Monday, October 27, 2014

Skull and Crossbones

The symbol of the skull and crossbones is the essence of the pirate mystique. Modern pirate fans wear the symbol everywhere… Jewelry, belt buckles, tattoos, and of course the pirate flag. Let’s look at this symbol, and see what it might have meant to pirates, and how it became their emblem.

The skull and crossbones got its start during the Black Plague, which hit Europe in the mid-1300’s and killed over a third of the world’s population. This horrible event had a profound effect on the survivors. People of the time knew nothing about germs. They believed the disease was a punishment from God.

The most popular method to ward off the plague was to carve a cross on the front door of one’s house, along with the words, “God have mercy on us.” It was also believed that the smell of flowers would help prevent infection.

What does this have to do with bones? Well, it’s pretty obvious that these methods didn’t work. The dead piled up at a rate that broke the system. It’s funny when Monty Python does the “Bring out your dead” routine. But in real life it wasn’t funny at all.

Beginning at this time Death becomes a character in his own right. Survivor’s guilt caused those who lived through these terrible events to imagine Death as a malign being who stalked them constantly, and the sight of rotting bodies familiarized everyone with the process of decay.

This was the beginning of the Memento Mori, the reminder of death. Painting, statues and later even jewelry carried the image of personified death. And the earliest examples were truly horrifying.
Artists knew that corpses desiccate, that the skin falls off in patches, that the hair remains mostly intact long after the rest has decayed. They showed this in their artwork. “Death” wasn’t an empty black shroud or a clean, aesthetic skeleton. It was juicy.

As the horrors of the plague faded, slowly, from the conscious of the survivors, the image gradually became less ghastly. By the 1600’s – the earliest dates for Golden Age pirates, the rotting, worm-ridden corpse had become a clean, dry skeleton. These skeletons were shown in pictures doing everyday things such as dancing, resting, and speaking to the living.

Memento mori jewelry was also popular as gifts to those who had attended a funeral. A part of the deceased estate would be spent to create these morbid pieces. But in the days before photographs these may have been the only remembrances some people had of friends and relatives who had passed.

The message here was still the same. People were supposed to remember that wealth, status and beauty were temporary. Death was permanent. Because of this, people should worry more about the state of their souls than the state of their wallets.

By about 1700 – Squarely in the time period of the pirates – another change had taken place. The skeleton had been reduced to a few symbolic bones. Conveniently, these were often shown crossed beneath a skull, the most poignant and recognizable of human bones.

This was the time when the Jolly Roger was invented. Most pirates flew a black flag when they went into battle. It was a symbol that they had come to fight. But individual pirate captains began to want to mark themselves, to claim what might be called “Brand recognition.”

Eyewitnesses described pirate flags as bearing a “Death’s Head.” Sometimes it was a death’s head with crossed bones. Sometimes it was Death or the Devil. Jack Rackham’s flag  was said to show “A death’s head with crossed cutlashes (cutlasses)”

Pirate flags also showed other memento mori images. An hour glass symbolized that time was running out. A spear or dart spoke to haw quickly and unexpectedly death could strike. These symbols had been common for quite a while. People recognized them. Notice how closely this 16th century necklace resembles Black Beard’s flag.

Why? The message that death was coming, that life was more important than money was a potent image to inspire potential robbery victims to give up their cash in order to preserve their lives.

Pirates, after all, didn’t actually want to fight. They wanted to take the money and leave, ideally without getting hurt or killed themselves. A merchant ship who’s captain was thinking about the value of human life was much more likely hand over the goods peacefully than a man who was thinking about his finances.

And did pirates adorn themselves with their symbol? Probably not. After all, these images were mostly associated with religion (the church strongly approved of the memento mori message) and graveyards, neither of which was a matter of much interest of pirates.

Pirates also wanted to be able to deny their occupation. If the port authorities got too nosey, or the navy showed up, the pirates wanted to be able to say, “Hey this is all a misunderstanding. I'm an honest privateer/trader/merchant. You have no grounds to arrest me at all.” It was a lot easier than fighting your way clear. It also worked on a fairly regular basis.

So did pirate wear the beautiful rings with the skull and cross bones? Probably not. Or if they did it was most likely only as a way of keeping the gold near until it was needed to purchase a drink or entertain a lady.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Jewel of the Caribbean

Martinique is one of the larger islands in the Lesser Antilles, with 436 square miles of land. Like most of the Caribbean, it is highly volcanic. Most of the high ground (including Mount Pelee, a volcano that has erupted 4 times since 1700) is in the north. Because of this, the northern part of the island is rain forest, while the south is savannah, a wide range for such a small place.

It was charted by Columbus in 1493, but the Spanish weren’t interested in a place with no gold. The island remained in the control of the Carib Indians until 1635, when the French took control of the island, after the English chased them out of their colony at St. Kitts.

