Monday, August 31, 2015

Pirates – The Spirit of Adventure

There’s no doubt that pirates are beloved at this point in history. We are losing the image of pirates as berserk, bloodthirsty, mindless criminals and beginning to pick up the notion of pirates as individuals, revolutionaries, freedom fighters.

But there is even more to the notion of pirating than that. I want to talk for a moment about the sheer guts it took to become a pirate and live a free life.

First was decision to become a pirate. Many times this came during a pirate raid, when browbeaten, overworked, poorly fed sailors encountered pirates – men who ate what they liked, drank what they liked, and did what they liked. The hearty call to “Join us, and become free men!” was the incentive that moved many a sailor to “go on the account”.

But other circumstances drove men to become pirates. Sometimes the sailors rebelled, and became pirates on their own. This was an act of supreme courage. To leave everything you have known, on the bare feeling that there must be something better. My researches indicate, moreover, that the prime motivator in many of these actions was not one pertinent to survival.

Instead, it was a matter of dignity. An elderly member of the crew was beaten. The captain had simply been too high-handed. Pay was held back. Whatever it was, the ship’s employees simply had enough. Rising up against an employer carried the death penalty, and yet they did it anyway.

It’s interesting to note that, during the Golden Age, pirates organized their ships the same way. I have seen no instance of variation (except for Steed Bonnet, who was certifiably insane) Everyone in the crew received a fair share of the profits. Officers, who had more skills and took more responsibility, were paid more. But not that much more. A captain never made more than twice as much as the average run-of-the-mill pirate.  It was, in short, a socialist revolution.

After all, does anyone actually work twice as hard as anyone else? And in a world (the pirate ship) where everyone’s necessities re met, how much more does anyone need?

Pirate captains lived high. Their double-share of plunder made them enviable figures. In the eyes of townsfolk and common sailors, these men were rich. Yet their share did not prevent their crews from being well-off in the extreme.

It’s also notable that folk kidnapped by pirates often became pirates. The most famous instance of this is Bartholomew Roberts. Kidnapped from a merchant ship for his navigational skills, Roberts quickly joined the pirate crew in spirit as well as fact, and became captain within only a few months. Roberts was one of the strongest proponents of piratical behavior. His observations are notable because he spoke of the freedom given to formerly upper-class individuals by the pirate lifestyle. One man did not have to carry too much responsibility. That weight could be shared by all, to the benefit of all.

Once in control of a ship, pirated did what they pleased. Very often this involved some very intrepid traveling. I’ll confess, I was hooked when Captain Jack Sparrow said, “Bring me that horizon!” Many actual pirates had the same attitude. Henry Avery started out in a Spanish port, sailed around the tip of Africa to get to the Indian Ocean, where he raided shipping. When he had his fortune, he crossed the Atlantic to the Bahamas in order to cash in his ill-gotten gains. Then – according to legend – he then re-crossed the Atlantic to get back to England and retire.

Not bad for a man sailing a ship only 100 feet long, with only the most primitive forms of navigation. (A reliable way of calculating a ship’s longitude would not be discovered for nearly 100 years.)

Pirate regularly crossed the Atlantic, sailed up the coast of North America, or down the coast of South America, just because it pleased them to do so. They did this despite the fact that they had no secure supply-lines. Anyplace they went had the possibility to be hostile – sometimes very hostile. And, unlike exploration expeditions funded by governments, they had no power behind them to back them up. No funds to draw on besides what they took with their own strength. No sure allies waited for them.

When trying to describe a place that is remote and exotic – even in today’s hyper-connected world, the name Madagascar often turns up. To us, it is an exotic locale. To the pirate of 300 years ago, it was a retirement community. They had taken it, and made it their own because they wanted to.

What could be more attractive? A life where all responsibility was shared, where all men were brothers, where every one’s needs were met so well that plunder could be kept in an unlocked room. No one needed to steal it because everyone had enough.
So raise a toast to the pirate life! And I’d urge you, too, to be a little daring. Step out of your comfort zone from time to time. Be brave. Those pirates of 300 years ago did it, and they became legends.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Bess and the Pirates

One of my earliest posts was about how much the morals, clothes and customs of the era of Queen Victoria have influenced how we think about history – including pirates. This post talks about another queen, the lady who set England up as a nation of pirates, and who probably influenced today’s attitude toward pirates being quasi-good-guys.

I’m talking about none other than Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1604. She came to the throne of England during what has been called the Age of Exploration.

