Monday, April 30, 2012

History: The Halfway House

When we speak of a halfway house today we usually mean a place where people who need assistance of some kind, or perhaps parolees, live temporarily. It may come as a bit of a surprise that the term actually came from the pioneering work of one of the first coastal lifesaving associations in the world: The Massachusetts Humane Society.

The Society was founded in the 1780s, not long after the Revolutionary War (Peter H. Spectre in A Mariner’s Miscellany gives the founding year as 1789 while this website indicates 1787). The task of the Society was specific to rescuing those involved in boating accidents and shipwrecks along the shores of the vast territory of Massachusetts, which then included the modern state of Maine. This pioneering effort was the forerunner of the U.S. Life-Saving Service and, to a lesser degree, the U.S. Coast Guard. Europe would not establish such Societies until a full 35 years later when the Royal National Lifeboat Institution was founded in Britain.

The service provided by the MHS included huts along the shore that were specifically designed to allow a victim of shipwreck to take refuge while awaiting rescue. Originally known as humane or charity houses, the huts were set up at carefully chosen points along the coast that were far from inhabited areas. Spectre describes the huts as:

eight feet square by seven feet high, with a sliding door on the south side, a sliding shutter on the west and a 15-foot flagpole on the east side at the top.

The huts varied as far as accommodation. Some simply offered a built in bench to sit or lie on with straw to help the shipwrecked sailor stay warm. Others were almost luxurious by comparison, featuring a lantern with whale oil, a stove with wood and kindling, hardtack and fresh water. The flagpole was used by the survivor or survivors to raise a signal flag that would let members of the Society, who made regular checks of the huts particularly in inclement weather, know that someone was alive and needed help.

When the U.S. Life-Saving Service took over the MHS, the huts became known as Halfway Houses because they were positioned halfway between the Society’s larger life saving stations.

The modern use of the term halfway house, then, is just another example of the language of the sea making itself comfortable on land.

Header: MHS station and lifeboat in Marblehead from Lighthouse Antiques (see link above)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Botany Bay

April 29, 1770:  Captain James Cook, RN lands an English expedition in a large harbor on the coast of what will be known as Australia and names it Botany Bay.

Header: Landing of Cook at Botany Bay by Emanuel Phillips Fox c 1902 via Museum Syndicate

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Body Parts

Today Triple P’s most enduring subject, SMS, is going in a little different direction just to mix things up. Instead of focusing on one word, I offer words that on land would refer to parts of the human body. This confusion between sailor and lubber speak is not unusual, but it can be especially amusing when it hits so close to home. To make things functional, if not much easier, I’ll start at the head and end at the foot.

In the area of what would normally constitute a man’s head, there is first the brow, another word for gangplank. An eye is a loop at the end of a rope; a ship’s nose is her stem just under the bowsprit, the lower portion of which is called her chin. A cheek is one of the side pieces of a block. Lips are slightly raised portions around hatches and gratings which keep water from running off the main deck onto the decks below. Any river, harbor, bay et cetera will have what sailors refer to as a mouth where it opens up to the sea. Sails may have heads, as might masts and various other tools aboard us. The head proper, of course, is the fore part of a ship where for most of man’s history the crew’s privy was situated. Head continues to be the word for toilet aboard ship, though in most cases it has been moved to a different location.

Moving to the upper body we encounter the neck, which is the portion of an oar where the pole attaches to the blade. Throat, on the other hand, refers to the inner end of a gaff sail between the head and the luff of the sail. A chest or sea chest may also be called a locker; a metal or wooden box where men stow their gear. The portion of a sail that takes on the most wind and bulges forth as it does is known as its belly. The types of anchors that appear most familiar have two arms while an elbow is a bend or crescent in a river. A knuckle is a sharp angle in a ship’s hull. We all know a hand is one of the crew and a rib is used to frame a ship. A palm is a glove-like tool that allows a sailmaker to push a large needle through several layers of canvas.

Further down the body the waist is, of course, the central portion of any vessel. Bottom refers to the portion of a ship’s hull that sits below the waterline; one might hear seamen speak of a vessel’s “foul bottom”, in which case she is not in top sailing form and in need of careening. Butt or butt-ending is a form of planking. Knee refers to timber or iron that is bent to fit into a space and secure items together, similar to a wedge. The bottom of a mast is sometimes referred to as its heel, but this can also be called a foot which word can in turn be used when speaking of the lower part of a sail.

There are more words that correspond to body parts, and in many cases more ways to use the words we’ve just looked at, but that seems like enough for now. Fair winds and following seas, Brethren; keep your foot well heeled and an eye to her nose until next our wakes might cross.

Header: Summertime by Winslow Homer via Old Paint

Friday, April 27, 2012

Booty: Very Inspiring Blogger

To my surprise, indeed I might say amazement, Susan Ardelie who pens the fabulously entertaining Life Takes Lemons blog rendered me speechless yesterday. She bestowed upon Triple P the VIB: Very Inspiring Blogger award. Now if that don’t beat all.

Once I regained my capacity for intelligent communication, I read over the rules, rolled up my sleeves and resolved that now that someone so generous has given the nod to my work it’s time to do the same. Here’s how this goes: I am to offer up seven random facts about myself and then extend the VIB nomination to seven of my favorite blogs and bloggers. While you may prefer to skip over the first bit, Brethren, stick around for the second which will be an eclectic mix of some of the most interesting, well-researched and talent-filled spots that I’m aware of on the Interwebs.

Indulge me as I begin with the egoism:

I am a demonology nerd. I actually enjoy bending over 15th and 16th century books and cataloguing demons with which I am unfamiliar.

My secret wish is to die in New Orleans, preferably during Second Line season.

I have Menier’s syndrome, which means that my inner ear doesn’t always register correctly and I can become unsteady or dizzy suddenly. The symptoms disappear in a moving vehicle and especially on the water.

The first book I remember reading was Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar A. Poe. I think I was six.

I was an insurance executive in a past life.

My favorite movie of all time is Spartacus staring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov.

I have a familial affinity for corvids, particularly ravens and crows with whom I regularly converse to the utter humiliation of my children.

And now, with my sincerest endorsement and in no particular order, allow me to extend the VIB nomination to:

Munin’s Sketch Blog: Munin is an incredibly talented artist whose work has been featured at Triple P on more than one occasion. It is easy to get lost in the amazing worlds he creates.

The Dear Surprise: The Dear Knows writes one of the most informative blogs on the web. Not only will you learn about Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, you will indeed be immersed in the era of wooden ships and iron men.

The Horror!? Denis, who was gracious enough to do a guest post for Triple P’s last anniversary, is probably the best reviewer of movies on the web. The fact that he reviews horror, sci-fi and fantasy movies just makes it that much better. Plus, he’s an Eldritch Being so there’s that.

The World of Edgar Allan Poe: I cannot say enough about my dear friend Undine and her ongoing endeavor to expose us all to the truths about the great American genius. In her spare time, she’s a veritable C. Auguste Dupin of the literary netherworld.

