Monday, April 14, 2014

A Pirate's Life... In the Pirate's Own Words

Many things have been written about pirates, but the problem is that much of it is suspect. Pirates were called “lazy” by former employers who believed that a 14-hour workday should be perfectly normal for working class men. They were called “bloodthirsty” despite lack of evidence that they caused more than a very few deaths.

But some pirate words have been preserved thought the centuries. What better way to find out what it was that pirates thought of themselves and their way of life?

We will begin with a quote by Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most successful pirates who ever lived. Roberts did not set out to be a pirate. In fact, he was kidnapped by a pirate crew who needed his navigational skills. But within months he had changed his mind. The following statement was made to a captain whose ship Roberts was robbing at the time:

In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto." -Bartholomew Roberts

(Or, in more modern language, “In honest work there is little food or drink, low wages and hard work. In pirating, there is plenty and a feeling of satisfaction, pleasure and rest, freedom and power. Who would not call this life more valuable, when all the risk is run? At worst, a pirate receives only an angry look as he is choking to death. No, I will have a short life, and a happy one.”)

Later, Roberts explained why his victims should be grateful for his merciful treatment of them.

 "There is none of you but will hang me, I know, whenever you can clinch me within your power." -Bartholomew Roberts, explaining to his victims that he was under no obligation to treat them kindly or fairly.

(In modern words: “Any one of you would hang me, I know, if only you could catch me.”)

Pirates regarded themselves as members of a brotherhood, and seemed to have strong feelings that they were on the same side in a larger struggle. This is illustrated in the words of pirate captain Howell Davis, as he formally left an alliance with Thomas Cocklyn and Oliver la Bouche

"Hark ye, you Cocklyn and la Bouche, I find by strengthening you, I have put a rod into your hands to whip myself, but I am still able to deal with you both; but since we met in love, let us part in love, for I find that three of a trade can never agree." -Howell Davis

The sentiment here is that the other two have ganged up on Davis and treated him unfairly. But, rather than fight, Davis chooses to sail away, for the sake of peace between pirates.

According to “Black Sam” Bellamy, captain of the pirate ship Whydah at least some pirates followed a version of the Golden Rule:

"Damn my blood... I scorn to do anyone a mischief, when it is not for my advantage." – Black Sam Bellamy to a captured merchant captain.

The phrase “give no quarter” shows up occasionally when dealing with pirates. In battle, this was signified by a red flag. What the phase meant in practice was that surrender would not be offered or accepted. The party calling for “no quarter” intended to fight to the last man. This was a reasonable threat for pirates to use. It discouraged the other party from fighting, a being killed was a real outcome (you couldn’t surrender and expect to be spared) and the pirates had little to lose, as they would be hanged if caught.

"Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarters, or take any from you." -Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, before his final battle

Many pirates strongly believed that all regular sailors should rise to their cause and force merchant captains to give them better working conditions and fairer pay.

"Damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security." – Sam Bellamy speaking to a sailor who refused to join the pirates.

Sam also had a great deal to say about the role of pirates in society. His views on the subject of armed robbery versus robbery by trickery or use of the legal system still rings true today, and his statements about his own place in the world was a radical prequel to the phrase “All men are created equal.”

“Damn ye altogether: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under protection of our own courage; had you not better make one of us, than sneak after the asses of those villains for employment?

"I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men in the field; and this my conscience tells me; but there is no arguing with such sniveling puppies, who allow superiors to kick them about deck at pleasure; and pin their faith upon a pimp of a parson; a squab, who neither practices nor believes what he puts upon the chuckle-headed fools he preaches to." – Bellamy to a captured merchant captain

Although pirates believed that they were in the right in their battle against the governments of the world, they also seem to have accepted that they were also fighting against “God’s will” (which was frequently cited as a reason why poor people should not try to better themselves.)

"Heaven, you fool? Did you ever year of any pirates going thither? Give me hell, it's a merrier place: I'll give Roberts a salute of 13 guns at entrance." -Thomas Sutton, a captured member of Bartholomew Roberts' crew, when told by a fellow pirate that he hoped to make it into Heaven.

