Monday, September 19, 2016

What did a REAL pirate sound like?

Well, we’ve just about made it through Talk Like a Pirate day, a day that really annoys many of the people who recreate historic pirates (not me, but that’s another story…) Everyone knows the traditional pirate speak… As Cap’n Slappy and Old Chum Bucket, the originators of Talk Like a Pirate Day, inform us “Avast, there me hearties, how you be keeping, an’ why you be ye not speakin’ yer mind on this most glorious holiday! Aaare!” 


By this time, most of the folks reading this blog know that all of this started as a result of one man, actor Robert Newton, who played the part of long John Silver in Disney’s first live-action movie, Treasure Island, in 1950. Newton set the standard for pirate talk forever after.

But did you know that all he did was to emphasis his own broad West Country accent? The West Country of England was known for its smugglers and pirates, and so there’s a solid bite of truth in Newton’s original vocal interpretation.



But pirates were so much more! For instance, some historians estimate that as many as 30 percent of pirates were of African origin. So, if you want to shake things up (especially if you have some African heritage yourself) try adopting a West African accent (that being the region of Africa where many of the slavers traded their wares.) Here’s a link to a proud British/African explaining how to imitate his accent. English slave traders, African slaves, plus pirates equals African pirates…



And I wish more folks of African ancestry wanted to play as pirates!

Another accent found in the real pirating world was the Irish. Many Irish, as well as Africans, were shipped to the Caribbean as slaves, and the “Caribbean accent” of today is heavily influenced by the lilt of Ireland. So an Irish accent is perfect for a pirate!



And just in case you doubt the Irish in real pirate speak… Check out this video of some really interesting Irish speakers on the Emerald Isle of Montserrat in the Caribbean.



Of course, some of the most famous pirates, including Olivier Levasseur– The Buzzard – were French. So, if you’re partial to French, you might try out a French accent for your pirate persona.  Levasseur was from a so-called good family. So you don’t even have to make an effort to sound “rough.” Being a French pirate would also be a great excuse to swill wine and wear some nice pirate clothes.


Dutch pirates have been used for comedic effect in shows such as Black Sails (coming again this January for its last season on Starz.) But many, many Dutch were pirates. One of the most interesting was Hendrick Quintor, a Black man of Dutch nationality who sailed with Sam Bellamy on the Whydah Galley.  I think a Dutch accent on a Black pirate would be sure to be engaging, encouraging members of the public to ask questions and learn about historic pirates.

Or, if you enjoy playing Bad guy pirates, you might want to channel the ghost of Roche Braziliano, whose family emigrated from the Netherlands to Brazil, and who sailed with the notorious Captain Morgan. Either of these men, or any of a hundred others, would have had an accent like this.

  
The point is that ANY accent can be a pirate accent! Pirates came from nearly every nation, so Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and even Chinese and Japanese can be pirate accent.

But what about English? You see, the English language has changed a lot in 300 years –even more than most languages. How did native English speakers sound 300 years ago? Well, you might be surprised to learn that they sounded American! It’s a generation, of course, but once English speakers migrated away from the British islands, their language largely stopped changing. (All languages change over time, some more than others.)

Scholars think that the least evolved English in the Americas is the language of the Appalachian Mountains. English-speakers migrated here, and then their language didn’t change. Instead, “English” migrated away, making changes that define a so-called English accent today. So if you want to stir things up, try the “pirate accent” here.










Monday, September 12, 2016

A Pirate’s Letter Home

Sometimes I wonder about whether pirates ever wrote letters home. It’s a hard topic to research, since I have never found an example of a pirate’s letter to a private individual. Some open letters by pirates have been published. We’ll look at those at a later date.

What was mail like at about 1700? Very, very different than it is now, that’s for sure.



For one thing, right now most of us have a device in our pockets that allows us to speak to nearly anyone on the planet. We can use it to send text messages, to send emails, to send pictures and videos. Communication was very different 300 years ago.

People communicated by hand-written letter. There were no envelopes, so once the letter was written, the paper was folded up to protect the writing, and the result was held shut with a blob of wax. (Despite all the celebration of “wax seals” in movies, and modern sale of the things in card stores, only official documents and those written by royalty or the very rich were sealed with much more than a blob of wax.)

The wax was used because of the primitive nature of glue at the time – glue was rare, and glue that worked might destroy the paper it was attached to. Some letters were sewn shut.


