Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Little Details for Your Pirate Costume

Okay, I have my own thing with pirate costumes - I'm stretching toward the most authentic I can construct. This involves a lot of research, recreation of old patterns, and hunting for authentic materials I can actually afford.

But YOU just want to be a pirate for Halloween, don't you? So, with that holiday coming up, here are some links to stuff that looks really cool, but that I'd never be able to use in my hyper-realistic pirate costumes.

As a girl, I'm going to start with this Treasure Chest Purse. Most costumes, especially girl's costumes, don't include anything even remotely like a pocket. So where do you put your cell phone and car keys, at the very least? Here's an answer. It has the look of a real pirate chest, is highly rated, and it seems like it's just the right size to hold what you need. (Like the other items on this list, I can't speak for it.... I've only looked at these items and thought "How cool!")

Next is an item that is so cool I'm actually trying to figure out a way to use it myself.  Two odd socks.. One with the traditional pirate stripe pattern, the  other with the wooden design of a peg leg! I love this! Lots of guys, especially, like to add some humor to a costume. This fill the bill without being stupid or gross.
Pirate Peg Leg Socks
This also happens to be the inspiration for this article. I just needed to share these things.

I also spent some time hunting down the best "Blackbeard's black beard" I could find (for a reasonable price). Here's where I also wanted to share a great Halloween idea for the ladies - put on a beard for the party. You'll be the talk of the event, and most guys don't even seem to mind. One of my favorite memories is of my tiny female friend in full Blackbeard regalia...

Next is a fun object for everyone. I've always wanted wanted one of these. They are available on Ebay on a regular basis, but they are expensive... About $250 dollars. But it's cheap compared to a real parrot, and the mechanical ones don't poop on your shoulder. Furthermore, you can turn this off or on with a remote control. (One of the reasons I will NEVER get a real parrot is the memory of a loooong afternoon at a friend's house. Her parrot would not stop singing "America the Beautiful".)

The item is called Squawkers Macaw, and it's part of the Fur Real Friends line of robotic pets. At a distance he could pass for a real parrot, though up close the clicking and whirring of his mechanical innards can be heard quite clearly.  I have a ren fair pirate with a Squawkers on his shoulder. He had stripped off the fake fur covering, and replaced it with hand-laid real feathers. It was an incredible look, but he didn't want me to take a picture.

There are cheaper mechanical parrots, of course. "Pete the Repeat Parrot" repeats whatever you say, but the quality just isn't there. Large costume stores also feature various forms of make-believe parrot, including some that are covered with real feathers. My favorite of these, however, is the inflatable version. If you're going to have a silly pirate mascot, you might as well go all the way.

My last offering is simply the suggestion that you get yourself a real sword rather than a plastic one for your pirate costume. It's true that real swords can run hundreds of dollars, but there are ways around that.

Why have a real sword? Well, pirates were supposed to be menacing, and there's no better way to feel the part than to have an authentic "hanger" by your side, ready for action. I was attending a patty once when the child of the house approached me and stated firmly, "That's not a real sword!" When I pulled out just a couple of inches of gleaming steel the child's eyes grew to the size of saucers and she backed off. (I also happen to believe that a little thrill of REAL fear is good for kids. It's the stuff of an authentic childhood. But I digress.)

The next question is why NOT to have a real sword. The answer here is that you can actually kill a person with one. You can get around this by zip-tying the sword in its sheath, or mostly in, so you can still show it off a little. Or take it easy on the rum, Your decision, mate, but I like to carry the real thing and just not act like a jerk.

So, where do you get a real sword without breaking the bank? One great place is your local sporting goods store, which probably carries machetes in the camping section for under $20. A modern machete looks a lot like an old-time sword, and the price is right.

Or you could go here  for a more pirate-y sword with a reasonable price tag. It's the cheapest place I know to get a reasonable-looking sword. If you are planning to make this pirating thing part of your life, you could do worse than to invest in a an actual blade to go pirating with.

I'd also like tell the story of how I got my won cutlass. I was in theater, and needed a sword for a production. This was theater at it's cheapest... I needed to buy the sword with my own money, or we would need to make a cardboard sword and cover it with aluminum foil.

I set out to my local flea market, looking for a King Arthur type sword. I couldn't  find one, but I did come across a classic pirate cutlass. It seemed to be the only sword in the market, and it was a good size for me and only cost $12.