Hawkman’s Blog: If you are a lover of comics, New England seaports, tough workouts, appliance destruction and opinion, look no further than Hawkman’s well written, thoughtful blog.

Pirates & Letters: The beautiful work of your hostess Marika is truly indescribable. Her calligraphy and attention to detail are breathtaking.

The Journal of Blue Lou Logan: Lou is someone I truly admire. He lives what he writes, teaching kids and grown-ups about what pirates and piracy were really like while still holding down a day job and writing a well-researched, engaging blog.

Happy Friday, Brethren! I hope that you spend a little bit of it enjoying these wonderful websites as much as I do.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Saving the Drowned

It goes without saying that drowning was always a possibility at sea and, whether we like to admit it or not in an era of harbor tours and pleasure cruises, still is. From reed fishing boats along the ancient Nile to so called unsinkable luxury liners such as the Titanic, people have lost their lives to the dark depths in their thousands throughout history.

Though the thought might surprise the modern mind, many if not most of the career sailors in the Great Age could not swim. As Patrick O’Brian notes in his Aubrey/Maturin masterpieces, there was a sort of common belief that simple drowning was better than struggling against the vast sea, only to drown anyway. This makes sense given situations like battle or storm, where no rescue would be forthcoming for the man overboard. But what of more common situations, where a man fell in while painting or doing repairs of some kind and rescue was possible?

The primary sources, such as surgeons’ diaries, are oddly silent on what was to be done with a man who had nearly drowned. That does not mean, however, that our ancestors did not know what to do in such cases.

We’ve talked about the inimitable authority Lydia Maria Child before, whose 1837 publication The Family Nurse imparts a wealth of information about the treatment of just about any ailment or injury one can think of. She spares a chapter in her book on what to do in the case of “loss of life through drowning”, and it has to be said that, with some modifications, the same procedures were applied when the unthinkable occurred aboard ship.

Mrs. Child’s foremost concern in a case of drowning is getting the victim warm. “… restore natural warmth, by hot and stimulating applications,” she says in no uncertain terms, even using italics to make her point clear. She warns that the “body” should be carried “in as natural a posture as possible” with the head lifted up. Wet clothes should be removed immediately, the victim placed in a warm bed, and warmed items such as bricks wrapped in flannel should be applied to “the bowels and feet.” The skin should be rubbed vigorously with “course cloth”; Mrs. Child highly recommends flannel mittens.

These are the initial treatments; Mrs. Child does not get around to addressing water in the throat or lungs or even breathing until after she has her patient on the road to warming up. Then she says:

Snuff or ginger [may be] blown up the nose… A strong person may hold his nostrils and blow his breath into the patient’s mouth with all his force; if the chest rises, desist from blowing, and press the breast and belly, so as to expel the air again; this operation may be repeated, in imitation of natural breathing.

The obvious comparison to modern mouth-to-mouth resuscitation goes without saying. Mrs. Child even stresses the importance of continuing the procedure despite the lack of immediate response. “Blowing into the lungs, &c., should be tried, and long persevered in.”

Once the victim is sensible enough to swallow, vomiting may be induced. This is a typical reaction of the era, where purging of some kind was used as a virtual panacea, but Mrs. Child is careful to instruct that emetics should not be used. “It is safer to induce vomiting by tickling the throat with an oiled feather.” In fact, the violent act of throwing up would probably have helped, at least somewhat, to expel water trapped in the lungs.

Mrs. Child notes that there is a good possibility of upper respiratory congestion and fever. Here, she recommends bleeding and, perhaps more soundly, rest and the administration of flax-seed tea with “a few grains of ipecac in it, may be given to loosen the cough.”

With few exceptions, the advice given by Mrs. Child is sound. A person suffering “lose of life” by drowning could indeed be saved but, as with so many other things, practical knowledge would be necessary to affect a positive outcome.

Header: The Battle of the Chesapeake 1781 by Patrick O’Brien via Marine Artists

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

People: Sketch of the Poet as a Buccaneer

The Elizabethan author Thomas Lodge is, perhaps unfortunately, not much remembered today. He had a lovely, lyric style that is available for anyone to enjoy via Google books (here for instance) and he inspired that most admired of all Elizabethan writers, William Shakespeare, to a tremendous degree. So highly was the Bard won over by Lodge that he borrowed from the latter’s romance Rosalynde when writing As You Like It (all you writers out there can interpret that as you will).

Though some, particularly in academic circles, are familiar with Lodge’s writing to this day, few remember his second life as a freebooter in the great age of Elizabethan sea dogs.

Lodge was born some time in 1557 or perhaps 1558 to a man who would shortly become Lord Mayor of London, also Thomas Lodge. The family was clearly in the comfortable middle class and some historians say that Lodge pere was a grocer. Whatever his original profession, the Lord Mayor clearly held high hopes for his son. Lodge fils was educated, according to Britannica online, at Merchant Taylors’ School and Trinity College, Oxford. After that, he went on to study law graduating some time around 1579. This was when his first pamphlets began to appear. One was aimed at a scornful review of the mania for stage plays, and the other, An Alarum Against Usurers, was a warning to the young and rich against the moneylenders of London.

This second piece appeared in 1584, the same year that Lodge signed on with Captain Clarke for a freebooting expedition to the Azores and the Canaries. According to Philip Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who, Lodge was neither seaman nor buccaneer and spent most of his time below decks writing. In a letter quoted by Gosse, Lodge writes of this adventure:

Having with Captain Clarke made a voyage to the Islands of Terceras and the Canaries, to beguile the time with labour, I writ this book, rough, as hatched in the storms of the ocean, and feathered in the surges of perilous seas.

Lodge returned to England in 1590, apparently a little richer but one must imagine not by much as he signed on for another piratical expedition in August of 1591, this time with Sir Thomas Cavendish aboard the galleon Desire. Lodge’s book writ rough would have to wait.

Cavendish took Desire to Brazil where he and his men raided small seaside towns. Their most remarkable escapade occurred at the town of Santa, where they raided the locals’ homes while they were all at Mass. It seems that the town either suited the Desires or their ship needed looking after as, again according to Gosse, they stayed from December 15 to January 22, 1592. While there, Lodge took up residence in the local Jesuit College and “spent his time amongst the books in the library of the Fathers.”

Desire would have a perilous journey home and with little to show for it. The skeleton crew of sixteen men who finally put in to port in Ireland on June 11, 1593 were all in poor shape and none the wealthier for their adventures.

The cruise with Cavendish would be the last of Thomas Lodge’s attempts at making money through piracy. He published A Maragarite of America, about the star-crossed love affair of a Peruvian prince and a daughter of Acadia, in 1596 and though it is well remembered today the book did poorly at the time. Perhaps crestfallen, Lodge set out for France.

