tidbit we are going to discuss today and emailed me about it. I'm proud to know her.

The article she sent me is on the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (shown above) in general and regarding the Pastafarian's specific ideas about pirates. Read that sentence again and then we'll continue.

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was established in 2005 by Bobby Henderson as a humble protest to the Kansas State Board of Education's proposal to teach "intelligent design" in schools as a viable alternative to evolution.

You can read the Wikipedia post if you would like to know more. But here, specifically, is what Pastafarians have to say about pirates, buccaneers, privateers and the like. From the article:

According to the Pastafarian belief system, pirates are "absolute divine beings" and the original Pastafarians. Their image as "thieves and outcasts" is misinformation spread by Christian theologians in the Middle Ages and Hare Krishnas. Pastafarianism says that they were in fact "peace-loving explorers and spreaders of good will" who distributed candy to small children, and adds that modern pirates are in no way similar to "the fun-loving buccaneers of history". Pastafarians celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19.

Well of course they do. But it doesn't stop there. As this chart indicates, the gospel is even more complex. The article goes on:
The inclusion of pirates in Pastafarianism was part of Henderson's original letter to the Kansas School Board. It illustrated that correlation does not imply causation. Henderson put forth the argument that "global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of pirates since the 1800s."

According to the post, Henderson also has a theory about continued so-called "pirate" activity in the current era:

In 2008, Henderson interpreted the growing pirate activities at the Gulf of Aden as additional support, pointing out that Somalia has "the highest number of Pirates AND the lowest Carbon emissions of any country."

Since the chart shows that there are still 17 "fun-loving buccaneers" around, I have to assume that I'm one of them. Enjoy your Friday the 13th, Brethren. I hope something divinely piratical comes your way today!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tools of the Trade: You Say Galley, I Say Galleasse

Pirates and pirating are as old as time. The Mediterranean - some of the first shores man settled - has always been full of guys looking for other guys' boats to plunder. It should come as no surprise, therefor, that the freebooters of Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis were not the only ones cruising that fabled sea in search of booty. The Knights of Malta were just as dangerous and just as feared as any Barbary pirate. There were differences, though, not the least of which was religion, or the ships each group favored.

Originally known by the tongue twisting moniker The Knights Hospitaler of St. John of Jerusalem, the Order of the Knights of Malta was formed in 1113 and eventually set up shop on the Island of Rhodes. By the early 1500s, the Knights had moved from their base in Rhodes to the Island of Malta, smack dab in the middle of the rich hunting grounds of the Mediterranean. They were cagey fellows and they had inherited a couple of Barbary galleys when they moved in. Hey, somebody said, how about we get into the business of pirating ourselves? The Malta Galleasse was about to be born.

As the picture above illustrates, the galleasse was an enormous fighting vessel capable of carrying an equally enormous compliment of men and arms. The Malta Knights relied more heavily on gunnery than did the Barbary pirates, so the galleasse was thicker at the gunwales and far more sturdy than a galley. Ramming a galleasse was generally an effort in futility that would more likely wreck the Barbary galley than dent the Malta galleasse.

The galleasse had a remarkably shallow draft. A ship 180 feet long might have a hold no deeper than 7 feet allowing her a draft beneath the water of as little as 3 feet depending on how heavily laden she was. This made her fast in spite of her weight. Fully armed and manned, she might displace 1,000 tons.

The compliment of men aboard a galleasse was usually large, for the most part due to the number of warriors and oarsman aboard. One expert writing in the late 1800s estimated that the largest of ships might be crewed with 450 rowers, 350 soldiers, 60 Marines, 50 ordinary seaman, 36 gunners, 12 warrant men, 4 mates, 5 pilots, 2 priests, 2 surgeons, 4 scribes, 2 sergeants, 2 carpenters, 2 caulkers, 2 coopers, 2 bakers, cabin boys, a Captain, lieutenants and a purser. This small army could top out at 1,000 men.

The galleasse was a two mast vessel with one enormous lateen (fore and aft) sail to each mast. This is the same configuration seen on Barbary galleys. The sails, however, were only unfurled when the wind was favorable. Like the Barbary galleys, the galleasse was run by slave power. Most were Muslim prisoners but some were Christian criminals or debtors culled from the prisons of Italy. Their fate was most unchristian indeed.