Hanging loomed over a pirate’s life as an ever-present threat. The bravest ones laughed off the fear of death with very real bravado, as in this quote from a female pirate:

"As to hanging, it is no great hardship. For were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would turn pirate and so unfit the sea, that men of courage must starve." - Mary Read

When a pirate finally was captured, many of them continued to assert that it was better to live in freedom and die early than to submit to tyrannical masters in order to live a few more years.

"Yes, I do heartily repent. I repent I had not done more mischief; and that we did not cut the throats of them that took us, and I am extremely sorry that you aren't hanged as well as we." -Anonymous Pirate, asked on the gallows if he repented.

A man named William Fly was perhaps the most hard-core in his resistance. Caught and led to the gallows, Fly is famous for taking apart the hangman’s noose and re-tying it properly, showing his contempt for a “landsman” who couldn’t do anything right. He also addressed the crow who had come to see him die. He wished that:

“All Masters of Vessels might take Warning by the Fate of the Captain (that he had murder’d), and to pay Sailors their Wages when due, and to treat them better. It is the Master’s Barbarity to them made so many turn Pyrates.”

Fly thus used his last breath to protest the conditions of work at sea, what he called “Bad Usage.” He was launched into eternity with the brash threat of mutiny and piracy on his lips.

Monday, April 7, 2014


The very name has come to mean “pirate.”

Blackbeard is the most notorious figure from the Golden Age of Piracy. The image of a tall, lean man, dark beard heavy on his chest, huge coat flapping around him, carrying six pistols and wreathed in smoke from the smoldering cords he has stuck under his hat, is as much a mythical figure as Neptune himself. But the man we call Blackbeard was not the villain we imagine.

He was probably born in Bristol, England sometime around 1680, and his name was Edward Thatch, not “Teach” as has been previously believed. We are almost certain that he served under the privateer Benjamin Hornigold in the War of Spanish Succession, also called Queen Anne’s War. When the war ended and Hornigold became a pirate, Thatch remained a member of his crew.

Pirates at the time were not like any before or since. They saw themselves as crusaders for the rights of the working man in an era when managers routinely beat their employees, and thousands of the poor literally starved to death. Hornigold stated out with a couple of canoes and soon graduated to full-sized ships.  Thatch may have been his second in command.

As Hornigold captured more ships, Blackbeard had opportunity to take command of one and become a captain in his own right, but he does not seem to have been anxious to do so. When he finally did acquire command of a ship, it was in the most unusual way possible. 

While camped out in Nassau, spending some of the gold they had collected, the pirates saw a strange, battered ship sail into the harbor. It was none other than Stede Bonnet, a gentleman plantation owner who had decided to run away from home to become a pirate. In a fight with the Spanish, Bonnet’s ship, the Revenge, had been badly damaged, and Bonnet himself was wounded.

Blackbeard talked his way onto the boat, and persuaded Bonnet to let him take command, while Bonnet himself recovered from his wounds in his luxurious, book-lined captain’s cabin.
Like most of Hornigold’s protégés, Blackbeard did not use violence in his robberies. Instead, he created a fearsome persona, took on a large number of African crew members, and relied on terror to frighten his victims into handing over their property without a fight.

We do not think of pirates as having friends, but Blackbeard seems to have become very good friends with another of Hornigold’s protégés.  Sam Bellamy, the incredibly charismatic pirate captain of the Whydah Galley left Hornigold long before Blackbeard did, but in May of 1717, when Thatch learned that Bellamy’s ship had gone down in a storm and his few surviving crewmen were in prison awaiting hanging, he sprang to action.  He left the Caribbean and sailed up the coast, apparently intending to blockade Boston and free Bellamy’s pirates.

He was too late, but this seems to have marked a turning point in Blackbeard’s career. From this time forward his moves were bolder, his actions more daring.

He terrorized Chesapeake Bay, Philadelphia and New York, at one point capturing 15 ships within 48 hours. Then, in November, he returned to the Caribbean and made the single capture that crowned his career.

She was called La Concorde and she was a French slave ship with port for 40 guns. At 250 tons, she was the same size as the Navy frigates sent to hunt him. Blackbeard re-named her the Queen Anne’s Revenge.Like many pirate captains, he had been collecting a flotilla of smaller ships that sailed in his company. He was now a pirate admiral with a flagship to match his stature.

