Monday, November 30, 2015

Sexy Pirate Babes

A NSFW Look at Pirate Pin-Ups

Female pirates are sexy. It’s a fact, independent of the fact that the number of documented female pirates is tiny, or that the ones who are documented rarely have sexy stories. The concept of a female pirate flames the male imagination. It always has, back to the origins of the Golden Age of Piracy itself. We have proof.

The proof comes in the form of Johnson’s book The Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, first published in 1724. The book was popular at the time, but had only a normal print history. Eventually it fell out of print, and the rights to the book were published by a Dutch company.

These printers made one change in the book. They replaced a historically accurate picture of Anne Bonny and Mary Read (in which the two were wearing men’s clothes, and were fully covered, as per the testimony of witnesses who had actually seen them) with a much more lurid illustration of the two virtually naked from the waist up. This put the book back on the best-sellers list, and it remains in print to this day.

Even the Victorian, best remembered as buttoned-up prudes, loved them some female pirates. The illustrations of Victorian lady pirates look staid to us – but to folks who found the sight of a female ankle inflammatory, they were wild in the extreme. 

Interestingly enough, we already see the two predominate image of the female pirate – the pirate wench and the full-fledged female pirate captain.

The pirate wench is AVAILABLE. She’s the saucy chick who gets drunk with you, parties really hard, and wouldn’t mind going all the way on a bar-side table. Pirate wenches in art often wear some version of female clothing, often a short skirt or flowing blouse. A corset is almost required, although some illustrations include only enough clothing to indicate the woman in question is a pirate.

Pirate captains play to a different male fantasy. A female captain is in control and the man who meets her is at her mercy. It doesn’t matter at all that historic pirate captains didn’t have this kind of authority. Illustrations of hot pirate captains are about the fantasy.

Female pirate captains may be scantily dressed, but they always show their confidence and power. They are often shown as heavily armed, and often carry whips. Sometimes the imaged of the violent female captain can run out of control, as in this pulp-era book cover.

Pirate captains may wear corsets, but often show a bare midriff instead. Interestingly enough, they often also sport gloves. Why? I’m not sure, but perhaps it means nothing more than that men find gloves sexy.

Women often also identify with the female pirate captain. They often imagine themselves as this fearless leader, doing as they like without regard to law or propriety. Another attractive feature about the sexy female pirate – she’s often of luxurious proportions. 

While skinny girls and waif types are sometimes seen, it’s much more common for a pirate to be all woman in the truest sense of the word.

In fact, the hallmark of the sexy female pirate is strength. And while, like any fantasy image, pictures of female pirates can be labeled as “objectifying” or “setting impossible standards” they also speak to independence, physical strength and daring-do.

Not bad for a pin-up!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Pirate Round

Travels of 17th and 18th Century Sea-Robbers 

During the early 17th century, piracy happened wherever no one was watching. English, French and Dutch seafarers snatched gold from the hugely prosperous Spanish Empire in the New World whenever they had the opportunity, frequently under the guise of “trading”, “self defense” or “exploration.”

But as international relations normalized – that is to say, as goodwill between nations became an important factor, and countries like England found it in their best interest to at least appear to have firm control over all their citizens, pressure began to mount for adventurous mariners to mind their manners.

The act of robbing Spanish ships and settlements had come under scrutiny from the buccaneering pirates’ own nations. It was time for a new and interesting way to harvest ill-gotten riches. And so began The Pirate Round.

“Rounders” as they were sometime called, started out in the New World, from places ranging from Nassau, to Bermuda to New York, and even including the Spanish city of Coruna. From these home ports, pirates would follow sea currents and winds to the Portuguese island of Madeira, where they would clean their ship-bottoms and re-supply.

From there, these Rounders made their way around the horn of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope (southern tip of the continent) and up the eastern coast to the Mozambique Straight, which led them to north eastern Madagascar. (Yes, that Madagascar, the one in the movie with all the talking animals.)

