Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Cable

Cable. It's the thing you're watching the Olympics courtesy of. And by "courtesy" I mean because you pay that bill every month. It is now, of course, but before anyone ever thought of such things as moving pictures on a box in your home, cable was a sailing word.

Back when wooden ships ruled the waves a cable was a thick rope which attached the ship to its anchor. Later on the cable might be made of chain (as one is used to seeing in many depictions of a "foul anchor") but generally rope came to mind when the word was used. Any rope over 10 inches in circumference was rightly a cable; smaller than that and the rope was referred to as a hawser. In our day and age, anchor cable is almost exclusively made of iron.

From that simple beginning - a rope that holds the anchor - come a host of variations.

Coiling a cable is, of course, to roll it in tiers on itself. This can also be termed paying cheap the cable, handing the cable in a pace or throwing the cable over. Knowing how to coil rope well is exquisitely necessary in the small space available for the storing of rigging aboard ship.

"Cable-enough," is the call that goes up when enough cable has been pulled up via the capstan to allow the anchor to be secured to the cat-head at the side of the ship. Prior to that, the calls of "up-and-down" (meaning the cable is vertical rather than horizontal relative to the ship) and "clean and dry for weighing" (meaning the anchor is out of the water) would be heard.

A cable's length equals approximately 100 fathoms. This measurement was used until the mid-19th century to judge the distances between ships in a fleet. It is a confusing term because a length of standard cable was actually between 100 and 115 fathoms.

The cable tier is the place in the hold where the coiled cable is stored.

There's more but the list gets pretty esoteric and only real sailing nerds like your humble hostess could stomach a continued litany, so I'll stop there. We've covered the important terms. I'll send you off to sea with those.

Ah wait. Just one more if you will permit me. To cut the cable literally means taking an axe to the rope and leaving your anchor behind in order to make a speedy get away. It's a desperate move that should not be attempted unless absolutely necessary (anchors are expensive after all). Try to avoid cutting your cable, Brethren.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Booty: The Love Boat

Ahoy, Brethren, and welcome to another Friday Booty. And this time, we're actually talking booty.

My First Mate, who seems to have a nose for this sort of thing, sent me a Reuters article via Yahoo! about a very unusual voyage from Deptford port in England to Adelaide, New South Wales. The ship was transporting criminals from England to Australia in 1838, and apparently things got out of hand.

Aboard Planter was James Bell, a gentleman the article calls a "junior officer". From what I can tell in what little research material I could find, he was probably what passed for a midshipman - known as a "ship's boy" aboard merchant vessels - and may have been somewhere between 15 and 18 years old.

Bell kept a diary of his experiences over the course of the voyage. This diary was thought lost to history (it had evidently been mentioned in the letters of the friend for whose edification he was keeping it) but was found last year purely by accident in what the article calls "a market stall".

Evidently there was little or no discipline aboard Planter. The mixed-gender prisoners seem to have had the freedom of the ship and a lot of alcohol was involved in the shenanigans. From the article:

Alcohol-fueled acts of "great violence"involving officers, mates and even the ship's doctor are recounted.

Dr. McGowan, it seems, brought his own form of vice to temp the crew and "passengers" of Planter: his 11 daughters. Quoting from the diary, the article continues:

"...our captain of course could not want a mistress till he returned to his own in England, but made love to two of McGowan's daughters... The Capt was allowed to keep the daughters company at all hours, and during the whole time of our being in warm weather our bed on deck sufficed for all three."

Bell goes on to say that his Captain's lieutenants took up with a group of "...natives of some obscene alley, in some obscene street." Ah yes, the whores being transported were nothing but an invitation to vice on such a ship, and the mates took full advantage.

Finally, the article notes that Bell was writing all this down for a "female friend in England." The writer seems surprised at this, but the date of the diary is telling in my opinion. The rigid morals of the Victorian era had not yet cracked people on both sides of the Pond over the head yet. Even "nice" women could openly understand that people had sex and got drunk, for another few years anyway.

Bell seems to wrap the story up quite nicely with this little bit of insight:

"With all this whoring and drunkenness, it is amazing this ship ever arrived in Australia."

The article indicates that the diary will go up for auction at Bonhams in London on March 23rd. For somewhere between three and six thousand dollars or two to four thousand pounds, you too could own a little slice of (very debauched) nautical history.

And they say pirates were drunk and lewd.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: The Finest Guns

There's a scene in my old favorite Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World where Mr. Howard, the Sergeant of the Marines (and I've a hunch the director's personified commentary on a certain gun-crazy stereotype), is cleaning his pistol while Midshipman Mr. Boyle looks on in awe. Mr. Howard, admiring his sidearm, says: "Say what you want about the Frenchies, they're damn fine gunsmiths," and goes on to explain the pistol's lock action to the boy. I may be paraphrasing but you get the point.

In fact by the Napoleonic wars the "Frenchies" had been damn fine gunsmiths for over two hundred years. Their pistols and muskets were in high demand in Europe and the New World. In fact, it was only the Spanish Empire - so typically penny wise and pound foolish - that insisted on making and shipping their own antiquated arquebuses to their forts on the Main. In the end it cost them dearly.

The boucaniers who escaped servitude and clawed a life out of the woods of Hispaniola were not handed firearms as they joined their Brethren. Each man was expected to buy his own guns. These men, who rarely had two doubloons to rub together except after a successful raid would not necessarily - as the movies preach - run straight to the grog house and brothel. In fact, unless they were already packing, the first thing a flush buccaneer wanted was a good pistol or two. And that meant buying the most expensive and best operating technology possible. Only French would do.

Both the pistols and muskets of pirates were made by French craftsmen and, in many cases, cost a small fortune. They were perhaps the only thing that the buccaneers of Morgan's day, the pirates of Teach's ilk and the privateers of the Laffite era were obsessed with keeping clean (besides their ships of course). Constantly oiled against the damp of rain forests and the salt water aboard ship, the firearms were coddled like babies. For the most part, they were the only property that these vagabond men and sometimes women owned. They held them so dear that it was not uncommon for a throat to be slit or a hand to be lost over attempted theft.

By 1650 the two foremost gunsmiths in France were Galin in Nientes and Brachere in the old privateer port of Dieppe. These houses were still making guns when the one-of-a-kind matchlocks and wheelocks carried by L'Olonnais' and Morgan's men were replaced with mass production flintlocks in the middle of the 18th century. Even then the guns were expensive and jealousy over them could turn friends to enemies.

Lyle Saxon told the story of a fabulous pair of pearl handled pistols owned by Jean Laffite that no one was allowed to touch. Not even Jean's older brother, Pierre. Saxon swore the siblings nearly came to blows over these pieces of French art. I like to imagine Pierre, his index finger centimeters from one of the pistols, mocking Jean: "I'm not touching it." In all fairness the story is probably apocryphal - as most of Saxon's entertaining tales were - but it's still illustrative... and funny.

The French, too, were notoriously good shots. When Morgan took Portobelo in 1668 his success relied heavily on French buccaneers who were crack shots with their long muskets. This trend continued into the early 19th century. I've a theory that this excellence with a firearm was why Frenchmen and French Creoles in the New World eschewed dueling with pistols even as the English and Americans made it a habit. The French were too good with their arms to risk killing one another under the oaks. A simple drawing of blood with a sword would suffice to prove honor. But then I'm French Creole, so I may be a tad bias.

