Monday, December 28, 2015

Captain William Fly, Die Hard Pirate

The exact end of the Golden Age of Piracy is a matter of debate. For a long time, I have thought that the death of Calico Jack Rackham (November 18th 1720) ended the most important pirating adventures of the Golden Age. But for sheer rage and pirating spirit, I have come to believe that Captain William Fly extended the Golden Age by sheer force of will.

Fly had a short career. Like most pirates, his birth date is uncertain, though he is believed to have come from Jamaica. There are no records of Fly having in his past any sort of family connections or respectable trade. The earliest reports of him list his occupation as “prize fighter,” a remarkable fact, given the history of prize-fighting at the time.

Simply put, fighters of the time used no safety equipment, and there were no rules. Biting was common (many men lost ears or noses.) Eye gouging was acceptable, and scooping an opponent’s eye from its socket was an art form. It was perfectly legal to punch or even kick below the waist, grapple, and stomp on a downed opponent. Only the very tough and/or the very desperate took up this kind of thing as a profession.

It’s safe to say, William Fly came from a poor family.

Fly, however, was not maimed, and quit the game to become a sailor. Once again, we don’t know how long he worked at this profession before he came to the attention of the authorities. We do know that he was rated as bosun, a responsible supervisory position, when he shipped out with Captain James (John) Green of board the Elizabeth in 1726.

Contemporary accounts say that Fly wanted to make a fortune, and that he had become a fighter to win one. These same accounts say that Fly turned to piracy as a get-rich-quick scheme, and hint that this was the only reason he took up work as a sailor.

But the fact that he was rated as bosun indicates that this was not the case. While ship’s captains sometimes held their positions due to family connections or financial investment in the ship, men with “blue collar” positions such as bosun need to be skilled at their jobs in order to make the ship work. A bosun scheduled work crews, and maintained the deck, ropework, and sails of the ship. Since a ship of the day contained literally miles of rope, each piece with a distinctive name and function, and had a wide variety of sails that needed to be constantly raised, lowered and adjusted due to wind and weather, this was not a job that could be mastered in only a few months.

Contemporary accounts also claim that Fly became a pirate because he was too “lazy” to work as a regular sailor. However, these accounts do not explain how, if this was the case, Fly persuaded the entire crew of the Elizabeth to mutiny.

I believe that it is significant that the captain, Green, was lying drunk in his bed when the mutineers woke him and dragged him on deck. They seem to have been in a rage, though the cause of this has never been explained. Certainly some merchant captains abused their men terribly. Whatever drove Fly and the Elizabeth’s crew to mutiny, they lost no time in throwing Green and his first mate, Thomas Jenkins, into the sea.

This in itself was an unusually violent act. During other mutinies from the period, captains were put off in the ship’s boat, or left on a deserted coast. In fact, during at least one mutiny, the mutineers merely took the ship back to port and got off, and went looking for other work..

So Fly and his men were enraged. After drowning their former captain and first mate (neither of whom went down easily, and both of whom had to be beaten off the side of the ship with weapons) they made a big batch of alcoholic punch, and drank it while deciding what to do next.

The men elected Fly, the logical next in command, to the title of captain, and decided to become pirates. They created a Jolly Roger flag, renamed the ship Fame’s Revenge and began robbing ships between South Carolina and Boston.

By this time, however, the authorities were in full pursuit of pirates. William Fly and the Fame’s Revenge lasted in their career only three months before they were captured and brought to trial in Boston.

It was here that Fly showed his metal as a pirate.

While held in prison, he was visited by none other than Cotton Mather, the famous puritan preacher, notorious for his prosecution of witches during the Salem Witch trials. Mather tried in vain to persuade Fly to recant his sins, to confess, or even to attend church services during his confinement in order to be spared the fires of hell.

Cotton Mather
 Fly replied that he hated the church almost as much as he hated the current social structure, and that he would go to his death as a brave fellow. On the day of his hanging, Fly leaped willing into the cart that would carry him to the scaffold in the town square, and bantered with the spectators along the way.

Once on the scaffold, Fly took one look at the hangman’s noose awaiting him, berated the hangman for doing a sloppy job, re-tied the knot himself, and placed it around his own neck. He then berated the crowd.

Fly stated, in short, that selfish owners and brutal captains brought piracy down upon themselves, and that if seamen were paid on time, and treated like human beings, piracy would not exist. He is quoted as concluding: "Our Captain and his Mate used us Barbarously. We poor Men can’t have Justice done us. There is nothing said to our Commanders, let them never so much abuse us, and use us like Dogs."