I'm a believer in Fate, and in receiving messages. At the time, I wondered the universe sent me a pirate cutlass rather than what I had wanted. It was years later that I realized that , yo ho ho, this was the part of the pirate life that was just what I had needed.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Treasure Planet

I didn’t originally want to see this Disney movie when it came out in 2002. Don’t get me wrong, I already liked pirates, and enjoyed the particular genre of steam-engine space tech called steam punk. But I firmly believed it was a flawed concept. Space movies should be space movies, and not hijack the immortal work of Robert Lewis Stevenson.

Nope Nope Nope Nope.

Man, was I wrong.

A friend dragged me to the movie, and I fell in love immediately. The basic tale – boy meets pirate, boy has father/son relationship with pirate, pirate reveals his true nature, boy overcomes pirate, pirate escapes with a pocket full of treasure, is known to practically everyone. But Disney cartoons have a well-known habit of “cleaning things up” I hadn’t wanted a sanitized version. I’d also felt that the “space” part of the space adventure would be just tacked on.

Instead, I found a lot “right”. The brown-and-gold color scheme of the movie works with the steam punk theme. The wide variety of aliens gives the piece an exotic feel, while letting Disney do anthropomorphic animals, something that Disney does well.

One of the things that advertising for the movie touted was the blending of computer-generated art with the more traditional hand-drawn style. This, too works amazingly well in the piece. The enormous sweep and movement of the ship (whose name has been changed from the Hispaniola to the R.L.S. Legacy – Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Legacy) is only enhanced by the abilities of CG. And the mechanics of Long John Silver’s cyborg arm (for in this, he’s not just a one-legged man, he’s a cyborg) is wonderful.

And the story, while it’s been changed a little (movie version tend to do this) is both true to the spirit of the original and relevant to modern audiences.

We open with Jim Hawkins as a child, reading a pirate story. This “pirate book” shows holograms of the action, so we get a quick mini-movie of Captain Flint zooming in to attack a merchant/passenger ship, before disappearing off into empty space. This sets up the mystery of the treasure right off, and shows off the terrifying visage of Flint.  As a pirate-historian, I also note that the proportions between the pirate vessel and the merchant are correct. Flint’s ship is much smaller.

Next the movie cuts to Jim as a fifteen-year-old, riding a cross between a skateboard and a para-sail. While he’s joyriding, his mom and Dr. Doppler (who replaces Dr. Livesey and is an obvious descendant of Goofy) chat about how Jim’s father ran out on the family, Jim’s mother is overwhelmed trying to run the Benbow Inn by herself. Clearly the family is reaching a crisis, exacerbated by Jim’s run-in with the law over his midair stunts.

Next comes a fast-paced sequence. Billy Bones crash-lands near the Inn and is rescued by Jim. The treasure map is discovered. Bones dies of his injuries. The pirates arrive hard on the heels of Bones. They tear the Inn apart, looking for the map, and end by setting it on fire. What takes six months in the book blows past in an hour, about 5 minutes screen time.

Now we’re in the heart of the story. Jim figures out how to open the projector for the map’s holographic images (great effect) and Dr. Doppler agrees to finance the mission to find the treasure. In no time, we’re at the spaceport, seeing the RLS Legacy and meeting Captain Amelia and her first mate, Mr. Arrow. Captain Amelia, a cat-like alien, is an Disney addition. Stevenson’s captain was male, of course, but a hyper-efficient female captain works very well, while giving the little girls a fine role-model. Amelia also provides inspiration for Doppler to find his inner hero, at which times she becomes a romantic figure.

The depiction of Long John Silver in the movie is, of course, what “makes” it. You can’t have any version of Treasure Island without a really good Silver. Brian Murray does the job as well as anyone ever has – His Silver is funny, smart, almost overwhelmingly full of personality, and, when the moment calls for it, terrifying.

Silver’s first job is to take Jim in hand. His actions – teaching the boy about how to pick his fights, demanding hard work from him in Jim’s work as cabin boy, telling tall tales and speaking to Jim about what makes a man a man, put him squarely in the “father figure” role. In the book this doesn’t come out nearly as strongly. And in many live-action versions Silver is responsible for the death of Mr. Arrow.

In this version, however, Silver is softened by giving this job to Scroop, the insectiod bad guy of the piece. Stevenson wrote a more realistic story by making the pirates their own worst enemies. They get drunk and disagree and fight among themselves. Disney doesn’t have time for that. He does the dirty work of killing Arrow, but Silver surprises and horrifies us by telling Scroop that the timing (not the murder itself) was wrong.

