Sunday, October 31, 2010

Horror On The High Seas: Skeletons At Large

Technically, today's offering has nothing to do with seafaring. However, pirates have always loved skeletons for their intimidation factor (as shown above on Blackbeard's infamous Jolly Roger) so there is a connection. Anyway, here for your delight is Disney's 1929 animated short "The Skeleton Dance". Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Horror On The High Seas: Bilboes

The horror continues here at Triple P as we make our way to your humble hostess’ favorite holiday, Halloween. Today we will talk about a form of restraint commonly used at sea that could easily morph into a device of miserable torture when used with malice.

Bilboes are not to be confused with bilbo. Bilbo, at least at sea, was a term for a flexible Spanish cutlass and was an English corruption of Bilboa, the city where the best of these swords were made in the days of the great Armada.

A bilboe proper was a long iron bar on which shackles could be fixed singly, in pairs or, technically, as many as would fit on the bar itself. A lock would then be secured at the end of the bar and a prisoner or prisoners could be thusly subdued without the necessity for chains and shackles being fixed to anything, particularly aboard ship. For the most part the offender would sit with his legs straight out and the shackles around each ankle rather like one might see prisoners in the stocks on a pillory by land. In the navies of the Golden Age of sail and beyond, men awaiting punishments such as flogging or hanging would be thus confined. A man could also be sentenced to the bilboes for a specific amount of time as punishment outright.

The arrangement could be made more onerous for the prisoner by increasing the weight of the iron bar. This is alluded to in sentencing by the “ponderousness of the bilboe”. Heavy bilboes applied for long periods could crush ankles and made even simple movements impossible. Relieving ones self would surely have been uncomfortable and shameful all at the same time. The use of bilboes by land had become fairly common by the 17th century as pictured above from an article on colonial punishments at Shakespeare even has Hamlet musing about a sleepless night where “… methought, I lay Worse than the mutines in the bilboes.”

Bilboes predictably devolved into a form of torture, whether that is how they were perceived by those who applied them or not. As noted in Thursday’s post, they were used liberally as a form of punishment on transport ships bound from Britain first for the Americas and then finally Australia. Some Captains and officers aboard the notorious “hell ships” like Britannia, kept prisoners in bilboes in their holds for the entire seven to ten month voyage. They were easier to ignore that way and it saved the ship cash in provisions to starve them outright. Of course, the same sort of treatment befell Africans subjected to the misery of the Middle Passage. Though there were ships where freedom of movement, at least in the hold, was allowed, “close packing” virtually required some form of restraint and bilboes were the most efficient.

Pirates took advantage of these easy to use devices as well. The Barbary corsairs were known to keep their galley slave secured in bilboes. Buccaneers and Golden Age pirates used bilboes for securing prisoners, usually in the holds of prizes. Frequently the prize had more men aboard then the pirate, and subduing the enemy was a priority upon boarding. In The Journal of James Yonge, written at the end of the 17th century, the author writes that when the ship he was on was overrun by pirates the crew was locked in bilboes in the hold almost immediately. They were kept chained for weeks in undoubtedly uncomfortable conditions but Yonge notes pragmatically:

What seemed cruel was keeping us so long in shackles but that was necessary, for they were but 16 to our 46.

Given the probable misery of the situation, Yonge seems almost innocently forgiving.

Thus, a happy Saturday to you Brethren. Let’s all of us who have it be thankful for our freedom.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Horror On The High Seas: Your Costume Scares Me

Above is a picture from a pattern book circa 1930. There are stylish representations of a Chinese lady, gypsy, clown and, in the lower left-hand corner, pirate wench. Click the picture to enlarge it if you need to and then come on back. See? Classy, right? No one would ever say it was “true to period” but it’s fun and sexy without being lewd.

Fast forward to our “modern era” and you get this:
The website, Pinup Clothing, lists this costume as “Sassy Burgundy Pirate”. Sassy I’ll give you but girlfriend is going to have a hard time on the manropes in that thing. Well… You know what I mean. They also offer the “Sexy Pirate Wench” and, from the department of redundancy department, the “Sexy Caribbean Buccaneer Pirate”. Go ahead and click over; I’ll wait.

Back? OK, then my question is, when did Halloween become ho-lloween? And why are so many of these kind of costumes showing up with a piratical focus? Seriously, some of Europe’s royalty were far bigger sluts than Bonny and Read ever thought of being. Look, I don’t want to be a spoil sport and some of the stuff over at Pinup is darling (I love the ‘40s inspired
sailor suit) but it just grinds my teeth that ladies are wearing this kind of thing when real “pirate wench” wear is so readily available:
You want hot Golden Age pirate babe, there she is. And bunches more, well made and in every color imaginable, are available at Sofi’s Stitches. Add a belt, a sword and a head cloth and your ready for sexy, classy, authentic action. Guess what I’m wearing Sunday…

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Horror On The High Seas: The First Fleet

Now we have looked at a voluntary monster in Ned Low and a bad seed in Dona Ysabel. But what of the victims of cruelty? Men and women who simply, out of need, took what wasn’t theirs and found themselves in the most miserable situations possible due to their government’s unwillingness to deal with the social problems piling up around it like cord wood. The story of the First Convict Fleet to leave England for Botany Bay in May of 1787 is an excellent example of many average people being guilty by association, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just unfortunately hungry.

In a time when stealing a loaf of bread regardless of your poverty could get you hanged, Britain had developed a simple way of dealing with her dredge: transportation. At first, people were sent to the Americas and to the colonies that would become the U.S. in particular. While transportation to Canada was not unheard of, it was less common and the U.S. becoming an independent nation put an end to that out. The whole thing became a serious annoyance by the mid-1780s.

Convicted criminals who had their sentences commuted from death to transportation were squirreled away in rotting prison hulks anchored along the Thames while the courts decided where to send them. When the forgotten ships began to deteriorate and the stench became overwhelming (ah, August on the Thames), the citizenry of London demanded redress. And that the hulks and their occupants be gotten rid of.

This is when the High Court hit upon the idea to send the people who were rotting with the ships around them to what would become Australia. Botany Bay had, of course, already been explored by Captain James Cook and the judges saw an opportunity to get rid of their criminals and turn a profit for the state. The lot of them would be packed into ships, sailed to the South Seas and put to work farming for the greater good of Britain. Of course there were “oversights”; no one bothered to provide the “colonists” with tools for farming or even building shelters. Then too there was the fact that 95% of those heading out were city dwellers from birth who had no notion of farming or livestock or even fishing.

Ignoring these rather gaping holes in their plan, the judges sent eleven ships carrying 560 male and 191 female prisoners off to Botany Bay. The new Governor, Arthur Phillip, was a sea captain by trade and had no more knowledge of working the land – or for that manner running a penal colony – than the unfortunate criminals he was to oversee. 211 marines were also along to guard the prisoners and men and women were separated aboard the ships by an iron fence on deck and stout bulkheads below. None of the ships were exclusively male or female as far as prisoners went, and over ten children and two infants who would be born during the passage accompanied their mothers on the journey.

Trouble began early. Keeping the prisoners separate was one thing but it seems as if no attempt was made to keep the sailors away from the women. Drunkenness was a surprisingly large problem on all the ships, with sailors sneaking extra grog rations and offering them to the women in return for favors. Those discovered at this type of sport were flogged mercilessly, sailors and women alike. Repeat offenders, at least in the female category, would have their heads shaved. Further trouble would lead to being chained below deck, denied food and/or the wearing of thumbscrews for inordinate periods including up to two weeks.

The daily conditions were brutal aside from ongoing punishments. The ships were, for the most part, brigantines and they were packed full. Each ship averaged 110 prisoners plus sailors, officers and marines. The facilities were no more than would be expected on any Royal Navy cruise in a ship of such size and because of stored rations and water, space was at a premium. And still the prisoners continued to act up. As Philip put it in his log while writing about the female prisoners, “… punishment could [not] deter them from making their way through the bulkheads to the apartments assigned to the seamen.”

Better behaved prisoners were given privileges including more time on deck. Some prisoners were even allowed to marry, which was considered good for the issue of fornication and good for Britain; marriage would mean more hands to labor in Botany Bay. There must have been a number of prisoners who were overwhelmed by the situation. Suicide attempts, and two actual suicides, occurred more than once.

The brutal eight month journey must have made many a prisoner look forward to his or her destination. Even without knowing what they were in for, two feet on dry land with open space all around must have seemed like heaven. What a crushing disappointment it must have been to drop anchor in Botany Bay on January 18, 1788 and find a virtual desert awaiting you. Philips would not allow his prisoners to disembark but sent shore parties to scout out a more favorable location. On February 2nd the fleet put in at what was then Port Jackson, the future site of Sydney, Australia.

Sailors, marines and male prisoners rowed for shore and began erecting a makeshift tent city. Four days later the women were told they would be taken ashore and many of them treated the occasion like a holiday. They primped as best they could, combing their hair and putting on what clean clothes they had. As the sky above them darkened and a driving rain began to pour down, the female prisoners made landfall just before sunset.

