Monday, May 31, 2010

Ships: Old Ironsides

One of the original six frigates built by the new government of the independent country of the United States of America, USS Constitution is now the oldest working sailing frigate on the water. She's been everything from a warrior to a training ship, a cargo hauler to a hospital and, because of the many men who have served aboard her, she is my choice for a Memorial Day tribute here at Triple P.

Built in Boston, Massachusetts at Edmund Hartt's yard, Constitution was designed by Joshua Humphreys, William Doughty and Josiah Fox for launch in October of 1797. Originally bound for the Barbary coast to fight pirates, she ended up serving in the Quasi-War with France instead. Between 1798 and 1800 she took a number of French warships and privateers. By 1801 she was back in the U.S., at the Charleston Naval Yard for a refit.

In 1803 she returned to action and this time she made it to Barbary. She was one of Commodore Edward Preble's Mediterranean Squadron and she helped to liberate the sailors of USS Philadelphia from Tripoli. Preble's actions, along with those of William Eaton and the U.S. Marines, forced the Barbary states to relinquish the requirement of "tribute" payments from American ships.

Constitution was given to John Rodgers in 1809. Isaac Hull followed as her Captain in 1810. When the War of 1812 broke out she took up a post off New Jersey. She encountered a number of British ships on the Atlantic station and became famous when she took HMS Guerriere in a two hour firefight. Constitution's superior fire power - 30 24 pound cannon and 20 42 pound carronades - won the day. The British ship's inability to put a dent in Constitution earned her the nickname Old Ironsides. She returned to Boston with her prisoners. Guerriere, a total loss with 78 men dead, was blown up at sea.

William Bainbridge was given command of Constitution in late 1812. The ship set out to rendezvous with Captain David Porter's Essex off Brazil but encountered HMS Java and commenced firing. Java was reduced to a dismasted hulk and lost 128 men, including her captain, Henry Lambert. Java, like Guerriere, was blown up at sea. This time, though, Constitution suffered considerable damage as well and Bainbridge limped her home to Boston. This engagement was used by Patrick O'Brian in his Aubrey/Maturin novel The Fortunes of War.

Bainbridge, wounded in the Java fight, turned over command of Constitution to Charles Stewart. Stewart took two more British ships, Levant and Cyane, in February of 1815. He did not know that the war was over at that point. Constitution returned to port in May. The ship was laid up in ordinary until 1821. When the Navy planned to break her for scrap in 1828, the U.S. people rallied to her aid. Constitution was rebuilt. She circumnavigated the globe in 1846 - with Andrew Jackson as her figurehead - and saw action as a Union frigate in the Civil War. By 1897, she was at dock as a naval receiving ship in New Hampshire.

Moved to Boston before the turn of the century, she was again restored and sailed on a "goodwill tour" in the 1930s. She is now a museum ship, sailing with other tall ships on July 4th each year. She is the oldest commissioned warship in the world and you can visit her next time you're in Boston. Right this moment, you can visit her enthralling website.

Constitution is a three masted heavy frigate of 2,200 tons. She carried up to sixty guns and as many as 450 men. She is an icon of American seafaring. On this day of remembering all who serve, I salute you Old Ironsides.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Aboard Jack

May 28, 1782, aboard the U.S. privateer Jack at Halifax, Nova Scotia:

Saw a brig standing in for the land; at 7:00 PM discovered her to have a copper bottom, sixteen guns and full of men. At half-past nine o'clock she came alongside when a close action commenced. It was our misfortune to have our worthy commander, Captain Ropes, mortally wounded at the first broadside. I was slightly wounded at the same time in my right hand and head, but not so as to disable me from duty. The action was maintained on both sides close, severe and without intermission for upwards of two hours, in which time we had seven killed, several wounded and several abandoned their quarters. Our rigging was so destroyed that not having command of our yards, the Jack fell with her larboard bow foul of the brig's starboard quarter, when the enemy made an attempt to board us, but they were repulsed by a very small number compared with them.

~ William Gary, master's mate

(painting at the header: Schooner Ship by Dan Collier)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Quarter

Quarter is one of those seafaring terms that makes just about everyone think of pirates. The black, in some cases red, flag means no quarter will be given. We know that means, in turn, that resistance is futile and you might just as well lay your arms down now, mate. We will kill you. But where does that usage of a word that originally meant one fourth come from? I'm so pleased that you asked.

In sailor terms quarter originally meant the literal aft 1/4th of a ship. This morphed into the far more technical 45 degrees abaft the beam some time in the 17th century. Essentially anything behind the mizzen mast of a man of war is in the quarter. Thus the quarterdeck, the raised area, usually where the ship's wheel, bell and her main binnacle are found. By the 18th century the quarterdeck was the exclusive domain of officers and anyone coming aboard ship was expected to solute the quarterdeck.

Quarters means not just where seaman sleep but divisional batteries as well. Beating to quarters, usually with drums, indicated a ship making ready for battle with all hands hurrying to their stations. Close quarters indicates a boarding situation with either your men boarding the enemy ship or the other way round.

Quarter is applied to more than one petty officer. A ship's quartermaster is the master's mate who takes up an oversight position similar to the bosun. He is often in charge of stores and how a ship's hold is packed so that she runs at her best speed. He also oversees the order on the quarterdeck. A quarter-gunner is the gunner's mate who keeps guns and tackle in working order.

Finally, the reason we apply the term quarter to mercy may come from the Spanish. It became their habit to parole captured naval officers for one quarter of the man's yearly pay. Once quarter was given in ransom, the officer was free to return home. The ransom amount didn't necessarily apply everywhere but the term stuck. Quarter is given; you are free to go with your lives. We'll take your cargo though, jack. Just business you understand.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Booty: Hollywood vs Reality

As I mentioned in the comments on Monday, I went to town with the screen grabs from That Hamilton Woman and now I have nothing to do with them. Friday Booty to the rescue! Above is a lovely still of Emma and Horatio at a ball. Of course her costume is wrong for the period that the two were lovers but I've a sneaking suspicion that Regency gowns were probably too "simple" for the movie, so they went with the full blown Georgian fashions. One other point before we move on: everything is sparkly in this movie.
Even the battle scenes. Here are some Frenchies getting ready to fire on the British. The striped shirts give their nationality away.
Here's a particularly heroic portrait of Nelson done around the time he and Emma fell for one another. He's not quite Laurence Olivier, is he? Please note the chelengk in his hat, which he was given after the Battle of the Nile. That was made entirely of diamonds and if the costumers got nothing else right in That Hamilton Woman, they outdid themselves on Nelson's chelengk.
Look at it; gorgeous. The eye patch was a bit of a problem, I guess. The dresser kept forgetting which eye gave Nelson trouble. Since he was only blind in the eye - it wasn't like he had an empty socket, pirate-style - you can imagine their confusion.
This is Nelson's favorite portrait of Emma. As I understand it, he took it to sea and had it with him when he died. She is handsome, but it is obvious that she is no longer the nymph painters like Reynolds clambered for. Those cheeks are chubby indeed.
And here's Emma from the Carnival scene in the movie. My favorite thing about this still is her jewels. Her necklace and earbobs sport diamond Ns. Click the pic to enlarge.
Happy Friday, Brethren. I'm off to spend a vacation day with the family. See you tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Unwashed Masses

I came across a very small article over the weekend discussing, of all things, how our ancestors brushed their teeth. The writer came to the conclusion that they basically didn't and I quit reading at that point. I am not going to stand in front of anyone and say that people in the 18th and 19th century showered every morning and used their OralB before heading out. But I always bristle at the "our ancestors were ignorant, smelly dullards" conclusion.