Here's a video of one way to write and seal a letter. 

As well as no envelopes, there were also no stamps. (The first postage stamp, called the Penny Black, was introduced in 1840 in Great Britain.)  In 1700, the fee to have a letter delivered was paid by the person receiving it.

Why? For one thing, the postal system was not well organized. Letters in England were carried by post boys on horseback. Being a post boy was not a career, merely and occupation for a young man with some tolerance for traveling and having adventures. Since these young men were paid when they delivered the letters there was some chance that the young man would show up with the mail. There was no set schedule for deliveries. The post boys rode when there was mail, and went where the mail needed to be taken. No daily deliveries!



The original mail service had been set up by Henry VIII, and it relied on a set of post-roads, roads that were maintained by the government. (Few roads were.) These roads were better than most, but were still unpaved. Muddy, meandering, surrounded by robbers, these roads rarely let travelers exceed 3 miles per hour. Post boys, noted by their red jackets, were famous for taking time off to fish, drink beer and flirt with women, or simply take a nap on roadside grass.

Postmasters were usually innkeepers, since part of the postmaster’s job was to keep at least three horses on hand for the use of post riders. Postmasters were also the ones who recruited post boys, which may have explained why so many of these riders were lackadaisical in their duties. Being a post master cemented an innkeeper’s place in the community as a source of news and gossip.



The limits of actual service were very small as well. Mostly, it was for areas within 100 miles of London. (Mail traveling from London to Bath, 115 miles away, took 3 days by regular post, 2 days express.) Postage within the city limits of London cost a penny in 1660, half a day’s wages for many people. Postage outside the city was a shilling, or a week’s wages.

Many letters were never delivered. The red-coated post boys were targeted by robbers, who cut the post bags off the saddle while post boys stopped for a drink. Letters were also sometimes lost or simply abandoned. In November of 2015, a trunk full of letters was found in the back of a historic postmaster’s trunk in the Netherlands. Over 2,600 undelivered letters were discovered.



Modern academics are not opening the letters – they rely on X-rays to read the contents without disturbing the seals or the aging paper. But the original postmaster does not seem to have been so delicate. Many of the letters were opened.

They reveal the voices of a wide range of people, from the barely literate, to scholars with beautiful handwriting. They tell the stories of academic achievement, financial problems, and love. One told the story of an opera singer who had left her lover, and now wanted him to take her back (and pay her passage home to him.)

The trunk contained mail from France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. Some of the letters were written in Latin.

Mail moved officially between countries on vessels called Packet Ships (a term for any ship carrying an official packet of mail in addition to its other cargo.)  During the Golden Age of Piracy, no regular shipping routes were in use, so the shipping of mail was very irregular.



Rich people often send mail by private carrier in order to circumvent all this, and poorer folk sent letters along with kind strangers who happened to be traveling in the right direction. Since post roads were often used by general travelers, (despite the fact that they were bad, they were better than other roads) it would not have been much of a chore to drop a letter off with an innkeeper/postmaster. Then, another traveler might carry it along. Or not. You never quite knew.



Monday, September 5, 2016

Pirate Phrases… Real or Hollywood?

With Talk Like a Pirate Day right around the corner, many of us are brushing up on our pirate phrases and language. Here’s a fun list of common sayings. Can you tell if they’re fictional or the Real Deal?



Espy, descry: To see something. Usually when searching the horizon for a sail. Authentic.

Me hearties!: During the Golden Age of Piracy the phrase was “My hearts!” as in “Friends of my heart.” “Heart” was also a slang term for a “stout heart,” and thus for a sailor. By the late 18th century the pronunciation was often rendered as “My hearties,” and in the 19th as “Me hearties.” A little authentic, a little from Hollywood, so your answer is right no matter what you guessed.

Pluck a crow: To pick a fight. Authentic.



Catch a Tartar: Pick a fight with someone stronger than yourself. The reputation of Genghis Khan and his so-called Tartars was still strong in the 18th century. Authentic.

Shiver me timbers: Timbers are the wooden parts that make up the ship’s hull and support the decks and, they did shiver, meaning they splintered and shattered, as in “shivered to pieces.” This was most likely to happen in a ship that has run aground. However, the phrase was not used by pirates. It was first popularized by novelist and naval officer Francis Marryat (famous for his semi-autobiographical novel Mr. Midshipmen Easy) in the early 19th century. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver made it famous in Treasure Island. Though this period is often thought of in connection with pirates, it was in fact 100 years later. Fiction.