In this version, Silver starts his mutiny on the ship, beginning a frightening gunfight and gives the pirates a chance to hoist the Jolly Roger. At this point, when Jim escapes Silver’s clutches by stabbing him in his cybernetic leg, and the blaster-fire is thick, we truly see Silver as a pirate, greedy, self-serving and ready for violence.

On Treasure Planet, we meet the robot navigator B.E.N. (in place of the maroonee Ben Gunn) and Dr Doppler begins to lose realize that, while he may need to dither about the unimportant things, when life and death are on the line he’s a man of action. Captain Amelia is no less the hero, however.

In Treasure island, Stevenson shows us Silver standing up to the other pirates to save Jim. In this movie, he literally gives up his treasure for the boy, and in return, Jim uses his skateboard/sailing skills to save the entire party from an exploding planet. In this version the treasure (loot of a thousand worlds) is so vast that it MUST be disposed of, since anyone with so much wealth must necessarily be stuck with a whole slew of new problems.

At the end, Jim catches Silver sneaking away, and does not alert the others, even though he now knows what Silver is. And the pirate gives Jim just enough treasure (pulled from the copious pockets of the pirate coat) to re-build the destroyed Benbow Inn. Captain Amelia sends Jim to the Space Academy, she and Doppler marry, and the robot B.E.N. moves into the Inn to help Jim’s mom with the work. All is well, and Jim feels the presence of Silver watching him. We are safe, knowing that the pirate still roams free.

Disney built a very believable world/universe for Treasure Planet, with a steam punk design of 70 percent “old” (antique clothing, beamed ceilings, furniture, tools) and 30 percent “new”(solar sails, ray guns, cybernetics)  They tried out the esthetics for Long John Silver’s prosthetic arm and leg by first attaching it to another hand-drawn pirate – Hook.  

They also left in a lot of the scary bits. Arrow’s death – falling into a Black Hole – is more graphic than his ending in the book, when he simply disappears between night and morning, presumably pushed into the sea by Silver. Disney also kept In a terrifying one-on-one fight to the death between Jim and Scroop (standing in for the pirate Israel Hands). Disney couldn’t keep all f the fight, of course. In the book, Jim has a flintlock pistol, and threatens to shoot his pursuer in the face. In Treasure Planet, Scroop’s’ fate – flying off into space when the gravity fails – mimics the death he gave to Mr. Arrow.

Things I especially like about the show?
Jim’s tortured, bad-boy character, barely masking a lonely child.
The entire relationship between Jim and Silver. The older man is hard n Jim, and we see what Jim needed that his mother couldn’t give him.  But we also see genuine affection. Silver even hints at some of his own back-story, admitting that he gave up a lot to search for Flint’s treasure as he rubs at his mechanical leg.
The depictions of Flint are also excellent. The character of Flint has no first name in Stevenson’s book, and the choice her o of “Nathaniel” works for me. The pirate captain’s six-eyed face is terrifying, and lets us identify his skull at a crucial moment.

Things I hate?
Just the robot B.E.N., whom I think Is just there to be cute. I hate cute.

All it all, it’s really one of Disney’s better efforts. But the movie didn’t do well in theaters. A lot of people probably shared my confusion about Treasure Island in space. But Netflix has given it a second life, and it has also taken on a cult status with the Steampunk crowd.

Disney had originally planned a sequel, in which Jim, while in the Space Academy, gets involved with the theft (by pirates) of a  prototype super-ship designed by Dr. Doppler and armed with a mega-weapon. Silver gets called in from his smuggling business to help out, and Jim finds romance with the Admiral’s daughter.

It would have been a grand romp. And now… Who can tell? The popularity of Treasure Planet is growing, not shrinking. We may see that sequel yet.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Crossing the Equator

Crossing the equator has long been an act filled with ritual significance. Recently, the degree of hazing used in the US Navy has come under scrutiny for being physically and psychologically damaging to the participants. Defense for the custom states that these rituals go back hundreds of years.

They do, in fact. Some were in place during our time period, the early 1700’s. We’re going to take a look at some of these early rituals, and perhaps touch on how they developed over the years.

It’s a popular misconception that, before Columbus “discovered” the New World, Europeans believed that the world was flat. This is not true at all. The ancient Greeks had done the math to prove the world was round, and were within a few miles of being accurate in its size.