The island was a perfect pirate base. Claimed by no European power, it was outside of European law and the influence of European politics. A pirate named Adam Baldridge had staked out the area as early as 1687, subdued the natives (from whom he then collected tribute) and set up his most profitable venture of all, a trading company that supplied pirates with the necessities of clothing, powder and shot, and rum after their arduous journey.

His partner in this venture was Frederick Philipse, a formerly Dutch settler to New York. Philipse seems to have always been more interested in money than nationality. He had married a rich and driven widow, and when the English took over his colony, he joined with them and changed his name to better fit in with his new neighbors.

Philipse had no compunction about shady dealings. He dealt in illegal slavery, and was happy to trade with pirates as long as it brought a handsome profit. It did. The simple addition of a reliable, friendly base for re-supply brought sea-robbers and fortune hunters from all over the world.

They were hunting Eastern prey. Madagascar’s northern tip made a perfect spot from which to stake out Red Sea trading, and to waylay ships carrying Muslim travelers on their way to Mecca for the Haj, or sacred pilgrimage. Often these trading ships were richly appointed. Henry Avery took a ship valued at over £300,000 – more money than he, his ship and his crew could have realized in 20 years of honest trading. Thomas Tew made an even more enormous haul.

It was a perfect location for pirates. The Eastern ships were not used to attacks from the well-equipped, well-supplied and well-trained European pirates. Though shipping vessels were sturdy and armed with cannons, merchant vessels did not necessarily have the latest weapons, and often had not maintained their weaponry or fully trained their crews. Ship size and the appearance of great power was often enough to chase off local raiders.

Furthermore, The East was still largely outside of European relations. Eastern rulers might complain to Western nations, but complaints did not mean as much as objections from neighboring countries. It was also far easier for a European government to divest itself from the actions of men who were nowhere near European territories or colonies, and who had sailed halfway around the world to commit their crimes.

When England finally took steps to combat piracy by their citizens in the East, they followed the disastrous plan of hiring privateers to do the work. Men like Captain Kidd started out as pirate hunters, but far too many of them saw the riches to be had and quickly turned pirate themselves.

The Pirate Round flourished from about 1693 to 1697, when Baldridge left Madagascar for more civilized locations. Between 1700 and 1713, the War of Spanish Succession provided legal work as privateers for former pirates, and offered similar chances for plunder.

When the war ended in 1713, the Caribbean became the world’s greatest hotbed of piracy, as the former privateers hunted familiar waters for Spanish treasure and English merchant ships.

The Round took on a second life between 1720 and 1721, when the last pirate holdouts, men like Olivier la Busse and Bartholomew Roberts refused to accept pardons for their piratical past. These men came back to Madagascar to plunder Eastern shipping again, but were ultimately forced out by the East India Company, whose growing presence in the region demanded government protection, while its own might and power allowed it to build a private army and navy that influenced the region for nearly two centuries.    

Monday, November 16, 2015

What’s in the Pirate’s Chest?

Unlike common sailors, who traveled from ship to ship and kept their possessions in canvas bags, pirates were often dedicated to live on one ship for the rest of their lives (even if that wasn’t very long.) Pirates, seeking to live like “gentlemen” (we might say just to live like human beings) rose to the level of keeping enough possessions that they needed a private chest to hold them.

So, what would a pirate keep in such a chest?

Firstly, the same as any sailor, he would keep a change of clothes. Probably only one – the 18th century wasn’t big on anyone having huge amounts of clothing. Time, supplies, and the culture of the ship allowing, a sailor put on clean clothes for Sunday, and washed and repaired the other set on Monday. Then those clothes would wait until the following Sunday, when the cycle would be repeated.

Sailors also tried to keep a special set of clothes for going ashore. These were “party clothes” and were usually cleaner, in better repair, and “fancier” than common work clothes. A pirate, who had the luxury of stealing much nicer clothing from the officers and passengers on the ships he robbed, might have some very nice shore-going clothes indeed. But he probably wouldn’t have more than one set, and he would likely have only the coat and shirt. Pirates were often described as wearing grand coats along with common ragged work pants.

Perhaps they were loath to put their private parts in another man’s pants.

