Monday, June 30, 2014

Pirate Trivia

Striped Socks

Yes, pirates wore stripey socks! 300 years ago, there were a lot of laws about what kind of clothes working-class people could wear. The type of fabric, the color, even the amount that went into a single garment was controlled by “sumptuary laws.” The rich didn’t want anyone to “get above their station” by dressing too nicely!

One of the few things that was not controlled was socks. So when a pirate first came into some money, he often went out and bought the most expensive pair of socks he could find – knee-high, brightly colored, and often striped.

To the people of the time, it gave the same impression as the uber-expensive hoodies worn by today’s gangsters.

How big was a pirate ship?

Everyone imagines pirate ships as being huge, square-masted, and carrying hundreds of guns. Movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise just enhance this image. In fact, most pirate ships were small, nimble sloops and schooners with triangular sails.

While pirates robbed anyone they could catch, the proper proportions between a pirate ship and a merchant vessel was the same as between a wolf and a cow. And the pirates were just as likely to form a group in order to attack lager prey.

The merchants handed over their goods to the pirates for the same reason people give their money to a nervous teenager with a knife. Anything can happen, and suddenly it becomes apparent that there are things much more important than money.

Pirates and private property

One of the perks of being a pirate was a chance to own some basic household goods. Unlike regular sailors, pirates owned several changes of clothes, plates, and even silverware. The remains of sunken pirate ships have turned up pewter dishes with the names of their owners proudly – if crudely - engraved on them.

Often sailors on merchant ships were forced to eat out of common buckets, using their hands.

Silk ribbons

Pirates improved the smooth wooden grips on their pistols by wrapping them in silk ribbon. And in order to carry more than two at a time, they tied pairs of pistols together with longer ribbons, then draped them over their shoulders.

No one ever said it looked too feminine. Wonder why?


Although he cultivated a fearsome reputation, the pirate Blackbeard never harmed any of his captives… In fact, the only deaths or injuries proven to be caused by Blackbeard were during his final battle, when he was attacked by the British Navy.

Not so privileged

Not only were pirate captains elected by their crews, but they lacked most of the perks assumed by navy and merchant captains. In fact, a pirate captain could not usually even count on privacy in his own cabin. Most ships had rules stating that anyone had the right to barge into the captain’s cabin whenever they wanted.


The name of the famous pirate haunt is simply the Spanish word for “Turtle.” There are several islands by this name in the Caribbean. Some were named because their shape looked like the dome of a turtle’s shell, others because sea turtles laid eggs there.

Davy Jones

The name “Davy Jones” does not refer to a person, either real or fictional. It is simply a seaman’s slang for the devil. Going to “Davy Jones’ Locker” meant that when you died, you weren’t going to heaven.

Walking the plank

Pirates may have thrown some of their prisoners overboard, but they never imagined making them walk the plank. It’s an entirely fictional idea dreamed up by a penny-novelist trying to sell adventure books. But, after pirates had read some of the stories, they began to practice the ritual. They’d read it in a book; it must be true.

Saucy Sadie

A female river-pirate named Sadie the Goat (for her habit of head-butting her opponents in a fight) got into a scuffle with an equally tough lady, a six-foot-tall bouncer named Gallius Mag. Mag won the fight by biting Sadie’s ear off, and kept the ear as a souvenir.

Years later, the women met again and became friends. Mag gave Sadie the ear back, and Sadie wore it on a chain around her neck for the rest of her life.

Monday, June 23, 2014

How to Know a Pirate When You Meet Him

Imagine that you are back in the Golden Age of Piracy, in or about the Caribbean. Everyone is wearing funny old clothes, like they did 300 years ago, and they all speak using old fashioned words. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that pirates didn’t walk around with eye-patches, peg-legs and parrots. So if you ran into a pirate, how would you recognize him?

To begin with, all pirates were sailors, so first you would notice if he was one of those. This would be pretty easy to tell. Sailors walked with a wide-legged stance, and a sort of swagger to their steps. Both were caused by spending so much time on the deck of a moving ship. Learning to walk this way was part of “getting your sea legs.” When sailors first came on shore, they staggered around as if on a moving platform. It took a while to get used to walking on something (the ground) that didn’t move.