Blackbeard is famous for saying, “I must shoot one of you now and again, or you will forget who I am.” It sounds bloodthirsty enough, and may actually be the origin of the myth that pirate captains shot members of their crew at will. The reality was somewhat less exciting. The famous pirate was playing cards with friends and drinking heavily.  Apparently he was losing, too, and being teased for it. Somehow, one of his pistols discharged (under the table) hitting his second in command in the foot. The statement was a simple refusal to apologize. The other pirate continued to serve with Blackbeard for months, but their friendship was somewhat soured.

By spring of 1718 he was the most famous man in the New World. Governors demanded his arrest, newspapers wrote about his exploits, dozens of victims gave depositions. He was also rich. It was time to disappear. He headed north again, with four sloops, including Bonnet’s Revenge. He tried to head into Topsail Inlet in North Carolina. The smaller vessels got through, but the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran hard aground.

It has been debated for years whether he did it on purpose. Even at the time, some of his stranded men said that Blackbeard wanted to “get rid of the riff-raff.” Some scholars claim that the Queen Anne’s Revenge was too great an asset to ever sacrifice willingly.  What we do know is that Thatch escaped with all the treasure, leaving the majority of his crew behind to face arrest and hanging.

He found sanctuary in the small North Carolina town of Bath, where he married into a prominent family, bought a home and kept his pirate friends at arm’s length. But the lure of adventure – and profit – were too much to resist. Soon he was slipping away to a camp on Ocracoke Island, which they used as a base to raid shipping.

Too much of the shipping came from Virginia. Blackbeard’s real identity was an open secret. Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood bribed members of the Royal Navy to devote themselves exclusively to Blackbeard’s capture.

Lieutenant Maynard found the pirates at their base on Ocracoke and attempted to ambush them, but gave himself away when one of his ships ran aground. Blackbeard and his men were able to get to their own boat and fight. They killed 21 of Maynard’s men in minutes with cannon fire, muskets and hand grenades, then swarmed onto the deck of the navy ship.

Maynard had additional men in hiding, and what followed next was a pitched battle worthy of Hollywood. The Navy lieutenant and the pirate king met in mortal combat, hacking at each other unti Blackbeard fell, wounded by 20 sword thrusts and 5 pistol shots.   When their leader fell, the pirates gave up. Maynard returned to Virginia with 14 prisoners, and Blackbeard’s head hanging from his bowsprit.  

The battle in which he died is the only time that the dreaded pirate Blackbeard ever killed anyone. They say his ghost still walks the shores of the Carolinas looking for his severed head.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Pirate Coins

“It was a strange collection, like Billy Bones’ hoard for the diversity of coinage, but so much larger and so much more varied that I think I never had more pleasure than in sorting them. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Georges, and Louises, doubloons and double guineas and moidores and sequins, the pictures of all the kings of Europe for the last hundred years, strange Oriental pieces stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web, round pieces and square pieces, and pieces bored through the middle, as if to wear them round your neck – nearly every variety of money in the world must, I think, have found a place in that collection; and for number, I am sure they were like autumn leaves, so that my back ached with stooping and my fingers with sorting them out.”
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

The money situation in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy was a mess. Five nations had a presence among the islands. Each had their own coinage, and there was no easy method of exchange. In addition, pirates often traveled to the Indian Ocean, where they raided Arabic, African, Indian and Chinese shipping, and trailed exotic coinage after them as they traveled the world.

Chinese "Cash" coin
Let us begin with the basics – the Doubloon and the Piece of Eight. Both were Spanish. The Doubloon was a solid gold coin, about the diameter of an American nickle and weighing 6.77 grams. The Spanish called their gold coins escudos, and the doubloon was a two escudo piece, nicknamed the “doubloon” because it was a double-one (say it out loud). Other Spanish gold coins were the 1/2, one, four, and eight escudo pieces. One doubloon was worth a little less than an English guinea, or 32 reals, the term for Spanish silver money.

The Piece of Eight, also called the Spanish Dollar, was a silver coin worth eight reals. It was about the size of a Dutch daalder, resulting in the nickname. Famously, the Spanish piece of eight could be chopped into eight pieces and the bits used as currency, or to make change. Even today, some older Americans will refer to a quarter (of an American dollar) as “two bits.”

