Friday, December 31, 2010

Booty: Duel In The Sand

It's New Years Eve, of course, and as a special gift to the Brethren I’d like to share my very favorite sword fight from any pirate movie ever made. That’s right! The battle between Basil Rathbone as the evil (and you will note, French) Le Vasseur and Errol Flynn as our hero (British, of course), Stephen Blood in Captain Blood. I love this scene from the much lionized movie for many different reasons but for one in particular: Basil Rathbone.

Yeah, you were expecting me to say ol’ Errol, weren’t you? Don’t get me wrong; I love Mr. Flynn. Rathbone, though, was probably the greatest fencing movie actor of his or arguably any age. Unlike Flynn, who is all muscle and athletic prowess with very little of style mixed in, Rathbone is a study in technical precision. Every thrust and parry, even on those ridiculously dangerous wet rocks in Laguna Beach, is surgery perfect. He’s a vision of Dumas’ D’Artagnon come to life as a pirate villain.

I frequently fall into imagining this sequence as a romanticized retelling of the infamous duel between Laurens de Graff (Flynn) and Nicholas Van Horn (Rathbone) and I even imagine a similar exchange of words as they duke it out on the sand. In fact, Rathbone notoriously gave Flynn lip during the filming of another famous movie wherein they dueled to the death over Olivia de Havilland: The Adventures of Robin Hood. While filming that duel, Flynn chuckled that he “always got the girl.” Rathbone pulled up short, saluted Flynn and said – doubtless in that steely monotone that only Vincent Price could do better – “Yes you do, but I could actually kill you.” And given his fencing skills, and the obvious points in both duels where he backs off and allows Flynn to get the better of him, it is quite clear that Rathbone wasn’t bragging. Or lying.

Best wishes for a happy and safe New Years Eve, Brethren. Enjoy!

(Note: When I went to the YouTube video of the complete duel, embedding was disabled so here, as a poor substitute, is the short AMC doc on the staging of the duel. Pull the movie out tonight as part of your celebration and enjoy the duel in its entirety if your appetite has been wetted. You’ll be glad you did.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Women At Sea: The Nile And Beyond

In very ancient times, the profession we now call prostitution was a sacred one. Representing the goddess of love, the priestesses offered themselves to worshipers as part of festivals and other rights of fertility. This kind of religious practiced morphed quickly when someone figured out there was money to be made in the skin trade. Of course, nothing different occurred in the temples, brothels and on the barges of Ancient Egypt. And yes, I did say barges.

Most people are at least familiar with the so called “flower boats” historically active in China. It was aboard one of these that the famed pirate Cheng I met his future wife in the late 18th century. The brothel girl, who would become known as Cheng I Sao, went on to rule her husband’s pirate kingdom and eventually retire to run her own flower boat complete with gambling, music, liquor and food and, of course, the usual entertainments.

Long before Mrs. Cheng claimed her small space on a six decked floating bordello, the Ancient Egyptians were making the Nile welcome for sailors and others who could pay.

The barges were originally something like holiday party boats. Decked out with fabrics and lotuses they sailed up or down the Nile heading for one religious festival after another. The ladies on board were at first priestesses doing their sacred duty but, as Egypt became more powerful and slaves began to be readily available from captive nations, these now less fortunate women became money making flesh for their masters. It is documented that by the 19th Dynasty women, particularly Israelites and Greeks, were a highly valued commodity for their potential economic return in brothels and on pleasure barges. This continued for several Dynasties. Zenon, the chamberlain of Ptolemy II’s palace and keeper of the Pharaoh’s business records, writing in the 3rd century BCE notes that women were on a par with oil, wine and grain as leading imports to Egypt from Israel.

By the reign of Alexander the Great’s descendants, the barges were strictly business and varied widely depending on clientele. There were the common papyrus boats that would pull up in rural areas after the harvest to service local men. Next on the scale were the more elaborate wooden barges that looked very much like monoremes and stayed on the water for the most part. These kept to the tourist trade and were also available for naval ships returning from or heading out to battle. Finally, there were the grand pleasure barges of royalty and the wealthy which were working the Nile delta well before Cleopatra put her famous floating diversion together.

Strabo, the Greek historian, is probably taking into account all three types of floating bordellos when he writes in the 4th century BCE:

… on the canal which runs from Alexandria to Canopus the traffic of ships journeying to and fro never ceases by day and night. Men and women dance, totally unembarrassed, with the utmost licentiousness which seems to make for riotous proceeding.

The relative freedom – even among slaves – of Egyptian women was part of the Greek outrage at such displays. Egyptian courtesans, if not their sisters of less aggrandized employ, bought and sold all manner of property, brought lawsuits and were sued in turn, and owned some of the finest homes in cities like Alexandria. Another Greek historian, Polybius, has his nose just as out of joint as Strabo did when he writes that the most elegant private homes in Egypt belonged to whores.

Allow me to end with the amusing tale of a working girl from a few hundred years before Strabo. Her name is listed in court records as Archidice and the story goes that she turned a man away because he did not have her fee, which the court implies may have been a bit steep. Understandably, the gentleman’s ego is bruised and he begins to gab to his friends that he dreamed of sleeping with the beautiful Archidice. Our girl will not stand for gossip, so she turned to the courts and files a lawsuit demanding her fee for this client’s imagined time with her. The judge, in a clever twist that doubtless did not set well with Archidice, informed the lady that she should settle up in dreams. The judge says, essentially, since the gentleman had you in a dream, you should go home and dream that you have been paid.

Proving once again that despite the millennia between us, our ancestors were very much like us.

Header: Cleopatra’s Barge by Frederick Bridgman

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Holiday Discovery

December 25, 1643: William Mynors, Captain of the British East Indiaman Royal Mary, "discovers" and names Christmas Island off the north-east coast of modern Australia.

Header: Christmas Island via

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Star

Stars and light figure heavily in the winter celebrations of religions old and new, so it seemed appropriate to speak about the word star at sea on this holiday.

Of course there is starboard, the right side of the ship as you stand on deck facing the bow, and starfish which have five legs unlike their cousin sun-stars which can have up to twenty. Generally, though, when speaking of stars at sea one is literally talking about those shiny celestial bodies best admired at night or, as The Sailors Word Book so poetically phrases it:

Those innumerable bodies bespangling the heavens from pole to pole...

It goes without saying that stars have been indispensible to proper navigation for centuries.

Fixed stars seem to stay in one place in the sky night after night. These are the stars a seaman can use to find his way and they usually, in broad terms, include the particularly reliable planets such as Venus and Saturn.

Double stars are those close enough together in the sky that they cannot be distinguished from one another without a telescope. Sometimes this is an optical illusion; they may in fact be millions of light years away from one another in space. On other occasions they are actually astronomical double stars, close in proximity with one rotating around the other.

Temporary stars are heavenly bodies that have become visible, seemingly out of nowhere, and increased in brightness over the course of months or years. Just as suddenly, these stars will disappear from their place in the sky never to be seen again. The fascinating Scandinavian astronomer Tycho Brahe followed the life cycle of a particularly bright temporary star in 1527.

Variable stars, as the name implies, vary in brightness over a year or years. A frequently sited example in books on navigation is Mira Ceti.

Finally, there is that much coveted sign of good fortune at sea, the star glint. This is simply a visible meteorite, but the seafaring term gives it so much more meaning and romance that it is worth wishing on. Happy Holidays to you and yours, Brethren, and may a passing star glint give you joyful pause between now and the New Year.

Header: How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas by Howard Pyle

Friday, December 24, 2010

Booty: Make This Happen

Those of you who frequent Triple P would be absolutely justified in outrage were I to repeat my undying affection for the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. So I won’t. Just allow me to say that, though anyone as devoted to the O’Brian novels on which it is “based” as I am will certainly tell you that there’s more than one thing to quibble about, over all the film got everything right. Especially regarding life at sea in Nelson’s Royal Navy.

The real issue at this point – seven years after the movie was released – is why have we yet to see a sequel? While the movie was not a box office blockbuster, it did reasonably well monetarily and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including best director and best picture. I’ll leave the Academy’s popularity contests out of this and just say that Hollywood has an entire 20 book catalogue to choose from here. In fact, initial talks about beginning filming on The Reverse of the Medal, book 11 in the series, occurred in 2009. Just what are they waiting for?