Second, sailors had their own vocabulary. Every item on the ship had a name, from directions like “port” and “starboard” to the “puddening” on a mast, or the orlop deck below. If the fellow you’ve just met tells you to “Heave off, you lubber, or you’ll be splicing your teeth in the bilge,” you know he probably sails boats for a living.

Lastly, sailors wore very particular work clothes. I go into the details here: pirate clothes but basically they were loose, pale colored pants, colorful shirts and coats that were almost always blue. Pirates wore the same clothes, but with a bit of a twist.

Pirates clothes were made the same way - the cut of the clothing was practical - but with the addition of much richer material. The eighteenth century was not a time to be subtle. If you had money, you wore it. A pirate, who needed work clothes, would still have them made out of the richest material around… stolen Chinese silks, brocades from England, spangled cottons form India.

To the people of the time, it would have been like one of us seeing a construction worker wearing Carhartt overalls made out of expensive suit material. You’d notice a thing like that.

Pirates were also noted for having very nice coats, but horrible, raggedy looking pants. The coats they stole from rich men. But the cut of a rich man’s tight breeches wouldn’t do for people who worked for a living. And face it, pirating a blue-collar work. So they wore the grand coats and their own pants.

In a tavern, pirates were loud. Ordinary sailors drank their drinks, sang and danced a little, and tried to stay out of trouble. Pirate banged on the tables, complained (loudly) if the service wasn’t to their liking, and had opinions about what the music should be like. This noisy, assertive behavior was unusual enough that they often frightened tavern-keepers who weren’t used to pirates.

Tavern keepers who were used to pirates were happy to see the pirates and to take the money. All sailors were noted for “spending money like rainwater.” Pirates outdid them in spades. In six weeks of pirating, a man could earn as much as a regular sailor could earn in two years, and they tended to spend it just as quickly.

Because of this, pirates on land had followers who admired them so much, they could be called fans. They were richly and exotically dressed. They wanted to have a good time. And they were willing to pay for it. People crowded around them to drink the drinks the pirates bought, hear the stories they told, and sell them things that they might need.

In what might otherwise be a quiet, backwater town, this was the only excitement available.

And lastly, pirates hung out with people far above their “station in life.” Their ships brought in tons of stolen goods and they needed to sell them. To do this, they needed to deal with rich men, and the rich men were happy to oblige. This kind of under-the-table business dealing was almost respectable in the New World. Major families built empires off the profits they made dealing with pirates.

And as the pirating went on… And on… And on… The pirates and the merchant became quite close. Blackbeard was good friends with the Governor of North Carolina, and supposedly married into one of the First Families of the region. Ben Hornigold was hired to teach pirating methods to the heir of a trading family.

The family of the famous Scottish nationalist and preacher James Guthrie ended up on Black Island, near the pirate haven of New Providence. There they made of fortune trading in stolen goods. James’ granddaughter Mary married a friend of Captain Kidd, and the two of them helped to hide some of Kidd’s ill-gotten gains.
In short, pirates and rich merchants went together like peanut butter and chocolate.

So if you were back in the early 1700’s and met a man wearing a very fine coat and hat, and ragged old sailor’s pants, who spent money like water and attracted star-struck admirers, and who was keeping company with the finest families in the area, while drinking in the ordinary taverns during the day, you could be pretty sure he was a pirate.

And if you wanted to make sure, you could always ask, “Are you member of the sweet trade?”

Monday, June 16, 2014

Treasure Galleon!

What words call up a more vivid picture of treasure and adventure? The giant ship, laden with gold, just waiting for pirates capture her and make their fortune. But what is a galleon, anyway?

Very simply, it was a type of ship. In the modern world, we don’t see much difference between different types of ship, But the galleon is easy to identify.

Sailing ships have changed over the years, in much the same way as cars develop, and for very similar reasons. Money drives a need for better technology.

The famous galleon developed from the carrack. This was a very primitive type of ship, based on the idea that a sailing vessel should be shaped like a half-moon. The bottom was rounded, the sides bowed out, and the front and back of the ship were sharply raised. By putting all the weight in the center of the ship, and raising the bow and stern, builders created a vessel that was very hard to sink. It was also hard to steer, and did not move very fast.