Dead man’s chest: The phrase became famous through Treasure Island and no one is quite sure what Stevenson meant. “Dead Man’s Chest” is the English translation of caja de muerto, or coffin. Caja de Muerto is the name of an island off Puerto Rico, so-named because it resembles a coffin. Fun to know, but real pirates probably never talked about it.

Show your heels: To run away. Authentic. Also – having light heels meant likely to run away.

Ballast her well: Ballast was the weight put into the bottom of a ship which causes it to stay upright in the water. This phrase was also use to request that a bartender pour a tankard completely full. Authentic.

Yo ho ho: Though “Yo ho,” was a chant used to help a group work together when hauling or heaving. It was popularized in Treasure Island. Fiction.



Piece-of-eight: a Spanish dollar, worth eight reals or royals, and the currency upon which the U.S. dollar was founded. A silver coin that could be divided into eight pieces. Authentic.

Plain-dealer: one who speaks plainly Many sailors, seamen and pirates prided themselves on speaking plainly and honestly. They felt that this was a contrast to landsmen, who often lied and acted dishonestly. Authentic.

Thundering fellow: a loud, shouting person with a deep voice, often the bosun. Authentic.

Arr!  A common phrase on the West Country of England, exaggerated by Robert Newton who played both Long John Silver and Blackbeard in the 1950s. Newton exaggerated his own West Country accent, as in “Arr, yer a good ‘un, Jim,” which was his pronunciation of “Aw, you’re a good one, Jim.” Fiction.

Linguister: a translator, one who speaks other languages. Authentic.



Jackanapes: A cocky or impudent person. From the term “Jack, from Naples.” Monkeys were often carried by traveling entertainers, many of whom came from Italy, or pretended to. The term may have been applied to sailors a sailor due to their ability to climb aloft. Sailors, like monkeys, were also known for being impudent. Authentic.


Smart as paint: Although this phrase may sound like the modern-day “smart as a cheese sandwich,” it was a genuine complement. “Smart” is a term often meaning well-dressed or fashionably decorated. Ships were painted to make them look “smart” and so by saying that a person was “smart as paint,” one was comparing him to the origin of a ship’s “smartness.” But it’s entirely fictional, invented by Robert Lewis Stevenson for Treasure Island

Monday, August 29, 2016

Michiana Ren Faire

Your first question would be “Why are we reviewing a Ren Faire?” and the second would be “What’s a Michiana, anyway?” Both wise questions, and they will be answered here.

This particular Faire is notable for pirates because it is divided into different “realms” for the pleasure of visitors. Since Ren Fairs have largely ceased to be entirely Renaissance themed (at least in the Midwest) and have become places where costume geeks, Doctor Who fans, history buffs and pop culture fans gather to show off their strange clothes and be strange together, it makes sense to divide the area into sections that appeal to different people.

Michiana’s sections were Renaissance, Fairytales, Pirates, and Vikings, and therefore the event is of interest to our readers.

Image result for kamm island park pirate

As to what a Michiana is, it is the region containing southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana, centered on the city of Mishawka. (To those not familiar with the Midwestern United States, the place name is based on terms used by the native tribes.)

Mishawaka is a moderately sized city in an area where there is not much else. A beautiful, thriving community, it offers among other things beautiful Kamm Island Park, a tree-lined natural area with wide walkways and lovely trees, located on Kamm Island in the St Joseph River.

The site provided an ideal location, offering limited access and providing performers and vendors with comfortable locations and beautiful backgrounds. An estimated two thousand people enjoyed the event this year. (2016)



The Pirate area was located between the Vikings, an area dominated by a recreated Viking settlement which showed off Viking crafts and lifestyle. Between the two were belly dancers. Were these entertainers historically accurate? Not really. But everyone agrees that belly dancers and pirates are two great things that go great together, and with an abundance of dancers, the Pirates were willing to share with their Viking brethren.

The Pirate area was definitely dominated by fantasy pirates. Booths hawked broadswords and katanas in addition to cutlasses, and performers were as likely to sing “Sloop John B” (famously recorded by the Beach Boys in 1966) as traditional sea shanties.


