Monday, August 26, 2013


Back in the days when the edges of most maps were blank, it was traditional to decorate these blank places with drawings of sea monsters. Though the practice died away with the advent of modern cartography, many of the sea monsters retained their places in the human psyche. Among these was the Kraken.

The Kraken is most usually defined as a giant squid or octopus, but has also been described as crab-like, whale-like, or even as a giant serpent.

The earliest reference to this monster may a monster told of in the 13th century Old Icelandic saga Orvar-Odds, the lyngbaker (heather-back). This is believed to be a reference to the legendary Kraken.

“Whales are the biggest of everything in the world, but the hafgufa is the greatest monster occurring in the water. It is its nature that it swallows both men and ships and whales and everything that it can reach. It is submerged both by day and night together, and when it strikes up its head and nose above the surface, then it stays at least until the turn of the tide. Now, that sound we sailed through? We sailed between its jaws, and its nose and lower jaw were those rocks that appeared to you in the ocean.”

Carolus Linnaeus, author of the Systema Naturae, a natural history cataloge published in 1735, classified the Kraken as a cephalopod (the same as octopi and squid.) He gave it the scientific name Microcosmus marinus (microcosm of the ocean.)
The creature was also extensively described in The Natural History of Norway, written by Erik Pontoppidan in 1752. He was the first to tell us that the creature was sometimes mistaken for an island. He noted that "it is said that if [the creature's arms] were to lay hold of the largest man-of-war, they would pull it down to the bottom". But the real danger the Kraken posed to sailors was not the creature itself, but the whirlpool that was formed when it dived below the surface.
Pontoppidan also told that Norwegian fishermen made an effort to fish over a submerged Kraken, since catches there were plentiful, because huge schools of fish came to feed off the monster’s excrement.  He records a saying, “You must have fished over a Kraken,” used by sailors to denote unusually good luck at fishing. 
In 1781 the Kraken was again described,
“He stays at the sea floor, constantly surrounded by innumerable small fishes, who serve as his food and are fed by him in return: for his meal, (if I remember correctly what E. Pontoppidan writes,) lasts no longer than three months, and another three are then needed to digest it. His excrements nurture in the following an army of lesser fish, and for this reason, fishermen plumb after his resting place ... Gradually, Kraken ascends to the surface, and when he is at ten to twelve fathoms, the boats had better move out of his vicinity, as he will shortly thereafter burst up, like a floating island, spurting water from his dreadful nostrils and making ring waves around him, which can reach many miles. Could one doubt that this is the Leviathan of Job?”

In 1802, the existence of the giant octopus was recognized by science. Soon the legends of the Kraken were attached to these animals. It was claimed that ten British warships had been sunk by Kraken, although when survivors testified that at least one of the ships had gone down in a hurricane, the claim was dismissed.
Modern science recognizes the giant or colossal squid as the probable inspiration for the Kraken, but some of the characteristics of the Kraken may be explained by undersea volcanic activity (especially prevalent in Iceland) which may produce sudden dangerous currents, mysterious bubbles of water, and the sudden appearance of new islets
Whatever the origins or actual nature of the Kraken, its place in legend is assured. Alfred Tennyson published a sonnet on the subject.

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber'd and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Even more famous, Jules Verne included a Kraken (or at least giant squid) attack in his novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The inspiration for the tentacle-faced god of HP Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu Mythos is said to be the Kraken. The monster has been featured in novels, comic books, video games and cartoons.  “Release the Kraken!” was arguably the best line in both versions of “Clash of the Titans.” Its connection to pirates was mentioned by Michael Crichton’s “Pirate Latitudes,” and cemented by Davy Jones’ pet in the Pirates of the Caribbean.

It is also the mascot for a pleasant vanilla infused black rum. So pour yourself and toast the king of sea monsters, the Kraken, lord of the deep!

Monday, August 19, 2013

An Interview With Captain Black

Pirate fans create events, artwork, books and meet-ups. Today’s blog post is an interview with the founder of Under the Black Flag, a pirate-themed Facebook page with over 10,000 likes and an active base of modern-day pirates.

Captain Black: Ahoy!

