Monday, February 23, 2015

Rum - The Favorite Drink of Pirates

Rum and pirates belong together just like peanut butter and jelly. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. Part of this is probably because rum was created and grew up along with the Golden Age of Piracy, and in the same place.

 Liquor made from sugar had been known for hundreds – maybe thousands – of years, mostly in Asia. Marco Polo wrote about “sugar wine.” Brum, a drink popular in Malaysia, has existed throughout recorded time.

We don’t know where the word rum comes from. Theories include an abbreviation of one of several Latin words, a Romani word meaning “strong”, and rumbullion or rumbustion, two words that surfaced about the same time as “rum” – in the mid 1600’s. Since both words are slang terms for “uproar” or “loud chaos” it seems to me that it was the other way around.

We have sugar cane and the Irish to thank for rum. When the British government began shipping Irish to Barbados as slaves, they separated those people from home, family and friends. They also separated these Irish slaves from whiskey.

But it’s hard to keep the Irish from their liquor. These slaves found out that the molasses extracted from sugar cane could be fermented, and then that the fermented substance could be distilled into the liquor that we now call rum.

By 1654 – one year before the pirate Henry Morgan came onto the historical stage - the name rum was firmly attached to the popular, potent drink. By 1664, distilleries had begun to flourish in Boston and Rhode Island, taking advantage of the higher technologies in those areas to build larger distillation pots and a larger number of high-quality barrels. This produced a more standardized product. For a while, Rhode Island rum joined gold as a form of currency in Europe.

It was common at the time for navies to issue rations of liquor to sailors. Once England captured Jamaica (1655), they changed their liquor of choice from French brandy to Jamaican rum. From then on, rum became a solid part of British navy life. The ration of rum continued until July 31st, 1970, when it was discontinued because other liquor was available for recreational use. This date is still remembered in the British navy as “black tot day.”

For special occasions, however, such as a royal wedding, birth or coronation, rum is still supplied. The order for an extra tot of rum, which dates from the age of sail, is “splice the mainbrace!” This commemorates an on-ship chore which was extremely difficult and warranted an extra rum ration.

Many pirates learned to sail and fight by serving in their national navy. They learned to like rum from the same source. In Jamaica’s early days, navy support was considered too slight to keep the island secure from the Spanish. The island’s governor lured pirates to Port Royal and enlisted their support in guarding the island from the Spanish by offering a safe trading port for fencing stolen goods and taverns filled with bountiful rum to spend their ill-gotten gains on.

The pirate Henry Morgan, knighted, retired and appointed Jamaica’s acting Governor, drank himself to death in these taverns, reliving his glory days in the sweet trade.  Rum and prostitution caused Port Royal to be known as the “wickedest city on earth.”

One of rum’s many nicknames was “kill devil.” A 1651 document from Barbados stated, "The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor." Pirates and others drank it so consistently they became dependent, and without it began to see hallucinations. Lack of rum on a pirate ship was a cause for desperate action, including robbing ships that the pirates had previously agreed were off-limits.

Rum encouraged the “triangle trade” that was partially responsible for the region’s wealth, which in turn drew pirates to the Caribbean. Merchant ships picked up sugar, rum and molasses on Barbados and Jamaica, transported them to New England, where more rum was distilled from the raw materials. Then this rum was taken to Europe and exchanged for trade goods such as cloth and beads, which was then transported to Africa and traded for slaves, which were taken back to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations.

This cemented the practice of using African slaves, who were hardier than Europeans, and lived longer in the tropics. It also encouraged regular trade routes, enabling the pirates to lay in ambush in known areas.

Rum also encouraged larceny inside the navy. When Admiral Nelson, England’s national hero, was killed in action at sea, legend has it that his body was preserved by sealing it inside a full cask of rum. But when the ship arrived back in port and the cask was opened it was empty. Enterprising sailors had tapped it and drunk every last drop, leaving only the Admiral’s body. After that, rum was often referred to as “Nelson’s blood.”

Author Robert Lewis Stevenson had a profound influence on the link between pirates and rum when he included “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum” in his famous novel Treasure Island. And Johnny Depp cemented it farther with Captain Jack Sparrow’s wandering walk and question, “Why is the rum gone?”

In real life, pirates drank pretty much anything that would get them drunk, but whiskey, brandy, wine and gin have their own mythologies. Rum now belongs forever to the pirates, famous in song and story.

Let’s raise a glass and say, “Yo Ho!”