Europeans in general and seamen in particular weren't "clean" on a day to day basis the way modern Americans would think of the word. Regular baths didn't happen aboard ship or by land in colder climates. On a ship, fresh water was dear and used predominantly for drinking or the sick, who did rate a bath now and again. In colder climates, New England and Canada for instance, heating water for a soaking bath was a prohibitive chore that rarely happened. Besides, a full bath was rumored to make a body sick. In warmer climates, where a tub of water could be left out in the sun the way one might warm up the kiddy pool water to wash the dog in suburbia these days, baths were far more common. They were one of those "decadent luxuries" Yankees were shocked by when they showed up in New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century.

People did sponge themselves off with wet towels or - yeah - sponges, however. A typical morning routine, even aboard ship and especially for officers, included washing the torso and face followed by a shave. Waters such as rose water, lavender water and Hungary water were relatively inexpensive and were splashed on the face, in the hair and under the ol' pits before dressing. The sailors who could swim did so whenever possible, especially in fresh water estuaries and cays where the muck could be rinsed off without the harsh abrasiveness of salt water on skin. Living cheek by jowl with your fellow man may have meant that a certain level of personal hygiene was required more than ignored.

Even aboard buccaneers, pirates and privateers, men were careful to keep the parasites at bay if at all possible. Fleabane, an herb that grows like a weed in most temperate climates, was dried and sprinkled on clothing, hammocks and cots. It was also rubbed into the hair of men and animals to keep down the fleas and lice. Some ships surgeons would shave a man who turned up with head or body lice, a humiliating process that included every hair accessible. Since sailors were particularly fussy about their long flowing locks - which they washed and braided about once a week - making sure Bones didn't find lice was a kind of mania aboard such ships.

On land and far from home, nature offered up a surprising variety of remedies for the unkempt. Sprigs of certain trees could be cut and frayed at the end to form a primitive toothbrush. The frayings also served as floss. Wine or, in a pinch, urine was used as a mouthwash. The castings of certain tropical ants still are a remarkable mosquito repellent. A buccaneer just had to find the colony and rub the detritus all over his bare skin. Distasteful perhaps but better than malaria or yellow fever.

Back in port, a man could pay for a hunk of lye soap and a bath at some establishments. The story goes that the saloons on Grande Terre and Galveston both offered baths that were insisted on prior to the sailors visiting the ladies upstairs. The Laffite boys ran clean houses, even in the wilderness.

Which brings me back to tooth brushing. Contemporary descriptions of both Jean and Pierre Laffite speak specifically of the brothers' teeth. They were small, even and very white. Adjectives used include "remarkably" and "unusually" for the glowing grandeur of these two outlaws' chompers. How did they do it? Most probably genetic luck combined with a simple remedy that has been around since Elizabethan times and one, dear Brethren, that you can try today.

Toothbrushes, made of wood, ivory or bone with boar bristles were introduced in Europe in the late 16th century. Elizabeth I used one regularly. By the American Revolution they were quite common and, though there would have been people who ignored oral hygiene (there are today after all), available to most people. To go with the brush, there were tooth powders. One simply wet their brush, dipped it in the powder and went to town. Myrrh, cinnamon and particularly sage (the secret to whiter teeth) were used in the powders as well as abrasives like ground eggshells or dragonsblood resin.

The sage tooth powders in particular had a long history and were probably used by the likes of Henry Morgan and Laurens de Graff (who, as an aside, was renowned for his beautiful, blond hair, washed regularly). Want to give sage tooth powder and other historical grooming goodies a try? Click over to Ageless Artifice and review their offerings. (My thanks to Isis' Wardrobe for previous and current posts on this wonderful site.) You can get Hungary water, cold cream, tooth powder and a toothbrush to go with it, plus so much more all made with authentic, period correct recipes.

I imagine the percentage of "unwashed masses" today is probably equal to the percentage of yesterday. And so it goes on back through history. Our ancestors were very much the same as we are. To think of them as less is, I believe, to do them a grave disservice. The fact is at least some of them may have been more.

(The painting at the header is from Don Maitz' Pirate Calendar, 2009)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

People: On The Island of Sacrifice

Nicholas (or Nicolas en Francais) Van Horn was one of a trio of buccaneers whose most infamous raid was on the Spanish treasure town of Veracruz in 1683. We've already discussed his partners in crime, the great Laurens de Graff and the warrior Michele de Grammont. Van Horn, whose death is possibly more celebrated than his life thanks to novels and movies, is a shadowy figure when compared to the other two ladrones. His background is almost lost entirely, but his character seems to live on as if it has a will of it's own.

Van Horn was certainly a Dutchman, like de Graff. Both of them came to buccaneering in different ways but it is obvious that Van Horn went to sea early in life and never looked back. Probably laboring in the Dutch merchant service through his youth, Van Horn was at some point confronted with the opportunity to turn rogue and he took it. By as early as 1681, when he was probably in his late twenties or early thirties, Van Horn was at Petit Goave in St. Domingue (now Haiti) offering his piratical services to the French Governor Pouancay.

By January of 1683, Van Horn captained his own ship, St. Nicolas, and she was cruising the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. It is telling that Van Horn's ship is eponymous for he is routinely described as vain and grandiloquent, never suffering even the slightest insult without retribution. This is not at all unusual for buccaneers in general and their leaders in particular but the fact that it is mentioned so frequently and in writing, by Alexander Exquemelin in three different accounts for instance, makes it unique. Van Horn must have been a particular hothead to draw so much attention.

In February, while working with de Graff and another buccaneer named Philippe Gomber de la Fleur, Van Horn attacked a Spanish treasure ship, Nuestra Senora de la Consolacion. The ship should have been full of bullion, gems, indigo and sugar on their way to mother Spain but Van Horn made a tactical error and struck too soon. All the buccaneers came away with was two thousand pounds of indigo. This error caused a rift between Van Horn and de Graff that would flare up later.

Following the debacle of la Consolacion, Van Horn had success in March when he took the Dutch merchant Aletta. He moved her cargo to St. Nicolas and sailed for West Africa where he bartered the goods for slaves. Returning to Jamaica on the trades, he sold the unfortunates to the English for a tidy profit and then returned to Petit Goave with a fist full of cash and a happy crew. Happening upon de Grammont and de Graff, he learned of their plan to raid Veracruz before the Spanish treasure fleet left the port in June. Van Horn wanted in and certainly some of his slaving profits went to fund the project.

It is a point of interest here, at least to me, that Van Horn was a married man with a family. This was not as unheard of among the buccaneers of the late 17th century as it would be in the Golden Age of piracy. De Graff himself managed not one marriage but two and at least one child during his raiding heyday. The woman that Van Horn was married to and the number of children they had are facts lost to the mist of history. One source, a chronicler named Gage, says Van Horn's wife was a lovely mixed race woman of St. Dominigue. I wonder what the two exchanged before Van Horn went off to Veracruz and probably the largest raid of his life. Certainly, though neither he nor she could know it at the time, it was the last.

The buccaneer flotilla led by de Graff and de Grammont came within sight of Veracruz on May 17, 1683. De Grammont took the lead in tactics and, using a strategy similar to the one Morgan would use on Portobello, he anchored his ships north of Veracruz and used canoes to move his men to the city. Veracruz, never the target of a large scale buccaneering attack, was not ready for the swift descent of the freebooters and she fell without much resistance. While de Graff secured the bastions around the city, de Grammont took most of the freebooters into the plaza and began systematically rounding up the inhabitants.