Their joy was short lived as the male prisoners, who had for the most part been left out of the sexual license aboard the ships, rushed the women and threw them down on the mud and sand. The remaining 188 girls and women were repeatedly and savagely raped by over 500 men. Doubtless some of the sailors joined in and the abuse, according to Philip who gave no thought to trying to stop it, continued throughout the night.

The horror did not stop there. Starvation and misery awaited the new colonists and Philip, much like many of the Governors who would follow, became a martinet who would happily allow his men to dole out 500 lashes on a whim. Escape was close to but not impossible; in fact a very small number of people did manage to get away from Port Jackson. But that is another story for another time.

Header: Prisoners awaiting transportation via

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Horror On The High Seas: The Bloody Dona

While men like Ned Low went looking for victims by deciding to sail under a black flag, others were simply born bad and got the opportunity to create misery afloat for all those who had the misfortune to come aboard them. Such was the case with Dona Ysabel Mendana de Neyra y Barreto, a reputedly lovely but cold as ice noblewoman from Madrid, Spain.

Born Ysabel Maria Soledad de Barreto around 1572, the small framed beauty was known for her flashing black eyes. Her father was named Governor of Callao, Peru when Ysabel was a toddler and she grew up in the New World. Her confessor, Padre del Norte, noticed early on that Ysabel took pleasure in disciplining her Native Inca servants and her delight in human suffering only increased as she grew to womanhood.

When Ysabel was approximately 20 she was married to a conquistador captain named Alvaro Mendana de Neyra. De Neyra was no stranger to inflicting misery and he seemed to appreciate his young bride not only for her beauty but for her capacity for cruelty. When I read through some of Padre del Norte’s notes on the couple, I was brought to mind of none other than Elisabet Bathory, the famous Hungarian sadist com vampire and her husband, Count Nadazdy. Which is saying quite a bit.

In the summer of 1595, de Neyra was given a mission to the Maquesas Islands and the Philippines by the then Viceroy of Peru, Juan de Mendoza. Ysabel eagerly agreed to accompany her husband on his voyage of conquest and the couple lavishly decked out the Admiral’s cabin on their flagship, San Jeronimo. The ship was equipped with fine foods, wines, barrel upon barrel of fresh water and Native servants for Ysabel to bully and beat. There was also Ysabel’s old Duena, Melia, who may very well have been her partner in crime.

Three other ships, Santa Catalina, San Felipe and the self-aggrandizingly named Santa Ysabel, completed the flotilla. These hauled men, arms, and more supplies along with 380 colonists including men, women and children. Ysabel’s three brothers were also along as attachés and assistants to Don Mendana de Neyra.

The voyage started out well. Sailing from Callao the four ships made the Marquesas in good time. De Neyra claimed the islands for Spain, naming them as the Viceroy Marquesas de Mendoza after his boss in Peru. The group held a communal Mass after de Neyra and his men cut down some 200 or so natives who refused to get on board with his program. Leaving a seed group of colonists and one of Ysabel’s brothers as Governor, de Neyra and his party sailed away.

As the flotilla continued into the great South Sea, Ysabel began to chide her husband on points of leadership. One of the ships, Santa Ysabel, strayed from the fleet and was never seen again. The bickering increased. The remaining three ships arrived at the Island of Santa Cruz and de Neyra decided this would be the spot that he would personally colonize. His men had other ideas and his wife may have agreed with them. At some point a confrontation occurred and de Neyra killed his Captain of the Guard with a cutlass, putting a stop to his men’s opposition. It was a temporary fix however; two days later de Neyra himself collapsed and died of fever before the sun rose the next day.

At this point, Dona Ysabel took over the expedition. She ordered an immediate withdrawal and her three ships set out in November of 1595. While en route the San Felipe was lost at sea and issues began to arise with supplies, Ysabel having apparently neglected to water and provision at Santa Cruz. Water was rationed, then scarce, then almost non-existent and colonists began to die, one or two succumbing each day. Dona Ysabel, meanwhile, was hold up in her state room drinking her wine while Melia washed her mistress’ small clothes in their abundant supply of fresh water. When things grew truly horrific for the colonists, San Jeronimo’s quartermaster asked that those still alive be transferred from Santa Catalina and given some of the Dona’s food and water. Ysabel flatly refused and her husband’s men as well as her brothers backed her up with their weapons.

Not long after that atrocity, Santa Catalina and the unfortunates still aboard her were also lost at sea. San Jeronimo dropped anchor in Manila harbor on February 11, 1596. Fifty men were dead and others close to it. Dona Ysabel and her coterie of servants and strongmen were hale and hearty, however. Even a little dog she kept was well fed and unharmed. She was welcomed at the home of the Viceroy and given mourning clothes and jewelry for the unfortunate loss of her dear husband. A year later she married again, to another conquistador, and made a trip with him to Central America where she doubtless wrecked yet more havoc.

The story of Dona Ysabel Mendana de Neyra y Barreto is a surprising one. Not because of the brutality shown by the Spanish noblewoman who was born into a class and culture of brutality, but because it is so easily forgotten by history at large. Perhaps for the Dona with her flashing eyes as for so many others, what happens at sea stays at sea.

Header: Portrait of a Lady With Lapdog by Lavinia Fontana, 1590

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Horror On The High Seas: Crazy In The Caribbean

We've met today’s pirate before as he was filtered through the imagination of Charles Ellms in The Pirates’ Own Book. But the story of Edward “Ned” Low is shocking without any of Ellms’ usual embellishments, for Ned was the kind of pirate that actually reveled in the tortures that most other pirates only wanted their foes to think they enjoyed. Ned, much like the buccaneer Francois L’Olonais, was a dyed-in-the-wool sadist.

Born in England some time in the last decade of the 17th century Low, whose last name is also spelled Lowe or Loe in some documents, grew up wild. He was most probably an abused child (his father appears to have been a hopeless drunk who regularly beat Ned’s mother) and Ned spent much of his youth on the streets leading a gang of boys in petty thefts and apparent animal torture. He did time in a work house in Devon before stowing away with his brother on a merchant ship bound for Boston. Discovered at sea, the young men were put to work and Ned got a taste of the seafaring life.

Once in the New World, Low seems to have made an honest attempt at a respectable life. He opened a store near the Boston wharves, married and fathered children. A summer epidemic, possibly cholera or yellow fever, took the life of his wife and young son and Low seems to have lost it at this point. He left his remaining offspring, a daughter, with her maternal grandparents and went to sea. There was never a time when Low would try to be “respectable” again.

Low began his new livelihood with the logwood gangs in the Gulf of Honduras. The logwood trade was booming, with French and British colonies buying up the wood for houses and shipbuilding, but all the wood cut in the Darien gap was harvested illegally. The men who worked the trade were hanged if caught by the Spanish. Low immediately became a thorn in his Captain’s side, eventually shooting at the man in the middle of an argument. Missing the Captain and killing a mate, Low stole the boat he was in and he and ten compatriots turned to piracy.

Some time in 1721, Low met George Lowther, a successful pirate, in the Cayman Islands. While their men hunted turtles, the two Captains decided to join forces. Lowther was a sadist as well, and Low learned a thing or two about extracting information such as the whereabouts of hidden loot, from captured crewmen. Lowther was known for his chosen torture: forcing splinters of wood soaked in oil under the finger- or toenails of a prisoner and setting them on fire. If the prisoner spoke up about his money or jewels or the ship’s strongbox, the splinters would be extinguished. Otherwise the under side of each nail would slowly be burned away.

Lowther and Low went their separate ways in 1722 after capturing some fifteen vessels together. Low then turned to the tactic he would use for the rest of his brief but bloody pirating career. He would sail into an unsuspecting port, now with a small flotilla of his ships in tow, and attack merchants or whalers at anchor. Frequently the ships were not fully manned so resistance was rarely an option. Crews that did put up a fight would be killed to a man and their ship commandeered for Low’s piratical fleet. It was in these raids that Low became creative and branched out from his mentor’s torture techniques. Many unfortunate sailors, and in particular Portuguese sailors whom Low hated for some unknown reason, from Maine territory to Panama were treated to Ned Low’s horrific imagination.

One Lieutenant who refused to reveal the location of money aboard ship had his abdomen ripped open, his intestine nailed to the main mast and was beaten into walking around the mast until his guts encircled it like a gory wreath. He died without revealing his secret and Low chopped up his body and threw it into the sea. A Captain, of Portuguese descent, who thought to stand up to Low threw a purse of gold coins overboard in front of the pirate. Low came unglued, had the man tied to his ship’s mast and then sliced the Captain’s lips off with his cutlass. Low had the lips cooked while the Captain watched and then force-fed them to the helpless man. He followed this atrocity with the systematic disembowelment of the entire merchant crew, saving the suffering Captain for last. Low was also known to scoop a Portuguese man-of-war, those nasty multiple-creature jelly fish, out of the water with his cutlass and apply the stingers to the naked genitals of a subdued captive. After capturing a whaler off Newfoundland, Low had her Captain’s ears sliced off, roasted with red pepper and salt, and fed to his unfortunate victim.

