Monday, July 18, 2016

Strange Animals in the Caribbean

The region of the Caribbean – the islands in the Caribbean Sea, and the coastland of South America, and Mexico – must have seemed like another world to European sailors. Covered in lush, tropical jungle and dotted with volcanic outcroppings and what the Europeans called “smoking mountains” (active volcanoes) the region was also home to many exotic species of animals.

In addition, the newcomers brought their own pets and livestock with them. Escaped or released animals quickly became a further fixture of the area. Some, such as pigs and goats, fed the pirates, and their associates, the communities of escaped slaves. Others were amusing or frightening.

Early settlers to South America found that an old European monster had taken physical form in the jungle. The legend of blood-sucking vampires long pre-dated the discovery of a certain tiny South American bats. But when the Spanish encountered small flying mammals that landed near sleeping humans, then carefully crawled to the victim’s throat and began to drink blood, it was no stretch of the imagination to call the creature a Vampire Bat.

Of course, unlike Dracula, these 3-inch-long animals pose little danger to humans. The local Aztecs called the creatures “butterfly mice” which isn’t scary at all.

A far more troublesome rodent (and yes, I know that bats aren’t rodents) was the rat. It was inevitable that the rats that infested European ships came ashore. Once there, the rats made themselves at home. There were no naturalists observing the first introduction of rats to the region, but it’s safe to imagine that they decimated native populations of birds and small reptiles. The European planters didn’t mind this at all. But they did mind when the rats began to eat valuable sugar crops.

On the island of St Johns, someone had the bright idea to import mongooses from India to eat the rats. The only problem? Rats come out at night, and mongooses (mongeese?) hunt during the day. So the mongeese (that doesn’t look right either) finished off many local birds and animals, while doing nothing to control rats. Today St Johns has a serious mongoose problem… The critters now hang out around trash dumpsters. There seems to be only one up side. The locals had decided on a plural for the animals. “Mongoose dem.”

As far as native animals, North America is the place for Alligators. The Caribbean has crocodiles. Usually calmer than alligators, crocodiles inhabit far southern Florida and the West Indies,, including Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Grand Cayman. Crocodiles are BIG, often 20 feet long, and weighing a ton. They tend to show up wherever there is water and you DON’T want a huge monster that isn’t shy about eating people.

Since most pirates wouldn’t have had a chance to visit regions where similar animals lived, these huge creatures, who can lie motionless for hours, strike with the speed of a snake, and run on land faster than a man, must have come a quite a shock. Pirates often carried large caliber hunting rifles when ashore. Modern Floridians must make do by completely surrounding their swimming pools with wire fence.

Crocodylus acutus mexico 02-edit1.jpg

If a pirate stopped by the island of Montserrat he might be offered a plate of Mountain Chicken. And he’d be right to be suspicious of the name. “Mountain Chicken” is a term for the enormous mountain frogs native to the island. At 8 inched long (from nose to tail) and weighing two pounds each, the frogs provide impressive frogleg-drumsticks to those brave enough to eat them.

On the friendlier side, the Caribbean is also home to a cute little animal that pre-dates the dinosaurs. Called a Solenadons, this little beasties have furry bodies, naked feet and tails, and a long flexible snout. They live by sniffing out and eating worms, bugs and other tiny prey, and also eat fruits and vegetables. The animals are noted for having a ball-and-socket joint (similar to a human hip joint) on their snouts, which gives the long nose the appearance of having a life of its own.

The tiny creatures are venomous (having poisonous saliva) which may be why they’ve survived the rats. And they’re too small for humans to bother hunting. Solenadons are also defended by the fact that they smell like goats. They live mostly on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, and are considered living fossils, which have remained virtually unchanged for 73 million years.

The High-Woods Dog of Trinidad is no more a dog than the mountain chicken is a chicken. It may have been given its colorful name by African slaves. The proper word for the animal is tanra, and it’s a tree-climbing relative of the badger. These animals eat almost anything – honey, meat, vegetables and fruit. They have even been observed to steal unripe fruit, then hide it for several days until it ripens.


Our last animal is an entertaining creature called the green vervet money. These monkeys probably came to island of St Kitts as the pets of sailors who had been to Africa. Though many New World monkeys exist, the green vervet is definitely an immigrant. And the monkeys came with a problem – a drinking problem.