The following days were unfortunately gruesome for the unsuspecting residence of Veracruz. Fearing attack from a nearby Spanish fleet, de Grammont took the lead in rounding up the wealthiest citizens of the town and taking them, along with the plunder acquired, via ship to nearby Isla Sacrificios. The conditions on the island were only slightly better for the prisoners than they had been in the city. Now being held for ransom, several died on a daily basis.

The Spanish fleet appeared as feared and began firing on the buccaneers, apparently while they are trying to move provisions from their ships to the island. Both Van Horn and de Grammont went into a rage and de Grammont rounded up a few prisoners to decapitate in retaliation. De Graff stopped the slaughter and Van Horn, according to one account, called de Graff a coward. The gloves came off and the last few months of rancor between the two men bloomed immediately into open hatred. They agreed to a duel.

The usual French format was stated, or perhaps even implied. First blood was all that was required to satisfy the honor of the victor. Death was not a necessary outcome. The cutlasses were unsheathed and those gathered stood back. There is no written record of the actual duel, but the confrontation ended with Van Horn suffering a slice to his wrist. No one, not even the surgeons available, thought much of the wound. De Graff upheld his honor, Van Horn was bandaged and the boring, dirty business of ransoming captives was returned to.

Unfortunately for Nicholas Van Horn, nothing is ever simple. His wound festered and for some reason, very likely the hot and humid surroundings that were full of the sick and dying, Van Horn's body was quickly riddled with sepsis. He died within a few days. According to Exquemelin:

...Van Horn was buried on Cay Logrette, which is but three leagues from Cape Catouche in the province of Yucatan.

What little we still know of the buccaneer Van Horn is full of contradictions. On the one hand he is described as a mean drunk. On the other, men write of his fearlessness and capable leadership even in close battle. It's hard to accurately say who the man buried in the sand on the Island of Sacrifice might really have been. At the very least, we still remember his name.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

History: Ancient Merchants And Rich Cargo

On what was probably a clear day, at least initially, in approximately 50 BCE, a Roman merchant ship very similar to the one above (via Image Shack) made her way under sail past the coast of modern Sardinia. She was about 100 feet long and 20 feet in the beam. Her compliment would have been small; probably between 10 and 20 men. Possibly on her way to the great city of Rome, the vessel was carrying only one cargo: lead ingots.

It was within sight of the coastline that tragedy struck. What may have caused the sinking of the little merchant is up for speculation, even years after her skeletal remains were found. Some experts envision a sudden, hurricane-like storm that overtook the ship and - with the aid of heavy and possibly ill-positioned cargo - sank her. Others imagine a rogue wave coming up over her aft and "pooping" her; in other words, literally dragging her down into the sea by her backside. Finally, one archaeologist speculates that the Captain, now a nameless, faceless entity just like his crew, deliberately sank his ship.

Of course the next question is why, and weather doesn't need to answer puny human questions. Why a Captain who successfully managed the treacherous Mediterranean would purposefully sink his ship so close to his goal is beyond fathoming, especially for those of us with a seafaring bent. I find, though, that scientists like to tell tall tales. It's so much more exciting to imagine a hurried and deliberate foundering for some intriguing and now lost reason than to think of a simple hurricane, isn't it? If the honorable expert in question had ever sailed through heavy weather, he or she wouldn't think so but that's another story. At this point, all we know is that the merchant went down and then lay on the sandy floor of the Roman lake for 2,000 years.

When she was found over ten years ago she was considered a common merchant, worth excavating certainly but nothing unusual. Funds weren't rolling in for the project and it started to look like the vessel might slip back into obscurity. Then the ingots that made up her cargo and could have sealed her doom came to light and the ancient ship was suddenly of far more interest than anyone on the original team could have imagined.

Lead, as many of you are probably aware, is an important substance to those who research radioactive materials. They use it as a shielding material for their studies. The problem is that modern lead has traces of radioactivity and must, therefor, be treated prior to use. This is expensive evidently, although this article at Discovery News (which explains the entire "neutrino detection" process and why this ancient lead is so important to it far more capably than I ever could) doesn't really go into that. What it does make clear is that the guys and gals at Italy's Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events (CUORE) can't wait to get their hands on the ancient lead. They will then whisk it away to their "...neutrino observatory buried under the Gran Sasso mountain in Italy."

As James Bond as all that sounds, CUORE's interest in the ingots has been a boon to the archaeologists studying the sunken Roman merchant. The physicists managed to fund the salvage of the ship, in return, of course, for a bunch of now non-radioactive lead. You scratch my back; I scratch yours.

At this point, the excavation continues. It will be interesting, at least for me personally, to see what becomes of the ship and the entirety of her cargo. Will all the lead go to the physicists, eventually? Will the ship be picked apart and then left in boxes - neatly tagged, catalogued and dated - in an Italian museum or college? Or will some of this amazing find actually help our understanding not only of the potential of "ghost particles", but of the history of seafaring and trade as well.

Only time will tell. And time, it seems, is very much on the side of that little merchant that sank around 50 BCE.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Movies: That Naval Hero

That Hamilton Woman, the 1941 British production staring Vivien Leigh as Emma Harte Hamilton and Laurence Olivier as Horatio Nelson, is another example of twisted history used as a thin veil for modern issues. The production is lavish if a bit slap-dash and both Leigh and Olivier are gorgeous in a way that neither Hamilton nor Nelson were during their scandalous affair.

The story is almost ridiculously familiar, but it is muddled up to such a degree in the film that I quit paying attention to the details and just marvelled at the costumes and scenery. That sentence, I realize, doesn't speak well of the film at all and perhaps I am being too harsh. Having said that, I find that familiar stories, on film, in books, etc., that creep particularly far away from historical accuracy tend to be boring. And so, unfortunately, is Alexander Korda's narrative.

Emma meets Horatio when she has only just married the many-years-her-senior Ambassador to Naples, William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray, appropriately wry and jaded). Though this arrangement seems to suit her, she cannot help being swept off her feet by the handsome sea Captain who is not only young but has both arms and two good eyes. It's baffling, really, since part of the charm of the Hamilton/Nelson affair was that they met and fell in love not because they were both young and lovely but because of sincere mutual attraction. He was a beat up husk of a man and she was a chubby former nymph who had quite obviously been passed around when he sailed into Naples harbor and swept her off her feet. I guess the movies have to have their glamour.

And That Hamilton Woman is nothing if not glamorous. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, the acting, as you would expect, is spectacular and the special effects during the Battle of Trafalgar scenes are particularly breathtaking:
The film won an Oscar for Best Sound and even today it is easy to see why. Hearing the balls fly during battle is overwhelming. Certainly, it must be very close to what the real experience would have sounded like.

It is too little too late, however. Prior to the big battle, Lord Hamilton slips into obscurity (he in fact died with both Emma and Horatio at his side) once the action moves to England. Horatio is briefly confronted by his wife, the long suffering Frances Nesbitt (a properly prune-faced Gladys Cooper), who has been taking care of his wheelchair-bound father Reverend Nelson (Halliwell Hobbes; hilarious) all these long years. And of course there is the child Horatia, who Emma "registers" as the daughter of "...Horatio Thompson, a sailor". No mention is made of Horatia's poor twin sister, left at a foundling home because Emma couldn't handle two babies. Then, ever so mysteriously, Nelson retires and he and the still thin and lovely Emma move on to an estate in the country.

