Thursday, September 30, 2010

History: The Skin Off Your Back

As we've touched on more than once here at Triple P, discipline is a necessary component of affective seamanship. Be it a navy man of war, a privateering brig with a sound commission or a small pirate sloop, not much is going to get accomplished if each man Jack among us isn’t pulling his weight. It’s a simple fact that the lazy lubber picking his nose in the corner is just as despised by his mates as he is by his officers.

Enter flogging. Whether it be with a cane, the end of a rope or that nasty instrument of torture known as a cat o’ nine tails, smacking sailors around is as old as seafaring itself. I have run into descriptions of flogging aboard ship in one form or another in all times and places. Discretion is applied in most situations but the simple act of “starting” a seaman to encourage him to duty, which is to say literally hitting him with whatever is handy, was done by bosuns and masters without the slightest concern up until the dawn of the 19th century.

It is interesting to me that just as the true horrors of the Industrial Revolution were burgeoning by land, reformers turned their eyes to the sea. While women and children were working crippling hours in miserable conditions at mills and factories and while men were dying in construction, mines and tunnels, intellectuals were worrying about the occasional swat from a bosun’s rope or the twelve stripes given the deserter.

It was during Nelson’s era that people first questioned the need for corporal punishment aboard ship. Frederick Marryat, who served in the Royal Navy during this time, later wrote of his “fictional” character Bosun Chuck (still one of the best names in literature) carrying a “persuader” made of three rattan poles twisted together. He used it rather indiscriminately to get his sailors “off their arses and back to work”. These kinds of coincidental punishments caused outrage among the literati and aristocracy with more privileged Captains and Commodores writing indignantly about the “… highly improper practice of what is called starting the men”. By the end of the Napoleonic wars most Captains had banned the practice from their ships.

This left the formal punishment of flogging as the last resort when discipline problems arose. Many Captains ran “happy ships”, of course, with flogging an infrequent consequence of only the worst crimes not subject to pain of death – insubordination, theft or desertion for instance. There are many examples of such leadership in history and in literature. Commodore William Hoste, a favorite of Nelson’s, was the kind of Captain who led by example and rarely applied the lash. Across the pond and in the same era Commodore David Porter was also as famous for running a tight but happy ship as he was for his heroics during the War of 1812. As to literature, let us not forget Horatio Hornblower or his descendant John “Lucky Jack” Aubrey both of whom agonized over every flogging. In Captain Aubrey’s case, of course, the agony was redoubled because Dr. Stephen Maturin felt compelled to give him an earful each time.

On the opposite end were the tyrants, possibly the most radical example being Captain Hugh Pigot. Given a commission in the Royal Navy as much because of his family connections as any ability he might have had, his spit and polish tactics included unrestricted starting of the men and, in documented cases, lashings of up to 500 strokes that killed men outright. He even tossed sailors overboard in rough seas. His miserable leadership led to the gruesome Hemione mutiny and his own death at the hands of his men.

Flogging was done ritualistically aboard ship, with all healthy hands assembled, the surgeon on hand and officers dressed in uniform. Aboard navy ships, Marines were ready with rifles and bayonets to keep order. The criminal was stripped to the waist, “seized up” by his wrists and left standing at a main hatch or the rail, as in the illustration above from Edward Shippen’s Thirty Years at Sea; the Story of a Sailor’s Life. Writing of his own experiences in the U.S. Navy, Shippen describes the cat which:

… consisted of a wooden handle, about fifteen inches long, covered in cloth with nine tails of white line about as thick as a pack-cord, twenty inches long and the ends ‘whipped’ not knotted.

In this case “whipped” indicates frayed but many cats had one, three or even nine knots in each tail. Aboard pirates, the knots sometimes had metal hooks or pieces of glass protruding from them as well. Regardless of its make up, even a few strokes with a cat would draw blood. A large number of strokes would flay first the skin and then the muscle off the back. Patrick O’Brian writes of Stephen Maturin witnessing a 500 stroke flogging, the victim staggering away with the help of his mates, his entire back raw and blood squishing from his shoes with every step.

By 1850 the American Navy at least was ready to put a stop to the practice of flogging. On September 28th of that year the U.S. Congress abolished flogging. The problem with this high minded legislation was that they neglected to give any direction as to what form of discipline should stand as substitute for the now banned practice which had been on the books officially for 56 years. Of course, a white person could still merciless beat a black slave, a man could still beat his wife and child, to death if necessary, and that same child could still lose a limb in a factory. That was all above board. But twelve lashes in the Navy was a thing of the past. Another example, in my humble opinion, of “reform” completely ignoring the big picture. As my grandmother used to say, one thing at a time.

If you’re curious about the abolition of flogging in the U.S. Navy, pop over to this
post at the wonderful Naval History Blog and read more. If you’re just curious about flogging, well mate, I might not be able to help you there. But do keep in mind that we will return to this subject with a vengeance – including flogging around the fleet and the pirate practice of “sweating” captives – during Horror on the High Seas week in October. Something to look forward to.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Women At Sea: Remembering Nelson

Today is the 252nd anniversary of the birth of Horatio Nelson. I hope all the British Brethren get to leave work early at the very least on such an auspicious occasion. If I’m honest, I hadn’t really thought up a good plan for a post. Given that so many more worthy historians and writers have poured over the esteemed life and brilliant career of one of naval history’s most storied heroes, it seemed a little redundant for me to summarize Lord Nelson’s life. A life which is, in fact, far beyond simple summary.

As I was rifling through my mounds of Nelson information it occurred to me that one planet in the great Nelson’s solar system frequently gets short shrift. Though we hear plenty about Emma Hart Lady Hamilton, who is both skewered as whore and lauded as free spirit to this day, Frances Herbert Woolward Nisbet Lady Nelson is only spoken of rarely. When she is talked about at all it is as an adjunct or a foil. She is either Nelson’s nagging laundress or Emma’s shrewish rival. It occurred to me that this oversimplification does neither Horatio nor the ladies in his life much credit. So, to remember the man I thought I would honor his woman. How’s that for taking it in a different direction?
Frances Herbert Woolward was born to wealthy and prominent British parents on the beautiful Caribbean island of Nevis in 1761. The baptismal records from St. George’s Church state only that she was born in May. Her father, William Woolward, was a wealthy merchant and High Court Judge and her mother, Mary Herbert, was from a very well connected family whose ancestors were Earls of Pembroke. The Woolwards were comfortable in the extreme; they even owned slaves which at the time was unheard of back in England. The story goes that by age 8 Frances, or Fanny as she was known, had her own African manservant.

Both Mary and William died when Fanny was young and by the age of 18 she was in possession of her father’s extensive estate. Unfortunately Judge Woolward’s debts were even more extensive and Fanny was left with very little after selling off almost everything to satisfy her father’s creditors. At this point Dr. Josiah Nisbet appears on the scene. Very little is known about the 31 year old physician who came courting the young orphan. He seems to have been from the island and was probably familiar with the Woolwards prior to their deaths. He may even have been the family’s doctor. What ever the “connexion”, Fanny agreed to marry the good doctor in the same year as her father passed away.

There is very little documentation of Fanny’s life during her first marriage. She gave birth to a son named Josiah in May of 1780 and took passage to England with her husband in 1781. Some biographers say the Nisbet was touched and died of his madness but it may be that malaria or yellow fever came with the Nisbets to chilly England. Whatever the cause, Dr. Nisbet died in October of 1781 and Fanny found herself once again in financial distress but this time she had her son to think about as well.

Fanny seems to have been a natural caretaker and, as often happens, was therefore well liked and sought after for her mothering/nursing capacity. She was taken into the home of a fellow Nevis native, Mr. Pinney, who was evidently suffering from dementia, and became his nurse. This arrangement got her back to Nevis, where Mr. Pinney’s family took up his care. Fanny then moved in with her mother’s unmarried brother John Herbert and became his housekeeper and hostess. Herbert was the president of the Council of Nevis and did quite a bit of entertaining, particularly of visiting politicians and the Royal Navy officers stationed on and around the island since before the American Revolution.

One of these officers was a dashing and tightly wound Captain named Horatio Nelson. The 26 year old then in charge of HMS Boreas was also in the middle of a court battle with American privateers over his taking and libeling of their ships. Unlike Fanny, Nelson did not come from privilege. As the sixth son of a country parson who had eleven children to see to every last pound of prize money mattered. A young woman who was her wealthy Uncle’s sole heir and could obviously produce children might have looked more attractive than she would have been in a different situation. There can be no doubt that Nelson was under a good deal of stress when he first met Fanny and this may have contributed to his quick decision to court and then propose to the nubile widow.