The galleasse navigated by the Maltese corsairs had its heyday from the 1500s until the Napoleonic Wars. The French Revolution took the Knights' estates from them and then Napoleon's navy invaded Malta on her way to Egypt. The days of the pirates for the Church were over, but the craft of the Maltese galleasse can still be very much appreciated.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

People: "You Owe Me A Beaver"

Happy Veteran's Day to one and all (or any other holiday - like Remembrance Day - that your country may be celebrating to remember those who serve). Being from a seafaring family, I think of our brave men and women in the Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine first on this day. And so, today let's talk about one of America's first Naval Heroes: Commodore Stephen Decatur.

Decatur was born in Maryland on January 5, 1779. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Decatur was not from a family of sailors. Instead of heading out on merchant vessels at 10 or 12, Decatur received a formal education, eventually ending up at the University of Pennsylvania. He began working as a supervisor at a shipyard in his late teens and this may have been the origin of his interest in the Navy. Decatur - probably through family connections - was given a Midshipman's berth aboard the frigate USS United States at the age of 19 (a considerably advanced age for a Mid).

Aboard United State, Decatur learned the ways of the sea and saw battle during the Quasi-War with France. By 1803, Lieutenant Decatur was given command of the sloop Argus and sent to join his fellows in a blockade of Barbary pirates on the Mediterranean. USS Philadelphia was captured by the pirates in October of that year, with Captain William Bainbridge and the crewman who survived taken prisoner and held for ransom. Philadelphia, which had grounded on a bar in combat, was in good shape and a juicy prize for the Algerians. Decatur, in the right place at the right time, led a daring night raid in February of 1804 and managed to burn Philadelphia to the waterline thus denying the pirates their prize. He was hailed as a new American hero (but it wouldn't be until April of 1805 that U.S. Marines would storm "the shores of Tripoli" and free the American prisoners).

By 1805, Decatur had been promoted to Captain and he commanded USS Chesapeake and Enterprise before the start of the War of 1812. Decatur continued his notable career through the war, having the distinction of being the only Captain to take an English frigate as prize, and to surrender his own ship to one.

The first situation occurred off the Azores in October of 1812. Decatur, now in command of United States, sighted HMS Macedonian and the ships engaged. United States battered Macedonian, dismasting her completely at long range before moving in to board her. Decatur took his prize to the Azores and put her through a refit before returning triumphantly to the port of New London, Connecticut. Interestingly, before the war John Carden, the Captain of Macedonian, bet Decatur a beaver (!!) that United States could not best his ship broadside for broadside. Despite his other more famous bon mots, the one I always imagine Stephen Decatur saying is: "You owe me a beaver, Carden!"

Decatur suffered the indignity of being blockaded in New London by the British Navy through most of the war. Despite tricks and attempts at night maneuvers, the now Commodore Decatur and his new flagship President languished in Connecticut.

When President finally did slip past the blockade along with her consorts Hornet, Peacock and Tom Bowline it was January of 1815 and Andrew Jackson and his "backwoods rabble" were down in New Orleans ending the war. On the same day - January 15th - Decatur's squadron met a squadron of four English frigates. The British gave chase but President in particular was too fast for all but HMS Endymion. Broadsides were exchanged and President was hit, slowing her progress. She grounded at some point and, despite his encouragement of "Don't give up the ship!", Decatur was eventually forced to strike when surrounded by HMS Pomone and HMS Tenedos. Decatur and his men were taken prisoner and the Commodore, who was suffering from a large splinter wound, took some months to recover once he was paroled and returned to the U.S.

The Second Barbary War came hot on the heels of the War of 1812, and by late 1815 Decatur was back in the Mediterranean. With the Napoleonic Wars now over, the English and the Dutch were in on this one and all three nations set up a bombardment of Tripoli and Tunis that finally broke the Barbary pirates. American prisoners, most of them sailors, were freed and the practice of bribes and ransoms to the Barbary states were abolished. Decatur, in command of Guerriere on these missions, was hailed at home as the Conqueror of the Barbary Pirates.
Upon his return, Decatur was given a post as a Naval Commissioner in Washington D.C. and he became somewhat of a darling in society. Considered the "beau ideal" of American naval officers, he strutted about in his Commodore's uniform (which left nothing to the imagination if the picture above is any indication). At one Washington get together he famously stood and offered a toast: "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right. But right or wrong, our country!" This is the origin, many believe, of the erroneous quote "My country right or wrong!"