Sailors of the time were notorious for giving alcohol to their pets. And when the monkeys escaped, they sought out free booze anywhere they could find it. In the early days, this meant fermented run-off from the island’s sugar cane industry.  But as time passed, St Kitts' sugar production dropped. The monkeys began to come into towns, swiping any alcoholic drink they could.

Today the moneys are a nuisance to locals and tourists. They hang around bars, swimming pools and outdoor eateries, and steal any cocktails or cans of beer left unguarded. Then, just like in pirate days, the animals get into drunken fights and generally act like jerks. I guess if you can’t have drunken pirates, drunken monkeys will do.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Myth of Race

When I was a child in grade school (this was a long time ago, but not that long ago, because, you know, I’m still here) I was taught that there were seven races – white, yellow, red, black, and brown were the main ones, with kind of sub-races of Arabs and Australian aborigines. As a child I thought this was funny, and hypothesized that green and blue people would be a lot more fun to have around to form the seven.

Like I said, this was a while ago. 

But I thought about race, and I’ve continued to do so. Most of my musings were internal. I lived in the American South, and the relations between the White Race and the Black Race were not good. My mother supported Civil Rights. My father supported the “rights” of business owners to only serve people they wanted to. Any talk about race in our household ended up with shouting.

Then I grew up and started reading about Pirates.

When you read original documents from the 17th and 18th century, race is treated as something quite different. “Race” was simply “them”… People who are different from “us.”  So, we find references to the “Irish Race,” the “English Race,” the “Spanish Race,” the “Jewish Race.” All written by people who don’t want to associate with “those people.”

“Race” has no real meaning. At best it’s a legal fiction. For instance, when I was a child, living in Florida, the group of people now called Latinos were simply part of the White race, even though they were often brown-skinned. I later learned that this was because certain politicians were trying to recruit support from incoming immigrants against the “Negro Problem.” In other places, where there were not so many Spanish-speaking newcomers, the Spanish-speakers were considered “Black.”

In the 1930 US Census, there was an option for a “Mexican” Race. In later years, the term was changed to “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish.” By 1990, it had morphed into “Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?” Yet the people themselves identify as a mixture, primarily of White (going back to the Spanish Conquistadors) and Native American (the people conquered by the incoming European Spanish.)

So, if one “race” can change its definition so profoundly, why do we care about race at all?

The answer is surprisingly specific. It begins in 1676, with a man named Nathaniel Bacon. He was cousin to the Governor of Virginia, a relative of Sir Francis Bacon, the King’s Lord Chancellor. In the new colony, he soon owned two plantations and was a member of the ruling elite.

The former ruler of England, Oliver Cromwell, had tried to turn Virginia into a virtual penal colony. He had sent hundreds of thousands of “undesirables” – Irish citizens, prisoners of war, prostitutes, debtors – to the colony as “indentured servants.”  Terms of indenture often exceeded life expectancy. And at the same time, merchants were bringing captured Africans to Virginia, also to be sold as “indentured servants.” People so indentured could be bought and sold, whipped, and otherwise treated unfairly. They were all slaves in fact if not in law.

Grayscale image of a man in allonge wig, waiscoat and coat standing with hand on hip
William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia

If such a person did survive past their term, they were supposed to be given land, cash, and other materials suitable for starting a small farm. But this rarely happened. And on the few occasion when a small-holder was able to start a farm, he found that the colony taxed not on land holdings, or on income, but used a “head” tax, meaning that a man who owned 50 acres paid the same tax as a man who owned 10,000.

In 1675, war with the Native Americans broke out. Bacon favored slaughtering the Natives, men women and children. This won the approval of the poorer citizens, who had suffered the most in raids. The Governor – who had profitable fur-trading deals with the tribes, counseled caution. Bacon and the Governor argued for a year, until fresh elections put men favored by Bacon in charge.

Bacon made war on the Natives, repealed the unfair tax laws, wrote a “Declaration of the People” and offered freedom to any servant or slave who would join him. The result, when the men who had been in power fought back, was called Bacon’s Rebellion.

Howard Pyle - The Burning of Jamestown.jpg
The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle

It ended abruptly in 1676, when Bacon died of an intestinal disorder. When the authorities looked into what had started the fighting (which had resulted in many casualties and the burning of Jamestown) they found that it was based on a desire among the common people for “levelling.”