After abandoning one of his own ships and her crew to a British warship in June of 1723, resentment began to build among Low’s men. He was now taking his anger out not only on prisoners but on his followers as well. The situation came to a head when Low got into an altercation with the quartermaster aboard his flagship, Fortune. The man would not pay off a gambling debt according to Low and one night while the quartermaster slept, Low cut his head off. His crew, now in reasonable fear for their lives, mutinied and set their Captain adrift in one of the ship’s boats along with two loyal mates. The boat was picked up by a French merchant out of Martinique but one of the crewmen, who had escaped Low’s cruelties, recognized and identified him. On docking in their home port the merchant vessel’s Captain turned Low and his men over to the authorities and he was hanged within a week in February of 1724.

After taking well over a hundred ships and countless human lives, the pirate Ned Low’s horrible reign of terror was over at the end of a rope.

Header: Edward Low’s red skeleton flag

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Freedom For A Moment

October 24, 1718: Accused of piracy on the high seas, Captain Stede Bonnet manages to escape from a watch house south of Charleston, South Carolina. He is at large for slightly longer than a day before being caught. Returned to his prison, he is tried, found guilty and hanged.

Header: Colonel Rhett and Pirate Stede Bonnet by Howard Pyle 1901

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Draught

The word draught (or draft) is common enough. In modern English we speak of drafting a speech, draft horses and beer “on draft”. No one thinks very much of where the word came from. I’m sure I needn’t even trouble myself to tell you, Brethren. It came from the sea.

The word’s origin is probably from Anglo-Saxon by way of Middle English. It was originally dragan, meaning to draw as in drag or pull. Think of a horse or ox with a plow. This became the Middle English draht (pronounced without the f) which essentially meant the same thing. Slowly the “draw” in the meaning came to mean not only tug along but sketch and that led to the current understanding of draught or draft to mean an design or layout.

That final addition to the meaning of draught probably came from seafaring. Originally, draught when referring to a ship meant the amount of water needed to keep her afloat. One hears of a ship’s draft being five feet for a small sloop or pirogue, or something more like fifteen to twenty feet for a man-of-war. Frequently the displacement line was marked, often by white paint, at the stem and stern. A ship is therefore said to “draw” the number of feet of water she displaces when afloat.

Probably because of the use of the word draw, draught came to mean first a chart for navigation and then the on paper delineation of a ship’s design. The term sheer-draft essentially refers to what architects by land would call and elevation. The picture above, from the plans for Nelson’s HMS Victory via, are a good example of a sheer-draught.

There are also draught hooks, which are fastened to a gun to drag it along by – what else – draught ropes. And, of course, a draughtsman is the artist who actually sets down plans or charts on paper for future use.

My apologies to one and all for the egregious lateness of this post. My Internet provider *GCI based in Anchorage, Alaska* doesn’t seem to feel that the money I pay them on a timely basis each month means I should have reliable service. So, after a full day without (and a good deal of fiddling with boxes and splitters) I am finally posting. I’ve yet to miss an SMS, and I’m not about to start now.

Good night, Brethren. Tomorrow we begin Horror on the High Seas Week!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Booty: Remembering Nelson

To close out Nelson week I’d like to talk about clothes. I’m “punny” like that. Above is a lovely picture of the uniform coat (complete with medals) that Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was wearing during the Battle of Trafalgar. It is in tact, just as it was when it was stripped from him as he was carried below after being shot by that French sharpshooter. There are visible traces of blood on the lining and left sleeve which are most likely not Nelson’s but John Scott’s. Scott was Nelson’s secretary and was killed at Trafalgar prior to Nelson’s shooting. For those of us who adore the sea and its history, this thing is quite literally a holy relic.

Nelson requested that the coat, along with a lock of his hair and other personal items, be given to Emma Hamilton. This did, in fact, occur despite one of Nelson’s brothers turning the Admiral’s request into a set-to with his mistress. Emma kept the coat but eventually gave it to a “friend”. Most historians agree it was used to settle a debt. The coat, which is sometimes listed as an “undress” uniform although certain writers claim that the presence of medals and an Admiral’s red satin sash (now lost) make it in fact a “dress coat”, is housed in the National Maritime Museum, London. Find more views

After Trafalgar, Britain went into extravagant mourning. Nelson became a savior figure, giving his life for the safety of his countrymen, and reminders of his greatness sprang up in some of the most unlikely places. Throughout the social season of 1806, for instance, it was the height of fashion for ladies to wear an evening headdress known as a “Trafalgar turban”. These would be simple creations of fabric made of white satin or blue crepe (the most popular, particularly for married women) with a white satin band upon which was embroidered “Trafalgar”. Generally simple, the turbans would have looked very similar to this one worn by French painter Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun in this self-portrait:The memory did not fade by half, particularly among the ladies. When more extravagant “bum pads” or what the French would call a cul-de-sac, became popular after 1815, the things almost inexplicably became known as “Nelsons”. Whether this was a derogatory reference to Emma (who, it must be admitted, had a pretty wide caboose by the time she hooked up with Horatio) or some other now forgotten nod is impossible to say. There is a certain humor to it regardless. Maybe Nelson was an ass man? Anyway, for a picture and description of the “bustles” as they were used at the time, click over to Jessamyn’s Regency Costume Companion’s Underthings

Finally, you may have noted the handsome pen and ink piece now (and permanently) decorating the “Piratical Fact of the Week” section at right.

This incredible piece of art (click to enlarge) was given to me by the artist herself, Cristina Urdiales from Malaga, Spain. I met Cristina and her mates Juan and Jose this summer and was absolutely thrilled beyond words to share a glass and a wonderful evening. You can find more of Cristina’s enchanting work at her sketch blog Been There, Drawn That. Hit the follow button while you’re there. She is truly talented. Oh, and as serendipitous as this is, the piece depicts HMS Royal Sovereign, the flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir Cuthbert Collingwood from which he acted as second in command at Trafalgar. How fitting is that?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

History: Trafalgar Day

On this day in 1805, the British fleet commanded by Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson engaged a combined flotilla of French and Spanish men-of-war off Cape Trafalgar. In the most decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, Nelson’s Navy soundly defeated the enemy effectively ending any hopes Napoleon may have had for supremacy at sea or invasion of Britain.

Here is an excerpt from the daily log of HMS Euryalus made after the battle by her Captain, Charles Collingwood:

The action began at twelve o’clock, by the leading ships of the column breaking through the enemy’s line, the Commander in Chief about the tenth ship from the vanguard, the Second in Command about the twelfth from the rear, leaving the van of the enemy unoccupied; the succeeding ships breaking through, in all parts, astern of their leaders, and engaging the enemy at the muzzles of their guns; the conflict was severe. The enemy’s ships were fought with a gallantry highly honourable to their Officers, but the attack on them was irresistible and it pleased the Almighty Disposer of all events to grant his Majesty’s arms a complete and glorious victory.

About three P.M. many of the enemy’s ships having struck their colours, their line gave way. Admiral Gravina, with ten ships joining their frigates to leeward, stood towards Cadiz. The five headmost ships in the van tacked and standing to the Southward, to windward of the British line, were engaged, and the sternmost of them taken: the others went off, leaving his Majesty’s squadron nineteen ships of the line.

After such a Victory, it may appear unnecessary to enter into encomiums on the particular parts taken by the several Commanders. The conclusion says more on the subject than I have the language to express. The spirit which animated all was the same; when all exerted themselves zealously in their country’s service, all deserve that their high merits should stand recorded; and never was high merit more conspicuous than in the battle I have described.

Of course Nelson, who insisted both on commanding HMS Victory on deck and wearing his full Admiral’s uniform complete with medals, was shot and killed during the battle. In a few short hours a hero made martyr became a legend. As the epitaph on his monument in Guildhall, London puts it:

The period of Nelson’s fame can only be the end of time.

For a very personal experience of all things Nelson, visit
Mark Coggins’ blog post from whence I collected the picture at the header of Saturday’s post. I enjoyed Mark’s ruminations on the wax figure of the Admiral at the Nelson Museum.

Want more in depth and fascinating first hand information about the Battle of
Trafalgar? Visit The Dear Surprise and find a wealth of engrossing information on all things Royal Navy and O’Brian. You may just lose yourself for the day.

Header: A modern imagining of Nelson aboard Victory before Trafalgar

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

People: Fan Fiction For 401

Nelson week continues here at Triple P and I struggled a bit with who to post about today. Not the man himself, surely. Far more agile and capable writers than I have tackled his biography and not one, two or even three posts could do justice to a life lived so large. But I had an idea that tickled my fancy last night and, if you will permit me, I will indulge it. Before you today, the nautical exploits of a fictional character (a Triple P first) who is, to me, the essence of a commander in Nelson’s navy. My own license has been taken where necessary. Apologies to the Great One: Patrick O’Brian.

