Saturday, February 23, 2013

18th Century Medicine

It’s often been said that people in the 18th century only lived to be about 35 years old. It’s also been said that people lived longer if they kept away from doctors.

Medicine in the 1700’s was nothing like ours today. Germ theory was still over a hundred years away. Anatomy was in its infancy – religions forbade the dissection of humans, and so animals were cut up and results were extrapolated from there. (Humans were believed to have a liver shaped in distinct ‘lobes” since many animals do.) Doctors did not even yet understand that blood circulates through the human body.

Disease was attributed to “bad air” or “bad water” or perhaps an “imbalance in the humors of the body.”  

The belief in “bad water” had its roots in contaminated wells and springs, but was not rooted in any understanding of pollution or seeping ground water. A dead cow two miles away might be contaminating a community’s water, but no one had any way to discover this. Instead, villages held ceremonies around wells or springs that did not kill people, offering flowers and songs to bribe the spring to remain healthy. Reliably healthy water sources (think: Lourdes) developed reputations as places of healing. Certainly a person slowly dying from polluted water had a chance to recover in such a place.

Most people, if they could afford it, rarely drank water. The 3-4 percent alcohol content in beer killed most of the germs, so even children drank it. And with the belief in bad water came a terror of washing. If the water was contaminated, and there was no reliable way to find out if it was, washing in it might be deadly. This kept a vicious cycle of dirt going.

Belief in ‘bad air’ was probably linked to air-borne sickness, but was also a result of night-time mosquito raids. Burning herbs kept bugs at bay, and may have killed some germs. At any rate, they made people feel better, and the practice of fumigating a home with smoke was popular. It also, however, led to a terror of fresh air, a situation that was often unhealthy.

Doctors of the time were still practicing “philosophical medicine.” Someone- a contemporary learned man, an ancient Greek philosopher, put forward a theory, and if it sounded good people believed it. No one had yet thought of experimenting to find out if methods worked, and the placebo effect gave enough good results that doctors continued their odd treatments.

The human body was believed to run off of the interaction of four liquids, or humors. These were blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These had to exist in the proper proportions, and if they did not, the doctor would determine which was in overabundance and treat the patient to remove this humor.

To this end, patients were given concoctions to cause violent vomiting or violent diarrhea. It was believed that this regulated bile. People suffering from internal parasites may have benefitted by this. Regulating phlegm was done with diet, limiting a patient to only cold food or adding certain herbs to the diet.

Most famous was the practice of bleeding patients. Bleeding was so common that it was most often practiced by barbers, who also practiced as surgeons, the lowest sort of doctor. Contemporary accounts describe people who felt that it was time to be bled going to a barbershop and allowing the staff to open a vein until they bled out about a pint of blood. Then the wound was closed, the barber was paid, and the patient went about his or her business. A busy barbershop might have a trough to divert streams of blood into the street, where local dogs lapped it up.

The practice of bleeding continued into the early 1900’s, as old-fashioned doctors continued the practice based on the theory that “we’ve always done this” and “what harm can it do?”

Barbers were also surgeons. They cut out tumors, removed gangrenous flesh and lopped off badly damaged or severely infected limbs.  Doctors did not often get involved in this, as it wasn’t scientific. Without any form of anesthetic, the patient was tied down, plied with alcohol until he or she was blackout drunk, and then the cutting began. Getting the work done quickly minimized shock, and made it more likely the patient would survive.

A doctor might treat the wound after the surgery was done, but most patients died of infection. In fact, infection was so common that the medical establishment considered “pus’ to be a stage of healing, and if a patient had a clean wound that did not produce pus, the doctor might introduce some from another patient’s  “properly” healing wound to put things right.

All in all, any person’s best chance of living to ripe old age involved being lucky enough to have an immune system with the ferocity of a ravening lion and to keep as far away from doctors as possible.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Becoming a Pirate

Deciding to be a pirate was a life changing event. Piracy was a hanging crime. When pirates were caught, they were tried and hanged, usually in short order. In the face of such a ferocious reprisal, why would anyone want to become a pirate?