Though described by Nelson’s contemporaries who knew her at Nevis as pretty, attractive, a general favorite of the naval officers and “fresh in her countenance”, no one ever called Fanny witty, intrepid or fun. Words like sensible were used, particularly by Nelson’s friend Prince William Henry who seemed to push the two together perhaps thinking that Fanny’s sobriety would tone down Horatio’s impetuous nature. Looking back on it the fatal flaw in the relationship raised its head early. Horatio needed a kindred soul who would give him a good fight now and then, praise his guts and glory and provide heirs to his greatness. What he got was Fanny, the caretaker.

Despite family reservations on both sides and separations brought on by Horatio’s naval duties, Fanny became Mrs. Nelson in March of 1787 at St. John Figtree Parish on Nevis. The Captain left in short order to return to England and Fanny and her son followed a little while after. The end of the war with France meant Nelson was left on half pay and without a ship which in turn meant that the young couple had to take up residence with his family. Initially Reverend Nelson was cool to his new daughter-in-law but her mothering ways endeared her to him and she almost immediately began taking care of the aging Parson. Their comfortable friendship would continue for the rest of the old gentleman’s life.

Fanny was happy with Nelson at home but Horatio chafed at the bit. Half pay was one thing, no ship was worse and now the woman he thought would present him with the many children he longed for couldn’t even be got with one. Five years of living in close quarters with an elderly father and another man’s son probably did nothing to improve Nelson’s attitude. What Fanny thought goes unmentioned; even after he left her for his mistress, Lady Nelson would utter not one bad word about her husband. It is a certainty that the marriage had become strained at best by the time France again declared war and Nelson took the helm of the 64 gun ship of the line HMS Agamemnon.

Unfortunately Fanny did nothing to help her cause. As Horatio’s star rose she chided him repeatedly to stay out of harm’s way and let others charge into the fray. When he was promoted to Rear-Admiral after the Battle of Cape St. Vincent Fanny redoubled her pleas that he leave the fighting to his Captains. Of course this was a ridiculous request to make of a man like Horatio Nelson; he first and foremost believed in leading his men from the front and nothing – least of all a whining wife – was going to change that. One can only imagine the private enmity between husband and wife when Nelson came home following his heroic victory at Santa Cruz de Tenerife to be nursed back to health after losing his right arm.

Nelson would not be kept down for long and the glorious victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 raised him to the level of Saint in the eyes of the British people. Admiral Lord Nelson seems to have bought his own press at this point. Like a rock star who has forgotten what “real life” is like, he began living far differently than a humble sea captain born to a country parson. His flagrant affair with Emma Hamilton was certainly the icing on that cake. His triumphant return to London overland through Europe, where he was feted at every stop with Emma at his side, surely crushed his wife’s spirit.

The shrewish behavior Fanny is now famous for came out in a final showdown shortly after Horatio’s return to England. Fanny had met her husband’s now pregnant mistress and would no longer tolerate Horatio’s constant praise of someone Fanny privately referred to as “my husband’s whore”. She gave Nelson a “her or me” ultimatum and the Admiral chose Emma. As of December in 1800, Nelson cut all personal if not financial ties with his wife. When he died aboard HMS Victory at Trafalgar the Admiralty awarded Fanny a pension along with the 1,200 pounds a year left to her in Nelson’s will.

Fanny’s life after Nelson’s death in 1805 was long but decidedly quiet. She became ill upon hearing of her husband’s demise and never quite regained the strength she had once possessed. People, particularly her son and his curiously named wife Frances Herbert, now took care of Frances Nisbet, Viscountess Nelson. She lived mostly with Josiah, who became a wealthy merchant after his bid for a career in the Royal Navy fizzled due to his continued badmouthing of the great Nelson, first in Exmouth and then in Paris. When Josiah died suddenly in June of 1830, Fanny seems to have succumbed at last. She lingered for almost another year and died at her Exmouth home on May 4th, 1831.

Frances Nisbet Nelson probably would have lived much more happily, and perhaps more fully, had her first husband not died. She and Horatio were cut from very different cloth and the gift that endeared her to so many, generous caretaking, only managed to smother her beloved husband. But she always remembered him fondly, and never spoke ill of the great Admiral Lord Nelson.
Paintings: Captain Horatio Nelson, probably painted in France, 1783
Frances Lady Nelson, a 1798 watercolor by Daniel Orme

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Pirates Own Book: The Spanish Pirates

Chapter Eight of Charles Ellms’ fabulously Victorian book on the history of pirates deviates slightly from most of his others. The events catalogued in “History and Execution of the Spanish Pirates” took place from 1832 to 1835 and were therefore contemporary to Ellms himself. Unlike his musings on Roberts, Teach and Laffite, Ellms documentation of the pirates aboard the former slaver Panda would have been common knowledge in his place and time. Chapter Eight of one of my favorite books is quite literally ripped from the headlines, so to say.

This may be one of the reasons that Ellms begins with a long description of first the Panda, which he calls a “… clipper built vessel of the fairest proportions”, and then goes on to describe in detail many of the pirates featured in his story. There is Captain “Don” Pedro Gibert (who is occasionally referred to as “Gilbert” throughout the text) a Spaniard, “… the son of a grandee; a man of thirty-six years of age and exceedingly handsome, having a round face, pearly teeth, round forehead, and full black eyes, beautiful raven hair, and a great favorite with the ladies.” Captain Gibert is not the only pirate who is given such an in depth evaluation which speaks to one of my main, non-piratical interests in the book. Charles Ellms was an adherent of “physiognomy”, a neighbor if not sister “science” to phrenology that purported to be able to tell a person’s character and even their likely life path by their physical appearance. When he lauds Gibert’s fair appearance, Ellms is telling his audience that this pirate is the worst kind of bad seed: a physically beautiful person rotting with evil on the inside.

Though a number of pages are given up to description the action, when it finally gets going, is fast paced and hard core. Panda comes upon an American merchant at night in the Caribbean. At dawn on an August day in 1832 the ship, Mexican, is overtaken and the crew surrenders without a fight. The pirates ransack the merchant and, unhappy with the prize goods and the twenty thousand dollars in hard cash they find, begin beating the crew to exhort the hiding places of further treasure from them. The Captain of Mexican, a man named Butman, is quoted as saying:

… [the pirates] robbed the mate of his watch and two hundred dollas in specie, still insisting that there was more money in the hold. Being answered in the negative, the beat me severely over the back, said they knew that there was more, that they should search for it and if they found any they would cut all our throats.

From this description alone one would think that Mexican became a bloodbath. In fact, despite the torture of the crew, not a man lost his life during the hours of pillage. It was never Gibert’s intention to leave Mexican’s men alive, however. Once he and his crew were satisfied that they had all they could get in goods and money, they locked Butman and his crew below decks, set fire to a “… tub of tarred rope-yarn and what combustibles they could find about deck” and sailed off across the Atlantic.

Not all the hatches were appropriately secured and a boy in Butman’s crew managed to shimmy out and set his mates free. The fire was extinguished, just in time according to Butman, and Mexican limped back to her home port of Salem, Massachusetts. Gibert and his Pandas were now known pirates and wanted men.

American Navy ships are dispatched to hunt for Panda but she has disappeared. She reached the Guinea coast of Africa some time in November. Gibert and his men are familiar to the African King Gula whose “town” is located at the mouth of the river Nazareth. Gibert exchanges some of his specie for goods and Ellms hints at a deal for slaves being done as well. All this is made mute when the British brig of war Curlew appears on the scene and her Captain, Trotter, chases Panda up the river. The pirates bail out, scattering into the swamps. An unsuccessful attempt to blow up Panda is made by her carpenter, Francisco Ruiz.

Trotter tries negotiating with King Gula for surrender of the pirates but this only leads to long descriptive passages of the King’s looks and Trotter and his men spending some time in the King’s prison. Meanwhile the Pandas are living high on the hog out on nearby Prince’s Island. Here, Gibert doles out prize money to the tune of $300 to $500 per man and upwards of $1,000 for the officers. The good times roll but it is a fool’s paradise. When Trotter is released he mounts an attack on the island and, though the pirates put up an impressive fight, the British take Gibert and his Pandas into custody.

Britain returns the captives to America and they are hurried off to Salem for trial. The trial itself was, in fact, a major news story in the U.S. at the time. All the gory details of beatings and torture aboard Mexican came out in the courtroom and other twists made the Panda trial an O.J.-esque spectacle. The fourteen day trial was considered inordinately long. One Thomas Fuller, a victim from Mexican, attacked and struck Francisco Ruiz in court. It also came out that Panda’s first mate, Bernardo de Soto, had previously saved 70 American lives while captaining a brig called Leon making him a bit of a hero.