Funding for the colony came from the Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique (Company of the Islands of America) founded by Cardinal Richelieu – yes, that Cardinal Richelieu, the bad guy in The Three Musketeers.

The Caribs rose against the French in 1636, and again in 1658, when the French used their superior firepower and armor to drive the natives entirely off the island. In 1685 Louis XIV created the Code Noir, which allowed the importation of African slaves.

From then on, the culture and cuisine of the island was an intermingling of African, Native and French influences. At various times there were rebellions and even massacre, but those three remained.

First one fort, Saint Louis, was built to protect the large natural harbor. Then another fort was added, named Fort Royal, was added in the north part of the island. Though the second structure was located in a malarial swamp, the French overcame this by draining the swamp and improving the land. (An ideas colonists in other parts of the New World should have copied.)

Martinique grew tobacco and later sugar. Wars were fought and the Dutch were repeatedly held off. Under the guidance of administrators appointed by the king, the forts were improved. An enterprising governor built the first distillery, and began rum manufacture. The island prospered.

The city of Saint Pierre, near Fort Saint Louis, became a cultural hub of the area, and became known as the Paris of the Caribbean.

France was a Catholic nation, but there were few priests in the Antilles (which was, after all, the aft end of nowhere back then.) Because of this, the area drew French Protestants (the Huguenots.) France was not enthusiastic about having a Protestant sub-culture. First Protestant nobles relocated to Martinique, where they stayed despite various edicts sent out against them by the king. The French, like so many other people, seemed to feel that if they were far enough away from Europe, they could do what they liked.

The French also tried to populate the island by offering land to their own peasants, in exchange for a very brief (3 year) stint as indentured servants. The deal looked good, but in fact few of the new settlers lived past the three year mark. Work in a climate much hotter than Europeans were used to, and a host of tropical diseases, life spans were drastically reduced.

The French government sent over a thousand lower-class Huguenots between 1686 qne 1688, intending them to work as indentured servants in the fields, the nobles of the island rebelled.

With the enlightenment, notions about the rights of individuals had begun to blossom, and this had begun to affect the notion toward slavery. While Europeans had no compunction with enslaving Africans, the idea had begun to form that a person shouldn’t enslave someone who was like them.

The French Protestant workers were far too much like the French Protestant nobles to be enslaved by them. The few Catholic nobles urged them all to emigrate, hoping to seize the lands held by the Huguenots. Under these circumstances, the ruling French Protestants left the island for the Carolinas, home to Protestant English. They took the Huguenot slaves with them. One third of the population disappeared almost overnight.

The Catholics who thought that getting rid of their rivals would make them rich were for invasions in later wars by the Dutch and the English. Still, the sugar trade was so profitable that the French government ransomed the island again and again.
Declining sugar prices reduced the profitability of the large plantations, and slavery was abolished in 1848.

On May 8th 1902, Mount Pelee erupted, killing everyone in Saint-Pierre and the surrounding countryside in under three minutes. The only survivor, Auguste Cyparis, was in jail for the night, and was protected by the thick walls of the prison. He later joined Barnum and Baily’s circus in the United States, and became a celebrity by repeating his story.

During bygone days, pirates did sail the waters of Martinique, to capture ships and sample the local rums. Blackbeard captured his Queen Anne’s Revenge, formerly a French merchant ship, in these waters, and men like Bellamy or Charles Vane may have stopped in for a drink.

Today Martinique is one of the jewels of the Caribbean, an expensive hotspot for the super-rich and a budget destination for those seeking a good time for less, both at the same time. Rum is still manufactured here, just as it was during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Could Pirates Read and Write?

Were Pirates literate? Or illiterate? Is that something we can know 300 years after the fact? What did they read and write anyway?

We can get some information from statistics from the time, but statistics can be misleading. For instance, throughout much of the 1600’s, “literacy” was defined as being able to write your name. Being able to read didn’t figure into it at all. Nor did such basics as knowing the alphabet.

In the year 1700, approximately half of English men could read, and about 25% of English women. Of course, this was heavily weighted at the top of the social scale. In other words, the richer you were the more likely you were to be able to read and write. Noble families had the time and money to employ tutors. Well-to-do merchant houses needed to have members who could keep accounts and write letters.

But lower class people, laborers, shoemakers, tradesmen, and sailors, among others, had little use for reading or writing. They didn’t live in a world where reading was expected. People tended to stay close to home. Knowledge was often transmitted through tradition, the spoken word. Signs were often pictures. Books were rare and expensive.

But lower-class people – sailors, pirates – also had ways to become educated. Though only half as many women as men could read or write, those that did often taught their children. Moreover, especially in the Protestant countries like England, there was a fresh emphasis on reading the Bible. Churches often gave reading lessons to those who could not afford them.

And not all of the rich pursued an education. Captain Henry Morgan spoke of being educated, “More with the pike than the pen.” Just because your family could afford an education didn’t mean that you dedicated yourself to it.