Pieces of Eight, cut into bits for change
The Spanish were the only ones minting money in the New World, and Spanish money was the coinage of choice for most transactions. However, as the Spanish government regarded itself as the sole “owner” of the both North and South America, they defined any ship that carried even a single Spanish coin as a pirate.

The English were established in North America, and had taken several islands from the Spanish, most notably Jamaica. In addition, a large number of pirates were English. The gold coin of England was the Guinea. It was 22 caret and weighed about 8.3 grams, making it worth about 20% more than a doubloon. As Stevenson notes, there were also double-guineas. The guinea had the distinction of being a coin that was used to pay artists, rather than tradesmen, and to settle debts between nobles. A middle-class family could live comfortably on 50 guineas a year.

Golden guinea, from the reign of William and Mary

The silver coin of England was the Pound Sterling. As the English monetary system is common in novels set at sea, I will list the entire English system, from guineas to farthings.

2 farthings = 1 half penny (ha’penny)
4 farthings = 1 penny
12 pennies = 1 shilling
5 shillings = 1 crown
4 crowns = 1 pound sterling (sovereign)
30 shillings = 1 guinea

It’s at this point that I answer the question, “What’s that in real money?”

The answer is that it’s impossible to say. A housemaid earned £5 a year, and a middle-class family £75. So you might say a pound (£) was worth $2000. But a book cost 1/5 of a pound. When was the last time you saw a $400 book? Postage from Boston to London was 1/20th of a pound. $100 to mail a letter? An African slave could be purchased for £30. How much is a human life worth?

At 6.7 grams, the gold coin of France, the Louis d’Or (gold Louis) was about the same weight as a doubloon. Like most coins of the time, it carried the image of the reigning king, and the image changed when the old ruler died. The French coin was the only one that was called by its king’s name however, possibly because of the long string of Louis’, possibly because the French, with their tradition of fine art, produced some very beautiful images on their coins.

Louis d'Or
The common currency of France was the livre though confusingly, a 1 livre coin was never minted. A Louis was worth 24 livres which in turn was worth 20 copper sols, which were each worth 12 deniers (roughly equal to an English penny)

The Dutch Lion Dollar (leeuwendaalder) was a coin designed specifically to facilitate trade. They were among the most traded coins in Maryland and New York, where their value was set at 4 shillings 5 pence (4s5d) and 5 shillings 5 pence (5s5d) respectively. The image on the coin, a knight with a lion at his feet, was based on the Netherlands’ coat of arms, necessitated because the country was not ruled by a king. Due perhaps to the problematic artwork (and to take a dig at the Dutch) the English sometimes called the coin the Dog Dollar.

The Portuguese gold coin was the Miodore, weighing 4.3 grams. The coin was used in Portugal and Brazil, and also found circulation in Ireland and the west coast of England. It is mentioned in several poems as a pirate treasure.

The Sequin was a corruption of the Italian word zecchino also called a Papal Ducat. It was minted in the Republic of Venice starting in the 13th century. The weight of the coin was 3.5 grams, making it one of the smaller gold coins. At one point it was popular for ladies to decorate their headdresses with dangling gold zecchinos, a fashion which gave rise to the modern word “sequin” meaning a shiny, decorative object sewn onto clothing.

Zecchino or Papal Ducat

Other coins… Indian Mohurs and silver rupees, Chinese cash, Arabic abasit were used almost like trade goods. The question was, when making a purchase, “will you take this?” which would probably be followed by an inspection of the coin. The bartender or shop proprietor might very well bite the coin, in a crude effort to determine the percentage of gold it contained (gold being a very soft metal) and might bring out a set of scales to weigh it and determine its approximate value. Chances are the pirate would not demand too close an accounting.

After all, rum is more valuable than gold. At least when you’re a thirsty pirate.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Were There Female Pirates?

I’ve touched on a couple of the famous “pirate queens” GraceO’Malley and Jeanne de Clisson , and more of these women existed, in places like China and Southeast Asia. Everyone knows the story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, which has been covered in detail here.

But what about day-to-day living on a pirate ship? Were there ever more than two women who lived and worked on board ships as pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy?

In my opinion, the answer is a resounding YES!

