Monday, March 31, 2014

Pirate Coins

“It was a strange collection, like Billy Bones’ hoard for the diversity of coinage, but so much larger and so much more varied that I think I never had more pleasure than in sorting them. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Georges, and Louises, doubloons and double guineas and moidores and sequins, the pictures of all the kings of Europe for the last hundred years, strange Oriental pieces stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web, round pieces and square pieces, and pieces bored through the middle, as if to wear them round your neck – nearly every variety of money in the world must, I think, have found a place in that collection; and for number, I am sure they were like autumn leaves, so that my back ached with stooping and my fingers with sorting them out.”
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

The money situation in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy was a mess. Five nations had a presence among the islands. Each had their own coinage, and there was no easy method of exchange. In addition, pirates often traveled to the Indian Ocean, where they raided Arabic, African, Indian and Chinese shipping, and trailed exotic coinage after them as they traveled the world.

Chinese "Cash" coin
Let us begin with the basics – the Doubloon and the Piece of Eight. Both were Spanish. The Doubloon was a solid gold coin, about the diameter of an American nickle and weighing 6.77 grams. The Spanish called their gold coins escudos, and the doubloon was a two escudo piece, nicknamed the “doubloon” because it was a double-one (say it out loud). Other Spanish gold coins were the 1/2, one, four, and eight escudo pieces. One doubloon was worth a little less than an English guinea, or 32 reals, the term for Spanish silver money.

The Piece of Eight, also called the Spanish Dollar, was a silver coin worth eight reals. It was about the size of a Dutch daalder, resulting in the nickname. Famously, the Spanish piece of eight could be chopped into eight pieces and the bits used as currency, or to make change. Even today, some older Americans will refer to a quarter (of an American dollar) as “two bits.”

Pieces of Eight, cut into bits for change
The Spanish were the only ones minting money in the New World, and Spanish money was the coinage of choice for most transactions. However, as the Spanish government regarded itself as the sole “owner” of the both North and South America, they defined any ship that carried even a single Spanish coin as a pirate.

The English were established in North America, and had taken several islands from the Spanish, most notably Jamaica. In addition, a large number of pirates were English. The gold coin of England was the Guinea. It was 22 caret and weighed about 8.3 grams, making it worth about 20% more than a doubloon. As Stevenson notes, there were also double-guineas. The guinea had the distinction of being a coin that was used to pay artists, rather than tradesmen, and to settle debts between nobles. A middle-class family could live comfortably on 50 guineas a year.

Golden guinea, from the reign of William and Mary

The silver coin of England was the Pound Sterling. As the English monetary system is common in novels set at sea, I will list the entire English system, from guineas to farthings.

2 farthings = 1 half penny (ha’penny)
4 farthings = 1 penny
12 pennies = 1 shilling
5 shillings = 1 crown
4 crowns = 1 pound sterling (sovereign)
30 shillings = 1 guinea

It’s at this point that I answer the question, “What’s that in real money?”

The answer is that it’s impossible to say. A housemaid earned £5 a year, and a middle-class family £75. So you might say a pound (£) was worth $2000. But a book cost 1/5 of a pound. When was the last time you saw a $400 book? Postage from Boston to London was 1/20th of a pound. $100 to mail a letter? An African slave could be purchased for £30. How much is a human life worth?

At 6.7 grams, the gold coin of France, the Louis d’Or (gold Louis) was about the same weight as a doubloon. Like most coins of the time, it carried the image of the reigning king, and the image changed when the old ruler died. The French coin was the only one that was called by its king’s name however, possibly because of the long string of Louis’, possibly because the French, with their tradition of fine art, produced some very beautiful images on their coins.

Louis d'Or
The common currency of France was the livre though confusingly, a 1 livre coin was never minted. A Louis was worth 24 livres which in turn was worth 20 copper sols, which were each worth 12 deniers (roughly equal to an English penny)

The Dutch Lion Dollar (leeuwendaalder) was a coin designed specifically to facilitate trade. They were among the most traded coins in Maryland and New York, where their value was set at 4 shillings 5 pence (4s5d) and 5 shillings 5 pence (5s5d) respectively. The image on the coin, a knight with a lion at his feet, was based on the Netherlands’ coat of arms, necessitated because the country was not ruled by a king. Due perhaps to the problematic artwork (and to take a dig at the Dutch) the English sometimes called the coin the Dog Dollar.

The Portuguese gold coin was the Miodore, weighing 4.3 grams. The coin was used in Portugal and Brazil, and also found circulation in Ireland and the west coast of England. It is mentioned in several poems as a pirate treasure.

