Monday, April 27, 2015

The Royal Navy Part 1

The contrast between pirates and the Royal Navy makes for good theater. On the one side pirates, the drunken, greedy, disorganized criminals in their motley clothes. On the other, the proud naval officers, sober, serious, devoted to duty, sporting crisp uniforms and…

Except that’s not at all the way the Royal Navy worked in the very early 1700’s.

In 1717, the Royal Navy had no uniforms. No navy did. In the army, uniforms made for an impressive spectacle. It also reduced costs, since the “uniform” clothing could be ordered in bulk. But at sea, it was the ship that made the impression. Details of the men sailing it were not so important.

Besides, the sailor did have a certain level of similarity in dress. They all tended toward the same cut of baggy work pants in either red or canvas-white (as ubiquitous as blue jeans are today)  Working men wore short jackets, of about the same cut, and most sailors, whether navy or not, favored blue. Most sailors also favored checked shirt, and blue was the most common color, followed by red.

Blue for sailors had been ordained 1,700 years before by the Romans, who were trying to camouflage their ships. The Romans also dyed their sails blue, but that tradition did not last. Red was likely popular because it was both inexpensive and durable, being produced by iron oxide (rust).

Further uniformity was brought about because the ship supplied a “slops chest” of clothing that was available for purchase. The sailors had to pay for the clothes, and the service was outsourced to third-party suppliers. Therefor the supplied clothing tended to be similar, if not identical.

Officers, especially captains, dressed any way they pleased, and there was much more variety here. A captain could wear literally anything he chose. It was an era of grand clothing, with silks, brocades lace and embroidery being common for men who could afford them. Usually the only way to determine who was in charge was by the grandeur of a coat. Well-heeled lieutenants might be able to afford to dress better than their commanding officer, but would quickly find out it was not good for the career.

In Britain, uniforms were designed after a petition from the officers to Parliament in 1760. By this time, other nations has used uniforms for years.

Saluting was not a tradition in the navy until about 1800. During the Golden Age of Piracy, and for some time thereafter, the naval greeting was to touch or tip the hat, the same as for civilians.

The navy was also a much more drunken than we imagine. The British rationed a gallon of beer or wine for each man each day, or a pint of unadulterated brandy or rum. Interestingly enough the service also punished men from drunkenness. They got around this by re-defining what it meant to be drunk. In the navy, drunkenness was being so impaired by drink that a man could not stand up and say his name.

The officers, in addition to the ration of liquor, were expected to supply additional drink for private social use. Cases and cases of wine, brandy, sherry, gin, and rum were purchased out of the private funds of the captain and officers, and stored on the ship. It was not at all uncommon for every man on board to be in an alcoholic haze. The phrase “The sun is over the yardarm” signaled that it was about 11:00 in the morning, and time, not to begin drinking, but to begin drinking HEAVILY.

The navy also anticipated “sharp dealing” as it was called. For example the position of “Purser” the man who managed the ship’s money, was not a paid position. Instead, those wishing to have the position paid the navy a considerable sum, and were expected to make it up by cheating. Either they would pay less than allocated for supplies in foreign ports (often resulting in spoiled or otherwise sub-standard food) or they found ways to get extra money that didn’t need to be spent.

One way was to charge a 10% fee on the sale of all clothing from the slop’s chest to the sailors. Another was to write monthly pay-tickets for non-existent personnel, cash the ticket and keep the money. This led, much later, to the start of a tradition whereby each week during inspection, every man on the ship stepped forward and told the captain his name.

Pay also happened in a more piratical way than you might expect. While everyone but the purser received at least nominal pay, the navy actually ran on an institution called “prize money”. Simply put, when a Royal Navy ship captured a ship of an enemy nation (either a war-ship or a merchant) the captured ship or “prize” belonged to the captain and crew of the vessel that captured it (There were rules for when multiple ships were involved in a capture.)