At Avignon the former sea dog converted to Catholicism, studied medicine and graduated from the University of Avignon in 1598. The rest of his life would be dedicated to healing. He returned to London but was forced to flee following the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Returning to England in 1612, he hung out his shingle in London once again. Thomas Lodge met his end in 1625. Tradition tells us that he died of plague contracted while ministering to London’s poor. A noble end for a poet turned, however briefly, buccaneer.

Header: Sketch of an Elizabethan nobleman via inacentaur

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ships: Commodore Patterson's Own

Today is officially the end of NOLA Navy Week, but the celebration of the U.S.’s victory in the War of 1812 will continue until January of 2015. To commemorate the end of a week of ships and sailors down on the bayou, I’d like to offer a brief overview of the two American ships that helped General Jackson defeat the British on Chalmette plain.

Both Louisiana, a purpose-built sloop of war rated for 16 guns, and Carolina, a schooner of 14 guns, were under-manned when Daniel Tod Patterson, then Commodore of the New Orleans Naval Station, took over their command in 1814. Carolina was largely crewed by New Englanders fresh from merchant service, none of who had much if any experience working artillery. Louisiana, on the other hand, was a ghost ship. Thanks to the raid on the Laffite brothers’ Baratarian strong hold in September, both ships were full to bursting with guns, ordinance and black powder. What they had in might, however, they lacked in men.

This was, in large part, due to Andrew Jackson’s reluctance to include those “hellish banditti” from Barataria among his forces. The sailors and artillerists from Grande Terre were either imprisoned along with Dominique Youx, who was bent under heavy chains in the Calabozo, or in hiding for fear of joining their brethren. The Laffites themselves were far to the north in Donaldsonville. Renato Beluche, one of the luckier of the privateers, had managed to get his ship La Popa away from those captured by Patterson as they cruised toward the Balize.

By November there was no question that the British were on their way to New Orleans with their battle cry for the attack being “beauty and booty.” Even the Ursuline sisters in their sheltered convent knew what that was about. Patterson could not reasonable find capable men to crew Louisiana and work Carolina’s guns on such short notice; all the merchant ships who could had left the area taking the local sailors with them. He was shrewd enough to know not to cut off his own nose to spite his face, however – even if Jackson wasn’t – and we can reasonable imagine that it was the Commodore who began the dialogue about using the Baratarians to crew the American ships.

If Patterson did start the dialogue it probably wasn’t with General Jackson, at least at first. He would have been swatted away like a fly at that point. Knowing that, it’s probable that Patterson instead approached Louisiana Governor William C. C. Claiborne and Jackson’s aid, personal friend and long-time resident of NOLA, attorney Edward Livingston. Somehow these men managed to change Old Hickory’s mind. The Baratarians were released from prison and their warrants set aside, provided they agreed to serve either aboard ship or by land. Legend even speaks of a covert meeting between Jackson and the Laffite brothers. This initial meeting was, if it ever happened, so secretive in fact that we have no reasonable historical record of where or even when it took place.

Regardless, Patterson had the seasoned men he needed and just in time. As the British hunkered down on Villere plantation, Carolina and Louisiana slipped down the Mississippi, dropped their anchors and began a near constant bombardment of the enemy. British soldiers, already soaked through by the cold, December rains, were made even more miserable by the constant cannon fire. The threat of death or dismemberment from the persistent guns made it impossible for the British even to build fires to cook over or keep warm by.

Eventually, the British got lucky. Their own guns were trained on the ships, using shot heated before being placed in the cannons, and they hit Carolina’s powder magazine. She literally blew up and sank where she sat. Surprisingly, only one man was lost.

Louisiana kept up the bombardment, which assisted the work of the artillerists on Rodriguez Canal. Toward the end of the high-pitched battle on January 8, 1815, the British managed to cross the river and head up the west bank bent on taking Louisiana and turning her guns on Jackson’s line. Louisiana packed on her sails but found herself in an unfortunate and ill-timed dead calm. Patterson, an able and seasoned seaman, did not let a lack of wind deter him. Within minutes he had men in boats literally rowing Louisiana out of harm’s way via her cables. Moments later the British forces surrendered to Jackson.

Louisiana continued in the service until 1821, when she was broken up and some of her timbers used on other ships.

Both the schooner Carolina and the sloop Louisiana, under Patterson’s capable command, figured prominently in the U.S. victory at the Battle of New Orleans. And their crews, whose names are largely forgotten today, came not just from Yankee shores but from the ranks of those “hellish banditti” whom New Orleans always embraced.

Header: U.S. schooner Alligator, whose lines and sails were similar to those of her contemporary, Carolina

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Hanged by the Neck

April 22, 1722:  The last living members of pirate Bartholomew Roberts' crew were hanged after trial at Cape Coast Fortress, Africa.

Header: Making Chase by Don Maitz

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Seaman

This is a term seldom bestowed among seafaring men upon their associates, unless they are known to be pre-eminent in every duty of the thorough-paced tar; one who never issues a command which he is not competent to execute himself, and is deemed an authority on every matter relating to sea-craft.

Thus begins Admiral Smyth’s definition of the often improperly used word seaman in The Sailor’s Word Book. In the terms used by seasoned mariners, a seaman in a sailor’s sailor. Almost without fail he is an officer who has come up through the ranks, if not starting out there, he has at least spent time as a foremast jack where he learned to heave a lead and haul a cable like any other tar. In his capacity of command he has not lost the memory of those days and, indeed, continues to embrace the work of running a ship. He pushes on the capstan, reefs the sails and works the pumps alongside those he commands. He is sound in judgment; no flogging captain has ever been called a seaman. This type of commander runs a happy ship.

From the annals of history, the names of such captains tend to spring to mind more readily than those of a different nature. Horatio Nelson, James Cook and Thomas Cochrane are all premier examples when discussing the Royal Navy. On the other side of the Atlantic, John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur and David Porter are names that only scratch the surface of such a list. Then too, perhaps to many’s surprise, there were such men among pirates and privateers: Bartholomew Roberts, for instance, was known as an artist, the word used in his era for an expert navigator, and a sober if initially reluctant captain. Woodes Rogers was a right seaman as well, and I would be remiss as an admirer and a descendant to go without including the Baratarians Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche.

In mentioning those last two names, which I always do fondly, the perhaps unfamiliar term seaman-gunner comes to mind. This is a man who has such thorough knowledge of guns and artillery that he is well qualified to both lead a gun crew and train men to the guns. As both men proved on Rodriguez canal that fateful week in 1814-1815, they were both veteran seamen-gunners.

Seamanship is, as Admiral Smyth advises:

The noble practical art of rigging and working a ship, and performing with effect all her various evolutions at sea.

Finally, albeit reluctantly, I must mention that to this day the seaman’s disgrace is another term for that worst case scenario known as a foul – now frequently spoken as fouled – anchor. And a shame it is, too.

Happy Saturday, Brethren; may you all, in your lifetimes or only shortly after, be remembered by your peers as able seaman.