Columbus’s Santa Maria was a carrack. It took her 10 weeks to cross the Atlantic.

The galleon was an early effort at scientific ship-building. It was not a ship based on theory, but on practical application. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Álvaro de Bazán, captains in the Spanish Navy, were credited with the actual invention of the galleon at about 1550. They wanted a ship that worked for long sea voyages.

Like the carrack, the galleon had a very raised stern, sometimes four or five stories above sea level. This gave a raised platform for the officers to oversee the work of the ship, and provided comfortable living quarters for the gentlemen. Often the stern of the ship was richly decorated. Galleons were often named after saints, and the image of the saint was painted across the massive stern of the ship. The vessels were brightly colored, and detailed in real gold leaf. Sometimes even the sails were painted, two favorite themes being a large red cross, or Spain’s coat-of-arms.

The front of the ship was much less raised, the sides were nearly straight and much more streamlined. It was a ship made to sail long distances. Magellan used it on his voyage around the world, and Francis Drake used another - The Golden Hind - on his voyage. Drake took some time out on his trip to stop by a Spanish settlement, where he used the firepower of his galleon to seize a smaller Spanish ship, capturing so much gold that he needed 6 days to move the treasure onto his ship.


When he made it back to England in 1580, he paid back his investors at a rate of 4,700%, giving Queen Elizabeth I so much money that she was able to pay off the national debt with it. She knighted him, which proves that piracy does pay.

Galleons quickly superseded the carrack as warships (One Portuguese galleon was said to carry 360 cannons.) but they were also large enough to act as transports, and some were refitted several times as they alternated between the two tasks.

The galleon became the prototype of the “fully rigged ship.” It usually had three masts. The front two masts had two square sails each, one above the other. The last mast had a triangular sail hung from a slanted crosstree, a rig which is called a “lanteen rig.” In addition, the front of the ship had a prominent “nose,” called a bowsprit, where another square sail was hung.

The rigging, or rope-work, on the ships was becoming more complex as well. During the long sea voyages, it was not uncommon for most of the crew to die, either from malnutrition, thirst, or from exotic diseases. Left with a crew too small to work the ship as it was designed, the sailors were forced to invent new ways to move and secure the sails. Once invented, these methods spread to other ships.

The English modified the ship’s design for their own uses. John Hawkins, an English captain, developed a longer, lower “race built” galleon that was faster and more maneuverable. When the Spanish Armada attacked England in 1588, both sides were sailing galleons. In that confrontation, the English forces used fire-ships to scatter the armada (which is the Spanish word for ‘fleet’), which then met with severe storms that scattered it farther and drove many ships aground.

The loss of their armada was devastating to Spain. Each of their 130 ships had required months of work by hundreds of highly specialized craftsmen, and many specialized materials. The keel was made of oak, the masts from pine, the decks and fittings of other hardwoods. Building the Armada destroyed the forests of Spain, which have never recovered.

But Spain still had the gold and silver from its New World colonies, and galleons – large and heavily armed – continued in use. Carracks had long sense been consigned to use as cargo ships, but heavily armed galleons could haul cargoes of gold. Ship technology continued to march forward. New ships were being invented all the time. Schooners, barques, barquentines, fluyts, were faster and more maneuverable.  The Spanish, however, were not stupid. Their treasure ships traveled in fleets.

After the age of the buccaneers, when men like Drake used government money to obtain galleons of their own, which they used for piracy (based on the concept that if you were on the other side of the world and no one could catch you, anything was okay.) no pirate every robbed a galleon.

If you want to see a galleon, you need look no farther than Roman Polanski’s 1986 movie, Pirates! Though the movie only earned a 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it has been praised for its acting. A full-scale galleon was built for the movie, a replica of the 17th century Spanish Galleon Neptune. Above the waterline, the boat is nearly perfect, but below the waterline it had a steel superstructute and a 400 horsepower engine. The ship played the part Captain Hook’s Jolly Roger in a made-for-TV series, Neverland. You can see the ship today, if you go to Genoa Italy, where it is on display for a 5 Euro fee.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Dastardly Merchant Captains

In the year 1707, in a court of law, James Conroy testified that Captain Wherry, “catched him fast by the Nose with his left hand & thrust his thumb into his left Eye & with his right hand struck three Blows on his said Thumb & in that manner willfully, designedly & maliciously maimed and put out his eye.”