William Fly and two of his fellow pirates were hanged on July 142 1726. A true pirate to the last, Fly urged all working class folks to stand up for themselves. May his legacy live on.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Guided by a Star

Celestial Navigation in the Golden Age of Piracy 

The Northern Hemisphere of the planet Earth has a very special star. Polaris, also known as the North Star, sits almost exactly over the axis point of Earth’s rotation. Anyone, looking into a clear night sky, can determine the direction North – no matter what the season, no matter what the time of night.

One ancient name for Polaris was CynosÅ«ra, from the Greek word meaning "the dog’s tail" (reflecting a time when the constellation of Ursa Minor "Little Bear" was taken to represent a dog), hence the English word cynosure. Most other names are directly tied to its role as pole star.

In English, it was known as "pole star" or "north star"; in Spenser, also "steadfast star".

An older English name, attested since the 14th century, is lodestar "guiding star", similar in meaning to the old German and Old Norse names.

The name Polaris in English goes back to the 17th century (just before the pirates; time). It is a contraction for the Latin stella polaris "pole star". Another Latin name is stella maris "sea-star" denoting its importance to sailors.  Stella Maris was also used as a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary, popularized in the hymn Ave Maris Stella –from the 8th century.

Navigation by the stars – celestial navigation – is believed to have started in the trackless wilderness of Earth’s deserts, and was almost immediately adopted by fledgling mariners.

The sea is a treacherous place to travel. Not only are there no landmarks (land-marks) but the water is constantly moving – often not going the direction that a sailor wants to go. Sailing against a strong current could – and in the early days of sail, actually did – mean a ship was actually traveling backwards. Add to this that the wind rarely blew in the direction a ship needed in order to sail, and it’s easy to see why navigation was a tricky matter at best.

Without instruments, it’s possible to figure an approximate location at sea by using ded reckoning. This was done with a peg-board, marking the approximate forward motion, the amount of drift, and the direction of travel, including changes of direction made during the day.

This method allowed an approximate location to be determined. But it was a matter of instinct as much as intelligence. Many of the calculations involved in ded reckoning were felt as much as known.

Celestial navigation involved MATH, and it involved instruments. During the Golden Age of Piracy, only latitude (the distance from the North Pole, shown on globes as a series of rings, the most recognizable of which is the Equator) could be accurately determined at sea. In order to find a given point, such as an island, the navigator tried to put the ship on track along a given longitude, then “run down the line” until the desired location was achieved.

During the Golden Age, the most advanced instrument in common use was the Davis Quadrant. The device used to measure – in degrees – the distance from the horizon of a celestial body. If, for instance, Polaris is ten degrees from the horizon, he is about ten degrees north of the equator.

The method requires that a couple of conditions be met. For one thing, it requires a clear view of both the North Star and the horizon. It also requires that the navigator be somewhere north of the equator. On the southern side of the equator, Polaris is not visible, and there is no southern pole star.

The other method of celestial navigation uses the sun. If the exact position of the sun is calculated, relevant to the horizon, at exactly noon, the angle by which the sun’s position deviates from 90 degrees can be used to reveal the latitude. Using the right equipment, it’s a slightly more accurate measurement – and accuracy is important, especially when you’re all alone on the deep blue sea, looking for land.

Eventually, the invention of the sextant made latitude calculation even more exact. Longitude can be measured in the same way. If one can accurately measure the angle to Polaris, a similar measurement to a star near the eastern or western horizons will provide the longitude. The problem is that the Earth turns 15 degrees per hour, so these measurements depend on time. A measure a few minutes before or after the same measure the day before creates serious navigation errors. The invention of the modern chronometer by John Harrison in 1761 vastly simplified longitudinal calculation.

Of course, modern navigation relies not on the stars, but on GPS positioning. Satellites in geo-stable orbits over the earth’s surface send signals that can be used to determine the exact position of a ship at sea or a car whose driver wants to find the nearest Burger King.  Technology has enabled navigation so precise that for a time, celestial navigation was no longer taught by the US Navy.

Image result for us navy celestial navigation

But navigation by the stars is making a come-back. The computers may break down, the satellites may even be shot down, but the stars will always be with us. The stars can be our guides until the end of time.

Heaven Bless all my readers, Happy Winter Solstice, and a Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 14, 2015

What to Get Your Favorite Pirate for Christmas

Christmas presents are a tough call for many of us. What to get for a sister who makes twice what you do, and vacations in Acapulco?  Or for Mom, who’s in the process of downsizing the house? Or Dad, who claims that all he wants is “A little peace and quiet”?