Bess did not have a promising start. Born to Henry VIII’s second wife, Ann Boleyn, her mother was beheaded when little Elizabeth was 4 years old, and after that Bess lived a precarious life, her legal state as either a princess or a heretic bastard offspring always in question.  After her father’s death, she survived the reigns of her brother Edward and her sister (Bloody) Mary, and inherited a kingdom with no army, no navy, and no money in the treasury.

Elizabeth, however, did not want to sit idly by while the rest of the Europe established colonies in the New World. She began backing explorers – giving them Royal Favor when Royal cash was in short supply, and encouraging her nobles to do the same.

Spain, once a country even poorer than England, has recently become the richest and most powerful nation on earth, due entirely to New World gold. Phillip of Spain had wanted to marry Elizabeth, but she had turned him down cold, due partially to the fact that he had been married to Elizabeth’s sister Mary, partially to the fact that Catholic Phillip wanted Elizabeth to turn away from her Protestant religion and supporters, partially because he would not have let her run her country as she saw fit.

Whether or not Phillip had also tried to rape Bess during one of his visits to her sister, his then-wife Mary, is still under debate.

So, relations between Spain and England were – strained at best.  Up until recently, the Pope as head of the Catholic Church had been an arbitrator between nations. But Protestant England did not recognize this authority, so the fact that the Pope had given most of North and South America to Spain didn’t matter.

The Elizabethan explorers sailed off into the unknown, often using untried technology (navigation charts/equipment, new ship designs) and on a shoestring budget. They were hoping to get rich quick. On the other side of the world, where Spain was pillaging the natives, these men saw no reason why they should not pillage the Spanish. They brought their riches back, and repaid the Queen with gold.

Elizabeth poured this money back into her country. For those who think that the “federal government” messing with “free enterprise” is new, you are dead wrong. Like her grandfather before her, Bess loaned money to cities and key industries, including ship-building and colonization. This investment brought about, not a collapse of initiative, but  England’s Golden Age. Bess wanted results and she usually got them. England sent more explorers into the unknown.

Spain protested the intrusion and the robberies. It would have been very easy for Elizabeth to back down. But she did not. She defended her pirates, giving them royal titles and estates. To the English, these men were daring heroes. To the Spanish, they were pirates. History seems to side with the Spanish, but that didn’t matter at the time.

When Francis Drake circumnavigated the world, Elizabeth used the money he had “found” to pay off the national debt. She knighted Drake, and also went on board his ship to see it and his crew. While on this “goodwill inspection tour” with members of her Royal Court, Bess’s garter popped open and fell onto the deck.

This item of royal clothing was quickly snatched up by the French Ambassador, who claimed it as a love token for his own royal family. Elizabeth, however, was having none of this. She stalked across the deck and snatched the garter back, declaring “You can have your token later, right now I need it to hold up my sock!” Then, in front of her court, the newly knighted Drake, and the ship’s sailors – some of whom had been convicts or paupers, Good Queen Bess hauled up her dress to above the knee, exposing her royal leg, tied the garter onto her sock, and them put everything back the way it belonged. 

Sailors told stories about the beauty of the exposed leg for generations. The pirates loved Bess.

By 1588, Phillip of Spain had had enough. He launched the Spanish Armada against England, a force of ships so strong that no one could imagine how they might possibly be defeated. Elizabeth was frightened enough to order the release of all prisoners, imagining street-by-street fighting in London against the might of the Spanish invasion.

Elizabeth’s pirates rose to the occasion. Outnumbered, outclassed, they did what pirates do best. They fought dirty. The most out-dates and least seaworthy vessels in the English fleet were set on fire and steered into the approaching Spanish force. The huge Spanish warships, packed together, took terrible losses. A freak storm did the rest.  England was saved.

Elizabeth gave most of the credit to the storm, probably because in those literally minded days, this “Act of God” seemed to show God’s approval for English activities. The pirates probably didn’t care. Spain’s might was utterly broken, and it never again reached such a height of power. Phillip, faced with the fact that God might NOT have wanted him to control the whole world, retreated into depression, and died believing that he probably just hadn’t burned enough heretics at the stake.

The Elizabethan pirates are often known today as the Buccaneering Pirates, or Buccaneers. Their line continued until Sir Henry Morgan died of liver failure in Port Royal Jamaica a hundred years later. These pirates brought back the money that allowed Elizabeth to become a patron of the arts and literature, and to usher in her country’s Golden Age. Not bad for a renegade woman and a passel of pirates.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Pirate Island of Tortuga

Tortuga is probably the most famous piece of real estate ever claimed by pirates. Though they formed the actual government of the Bahamas for nearly four years, and created a society so wicked in the city of Port Royal that the 1697 earthquake was called the “wrath of God”, Tortuga stands out by reputation. How did this come to be?