All was not roses around the door, however. A man like Stephen Decatur naturally drew jealousy and made enemies. In 1820 Commodore James Barron evidently got sick of Decatur giving him shit about his inept command of USS Chesapeake, which led to her being boarded by HMS Leopard in 1807 and is often considered the touch point of the War of 1812. Barron challenged Decatur to a duel and the date was set: March 22.

Decatur asked William Bainbridge to second him, and Bainbridge readily agreed. The problem was Bainbridge hated Decatur too, feeling he had stolen the limelight in the First Barbary War from Bainbridge and his crew. They were tortured in Tripoli, Bainbridge grumbled, while Decatur was hailed as a hero. When Barron mentioned avoiding the duel and reconciling with Decatur to Bainbridge, Bainbridge conveniently forgot to tell Decatur.

On the morning of the 22nd, Decatur shot first. He wounded Barron in the thigh. Barron, either maliciously or purely by accident, shot Decatur in the gut. The wound began to fester almost immediately as Decatur's bowel had been punctured. He died two agonizing days later in his home - which is now a museum - on Lafayette Square.

Stephen Decatur is buried in St. Peter's Church in Philadelphia. Interestingly, not far from his rival and far more controversial contemporary, Commodore David Porter. Rest in peace, sailors. And thank you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lady Pirates: "Who Is Going to Stop Me"

Ben Thompson's delightfully funny if light on history book Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters and Military Commanders to Ever Live is worth picking up just for the chuckles and the comic book style illustrations of men and women as diverse and notable as Charles "The Hammer" Martel and Vlad Tepes Dracula. The chapter on Horatio Nelson - who was unquestionably full of both badassitude and piratitude - made me laugh so hard I cried. At the header to the entry on Anne Bonny, one of the two most famous women pirates of the Golden Age, Thompson inserts this quote from Ayn Rand:

The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me.

And that got me thinking.

A lot of modern writers, among them David Cordingly, the scholarly author of Under a Black Flag and Women Sailors and Sailors Women, wonder out loud about the probable frequency of women as pirates. The argument is somewhat nonsensical because it assumes that the pirates' life was too brutal and messy for women in general. Oh sure, experts like Cordingly argue, there were women who dressed as men and went to sea but they were aboard naval vessels where everything was orderly and ship shape. A casual glance at the history of women's lives might lead one to think otherwise.

My argument against this is two fold. First of all, in a time when up to half the population of the piratically employed were black, we have very little documentation of any Afro-Caribbean or African-American pirates. Simply put, the press didn't print that information and the courts rarely noted it. Chattel plundering their masters was not to be glorified, and so the history just isn't there. Secondly, in that same time when only a small percentage of women were considered worthy of the slightest attention, why would their unseemliness on the high seas be written down?

Most importantly, to my way of thinking, why wouldn't a woman down on her luck have the same desires as a disenfranchised man or a run away slave? Making a living that involved scavenging, homelessness, virtual slavery as a servant or giving and/or selling one's body to a man not of her choosing might not be something readily submitted to. Why not try your hand in a profession so far outside the norm that it didn't even register on the "womanly" charts? It might have looked pretty damn good by comparison.

What's interesting about Anne Bonny is that she came from relative privilege, and that her trial was one of the most sensational of the early 18th century. Not that she was so desperately unusual. What's interesting - and oh so typical - about her mate Mary Read is that we know virtually nothing about her life before her trial in 1720.

Bonny was evidently born some time around 1695 in County Cork, Ireland. She was the illegitimate daughter of merchant William Cormac and housemaid Mary Brennan. Cormac must have had a thing for his maid because he picked up and moved with she and her child to South Carolina where he went into planting either rice or tobacco or both. Cormac did well and little Anne - who may never have had her father's last name - had some entree into Colonial society. She had two big strikes against her, though. Being Irish, while not as horrendous as it would have been in Yankee country, wasn't exactly a good thing. And being illegitimate was right out.