Well, according to this
article reprinted over at Under the Black Flag, Russell Crowe is wondering the same thing. And he’d like you to get on this right away. Evidently Mr. Crowe, who was in on the aforementioned talks, is stumping for a sequel to Master and Commander and he asks that the fans do their part to make it happen.

Thanks to the insider info of my particular friend The Dear Knows over at
The Dear Surprise, all of us have everything we need to bug the holy living you know what out of 20th Century Fox until they succumb to the power of the people. Clearly piratitude is called for in this case, and the Brethren are doubtless up to the task.

Here’s the simple procedure:

If you’re on Twitter, tweet @20thcenturyfox that you want them to make a sequel of M & C. This is my standard tweet based on Russell Crowe’s original call to action:

20thcenturyfox Please make a sequel to Master & Commander! (via @cinemablend & @russellcrowe) #holdfast

I can also use it to rouse my seafaring mates on Twitter. You know who you are; com’on, people.

If you’d rather, The Dear Knows has included the email address for Tom Rothman at 20th Century Fox in his post: According to Mr. Crowe this is really the way to go, but I don’t think doing both can hurt the case at all.

In conclusion then, let us resolve to make this happen and get an M & C sequel underway in 2011. If our seafaring ancestors taught us nothing else, they surely engrained in us that the power of a combined force with one goal is quite literally unstoppable. Huzzah!

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

People: The Emperor Angria

Kanhoji Angre or Angria is a political hero in his native India. Although some sources claim he was an African Muslim who immigrated to Bombay some time in his youth, possibly with his family, India claims him as their own. Though he is now considered a driving force in India’s effort to keep out British rule, in his own time he was a pirate to the Dutch, Portuguese and particularly the British.

Probably born some time in the late 1660’s, the conflicting stories of his youth eventually land Angria in the village of Harne not far from the city of Mumbai. His father was a commander of ships, and it is thought that Angria probably went to sea at a young age. By 1698, there is documentation that he was the leader of a private navy with a stronghold near Mumbai called Vijayadrug and two other cities on the islands of Khanderi and Underi in the Indian Ocean under his rule. By this time, Angria had grown rich raiding merchantmen of the British and Dutch East India Companies. From his ports he levied taxes, minted coin and participated in mainland politics, backing men he chose to lead the Maratha kingdom in Mumbai with a great deal of success.

Eventually the Shivaji (Emperor) of Maratha began to worry about Angria’s power, which could potentially challenge his own. In a shrewd political move, he made Angria the head of the Maratha Navy in 1707. This gave the pirate leader access to a larger number of galleys and the Shivaji a portion of all prizes taken by Angria. It also stopped Angria’s continued manipulation of the Mumbai political scene and insured the reigning Shivaji his place on his throne.

With his newly sanctioned leadership, Angria mounted raid after raid against the hated Europeans. His forces not only took merchant ships at sea but made quick excursions on land, devastating settlements of the Portuguese and particularly the British. In 1712, he captured one of the greatest prizes of his career: the armed yacht of the head of the British East India Company in Bombay. Named Algerine, possibly because she was a captured Algerian galley refitted for the purposes of Governor William Aislabie, her capture coincided with Angria’s destruction of the East India Company’s warehouses at Karwar. There the superintendant of the docks, Thomas Chown, had been killed and his wife taken prisoner. Angria held the lady on the yacht and demanded ransom for both. In February of 1713, Governor Aislabie caved in. He paid over 50,000 pounds not only for the galley and the Englishwoman but as a tribute to keep Angria’s ship’s off his merchantmen.

Word of this embarrassing affair got back to England and Aislabie was recalled. In December of 1715 the new Governor, Charles Boone, arrived ready to rule Britain’s territories and her wealthy merchant company with an iron fist. His first order of business was to end Angria’s control in the Indian Ocean. Despite the help of a small Royal Navy force, Boone’s attempts to shut down Angria’s operation failed. Angria struck back by torturing and killing British prisoners. Stories of merchant captains being disemboweled or roasted on open grates circulated in the European community.

The battle between Angria and Boone culminated in Angria’s blockade of the port of Mumbai in 1718. With no way for goods to get out or ships to get in, the East India Company lost hundreds of pounds daily. Governor Boone went the way of his successor and ransomed his port for over 8,000 pounds.

At the end of 1721, the British teamed up with the Portuguese in another attempt to shut down Angria. Under the command of Commodore Thomas Matthews, the combined force included five men-of-war and over 6,000 marines and soldiers as well as innumerable sailors. Small melees on shore and at sea continued for two years but Angria’s raids on shipping continued as well. Rumors began to circulate that Matthews was taking bribes from and trading with Angria. The Commodore was recalled, tried and convicted on collusion with pirates in December of 1723. Governor Boone was recalled the same year.

Despite the arrival of a new Governor, the British abandon any attempt to directly assail Angria’s ports. Instead they instituted a system of convoys, grouping their East Indiamen into flotillas of as many as thirty ships and, when at all possible, including an escort of two or more Royal Navy frigates. Angria’s raids continued, although by now the economy of his city states did not depend on prize money. The great Kanhoji Angria, who ruled one of the most successful freebooting enterprises the world has ever seen, died in July of 1729 leaving his empire in tact.

The strong leadership that made the might of Angria possible did not trickle down to Kanhoji’s descendants. Though his direct heir, Sekhoji, managed to keep his father’s legacy together until his own death in 1733, his brothers were not as capable. Sumbhaji and Manaji both claimed to be the rightful heirs of Angria and their continuous infighting made it easy for the British to make inroads into the now defunct Navy of Maratha. In 1756 the last stronghold of Angria, the fortress at Vijayadurg, was destroyed by the British. One of the brothers taken prisoner and the wealth of Angria was carried away to Bombay.

Kanhoji Angria is remembered in India to this day. His tomb in Maharashtra is an attraction for locals and tourists alike and a statue of him stands at the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai. Angria is the perfect example of the all too true chestnut that one man’s pirate is another’s freedom fighter.

Header: Kanjoji Angria and the Shivaji of Mumbai from a 19th century lithograph

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

History: Success And Failure

Bartholomew Roberts was certainly one of the most successful pirates of the Golden Age. At least as far as volume of ships and booty taken. He was an anomaly among his fellows as well: a religious individual who always had his Bible with him, he was also very fond of the wealth he accumulated on the high seas. On the day he died he was notoriously wearing a cloth-of-gold suit cut to the most fashionable lines, a huge tricorn hat of satin with crimson feathers and a thick gold chain from which was suspended a huge cross encrusted with rubies and diamonds. He shunned alcohol, but he had no qualms about shooting and slicing a merchantman’s crew. Most notably he was originally a prisoner aboard the pirate ship of Howell Davis. When Davis was killed through treachery on Sierra Leone, Roberts – probably very much to his surprise – was elected Captain and his first act was to cut a bloody swath through the African island to revenge Davis. A man of surprising contradictions indeed.

Roberts did not always stray from convention, though. He followed the habit of pirate captains of his day and established a set of Articles for the crew of his flagship, Royal Fortune. These were written down and sworn to – on the Captain’s Bible – some time in 1720. They are the most detailed set of Ship’s Articles extant and it is interesting to note that every crew member signed the document. So much for pirate illiteracy.

I Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of the moment; has equal Title to the fresh Provisions or strong Liquors at any time seized, and may use them at Pleasure unless scarcity make it necessary for the Good of all to vote a Retrenchment.

II Every Man to be called fairly in turn by List on board of prizes, because, over and above their proper Shares, they were on these Occasions allowed a Shift of Clothes. But if they defrauded the Company to the value of a dollar, in plate, jewels or money, Marooning was their punishment. If the Robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the Ears and Nose of him that were Guilty and set him on Shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere where he was sure to encounter Hardships.

III No Person to Game at cards or dice for Money.

IV The Lights to be put out at eight a-Clock at Night. If any of the crew, after that Hour, still remained inclined for Drinking, they were to do it on the open Deck.

V To Keep their Piece, Pistols and Cutlass clean and fit for service.

VI No Boy or Woman to be allowed among them. If any Man were found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to Sea disguised, he was to suffer Death.

