Monday, January 27, 2014

Pirate Cannons and How They Work

“Run out the guns!”

A pirate vessel comes sailing over the horizon, and the crew of the merchant ship they approach cowers in terror. For not only is the deck swarming with pirates, waving pistols, swords and machetes, but along the vessel’s side, a row of ports open and the cannons are pushed out, ready to deal death to any who defy these robbers.

Cannons were one of the marks of a pirate ship. But how did these things work?

In the first place, not all cannons were the same. There was the matter of size. Naval guns during the Golden Age of Piracy were based, not on caliber, but on the number of pounds that the cannon ball weighed. Thus, you had a 4-pounder, a 6-pounder, and on up through the 12, 18, 24, 36 and 42 pound cannons. The only cannon with an odd-pound rating was the “long nine” a gun which was usually mounted to fire over the bow or stern of the ship, instead of directly perpendicular to the keel. It had a longer barrel to help give it a longer range.

Most of these sizes, however, were limited to huge naval vessels. Since most pirate ships were smaller, nimbler vessels, they rarely had weaponry rated at more than six pounds. We will discuss a six pound cannon for the rest of this article.

(An aside – why didn’t pirates have the very biggest guns in existence? In the first place, cannons took up space, and there was only so much space available on the ship. The pirates had to live and sleep somewhere. Heavier weapons also meant that, for the ship to float, she could take on less cargo or plunder. And there’s also the problem that, in order to get a 24-pound cannon, the pirates would have to take it away from someone who was already using it. Not an easy thing to do.)

Cannons at sea were most often of brass construction. Brass was lighter and did not corrode in salt air, as iron did. Cannon balls were iron. (Some folk have erroneously thought that the cannon balls were lead, like pistol and musket shot. But those weapons were intended for use against people, and cannons attacked oaken ships and stone forts.)

A 6-pound brass cannon weighed approximately 1200 pounds, including the gun carriage, the four-wheeled wooden “cart” that the cannon sat on. Range could be up to 1500 yards, but the round shot quickly wandered in its trajectory, and was very hard to aim at extreme range.

On a small ship, like a pirate vessel, guns were typically kept on the open deck, not on a specialized gun deck with gun ports. There simply wasn’t room below. Cannons were typically protected by canvas covers. Care of the guns was the business of the Master Gunner and his assistant, the Gunner’s Mate. The weapons took some damage themselves every time they were fired, and an improperly maintained gun was a greater danger to its crew that to the enemy. (For example, Henry Avery’s great prize, the Ganj-in-sawi may have only fallen because one of her own cannons exploded on the deck, blowing a hole in the side of the ship and killing dozens of her crew.)

Cannons of the era were essentially long tubes made of brass, bronze or iron closed at one end.  A small hole called a touch hole was drilled through the wall of the barrel near the closed end.

Loading and firing a cannon went as follows:
The powder had previously been carefully measured and packed into a canvas bag shaped to fit. These bags were stored in the powder room. During battle a crew member, carefully dressed in clothing and shoes that would not generate a static spark, stood in the powder room passing the bags to runners who carried them to the gun. This system minimized the chance of an accidental explosion. On navy ships these runners were often orphaned boys called “powder monkeys” who lived on the ship. Pirates almost never employed children, and used the less skilled members of their crews instead.

The load of gunpowder was shoved down the muzzle of the gun and pushed all the way in by a man with a tool called a rammer. Next a “wad” went in. This was a wad of cloth, oakum, cotton, or even old rags. Because of the unsophisticated manufacturing techniques of the time, the cannon balls did not fit tightly in the barrel of the gun. (Better to have the fit too loose than to make a cannon ball that was too big to fit.) The wad took up extra space, and guaranteed that the ball would leave the cannon with maximum pressure behind it.

The wad was also rammed into the cannon. The cannon ball went next. Our 6 pound cannon would take a ball of about 3 ½ inches diameter.  This would probably roll to the back of the cannon, as the barrel of the gun was almost certainly elevated at an angle.

A pick was poked through the touch hole to rupture the bag full of powder, so fire could reach the contents.

Next the gun was run forward against the railing of the ship or poking out the gun port. It was aimed, usually by the gun captain, the leader of the gun crew, or group that serviced this particular cannon. Gun crews were assigned to a particular cannon, as each had its own peculiarities, and it was best for a crew to be as familiar as possible. Aiming had to take into account the pitch, roll and yaw of the ship, as well as wind, wave and the movement of the enemy vessel. It was one of the most difficult jobs on a ship. And yet gun crews, in practice, could achieve amazing accuracy.