Anne seems to have been a handful from puberty on and it appears that she eloped with a man named James Bonny in 1718. Little is known about Mr. Bonny, who may or may not have been a sailor. The young marrieds ended up in Nassau Port, New Providence right about the time that Governor Woodes Rogers was handing out pardons to the local pirates. One of those who took the pardon, after a disappointing career as a two-bit freebooter, was John "Calico Jack" Rackham. At some point Anne and Jack met and you can make that as romantic as you care to. I wonder if the whole thing wasn't more of a business proposition frankly because shortly after hooking up with Mrs. Bonny, Jack turned back to pirating.

Bonny joined her lover aboard his ship and his crew, in testimony given at their trial, was upfront about Anne's gender. She apparently wore women's attire most of the time and only dawned her shirt and breeches for action of the piratical kind. This is an important point in the story because many pirate articles forbid women aboard ship. It makes me think that, at least sometimes, articles of piracy were more suggestion than law.

Rackham was not a terribly effective Captain - one might even call him a pathetic pirate - and his Revenge got by plundering fishing vessels around Cuba and Jamaica. At some point another woman, the mysterious Mary "Mark" Read, joined Rackham's crew, probably in 1719. The background generally accepted about Mary comes entirely from Charles Johnson's History of Pirates and is mostly fiction. If you're interested, check here for a previous post on Mary from Charles Ellms' The Pirates Own Book which is a virtual regurgitation of Johnson.

The pirating aboard the little sloop Revenge (although some documents say she was now William) continued until a night of celebration finally overcame Rackham and his crew. For the most part the sailors were dead drunk after taking a fishing boat full of barrels of rum off Jamaica when Captain Jonathan Barnet hailed the sloop. Barnet was one of Governor Rogers' pirate hunters and when Rackham identified himself, Barnet called for his surrender. None of the men aboard Revenge were up for the ensuing fight but documentation from their trial says that Anne Bonny and Mary Read cursed their shipmates and battled Barnet and his men with pistols and swords.

The pirates were taken to Kingston for trial, with the men being tried separately from Anne and Mary. Rackham and his pirates were convicted on November 17, 1720 and hanged on the 18th. A last meeting between Rackham and Bonny has her saying to him famously: "If you'd fought like a man you needn't hang like a dog." So much for true love.

The women's trial began on November 20th and they, too, were quickly convicted of piracy. Each pulled out their ace in the hole - I like to think at the same time. They were pregnant and therefor could not hang until they gave birth. A physical examination proved the veracity of their claims and Anne and Mary were trundled back to prison. It is documented that Mary died the following spring of "fever". Most probably Mary and her child were killed by birth in a filthy Jamaican gaol. But what of Anne?

Anne falls through the web of history at this juncture. Most probably, having a wealthy father bought her a get out of jail card - although doubtless her release was not free. Dad probably bribed the right guy or guys and Anne as secreted back to his South Carolina plantation. Though a handful of scholars place Anne in a nice marriage and home where she has a passel of kids and dies in her bed, I'm not buying it. That's like saying Jean Laffite died an Iowa corn farmer. Adrenaline junkies don't last very long in the prison of domesticity and Anne Bonny surely must have been an adrenaline junky. What happened to her is as much a mystery as where Mary Read came from, and probably always will be.

More than proving that they were exceptional in a man's world, I believe the story of Bonny and Read proves that there were more women who "went a pirating" than we will ever know. And good for them. Ladies like the booty, too.

(By the way, the painting of Anne and Mary above is by Don Maitz from his 2008 Pirate Calendar. Check out the 2010 version here. The history is accurate and the art is breathtaking! A great holiday gift for the pirate in your life.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

History: Fit To Be Marooned

There's a lot of fiction surrounding pirates in our thoroughly modern age. Pirates - and their privateer brethren - certainly had articles of conduct that showed each member of a crew the rules to play by. Slip up on those rules and many pirate articles specified the punishment for your error. There was never a day, however, when anyone was forced to walk the plank. But marooning, that horrible, lonely, slow way to die, was specified in many articles and practiced right through to the 1830's.