VII To Desert the Ship or their Quarters in Battle, was punished with Death or Marooning.

VIII No striking one another on board, but every Man’s quarrels to be ended on shore at Sword or Pistol thus: the Quartermaster of the Ship, when the parties will not come to any Reconciliation, accompanies them on Shore with what assistance he thinks proper and turns the Disputants back to back, at so many Paces Distance. At the Word of Command, they turn and fire immediately or else the Piece is knocked out of their Hands. If both miss, they come to the Cutlasses and then he is declared Victor who draws the first blood.

IX No Man to talk of breaking up their Way of Living till each had a share of 1,000. If in order to this, any Man shall lose a Limb or become Lame in their Service, he was to have 800 pieces of eight out of the public Stock, and for lesser Hurts proportionably.

X The Captain and the Quartermaster to receive two Shares of a Prize. The Master, Boatswain and Gunner, one Share and a half, and other Officers one and a quarter.

XII The Musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights none without special Favor.

As history tells us, no amount of careful documentation or number of signatures could guarantee health or success. Roberts complained in his log of his men’s gambling and almost continuous drinking and the latter came back to bite them all. When Royal Fortune met the pirate hunting HMS Swallow in 1722, Roberts’ crew was so drunk to a man that they could not even run out their guns. Roberts was killed by grapeshot from Swallow’s cannon, and the crewmen that were not killed in the engagement were eventually tried and hanged.

Header: Engraving of Bartholomew Roberts from a 19th century copy of Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of Pyrates, from which these articles are quoted

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

History: On Lake Borgne

It's that time of year again: you guessed it! Triple P is gearing up for the 196th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans when a bunch of back woods rabble and those pirates of my ancestry held the line at Rodriguez Canal for freedom, glory, Andrew Jackson and the life of the infant U.S. Many a well meaning historian has mistakenly disparaged this battle as a useless waste of life and even an after thought. After all, hadn’t the Treaty of Ghent which ostensibly brought the U.S. and Britain into a peace agreement been signed prior to the outbreak of fighting? Well, not really.

We’ll discuss all the things that are wrong with that theory as we approach January 8th but, for today, let us look at an almost forgotten but equally important battle fought on the waters of Lake Borgne, Louisiana, on December 14, 1814.

As early as September of the same year the British had begun to focus heavily on conquering the City of New Orleans, amassing ships from their Jamaica Station at Pensacola and Mobile. She was a ripe storehouse full of every imaginable commodity, including lovely Creoles and quadroons. By October the British rallying cry for the taking of New Orleans was “for beauty and booty”, and they weren’t talking about architecture or palm trees under the heading of beauty.

The U.S. Army led by General Jackson and the U.S. Navy led by Commodore Daniel Tod Patterson knew that if the British took New Orleans, the Mississippi as a trade route would be closed off for the entire U.S. It would be a very easy thing from there to starve the newly settled interior and set aside the Treaty of Ghent, which was still in the negotiation phase. As Jackson scrambled about looking for arms – which he found through those French pirates the Laffite brothers – Patterson got wind of a flotilla of British ships heading from Pensacola to Lake Borgne. Something had to be done to at least hold off the British invasion, which was obviously planning to stage at the lake, east of the city, and then march through Bayou Bienvenu to the Mississippi. From there, NOLA was only a hop, skip and a jump away. There was not a moment to lose.

Patterson sent word to Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones, who was in charge of a small squadron of five gunboats and two pirogues at the mouth of the lake. The Lieutenant was ordered to hold the lake at all costs, turning the British back if possible. Jones and his men had been stationed at the lake for two weeks prior to receiving Patterson’s communiqué, and they were more than up to the task. The problem – as was the case with the every engagement during the battle of New Orleans – was numbers, and Jones was on the short end of that stick.

The Lieutenant’s worst anxieties were confirmed at sunrise on the morning of December 13th when he caught sight of forty-five barges rowing toward the mouth of the lake. It is estimated that 1,200 British sailors and marines sat in those boats, over twice as many men as Jones had under his command. Jones, a gamer all his life, didn’t let the numbers get the better of him and order his men to prepare for a fight. He would, he said in his written report after the battle, “… give the enemy as warm a reception as possible.”

The two forces danced about one another until a calm rendered Jones’ gunboats immobile. The parties clashed at 11:03 AM on December 14th according to Jones’ report with cannon fire from both sides (the barges were fitted with guns at bow and stern). The American forces sank several of the barges outright but the problem was the number of boats they were forced to confront and the better maneuverability of the barges. By afternoon the British had boarded the American boats and bloody hand-to-hand fighting ensued. All of the American gunboats were captured by the British and a pirogue was deliberately set alight to prevent its capture. Jones was injured as were thirty-four of his men; six others were killed.

On the British side, things were even more horrific. Ninety-five men were killed and wounded and this slowed down their ability to start the planned invasion, which should have begun on the night of the 13th. One U.S. sailor later reported witnessing four inches of stagnant blood in the bottoms of some of the British barges.

Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones – whose unusual name is Welsh, with the ap being equivalent to the Irish O’ or Ni meaning son or daughter of respectively – and his crews were taken prisoner and lodged aboard a frigate on Lake Borgne. Their freedom would be negotiated in January by the attorney Edward Livingston whose brother, Robert, was one of the U.S. Ambassadors involved in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent.

Though Jones’ engagement with the British seems a failure on paper, the bravery of he and his crews allowed Jackson to collect arms and recruit men before the British appeared on Chalmette plantation almost a full two weeks later. It was a heroic endeavor, and clearly one that the 24 year old Lieutenant was more than up to.

Header: The Battle of Lake Borgne by Thomas L. Hornbrook c 1836

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ships: Poetically Named And Ready To Work

The two-masted schooner, in her original form, is a uniquely New World ship that was originally built by the seamen of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The first proper schooner was launched in 1713 and built at the yard of Andrew Robinson. Her nativity, like so many Yankee built items, came out of necessity.

The coast of North America, with its reefs, shoals, feathers and inlets, did not lend itself well to square-rigged sailing. The common frigate was fine before the wind in blue water, but the need for a shallow draft and ease of maneuvering quickly made itself clear to the merchants, fishermen and, yes, pirates who plied the waters off New England, the Chesapeake and the Islands of the Caribbean. Enter the schooner.

Originally a take on a Dutch design, the American schooner averaged between 80 and 100 tons and could have a draft of as little as three feet unladen. She carried a foremast stepped close to her extended bowsprit and a taller main mast. Both masts were rigged with fore-and-aft gaff sails, boomed on the main and frequently “loose-footed” (not connected to a horizontal boom or spar at the bottom) on the fore. The foremast could be fitted with square-rigged topsails and the long bowsprit allowed for the setting of as many as five jib sails, all of which increased speed and improved tacking.

Over the course of the 18th century, the schooner became the most important vessel up and down what is now Canada and the U.S. From pirates in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to cod fishermen off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, the schooner was put to good use. She could carry a compliment of up to 75 men, a relatively small crew for a sailing vessel made possible by the ease of working fore-and-aft sails in comparison to square-rigged sails. She could make up to 15 knots – a remarkable speed at the time – in favorable airs and she could carry up to ten smaller cannon and a few swivel guns as well.

All of her assets brought the schooner to the attention of navies on both sides of the Atlantic who used her for scouting coastlines, carrying messages, and as a tender to larger ships. Largely because of its speed, the schooner became popular for transportation of personnel and livestock as well. In the 19th century, the schooner’s sleek hull would be married to three square-rigged masts to create the clipper ship.

The origin of the schooner’s name gives her a bit of romance to add to all that recommends her. Though there are words similar to “schooner” in a number of European languages, it is probable that the Scottish Gaelic word scoon, which means to skim the water like a flat stone, is the original base for the ship’s moniker. And to my mind, that makes a schooner’s name just as lovely as she is.

Header: Anonymous painting of the schooner HMS Speedy c 1803

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Pirate Hunter

December 20, 1822: The U.S. Congress authorizes a flotilla of Navy ships to battle piracy in the Caribbean. The so called Mosquito Fleet will be commanded by Captain David Porter and will effectively wipe out piracy in the Gulf and the Caribbean.

A bit more here at the Naval History Blog.