If you have pirates on your list, it can be even harder. What might your pirate-loving friend want for Christmas?

Pirate fans usually got that way by watching movies or reading books. There are no new movies about Golden-Age pirates this year, but a good pirate read is a great way to spend those cold, dreary months waiting for pirate festivals to start again.

The Pirate Empire series by TS Rhodes is something new for a lot of pirates. A set of well-researched novellas featuring a kick-ass female captain. Scarlet MacGrath only wants three things out of life – A decent meal, a glass of rum, and a good man waiting for her in the next port. Too bad life never works out so simply. In book one, Gentlemen and Fortune, Scarlet fights off the bloody-handed Red Ned Doyle, goes on a secret mission for pirate king Henry Avery, fights the Royal Navy and gets dragged into a effort to free a boatload of slaves.

Bloody Seas: Book Two of The Pirate Empire

Book two, Bloody Seas, finds her in desperate straits, battling wayward merchants, cannibals, and Captain Robert Davenport of the Royal Navy as she and her crew try desperately to stay alive in the unforgiving world of Golden Age piracy.

In Book Three, Storm Season Scarlet and her crew land on the island of Nassau, home of the pirate empire. Here she meets old friends, and makes new enemies before setting out on a perilous journey to Port Royal, center of British law, and home port to the intriguing Captain Davenport.

These first three books of The Pirate Empire series are available now, with more coming out in 2016. Available in paperback or in a Kindle edition.
StainlessLUX 73211 Brilliant Double-walled Stainless Steel Large Beer Mug (16 Oz) - Quality Barware for Your Enjoyment
But if your favorite pirate is more involved in drinking than reading, why not spring for a pewter or stainless steal tankard? Gifts like this are available from many sources, including online shops like Amazon. A tankard with a solid bottom can hold both hot and cold liquids, while glass or plastic-bottomed examples can be had for as little as $10.

Kraken rum is a good choice. It's tasty, and the bottle comes with an embossed sea-monster.  I’m also fond of Pyrat brand rum (made by Patron). Not only is Pyrat an excellent rum, but the bottle has been molded with a shape similar to an old onion-bottle of the 18th century, and with glass that contains bubbles, much like hand-blown glass from the time.

Of course, if you want to go authentic, historic bottles are available through antique dealers or Ebay. But beware! An authentic bottle from the sunken city of Port Royal can be had, but be prepared to pay upwards of $600!

Historic coins can also be had (for a price!) through coin dealers such as Admiral Nelson Shipwreck Coins. I’m the proud owner of a few “pirate pennies” but authentic solid gold doubloons are available.  Prices vary, but if you don’t want to sink thousands, Amazon also offers cast metal replicas for prices under $20

Your friend might also enjoy an antiqued map of the Caribbean. Many versions are for sale, but keep an eye out for authenticity.  An accurate map with an antique feel seems to me a far better choice than a fantasy with “Pirates of the Caribbean” stamped on it. But you know your friend.

Of course, nowadays almost anything can be pirate themed. A quick trip through Google, revealed pirate themed chef’s aprons, shower curtains, bedspreads and cell phone covers. But beware! Your pirate friend may not be into whatever it is you’ve chosen. Know your subject, and use caution before shelling out your hard-earned cash for some odd object just because it has a skull-and-crossbones on it.

That said, there are a few really fun object that I, at least, wouldn’t mind receiving for the holidays.

I-clipmagnetic bookmarks with skull and crossbones. The things really work, and look like nothing else. I use them to mark pages that I return to over and over.

Pirate bottle opener. This little guy is everywhere, but he’s cute, and who doesn’t need another corkscrew?

A modern replica of an 18th century liquor bottle. Various versions of this are available. I’m pretty sure that this version was used on the set of the Starz series Black Sails. It would be especially thoughtful if you concocted one of the rum drinks from my post Authentic Pirate Rum Drinks to fill this beauty.

Last, it’s hard to go wrong if you buy your friend a pirate T-shirt. I’m especially fond of the ones that look like a pirate costume, though endless choices abound. Just make sure the size in right. After all, those of us who dream of pirate go through our pirate shirts pretty quickly.

And one more note: If you'd like to give a gift to your favorite author, review their book! Book reviews help drive sales. and nothing says love like a thoughtful review that proves you've enjoyued their work. 

So dream of pirates this Christmas, and have a wonderful time.  Yo Ho Ho Ho and a happy holiday to all!