“Levelling” meant that the people wanted more equality between the rich and poor. When a similar, smaller rebellion broke out in Maryland, the Powers That Be realized that they need to Do Something.

Of course they had no intention of sharing their own wealth and power. Instead, these men analyzed the society in which they lived. It consisted primarily of the rich and the poor, with no middle class. There was no “buffer” between the lord and his servants. And the servants outnumbered the lords by 100’s to one.

A similar structure was in place in England. But in England, there existed a “yeoman” class – large landholders, who lived with the peasants, but tended to side with the Lords, since (very rarely) a member of the yeoman class was allowed into the aristocracy.

What the American Colonies needed was a similar system – a slightly elevated class of peasant, who would keep the other peasants in line.

Up until this point, race had not entered into class considerations. Indentured servants were one class, and the large landowners were another. But during Bacon's Rebellion, Black and White servants and slaves had worked together seeking more egalitarian terms.

So the large landowners began to separate the pale-skinned and dark skinned servants. They told the Whites that this was because the White servants were “better” than their darker neighbors. It was a novel idea, and made these poor people feel important. Soon laws were passed requiring a judge’s signature before a White servant could be beaten. Then, over the next 20 years, Africans and Native Americans were deprived of judicial rights, property rights, electoral rights, and family rights.

Servants of European ancestry were finally given their dues when their terms of service were over. And the notion of the “White Race” was born. Its purpose was to keep the poor Whites intent on “being better” than their Black neighbors.

*for information on Bacon's Rebellion and its aftermath, see Don Jordan and Michael Walsh's excellent book "White Cargo"

And it worked. I have seen it firsthand. No one is harder on “The Black Race” than poor Whites. Even today, some people who are poor, perhaps drug addicted, perhaps homeless, will comfort themselves by thinking “well, at least I’m not Black.” Yet, by concentrating on keeping others down, people have had little time to better their own lot in life. A look at a map shows that those areas famous for racial division also tend to be the most mired in poverty.

And what has this to do with pirates?

The pirates, firm promoters of “levelling” by the most expedient method (i.e. taking rich people’s stuff) occasionally had their own race problems. Such a disagreement come up before Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate captain. Faced with a Black pirate who had one version of events, and a White pirate who had a different opinion of how things should be, Bonnet was told by his White crewman that a White man’s word was worth more than an African’s

Bonnet (who by birth, breeding and education should have sided with his European crew member), informed his crew that “Pirate” was a race unto itself, and anyone who became a Pirate gave up any other racial identifiers.

One more reason I want to be a pirate. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Pirates of America

When I studied the War of Independence in grade school, I had some questions for my teachers. This wasn’t unusual. On this particular subject, my question was, “When the colonists were fighting the British army, where did they get the muskets and the gunpowder and the cannon balls and the cannons from?

My reasoning was as follows – the colonies were British. They traded mostly with the British, and certainly British merchants would not sell us any of these things. Other countries weren’t allowed to sell them to us. And we were not yet able to make them for ourselves. So, where did they come from?

My poor teachers struggled. People on the frontier had their own long rifles, and probably held some powder, they offered. Local militias started out with supplies. And, perhaps, more had been captured from conquered British forts and soldiers?

This seemed like a long stretch to me. Our history book pointed out that many Colonial soldiers did not come from the frontier, but from Eastern cities, where people were not as likely to own guns. I observed that the book also said that we didn’t capture British forts for years. And not one of these theories explained how the Colonial Army ever got its hands on any cannons.

My poor teachers. They tried. But I was too much for them. Throughout my school career, and for many years afterward, my questions remained unanswered. Finally, however, I have learned the answer.

It was pirates. Specifically pirates in the Caribbean.

As readers of this blog already know, pirates were in the habit of taking anything they could get away with, and selling it anyone who would pay, so they could get started drinking as soon as possible.

As soon as demand in the American colonies rose, profit-loving pirates set out to fill an obvious and profitable need. The British Crown regularly shipped supplies to its Caribbean colonies and amongst the many islands robbers found opportunities to capture British military supplies and send them to the American rebellion. Not only shot, muskets and powder made their way north in pirate-owned ships, but also rope, canvas, wool for uniforms, and many other goods.