Furthermore, sailors, who regularly watched land drop away behind them, and who estimated the range of distant ships by seeing how much of the vessel was below or above the horizon, knew perfectly well that they weren’t going to fall off the edge of the world.

The equator, however, was s different matter.

What is the equator, anyway? The modern definition is that it is an imaginary line surrounding the middle of the earth, at an equal distance from the North Pole and the South Pole. It divides the world into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

This does not seem significant in today’s world, but it matters more than you might think. And the sailors of days gone by, it was of absolutely grave importance. You see, as s ship moves around the globe, the bulk of the earth blocks out certain constellations. And at the line of the equator, the most important object in the northern sky disappears.

The North Star – Polaris.

The Northern Hemisphere is lucky to have what appears to be a “fixed” star in its sky. Polaris sits almost directly over the North Pole. As long as the star can be seen, the direction “north” can be determined. For a ship out-of-sight of land, this information is crucial.

But to a person approaching the equator, Polaris appears to be lower and lower in the sky. At the equator, the star sits exactly on the horizon. Past the equator, it disappears. The marking used to designate latitude indicate the apparent height of Polaris in the sky. And at the equator, the number is ominous – Zero.

So what’s on the other side of zero?

South America. Sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia. Unknown lands. Also, an unfamiliar navigation system, using not a fixed star, but the constellation of the Southern Cross. Instead of a fixed star, the Southern Hemisphere depends on locating the center of a group of four stars to determine north. Trickier going.

So, approaching this mystical place seemed to require some sort of ceremony.

The French are credited with the earliest “Crossing the Line” ceremonies. Experienced sailors liked to tell younger ones that traveling below the equator was what caused a person’s skin to become black. On the day of the fateful crossing, crew members covered themselves with substances such as the soot from lamps and burned cork. When they were suitably blackened, they burst out upon the recruits, “captured” them, terrified them, and then blackened their faces in a similar way.

Having gone through the ceremony, these young men were now in on the joke, and would become the next generation to perpetrate the hoax.

But it was the English who created the most elaborate “Crossing the Line” ceremonies. Over time, the English developed a tradition of spending and entire day under the rule of “King Neptune” or “Neptunus Rex”. A crew member would dress up in an elaborate costume as the King of the Sea. He would be surrounded by a “royal court” and would hold control over the ship for a period of time. Very often pirates were part of the King entourage. I think this may have been a symbol of chaos. 

 Men who had not crossed the equator before were judged, punished, re-baptized, and given over to King Neptune. After the ceremony, they were considered to have fundamentally changed. In a time when the Christian God was seen to have constant, active agency in every action and outcome on earth, tearing oneself away from Him, and being given to Neptune, must have been a profound experience.

As time went by, the ritual grew. The recruits were called Pollywogs, or Wogs; the experience men were Shellbacks. According to ritual, the Wogs were slimy, unreliable, effeminate creatures, unworthy to be called true sailors. (It should be noted that this was part of the ritual. Before approaching the equator, sailors who had not experienced the crossing were treated as shipmates in the usual way.)  Shellbacks were true men, honest, masculine, reliable and trustworthy.

 The hazing part of the ceremony took on more and more epic proportions. Initiates had always received some sort of beating as part of the ceremony – in the 1700’s sailors were beaten on a regular basis, so a few blows were not regarded as a big deal. The beating part of the ritual probably just confirmed what these men already knew, that they had chosen a rough profession. In the 18th century having whip scars was part of the proof that one was a sailor.

But  in more recent times , being beaten with was a more serious deviation from the norm.

In the early days, it was a common part of the ceremony to douse recruits in animal blood. On ships that kept live animals as a food source this was easy to come by, and it symbolized the blood of rebirth. The later washing of the recruits, in turn, symbolized baptism, as the recruit was symbolically given to the sea.

Later ceremonies, not having access to fresh blood, substituted garbage. And when the garbage was not enough, sewage was added. Recruits were stripped, covered with lard (and later Crisco), and doused in human waste. Elaborate cross-dressing rituals were added to the fun. It’s possible that they had been there for a long time. Ritual cross-dressing has been part of pre-Christian ceremonies back to the dawn of time, and part of the point of the crossing ceremony seems to have been ‘paganizing’ the recruit. But modern ceremonies included “beauty pageants” and mock strip-shows.  Even mock sex acts were common.