John Aubrey was born in Dorchester, England, probably around 1770, to General Aubrey and his wife. The General was a relatively well off if unpopular landowner with a seat in Parliament. An only child, which was indeed unusual in that era and place, John, known as Jack from an early age, lost his mother to illness when he was five. It appears that not many years thereafter (perhaps three at the most) he went to sea as a boy aboard an unknown ship under Captain Boscawen.

Extant letters describing Jack Aubrey almost always refer to him as handsome. He was tall, probably six foot three inches, and large. His physician chided him in middle age for his weight which the doctor lists in a log as “17 stone” (a little less than 250 pounds). His blond hair, which he wore long all of his life, and his striking blue eyes are continuously remarked on, as is his ruddy “sailor’s” complexion and universal good cheer.

Aubrey achieved his Midshipman’s commission in the West Indies and seemed full of promise until an incident (involving smuggling and then keeping a girl aboard ship) saw him “turned to the mast” (demoted to able seaman) for a year. Upon returning to his Midshipman’s duties he was quickly promoted to Lieutenant and by April of 1800 was made Master and Commander. It should be noted here that while in Port Mahon awaiting news of his commission, Aubrey met his life long “particular friend” and future ship’s physician Stephen Maturin.

The brig-sloop Sophie had many successes under her new commander. The most famous of these was the cutting out and taking of the much larger Spanish privateer frigate Cacafuego late in 1801. This action made Aubrey a hero at home. Unfortunately, his loss of Sophie to the French in early 1802 did not endear him to the Admiralty. He faced a court martial in July of that year, but was acquitted.

The Peace of Amiens and the lack of a ship brought Aubrey back to England. At this time he met his future wife, Sophia Williams, who was living with her mother, sisters and cousin nearby. Aubrey faced growing trouble with debtors and it seems, although there is no solid documentation, that he left the country to avoid prison. He was back in the service again by May of 1804 with a promotion to Post Captain and command of HMS Lively.

Aubrey did not spend much time aboard Lively and it is at this time that a series of mysterious and marginally documented voyages became almost routine for the new Captain. In this case, trips to the Mediterranean followed by transfer of his commission to HMS Surprise are impossible to elaborate on. In all such instances, however, Dr. Maturin is in some way connected to Aubrey, again as physician in almost all of his commands.

Another lightly documented mission to India in 1805 keeps Aubrey away from the Battle of Trafalgar. He expressed his frustration in a letter to his then fiancée in a letter not unlike that written by William Hoste to his father at the same time. By 1806, Surprise is back at home and Aubrey and Miss Williams are married.

Though Aubrey is away from the sea for over a year, he again comes to national recognition as Commodore of the squadron involved in the raids on Reunion and Mauritius in 1808. Though Admiral Bertie arrived at the action late, and claimed a good deal of the honor for himself, documentation now available clearly shows that the British victory against the French can only be attributed to Aubrey.

This success led Aubrey into a series of unfortunate commands including HMS Leopard, which was nearly sunk in the South Sea after being holed by an iceberg. Aubrey was also aboard HMS Java as a passenger, along with Dr. Maturin, when she was taken by USS Constitution not long after the start of the War of 1812. After spending time as a prisoner in Boston, Aubrey managed to escape and had the good fortune to be aboard HMS Shannon (again, as a passenger) when she prevailed over USS Chesapeake.

Further trouble lie ahead, however. After taking command of HMS Ariel, Aubrey was overcome by the French and he was again a prisoner, this time in Paris. Released under truly mysterious circumstances, Aubrey returned to his favorite ship – Surprise – and headed for South America and the Pacific in search of USS Norfolk. The American was devastating British whaling in the South Seas and was finally cornered and destroyed at Sodbury’s Island by Surprise.

Returning home in 1813, Aubrey was accused (most authorities agree unjustly) of conspiracy to defraud the stock exchange. This led to imprisonment followed by a lengthy and probably rigged trial. Aubrey was fined, spent an hour in the stocks in London and had his name struck from the Post Captain’s list. It appears that Dr. Maturin purchased Surprise from the navy at this time and that he and Aubrey set out later in the year as privateers. Surprise had a good deal of success against the French which convinced the Admiralty to return Aubrey to his position as Post Captain by 1814.

A number of only vaguely documented missions were then given to Aubrey including a cruise to China and Java, followed by time in New South Wales and Peru. After these mysterious errands, Aubrey is given command of HMS Bellona at the head of a squadron sent out again the illegal slave trade off West Africa. Though Aubrey took a number of slavers, Bellona was called to the blockade of Brest for a short time before the peace with France.

Aubrey, given HMS Pomone in the spring of 1815 after Napoleon’s escape from Elba, accomplished a delicate diplomatic mission in Algiers. After making sure (it appears with the help of or possibly even through the efforts of Dr. Maturin) that the local Dey would not side with the French, Pomone took an enormous treasure galley and returned to Gibraltar just after the Battle of Waterloo.

Again in Surprise, Aubrey was dispatched to Chile to assist the revolutionary leader Bernardo O’Higgins in creating a navy. The success of this mission was punctuated by Aubrey receiving the news, probably in March or April of 1817, that he had been promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue. Aubrey raised his pennant aboard HMS Suffolk and sailed for Africa where he took command of the African squadron. His efforts against the illegal slave trade as well as his protection of British interests around the Cape sealed his place in Royal Navy history.

John Aubrey, who lived a full life not the least of which involved wine, women and song, developed an intractable and painful case of gout in his left leg not long after his promotion to Vice-Admiral in 1822. He was given command of the Plymouth station, where he could spend more time by land and at home. He chafed under the restrictions imposed on him by his friend and physician Stephen Maturin and his conditioned worsened. In November of 1826 he suffered what was most probably a heart attack and died a few days later.

Aubrey’s legitimate son became Admiral George Aubrey in 1845 and his son by Sally M’puta (the girl smuggled aboard in his Midshipman days) became a Monsignor in the Catholic Church. His daughters, Charlotte and Frances, both married Royal Navy Captains. A pair of American twins, Mariette and Josette Flynn, are also sometimes listed as illegitimate daughters of Jack Aubrey. No solid evidence exists for this other than a painting of the two, now housed in the Cabildo in New Orleans, which shows lovely young women with blue eyes and blonde hair. Hardly damning evidence. But in a life so full, one can never discount the possibilities.

And so, Brethren, Triple P's 401st post. Huzzah! for lucky Jack!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Men Pressed From Their Homes

In our modern world we have a horrible vision of what the British (and Americans) used to call “press gangs”. These bands of glorified thugs roamed the streets of harbor towns and farming villages literally bashing down doors and dragging able men away from their livelihoods and families to a hellish life at sea. No one was safe unless he could show a severed limb, was blind or deaf. Whole farming communities would be left without a single man save the very old or the virtual babies. The gangs were a government backed form of terror.

The truth of history is in this case, as in so many others, far more interesting than the fiction. While the men who worked under the auspices of the Royal Navy’s Impress Service did have the right to round up any able-bodied, male citizen of Britain between the ages of 18 and 55, it rarely happened that they followed this theory to the letter. Though many sailors were indeed taken up by the press, it was not so common for a laborer or merchant’s boy to be dragged off to sea.

The Royal Navy went through a period of tremendous growth in the last half of the 18th century. Since Britain is an island, a seafaring force has always been essential to her defense. By the 1750s, though, a strong naval force had become essential to keeping Britain’s many colonies safe and thriving as well. Ships were built in unheard of numbers and men were needed to work those ships. Unfortunately, they weren’t always willing to sign on for what could turn into years at a time in unknown and dangerous waters.

Of course there were the lifelong sailors who knew nothing else but when ships multiplied the old salts tended to stay with their trusted Captains. Since individual commanders were in charge of manning their ships once they were given their commission, a Captain could theoretically be stuck in port for an indefinite period should he be unable to recruit sailors for his ship. And therein lay the crux of the problem. Ships needed men who knew their way at sea.

The Impress Service was set up by the Admiralty with the permission of the Crown and based on the right of the King to demand service of any subject in defense of the realm. Though there were Impress men in most if not all port towns by 1755, many of the gangs were made up of seamen from a particular ship who’s Captain had sent them ashore to round up a few men to complete his crew. It was rare that these men, able seaman themselves for the most part, would want a farmer as a mate. As the Brethren know, a gawpus is good for only one thing: standing about with his lubberly mouth open and that means more work for every other Jack aboard us.

For this reason many men were pressed, not from jobs by land, but from other ships. From the 1780s on it was not uncommon for a Royal Navy ship to hale a merchant or privateer vessel, board her under some pretense and begin taking men from her crew. The Admiralty laws stated that officers and apprentices (such as the carpenter’s mate for instance) could not be pressed but in a pinch things could be a little less “lawful” at sea.

