Monday, June 29, 2015

The Truth about Somali Pirates

This is a serious, dark post about modern-day criminals. Not for the faint of heart.

People have been bringing this subject up with me for years. Somali Pirates. They’re the bad guys. Without provocation, they take their boats out and terrorize helpless merchant shipping. They kidnap Americans, torture them, hold them for ransom. They have nothing in common with the jolly pirates of yore.

Except that it’s not that cut and dried. Let me tell you the story of the Pirates of Somalia
Like many African stories, this one has its beginning in the 1800’s. Somalia, like many third-world countries, was occupied by European powers seeking to establish empires. By 1949, what we now call Somalia was divided between Italy and Great Britain. Italy built up the infrastructure in their half. Great Britain, not so much.

On July 1, 1960, these territories combined into the Somali Republic. Much of it’s interior grazing lands had been lost to France, and the nation was reduced to a narrow strip of land along the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the two halves of the country had different government and legal systems, adopted from their conquerors.

Nevertheless, the Somalis established a government which lasted 10 years, until the president was assassinated. The leader of the army took over with no opposition. The new leadership worked to create better infrastructure and improve literacy, with great success. Then, in 1977, the military government disbanded itself in favor of what was essentially a communist administration.

In an effort to regain some of its lost territory, Somali began s series of tribal wars. These were going well for the Somalis, until the Soviet Union (who should have sided with the now-communist Somalia) brought in 20,000 Cuban troops and several thousand Soviet “advisors” to beat back the Somalis.

The Somalis mover their allegiance to the USSR’s cold-war enemy, the United States. They also established a military dictatorship, which lasted for roughly ten years. In 1991, civil war broke out.
It has been claimed that much of the instability in the region was caused by the American government, then headed by President George H. W. Bush. The US had been successful in manipulating other third-world governments. Somalia’s land contained untapped oil, which the US wanted to hold in reserve.  Supposedly, it was believed that by keeping the Somali government in near total chaos, America could, at any time, step in the “rescue” the beleaguered country.

During the 1990’s Somalia had no functional government. I remember reading that competing warlords were using black-market Soviet surplus weapons to hold small portions of the country. In the meantime, infrastructure had broken down so badly that the Somalia Boy Scouts were gathering and interring  the bodies of the dead. The Boy Scouts were the only “government” left.
I wept when I read that.

A friend served in the US Marines during this time period. He will not speak about what he saw.

This is the least horrifying photo of a Somali child that I could find.

You may think that the situation could get no worse for the Somali people, but you would be wrong. 

Throughout these chaotic times, the fishermen of the country had fed the people, going out with small boats and bringing home enough to prevent starvation in their villages. But in the absence of an organized military or diplomatic corps, European and Asia industrial fishing fleets stripped the waters of their bounty. And to make matters even worse, these same powers dumped unsheilded nuclear waste into Somali waters. There was no one to stop them.

Image result for somali nuclear waste

So, the position was this: No food, and no ability to use traditional methods to obtain food. What fish remained showed heavy mutation. Then storms tore open the flimsy barrels containing the radioactive waste, and drove the leaking containers onto the beaches. Somali men women and children began to suffer from radiation sickness.

The only resources left were the Soviet assault rifles and the disused fishing boats. A pirate fleet was born.

Like the pirates of the 1700’s these people had nothing left to lose.

I’ve heard ideas for stopping the Somali pirates. These ideas usually involve the kinds of firepower that only the US can bring to bear, and scenarios that could fuel the next Terminator movie. It's true that some of the pirates are the same criminals who helped bring the country into chaos. But many are simply unemployed fishermen, and some of these people are already dead. They have absorbed deadly doses of radiation. And they are fighting to feed their children.

Bombs, napalm and heavy artillery can’t change these people’s determination, any more than the threat of hanging stopped the original pirates.

How can we stop the Somalis? Well, for starters, we could do what ended the Golden Age of Piracy: Offer a full pardon. And then we might clean up the radioactive mess, and get the kids something to eat. This would go a long way to bringing peace.

Note: Many of the so-called Somali pirates sail under the flag of the Somali naval militia.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Why are Ships Female?

Ships as women, women as ships. The comparison has built itself into the Western psyche, even in an age when grammarians and feminists alike disapprove of the comparison. Why is it so compelling?

The era of sailing ships aligns most exactly with an ear when women wore large, wide, impressive dresses, and often distinguished themselves by revealing a great deal of bosom. The resemblance between a well-dressed woman, her skirts rustling like a ship’s sails, moving forward through a crowd of people, who stepped out of her way like the waves parting before a ship’s prow, was unmistakable. A woman so dressed had the gravitas of a large merchant vessel or warship.