The whole point of the movie, and the focus of many an unfortunate and distracting speech about tyranny and mother England, is that the Nazis are out there. So, of course, Nelson must come out of retirement and win the Battle of Trafalgar with Bonaparte a handy substitute for Hitler. The inevitable occurs. Nelson is shot by a French sniper and his death throes and final speech are artfully filmed through gauze and gels. Of course he wants the Admiralty to look after Emma. They don't and she is driven from her estate, finally ending up a penniless drunk in Calais, steeling booze and going to debtors' prison. Because we all know the worst will happen to bad girls like Emma.

Here is the link to the IMDb page for That Hamilton Woman, if you've an interest. The movie is certainly worth putting in the Netflix queue. It's visually charming and it is a treat to watch married lovers Leigh and Olivier play off one another on screen. But as films about history go, this one is more fiction that fact.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: The Doomed Franklin Expedition

May 23, 1850: The United States Navy sends two ships, USS Advance and USS Rescue, to join eleven British ships in the Canadian Arctic. They were all searching for the lost group of 129 explorers - mostly sailors - who left Britain under the command of Sir John Franklin in 1845 to search for an Arctic Northwest Passage. Their ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were abandoned after spending two winters trapped in the ice off King William Island. Most of the men were never found, but by 1859 it was generally agreed that they had all succumbed to disease, lead poisoning and starvation.

The painting above entitled Man Proposes, God Disposes is by artist Sir Edwin Landseer. It caused an uproar at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1864 for its graphic imagery in reference to the doomed Franklin expedition.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Foul

Foul is a word much loved at sea. Most people are familiar with foul weather and any seaman knows both the significance of the fouled anchor as a symbol (as on the place setting above) or it's pure annoyance as an actual happening. No one likes an anchor with her cable wrapped around her and who ever is to blame for that will never hear the end of it.

But there are other kinds of fouling at sea as well. A ship may run foul of another meaning that the rigging of one is entangled with the other. Ships anchored too closely may swing foul of one another with wind or tide. In this case, they are in a foul berth.

Foul air below decks is something to be guarded against and has been blamed for many an epidemic aboard ship. A crewman might receive a foul bill from the ship's surgeon, meaning that he is in some way physically or mentally unfit to serve; his bill of health is foul.

A foul wind blows a ship off her course. A foul coast is full of reefs, corals and ripping tides that can chew an ill-handled ship to shreds.

A foul bottom is a ship's hull encrusted with seaweeds and crustaceans that keep the ship from handling well and moving at top speed. Time for a careening. Foul bottom might also indicate a rocky sea floor which risks fouling the anchor. Another term for either of these is foul ground.

The Gulf Stream, too, can be foul. She is called a foul-weather breeder because of her propensity to cause hurricanes in the Atlantic. Finally, I shall simply mention that the Gulf herself is now unfortunately fouled thanks to exceedingly poor planning. The kind any seaman would deplore.

On another note, if you've an interest in the beautiful place setting above, you can purchase it today at The Pirates Lair here. I would in a heart beat, but it's a little beyond my means just now.

Happy Saturday, Brethren. See you tomorrow for Seafaring Sunday.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Booty And A Half: Blogger Hop

Ahoy! Again! Triple P is participating in this weekend's Blogger Hop over at the delightful Crazy for Books. Because I review books and talk about books and read books. Check it out one time, won't you?

Booty: Hurley And Heroes

Many of the Brethren know full good and well that the NHL semi-finals are now in full swing. The First Mate and I are both cheering our teams on - I the Blackhawks and he the Flyers. He was born in Philadelphia, as was his mother, so he he has a long history with the Broad Street Bullies. I just picked the Blackhawks for giggles because I liked Eddie Belfour and Jeremy Roenick back in the day. And red is pretty! Let's face it, I'm a football fan.

What all this has to do with seafaring in general and U.S. Navy hero Stephen Decatur in particular is made clear by this article from The Calgary Herald.

Canada, of course, considers herself the birthplace of hockey but, as Swedish researches Patrick Houda and Carl Giden seem to have proven, it was more like the kindergarten. Apparently, a ball-and-stick game played in Scotland and known as shinty was adapted to ice as early as 300 years ago and played in the British Isles long before the supposed natal date of Canadian hockey. A similar game, known as hurley, was also played in Ireland and was the form that came to North America with British colonist.

Hurley as a game is found in written descriptions from Canada as early as 1811. There is documentation by British explorer Sir John Franklin of his men playing hurley on Great Bear Lake in October of 1825. But all of this is decades after documentation of the cold-weather game being played in the U.S.

The researches identified entries in New Yorker William Alexander Duer's diary telling of hurley matches in the city in the 1780s. They also found written references to hurley on a frozen river in Philadelphia some time in the latter part of the same decade. From the article:

During the winter, when the glassy surface of the Schuylkill invited the boys to skim over it on skates, no one excelled him in hurly, prisoner's base, and the other games of the season.

The "him" in this contemporary account is none other than Stephen Decatur. The future hero of both the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 would have been somewhere around eight or nine years old at the time. This is a guy who, in his early twenties, chased down and supposedly nearly caught the Jersey Devil in it's native Pine Barrens as well. Evidently he was athletic from the get go and a good skater to boot.

It surely is not rocket science but it is history. And history with a seafaring twist no less. That's what we love here at Triple P. Thanks must go once again to the First Mate for pointing this out to me. Good luck out there on the ice.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sea Monsters: The Babies Are So Cute

Over at Science Daily online there's an article about the Gutan Formation off the Darien coast of Panama, in the Caribbean. Regular readers of Triple P will be more than familiar with the area, which was a favorite of 17th century buccaneers and 19th century privateers alike. The Formation, a series of sandy outcrops that create a sheltered, warm water mangrove swamp, has been mined for years to make cement. This constant removal of layers revealed an amazing assortment of paleo-shark teeth from the largest of the species ever to swim Earth's oceans.

Carcharocles megalodon was sixty to seventy feet in length in adulthood; it had no natural predators. A single tooth from C. megalodon is the size of a man's hand and by "man" I mean a guy roughly the size of Tyson the Cyclops in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series of books by Rick Riordan. Saying that the animal was mind bogglingly huge is an understatement.

As babies, though, C. megalodon were quite vulnerable to predation, particularly from other sharks. Scientists imagine that the paleo-variety of sharks, like their modern cousins, probably kept their newborns and toddlers near the coast in "nurseries" where shallow water would deter adults from making them snack food. The find of over 400 shark teeth off Panama has yielded many that can positively be identified as the chompers of youthful C. megalodon.

The excavation, which is a bit of a hurry-up operation due to the literal stripping of the Gatun Formation, is a combined effort of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Florida. According to the article two other paleo-shark nurseries have been identified in recent times, both off the coast of South Carolina in the U.S.

The Spanish along the Main would not only refer to the buccaneers of old as ladrones - thieves - but also los tiburones: the sharks. Evidently, long before Francois L'Olonnais and Henry Morgan, there were a lot of really big sharks in the Caribbean.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Women At Sea: Witness For The Prosecution

Elizabeth Bowden (or Bowen) seems to have had it rough from the very beginning. Born into obscurity and poverty some time in 1793 in Truro, Cornwall, she seemed destined to a bleak life. Things went from bad to worse when she was orphaned at age twelve or thirteen.

Elizabeth had an older sister who, to the best of the girl's knowledge, lived in that haven of the Royal Navy: Plymouth. Being nothing if not hardy, Elizabeth walked from Truro to Plymouth with the idea that she would take up residence with her sibling. Unfortunate as usual, Elizabeth could not find her sister. Elizabeth, who in our day and age would be termed a little girl, was penniless, starving and alone. Like so many nameless others of her generation, she turned to the sea.