Most of the pirates, including de Soto, were convicted and sentenced to death but two, a cabin boy of 16 years old and a young slave who acted as cook aboard Panda were declared not guilty by reason of their youth and station. At the last minute de Soto’s Spanish wife, the lyrically named Donna Petrona Pereyra, managed to achieve a Presidential pardon for her husband from none other than Andrew Jackson himself.

The remaining pirates attempted suicide prior to hanging but only one managed to cut his throat with a shard of tin. He was quickly stitched up and, though “senseless” was hanged along side his brethren who, as Ellms notes righteously, had sailed “… under the black flag of piracy, with the motto of ‘Rob, Kill and Burn’.”

Ellms last paragraph is enlightening as well. He tells us that the Spanish Consul managed to have the bodies of the pirates secreted off to “… the Catholic burial ground in Charlestown”. And so Chapter Eight ends simply:

There being no murder committed with the piracy, the laws of the Unites States do not authorize the court to order the bodies for dissection.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: A Missive From Grande Terre

On September 3rd in the year 1814 an unfamiliar ship appeared off the artillery lined coast of the island of Grande Terre. The ship fired a salvo from her guns and then cruised into Barataria Bay as if she called the port home. She dropped anchor and put a launch into the green water carrying both her Sergeant of the Marines and her Captain. The ship was the Royal Navy frigate Sophie fresh from the Jamaica station. The War of 1812 had come to Louisiana’s shores and the pirates, privateers and smugglers who called Barataria Bay home would shortly be in the thick of it.

When Jean Laffite stepped onto the deep porch of his Creole-style home and looked out at the stranger now floating in the middle of his country he had far larger concerns than a few British seamen. He had recently answered Governor Claiborne’s $500 reward for his capture by posting his own $1,000 reward for the head of the Louisiana Governor around the city of New Orleans. Meanwhile his brother Pierre, his only known living relative and a person Jean honestly loved, sat in chains in an 8 by 8 foot cell in the Calabozo awaiting trial and most probably death at the end of a rope. The bos must have sighed and rolled his eyes while tugging on his cutaway and donning his hat. “What now?” one can almost hear him muttering.

The what of it was an offer from the British government carried by Captain Lockyer of Sophie and meant to turn Jean Laffite and his men with him against the Americans in Louisiana. Britain wanted a staging area for their invasion of New Orleans and Barataria Bay was too good to ignore. Laffite was French, the British reasoned, and his men were a mixed bag of every color, creed and nation. Surely they would turn on the Americans without a second thought. A simple offer of a little money and potential position would turn this Laffite against his own mother. Everyone knows these Frenchies have no loyalties, no courage, no souls.

The far flung assumptions of the British were wrong. The men of Barataria, Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche at their head, protested bitterly and Laffite only just managed to keep them from killing Lockyer and his sailors. Laffite served up a feast to the British and looked over their offer but refused, even in the face of heavy pressure including threats of immediate destruction of Grande Terre, to give Lockyer an answer. Instead he imprisoned the Captain and his officers before sending the British oarsmen back to Sophie. The following day, through the almost miraculous machinations of a man who was smoother than silk, Sophie sailed away from Barataria without firing a shot and without an answer for Lockyer.

Within six days everything changed for Jean Laffite. Word that Commodore Patterson of the New Orleans Naval Station was mounting a flotilla to destroy his Baratarian strong hold reached him. Then his brother managed quite mysteriously to break out of prison and return to Grande Terre. Though ill, it is probable that Pierre helped Jean write what historian Jane Lucas deGrummond called “… the best letter [Jean Laffite] ever composed”. Jean laid it all on the line in this letter to the man he had recently offered anyone who could read a monetary reward for his death. Unfortunately, it would not save his kingdom of Barataria or bring his men into the bosom of the American military. At least not right away. But it is a brilliant piece of work that most people are completely unaware of. Here then is the letter in its entirety for your consideration. Enjoy.

Grande Terre, 10 September, 1814
To his Excellency Monsieur Wm. C.C. Claiborne, Governor of the State of Louisiana,

In the firm persuasion that the choice made of you to fill the office of first magistrate was dictated by the esteem of your fellow citizens and was conferred on merit, I confidently address you on an affair on which may depend the safety of this country.

I offer to you to restore to this state several citizens who, perhaps in your eyes, have lost that sacred title. I offer you them, however, such as you could wish to find them, ready to exert their utmost efforts in defense of the country. This point of Louisiana which I occupy, is of great importance in the present crisis. I tender my services to defend it and the only reward I ask is that a stop be put to the proscription against me and my adherents, by an act of oblivion for all that has been done hitherto.

I am the stray sheep wishing to return to the flock. If you were thoroughly acquainted with the nature of my offenses I should appear to you much less guilty and still worthy to discharge the duties of a good citizen. I have never sailed under any flag but that of the Republic of Cartagena, and my vessels are perfectly regular in that respect. If I could have brought my lawful prizes into the ports of this state, I should not have employed the illicit means that have caused me to be proscribed.

I decline saying more on the subject until I have the honor of your Excellency’s answer, which I am persuaded can be dictated only by wisdom.

In case, Monsieur le Governeur, your reply should not be favorable to my ardent wishes I declare to you that I will leave so as not to be held to have cooperated with an invasion on this point, which cannot fail to take place, and puts me entirely at the judgment of my conscience.

I have the Honor to be, Monsieur le Governeur, Laffite

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Desperate Resolve

Long before the close of the action, it became clearly apparent that the American ship dominated by a command of will of the most unalterable resolution and there could be no doubt that the intent of her command was, if he could not conquer, to sink alongside. And this desperate resolve of the American captain was fully shared and fiercly seconded by every one of his ship's company.

Captain Richard Pearson in his report regarding the capture of his ship HMS Serapis by John Paul Jones (pictured) in Bonhomme Richard

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Boom

The word boom as we use it today – sonic boom or explosion noise for instance – descended unquestionably from its original use at sea. Boom migrated to land with the use of artillery, but remained at sea in its original form. A modern sailor and demolition export speaking of “booms” are talking about two very different things.

Boom originally came from the Dutch language where it meant pole or tree and that is essentially its meaning aboard ship as well. Very simply a boom is a long pole attached to a sail, usually at the bottom. The idea of the pole, technically known as a spar, is to extend the sail outward from the ship as in a jib-boom (pronounced “jiboom”), a spanker boom or a studding sail boom. The picture at the header (click to enlarge and really appreciate it) nicely illustrates the use of studding-sails on a schooner around the year 1900. The studding-sails fly out over the water on either side like wings, taking full advantage of every last breath of wind.

A boom can also be a chain or cable stretched across the mouth of a harbor to keep enemies out (see the post on Portsmouth for an example). From this comes the term boomage which means a duty or tax that covers harbor dues, anchorage and soundage.

A boom boat (not a bum boat) carries spars from shore to ship. A boom cover is a tarpaulin that covers said spars. The booms is the space where these spare spars are stowed. On large ships the boat known as a launch is frequently stowed between the spars.

A boom-brace pendant is a rope attached to the outer end of a studding-sail spar and fixed on deck to counteract the pressure of the sail on the boom. In large ships, such as men-of-war, a boom-jigger is added. This is a tackle for rigging out and running in the top-mast studding-sail booms.

The word booming arose out of the use of cannon aboard ship. As in modern English it referrs to the sound of the gun firing. Originally it referred to cannon fire at a distance but eventually morphed into it’s modern meaning of the sound of any explosion.

Finally there is the boomkin (also bumkin or bumpkin). This is a short spar at the bow on either side which assists in extending the lower corners of the foresail. Because this arrangement gives a ship rather an awkward silhouette (and was never favored among man-of-war’s men) it became a derogatory epithet meaning an uncouth person to which the descriptive “country” was later added.

So call that gawky cousin of yours a "boomkin" and let me know what comes of it. I'm always curious about people's reactions to the original uses of words. Good times. Happy Saturday, Brethren. See you tomorrow for Seafaring Sunday.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Booty: Sea Chanties

Let me just start by noting that my spellcheck wants me to title this post “Sea Shanties” which tells me it has never studied history. Or actually been to sea. Anyway, with Talk Like A Pirate week drawing to a close here at chez Pauline, I thought I’d offer you a video of my very favorite seafaring singing group: The Corsairs. These rovers hale from the Dallas/Fort Worth area which in and of itself must give one pause. Chanty men from a landlocked area might seem an oxymoron but once you’ve heard them sing, you’ll know them for right true Jacks to a man. We’ve had their dulcet tones ringing through the great cabin for quite some time now.

