Monday, July 28, 2014

Evil Pirates

 Warning - Not for the Squeamish.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I don’t think most pirates were evil. Pirates – especially during the Golden Age – were men who had given up on an employment system that was vastly unfair to them, and simply refused to abide by the rules that oppressed them. They didn’t get an “evil card” when they became pirates. Instead, their essential likes, dislikes and temperaments remained the same.

And because of this, pirates tended to like and to do the same things most sailors did. They liked flashy clothes and good food, and tended to drink too much and spend money on pretty women.


But there was definitely a darker side to the pirate life. There was literally no punishment worse than the one for piracy. And so these men were free from all the constraints of law and order. Every man who became a pirate was under a death sentence as soon as he robbed his first ship. And since he could not face any worse punishment, there was no reason not to rape, kill or torture, if the mood took him.

It’s a tribute to the general moral goodness of humanity that most pirates were well behaved.

Most of the mayhem caused by early pirate captains was aimed at races or cultures other than their own. The 1600’s were an age of religious wars and extreme xenophobia. Religious and political leaders defined people of other religions or cultures as sub-human, and they were believed by the masses.

When men like Henry Morgan confronted the Spanish he was meeting Catholics, and as a Protestant he had no reason to think of them as in any way like himself. So Morgan, a friendly man, loved by his crews and comrades, made a career of destroying Spanish towns, looting, burning, pillaging and raping. He destroyed Panama City so utterly that it was rebuilt in a different location (its present one). Morgan and his men tortured the Spanish citizens to persuade them to give up their treasures. Morgan carried out his missions against any Spanish town that seemed convenient, whether he had official permission from his government to do so or not.

When back in port, among his own people, he was a peaceful if somewhat rough-hewn gentleman.

French pirate François l'Olonnais had a personal vendetta against the Spanish, as they wiped out almost all of his crew during his early career. L’Olonnais only survived by covering himself in the blood of his slaughtered men and hiding among the dead. After that, he burned all the Spanish ships he captured.

One crew of a Spanish naval ship was entirely beheaded. L’Olonnais left one man alive and sent him back to the Spanish government with a warning.

When he sacked the Spanish town of Maracaibo, he found that most of the inhabitants had hidden their valuables and fled. The pirates tracked down the citizens and tortured them until they revealed the locations of the money. L’Olonnais was an expert torturer, who favored cutting pieces off his victims with a sword, tightening rope around their heads until their eyes popped out, and tying burning rope to their hands.

When l’Olonnais’ crew took the Venezuelan town of Gibraltar, his men slaughtered the garrison, held the town for ransom, and when the ransom was paid, stayed in the town for over two months, raping, burning and pillaging. The town was effectively destroyed. In the next 350 years it has never recovered.

When faced with near-capture, he and his men caught several Spanish soldiers, and needed to persuade them to reveal the safest escape route. L’Olonnais wasted no time. He hacked one soldier’s living heart out of his chest and ate it in front of the dying man’s eyes. The rest of the soldiers were happy to cooperate with the pirates.

During the Golden Age, pirates dedicated to finding justice for oppressed sailors (including themselves) set up courts of honor to punish merchant captains who had mistreated their crews, and the fate of these men could be dire. One captain who had formerly refused to pay his crews found himself tied to the capstan and pelted with broken bottles. Finally, when he was terrified and streaming blood, a member of his former crew stepped up to him, told him that he wasn’t such a bad fellow, and shot him in the head. He died instantly.

Other men were forced to run around the base of the ship’s mainmast while the pirate crew stabbed at them with knives, forks, compass cases, pen-sharpeners and swords. The buttocks were the favored target, but such abuse could still do substantial damage.

Some merchant captains were hanged from their own yardarms.

The most notorious of the Golden Age pirates was probably Edward Low, a former pickpocket and strong-arm thief who went to sea in his late teens. Low was probably a sociopath, who used his love of torture to improve his reputation as a bloodthirsty marauder.   By leading an attempted mutiny, Low took his career straight from deck-hand to captain. His own men described him as “a maniac and a brute.”

 His most famous action was cutting a Portuguese captain’s lips off, cooking them, and forcing their owner to eat them.

He burned a French cook alive, saying “He’s a greasy fellow who will fry well.”

Low also liked to torture victims, often for no particular reason. He counted on his reputation creating so much terror that the crews of merchant, and even navy ships would be too frightened to attack him. When the authorities placed a huge bounty on his head, the Caribbean became too hot, and Low moved his operations north to attack the New England whaling fleet.