Header: Crow’s Nest by Scott Waddell via American Gallery

Friday, April 20, 2012

Booty: NOLA Navy Week

Since I’m still more “under the weather” (another nautical term) than not, I’m going to let some remarkable and breathtaking pictures do the talking today.

NOLA Navy Week is in full swing down in my ancestral neck of the woods. Beginning last Tuesday, the celebration kicks off the three year commemoration of the United States' second battle for independence, the War of 1812. The festivities will wrap up in 2015, coming full circle and back to NOLA to remember the climactic Battle of New Orleans. A quick salute here to Triple P favorites – and in some cases relatives – present and participating at the battle: Pierre and Jean Laffite, Dominique Youx, Renato Beluche, George Ross, Vincent Gambi, General Humbert and, of course, Andrew Jackson.

With that, allow me to offer these pictures from the Times-Picayune via of some of the gorgeous ships coming in to celebrate with all of New Orleans. Note in particular the men of Ecuador’s beautiful tall ship Guayas, saluting the city from her crosstrees.

Tall ship festivals and Navy weeks are planned at port cities around the U.S. throughout the commemoration. Check your local schedules as far as nearby ports or follow the U.S. Navy on Twitter for continuing updates.

Fair winds to you and to those who sailed before us; rest well, Brethren.

Header: The glorious USCGC Eagle coming into port at New Orleans with the help of a trusty tug via Military Feed

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Women at Sea: Scourge of the Vikings

In the great era of Viking piracy which today we tend to think of as “The Dark Ages”, the British Isles were a favorite spot for Norsemen to spend some time raiding, pillaging and generally making mayhem. It’s a rare occasion when the tables were turned, and today’s oft-forgotten piece of history is made even rarer for the fact that it was a woman who turned those proverbial tables.

The woman in question is known by the tongue-twisting name of Aelfgifu of Northampton or, less frequently, Northumberland. She was born some time in the late 10th century – most scholars put her birth date around 990 – to a wealthy and powerful Saxon family. She grew up in privilege and was probably taught to do more than the usual castle management. Her father, Aelfhelm, was a tribal chief who was eventually slaughtered by a rival clan who was probably either of Viking lineage or in league with the marauding denizens of Swein Forkbeard, the high chief of the Danes.

One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written after Aelfgifu’s death says that she had three brothers who were either killed or blinded in the same conquest. Either way, Aelfgifu lost a good deal of personal status and doubtless her marriage prospects – at least locally – fell.

Enter Swein Forkbeard, who swooped in some time around 1013 and claimed all of Northern England. This included the territory which had once been Aelfhelm’s. Along with Swein, or perhaps even in his stead, was his son Cnut. Now remembered in English history as King Canute, Cnut was a strapping warrior who may very well have had an eye for the ladies. Vikings being notoriously fond of girls from the British Isles, it should come as no surprise that Cnut took Aelfgifu as something akin to a wife. What her exact status was in his household remains debatable to this day, but we’ll discuss that further in a bit.

The two seem to have settled in amicably while Swein went on to become high chief in England. His seemingly sudden death in February of 1014 created a point of tension both historically and personally for Cnut and Aelfgifu. Aethelred, later known as the Unready, showed up from the south claiming that Cnut had no rights in England, and he brought the military strength to back up his bluster.

Cnut was forced to flee to Denmark, leaving Aelfgifu and their infant son Swein in England. The setback was only temporary, however; by the spring of 1016 Cnut had reclaimed England and the unfortunate Aethelred the Unready was dead. At this point, Aelfgifu was living in Denmark and pregnant once again, so it may have come as a bit of a shock that her “husband” officially married Aethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, later that year.

As Timothy Bolten, in his 2007 paper on Aelfgifu, points out the new family arrangement was problematic in the extreme. Though Cnut’s official marriage to Emma (who is called Aelfgifu in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) made his claim to England’s throne more legitimate, it created a potential firestorm of family feuding upon his death. Not only did his sons by Aelfgifu of Northampton, Swein and newly born Harold Harefoot, have claim to England so too did Emma’s sons by Aethelred, Alfred and Edward. To make things even more confusing, Emma would later bare Cnut’s son Harthacnut.

At some point before 1020, Aelfgifu returned to England to live in Cnut’s household along with her children, his “official” wife and queen, and Emma’s children as well. Of course the idea of multiple wives and concubinage was less eyebrow-raising in 1020 than it would be now, but the atmosphere even in this Saxon palace must have been remarkably tense. It may be telling that in 1030 Cnut declared his son Swein King of Norway and named the boy’s mother as his protector and regent, shipping them both off in a flotilla of long boats to the Viking heartland.

She immediately set up a lavish court on the North Sea and began a virtual reign of terror on her son’s people. She raised taxes to a back breaking level, possibly as high as 80% of income per household, and sent military forces to collect on the unpaid portions. The 5 year period of her tyranny was so memorable that it remains recorded in Norse poetry as a time when men “ate ox’s food” and chewed on rinds “like goats.” Ultimate power may corrupt ultimately but one has to wonder if the old adage about a woman scorned isn’t more appropriate in Aelfgifu’s case.

The Viking people were not accustomed to being bullied, and they rose up in 1035 to chase Aelfgifu and the unfortunate Swein, who died of a battle wound, out of Norway. Banished to Denmark and now alone in the world, Aelfgifu was informed that Cnut was also dead. She hurried back to England and strove with all her underhanded might to set her son Harold on the throne. She managed to succeed for a brief two years but as clever and ruthless as Aelfgifu may have been, she had met her match in Emma of Normandy.

The Queen of England began a smear campaign against her hated rival so thorough and lasting that it is passed off as history to this day. The so called Encomium Emma has come down to us as the Queen’s biography. In this contemporary document, doubtless written with Emma’s guidance, Aelfgifu is dismissed as a deceptive harlot who never really married Cnut. Not only that but both of her sons were neither Cnut’s nor hers. She schemed to have lower-class infants brought into her home when she and Cnut were apart and passed them off as both his and hers.

Emma’s son Edward, known as the Confessor, went on to seize the throne of England and Aelfgifu, the determined, powerful and ruthless first wife of King Canute, disappeared into the fog of history. All the same, the Norse remember “Aelfgifu’s time” when a Saxon woman brought them to heel.

Header: Emma of Normandy and her sons, illustration from a manuscript c 1100

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Titanic Provisions

I've avoided addressing the 100th year anniversary of the sinking of the White Star luxury liner RMS Titanic, which came and went on Sunday, here at Triple P. If I’m honest, I don’t believe in romanticizing sloppy seamanship that, when push came to shove, degenerated into murder.