Modern sailors rebelled, and went to court, demanding changes, and the excess of the Crossing ceremony have been toned down considerably. Did the ceremonies begin to go too far? Probably. But the rituals still exist. King Neptune still owns the souls of those who go to sea. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

How to Talk like a Pirate - and Make Facebook Talk Like a Pirate, Too

For most of the year, I’m con concerned about historical accuracy. For most of the year, I’d tell you that pirates spoke with many accents – their  voices came from Africa, England, Ireland, France, Holland, and even from the native tribes of the Americas.  But that would be most of the year. This Saturday is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and on that day, there is only one way to Talk Like a Pirate.

The “Pirate Accent” comes from what is called the West Country of England, a land of sailors, smugglers, and, yes, pirates. This accent was created by actor Robert Newton for his role in Treasure Island, and pirating has never been the same since.

So, here’s how you do it:

In the first place, a pirate’s voice should sound like it’s been rum-soaked, tobacco-wreathed, and shouted over gale-force winds for decades. Reach down into yourself and channel your inner pirate. Sound rough, sound deep, and sound loud.

The words “Is” and “Am” and “are” are replaced by the word “be” – So “I am a pirate” becomes “I be a pirate” – “I be a pirate” “You be a pirate” They all be pirates”.

“My” becomes “me”. “I’m a pirate, and so are my friends” becomes “I be a pirates, and so be all me friends”.Of course, you could pirate it up even more and change “my friends” to “me hearties”

In the past tense, “Was” becomes “were”.  “I was a pirate last year, too.” “I were a pirate last year, too!”

In order to add a little flavor, be sure to throw in some piratical words.

“Ahoy maties!” is a great way to greet your friends.

 “Avast” is a less friendly greeting, more like “what are YOU up to?”  It pairs well with a casual insult – you scurvy dog, you old bilge rat.

"Aye!" means "yes".

"Aye Aye!" means "Yes, sir, I'll get right on that!"

“Belay that” means to stop it.

"Lily livered" means cowardly. (Even your internal organs are afraid.)

"Lubber" is pirate speak for a big clumsy galoot. A "land lubber" is even worse.

"Scuttle" means to poke a hole in something. Scuttling a ship renders it useless.

:"Scurvy" is a horrible disease. To call someone a "scurvy" whatever is a fantastic insult. Try it out - "scurvy dog" "scurvy rat" "scurvy villain"  or "scurvy lawyer."

So "Hey there. Quit trying to mess with my friends! I'll stop you if you try any more of this!
"Avast there, ye lily livered bilge rat! Belay messing with me hearties, or I'll scuttle you!"

Or, if you want to spread the cheer a little more easily, try just changing your Facebook language to "English -Pirate".

It's quite simple. Find the column to the right of your news feed, and go down to the bottom where it says "English". Click on the word "English" and it will offer you a list of other languages to choose from. Pick "English - Pirate" from the list, and you are all set to celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day in style, stress free!

And if you'd like another way to celebrate, check out my fiction series The Pirate Empire. Join pirate captain Scarlet MacGrath as she fights, robs and lovers her way through the Caribbean during piracy's Golden Age.

And, for a limited time (September 18-21) you can get the first book - Gentlemen and Fortune - ABSOLUTELY FREE! Just click the link and download your free Kindle copy - or buy the paperback at a special reduced price!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Study of the Species - Ren Faire Pirate

The Genus Piraticus comes in several species and sub-species, most notably Piraticus Historius (historic-reenactor pirates) , Piraticus Festivus (Pirate Festival pirates), and today’s species of study, Piraticus Faireus­ – that species of pirates common to Renaissance Faires.  

At first glance, it would seem that Renaissance pirates would be easy to spot. They would reenact with a slant toward the Buccaneering era of pirates, and favor slashed doublets,  muffin caps and bollocks daggers- a great look for a pirate.

However, in practice this is not the case at all. When observing pirates at most Ren Faires, even the casual observer will notice at once that these pirates are not rooted in any particular time. They are most especially not related to the swashbuckling pirates of the English Renaissance. Instead, the largest group of these pirates come to us from the realm of pure fantasy.

These pirates are most noted for their extensive use of the color black. Although black has not been associated with any working class occupation (and even the most dashing of historical pirates were definitely blue-collar) the pirates who attend renaissance fests are often covered in black from head to toe. This is especially notably because the color is so impractical. Summer events, especially in Midwestern America (my home grounds) often sport temperatures in the mid 90’s (Fahrenheit – perhaps 33 degrees Celsius).