Also in the chest, part of the shore-going rig, would be shoes. Pirates usually went barefoot on the ship, and wore shoes only for special occasions, such as religious services, funerals, time on shore or attacking other ships. Boots, while worn, were very, very rare.

Now we are getting down to more individual items.

Each pirate would probably own a metal or wooden plate for eating, and a spoon. On merchant ships, the sailors were often fed out of buckets – it was quicker and easier to clean up after. Up to five men would share a bucket full of boiled beef and vegetables, which they would eat using their hands, or perhaps by scooping it up with pieces of ship’s biscuit. (This may be the origin of the word “mess.”)

Owning a pewter plate and a pewter spoon was the first mark that a pirate was going to live like a human being. Plates of this nature recovered from pirate ships often have the owner’s name crudely scratched onto the plate with a nail or other sharp object. Clearly they were important objects.

However, the pirate would not own a special knife for eating (he’d use his regular work knife) or a fork. Forks were still for royalty and the mega-rich, and a pirate probably wouldn’t see the use of them.

Of course pirates kept weapons, and the means to care for them. He might have as many as six pistols, and would certainly own a cutlass or machete. Weapons needed to be cleaned and oiled regularly, so oil and whetstones would be in the chest, in addition to spare flints, and a small supply of powder and shot.

Literacy was low in the early 1700’s, but a pirate’s chest might still contain letters from home, or books. If the pirate couldn’t read, he might persuade a more literate friend to read to him, and he might be taking lessons in reading or writing in his spare time. Popular books were the Bible, editions of Shakespeare, or Aesop’s Fables, which was the closest thing to a children’s book back in the day.

Writing supplies might also be in the chest, though they weren’t common. Interestingly enough, men who could not write could often draw beautifully. Writing or drawing equipment would consist of paper, a bottle of ink, and one or more quill feathers cut into pens.

Tiny miniature portraits of loved ones were beginning to be popular. It would be very rare for a common sailor to be able to afford such a thing, but some people could.

A pirate might also have gaming supplies, such as dice, cards, a backgammon or chess set, or a cribbage board. Gambling was usually not permitted on board ship (it often led to quarrels or bad feelings), but as soon as the crew hit port it was perfectly ok, and no one wanted to be without supplies. A pirate could also wile away the time by playing Patience, or what we would call Solitaire.

Most ships employed a musician, but a pirate might own and play his own musical instrument, such as a drum, a fiddle, a wooden flute or a guitar. Musical instruments weren’t much like modern ones, but pirates were well known to enjoy music.

Craft supplies would also be in the chest. Most sailors carved wood, did embroidery, knitting, or cross-stitch, or did fancy rope work for enjoyment. So, while rope wouldn’t be in the chest (that would qualify as ship’s supplies, and would be stored in a common area) he might have a ball of string, yarn, or twine.

Most British pirates smoked a pipe, so pipes and tobacco might be stored in the chest. Pipes were usually made of clay, and they broke easily. Huge piles of broken pipes are found near pirate sites. Pirates also smoked cigars, and might have some in the chest. Lighters and matches had not yet been invented. Smoking materials were lit by dipping a long splinter of wood into an existing flame (candle, lantern, or the galley stove) and carrying the flame to the pipe.

The pirate wouldn’t need to keep bottles of rum in his chest, since liquor supplies – all you cared to drink – were as much a part of shipboard life as food or water.

Sewing supplies, and other items to repair possessions would be in the chest. Pirates mended their own clothing and even shoes. Light thread, heavy thread, needles of various sizes, beeswax, oil, and other such things were in the chest.

Lastly, the pirate would have a small “purse” or carrying bag from money. Usually, they carried only a small amount. Why? Gold and silver are heavy, and so they were most often stored in some central location until needed. The ship’s Quartermaster kept a list of the treasure each pirate had earned, and a corresponding list of what he had drawn out of the fund. A quick calculation showed how much was being “held” for him. The system worked a lot like a pirate credit union.