During and particularly after the American Revolution, impressment of U.S. merchant and eventually navy sailors by the Royal Navy became first a problem and then an international issue. Privateer and navy men were called out as deserters by the British and were therefore not being subject to the press but to “repatriation”. Triple P favorite David Porter, who spent time in U.S. merchants as a very young man, was treated to this tactic three times. He managed to escape in each instance but the “attention” he received from the Royal Navy made him one of their most formidable – if not vengeful – foes in the War of 1812. That war, in fact, might have been avoided had the British not began blatantly pressing men from U.S. Navy ships, including the now famous HMS Leopard vs. USS Chesapeake incident of 1807 in which American Commodore Barron was taken prisoner for resisting the impressment of his men.

It would be a falsehood to paint a rosy picture of the press gang. Sailors were certainly subject to certain horrors. These could include beatings, being chained and/or being dragged away from an alehouse in a drunken stupor. The Royal Navy made the situation worse by introducing the use of the press tender to ferry men down river from London and other larger cities. The ships, in widespread use by the “hot press” of 1803, had a box-like “room for impressed men” where sailors would be packed not unlike slaves for the miserable trip to Portsmouth, Plymouth or the Nore. This treatment fell upon one William Robinson, a 20 year old volunteer at the time, who later wrote:

In this place we spent the day and the following night huddled together, for there was not room to sit or stand separate; indeed, we were in a pitiable plight, for numbers of them were sea-sick, some retching, others were smoking, whilst many were so overcome with the stench that they fainted for want of air.

Despite the very real possibility of such misery, most sailors agreed that the Impress was its own blessing. They had a greater fear of unilateral conscription in which the length of service could become far longer, or even indefinite, if the government saw fit to make it so. As Brian Lavery puts it in his informative book Jack Aubrey Commands:

Though impressment was a huge gap in British claims to support liberty of the subject, the average backbencher felt that it was better than the state bureaucracy which would be needed to replace it. The sailor and his employer the merchant tended to prefer a ramshackle system to one which might be rather more difficult to evade.

Header: Horrors of the Press Gang, a cartoon from 1780

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ships: The Hero Of Trafalgar

HMS Victory, or the one that is docked at Portsmouth today, is the seventh ship in the British service to carry that fortuitous name. No sailor would argue with the good sense of giving a ship a moniker that identifies her as a winner right out of dry dock. That’ll bring you luck, sure.

As is typical of her class, Victory was an enormous floating world that could hold a crew of over 800 men and an almost unfathomable variety of guns. When she fought the Battle of Trafalgar she carried two 68 pounders (remember, that is the size of the ball the gun could discharge), twenty-eight 42 pounders, twenty-eight 24 pounders, twenty-eight 16 pounders and sixteen 6 pounders. She displaced 2,160 tons.

Victory, a first rate line-of-battle ship (or “ship of the line”) was designed by Sir Thomas Slade and built at Chatham Dockyard. She was launched in 1765. At that time, however, she was still incomplete and she was not properly commissioned until 1778 when France declared her intention to lend her fighting strength, including ships and sailors, to the American Revolution. Victory entered her first engagement that July as the flagship for the Channel Fleet, fighting in the Battle of Ushant.

She returned to Ushant in 1780 where she earned fame by capturing a French convoy off the coast. Admiral Howe chose her as his flagship in 1782 when he led a flotilla to relieve the siege of Gibraltar. The next year saw the end of British/French aggressions and Victory returned to Portsmouth, where she sat “in ordinary” (with her spars and masts taken down and only a skeleton crew to maintain her) for eight years.

By 1793 she was back in service, this time as the flagship of Admiral Sir John Jervis at the head of the Mediterranean Fleet during the Napoleonic Wars. On February 14, 1795, Jervis intercepted a large Spanish convoy and engaged them at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. He took two Spanish flagships and three smaller Spanish ships during the battle with the loss of only 9 British lives. The efforts of an as yet relatively unknown Captain by the name of Horatio Nelson had a great deal to do with Jervis’ resounding success.

Though Victory was put up as a prison hospital ship in 1800, she was soon missed and rebuilt. In 1803 Captain Thomas Hardy took command of her and she returned to the Mediterranean where she became the flagship of now Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s fleet. She cruised the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean on the hunt for French Vice-Admiral Pierre Villeneuve’s fleet which had the potential to invade England. The animosity between the two brilliant Admirals came to a head off Cadiz at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805.

The outcome of the battle was, of course, a decisive win for the British and the end of any real naval threat to England from the French. Nelson was shot by a French sniper while commanding on the deck of Victory. Taken below, he expired once he was told that 15 French and Spanish ships had been captured and that the British would surely win the day. Packed in a barrel of rum, Nelson’s body returned home aboard Victory. She achieved Sheerness on December 22nd, having lost 57 of her crew (including Nelson) with 102 wounded.Victory, though she has never been decommissioned, almost instantly became something like a floating shrine to the great British hero that Nelson had already become. She was eventually docked at Portsmouth, where she sits today as part of the Portsmouth Maritime Museum which also includes the Tudor warship Mary Rose. Here she can teach generations about a time when Britain ruled the waves. A fitting retirement for one of the greatest ships in British history.

Pictures: Painting of HMS Victory in Battle by Chris N. Wood; photo of Victory today via

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Blackbeard's Ruminations

Such a day... rum all out. Our company somewhat sober. A damned confusion amongst usual Rogues a-plotting. Great talk of separation. So I looked for a sharp prize.

Such a day... took one, with a great deal liquor on board so kept the company hot, damned hot, then all things went well again.

~ entry from log found aboard the sloop Adventure for October, 1718 assumed to be written by Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, her Captain at the time.

Header: Blackbeard's Revenge by Don Maitz

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Powder

Since we talked at length about working a cannon this week, I thought we’d close her out with the use of the ubiquitous word powder aboard us. Powder, up until about 150 odd years ago, meant black powder, the unstable and unpredictable forerunner of gunpowder. Now, of course, it is simply short for gunpowder.

To powder means, surprisingly, to salt meat or fish. You would think it might mean to prime a gun. A powdering tub is a large basin, often of copper, used for pickling meat.

A powder bag is a leather sack which can hold up to 40 pounds of powder. These took the place of the metal petard (as in “hoisted on his own”) during the Napoleonic Wars. Petards were less reliable and more prone to catching a spark and exploding. The Royal Navy grants Captain Thomas Lord Cochrane the honor of having first made the switch.

A powder magazine is the space, usually an enclosed cabinet or pantry, used for storing powder aboard ship. During wartime a powder vessel might be employed. This is a naval ship used as a floating magazine. A powder-hoy, however, is a boat specifically fitted out to supply ships at anchor with black powder stored on land. Almost universally the powder-hoy will fly a red flag and puts up a call of “fires out” when she comes along side. Even the galley stove must be extinguished before powder can be brought aboard and stowed in the magazine.

Finally, a powder monkey is the young boy who runs canisters of powder from the magazine to his assigned gun. He is part of a gun crew and his speed and agility are much valued by his mates.

I’m off to a puppet show (I am not making that up) with my dear friend and Triple P supporter Blue Flamingo this evening. Hope you fair as well, Brethren. I’ll spy ye in the week ahead.

Header: Cannon aboard HMS Victory via I will link to Mark's post on Thursday. You'll know why then.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Booty: Laffite The Pirate

I've said it before and I’m about to say it again: I love both movies entitled The Buccaneer. The silent film with Frederick March as Jean Laffite is an underappreciated classic along the lines of Birth of a Nation (without the racism or misogyny). The 1958 version adds talking, color, a little more historical accuracy and – biggest bonus of all – Yul Brynner as Jean Laffite and Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson. The scene where Laffite points his pistol at Jackson and gives him a talking to is one of the finest piratical moments ever filmed.

You’ve also heard me whine about the fact that neither of these wonderful films is available on DVD. Yes, you can get a VHS of the 1958 film at Amazon for something like $30 so go ahead if you like. I’m holding out. My frustration extends to the fact that neither movie is even on YouTube. But a couple of clips featuring Mr. Brynner are available, grainy though they may be, and I’d like to share one with you to kick off the weekend.

This scene needs very little setting up. The murderous babe is an exposition set piece. She can show us her boobs while the pirate (my Uncle Renato Beluche, by the way, sporting some inaccurate if oh-so-shiny earrings) manhandles her and she spouts off about how no one on Grande Terre wants to go in with the Americans. Except Laffite. Enter Gambi and a couple of his cronies to join in and harp on the recently taken ship that will pay off in millions if only they kill the little boy (and probably his dog, too) being watched over by an unusually uniformed Dominique Youx (played to the hilt by the wonderful Charles Boyer). Wow; that was a long sentence!