At the right moment, the gun captain called to yet another man who was standing by holding a tool with a lighted fuse on the end of it. This fuse was made of a substance called “slow match” which, as the name says, burned very slowly, at the rate of about a foot an hour. This slow match was held on the end of a long stick. This was the original “fire in the hole.” The man using it could stand back, away from the rear of the cannon, and apply the burning match to the touch hole, where it met the gun powder.

Immediately two thing happened. The cannon ball and wadding shot out the barrel of the cannon, and the gun itself leaped backward. (For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.) Of course the gun was restrained, by heavy ropes so it could not go too far. But the recoil-driven movement was necessary, for it brought the cannon back away from the side of the ship, putting it into position to be loaded again.

There was one more thing, however. The last member of the gun crew, the sponger, needed to do his job. Dipping a sponge, on the end of a pole, into a nearby bucket of water, he would sponge out the inside of the gun, cleaning out any power char or burning wadding, making it safe to put powder back into the gun.

Repeating this process, over and over, on a crowded deck while taking fire from an enemy vessel, was dangerous, nerve wracking, and exhausting. The team needed to work together, and every man had to do his job. Many things could go wrong. If the gun was incorrectly sponged out, the fresh load of gunpowder might explode prematurely. Cannonballs might fall to the deck, rolling and becoming a hazard. The back might blow off the gun, if the area around the touch hole had become worn or corroded. Or the gun might break loose from the ropes holding it, becoming a 1200 pound wheeled death wagon.

The saying “loose cannon” comes from this. On the deck of a moving ship, the cannon might move in any direction, destroying everything around it, crushing men, breaking the feet of anyone it rolled over, and possibly even punching right out the side of the ship that held it. The only way to contain it was to re-rope it and tie it down, risking being run down.

All of this, of course, was why merchant ships usually gave up without a fight.

Monday, January 20, 2014

About the Author

Like a lot of people, I dearly loved Pirates of the Caribbean, The Curse of the Black Pearl. Mister Depp had owned my attention ever since Cry Baby in 1990. And I’d always had a soft spot for pirates, possibly dating back to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride I’d loved at Disney World.

I confess to being a geek, which is to say, I tend to fixate on the things I’m interested in. I immediately began to read up on pirates. And because I’m a costume geek as well, I made my own pirate costume, using real 18th century patterns.

Then the Exhibition Whydah traveling pirate exhibit came to my local museum. It changed my life.

I’d never seen pirates put into a social context before. Learning about Sam Bellamy, and his war against the world, and his dreams of a changed social order made me want to do something to spread this story. Government by the people, for the people, was an Idea whose time had come in the New World, and come a lot earlier than anyone knew. I’d been writing short stories for years, even had a novel I was shopping around. Now I wanted to write about pirates.

For months I did additional research… More non-fiction, reading the transcripts from 300-year-old pirate trials on the Old Baily website (  and also attending pirate festivals, where I had a chance to wear my costumes, and check out the costumes of more experienced reenactors. I hauled the ropes of a real wooden ship, wrote my name with a quill pen, and made a concerted effort to see every Treasure Island movie ever made. I knew I wanted to write about a female pirate, but the exact details of the woman’s personality escaped me.

Eventually, while I was putting on a costume for yet another pirate festival, I decided to try something new, and pin up the skirt for walking. This simple gesture gave me the personality of the female pirate captain I was seeking. She was busy. She had things to do, and no time to spend primping or preening or trying to make herself look pretty. If a man wanted her company, he had to take her as she was. If a woman wanted to sneer, she’d get laughter in return. Scarlet MacGrath captained a pirate ship. Why should she care what anyone thought of her?

The character was alive in a way that few modern people are. She savored every moment, because each one might be her last. She had hard times and loneliness behind her – no one becomes a pirate because they’re doing too well at life – and she had even more hard times, and a lot of heartbreak ahead of her (or I wasn’t doing my job as a writer.) But she’s never backed down, and she’ll never give up, and she would not, for one moment feel sorry for herself. She just wasn’t that kind of girl.

I’ve got two books published already, and another on the way in what will ultimately be a nine book series, telling the story of one woman’s life in a time when the world was trying out the idea of personal freedom for the first time.

But even the books weren’t enough. For years people had been telling me that I ought to blog, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Now I had it… All the research that wouldn’t fit in the book would go into a blog.

January 24th marks the one year anniversary of this blog. I’ve put up 56 posts (due to a brief stint of trying to do two posts a week.)

One of the other things people told me was that, if I could keep up regular posts for a year, that good things would happen to me. And they have. My books increase in sales regularly, and my rakings have gone up and up until I’m one of the top pirate bloggers in the world. People seek me out for my expertise on the subject.