In his book General History of Pirates, Charles Johnson laid out a set of pirate articles. He made comments on the various points therein and passage II was no exception. The article reads:

Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because (over and above their proper share) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to any value of a pound in plate, jewels, or money marooning was their punishment.

Johnson goes on to add at this point:

This was a barbarous custom of putting the offender on shore, on some desolate or uninhabited cape or island, with a gun, a few shot, a bottle of water and horn of powder to subsist with or starve.

And then the article concludes:

Should the robbery be only betwixt one another, they content themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that is guilty, and set him on shore not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere where he is sure to encounter hardships.

Nice. More often than not the unlucky offender was stripped of all his goods, including clothing, before being put ashore. The added torture of a full body sunburn would encourage dehydration and the possibility of sun stroke as well. Howard Pyle's unfortunate subject pictured seems to have been spared that indignity.

There are stories of men surviving the misery of marooning. Some being discovered years later and, it turns out, having found companionship with a previously unknown native group. Most of these instances are just stories. Survival in most cases would have been next to impossible and some marooning victims were left on what amounted to only a sand bar that would be underwater when the tide came in.

The most famous of all those men marooned (and the subject of a future post) did survive, however. Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, was rescued after being marooned on Mas a Tierra, an unpopulated island 400 miles west of Valparaiso in Chile.

So mind your articles, Brethren. Nine times out of ten, truth really is stranger than fiction.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Mate

Mate is a word that brings to mind one of two things: 1) sailors, 2) Australians. Guess which one we'll be talking about here.

The word mate meaning a friend or comrade has various etymologies, but three stand out for me as more likely than the rest. The first is the most simple and straight forward (so, probably, the most likely as well). Mat (pronounced with the hard a sound) was the Saxon word for fellow and could be used in place of brother. OK. But what if...

The French word for sailor is matelot and has been for hundreds of years. This is the "common sailor" that one would picture in petticoat breeches and bare feet with a dewrag on his head and a deep tan. It stands to reason that the word might be shortened to mate by the men who were matelot and/or by their English comrades/enemies who just didn't have an ear for Latin languages. But there is another word - specific to pirates - that may have had an influence on the English usage of the word today.

In the early days of the boucaniers, first on the island of Hispaniola and then on Tortuga, the men who learned to smoke meat and cover themselves in animal fat to keep off the mosquitoes were pretty lonely. Yep. The first buccaneers were an all dude society. The displaced and runaway indentured servants had only each other to count on. In the early 17th century, most of these guys were French so that was the language spoken. They tended to live in groups of six to eight and they set up rules among themselves for the sharing of food, water and - as the first raids on Spanish shipping began - other goods as well.

Some of the boucaniers formed pair bonds that may or may not have been homosexual depending on the men involved. These unions were known as matelage, which is sometimes erroneously interpreted as meaning "marriage". In fact, the meaning is closer to a "companion" or even "pal" who was a fellow sailor. The age at the end of the word refers more to the practice than the relationship. (A similar example would be the Louisiana Creole word placage, technically meaning "placement" but referring to a contracted, near marriage between a white man and a "free woman of color".) The matelage system continued when women came to Tortuga with two already bonded men sharing a "wife". Lucky girl.

So there , mates. You've a few etymologies to choose from. Pick the one you like and stick with it. Your humble hostess is on the good ship matelage herself. It just sounds right.

(By the way, the picture at the header is of the Beaufort, N.C. fire department circa 1960 reenacting a pirate invasion of the town in 1747. If you'd like to know more about Beaufort and her seafaring history, click here to check out the town's fabulous blog.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Booty: Open Fer Lunch!

The Internet is a strange and wonderful place. Unfortunately, to my way of thinking, it's a lot like an abusive caretaker. Sure, you get your three squares and a warm place to sleep (most days anyway) but you never know when it's going to go off and expose you to some horror that will scar you for life. I'm just saying.

All the same, I find that kind people I have met (and some I haven't!) send me things from the Internet. Piratical things. And now it's time to share them with you, my Brethren. Every Friday or so, we'll have this little frolic under the title "Booty". So. Much. Double entendre.