All that said, I did find this interesting tidbit in Peter H. Spectre’s 2010 The Mariner’s Book of Days which gave me pause. If no other thing makes you realize just how many souls suffered on that fateful night in 1912, the list of provisions from Titanic’s maiden and final voyage certainly does:

Fresh meat: 75,000 lbs
Fresh fish: 11.000 lbs
Salt and dried fish: 4,000 lbs
Bacon and ham: 7,500 lbs
Poultry and game: 25,000 lbs
Fresh eggs: 40,000 lbs
Sausages: 2,500 lbs
Sweetbreads: 1,000 lbs
Ice cream: 1,750 qts
Coffee: 2,200 lbs
Tea: 800 lbs
Rice, dried beans, etc.: 10,000 lbs
Sugar: 10,000 lbs
Flour: 200 barrels
Cereals: 10,000 lbs
Oranges: 36,000
Lemons: 16,000
Hothouse grapes: 1,000 lbs
Fresh milk: 1,500 gallons
Fresh cream: 1,200 qts
Condensed milk: 600 gallons
Fresh butter: 6,000 lbs
Grapefruit: 50 boxes
Lettuce: 7,000 heads
Tomatoes: 2.75 tons
Fresh asparagus: 800 bundles
Fresh green peas: 2,250 lbs
Onions: 3,500 lbs
Potatoes: 40 tons
Jam and marmalade: 1,120 lbs
Beer and stout: 20,000 bottles
Wine: 1,500 bottles
Mineral water: 15,000 bottles
Spirits: 850 bottles

From this list, it is easy to speculate as far as the wide differences in diet from first class to steerage.  While some of those lemons and oranges may have been doled out to Third Class, it's certain they never saw a hot house grape just as First Class saw very little - aside from the occasional kipper - of those dried fish or beans.

Header: White Star Line poster c 1911

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Rising States Meets Terrible

Apr. 15th: Light Aires and Fair Weather: at 7 PM saw 2 Sails Bearing NbE: to the SoWard at 5 AM Saw a Sail on the Lee Quarter Ware and gave chase Sett all Sails & chase bore away and Set all Sails She could Perceived her to be a Brigg. At 9 saw a French Man of War to Windward She hoisted her Colours We hoisted ours we in full chase at 12 hoisted our colors and fired a Shot at the chase at 12 she hoisted American Colours fired several shots at her at noon she fired two stern Chaces at us, continued the chase.

Apr. 16th: Still in chase Fired several shots at her Chase struck her colours and Shortened Sail, we began to take in our Sails brought to as did the chase. Hoisted our Boat and sent an Officer on Board She proved to be an American Privateer Brigg called the Rising States, Capt Thompson Commander Carr, 12 six pounders eight of which she had hove overboard chased and 61 men She had taken three English vessels.

~ from the log of Captain Richard Bickerton, 74-gun HMS Terrible, 1777

Header: Continental Navy Jack c 1777 which may have been the “American Colours” spoken of by Captain Bickerton

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Fair

While a fair maid is familiar to us all, for the most part anyway, not all of us are exactly sure what “fair winds” might be. Or, for that matter, how common the use of the word is in shipbuilding. Let us get more familiar today, then, with the word fair as it applies to ships, winds and fish.

Fair in ship building relates to the regularity or evenness with which planking and siding have been cut and applied. This relates to both her curves and lines and applies not only to the functionality but to the attractiveness of a ship as well. The shipwright may cut the timbers fair, leaving them with a straight, soft edge. A line might be used to measure a fair curve at bow or midsection. Fairing is another word for the draught of a ship, speaking as well to the points of her curves and the loveliness of her lines.

One might overhear talk of fair leads and fair-leaders aboard a tall ship. This is in reference to her rope and tackle. Ropes are spoken of as leading fair when they move through a block with the least possible friction upon them. A fair-leader might be a form of iron ring with an outer cavity to hold a rope, otherwise known as a thimble. In other instances, it is a piece of planking drilled with holes which rigging may be run through to keep it separated and easily identified.

Fairway is another name for a channel or river leading in and out of a harbor. In some instances a pilot might be employed to navigate such waterways, turning a common fairway into a pilot’s fairway. A ship is herself said to have fairway when she is moving along the proper course out of such a channel.

Fair weather is the dream of all who sail and means not the landsman’s sunny and bright, but such favorable winds as to require only the common small sails of any given ship.

Fair, in relation to wind, means that it is blowing a ship in the direction of her charted course. Were the winds blowing the other way – making tacking necessary – they would be said to blow foul. A wind blowing fair is distinguished from a wind blowing large. The latter blows more specifically off the beam or quarter of a ship and, while nothing to be sneered at, is less favorable for most sailers than a fair wind.

Finally, the fair maid we first spoke of may not always be the barkeep’s daughter or that lass you’ve stowed on the gun deck. As Admiral Smyth relates, a fair-maid is an English west country term for dried pilchard.

Happy Saturday, Brethren; fair winds to you all, be you aboard a majestic ship-of-the-line or a steadfast pirogue, and safe home again.

Header: Three Frigates by Geoff Hunt

Friday, April 13, 2012

Booty: New Technology Meets Ancient Wisdom

Once again the First Mate is looking after both me personally and the Brethren who stop by to see what’s new here at Triple P. He recently sent me this short but fascinating piece from Robert Krulwich over at NPR, and what a lot of contemplation one or two amazing pictures can inspire.

The article focuses on NASA’s pictures of the effect of wind on our world’s oceans, gulfs and seas and what amazing – if not all together surprising – discoveries they reveal. From the article:

Most of the surface currents in the ocean are shaped by wind. In this visualization from the folks at NASA, the ocean is rich with lazy spirals that move in great circular sweeps (called “gyres”) clockwise in the northern hemisphere, counterclockwise in the south.

Krulwich goes on to comment on the embedded video:

I like watching the Gulf Stream roar past the tip of Florida… all white and purposeful, heading up the North American coast… Then there’s the equator, which in this version seems almost wall-like.

NASA has confirmed through high tech photography what sailors have always known: the wind works the ocean. How many ships has that eponymously named Stream carried, almost effortlessly, from the Gulf of Mexico across the Atlantic to Europe? How many ships have found themselves confounded in the hot, fresh-waterless dead calm of the equator? A new face upon old wisdom confirms what the sons and the daughters of Neptune never doubted.

Krulwich ends on what he must imagine is a sad note, and it is on several levels, discussing the so called Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is a rotating, slightly submerged cluster of man-made castoffs located between California and Hawai’i. His final sentence sums up his opinion:

And what does it say about us that our first human mark is a splat that feels like we’ve dropped some mud onto a van Gogh painting?

While the point is illustrative, I would argue that it diminishes out brave, capable, seafaring ancestors. Our first human mark on the world’s oceans was not garbage, but discovery through the birth of a floating, sustainable world that could lose sight of land and then find it again. Phoenician ships, Norse longboats, Polynesian outriggers, Inupiat kayaks; the list goes on and on. While we surely need to clean up our messes – for all our sakes – let us not forget what we have done and continue to do well: respect the ocean and the wind.

Click over and watch the video when you have a moment. It truly is breathtaking.

