Thursday, January 31, 2013

People: The Canadian Pirate

Today's pirate comes to us once again from the pages of Philip Gosse's The Pirate's Who's Who. He seems full of vigor and a lust for life that not all the characters in Gosse's encyclopedic compendium of freebooters' lives share. He is a curious sort, as well, for his birthplace; although there were probably a number of pirates from the country we now call Canada, it seems that very few have left much of a record.

Captain Nelson (Gosse does not state the man's Christian name) was born on the beautiful shores of Prince Edward Island. His father was a veteran of the "American war", which one must assume was the U.S. Revolution against Britain, and was granted "land for his services" which he turned into a successful farm. By the time young Nelson reached manhood, his father was a well-to-do member of his community, sitting on it's Council and acting as Colonel of the local Militia.

The senior Nelson bought his son farmland and acquired for him a position as Captain in the Militia. The younger Nelson married and settled into life as a farmer, at first seemingly pleased to follow in his father's footsteps. At some point, Captain Nelson attempted to add to his family's fortune by becoming a merchant sailor. He bought a schooner, and began transporting "cargoes of potatoes and fruit" to Halifax. This may be where the trouble began. As Gosse puts it:

He seems to have liked these trips in which he combined business with pleasure, for we learn that on these visits to Halifax he "was very wild, and drank and intrigued with the girls in an extravagant manner." Getting into disgrace on Prince Edward Island, and losing his commission [as Captain of the Militia], he went to live near Halifax, and became a lieutenant in the Nova Scotia Fencibles, while his wife remained on the island to look after his estate...

Nelson's wild side was out for good at this point. He met a man named Morrison and "together they bought a pretty little New York battleship, mounting ten guns." Gosse humorously refers to Nelson's new ship as a "dangerous toy" and notes that he and Morrison manned it "with a crew of ninety desperate characters." Thus armed and crewed, they all went "on the account."

Despite his Canadian background, it appears that Nelson used the port of New York as a base. Here he brought a number of captured ships and sold their goods for a profit. His chosen cruising ground was the West Indies where he plundered English and Dutch ships whose crews he treated "with the greatest brutality."

Nelson and Morrison also ventured raids on land. They ransacked and burned two Dutch plantations on St. Kitts, killing everyone who got in their way. They cruised as far south as Brazil, taking a number of ships on their way. After some time at sea, though, Nelson began to long for hearth and home. He returned, surreptitiously one has to imagine, to the family farm on Prince Edward Island where, Gosse says, "no one dared to molest him."

At this point, Nelson had been a-pirating for three years and had amassed a small fortune of 150,000 pounds. It is interesting that Gosse also notes "his Scotch partner, Morrison, being a frugal soul, had in the meantime saved an even larger sum." Both men seem to have been unusually capable of husbanding their earnings when compared to others of their trade.

Unfortunately for both men, their ship was wrecked in a fog off the island of Nelson's birth. Most of the crew, including the wealthy Morrison, were drowned. This seems to have been the event that ended Nelson's piratical career. He returned home but, ether unable or unwilling to live out the rest of his life as a farmer, Nelson brought his family to New York where, Gosse says, "he lived the rest of his life in peaceful happiness with his wife and family."

The unusually happy ending of the tale of Nelson, the Canadian pirate, is rather nice for a change. The only thing that niggles is all that "great brutality" and burning and pillaging. But then, no one ever said piracy was pretty...

Header: A Fight After the Game by Victor Nehlig via American Gallery

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tools of the Trade: A Morning Egg

Preserving food for long sea voyages has been a conundrum for man every since we first started making, well, long sea voyages. One of the most brilliantly simple ways to preserve a very nutritious form of food was invented - or discovered, if you prefer - by French scientist Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur in the 18th century. Cleverly, Reaumur coated eggs with simple varnish and found that they were good for up to two years.

Admiral Smyth discusses the process in The Sailor's Word Book, and it would be folly for me to try to paraphrase:

Reaumur varnished them all over, and thus preserved eggs fresh for two years; then carefully removing the varnish, he found that such eggs were still capable of producing chickens. Some employ, with the same intention, lard or other fatty substances for closing the pores [on the shell], and others simply immerse the egg for an instant in boiling water, by which its albumen is in part coagulated, and the power of exhalation thereby checked. Eggs packed in lime-water suffered to drain, have after three years' absence in the West Indies been found good; this does not destroy vitality.