Sadly, the guys are no longer roving but their website still offers all nine of their CDs and other cool items as well. Drop by and give them a nod if you’re so inclined. You won’t be disappointed. Here then, for your Friday listening pleasure (and I say “listening” in particular because the camera work on this one may make a few of the more lubberly lubbers a touch green), are The Corsairs performing the Mingulay Boat Song:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ships: Poor Richard's Victory

For as storied as John Paul Jones’ three mast frigate Bonhomme Richard has become her life was relatively short and surprisingly exciting considering her origins. She was never intended to march into battle, being originally built in the French dockyards at Brest as an East India merchantman. But she faced her challenges in her brief time as a warrior with relish and heroism, as all the best ships do.

Built in 1766 for Monsieur Berard of the Companie des Indes, the heavy frigate was originally named Duc de Duras. She probably carried only light guns, perhaps no more than 12 pounders, during her twelve years on the merchant round. Little is known about this part of the ship’s life, but she seems to have been sturdy, weatherly and unmolested by freebooters.

By 1779 France was deep into another war with England and had both feet firmly in the American Revolution. John Paul Jones, now famous in France for his continued harassment of British shipping, was in the country after the loss of his inimitable Ranger. No doubt through the persuasion of America’s ambassador Benjamin Franklin, Louis XVI bought Duc de Duras from Berard and turned it over to Jones.

Now Commodore Jones was given a French commission and authority to prey on British shipping, particularly the privateers that continually troubled her merchants. The frigate went through a refit and was mounted with six 18 pound, twenty-eight 12 pound and eight 9 pound cannon and stuffed with a privateer-sized crew of close to 400 men. Jones named his new flagship Bonhomme Richard in honor of Franklin whose Poor Richard’s Almanac was known in France as Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.

The frigate left the port of L’Orient on June 19th on her first mission: escorting French merchants to a number of ports along the Bay of Biscay. In Jones’ accompanying flotilla were the American built frigate Alliance and three French ships, the frigate Pallas, the brig Vengeance and a cutter, Le Cerf. The five ships would cruise together, on and off, for the next three months.

Bonhomme Richard was the largest of the flotilla. She displaced nearly 1,000 tons, was 155 feet in length and 40 feet across her beam. Her draft of 19 feet made her unsuitable for shallow bays and estuaries, so the brig and cutter were almost mandatory tenders. Certainly life aboard her was uncomfortably cramped. Jones had obviously planned for prize taking and that necessitated men for prize crews.

Once the merchants had been seen safely into their ports, Jones turned his ships northward for a cruise quite literally around the island of Britain. Setbacks arose, including an embarrassing collision between Bonhomme Richard and Alliance that caused a retreat to L’Orient for refit. Back at sea by August 1st, Jones began collecting prizes of British merchants and privateers. Trouble continued, however. When the flotilla was becalmed off Dingle Bay, Ireland, an altercation broke out between Jones and Alliance’s French Captain Pierre Landais. Landais essentially called Jones a coward for keeping Alliance from following a prize into the Bay. Jones claimed he felt the calm coming and wanted to keep Landais from capture but Landais would not back down. He would take Alliance out on her own and later, meeting up with Bonhomme Richard again off Cape Wrath, Scotland, would challenge Jones to a never-to-be-realized duel.

This questioning of the Commodore’s authority brought desertions during the calm and Le Cerf fell out of sight in a heavy fog while trying to bring back the wayward men. Eventually Bonhomme Richard, Pallas and Vegeance pressed north to the outer Hibredes and then turned south. Jones tried to blockade and ransom Newcastle, the coal port in eastern England, but his captains would not participate. Several prizes of colliers (ships carrying coal particularly to Scandinavia and Holland) were taken, however, and success for Jones’ cruise began to materialize.

At dawn on September 23rd, Bonhomme Richard, along with Pallas, sighted HMS Serapis and her consort sloop Countess of Scarborough. It took the entire day for the ships to close on each other due to the poor winds but by 6:30 in the evening Jones bespoke Captain Richard Pearson of Serapis. No kind words were exchanged and within the hour a firefight was in progress.

Things went poorly for Bonhomme Richard at first. Two of her 18 pounders exploded, killing a number of men and shutting down the other four heavy guns for fear they might also be defective. She was left with only her light guns against Serapis’ greater fire power. Jones made a desperate and as it turns out brilliant tactical decision to ram and board Serapis as if he and his opponent were Roman triremes. Bonhomme Richard’s hull befowled Serapis’ foreanchor, holding the two ships together. Jones applied a series of grapnels to increase the hold and boarding commenced while the extremely close range firefight continued.

Both ships were nearly destroyed in the four hour conflict that followed. At last Serapis surrendered some time after Countess of Scarborough struck to Pallas. Jones transferred his entire crew to Serapis, who was in only slightly better shape than her opponent, and managed to limp her into the Texel Roads port in Holland.

Bonhomme Richard, the former Duc de Duras, was noted in Jones’ log as sinking at 11:00 AM on September 25th of 1779. Gone but not forgotten, Bonhomme Richard, as noted in last Friday’s
post, is now a prize herself. But this time the hunters are marine archaeologists and the benefactor is history.

Painting via Maritime National Images.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

History: "...All The Ills Of The World"

It is a fact beyond both comprehension and reason that man’s religion has brought on all the ills of the World.

According to Alexander Exquemelin, our old friend the memoirist and Triple P’s official physician (bet you didn’t know that), these were the words of Laurens de Graff. The Dutch buccaneer muttered them, ostensibly to himself, while watching the parade of unfortunates he and his mates had released from the Inquisitorial prison at Veracruz in 1683. While Exquemelin tells us very little about the actual condition of the Inquisition’s inmates, even a passing knowledge of history will allow the imagination to run wild with one grim picture after another. The buccaneers, by the way, left these men and women completely unmolested in their sack of Veracruz. De Graff was not the only one who saw them as unjustly wronged.

It was that passing knowledge of this history which brought me to realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same as I read this
article from the New York Times. Entitled In Somali Civil War, Both Sides Embrace Pirates, the article tells of the new politics of Somalia where warlords and religious leaders at odds with one another seek the help and protection of local pirates.

The pirates, who are frequently portrayed in western media as money-hungry thugs, are surprisingly cagey as it turns out. Many of the powerful pirate leaders have turned their ill-gotten gains from the purchase of little skiffs and AK-47s to more impressive and all together land-based weapons. It appears, as the article implies but does not say, that some at least are setting themselves up as strong men for hire and to the highest bidder goes the muscle. Or does it?

Another interesting if sadly unexplained point is that the pirates seem to have a distinct suspicion of, if not down right hatred for, the local arm of Al Qaeda known as the Shabab. Evidently after two decades of Islamic elders, as the article says, “…turning against pirates because of their un-Islamic ways”, the elders were beginning to turn a blind eye on these “un-Islamic ways” no doubt due to the economic benefits of piracy.

Enter the Shabab who will not be swayed by petty points like people dying of hunger. The article calls them “…the most fearsome insurgents in Somalia” and states that in areas of the country ruled by Shabab leaders music, soccer, bras and one imagines a laundry list of other seemingly harmless items are banned. People unclear on the concept lose limbs or have their heads caved in with rocks.

The pirates along Somali’s coast see the Shabab as a threat. A quote in the article from one of their number states: “Sometimes you commit crimes to defend your freedom.” It’s a telling comment in an area that is ripe for fundamentalist takeover.

Over 300 years ago the buccaneers of the New World, be they Dutch or English, French or Portuguese, saw The Roman Church and her hated Inquisition as a threat to their freedoms almost to a man. Spain, as the international standard bearer for the Church, was perceived as killing free trade and imposing Her religious views on pain of death. It is fascinating, to me at least, that many a Somali pirate seems to have a similar perception of a completely different world power known as Al Qaeda. What will happen in the region is anyone’s guess. But questionable anti-heroes are not unheard of in history, particularly when pirates are involved.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: The Big Score

Yesterday we spoke of “Long Ben” and his enormous treasure ripped from the Grand Moghul’s ship Ganj-i-Sawai. But Henry Avery was not the only pirate to profit in the extreme from prizes in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Here, courtesy of The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pirates, is a surprising list of enormous booty taken by ships from 1690 to 1725 that worked the same round as modern Somali pirates. The new kids only wish they could do so well.

First, Avery himself, whose booty in jewels, gold and silver taken in his 40 gun ship Fancy amounted to approximately 105 million in modern dollars.