Dawning a boy's trousers (and perhaps looking similar to the drawing by Thomas Rowlandson at the header), Elizabeth signed aboard HMS Hazard at Plymouth in the last half of 1806 using the name John Bowden. Deemed fit to serve, she was rated a boy 3rd class and given the usual advance on her pay. Hazard left for sea not long after the new boy was taken aboard. No one seems to have questioned her sex, at least not right away.

Within six weeks something occurred, history is silent as to what, that gave Elizabeth's gender away. One wonders if her menarche wasn't the culprit but that is purely speculation. At any rate, rather than being turned ashore at the next port, Captain Charles Dilkes gave Elizabeth a separate sleeping space and made her an assistant to the officers' stewards. This would have kept her out of the general ship's population and put her more closely in contact with not only the stewards but the galley crew as well.

With all this, Elizabeth would probably have fallen through the cracks of history as did so many other women at sea. But a well publicized case of sodomy aboard HMS Hazard, and Elizabeth's insistence that she had witnessed at least one of the incidents in question, brought her briefly into the lime light.

In August of 1807, while the ship was underway, Lieutenant William Berry was accused of regular abuse of a boy named Thomas Gibbs. Berry was twenty-two at the time but Gibbs, a ship's boy second class, had to have been younger than fourteen as he was not charged at the court-martial. According to the trial records, Gibbs finally got fed up with Berry's actions and told the gunroom steward, John Hoskins, what was going on. From the young man's testimony it sounds as if there was physical as well as sexual abuse going on, although Hazard's surgeon would say that he could "find no marks on the boy" and that Gibbs had only "complained of being sore".

Hoskins took Gibbs to Captain Dilkes and had him repeat his story. Berry was questioned by the Captain who was evidently inclined to believe the boy. The Lieutenant was arrested and a court-martial was arranged in October, aboard HMS Salvador del Mundo, when Hazard reached Plymouth once again.

I won't go into the details of the trial, which was presided over by Admiral John Duckworth, as that is not the focus of this post. What is interesting is that Elizabeth Bowden, known to be a girl, felt comfortable enough to step up and offer her story in the case. Even more fascinating is that the Royal Navy court took her testimony, it seems without batting an eye.

Elizabeth claimed to have seen an exchange between Berry and Gibbs by peering through the keyhole of Berry's cabin. She was asked if she observed Gibbs entering Berry's cabin frequently and answered yes. When asked "...and what induced you to look through the keyhole?" Elizabeth replied, quite simply, that Gibbs in Berry's cabin seemed curious, and "...I thought I would see what he was about." The court recorded this testimony and noted that she was "Elizabeth alias John Bowden (a girl) borne on the Hazard's books as a Boy of the 3rd class."

Lieutenant Berry, who called in family and friends to vouch for his good character and even had a girl come along side ship and offer to marry him, was found guilty under the 29th Article of War and hanged from the starboard fore yardarm of Hazard on October 19th.

And that is all we know about fourteen-year-old Elizabeth "John" Bowden. Whether she continued on in navy service, like the intrepid William Brown, found a husband and settled down, or came to what would then have been called a bad end is impossible to say. Her brief story, however, gives us another example of the much debated acceptance of women at sea.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ships: Voyage Of Discovery

As you are well aware, Brethren, I live in the Great Land: Alaska. Ask anybody who has been here, even for a short visit; it is a breathtaking place and one that you wish you could see more of once you've seen any at all. We have a well deserved nautical history up here too. Considering that our coastline is larger than that of the contiguous U.S. that should not surprise. From native Alaskans to Russians, British, Spanish and Americans, ships have been the way in and out of this place for centuries.

Today's ship was one tasked with not only exploring the coastline and getting a handle on the Spanish presence in the area, but also with trying to discover that all important and unfortunately mythical Northwest Passage. In the late 1780s a collier being built by Randall and Brent was bought into the service by the British Admiralty. She was three masted and ship rigged, of approximately 330 ton. Her dimensions were 96 feet in length, 28 feet at the beam and a deep draft of over 12 feet. The intended coal ship, once refit, could carry a compliment of 100 men. She was named HMS Discovery, after the ship that Captain James Cook last sailed, and command of her was given to George Vancouver:
Vancouver had served under the great Cook and he had a similar attitude toward command and discovery: men, ship and the people and places of New World were of equal importance and should always be treated with civility and respect if at all possible. Vancouver was also a consummate sailor. Shipping with him would have been as much of a delight as a cruise around the world could possibly be.

The timeline of Vancouver's expedition shows his seaworthiness, and that of his ships. Discovery was joined by HMS Chatham, a smaller vessel commanded by Lieutenant Peter Puget (whose euphonious name later lent itself to Puget Sound in what is now Washington State). The ships left Falmouth, England April 1, 1792 and had rounded the Cape and made Australia by September 28th of that year. This included stops for provisioning so the swiftness of Vancouver's cruise is obvious. By November 2nd, Discovery and Chatham were in New Zealand.

In March of 1792, the two ships made the Sandwich Islands, which are now Hawai'i, and began the discourse that was part of Vancouver's mission as well. After the unfortunate series of misunderstandings that led to the death of Captain Cook, the British wanted very much to convince the Hawai'ians to come "under our protection." Vancouver planted this seed with King Kamehameha and then Discovery and Chatham headed out for the California coast. They made Cape Cabrillo, north of San Francisco (then Yerba Buena) on April 17th.

From here, the two ships began north along the coast. They ran into an American fur trading ship, Columbia Rediviva, and spoke each other pleasantly south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Proceeding further north, Chatham, who had a much more shallow draft than Discovery, would sometimes part company and search inlets and estuaries, taking soundings as she did. They mapped much of the Canadian coastline this way. In November they encountered two Spanish ships - Mexicana and the brig Sutil - who were engaged in exactly the same kind of fact finding mission that the British were undertaking. The ships' companies behaved civilly to one another. There after the British turned south again to avoid the winter ice.

Later in November, with Chatham charting the Columbia river, Discovery became the first ship not of Spanish origin to enter the bay at Yerba Buena. Once he had again made contact with Chatham, Vancouver turned the two ships back to Hawai'i where he was successful in convincing the King that British protection was his best bet. Kamehameha accepted the British offer in February, 1793.

From here, Vancouver took his ships north once again. Discovery and Chatham arrived in Nootka Sound in May. They surveyed Elcho Harbor and Dean Channel and charted over 1,900 miles of coastline. They made a third trip to Hawai'i to formalize details with the King. When all the negotiation was wrapped up, which seems to have taken some time, the British headed out to Alaska and arrived at Cook Inlet (something I can actually see from here!) in May of 1794. Charting of the inlet - which Vancouver firmly established was not a river outlet - Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound followed. This done, the ships headed south and made Monterey Bay December 2, 1794.

Their job done, Discovery and Chatham turned for home. They rounded the Horn in late June of 1795 and reached St. Helena Island July 3rd. Here they learned that Britain was at war with France and Holland and Vancouver wasted no time on that score. He promptly took the well-laden Dutch merchant Macassar. With her in tow, Vancouver turned home on July 15th. The British arrived at Deptford, England in October 1795.