Header: Anonymous portrait of Captain Porter now at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Land 2

Back in August we talked about the word land at sea. There are so many uses for the word aboard ship that I honestly could not cram them all into one post so today, let us revisit the word land.

A land feather is a typically nautical and poetic way to bespeak a cove in a coast that is well suited for a ship to anchor. I like to refer to Turnagain Arm, which is within view of my home, as a land feather thereby confounding Alaska’s cheechakoes and Natives alike. Sailors, as the Brethren well know, are a tribe unto ourselves.

And speaking of cold places, land ice is flat ice connected to shore with no visible channel running through it. This type of ice can be particularly deceptive. Many a man has fallen through to a painful if relatively quick death in the subzero waters beneath it thinking the ice was part of the shore. On the other hand, this ice has cracked the hulls of both wooden and metal vessels when crews have wrongly assumed it thin and easily plowed through.

Interestingly the originally Dutch word landlouper, which means a man who becomes an expatriate due to criminal accusations or debt, is probably not the origin of the ever popular English colloquialism land lubber. Lubbers are, of course, people other than seamen who are no help aboard ship and better off by land. In earlier times, however, lubber was the term applied by sailors to men ashore who were without gainful employment. Sailors generally (and I personally feel rightly) considered themselves particularly hard working, and to them nothing was worth more disdain than someone who didn’t pull his own weight by land or sea.

Along those lines, and frequent among lubbers cursed by seamen, were the land sharks. True seamen were frequently at sixes and sevens once by land and, since they often came home with money – sometimes a good deal of money – in their pockets they were easy prey for swindlers. These men and women were spoken of as land sharks; people who would take the clothes of a sailor’s back if they had the chance. A good example of the sometimes bewildered nature of seamen at home is Jack Aubrey in O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels. He was never quite at home with hard ground under his feet, and more than one attorney or investment strategist took full advantage of his childlike gullibility, land sharks that they were.

A lubber should not be confused with a landsman, which was a rating in most navies of Nelson’s era indicating that the individual had no seagoing experience. By the second half of the 19th century, the rating was Second class ordinary.

A landmark was originally anything tall and visible past shore that did not move and could be used as a reference for navigational purposes. Trees and rock formations were probably the first landmarks, followed by manmade structures like towers and aqueducts.

Finally, a land turn is similar to the land breeze we spoke about in August. It is a wind that blows off the shore at night in the hottest areas of the world, sometimes playing havoc with sailing ships near shore.

Good Saturday to ye, mates. Hoist a mug of grog and stay away from the land sharks. Better safe than sorry.

Header: Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin and Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey spend some time on solid ground in the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Friday, December 17, 2010

Booty: More Than A Hat

As the Holidays begin to build steam, I’ve one last suggestion for the Brethren on piratical gifting, and this one may be the best of all.

Anyone familiar with the work of artist Don Maitz is also familiar with the work of
Captain Jack, freebooting haberdasher extraordinaire. Maitz frequently uses Jack’s hats on his models when crafting his excellent paintings of pirates of the Golden Age. A good example is the painting at the header entitled “Pirates Abroad”. As you can see our lovely lass wears a very authentic tricorn fit for any corsair of the New World or Old.

It was through one of Mr. Maitz pirate calendars that I learned of Captain Jack and his hats. Being the daughter of a privateer that I am, I headed off to the site and was both surprised and pleased by the quality of workmanship, knowledgeable information and clear attention to detail Jack offers. There is a vast selection of styles to choose from, and Jack custom makes most of his offerings to your specifications. He offers the type of pride of craft that is sorely lacking in most goods today.

The hats are generally named after famous pirates and buccaneers. There’s the Henry Morgan, the Captain Kidd, the Blackbeard and so on. But Jack does not neglect the privateers of a later era. Imagine my delight when I found two hats of the early 19th century bicorn type named after gentlemen rovers with whom I am very well acquainted. That’s right: Jack offers both the Jean Laffite and its brother, the Pierre Laffite. Unfortunately, he misspells the name “Lafitte” but we’ll give the lad a break. Since when did the average Jack ever come off as much in the way of letters, after all?

Needless to say, I am the proud owner of a Jean Laffite made of black straw (the last thing you need down on the bayou is a felt hat, mates). Click my profile picture for a better look. Here is another version of the Jean Laffite, this one in felt with a jaunty rose embroidered on it, which is currently available for purchase at Captain Jack’s:
I very much encourage you to jump over and poke around Jack’s site. His amazing work is at least worth daydreaming over – or perhaps hinting to that special fellow crewman about. It’s more than a hat, Brethren; it’s an attitude.

And if you would like to peruse more of Don Maitz fabulous artwork, find him

Smooth sailing to you on this Friday. Spy ye tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: The Mercury Is Up

The barometer has become something of an antiquated and almost quaint instrument hung in family foyers and boat rental shops as a reminder of ye olde days of sailing. What with all the computer weather maps and so on, the humble barometer seems out of its league. In the great age of sail, things were very different. The barometer in her hey day was the weather computer.

The invention of the barometer is attributed to Italian scientist and sometime alchemist Evangelisto Torricelli around 1643. In fact a lot of people had opinions about what made the device – originally a 35 foot tube – work and figuring out what held water in the tube steady was what made the barometer possible. Great minds like Rene Descarte and Galileo Galilei got in on the act, finding out that it was not, as originally thought, a vacuum in the end of the tube that held the water up. In fact, it was the then unfathomable pressure of air.

Prior to the 1600’s, science believed that air had no weight. Not clearly understanding how high the sky really was, and the implications of changes in altitude, they simply assumed that because human’s felt nothing heavy bearing down on them from the sky, air must be weightless. In 1646, French scientist Blaise Pascall changed all that by switching the liquid in his tube – now a manageable 32 inches – to mercury and testing it’s steadiness at various heights on a climb up the mountain known as Puy de Dome in Auvergne, France. The mercury level dropped lower in the tube the higher up the mountain Pascal’s brother-in-law went.

By the 1790, Torricelli’s mercury barometer was in use at sea. It consisted of a glass tube 36 inches long. The top of the tube was open and filled with what was then known as quicksilver, refined mercury. On the lower end is a reservoir and the tube is generally mounted in a case of some kind (as with the circa 1790 examples above from the Musee des Art et Metiers in Paris). A scale is attached next to the tube for reading the mercury. Because a vacuum is formed at the top of the tube, the mercury will adjust to the atmospheric force exerted on the reservoir, thus giving a reading of air pressure. High pressure, logically, places more force on the reservoir and low pressure does the opposite.

Barometers have a reputation for being testy and there is good reason for this. Changes in temperature affect the fluidity of the mercury upon which the mechanism depends. Thus a barometer that was made in Ireland and sailed off to the Caribbean will not read the same in Clew Bay as it does in Nassau Port. The scale for reading the height of the mercury must be adjusted by the reader in such cases, so a clear knowledge of the behavior of the barometer is as important as knowing the scale. By the Napoleonic Wars, a thermometer was routinely mounted in the barometer case for ease of reference.

The scale itself is relatively simple once you get the hang of it. 1 atmosphere was equivalent to 29.9 inches and a mercury barometer would generally read between 28 and 31 inches. This gives you an idea of just how sensitive these “primitive” instruments were. For example, the average atmosphere in Seattle, Washington in 29.6, a relatively low number. As we know from watching the local weather, a “low” indicate clouds and precipitation. A high barometer may seem like a good thing but wind often slacks with what a landsman might call fine weather, and no sailor likes a dead calm.

In practice, seamen would take into account all signs that could lead to a good guess at upcoming weather. The barometer would be consulted but then adjusted to temperature and wind direction, which also affected its reading. The sky would be glanced at, the waves noted and yesterday’s weather offerings pondered. In the final analysis, nothing could match experience for accurate prediction of the weather.

Of course, like all technology, barometers improved with expert tinkering, leading to the barographs and aneroid barometers (those round kind that look rather like a clock) that we are familiar with in the modern era. It’s worth remembering, though, that the barometer was once a much coveted instrument, and even a symbol of status. Wealthier naval Captains (and ostentatiously successful pirate commanders) would have finely tuned and beautifully engraved barometers of brass or even silver hanging in their cabins. There they would be checked regularly, admired by guests dining aboard, and polished to gleaming brilliance by stewards or cabin boys.