Today is something to prep you for the midday meal. This one was sent to me by my very own first mate. He got it in one of those "look at this stuff!" kind of emails. Ah. The things we do to keep ourselves sane. Anyway, without further ado, I give you Crabby Dick's of Delaware:

Words fail me.

If anyone has tried Dick's seaman sauce, please chime in on the comments. I'm honestly curious.

Happy Friday, mates. It's Sailor Mouth Saturday tomorrow!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

People: As Luck Would Have It

We don't know a whole lot about today's pirate/privateer, or at least not about his early years. Jean Fleury of Honfleur was born in France some time in the early 16th century and, probably at an early age, chose a life at sea. Though it appears that he was not born in the notorious corsair port of Dieppe on the northern coast of France, that is the harbor he used as his base. In 1521 Fleury was in the Atlantic commanding a flotilla of five corsairs from his flagship Salamander when he got lucky beyond his wildest dreams.

Spain had not only begun to wrap an iron fist around the New World but also had the Pope's blessing for same by the time Jean Fleury hit it big. In 1519 Hernan Cortes completed his brutal conquest of the Aztec empire in Mexico. Through torture and enslavement (encouraged and helped along by the Catholic Church; you know, for the good of the heathens' souls) the Spanish set up a system by which natives all over Central and South America would reveal the sources of their riches and then be put to work mining and processing them for His Holy Catholic Majesty in Spain. A system of transporting this wealth was organized within three years after Cortes' success in Mexico. The Spanish treasure fleet was established in 1521.

Needless to say the other major players in Europe weren't real happy about Spain getting all the goods. In particular Francois I of France was put out. Francois, you see, was a Valois and therefor a blood enemy of the prognathous Hapsburg clan. Carlos I of Spain was a Hapsburg and on his way to becoming Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Now France was out of the New World riches racket and surrounded by the lands of a Hapsburg. Canny if nothing else, Francois turned to the corsairs of Northern France and started handing out letters of marque.

The big dog of the French pirates at that time. was Jean Ango, Viscount of Dieppe. He agreed to finance privateers to run raids against the Spanish at sea as long as he and his men were allowed a good chunk of any booty. Francois agreed, the deal was done and Jean Fleury set out with his ships to hunt for Spanish gold.

Salamander and her consorts sighted three Spanish treasure ships off the Azores, probably in the spring or fall of 1521. The ships, under the command of one Captain Avila, were packed to the gunnels and virtually incapable of any swift maneuver. To boot, they did not ship many cannons in favor of room for goods and none of the men had much in the way of battle experience. There wasn't a lot Avila could do in the face of Fleury's swift, two masted caravels but he made every attempt to escape.

Fleury's ships managed to cut out two of the Spanish galleons while a third got away. Doubtless this was gut wrenching for Fleury at the time but upon his return to Dieppe no one else seemed to care. The Spanish ships were loaded with enormous wealth including gold, silver, precious and semi-precious jewels, nearly 700 pounds of pearls and gold dust amounting to 500 pounds. There were also Aztec robes and headdresses made of feathers and jaguar pelts as well as wild animals, including three live jaguars.

Jean Ango was certainly beside himself. He ordered a week of carnival-like celebrations and noblemen came from Paris to see the spectacle of dancers wearing the beautiful costumes brought from the New World. Fleury himself became a national hero and a stained glass window in the church at Villequier, Normandy, commemorates his taking of the Spanish galleons.

Though Jean Fleury never did match his astonishing luck in stumbling upon and taking the Spanish galleons bound for Seville, he did continue to harass Spain in the Atlantic for six more years. In 1527 he was captured by a flotilla of Armada ships off Cadiz. He was taken to the port town's dungeon, quickly tried and hanged for piracy. Despite this gesture of disregard for France and her letters of marque, King/Emperor Carlos/Charles never did get those pesky French - very soon to be joined by the pesky English - under control and more and more booty floated away from Spain and toward other European powers.