Dirk Chivers commanding Soldado and Robert Culliford commanding Mocha took Great Mohammed in the Red Sea in 1698. The total haul was in cash amounting to about $190,000.

John Bowen in Speaker raided what may have been an Indian Pilgrim vessel off Arabia in 1700 and came away with $175,000. In 1703, while working with Thomas Howard in command of Speedy Return, Bowen took two Arabs in the Red Sea for a total prize of $100,000.

Edmund Condent (sometimes called Christopher Condent, although the two pirates may be different people all together) sailing in the Flying Dragon in 1720 brought down an Arab merchant carrying specie, silk, spices and opium to the tune of $200,000.

Also in 1720, the unfortunate Edward England took the East Indiaman Cassandra with his Fancy and Victory, netting about $100,000. The prize was taken not far from the port of Johanna, Madagascar and not long before England’s crew dumped him to beg in the streets of that same port.

Finally, in one of the last great strikes in and around the Indian Ocean, John Taylor in Cassandro in consort with former buccaneer Olivier La Bouche in Victoire took the Portuguese treasure galleon Nostra Senhora de Cabo in 1721. The total prize, including a large chest of diamonds along with other salable goods may have amounted to nearly 100 million dollars.

For those brave, or crazy, enough the money was good. When the Royal, French and later the American navies cracked down and began a system of escorts for merchants in and around India and Arabia, the well dried up. But the prizes are still spoken of, often with awe. Most of us could find a lot to do with our share of a million dollars.

Monday, September 20, 2010

People: The Arch Pyrate

In his own era, late in the 17th century when the buccaneers had faded into memory and the Golden Age of piracy had not yet dawned, Henry Avery was the very model of a lucky pirate. He was written and rumored about; there was even a wildly successful play about him called The Successful Pyrate on stage in London. Then, too, he was never caught or tried. He slipped out of the public eye just as mysteriously as he jumped into it and was not to be heard from again.

Where Henry Avery came from is a mystery. In fact his name may very well have been an alias as he sometimes went by John and Ben and he used the last names Every and Bridgeman as well. In this he is typical of many pirates and privateers. So much confusion has arisen out of aliases used by freebooters that it would make one’s head spin. Avery was almost certainly British and he surely had a background in seafaring but beyond that speaking of his early life would only be speculation.

By 1693 Avery was First Lieutenant aboard an English privateer named Charles or Charles II. Her Captain, Charles Gibson, held a letter of marque from the Spanish to harass the rich French merchants sailing to and from the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. At some point, apparently early on in his cruise aboard Charles, Avery decided to turn pirate. He convinced the crew to back him, or perhaps they convinced him to step up to the lead, and a plan was hatched. One night when Gibson was drunk, the trap was sprung. Gibson was killed and Avery became Captain. He renamed the fast privateer of forty guns Fancy and, per his agreement with his crew, charted a course for Africa.

During the last decade of the 17th century Madagascar was a favorite pirate haunt. It offered safe harbors and easy access to the rich Indian treasure ships and East Indiamen that sailed through the Indian Ocean. Avery put in at the port of Johanna, Madagascar some time in 1695 and got right to work. He captured four vessels, one a French privateer who joined in consort with Avery and the other three English merchants. Bold as brass for his first heady success, Avery sent one of his prizes back to London with a letter he instructed the captain to have published. It stated that Avery was the big dog in the Indian Ocean now, that he didn’t want to take English or Dutch merchants but that his men were “…hungry, stout and resolute, and should they exceed my desire I cannot stop myself.” The letter was signed: “As yet an Englishman’s friend, Henry Every.”

Later that same year all thought of small British prizes paled in the face of Avery’s next adventure. Hearing that the Indian Pilgrim fleet, which ferried Muslims from India to Mecca annually and returned home with not only the pilgrims but enormous wealth in payment for silks, teas and other goods previously delivered to the Arab nations, was about to head home Avery pounced. He rounded up all the pirate captains he could and headed up the coast for the Red Sea where he hoped to capture one or more of the grand treasure ships.

Avery’s flotilla almost missed their prize when the Pilgrim fleet slipped past them in the night. Fortunately, a lookout spotted the tail of the fleet as dawn broke and Avery gave chase. A small consort ship, Fath Mohammad, surrendered quickly but one of the huge treasure ships, Ganj-i-Sawai, put up a tenacious fight. And well they should have; the ship belonged to the Grand Moghul and one of its many passengers was the Moghul’s own sister.

Despite the Moghul’s men’s bravery, Avery and his pirates took Ganj-i-Sawai. Angered by their own loss of life and prejudiced against the Indian Muslims, the pirates gave themselves over to horrific savagery. Though Avery himself managed to protect that Indian princess, the other women aboard were used repeatedly for the sexual entertainment of his men and most of the Indian men still alive were slaughtered. Many of the women committed suicide by jumping overboard and several more died when the week long ordeal was over. The pirates stripped the treasure ship of everything aboard, leaving her without sail or mast to limp back to India as best she could.

The total haul was an astounding amount even for pirates used to huge prizes. The Ganj-i-Sawai is estimated to have yielded over 100 million in today’s dollars. Each sailor went away with over $100,000 dollars in their pocket, an unimaginable sum in a time when a laborer might be lucky to make $5.00 for six days of work. Captains and officers probably took an even larger share. Avery’s flotilla disbanded and he took Fancy back to the Caribbean where she pulled into the Bahamas some time in 1696.

By then word had reached Britain’s colonies that Avery’s attack on Ganj-i-Sawai had driven the Grand Moghul to revenge. He had the leaders of the British East India Company chained and tortured and confiscated their lands and goods. Henry Avery was no longer “an Englishman’s friend”; he and his men were now outlaws. The East India Company even posted a 1,000 pound reward for the capture of any man involved in the taking of Ganj-i-Sawai.

Thinking quickly, Avery approached and probably bribed the English Governor for temporary immunity. He sold Fancy and bought a small sloop which he crewed with Fancy’s men. Avery then began calling himself Bridgeman and set about the task of sailing from the Carolinas to Canada, dropping off handfuls of his men as he went. He probably reached Halifax, Nova Scotia some time in 1697 and some historians believe he left his sloop and the roving life behind, booking passage to Ireland.

Where Henry Avery actually went and what became of him is not known. He certainly seems to have given up the pirating life, knowing enough to stop while he was winning. So the “Arch Pyrate” known as “Long Ben” sailed into obscurity and legend with his life and a nice chunk of one of the most impressive pirate treasures in history.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Seafaring Sunday: Happy ITLAPD

In that wild council words wax'd warm and strange
With thoughts of ransom, rescue and revenge;
All, save repose or flight: still lingering there
Breathed Conrad's spirit, and forbade despair
What'er his fate - the breasts he form'd and led
Will save him living, or appease him dead
Woe to his foes! there yet survived a few
Whose deeds are daring, as their hearts are true.
~ George Gordon Lord Byron, "The Corsair" stanza IV
Because there are a thousand ways to talk like a pirate, many thanks to The Pirate Guys (pictured) John "Cap'n Slappy" Baur and Mark "Ol' Chumbucket" Summers for taking up the torch and leading us all into International Talk Like A Pirate Day! Stop by their website and say a hearty "Thankee, mates!"

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Speak Like A Sailor

Since tomorrow is, as doubtless all of the Brethren are aware, International Talk Like a Pirate day our SMS for today will be a little different than usual. Instead of delving into the seagoing meaning of just one word, we’re going to take a quick look at the actual background of a few favorite TLAPD words and phrases. I want Triple P readers to sound as good as they look tonight at that pirate party or pub crawl. But don’t look for “Arrr!” on this list. That’s just silly.

Avast: We’ve talked about this word before at SMS but it always comes up when the wannabes come out in Johnny Depp drag. Avast does not mean hello, how are you or how about a drink, wench. It means stop and a true pirate – like his naval or privateering counterpart – would not trouble himself with the long version. “Vast that!” would get the job done quite nicely.

Ahoy: The Pirate Guys themselves list the meaning of this word as “Hello!” in their book Well Blow Me Down. In fact ahoy derives from the Danish ho, meaning stop. By the 19th century, however, it was not uncommon for English speaking sailors to greet an unknown vessel with the call of “Ahoy the ship” at sea. It was far better manners to call out the ship’s actual name or, better still, the last name of her Captain. By this time, too, vast was in almost universal use as a word for stop.

Belay: Honestly, how many words mean stop at sea? The answer is a barrel full. Belay technically means to tie off the end of a rope and make it fast – often to a belaying pin. But belay was frequently used in general banter to mean knock it off as “Belay that yarn; your story is getting old,” or “Belay your grousing, mate.”