The captured ships and their cargos were sold, either at common auction or in a direct sale to the British Government. Money from a capture, often enough to make a man rich for life, was distributed to the captain and crew according to a prescribed formula. The money was divided into eighths. One eighth went to the ship’s Captain, and one eighth to the Admiral who wrote his orders. The Lieutenants, Captain of Marines (if present) and Sailing Master shared an eighth between them. The next eighth was divided between the ship’s Chaplain, Carpenter, Gunner, Boatswain, Lieutenant of Marines, and Master’s Mates. One eighth was divided among the junior warrant and petty officers, their mates, sergeants of marines, captain's clerk, surgeon's mates, and midshipmen.

The final two-eighths was divided among the sailors. As you can see, the divisions were between larger and larger groups of people, resulting in a smaller and smaller share for each man. The final division, by members of the crew, might be split among many hundreds of people. But the money inspired men of all levels. The largest payout ever was after the Spanish ship Hermioney was captured by the Active and the Favourite in 1764. The two British Captains received about £65,000 apiece (about 500 year’s salary) and the men about £485 each.

However, this money might take months to get back to the people who had earned it. To increase morale, British captains sometimes confiscated all the money found on a prize, divided it into appropriate shares, and passed it out in in person, immediately. It was not technically legal, but it happened often.

The lure of such prize money was what brought men to the service. It was certainly not the actual pay, which was barely enough to live on – by definition about ¼ of what was given to merchant officers and sailors. Prize money was on everyone’s mind and often caused poor decisions, since a ship that was sunk could not be sold. Trying to preserve enemy ships for sale was known to lose battles.

So there we have it… The navy was just as drunken, disorganized, and treasure-mad as the pirates, and often dressed much the same.

Just one more reason why the pirates did so well during the Golden Age.

Next week – more navy triva.

Monday, April 20, 2015

All the Things on a Pirate Ship.

A pretty good pirate ship just came up for sale, and I began thinking… If you have the ship, what else do you need? What are the things that a ship needs to do business on the water?

It helps to remember that, in the 18th century, a ship was very much like a space station. It was headed into a hostile environment and needed to carry with it all the supplies necessary for itself and its crew.

We will assume that your pirate ship comes with all the sails and rope it will need, and with cannons and a Jolly Roger.

So the first thing you will need is another full set of sails. Sails wear out, tear, and are sometimes carried away by the wind. Without sails to move the ship, it is dead in the water, and everything on it will probably die as well. So you need to have spares for everything, one set at least. Plus a lot of spare canvas, to make things like canon cartridges and hammocks. You will also need enough rope to replace every piece of cordage on the ship, at least twice over, for the same reason.

You will need water and food for your crew. Since this is the 18th century, this will be stored in barrels. In addition to 2 month’s supply of water, you must supply your crew with a nutritious diet. This means beef, pork, cheese, dried peas, dried fruit, oatmeal, hard tack, flour, salt, spices and more. If you want to have milk, you must carry a cow or goat, and if you want eggs, you must carry chickens. Then you need to carry food and water for the animals.

For the galley, you will need pots and pans, spoons, buckets, mixing bowls, etc. You will also need to carry all the fuel (firewood) necessary to heat your food.

It would be very pleasant to have coffee, tea, teapots, coffee pots.

You should have replacements for, at least, every mast, spar, crosstree, yard and boom. Plus extra wood for miscellaneous purposes, such as repairing holes shot in the ship and replacing rotten or otherwise damaged parts. And you will need a full set of carpentry tools to form and shape this wood.

We assume the ship has one anchor, but you will need a spare or two.

The ship requires one or two small boats, for getting back and forth to shore.

It really helps to have a portable blacksmith’s forge (the size of an outdoor grill) and a full set of a blacksmith’s tools. Oh, and charcoal to run the forge.

You will need navigational equipment, a compass, equipment to estimate speed, a barometer, charts, telescopes, and a logbook to write it all down.

If you are going to fight, you need cannons, gunpowder, shot for the cannons. And you will need measuring equipment for the powder. To fire the guns, you will need, for each gun, a rammer, a sponge, a worm, fuses, a fuse-holder, a pick, and a tub for water.

Also, in case you get into a fight, you will need a complete range of medicines, scalpels, needles, sewing gut, compresses, and splints. It would help if this included pain killers like opium. 

We will assume your pirate will bring all the swords and pistols they will need, plus their own hammocks, clothes, plates and eating utensils.