Cannons at the time were simple instruments. Their use on land or sea was determined by the wooden carriage that supported the gun. It was a simple matter for the pirates to steal guns off navy vessels and armed merchants and re-purposed them for use on battle fields.

And how did the pirates learn of the colonies’ needs? How did they transfer the goods to the American military? Many prominent Americans had ties to pirates and smugglers. John Hancock had been called “The Prince of Smugglers” by his contemporaries, having made a great deal of money in that trade. New York had long been a known pirate haven, as had Charleston. Many, many of the most prominent families had ties to pirates or smugglers.

John Hancock, Founding Father and Smuggler

The American Revolution provided something the pirates had never known before: A buyer, or group of buyers, who were willing to pay market value for stolen goods. Most buyers were cheap – after all, if they were caught dealing with pirates, they might get into a great deal of trouble. The leaders of the American Revolution were already guilty of high treason. They desperately needed munitions. Prices for pirated goods were high.    

Benjamin Franklin, while serving as ambassador to France, also contributed to pirate adventures in the New World. In fact, Franklin created many pirates himself.

Benjamin Franklin

One of the ways a nation created a navy was to commission privateers. These licenses permitted merchant ships to arm themselves and fight against the merchant ships of an enemy nation. This was a money-maker for the nation, which sold the licenses and took part of the captured goods. The licenses enriched merchants successfully captured enemy ships.

Privateers had been licensed by European nations for hundreds of years. If the new nation of the United States wanted to join the society of established nations, writing out privateering licenses and selling them to those who wanted to make war on England would have been the most logical step for the Continental Congress.

Coat of arms or logo

But, for some reason, Congress did not issue the licenses. Franklin, working as ambassador in France, was besieged by prospective privateers. But he had no licenses to give them. Finally, being a revolutionary, Franklin took matters into his own hands and began handing out licenses.

In spirit, Franklin was correct. But by the letter of the law, he was handing out useless scraps of paper. An ambassador did not have the authority to authorize privateers. This required the authority of a ruling body, be it a king or a congress. Franklin did not have it.

Yet the French captains who took these licenses used them as an excuse to attack British merchant ships. These attacks were illegal. The men using them were pirates, and they had been put up to it by Franklin. The money from the licenses fueled the revolution, and the “privateers” provided much needed goods – tea, china, furniture – to the American people. They also helped stir up support for the Americans’ cause.

So that’s how pirates helped the American colonies to become the United States. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Fine Art of Wrecking

While pirates made the headlines, another form of sea-robbery was practiced for centuries, with not nearly so much attention being paid to it. This was the art of Wrecking - illegally salvaging goods from a ship that had run aground.

Certain coasts – the Florida Keys, for one, the West Coasts of Ireland and England for another, were particularly profitable for Wreckers. These were areas where prevailing winds, frequent storms, and dark coastlines caused many vessels to run aground. In poor areas, Wreckers and their spoils made the difference between a successful settlement and a ghost town.

Legally, a person who takes things from a wrecked ship must offer them to the original owner, though the owner is required to pay for them. This was established by laws going back to the Roman Empire. These laws differ by country, but are based on the concept that person who brings in the wrecked goods deserves to be compensated for his time and effort, and also for the danger he or she goes to when retrieving the lost objects.

In fact, many, many people have simply cut out the middle-man and kept the salvaged goods for themselves. While illegal, this was quite practical to do in the days before telephones or other convenient means of communication. Ships went down without being able to signal for help. A broken-up ship might never reveal its original owner.

Or, even if the owner was perfectly obvious, the Wreckers might simply keep their mouths shut, and hide the evidence by towing the remains of the ship out to sea after wrecking efforts were finished.

There were even darker tales, in which small communities, who needed the proceeds from wrecked ships, sent their more hardy members down to the shore with clubs after a storm to make sure there were no survivors of ships driven aground.

It was also rumored that “false lights” were used to actually lure ships toward a dangerous shore. With no GPS, ships relied on the stars, mathematical calculations, and often landmarks near a coast to determine position. On a dark night, these ships could be led astray.

According to legend, the Wreckers would tie a lantern around the neck of a horse or mule, then lead the animal along the hillsides above a rocky shore. Ship’s captains would see the swaying, bobbing light and mistake it for the stern lights of another ship. This gave the impression that there was plenty of open water. The captain would make no effort to keep his ship off the rocks, because he believed that he was much farther out at sea than he actually was.