Booty: One of my favorites simply for the difference between its imagined and actual meaning. Pirates and privateers used the word booty to mean any part of a prize that could be immediately and evenly distributed out such as clothing, weapons, specie, gold dust, small pieces of silver plate or jewels. Other items that would need to be sold for cash were referred to as prize goods while the captured ship was itself the prize.

Crow’s nest: Here’s one you hear a lot from those in Johnny-Depp-drag. I actually had one foul-breathed hunk of shark bait ask me if I’d “like to go up to the crow’s nest” with him once. Get. A. Better. Line. And brush your teeth. Anyway, actual seamen aside from whalers eschewed the term crow’s nest as they avoided speaking of the Devil. The platform halfway up a pirate, privateer or navy ship’s mast was known as a top. It was beneath these men to call their maintop a crow’s nest. As an aside, the crow’s nest originated as a high platform where corvids were kept in Dark Age European fishing vessels. When the boat lost sight of land a raven, crow or mockingbird would be let loose. Instinctively the bird would fly for shore and the boat could follow it back to safety.

Duffers: Not one you’ll find in The Pirate Guys’ books, which is a shame really because it’s a nice, unisex insult. When a seaman spoke of a duffer or a duff he meant either a poor peddler, usually of used goods, a smuggler’s wench or a coward.

Grog: Really, that’s anything you’re drinking tonight. Technically it’s a naval ration of one part spirits (yes, alcohol other than rum has been used) to three parts water served out at dinner and supper. Later, when scurvy was again “discovered”, some form of citric acid was added as well. The grog ration was officially instituted in the Royal Navy in 1740 by Admiral Vernon As The Sailors’ Word Book notes: “The addition of sugar and lemon juice now makes grog an agreeable anti-scorbutic.”

Lubber: An old, Northern English word meaning a clown or dolt. The word crept into sea-speak and became synonymous with an unseamanlike sailor or a landsman.

Mate: Your friend at sea or simply a fellow crewman. The word may very well have derived from the French word for sailor matelot which was also used by the early bucaniers on Tortuga to indicate a best friend, a man with whom another shared a wife or possibly a homosexual partner.

On the account: A sailor turned pirate was said in the Golden Age to have “gone on the account”. The term has to do with the old “no purchase, no pay” adage that if a prize was not caught a pirate had no money.

Scuttlebutt: A barrel with a square hole large enough for a dipper and filled with water. This was left near the mainmast on most ships when fresh water was not being rationed. Because men would gather to drink they also exchanged gossip at the scuttlebutt and thus the word became synonymous with rumors and suppositions passed from one person to another.

Stow: From the nautical word stowage which means placing ballast, cargo and even crew in just the right spots aboard ship to get the maximum performance out of the vessel. It was an art form, really, and only men who knew their ship intimately could perform it well. The guys in Johnny-Depp-drag will use it for “stop” this weekend, which is sad at best and frankly sacrilegious to my mind. My Dad would never have put up with that.

Weevil: This word for the Curculio comes down to us from the Anglo Saxon word wefl. They start out as worm-like creatures that eat wood and bread and grow up to be ravenous and fairly sizeable beetles that were sometimes found swimming in soups thickened with ship’s biscuit.

I’m sure you’ll come up with quite a few more tonight and tomorrow. If you are curious about the origins of any of your sailory language, leave a comment and I’ll hunt them down for you. Etymologies make me almost as happy as fair winds and a following sea. Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day Eve! Seafaring Sunday returns tomorrow.

Painting by N.C. Wyeth from Treasure Island.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Booty: Bonhomme Richard

On September 23rd of 1779, John Paul Jones flagship Bonhomme Richard sank in the icy waters off Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, England. She was broken and on fire after a long and bloody battle with HMS Serapis that resulted in the British ship striking to the upstart American and Jones taking Serapis as prize. Bonhomme Richard still lies, rather ingloriously given the results of the battle, in the silt at the bottom of the sea,

This brief
post over at the US Naval History Blog gives the heads up that marine archaeologists and the American Navy now have an idea of where the wreck of Bonhomme Richard might be. According to reports from USNS Henson on the site, about 45% of surveying using a towed sonar scanner has been completed. When this is done and likely sites have been identified, divers and Remotely Operated Vehicles will be sent in to investigate. As noted in the post, the scanning should be done within the next few days, weather permitting.

Bonhomme Richard is an important symbol of America’s struggle for independence that has, in the past, been unfortunately glossed over. Like so many other of the U.S. Navy’s early achievements, the victory over Serapis that stunned the mighty Royal Navy has taken a back seat to the land based successes of Washington and his ilk. I will say Huzzah! for Bonhomme Richard. You know I’ll be keeping an eye on this project, and keeping you updated as she goes.

Header painting: of Bonhomme Richard vs. Serapis “The Deadly Embrace” by William Gilkerson at J. Jinishian Gallery.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Women At Sea: The Jamaican Doctress

When you say the name of Florence Nightingale in mixed company a hush tends to fall momentarily. Women in particular become reverent, like medieval nuns shown a Monstrance which holds a saintly relic. The woman is, in fact, a form of saint in our modern metaphor; she left comfort to brave war and bring health and hygiene to suffering soldiers. In fact, this reverence seems a little gnarled around the edges to me now. Allow me to explain.

In 1805 Mary Jane Grant was born in Kingston, Jamaica to a Scottish army officer and a local “free woman of color”. It is interesting to note, simply as an aside, that though the British waved the flag of freeing every slave in the U.S. during the War of 1812, they didn’t trouble themselves to abolish slavery in Jamaica until 1838. Another interesting factoid frequently lost to history.

Mary’s mother was what was referred to as a “doctress”. She hung out her shingle and took in patients like any male doctor. She would have learned her skills at the elbow of another physician, probably her own mother. Mary grew up in her mother’s craft and became a skilled physician in her own right. She began her practice in her twenties and did not marry until she was thirty-one.

The man of choice was a comfortable Jamaican merchant named Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole whose godfather was none other than the great Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. Because of Edwin’s profession, the couple travelled extensively and Mary became a familiar and welcome fixture aboard Mr. Seacole’s merchant vessels. She tended to sailors almost constantly, both aboard ship and by land, on sojourns to Haiti, Cuba, Barbados, Panama and Mexico. She obtained a reputation for successful cures and you can bet there was no grumbling about bad luck at sea because of a woman aboard when Mrs. Seacole was on deck.

From the pictures that have come down to us, Mary appears to have been as sturdy and nurturing as her life story would imply. She has a wide face with a generous expression, a round form and arms that would make any child feel welcome in an embrace. Her bedside manner was said to be relaxed and her voice calming. Mary seems like the kind of lady anyone would want to know.

With the untimely death of her husband in 1844, Mary continued doctoring. After selling Edwin’s business she and her brother Edward sailed to Cruces, Panama where they established an Inn that catered to foreign guests. When a cholera epidemic swept through the city, it was Mary who was at the forefront of medical care. Mary’s cures, involving mustard plasters, teas and gallons of clean water for drinking, were remarkably successful. She wrote of her conviction that cholera was caused by human contact, not miasmas or bad air, and that fear of the disease was as dangerous as the disease itself.

Her successes in Panama increased her confidence as well as her knowledge. When horrible reports of disease and death in the Crimea began appearing in British papers, Mary packed up and headed off to London determined to add her medical expertise to the task at hand. She arrived in England in 1854. Despite entrĂ©e into the Secretary of State for Wars’ office via letters from Jamaican physicians, Mary was ignored. While Florence Nightingale, a personal friend of the Secretary’s, was shipped off to Crimea with a batch of French nuns, Mary remained on the outside looking in. Seacole wrote of her frustration, and wisely mentioned that being snubbed most probably had to do with her race and not her gender.

Undaunted, Mary teamed up with a friend from Jamaica – Thomas Day – and gathered supplies in preparation for the arduous trip to the Crimea. After a journey of over 3,000 miles, much of it aboard ship, Mary arrived and set up shop near Balaclava. She opened what was known as a sutler’s, providing supplies to British troops for a fee. Most of these places were glorified gin houses but Mary’s British Hotel was clean, served good food and limited alcohol. Officers flocked to Mary’s place, as did the wounded.

When “Mother Seacole” as she was now known had all in order at her Hotel she rode out to the battlefields with her supplies in sturdy baskets. Sometimes under fire she tended to and comforted the wounded and dying. William Howard Russell in an article for The London Times wrote:

… she is a warm and successful physician who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always attending near the battlefield to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessing.

Mary also saw to sailors in her Hotel and was even asked by one captain to sign on as his physician. A position she politely refused.