An egg "found good" after sitting around in the heat and humidity of the Caribbean islands is almost a magical thing. It is interesting to note that Reaumur was born in the thriving port town of La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay. One wonders if his experiments with the preservation of eggs did not stem, at least in part, from concerns or requests by seafaring relatives. Whatever the case, sailors made Reaumur's methods their own and, particularly on smaller vessels that could not accommodate live animals, that meant a morning egg at least now and again.

Header: Egg by Edward B. Lintott via Old Paint

Monday, January 28, 2013

People: The Face of a Hero

I don't know many people who are involved in the business of history, if such it can be called, that are particularly interested in what the people whose era they are focusing on looked like. I have read many an unfortunately dry history book that treats the people it is allegedly informing us about like faceless automatons. It is an unfortunate problem that, I personally believe, contributes to the overt hatred of history that so many students suffer from.

For writers of historical fiction, artists and true lovers of particular historical figures, what our ancestors looked like is not only necessary to know, it can become an obsession. That's why this brief but wonderfully informative post over at Face 2 Face, the blog of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, fascinates the heck out of me.

The tale of Commodore William Bainbridge, one of the first fighting captains in the U.S. Navy, is full of dizzying highs and claustrophobic lows. Bainbridge commanded the schooner Retaliation when she became the first ship lost to an enemy by the U.S. during the Quasi-War with France. He bore the ignominy of having to fly the Algerian flag at the masthead of the frigate George Washington while transporting the Dey of that country. Finally, back on Barbary shores once again, his ship Philadelphia grounded in Tripoli harbor and the Commodore and his men were taken prisoner and enslaved for a brief but no doubt brutal time.

After each incident, Bainbridge was exonerated by the navy board. It is a sure thing, however, that his own conscience was not so easily cleared. Finally, after a stint captaining merchant vessels, Bainbridge was given command of USS Constitution shortly after the start of the War of 1812. Taking her out of Boston, Bainbridge had the good fortune to encounter, engage and capture HMS Java off the coast of Brazil. Those who are familiar with Patrick O'Brian will remember his skillful description of the engagement - which Jack Aubrey witnesses as a passenger aboard Java - in The Fortunes of War.

This brilliant victory turned Bainbridge into a celebrity, something he honestly loved. As noted in the post, Bainbridge wrote to a friend the "the applause of my countrymen has for me greater charms than all the gold that glitters."

All that said, the most striking things about Matthew Brenckle's discussion of the Commodore are - at least for me - the startlingly immediate portrait above and this contemporary description of Bainbridge:

[He] was six feet in height, and had a finely molded and muscular frame, which enabled him to endure any amount of fatigue. His complexion was rather fair, his beard dark and strong, his eyes black, animated, and expressive. His deportment was commanding, his dress always neat; his temperament was ardent and somewhat impetuous, though he could quality it with the greatest courtesy and the most attractive amenity.

Those two put together describe a true American hero who succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 61 calling for his sword in readiness to board the enemy.

Update: for more on portraiture in the U.S. during this era, see this post over at Log Lines regarding the Nation Portrait Gallery's current exhibit "1812: A Nation Emerges."

Header: Commodore William Bainbridge by Rembrandt Peale

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Seafaring Sunday: Old Fort Nassau

January 27, 1776: Continental navy forces invade the city of Nassau, New Providence, to retrieve ammunition stored at Old Fort Nassau. Though the Americans are successful in capturing the fort and raising their flag over it, they find nothing but 100 guns. The British had already moved the ammunition and a good deal of black powder to Boston. All the same, the Governor of New Providence was taken hostage; a small but not unincidental blow to British sovereignty in the Caribbean.

Header: Fort Charlotte, Nassau, the Bahamas via The Bahamas website

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sailor Mouth Saturday: From Arm To Zulu

We're changing SMS up today because nothing is worse than a lack of deviation. At least in my opinion. So here, for your consideration, if a curious list from A Mariner's Miscellany by Peter H. Spectre. These are words that may be familiar to any lubber, but their meaning at sea might leave him or her scratching their land-bound head.