And in the morning, club-wielding Wreckers would come down and finish off any sailors left alive.

Wrecking was common, and often not taken seriously, since the goods were probably covered by insurance, and would have been lost anyway. The darker legends remain unproved in a court of law. Small communities were notoriously insular and closed-mouthed. But rumors persist, and have continued to do so until modern navigation equipment made such false lights (and largely wrecking itself) obsolete. Yet stories of wreckers linger in place names, like Nag’s Head NC, which supposedly got its name from the broken down old horses (nags) that were led up and down the shore in a storm.

And what did Wreckers expect to get? Like pirates, their profits could come in any form. A ship’s strong box, containing payroll and operating funds, was a rare but welcome find. More likely to survive a wreck were goods stored in barrels – which might be anything from beer to fine china. Things that floated – furniture, glass bottles, books, clothing, food, might also make it to shore in an only slightly damaged state.

Lucky wreckers might find a large part of the ship still intact. When this happened anything might be found. Goods like flour, molasses, textiles, preserved meat would great those brave enough – or desperate enough – to go aboard an unstable, broken ship, which might be above water only because of a perilous perch on top of jagged rocks.

Wrecking communities were also famous for salvaging the wrecks themselves. Wood from ships that ran aground might repair a house, roof a tavern, or build a school for the children. Since the broken bodies of wooden ships were not worth much, there was little need to hide the origin of the wood, and the sometimes picturesque appearance of seaside villages may come from re-purposed timber.

And the good? Well, wrecking communities were often linked to smugglers, sailors who imported good without paying the required taxes or tariffs. These kinds of associates were likely to take anything, and pay cash, no questions asked.   

Today the art of wrecking lives on in specialized communities like the Florida Keys. The nearby ocean is a playground for tourists. Often these inexperienced sailors get into danger during stormy weather, and legal wreckers lie in wait along coastlines known for trouble. Maritime law says that the salvager or rescuer of ships in peril is entitled to a reward, so modern day Wreckers make a living by towing beached tourists off the rocks.

I’ll leave you with my favorite story about Wreckers, by the late, great Stan Rogers. Listen and enjoy.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Storm at Sea

(Warning - linked videos are frightening)

Merchant ships feared pirates, and pirates did not fear much at all. But everyone during the Golden Age of Piracy feared storms at sea. Ships that sank usually took all their crews down with them, and with no public weather service to reveal how much storm was coming or how long it would last, storms of the era had not only danger but also a terrifying mystique.

The first rule in a storm says that the ship is sturdier than the crew. Today sailors protect themselves with harnesses and sophisticated gear. During the Golden Age, sailors did their best with a rope around their waists… Anything was better than nothing, and a man overboard was a man lost forever.

A fully-loaded ship was safer than an empty one. The heavy weight in the bottom of the ship prevented rolling by counteracting the force of wind on the sails. An upright ship was a ship that had a chance. If a ship of the era Broached (rolled on its side) it would be lost, probably with all hands.

The forces acting on a ship in a storm were tremendous. Running directly before the wind brought the danger that waves would break over the stern (back) of the ship, This could cause damage due to the weight of water - up to the possibility of crushing the ship’s structure.  It could also simply dump so much water aboard that the vessel would sink under the water’s weight.

Usually, the best plan of action was to sail the ship at an angle to the wind, as close as possible to directly into the oncoming waves. The prow of the ship was the sturdiest part, and so was the most likely to survived tons of water falling on it.

Even as the crew was doing this, the sails and masts needed to be protected. Very high winds could rip a sail to shreds, leaving the vessel with no forward momentum and therefore at the mercy of the sea. (Fact of the day: The sea has no mercy.)

If there was enough time, a crew might be able to put up “storm sails” These were stronger than average, and could withstand more pressure. But many ships did not carry storm sails, or did not have time to put them up, since this might take a full day.

Additionally, sails fully extended could put so much pressure on the wooden masts and yardarms that they simply snapped off. This not only caused the ship to lose power and momentum, but posed a danger to sailors working below. And if masts or yards broke while men were working on them, those men had no chance of survival.

The trick, then, was to keep the ship moving into the waves, while not placing too much strain on the sails and masts. In addition, the ship needed to keep enough speed to move up the sides and over the top of oncoming waves, and also keep its rudder in the water, so it could steer. All this without any weather reports, or any way to measure the speed of the wind or the height of the waves.