When the war ended suddenly Mary was left with financial troubles. Her hostelry was packed with goods and foodstuffs with no one to buy them and she had to walk away from a near fortune. Returning to England, she was quite literally destitute. Word of her uncomfortable circumstances got out and a Military Fund was set up which amounted in the end to very little.

Mary, of course, knew how to take matters into her own hands. This time she wrote her memoirs: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole In Many Lands. Published in 1857, the book sold like hotcakes and brought Mary a bit of celebrity. She was painted and sculpted and she became the personal masseuse to the Princess of Wales (please note my error in originally identifying this Alexandra as the future Czarina of Russia. See Undine's comment on this post for details and stop by her delightful blog some time).

Mary Jane Grant, the well known Mother Seacole, whose capabilities as a doctor had never been questioned, died in London in 1881. She was buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. The Times’ obituary praised her as a heroine, reminding people of her willingness to risk her own life to save men serving her country.

And Florence Nightingale? It’s a bit shameful to tell, really. She began spreading the rumor that Mother Seacole’s British Hotel had not been an outstanding example of sutlery and hospital, but was in fact a brothel and Mary its madam. Fortunately, history is better than petty jealousy and there are plans in the works to erect a statue of Mary Seacole in London to acknowledge her enormous contribution to medicine and to Britain. More about Mary in history class on both sides of the Pond would be a nice touch, too.

Picture via Mary Seacole dot com.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sea Monsters: Them

Remember that ‘50s monster movie Them that was all about the giant ants in the sewers? If you don’t, hit Netflix and check it out. Seeing it on TV when I was in elementary school scared the pee out of me because I hate, hate, hate ants. Period. Ask anyone. Did I mention I hate ants?

Well there’s an insidious creature out there in the sea that gives me the willies just about as much as ants: jelly fish. They’re pretty and all but when those tentacles touch your skin you wish you had never been born. Or I do anyway. Being mildly allergic my first jelly fish sting was kind of like being hit in the sternum by a lineman’s helmet just as someone set fire to my arm. Now I carry Benadryl and vinegar in my beach bag. So, of course, no stings since then.

All the same, while doing a little research for the second annual Horror on the High Seas Week I found out that pirates would sometimes use jelly fish as torture devices. The most popular one for the purpose of getting a captive to talk was the huge, ominous globe shown above: a Portuguese Man of War. Imagine my horror when I delved even more into these delightfully scary creatures and found out that just one was not an individual at all but a group of four polyps banded together to form a colony. A Portuguese Man of War is not an “it”, it’s a “them”. Oh yeah, and it’s also not a jelly fish.

The uppermost polyp is a gas-filled bladder called a pneumatophore which lets the creature(s) float and bob in the current and sometimes be pushed along by the breeze. This polyp gave the things their name; someone thought it looked like a warship in full sail. The next polyp is the tentacles. These have been recorded at up to 165 feet but most sources agree that 30 feet in length is about average. The tentacles have barbs, like a harpoon, and are covered with nematocysts filled with venom. When touching human flesh the burning pain can be intense and the injected toxin will scar the skin. Depending on the number of stings and a person’s sensitivity to the toxin, a Portuguese Man of War can potential kill a human being. Especially cheerful is the fact that dead creatures washed up on shore and even free-floating tentacles in the water can continue to inflict painful stings for hours. The other two polyps control digestion and reproduction.

Portuguese Man of War eat fish up to the size of a mackerel and they frequently have parasitic fish called Nomeus that live in their tentacles, even feeding off them, for their life cycle. Some scientists speculate that the Nomeus acts as a lure which attracts larger fish to its host but is immune to the neurotoxin. The Portuguese Man of War ranges the ocean and sea waters north and south of the equator, including the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Some of the largest specimens have been seen in and around Australia and they tend to range in packs of up to 1,000. Quite a sight, as long as you’re not in the water with them.

Because the Portuguese Man of War is so often mistakenly tagged a jelly fish, the usual cures for jelly fish stings are frequently applied to the skin when a Portuguese Man of War has been encountered. In fact vinegar, urine and other ammonia based cures only make the burning sensation more pronounced and increase the possibility of scarring. Cold water or, if at all possible, ice should be applied to the affected area and the skin left out in the air rather than bandaged. The worst of the burning will usually pass within an hour but trouble with breathing or continued or increased pain or redness at the site are a good sign that medical attention is needed.

And what of our pirate scooping a Portuguese Man of War out of the water with his cutlass and dangling it in front of his captive’s face to elicit the location of some treasure or other? Well, it wouldn’t be fair to spoil all the joys of Horror on the High Seas five weeks before we’ve even begun. Besides, I’m quite certain your imaginations can give you some inkling of what a clever pirate could do with “them”.

Picture via National Geographic Animals

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Seldom So Bloody

We have discussed the perilous decision to board an enemy at sea on more than one occasion. Just the act of jumping from one ship to another could be deadly – even before you got to the angry mob on the other deck – as French privateer Rene Duguay-Trouin discusses here. But the final culmination of boarding, the hand-to-hand combat beloved by so many movies, was a rare and decidedly horrific experience. In all fairness, such a thing would probably need to be seen to be believed.

In the early days of seafaring war, boarding was far more common than in the great age of sail. Greek and Roman ships had very little else in the way of tactics aside, of course, from ramming the enemy with the purposefully exaggerated bows of their biremes and triremes. Once the ramming had taken place the ships were hopelessly entangled on most occasions and boarding was as much a necessity as a tactic. Julius Caesar commented on the “closeness” of these battles, marveling at the sailors’ abilities to do horrendous damage to each other in such a claustrophobic space. Very little about that particular aspect of boarding has changed.

Once the Byzantines started hosing down enemy ships with Greek Fire, the boarding craze slowed down. Even after the memory of such terror tactics faded, Medieval and Renaissance naval battles were more likely punctuated with rains of arrows than jumping from your ship to the other guys’. Siege mentality was high in these eras and that included fighting on the ocean.

The development of cannon increased the risk of getting alongside an enemy. Boarding continued to occur but its focus shifted. As the heyday of the buccaneers dawned, it became the outlaws that used boarding as a tactic. Since very few merchants shipped workable guns, and many small pirate ships carried few if any as well, boarding was a sensible way to secure a prize and her people. That is not to say that firearms did not come into play. Merchants might retreat to closed quarters and this meant that deadly force was necessary.

Jean Baptiste Labat, the Catholic priest who made several voyages in the 17th century Caribbean and recorded the stories of the buccaneers he came in contact with, tells of a particularly gruesome boarding involving a botched attempt at closed quarters. According to Captain Pinel of the privateering corvette Volante, his ship met a merchant off Barbados whose crew proceeded to retreat below decks. The merchant’s men did such a poor (perhaps triggered by haste) job setting up their ship that they left hatches unlocked and even a fully loaded cannon on deck. Pinel’s men had a field day with these mistakes and the merchant’s crew was broken, bloodied and burned by cannon fire and grenades, made of both metal and glass, thrown into the hold.

With the dawn of the Age of Revolution, boarding returned to the naval canon. Men like John Paul Jones and Horatio Nelson boldly went where commanders before them had feared to tread. The results, however, were still a gory mess. Frederick Marryat, who served in Nelson’s navy and later wrote of his experiences in books that foreshadowed Forrester and O’Brian, described boarding this way:

In most instances of boarding, but more especially in boarding small vessels, there is not much opportunity for what is termed hand to hand fighting. It is a rush for the deck: breast to breast, thigh to thigh, foot to foot, man wedged against man, so pressed on by those behind that there is little possibility of using your cutlass, except by driving your antagonist’s teeth down his throat with the hilt.

The picture drawn is immediate and unsettling at best. The sounds and smells that don’t get mentioned are still easily imagined. And all this while great guns and innumerable pistols blazed away and Marines picked off the enemy from the tops.

The horror was not reserved for men-of-war either. Count de Forbin, commanding a frigate of 120 souls and transporting soldiers in the 17th century, met a Dutch privateer of similar crew and arms. To French consternation, the Dutchman chose to fight to the extent that the Dutch Captain locked his ship down so that his men could not retreat below and would therefore fight, as Forbin puts it, to “the last extremity”. A horrific battle ensues, with blood saturating the Dutchman’s deck and the French growing more and more enraged at the enemy’s refusal to surrender. Forbin states that it was only through his physical intervention that some of the Dutch crew’s lives were spared. In the end, dead bodies littered the Dutch ship, her Captain and officers being among them, and Forbin writes grimly that he has “but seldom seen so bloody a boarding.”