Anyway, everyone looks like they just had a bath and their clothes were dry cleaned which is the case with all these “historical” movies from back in the day so nothing new there. Oh yeah, and I also love the aside about the “Governor’s daughter” who, in all fairness, would have been about two years old at the time. It hardly takes away from the fun of the movie, though. So here for your viewing pleasure are Yul Brynner, Charles Boyer and a host of other fine actors in 1958's The Buccaneer:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Women At Sea: From A Society Of Bawds

Having in early life been shamefully seduced by a pretended suitor, and with her virginity, having lost all hopes of regaining her former state of respectability, she became a voluntary victim to VICE and joined a society of BAWDS…

This description is from a chapbook published in 1815 in New York City. It detailed the supposed true story of Louisa Baker who, after being seduced by a sailor in Boston, turned to prostitution, got fed up and ran away to serve three years in the U.S. Marines. Louisa was, for the most part, a fraud although she had a gift for storytelling. The spark of truth in her tale lies not in fabulous adventures dressed as a man but in the “shameful seduction” and “society of bawds” that led her to it.

From the very beginning New York was a major port and that meant it was, at any given time in any given century, full of sailors. As Luc Sante puts it in his engrossing book Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York: “New York being a port town, prostitution was probably there from the beginning, in waterfront groggeries and sailors’ hostels, and in the dance houses and groceries that grew up around the Collect pond and the Five Points.”

The groceries were a surprising early 19th century addition to the usual places a sailor might find a “disorderly woman”. When moderns think of a “grocery” we are thinking of the big concrete and steel box where carts are pushed under neon lights until, filled to capacity, they are emptied onto a conveyor belt, their contents paid for and repositioned in the cart which can then be wheeled out into the blessed sunshine. By the 1820’s in the U.S., however, a “grocery” was very different from a “market”. At the groceries one could find conversation among men, a stove to warm up by and liquor to warm the insides. Upstairs lived the girls and the grocery’s owner might very well run them for a huge cut of their meager income (on average equivalent to a modern dollar a week).

Once the grocery’s reputation was sufficiently tarnished, it was replaced in the 1840s by the “cigar store” where, to again quote Sante: “ … an uninitiated customer who entered would find a very meager stock of cigars and a shopkeeper, often female, who did not seem interested in selling them.” The girls were in the back or upstairs; anyone who knew the score would simply ask. This led to the problem of honest cigar sellers, who often employed comely young women as sales girls, being mistaken for brothels. Such mix-ups and tainted “good” girls set the Victorian heart a-flutter. The situation reached a head when Mary Rogers, a legitimate cigar store girl whose employer catered to the New York literati, turned up bloodless and floating in the river off the coast of New Jersey. In the panic caused by media coverage of the still unsolved murder, cigar stores went to seed – legitimate and otherwise. The affair is now remembered via a detective story by Edgar Allan Poe entitled “The Mystery of Marie Rouget”, which he based on the scandalous incident.

The kind of thing that had happened to Louisa Baker – seduction, fall, and finally taking up the mantel of prostitute – eventually became part of the business. In the 1870’s famous madams side-lighted as “procuresses”. They would send out hired men – some of them sailors unable to find a berth or disabled and incapable of returning to sea – to go into the rural areas and solicit farm girls and runaways. Much like the tactics of modern human traffickers, these “cadets” as they were called would offer the girls food, drink and pretty things until they finally got them into bed. Then the shoe was on the other foot and the girls were beholden to their new “boyfriends”. They would be whisked off to New York for a quick evaluation and finally either set up in the house of the madam in question or sold to another house for a profit. Most probably never saw the man they imagined cared for them again.

A surprising range of brothels were available, operating without much trouble in an era when hearing the word “prostitute” would make a lady faint. There were the “parlor houses” where men were expected to dress well, buy “nice” booze and each girl had her own room. One such house that was favored by officers in the U.S. and foreign navies was on 25th Street near 7th Avenue. This townhouse, one of seven in a row said to be run by sisters, featured accomplished girls who could play the pianoforte, sing and read. The officers were expected not only to pay but to bring gifts for the girls as well. The house was open 365 days a year and held “open houses” on Christmas and New Years with a special Christmas Eve party whose proceeds went entirely to local orphanages.

For the average sailor there was no private room, carpeted parlor or $10 bottle of champagne. So called “concert saloons” were more in their budget and these could be found from the Bowery down to Canal Street with a few of the most wretched right on the wharves. The girls here might not be all together prostitutes as sailors were encouraged to buy them overpriced drinks while the band played on. There were no rooms or curtained nooks for assignations; girls who wanted money for sex had to take their clients out to the alley or to their own hostel, if they had one. The names of the places told of their preferred clientele: Sailor’s Retreat, The Jolly Tar, Sinbad the Sailor, Flowing Sea Inn and The Mermaid are but a few.

If a Jack had a few extra in prize money jingling in his pocket, he might take himself to John Allen’s “free-and-easy” on Water Street. Established in the 1850’s, Allen’s place became notorious around the city not just for its status as a “bagnio” but for its tone of religious sensibility. Allen came from a family of preachers and, though he was the black sheep of his family, he brought his upbringing with him to his chosen profession. The cubicles at Allen’s had Bibles on the nightstands and the walls were decorated with iconic art. By contrast the girls were unabashed in their attire which was, for all intents and purposes, a uniform. Their just-below-the-knee length skirts were of bright red taffeta and their silk stockings were red as well. They wore tight lacing under shocking black satin bodices. Black boots, with red heels and jingle bells on the laces and red ostrich feathers in loose hair finished the effect.

Two girls from Allen’s ran off with their sailor lovers at the start of the Civil War. One’s name is lost but the other was called Long Mandy, evidently not because of her height but because of her narrow but unusually long feet for which Allen could not find a pair of his signature boots. The women were discovered aboard and the young sailors faced court martial. Because of the onset of the war, the boys remained in the Navy with only a reprimand and the incident was hushed up. Allen, on the other hand, would not have the girls back. What became of the unnamed girl is unknown but Mandy was stabbed to death behind The Mermaid on Canal Street. Doubtless those who read the two lines about her end in the Courier simply thought her a voluntary victim of vice, from a society of bawds.

Header photo: late 19th century prostitutes via Library of Congress

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Load Sight Fire!

The use of cannon aboard sailing ships is a topic of heavy discussion, including among those who follow the careers of the great pirates and privateers. As the Brethren know full well and good, pounding away at a prize with your guns in sheer folly. That being said, sometimes the enemy finds you at sea and, if running won’t serve, there is simply nothing for it but to engage them. A few of the most storied pirates died in fire fights of this kind but they are the exception. In the naval service however, death or severe injury during a sea battle were all too common (regardless of what the Mythbusters would have you believe).

Rarely spoken of, though, is the simple but dangerous minutia of loading, aiming and firing a gun followed by readying it to start the process all over again. Here it is in a nutshell, as I understand it anyway. Obviously deviations would occur depending on the size of the ship and gun in question and whether one was aboard a merchant, freebooter or Navy ship. In this case we will say we are aboard my Uncle Renato Beluche’s brig L’Intrepide engaging a Spanish Navy frigate. This, we will imagine, is not long after a fellow privateer warned him that a man-of-war was searching for him in the Gulf of Mexico. His response, documented by a fellow sailor, was to smile and say: “I would like to meet that warship.”

When a fire fight was imminent the gun had to be taken out of its securing ropes. The train tackle (used to haul the cannon inward for loading as pictured above) and the gun tackle and breeching rope (used to keep the gun from “jumping its track” when it recoiled after firing) would be attached securely. In out scenario, the gun crew is five men all together: gun captain (gunner), loader, rammer, sponger and gunner’s mate. Working as a team they could potentially load, fire and prepare to reload their gun in 1 minute.

Powder monkeys (usually agile boys who also worked in the tops) brought black powder from the powder chest in passboxes made of copper. Ball, shot or canister would be waiting nearby, buckets of water would be at hand for swabbing the gun and sand would be sprinkled on the floor to help with traction. When the gun port on the hull of the ship was opened, the gun crew would have no more than 20 inches of space from the muzzle of the gun to the port when the gun was run in. Our scenario allows us approximately 18 inches. That’s not a lot of room to do much of anything if you think about it, particularly when neighboring guns might be no more than a few feet away from yours.

Once this preparation was done the loader set to work priming the gun. After clearing the touchhole of any debris from prior firing with a 9 inch priming iron, he would dip a copper powder ladle into the passbox to retrieve powder equal to about 1/3rd the weight of the cannon’s ball. Copper was used at all possible times to avoid accidentally igniting the unstable black powder via a spark. Enough powder to prime the gun would be poured into the touchhole of the gun and then the mate would cover this hole with his hand while the loader placed the rest of the powder into the barrel of the gun. Covering the touchhole prevented errant breezes from blowing the priming powder out of the gun.

The powder was eased into the barrel by the rammer using the wooden rod of the same name. The gunner would then insert a fair amount of loose hemp yarn known as wad followed by another tamp down bay the rammer. The ball would be lifted in next and this might be a two or even three man job, depending on the size of the gun. Aboard our ship, with her 12 pounders, the loader could easily achieve this himself whereupon he would call to the rammer to “put it home”.