The Sequin was a corruption of the Italian word zecchino also called a Papal Ducat. It was minted in the Republic of Venice starting in the 13th century. The weight of the coin was 3.5 grams, making it one of the smaller gold coins. At one point it was popular for ladies to decorate their headdresses with dangling gold zecchinos, a fashion which gave rise to the modern word “sequin” meaning a shiny, decorative object sewn onto clothing.

Zecchino or Papal Ducat

Other coins… Indian Mohurs and silver rupees, Chinese cash, Arabic abasit were used almost like trade goods. The question was, when making a purchase, “will you take this?” which would probably be followed by an inspection of the coin. The bartender or shop proprietor might very well bite the coin, in a crude effort to determine the percentage of gold it contained (gold being a very soft metal) and might bring out a set of scales to weigh it and determine its approximate value. Chances are the pirate would not demand too close an accounting.

After all, rum is more valuable than gold. At least when you’re a thirsty pirate.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Were There Female Pirates?

I’ve touched on a couple of the famous “pirate queens” GraceO’Malley and Jeanne de Clisson , and more of these women existed, in places like China and Southeast Asia. Everyone knows the story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, which has been covered in detail here.

But what about day-to-day living on a pirate ship? Were there ever more than two women who lived and worked on board ships as pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy?

In my opinion, the answer is a resounding YES!

Pirates didn’t often write things down, but as we have seen before, the day-to-day life of a working pirate aboard ship was not that different than that of any other sailor. So we can look at the lives of average sailors to see if females ever went to sea.

One source of very exact documentation is the Royal Navy. Naval ships keep detailed records of their day-to-day activities, and these records have been preserved. And while it was absolutely forbidden for women to serve as sailors on Navy ships, incidents of female sailors turn up regularly. Hannah Snell served as a marine aboard the Swallow for three years. She was wounded 11 times, including once in the groin, without being discovered. When she finally revealed her sex, she was honorably discharged and received a pension.

Elizabeth Bowden had been a member of the crew of the Hazard for only six weeks when she was discovered to be a woman. But she was kept on, as John Bowden, and given a separate place to sleep. She is notable for testifying in a sodomy trail, in which a lieutenant was accused of raping a cabin boy.

A black woman known only as William Brown served on warships for 12 years. It was acknowledged that she was a woman, but her skills were so superior (she was in charge of the work party that furled the very topmost sails) that she was kept on after she was revealed as female.

If these stories are any indication, female sailors were far more common than we suppose… remember that these were only the women who were revealed and whose stories have survived over hundreds of years. The pirate Mary Read had served twice in the Navy and during two separate tours of duty in the army, and was never caught.

Some of these women were forced to dress as men in order to support themselves. Others disguised themselves and followed husbands or sweethearts to sea. Some others may have been lesbians who felt out of place in a society where women had no real place outside of marriage. Some of the stories of women who went to sea include details of how they accompanied their male friends to taverns and took up with the local women. Several were pursued by girls who had fallen in love with them.

How did women avoid detection aboard ship?  Sailor’s clothes at the time were baggy and often ill-fitting , so a woman’s figure would not necessarily be noticed. Some archaeological hints have also been found. For instance a leather funnel which would have allowed a woman to urinate while standing was recovered from a shipwreck.

But what about menstruation? In the days before modern sanitary products, how could a woman disguise this function?

Some historians believe that sickness was so rampant in the lower decks of wooden ships that discharge would not necessarily be remarked upon. A woman’s monthly cycle might be mistaken for venereal disease or other sickness. I personally, however, subscribe to a different theory, which states that, since a woman ceases to menstruate when her body fat drops below a certain level, many of these women simply had no cycles to disguise.

There is also a factor of privacy. Given the extreme crowding, it would seem that keeping a woman’s gender secret would be very difficult. But in some cases the reverse is true. Overcrowded men go to extreme lengths to avoid looking too closely at their crewmate’s bodies. This, coupled with the fact that 18th century working people rarely undressed fully, and it seems much less unbelievable that a woman could live undetected on a ship.

The same factors of low pay and humiliating working conditions that made men decide to be pirates would have acted on female sailors. And if a woman could do the work (as we have seen was common) and could hide her gender (as we have seen that they did) there is no reason why she would not have made a successful pirate.

The only problem is that, having hidden their identities so well from their shipmates, they have also hidden them from history.

If that seems just a little thin, I’ll offer one more piece of proof that women served on pirate ships. In the articles (ship’s rules) signed by all of Bartholomew Robert’s pirate crew, one of the very few such documents to have survived, section VI reads:

No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.