Pirates didn’t often write things down, but as we have seen before, the day-to-day life of a working pirate aboard ship was not that different than that of any other sailor. So we can look at the lives of average sailors to see if females ever went to sea.

One source of very exact documentation is the Royal Navy. Naval ships keep detailed records of their day-to-day activities, and these records have been preserved. And while it was absolutely forbidden for women to serve as sailors on Navy ships, incidents of female sailors turn up regularly. Hannah Snell served as a marine aboard the Swallow for three years. She was wounded 11 times, including once in the groin, without being discovered. When she finally revealed her sex, she was honorably discharged and received a pension.

Elizabeth Bowden had been a member of the crew of the Hazard for only six weeks when she was discovered to be a woman. But she was kept on, as John Bowden, and given a separate place to sleep. She is notable for testifying in a sodomy trail, in which a lieutenant was accused of raping a cabin boy.

A black woman known only as William Brown served on warships for 12 years. It was acknowledged that she was a woman, but her skills were so superior (she was in charge of the work party that furled the very topmost sails) that she was kept on after she was revealed as female.

If these stories are any indication, female sailors were far more common than we suppose… remember that these were only the women who were revealed and whose stories have survived over hundreds of years. The pirate Mary Read had served twice in the Navy and during two separate tours of duty in the army, and was never caught.

Some of these women were forced to dress as men in order to support themselves. Others disguised themselves and followed husbands or sweethearts to sea. Some others may have been lesbians who felt out of place in a society where women had no real place outside of marriage. Some of the stories of women who went to sea include details of how they accompanied their male friends to taverns and took up with the local women. Several were pursued by girls who had fallen in love with them.

How did women avoid detection aboard ship?  Sailor’s clothes at the time were baggy and often ill-fitting , so a woman’s figure would not necessarily be noticed. Some archaeological hints have also been found. For instance a leather funnel which would have allowed a woman to urinate while standing was recovered from a shipwreck.

But what about menstruation? In the days before modern sanitary products, how could a woman disguise this function?

Some historians believe that sickness was so rampant in the lower decks of wooden ships that discharge would not necessarily be remarked upon. A woman’s monthly cycle might be mistaken for venereal disease or other sickness. I personally, however, subscribe to a different theory, which states that, since a woman ceases to menstruate when her body fat drops below a certain level, many of these women simply had no cycles to disguise.

There is also a factor of privacy. Given the extreme crowding, it would seem that keeping a woman’s gender secret would be very difficult. But in some cases the reverse is true. Overcrowded men go to extreme lengths to avoid looking too closely at their crewmate’s bodies. This, coupled with the fact that 18th century working people rarely undressed fully, and it seems much less unbelievable that a woman could live undetected on a ship.

The same factors of low pay and humiliating working conditions that made men decide to be pirates would have acted on female sailors. And if a woman could do the work (as we have seen was common) and could hide her gender (as we have seen that they did) there is no reason why she would not have made a successful pirate.

The only problem is that, having hidden their identities so well from their shipmates, they have also hidden them from history.

If that seems just a little thin, I’ll offer one more piece of proof that women served on pirate ships. In the articles (ship’s rules) signed by all of Bartholomew Robert’s pirate crew, one of the very few such documents to have survived, section VI reads:

No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.

Pirates didn’t write things down very often. They also didn’t make up laws for no reason. So if the law was on the books, that means there had been a problem with the behavior in the past.
It’s close enough to proof for me.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Pirate Queen of Ireland

She was born during the reign of Henry VII, in or about 1530, to the O’Malley clan of County Mayo, Ireland. Her father was “The O’Malley” a landholder and sea trader who taxed the ships who fished his waters. Legend has it that when she wanted to go to sea with her father, he told her that he could not take her, because her long hair would become entangled in the ropes and wreck the ship. In order to get her way, the young girl cut off her hair, and forced her father to take her along. Because of this, she earned the Irish nick name Gráinne Mhaol, the bald one, usually anglicized as Granuaile, or Grace O’Malley.

Already knowledgeable in the shipping, taxing, and so-called pirating skills of her father, Granuaile married into another powerful Irish family in about 1546. Donal O'Flaherty was often called “Donal of the Battle” and together they had three quarrelsome children. When her husband died, Granuaile returned to her own family, taking with her many former followers of the O’Flaherty clan.