Like most of the Caribbean, the Isle de Tortuga was first claimed by the Spanish. In fact, it was first spotted by none other than Christopher Columbus himself, who spotted it on his very first voyage on December 6th, 1492.  As the contours of the island emerged from the morning mist, Columbus was reminded of a turtle’s shell, and named the place accordingly. “Isle de Tortuga” means “turtle island”, plain and simple.

Of course, there are a lot of islands that look like the backs of turtles, and “Tortuga”-s can be found all over the world, including the “dry Tortugas” off the coast of Florida, “Tortuga” off the coast of California, and a couple of uninhabited Tortugas off the coast of South America. But for Pirates, there is only one real Tortuga. It lies in the Windward Passage, between Cuba and the island of Hispaniola.

A few Spanish lived on the island by 1625, and French and English settlers soon followed, having been foiled in their efforts to take up residence on Hispaniola. In 1629 they were chased off by Don Fadrique de Toledo, who chased them off and built a fort. Then most of the Spansih army left to chase the French off of Hispaniola, and the French and English came right back, taking over the fortifications that the Spanish had left behind.

Spain’s problem was that it was trying to claim half the world – without the manpower to keep it. The English, French and Dutch followed the pirate creed… If the land was far enough away and no one was watching it too closely, it was up for grabs.

This was the era of the Buccaneering Pirates… Quasi-legal adventurers who often struck at land-based objectives and funneled money back to their respective governments. Tortuga was a convenient spot to gather ships and supplies before striking out to attack either Cuba, Florida or Hispaniola. From 1630 onward, the French, the English and some Dutch occupied the island together, though when their nations were at war, they sometimes fought between themselves.

The level of chaos evident on the island may be hinted at by this fact: Africans slaves were introduced in 1633, but the practice of importing them was discontinued only two years later because they were “running wild.”

Between 1635 and 1640, Spain re-conquered and lost the island twice more. Though their nearby military might gave them the ability to strike effectively, the strategic value of the tiny island simply didn’t seem to merit leaving a force large enough to hold it.

By 1640, the French, English and Dutch buccaneers of Tortuga were calling themselves the  Brethren of the Coast, and were causing chaos with shipping, often without regard to the nationality of the ships concerned.  The French exerted the most control over the island, which was still not much. In 1645, the acting French governor found a remarkable method of getting the pirates under some kind of control. He imported approximately 1,650 prostitutes, hoping to give the pirates something less warlike to do.

 In 1654, the Spanish captured the island for the fourth and final time. The pirates took it back less than a year later.

This time the English had the upper hand. Elias Watts secured a commission from the acting military governor of Jamaica to serve as “governor” of Tortuga. Five years later, the English, for reasons unknown, appointed a Frenchman, Jeremie Deschamps, to the position. Deschamps promptly claimed the island for the King of France, hoisted French colors over the previously Spanish/English/French fort, and defeated several English attempts to regain control.

 By 1670 European powers were no longer quite so comfortable supporting the wild, lawless raiding of the buccaneers, and  the buccaneer era was in decline. Many of the pirates turned to log cutting and wood trading as a new income source. Then a Welsh privateer named Captain Henry Morgan began his career, and invited the pirates to sail under him for the ostensible purpose of protecting England’s newly-acquired colony of Jamaica. French forces also used the pirates as hired guns to improve their position in the Caribbean. Tortuga remained a neutral hideout and a place to party.

Law and order was on a slow upswing, though. By 1680 it was illegal for the English to sail under foreign flags, and many of the pirates, who had been working for their respective navies off-and-on, for years, made it official and became permanent members of their respective nations’ military.

Tortuga remained famous in song and story however. Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) the author of such timeless pirate classics as The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, and The Black Swan, mentioned the island in many of his tales, and when these stories were filmed in by Hollywood, the legend of Tortuga only grew.

Today, Tortuga can be found on television (Black Sails) video games (Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, and The Curse of Monkey Island, among many others)  and, of course, in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, where it represents the epitome of pirate culture.

To quote Captain Jack Sparrow, “If every town in the world was like this one, no man would ever feel unwanted.” Legacy of those 1,650 French prostitutes.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Pirates, Sailors and Fiddler’s Green

Did pirates go to heaven?

All European pirates were at least nominally Christian. This is not remarkable, because in Europe at the time, one needed to be Christian to live among other people. Children were baptized early, as the ritual was supposed to protect the child and, since many people died very young, it was also necessary to make sure the child got into heaven.