While “Never mind maneuvers, go at them” has a nice ring to it, boarding could be a decidedly deadly business. Better to think twice and know your strengths before that fateful decision is made. Extreme cases not withstanding, a simple ruse seems far more advisable whenever a prize is sighted.

Monday, September 13, 2010

History: There's A First Time For Everything

This little paragraph appeared in the Anchorage Daily News’ “World Report” section last Friday:

NAIROBI – In a predawn raid with helicopters hovering nearby, 24 U.S. Marines scaled the sides of a hijacked ship in the Gulf of Aden Thursday, arrested the nine pirates on board and freed the German-owned cargo vessel, the Magellan Star, and its 11-member crew – all without firing a shot, the American military said. American officials said the rescue appeared to be the first time the American military had boarded a ship commandeered by Somali pirates, who have been hijacking vessel after vessel off Somalia’s coast and wreaking havoc on the shipping lanes.

As my mother is fond of saying, there’s a first time for everything.

Picture via Getty Images.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Hull

It seems fairly simple really. The hull of a ship, like the husk of an ear of corn, is its outer shell and its protection against the elements. In fact our English word hull comes from the Anglo-Saxon word hulu and the Middle English derivative hulga, both of which meant an external covering. The obvious permutations from shucking pods off peas to taking the stems out of strawberries spring readily to mind. At sea, though, things are different.

A ship’s hull is of course the ship itself minus all masts, rigging, sails etc. A ship can be said to be hull afloat when she is moving in the water in just such a circumstance basically at the mercy of tide and wave. To strike hull in a storm is to take in all sails and lash down the helm in the hope of riding out the worst of it. In this case a ship is said to lie a-hull or to be hull-to.

To hull a ship is to hit its hull with shot. This can also be termed hulling which, in another situation, can mean lying in wait for an enemy with all sail taken in.

Along the same lines a ship is hull-down when she is so far away that only her masts and sails can be seen due to the curve of the globe. A ship giving chase but wanting to remain unseen would do this throughout the day and then pull up on its prey at night, for instance. Put this concept in your novel and watch the next editor perusing it go into the “that’s impossible” rant. Good times.

A hullock of a sail is the portion that has been partially lowered in a gale. A hully is a wicker trap used for catching eels. You will remember, of course, that eels were a favorite of wealthy diners throughout the 19th century and naval officer and sailors alike enjoyed them with gusto.

And that is all about hulls for now. As noted yesterday, Triple P will resume regularly scheduled programming on Monday. Cheers until then.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Booty: Pretty Pirate Pictures Part III

As unbelievable as it may seem, Brethren, Triple P has not offered up a gaggle of pretty ladies in seafaring situations since June. That's right; it has actually been three months. Time flies. So here, once again, are a few of my favorites from the inimitable Gil Elvgren who, to my mind, has more longevity (and a better sense of humor) than Vargas ever thought of. First is the lady above in a piece entitled "Short On Sail". Ahem; among other things.
Next this young lady who, in all fairness, is only remotely nautical. But then we all know pirates love parrots, right? And parrots love crackers. Finally my very favorite: "Buried Treasure":
I've nothing more to add. Pop over to the Elvgren pinup archives for more of the same. It is unquestionably a tremendous way to spend time on the web. Let me know if you find a particular favorite you've not seen here. I'll feature her in a future Triple P Booty post.
I will be at the Alaska Writers' Guild conference all weekend so Sailor Mouth Saturday will be up either ridiculously early or woefully late and Seafaring Sunday will have to wait until the 19th. Have a great weekend and I'll spy ye in the week ahead.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

People: An Illiterate Sailor

The life story of William Phips is one of those that, if you novelized it, agents and publishers would scoff at as too amazing to be “believable”. Truth, as the philosopher said, is stranger than fiction.

According to the biography written by Cotton Mather of Salem Witch Trials fame (more on that later), Phips was born one of many children in the far northern area of the Territory of Massachusetts. The place of his birth is not named but it can be reasonable surmised that he was raised on the coast of what is now the U.S. State of Maine. Phips, who was known as Will until his fortunes changed, grew up relatively wild. His sailor father probably died at sea and his mother had all she could do to feed and cloth her huge brood. Teaching them to read was not part of the program.

By his teens, Will himself had gone to sea. He became a carpenter’s mate and was rated carpenter aboard the fishing vessels that plied the Newfoundland cod trade by the early 1670s. Reading between the lines of Mather’s stony writing one gets the impression of a gregarious and handsome young man who enjoyed his life at sea. Will was tall; “taller than most”, Mather says. And he seems to have had a way with the ladies. This particular talent would serve Phips extremely well.

Somehow, young Will met an upstanding and decidedly well-to-do Boston widow named Mary and managed to get her to agree to marry him. The couple wed in 1674 and, though Mather is specific as to Will’s age at the time – 23 – he tactfully avoids mentioning Mary’s. This leads me to wonder whether or not she may have been a “woman of a certain age”. Whatever the relationship actually amounted to, the new Mrs. Phips seems to have had great plans for her husband. She taught him how to read and write almost immediately and tried to horn him into the high society of Boston.

Society would have nothing to do with the sailor from Maine but that seems to have mattered very little to Will. At least on the surface. Some time within the first year of his marriage, Will got it into his head to go treasure hunting. And not just any treasure by half. Will planned to go “wracking” for the storied Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion. She sunk in dirty weather off the coast of Jamaica over thirty years earlier and she was reputed to have gone down with billions in treasure aboard. Mary seems to have caught the bug; probably due to Will’s almost unbelievable gift of salesmanship. She financed her husband’s trip to England, where he hoped to talk King Charles II into backing his project.

In another of the many unbelievable twists that comprise Phips’ life, he met Sir John Narborough on arriving in London. Narborough had a life long fascination with not only buccaneering and the wracking trade but the wreck of la Concepcion itself. He was an avid fan of Henry Morgan, in the modern sense of the word “fan”, and he may have hoped that being involved in Phips’ Jamaican venture would bring him not only wealth but a nod from his aging hero. He jumped on Phips’ bandwagon and introduced the young Colonist to the King. Charles bought in as well, and Phips was given a ship and crew almost miraculously.

Phips took to his new command like a fish to water. He sailed into Boston Harbor to acquire stores for his venture as if he were an Admiral aboard a flagship. He demanded that all ships in the harbor strike flags in deference to his royal commission and even fired a gun over the bow of a ship that refused to do so. A man named John Knepp, who had been purposefully put aboard Phips as a spy by Charles II, protested vehemently to anyone who would listen. Mary Phips got wind of the trouble with Knepp and advised her husband to not only curb his behavior but make very, very certain that Knepp was on his ship when he weighed anchor for Jamaica.

The appearance of propriety never fell away from Mary in this or any other of her husband’s follies. That said, it is interesting that when Knepp got wind of Mrs. Phips’ advice to her husband, he assumed that her insistence on him being aboard on route to Jamaica implied that Phips would toss him overboard in blue water. Knepp stayed in Boston and wrote a scathing report to the King as well.

Things turned ugly for Phips for awhile thereafter. His initial attempts at wracking were spoiled by mutinous uprisings and bad weather. When he returned to England for more money and a new ship in 1685, Charles II died. The new King James II had more to deal with than a sailor’s pipe dream and Phips was left without funding. Interestingly, the newly named Governor of Jamaica stepped in. Via his wife, the crazy Elizabeth, the Duke of Albemarle heard of Phips and decided to bankroll his venture. With the help of a few other backers, Will – now 34 years old – was up and running again.

Though Daniel Defoe wrote of Phips’ adventure as “… a Lottery of a Hundred Thousand to One odds”, good fortune returned to the boy from Maine. In February of 1687, Phips’ divers found the wreck they had hoped for. La Concepcion yielded up a fortune in diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and silver. The King’s portion in taxes alone amounted to well over 20 thousand pounds and the entire haul was worth more than the dying Henry Morgan had accumulated on all his raids put together. It was probably the most successful expedition in the 100 year history of the wracking trade.

Phips returned to England where he was feted at court. The King made him a knight and offered him an Earldom in Scotland complete with land and castle. William Phips, though, was more interested in returning home. He took his share of 11,000 pounds back to Boston and brought with him the King’s appointment to the position of Provost-Marshal of New England. He and Mary settled into a charming mansion on Green Lane and the Duke and Duchess of Albermarle sent Mary a gold cup worth a thousand pounds.

On May 14, 1692, William Phips was named Lord Governor of New England; the only stain on his term being his tacit approval of the horrors of the Salem Witch Trials. In the end, though, Phips lived well. And certainly that was the best revenge on all who ever snubbed him for an illiterate sailor.