Another bit of wadding was placed in the muzzle before the rammer stepped up and tamped the entire mixture very firmly down into the gun’s barrel. This was not a gentle process; by now everyone is certainly shirtless and sweating. Slow match – made up of a lintstock staff three to four feet tall around which a hemp cord previously boiled in saltpeter and dried has been wound and then ignited – sits smoldering in a handy bucket of sand. It is almost time to let fly.

The loader now poured a bit more powder into the touchhole and gave a nod to the gunner when he was satisfied. At this point the gun’s muzzle was run out into the gun port and the gunner could sight it as necessary. Aiming the gun was in fact a haphazard proposition that involved more brute strength then accuracy. A wooden quoin and handspikes would be used to adjust and secure the gun barrel and then it was time to step back.

“Fire in the hole!”, the gunner would cry as an order and a warning. The loader would touch the fizzling slow match to just above the hole. With luck a misfire would be avoided, the ball would fly, the cannon recoil, all hands would be temporarily deaf but safe from injury and the final step could occur.

Now the men would haul in the gun with the train tackle and the sponger could take over. He would ram a saturated cloth at the end of a rod down the barrel, soaking it inside to extinguish any remaining bits of burning powder. He would then quickly insert a worm rod with metal spirals at the end to draw out any wadding left behind. The loader could again apply his priming iron and so it would go until the prize was taken or the enemy sunk. In our case Captain Beluche would have approved; the outcome was the latter.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

History: Sign Or No Sail

We've talked about ship’s articles aboard pirates before. These egalitarian pieces of paper are so fascinating that, to my mind anyway, they prove more than a few myths about pirates of any age at least partially untrue. The paramount bit of misinformation is that pirates were uneducated dullards, knuckle dragging thugs and basic brute beasts. While collectively they were not necessarily ready to dine with royalty, many could read and write and all could certainly understand and agree to what they were signing up for.

Today then, another set of ship’s articles from the Golden Age of piracy. Once again, these are quoted from Charles Johnson’s seminal General History of Pyrates. These articles come from the ship Delivery and were agreed to and signed by Captain George Lowther and his crew around 1720. They are similar to, but also noticeably different from, the articles we examined in July from John Phillips’ ship Revenge.

I The Captain is to have two full Shares, the Master to have one share and a half; the Doctor, Mate, Gunner and Bosun one Share and a quarter.

II He that shall be found guilty of taking up any unlawful Weapon on board the Privateer, or any Prize, by us taken, so as to strike or abuse one another, in any regard, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and the Majority of the Company shall think fit.

III He that shall be found Guilty of Cowardice, in the Time of Engagement, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and Majority shall think fit.

IV If any Gold, Jewels, Silver &c. be found on board of any Prize or Prizes, to the value of a Piece of Eight, and the finder do not deliver it to the Quarter-Master in the space of 24 hours, shall he suffer what Punishment the Captain and Majority shall think fit.

V He that is found Guilty of Gaming or Defrauding another to the Value of a Shilling, shall he suffer what Punishment the Captain and Majority shall think fit.

VII He that sees a Sail first, shall have the best Pistol or Small-Arm on board her.

VIII Good Quarters to be given when called for.

Lowther’s articles come across as addressing the violent nature of a pirate crew more thoroughly – and interestingly exclusively – than John Phillips’ articles. There is specific mention of quarter for enemies and prizes and shares are delineated but the vast majority of points address punishment for transgressions among the crew. Nothing is mentioned about the treatment of prisoners (other than the implied issue of “quarter”) and the articles do not address recruitment or women at any point. Johnson tells us simply that Lowther required his men to sign or they would not be allowed to sail.

Delivery came to no good end despite her carefully written, if unusually truncated, articles. While careening their ship in 1723, Lowther and his men were surprised by agents of the British South Sea Company. Being in the vulnerable position of having their ship aground and their guns unavailable, most of the men readily surrendered. Though Lowther and a handful of the crew managed to escape into the dense jungle of the small island they were on, the situation was essentially hopeless. With their food and fresh water left at the ship and the prospect of hanging should they be caught looming large, Lowther and his mates committed suicide.

Header: Buccaneers by Howard Pyle

Monday, October 11, 2010

Home Ports: Basse-Terre

One of the more shadowy figures in the already hard-to-dig-into world of the buccaneers is Frenchman Jean Le Vasseur. Aside from occasional mentions by our old friend Alexander Exquemelin, who claimed to know him personally, and the use of his name for Basil Rathbone’s villainous character in Captain Blood, no one seems very forthcoming about the man. His legacy, however is – or was – carved in stone. Quite literally built rock by rock, Le Vasseur’s masterwork on the Island of Tortuga was known as the Fort of the Rock and it stood impenetrable for ten years.

Le Vasseur was a military engineer in his native land. He most probably came from Bordeaux or Gascony and is last documented in France in that hotbed of Huguenot rebellion La Rochelle. When that fortress fell to the Catholics many displaced Protestants set their sights on the New World and the potentially lucrative profession of piracy. Le Vasseur appears to have been among them as he turns up in Jamaica in 1640.

It seems Le Vasseur was better at organizing and leading men that he was as a sailor and by 1642 he was on the island of Tortuga off Hispanola. Here he managed to round up the somewhat savage boucaniers that ran wild in the forests hunting local pigs and generally doing manly things among men (women didn’t show up in force for another decade or so). Somehow Le Vasseur got this group of free thinkers to start thinking ahead, organize for the good of all, and build a fortress from which to head out on their piratical expeditions.

Le Vasseur chose the sheltered harbor of Basse-Terre, where the rocks that would be used to build the fort were plentiful and the high ground was almost impossible to get to, especially while being fired upon from a fortress. The 30 foot cliff up from the harbor had a rock outcropping perfect for defense and sighting prey. There was a natural spring (above) and behind that the island turned into a dense jungle that made an ideal retreat if the fortress was breached. Basse-Terre literally translates as low-ground and may have been named by Le Vasseur himself, although it is probable that the boucaniers were using that name for the harbor when he showed up.

By 1644 Le Fort de Rocher loomed over Basse-Terre Bay. According to Exquemelin it boasted 24 heavy cannon (probably 30 pounders) and could hold and support a force of 800 men. Over the course of the next 9 years the fort stood firm despite attempts to raid it made by both England and Spain. It was not until 1653 when Le Vasseur assigned a successor to his leadership and began to think about retirement, that the fort fell.

In January of 1654, Spanish ships invaded the harbor and began a siege on the fort. While the ships kept the boucaniers occupied, a spy abetted by Le Vasseur’s successor, who would be paid in Spanish gold, helped slaves open up a road to the back of the fortress. Cannon were dragged up the road and turned to smashing the weakest point of the fort. The boucaniers who could fled. Le Vasseur was assassinated in the melee and the Spanish overran the Fort of the Rock.

This signaled the slow decline of Tortuga as a buccaneering stronghold. By the 1690s, after much political shuffling, France would have a firm grasp on San Domingue (the future Haiti) including Tortuga. By then, though, the buccaneer port of choice would be Petit Goave where men like Nicholas Van Horn and Laurens de Graff would see their hey days as the true successors of the mysterious Jean Le Vasseur.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: The First Of Its Kind

October 7, 1816: The first double decker steamboat, christened Washington, arrives in New Orleans after her maiden voyage on the Mississippi.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Dolphin

Here's the truly amusing thing about today’s ubiquitously seagoing word: though it was used for many an item aboard ship by seaman in the Great Age of Sail and before, it was never used to indicate the cute if unpredictable sea mammal. Sailors called those porpoises, and enjoyed eating them whenever possible. I know; now it seems almost like cannibalism but things were different then and if you were hungry at sea you might not turn down dolphin if it was all you could get. I wouldn't.

So what was referred to as a dolphin or dolphins aboard us? To start, larger ships with proud Captains often carried fancier brass cannon that were more for show than fighting, although they could do that as well. The brass was sometimes etched and filigreed, much like the royal armor of truly wealthy Renaissance rulers. The findings on the guns would also be carved beautifully, sometimes into recognizable shapes like plants or animals. A favorite was to form the handles by which the gun could be lifted (via rope and tackle) into dolphins. Thus these handles, which sat just above the trunnions on all guns except corronades, became known as dolphins whether or not they actually looked like the animal.

A dolphin is also a small craft from Ancient Rome used for fishing and ferrying. Pliny wrote a story of a young fisherman going back and forth on Lake Lucrine “in a dolphin”. This has come down to us erroneously as the boy riding to school each day literally astride a dolphin (which are, of course, unknown in any of Italy’s fresh water lakes as Pliny would have been aware).

A thick, purposefully set post on a quay or beach to which a boat may be tied is frequently called a dolphin. Another dolphin is a wooden spar with ring bolts at either end to which a boat can be tied for towing.