Though Vancouver and Puget had essentially debunked the myth of the Northwest Passage with their careful research, the search for it continued into the following century. The successful cruise of Discovery and Chatham not only produced excellent charts and political outcomes, but it paid off for the men. There was the Dutch East Indiaman taken, as well as trade along the way. Then too, only five men of the entire compliment of close to 200 lost their lives on the nearly five year voyage.

All in all, an impressive expedition indeed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

History: Democracy In The Golden Age

Ah, the Golden Age of piracy. When every pirate captain looked surprisingly like Johnny Depp, every ship was well and truly in shape, a prize was never taken that wasn't full of gold, silver and those huge pearls from Margarita, and every man jack had a say in how the ship was run.

Wait, what? Exactly. If Triple P hasn't busted those myths by now it's time to call Jamie and Adam. But, setting Hollywood and the guys who paint pictures for the covers of romance novels aside for this morning, there is a grain of truth to at least one of these 20th century cliches. Or is there?

The idea that pirates were the first true democratic society is a subject for debate, even among pirate experts. Angus Konstam, for instance, who has written and/or edited a number of books about pirates, hardly ever mentions the subject. Meanwhile authors like Peter T. Leeson, whose treatise on piracy and economics The Invisible Hook is well worth the read, devote entire chapters to the idea. Your humble hostess falls somewhere between these two extremes. While I feel that, particularly in the Golden Age, there was a level of democracy to pirate society, I don't think it applied everywhere and at all times.

There can be no question that the earliest boucaniers who inhabited Hispaniola were egalitarian. It was a share and share alike society that spilled over into seafaring when these guys left their barbecues behind and started raiding Spanish shipping. But is equality - some might use the term anarchy instead - democracy? Certainly there was a level of democracy exercised by Pierre le Grand when he and his men agreed to take a much larger Spanish merchant in around 1620. But there was nothing democratic about le Grand ordering his surgeon to drill holes in his boat when he caught up with his prize so that the men wouldn't change their minds.

Later on in the same century, Henry Morgan held war councils aboard ship before setting off to plunder cities on the Spanish Main. His captains had a say in where they would next strike, but the average buccaneer was left to his rum punch. He would be told only after the council where his ship would take him. That's more the kind of "democracy" that one could find in Puritan New England at about the same time. Only city fathers had a vote. Men without land, men of color and women regardless of status were out of the mix.

The most famously elected Captain of the Golden Age was Bartholomew Roberts. The entire formality of electing Roberts captain was documented by those present, so we know that men stood up to speak for or against their potential leader. We also know that the issue was then put to a vote and every man and boy aboard gave their yay or nay. Roberts, it turned out, was a good choice. He kept his men in ships and booty and delegated authority skillfully. There were no further votes or reprisals for Roberts until he was killed by the English in a firefight.

On the other hand, some captains of equal fame were not to their crews' liking and were treated appropriately. Both Charles Vane and William Kidd were ditched by their men, Vane was in fact marooned on a deserted island. Edward England was put in at Madagascar by his crew. Benjamin Hornigold was "asked" to leave his ship at Jamaica. Christopher Moody was put in a boat with a few others who were still loyal to him and set adrift. In very rare cases there is documentation of capital punishment for an unsatisfactory captain. Almost to a man these leaders were voted off their wooden island because they were not producing enough booty to keep their men happy. Only a lucky captain would do.

But by it's very nature, seafaring requires more of discipline and less of democracy to make it work. Whether taking a prize or fighting through a storm, every man must be held accountable to his duty. Strong leadership is the only way to effect the kind of snap decision making that will insure success. In a life or death struggle, stopping to debate can get you killed.

And so for every Vane or Hornigold there seems to be at least one pirate captain who never saw a challenge from his men. No buccaneer ever took Henry Morgan or Laurens de Graff to task, at least not face to face. Samuel Bellamy was an unchallenged leader of his crews until the weather sank his Whydah off Cape Cod. "Calico Jack" Rackham, though he seems to have been no better at the task of captaining a pirate ship than Charles Vane, only fell when the British caught up with him. For all his alleged brutality even to his own crew, Edward "Blackbeard" Teach was not just respected by his men but their loyalty to him was almost universal. Fair winds and fat prizes make even a sociopath lovable, at least to freebooters.

The bottom line, to my way of thinking, is that there probably was some semblance of democracy among pirates. Certainly it was used in a checks and balances sort of way to ensure that no officer got too big for his breeches. All the same, it does not seem that the ideal of complete equality with authority only exercised in the most dire situations was ever a day to day reality. Nice though the idea may be.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: The Schooner Transit

May 10, 1800: The experimental five-masted schooner Transit was launched to some acclaim at Chichester, England. It would be another quarter of a century before the multiple masted ships would catch on.

Though I could not find a painting of Transit proper, the lovely schooners above (from Annapolis Marine Art Gallery) give a nice feel for the potential power behind so many sails.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Wash

For many a household near and far today, Saturday, is wash day. When I think of wash day, Monday comes to mind. But then so do boiling tubs of water and water with bluing, a cool water tub and lye soap. Red beans and rice on the stove since the night before. That was when washing took all day and water had to be hauled up from the Mississippi to do it (well water was only good for washing floors and latrines). And then it all had to be hung out to dry in the humid air. But I digress. What's new?

Nautically speaking, the word wash takes on a number of meanings that frequently have nothing to do with the physical act of getting something clean. Of course that surely comes as no surprise to anyone who visits SMS regularly. Aboard ship, a word is rarely what it seems.

Wash could indicate silt or a shallow inlet or estuary where same might accumulate. It might mean a normally dry land now flooded. The term might also be used for the blade of an oar. A wash could mean the sea shore or beach.

A wash-strake was a removable board on a ship's or boat's gunwhales that kept the sea spray off the deck. They became popular for use on lower port holes in later ships. These were sometimes also called wash-boards. Wash-boards in earlier parlance - particularly in the French, American and Royal Navy prior to the mid-19th century - meant the white facings of an officer's uniform. Clean wash-boards were a must.

Washerman was the title for an elderly mate aboard a man-of-war. He might not necessarily see to the wash per ce, but he had a station, pay and a right to prize money. A wash-water was a ford, but not a fjord as seen in the far north.

Washing the hand was used by sailors to mean leaving a ship, particularly one that the sailor was glad to see the last of. "I am washing the hand of that tub." From this, at least in part, I'm sure we get our modern English "I wash my hands of it." Pontius Pilate not withstanding.

Washers, by the way, as in the rings used between screws and so on, were a part of maintaining ships from early times. Made successively of leather, copper, lead and iron in various gages for innumerable uses, they were known by the same name we call them today.

And I think that's enough about wash for one day. Plus, it sounds like mine needs to go in the dryer. How thankful I am to live in the here and now. Although red beans and rice are still a favorite Monday meal.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Booty: Roughing It In Rubber

History, it goes without saying, is my first love and - just as I noted yesterday - nothing quite scratches that itch like the weird and wonderful "stuff" that most of us have no clue went on. When I stumbled upon the gentlemen above, I could not write this post fast enough (curse you for clumsy, fingers!).

Paul Boyton was probably born in Ireland some time around 1848. He was obviously an intrepid sort with a particular interest in the sea. He was said to be a very strong swimmer from an early age. By his 15th year he had joined the U.S. Navy and served with them during the Civil War. Some sources also indicate he served in the Mexican and French armies. His adventures really began, believe it or not, in 1867 when he joined the fledgling Atlantic Life-Saving Service, again in the U.S.