But a young girl with sort skirts, laughing and dancing and kicking up her heels seemed more like a small dory or rowboat. She probably doesn’t travel in a straight line very often. Instead she skitters this way and that, lightly, quickly, and unpredictably.

Like ships, women are not composed of straight lines. Some racers are narrow, smooth and fast. Others, like merchant ships, are wide across the beam, stocky, solid and likely to carry and care for a large number of people.

I personally have had one of the unforgettable experiences of a lifetime, which is to be on the deck of a wooden ship when the wind reached her sails and she came alive. Unlike steel ships, wooden vessels were made to flex, to bend with the wind, creating the sensation that the ship is breathing. Anyone who has be privileged to feel this knows that the ship is alive. Living things have genders.

There are many humorous stories about ships and women. It is said that women and ships look very good when fresh-painted (make-up). Ships never leave port asleep. They leave awake (a wake). Ships always head toward the buoys (pronounced ‘boys’ these are lane makers that show the area it is safe to sail through.)  She always has a crowd of men around her. Or, as the old song goes:

She carries her bow high,
Her stern is nice and round
It’s easy to hold her when she is sheeted down…

There are many remarks about the personality of ships. Like a woman, a ship is endlessly variable. She is in tune with the sea around her, and as such, she may not do just what the men around her want her to do. Caught between a headwind and a contrary sea, even a staid matronly cargo ship can cut some energetic capers, tossing her masts around in figure eights, bouncing her bow clear of the water, shaking her stern, and generally doing her own thing while the men who depend on her can do little more than hold on.

And yet the same ship will hold firm in the face of the worst possible conditions, hold it together in the face of unbelievable adversity. She will go to unbelievable lengths to protect those who depend on her. Wooden ships are what they are, and they nurture those around them.

And most of all, the reason why tall ships are so much like women? The one thing that everyone agrees with?

Because men love them.


Monday, June 15, 2015

What’s Wrong With Master and Commander?

Since I have strongly recommended the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” the as research for Golden Age pirate lovers, you may be thinking you’ve found a treasure trove, and you should follow ever detail. The movie, starring Russel Crowe, and the books by Patrick O'Brian, have won acclaim. And they're about sailing ships! How much more relevant to pirates can you get?

That isn’t the case, unfortunately. The movie – and the many books – are wonderful, but they fall into a category that makes them much less useful to us.

They are set almost exactly 100 years too late.

O’Brian’s masterwork, like many – or even most – stories of sea-going adventure, is set during the Napoleonic Wars. When I first found these books 10 years ago I didn’t care much about that little detail. After all, they were sailing ships, with masts, and lots of white canvas sails. How different could they be?

About as different as a Model T Ford and a modern Lexis.

Let’s look at some basic facts. The Queen Anne’s Revenge, the pirate ship that terrified merchants from Boston to Jamaica, and nearly stopped all commerce in the Caribbean. She was considered an enormous vessel, 103 feet long, 36 feet wide, rated at 300 tons, carrying 40 guns and harboring a crew of about 125 pirates.

(A note here – Being “rated” at a certain weight is a way of defining the size of a ship. A formula using the length and width of the ship calculated the approximate internal volume available for cargo, water and other supplies. The same calculation was used from about 1650 until the advent of steam power.)

Model of the Queen Anne's Revenge - notice how much rope.

In contrast, the standard battle ship of the Napoleonic wars was the “74”. These ships averaged 180 feet long and 46 feet wide, and rated 2,000 to 3,000 tons. The “74” stood for the number of cannons. Crews regularly included 700 men.This made the navy ship of the later era 10 times as big as the most fearsome pirate vessel of all times, with nearly twice the armament. Large navy ships might carry as many as 110 guns.

Replica of Hermione from the Napoleonic era. Rope, lost of rope.

Speed developed, too. At about 1700, the average speed for many ships was 6 knots (about 6 ½ miles per hour) but by the early 1800’s, average speeds were nearly double, and some ships reached speeds of 20 knots (23 mph). For reference, Modern oil tankers generally cannot exceed 16 knots in speed.

Part of this was achieved through improved hull design, some of it through more advanced sail plans. Ships from the 1700’s carried and used a lot of rope. But by the 1800’s, rope work was literally so highly developed that it was accomplishing things that we do today with electronics.  The Royal Navy of the Napoleonic wars had vast sources of supply, and used every type of rope imaginable – left hand twists, right hand twists, a variety of materials, thicknesses ranging from string to ropes as thick as a man’s waist.