As Torricelli put it, in poetic language with a hint of the nautical: “We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of elementary air.” And his barometer proves him right.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

History: Renato Beluche vs. Jose Padilla

On this day in 1780, in an old style Creole house on Rue Dumaine in the city of New Orleans, my most illustrious ancestor was born. Renato Beluche came into the world the son of a French-Creole merchant and smuggler affectionately known around town as Big Rene. He would leave the world 80 years later as an honored veteran of both the Battle of New Orleans and Bolivar’s Revolution, as well as a Commodore in what is now the Venezuelan Navy. 103 years later, his remains would me moved to the Panteón nacional in Caracas where they rest to this day in sight of those of the Great Liberator, Simon Bolivar.

A lot of living – and a lot of sailing – went on for my Uncle Renato between birth and death. One of the highlights of a career full of privateering and freedom fighting was the Battle of Lake Maracaibo. History lists the date of the battle, fought mostly on the water, as July 24th. Actually, it occurred over almost a year from initial planning in September of 1822 to the evacuation of defeated Spanish troops in August of 1823. The lake and the city by the same name are now in the country of Venezuela. At the time they were part of the province of Gran Colombia.

Beluche was a Captain in Bolivar’s navy at the time and when, in November of 1822, he was given command of the largest ship in that small fleet and oversight of the blockade of Maracaibo, some local feathers were ruffled. As noted in a letter from General Mariano Montilla to General Francisco de Paula Santander:

Soublette has ordered that Beluche be given command of Constitucion. This has caused discord because Padilla’s disposition is not compatible with that of Beluche, Joly or Chitty [other men commanding smaller ships with Beluche].
They are our first and best officers of the squadron. We will see, and work with tact in this matter. In any event, Padilla will remain in command at Cartagena.

Jose Padilla, like his rival, was a sailor who had been aboard ship since his youth and known hardships including imprisonment by the British after the Battle of Trafalgar. Padilla was born in Rio Hacha, in modern Venezuela, and his Native and African blood made him a virtual symbol of Bolivar’s revolutionary vision. He bristled mightily at being usurped by Beluche who was not only his subordinate (Padilla was, by this time, an Army General) but a foreigner. Beluche had no love lost for Padilla either; he considered him a hothead who endangered men and ships at Maracaibo. It was only after the Battle of Maracaibo was put to bed that these two men really went at it and this time, in the press.

Thanks to the indefatigable research of Professor Jane Lucas de Grummond, we have the accurate cant and response of Beluche’s and Padilla’s literal flame war published in real time by local papers. The very public argument was sparked by Beluche hearing that Padilla was deprecating his contribution to the victory at Maracaibo and to the Bolivarian revolution in general. Padilla was, in effect, calling Beluche out as an opportunistic, foreign pirate.

In response, Beluche wrote a scathing article entitled “An Answer to False Accusations” in which he delineated Padilla’s errors in relation to his own service for Gran Colombia. The ball really got rolling when Padilla added his opinions and re-published the article. Beluche in turn commented on Padilla’s input and so it went until, like a vitriolic comment thread on a political blog, the two men ground each other down in amusing if unbecoming fashion.

Here is some of this discourse as printed in de Grummond’s scholarly biography, Renato Beluche: Smuggler, Privateer and Patriot.

Original article by Beluche:
I was born in the new world and acquired a love of glory in the defense of her liberty. Scarcely had the cry of independence gone up from South America when I hurried to enlist myself among her defenders.

What Senor Beluche says is true. He did come to South America but as a corsair; that is to say, to serve his own interests.

Padilla remembers that I was a corsair. And what is the matter with that? If I served my own interests and at the same time those of Colombia, what more could one desire? His Excellency is ignorant of the fact that uniting public and private convenience is the essence of government.

Original article by Beluche:
I have the satisfaction of having taken part in actions which it is not necessary to mention, for which I was praised by my chiefs. Envy has never found a resting place in my breast; and the brilliant actions of my companions in arms, far from exciting any base passion in me, had only stimulated me to imitate them.

Senor Beluche’s deportment has not corresponded with this expression of his sentiments.

This note is so vague and insignificant that it does not merit a reply.

This snippy backbiting goes on, when all comments have been added, for twenty-five pages. It is interesting to note that Padilla uses the honorific Senor but not the title of Captain when addressing Beluche and that Beluche addresses Padilla correctly as General in his original text but not at all in his responses. Neither man was going to back down.

For me the entire episode is a little funny, a little sad and a lot human. When a long gone ancestor jumps off the page with a fresh voice and a clear purpose, it makes them live again. For that I am grateful regardless of the words or the sentiment. I’ll bet Padilla’s descendants feel the same way.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Renato. I’m sure you were much missed when you left this Earth, but you’re always right here with me.

Header: The Battle of Maracaibo by Jose Maria Espinosa Prieto c 1840

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

History: Aboard Pallas

... there is no man I envy so much as Lord Cochrane.

The above quote, written down by none other than George Gordon Lord Byron, sums up the way many a man on both sides of the Atlantic felt about Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, one of the most dynamic leaders ever produced by the Royal Navy. Born on this day in 1775 at the family estate on the Firth of Forth in Scotland, Cochrane is frequently referred to as the inspiration for Patrick O’Brian’s engaging fictional character Captain Jack Aubrey and indeed there are many similarities. Not the least of which are the successful actions undertaken by Cochrane against the French during the Napoleonic Wars. And the frigates both men held dear.

Cochrane’s enormous career, which included not only service in the Royal Navy but a stint as Admiral in the Revolutionary Navies of Chile and Greece, has far too broad a scope to discuss in one simple blog post. Cochrane was a complex man who was both loved and hated by his peers and who was eventually excused the service due to his conviction for “jobbing” the stock market in 1814. Before that, though, it seemed that Captain Cochrane had nowhere to go but up.

After making Post upon the glorious capture of the Spanish ship El Gamo while he was Master and Commander aboard the British sloop-of-war Speedy, Cochrane was given a brand new frigate straight out of the Plymouth dockyards. Her name was Pallas and, though she was of an older design from 1753 and she was by any standards a small frigate, she must have seemed like a ship of the line to Cochrane. Speedy, which he would later write was a “burlesque” of a fighting ship, carried only a few small guns and 80 men. Pallas, on the other hand, crewed 215 and her guns totaled 26 12-pounders and 12 24-pound carronades, particularly favored by Cochrane. She was literally armed to the teeth at her launch in the winter of 1804. Cochrane, a fighting Captain, must have been more than pleased.

Pallas offered a man of Cochrane’s size and height – he was over six feet tall and usually referred to as “sturdy” – much better accommodations than his previous command. His cabin alone afforded headroom equal to his stature, a vast rather than cramped space and six enormous stern windows that could be opened to let in the breeze. His men were better off in their berths as well. Cochrane, who tended to complain, had nothing to grouse about in Pallas.

And so he was off, first cruising the English Channel and then out to the French coast to rendezvous with Vice-Admiral Edward Thornborough’s squadron, which Pallas did in February of 1806. Cochrane was ordered to cruise independently and harass all manner of French shipping. As he had in the past, Cochrane proved a master at such assignments. He and his men made quick raids ashore and captured more than one merchant ship, replenishing Pallas’ stores at French expense.

In March, Cochrane got word of French corvettes readying to leave the estuary of Garonne off the Bay of Biscay near Bordeaux. Despite the treacherous seas in the Gironde delta, Cochrane planned a night raid on the French ships to be led by his First Lieutenant, John Haswell. Haswell took 177 men upstream into the estuary in Pallas’ boats where they encountered Tapageuse at 3:00 AM on April 6th. The French crew were overcome as they had no notion of being boarded at anchor. Haswell managed to sail Tapageuse out of the estuary, managing to beat of a French sloop with Tapageuse’s 14 12-pounders as they went.

Meanwhile, Pallas encountered another three French ships the next morning. Cochrane’s ship was bigger and better armed than any of the French but he had only 40 men aboard him to man the capstan, tend the sails and work the guns. Cochrane, in his usual fashion, came up with a creative solution. He had his men go aloft and make the sails ready before securing them with a length of easily cut yarn. Then most of the men returned to the deck and hauled up Pallas’ anchor as the Frenchmen came closer. When Cochrane gave the order, the yarns were cut and, in his own words, the ruse:

… succeeded to a marvel. No sooner was our cloud of canvas thus suddenly let fall than the approaching vessels hauled the wind and ran off along shore, with Pallas in chase.