A vicious attack by a pirate captain on one of his helpless victims? Not quite. This is the record of a merchant captain disciplining a member of his crew.

In the early 18th century, ship captains were virtually all-powerful aboard their ships. The law said that they could physically discipline their crews using “moderate punishment’ but there was no governing body to monitor this. Alone at sea, merchant captains did whatever they wanted.

When one sailor, Richard Baker of the Europa, became sick from the bad food, he was still ordered to his regular duties. Too ill to comply, he was ordered to take the helm for four hours “Which is two men’s turns.” His commander, James Blyth, then whipped him with a knotted rope, and when that did not make him stronger, he was tied dangling from the mizzen mast for an hour and a half. Cut down at last, he died four days later.

Was it murder? A modern mind says yes. But it wasn’t nearly so obvious in the 18th century.
The records we have of these crimes comes primarily from court cases, but the court system worked very differently 300 years ago. In order to bring a case, the accusing party had to first pay all the court costs up front. Attorneys had to be hired, and in the British legal system a lawyer needed to be hired as well.

Sailors, who were working men, rootless, homeless, poorly paid, often illiterate, were seen as little more than animals. Merchant captains were most often from middle-class families. They needed to be educated in order to carry on the business of the ship, buying and selling cargo, trading in different currencies.

The most common case brought against merchant captains by their crews was a complaint of bad food. Captains were usually paid a share of the profits of a voyage, and it was in their best interest to keep expenses as low as possible. One way to do this was to buy the cheapest food possible for the crew. Often this meant meat that was improperly cured, which rotted during the voyage. Sailors expected to eat bread infested with weevils, salted meat that might be raw, and a steady diet of boiled, dried peas. But often the food was bad enough that, once in port, they clubbed together their meager pay and took the captain to court.

The problem was that the captain was a gentleman, and the judge was a gentleman too. There would be no evidence to bring… It had all been eaten. It was the testimony of the men against the testimony of the captain. The men would swear the food was bad. The captain would say that it looked okay to him. (He certainly hadn’t eaten any of it. Captains kept a separate larder for themselves.)

Faced with this testimony, it was more than likely that the judge would see things the captain’s way.
But crews still brought complaints. Sometimes they even won.

Even if they didn’t, the sailors carried the tales with them. By 1715, a new spirit was beginning to grow among merchant sailors. They felt a sense of kinship that transcended national, language or even racial differences. Sometimes crews staged work stoppages. Sometimes they mutinied. Sometimes the line between the two was very thin. One crew succeeded in bringing a ship they had signed onto right back to port because it was leaking so badly. They might have been thrown in jail for this, had not the next crew signed onto the boat done exactly the same thing.

Often underpaid, sailors began refusing to work while their ship was in port (merchant captains wanted them to unload the ship.) And when a captain tried to head out to sea with a crew too small to properly handle the ship (another method to save money and increase profits) they sometimes refused to work the sails. And when the ship was attacked by pirates, they often joined the pirate crew.

This was the way that pirates recruited. They simply asked the crews of the ships they captured if anyone wanted to join up. Sometimes every man on board signed on. Then the officers of the captured ship were put off in a rowboat, and the merchant vessel became a pirate ship. The pirates provided navigational help, and the newly fledged pirate ship usually followed the “parent vessel” for a while. A change of name was also in order.

And the most common name chosen for a pirate ship?


Monday, June 2, 2014

Ponce de Leon and The Fountain of Youth

One of the most persistent legends of Florida, the story of the Fountain of Youth tells how Ponce de Leon came to the tropical peninsula searching for a magical fountain that would restore health, remove years, and even bring the dead back to life. As a child growing up in Florida, it was the earliest history I learned. I always felt a great deal of sympathy for the Conquistador, wandering through the swamps and palmetto thickets of early Florida, looking for something that wasn’t there. But that was his legacy, the thing that he was known for. His quest for the mythical fountain defined him because he spent his life and career looking for it.

Except that he didn’t

The legend of a magical fountain goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Herodotus (who also wrote stories about a Persian army so large it drank the entire Mediterranean Sea dry) told of a mystical fountain, whose waters gave an entire race of humans unnaturally long life.