Males of this species are a fairly homogeneous lot.   The look is black pants – very tight black pants, often even tights – and sometimes even skin-tight black leather pants. The shirt – usually baggy in the “poet” style – is usually black as well, although other historically inaccurate colors such as red, burgundy and dark brown are also frequently seen.  A black leather vest is also often in evidence.

Footgear for these pirates is often very distinctive. Although historic pirates wore buckled shoes almost exclusively, or went barefoot while on ship, our Renaissance pirates show nary a shoe. The foot covering of choice is a high boot. “Bucket boots” of the type favored by Jack Sparrow in the POTC movies are very common.  Loosely based on a type of riding boot favored by the nobility of approximately 100 years before the Golden Age of Piracy, these boots have a wide top that can be worn folded over for walking, or pulled up over the thigh for riding through rough county.

The Ren Faire version has lost this ability. The “buckets” or turned-down upper part of the boot is far too narrow to be pulled up as any sort of protection. Instead, they remain as a fashion statement.

Another popular style of footwear can only be described as a “Ren Faire boot”. This design was invented by Ren Fair craftsmen, who used modern materials and a smattering of historical research to create a boot that “could have existed” during the renaissance, but didn’t.

Comfortable and durable, these boots often cost many hundreds of dollars. They usually lace up the front or sides, often with an incorporated button design. For a more piratical look, buckles are often substituted for the buttons. These boots look like nothing out of history, and their knee-high tight leather construction makes them hot, but they remain popular.

Piratical hats are also of a strange variety.  Although in many venues the tricorne, a historically accurate hat, marks one as a pirate, the Ren Fair crowd is not to be satisfied with a common tricorne. Instead, these hats are extravagantly decorated with feathers and jeweled clips.  Faire vendors stock plenty of hat pins featuring a skull-and-crossbones, crossed swords, or an octopus (a symbol favored by Faire pirates since Davey Jones in POTC 2 – Dead Man’s Chest).

In order to support yet more feathers, some pirates favor hats of the Cavalier style. These fanciful constructions can carry trailing feathers that rival a peacock’s tale – and must be equally difficult to carry around.

The female of the species Piraticus Faireus­ come in two distinct species – the Bawdy Wench and the Hard-as-Nails Hellion. Either or both may display a huge amount of bosom.  The Wench, however, usually wears skirts, often hiked to above the knees with leather skirt-lifters.  She is usually not as well-armed as the Hellion. Many Wenches are young and frolicsome, and are often wearing little beside a corset (usually from the Victorian era) a skirt, boots and a pirate hat. Often the Wench’s hat becomes an extravagant affair. I have seen women at Ren Fairs wearing hats with entire Spanish Galleons on them, in addition to yards of lace and pounds of jewels.

Often the Wench has kept company with a belly-dancer, or a belly-dancer has decided to become a wench.  Yards of silk scarves are in evidence on these costumes, as well as Middle-Eastern tribal jewelry, the occasional turban, and a bare midriff. Since belly-dancers frequently carry scimitars, it may be difficult to tell where one occupation takes up and another leaves off… But by my estimation, if the woman is wearing flintlock pistols, she probably identifies as a pirate.

In contrast, the Hellion is often older, and is often firmly attached to a male of the species. Her display of bosom is often deeper but narrower, and her clothing may perfectly echo the male. The younger examples of the Hellion often wear spike-heeled boots of extravagant proportions.  Older women favor tall, flat heeled boots.  Often these women carry lots of steel… Sword, several daggers, stilettos (besides the ones on their shoes) and often a whip.  This is the perfect costume for a woman with a take-no-nonsense attitude.

Faire pirates carry a lot of weapons in general. They usually resemble a boarding party, rather than a night on the town.  Often the weapons of choice are broadswords or fencer’s rapiers. Many pistols are in evidence. Some pirates are carrying so much weaponry that it’s hard to tell how they move.  And if weapons don’t take over, other accouterments may.  The pirate may carry compasses, tankards, keys, extra scarves, manacles, and just about every other cool-looking vaguely piratical object that the Faire may wish to sell.

So what do I think of the Ren Faire pirate? As a species they are fun. Certainly, in my opinion, any pirate costume is better than no costume at all. And the amount of time and money invested in these costumes shows a certain dedication to the persona. But they are a species and a culture unto themselves – not much related to history at all.