But it was a happy crowd. Strolling pirates were dressed in tricorn hats and striped pants, garb not inconsistent with real 18th century buccaneers. Calls of “Rum!” and flirtatious looks were common. One gentleman of fortune, calling himself “Captain Duckworth” offered to deliver extravagant complements to anyone on the grounds for a small fee.



Pirate offered sword fighting demonstrations, showed (with a huge amount of noise) how black power guns operated and offered a large number of 18th century games in the games tent. I was there too, telling true pirate tales, and offering autographed copies of my books for sale. Non-fiction was definitely the item of the day, with my young-adult books, Pirates of the Golden Age outselling fiction. But Gentlemen and Fortune, my thrilling tale of Scarlet MacGrath, female pirate captain with attitude, came in a close second.


Probably the most fun for me, as a performer and vendor, was the large number of folks who came through the area in costume. It’s always a pleasure to see visitors enjoying themselves, and when folks take the time to dress up it means they’re in the right mood to have a good time.

In other areas, the Middle Ages and Renaissance were recreated with authentic encampments, dancing and music. And in the Fairytale section, storytelling was king, while folk in fairy costumes sold hand-made goods and entertained children with giggles and games.

This was also the place to find the Fair’s most amazing crafts, from one-of-a-kind jewelry to truly unique hand stitched capes. The Fairytale section was colorful and fun.


One of the things I liked the least was the amount of trouble given to the Ren Faire by the Powers That Be. The Mayor of Mishawaka came by the let the organizers know that he didn’t like the festival, and several locals showed up with some kind of anger leveled at the “strange people” who were dressed up and having a good time. I should note here that Faire-goers were a well-behaved crowd, and while a local watering hole had organized an on-site tavern, I saw not one person misbehaving or causing trouble.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the Michiana Ren Faire is now looking for a new home. Kamm Island has been a great location, but with the local city government hostile to anyone doing things “differently” the Michiana Ren Faire will be better served by finding a different location. Fortunately funding is adequate, and the core of this wonderful festival’s organizers remain optimistic and full of energy.

I’ll be looking forward to the next Michiana Ren Faire, wherever it is.










Monday, August 15, 2016

Belize and the Bucaneers

I first heard of the nation of Belize while reading the introduction to Colin Woodard’s excellent book, The Republic of Pirates. In it, Woodard states that he decided to write the book while vacationing in Belize. He also notes that the tiny nation is one of the few places on earth where the original accent of 18th century pirates lingers on.

The accent of the region sounds like the Caribbean to me…. Which makes sense, because the area was inhabited by Mayans, Spanish, English, and Africans. To me, the sound of Belezian words is one of the most beautiful in the world.



Belize history starts with the Maya. Maya civilization emerged at least three millennia ago in the lowland area of the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands to the south. A wide variety of languages and subcultures developed within the Maya core culture. The peak of this civilization occurred during the classic period, which began about 250 AD.

The Maya civilization flourished in the area of Belize until about 900 AD. In the late Classic Era of Maya civilization (600–1000 AD), as many as 1 million people may have lived in the area that is now Belize. Many aspects of this culture persist in the area despite nearly 500 years of European domination.

 Photo by Ian Mackenzie from Ottawa, Canada Xunantunich, Belize

It is believed that the region takes its name from the Belize River. Though many legends surround the name, ranging from the names of discoverers to corruption of colorful Spanish words, most authorities today think that the river’s name is simply the Mayan word for “muddy.”

Though Belize had several Mayan city-centers, and may have been home to over a million people in classic Mayan times, it was not attractive to the conquering Spanish. Local farmers raised crops of squash, beans, peppers and corn, but did not have reserves of gold or jewels.


When the conquistadors “pacified” what is now Mexico, the region of Belize was largely overlooked. This led to the are becoming a haven for natives trying ot escape Spanish enslavement and forced religious conversion. Unfortunately, refugees fleeing from the conquerors had already been exposed to European diseases such as smallpox.  By the mid 1500’s the population was decimated.

But the native people still held to their traditions. The region of Tipu, today only and archaeological site, was continuously repopulated by incoming refugees. Though technically conquered by the Spanish, the area was too far from the main population centers to be closely controlled.  In 1638 the natives began to resist the Spanish, and by 1642 the area was in all out rebellion. Over 300 native families, from 8 towns, relocated to Belize.