The Service was a precursor of both the Coast Guard and the life guards now employed by beaches in many countries. Boyton excelled at the work, but he thought things could be made even safer on the waves. That's when he began toying with and eventually modifying a prototype rubber suit invented by C.S. Merriman. The suit (as seen above on Boyton) was surprisingly similar to modern dry suits with the added bonus of bladders built in that could be inflated by the wearer using tubes. A man could literally float on his back, dry and relatively warm, with little or no effort at all.

By 1874, Boyton was so sure of his rubber suit that he jumped from a ship, in a storm no less, and swam 40 miles to the coast of Ireland. The publicity he received for this stunt spurred him on and Boyton became something of a nautical P.T. Barnum. He modified the suit again to include a small double paddle that he could propel himself along with. On breezy days he hooked himself up with a sail. Thus outfitted he sailed up or down most major rivers in the U.S. and Europe, over the canals of Venice, through the Strait of Gibraltar and across the English Channel. He published an account of these exploits entitled Roughing It In Rubber in 1886. By 1894, Paul Boyton was an international celebrity.

He opened one of the first admission required "water parks" in the U.S., Paul Boyton's Water Chutes, in Chicago in 1894. He also staked out what would eventually be Coney Island, opening his Sea Lion Park there in 1895. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. As he aged he shut down or sold (in the case of the sea lion exhibit) his parks and turned to writing his autobiography, The Story of Paul Boyton by Paul Boyton.

The man who roughed it in rubber over so many of the world's waterways died in 1924. He left a legacy that extends far beyond water parks and sea lions. Certainly the guys fishing crab on the Bering Sea, and on other harrowing waters, owe a tip of their hats to Paul Boyton and his modified rubber suit.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

People: Friar Tuck's Bad Brother

The new Robin Hood movie is coming out tomorrow and documentaries about the famous archer of Nottingham abound on cable. Your humble hostess just happens to know the story of a Medieval monk-turned-pirate which could not be more topical in light of that fact. Though the history of his life is overshadowed by the tall tales that began to swirl around him almost immediately after his death (sound familiar?), Eustace the Black Monk is an interesting character indeed.

Eustace was probably born sometime around 1170. He appears to have come from a genteel family, perhaps landed barons of some kind, but his place of birth is enigmatic. Some sources count him as Flemish, others say English (from the Channel islands) or French (and again, from the Channel islands). Whatever his place of birth, he is always said to have come from a land near the sea. Another thing that is universally agreed on by his chroniclers is that Eustace entered a Benedictine monastery as a youth.

By 1190 or so, Eustace's father died. The original chanson, which was a form of heroic and/or romantic story told in northern European countries around the same time that troubadouring was taking off in the south, about the Monk was written in the mid-13th century. This source states the Eustace's father was murdered and that the Monk left the Benedictines to take up his father's duty and rank.

Eustace became "...Seneschall of the Boulonnais, peer and bailiff" so it is safe to say that, according to the legend at least, Eustace was in good standing as a landowner. Unfortunately he ran afoul of his boss, Renaut de Dammartin, Count of Boulogne, some time in 1204. Eustace was called to the Count's court to account for some discrepancies in his duty as bailiff. According to the romance, this was brought about by the dissembling of his father's murderer, Hainfrois.

Eustace is forced to flee his post and, in retaliation, burns to the ground two of the Count's properties. Hainfrois is made bailiff in Boulonnais, and the Monk is now an outlaw and fugitive. The romance paints a series of vignettes in which Eustace disguises himself and makes a fool of the Count repeatedly, many of which resemble the famous archery contest in the Robin Hood stories. Eustace, however, is never so gallant and pure and the archer. Most of his encounters involving the Count end with Eustace absconding with something valuable.

The Monk travels to England and offers his as yet unstated seafaring expertise to King John. He is granted ships and a commission against the French. Along with his "brothers" (which may mean siblings, fellow Benedictines or both) and many eager seaman, he goes right to work. Eustace sets up bases in the Channel islands, taking some of them from the French, and uses them as home ports for his sea raiding.

Eustace evidently got a real taste for piracy as he began to ambush English coastal villages as well as those of the enemy. Using a Viking-esque style of hit, kill, take all you can and get out quick raiding, the Monk grew rich. He also angered King John with his betrayal and was once again branded an outlaw.

Never one to let loyalty get in the way of a good time, Eustace offered his services and his ships to King Louis of France around 1212. The romance rationalizes this by putting forward the Count Renaut had weaseled his way into King John's inner circle and had poisoned the English King's mind against the Monk. Opportunist or victim, either way Eustace was now privateering for the French.

A series of raids by both sides continued along the coasts until the civil war that led to that singular agreement known as Magna Carta broke out in 1215. Eustace, along with the French King, naturally backed the angry barons who were against King John.

Eustace's fleet began to make landings on English soil, dropping off French soldiers and then returning to Calais to retrieve more men. The English crown got wind of this tactic and sent a fleet commanded by Hubert de Burgh to meet the Monk's ships at Dover. In August of 1217, Eustace engaged de Burgh in a pitched battle that seemed to be going in the Monk's favor until the English pulled out their secret weapon. They launched powdered lime at the Monk's ships and his men were blinded - some of them permanently.

Eustace managed to allude the English, but only temporarily. Philip d'Aubigny's ships caught up with him on August 24 and engaged him at the Battle of Sandwich. D'Aubigny's ships were heavier than the Monk's and quickly overcame the now depleted pirate fleet. Eustace was taken prisoner and the English did not trouble themselves with niceties. Eustace the Black Monk was beheaded without ceremony aboard one of d'Aubigny's ships (the manuscript detail above shows the moment of his death).

By the end of 1217 the English had put aside their internal struggles and ejected the French from their soil. The treaty that followed included a clause stating that the French King would drive the remainder of Eustace's pirate band off the Channel islands. What was left of the Black Monk's seafaring empire was destroyed once and for all.

If you're interested in reading the medieval romance Eustace the Monk, it can be found in the book Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, published in 1997 by Medieval Institute Publication. The romance is heavy on the feud between Count Renaut and Eustace and unfortunately light on the Monk's seafaring exploits which were, one has to admit, pretty impressive. It's not every day you stumble across a monk-turned-pirate. And those little historical gems always make me smile.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

History: Old Wives And Seafaring Surgeons

Historically speaking, medicine has gone through it's ups and downs, with the position being in the eye of the beholder. At one time medicine was almost entirely women's work. As the opinion of women in European society diminished over the course of the late medieval and Renaissance periods, however, educated men took up the mantel of "doctor". The Enlightenment dawned and medicine began it's "purely scientific" phase. At this point, a lot of what really worked for old wives and ship's surgeons was thrown out the window as "unscientific". Talk about the baby with the bathwater.

In the 20th century, however, acknowledgement of the efficacy of old time simples and poultices has come to the fore once again and not just in holistic medicine specifically. Many of these ancient remedies were tried and true aboard ship as well as on the frontiers, places where medical doctors weren't always easy to come by. So here's a little look at a few of those remedies, and just how astoundingly sound they were after all.

Drying herbs for cooking and/or medicines was known as "simpling" and this has been practiced since time (thyme?) in memoriam. Rhubarb, boneset, fleabane, feverfew, marjoram, and many other dried herbs were used to season food, cure disease, and even keep away pests. Fleabane sprinkled in hammocks at the start of a voyage, for instance, was thought to kill the pests until they were once again contracted by land. The herb could even be rubbed in the hair (for lice) or on the ship's dog or cat. As it turns out the herb works similarly to boric acid, drying the hopping parasites out and thus destoying both adults and eggs. One has to wonder about the rats, though.