By day’s end all three French ships had been run aground and fired upon to ensure they could not return to sea. On April 7th, Pallas rendezvoused with Tapageuse and Cochrane proudly returned to the squadron with his prize. He submitted a report that gave glowing recommendations of all his men, particularly Lieutenant Haswell. These sentiments were in turn echoed by first Thornborough reporting to Lord St. Vincent and then St. Vincent in his report to the Admiralty. In very unusual language, Lord St. Vincent, then in command of the Channel Squadron, informed the Admiralty that Cochrane and his people had recommended themselves by their success which called for his Lordship’s “… warmest approbation.” It would be one of the few times that the future First Lord of the Admiralty would speak so highly of Thomas Cochrane.

Pallas and her people would continue their success under Captain Cochrane, including a stunning engagement with the French 40 gun frigate Minerve later in 1806. But that is another story for another time. For now, let me simply say Huzzah! for Thomas Cochrane and his exploits, and happy Birthday to one of the world’s great sailors.

Header: Contemporary engraving of Cochrane as Admiral of the Chilean Navy c 1822

Monday, December 13, 2010

Women At Sea: The Lady George

The American whaling industry suffered mightily during the U.S. Civil War. It wasn’t any lack of ships or whales, but a lack of men that ground things close to a halt. So, when a sturdy looking young man with rough hands and a lack of stubble on his face showed up to sign on to the whaler America in the fall of 1862, no one batted an eye. Or troubled to ask many questions. Captain John Luce was satisfied with George Weldon’s story that he had fought for the Confederate army, was wounded, sent to a local hospital by the Union and released. Now he needed to make his way, and whaling seemed better than combat.

America put out for the South Sea whaling grounds and George quickly became a favorite among the crew. Documentation of America’s cruise tells us George danced the best jig and sang in a beautiful, tenor voice. He was not the most easy-going crewman, however. By the time America reached the Pacific, George had established himself as a fighting man with a short fuse. He tangled with the “big black cook”, coming away the winner of the fight. At the time the third mate, Jethro Cottle, remarked that if George “… wasn’t such a mean hard cuss, I’d say he was a woman.”

On January 9 of 1863, George’s temper got the better of him again. This time he was out in one of the whaling boats hunting for prey with second mate Robert Smith in command. George was at a larboard oar and, after two hours of heaving, decided to take a brake. Smith perceived this as insubordination and, taking up a wooden paddle, smacked George upside the head with it. George pulled a knife and went after Smith. The other members of the boat’s crew pulled George off the mate and restrained him. Smith ordered that the boat return to America where he promptly reported George Weldon to Captain Luce as a mutineer. Luce, not the type to tolerate such business, ordered that George be flogged.

Of course, as on any ship, a flogging involved stripping the culprit to the waist on deck in front of all the crew. George, the mean hard cuss, asked for a private moment with Captain Luce. When this was granted he, quite grudgingly, confessed to being a she. George Weldon was in fact Georgiana Leonard an apparent orphan from some Southern state who, as she explained when she signed on, was simply making her way in the world. Luce seems not to have been much troubled by the revelation. He told Georgiana that she would not be working on a boat any longer and gave him the job of his steward, who took her place whaling. The Captain’s log entry for January 9 states:

Two whales, six sightings; clear and warm. Barometer steady. This day found out George Weldon to be a woman. The first I ever suspected of such a thing.

Georgiana continued to wear men’s trousers and did her duty by Captain Luce for the next six months. Her mates seem to have accepted her gender-bending without much concern. Third mate Cottle later wrote that:

We couldn’t think of her as a woman at all… when you have come to look on a mate as a tough fellow, smoking tobacco and dancing jigs and fighting with the cook, it’s hard to change your mind and regard her as a woman.

It seems, in fact, that America’s crewmen were sad when she put into port at the island of Mauritius and Georgiana disembarked. Captain Luce had arranged for her to work her way home as a stewardess aboard an acquaintances’ clipper ship. The Americas got their first glimpse of Georgiana in corset and crinoline before the two ships went their separate ways.

It is a rather surprising coincidence that both the clipper and America were back in Mauritius in June of 1864. Georgiana was still working as a stewardess and her whaling mates were happy to see her. She confided her plans to marry the Second Lieutenant aboard her ship and, as Cottle tells it, the Americas were pleased with the idea once they, like doting big brothers, had sized up the Lieutenant for themselves.

Georgiana returned to the states and married her Lieutenant but her legend preceded her. When America returned to New Bedford, her crew was pestered for reminiscences of the lady sailor. A pub in town, The Sailor Boy, was named in Georgiana’s honor and Cottle published his version of her story in a chapbook. The penny press took up the tale as only it could. The story was turned it into a racy melodrama that cast Captain Luce as a leering villain who would gladly have stripped and flogged the fair Georgiana, woman or not. As an example:

It is unnecessary to portray the astonishment… which took possession of everyone present when the garment having been stripped from her shoulders, the snow white bosom of the maiden suddenly burst upon their view in all its voluptuous beauty.

That gem is from Ephraim C. Hine’s novel Orlando Melville, the scene being allegedly based on another case of a woman masquerading as a man at sea.

In fact, Georgiana and John Adams Luce carried on a life long friendship. After the Captain retired, Georgiana and her Lieutenant would visit his Martha’s Vineyard home every year or so. What exactly became of Georgiana Leonard, the woman whaler, is not known but her story – or one vaguely similar to it – continued to be told and the titillation of the whole thing never seemed to grow old. One wonders how she personally felt about that, or if she paid any attention at all.

Header: The Ballad Singer by Rowlandson

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: The Gentleman's Fate

December 10, 1718: Despite a written plea to the colonial Governor which read in part:

I have presumed, on the Confidence of your eminent Goodness, to throw my self, after this manner, at your Feet, to implore you’ll graciously be pleased to look upon me with tender Bowels of Pity and Compassion; and believe me to be the most miserable Man this Day breathing: That the Tears proceeding from my most sorrowful Soul may soften your Heart, and encline you to consider my dismal State …

The so called gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet was hanged near the docks in Charleston, South Carolina.

Header: contemporary engraving of Bonnet's hanging; note the nosegay, carried as a sign of repentance

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Purser

The purser of any ship was and is the officer in charge of provisions and slops (the word for pre-made clothing aboard ship which comes from the Medieval word “sloppe” meaning breeches) for the crew. Until the modern era, officers were expected to maintain their own provisions and uniforms, so their personal stewards would be in charge of their food and clothing, leaving the ship’s purser to worry about the warrant men and foremast jacks. Because of his concern for supplies, and the usual accusation of abstemiousness that went along with same, the purser’s title found its way into a number of words common at sea.

A purser’s dip was the smallest of candles, one that would be recognizable on a modern birthday cake, allowed to crewmen prior to the 18th century for lighting their meals. Purser’s grins are what my mother would call “family looks”; a sneer or grimace made in response to something one did not approve of. A purser’s name was an alias given to the purser when one joined a ship’s crew; the purser being the man who entered a new jack’s name into the ship’s books. The alias was a way to avoid or dodge impressment.

The purser’s pound was a bone of contention in the service, particularly the Royal Navy, for years. The purser on any ship of war was allowed one eighth of all supplies for “waste”. Thus it was said that, particularly where food was concerned, men got only seven eighths of their share, with the purser keeping his “pound”. This argument led to more than one mutiny and was, over time, reduced officially by the Royal Navy to one tenth.

A purser’s shirt was any piece of clothing that was too loose or ill-fitting. A purser’s stocking was similarly a ready made piece of clothing, or slop, that would fit anyone.

Finally, the purser had his own steward who really amounted more to a secretary. This man kept books on all provisions and slops doled out to each mess over the course of a voyage and reported these numbers back to the admiralty or naval board before the ship was re-provisioned for her next cruise.

Mind your purser and keep on his good side, mates, or find your supper wanting as they used to say. And, just as an aside, congratulations to Navy on their ninth consecutive win over Army in the storied Army/Navy football game. Well done, Mids!