You will need crew, of course. While you can have a few landsmen, most of the people on your boat must be skilled sailors. These should include a navigator (and hopefully a spare, so they can compare results for a more accurate reading). A gunner will have the expertise to care for, repair and operate the guns, and he should have a gunner’s mate to help him. A carpenter will do the woodworking the ship needs. A surgeon will take care of the ship’s medical needs, and he should have an assistant, called a loblolly boy. A boatswain helps organize the crew. A quartermaster will see to the ship’s money and make sure the crew gets its fair share of the plunder. It would be nice to have a sailmaker. It would also be nice to have a cooper, to take care of the barrels.

Lastly, and very importantly, you will need alcohol. Navy ships allotted one pint of liquor per man per day, but pirates expected more than that. Figure one quart of liquor per man per day, plus wine, plus beer. If you run out, you’ll just have to capture a ship and take what you need.  

Monday, April 13, 2015

Authentic Pirate Rum Drinks

Spring is finally starting to show up in my part of the world, and everyone is preparing for festivals, outdoor parties and nights under the stars. For those of us who enjoy pirating, it helps to have some rum available. For those of us who, like me, are nuts about authenticity, it’s fun to drink the same type of concoctions that would have been drunk during the Golden Age.

Pirates and rum are linked forever by place and history. If you want your rum to be “authentic” then get the cheapest, newest rum available. Pirates drank what there was, and the main point was to enjoy the effects.

Recipe for Spiced Rum

Spiced Rum is big right now, and you may want to try making your own. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, all common in the Caribbean, are the proper spices to use. Recipes are entirely based on the tastes of the person mixing it, so you can experiment, adding spices and then letting it steep for up to a week, then straining out any solid matter and deciding if you like the taste.

Working on such a recipe is also a good excuse to drink large quantities of rum.

If you are in a bit of a hurry, you can also produce your own spiced rum by gently heating 2 tablespoons of brown sugar with one tablespoon of water. When the mixture is a warm liquid with no visible grains, add your spices and continue heating just until they are thoroughly absorbed. Add to your rum.

Recipe for Grog

People wishing to be “authentic” may wish to create some grog. While the grog has been used as a term for nearly any type of liquor, it was in fact a specific drink with a specific name. A British naval officer, Admiral Vernon, called “Old Grog” for wearing an old grosgrain coat, realized in 1740 that giving sailors a pint of liquor every day and then expecting them to do dangerous and technical work was a bad idea. He therefor ordered that the rum ration should be cut with 3 parts of water, and added the daily ration of lime juice (intended to prevent scurvy) to the mix. The recipe is as follows:

½ cup rum, 1 ½ cups water, 2 tablespoons lime juice. Mix together. Drink this every day and I guarantee you won’t get scurvy.

Many of the pirate drinks were mixed together well in advance and then kept for some special occasion – plain rum being just fine for everyday drinking. Below are a couple of such recipes.

Recipe for Lemon Shrub 

Lemon Shrub is more of a cold-weather drink but nights out on the ocean can get chilly.  The recipe calls for 2 cups of rum, the zest of one lemon, ½ cup of lemon juice and ¾ cup of sugar. Mix it all together, seal it in a glass bottle, and put it away in a cool dark place for a week. To serve, add 1 part of the rum mixture to 2 parts boiling water. You could probably use this as an excuse to drink rum for a cold.

Recipe for Milk Punch

Milk Punch sounds fairly harmless, but don’t drink this and drive. Ingredients are: 2/3 cup of brandy, 1 1/3 cup of rum, 2 cups milk (warmed), 3 cups of water, juice of 2 lemons, zest of one lemon, 4 tablespoons of sugar, 1/8 teaspoon of ground nutmeg.

Mix all ingredients and let stand for 2 hours. Then bottle tightly and keep for at least two weeks before drinking. If it kept for a long time, there is some chance it will become effervescent (like champagne) and may “pop” when opened. Be careful.

Recipe for Rum Punch

The classic drink, however, is Rum Punch, Pirates and other denizens of the Caribbean loved this, and looked for any excuse to mix up a batch. The “theory” behind this punch is one part sour, two parts sweet, three parts strong, four parts weak.