Granuaile also kept at least one of the family’s castles. Called “The Cock’s Castle” during her husband’s lifetime, it became a stronghold for Granuaile after his death. She held it so successfully against the attacking Joyce clan that they renamed it “The Hen’s Castle” in her honor. She later defended the Hen’s Castle against the English by melting the building’s lead roof and pouring the red-hot metal over her enemies.

The structure is still called The Hen’s Castle today.

She married again in 1566, but this time in the old Irish way, “For a year and a day” to a man called “Iron Richard” Bourke. Legend has it that she only wed him to increase her prestige and land holdings. When the time was up, she shut herself in his castle and shouted out the window, “Richard Bourke, I dismiss thee!” This effectively ended the marriage. But since Granuaile was in the castle, she kept it.

English power was growing in Ireland, and Granuaile raised armies and fleets of fighting ships to hold off the increase in royal power. When the English would not pay her taxes for use of her fishing grounds, she began to stop their ships and claim her taxes by force. She stopped merchant shipping as well, claiming what she called a tax, and what the English called piracy.

And Granuaile was not shy about leading her men or captaining her own ships, even while pregnant. Legend has it that she was in labor with her fourth child when the English attacked her flagship. Her men fought bravely, but were losing the battle when Granuaile came storming up onto the deck, sword in hand, to beat back the enemy. Her newborn child lay on the bunk below, and once she had killed all the attacking English, she went back to nurse the child.

For many, her battle acumen and fierce fighting abilities made her more than a queen. She was called a she-king.

But perhaps her most famous exploit was sailing her pirate ship up the Thames to meet with Queen Elizabeth I. Granuaile had reached a point where she found it necessary to cut a deal with the more powerful monarch, and Elizabeth seems to have been fascinated by her Irish counterpart, to the extent of not forcing the point when Granuaile refused to bow to her. (The Irish woman refused to acknowledge Elizabeth’s claim to be the Queen of Ireland.)

Elizabeth knew no Irish, and Granuaile refused to admit to knowing any English (though with her trading and traveling background she may well have done so.) So the two conversed in Latin.

Glossing over her second husband and a young lover she had taken in the meantime, Granuaile represented herself as a poor widow. She and Elizabeth spoke at length and reached an agreement. Elizabeth would remove the English-appointed governor of Connacht, and Granuaile would stop supporting Irish rebellions. The deal lasted for some time, but Granuaile never recovered the sheep and horses that she claimed the governor had stolen from her. When the same man was put back into the position some months later, she went back to fomenting rebellion.

By this time the she-king was an old woman. Though it is believed that she died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603, the same year as Elizabeth, though this is not certain. She would have been approximately 73 years old.

Granuaile’s legend lives on in song and story. She has inspired a great deal of modern music, from rock songs to chamber music. Plays about her life have been popular, and she is featured in many modern books. Three Irish ships bear her name, and the sail-training ship Asgard II had Granuaile as her figurehead.  

In Tampa, FL, Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley is the name of an all-female pirate crew that take part in the legendary Gasparilla Pirate Festival. Founded in 1992, the women of Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley participate in the parades as well many philanthropic activities in the community and throughout the state of Florida. The members do philanthropic work, and members are only accepted through a selective lottery and through legacy from mother to daughter.

Gráinne Mhaol, Granuaile, Grace O’Malley is regarded today as the female spirit of Ireland.

Modern statue of Granuaile, holding a ship's tiller. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ship’s Figureheads

The tradition of putting a figurehead, a carved representation of the spirit of the ship, onto the bow of a vessel goes back at least to the ancient Greeks, and possibly before. The original Greek ships had eyes painted on either side of the bow, and the Romans copied this tradition, and added decorative carvings. By the middle Ages, the tradition was a wooden carving of a beast, a person, or a mythological figure, attached to the front of the ship under the bowsprit.

Although we associate the figure of a partially clad woman with the figurehead, in fact the most common figurehead for English ships in the 1600’s was a lion. The Admiralty was trying to reduce cost, while the ship captains and crews wanted the most lavish and significant figures possible.