People driven to break the law with these kinds of results come from a desperate place. The people who became pirates were sailors, and the life of a sailor in the 17th and 18th century was desperately hard.

Anyone who’s a fan of pirates is familiar with pirate captains killing members of their own crew. It’s how they prove they’re in charge. They shoot some guy out-of-hand, and the rest of the crew doesn’t seem to mind. Reality was far different.

Early navy and merchant sailors were at the mercy of their captains and officers. Sailors were regularly beaten as part of their jobs, and the heavy piece of knotted rope used to do it was called a “starter,” a device to start men to work. Disobeying orders was punishable by whipping, and it was possible to whip a man to death.

Sailors were treated like animals because it was believed that the “lower classes” were little more than animals.  Poorly educated, with no training in the manners considered important at the time, often scarred by poor nutrition or hard work, sailors were considered the dregs of society. Yet at the same time, men of the poorest classes often joined the navy or the merchant marine to see the world and gain knowledge and experience denied to them on land.

In addition, life at sea was hard. Food preservation was crude, so most food was heavily salted, and often starting to decompose. Water, kept in barrels for weeks or months, was a horror show. Officers ate better because they paid for their own food, something which was denied to common sailors.

Then, beginning in about 1696, a perfect storm began in the Caribbean that led to piracy’s greatest hour.

A series of short, chaotic wars between the European powers had brought thousands of conscripted sailors into the region, just as hundreds of thousands of slaves, both European and African were being shipped in to work on expanding plantations. Then the wars ceased, and the sailors became unemployed.

With so many seamen looking for work, merchant ship owners and captains took the opportunity to drastically lower wages. Sometimes captains cut pay out entirely, under the pretext that their crews weren’t working hard enough.

At the end of a voyage, sailors had to remain on the ship, since they had no money, and the crew was fed and had a place to stay. Those trying to find employment elsewhere would need to find it quickly, and would not have time to pick up rumors about which captains were fair, opposed to whipping, or more generous with pay. 

Conditions became worse, and in a slave-driven society it was even impossible to find alternate work on shore. And in the middle of all this came the pirates.

A pirate crew might have mutinied against their officers, or have banded together in port and stolen a boat in the dead of night. When they attacked a ship, they took all the money and the decent food.  Then they would gather the crew and a give a recruiting speech that went something like this:

“Would you like to get a year’s salary for a week of work? Would you like to have all the liquor you want, right now? Would you like to eat the best food on the boat? Would you like to be treated like a human being, and vote on matters that concern you, and never be beaten or whipped again?  Then come with us, and live a life of freedom!”

What would you do?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When Guns Don't Fire

In my last post, I wrote about how flintlocks work. Today I will give details about how they don’t work.

Although they are sturdy, they are not reliable. In the mid-1700’s the British Army did a study, and found that a gun fired in the field had an 85% chance of actually going off. That leaves a 15% chance that when you pulled the trigger, nothing was going to happen. What got in the way?

If the powder isn’t dry, nothing will happen. High humidity might be enough to keep a spark from igniting the flash pan. Or the flint might not be sharp enough or set at the proper angle. To get a good spark, the flint needed a sharpened strike point. Flints were purchased with correct faces, but flint is a rock, which chips and breaks, so the flint must be cared for, re-sharpened, and replaced regularly.
Another problem was that the frizzen strike plate might not be the best grade of steel. These were individually produced parts, and if the frizzen was not properly tempered, the spark would be inferior or nonexistent, and might not ignite the powder.

Holding the pistol incorrectly could prevent firing. You couldn’t “go gangsta” and hold your flintlock sideways. Gravity needed to guide the spark into the flash pan. Holding the weapon upside down made it useless, and might spill the powder from the flashpan, preventing firing altogether until the pan was refilled.