Arm: the portion of an anchor between the crown and the flukes.
Bank: a shoal which is full of enough deep water to navigate a ship through.
Caboose: a cook station on the deck of a sailing ship.
Dead head: a spar or log, usually floating on end, which is mostly submerged and therefore a dangerous obstacle to navigation.
Earing: a line used to bend a sail to a spar.
Fox: a group of rope yarns twisted together.
Groin: a breakwater.
Hog: that unfortunate state of a badly constructed vessel where her bow and stern drop down while her wait rises up.
Indian head: a type of New England fishing schooner first seen around 1900.
Jackass: a canvas bag filled with oakum and stuffed into the hawsehole to make it watertight.
Kid: a tub for serving out soups and stews.
Leech: the after side of a fore-and-aft sail or the outer sides of a square sail.
Mole: a man made breakwater, usually constructed of masonry, and used as a landing for ships.
Nose: the stem of a vessel.
Ordinary: naval term for a vessel that is not sailing and laid up in port, but still in commission.
Pea: the point of an anchor's palm.
Quarter: the side section of a vessel from the aftermost chainplate to the stern. Thus "the wind on her quarter." This should not be confused with the quarterdeck, which is the raised deck at the aft of most ships without a poop.
Roach: the curve in the side of a sail.
Sheets: lines used to control the sails.
Throat: the part of a gaff nearest to the mast.
Up: the position of the helm which allows the vessel to fall off the wind.
Vast!: short for avast; an order to stop as in "Vast fighting!"
Whack: a sailors food ration.
Yankee: a jib topsail. Probably so called because of its development by colonial sailors.
Zulu: a lug-rigged fishing boat used on the coast of Scotland.

There; a whole flock of useful words from one SMS courtesy of that expert in all things seafaring, Mr. Spectre.

Header: A Ship in Storm by an unknown artist via my good mates at Under The Black Flag's Facebook page

Friday, January 25, 2013

Booty: Arrr! Go to Sleep!

Over at io9, the good folks who keep up with all things new and unique have said it all with the title of their article: "This pirate-themed bedroom set is the greatest thing ever." Seriously; I hardly need to continue.

From the good folks at Beyond Bedding, the above room set is a buccaneer's dream. Literally. Look at the details; there's not only bedding and window dressing but a laundry hamper for all love. Beyond incredible this set may be, but perhaps the best thing is that the items are remarkably affordable. The comforter, which fits a full/queen size bed, and two Jack Rackham flag inspired pillow shams will run you just over $100.

The only thing better would be to fine 'em aboard a prize!

Header: Pirate bedroom from Beyond Bedding via io9 (thanks to original member of the Brethren and awesome mate Dwight for bringing this to my attention)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Literature: A Wanderer's Song

It's my birthday, so I'm taking it easy today. Rather than speak for myself, I'll let John Masfield tell you how I feel with his beautiful poem, "The Wanderer's Song":

A wind's in the heart of me, a fire's in my heels,
I am tired of brick and stone and rumbling wagon-wheels;
I hunger for the sea's edge, limit of the land,
Where the wild old Atlantic is shouting on the sand.

Oh I'll be going, leaving the noises of the street,
To where a lifting foresail-foot is yanking at the sheet;
To a windy, tossing anchorage where yards and ketches ride,
Oh I'll be going, going, until I meet the tide.

And first I'll hear the sea-wind, the mewing of the gulls,
The clucking, sucking of the sea about the rusty hulls,
The songs at the capstan at the hooker warping out,
And then the heart of me'll know I'm there or thereabout.

Oh I am sick of brick and stone, the heart of me is sick, 
For windy green, unquiet sea, the realm of Moby Dick;
And I'll be going, going, from the roaring of the wheels,
For a wind's in the heart of me, a fire's in my heels.

Header: Cloud Bank Over a Choppy Sea by Carl Larsson c 1882 via Old Paint

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

History: Ancient Medicine

Over at, which seems an unusual place for nautical news, this interesting if brief article speaks to the ingenious ways that our ancient ancestors kept themselves healthy at sea.

Among the items found in a shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany was a metal cylinder, hermetically sealed after so long under salt water. The wreck, a Roman vessel named Relitto del Pozzino, was originally found in the Gulf of Baratti in 1974. Studies are ongoing on its cargo and contents, and the vile of green-gray tablets is just one of the many amazing bits of ancient medicine still being analyzed. From the article:

[Archeologist and lead researcher Gianna] Giachi said that the composition and shape of the tablets suggest they may have been used to treat eyes, perhaps as an eyewash.