Monday, February 16, 2015

Cutlass Liz

I first became aware of Cutlass Liz in the movie The Pirates (2005). I was interested in the character, because the movie features a lot of other historical figures (ripped entirely out of time, mind) from Black Sam Bellamy to Queen Victoria. Liz, however, was a pirate I’d never heard of. But since the main characters in the movie are all (very) fictional, it didn’t bother me.

Then I did some research.

The legend of Elizabeth Shirland goes back quite a ways. It should, because Cutlass Liz began her career in the earliest days of piracy. The story goes that she was born in Devon the most sea-going of English counties, sometime between 1550 and 1560.

For reasons known only to herself, she decided while in her early teens that she was not going to live the life assigned to her. The story says that she disguised herself as a man (easy to do with the baggy clothes of the day) and went to sea as a sailor.

By 1577 she had enough experience to join the crew of the Golden Hinde and sail under none other than Frances Drake, the king of the Buccaneering Pirates. Drake was just embarking on the voyage that made his fortune – a round the world trip, with stop-offs to raid Spanish shipping and towns all over Central and South America.

Drake brought back so much gold that he became a legend. He had been backed in this endeavor by Queen Elizabeth I, and brought back so much gold that the queen’s share paid off the national debt. Elizabeth didn’t share in this acclaim, but she did get hooked on a life of adventure and piracy.

Elizabeth next turns up with her own ship – perhaps the result of the huge share of plunder that a sailor working for Drake would have received. She headed immediately for the Spanish Main, where she tried to live up to Drake’s legacy. She was very successful as a pirate.

However, according to legend, she also began to live openly as a woman, and to take lovers from among her crew. This led to trouble. Apparently some of these men tried to take over, and Liz earned her nickname by running them through with her trusty blade. This, in turn, led to more trouble.

Finally one of her lovers decided that he needed to get rid of her altogether. He betrayed her to the Spanish, who broke in on the two of them in the act. Elizabeth was dragged naked and screaming to the deck of her own ship, where she was summarily hanged. She did, however, murder her betrayer/lover with one last thrust of her trusty blade before she was dragged to her death.

There are reasons to believe that this story is true. Women did disguise themselves as men and go to sea. And anyone who survived Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe would have had more than enough money to buy a ship outright. It’s also believable that, owning a ship and captaining it herself may have given a woman enough confidence to think she could reveal her sex without consequences. That this wouldn’t work out for her also seems entirely believable.

However, the story has its flaws. Historians have identified an Elizabeth Shirland who married, had one child and lived her life quietly in Devon, never going to sea at all. But Elizabeth was one of the most popular names in England at the time, and Shirland was also quite common. There may have many women with similar names.

Another point against the legend is that “Liz” was not a common nickname for Elizabeth at the time. “Bess” was far more popular. (We can mitigate this by noting that the name "Liz" was used, but it seemed to have indicated a low sort of woman.)  Also, the word “cutlass” was not in common use. The type of sword later called a cutlass was more commonly called a “hanger” because it hung off the belt. So “Hanger Bess” seems a more likely name.

It’s also pretty obvious that Liz’s behavior and fate seems to indicate a certain amount of male wish fulfillment.

Another piece of the story is even more far-fetched. This rumor says that Liz was a member of the lost colony of Roanoke. Captured by hostile natives, she lived with them for a while as a slave, then stabbed her owner with his own knife and escaped. She was picked up by the Spanish, then rescued by Drake just in time to go on his historic trip.

This seems far too unbelievable to be true, and is further discredited by the fact that we have a complete list of the Roanoke colonists, and she wasn’t one of them. In this version of the story, she also wins mountains of gold that far outshine those brought back by her mentor.

We’ll probably never be sure of the truth in all this. I see a person who may very well have lived, and who became a nexus for any bits of fiction that sailors cared to attach to her. Someone wanted to tell his “Cutlass Liz” story when other people were discussing Roanoke, and modified the tale accordingly. Someone else was talking about Drake’s mountains of treasure, and someone else wanted to out-do him.

I find this far the most believable version of events. But you can make up your own mind.   

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Pirate's True Love

“What’s a pirate’s favorite letter?”
“You’d think it would be ‘R’ but it’s the ‘C’ they love…"  This week, pirates and the only thing they love more than stolen gold. The sea that sustains them.

The one thing that pirates needed more than anything was salt water to sail on. In fact the very definition of ‘pirate’ is that of a sea-going robber. The sea comes first. After many famous pirates won gold and treasure enough to make them rich for life, they could not resist the lure of the open ocean. It’s the reason so few pirates successfully retired.

What makes the sea call so strongly?

You might ask that question of anyone. The sounds, smell and sight of water are ingrained in the human psyche. When shown pictures of places – be they urban, rural or wilderness, humans consistently rate their beauty and desirability higher if water is shown.  The sound of waves lapping on the shore is packaged onto CD’s and sold as a sleep-aid. As a species we simply love water.