One way to implement this is: One cup key lime juice, two cups brown sugar, three cups of rum and four cups of crushed ice. You may, if you like, substitute regular lime juice for the juice of key-limes (both are available bottled) and white sugar for brown (though brown sugar is more like what the pirates would have used.) Either way, this is very easy to drink, so beware! Pirates didn’t drink and drive, and neither should you.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Pirate Ship – Chasing Prey

A fat merchant ship is in sight. The pirate vessel sets sails, bears down on it, and within minutes the merchant captain is signaling his surrender… Now the pirate plunder can begin!

Well, not quite. Visibility at sea is measured in miles, and sailing ships don’t travel all that fast. In addition, the merchant ship, while often slower than the pirate ship, wasn’t that much slower. In fact, a pirate attack was much different than the stereotypical version from the movies.

To begin with, the pirates had to sight their prey. One way to do this was to simply hang out in a known shipping lane, or near to a port city. Pirate ships didn’t have what we would now call a crow’s nest. Pirates trying to spot prey ships simply hung out in the rigging and watched the horizon.

A ship on the horizon might or might not have also seen the pirates. They wouldn’t be flying a Jolly Roger. Ships at sea didn’t show any flags, since there was mostly no one to see them. A merchant captain might be suspicious simply because the newcomer was an unknown. Or he might be in the mood to share information or break up the monotony of his voyage by visiting. If the pirates were lucky, and managed to look innocent, the merchants might approach them.

If the merchant was not so extremely accommodating, the pirates might help things along by offering a friendly hail of their own. They might ask for news, or for help finding their position at sea. This would work better or worse depending on the nature of the pirate ship and the accent of the captain. A battered vessel with sails torn by cannon balls would not represent well. A pirate captain with a lower-class accent could not pass himself as a gentleman.

Stede Bonnet, one of the worst pirates to ever sail, was especially good at this particular ruse, as he was actually from a good family.

If the merchant captain didn’t like the look of the pirate ship, he might do one of several things. He might ignore the hail and continue on his way. He might alter course to have the advantage of the pirate ship. He might change course in such a way as to make it harder for the pirate ship to catch him. He might stand and fight. Or he might “show his heels” in other words, run for it.

It all depended on the wind, the state of both ships, any nearby land, and even the time of day. And no matter what happened, it would not be resolved for several hours.

If the pirate ship was much faster, it might run down the merchant in as little as four hours. If they were more evenly matched, it might take even longer. Chases were known to last for days.

It was a given that the pirate ship was faster and more weatherly. Pirates chose their vessels for their sailing characteristics (as opposed to the merchant, who wanted a solid ship that would carry a large load). Pirates also continually worked on their ships, like boys tinkering with a sports car.

Pirates kept the bottoms of their vessels clean, dragging the entire ship onto land as often as every six weeks to clean marine growth off the bottom. When they could not do this, they worked from above the water, cleaning as far down the sides as they were able.

The pirates also continually worked on the ballasting their ship, moving cargo in the hold to keep it sailing at the best possible angle. They adjusted the masts and sails, trying different angles, different rigging and combinations. Some went so far as cutting away unnecessary parts of the vessel to lighten it.

What the merchant captain was hoping for was to make the chase last until dark. Neither ship would use any sort of lights. With a little luck, the merchant would be able to lose the pirates in the dark. Then the merchant would take down all his sails – the most noticeable part of the ship – and lie to in the troughs between the waves. A ship in this position was nearly impossible to see.

But these ploys weren’t always successful. Maybe the wave-troughs weren’t deep enough to hide the ship. Maybe a light flashed –someone forgot to shield a lantern, the pirates spotted the glow of a sailor’s pipe. Maybe the moon was full. Maybe the pirates just got lucky.

Actual chases often want on for days, sometimes as long as a week. Sometimes the merchants got away. Occasionally, unable to escape, the merchant would turn and fight. This rarely worked out, especially later in the age of piracy. Pirates “punished” merchants who stood against them, and sailors were neither hired for not trained for ship-to-ship battles.