As an interesting side note, Jean Laffite sometimes claimed Jean Fleury as an ancestor. Its a nice story but most probably bull. Jean Laffite - for all his charm - lied a lot. Regardless Jean Fleury of Honfleur was a capable sailor and commander. Add luck to that, though, and only a sturdy noose can stop you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Home Ports: Better In The Bahamas

Evidently, one of the things that pirates took note of when hunting for a good base was scenery. At least if today's home port is any indication. The picture above is Salt Cay in Nassau, The Bahamas and back in the early 18th century this gorgeous spot was a tent city with a pirate driven economy that quite literally never slept.

The island of New Providence, where Port Nassau is located, is almost smack dab in the middle of the island chain known collectively as the Bahamas. It has a number of major bays around its small perimeter but the one at Nassau was perfect for pirates and privateers. The water depth was perfect for sloops, schooners and brigs but too shallow for naval frigates and men-of-war. The harbor could hold hundreds of ships and there was ample beach to preform repairs and careen ships. The sand was white and beyond it was jungle and hills full of wildlife and fresh water. The native population had left the island after repeated raids by the Spanish in the 16th and especially 17th century. The place was a pirate paradise rivaled only by the French buccaneering island of Tortuga.

New Providence was a British holding but it had never been properly settled. The island's theoretical Governor was located on Eleuthera to the east and he paid no attention what ever to New Providence. When the pirate Henry Jennings sailed into port in 1714, he knew he was home.

Nassau quickly became a loose "city" formed by tents and huts made with local driftwood, palms, discarded wood and sails from ships. It was only a matter of a year before a relatively stable if freewheeling economy was establish. Carpenters, shipwrights, armorers and blacksmiths out of work elsewhere in a post-war economy could make a living in Nassau building and repairing ships and guns. Smugglers posing as merchants put in to port to buy stolen goods for resale in wealthy cities like Charleston, Baltimore, Boston and New York. Tavern keepers set up their tables and put out their shingles. Brothels sprang up and the ladies got their share of the pirate booty.

By 1716 a veritable who's who of pirates could be found in port at any given time. Edward Teach, Charles Vane, Sam Bellamy, Benjamin Honigold, Jack Rackham and a host of others called New Providence a base. The men and women who lived "a short life but merry" worked hard and played hard on the white sands of Nassau.

Of course, hygiene was non-existent and trash heaps full of anything imaginable (and probably some things unimaginable) littered the beach and forest. There was no rhyme or reason to the tent city, you just put up your tent where there was room. Arguments resulting in injury or death were very probably a daily - and nightly - occurrence. It would take a strong constitution to live in Port Nassau but some 3,000 individuals did so at the height of her popularity.

The British government eventually got fed up with the predations of the Nassau pirates and they decided to establish a Governor on sight. The Crown sent Captain Woodes Rogers to New Providence as the new Governor of the Bahamas with orders to break up the nest of thieves and establish a British colony on the island. Rogers, who had been a privateer for England for several years, is a post in and of himself. As a teaser, his ship Duke was the one that rescued Alexander Selkirk from Juan Fernandez Island in 1709. Selkirk is the castaway on whom the fictional Robinson Crusoe was based.

Rogers arrived in New Providence in August of 1718 and was welcomed by many of the residents of Nassau. Pirates like Rackham and Teach had left the island and, though Charles Vane fired on the Governor's ships as he left the harbor, as many as 600 pirates took the pardon offered by Rogers. Henry Jennings and Benjamin Hornigold even agreed to turn pirate hunter and helped Rogers defend the Bahamas against Spanish attacks a few years later. Rogers stuck to his guns with regard to zero tolerance for pirates and piracy. He ordered a mass hanging of pardoned pirates who had returned to their old ways in December of 1718.

Governor Rogers did his best to make the Bahamas a center of trade and agriculture for England but, once the freebooting was eradicated, London lost interest. New Providence's boom town days were over. Governor Rogers died in Nassau in 1732. I hope his room had a nice view.

Today, Nassau town and its port thrive on the pirate heritage of New Providence. Hotels, restaurants, bars and beaches capitalize on the history of a short but successful run as a pirate home port. I bet its a fun place to visit but I like to imagine that bright day in 1714 when the port and her beaches must have seemed utterly new.