Some people believe that we get this before we’re even born. The sounds of a mother’s blood, rushing through her veins, the gurgle of her stomach, these are the first sounds and unborn child hears. And the first sensation it feels is the gently floating, rocking feeling of being supported in fluid as mother walks and moves.

It may be hard to tie these gentle images to, say, Blackbeard. But it’s a fact that, after he had amassed his stolen fortune, Blackbeard established himself as a gentlemen, bought a house etc. and then he risked it all… fatally… to return to sailing. His desire to spend time in a boat was his undoing, and brought him death in an increasingly civilized world.

Some scientists, however, believe that the love of the ocean is even more primal than pre-birth memories. They cite the fact that the mineral makeup of the human body is almost exactly that of the sea. And the fetus, in its very early stages, goes through a period when it has gills and a tail. They think that we’re programmed from the beginning of out earliest ancestors to want to live near water.

And, in fact, even in the current age, an estimated 80% of the world’s population lives within 80 miles of a coastline.

The pirate captain Stede Bonnet may have been mad. But his particular madness showed itself in a desire to run away to sea… not to some foreign land where his upper-middle-class riches would have done him some good, and his family name would have been useful. No, Bonnet ran away to sea, in spite of knowing nothing about sailing or navigation. The sea had called him.

There’s a story of a sailor who, tired of the hardships of his previous life, took up his small bag of possessions, slung an oar over his shoulder, and began to walk inland.  The story goes that, when someone asked him, “What’s that great long piece of wood you’re carrying around?” the sailor knew that he was far enough inland that he was safe from the sea’s call.

The sea has inspired innumerable songs of love and longing. People who have never hauled on a ship’s rigging in their lives sing and enjoy sea shanties, and the sea has figures in love songs from the pirate’s day to the present. The sea is the rocking, rolling lover who called the sailor from his home and family, no matter how much he may wish to be safe and dry.

“Oh a landsman’s life is all his own, he can go or he can stay
But when the sea is in your blood, when She calls you much obey.”
Goes one old song.

The sea is a woman. Most cultures agree on this (sorry, Poseidon). It comes from the changeable nature of the ocean, no doubt. One minute it can be fair, gentle and kind, and a moment later a squall develops out of nowhere and the sailors are fighting for their lives. Very much like a woman’s temper. The men who sail her have no idea what’s going on, just as men don’t understand their wives and sweethearts. But the love and the endless attraction is still there.

I’ll end with one of my favorite images of a retired pirate. Billy Bones, from Treasure Island, who sailed with Flint and amassed a small fortune. To retire, he chooses the Admiral Benbow Inn, an impoverished place that is still close to the water. Billy is afraid his old shipmates will hunt him down, but he still can’t be away from his true love. Every day he goes out alone, to look at the sea. It’s all he wants.

If you want to give your pirate-loving significant other a unique Valentin's gift, order a copy of "Gentlemen and Fortune" or "Bloody Seas" by TS Rhodes!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Pirate Ship’s Articles

Articles… What’s that? Stories written about pirates in popular newspapers or magazines? I mean, they did have magazines back in the early 1700’s, right?

No, wait a minute. Ship’s articles were an employment contract between sailors and the ships they crewed. It was a basic system between workers and employers, naming work times and conditions, payment and pay frequency. Simple as that.

So then what’s the big deal? And why did pirates even need these things. They weren’t employees of anybody, after all.

To begin with, people rarely build things from nothing. Pirates were doing radical stuff, but they still built upon the structure that they were used to, and as sailors they were used to having a work contract. So they based their pirating Articles upon those they has used before they “went on the account.”

Merchant ships wanted to lock sailors into work contracts for as long as possible. Sailors, by definition, traveled, and that meant stopping in ports where wages may have been higher than those at the port where they signed on. Employers didn’t want them to leave the ship just because someone else was offering more money. Forcing an employee to sign a work contract was supposed to stop this kind of self-serving behavior.

Also, locking a sailor into a months-long contract gave the merchant captain more flexibility in where the ship would sail to. There were places where sailors simply didn’t want to go. Parts of Africa were known to harbor infectious diseases, which might kill 90% of a European crew. Some European ports harbored a “hot press” – enthusiastic press gangs that kidnapped sailors and forced them to serve in the country’s navy – often for years and often without pay.

Sailors, rightly, wanted to avoid such places. Merchant captains wanted to go where the money was. At the time we’re talking about, there were hardly any shipping schedules or regular trade routes. Ships took on what cargo they could find, and traveled to places where there was a market for the goods.  When sailor signed on, they received a promise not to sail to certain ports.