Wave height added yet another layer of danger. Waves at sea are enormous, often taller than the ship sailing into them. If a ship was between two very tall waves, those waves might cut it off from the wind, its only form of power. Momentum might carry the vessel forward strongly enough to carry it up the wave to a point high enough to catch the wind again…. Or it might not.

The first sails taken down were those at the back of the ship. Pressure on this area tended to cause the ship to slew sideways at any time, and in a storm this could be deadly. Next the lower courses were furled. The last two sails left up would be the fore (front) top sail, and a jib or headsail, the sail on the very front of the ship.

And, as all these sails were furled of adjusted, men needed to be up on the masts, perhaps a hundred feet in the air, working on rain slick wooden yardarms with heavy, water-soaked canvas.

But worse, far worse, than any of this was for the ship to strike land. “A lee shore” is was called, the sailors’ worst nightmare. With wind and water both driving the boat toward solid ground, the vessel’s bottom might be ripped out, or worse. It is likely that more pirates perished in storms than were ever killed by the Royal Navy.

Perhaps the most famous pirate death by storm was the gigantic pirate vessel Whydah Galley captained by the Prince of Pirates, Black Sam Bellamy. Sam sailed up the Atlantic coast of North America during what should have been a reasonably safe time of year. But he and his men were caught by an enormous storm. It drove the Whydah onto a sandbar. The sudden stop caused all the masts to break off at once, while the retreating wave rolled the huge ship onto its side. The following wave actually picked up the 300 ton vessel, rolled it farther, and dropped it upside down into shallow water. Of the 150 pirates aboard, only two men (Welshman Thomas Davis and 18-year-old Central American Moskito Indian John Julian) made it to shore alive.

Wreck of the Whydah by Donatoarts

So thank your lucky stars, and the National Weather Service, that storms are better tracked today. But the sea still has no mercy, and sailors still need their courage at sea.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Legend of Gasparilla

Jose Gaspar, known by the name Gasparilla, is a legendary Spanish pirate, called the last of the Buccaneers. Some say he began life as a troubled youth who kidnapped a young girl for ransom. He was captured, and given the choice between prison and joining the navy. Gaspar went to sea, where he served with distinction for several years before leading a mutiny against a tyrannical captain and fleeing to Florida.

Others claim Gaspar was a Spanish nobleman who reached a high rank in the Spanish navy and became a councilor to King Charles III. When a jilted lover brought false charges against him, he stole a ship and vowed to exact revenge on his country.

No matter who tells the tale, Gaspar fled to the virtually uninhabited west coast of Florida about 1783 and turned to piracy. Gaspar established a base on Gasparilla Island and was soon the scourge of the Gulf of Mexico, where he plundered dozens of ships and amassed a huge cache of treasure.

Legend says he put most male prisoners to death or recruited them as pirates, while he took women to nearby Captiva Island, where they would serve as his concubines, become the wives of his pirate crew, or await ransom payment from their families.

One of the most famous tales of Gasparilla involves a Spanish (or Mexican) princess named Useppa. Though captured by the pirate, she consistently rejected his advances, until he threatened to behead her if she would not submit to him. When she still refused, he killed her in a rage. Gasparilla instantly regretted the deed and took her body to a nearby island, which he named Useppa in her honor, and buried her himself.

Similarly, Sanibel Island is said to have been named by Gaspar's first mate, Roderigo Lopez, after his lover whom he had left back in Spain. Empathizing with his friend's plight, Gaspar eventually allowed Lopez to return home, and even trusted him with his personal log.

All the legends do agree that José Gaspar met his end in December 1821, the year that Spain sold the Florida Territory to the United States. He had decided to retire after almost 40 years of pirating, and he and his crew were dividing the treasure at his base on Gasparilla Island.

As the pirates were sorting the coins, a lookout spotted what seemed to be a fat British merchant ship, an opportunity too good to pass up. But When Gasparilla and his crew attacked, the intended victim lowered the Union Jack and raised an American flag. This was no merchant ship. It was the pirate hunting schooner USS Enterprise.

The original USS Enterprise

In the battle that followed, Gasparilla's ship was battered by cannon fire and in danger of sinking. Rather than surrender, Gaspar wrapped an anchor chain around his waist and dramatically leapt from the bow, shouting "Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy's!"