A dolphin at the mast is virtually the same as puddening (sometimes shortened to pudding and stemming from an ancient pronunciation of “putting”). This is a thick braid of cordage that is set around the fore and mainmasts prior to action. Attached beneath the trusses, its job is to prevent the yards from falling down if their rigging is shot away. A smaller but similar device placed under the lower yards is known as pudding and dolphin (which might also be dinner is you glance at yesterday’s post).

A dolphin-striker is the main support for the jib-boom at the bow, attached by means of ropes known as martingales.

Some other dolphin references: a French gold coin known as a “dauphine” (female dolphin) was in circulation from the 16th until the 19th century all over the world. The French, of course, referred to their heir apparent and his bride during that era as “dolphins”: the Dauphin and Dauphine. I have no clue why. Sailors sometimes called the dorado fish a “dolphin”, and enjoyed eating it too. In our own era, dolphins are sometimes used as therapy animals. Supermodel Tyra Banks lives in mortal fear of dolphins. I am not making that up.

But I have digressed beyond the point of return. Mind your dolphins, mates; I shall see ye one and all tomorrow.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Booty: Heavy Dinners

Nobody ever said food at sea was a gourmand’s dream. Far from it. From the impressive man of war to the single-masted pirate dory, food for the average Jack was pretty simple if not down right vile. It is a truth often overlooked that pirates usually had it better in the food department than other sailors. The more egalitarian nature of a pirate ship meant that most things were share and share alike, including comestibles. Pirates tended to favor smaller, shallower draft ships as well which meant that staying out for long cruises living on salt-horse and grog was in no way feasible.

Navy ships and, even worse, merchants were a completely different matter. A fine example is given by a sailor named Hugh Gregory. Aboard the clipper Serpent in the 1850s, he kept a record of daily events not the least of which was the regular round of dinners. Dinner, remember, was the main meal served just after noon for seaman and about an hour later for officers. Captains tended to dine around two, a situation that Patrick O’Brian never failed to exploit to his hero Jack Aubrey’s detriment. Jack, a big man of around 6’ 3” and something like 250 pounds at his heaviest, was always hungry by noon and “very sharp set” by 2:00.

Here, then, is able seaman Gregory’s list of weekly dinners aboard Serpent:

Sunday: scouse, duff, bread and beef
Monday: mush, spuds, bread and beef
Tuesday: scouse, beans, bread and beef
Wednesday: scouse, rice, bread and beef
Thursday: mush, duff and bread
Friday: scouse, beans, bread and beef
Saturday: scouse, “Cape Cod turkey” [salt cod], bread and beef

Just reading the list would make any modern pallet bored at the very least. I did a little nosing around in Anne C. Grossman and Lisa G. Thomas’ fabulous gastronomical companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels, Lobscouse & Spotted Dog, to verify the meaning of each menu item and found the following:

“Scouse” is short for lobscouse, a kind of sailor’s stew that came to America from Britain (although Grossman and Thomas go through an interesting etymology of the word that winds through Germany, Holland and Denmark, it basically ends up back at Britain again). It sounds very appealing on the page being made with corned beef, pork, smoked ham or all of the above to which are added a number of root vegetables, spices and ship’s biscuit to thicken. It would certainly have been hearty but it would also have been left in a great pot in the galley for long periods and anything eaten daily is going to get old fast.

Mush is oatmeal with raisins making Thursday aboard Serpent what was known in the Royal Navy as a “banyan day”: a day without meat.

The “Cape Cod turkey” was an American preparation in which salt cod was soaked, shredded and made into codfish cakes. Finally the duff was what the British refer to as a “pudding”. The word comes from the main ingredient – dough – and the dish is usually considered dessert. Basically dough made of flour, water and salt (with sugar if you’re lucky) would be infused with raisins or currants (the “plums” in plum duff), wrapped in a cloth bag and boiled in with the salted beef that would also appear on the table. The duff on banyan days would generally be left over and served cold.

No wonder seaman held their grog ration in such high esteem.

Header: Rowlandson’s “A Heavy Lurch At Dinner”. Mayhem in the great cabin with company aboard; click to see the many amusing details.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Books: A Man For All Seasons

I have made a lot of cyber-friends through this blogging deal, which is an unexpected bonus. One of these is Denis whose wonderful reviews of horror movies good and bad at his site The Horror?! always make my day. Because he’s been a great supporter of Triple P, it didn’t surprise me at all to get a message from him about a Jewish pirate.

Here is the link Denis sent me to
ratmmjess’s Live Journal article on the 17th century Renaissance man Samuel Pallache (sometimes spelled Palache). The brief article, the information in which is drawn from Edward Kritzler’s Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean (a book I have yet to read), sparked my curiosity and so it was off to the local bookstore with a man’s name, a picture in my head, and my usual glee at the prospect of researching anything involving pirates/privateers or seafaring.

What I found at Title Wave was a 200 page history and biography by Mercedes Garcia-Arenal and Gerard Wiegers entitled A Man of Three Worlds. The book is brief almost in the extreme but this makes its focus on Pallache all the more engrossing. Especially given the many, many experiences he had within the span of his 66 year life.

Samuel Pallache was born around 1550 in Morocco. Legend insists that he was born in Spain but Garcia-Arenal and Wiegers are nothing if not excellent researches and, much like William C. Davis with the Laffite brothers, they debunk one myth after another about Pallache. The Pallache family was indeed from Spain and had come to the Morocco ahead of the diaspora that was triggered by the Spanish Reconquista.

Pallache’s father was a Rabbi who became a leading figure in the tight-knit Jewish community of Fez. Samuel grew up in a comfortable environment surrounded by loving family. He heard tales of the abandon home in Spain and these clearly struck a cord. He kept the memory of Spain fresh in his mind as he grew to manhood.

Samuel became a merchant specializing in the newly opened trade routes between the Barbary Coast and Europe, particularly Holland. The Dutch, mortal enemies of Spain by the late 16th century, enjoyed thumbing their nose at the Spanish by trading with the corsairs who so frequently took Spanish ships, cargo and humans as slaves. Pallache grew quite comfortable in this business and he learned diplomacy as well. Eventually he decided it was time to go big and expand his business beyond the confines of Morocco and Holland.

Here Pallache did an uncharacteristic thing that would have made him unpopular at best in the Jewish communities of Fez and Amsterdam had they known. He attempted to return his family to Spain, even going so far as to be baptized in the Catholic Church, making himself what was known as a converso – a baptized Jew. He offered himself as spy to the Spanish court and for a brief time in the 1590s he appears to have carried information from the Sultan of Morocco’s enclave to Spain.

When his bid to repatriate backfired – Spain was still not ready to embrace Moors or Jews regardless of how helpful they might be – Pallache turned the other cheek, so to speak. Through his merchant connections, Samuel had gained access to the court of Sultan Zidan Abu Ma’ali and had become a personal favorite of the Sultan. He offered himself as a spy for Morocco and the Sultan readily agreed. In 1608 Zidan also made Samuel his official “agent” to The Hague in Holland and sent Pallache off on a diplomatic trip with a letter of introduction to Prince Maurice of Nassau.

Sultan Zidan had recently managed to put down an extremist rebellion lead by his brother and backed by Spain. Rightly imagining that Spain would continue such malicious attacks, Zidan decided to form a diplomatic alliance against Spain with his partner in trade, Holland. Pallache, who had a home in Amsterdam, would work out the details. He did so without a hitch, and made a close friend in Prince Maurice in the process. By December of 1608 Morocco and Holland had agreed to a signed treaty.

Prince Maurice next backed Samuel’s bid to become a privateer for Morocco. The Prince supplied ships and arms, the Sultan supplied men and a commission and by 1614 Pallache was at sea raiding Spanish shipping with very little resistance. The only glitch in his piratical carrier came when a storm forced him into Plymouth, England with a Spanish prize. The Spanish ambassador cried for Pallache’s arrest as a pirate and King James of England had very little choice but to comply. Samuel was never imprisoned per se (he was kept at the home of a local governor) and, though a trial was mounted, Samuel’s Moroccan commission and the intersession of the Prince of Nassau made it completely unnecessary. James freed Pallache and quipped to the grousing Spanish Ambassador that Spain had no more love for Protestants than it did for Jews.

Pallache set aside piracy after this incident and returned to the heart of the Jewish community in Amsterdam. His wealth had sadly diminished by this time and, though he continued his merchant endeavors, the exciting days of intrigue were behind him. He died on February 4, 1618 and is buried in the Sephardic Jewish cemetery in The Hague.

Garcia-Arenal and Wiegers get up close and personal with the man and his time in A Man of Three Worlds. The book can be dry at points; some of the discussions of political maneuvering and state/church interaction were a little off-putting even for a history nerd like me. Overall, though, the book allows Samuel Pallache to shine through. His dynamism, eccentric zeal and pragmatic, strangely modern outlook could not be lost on any reader. It’s worth a look for students of history, economics, diplomacy, religion and/or, yes, piracy.