Header: Jack Aubrey and the Surprises cracking on from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Friday, December 10, 2010

Booty: The Inner Sailor

Still looking for Holiday gifts? Got a closet seafarer on your list? Not quite sure what would really bring out their inner sailor on Yuletide? Fear not; Pauline is here to help, as always. Here are a few suggestions for grown-ups (these things aren’t cheap so I wouldn’t recommend them for the under 18 set; I mean, unless you’ve got that kind of coin to throw around) that should hit the spot nicely.

First is the above illustrated pea coat from the J. Peterman Company of Kentucky. Peterman buys his from the same supplier as the U.S. Navy so this is as close to the real deal as you’re going to get without enlisting or enrolling at Annapolis. There are a few very minor differences but over all you have the same tough construction, warm wool and glossy buttons etched with foul anchors. Find it
here gentlemen and ladies.

Our next two items come from the National Geographic Store, whose offerings I have always been pleased with. The telescope above is a precise replica of the type used by David Porter and Jean Laffite (that’s right; men on both sides of the law!) 200 years ago. Made of brass, it folds down nicely to fit in one’s pocket, which made it handy when climbing up to the main top to spot a potential prize. The First Mate gave me one of these a few birthdays back and I love it. I’ve seen every moose that cruises through my neighborhood up close from the safety of my living room. Not the original use, of course, but still worth the while. Here is the link.

Finally, a map that is as intriguing as it is accurate. The Ghost Fleets of the Outer Bank reference map. It documents every shipwreck along the Carolina coasts from 1585 to 1969 including a number of confirmed or possible pirate wrecks like Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. NatGeo’s maps are always stunningly rendered and suitable for framing. If I lived on the Carolina coast, this would be a must have.
These are just a few suggestions but I would also encourage you to poke around both sites for other possible gift ideas. There are lots of quality goodies – some already on sale. Enjoy. Oh, and don’t forget tomorrow is the Army/Navy football game. Go Goats!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

People: The Unfortunate Commodore

Today's post is about a U.S. Navy man who learned the ropes on his father’s ship during the Revolutionary War, was highly praised for his meritorious service upon one of the first six frigates built after that war and went on to accomplish two of the most controversial moves in naval history. James Barron is so obscure at this point that he is only afforded a couple of paragraphs at the Naval History website and – perhaps even worse in our Internet age – when you search for a picture of him pretty much all you get are paintings and drawings of his arch rival Stephen Decatur.

Barron was born in Virginia on September 15, 1768 to merchant sea captain Samuel Barron. The elder Barron was a staunch revolutionary who loathed the British and their crippling taxes that kept wealth just out of his reach. Because of his seafaring knowledge, Samuel was appointed Commodore by the Virginia State Navy at the start of the Revolutionary War and by 1780 young James had joined his father’s crew as a Midshipman. When the State Navies dissolved after the Revolution, James continued to sail with his father and became an accomplished sailor, commanding one of his father’s ships on a crossing to the West Indies. By 1798, when the U.S. Navy was firmly established, James Barron was commission into it as Lieutenant.

Given a berth aboard United States, Lieutenant Barron distinguished himself. His captain was so impressed that within a year he was recommending Barron for promotion to Captain. The naval board agreed and gave Barron command of the sloop of war Warren which saw service in the last few months of the largely naval Quasi-War with France. The end of those disagreements did not slow Barron down as Warren quickly entered the melee in the Mediterranean now known as the First Barbary War. Under the watchful eye of Commodore Edward Preble, Barron and his ship preformed admirably, taking two Tripolitan galleys. When things were settled with Tripoli, Preble recommended Barron for promotion to Commodore.

Barron was by now an established Virginian on the rise. He was married to a local girl (whose name is also unfortunately lacking in the records available to me) and by 1803 they had five daughters and a small plantation. James Barron’s future looked exceedingly bright, and it only got brighter when he was handed his Commodore’s commission and command of the frigate USS Chesapeake.

In June of 1807, Barron had Chesapeake preparing for a trans-Atlantic voyage. She had put in her stores and guns and was fully crewed. This was the height of the Napoleonic Wars and French ships from the West Indies frequently dropped anchor in the friendly harbors of the U.S. British ships dogged them, sometimes even going so far as to try to blockade French ships in U.S. waters. Along with this intrusion, the British were known to board and search U.S. ships to “search for deserters” from the Royal Navy. In fact what the British were doing amounted to seagoing impressments. Any individual captain would have no way of knowing all the names of British deserters around the world so anyone picked out and clapped in irons was simply being chosen at random based on a hunch. This kind of indignity was common for merchant vessels but the British were getting high handed by 1807, and they began to threaten Navy ships.

On June 22nd, Commodore Barron and Chesapeake were at anchor off Maryland. The deck was littered with rations, munitions, cordage, spars and sails and the sailors were busy packing everything away in the hold. Some time in the late morning Chesapeake was hailed by the Royal Navy frigate Leopard. Captain Humphreys, RN, informed Barron that he needed to board his ship and search for British deserters. Barron, at first imagining Humphreys was joking, simply said no. Humphreys pressed the issue, and threatened action if he was not allowed to send a boarding party across. Barron, realizing that the moment was upon him, flatly refused before ordering his ship be made ready for battle.

The problem with the order was the impossibility of it. Like some ill-armed merchant, Chesapeake had only one gun on deck ready for loading. With her main deck scattered with all manner of junk, she was in no shape to clear for battle and, when Leopard fired as per Humphreys’ threat, Chesapeake managed only a meager shot with that one cannon. Barron and 17 other men were wounded and three men were killed with Leopard’s broadside. Barron struck to Humphreys immediately. Humphreys boarded as promised and took five men back to Leopard, only one of whom proved to be a British national.

The U.S. outrage over what would quickly become known as the Chesapeake-Leopard affair was palpable. The very active American press called for an explanation from the government; why was so much money being spent to build up a navy that couldn’t even protect its own sailors? Though the public called for another war with Britain, President Jefferson chose diplomacy. He managed to have four of the five sailors repatriated (the British sailor was hanged for desertion) but not before instructing the naval board to take care of their problems. They did this via court martial which found Barron negligent and suspended him from service for five years. It is important to note that Stephen Decatur, the hero of Tripoli and the epitome of American seafaring manhood at the time, sat on the board that convicted Barron.

James Barron retired to his home to wait out his five years. He returned to the service, this time captaining small frigates and sloops of war. His name is rarely mentioned in the seafaring annals of the War of 1812, which made heroes of men like John Rodgers, James Dacres, David Porter, Daniel Tod Patterson and of course Stephen Decatur all over again. Barron stayed in the background, a middle aged man who had lost the respect of his peers and was no longer able to keep up with the young lions.

By 1820 Barron, who continued to be a controversial figure in the navy with some politicians grumbling about why he was still in the service, took a seat on the Naval Board. With him was his now long time rival and former subordinate Commodore Stephen Decatur. Despite the fact that they served together and that Barron was in line to become senior officer on the board, Decatur heaped insults on Barron. He continued to nit-pick at the Chesapeake-Leopard affair until Barron could no longer ignore it and save face. Barron challenged Decatur in February and Decatur agreed to meet his opponent on the dueling field the following month.

The choosing of seconds was critical to the outcome of any duel but in this case it was particularly interesting. Barron chose Captain Jesse Elliott, who never made any bones about his hatred of Decatur, once calling him a “fop” in the “homosexual” sense (Decatur, though married, had no children and was a bit of a fashion plate which led to rumors about men at sea and so on). Decatur, on the other hand, asked William Bainbridge, by then a Commodore, to second him. Bainbridge readily agreed. What Decatur didn’t know – or chose to ignore – was that Bainbridge hated him too and almost as much as Barron and Elliott. Decatur’s superior attitude and almost charmed success made him very few friends in the competitive naval hierarchy.

As the date for the duel approached, Barron began to get cold feet. Decatur was a crack shot known to be able to hit a man aboard an enemy ship from his own quarterdeck with a pistol (pretty awesome marksmanship if you consider the pistols then in use, the unpredictable movements of any given human being and the heaving of both ships at sea). Barron doubtless imagined what would become of him and he approached Bainbridge with an offer of apology. Bainbridge promised to convey the offer to Decatur but never did.