Finally, unlike navy sailors who were known to throw their hefty pistols at enemies once discharged - no kidding! - a freebooter was not letting go of his expensive sidearm. The old story about pirates tying their pistols to silk cords and draping them around their necks is no story at all. This kept the pistols close while the hands were free to wield cutlass or axe. Plus, the heavy butts of the guns were not called "skullcrushers" for nothing.

The simple fact was that if you were a buccaneer, pirate or privateer in the glory days of each, you'd be loathe to own anything but a French gun. Just like his descendants, a savvy gentleman of fortune wanted the best technology he could afford.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Home Ports: The Big Island

In our modern age, Madagascar is the place where those awesome lemurs come from (your humble hostess is particularly fond of the Nosferatu-like Aye-Ayes). It's touristy, kick back, and the name of an unfortunate series of children's movies. But once upon a time it was a legendary pirate haven where the gold fairly fell off the palm trees, the spirits flowed from bottomless barrels and the women forsook their men to be with freebooters. Or so the stories went.

By the 1690s the days of the great buccaneers on the Spanish Main were drawing to a swift close. The denouement was upon that story of glorious riches and outright terror. The Spanish had lost their grip on the Main - as much due to their own ridiculous greed as the rapaciousness of the sea raiders - and the gold and silver no longer flowed like water from Potosi and Peru. The great boucaniers - L'Olonnais, Le Grand, de Grammont - were all gone. The king of the English buccaneers, Henry Morgan, died in his bed in August, 1688. Piracy in the Caribbean was on the decline.

Of course, a drop in resources doesn't mean a drop in piracy. It just means men who are willing to pursue a short life and merry need to find a new hunting ground and so more than one old school buccaneer looked east.

The slave trade off the coast of West Africa was booming, with ships and human cargo to be had aplenty. On the other side of the continent, the rich merchant trade sailed back and forth from Europe to the East. English and Dutch East Indiamen were frequently so laden with cargo (as were the slavers) that they could not carry cannon. If they did, the guns were more likely to be used as ballast than as weapons. Can't you just imagine our gentlemen of fortune rubbing their hands together with glee?

Smack dab in the middle of this incredible bounty was the big island of Madagascar. She was surrounded by tranquil anchorages that kept a ship safe from storms and navy men-of-war whose drafts were far too deep to follow a pirate sloop beyond the bar. Her weather was fine and her population sparse and friendly (none of those pesky Carib or Darien types who would actually crack a freebooter's head open for disturbing their villages or molesting their women... the nerve!) Finally, fresh water, fruit and meat was readily available. It was the perfect situation that brought a perfect storm of piratical activity.

For twenty years, from approximately 1690 to 1710, Madagascar attracted some of the most famous pirates of the transitional age along with hundreds of their men. Thomas Tew, Edward England, Howell Davis, Bartholomew Roberts, Henry Avery and William Kidd, to name just a few, all used Madagascar as a base. St. Mary's Island, off the east coast of Madagascar, was said to be home to over 1,000 pirates by 1700. Business was booming and none of the European governments seemed capable of putting a stop to the looting of merchants and slavers.

Finally, England took matters in hand and began allotting some of her warships to convoy with East Indiamen returning to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope. Pirate ships were destroyed and pirates killed; the pickings over the course of the first decade of the new century became decidedly less easy. Men slowly turned away from the trade or sailed off to new ports. Some even chose to settle down and farm the rich soil of their new island home. By 1711, British broadsheets reported no more than 100 pirates still active off the coast of Madagascar.

The boom was over, but the legend lived on. Charles Johnson in his A General History of Pirates devoted an entire chapter to French pirate Captain Misson and his pirate utopia on Madagascar, Libertaria. But that's another post all together as Johnson's motives in telling what was really a fairy story were probably - and quite interestingly - political. They eerily foreshadow the Revolutionary age that lay only a few decades ahead, and that's more than we've time for today.

But then pirates have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to liberty, fraternity and equality. Or at least up until very recently indeed.

Monday, February 22, 2010

History: Very Early Seafaring

The Minoan civilization, which blossomed on the now Greek island of Crete from 2,700 to 1,450 BCE, or there abouts, was a maritime culture. Living on an island usually dictates that your people are good in and around boats and so it was with our Minoan ancestors. They excelled at all things nautical. As it turns out, they may very well have been born to it.

Tuesday's New York Times online featured an interesting article by John Noble Wilford entitled On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners. In it, Wilford details the work of art historian Thomas F. Strasser, Providence College, Rhode Island and archaeologist Eleni Panagopoulou, Greek Ministry of Culture, and their teams. They have uncovered evidence of a seafaring culture on the island possibly dating back as far as 130,000 years.

Stone tools have been excavated from the southern shore of the island and include well fashioned arrowheads and even the now iconic double sided hand axes that are so identified with Minoan culture. I studied anthropology in school so let me just cut to the chase here: the finds indicate that a significant culture existed on the island long before anyone ever imagined. Original theories date the first landings of humans from other shores on Greek islands at around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. These new finds potentially blow that theory out of the water (pun intended) and show that humans - possibly even prehumans - were developed enough on Crete to have the time to sit down and make things like double sided axes. In other words they were not a subsistence culture in which the only thing the (usually small) group of hominids has time for is finding, preparing and eating food. They could kick back a little and ratchet up their standard of living with tools.

I hear you, Brethren. OK, Pauline, but what do some stone tools have to do with seafaring? The evidence isn't anchors and fish hooks, after all, it's axes and the like. True, however the point here is that they were found on an island and are incredibly similar to tools made by Acheulean cultures which originated with prehumans in Africa. This means - if the dating and suppositions are accurate - that large groups of prehumans had to get from the mainland to Crete. And that means they had to have some sort of boat building technology. You can't just strap together a raft Bear Grylls style and expect to get your family and the neighbors safely from Africa/Asia Minor/Europe to Crete. Ask Odysseus about the reality of that little undertaking.

Of course there's already argument about time frames and dating and so on. For more on that, and specific details, I encourage you to read the article. My point is that it looks like we may have been out sailing the blue water before we could even be called "Homo sapiens". And that makes may little sailor's heart sing.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Hug

Hug is one of those warm, fuzzy words. It's something you do to your pet, your child, your lover. One doesn't think of it in terms of rough men at sea (but if you do, well done - we all need our fantasies, I find). It is, however, a term used by seamen with some regularity to this very day.

Hug, according to our old friend Webster, comes to modern English from the Old Norse word hugga (which you have to admit is kind of cute, even if old Norse guys weren't) meaning to comfort or console via the Anglo Saxon hycgan, to think. Webster's definition number four speaks to our purpose, and that of sailors as well: to keep close to.

To hug the land is to sail as near to the shoreline as is reasonably possible keeping the safety of the ship in mind. This may be done for reconnaissance, to stay near a needed supply of fresh water and/or food, in anticipation of a rendezvous or for more nefarious purposes. Henry Morgan's ships hugged the coast of Central America as they approached Buenaventura en route to his unprecedented raid on Portobelo, for instance.

In such cases it is preferable to keep the land to windward. In other words the wind should be blowing from the land toward the ship. With the land to leeward the ship risks being caught on a "lee shore" and that, as the picture at the header of this post shows, is nothing short of suicidal.

To hug the wind means keeping the sailing ship close hauled or as centered in front of the wind as possible. This, of course, in order to fill her sails most advantageously and get every possible knot out of her. A strategy that can, at times, put so much strain on the ship that masts will actually crack and fall. Another good reason to know your ship well and the possible origin of the term "cracking on", meaning sailing at the ship's maximum speed.