And I’ve just started a new gig, writing reviews for Den of Geek. Check me out here. And definitely check out Black Sails on Starz.  

I promise that there’s a moral to my little story… Follow your dreams, just like the pirates did. But stay in it for the long haul. Effort pays off. It’s paying off for me.

TS Rhodes

Author of the Pirate Empire series

Monday, January 13, 2014

Cannibalism at Sea

On September 6th, 1884, three sailors, Tom Dudley; Edwin Stephens; and Edmund Brooks, walked into the Customs House in Falmouth, England, and told a harrowing tale. While transporting a pleasure yacht, the Mignonette from England to a new owner in Australia, they had been shipwrecked. Lost at sea for 24 days, they had killed the ship’s cabin boy, Richard Parker, had drunk his blood and eaten his flesh.

Rescued by a German vessel and returned to England, the men went immediately to the customs house and entered statements as required by the loss of the ship.

The depositions were telegraphed to the Registrar General of shipping in Bassinghall Street in London. While the survivors were making plans to rejoin their families, Bassinghall Street required the customs officers to detain them.

Dudley, Stephens and Brooks were all surprised. They were more surprised when they were held for five days, with no chance of bail.

Why? Because cannibalism was “the custom of the sea.” In times of shipwreck, it was customary for lots to be drawn, and for the loser to be devoured by his more fortunate shipmates.

Modern people can hardly imagine the risks taken by early sea travelers. Ships at sea were almost entirely out of communication with the rest of the world. They were floating islands, entirely self-sufficient, until something went wrong.

Lifeboat used by Dudley Stevens Brooks and Parker

Navigation was entirely dependent on personal observation by the captain or navigator. Movement was dependent on the winds, which might blow contrary and might not blow at all. The ship itself might or might not be sound. No regulations controlled ship specifications, and even the inadequate rules which sent the Titanic into the sea with far too few lifeboats were years in the future. There were no safety requirements at all. A ship at sea was alone in the world.

Statistics of lives lost at sea show the results. During the Golden Age of Piracy, an estimated 5,000 British lives were lost yearly to shipwreck. (This does not include deaths from violence, disease, starvation, thirst or pirate attack.)

Perhaps most importantly, food and water on these ships was most often transported in sacks or barrels… containers that were nearly impossible to move to a lifeboat in case of emergency. When a ship was capsized, swamped or sinking, sailors struggled to get themselves into a boat. Taking provisions was nearly impossible.

In 1710, the Nottingham Galley sank, and the crew ate the carpenter. In 1765 the Peggy ran out of provisions, and the nine crew members divided and ate, first a cat, then one of their deceased comrades. Cannibalism featured in the wrecks of the Nautilus in 1807,the Medusa in 1816, the Essex in 1819.

But before all of these was the case of the St. Christopher. Seven Englishmen were on an overnight voyage when they were blown out to sea and lost for 17 days. During this time, starving, the crew drew lots to decide who would die to feed the others. The loser was the man who had organized the drawing. When the ship’s cook (responsible for the procurement of food) refused to kill him, he attempted to kill himself, but failed. The captain had to finish him off.

The judge at this trail pardoned them all, saying that their crime had been "washed away" by "inevitable necessity".

The main reason why, it seems, Dudley and Stephens were put on trial (Brooks having agreed to testify for the prosecution) was that no lots had been drawn.

The four men from the Mignonette had gone into a small boat with only some navigational equipment and two cans of turnips. They had no water. For ten days they survived on the turnips and the raw body of a sea turtle that they had been able to kill with the boat’s oars. After 17 days the men spoke of drawing lots, but could reach no agreement. They held out for 19 days before killing Richard Parker.

At this point Parker, who had been drinking sea water, was in a coma and near death. The men agreed that it would be best to kill him in order to get the most use of his blood. While Dudley said a prayer, Stevens used a pen knife to puncture Parker’s jugular vein. Brooks stood by, and there is some debate over whether he agreed to the act or not.

Later Brooks testified, “I can assure you I shall never forget the sight of my two unfortunate companions over that ghastly meal we all was like mad wolfs who should get the most and for men fathers of children to commit such a deed we could not have our right reason."

They were rescued three days later.

In the days leading up to their trial, community sentiment was firmly behind the three sailors. A public subscription was taken up for their defense, and the brother of Richard Parker, the boy who had been eaten, came to shake the hands of the two men who had eaten him. In the public opinion, these men were not monsters, but were heroes for having survived such an ordeal.