On March 22nd, early in the morning, Barron and Decatur faced off in Bladensburg, Maryland. Decatur shot first, wounding Barron severely in the hip. Barron would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. What happened next is open for debate. Did Barron’s rage at Decatur’s constant insults and/or his refusal to accept an apology get the better of him? Or did nerves? Or his painful injury? Whatever the case, Barron shot Decatur – seemingly quite deliberately – in the lower abdomen. Decatur collapsed, bleeding profusely, and was hurried off the field to his home at Lafayette Square where he lingered in agony while his punctured bowl pumped sepsis into his body. Stephen Decatur died on March 24th after howling repeatedly that he “… did not know that any man could suffer such pain!”

Decatur, a national hero, was now a martyr thanks to James Barron. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral, including President James Monroe, and Barron was vilified all over again in the press. Though he continued to serve in the Navy, Barron never returned to sea. He finally retired voluntarily in 1839, perhaps sick and tired of hearing how horrible he had been. He died quietly twelve years later at his home in Virginia.

James Barron was a seaman of great promise, whose career went unfortunately astray and never seemed to right itself. It is interesting to note that Barron’s descendants now live all over the U.S., contributing to the country he loved. Decatur, on the other hand – though his name is everywhere – left no progeny at all. His only close living relative at the time of Barron’s death was his wife. Mrs. Decatur died penniless in 1860, still grumbling about James Barron who killed her beloved hero.

Header: James Barron, engraving via Naval History and Heritage Command

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Pirates' Own Book: Piratical Poetry

During this time of the year, carols are everywhere. You are only safe in your car, where your music choices are entirely your own. Even at home, the TV or radio may hit you with a “Fa la la la la” when you least expect it (and usually when you can’t do anything about it). This time of year always makes me long for an hour or two of old sea chanties.

So I thought I’d share “The Pirate’s Song” from our old mate Charles Ellms’ familiar book. The chanty is the final entry in the book and Ellms does not give the origin of the ditty or even the tune to which it should be sung. Most probably, in all fairness, it is an original poem by Ellms. The words are worth pondering either way and the sentiment is very piratical indeed; at least in the form that the idea of “piratical” has come down to modern culture filtered through the lens of Victorian imagination. Enjoy!

To the mast nail our flag it is dark as the grave,
Or the death which it bears while it sweeps o’er the wave;
Let our deck clear for action, our guns be prepared;
Be the boarding-axe sharpened, the scimitar bared;
Set the canisters ready, and then bring to me,
For the last of my duties, the powder-room key,
It shall never be lowered, the black flag we bear;
If the sea be denied us, we sweep through the air.
Unshared have we left our last victory’s prey;
It is mine to divide it, and yours to obey;
There are shawls that might suit a sultana’s white neck,
And pearls that are fair as the arms they will deck;
There are flasks which, unseal them, the air will disclose
Diametta’s fair summers, the home of the rose.
I claim not a portion: I ask but as mine –
‘Tis to drink to our victory – one cup of red wine.
Some fight, ‘tis for riches – some fight, ‘tis for fame:
The first I despise, and the last is a name.
I fight, ‘tis for vengeance! I love to see flow,
At the stroke of my sabre, the life of my foe.
I strike for the memory of long-vanished years;
I only shed blood where another shed tears.
I come, as the lightning comes red from above,
O’er the race that I loathe, to the battle I love.

Header: Pirate Captain on Deck by Howard Pyle c 1909

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sea Monsters: It Gets Worse

Thinking about sea monsters recently – I know; I’m a geek – the barracuda somehow came to mind. As witnessed by the picture above (from, they are a pretty scary looking fish. They have a reputation for vicious attacks on divers in temperate and tropical waters such as the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Barrier Reef so I’m thinking, perfect! There has got to be a piratical connection here. Well there is, but it’s hardly the one I imagined going in.

As it turns out, the barracuda is a relatively docile fish that is more likely to give other fish trouble than to attack a human or any other mammal. The cases of bites by barracudas are literally too infrequent to document, and most occur when the fish has been caught, usually on a line, and is being handled before it actually expires. Great, I’m thinking; some sea monster.

Continuing the research despite this disappointing turn of events, I find out perhaps a little more than I wanted to know. It seems that barracuda were caught and eaten in the 17th, 18th and early 19th century by freebooters in the waters previously mentioned. Also on the line and then on the menu were many types of grouper, particularly Nassau grouper which is very common not only in the Bahamas but in all the waters of the West Indies, and amberjack. As it turns out these fish, regardless of how they are caught or cooked, are the leading cause of a nasty and potentially fatal poisoning, particularly in the Caribbean.

Ciguatera is the type of poisoning in question and in modern times it is fatal to approximately 7% of those infected. The poisoning is caused by eating the cooked flesh of a fish that is infected and, though what exactly makes a fish turn ciguaterous is unknown, scientists believe the culprit may be a toxic blue-green algae that is passed up through the eating cycle of the fish.

Symptoms sound horrible on the page and can begin immediately after a meal or up to 30 hours later. A person’s lips, tongue and throat may begin to tingle, much as they do with poisoning related to eating puffer fish. Dull and nonspecific muscle aches will set in that increase to such a degree that the person may be unable to stand or walk. Abdominal cramps and nausea followed by vomiting and diarrhea will occur. Other possible symptoms include the feeling that one’s teeth are loose in their sockets, temperature reversal meaning either a high fever or a sudden drop in internal body temperature, and temporary blindness.

Since even today there is no way to tell if a fish carries the poison and the fish that are the usual suspects in such cases can many times be perfectly safe to eat, it is not hard to imagine that ciguatera – or its treatment – probably killed off more than one seaman in the great age of sail. With popular treatments like bleeding, blistering and purging being applied, it is easy to imagine that only the heartiest sailor would survive the poison and the cure. And the likelihood of being infected again would be high, unless a man actually developed a tolerance to the poison which is not unheard of.

Currently, warnings are posted about ciguatera in areas where it is common. Listen, mates, lets just be safe out there. Good advice is always wise to follow:

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Judging By The Sky

Growing up, we lived all over the country. If we’d been in one place for two or three years, you just knew any day now Dad would be home with the “Honey, we’re moving” speech. We had the good fortune, though, to usually live by a large body of water: the Pacific Ocean, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico. So I remember watching the sky for clues to the weather because Dad drilled the old rhyme into us kids: “Red sky at night, sailor delight; red sky in the morning, sailor take warning.” My friends were always surprised that I knew ahead of time when we weren’t going to have to dress out for gym.

But red is not the only color with which the sky prognosticates the weather. For centuries, sailors have looked up and judged – often correctly – what was coming by the hints in the sky. Here is a list, by no means complete, of some of the possibilities from the great age of sail:

Bright yellow sky at sunset: wind
Dark, gloomy blue sky: high winds
Dark gray, oily looking clouds: wind
Dark red clouds: rain
Delicate, cotton candy clouds: good weather with light to moderate breezes
Gray sky in the morning: excellent sailing weather
Lavender-gray clouds: snow
Light, bright blue sky: fine weather
Orange or copper sky at sunset: storms with rain
Pale yellow sky at sunset: wet and humid
Red sky in the morning: bad weather
Rosy sky at sunset: good weather
Sickly green: wind, rain, possible hurricane or typhoon
Tawny or coppery clouds: wind
The softer the appearance of the clouds: chance of being becalmed
The harder the appearance of the clouds: stiff winds and fine sailing

Check the sky where you are today, mates. Let me know how the old seafaring wisdom stacked up in your area.

Header: Good weather with light to moderate breezes in Isle de la Tortue

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: The Sound Of The Sea

The sea awoke at midnight from its sleep
I heard the wave of the rising tide
Rush onward with uninterrupted sweep,
A voice out of the silence of the deep,
A sound mysteriously multiplied
As of a cataract from the mountain's side,
Or roar of winds upon a wooded steep.
So comes to us at times, from the unknown
And inaccessible solitudes of being
The rushing of the sea tides of the soul;
And inspirations that we deem our own,
Are some divine foreshadowing and foreseeing
Of things beyond our reason or control
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Header: Tall Ship by Patricia Gilmore (buy it here)