The issue of dry eyes, particularly out in the elements at sea, is still a concern and evidently the Romans had a bit of relief for those exposed to wind, salt and sun. The tablets were made with a mixture of olive oil, pine resin and starch as a binder along with various herbs that have been proven to encourage eye health. How the tablets were used is not discussed, but one can imagine that they were perhaps dissolved in a saline solution and administered much like modern eye drops.

The article ends with comments from Dr. Mark Fromer, an ophthalmologist, who said:

... it makes sense that medicine that was discovered on the ship was an eye wash to treat dry eye, a common condition even today. "It's easy to make: it's saline, which has a pH... close to tears," he explained. "It's fascinating to realize that the problems that faced men and women thousands of years ago haven't changed."

I couldn't agree more.

Header: Odysseus and the Sirens, a Roman mosaic from Tunisia c 2nd century CE via Wikipedia

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Seafaring Sunday: Beginning of an Era

January 21, 1793: King Louis XVI of France is executed by guillotine. The upsurge in French nationalism via the Revolution will lead to a remarkable increase in privateering on both sides of the Atlantinc. Allons enfants de la Patrie Le jour de gloire est arrivé!

Header: Death of Louis XVI from an English engraving via Wikipedia

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Rat/Rate

Today marks the 204th anniversary of the birth of - in my opinion - the single most influential writer America has ever produced. Wait, someone is asking; how can anyone be more influential than Stephanie Meyer and the 50 Shades of Gray which is really just Twilight fan fiction woman? Who ever you are, please move along. Anyway: Happy Birthday Mr. Edgar A. Poe!

When I think of Poe, which may be more often that is good for a healthy psyche, I generally start to dwell on the things that he is not credited with. Just one "for instance" would be the invention of the detective story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle owes Holmes to Poe's C. Auguste Dupin. But no one ever talks about that, do they? When those type of blue-Devils take hold, I like to turn my morbid thoughts back to Poe's writing and the more familiar stuff that gives me the willies just thinking of it. Like those big, brown rats crawling all over the poor guy in "The Pit and the Pendulum." And away we go...

Rate was originally a word for tariff, at least in seafaring parlance. In the 18th century, the navies of Europe began to rate ships according, for the most part, to their size and armament. A first rate could carry 110 guns or more, a second rate between 90 and 100, a third rate from 80 to 85, a fourth rate from 60 to 74, a fifth rate 30 to 50 and a sixth rate any number including none. These last were only rated if they were commanded by a Post Captain.

A rating, on the other hand, had to do with an individual seaman's stated position in the ship's books. This included wasters, idlers, able seamen and so on up to Admiral.

One often hears of ratlines (also spoken of as ratlings) in nautical fiction. These are the small ropes that traverse the shrouds horizontally. They form the footholds of the rope ladder climbed up and down by men going into and out of the rigging. To rattle down the rigging or rattle the shrouds is to fix the ratlines parallel to the water line, an occasional task that must be undertaken for the safety of those using the ratlines. A rat's tail is the tapering end of a rope.

And so we come back around to those brown rats. As Admiral Smyth puts it:

These mischievous vermin are said to have increased after the economic expulsion of cats from our dockyards. Thus, in the petition from the ships-in-ordinary, to be allowed to go to sea, even to carry passengers, we read:

Tho' it was hemigrants or sodgers - 
Anything afore them rats,
Which now they is our only lodgers;
For well they knows, the artful dodgers,
The Board won't stand th' expense of cats.

A shame too as, after the dawn of nautical insurance, insurers would not pay for damage done by rats. Time to bring a ratting dog aboard, evidently.

A rat, too, was a sailor's word for one who turned his allegiance easily to suit his own best interests. Sounds familiar to this day.

All that said, I hope you and yours enjoy Poe's birthday. Perhaps with a reading of one of his better stories. But first stop by the dear Undine's World of Poe blog and read her tribute to the great man and his humor. You'll love it; I promise!

Header: Brown Rat by Archibald Thorburn via Movie Posters Lounge

Friday, January 18, 2013

Booty: Perfect Bookends

A quick one today as I've lots of business to attend to. I want to share, though.

Behold, these amazing bookends from the good folks over at the ever fabulous Fab dot com. Made by the otherwise mid-century modern folks at Daily General, these sturdy metal bookends are painted an appealing shade of charcoal. The detailed galleon on both brings to mind the days of the buccaneers on the Spanish Main. Just the perfect pieces to hold your General History of Pyrates or perhaps those swashbucklers featuring Errol Flynn.