So, at least some of the sailors who became pirates would reasonably be literate. Of course, this covered a lot of ground. Yes, literate at the time meant being able to write your name. But it’s possible to read without being able to write. Writing requires practice, and fine motor skills. It is a skill of the fingers as well as the mind. People who worked with their hands might well read better than they could write.

Or the reverse might be true. We think of the phrase, “Make your mark” as a request for an illiterate person to use a crude “X” to sign a document. But it’s a matter of record that some of the “marks” made by illiterate sailors were elaborate drawings. A person who had fine motor skills but no education might be very good at drawing.

Mutineers were the ones who invented the “round robin.” This was a method of signing a document in such a way to hide who the leaders in a conspiracy were. Instead of placing signatures in rows, the names were arranged in a circle. If the mutiny was stopped, there was no way to tell who had started it. Pretty clever for a group that was barely literate.

So what does it all come down to? It’s reasonable to assume that about 1/6th of the crew of any given pirate ship had some skill in reading and writing. Of course, navigators and officers are more likely to have these skills. But it’s not a done deal. A pirate captain could rise through charisma and a gift for strategy, so literacy was not a requirement.

And one last thing… On a pirate ship, men with skills and time on their hands often shared those skills with those who wanted to acquire them. School on a pirate ship? Yes, it probably happened.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

Pirates and Tattoos

I have answered several questions about pirates during the Golden Age and the tattoos they wore, but my answers have not been very popular.  You see, pirates from 1690 – 1720 or so simply didn’t wear tattoos. Or if they did, the markings would be as rare as  similar marking on nuns today.

It’s true that Europeans, and especially sailors, have been getting tattoos for many years. But just not quite enough years. The heart of piracy’s Golden Age lies almost exactly 300 years ago. Tattooing has only been popular for about 240 years.

The precipitating action… the event that brought tattooing into the minds of European sailors, was Captain Cook's voyage to New Zealand and Polynesia in 1771. Even the word “tattoo” dates from this time. Cook recorded it as “tattaw” and it was also spelled “tattau” before today’s spelling was settled upon.

Why didn’t this happen before? Europeans had developed their own traditions of body art before the Roman Empire, and they had certainly met Native Americans who practiced the art. In fact, Pocahontas, a real historical figure, was marked in this way. But until Cook’s voyage to the South Seas, it just didn’t catch on.

Perhaps Cook just had some art-loving sailors on his ship. Maybe the body art they encountered was unusually beautiful or impressive. Or perhaps the sailors were desperate for a lasting souvenir of their trip to the far side of the world. The Pacific Islands may have sponsored especially fond memories due to a culture that encourage young women of all classes to gain wide sexual experience before marriage, even to the point of having one or two children, just to prove to prospective husbands that they were fertile.

In any case, tattoos became a traditional memento that sailors brought back from their journeys. Very soon, a traditional set of symbols sprang up to mark special occasions in a sailor’s life. Many of these survive today.

Swallow – Originally this was a mark of having committed to become a sailor or have “gone to sea” since anyone becoming a member of the crew would expect to serve a year of more. Today it is reserved for someone who has sailed more than 5,000 nautical miles. In addition, if a sailor was drowned, it was said that a swallow would carry his soul up to heaven.

Dragon – Signified someone who had sailed to Asia.

Golden Dragon – A sailor who has crossed the International Dateline.

Anchor – Had crossed the Atlantic.

Crossed anchors, or an anchor on the hand between the thumb and forefinger – One who had reached the rank of bosun.

A fully rigged ship – Noted that the wearer had sailed around Cape Horn.

A rope around the wrist, or the word “Hold Fast” across the knuckles – Mark of a deck hand.

A pig on one foot, and a rooster on the other – Two animals often found on sailing ships as part of the food supplies. As neither could swim, it was believed that God would use a miracle to save the innocent animals in a storm. Supposedly, this magical luck would transfer to a human who wore the marks.

An anchor – Link to home and family (often with the word “Mom” of “Dad”

A nautical star – talisman to guide the wanderer home.

But wait a minute! What about Captain Jack Sparrow’s tattoo? What about the “P” branded on his forearm? Maybe pirates had other ways to mark themselves?

Sorry to disappoint you. But Jack may have been the one exception. (There are tattoos, after all, even in a nunnery.) And Jack had been to Singapore.

And in a world where slaves were common, and where people of all nations could become slaves through simple bad luck, Captain Jack’s "P" is probably a sign that he’d been caught, and was in danger of being sold as a slave by someone who wanted to recoup a little of what Jack had stolen.

Besides, no pirate wanted a permanent mark which associated him with the Sweet Trade. It’s called “plausible deniability.” The chance to look up from your beer and say to the authorities, “Pirates? There ain’t no pirates round here, mate. You must have been thinking of some other tavern.”

Which gave the pirates a chance to get back to their drinks and their women. That was the point of the thing, after all.