But the story may go back farther yet. Old Celtic legends say that the magical cup of Cerridwyn gave forth magical, life-giving waters. These, along with many other stories, in turn contributed to the legend of the Holy Grail.

Magic water has been an important topic for millennia.

The legend lives on in stories of places like Lourdes, a native spring in France whose waters have been said to bring healing even to the paraplegic.

Why all the stories of the magic water?

I think it helps to understand the state of public utilities in ancient times. Pretty much, there were none. People drank directly from rivers, lakes and streams. Germs lived in the water and people did nothing about them because they didn’t know such things existed. If a village was especially lucky, it had a natural spring nearby. Spring water was cleaner, being filtered by earth and sand.

Sometimes streams or rivers became poisoned. There was simply no way to know if there was a dead cow rotting upstream, or someone had dug a latrine that was poisoning the water source. Of course, when things like this happened, everyone didn’t get sick. In order to survive at all, a person living in ancient times needed an immune systems as fierce as a whole pride of lions. But some people wouldn’t be able to shrug it off, and these people got sick.

It was soon learned that a change of water helped these folks, and so certain sources, the ones that were situated in places that never got polluted, gained the reputation of possessing “healing waters.” If you came there with a sick stomach, stayed a while and drank the relatively germ-free water, you got well.
From there, it was relatively easy to imagine a “super fountain” that granted longer life.

Juan Ponce de Leon was a bastard grandchild of the king of Spain. (The suffix “de Leon” was added to the family name “Ponce” because of the royal connection.) Born in 1474, he had no real opportunity to achieve fame or fortune in his native land. So he sailed with Columbus on the second voyage of discovery. He received a land grant in the New World, married and became quite prosperous. He was also instrumental in putting down a native rebellion.

Despite political conflicts at home in Spain, Ponce de Leon was made governor of Puerto Rico. He found gold here, and established plantations, dutifully sending a cut of all profits back to the Spanish Crown.

Other Spaniards, more politically astute, were gaining properties and governorships in the Caribbean, and the grateful king was running out of lands to grant. However, rumors had surfaced of an island further north, called “Beminy.” In 1512, Ponce de Leon was granted permission (but no money) to look for this island, and to rule it, and any other islands he found on the search.

It is hard to believe how crude navigation was at the time. Heading north, the three ships in the expedition blundered into the side of Florida, which Ponce de Leon named in honor of the season of Easter, which the Spanish called Pascua Florida, the Festival of Flowers.

Exactly where he landed remains in dispute, because of the limits to calculating location. Juan Ponce de Leon may not have been the first Spaniard to find this land, but he was the first European to record the effects of the Gulf Steam… the powerful current swept one of his three ships out into the Atlantic Ocean, and it was nearly lost.

For the next 19 years, he divided his time between explorations of this new land, visits with his family in Puerto Rico, and trips to Spain. In between he fought the natives of the region. These tribes had originally been friendly to the Spanish, but after years of enslavement and religious conversion through torture, they had had enough. One by one the tribes rose against the Europeans. Ponce de Leon’s house was burned in one attack, and his family barely escaped.

He was on his third expedition to Florida when he was hit by a poisoned arrow fired by a member of the Calusa tribe. Though he lived long enough to be evacuated to Havana, he eventually died from his wound.
It was only after his death that the Fountain of Youth was attached to his name. Rumors of the Fountain had run through the region for decades. This was the origin of the “Island of Beminy.”  Natives had spoken of a tribe to the north who lived unusually long lives. Scholars currently believe they were talking about the Maya, and simply got their directions a little mixed up.

But the rumors had circulated. And Ponce de Leon had political enemies back in Spain, enemies who wanted to make a fool of him. So the rumors were twisted. Instead of exploring a region of the New World looking for slaves, gold, farmland, or other things that Spanish colonies had produced, his enemies said that he had been looking for the Fountain of Youth. It was whispered, then said, that he needed it, because he was “unable to perform as a husband.” Snickers ensued. It was a good story, and it stuck. It stuck for 500 years, and is now so engrained that it can’t be removed from Florida history, even with facts.

What price fame, Juan?