The end usually came simply when the pirate ship was close enough to fire a single shot across the merchant’s bow, or for the pirate captain to be seen brandishing his sword. Either was a sign for the merchant ship to be boarded.

THAT was when the looting could begin.  

Monday, March 30, 2015

Pirates and the Law

We all know that pirates were law-breakers. That’s kind of a definition of the job. But what were the laws, anyway? What was the British legal system like in 1715?

The beginning of this answer is: A lot different than it is today.

British law was undergoing a rather radical change at the time, from a medieval system primarily designed to punish people who stepped outside the system, to a system designed to deter crimes against property.

The difference was the rise in what we would call the upper middle class. Unlike previous people with money, their wealth was not tied up in land, but in property such as homes, carriages, artwork and fine clothing. These people wanted to protect their possessions, and also their business dealings.

Because of this, England set out on a course of new laws designed to deter undesirable behavior. Crimes like shoplifting, robbing a house or rioting were punishable by death. The list of crimes that fell under this category grew by leaps and bounds, form about 26 during the  Golden Age or Piracy to well over two hundred by the mid 1700’s.

The laws of the time are today referred to as “The Bloody Code” though they were never called this while they were in force.

The goal – to paraphrase a quote from the time – was not to punish the stealing of horses but to prevent the stealing of horses.

Today we wouldn’t understand many of the distinctions in these laws. For instance, it was legal for a nobleman to rape a common woman, on the theory that she would necessarily be so flattered at the possibility of bearing a noble child that she was not capable of resisting.

A commoner raping a noblewoman, however, was a crime against the woman’s family.

It was perfectly legal to beat a person nearly to death, so long as they were not permanently disabled or killed. But it was illegal to damage their clothing by cutting it, as this was property damage. Women were not legally allowed to own property. Counterfeiting was illegal for both men and women, but men were hanged for the crime, while women were burned alive.  These are only a few examples, but you get the drift.

Similarly, the court proceedings would not be recognized by modern folks, especially Americans. The job that Americans refer to as “lawyer” was divided between a solicitor (who represented the client in court) and a barrister (who was hired by the client and researched the law).

People who were arrested did not get out on bail. They were kept in chains and locked up in prison, where they were kept pending trial. If they did not have much money, or friends outside to help them, they did not receive food or drink above the bare necessities for survival. They slept on the floor in piles of straw, and were not provided a change of clothing, or even wash water. Trial could be expected to come within a few weeks, but the accused would be filthy, bedraggled and much thinner when standing before the judge. It would be easy to convict such a person.

Nor were the accused given any information about the case or their legal rights, unless they or some friend could afford to hire legal representation. This put the poor at a severe disadvantage. But the laws were written specifically for the rich, anyway. God, it was believed, had already decided that the rich were better and more important people than the poor. That was why they were rich. God had blessed them.  

Bringing a court case was more difficult for a poor person as well. The burden of proving the case was entirely on them. There were no police departments yet. Instead, men similar to private detectives could be hired – for a price – to investigate, gather evidence and bring the accused to be locked up. These men were called thief-takers. Though their fees were not prohibitive to the well-to-do, they could destroy a poor family.

Thief-takers were also very prone to corruption. Since they were paid to gather evidence, they could accuse an innocent person and be believed. This in turn could lead to blackmail, protection rackets and perjury. The system was ripe for abuse.

Even bringing a case to court was expensive. The person bringing the case needed to pay the court costs up front, and this kind of money was out of the reach of the poor. If a rich person cheated on a contract or took the property of a poor person, it would be almost impossible for the poor person to raise enough money to hire legal help, have papers served, and pay the necessary court costs. The rich were safe.

Punishments, besides hanging, were also not what modern people would expect. Instead, the system looked more like something one could imagine in a radical Islamist state. People could be burned at the stake, hanged, or skinned and cut into pieces. For less severe crimes, the punishment might be lashes with a whip, strokes with a rod, or even being tied to the back side of a cart and dragged through town while being beaten by a gang of men with various instruments. Simply being locked up was not an option.