Surprised? Even pirates knew that money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s the things that money CAN buy, however, that often bring a smile.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Pirate Festival – The St Augustine Pirate Gathering

I’ve been to a few pirate festivals, but being landlocked in the middle of North America, there’s only one recurring one locally. This past weekend, I packed my pistols onto a plane (checked baggage) and headed down to Florida for the 8th annual St Augustine Pirate Gathering.

Now, in the Midwest, pirate festivals are few and far between, but along the eastern seaboard there’s something happening nearly every weekend. This particular event came highly recommended, and besides, it’s in the oldest city in America, a place I wrote about here.

Air travel is certainly tiring, but it can go smoothly if you just keep your weapons out of the carry-on luggage. We met at Jacksonville airport, picked up our car (red VW Bug) and drove about 60 miles to St Augustine.

A few snags with the car meant the only event left on Friday night was the Buccaneer Bash, which was sold out. Our bad. The event featured all-you-can-drink rum, pirate rock and belly dancing. But my friend isn’t much of a drinker, and to tell the truth, neither am I. We hit the old fort instead.

The fort at St Augustine, Castillo de San Marcos, hasn’t changed much since 1695, but recent work has made it more visitor-friendly. We explored the site, talked to the park rangers and on-site reenactors, and exited through the gift shop, just like we were supposed to. A breeze was coming off the sea, and I enjoyed taking pictures during the ‘golden hour’, just before sunset.

We were up early to head to the festival the next day. Our hotel took one look at our costumes and comped us an excellent breakfast, but weather was not on our side. Not only was the temperature higher than expected, but humidity was 100%, and the Florida sun was merciless. I dressed in my coolest garb – a cotton skirt, gauze shirt, wide leather belt and accoutrements, including boots.

Kristi was cosplaying a pirate from one of my stories – a historical river-pirate named Sadie the Goat. Sadie got her nickname by head-butting her opponents in battle. She finally met her match and lost an ear to a huge Irish woman named Mag, who bit the ear off, pickled it, then gave it back to Sadie when they made up. Kristi was charmed by the story, and she wears a scarf over one of her own ears, and a human ear (plastic) on a string around her neck.

We avoided the sun by hitting the many merchants’ booths, checking out leather work, costume supplies, and jewelry. The rum bars were already in full swing (avoiding liquor laws by exchanging drinks for coupons bought at another establishment) but heat and humidity were killing us both. Kristy concocted her own pleasant drink from half-melted Italian ice and a shot of Code Rum, but I opted for water – and a cup of ice that went straight down the back of my neck. It felt wonderful.

After enjoying some of the acts at the main tent, we spent some more time people watching. Checking out the other pirates is always one of my favorite things to do, right after singing along with the musicians.

The pictures here are only a few of the crowd, which was an ever-changing, fast moving group in a wide variety of wonderful garb. Taking pictures was tough. Not shown here was a family pushing a baby carriage outfitted as a pirate ship. Inside was the family cat – clearly labeled as the captain! (What other position would a cat hold?)

We chatted with reenactors, vendors and musicians, opted out of the knife-throwing event (Kristi is already missing a finger) and finally gave up. It was just too damn hot!

Fortunately we had a plan. St Augustine is home to a world-class pirate museum, and it’s Air Conditioned! The clerk on duty was so taken with our garb (and Kristi’s ear) that we got in for half price, and enjoyed a tour by what turned out to be one of the Pirate Gathering’s organizers.

After the museum, we succumbed to the lure of a nearby bar-resteraunt. The outdoor location was cooled by fountains, trees and tropical plants. We sipped cool drinks, dined on conch fritters, talked about pirates with the locals, and listened to Bob Marley on the sound system. Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny would have approved.

Kristi wasn’t up for more partying that night, but I went back to chat more, drink more, and dance to the (excellent) bands. Many of the pirates were off on an organized pub crawl, but that just left more room on the improvised dance floor for the rest of us. One of the belly-dancers was doing the polka with an older pirate deep in his cups, and we even had a shot at a limbo. (Not a very successful shot, mind you!)