That’s a shame, because the history of pirates – and their radical stroke for equality and generosity is worth knowing about . I guess I’ll take my pirates where I can get them however. As long as they’re a jolly crew.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Pirates – The Spirit of Adventure

There’s no doubt that pirates are beloved at this point in history. We are losing the image of pirates as berserk, bloodthirsty, mindless criminals and beginning to pick up the notion of pirates as individuals, revolutionaries, freedom fighters.

But there is even more to the notion of pirating than that. I want to talk for a moment about the sheer guts it took to become a pirate and live a free life.

First was decision to become a pirate. Many times this came during a pirate raid, when browbeaten, overworked, poorly fed sailors encountered pirates – men who ate what they liked, drank what they liked, and did what they liked. The hearty call to “Join us, and become free men!” was the incentive that moved many a sailor to “go on the account”.

But other circumstances drove men to become pirates. Sometimes the sailors rebelled, and became pirates on their own. This was an act of supreme courage. To leave everything you have known, on the bare feeling that there must be something better. My researches indicate, moreover, that the prime motivator in many of these actions was not one pertinent to survival.

Instead, it was a matter of dignity. An elderly member of the crew was beaten. The captain had simply been too high-handed. Pay was held back. Whatever it was, the ship’s employees simply had enough. Rising up against an employer carried the death penalty, and yet they did it anyway.

It’s interesting to note that, during the Golden Age, pirates organized their ships the same way. I have seen no instance of variation (except for Steed Bonnet, who was certifiably insane) Everyone in the crew received a fair share of the profits. Officers, who had more skills and took more responsibility, were paid more. But not that much more. A captain never made more than twice as much as the average run-of-the-mill pirate.  It was, in short, a socialist revolution.

After all, does anyone actually work twice as hard as anyone else? And in a world (the pirate ship) where everyone’s necessities re met, how much more does anyone need?

Pirate captains lived high. Their double-share of plunder made them enviable figures. In the eyes of townsfolk and common sailors, these men were rich. Yet their share did not prevent their crews from being well-off in the extreme.

It’s also notable that folk kidnapped by pirates often became pirates. The most famous instance of this is Bartholomew Roberts. Kidnapped from a merchant ship for his navigational skills, Roberts quickly joined the pirate crew in spirit as well as fact, and became captain within only a few months. Roberts was one of the strongest proponents of piratical behavior. His observations are notable because he spoke of the freedom given to formerly upper-class individuals by the pirate lifestyle. One man did not have to carry too much responsibility. That weight could be shared by all, to the benefit of all.

Once in control of a ship, pirated did what they pleased. Very often this involved some very intrepid traveling. I’ll confess, I was hooked when Captain Jack Sparrow said, “Bring me that horizon!” Many actual pirates had the same attitude. Henry Avery started out in a Spanish port, sailed around the tip of Africa to get to the Indian Ocean, where he raided shipping. When he had his fortune, he crossed the Atlantic to the Bahamas in order to cash in his ill-gotten gains. Then – according to legend – he then re-crossed the Atlantic to get back to England and retire.

Not bad for a man sailing a ship only 100 feet long, with only the most primitive forms of navigation. (A reliable way of calculating a ship’s longitude would not be discovered for nearly 100 years.)

Pirate regularly crossed the Atlantic, sailed up the coast of North America, or down the coast of South America, just because it pleased them to do so. They did this despite the fact that they had no secure supply-lines. Anyplace they went had the possibility to be hostile – sometimes very hostile. And, unlike exploration expeditions funded by governments, they had no power behind them to back them up. No funds to draw on besides what they took with their own strength. No sure allies waited for them.

When trying to describe a place that is remote and exotic – even in today’s hyper-connected world, the name Madagascar often turns up. To us, it is an exotic locale. To the pirate of 300 years ago, it was a retirement community. They had taken it, and made it their own because they wanted to.

What could be more attractive? A life where all responsibility was shared, where all men were brothers, where every one’s needs were met so well that plunder could be kept in an unlocked room. No one needed to steal it because everyone had enough.
So raise a toast to the pirate life! And I’d urge you, too, to be a little daring. Step out of your comfort zone from time to time. Be brave. Those pirates of 300 years ago did it, and they became legends.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Bess and the Pirates

One of my earliest posts was about how much the morals, clothes and customs of the era of Queen Victoria have influenced how we think about history – including pirates. This post talks about another queen, the lady who set England up as a nation of pirates, and who probably influenced today’s attitude toward pirates being quasi-good-guys.

I’m talking about none other than Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1604. She came to the throne of England during what has been called the Age of Exploration.