Another interesting nautical term involving "hug" is the expression hugger-mugger. Used, you may recall, by Shakespeare to mean secret, sailors have made it a more shameful term. Aboard ship it means out of order, slovenly or ill-done. The midshipman was sent up to the maintop for keeping his locker hugger-mugger. That'll teach the boy.

And so another SMS comes to a close. Go hug someone you love. Tell them Pauline sent you.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Booty: Now Even Groggier!

I've told you about my friend Laurel before, and even before that. She is a great person and a very thoughtful gift giver so I was not surprised that she and another great person/thoughtful gift giver I know - the First Mate - had the same thought this Holiday season. Something piratical for Pauline! But not just "something", Brethren; something most people probably wouldn't even dream existed:
You read that correctly. Captain Black's Grog Flavored Pirate Mints. I'm not really sure there's anything more to say but here's the blurb:

Pirates aren't interested in fresh breath, so you won't find any fancy peppermint or spearmint in these Pirate Mints. You might, however, detect the unique flavor that every pirate craves - grog! Shove a handful in your mouth and chew them while shouting orders to your crew! Each 2-1/4" round tin contains one hundred mints.

That little snippet actually comes from Archie McPhee's unparalleled website where a tin of groggy goodness will set you back $2.50. That is indeed a small price to pay for grog breath from the time you roll out of your cot until the sun's over the yardarm. Should you doubt me, feel free to ask my St. Bernard who is a great connoisseur of breath.

If you happen to live in the greater Anchorage, Alaska area, you can pick up a tin at the very spot where lovely Laurel got mine: Title Wave Books and Gifts. Although they recently cut back on author readings and signings, which is too bad, they're still full of great stuff (mostly books, which are the greatest things of all aside from ships).

Grog mints are a great conversation starter and they really do taste a bit like grog. I can't recommend them enough. Good thing I have two tins!

Happy Friday, Brethren. See you tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Pirates Own Book: The Ancient Pirate

Those of you who are regulars around here at Triple P know what's up with me when I turn to Charles Ellms and the happy balm that is his The Pirates' Own Book. I'm in a funk, down on myself, harassed by the blue devils. Somehow, though, Ellms delightful writing (and a healthy dose of woodcut illustrations that always make me smile) seems to help me pull myself up by my bootstraps and get on with the work at hand. So I share my joy with you. And all's right with the world.

Today we explore the short but action packed piratical career of Captain Condent. Ellms does not give the Captain a christian name but I'm fairly certain that we are not talking about Christopher Condent, although his life was action packed as well. According to Ellms, Condent was born in Plymouth and travelled to New Providence as a young man. Here, his hopes of signing aboard a pirate ship were dashed by the new Governor Rogers who was already hanging pirates right and left. This puts the start of Ellms' story somewhere around 1718, which will come up as a curiosity later.

Condent boards a merchant sloop bound for New York and a singular occurrence elevates him from seaman to Captain. Evidently a disgruntled American Native who had been ill-treated by the crew locked himself in the cockpit below decks with a fair amount of black powder. His intent was to blow up the ship and no one wanted to approach him for fear that he would follow through an his threat. Condent took pistol and cutlass, jumped into the hold and - after taking a ball from the native's gun, which broke his arm - shot and killed the man. Ellms gets right to the gory stuff here, saying the gunner then cut up the dead man's body, sliced out his heart, roasted and ate it. Shades of L'Olonnais.

The crew mutinies and elects Condent Captain at this point. The pirates went on a spree in the Caribbean, capturing Spanish and Dutch ships willy nilly. Condent found a Dutch privateer to his liking, made her his flagship and named her Flying Dragon. He took his new ship to the coast of Brazil, and happily plundered Portuguese merchants until he decided to head out across the Atlantic. His goal was Angola and the rich slave trade.

Condent, who now had a compliment of two captured merchants along with Flying Dragon, did well along the African coast. He took French and Portuguese ships, but Ellms makes no mention of slaves. Finally, Condent turns back toward Brazil where he receives word that the Brazilians have captured a pirate ship and "the pirates [are] imprisoned". He embarks on a cruise of revenge. As Ellms tells it:

...he used all the Portuguese who fell into his hands, who were many, very barbarously, cutting off their ears and noses; and as his master was a papist, when they took a priest, they made him say mass at the mainmast and would afterwards get on his back and ride him about the decks, or else load and drive him like a beast.

Judging from this vaguely confusing quote - and the illustration above - it appears that Flying Dragon's master had very little fear for his Catholic soul, mass or no.

We soon find Condent again off the coast of Africa and still having success. He loses one of his companion ships to fire and decides to make for Madagascar. Once there, Condent and his crew determine to sail for the Indian Ocean, where they are wildly successful. They returned, dropped anchor off Mauritius, shared out their booty and "broke up their company". The crewmen "settle among the natives" and Condent requested a pardon for himself and his men from the "governor of Mascarenhas". The governor agrees to the pardon if the pirates will destroy their ships, and Condent orders them sunk.

Condent himself then sails to Mascarenhas where he is welcomed by the governor. To such a degree, in fact, that Condent marries the governor's sister-in-law. Ellms ends on this note:

...but, as I have been credibly informed, he is since come to France, settled at St. Maloes, and drives a considerable trade as a merchant.

This ending is confusing as it made me, at least, think that Ellms is talking about a man who is still living and working. That would mean Condent was something like 140 years old. And that, Brethren, is not just remarkable but pretty much impossible. Perhaps the Captain was (is?) an example of my mother's old adage that Heaven doesn't want him and Hell won't have him. As always, Charles Ellms gives me something to ponder.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

People: The Welsh Pirate

Howell Davis was most probably born toward the end of the 17th century somewhere on the coast of Wales. He is frequently referred to as "The Welsh Pirate" in short biographical snippets on blogs and in books. This always elicits a chuckle from your humble hostess because Davis, as fascinating as his story is, can hardly be consider The Welsh pirate. There were scores of freebooters from the rugged land of Wales, first of all. Second - and perhaps more importantly - when the debate gets heated it has to come down to two very familiar names: Henry Morgan of buccaneering fame or Bartholomew Roberts, the most successful pirate of the Golden Age. But wait; maybe there's a tie-in after all...

By 1718, Davis was serving as Lieutenant on the British slaver Cadogan when she was taken off the West African coast by our old friend Edward England. England had the Captain and any crewmen who did not care to sign on with him killed. Davis was one of the men who decided to turn pirate. He evidently impressed England because, after the slaves were sold and the booty was shared out, Davis was given command of Cadogan.

Davis headed for Brazil but his crew had other ideas. They steered the ship to Barbados where they betrayed Davis, telling dockside authorities who boarded to inspect the ship that their Captain had forced them into piracy. Davis was jailed in Barbados but eventually released when none of his turn-coat crew showed up to testify.

Hoping to continue in the pirate profession, Davis took passage to New Providence but arrived too late. New Governor Woodes Rogers was already sweeping the former pirate den clean. Nothing if not persistent, Davis boarded the former pirate sloop Buck bound for Jamaica. En route, he managed to talk the crew into returning to their former piratical adventures. Davis was elected Captain and Buck made her new base in Cuba.

Davis and his men quickly took two French warships, using ruses both times to avoid injury to vessels or men. Davis appears to have been both crafty and charming and he virtually talked his way onto a prize rather than waisting time with messy cannon fire and boarding actions. His men looted the French ships, goods aboard were sold in Cuba, and then Buck headed across the Atlantic to the rich hunting ground off West Africa.