Rain reduced chances of success. Wind might blow the spark out. If the touchhole had carbon buildup, or the load had not been tamped down properly, or the flint was not positioned correctly, then the pistol would not fire. It is a telling fact that the makers of pistols did not also provide holsters. They made wooden cases for their product.

But pirates loved pistols, and evidence surfaces that many pirates collected them. Pistols were terror weapons. They were loud. They made smoke and inspired chaos. Pistols were, moreover, the weapon of a “gentleman,” and such a weapon in the hands of a dirty, uneducated criminal sent a message that rules of society were being turned upside down. And setting the world on its ear was a pirate’s goal.

Unlike navy pistols, pirate weapons were private property. This was important, since each pistol had its own individual quirks, and close study of it could reveal the way to produce maximum reliability. If some weapons responded to use of a particular grade of flint, or dropped a spark more reliably when held at a slight angle, the longtime owner would know. The rules of most pirate ships required weapons to be cleaned, maintained and ready for use at all times, and circumstances indicate the pirates cared for their weapons enthusiastically.

Pirates also modified pistols to suit them. For example, the smooth hardwood grips made to appeal to gentleman purchasers did not work well for a pirate, whose hands might be sweaty, wet, or covered in blood. Pirates wrapped their pistol grips in cloth, favoring silk ribbon for the purpose.

They also carried as many guns as possible. Though belt holsters had not been invented, pirates used over-the-shoulder bandoliers, rigged to carry up to three weapons. Two of these provided six shots. Another pirate invention was a sort of V-shaped neck-bandolier, also holding six weapons, and featuring a pouch in front for powder and shot.

If this sort of fancy leather- work wasn’t available, braces of pistols were tied together by the butts and simply slung around the neck. Three pairs were about all a person could carry, and may have been the conceptual ancestor of the six-shooter. More pistols could be crammed into coat pockets, More is better, especially when you have only an 85% chance of getting a shot off.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Those Funny-Looking Pirate Pistols

As I was watching a pirate era movie with a friend, she kept commenting on the odd guns that pirates used. It’s true, the pistols in pirate movies look very little like a modern gun. But their strange appearance is a true example of form following function.

Firearms from the Golden Age of Piracy worked using a mechanism called a “flintlock,” This followed the “matchlock” and was the highest form of firearm technology for over a hundred years.

Matchlocks had set off the powder charge in a musket with a simple burning fuse, the “match.” Before going into battle, the match was lit, and as long as it burned the gun could be fired by pulling the trigger mechanism, which brought the slow-burning match into contact with black powder. (an example of a matchlock can be seen in Disney’s animated movie Pocahontas. I especially like the part where John Smith blows on the burning match to make it flare.)

Obviously, carrying around a device with a burning fuse attached had its limitations. I have never seen an example of a matchlock pistol. The need to keep a match burning precluded the design of a hand weapon. Only with the rise of flintlocks could a pocket-sized gun be conceived.

All black powder weapons carry the same sort of load. A measured amount of black powder is put into the barrel of the gun. This could be drizzled in from a powder horn, or inserted via a pre-measured “cartridge” of powder wrapped in paper. Pre-made cartridges looked much like packages of the candy  “Smarties” only wrapped in cigarette paper, not cellophane.

After the load of powder came the ball, or shot. Since the machining tolerances of the time were not close  – gun barrels were handmade and hand tempered, and shot was frequently hand-cast by the shooter (using primitive two-part molds and lead or pewter heated in the fireplace,) the round shot for the pistol would not fit snugly into the barrel. To get around this, the ball was wrapped in a piece of cloth called the “patch” which ensured a properly snug fit. All of this was pushed down the barrel using a ramrod. Conveniently, both muskets and pistols from the time carried a ramrod under the barrel.

Now we come to the funny-looking part of the gun. The “lock” was the firing mechanism, consisting of the trigger, the hammer, the flash pan, and the frizzen. This was attached to the right-hand side.