In addition, the war caused a vast rush toward standardization. The navy needed tools, barrels, guns, and ship supplies, and they ordered them by the thousands. Businesses arose to make one thing – for instance blocks. During the Age of Piracy, every item on a ship was probably hand crafted by a jack-of-all-trades carpenter. In the Age of the Navy, almost every item was mass-produced.

Furthermore, trade had changed considerably. During the Golden Age of Piracy, merchant vessels did not have regular trade routes. Merchant captains scraped together a cargo, and then transported it wherever they could make a profit. Often ships sat in port for weeks or months, while the captain tried to put together enough goods for a profitable voyage. In the meantime, the sailors loitered in the port city, unpaid, getting into trouble.

Double ship's wheel from an 1800's replica ship

Bored, unemployed sailors supported apprentices who were fighting for improved rights, participated in labor riots, and often ended up in jail. Communities, in turn, took steps to control sailors while they were on shore, and this led to resentments which drove some men toward piracy.

By the Napoleonic wars, trade routes were much more regular. Ships were too valuable to be allowed to stand idle. Port cities in North America and the Caribbean expected ships to come regularly. Infrastructure such as warehouses, docks and shipyards had grown tremendously in the New World. During the Golden Age, Caribbean and the Americas were still wilderness. And while the area could not be called “tame” during the early 1800’s, it was, well, closer to that state.

Tiller. Though the ship's wheel existed during the 1700's many vessels
still used this more primitive steering mechanism.

So – watch this wonderful movie, read these wonderful books. Learn a lot. Just be aware that what you are learning is only slightly related to Piracy’s Golden Age.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Master and Commander and Pirates

“Jack was standing firmly planted by the taffrail with his leg wide apart, swinging his telescope from one end of the bay to the other. The first savage blaze of triumph had faded, but his eye still had a fine piratical gleam in it was he turned the possibilities over in his mind.”

Who is this pirate Jack? Is it Rackham? Sparrow?

Nope. This one is Captain Jack Aubrey, an officer in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, circa 1805.
Like many people, I had my first taste of Captain Aubrey in the 2003 movie “Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World” This major motion picture traced adventures of a Navy ship sent to chase down an enemy vessel on the Far Side of the World. The ships were enough to persuade me to watch, and the movie was, in my estimation, a 10/10. Most reviewers had similarly positive responses. And now, twelve years later, Master and Commander has the kind of staying power that makes a classic.

I recommend it to anyone who wants to do research on sailing ships. Not everyone has a chance to get aboard a wooden ship, even one that is tied up in port. Master and Commander is incredibly well researched. The movie has been scrutinized for over a decade and the only flaw found to date is that a single piece of rope, shown in close-up, is not period correct.

I harp regularly on how unbelievably crowded ships were, and here we don’t just hear about it, we see it. It’s one thing to hear that an officer’s cabin was six feet by four feet square, with five feet of headroom. It’s another thing to see it. I tell you that the toilet on a ship was the woodwork at the front of the ship. In Master and Commander we get to see some poor sailor, in an Antarctic snowstorm, sitting bare-ass on this woodwork, waiting for nature to take its course. Furthermore, the story takes place over many months, and the movie does an excellent job of showing this.

The ship is 135 feet long (on deck) and 35 feet wide. 197 souls are on board, and, short of the casualties, they live their lives: weeks, months, perhaps more than a year, in this confined space. We see the men at work and at rest. We see the ship’s boys, some less than five years old. We see and hear the youngest officer, a boy whose voice has yet to break, leading men into battle. In confined spaces, so close they almost touch. Day after day.

So, even though it’s not about pirates, watch Master and Commander, the Far Side of the World.
One of the other spectacular things about this movie is that it is based, not on a single novel, but on a whole series. The author, Patrick O’Brian, was a sailor (in addition to many other things). He composed many tales about the sea and the men who sailed upon her, but what has been dubbed “The Aubrey/Maturin series” (Jack Aubrey’s best friend and sailing companion is Dr. Stephen Maturin, a physician and English spy) is his crowning achievement. The books have been called the greatest adventure novels in the English language.

It’s even been said that, if he had chosen to, O’Brian could have passed the novels off as writings from the period. The language, the author’s understanding of the workings of the Royal Navy, his grasp of ships and the ways they were sailed, and his complete empathy for the men, officers and crews, who sailed them are entirely convincing.  

O’Brian wants you to know how these men talked, what they thought about, what they valued, what they were willing to die for. His writing slowly introduced me to the details of sails and ropes, explained why a ship in heavy seas keeps her topsails flying, let me hear the sounds of the ship’s deck being holystoned in the hours before dawn.