The French had such figures. France valued the appearance of ships, and hired the very best sculptors to decorate them. When English ships were captured by the French, the figureheads were sneered at. When French ships were captured by the English, the figureheads were admired.

Strong lobbying by captains reinstated the individualized figurehead for first and second rate ships, and for smaller vessels captains were sometimes willing to spend their own money for an appropriate figurehead.
Merchant ships in the meantime represented the prosperity of the company. Lavish figures were commissioned, executed by fine craftsmen, painted and covered in real gold gilt. The height of lavish decoration is estimated to be the year 1700, in the first third of the Golden Age of Piracy.

18th century cartoon - sailor painting a figurehead's lips.

Sailors of all ranks loved their figureheads. They were lovingly cleaned, painted, and cared for. When the style in figureheads was forms with outstretched arms, the arms were made to be removable, and were carefully stowed away when the ship was at sea, to be brought out and re-attached.

Figurehead of the Black Pearl

The figurehead was, in fact, the spirit of the ship. While detailed records of the day-to-day running of the merchant ships is not always available, Royal Navy records reveal some interesting stories.   One captain, trying to beat a rival at getting his sails set in record time, told his crew “If you fail to make the time, I’ll have the figurehead painted black.” The men were suitably motivated, and won the contest for their captain.

Another ship, going into battle under really bad orders from the Admiralty, was in serious danger of losing an engagement, when one of the sailors climbed forward and covered the head of the figurehead (In this case George II) with his hammock. When the sailor’s commanding officer demanded to know what he was about, the man replied, “We don’t have to break his heart, do we?” The behavior was let stand, as the officers may have been thinking the same thing.

A figurehead representing the owner's daughter

One merchant ship plied a regular route between two ports for several years, but then was asked to sail farther down the coast. There was nothing to prevent it, but when the ship reached her regular destination, she was set upon by a strong headwind that would not allow her to go farther. One of the old hands suggested blindfolding the figurehead until they had passed their usual port. This seemed to have worked, as the headwind abated, and the blindfold was removed from the figurehead when the ship was farther along.

The last story here will be that of the Cutty Sark a clipper ship famous enough to give her name to some very fine Scotch. I myself have always wondered where the name came from. The tale goes as follows…
A man named Tam O’Shanter  was riding home late one night when he passed a churchyard, and saw a troop of witches dancing around a bonfire. Most of the witches were old and ugly, but one was not. Her name was Nanny, and she wore nothing but a nightgown (a sark) that had been cropped off short (cut), and showed most of her legs.

The figurehead of the La Coquette was a brazen wench

Tam was so pleased to see her that he shouted, “Weel done, cutty sark!”

At once the witches began to chase him. Nanny, being the youngest, was soon in the lead, but Tam spurred his horse for the bridge, knowing the witches could not cross running water. Nanny was just able to catch the horse’s tail, but the beast was traveling so fast that its tail came right off in Nanny’s hand.

The Cutty Sark had as her figurehead Nanny the witch, holding the tail of Tam’s horse. When the ship was in her heyday, the apprentice seamen had it as their job to keep the “horse’s tail” in good repair, replacing it with frayed rope whenever it became worn.

Like many figureheads, Nanny currently resides in a museum. But her replica still adorns the ship she was born for, guiding her through the sea.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Pirates and Their Wenches

“Wenching” has to be the activity most associated with pirates, challenged only by the pastime of drinking rum. Men far from home, sailing ships where no females were allowed, wanted feminine company when they got into port, and pirates were well supplied with funds to attract women.

But what was a pirate’s woman like?

It has been estimated that in the 18th century 30% of all women worked as prostitutes at some point during their lives. It was simple economics. Women were not allowed to work at most jobs. And since there was no effective birth control, any kind of sexual experience would likely result in pregnancy, which would make an unmarried woman an outcast.

Some women, wives of sailors impressed by the navy or otherwise forced out to sea, might go for years without seeing any of their husband’s pay. Likewise, if a woman lost her husband, she was at the mercy of family to support her, or else would be destitute. Widows, women deserted by their husbands, orphaned girls, the very poor made up the ranks of prostitutes.

In “polite” society, the wealthy and also the small middle class of the time, protected their women fiercely from the evils of the world. A woman who committed a “faux pas” as illicit sexual activity was called, was likely to be thrown out of her home and need to become a prostitute. Some of these women, who miscarried or gave birth to a baby that did not survive might succeed in returning home later.