The flash pan held a small amount of powder, and was filled after the barrel was loaded. This powder met the load in the barrel through a small opening called the touch hole. When the powder in the pan caught fire, the touch hole carried that fire into the barrel, setting off the main charge. The gun was, literally, “fired” in that fire was put to the powder, causing an explosion.

The frizzen was the ingenious thing. One half of it was a cover for the flash pan, protecting the powder from getting wet of simply falling out. The other half rose in at a right angle to form a vertical strike plate.

The hammer contained a screw-operated holder for a piece of flint. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer fell and hit the flint against the steel strike plate. Flint hitting steel made a spark, and the force of the hammer also opened the frizzen pan, dropping that spark into the flash pan’s powder.

The flash powder ignited with a “fissst” sound,  producing a cloud of white smoke the size of a grapefruit. A split second later, the pistol’s main charge went off with a “pang!” throwing a round lead shot of approximately 55 caliber, and creating a cloud of white smoke the size of an end table. A small stream of smoke shot out the touch hole. Pistols were never reloaded during a fight. It took too long. To make up for this, the manufacturer thoughtfully capped the pistol’s butt  with metal, providing better functionality when it was used as a club.

Flintlock technology was simple enough that the weapons could be repaired in the field, and the weapons saw service into the Civil War. In Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Johnny Depp carries a genuine three hundred year old flintlock pistol, still capable of killing someone.

Handle with care. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Golden Age of Piracy

This blog concerns all things “pirate”, but the question comes up – What is the golden age of piracy? What made this time special? What started it, and how did it end?

Piracy goes back to ancient times, but in the Caribbean, something special happened in 1696 that started a revolution. The name of the man involved was Henry Avery, and his story set the stage for 20 years of pirate history.

Like most pirates, Avery started out as a common sailor. During one of England’s wars with France, he enlisted as a junior officer, and spent twenty years serving in a Navy that beat its men regularly, paid them irregularly (years could go by with no pay at all) and fed them the cheapest available food. Men honorably wounded in battle became beggars if they lost hands, eyes or legs, for there was no paid compensation for injuries.

In 1693, Avery signed for a commission which looked like a much better deal. A privately funded sloop, setting out with generous, guaranteed pay, would sail to Spain to obtain documents authorizing it’s crew to hunt pirates. Pay came in advance, and Avery would sail as first mate.

The ship, Charles II, sailed to La Coruna in northern Spain, where they waited for the documents. And waited. And waited. Eventually the truth came out. The ship, and her crew, had been sold to the Spanish government. Avery and his men learned that they were considered slaves, bound to Spain for the rest of their lives.

When legal efforts to get back to England failed, Avery boldly arranged a breakout, gathering all the captive English and Irish seamen in the port and fighting their way clear. Once out of port he offered the captain a choice to join the crew in a life outside the law. The captain refused and was put off in the longboat.

The crew then met and determined how to live from here on. They decided to vote democratically on all future actions, to rob French and Spanish ships and settlements for their own profit, to keep Avery as their leader and to split their profits equitably. They were now pirates.

The ship, renamed the Fancy, sailed down the African coast and into the Indian Ocean, plundering ships, settlements and native villages. Their last “catch,” off the coast of India, netted them an estimated £150,000 in gold, jewels and trade goods, or more than twenty years’ pay for each man on board.

The Fancy was now so laden with treasure that she rode low in the water, and Avery was ready to retire. He sailed for Nassau in the Bahamas, where the pirate crew, some 113 souls, gave the Governor of Nassau a generous gift of £840 (three years wages for the governor) and the Fancy herself in exchange for new identities and the right to purchase less identifiable ships.

The crew broke up and sailed away. Seven of them, bragging about how rich they had become, were caught. Avery was rumored to have been headed for northern Ireland when last seen. He was never captured.

His exploits were published anonymously in a book titled The Successful Pyrate, and the story made him a legend. His wealth was incalculable. Over 50 tons of ivory had been left on the Fancy because it was too much trouble to carry it away. From then on, any abused cabin boy or sailor shorted on pay would think of Henry Avery and dream of being a pirate.