Bess did not have a promising start. Born to Henry VIII’s second wife, Ann Boleyn, her mother was beheaded when little Elizabeth was 4 years old, and after that Bess lived a precarious life, her legal state as either a princess or a heretic bastard offspring always in question.  After her father’s death, she survived the reigns of her brother Edward and her sister (Bloody) Mary, and inherited a kingdom with no army, no navy, and no money  the treasury.

Elizabeth, however, did not want to sit idly by while the rest of the Europe established colonies in the New World. She began backing explorers – giving them Royal Favor when Royal cash was in short supply, and encouraging her nobles to do the same.

Spain, once a country even poorer than England, has recently become the richest and most powerful nation on earth, due entirely to New World gold. Phillip of Spain had wanted to marry Elizabeth, but she had turned him down cold, due partially to the fact that he had been married to Elizabeth’s sister Mary, partially to the fact that Catholic Phillip wanted Elizabeth to turn away from her Protestant religion and supporters, partially because he would not have let her run her country as she saw fit.

Whether or not Phillip had also tried to rape Bess during one of his visits to her sister, his then-wife Mary, is still under debate.

So, relations between Spain and England were – strained at best.  Up until recently, the Pope as head of the Catholic Church had been an arbitrator between nations. But Protestant England did not recognize this authority, so the fact that the Pope had given most of North and South America to Spain didn’t matter.

The Elizabethan explorers sailed off into the unknown, often using untried technology (navigation charts/equipment, new ship designs) and on a shoestring budget. They were hoping to get rich quick. On the other side of the world, where Spain was pillaging the natives, these men saw no reason why they should not pillage the Spanish. They brought their riches back, and repaid the Queen with gold.

Elizabeth poured this money back into her country. For those who think that the “federal government” messing with “free enterprise” is new, you are dead wrong. Like her grandfather before her, Bess loaned money to cities and key industries, including ship-building and colonization. This investment brought about, not a collapse of initiative, but  England’s Golden Age. Bess wanted results and she usually got them. England sent more explorers into the unknown.

Spain protested the intrusion and the robberies. It would have been very easy for Elizabeth to back down. But she did not. She defended her pirates, giving them royal titles and estates. To the English, these men were daring heroes. To the Spanish, they were pirates. History seems to side with the Spanish, but that didn’t matter at the time.

When Francis Drake circumnavigated the world, Elizabeth used the money he had “found” to pay off the national debt. She knighted Drake, and also went on board his ship to see it and his crew. While on this “goodwill inspection tour” with members of her Royal Court, Bess’s garter popped open and fell onto the deck.

This item of royal clothing was quickly snatched up by the French Ambassador, who claimed it as a love token for his own royal family. Elizabeth, however, was having none of this. She stalked across the deck and snatched the garter back, declaring “You can have your token later, right now I need it to hold up my sock!” Then, in front of her court, the newly knighted Drake, and the ship’s sailors – some of whom had been convicts or paupers, Good Queen Bess hauled up her dress to above the knee, exposing her royal leg, tied the garter onto her sock, and them put everything back the way it belonged. 

Sailors told stories about the beauty of the exposed leg for generations. The pirates loved Bess.

By 1588, Phillip of Spain had had enough. He launched the Spanish Armada against England, a force of ships so strong that no one could imagine how they might possibly be defeated. Elizabeth was frightened enough to order the release of all prisoners, imagining street-by-street fighting in London against the might of the Spanish invasion.

Elizabeth’s pirates rose to the occasion. Outnumbered, outclassed, they did what pirates do best. They fought dirty. The most out-dates and least seaworthy vessels in the English fleet were set on fire and steered into the approaching Spanish force. The huge Spanish warships, packed together, took terrible losses. A freak storm did the rest.  England was saved.

Elizabeth gave most of the credit to the storm, probably because in those literally minded days, this “Act of God” seemed to show God’s approval for English activities. The pirates probably didn’t care. Spain’s might was utterly broken, and it never again reached such a height of power. Phillip, faced with the fact that God might NOT have wanted him to control the whole world, retreated into depression, and died believing that he probably just hadn’t burned enough heretics at the stake.

The Elizabethan pirates are often known today as the Buccaneering Pirates, or Buccaneers. Their line continued until Sir Henry Morgan died of liver failure in Port Royal Jamaica a hundred years later. These pirates brought back the money that allowed Elizabeth to become a patron of the arts and literature, and to usher in her country’s Golden Age. Not bad for a renegade woman and a passel of pirates.