My thanks to my friend Eric Grant who sent me the link via Twitter. That's what friends are for! (Follow him here.)

Happy Friday, Brethren! We'll spy ye tomorrow for SMS.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

People: Benjamin Franklin

January 17, 1706: A man whose accomplishments were far to numerous to list here, Benjamin Franklin, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. One of his more impressive endeavors was to publish one of the first detailed charts of the Gulf Stream, a boon to mariners from all over the globe.

Header: Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis c 1785 via Wikipedia

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lady Pirates: The Intriguers' Accomplice

Today's lady may not have actually been a pirate, but she certainly assisted one of the most famous lady pirates of all time - Anne Bonny - into her infamous career.

Mrs. Anne Fulworth is not much talked of in the literature of pirates. In fact, only two chroniclers of the freebooting profession mention her: Philip Gosse in The Pirate's Who's Who and even more briefly, Captain Johnson aka Daniel Defoe in his A General History of the Pyrates.

It probably goes without saying that we know next to nothing of Mrs. Fulworth's background. She steps onto history's stage in the second decade of the 18th century. It is then, probably around 1715, that she is serving as escort to the very young Anne Bonny who is fleeing her home and family to elope with her seaman beau.

Mrs. Fulworth and Miss Bonny arrive at New Providence where Anne and her new husband, according to Johnson "a pardoned pirate, a likely young fellow and of a sober life," are not destined to grow old together. Young Anne meets the notorious Calico Jack Rackham, sparks fly and Gosse tells us that "when Captain Rackam and Anne Bonny were intriguing to run away from the latter's husband... Mrs. Fulworth offered sympathy and advice to the lovers.

Gosse goes on to say that the "intrigue" of the two lovers did not get past the local authorities:

The scandal being brought to the ears of Governor Woodes Rogers by a pirate called Richard Turnley, he sent for the two ladies, "and examining them both upon it, and finding they could not deny it, he threaten'd, if they proceeded further in it, to commit them both to Prison, and order them to be whipp'd, and that Rackam himself, should be their Executioner."

This little bit of melodrama is probably more apocryphal than true, but it does stand out as a juicy tidbit from the already salacious story of the rich girl turned pirate.

There is a very high likelihood, however, that the shadowy Mrs. Fulworth - if she truly existed - stood by Anne once she made the fateful decision to leave her "likely young fellow" of a husband and bunk in with Calico Jack. Most historians agree that Anne became pregnant by her pirate lover at some point and was left by land during her confinement. The stories of Rackham's small harem of women on the island of Nevis not withstanding, it is more probable that the gravid Anne was left in the capable hands of motherly Mrs. Fulworth. It is certainly not unreasonable to imagine that the same woman served as midwife when Anne's time came, and perhaps even looked after the baby girl born of Anne and Jack's unseemly if passionate union.

What became of Anne Bonny, Mrs. Fulworth and the unnamed babe is one of the greatest mysteries handed down to us by the Golden Age of Piracy. Of course, fiction can fill in the blanks but the real story will probably never be known.

Header: The New Baby by John Rettig via American Gallery

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Literature: Old Ship Riggers

Yes, we did a heap o' riggin'
In those rampin' boomin' days,
When the wooden ships were buildin'
On their quaint old greasy ways;
Crafts of ever sort an' fashion,
 Bin an' little, lithe an' tall,
Had their birthplace by the harbor,
An' we rigged 'em one and all.

Our riggin' was for sailors,
Tough an' hardy Bluenose dogs,
With their hands as hard as leather,
An' their boots thick heavy clogs,
They were nothin' much like angels,
But they'd learned their business right,
An' they trusted to our riggin'
When the sea was roarin' white.

~ "Old Ship Riggers" by H.A. Cody

Header: Harbor Scene by Franklin D. Briscoe via American Gallery

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Seafaring Sunday: Aboard Endeavour

First part Strong Gales, and very heavy squalls with Hail and Rain; remainder more moderate but unsettles, sometimes a fresh breeze and Squally, and sometimes little wind. Kept plying in the Straits until 1/2 past 4 p.m., at which time the Tide had made strong against us, and the wind not abating, bore away, intending to have hauled under Cape St. Diego, but was prevented by the force of the Tide, which carried us past that Cape with surprising rapidity, at the same time caused a very great sea. At 6, the weather being Clear, took 9, or 3 sets of Observations of the sun and moon in order to find the Longitude of the place. Perhaps the first Observations of this kind that were ever made so near to the Extremity of South America.