He immediately began by torturing and murdering the captain of a whaler, and went on wreaking havoc among the fishing ships until his own crew refused to sail with him, and put him off in a smaller boat.
Low’s ultimate fate remains uncertain. Some sources say that his own (smaller) crew eventually killed him over his murder of one of his own men. Others think that he went down in a storm, or was caught by the French and hanged in Martinique. There is even some evidence that he landed on the coast of Brazil and lived his life out there, though this seems unlikely for such a violent man.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a bloody and violent time, and pirates like these made it more so. But it’s important to remember that, even among their own law-breaking comrades, they were exceptions to the rule. Pirates were human, just like the rest of us, with a wide variety of personalities and behaviors.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How to Throw a Pirate Party (for Kids)

Last week I shared some of my secrets for throwing a grown-up pirate party, and this week we’ll talk about how to share some pirate fun with the little ones.

Of course, anyone can go to the party store and buy the latest “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” partyware, pick up a piñata, and then pop a movie into the TV. And for some kids – the very young, the shy, or the ones who don’t deal well with unusual happenings - this might be the best thing. You need to know your own child, and your child's friends, and understand what they will like.

But for the older kids, the slightly more adventuresome, I’ve got a list of things to make a party memorable. 
Sure, you could use skull-and-crossbones plates. But the kids might enjoy the more exotic feel of eating off wooden salad bowls. The words “Just like real pirates” can be tossed around when passing these out. And instead of paper cups, go to the dollar store and get plastic wine glasses or big plastic mugs. If you hit the store at the right season, you might even be able to get fake coconuts with straws. Not only will this add spice to the food, but the fancy cups make a nice take-home treat.

You can take a hint from the grown-up decorations. Thrift-store fabrics draped around the house, covering tables and TV’s is cheap, will protect your house, absorb spills, and you can throw them away if you want afterwards.  You can also rummage through your Halloween decorations. Kids love skulls, chains and anything that looks like fire. (I’m thinking fake electric candles, and the Halloween effect where a tiny fan flutters streamers, and a red light makes it look like fire – usually as a torch or a cauldron of fire. No real flames for the little guys.)

You can buy a big pirate flag on-line for less than five dollars. Or you can print out a variety of pirate flag pictures.

The kids may enjoy having the bathroom labeled “poop deck” or the kitchen labeled “galley” In fact, just printing out piratey words like “Avast!” “Belay!” “Starboard” “Port”  “Shiver me timbers” “Pieces of Eight” in a cool typeface would make good decorations, if the kids are old enough to read. I use Blackadder, which came with my computer.

A good kid’s party often includes a craft, and I can offer a couple that you may not have seen before. First is this lovely hand print pirate and parrot. It may be a little messy, but that’s why you have all the fabric draped around.

Craft number two is making your own pirate flag. The prep for this involves pre-cutting flag shapes out of black felt – they won’t need to be hemmed. The kids will paint their flags with regular acrylic craft paint, and you don’t need too many colors. Red and white will probably do, though you might want to add black for painting over mistakes.

*Hint – if you want to paint a skull, start by drawing two circles side by side (eyes), and a point-up triangle (nose) right below them. Surround all of this with a sideways oval (outside of head) and color it in. Then paint lines down from the skull to make teeth.

Games are also a staple of kid’s parties. Outside, a tug-of-war would be a great piratey game, and if you have a big yard and don’t mind digging a hole, you could even bury a treasure and make a map. If you don’t have a big yard, and this idea really appeals to you, bury your treasure in a flowerpot or hide it. Gold pirate coins can be bought in party stores, and really nice wooden “pirate” chests can be found at Michaels craft stores or JoAnn fabric and craft stores. Go on line and get a coupon – it will save you about 50%.

On a much simpler note, I’ve also used a game I call “island hopping.” Cut random shapes from craft paper or felt – each about 18” across, and at least one per child. Play music, and let the kids hop from “island” to “island”, stopping the music from time to time so everyone has to pick a spot. If you like, you can remove one island ever time, like musical chairs, though I found the kids just liked jumping, and didn’t need it to be a competition.

You can buy a CD of children’s pirate songs online, or check out your local library. I recommend “Pirates of the Caribbean- Swashbuckling Sea Songs” though there are many others as well. Please note – if the CD is not specifically aimed at children, beware! A lot of sea songs are “salty” and you may have some explaining to do if you don’t choose versions made for children.

The kids may enjoy singing along, too. Pick a simple tune like “Yo Ho, Yo Ho A Pirate’s Life for Me” and encourage lots of loud voices! Kids love to sing, and your pirate songs may be the most memorable part of your party.