Buck and her Captain had a deal of success in African waters. When things got tight, especially close to shore when a refit or supplies were needed, Davis had no trouble convincing authorities that we was a legitimate English privateer. He managed to get a larger, heavier gunned flagship which he renamed Saint James by using his smooth talk on a local Portuguese governor. Further up the coast, he convinced the Governor of a Royal African Company slaving fort that he was a pirate hunter. Invited to dine aboard Saint James, the Governor realized the ruse too late. He was held until the Company paid Davis a substantial ransom.

Now at the height of his game, Davis found a protege in Bartholomew Roberts who had been a mate aboard a slaver captured by Saint James. Roberts was with Davis as he and the French pirate La Bouche went on a joint cruise. They took several slavers, including a ship that would become Davis' new flagship, Rover.

The word got out that there was a charming pirate passing himself off as a British privateer and authorities up and down the African coast became more suspicious. When Rover put in at Principe, off the coast Guinea, the Portuguese Governor was ready for his shenanigans. Smiling to his face as if he believed Davis' pirate hunter story, the Governor gave Davis open access to his city. Treachery was afoot, though. Davis and a group of his men were ambushed and brutally slaughtered by the Governor's men while away from their ship.

When word of the butchery got back to Rover, Davis' remaining crewmen elected Roberts Captain. Roberts took the well gunned ships captured by his mentor and bombarded the town with cannon in revenge. He then sailed off into history to use every trick he had learned from Davis.

Howell Davis was certainly an intelligent man who was able to appear comfortable in any situation or company. His brutal end was probably inevitable. But then that seems to be the case with most freebooters Welsh or not.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Limey

Scurvy is one of those words that just naturally brings sailors to mind. Lazy writers and reenactors of the piratical variety invariable pepper their prose and speech with the word, generally using it as if it were an adjective. Your humble hostess was called a "scurvy dog" by not one but two ersatz pirate wenches at the local Renaissance Faire last spring. Both received a large dose of privateer shut-the-hell-up. I'm sure there's no need to elaborate.

If history is looked at carefully, however, we find that it is exactly because of sailors and their physicians that the cause of and cure for scurvy was rediscovered at the end of the 18th century. In the U.S. alone it took the Army until 1878 to ensure that their doctors knew the symptoms of scurvy and what to do about it once it was diagnosed. The Navy had that handled before 1810. Let's hope the military is a little more forthcoming with one another in this modern age.
During the American Revolution, Royal Navy physician Sir Gilbert Blane (pictured above) was aboard a ship of war on the Jamaica station and many of his mates were afflicted with scurvy. The disease typically manifests itself through small hemorrhages on the skin, spongy, painful and bleeding gums that can lead to tooth loss, foul breath and a general listlessness that eventually becomes exhaustion. Death is inevitable without treatment. It's a true misery, and Dr. Blane was at his wits end.

Then the "ah-ha" moment came in the form of a fabled capture of a prize. The ship - an American merchant according to the unverifiable story - was jam packed with limes. Blane used these to dose his patients, adding it to their water. The men recovered in that miraculous way that scurvy patients will once their bodies get some vitamin C and Blane knew what to do. He published his findings in his book Observations on the Diseases of Seamen in 1785. By the inception of the U.S. Navy in 1794, all major navies were routinely mixing their grog or water with some form of citrus fruit.

The whole "prize full of limes" story may be apocryphal, but the humorous point to my mind is which fruit was favored by whom. The British, of course, stuck with limes. They were easy for the Empire to obtain, both in the West Indies and India, and British sailors at first and eventually Brits in general became "limeys" to most of the world. The French, notoriously snotty about doing anything the English way, chose lemons. Americans embraced cranberry juice. The bonus there was it's benefits for the bladder.

Interestingly, pirates and privateers were almost never hit with scurvy at sea. Their cruises tended to be short; six months was a long time for a privateer and unheard of for a small pirate sloop. The major campaigns of men like L'Olonnais and Morgan were pursued by land, with their ships being mostly a way to get back and forth from home port to the target town. Circumnavigation like that undertaken by Drake was rare for freebooters. If a pirate got scurvy, it was his dietary choices and not any prolonged lack of available fruits or vegetables that caused it.

So no more of that "scurvy" business if you please, Brethren. It's unbecoming at the least and decidedly inaccurate from an historical perspective. Especially if you're a pirate. I'm looking at you, wenches.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ships: Yankee Built

As was noted yesterday, USS Essex was the ship Captain David Porter sailed into history in 1813. She was one of the first U.S. frigates of war, and she was built to withstand just about anything she came up against.

The U.S. Navy was officially formed in 1794 by an act of Congress. She superseded the old Continental Navy that John Paul Jones had led to such resounding success during the Revolution. At the time, individual states began commissioning ships as gifts to the government, knowing that the Congress had not set aside money for the purpose. It was a generous act in a time when the states were very much independent from their one-day Federal overlord (thanks for starting that trend, Al Hamilton).

Knowing that the Navy would not be as well supplied with ships as her potential enemies - which pretty much included every world power at the turn of the 19th century - the ships the states commissioned were built heavy and large of the white oak native only to the Atlantic coast of the new U.S. These ships could carry considerably more guns than their continental counterparts. Essex, named for Essex County, Massachusetts, was one such frigate of war. Built by Enos Briggs of Salem from a William Hackett design, she was launched September 30, 1799. She had a length of 140 feet, a beam of 37 feet and a draft of 12 feet. She displaced 850 tons and carried an armament of 40 32 pound carrronades and 6 18 pound cannon. Her complement was up to 319 men.

Initially Captained by Edward Preble, Essex went straight into action in the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800). She saw action in the Indian Ocean, where she was escorting Dutch merchants home from India. In 1801, she was stationed in the Mediterranean during the first Barbary War. It was Essex, under the command of James Barron, that brought the paroled prisoners from the captured USS Philadelphia - including then Lieutenant David Porter - home to the U.S. from Tripoli.

Essex was laid up in 1806 but was refit in 1809 and called back into action at the start of the War of 1812 (1812-1815). This time her Captain was David Porter and she saw success along the U.S. coast, taking 10 British prizes including the sloop of war HMS Alert. In October, 1812, Essex sailed from Delaware with orders to rendezvous with her sisters Constitution and Hornet off Brazil. The three ships were then to move on to the Pacific to begin taking English ships, whalers in particular.

Typically impatient, Porter made the decision to go on without the other ships after waiting only 30 days. In January of 1813, Essex left Brazil and crossed into the Pacific on February 14th. We've already discussed Porter's unprecedented success in his South Pacific endeavor so I won't rehash it here. By October, Porter was in the Marquesas Islands refitting Essex and her new companion ship Essex Jr., formerly the armed British whaling vessel either Georgiana or Atlantic, depending on which source you read.

In February, 1814, Essex and Essex Jr. pulled into Valparaiso in Chile to refresh their water and stores. They were, unfortunately, followed by HMS Phoebe and her tender HMS Cupid. The British warships initially respected the neutrality of the harbor and set up a blockade. A month later, however, when Porter tried to break the blockade, the British turned very dishonorable indeed.