His surviving crew, not quite so brave, were captured and hanged, but a few escaped. In most versions of the story, one of these survivors was Juan Gómez, who told the tale to later generations.
John Gómez (also known as Juan Gómez and Panther John) lived in a shack on otherwise uninhabited Panther Key near Marco Island in Southwest Florida in the late 1800s. He was well known in the area as a skilled boat pilot and fishing guide and as a teller of tall tales, mostly about his own heroic adventures.

Among other things, Gómez claimed to have been born in Portugal in 1781 (which would have made him the oldest person in the world upon his death in 1900), saw Napoleon as a youth in France, became a cabin boy on a merchant ship and jumped ship in the United States, served as a scout for the U.S. Army during the Seminole Wars, served as a coastal pilot for the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, did some pirating in Cuba, and escaped from a Cuban prison before finally settling in the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida.

John Gomez, aka Juan Gomez.jpg

We don’t know Gómez's stories well, since they were told very informally - usually on fishing trips or around a campfire - and are documented only in a few letters and obituaries written by friends when Gómez died in 1900. Accounts of his tall tales differ, and attempts to confirm the truth of surviving details have not come up with much.

Most of Gómez's versions of Gasparilla’s legend claim that Gómez himself was an important member of Gaspar's crew or even his brother-in-law. Since his death, many fantastical and conflicting claims have been made about Gómez's piratical exploits with Gaspar. These stories also relate Gómez's knowledge of several huge treasure caches supposedly hidden in the Charlotte Harbor area of Florida.

As tourism in Florida grew, local advertisers elaborated the stories into a full-fledged legend. They were not at all bothered by the fact that no actual proof of Gasparilla’s existence had ever been found. He is not documented in any contemporary accounts, his name is not mentioned in any US Navy reports, and the USS Enterprise has been proven to be somewhere else as the time of the pirate’s supposed death.

But pirates are fun! Despite a lack of proof that the pirate ever existed, a Florida club called the Mystic Krew of Gasparilla commissioned a “biography” of their hero. The book fooled a lot of people, but the Krew’s intent seems to have been mostly to promote their local parade and festival.
The Gasparilla Pirate Festival began in 1904, when Tampa businessmen staged a theatrical pirate “invasion” of their city.

Tampa now hosts Gasparilla-themed events from January to March. But the high point is still an "invasion" by José Gaspar and his crew, which takes place on the last Saturday in January.
 Members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (based on the Mardi Gras krews of New Orleans) accompanied by hundreds of private boats, sail across Tampa Bay to downtown Tampa on the José Gasparilla, a 165' long "pirate" ship which was built for this purpose in 1954.

The mayor of Tampa then hands over the key of the city to the pirate captain and a "victory parade" marches down Bayshore Boulevard. An average of over 300,000 people attend the event, which contributes over $20 million to the local economy.

Not bad work for a pirate that never even existed.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Port Washington Pirate Festival – The Pirates Are Back!

A review of last weekend's festival

 This past weekend was the Port Washington Pirate Festival II, which is to say the revival of an event central to pirating in the Midwest. I was there, and it was great!

Disclaimer – I was an employee of the Fest. As a storyteller and historian, I entertained crowds for tips and a small stipend. It didn’t cover costs, but the Fest is important to me. I wanted to see it succeed!

The author

And succeed it did! Events started at 5pm on Friday, and were still going when I had to leave at 2pm on Sunday. Between those times, there were happy crowds, enthusiastic performers, great food, talented vendors, and lots, lots, lots of pirates.

Friday started slowly, as these things are wont to do. One young gentleman that I talked to had expected to walk into a crowd of people dressed as pirates early on Friday. Instead, he saw only average folk, until one boy passed wearing a pirate T-shirt.  This is pretty much on track with previous events. Friday is still pretty much set-up day. A pirate shirt, or “Jack Sparrow eating breakfast at McDonalds” is about all you’re going to get early in the day.

Some people are always ready to pirate

There were a few notable gaps. Electricity was not well set up. Several bouncy-castles intended for the kids did not get inflated until Saturday, and vendors suffered through inadequate lighting in the Thieves’ Marketplace on Friday night. The Information Booth did not look organized, which was a shame, due to its central location. A small number of people wearing bright pink “VOLUNTEER” badges were dashing back and forth tirelessly.