Interestingly, in much the same way huge companies today get away with sketchy business practices, the authorities considered it okay for merchant captains and merchant consortiums to renege on these contracts. It was “the vagaries of the business” that caused sub-standard food to be served, or the ship to change course and sail to a disease-ridden coast.

For their own, sailors often “jumped ship” and took off for better pay or better working conditions. Sometimes they were jailed for this, if they could be caught.

Still, pirates signing onto a pirate ship expected some kind of contract.

Unlike the merchant articles, the pirate version was a “bottom up” document. While merchant captains dictated terms to the crew, pirate crews dictated terms to their captains. Pirate articles listed the things the crew wanted. Everybody signed, and captain, officers and crew were all held to it equally.

Some things were universal. Pirates operated on a “no prey no pay” basis. Participants took shares of plunder, not wages. A certain percentage was set aside for purchase of supplies and maintenance of the boat. After that, plunder was broken into “shares” based on the number of individuals in the crew, though this was not quite a one-on-one ratio.

Pirates agreed that their officers, work specialists (such as gunnery master or carpenter) and captain were highly skilled individuals worthy of a higher percentage of plunder. However, while privateer and merchant captains made 20 to 80 times the amount of a single member of their crews, pirate captains usually made 1 ½ to 2 times as much. Articles specified the amount – a breakdown that often looked something like this: Captain 2 shares, commissioned officers (first mate, navigator) 1 ½ shares, non-commissioned officers (bosun, carpenter) 1 ¼ shares, all sailors (at any skill level) 1 share, and landsmen and servants (people with no sailing skills, such as the ship’s fiddler) ½ share. Notice that no one makes more than 4 times the rate of the lowest-paid, unskilled worker.

Pirate articles did not generally mention where the ship was bound for. That was decided by vote on a day-to-day basis.

Pirate articles required that each member of the crew keep weapons clean and ready to use. This was in contrast to merchant crews, who were not encouraged to use or own weapons. In pirate crews terror, not cargo, was their stock-in-trade. The ability to fight, or to at least appear ready to fight, was primary.

On merchant ships liquor was regulated and drunkenness highly discouraged. On most pirate ships it was the opposite. Liquor was one of the few ready pleasures in a world where life was often short and brutish. Pirate articles specified that liquor was freely available to anyone who wanted it. Being drunk was okay, as long as you could do your job.

Interestingly, honesty was required on a pirate ship. Stealing from a fellow pirate was a definite no-no. Spoils were divided in the open, to prevent any hanky-panky, and witnesses say that pirates didn’t guard their treasure while on board ship. Instead, money was held in common until called for.

However, pirate articles often carried rules that were designed purely for the comfort of the crew and to provide better working conditions for all. “Lights out after 8:00 pm” meant people who wanted to sleep would be able to, while “Those who want to sit up and drink must do it on the open deck” made provisions for these who had other ideas. Pirates enjoyed music and employed musicians, but ships’ articles specified that these people only had to work 6 days a week, not 7, like everyone else.

Lastly, rules were made to keep peace among pirates. Pirates were allowed to gamble. No one said that was wrong. But “gambling with cards or dice” – the sort of thing that racked up heavy debts in a short time, were usually forbidden. It was also usually forbidden to hide women aboard, though the wording of some of these clauses leaves some question of whether women were allowed to work openly as pirates or prostitutes.

What happened if these rules were broken? Theft from another pirate might mean that the thief had his nose slit, or was marooned. Simply dropping a man off at the next port seems to have been the most common punishment. Not so much punishment at all, but a simple parting of the ways when someone wasn’t willing to follow the rules.

If a captain didn’t follow the rules he would face the rage of his crew. Pirate captains who borrowed clothing or jewels from the common fund in order to make a show in port would be taken to task, even if they returned these goods promptly. Captains were required to follow the rules exactly, and if they didn't many pirate captains were deposed, and simply dropped off the side with a boat and some provisions.

When pirate ships traveled together, they did so under “Articles of Consort.” These more informal rules might be jotted down on a scrap of paper, but they were important to make clear who got what in the disbursement of treasure. (Did a smaller ship get as much treasure as a large one? Or was it based on crew size?  Did ships get a share if they didn’t actively fight, but participated in the chase of a merchant and fell behind? And what happened to the crew of a ship that was sunk?)

Articles lasted for years, with new members signing on as they joined a crew. Articles of Consort lasted a few months at most, as flotillas of pirates came together and broke up.

The point was for everyone to agree.