Contact with the Far East, Africa and the Americas added to the medicine chest. Tea leaves treated sores and burns. Sassafras was used as a tonic, particularly in warm climates to "thin" the blood. Slippery elm was even more effective than tea leaves on burns. Then there was cinchona or Peruvian bark which yielded quinine, now well known to help reduce symptoms of malaria.

One of the most remarkable drugs to come out of the use of botanics was what is now known to medicine as digitalis. The drug comes from the common foxglove (shown above at left) and was probably used as a home remedy for heart failure (then called dropsy) as early as the late 1600s. By the late 1700s many Navy surgeons knew of it's efficacy and used it with great success. Thank you, old wives.

Of course alcohol was known to assist in pain relief and as early as the buccaneering era there are reports (Exquemeline, for instance, mentions this use) of pirate surgeons dipping their instruments in Madeira or port, or pouring it directly into the wound. Did they know it might help prevent infection? Probably not, but then they cauterized things regularly too and that must surely have saved at least the occasional digit or limb.

It wasn't just medicine from herbs that was used by our ancestors, and is now being turned to again. By the Napoleonic Wars some progressive surgeons in both the French and Royal Navy were keeping mayflies in jars for their maggots. These would be applied to wounds showing signs of gangrene and other infection. This is a time tested remedy (documented in Ancient Egypt, for instance) that seems to be periodically forgotten and then rediscovered through observation. Doctors now treat certain necrotic wounds and lesions with sterilized maggots quite successfully.

Remember then, Brethren, the old wife or the seafaring doctor next time you take whatever medication helps you along. As it turns out, we would not be as healthy now had their "unscientific" remedies been forgotten.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: The Most Coveted Book

I took a Spanish manuscript of prodigious value. It describes all the ports, roads, harbors, bays shoals, rocks and risings of the land and instructions on how to work a ship into any port or harbor. The Spaniards cried when I snatched their book.

The above quote is from the English buccaneer captain Bartholomew Sharp and is probably dated some time in the year 1681. Sharp, purely by luck, managed to capture the Spanish treasure ship El Santo Rosario the previous year. Aboard the ship, along with a good deal of silver, was the book of navigational charts that Sharp refers to in his testimony at England's High Court of the Admiralty. According to Sharp he literally snatched the charts from the hands of the Spanish as their pilot was attempting to toss the valuable information overboard.

The book was not only valuable but fortuitous for Sharp. He cagily offered the atlas to Charles II and was shortly thereafter acquitted of the charge of piracy. Charles, despite the protests of the Spanish ambassador, turned it over to William Hack, a Navy pilot and mapmaker, for translation and reproduction.

Within four years the book was in wide circulation throughout England and the Caribbean. It detailed the entire coastline of North, Central and South America including navigation around the Horn. It's detail and ease of use certainly at the very least assisted in the success of seamen from Woodes Rogers to the pirates of the Golden Age as well as many Royal Navy pilots. It assuredly contributed to the loosening of Spain's hold on the Main over the course of the following century and beyond.

This coveted publication, for which it's original owners fought and cried, was known to the English speaking world as The Waggoner of the South Seas. This interesting name derives from an earlier book of charts of the North Sea set down by Lucas Janszoon Wagenaer, a Dutchman, in 1584. By the time Hack published his translation of the Spanish original, almost all books of charts were known as "Waggoners" in England.

There are still some of these books in existence and they are lovely to look at as well as surprisingly accurate. Their lines are exquisite, and their colors delightfully fresh over three hundred years later. Even today, Hack's Waggoner is a book to cry over.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: A Tribute To Pirate Mothers

It's Mothers' Day in the U.S. and Canada and your humble hostess is celebrating with a strep throat and a bruised pelvis. No relation. But I know of two lovely mothers who had it far worse than yours truly. Far worse.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read went to jail for piracy in Kingston, Jamaica pregnant. Back in the day, a lady could not be hanged while she was with child so the pirates "plead their bellies" at trial and went back to what were no doubt pristine and comfortable accommodations in the Kingston jail to await delivery.

Mary died, of "fever", before giving birth. Anne, on the other hand, simply disappeared from history. It is thought that her wealthy father, then living in South Carolina, paid the Jamaican governor to extricate his daughter and his grandchild from the British and bring them home safe. But that is just speculation.

Happy Mothers' Day ladies (and gentlemen - I know a couple of you, too). Enjoy, celebrate and relax. Each and every one of you deserves it. I'm for a glass of champagne.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Jolly

Ahoy, Brethren! First of all, forgive me for my tardiness on the post. It has been a long but extremely fruitful day and, though just this side of exhausted, I am feeling rather fulfilled. So here, a word for our usual Saturday shindig to match my mood: jolly.

The word, of course, means happy but back in the early 19th century and before "jolly" was an adjective applied to attractive, rotund people. Jack Aubrey would surely have been described in middle age as jolly. Your humble hostess has another word for sailors of similar fairness but I won't be using it here. Nautically speaking, however, jolly found more than one niche.

A jolly boat was a craft smaller than a cutter but built by the same design. Averaging four feet in the beam and twelve feet in length she was easy to carry aboard ship and good for hard work, like washing, scraping and painting in blue water.

Jolly jumpers is another name for cloud scrapers; sails set above the moon-rakers, so high it would take a right seaman to reef and let out their kind.

The word also described men and by the 18th century was the usual term among Royal Navy sailors for soldiers. A tame jolly was a militiaman. A royal jolly was a marine. One wonders how the marines felt about this application.

Finally, or should I say last but not least, there is the Jolly Roger. That ubiquitous pirate flag that so many pirates never flew. The story goes that the name is a corruption of the French jolie rouge which literally translates as "pretty red" and referred to the red flag flown aboard ships infected with plague or other contagions. The French are subtle like that. Whether or not the theory is true has yet to be proven but, being French, I stick with it for purely poetic reason.

Happy Saturday, mates. Tomorrow, a special Mothers' Day addition of Seafaring Sunday for all my U.S. sisters celebrating our designated day.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Booty: Tools Of The Trade

Navigation is no small feat. A hundred minute details have to be tended to upon the water to ensure that any ship, large or small, makes it safely to her designated destination. In fact, it's a wonder that Washington Irving's lyrical vision of travel on the seas ever became a reality. So much can go wrong that it boggles the mind. And I'm not just talking about the past here, mates.

This article from Yahoo! News is a good and abject lesson on what not to do in a boat of any kind. An English gentleman, whose name is mercifully withheld, decided last month to take his motor boat along the British coast from Medway to Southampton. His plan, which seems simple enough on the face of it, was to keep the land to his right and thus navigate safely from point A to point B. I know I don't have to tell you that it doesn't quite work that way.

Our intrepid mariner made it out into the estuary of the Thames and then things went wrong. Mistaking the Isle of Sheppey for the coast proper, he began to circle the 36 mile island repeatedly until his motor ran out of fuel and his boat ran aground. When the coastguard arrived they found, I do not hesitate to say most probably to their amusement, that the gentleman had only a road map to navigate by. Robin Castle of the local lifeboat station is quoted in the article as saying:

It seems he didn't have the usual maritime charts or navigational equipment.

British understatement is breathtaking sometimes. At any rate, no one was hurt - not even the boat - but pride must have at the very least stung. I have to hope that this gentleman has learned his lesson and that at least some rudimentary study in navigation will be attempted prior to any further maritime adventures. Or maybe he'll just bring along an old Thomas' Guide next time and figure more pages means better information.

Some people should never even look at the World's waters, much less sail upon them.