Captain James Hillyard of Phoebe attacked Essex in the harbor and stood off with his longer range guns, pounding away on the American frigate while staying just out of range of Essex's cannons. The details of the battle are a post in themselves but even Hillyard's First Lieutenant complained to his Captain that the abuse of Essex was both shameful and cowardly. Hillyard simply replied that he was doing his duty.

Porter struck three hours later after trying to put Essex ashore to allow his uninjured men to retreat. 58 Americans were killed, including the First Lieutenant, 31 men drown and 70 were wounded. The Second Lieutenant from Phoebe, a veteran seaman, vomited upon boarding Essex due to the carnage that he confronted on her deck. Porter suffered a concussion.

Perhaps because of the disgraceful misery they were subjected to, Essex's remaining crew, along with Porter and his officers, were immediately paroled and they returned to New York aboard Essex Jr. Despite the loss of their ship, Porter and his men were hailed as heroes upon their return.

Essex was repaired and taken into the Royal Navy. She became a convict transportation in 1823 and by 1837 she was sold into the merchant service. An unfortunate and inglorious end for such a glorious ship.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

History: A Singular Milestone

Happy Valentine's Day, Brethren. I am so glad to have you along on this voyage that I thought I would share an historical milestone of this day. This one unencumbered by hearts and cupids but instead wreathed with daring and courage. And all in the tradition of wooden ships and iron men.

On this day in 1813, USS Essex became the first U.S. warship to cross into the Pacific ocean. At her helm that day and through out her South Pacific cruise during the War of 1812 was our old mate Captain David Porter.

Porter wrote regular reports to the Department of the Navy back home while he swept the Pacific like a wolf, literally shutting down the British whaling operations in that part of the world. The following is an excerpt from one of these dispatches, written later in 1813:

I have completely broken up the British navigation in the Pacific. The vessels which were not captured by me were laid up and dared not venture out into the great South Sea. They have furnished me amply with sails, cordage, cables, anchors, provisions, medicines and stores of ever description; and... clothing for seamen. We have in fact lived off the enemy since I have been in that sea, every prize having proved a well-founded store-ship for me.

Porter's audacity and pompous self-admiration both come across in his writing. It is those qualities - and his unheard of success in this operation and many more - that made the great man both loved (particularly by his men) and hated (by peers like Stephen Decatur, James Barron, and others). I, as you know, shamelessly fall on the love side. I wonder if the Captain would appreciate a little Valentine from Pauline?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Swab

In general, sailors are first superstitious and second almost ridiculously concerned with the appearance, upkeep and cleanliness of their ships. While not necessarily pristine in their individual persons, sailors have an obsession with making sure that their ship is. Nothing brings shame upon a crew like failing an inspection by their Captain or - worse still - by a visiting Commodore or Admiral.

Even pirates and privateers - mythically filthy if the literature is to be believed - were in fact careful, by and large, about keeping a clean ship. Accumulated filth outside and up in the tops makes a ship run sluggishly. On or below deck it makes simple sailing almost impossible, not to mention clearing for battle when preparing to take a prize. Logic in such a confined space dictates order.

To that end, the swab has become an iconic tool of seamen. The deck aboard naval and privateering vessels (and probably a good number of freebooters if we remember that many pirates were ex-navy) was scrubbed, washed and swabbed every morning of every day afloat. Even a ship in ordinary (at anchor in port with her masts and spares naked) would have been polished daily. Part of this is habit, part good manners (cleanliness is next to Godliness) and part wise husbanding. Like an expensive wood floor, a well kept deck will last for untold years.

The swab itself - essential a mop with a long handle and an end made from scrap pieces of what were referred to as "rope-yarns" - was not the first thing to hit the deck. In fact, it came last in the clean up. In the morning watch, sand was applied to the deck and then water. Next, it was down on your knees to apply the holy stones. These were pieces of sandstone used to scrub the sand and water mixture over the deck.

Why were they called holy stones? Ask any old salt and you'll probably get some variant on these three explanations. The stones were originally only used for the more detail oriented Sunday cleaning. In the early days of the Royal Navy, the stones were cut from grave markers in old churchyards. Since the men are on their knees, as if in prayer, holy was tacked on as a prefix to stones. Find one you like and go with it. Any - or none - are possible.

After the grit has done it's work, the deck is flushed with water and then the swabs come out. Getting the deck free of sand and relatively dry is vital to avoid men slipping and injuring themselves. There are enough hazards at sea without going ass-over-teakettle because some swab neglected his duty.

Swab, as with so many other words on the high seas, got tacked on to other words and morphed according to the situation. A swab could mean a drunk and, though now we tend to use the terms interchangeably, was neither a seaman nor a lubber out of hand. It was also the epaulet worn by officers of Lieutenant rank or above, as well as a hand towel used for wiping and drying dishes.

A swabber was a petty officer aboard a man of war in charge of keeping the decks clean. He might also be termed captain of the swabbers as was the case, interestingly, in smaller ships where the designated cleaning supervisor was not an officer at all. A swab-washer was the guy who cleaned out the head. Swab-wringers were sailors who cleaned the swabs after use so that they would be ready for the next predawn attack on grime and muck.

As anyone who keeps up a home knows, cleaning is a futile but necessary pursuit. That dust will settle there again, that pet hair is going to be in those corners next week and mopping that floor or scrubbing the toilet just means you can do it all over again sooner rather than later. Above discipline, the need for order and sheer, wanton pride must have kept our seagoing ancestors at the daily task of swabbing. And who would argue with the statement that a sailing ship gleaming in the sunlight as she hurries along before the wind is one of the most beautiful sights in all the world? Not I.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Booty: Le Magasin de Forgeron

Jean and Pierre Lafitte owned and operated a blacksmith shop in Saint Philip Street, New Orleans... Their dwelling was on the corner of Saint Philip and Bourbon streets, a few short squares from the court-house and the Church of Saint Louis. The cottage stood flush with the sidewalk and adjoined a garden which was screened from the street by a high wall.

The above, from the opening chapter of Lafitte the Pirate by bon vivant and consummate New Orleanian Lyle Saxon, sums up the legend of the property currently located at 941 Bourbon St. Saxon, whose phenomenally entertaining book was published in 1930, basically repeats all the old legends in one fanciful tale of the famed New Orleans pirates. To this day, despite overwhelming historical evidence to contradict the moniker, this classic Creole cottage is known as Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop (misspelling and all).

Six years after Saxon's book, Stanley Clisby Arthur published his Walking Tours of Old New Orleans (still in print today and well worth checking out). The Bourbon St. property is, of course, listed under it's usual name, but Arthur takes pains to debunk the usual mythos:

This so-called "Laffite Smithy", if you are interested in facts, was probably never put to such a use... It is, however, a very ancient structure - when it was built we do not know. Our earliest record of transfer of ownership of the site dates back to 1772.

Arthur, as an aside, went on to publish his own wonderful biography of Laffite - Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover - in 1952.

In fact, there is no documentation available to show that the traditional square cottage was ever a smith's, or that it was at any time owned or rented by either Laffite brother. It should be noted that there is documentation of Pierre Laffite buying and renting property over the years in the name of his quadroon mistress, Marie Louise Villard (or Villars).

The connection to the Laffites may have come from the fact that the property was owned briefly in the 1770's by Rene Beluche. Beluche, a smuggler by trade and my great-grandfather nine times removed (but you knew that, didn't you Brethren?), was the father of the close Laffite associate, smuggler and privateer Renato Beluche. Some historians, Dr. Jane Lucas DeGrummond in particular, believe that the Laffite and Beluche families were related. This assertion rests on Jean and Pierre's mother and Big Rene's wife being sisters with the last name Laport or LaPorte. In my personal genealogical research I cannot verify this claim but it points up the possible connection between the Laffites and the property at 941 Rue Bourbon.