Header: Ocean “gyres” via NASA and NPR

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Rates and Classes

The navy of England may be divided into three sorts, of which the one serveth for the wars, the other for burthen, and the third for fishermen which get their lyving from fishing on the sea. ~ William Harrison, English topographer and canon of Windsor writing in 1587

Separating out ships in the service by class has been undertaken since ancient times. The Minoans classed their vessels basically as military, non-military and pirate (a telling point there). The Romans had three classes as well: naves longae (warships), naves onerariae (merchant vessels) and naves liburnae (pleasure yachts). It wasn’t until the Great Age of Sail, however, that the breakdown of classifications became more intricate.

The system of rating ships, which anyone familiar with nautical literature has doubtless encountered, began in the Royal Navy of the Georgian era, or just before. In this system ships were assigned a “rate” based on the number of guns they could carry on average. Thus the following list:

First Rate: a ship-of-the-line carrying 100 or more guns
Second Rate: the same carrying 90 to 98 guns
Third Rate: the same carrying 64 to 80 guns
Fourth Rate: a frigate carrying 50 to 60 guns
Fifth Rate: the same carrying 32 to 40 guns
Sixth Rate: the same carrying 20 to 28 guns
Sloop: a two masted vessel carrying 16 to 18 guns
Cutter: a one or two masted vessel carrying up to 14 guns

It should be remembered that any given ship carried an even number of guns, but even with this in mind, things could get muddled pretty fast. A sloop of war might carry twenty guns, bumping her technically up into the Sixth Rate category. Likewise, a sturdy frigate might bare 66 guns and join the Third Rates. As the mid-19th century approached it became clear that the old rating system established by the Royal Navy was no longer complete much less workable.

In 1858 the U.S. Congress passed an act to define ships in the navy by classes, a system that in some ways harkened back to ancient times. The classes identified a ship by her profession rather than her fire power. Thus ships could be broken out into groups that were then defined even more. Combat ships, fleet support, patrol ships and supply ships all got initials behind their names such as FF for frigate and PC for coastal patrol. A much more involved version of these classifications continues in use today; find a full list here at the U.S. Navy website.

The more things change, of course, the more they stay the same. A CVN, or nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, is still the daughter of a First Rate ship-of-the-line and the granddaughter of the Roman naves longae. It just takes a lot more sturdy hands to run her.

Header: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle by John M. Barber (click to enlarge to enjoy all the incredible detail of this painting commissioned for the 2012 Tall Ship festival)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Books: A Manual for Victory

HMS Victory, arguably the most famous man-of-war built during the Georgian era, didn’t come with an operating manual. The iron men who sailed her didn’t need one. They knew what they were up to, certainly almost to a man, and gave her life through the work of their muscles and bones. She was and is a remarkable vessel, and to some degree a shrine. It was upon her deck and in her orlop that the immortal Horatio Nelson saw victory – and death – and Trafalgar.

All that said, a guide to owning and maintaining HMS Victory couldn’t hurt, even at this late date. That is exactly what author Peter Goodwin and Haynes Publishing Group came out with on February 4th: the first ever fully illustrated and impeccably accurate guide to one of the oldest and most iconic sailing ships in the world.

As noted in the press release from Haynes:

With the aid of specially commissioned photographs and an authoritative narrative, the reader is taken below decks to discover the innermost workings of the warship. There are chapters on how to sail an 18th century man-of-war, gunnery and tactics, and the [$2.5 million] conservation program that will ensure she continues to be a top visitor attraction well into the 21st century.

The book, as noted, was written by Peter Goodwin who is a former Royal Navy marine engineer and an expert on sailing and ships of Nelson’s navy. Fans of the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World will be familiar with Goodwin’s expertise; he was an advisor on technical points during production and post-production of the film.

The book is available online at an extremely reasonable $23.73 U.S. It really is a must-have for anyone interested in any of the subjects which, throughout history, have touched the beautiful HMS Victory.

Finally as an aside, and with no offence intended to the British Brethren, the press release notes Victory is “the world’s oldest commissioned warship.” In fact, she is the world’s oldest commissioned warship not actively sailing. The oldest commissioned warship still on the high seas is USS Constitution. I’m splitting hairs, perhaps, but it is a small matter of pride for those of us who have some connection to the U.S. Navy which, in all fairness, is the daughter of the Royal Navy.

Header: HMS Victory In Battle by Chris N. Wood via Artists Harbour

Monday, April 9, 2012

People: The Man Who Would Build Empires

On this day in 1682, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, claimed the Mississippi basin for France and named it La Louisiane in honor of King Louis XIV. This story has been told and retold to the point where much of the truth has been lost and Cavelier now is framed as a hero. In fact he was an obstreperous, power-mad individual whose personal strength was sometimes all that got him through.

Born to a comfortable bourgeois family in November of 1643, Cavelier grew up in Rouen at his parents’ estate which was named La Salle. The family was not of the nobility, but Cavelier would eventually be granted a minor peerage that made him the seigneur of a small estate on Montreal Island in modern day Canada.

Initially, Cavelier felt a calling to the priesthood. He entered the novitiate with the Society of Jesus in 1658 and took vows as a Jesuit priest in 1660. His hope was to be assigned to a mission in New France but his superiors thought better of such a plan. Cavelier was particularly accused of “inquietus”, unsteadiness and lack off good judgment, according to his biographer Celine Dupre (find her excellent discussion of Cavelier, to which I am much indebted, here). The Jesuits were not about to send someone with such an unsettled spirit out into the wild. As it turns out, they knew whereof they spoke.

By 1667, Cavelier had had enough of the priesthood. On March 28th he left the Jesuits behind and later in the same year sailed for Canada. He arrived in Montreal before November and attached himself to the missionary order of Sulpicians. It was this order that would grant him his siegneury.

Certain that he could be the one to locate the Ohio River and with it the fabled Northwest passage, Cavelier embarked on a hastily put together expedition into the wilds beyond Montreal (then called Ville-Marie) in July of 1669. Deacon Brehant de Galinee, who was along on the expedition as cartographer, would later write:

M. de La Salle, who said that he understood the Iroquois perfectly, and had learned all these things from them as a result of the perfect knowledge that he had of their language, did not know it at all, and was undertaking this voyage almost blindly, without knowing where he was going.

That single sentence presciently summed up all of Cavelier’s future undertakings, in the wilderness and back home in France. He groped his way around the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes, building forts and ships as he went, travelling by canoe, horse and on foot as necessary to satisfy his almost megalomaniacal goal to be the one explorer who could claim discovery of both the origin of the Ohio River and the end point of the Mississippi. In the process, he would abuse and even kill men who did not follow his express orders, start wars between Native tribes and enrage both the clergy and the French crown. His commitment to his own righteousness knew no bounds and he slogged on through weather, disease, starvation and loss to finally dawn his trademark scarlet coat and claim La Louisiane for France.