~ Captain James Cook aboard HMS Endeavour off the Strait of Le Maire, near the far southern tip of South America January 14, 1769

Header: Replica of HMS Endeavour at Cooktown Harbor c 2005 via Wikipedia

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Day

The day has turned into the next, as will happen each day at noon when aboard us. For those here in south central Alaska, that means wind, rain, and the dreaded Chinook, or williwaw, wind. Everything will be a dangerous sheet of ice once this passes. Not to mention it hasn't gotten past the dark of dusk all day. But no one wants to here about our blue-Devil weather; let's talk about days at sea instead.

The nautical day is reckoned from noon to noon rather than midnight to midnight as it frequently is by land. The log book is turned to the next page once noon is called, and the series of watches begins anew.

Likewise, the day's work in the nautical mind differs from the perception by land. From The Sailor's Word Book:

In navigation, the reckoning or reduction of the ship's courses and distances made good during twenty-four hours, or from noon to noon, according to the rules of trigonometry, and thence ascertaining her latitude and longitude by dead-reckoning.

A very disparate thing from a task well done.

Day mates is an old term, probably originating in the Medieval period, for mess mates. When the distinction changed jibes relatively with abolition of the sub-lieutenant distinction. This position, an officer who was in charge of a group of day mates, was taken over by midshipmen who were similarly set to command a mess.

Day book is also an old term for the log book, noted earlier in this post. A journal, or diary, was referred to in some parts of Britain as a day book up until the 19th century.

Finally, the day-sky refers to the gloaming of sunrise or sunset. Something that my neck of the woods has experienced all the day long.

Here's hoping that your weather, wherever you may be, is better. Fair winds and a mug of grog to you all, until next we meet.

Header: Sunset by Julian Rix via American Gallery

Friday, January 11, 2013

Booty: Laffite, Jackson and Flints

I've said before that you really can't beat the movie The Buccaneer for Battle of New Orleans action. Sure, it takes a lot of liberties with the true stories of the battle, Andrew Jackson and in particular Jean Laffite (who is curiously without a brother - aside from Dominique Youx, I guess - throughout). But you could do a lot worse in the way of entertainments. Unfortunately, the film has yet to be released to DVD which is frankly criminal.

Fortunately, more scenes from the film were recently uploaded to YouTube. Here's one that's particularly timely given yesterday's discussion: the pirate "Jean La-Fete" (Yul Brynner) makes a proposition to the general Andrew Jackson (Charleton Heston).

Thursday, January 10, 2013

People: The Battle of New Orleans and the Brothers Laffite

Since I'm still recuperating, I'm pulling a post from the archives. Of course I'm tweaking it a little, because I just can't help myself; enjoy!

We refer to the Battle of New Orleans as occurring on January 8, 1815, but in fact skirmishes, feints and brutal gore took place for a three week period beginning before December 21 and ending with a definitive surrender by the British on or around January 15. Unfortunately, most people today believe that the battle was a futile wast of effort and life, the Treaty of Ghent having been signed (signed is the word used in almost all cases when discussing this myth; rarely does the word ratified come into play) on December 24, 1814. Please see this excellent post at History Myths Debunked and just stop that nonsense already.

That piece of misinformation is just one of the many puzzling things to come out of one of America's most easily forgotten darkest hours. Another that is in ongoing debate among scholars of such things is where, just exactly, were Pierre and Jean Laffite over the course of those fateful three plus weeks.

At the Centennial of the battle, it was popular to attribute much of the victory to the combined efforts of one brilliant General and a rag-tag, polyglot group of local Louisianans, volunteers from Kentucky and Tennessee, enslaved and free blacks and, of course, pirates. The seamen of Barataria as a group and the Laffite brothers in particular were singled out as one of the most influential reasons for the victory. Nearly 100 years ago, as was the case only a decade after the war, "the Laffite brothers" was translated in popular culture and imagination as "Jean Laffite." The tide has turned now, with modern historians claiming that the Baratarians had little if any impact at Chalmette. William C. Davis, for instance, claims that only two percent of Jackson's forces were actual Baratarians. 

I would argue that the truth is somewhere in between these two radically different opinions. But let's first examine what the experts have to say.