Pirates didn’t write things down very often. They also didn’t make up laws for no reason. So if the law was on the books, that means there had been a problem with the behavior in the past.
It’s close enough to proof for me.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Pirate Queen of Ireland

She was born during the reign of Henry VII, in or about 1530, to the O’Malley clan of County Mayo, Ireland. Her father was “The O’Malley” a landholder and sea trader who taxed the ships who fished his waters. Legend has it that when she wanted to go to sea with her father, he told her that he could not take her, because her long hair would become entangled in the ropes and wreck the ship. In order to get her way, the young girl cut off her hair, and forced her father to take her along. Because of this, she earned the Irish nick name GrĂ¡inne Mhaol, the bald one, usually anglicized as Granuaile, or Grace O’Malley.

Already knowledgeable in the shipping, taxing, and so-called pirating skills of her father, Granuaile married into another powerful Irish family in about 1546. Donal O'Flaherty was often called “Donal of the Battle” and together they had three quarrelsome children. When her husband died, Granuaile returned to her own family, taking with her many former followers of the O’Flaherty clan.

Granuaile also kept at least one of the family’s castles. Called “The Cock’s Castle” during her husband’s lifetime, it became a stronghold for Granuaile after his death. She held it so successfully against the attacking Joyce clan that they renamed it “The Hen’s Castle” in her honor. She later defended the Hen’s Castle against the English by melting the building’s lead roof and pouring the red-hot metal over her enemies.

The structure is still called The Hen’s Castle today.

She married again in 1566, but this time in the old Irish way, “For a year and a day” to a man called “Iron Richard” Bourke. Legend has it that she only wed him to increase her prestige and land holdings. When the time was up, she shut herself in his castle and shouted out the window, “Richard Bourke, I dismiss thee!” This effectively ended the marriage. But since Granuaile was in the castle, she kept it.

English power was growing in Ireland, and Granuaile raised armies and fleets of fighting ships to hold off the increase in royal power. When the English would not pay her taxes for use of her fishing grounds, she began to stop their ships and claim her taxes by force. She stopped merchant shipping as well, claiming what she called a tax, and what the English called piracy.

And Granuaile was not shy about leading her men or captaining her own ships, even while pregnant. Legend has it that she was in labor with her fourth child when the English attacked her flagship. Her men fought bravely, but were losing the battle when Granuaile came storming up onto the deck, sword in hand, to beat back the enemy. Her newborn child lay on the bunk below, and once she had killed all the attacking English, she went back to nurse the child.

For many, her battle acumen and fierce fighting abilities made her more than a queen. She was called a she-king.

But perhaps her most famous exploit was sailing her pirate ship up the Thames to meet with Queen Elizabeth I. Granuaile had reached a point where she found it necessary to cut a deal with the more powerful monarch, and Elizabeth seems to have been fascinated by her Irish counterpart, to the extent of not forcing the point when Granuaile refused to bow to her. (The Irish woman refused to acknowledge Elizabeth’s claim to be the Queen of Ireland.)

Elizabeth knew no Irish, and Granuaile refused to admit to knowing any English (though with her trading and traveling background she may well have done so.) So the two conversed in Latin.

Glossing over her second husband and a young lover she had taken in the meantime, Granuaile represented herself as a poor widow. She and Elizabeth spoke at length and reached an agreement. Elizabeth would remove the English-appointed governor of Connacht, and Granuaile would stop supporting Irish rebellions. The deal lasted for some time, but Granuaile never recovered the sheep and horses that she claimed the governor had stolen from her. When the same man was put back into the position some months later, she went back to fomenting rebellion.

By this time the she-king was an old woman. Though it is believed that she died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603, the same year as Elizabeth, though this is not certain. She would have been approximately 73 years old.

Granuaile’s legend lives on in song and story. She has inspired a great deal of modern music, from rock songs to chamber music. Plays about her life have been popular, and she is featured in many modern books. Three Irish ships bear her name, and the sail-training ship Asgard II had Granuaile as her figurehead.  

In Tampa, FL, Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley is the name of an all-female pirate crew that take part in the legendary Gasparilla Pirate Festival. Founded in 1992, the women of Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley participate in the parades as well many philanthropic activities in the community and throughout the state of Florida. The members do philanthropic work, and members are only accepted through a selective lottery and through legacy from mother to daughter.

GrĂ¡inne Mhaol, Granuaile, Grace O’Malley is regarded today as the female spirit of Ireland.