Even “the stocks”, that cute little punishment that we today associate with the Puritans, was much more harsh than it seems. Yes, the punishment was to be confined by having the head and hands, or maybe the head hands and feet, immobilized by a wooden device. What we don’t think of was that, while confined, the person could have rocks thrown at them, or rotten fruit, or dead animals. Hot oil could be poured on them. In fact, any abuse that an angry or bored populace could dish out was okay.

Once again, the rich got off easier. Their families could afford to hire body guards for the event.

Oh, and piracy? The date when piracy became illegal is not clear, but was a death-penalty crime since long before the Golden Age. Piracy broke both the old laws (being outside the social structure) and the new ones (stealing and destroying property, and committing murder). Hanging was the penalty, but further rituals grew up around it. In England, it was traditional to hang a pirate at low tide, then bind the dead body to a pole and let 3 tides wash over it. After this, the body would either be given to a medical school for dissection or covered in tar, bound with iron bands and hung up as a warning to others.

Piracy was one of the last death penalties still on England’s law books. The death penalty for piracy, along with high treason, was reduced to life imprisonment in 1998.   

Monday, March 23, 2015

Pixie Pirate

Grownup pirates like us aren’t supposed to enjoy movies aimed at five year old girls, but since Black Sails isn’t on again until Saturday, and Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales isn’t due out until 2017, I found myself sitting in front of Pirate Fairy, Disney’s 2014 movie short in which Zarina, a pixie from Pixie Hollow in Neverland takes up work as a pirate.

The movie is the fifth of the straight-to-video Pixie Hollow series, and pre-supposes a certain knowledge of the Pixie Hollow universe. It’s a series aimed primarily at pre-school girls, so I didn’t expect much, especially in the pirate department.

The first movie in the series apparently fixed the most enormous problem, which was that Tinkerbell was REALLY mean. Then there’s a cast of pixie characters, all pretty much stereotypes and color-coded, in case you can’t tell them apart. The pixies seem to have their own little community in Neverland, and the series seems to pre-date the introduction of Peter Pan to the island.

The plot of this video involves Zarina, who has a pretty boring job packaging pixie dust at the pixie-dust factory. In her spare time she performs chemical experiments, trying to find out the possibility of formulating different types of dust.

Now, it may seem odd that movies about fairies are meant to encourage little girls to take up chemistry and engineering, but this is the case. “Tinker” bell likes to build things, and Zarina does a lot of things right in performing her chemical experiments. For instance, she carefully records her experiments in a book, and the thickness of the book, along with other clues, indicate that she’s been at this quite a while.

She’s also made some personal sacrifices in order to perform these experiments. She uses her personal share of pixie dust in her lab, and is therefore forced to walk everywhere, instead of flying like her friends.

What we see, of course, is her big breakthrough. She makes all kinds of dust that do all kinds of things (also color-coded). But if she continued her research and development with careful product safety and dosage testing there wouldn’t be much of a story. So she goes crazy with the new dust, does a lot of damage and gets in trouble.

Her answer to all this is to use her new products to put all the fairies to sleep and steal the dust-producing element for her own use. She then takes up with a pirate crew who offer to further her research in exchange for her giving their ship flying powers, enabling them to rob people far inland and get away with the goods.

Image result for Pirate crew Pirate Pixie

I wasn’t expecting much from the pirates. The entire ship’s crew consists of six guys, but I put this down to the requirements of low-budget CG, and keeping everything clear for the kids. They show a variety of nationalities, including an Asian, an Italian and an Irishman, but no African pirates, which kind of disappointed me.

The ship looks good – surprisingly good, although work on the ship was an investment – a CG good ship can have a lot of uses. It’s referred to as a “frigate” though it’s clearly a galleon. But hey, any time the word “frigate” gets used in a kids movie, I’m all for it.

The pirate fairy is, of course, the captain. She gets a headband, a sword and a pair of really cool boots to go with the title. After all, it’s aimed at little girls, so we have to include some cute clothes.

Weird little things were good. The pirate’s shoes are perfect straight-last buckle shoes. The one-eyed pirate is the cook. The cannons actually look like real cannons. The use of the term “offering you quarter” is properly defined, and almost properly used. 