The word “Christian” meant a lot more at the time that “an adherent of the Christian church.”  It was often used to mean “proper”. Thus, a sailor might to told to “Furl that line like a Christian” when the line was supposed to be furled neatly and put away in its proper place. The opposite of “Christian” wasn’t “Atheist” it was “savage” – a wild person with no sense of propriety, order or decency. And people believed, quite firmly and literally, that only good Christians would get into heaven and avoid the fires of Hell. This attitude filtered down even to pirates, who worried about their immortal souls as much as anyone.

This is even shown in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. One pirate says to another “Leave me alone, I’m reading the Bible.”

The other pirate replies, “You can’t read!”

His friend replies, “You get points for trying.”

This brings us to the fact that few sailors, and fewer pirates, had a chance to lead a Christian life.  The religion was tied into community, and pirates had little in the way of community, being wanderers. They rarely, if ever, had a chance to attend church. They often did not marry (which was considered an important part of Christian life). They got drunk, hired prostitutes, fought, and took things that did not belong to them. And for people who believed quite literally in Heaven and Hell, this was a real problem.

Even swearing was considered a major sin by the Christian churches, and pirates (like other sailors) swore constantly. They were known for it.

(As an aside, recent scientific studies have shown that shouting a swear word can temporarily block pain, and that it can also provide an adrenaline rush that improves strength. In world where pain came regularly, and near-superhuman strength was needed to haul ropes, swearing must have been a useful 

Pirates accepted that they were going to Hell, and sometimes owned it as a matter of bravado, rather like a modern-day biker with a tattoo that says, “Heaven doesn’t want me and Hell is afraid I’ll take over.” However, there was an alternative. Sailors, understanding that their lives lay outside of the normal round of Christian life, invented a heaven of their own.

This place was called Fiddler’s Green. Descriptions of it go back at least to 1685, when a description of it appears under the name of “Lubberland.”

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Fiddler’s Green grew in the telling, but it was a place where there was always music, and where dancers never got tired. There was plenty to eat – pudding, meat, pie, candy. Tobacco and alcohol were plentiful and free. Often a sailor's soul in Fiddler’s Green was tied to a ship, but on these magic ships there was no work.  The wind always blew fair, and if one was fishing, the fish jumped into the net of their own accord.

Often in this place, the low were raised high and the mighty were laid low.  A ship’s captain served his crew, preparing food for them and sharing his whiskey. Landlords never needed to be paid. (Many men who first went to sea were farmers whose families had been evicted from the a farm they had held for generations.) There were no lawyers.

And when one came to land, the locals were welcoming (rather than suspicious of strangers) and the girls were all pretty and friendly. Rivers and streams flowed with wine, trees grew roast meat and sugar, and the streets were paved with gold. Everyday people wore silk and satin clothing. The weather was never too hot or too cold (though apparently Fiddler’s Green had the usual seasons in the usual order).

It wasn’t heaven. It was a special place for sailors, and all one had to do to get in was to “serve his time” at sea.

The opposite of this was Davy Jones’ locker. Simply put, Davy Jones was another name for the Devil. The name was safer to use than calling him either Satan or the Devil. Such names might draw his attention - something you definitely did not want to do! His job was to take the souls of dead men down below the sea, and keep them forever.  Few, if any stories actually tell about this. To be taken to the bottom of the cold, dark, crushing water, and kept there in chains by an evil spirit was bad enough.

To earn one’s way into Fiddler’s Green, a man had to be honest with his fellows, and hard-working. And he needed to have suffered as a sailor. Since most sailors were beaten regularly, and endured bad food, harsh weather, sickness, and unfair treatment, this wasn’t hard to achieve.

However, ritual was also helpful in getting to Fiddler’s Green. Though it wasn’t necessary, being properly buried, either at sea or on land, was a big help.

This became a recruiting tool for pirates. They offered a new recruit the guarantee of some sort of funeral service upon his passing, usually a full burial. Emergencies like storms or battle might delay the ceremony, but the recruit was promised that it would be held. Merchant captains often did not provide this, especially if they were in a hurry, or even simply did not like the sailor in question.

So there you have it – One more reason to become a pirate. Your own personal heaven.


Monday, August 3, 2015

How to Find Pirate Treasure

Pirate treasure! Who doesn’t dream of digging into the warm sand of a Caribbean beach and bringing out handfuls of doubloons, piles of pesos, stacks of silver and piles of pearls?  And ever since Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of the Whydah in 1987 and cleaned up with a sweet $26,000,000.00, it’s been acknowledged that there’s still treasure to be found.