Kid’s parties end with food and cake. Fruit salad is a good idea, and rounds of bread can be “ship’s biscuit.” Kids also love “meat on a stick” which is nothing more than chicken strips on skewers, grilled and served with dipping sauce. Once again, though, know your guests! Some kids will eat nothing but chicken nuggets.

You can order a cake or you can make one. I’m no baker, but I can put together a craft project. So here’s a link to a pirate ship cake that’s made from cake mix and sculpted very simply.

Is this a lot of work? Yes. But it can be the coolest party ever. I hope you enjoy throwing it, and that your kids remember the pirate fun for years to come. (Oh, and if you throw the party, I’d love to see pictures!)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How to Throw a Pirate Party (for Adults)

Okay, the easy answer is “rum.” But it so happens that I throw a pirate party every year that is completely alcohol free, and it’s so popular that people start asking about it six months in advance. Whether or not you choose to add alcohol is your own business. Here’s how to do the rest of it.

First: the Decorations

It so happens that, as a professional pirate myself, I have a lot of piratical stuff. A couple of Megablocks pirate ships, Jack Sparrow posters, pirate flags, chests, and a lot of others, right down to my pirate rubber duck.

So it you love pirates, and you have this stuff, make sure it’s all out where people can see it.

If you want to buy additional stuff for decorations, go to the second-hand store.  First, stock up on fabric – second hand sheets, old lace, brocade and checked table cloths, patterned curtains. These are what you will use to cover up the modern stuff in your house that you can’t hide. Modern furniture, appliances, desks, all get hidden under a couple of layers of cloth. Why a couple? Because you don’t want to be neat. Use at least two layers, and make sure they don’t match and neither one is straight. You want it to look like someone just casually threw the cloth over what-ever-it-is.

I like to light most of my house with candles for effect, and this means no exposed flames (too dangerous) so the candles need to go inside glasses, jelly jars, anything that will protect your guests. (More stuff you can find in the second hand store.)

Be careful people! And if you want the effect, but not the fire, get the fake candles that operate off a small battery.

Thrift stores are also where you get your serving trays and bowls, and the plates and cups your guests will use. Oh, sure, anyone can buy paper plates with a jolly roger on them. But when your guests are eating off a mish-mash of wooden salad bowls, fine china plates, and weird little silver or glass trays, and drinking out of beer steins, wine glasses and teacups, they’ll feel like they’re in the home of outlaws.

It’s also cheaper. I serve food off wooden cutting boards and salad bowls, glass punch bowls, cast iron pots, fine china serving pieces. All bought at next-to-nothing second hand.

I went online and printed out large (11x17) versions of various pirate pictures, and framed them before hanging them up. Fishing nets (from Michaels craft store) add a nautical touch. I fill jewelry boxes with fake gold coins (party store) and garage-sale jewelry.


I love to feed my guests, but what’s appropriate pirate food? My theory is that pirates traveled all over, so I should try to have food from all the places that pirates hung out: a mix of Chinese, Mexican, French, Irish, African and North American food, with a little tropical thrown in for fun.

If you don’t cook, it could be: mini egg rolls (China), salsa, guacamole and chips (Mexico) French silk pie,(France) potato skins (“Irish”), popcorn (North America), tropical fruit salad (you can buy this canned, if you REALLY don’t make food), coconut cookies. And my favorite pirate food: Meat on a Stick. This is just chicken or pork, threaded on wooden skewers (from the grocery store) and grilled or baked. Barbecue sauce is perfectly acceptable, since both barbecue and buccaneer come from the same root word, which also gives us “bacon.” So throw some bacon in there as well.

If you cook, you can go all out: Here 's a link to a book with real 18th century recipes!

Alcoholic punch was popular when pirates ruled the seas, so I always do punch, though mine has no alcohol. There are so many recipes you can surely find one that appeals to you. It’s different, which is what you’re aiming for here.

Pirates are exotic.

Partie Activities:

So what kind of exotic entertainments will you have at your pirate party? If you’ve got the kind of $$$$ that pays for entertainment at your events, by all means hire a belly dancer. Belly dancers and pirates are two great things that go great together.

But whatever you do, DO NOT play any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies on the TV. Even with the sound off. I’ve seen this done twice, and both times everything stopped while the guests stared at the TV.

What you might want to show, with the sound off, is some OLD pirate movies. Disney’s Treasure Island. The Black Swan. Even (heaven help us) Cut Throat Island.