Called back to the mother country to account for his adventuring, Cavelier, with a straight face, fictionalized the location of the Mississippi delta. The map he had drawn up moved the outlet of the river some 250 leagues to the west, making it appear to dump into the Gulf of Mexico not far from the modern city of Galveston, Texas. As d’Irberville, who would later found the city of New Orleans, noted dismissively, “M. de la Salle [was] a man who passed for being clever…”

Louis XIV, believing Cavelier’s nonsense and wanting to make inroads into the vast territories accumulated by Spain, sent Cavelier back to America to found a city at the imaginary mouth of the Mississippi. With three ships, including the now famous La Belle, Cavelier set out for the coast of Texas, finally dropping anchor in Matagorda Bay in February of 1685. With him were a number of colonists, women and children included, who immediately knew deprivation thanks to the disastrous foundering of their provision ship, Aimable.

Unphased by the setback, Cavelier immediately put his people to hard labor building Fort Saint-Louis. Several men died during the construction, and grumbling among the settlers at the ineptitude of Cavelier grew louder when La Belle – their only way out of an increasingly horrible situation – sank in Matagorda Bay.

Meanwhile, Cavelier took a party of men and set off to try to find a branch of the Mississippi, which he was still convinced must be nearby. When the party lost their canoes they continued on foot through torrential rains that made exploration and even making a fire next to impossible. Fed up with the insults Cavelier heaped on them at every turn, a small group used a dispute over the meat of a bison to take down their leader. As Cavelier approached the group, who had just chopped up his priest, servant and Native guide with an axe, they shot him through the head. Unsatisfied with so easy a death evidently, the men stripped Cavelier’s body and left it exposed. On their way back to Fort Saint-Louis, the men would turn on one another, killing each other one by one. Needless to say, Cavelier’s Fort Saint-Louis failed.

The Sieur de La Salle’s legacy, as the explorer who mapped out – however erroneously – the Mississippi basin remains to this day. As Dupre notes, “few historical personages are more difficult to judge than La Salle.” He was both physically capable and closed minded to anyone else’s wants or needs. His striving for empire building eventually got him killed, and who knows what might have become of him otherwise.

Header: Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle via Wikimedia

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: On Galilee's Sea

April 8, 1848: A fleet of prefabricated boats, built for the U.S. Navy and intended to explore the Dead Sea, were launched at Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.  The boats had been hauled overland from the Mediterranean by camels.

Header: Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Tide

A regular periodical current of waters, setting alternately in a flux and reflux; it is owing to the attraction of the sun and moon, but chiefly the latter.

Thus begins Admiral Smyth’s discussion of the word tide in The Sailor’s Word Book. Obviously, tides and tidal fluctuations are an integral part of sailing, but just how many kinds of tides there are and how they can potentially effect a ship is somewhat daunting.

The word itself comes to us from the Anglo-Saxon tid which originally meant season or hour. A vestige of this usage remains in English when we speak of times of the year or day as in the examples given by Webster’s: Eastertide or eventide. The old proverb “Time and tide wait for no man” originally referred to hours of the day (time) and seasons of the year (tide) but for most of us that meaning has long since been forgotten. We now approach the proverb as a seaman might; for the tide will not wait and you better be aboard ship when it is time to weigh anchor or you’ll be left ashore.

Small ships can tide, using the word as a verb. This indicates working up or down a river with the tide and weighing anchor when the tide turns. This is possible for larger ships only in the mightiest rivers on earth; the Mississippi is a good example. Along the same lines, a bay that can only be entered by ships when the tide is in flux is known as a tidal harbor.

When a sandbar encloses a bay or harbor, it is often the case that ships can only come and go when the tide is high. To again refer to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, an example of such a “bar harbor” is Barataria Bay; no wonder it was so popular with pirates. In such cases, ships may refer to what is known as a tide ball. This float, similar to a buoy, is set out as a marker. When the tide is too low, it rests on the bar; when the tide is high, it floats freely. These are generally tethered by a cable either to a stake in the bar or on land.

Similarly, a tide gage can be used from the ship itself to measure the height of the tide.

Rip tides are familiar to anyone who has been to a beach. These are generally caused by two currents meeting and conflicting. Curiously, these can occur at sea but tend to have little if any effect on a ship’s course.

A ship is said to be in a tide rode when she is moved about while at anchor by the tide. This is obviously a different situation than a wind rode, when the anchored vessel veers due to wind.

Tide way is what a ship looks for in a river to move her out toward the ocean. This is the channel in the river where the tide runs the most strongly and is usually – but not always – toward the center of the river. Tide work is the amount of progress a ship makes in such a favorable tide. However, tide work can also indicate necessary cleaning or repairs done to a ship when the tide has left her either completely or partially out of the water for the period of its ebb.

As a point of interest, the highest and fastest tides in the world are seen at the Bay of Fundy in Canada. Contrarily, the lowest and most sluggish are in the Mediterranean.

And that is enough of tides for one day. Happy Saturday, Brethren; fair winds and good tide way to one and all.

Header: Beached by Dennis M. Bunker via American Gallery

Friday, April 6, 2012

Booty: Making WAVES

On March 17th I tweeted one of my favorite #Onthisday tweets to commemorate the founding of the U.S. Navy WAVES corps. On March 17, 1917, the U.S. Navy allowed women to join their ranks – officially – for the first time in history. The WAVES, which stands for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, became an integral if secondary part of navy service and the corps was particularly effective during and after World War II.

In response to my tweet, Triple P’s mate Mike from The Pirate’s Lair (see sidebar) sent me this link to his collection of pictures of some of the first WAVES in history. These “yeoman” were almost exclusively shore-based and most often utilized as clerical support to gentlemen officers. Women as a group did not gain active status – again, officially – until 1978 when the Navy became the first of the U.S. armed forces to integrate their all female reserve unit into service. The formation of the WAVES was a landmark step forward for women sailors and is well worth remembering. The pictures collected over at The Pirate’s Lair are a wonderful celebration of that memory. Thankee, Mike (follow him here on Twitter, by the way).

Enjoy your Friday, Brethren. I’ll spy ye tomorrow for Sailor Mouth Saturday.

Header: U.S. Navy recruiting poster from World War II

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lady Pirates: A Poor and Pitiless Death

Some time in the first week of April, 1721, Mary Read died in a Jamaica prison.

This infamous pirate, who had become a sensation on both sides of the Pond due to widely circulated broadsheets, stood at the bar with her now equally infamous mates, “Calico” Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny. After sentence was passed and the three pirates were remanded to the gallows, Read and Bonny pulled their trump card. Both claimed to be pregnant. A quick examination proved them right, and the lady pirates were sent back to jail to await the births of their babies. Thereafter, the sentence of death would be carried out.

According to legend and fact, both women cheated the hangman but in very different ways. Charles Johnson, who was probably Daniel Defoe, says in his History of Pyrates that even he cannot say what became of Anne Bonny. She disappeared from prison, alive and hale evidently, and was never heard of again. Mary Read, on the other hand, meets a much less romantic end. Both Johnson and the legal records available show that she died before she could be hanged, of “feaver.”