The night ended with more socializing (hint to handsome pirates – don’t tell me about your girlfriend if you’re trying to pick me up!) and then collapsing into bed.

It was a great little festival, and I’d go again. I hope to be one of the acts next year, since I passed out my card to the organizer. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Monday, November 2, 2015

New Pirate Music

The Golden Age of Piracy ended almost 300 years ago, and the days of fighting sail are long past. Sailors no longer load cannons by hand, and they certainly don’t need to “haul together” pump out the bilge or raise the sails. And yet pirate music lives on. In fact, it’s going stronger than ever.

Didn’t realize that new pirate music was being written? You’re probably in the majority. What surprises me is that the phenomenon isn’t just something that happened post-Pirates of the Caribbean. It kind of seems like people have written pirate music whenever they wanted to feel free. And now that piracy is no longer a hanging offense, singers can announce, “I’m a pirate!” even if that just means he wishes he was.

The first song I’m going to bring to your attention is the one that inspired me to write this piece. It was first recorded by Burl Ives, a folk singer who is best known in America as the voice of the snowman in the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Christmas special. Ives – gentle, round, and famous for playing a snowman, is the last person I’d associate with pirates. I haven’t been able to find a YouTube version of Ives playing the song, but it appears in his 1953 book, The Burl Ives Songbook.

This song seems to have been written by Lesley Nelson-Burns (sometimes Byrnes) who collected fold music. It’s a very unusual pirate song, and not only because it came out in the 1950’s when pirates were bad guys and non-conformist behavior was frowned upon.

The song is sung from the point of view of a pirate standing under the window of his lady-love, as he proposes marriage. It is soft, romantic, and yet definitely a pirate song. He promises her his heart, apologizes for not being as “smooth” at love as the landlubbes who surround her, and then offers gold, slaves, and a tropical island where it is always spring to be her home.

Woven into this narrative are lines which support my own view of pirates as social revolutionaries. The lovelorn pirate mentions cannon fire, battles at sea, and an exotic location where people are free. But he ends on a somewhat solemn note: He will keep his bride until “the black flag by inches is torn from the mast.” In other words, until the authorities defeat the pirates and haul down the Jolly Roger by force.

Hauling down the “colors” (national flag) was a universal sign of surrender during a sea-battle. In cases where a crew had decided to fight to the death, refusing to surrender, the flag might be nailed to the mast, so it could not be taken down, no matter what. A grim, but romantic, end to a romance.

My second song was written during a more pirate-friendly era, the mid-1970’s. The singer/songwriter Roger McGuinn, formerly of The Birds, named his album after the fictional pirate ship in the song, The Cardiff Rose. The title of the track is Jolly Roger.

It was the first modern pirate song I had heard, and I loved it instantly. The story is of a man on the run from the Royal Navy, fleeing to the Caribbean with heavy thoughts on his head. But his secret to happiness is to not linger on the past, but to concentrate on opportunities in the form of Spanish gold.

The song not quite historically accurate to the Golden Age, however. That might be asking a lot from a songwriter more concerned with rhythm, rhyme and theme than the finer points of sailing. In the song, the pirates attack “a clipper” a type of ship not invented until the 1850’s – about 150 years after Spanish gold was a major consideration.

Many things are right, however. The pirates win their prize, not in a gun battle, but by firing once across the merchant’s bow. I’m also quite fond of the line, “We took as much as we’d require: then we took the rest for our pleasure.” But my ultimate fave of the this tune is the conclusion –

“Now there's many a day on the Spanish Main
But none I hold so dear
As the happy day I first became
A scurvy buccaneer!”

Lastly, the song by the Rambling Sailors (one of my favorite groups) Pirate’s Life. This one had me on the first line. “It’s wonderful living the life of a pirate, with the freedom to take what you can.” What sums up the life better? The song was written by Gregg Caicos on his thirtieth birthday, which seems to me like a really great way to celebrate getting older.

I’ll leva you with this one… This world is for those who can grab it and old it. It’s true for everyone, and I wish you all a week of making the most of life.