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So how does one go about bringing in the gold?

Barry famously found his treasure map on the back shelves of his public library, so you if you live along the eastern coast of North or South America, you might hit you local public records office, library, or other  records depository to scope out records of local shipwrecks.  Enormous amounts of gold and silver were shipped to Europe during Spain’s exploitation of the New World, and the wrecks of these treasure vessels are the best way to pick up some gold.

Image result for Eric Schmidt finds gold

New discoveries pop up all the time. On June 17th of this year (2015), Eric (not the one of Google fame) was diving near the site of the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet wrecks, and found over a million dollars worth of gold, in the form of 40 feet of solid gold chain and 41 gold coins. The coins, some of which are among the most beautiful and best preserved of their kind, include a solid gold “Royal” intended for presentation to the King of Spain.

It would be wonderful to believe that you might do the same, but sadly there are legal considerations. After all, when the possibility of treasure comes up, everyone wants a piece. In this case, the right to scavenge the wrecks belongs to the company: 1715 Fleet – Queens Jewels who paid the government for the right.  The Schmidt family had subcontracted to search the area for valuables.

Even with the known location of the wrecks, it has still taken years to bring up the treasure.  Eric speaks of many fruitless hours turning over bits of garbage on the ocean floor, looking for something shiny.  This time the effort paid off,  at the cost of boats, diving equipment, and lots and lots of time.  Treasure hunting ain’t easy.

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But gold coins still occasionally wash up on the Florida beaches. It’s possible to get lucky.

Legendary treasures still await. Although most pirates had no interest in burying treasure, it has been rumored for years that Captain Kidd, a pirate who started out as a privateer, buried some of his ill-gotten gains. Some treasure was dug up and sent to England, where it served as evidence in Kidd’s trial. But additional riches are said to remain, and treasure hunters have gone digging after Kidd’s legendary gold from Connecticut to Madagascar.  In 1983, Cork Graham and Richard Knight thought they could find his treasure in Vietnam. They landed illegally on the island of Phu Quoc and were arrested, fined $10,000 each and kept in prison for 11 months, until they could pay the fine.

You could always search for the lost treasure of Lima. Not quite pirate era, it is nonetheless Spanish gold, which was taken from the natives and held in a treasure stronghold until 1823, when native rebellion forced the government to try and evacuate the gold. These officials hired an English ship to hold the treasure offshore until the rebellion died down. But Captain William Thompson decided to turn pirate instead and sail off with his ill-gotten gains. 

The Spanish eventually caught up to them, and executed everyone except the captain and first mate, who promised to take their captors to where the gold was buried. They led the Spanish to Cocos Island, near Costa Rica, and then ran off into the jungle and were never seen again. Neither was the gold. Was it ever really there? Or did the wily Captain Thompson simple lead the Spanish to a place he could disappear from? We may never know. 

Pirates almost always spent their plunder, rather than bury it or hide it away.  But the legends – possibly fueled by Kidd’s actual actions (He was trying to hide his income and avoid paying men who had invested in his privateering operation.) remain. Other semi-believable tales are told as well. Olivier Levasseur tried to confuse matters at his own hanging by throwing a piece of paper into the crowd and shouting, “The treasure to he who solves it!” No one has ever “solved” the mass of seemingly random numbers.

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Of course, if you just want some pirate treasure, you can do what I did, and buy some. I have a small hoard of “pirate pennies”. Battered almost beyond recognition and worth only a fraction of a cent when they were new, they have nonetheless touched the hands of REAL three-hundred-year-old pirates.  

You, too, can purchase pirate treasure. Coins from the Schmidt family’s find will probably be on the market soon, and there are many other treasure dealers, mostly along the east coast. But beware! Real coins are so valuable that many forgeries exist. Expect to pay between $1,200 and $2,400 for a single gold doubloon.

Why so much? Part of the issue is supply and demand. People will pay for pirate artifacts, and the more well-documented the better. But there’s also the issue of the gold involved.  Many of these coins were made from an ounce of solid 22 carat gold, a purity that is rarely found today. Even melted down, they’d be worth a fortune.

If you vacation in Jamaica, you might also like to go snorkling over the site of the old city of Port Royal. This historic town more closely resembled the fictional Tortuga than any more law-abiding place. Pirates roamed the city freely for 20 years, and there were almost more taverns than permanent residents, until two thirds of the town sank in a massive earthquake that some attributed to the Wrath of God.  

On some tours, participants are free to pick up anything they like in the wreck of the old city. Broken pipe-stems are common, along with equally broken rum bottles. But gold may lurk. You never know!