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Pirate’s Toothy Smile

Dentistry in the 18th century. 

One of the things I didn’t especially like about Pirates of the Caribbean was the teeth. This may sound a little odd, but I’ve known for a while that the way teeth are shown in the movie are pretty much backward. Jack and company have horrible teeth, brown and marked with many crude metal fillings, While Elizabeth and her father sport healthy white smiles. This isn’t quite the way it fell out during the Golden Age of Piracy.

While tooth decay goes back as far as humanity, sugar has been the worst culprit when creating dental problems for humanity. And during the Golden Age, sugar was primarily a food for the rich.

Working class folks, pirates included, ate meat, bread, and vegetables, usually boiled. Luxuries involved butter and cream, fruit, and roasted foul.

“Gentlefolk” like Elizabeth and her father would have enjoyed cakes, custards, and “comfits” – small seeds or bits of fruit dipped into sugar syrup and dried. Flowers such as violets and rose petals were also dipped in sugar and eaten. Chocolate was not on the menu, except as a rather bitter drink, but tea and coffee might contain sugar.

This was a new phenomenon. Honey, the sweetener of choice before sugar became available, does not have the tooth- decaying properties of sugar. Honey, in fact, contains natural antibiotics which can actually protect teeth from decay. It was the white sugar from New World plantations that brought rampant tooth decay into the lives of Europeans.

Notice the teeth

Of course, pirates had their own dental issues. Excessive alcohol consumption is not good for the teeth, and smoking can also cause problems. But these attack the gums more than the teeth, loosening teeth and causing direct tooth loss. Scurvy, that most nautical of diseases (actually a deficiency in vitamin C) also caused direct tooth loss.

It wasn’t unusual for a working-class person to be missing a noticeable number of teeth by the time they were in their thirties. And women often loss “a tooth for every child” as the saying went. Developing fetuses leached calcium from a woman’s bones and teeth, often leading to dental problems.

But it was the rich who sported truly terrible teeth.

Of course, they also had the best access to dental care, such as it was. This usually meant attempts to removed decay, plug holes in teeth and remove painful teeth. There was no such thing as toothpaste, and even the toothbrush was over a hundred years away.

So what was dental care like?

Dental drills existed, but they were hand drills, little more than pointed bits of metal with a handle, used to scrape decay out of rotting teeth. All of this was done without anesthesia, of course.

Once a cavity was cleaned out, attempts might be made to plug it with soft metals such as tin, gold or silver. These wore badly, of course, and often didn’t stay in the tooth. Other substances used in an effort to plug holes in teeth included resin, wax, and even stone chips. None of it worked very well.

Sophisticated “dental surgeons” might also treat holes in teeth via chemicals. Henbane, an herb, soaked in heated vinegar, might be poured into the hole. This was problematic, since the herb is poisonous, and could cause hallucinations or even death. But it was probably safer than powdered mercury, which some practitioners suggested dropping into the hole at least 3 times a day. Mercury is extremely poisonous, so doctors recommended spitting it out after it had done its work.

Medical science, such as it was, labored under a rather jarring misconception. They believed that cavities were caused by worms burrowing into the tooth, and their goal was to kill the worm. Steps taken to do this often killed the tooth as well. This ended the sufferer’s pain, however.

Most dental work meat pulling teeth. Many cities had a tooth-puller, a man who went in with “crooked pliers” to grab a tooth an pull it out – no painkillers. If no professional tooth-puller was available, a barber or even a blacksmith might be persuaded to give dental care a shot. Barbers worked regularly as low-cost surgeons, due mostly to their skill with sharp tools. Blacksmiths had a variety of tongs available, and also had impressive upper-body strength, useful in puling molars.

The rich could also afford to have teeth replaced. Replacement teeth might be made of ivory, wood or even the teeth or poor people, purchased for the purpose. These teeth might be formed into dentures, or if they replaced only a few missing teeth, tied into the mouth with silk thread or wired in with gold wire.

Of course, prevention is better than cure. Though mouthwash wouldn’t exist for a long, long time, people did try to take care of their teeth. They chewed tree bark as a preventative measure, rinsed their mouths with vinegar, and scrubbed their teeth with salt, or mixtures of herbs crushed into a piece of line cloth and then rubbed on the gums. Parsley was also eaten as a method of cleaning the teeth (part of the reason parsley is used as a garnish). People also cleaned their teeth with honey, which, used as a sweetener, might have solved a lot of the problem in the first place.