The whole area as under stress, due in part to a huge downtown construction project (renovation of some historic buildings and building new condominiums) that was right next to Pirate Central. Weather, while balmy in temperature, also provided some rain and fog (“Welcome to Maine” as one pirate said) and a number of scary-looking thunderclouds. Port Washington tests its Tornado Siren on Saturday, so a few people were frightened by that.

Pirate hamsters in training
But all in all, it was a great event.

A variety of acts were booked. Musicians, ranging from a High School saxophone quintet, to a full-fledged Irish punk band, complete with smoke effects. The historic reenactors were back, with period music, clothing and weapons demonstrations. Black powder cannons were shot off regularly, to the delight of the crowd. My own efforts to entertain with Real Pirate History brought enthusiastic amazement and applause. And various pirate groups from all over made their contributions, either by performing skits, providing amusing commentary on the acts, or just by looking fan-damn-tastic!

I always keep an eye out for the youngest pirate at an event, and this year the winner was 6 weeks old, sound asleep, but wearing a pirate bandana in her pirate-momma’s arms. Several white-haired individuals were possibilities for my “oldest pirate” award, but all of them were moving too fast to catch and interview!

I did managed to talk to a couple of individuals in wheelchairs, and all of them gave the fest high points for accessibility. One young fest-goer was in full mermaid regalia. All in all, everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time.

Food vendors were plentiful, and their ware delicious. While not exactly “period” pirate fare, goodies like lemon shake-ups, funnel cakes and corn dogs were both available and reasonably priced. Wisconsin is also home to a delicacy called Cheese Curds – chunks of fresh cheese that is battered and deep fried. Five varieties were available at this fest, and all were good. Deep fried Oreos, pulled pork, and some of the best beef brisket ever were also available. But by Friday night, I needed a salad! My craving was quickly satisfied at a local restaurant, the Rusty Anchor.

Image result for rusty anchor restaurant port washington wi
Historic Port Washington

On Saturday evening, my companion and I went sailing on the Denis Sullivan, a historic sailing craft that does educational and environmental work all over the Great Lakes. This ship, larger than others that have attended in former years, tied up on the far side of the harbor. The walk to board her was along one, and a little hard on my legs. But the view across the water, and seeing the Fest in its full glory was a grand addition to my day.

 Pirates were mock-fighting over a bottle of rum, complete with clashing stage-swords and athletic stunts. Belly dancers were shaking it down in the gazebo. Up on the hill, the reenactment militia was showing off their marching skills. Kids were learning to throw boarding-axes at sturdy wooden targets. Bouncy-castled bounced. Crowds cheered. It was a picture of activity and happiness.

All in fun, mate!

Our voyage was lively. Guests were allowed to help raise and lower the sails, and we got to enjoy the feeling of the big ship under sail-power alone. The crew were more than helpful, explaining how the ship operates, her history, and how one can book longer cruises. I entertained both crew and passengers with an explanation of pirate swords (since mine was handy.)

When we were trapped in a spooky fog-bank, the capable captain made us all feel safe. And the ship navigated perfectly, sailing right through the harbor’s mouth with no problem at all. For me, a trip on any tall ship available is a high point of any fest, and the Denis Sullivan did not disappoint.

On the Denis Sullivan

Sunday morning started late. I did one final show – Mysteries of the Pirate Chest, in which I show off items that might be found in the chest of a real 18th century pirate. The belly dancers did their thing. Then it was off to Main Street, for the Pirate Parade. Short but sweet. After that, it was lunch, a little more people-watching (always a great thing to do at a pirate fest) and then the long drive home.

All in all, this fest gets a B+. While organization could improve, this is the first fest run by the current group, and they did a good job. Next year, I’m sure, will be smoother. All the attractions were first rate. Everyone seemed to be making an effort. The Port Washington Pirate Fest is loved by many people, and all of them want this incarnation to succeed.

Last of all, the beautiful town of Port Washington is a wonderful place to spend time, with or without pirates. Its view of the Lake is perfect. The locals are friendly. And you can spend 3 days without spending a cent at a chain restaurant, hotel or store, which is my idea of a great get away.

So plan for next year, folks. First weekend in June. The Pirate Fest is Back!