At this point the mystery of Mary’s death becomes almost as intriguing as that of Anne’s disappearance. Just what type of illness was it that this by all accounts strapping, even masculine female seafarer succumbed to? Some writers say she died before giving birth. Others split hairs – but very important hairs – by either carefully choosing or carelessly confusing their wording. In these instances Mary died either in childbirth or of childbirth.

While separating fact from fiction is impossible at this late date, short of a body to forensically examine, let us evaluate each of the possibilities. From there, opinions and fantasies can fly away into the ether.

First and foremost, Mary’s situation as a prisoner – and a pregnant prisoner at that – must be considered. Not only Johnson but one of those famous broadsheets tells us that it was Read and Bonny who put up the final fight aboard their sloop, William. The men, according to generally accepted accounts, huddled below decks with their captain, either too drunk or too scared to participate. This would have left both women, at the very least, somewhat weakened as they entered the jail in Jamaica that would end up being Mary’s final home.

The conditions in prison, probably needless to say, would not have been in the least savory. In a tropical climate, dank, perpetually warm cells would probably have been the norm. Whether or not prisoners were kept in individual confinement is not clear, but most probably at the time and place prison would have meant crowded, unsanitary rooms where everyone would have been lucky to be away from whatever part of the space people used as a privy. Lice, fleas, ticks and other parasites would have had a field day. The cases of so called gaol fever probably would have been high.

Gaol fever, also sometimes called ship fever because it was virtually endemic on the prison hulks popular with the British Admiralty, was what we know today as typhus. This disease is caused by a bacteria spread by vermin, usually lice, and encouraged by cramped, unsanitary conditions. The first symptoms are generally flu-like with chills, cough and joint pain. A high fever up to 104 degrees ensues causing delirium, light sensitivity, stupor, low blood pressure and finally death. A rash can develop at any time and in severe conditions this can cause gangrene. Gaol fever, then, may be the thing that took the life of both Mary Read and her unborn child.

Perhaps not, however. In some accounts she did live to give birth which even today is no easy task under the best of circumstances. How and where a birth in prison might have been undertaken is not reliably recorded, but it is probably safe to say that privacy was at a premium. The process of giving birth would have been stressful enough, but the added stresses of unsanitary conditions, bad diet and the potential lack of professional assistance – at the time a midwife – would have compounded the situation.

If the birth of Mary’s child, alive or dead, was successful yet more trouble with “feaver” loomed large. Puerperal fever, also known as childbed fever, was a very real problem. As Judith Walzer Leavitt puts it in her book Brought to Bed:

The raw wound of placental separation combined with the trauma of delivery created a ripe environment for the introduction of infected material and its rapid entrance into the blood stream.

Though cases of puerperal fever were surprisingly uncommon in home births during Mary’s era, giving birth in prison would have created a perfect storm of conditions for contracting and quickly dying of this dreaded condition.

Whatever the case, it is a sad end to a story of an unusual and interesting woman. She may have known the famous “short and merry” life of a freebooter, but she died a poor and pitiless death.

Header: Imaginative engraving of Mary Read from Johnson’s History of Pyrates

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sea Monsters: That Sparkling Tide

The First Mate knows I have a bit of a thing for bioluminescent sea creatures. They seem to have a thing for me, as well, since they coincidently pop up not only in my research but also in daily family life. My younger daughter recently wrote a short story in her creative writing class about a misfit octopus who glows purple instead of the requisite green emitted by her family and friends. My older daughter knits sea creatures as a cottage industry and one of her best sellers is the angler fish. The Brethren will recall that these interesting ladies (all the ones with anglers are ladies) dangle a glowing ball of bacteria-laden gunk just in front of their gaping jaws to lure their prey. Of course it goes without saying that the glow of more than one school of plankton has dazzled the eye of pirate, privateer and navy man alike.

Thus it was no surprise that the First Mate sent me this piece from the New York Times. Entitled “The Brightest of Creatures,” it is a review of the newly opened exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History called “Creatures of Light” (find their website here). When I read the article my attention was drawn not to the snark about “manufactured” displays but to the information about the specific plankton known as dinoflagellates. These unusual organisms are the cause of what is known as bioluminescent bays, a phenomenon that is not as uncommon as the circumstances required to produce it might suggest.

There are 18 types of dinoflagellates that can emit the blue-green light seen in the eerie photo at the header. They must be “mechanically stimulated” to do so, by natural tide or waves, the wakes of ships or boats, or even by an animal swimming through them. The phenomena can occur only under conditions described in the article:

The bay must have a narrow opening to the sea, with gentle winds that push waves of dinoflagellates into the bay. Sunlight must be plentiful. And shallow water. And mangrove roots and leaves to provide nutrients. Then all of this must be accompanied by dinoflagellates, which are far older than the dinosaurs, dating back 1.2 billion years.

One less cheerful point does surface; the article also notes, “… some are poisonous, others simply delightful.” If you image search “bioluminescent bays” you will see a number of pictures of people in the water, creating the blue-green glow like they were making angels in the snow. This may be ill-advised given the potential consequences of anaphylactic shock; perhaps it’s best to ask a knowledgeable local before diving in.

Needless to say the conditions that make a bioluminescent bay possible are available in high concentration around the landforms of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Doubtless our seafaring ancestors marveled at these amazing light shows, and wondered at their cause. What a wonderful addition to any seafaring story to have our hero peering through his glass to espy a prize at anchor in the faint neon-green glow. That’s good atmosphere, especially if there are paranormal critters involved.

Header: Bioluminescent bay via Amazing Stuff UK

Monday, April 2, 2012

History: In the Caribbean Sea

Mustered and inspected the crew. At 9 A.M., sent a boat on board of a Spanish schooner twenty days from Boston, bound to the port of San Domingo. Received some newspapers by her as late as to the 13th inst.

Soon afterwards another sail was discovered to leeward, beating up the coast. Ran down for her, and when within proper distance hoisted United States colors. The stranger responded with the same; whereupon, in accordance with our usual practice, we hoisted our own colors and fired a blank cartridge.

This hove her to, when we sent a boat on board of her. She proved to be the barque Parker Cook, of and from Boston. This was a very timely capture as we were running very short of provisions, and the prize was provision-laden. Got on board from her a quantity of pork, cheese, crackers &c.

~ Captain Raphael Semmes aboard the Confederate raider Alabama, November, 1863

Header: Alabama pursuing clipper ship Contest, Nov, 1863 by Tom Freeman via Delaware River Gallery

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Seafaring Sunday: Around the Horn

March 28, 1800: Frigate USS Essex commanded by Edward Preble becomes the first U.S. Navy ship to round the Cape of Good Hope and head into the Indian Ocean.

Header: USS Essex via NavArt