On the other hand, many servant girls ran off to become prostitutes when their wages were insufficient. If they were under 16, their employers were not required to pay them any money at all, only to feed them. They did this reluctantly, and girls did not last long in this lowly work. Housemaids worked from sunup to after dark. Prostitutes worked for a few hours, drank liquor, went dancing, and appeared to be having a good time.

It has been well documented that many of these women preferred sailors as customers. Starved for female companionship, these men often wanted more than simple sex. Publications that included lists of prostitutes included women who serviced sea officers “because they return laden with presents.” Sailors met women in dance halls, and danced with them, buying them drinks and generally treated them to something resembling courtship, even though the outcome was forgone.

One woman, interviewed by a self-appointed social investigator, said that she was “wife” to eight or ten sailors. When they came into port, they gave her all their pay and lived with her. She provided the home, and performed wifely duties like budgeting the men’s money. “He would spend it all in a week. Sailor boy(s) always spend money like rainwater.” She said she made sure that merchants did not cheat her “husbands,” and helped them to buy clothes and other necessities.

They knew about each other, and were patient in waiting for her home to be open. And in the meantime, she also maintained a boyfriend, waiter in a local coffeehouse.

In England, most houses of prostitution were run by women. These “procuresses” as they were called, recruited young women, and represented one of the happy endings that a prostitute’s life could come to. Managing a successful house of prostitution could make a woman wealthy and allow her political power (from noble and political clients) in a time when females had little money of their own or ability to control their own lives.

Most were not so lucky. Prostitutes often died young from disease, alcoholism, or exposure to the elements.
International trade was transporting syphilis throughout the world, and it often flourished in port cities. This disease, which could not be cured by any medicine of the time, gave symptoms that appeared and disappeared without apparent cause.

Portside ladies were often compared to ships, their large rustling dresses resembling sails. Women infected by syphilis were known as “fire ships.”

Many phrases noting the resemblances between women and ships are recorded from the time. “Many a man-o-war has been her willing prisoner.” “Likes to fight yardarm to yardarm.” “Ready to be boarded.” “A fine stern on her.”

In England, prostitutes gathered in the Wapping district and the area around Corlears Hook, which may have given us the word “hooker.” There were, technically, no laws against prostitution, though the women were often arrested for theft, drunkenness, and public indecency.

In the New World, violence was much closer to the women’s work, but opportunity abounded. When pirates took over the Caribbean island of Nassau, many of them sent for their families back home, and when news of the pirates’ activities reached the women on the street, adventuresome ladies crossed the sea especially to meet pirates.

One of them was Mary Read, the soldier, sailor and adventurer who later became a pirate herself. Others were prostitutes who plied their trade on the docks as they had back at home, but for much more money. And from the pirates, they likely also received better treatment.

Women at the time were at the mercy of men, as it was completely legal for a man to beat his wife, and the penalties for simple assault were tiny. It was also common for men of the lower classes to be beaten and humiliated by their “superiors” at work or in public. Men who suffer assaults to their dignity, or who feel emasculated, are the ones most likely to abuse women and children.

But pirates, more than any other working men, had no reason to feel that their manhood was under attack. Pirates had opportunity to get revenge on those who may have mistreated them, and they were able to exert power over men of upper classes. They were free in a way that men had not been free before.
Even the hierarchy of their ships supported their personal dignity. Their captains and officers might outrank them, but did so only with the crew’s permission. Pirate ships were democracies.

When these men came into port, they were jolly, flush with money, and ready to have a good time. On shore, the women had built homes from canvas, the remains of burned buildings, and bits of wrecked ships. Most vessels, even pirates, employed musicians, so music, dancing and sex was the order of the day. If a woman had children, even many children by many fathers, it was likely no concern to the pirates.

Like other sailors, many pirates likely enjoyed returning to the same women over and over. And when a pirate retired, as some of them did when flush with gold, he might want to marry. He was a man with a secret behind him – piracy was a crime punishable by death, with no statute of limitations. Then what better person than a lady who already knew all about him?  This was the surprising end to some pirating stories, matrimony with the classical companion of a buccaneer.