TSR: Welcome! Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Is there anything you'd be willing to share with us about your non-pirate persona? Home port, age, how you pay the bills?

Captain Black: Please just call me Captain Black, Brother of Jake Lankster in life, age 34, port Greece.....

TSR: And how did you decide to start your pirate site?

CB: From the time I was a child I had the curiosity to search the myths, the facts, the romance and the fiction of Pirate History. .But as I learned the facts, history taught me something more important and that was the importance of Freedom. It was four years ago when my brother and I decided to create Under the Black Flag. Our purpose is to share the amazing pages of Pirate History with everyone.

TSR: What's your earliest memory about pirates?

CB: When our father bought us a Playmobile pirate ship. Later we saw the anime TV show Captain Harlock the Space Pirate...after that we began to research true Pirate History.

TSR: You live in Greece, near the sea. Do you have any local pirate stories - stories about pirates that operated near your home?

CB: According to an old legend a certain cave has taken its name after a pirate from Mani in Southern Greece. He arrived at the island and broke into the Panagia Akathi church. While he was stealing the church’s money he turned his eyes towards the icon of Virgin Mary and felt that she was watching him. He was so irritated that he pulled his pistol and shot the icon.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Piratical Cats and Other Shipboard Pets

Ships of the 18th century were not the sort of well-ordered, ultra-clean places now seen in modern tall ships and cabin cruisers. Life itself was more crowded then, dirtier, and less sanitized or organized than modern life, and ships, especially pirate ships, were crowded with whatever people wanted to bring on board.

Everyone knows that pirates had parrots as pets. Many sailors working in tropical regions kept some kind of bird. In a place where personal space was at a minimum it helped to have a pet who would spend time sitting quietly on a perch, or up in the rigging sunning itself. Caribbean natives often traded parrots for axes, beads, or other valuables. The brightly colored, amusing birds were usually so valuable that only the rich could afford them. Having a pet parrot was a mark of status and prosperity.

Monday, August 5, 2013

How the Caribbean Shaped the Pirates

Pirates have stalked their prey in every navigable sea and ocean on earth, but thanks to some recent movies, we associate the Caribbean with pirates most of all. And the Golden Age of Piracy is entirely linked to the region. Come along, and we’ll explore this place, the legendary heart of piracy.

When Christopher Columbus first blundered into the New World, he landed first on the island of Hispaniola. This large landmass – the largest island of the region – he named after his Spanish financiers. The region was named for the Carib Indians, the largest native population of the area at the time. The two main island groups were named for a mythical archipelago. “Antilles Islands” had been appearing at the far west of European maps for over a century, blots of land imagined by chart makers out of thin air. Sometimes these imaginary islands included the Isle of Avalon, final resting place of King Arthur.

The Caribbean Sea is bounded to the west by South America, to the north by the Greater Antilles islands (Cuba, Jamaica, the Caymans, Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola) to the south by the Lesser Antilles (including the islands of Barbados, St Kitt’s, Aruba, Antigua and the Virgin Islands). Its waters cover an area of 750,000 square miles (1,940,000 km). The sea floor is divided into three basins separated by undersea ridges. Cayman Trench, south of Cuba, reaches a depth of 25,190 feet (7,678 m), the deepest part of the Caribbean.

Currents and trade winds travel almost directly to the Caribbean from Europe, which is how Columbus found the place. Water enters the Caribbean through the Windward Passage through the Greater Antilles, and the Anegada Passage though the Lesser Antilles. It swirls around in a counter-clockwise fashion, being warmed by the sun in the large shallow expanses, and exits up the coast of Florida, forming the Gulf Stream.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to reach the area, and they immediately set out to plunder it of anything valuable. When Columbus wrote his first reports of the economic potential of his discovery, he noted especially that the natives would make fine slaves.

For a hundred years, the Spanish were the sole owners of the region, by their own claim and by Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 Treaty of Tordesillas. The Spanish believed that they were bringing the benefits of civilization and spiritual salvation to the region. They also devastated the native population and hauled out so much gold and silver that the entire economy of Spain, and later Europe, was radically altered overnight.