Modern statue of Granuaile, holding a ship's tiller. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ship’s Figureheads

The tradition of putting a figurehead, a carved representation of the spirit of the ship, onto the bow of a vessel goes back at least to the ancient Greeks, and possibly before. The original Greek ships had eyes painted on either side of the bow, and the Romans copied this tradition, and added decorative carvings. By the middle Ages, the tradition was a wooden carving of a beast, a person, or a mythological figure, attached to the front of the ship under the bowsprit.

Although we associate the figure of a partially clad woman with the figurehead, in fact the most common figurehead for English ships in the 1600’s was a lion. The Admiralty was trying to reduce cost, while the ship captains and crews wanted the most lavish and significant figures possible.

The French had such figures. France valued the appearance of ships, and hired the very best sculptors to decorate them. When English ships were captured by the French, the figureheads were sneered at. When French ships were captured by the English, the figureheads were admired.

Strong lobbying by captains reinstated the individualized figurehead for first and second rate ships, and for smaller vessels captains were sometimes willing to spend their own money for an appropriate figurehead.

Merchant ships in the meantime represented the prosperity of the company. Lavish figures were commissioned, executed by fine craftsmen, painted and covered in real gold gilt. The height of lavish decoration is estimated to be the year 1700, in the first third of the Golden Age of Piracy.

18th century cartoon - sailor painting a figurehead's lips.

Sailors of all ranks loved their figureheads. They were lovingly cleaned, painted, and cared for. When the style in figureheads was forms with outstretched arms, the arms were made to be removable, and were carefully stowed away when the ship was at sea, to be brought out and re-attached when the ship came into port. 

Figurehead of the Black Pearl

The figurehead was, in fact, the spirit of the ship. While detailed records of the day-to-day running of the merchant ships is not always available, Royal Navy records reveal some interesting stories.   One captain, trying to beat a rival at getting his sails set in record time, told his crew “If you fail to make the time, I’ll have the figurehead painted black.” The men were suitably motivated, and won the contest for their captain.

Another ship, going into battle under really bad orders from the Admiralty, was in serious danger of losing an engagement, when one of the sailors climbed forward and covered the head of the figurehead (In this case George II) with his hammock. When the sailor’s commanding officer demanded to know what he was about, the man replied, “We don’t have to break his heart, do we?” The behavior was let stand, as the officers may have been thinking the same thing.

A figurehead representing the owner's daughter

One merchant ship plied a regular route between two ports for several years, but then was asked to sail farther down the coast. There was nothing to prevent it, but when the ship reached her regular destination, she was set upon by a strong headwind that would not allow her to go farther. One of the old hands suggested blindfolding the figurehead until they had passed their usual port. This seemed to have worked, as the headwind abated, and the blindfold was removed from the figurehead when the ship was farther along.

The last story here will be that of the Cutty Sark a clipper ship famous enough to give her name to some very fine Scotch. I myself have always wondered where the name came from. The tale goes as follows…
A man named Tam O’Shanter  was riding home late one night when he passed a churchyard, and saw a troop of witches dancing around a bonfire. Most of the witches were old and ugly, but one was not. Her name was Nanny, and she wore nothing but a nightgown (a sark) that had been cropped off short (cut), and showed most of her legs.

The figurehead of the La Coquette was a brazen wench

Tam was so pleased to see her that he shouted, “Weel done, cutty sark!”

At once the witches began to chase him. Nanny, being the youngest, was soon in the lead, but Tam spurred his horse for the bridge, knowing the witches could not cross running water. Nanny was just able to catch the horse’s tail, but the beast was traveling so fast that its tail came right off in Nanny’s hand.

The Cutty Sark had as her figurehead Nanny the witch, holding the tail of Tam’s horse. When the ship was in her heyday, the apprentice seamen had it as their job to keep the “horse’s tail” in good repair, replacing it with frayed rope whenever it became worn.

Like many figureheads, Nanny currently resides in a museum. But her replica still adorns the ship she was born for, guiding her through the sea.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Pirates and Their Wenches

“Wenching” has to be the activity most associated with pirates, challenged only by the pastime of drinking rum. Men far from home, sailing ships where no females were allowed, wanted feminine company when they got into port, and pirates were well supplied with funds to attract women.

But what was a pirate’s woman like?

It has been estimated that in the 18th century 30% of all women worked as prostitutes at some point during their lives. It was simple economics. Women were not allowed to work at most jobs. And since there was no effective birth control, any kind of sexual experience would likely result in pregnancy, which would make an unmarried woman an outcast.