Whatever the controversy, though, it's probably safe to say that the Laffites were never forgerons and that the Creole cottage was never theirs in any way shape or form.
All that having been said, since Mardi Gras has begun in earnest it seems past time to get your itinerary in order. Don't miss the nightlife at Lafitte's. Who knows, maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones who sees the ghost of the bos himself. (A chubbier but similarly Gallic looking ghost is probably Pierre, just to be clear). Leave me a comment if you do. I'd love to know how the boys are these days.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Staying Afloat

Knowing how to swim seems pretty straight forward to people in the modern world. From Mommy & me classes for infants to athletic programs that include swimming and diving in schools it's kind of mind boggling to imagine swimming as an unheard of pursuit. By the 19th century, in the growing urban areas at the very least, that was certainly the case.

As with most things, what happened by land effected sailors and, again by the 19th century, there were plenty of sea going men who literally could not swim to save their lives. In a time when lifeboats and flotation devices (aside from pieces of wreckage or other flotsam) were completely unavailable, a sinking ship was probably the most terrifying thing imaginable for at least half the people aboard her. Anything at all would be done to keep her afloat, and the fascinating lengths gone to on that score are a subject for another post.

The interesting thing to me is that the lack of swimming ability on the part of men at sea was not always the case. It's almost as if the evolution of humans in the water started to go backward at some point in the late 18th century and didn't start forward again until the 20th century reared her ugly head.

During the buccaneering days of the 17th century, a majority of people who made their living on the ocean could swim. Europeans who grew up near streams, lakes or the sea frequently swam for recreation, even in areas where the cold water would seem prohibitive. I remember swimming in Hood's Canal in Washington State as a child and thinking very little of the 60 degree water, so this doesn't surprise me in the least.

Caribbean, Gulf and Spanish Main natives swam from early childhood. European settlers told stories of Carib men, for instance, fighting off sharks and their wives nursing babies while swimming in the surf. Carib children were expected to keep up on land and in the water by the time they could walk.

People from the West Coast of Africa were similarly gifted in the water. Thomas Philips in his 1693 Journal writes of African canoe men who took people from ships to land through heavy surf. The men, he noted, were "such excellent swimmers... that they can preserve the lives of anyone they have the least kindness for" if the canoe overturned.

The Europeans and Africans in the Caribbean followed the locals and in the warm-as-milk water swam like fish. The wracking or wrecking trade - in which treasure from wrecked ships was recovered - depended on both men and women who were unafraid of open water, could swim well in many conditions, and could dive to some astonishing depths. These people - some slaves, some free - came from all genetic backgrounds.

Open water - with nothing but blue ocean all around and possibly no more than a single ship in sight - was a huge issue of course. Comfortably swimming in open water can be challenging, as anyone who has scubaed or snorkeled off a ship at anchor will tell you. The perspective is off as you bob in endless water up to your chin. Chop that seems negligible from the deck of a ship can become overwhelming when you are in the water; more than one iron clad stomach has failed at sea level, your humble hostess' included. And then there's the issue of what lurks in the dark depths (almost always nothing to worry about but the human mind can get out of control with worry fairly quickly).

It is easy to see why even strong swimmers can end up dead in an emergency situation like the wreck of a ship. Darkness, storms or high seas, debris from the ship itself and those who could not swim seeking help all conspired to drag a healthy, capable freebooter straight down to the 'od place.

To the point though, why did the swimming prowess of our ancestors seem to decline in the age of Revolution? Of course native peoples only changed their ways when forced to by settling whites or slave masters or both. Europeans seem to have shied away from the water voluntarily, however, and this remains a mystery to me.

Was it a change in mores that said getting all naked and splashing around in the water was wrong? Probably not until we hit the steel wall of the Victorian era. People were just as comfortable with their bodies in 1810 as they were in 1710 (if premarital pregnancy statistics are any indication). Was it the Royal Navy's rise to prominence combined with their dependence on the impressment of landsmen - many of whom may not have come from areas where swimming was a regular pastime? That may have been a factor but it still doesn't speak to the burgeoning American navies or the new privateers who hassled the enemies of their various nations. Was it the burgeoning of industrialization which - counter to it's original promise - gave people more to do and took away that leisure time that allowed one to learn to swim? After all, a child helping with the harvest could always take a quick dip in a nearby pond, but a child filling bobbins in a mill would be lucky just to keep all their fingers.

Who knows what did it. The fact is that swimming seemed to fall by the wayside for a century and that's odd to me. Maybe it was as simple as the firm belief that, as one sailor in the Royal Navy put it, knowing how to swim would only prolong the inevitable agony of drowning in the open sea. Given the circumstances, his logic is hard to argue with.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lady Pirates: The German Princess

Fame comes to many people. More in our technological age then ever before, or so it seems. Stories like that of Mary Carleton, the counterfeit German Princess who took London by storm and then became a hooker in Port Royal, Jamaica make me wonder. Mary's story points up that dubious celebrity is a thing of all times, not just our own. It also shows that pirates didn't always operate on the high seas. Some stuck close to shore.

Mary Carleton was born Mary Moders, probably in August of 1642, in Canterbury, England. Reports vary but her family was probably on one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder. One biographer claims her father was an itinerant musician who barely kept bread on the table. Mary must have been a precocious girl with an eye toward something better and those two traits combined would have her butting heads with society and it's norms all of her life.

She married young. Most sources agree the man in question was a shoemaker. Clearly he was only a stepping stone. When we next hear of Mary she has moved on to the seaside town of Dover to begin swindling the wealthy who have come to take the air. Here she marries again, this time a man of education, but the shoemaker tracks her down and she is arrested for bigamy. After a brief stint in jail the record drops Mary like a hot potato.

Until 1663 when Mary turns up at the Exchange Tavern in London. She is now claiming her name is Mary, Princess van Wolway and that she is on the lamb from her father, a wealthy nobleman in Cologne, Germany. Her evil father wants to marry her off to a decrepit mummy and she has come to London dressed in rags, having abandoned a fortune back home to escape a life of misery with an unwanted husband. The sailors at the Exchange ate this story up with a spoon and soon Mary, the German Princess, had every comfort a girl could hope for. Including another husband in the form of the tavern owner's brother-in-law.

Someone, I'm betting it was the tenacious shoemaker, exposed Mary again and a sensational trial ensued. Mary insisted she really was a princess and - though she made a ton of friends among the hoy paloy in Newgate prison - she continued with that story throughout the trial and beyond. Pamphlets were published, including one by Mary herself entitled The Case of Madame Mary Carleton, wealthy celebrities came to the trial and even King Charles II privately threw in his hat for poor, misunderstood Mary. She was eventually acquitted.

The whirl of fame swirled around Mary for some months more but, after failing miserably on stage (which seems the most surprising thing about the entire story), Mary went back to her gold digging. Having never divorced her prior husbands (although one has to imagine annulments would be managed) she married twice more, steeling her spouses goods and money in the process. The courts of London finally had enough and Mary Carleton was transported to the cesspool of vice and crime that managed to line the Crown's pockets with Spanish gold: Port Royal.