Aiding the natives in their fight for freedom were the local pirates. In 1642 and again in 1648, pirates sacked Salamanca de Bacalar, the seat of Spanish government in southern Yucatán. After the second devastating attack, the Spanish withdrew from the region.


Local people remained free until 1696. But then the Spanish came back in force. The transported the people and razed Tipu in 1707. From that time on, the area was a haven only for pirates, buccaneers, escaped slaves, and the few natives who still strove to escape their Spanish masters.

The English were becoming interested in the area, but early English settlers were, to put it mildly, wild men. These were some of the original “buccaneers.”  Groups of independent individuals created rough seaside settlements, where they hunted wild game, mostly pigs, and cured the meat by smoking it on wooden frames. These frames went by the French world “boucan” which in turn gave their name to the product produced on them – “bacon” and “barbecue” – and to the men who used them – boucaneers or buccaneers.

Buccaneers in a canoe attacking a Spanish galleon 

When not producing delicious smoked meats, some settlements of buccaneers used native canoes to attack shipping that wandered too close to their shores. They also cut local timber. A native tree known as “logwood” produced a valuable dye. Logwood cutters lived independently ruing themselves by the equivalent of town meetings.

A 1667 treaty, in which the European powers agreed to suppress piracy, encouraged the shift from buccaneering to cutting logwood and led to more permanent settlement. The 1670 Godolphin Treaty between Spain and England confirmed English possession of countries and islands that England already occupied. Unfortunately, those colonies were not named and ownership of the coastal area remained unclear. In 1717 Spain expelled British logwood cutters from the Bay of Campeche west of the Yucatán. This action had the unintended effect of enhancing the significance of the growing British settlement near the Belize River.

A boucan

The first British settlers lived a rough and disorderly life. According to Captain Nathaniel Uring, who was shipwrecked and forced to live with the logwood cutters for several months in 1720, the buccaneers were "generally a rude drunken Crew, some of which have been Pirates." He said he had "but little Comfort living among these Crew of ungovernable Wretches, where was little else to be heard but Blasphemy, Cursing and Swearing."

A twenty-first century archaeological dig in the area produced an enormous number of broken clay pipes. Archaeologists claimed to have never seen anything like it. So apparently, smoking went right along with drinking and swearing. 




During the 18th century, the Spanish attacked the British settlers repeatedly. In 1717, 1730, 1754, and 1779 the Spanish forced the British to leave the area. The Spanish never settled in the region, however, and the British always returned to expand their trade and settlement. The conflict remained until the logwood trade faded, and the locals began to cut mahogany instead.

On their own initiative and without recognition by the British government, the settlers had begun annual elections of magistrates to establish common law for the settlement as early as 1738. In 1765 Rear Admiral Sir William Burnaby, commander-in-chief of Jamaica, arrived in the settlement and codified their regulations into a document known as Burnaby's Code. When the settlers began returning to the area in 1784, the governor of Jamaica named Colonel Edward Marcus Despard as superintendent to oversee the Settlement of Belize.

England held the area, calling in British Honduras for a time, and larger landowners began to import African slaves from Jamaica. The usual horrible stories of inhumanity and mistreatment ensued, but slavery was abolished in 1838. The African-Belizian people had profound effect on the areas food, customs and language.

Belize gained its independence in 1981. Today tourism is a major part of the economy, providing 25% of jobs. The country is still a rough-and-tumble place, however, with a national murder rate similar to downtown Detroit. Still the government is continually working to increase safety for travelers. Vacations here are budget-friendly, and a careful tourist can enjoy tropical weather, wonderful food, and a piratical history.  

tourists in belize


Monday, August 8, 2016

Pieces of Eight

One of the most famous phrases in pirate lore, the term “pieces of eight” is the phrase uttered by Long John Silver’s parrot, the first real proof that Silver is really a pirate. But the coin is not only piratical, it is the basis of the American dollar, the Canadian dollar, the Japanese yen and the Chinese yuan. It was the first “world currency” starting in the late 18th century. It’s definitely the most famous Spanish coin.

Although Spanish gold is a byword for the riches of the Caribbean, Spain was also looting the Americas of vast quantities of silver. While much gold was found already refined and in use by the natives, silver was mined by the conquerors. In 1554 a Spanish merchant named Bartolomé de Medina developed a method of refining low-quality silver ore using mercury and sea brine.