Lyle Saxon, whose Lafitte the Pirate was first published in the lat 1920s, is certainly the least reliable of our sources. His book is more storytelling than history and, although it is a wonderful read, it is full of the myths and legends about the Laffites - and Jean in particular - that are now so engrained in the popular imagination that they have become ersatz facts. Even so, Saxon's only comment on what the Laffites were up to amounts to no more than a paragraph explaining that "Pierre Lafitte was given a position of trust on [January 8]..." and Jean was in the Gulf, guarding against a "rear attack." He goes on to defend Jean against the label of evading service, but he has nothing further to say on the matter.

In The Baratarians and the Battle of New Orleans, masterful historian Jane Lucas deGrummond argues that - as her title implies - those pirates from Grande Terre were a big part of Andrew Jackson's victory on Rodriguez Canal. DeGrummond was a more than capable researcher who sited sources religiously and argued with a very convincing voice. Still, in the thirty plus pages devoted to the three weeks of battle, her book has nothing to say about any contribution made by the Laffites aside from them providing a significant amount of flints, shot and gunpowder to the effort.

Next we have Jack C. Ramsay, Jr. In Jean Laffite, Prince of Pirates, he devotes a full chapter to the Battle of New Orleans. Though his overview lacks the detail of deGrummond's, it is concise enough. This makes the omission of any specific action by the Laffite brothers during the fighting particularly glaring. He brings them back to the fore of his narrative only at the end of the chapter, noting that General Jackson praised their "courage and fidelity" in his famous speech on January 21.

The definitive modern work on the lives of the Laffite brothers is William C. Davis' The Pirates Laffite, and Davis puts a new spin on what the siblings were up to at Chalmette battlefield. The entire book, well researched and documented to be sure, is skewed toward Pierre. Davis is not an apologist but a sympathizer; he is clearly trying to return Pierre's memory to our consciousness, it having been overshadowed by Jean's for almost 200 years. It is a commendable endeavor, but it has a fatal flaw: wherever there is ambiguity in the record as to which Laffite a document or memoir is referring, Davis gives the nod to Pierre.

Thus, Davis presents up with Pierre as not only close, personal adviser to Andrew Jackson but as tracker for General John Coffee in the swamp beyond Rodriguez Canal. Late in the battle of January 8, Pierre is a commander of men, sent with General Humbert to assist General Daniel Morgan on the west bank of the Mississippi. The elder Laffite brother even delivers a speech to Morgan's men, penned by Jackson himself. Meanwhile Jean, whose mission to General Reynolds at Little Lake Barataria is well documented by surviving orders written in Jackson's hand, is skulking around Grande Terre and presumably up to no good. Davis mentions that Jackson's orders of December 22 required Jean to return to Chalmette as quickly as possible but then seems to toss that fact out the window. Like the proverbial baby with the bathwater, he throws Jean back into the ignominy of evading service which Saxon once argued so vehemently against.

What then is the truth of the matter? Were the Baratarians a help or a hindrance, or of no consequence at all? And what of their leaders, the men who spelled their last name differently than any other "Lafitte" in Louisiana? As I said earlier, the truth must be somewhere in the middle.

The Baratarians were most effectual as artillerists, on Battery Number 3 in particular. These twenty-four pound guns, commanded by Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche, were the bane of the British throughout the fighting. Also, most of the sailors aboard Commodore Patterson's Carolina and Louisiana were Baratarians; both ships bombarded British encampments on Chalmette with great success. The brothers themselves, aside from providing men and material, were certainly put to active duty if not directly on the line or aboard ship.

Were the Laffite brothers heroes? That is a loaded question. But were they at the battle with the men they knew and called brothers? Most definitely. Anything more specific than that is open to interpretation...

Header: A 1950s postcard featuring New Orleans' famous "Pirates' Alley" from the author's collection

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

History: Jimmy Driftwood's Song

Everyone of a certain age has hummed along to the old standard folk song familiarly titled "The Battle of New Orleans" written by Jimmy Driftwood. Jimmy was a master of the folk genre and wrote and published upwards of six thousand tunes. "The Battle of New Orleans" was a song that, at one time anyway, was taught in schools. I remember singing it at a choir performance in sixth grade.

But, like most people, I sang only part of the song and had no idea - as I'm sure was the case with my teachers - that the song as originally written had so much detail regarding not only the battle but the people involved. And of course, we're talking about pirates.