Mary arrived in Jamaica in 1671 at the height of Henry Morgan's buccaneering glory. For a smart girl who was willing to be unscrupulous in her mode of employ, Port Royal's streets were lined with gold. It goes without saying that Mary probably didn't have a scrupulous bone in her body and she seems to have gotten right to work fleecing the local "bully-ruffians" - as she called the pirates - of their ill-gotten pieces of eight. As always, Mary had an eye to the future. She'd whore as long as she had to and put her money away. Sooner or later she was going back to London.

It was Mary herself who documented her time in Port Royal, for the most part anyway. She wrote what amounts to a pamphlet which she called News from Jamaica in a Letter from Port Royal Written by the Germane Princess to Her Fellow Collegiates and Friends in New-Gate. Even writing to convicts, she is still the "Germane Princess". She tells of the men in Port Royal competing with one another to compliment her and swore that her only concerns were either being killed with pirate kindness or drowning in rum. One has to think that Mary was painting the rosiest possible picture. A contemporary chronicler gives us another glimpse of Mrs. Carleton:

A stout frigate she was, or else she never could have endured so many batteries and assaults. A woman of unexampled modesty, if she may be her own herald. But she was as common as a barber's chair; no sooner was one out but another was in.

At some point, probably in 1672, Mary either snuck aboard or conned her way onto a ship heading back to London. Once arrived she went right to work again, defrauding middle class or wealthy men for whatever she could take away and probably marrying more than one. In early 1673 her luck may have run out. She was arrested for stealing silver from a smith's. When it was discovered that she was an escapee from penal transportation she was sentenced to hang. The days of celebrity and acquittals were very much over.

Mary met the noose in January of 1673 at the Old Bailey in London. Doubtless some of her previous supporters showed up for the spectacle, their velvet masks firmly in place and pomanders held to their noses. What they thought goes undocumented. I'd be more interested in the opinions of the boys back in Port Royal. I'm betting more than one bumper of punch was drunk to the German Princess when the news of her death reached Jamaica's shores.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

People: Emperor Of Hsiamen

The Western hemisphere certainly has no corner on the pirate market. As long as people have been heading out in boats, they've been committing robbery aboard them. It's only a matter of degrees but sometimes your humble hostess loses perspective and needs to step back and see the big picture. So today, a man who was surely part of that big picture: Cheng Chih Lung.

Cheng's origins - like so many pirates of all nations - are foggy at best. Born some time in the late 16th century, probably to a family already in the business of trade on the water, Cheng was the owner of a substantial fleet by the 1620's. He had both merchant junks (pictured above) for carrying trade goods and war junks for protecting his trade ships and raiding others'. Cheng's operation was based on what was then known as Hsiamen (Amoy Island today). Cheng distinguished himself from his fellows by being willing to trade with the Dutch and the Portuguese who were just starting their imperialistic runs in the far east.

In the early 1630's, political powers shifted in the area and trade along with it. This allowed Cheng to step in and take control of the entire coast of Fukien province - roughly from what is now Vietnam in the south up to the mouth of the Yangtse River south of Japan including the islands of Hainan and Taiwan. It was a vast area, but Cheng's expertise and his powerful fleet that saw to it no one else was able to conduct trade in Cheng's waters made him virtual seafaring Emperor.

Cheng's piratical raids on trade junks not his own led to a system of protection money, which was a fairly common occurrence in the Chinese merchant trade. Cheng's war junks would seize and board an unfamiliar ship and, to avoid having his goods and vessel confiscated, the Captain would pay a set price in coin. Life was pretty sweet for Cheng and his pirate crews and trade made everybody rich.

In 1641 the Ming Emperor in Nanking appointed Cheng an Admiral, tacitly blessing Cheng's sprawling operation. Unfortunately for Cheng, this gave him the idea that he could play politician and that's when - as has been the case for so many others throughout history - things fell apart. When the Manchu raided Nanking in 1644, Cheng invited the Ming Emperor to set up court in Fukien province. With the Emperor under his thumb, Cheng began running the show. When the Emperor no longer served his purpose, Cheng did a deal with the Manchus in Nanking. Most historians agree that Cheng was responsible for the death of the Ming Emperor that year.

The Manchu Emperor quite obviously saw Cheng for what he was and ordered him to come to court. Having served his purpose, Cheng was imprisoned upon his arrival at Nanking and shortly thereafter beheaded for piracy. His son, Koxinga, moved what was left of the family business to Taiwan and began a bloody campaign of rebuilding and revenge. But that, Brethren, is another story for another time.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Dead Reckoning

Above is a map of the Atlantic including the coastline of the Americas produced in Europe some time in the 1600s. Though it's relatively accurate for the day, navigation by this little puppy would have been virtually impossible. The harbors and inlets are one thing, but the open, blue water would have been incredibly hard to get through. Before advanced navigational tools such as the sextant and before compasses were as accurate as they became later in the 18th and into the 19th century, a lot of navigation was pure faith. Point your ship west or east, north or south, know where the major heavenly bodies were and hope for the best.

As Stephan Talty so elegantly puts it in his book Empire of Blue Water (to be reviewed here at Triple P in a future post):

There were no charts... no way of measuring longitude. Navigation... was an art that drew on ships' logs, lead lines (for measuring the ocean's depth), collective memory and gossip.

Part of the collective memory and gossip was dead reckoning. This is a form of navigation that estimates the ship's position without the use of astronomical observation. The sailors use the distance the ship has run from port and the course according to the compass, rectifying this data with current, wind and so on according to which way the ship is headed. It becomes immediately obvious that the margin for error is immense. Real guts were needed to get on a ship and sail into the vast ocean, particularly in an under-manned merchant vessel or an under-equipped pirate boat.

The interesting thing for our purpose, though, is where the term came from. Dead, as we spell it now, was originally de'd: a shortening of the word deduced. De'd reckoning meant deduced reckoning. There was no hint of the loss of life in the phrase. As language changed this sailor slang shortening of a word that made sense in context was forgotten, and a nonsense word that was spelled correctly was substituted. I find this particularly fascinating in light of the modern fear that written language is sinking into a morass of texting abbreviations and imotacons. LOL! r u kdng : )

The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh? But maps certainly improved. Here's an example of the same general subject as the one at the header, done up by a 19th century cartographer:
With the right instruments, I could navigate my way to Panama with that puppy. Look out Portobelo! Henry Morgan's got nothing on Pauline!

Friday, February 5, 2010

History: The Question Is Belief

(from left: Renato Beluche, Jean Laffite, Pierre Laffite, Dominique Youx)

Go ahead and say it and we'll just get it out of the way, Brethren. History? On Friday? The hell, Pauline? I know. I like it when Friday is Booty day too. Less work for me, frankly. But today is an unfortunately sad anniversary here at Triple P and I want to share some thoughts on it with you, the other folks who care about buccaneers, pirates, privateers and freebooters.

According to the April 20, 1823 addition of the Gaceta de Columbia, Jean Laffite died and was buried at sea on February 5th of that year. He was mortally injured in a firefight against another ship or ships while captaining the Bolivarian sanctioned Cartagenan privateer General Santandar. The nationality of the hostile ships is impossible to tack down with certainty. The Gaceta states they were a Spanish frigate and her tender, a schooner. Laffite probably lingered through the night and into the morning and died sometime after dawn on the 5th.

It is most probable that this small piece on the death of a patriot fighting for Grand Columbia was simply a retweet of an article in the Gaceta de Cartagena, no copy of which appears to exist. The news would not have been earth-shattering to the people of what would one day be Columbia. They had bigger fish to fry what with all the shifting of power from one junta to another as Bolivar's vast dream of a united, free South America slipped through his weakening fingers. Within seven years the Great Liberator himself would be dead of tuberculosis.