But by this time in British history, Victoria was on the throne, and civilization and empire loomed large in the British conscience. The people might still accept the “common usage of the sea.” But the courts were forging a new sort of civilization and could no longer accept that “necessity is an excuse for murder.” In the end, Dudley and Stevens were sentenced to six month’s imprisonment. Dudley never accepted the justice of his conviction.

Richard Parker's tombstone in England

Monday, January 6, 2014

How to Swear Like a Pirate NSFW

54 filthy pieces of 18th century pirate slang. 

 “Abbess” In real life, the overseer of a nunnery. In thieves’ slang, the woman who oversees a whorehouse.

“Ask my arse” A reply to a stupid question.

“Brasser” A cheap prostitute, who earns only a brass farthing for her work.

“Bunter” A low class, dirty prostitute, as much a beggar as a whore.

“Buss” To kiss. “Buss my blind cheeks” Kiss my ass.

“Blue skin” A person with a white father and a black mother.

“Bube” Syphilis. Also called “the French disease” by the English, and “the English disease” by the French.

“Cart” A person found guilty of small crimes would often be sentenced to be tied to the back of a cart and forced to run behind it while being beaten by the executioner. This was referred to by thieves and pirates as “having his air and exercise.”

“Casting up accounts” Vomiting.

“Crack” A whore “Crackish” Like a whore.

“Cream pot love” Like a young man courting a dairy maid to sample her cream. When a man pretends to be in love with a woman to get “good things” from her.

“Criminal conversation” The legal term for committing adultery with another man’s wife was to have “criminal conversation” with her.

“Cup-shot” Drunk.

“Dairy” Woman’s breasts. “She sports her dairy” means she’s showing off her breasts.

“Dog’s Rig” Having sex with a woman until you’re tired, then rolling over and turning tail to it.

“Doxie” She-beggar, a wench or a whore.

“Drab” A nasty sluttish whore.

“Die Hard” Going to be hanged with no sign of remorse of contrition. Pirates were strongly urged by their comrades to “die hard” for the honor of piracy.

“Feck,” “Feak” Fuck

“Fire ship” A whore infected with venereal disease.

“Flyer” To take a flyer was to have sex with a woman without taking off her clothes.

“Frenchified” Infected with syphilis. “The mort was frechified” means “the woman was infected with an STD.”

“Frig” To jerk off.

“Growler” An unkempt, dirty vagina.

“Gunner’s Daughter” To Kiss the Gunner’s Daughter is to be tied bent over the barrel of a cannon and beaten on the ass.

“Hempen rope” Hangman’s rope. To die of hemp fever or to dance a hempen dance was to be hanged. A hempen widow was a woman whose husband had been hanged.

“Jakes” Toilet.

“Johnny Ketch” The hangman.

“Kill Devil” Cheap rum, called this because the only reason a person would drink it was to hold off alcoholic hallucinations, or to “kill the devils” that haunted him.

“Lobster” An English soldier, called this because if his red coat.  “I will not make a lobster kettle of my cunt.” Said by a sailor’s whore when refusing to service a soldier.

“Making feet for children’s stockings” Having sex (making babies)

“Moll” A woman. “Miss Molly” A gay, effeminate man.

“Nutmegs” Testicles.

“Playing Back Gammon” Engaging in gay sex.

“Plug tail” Penis

“Pogy” Drunk.

“Roger” To have sex with.

“Quiffing” Having sex.

“Quim” Cunt.

“Rantallion” When a man’s testicles are so relaxed that they hang lower than his penis. Also called “Having his shot-pouch longer than the barrel of his piece.”

“Riding St. George” Called after the image of the dragon swooping upon St. George. Having sex with the woman on top.

“Rum” Good, expensive, pleasing. Rum liquor is good liquor, a rum doxy is a fine looking wench.

“Scuttle” To poke a hole in something. To have sex with a woman.

“Shitting through your teeth” Throwing up.

“Shite” Shit.

“Short heeled lass” A girl likely to fall onto her back.

“Thorough good natured woman” A woman who, when asked to sit down, is happy enough to lie down.

“Three-penny upright” A woman who, for three pennies, will have sex standing against a wall.

“Token” Plague or venereal disease. “She tipped him the token” means she gave him the clap.

“Tuzzy-muzzy” A woman’s private parts.

“Wasp” A prostitute infected with an STD. Like a wasp, she carries a sting in her tail.

“White swelling” Pregnant. A woman carrying a child is said to have a white swelling.

“Whore pipe” Penis.

“Windward passage” A man who is said to use the windward passage when he engages in anal sex.