Enter that encyclopedic expert on all things piratical, Captain Swallow. On Monday, the eve of the 198th anniversary of the great battle, the Captain sent an email to the members of the Pyrates' Union giving us the lyrics of the song in their entirety and a link to a performance by none other than Driftwood himself. Here then, via the Captain, is the song "The Battle of New Orleans" as it should be sung and including a key line about Triple P's favorite racketeer, Jean Laffite:

Weill in eighteen and fourteen we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans,
And we fought the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.

Well, I see'd Mars Jackson walkin' down the street
Talkin' to a pirate by the name of Jean Laffite
He gave Jean a drink that he brung from Tennessee
And the pirate said he'd help us drive the British in the sea.

The French said Andrew, you'd better run,
For Packingham's a comin' with a bullet in his gun.
Old Hickory said he didn't give a dang,
He's gonna whip the britches off of Colonel Packingham.

(Chorus:) We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin'.
There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago.
We fired once more and the began to runnin'
Down to the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

Well, we looked down the river and we see'd the British come,
And there must have been a hundred of 'em beatin' on the drum.
They stepped so high and they made their bugles ring
While we stood by our cotton bales and didn't say a thing.

Old Hickory said we could take 'em by surprise
If we didn't fire a musket til we looked 'em in the eyes.
We held our fire til we see'd their faces well,
Then we opened up with squirrel guns and really gave a yell.


Well, we fired our cannon til the barrel melted down,
So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round.
We filled his head with cannon balls and powdered his behind,
And when they fetched the powder off, the gator lost his mind.

We'll march back home but we'll never be content
Till we make Old Hickory the people's President.
And every time we think about the bacon and the beans,
We'll think about the fun we had way down in New Orleans.


Well, they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go.
They ran so fast the hounds couldn't catch 'em
Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

You can find Jimmy singing his fabulous ballad on YouTube here.

My thanks, as always, to Captain Swallow for once again educating us all about the history not only of pirates and privateers, but the world. Now go out and sing, Brethren!

Header: A page from "Pirate and Patriot"; find the entire comic here

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

History: The Battle of New Orleans

I officially have influenza which I will happily use as my excuse for lack of posting here at Triple P (you all don't need to read feverish ramblings.)

I did want to take a moment, however, to commemorate the 198th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. With any luck, I should be back later this week with more on Andrew Jackson's pirate-fueled victory over the British on Chalmette Plantation.

Header: The Battle of New Orleans by Charles H. Waterhouse via Wikipedia

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Jaw

I apologize for the lack of posting here at Triple P this week. The ravages of the flu have yet to leave me and I may just have to relent and drag myself to the doc for some meds. But I hate to miss a SMS so here's a short but I find interesting review of the word jaw at sea.

Jaw generally refers to semicircular end of a boom or gaff which presses against a ship's mast. The points of the jaw are called horns. The jaw-rope is a line or cable attached to the horns of the jaws to keep the gaff attached to the mast. Admiral Smyth notes that the line is usually finished with bull's eyes, specific types of blocks usually without a sheave, to ensure that the jaw-rope can run easily against the mast.

Along those lines, blocks with sheaves also have a jaw. This is the place in the hull of the block where the sheave turns.

Any line can be said to be long jawed if, through the strain of use, it begins to untwist and eventually breaks or otherwise fails.

Often, though, jaw when used at sea has more to do with men than equipment. A man is said to be jawing when using language generally thought of as reserved for sailors. Jaw breakers are the words we're referring to. A man who speaks this way on a regular basis is said to have brought his jawing tacks aboard us. He may also be labelled a jaw-me-down, particularly if he is prone to argue.

As an interesting if unrelated aside, javels were the "dirty, idle fellows, wandering about quays and docks" in times gone by. That would be a nice little addition to a piece of historical fiction, I think.

Happy Saturday, Brethren. I hope you feel better than me and that the winds are fair where ever you're at sea.

Header: Sunset Seascape with Boats by Franklin D. Briscoe via American Gallery

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Meta: Happy New Year!

The flu decided to stop in at chez Pauline for the season. With luck, it will leave swiftly. Until then, perhaps some spotty posting for a week or so. Forgive me. I did want to take a moment to wish all the Brethren a Happy New Year and brighter times in 2013. Huzzah!

Header: Marilyn Monroe and some very happy sailors via A Harlot's Progress