The other friendly fairies set out, first to rescue their friend, and once it’s clear she’s become a pirate of her own free will, to get back the dust-generator. Along the way, there are hijinks in which the fairies’ powers get changed around, and also assorted fairy-dust generated special effects. One of the fairies “imprints” a newly hatched baby crocodile.

More to my interest was the gradual revelation of the identity of one long-faced pirate. First we learn his name is James. Then that he went to school at Eaton. (There’s only one pirate who’s been to Eaton.)  About the time the pirates reveal they were only joshing Zarina along until she could make the ship fly, James opens a closet and whips out a long red pirate coat and an enormous hat.

By this point most kids will have figured out who James is, but the movie never actually says it. Instead, the baby crocodile swallows an alarm clock, a pretty funny scene, as objects are being thrown at the crocodile, and I’m waiting for the alarm clock. Then James picks up a hook as a tool. Finally, at the end, after the crocodile has bitten him on the butt. James is washed out to sea, and is picked up by none other than Mr. Smee. I’m imagining the delight of a child who figures out, all on her own, who James is.

Of course the fairy dust generator is recovered and the fairies have a happy ending. We knew that would happen. I’m just thrilled with such a great little biography of the early days of Captain Hook.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Why We Owe St Patrick's Day to Pirates

St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, wasn’t Irish, but English. He owes his life on the Emerald isle, and ultimately his sainthood, to pirates.

Piracy and slavery had been practiced in Ireland back into pre-history. Icelandic Viking raiders attacked the island, carrying off women. (Modern DNA studies show that 60% of the maternal gene line comes from captured Celts.) In return, sea-going Irish chieftains captured slaves in the Nordic countries (giving rise to a gene strain of blond Celts), the rest of the British Isles, and even France.

Patrick, or Patricius, was the son of a well-to-do Roman living in Britain, then Britannia. He had been born some time between 390 and 400. (Yes, that’s a three-digit year number.) His parents, while nominally Christian, were not devout by any means, and Patrick was an atheist.

When he was 15, Irish pirates raided near his home, and he was captured and taken back to Ireland and sold as a slave.

For the next six years, Patrick herded sheep, lived in a stone hovel, and enjoyed no rights at all. He was, understandably, miserable. To make his life more bearable, he turned to prayer, and came to believe that it was because of his previous disbelief that God had chosen for him to become a slave. His devotion to Christianity earned him the mocking name “Holy Boy” among the other slaves.

Finally Patrick was visited with a dream. He dreamed that he should leave his master and find his way home. He walked through 185 miles of wilderness, found passage on a ship, and made it back home to his parents in Britain.

Once there, he had another dream. This time, he dreamed that the people of Ireland were calling for him to bring them Christianity. Patrick used his family’s resources to get schooling to become a priest. When this was finished, he went back to Ireland.

His task was daunting, and some say, has never really been completed. He faced a network of warring Irish kings, each controlling their own territory, often financed by piracy. The religion of Ireland was a form of Celtic paganism, presided over by Druidic priests and heavily ingrained into the culture. Though Patrick made inroads, it could not be truly said that he converted the Irish to Christianity. He merely started the process.

Patrick died in about 460, and faded into obscurity. But years later, when Christianity was more popular on the island, he was recalled as the originator of the religion. In the Irish tradition of heroes, it was expected that Patrick should have some adventures or accomplishments.

The story of chasing the snakes out of Ireland is a metaphor for overcoming paganism, since the snake was a symbol of re-birth for pagans. Followers also invented epic magic battles between Patrick and the Druids. Even the date of Patrick’s death, March 17th, was nothing more than a guess.

For centuries, St Patrick’s Day was merely a church holiday, and was not celebrated any differently than any other saint’s day. But Irish immigrants to America, missing their homeland, began to celebrate more and more extravagantly. Parades, dances and parties were not in Patrick’s style, as he was a quiet man, much more given to quiet contemplation and prayer.

In fact, Patrick would probably be horrified by all the drunkenness that now accompanies the supposed anniversary of his death.

So, if you don’t want to drink to St. Patrick, drink to the pirates who captured him. Without them Ireland wouldn’t have its patron saint, and we wouldn’t have green beer.