I actually collect pirate music, so I play The Rambling Sailors, Irish folk music by The Chieftains and The Dubliners, and a collection of sea shanties that I got from discs at the library. If you want something a little more exciting, you might try Irish Punk by the Pogues, Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys. Or go pirate punk with Alestorm. Start Googling pirate music and you’ll be surprised.

Other activities?  Liar’s Dice, the game that was played in POTC Dead Man’s Chest is a possibility, and there are many other pirate themed games, from Pirate Flux to Zombie Ninja Pirates. Don’t let your guests play poker, though. It wouldn’t be invented for a couple of hundred years.

But the most favorite event at my parties is when we all sing sea shanties. It’s easy to get CD’s, or pull up some songs on YouTube. I print lyric cards and pass them out, and with a little encouragement, I’ve got a living room full of perfectly sober people singing sea shanties at the top of their lungs. And the next day everyone’s saying “I sang sea shanties at a pirate party!”

Of course, I have pirate-loving friends.

For more information about throwing a pirate party, check out Part 2 here.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rehabilitating a Spanish Galleon

My love of pirates is evident in all parts of my life, and very often my friends are kind enough to bring me little presents to celebrate my passion… A pair of earrings featuring ships in full sail, skull-and-crossbones bookmarks, a Jack Sparrow Pez dispenser.

So it wasn’t terrible unusual when my best friend announced “I’ve bought you a boat! Every pirate ought to have her own ship!” She was terribly excited. It was a Spanish galleon. She had bought it at a garage sale for practically nothing. It needed a little work…

Then she dragged it into the house. It was a horror.

Most of my readers are probably too young to remember a decorating style called “Mediterranean.”  It mostly involved keeping the house as dim as possible, furnishing it with heavy, dark furniture, and using brass, burnt orange, dark red and gold colors. Most of the houses furnished in this style featured a statue of either a bullfighter, a conquistador, or a Spanish galleon. My new ship was one of these galleons.

That made it 40 years old, and it looked every day of it. It was covered with grime. It smelled bad. The sails were made out of some unknown substance, which was falling to bits, and which I had the feeling was giving me cancer as I looked at it.

But she was my best friend. And she was so excited. I accepted the ship with a smile, and promised to fix it up.

The first thing I did was to rip off all the decaying sails, and the second was to put the whole thing in the shower and give it a bath. When the water stopped running brown, I took it out, toweled it down, and re-attached all the bits that had fallen off. It had been put together with water-soluble glue. It now smelled considerably better.

The next step was to cover the thing with some paint. The colors burgundy and green were represented on my galleon, under a layer of walnut stain, and I liked them, so I tripped out to Michaels craft store, and bought red, green and gold craft paint (real ships often had golden trim), and went to work.

Part way through, I confronted the fact that the ship’s cannons were not only completely out of proportion with the rest of the boat, but would be underwater if the vessel were ever to go to sea. I cut, chiseled and pried them off, then spackled them over.

It wasn’t a good job. I’m no sculptor. Fortunately, history said that the lower part of the ship should be protected with a layer of tar. A thick coat of black paint covered a multitude of sins.

The ship now smelled just fine, and looked a lot better. It was time to re-rig.

Most of the rigging on the original ship had been done by someone with a great deal of imagination, a staple gun, and no understanding at all about how a ship is rigged. My own understanding of this art is limited, but at least I know that lines are not supposed to be tied off below the waterline.

I bought 2 skeins of floss, a skein of yarn, took a book on ship rigging out of the library, and set to work. The rigging took maybe 40 hours, and some of it involved sewing the tiny knots together. I had to take some liberties – there was no place to tie off the lines, so I pounded in a few tiny nails and used those.

 My dining room table. Cat for scale.

Intermingled with the lines, I began creating sails. The old ones were long gone, but I sew, so it wasn’t a terrible problem. Since I wanted the sails to belly out, I needed to stiffen the fabric. This was the hardest part… It took a lot of experimentation to figure out how to get an acceptable shape. (I ended up draping them over the plastic covering on a new roll of paper towels.)  Each sail had to be stiffened separately, and the waiting was agony. In the meantime, I sewed rigging.

Real Spanish Galleons were often named after saints, and the portraits of the saints were painted on their sterns. It was one of the very attractive features of the ships. Not being a painter, either, I simply printed out a picture of a Spanish icon from the period, and glued it on the stern of the ship. And now she has a name – after the saint in the picture.

Finally it all came together. The sails went on. The last of the rigging went into place. I trimmed off lingering ends of string. (And trimmed. And trimmed.) She had become magnificent.

So, now I present to you the Santa Catalina de Alejandría, Spanish Galleon.