Some women, wives of sailors impressed by the navy or otherwise forced out to sea, might go for years without seeing any of their husband’s pay. Likewise, if a woman lost her husband, she was at the mercy of family to support her, or else would be destitute. Widows, women deserted by their husbands, orphaned girls, the very poor made up the ranks of prostitutes.

In “polite” society, the wealthy and also the small middle class of the time, protected their women fiercely from the evils of the world. A woman who committed a “faux pas” as illicit sexual activity was called, was likely to be thrown out of her home and need to become a prostitute. Some of these women, who miscarried or gave birth to a baby that did not survive might succeed in returning home later.

On the other hand, many servant girls ran off to become prostitutes when their wages were insufficient. If they were under 16, their employers were not required to pay them any money at all, only to feed them. They did this reluctantly, and girls did not last long in this lowly work. Housemaids worked from sunup to after dark. Prostitutes worked for a few hours, drank liquor, went dancing, and appeared to be having a good time.

It has been well documented that many of these women preferred sailors as customers. Starved for female companionship, these men often wanted more than simple sex. Publications that included lists of prostitutes included women who serviced sea officers “because they return laden with presents.” Sailors met women in dance halls, and danced with them, buying them drinks and generally treated them to something resembling courtship, even though the outcome was forgone.

One woman, interviewed by a self-appointed social investigator, said that she was “wife” to eight or ten sailors. When they came into port, they gave her all their pay and lived with her. She provided the home, and performed wifely duties like budgeting the men’s money. “He would spend it all in a week. Sailor boy(s) always spend money like rainwater.” She said she made sure that merchants did not cheat her “husbands,” and helped them to buy clothes and other necessities.

They knew about each other, and were patient in waiting for her home to be open. And in the meantime, she also maintained a boyfriend, waiter in a local coffeehouse.

In England, most houses of prostitution were run by women. These “procuresses” as they were called, recruited young women, and represented one of the happy endings that a prostitute’s life could come to. Managing a successful house of prostitution could make a woman wealthy and allow her political power (from noble and political clients) in a time when females had little money of their own or ability to control their own lives.

Most were not so lucky. Prostitutes often died young from disease, alcoholism, or exposure to the elements.
International trade was transporting syphilis throughout the world, and it often flourished in port cities. This disease, which could not be cured by any medicine of the time, gave symptoms that appeared and disappeared without apparent cause.

Portside ladies were often compared to ships, their large rustling dresses resembling sails. Women infected by syphilis were known as “fire ships.”

Many phrases noting the resemblances between women and ships are recorded from the time. “Many a man-o-war has been her willing prisoner.” “Likes to fight yardarm to yardarm.” “Ready to be boarded.” “A fine stern on her.”

In England, prostitutes gathered in the Wapping district and the area around Corlears Hook, which may have given us the word “hooker.” There were, technically, no laws against prostitution, though the women were often arrested for theft, drunkenness, and public indecency.

In the New World, violence was much closer to the women’s work, but opportunity abounded. When pirates took over the Caribbean island of Nassau, many of them sent for their families back home, and when news of the pirates’ activities reached the women on the street, adventuresome ladies crossed the sea especially to meet pirates.

One of them was Mary Read, the soldier, sailor and adventurer who later became a pirate herself. Others were prostitutes who plied their trade on the docks as they had back at home, but for much more money. And from the pirates, they likely also received better treatment.

Women at the time were at the mercy of men, as it was completely legal for a man to beat his wife, and the penalties for simple assault were tiny. It was also common for men of the lower classes to be beaten and humiliated by their “superiors” at work or in public. Men who suffer assaults to their dignity, or who feel emasculated, are the ones most likely to abuse women and children.

But pirates, more than any other working men, had no reason to feel that their manhood was under attack. Pirates had opportunity to get revenge on those who may have mistreated them, and they were able to exert power over men of upper classes. They were free in a way that men had not been free before.
Even the hierarchy of their ships supported their personal dignity. Their captains and officers might outrank them, but did so only with the crew’s permission. Pirate ships were democracies.

When these men came into port, they were jolly, flush with money, and ready to have a good time. On shore, the women had built homes from canvas, the remains of burned buildings, and bits of wrecked ships. Most vessels, even pirates, employed musicians, so music, dancing and sex was the order of the day. If a woman had children, even many children by many fathers, it was likely no concern to the pirates.

Like other sailors, many pirates likely enjoyed returning to the same women over and over. And when a pirate retired, as some of them did when flush with gold, he might want to marry. He was a man with a secret behind him – piracy was a crime punishable by death, with no statute of limitations. Then what better person than a lady who already knew all about him?  This was the surprising end to some pirating stories, matrimony with the classical companion of a buccaneer.