An 8 Reales piece minted in Mexico in 1650

The concept of a large silver coin with high purity (sometimes known as "specie" coinage) had become popular throughout Europe. In the 16th century, Count Hieronymus Schlick of Bohemia had begun minting coins known as Joachimsthalers (from German thal, or valley), named for the areas where the silver was produced. Joachimstaler was later shortened to taler.

The first thaler from 1525

So successful were these coins that similar thalers were minted in Burgundy and France. After 1575, the Dutch used currency with a daalder depicting a lion, hence its Dutch name leeuwendaalder. (Many traders did not think the picture of the lion was very good, and traders, especially in the Caribbean, gave the coin the name “dog dollar.”)

Specifically to facilitate export trade, the leeuwendaalder was lighter than the large denomination coins then in circulation. Thus, it became the coin of choice for foreign trade. Dutch traders were traveling all over the world, and the coin became popular in the Middle East, and colonies in the east and west.

Money in Spain was based on a system of reales (pronounced re-al-es’).  Spain was commonly using an 8-real coin of very high quality in 1497. In 1537 the Spanish escudo gold coin was introduced, which was worth 16 reales. The later Gold Doubloon was worth 32 reales or 2 escudos. It is this divisibility into 8 which caused the silver coins to be named "pieces of eight".

Since the leeuwendaalder and the 8-reales piece were of very similar size, purity and value, they began to be commonly referred to by the same name. “Dallder” was easier to say than “8 reales piece” so it became the more common term. English voices quickly slurred “dallder” into “dollar”

Legend has it that the Spanish coin’s markings made it easy to cut into 8 pieces in order to make change during a purchase. The coin wasn’t planned like this, but coinage in the New World was in a state of chaos for a long time. Coinage was scarce, people were poor, and defacing money wasn’t a crime. It’s likely that coins were cut up in some establishments and by some individuals.

This leads us to the common breakdowns of the dollar value – half dollar (coin cut in half), ¼ or one quarter dollar, usually called just a quarter (half a dollar cut in half again, or four pieces), and the “bit” which was half of a quarter.


The word “bit” is no longer used in used in the US, but it survives in the old song, “Shave and a haircut, two bits.”  One programmer friend of mine wonders of the “bit” coinage was the inspiration of the term “bit” in computer programming, since it was the smallest piece into which a coin would be cut.

Thanks to the vast silver deposits that were found in Mexico (for example, at Taxco and Zacatecas) and Potosí in modern-day Bolivia, and to silver from Spain's possessions throughout the Americas, mints in Mexico and Peru also began to strike the coin. The main New World mints for Spanish dollars were at Potosí, Lima, and Mexico City.

By far the leading specie coin circulating in North America was the Spanish silver dollar, defined as consisting of 387 grains of pure silver. Spanish dollars came into the North American colonies through lucrative trade with the West Indies. The Spanish silver dollar had been the world's outstanding coin since the early 16th century, and was spread partially because of the vast silver output of the Spanish colonies in Latin America. More important, however, was that the Spanish dollar, from the 16th to the 19th century, was relatively the most stable and least debased coin in the Western world.

Before the American Revolution (and possibly one contributing factor to the Revolution) there was a chronic shortage of British currency in Britain's colonies. Trade was often conducted with Spanish dollars that had been obtained by dealing with Caribbean pirates. Spanish coinage was legal tender in the United States until the Coinage Act of 1857 discontinued the practice.

But some traditional characteristics of the old pieces of eight lingered in America’s monetary system until very recently. The pricing of equities on U.S. stock exchanges in 1⁄8-dollar denominations persisted until the New York Stock Exchange converted first to pricing in sixteenths of a dollar on 24 June 1997, and shortly after that, to decimal pricing.

8 Reales from 1739. 
 One last thing – Look closely at the back of a Spanish eight-reales piece. See the two pillars on the back? They are supposed to represent the Pillar of Hercules – the two chunks of land that frame the Straights of Gibraltar, gateway to the Mediterranean Sea. But the pillar on the right also looks a bit like this - $. In fact, it is believed to be the inspiration for the sign for American currency.