It all seems pretty straight forward from the outside looking in, but Laffite scholars - like so many others who have a true passion for a particular point or person in history - are debating the truth of the little article to this day. Did Laffite die out there in the treacherous waters of the Bay of Honduras, his life perhaps somewhat vindicated by his willingness to take on a legal Cartagenan commission and return to the hard work of seaman? Or did something else happen?

Here are the three prominent theories of Jean Laffite's death in brief:
1) He died of fever in Sisal, Mexico, after his third and last smuggling empire on Isla de la Mujeres (just north of Cancun) failed. In this theory, Pierre Laffite simply disappears around the same time - 1821 - never to be heard of again.
2) Pierre was the Laffite brother who succumbed to fever in 1821 while Jean, already having returned to sea roving, did a brief if miserable stint in a Cuban prison. Jean then died in 1823 as per the Colombian newspaper article.
3) Jean either never returned to sea or ingloriously ditched his mates aboard Santandar, took up a new identity, returned to the U.S. and died in his bed in 1850 as an Iowa corn farmer.

There is documentation - however toilet paper thin some of it may actually be - to "prove" each theory. Up until the early 20th century, people in the little village of Sisal could lead you to a grave which is now underwater and swear that this was where the notorious "Juan Lafitte" was buried. Of course, we do have the article from the Gaceta and the testimony of the men who served under Laffite and limped General Santandar into port at Portobelo, Panama. And then we have the diary of Jean Lafitte.

The diary and the controversy that surrounds it is another post in itself and I won't go into detail here (you all have lives, after all). Suffice it to say that the diary appeared out of the blue in the hands of a man named Mathew Laflin. It was published as The Journal of Jean Lafitte in 1958 and Laflin maintained to his death that his father, John Laflin, wrote the memoir and was indeed the famous Laffite. Interestingly, John Laflin asked on his deathbed that his journal not be brought to light publicly until 105 years after his death.

The journal continues to be debated with huge amounts of effort being put forth by exemplary researchers and historians, especially for the Laffite Society based in Galveston, TX. My friend, Pam Keyes, who is one of those remarkable researchers, wrote a compelling article for the society Chronicles (Sept 2008) detailing Lieutenant Levy, USN's hunt for Laffite in 1823. Her conclusion is that Laffite could not have died aboard Santandar and hundreds of such articles exist (most of them probably not as knowledgeable as hers, but you get my point).

The bottom line is that no one knows for sure, but history - unlike science where cause and effect can be proven - often has to rely on one of the most undependable factors on Earth: human nature. And that is why I am an advocate of the second possible scenario of Jean Laffite's death. A man like Laffite, hungry from power, adventure and wealth but dependant on his only living relative - his brother - for stabilization and support, could never have retired to a life of obscurity in Midwest-ville. When he returned from the hellhole of that Cuban prison and found Pierre dead and buried, I have no doubt that something snapped. Life as Jean knew it was over. He may very well have gone seeking his own bloody end. He would have quickly expired on an Iowa farm just as surely as he did in General Santandar's cabin.

In the end, it's a question of belief. The Gaceta de Columbia and the word of a few raggedy privateers at Portobelo or the as yet unproven Journal of Jean Lafitte. Finally, it is important to note that there are living descendants of Pierre Laffite in the U.S. today, but no one seems to be in any hurry to match their DNA to that of the descendants of John Laflin.

Repos bien, bos. Donnez mon amour à Pierre.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Movies: "Yeah, Pretty Gruesome"

The History Channel is usually pretty reliable when it comes to actual history, some of their other shows not withstanding. They choose experts for their commentary and go all out when it comes to dramatizing the events they're focusing on. The Dark Ages DVD is no exception.

The Dark Ages in Europe spanned roughly the period from 400 to 1,000 CE, give or take a decade or two. From the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, through the particularly interesting strategies of Charles "The Hammer" Martel against the Moors (a favorite of mine) on down to the Crusades, The Dark Ages doesn't miss a beat. Nor does it skimp on live action with accurate costuming, especially weaponry. Well done all around.

I know what you're thinking, Brethren, so let us just get it out of the way. What's up, Pauline? We stopped by to chat about freebooters, not the sack of Rome or the plague in Byzantium. Well, first of all that stuff is not without it's charm but second, I plan to focus on the doc's most delightful portion: the part about the Vikings.

Due to what was probably a combination of factors, not the least of which might have been crop failures and over-population in the future Scandinavian countries, the Vikings began to raid parts of Europe in the late 8th century. The first big hit was at Lindesfarne, England, in June of 793. The monastery there, unprotected and full of wealth not only in gold but food and goods as well, was an easy target for the Viking strategy of hit and run that served them so well for the next 200 years. They went home with their spoils and, as Dr. Kelly DeVries says in the doc: "This was like putting out a sign: Uncle Olaf wants you!"

Here is truly one of the most charming parts about The Dark Ages in general and the Viking portion in particular: the professors who do the play-by-play. Far from stuffy and full of themselves (as so many of mine unfortunately were), they relish every minute of their subject. Thomas Martin excitedly explains that the Vikings were "...really the best pirates, the best raiders" of any period in history. You get the feeling that he'd really love to join them in one of those shallow draft long boats of theirs and hit a few Irish monasteries himself. Shortly thereafter, Philip Daileader shows up and dryly quips that "Any time you're being attacked by a guy named Skullsplitter, you have to be concerned." Historian comedy at it's best.

Dr. DeVries reappears with the story of Agle the boy who, after losing a ballgame to a mate, hurries home to retrieve an axe with which he promptly caves in his buddy's head. His mother, in the words of the doctor "...isn't upset, but says he'll make a good Viking one day." All this around dramatizations of bloody Viking raids that give you a good idea of the disregard for human life inherent in the Viking society. Good times.

And then this guy shows up:
That is Ivar the Boneless being carried on his shield because, evidently, he was without the use of his legs. The picture, by the way, gives you just a taste of how well done the dramatizations are throughout the doc. Why the Viking warlord was known by his moniker is tactfully debated by the professors but, suffice it to say, whatever his trouble was it didn't stop Ivar from wreaking havoc.

In 866, Ivar and his "great heathen army" of several thousand Vikings landed in Northumbria and began to conquer. Like Henry Morgan in Panama, there was little chance of stopping Ivar's band of buccaneers. His particular target was York whose ruler, Aiella, had evidently killed Ivar's father. The heathen army stormed and won York. Aiella escaped.

When Aiella returned with what was left of his own forces, he was captured by a now enraged Ivar. This sets the stage for a torture worthy of any twisted pirate throughout history. As we watch Aiella's death dance at the hands of Ivar, the particulars of The Bloody Eagle are explained. The torso would be openned, exposing the ribs, and then the lungs would be pulled out and trussed up to form wings.

Cut to Dr. DeVries with a grin on his face and a glint in his eye as he says: "Yeah. Pretty gruesome."

And that's why I love the heck out of this documentary. People who have a true passion for it can make history not only interesting but fun. It's what I hope I'm doing here at Triple P. You all just can't see me grinning.

The Dark Ages is directed by Christopher Cassel and narrated by AJ Allison for The History Channel. Throw it in your Netflix queue next time you're there. I'm betting you'll enjoy it and, like me, you'll probably learn something too.