O’Brian is the one who showed me – Showed Me – why horizontal escapades with a girl was sometimes referred to as “giving her a green gown”. when a young lady, having disappeared from a party for a few minutes, returns with the back of her dress green with grass stains.

No one movie could cover all this. The movie, which takes the first part of its title from the first book and the second from the tenth. The plot does not replicate any of the actual scenes from any of the books. Instead it captures the flavor, the sense of adventure and the spirit of the characters. It’s a tribute to both the novels and the quality of the fans that this was accepted without the usual hullabaloo that ruins a movie closely inspired by a popular work of fiction without replicating it scene-by-scene. Here’s to you, fans of Aubrey!

My own goal as a writer has always been to bring my readers into a world of my own design. O’Brian brings us into a world which may have actually been as he describes it… The closest thing to a time machine that you’ll ever find.

He left us with 21 ½ books in the Aubrey/Maturin series. The earliest books strive to be stand-alone works, but by the middle of the series, O’Brian has pretty much given in and acquiesced to the inevitable… It’s really one long novel, like one of the long voyages, each day blending into the last, the unbroken horizon stretching on and on.

Why end with half a book? Because O’Brian, tragically, died in mid-novel, even in mid-sentence. No one was skilled enough to finish the novel, but the fans demanded it. So there it is, a published novel that ends abruptly. Those of us who love the books imagine Aubrey and Maturin sailing off together, forever searching for the next adventure.


Monday, June 1, 2015

A Pirate Party for Adults – Part Two

When I wrote my previous post about pirate parties, I wanted to add pictures of my own parties. Unfortunately, I’m not much of a picture taker, so there wasn’t much to show. However, this year we had the party early. So here’s are some shots – and a couple of videos – with details to help you create the perfect pirate atmosphere. 

 So here's the spread. From left to right (roughly) Sausages and cheese, pulled pork, cookies iced to look like a skull and crossbones, pork rinds, meat on a stick, crackers, key lime pie, a bread bowl full of dip, rum cake, jalapeno poppers, rum cake, fruit salad, chips, rolls (for the pulled pork) cherry tomatoes, oysters, creamed herring, an authentic English 18th century pudding, sangria punch.

I go all out for this, but this is a lot. Just to let you know, the cake was made with a mix, the pulled pork is little more than a really cheap cut of meat cooked in a slow cooker on high for 8 hours.

But the star this year was the punch. As I've said before, we don't serve alcohol (except in the cake) so having an appropriate drink is important. This year it was an alcohol -free sangria, totally appropriate to a Caribbean theme. 

Sangria Punch

3 -  bottles Welch's Sparkling Red Grape Juice (sold with the "fake wine")
1 - 2 liter bottle Sprite or 7Up 
12 oz orange juice

1 lemon
1 orange
1 lime

Mix all the liquids in the punch bowl. Slice the fruit and add.

Here's my dining room table. It's real wood, slightly battered, and colonial style, so it fits the party theme. In the middle is a battered silver tray from a second-hand store, covered with a ragged piece of cloth. The candelabra I found at a thrift store for $7. All the pirate mugs are also from thrift stores, where they usually sell for $1.  The skull (just visible) comes from a Halloween store (after the holiday sale).

Here's a book case, which is filled with media (mostly DVD's). We covered it with an Indian sari bought at a thrift store, and topped it with some bottles, another Halloween skull, and a model ship. 

There have been requests about Pirate Games, and I'm going to do a whole article on that soon. But in the past year I had my cutlas sharpened, and I wanted to show it off.  The first sword exhibition I ever saw was a watermelon being cut in half. Most of us have struggled to get a kitchen knife through the skin of a watermelon, so when the sword blade slices right through the thing, it means something. 

Mind you, this is an exercise for sober people. That watermelon could have been somebody's head. Swords were designed to kill people with, after all. (That's my sword safety speech. I give it every time. Speech over.)

The coffee table was designed to tell a story. The pirates have been playing cards by candle light. (The bright thing in the middle is a candle with 9 wicks. It's a product of PartyLite, the most middle-class of candle suppliers, but you can find pirate stuff anywhere.)  Cards are scattered around, and doubloons (party store). Then there's some jewelry, thrown in when somebody ran out of cash. Keys lead to opening the chest. And at last, there are pistols, a knife, and a "severed ear" from the party store last Halloween.

Last of all is the reminder that we always sing sea shanties. I have a book with the words, so everybody can sing along.

Posted by Jamie Clemons on Saturday, May 30, 2015