Monday, August 1, 2016

What Did a Pirate Keep in His Chest?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that pirates didn’t bury their treasure (the exception being Captain William Kidd.) But there are still those chests…. Everyone knows that pirates had chests. What was in them?


Well to begin with, chests were more likely than not to contain the possession of richer people that pirates had robbed. Rich people traveled with nice things that needed to be protected from water, from mold, the ship’s rats. Most pirates, like most sailors, didn’t have much. Their meager personal possessions needed to be easy to pack up and transport at a moment’s notice, whenever a sailor changed jobs (and therefore ships.)

Most sailors carried their things in canvas bags, and a few even did without the bag, bundling everything they owned -  A change of clothes, a knife, some small memento of loved ones, spare socks – into their sleeping hammock. The hammock was formed into a makeshift carry-all, and away the sailor went, transporting not only his personal possession, but his bed as well.



But pirates had opportunity to acquire more physical possessions . They had money to spend, and in the course of robbing a ship, there was little to keep them from picking up whatever small items caught their fancy. Let’s pretend that we have discovered a pirate chest, preserved from piracy’s Golden Age, and look inside.

The first items I think we’d see in a plate and spoon. This seems odd, but pewter plates and silver spoons were things that working class people would scarcely see, let alone own. Merchant sailors might receive their food on a wooden plank, or several of them might share a large bowl of food, But a metal plate and spoon? That was the possession of a pirate. Examples of plates on the Whydah included the owner’s initials scratched on the back… probably pride of ownership.

Sure beats eating with your hands. 

Next would be other items used for work on the ship – a knife, and a marlinspike – an iron tool like a small spike, used for working with rope. If, like some new pirates, our friend was a landsman, just learning to sail, his chest might hold scraps of rope with examples of knots he was learning to tie.

  A sailor’s palm (in effect, a huge leather thimble) might be present if the pirate was a sailmaker or his apprentice. This was a leather wrapping for the hand, with a metal piece – often a flattened coin – attached near the base of the thumb. This allowed the strength of the whole arm to be used in driving a needle through several layers of tough canvas.

Picture of Sailmakers Palm, how to make one.
Sail Maker's Palm

Our pirate might have items to entertain himself when he was not working. He would probably own a pipe and some tobacco. Tobacco was one of the treasures that pirates frequently stole, and all accounts say that they smoked almost constantly. In sites known to be inhabited by pirates, archaeologists have found hundreds – maybe thousands – of broken clay pipes.

The chest might also contain cards or dice. Printed cards were available, printed from woodblocks. The cards were much the same as those today, with the same four suits, and the same numbers, 1-10, with the jack, queen and king. These cards were blank on the back, and were not protected by coatings to keep them clean. A canny card player probably knew more than he should by the stains on his deck.


The pirate might also carry dice. Today, you may hear someone say, “Roll those bones!” when rolling dice. In the 18the century, dice were actually make of bone. There was no standard size, and the dice were usually only as square as the human eye and hand could make them. No precision measuring!

Of course, pirates ships did not encourage gambling. If one pirate won too much, or another lost too much, it would create bad feeling among the crew. So crew members might have crafts – wood carvings, small musical instruments such as an ocarina, or even embroidery.


Every sailor did carry the equipment for repairing his own clothes. In fact, sailors were known to be very good with needle and thread. Supplies were often made into a small kit called a “housewife.” Needles, thread, spare buttons, scraps of cloth suitable for patching clothes were wrapped in a bit of cloth and string. The kit would also contain bee’s wax. This was an important way to preserve the thread.

Natural materials are prone to rot when warm and damp (exactly the conditions on a Caribbean ship.) Wax would b rubbed onto the tread just before using it, to fend off water. This made the stitches last much longer.

The pirate’s weapons needed to be handy, but a secure place on the bottom of the chest would do. Pirate law said that all weapons must be ready at a moment’s notice, so a pistol would be clean and loaded, but not cocked. This way, the gun would not go off by accident.

But pirates didn’t use their weapons every day. Even a successful ship rarely encountered more than one potential victim every ten days or so.

And what about the money? Well, if the pirate had that, he would be in port, spending it. A pirate didn’t need cash until he left the ship, so all the ship’s plunder was kept by the Quartermaster. This individual had as part of his job the measurement, recording and distribution of plunder. For ease of accounting, pirates usually left the money with him, and he held it for them until they needed it. Kind of like a pirate Credit Union.