Monday, January 26, 2015

Pocahontas’ John Smith – Adventurer, Mutineer and Pirate

Everyone in America probably knows the story of John Smith – how he helped the colony at Jamestown survive its early days, only to be captured by the local Natives. When he was about to be killed, the Chief’s beautiful daughter, Pocahontas, threw herself over his body and saving him from the executioner’s club.

After that the story gets a bit vague. In the Disney version, Smith is wounded and needs to return to England in order to survive. He and Pocahontas have a tearful goodbye, but peace is achieved between the English and the Native tribe.

Surprisingly, the story is close to true, and Disney didn’t even mess up the ending too badly. But did you know that not only was John Smith a real person, he was a full time adventurer, who sailed to the Mediterranean, gave New England its name and also dabbled in piracy?

Smith was born on an English farm in 1579 or 1580. He had three years of formal schooling, and went to sea at age 16. He was always a mercenary and privateer. He joined the French in fighting against the Spanish, and when that war was over, took up with the Dutch to fight the Spanish again and was promoted to captain. After this he sailed to the Mediterranean, where he traded when that was profitable, and pirated when it was not.

As a leader, he inspired those under him, and when opportunity arose, he took up work as a mercenary soldier, leading troops against the Turks in Hungary. According to his own writings, he also defeated and killed three Turkish commanders in duels, a feat which caused him to be knighted by the Prince of Transylvania. (Timeline note: This took place in approximately 1600, only 25 years after the death of Vlad the Impaler, also called Dracula)

Also according to Smith’s autobiography, he was later wounded in this same war, captured by the Turks and sold into slavery “like an animal.” He claimed that his Turkins master sent him as a gift to a lady in Constantinople, who fell in love with him. She took him to Crimea, where he escaped in 1604 and returned to England.

In 1606, short on funds, he was employed by the Virginia Company, a corporation dedicated to finding gold in the New World. He set sail under Captain Christopher Newport, and caused enough trouble with the impractical captain during the journey that he was charged with mutiny, and might have been hanged. But the three ships arrived at the Jamestown only a short time later. When they did, they opened the charter written by King James and learned that Smith was to be in charge of the colony.

The colony was in grave straits. The settlers had been promised gold lying on the ground, and had spent most of their time loading ships with iron pyrite (fool’s gold) rather than building homes or planting crops.

John Smith instated a simple law of “he who works not eats not,” and led the settlement through over a year of near-emergency from starvation, cold and disease. Indeed the only reason that the colony survived at all was that ships filled with new settlers arrived to replace those who died. Powhatan, leader of the Natives, was concerned with the continuing inflow of Europeans, and relations between the two groups was strained.

Then, in 1607, something happened which became the Legend of Pocahontas. John Smith was captured and taken to see Powhatan. Smith didn’t like the locals, but unlike many Europeans of his day, he did not regard them as sub-human. Instead, he acknowledged that they were at different levels of technology.

Johns Smith believed that he was about to be killed by Powhatan, and that he was saved by the chief’s daughter. Some historians believe that he made the story up. (It was not written down until 10 years later.) Modern theory is that Smith may have mis-interpreted a ritual in which he was symbolically killed and then re-born as a member of the tribe.

All sources doubt the rescue was inspired by romance. Pocahontas would have been only 12 years old at the time.

However it really went, relationships between the two groups stabilized for a time. The Europeans finally built a village, and began to be almost self-sufficient. Craftsmen and women began to arrive instead of mere treasure-seekers.

But the more Europeans arrived, the more nervous Powhatan became. Smith explored and mapped the region around Jamestown, but he also led war parties in skirmishes against the Natives. In 1609 he was severely wounded by a gunpowder explosion. Then, just like in the Disney movie, he returned to England.

Smith never returned to the Jamestown, but he published his maps of the Virginia area, and did his best to support the colony, encouraging it to be seen as a place where farming and industry would make money, not the easy acquisition of gold.

In 1614, still seeking adventure, Smith sailed again for the New World, landing this time in the area of Maine and Massachusetts. He is credited with naming the area “New England.” He did not stay long, but planned to return. Unfortunately, he was not successful. On is first effort to return his ship was dismasted in a storm, and on the second, he was captured by French pirates. Still the adventurer, he escaped and returned again to England, where he began writing about his life.

He published:  A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Happened in Virginia (1608), A Map of Virginia (1612), The Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia (1612), A Description of New England (1616), New England's Trials (1620, 1622), The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), An Accidence, or the Pathway to Experience Necessary for all Young Seamen (1626), A Sea Grammar (1627) – the first sailors' word book in English, The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith (1630), and Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or Anywhere (1631).

Captain John Smith died in London in 1631, at age 51, not bad for a man of his time who had seen so much of the world. He was formally interred in Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church in London in 1633. His legend lives on.

Many of his written works are available today on Google Books, and can be downloaded and read for free.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Voodoo Dolls

Like Zombies, “Voodoo dolls” are a prominent part of Caribbean myth, and tied to several works that include pirates. What were these dolls, and how did they figure into the Vodou religion?

To begin with, this sort of “magical doll” is linked to many more religions. In fact, magical dolls had been a prominent part of Christianity for some time. The principal behind the dolls was pretty universal. If you want to do magic on a person or thing – say, the Brooklyn Bridge or your History teacher – and you can’t actually have that thing around, you make a model, link the model with the real thing through magic, and then work magic on the model or doll.

If my target is the Brooklyn Bridge, I’d start out by making a model, keeping as close to the building materials of the original as possible. Of course, if I’m not skilled at model making, I may have to resort to a snap-together plastic kit. Once the model is made, the model and the original must be linked. This might involve painting it with the same type of paint used on the real thing, daubing it with dirt brought from the bridge, adding the poop of pigeons or sea gulls. I’d spend a lot of time Telling my model that it really was the Brooklyn Bridge. Then I’d stage traffic jams on it, or cut cables. Whatever I wanted to happen to the real thing.

Conveniently, if nothing happened to the real bridge, it would only mean that I hadn’t linked my model and the original well enough.

New England Poppet from the Salem Witch House

If a middle school girl has a crush on her history teacher, and wants to create a romance, she would make a doll representing him. Instruction manuals suggested forming the doll out of the loved one’s clothing, or stuffing it with clothing scraps. Identifiers such as glasses, a distinctive belt, hairstyle, etc., would be added. Then the girl would make a similar doll representing herself. The two would be tied together in a loving embrace and then hidden away in a bottom bureau drawer.

All of this may seem quite innocent, even silly, But at the time of the Golden Age of Piracy magic of this sort was a very serious business. In 1688, during the lifetime of many notable pirates, a woman names Goody Glover was executed for, among other things, tormenting those who had teased and humiliated her by means of “poppets” of puppets.

She had "several small images, or poppets, or babies, made of rags and stuffed with goat's hair and other ingredients. When these were produced the vile woman acknowledged that her way to torment the objects of her malice was by wetting of her finger with her spittle and stroking of these little images."

Cotton Mather, the same New England cleric who visited and wrote about Bellamy’s crew as they lay in prison after the sinking of the Whydah, also visited and wrote about Goody Glover. In this case, he noted that she "took a stone, a long and slender stone, and with her finger and spittle fell to tormenting it; though whom or what she meant, I had the mercy to never understand."

The Salem Witch Trials took place in 1692, and many of those accused were said to have “poppets” in their possession. And the original “witch” in the trials was a Caribbean slave woman names Tituba, who was charged with leading several Puritan girls into the forest to teach them magic and dancing – two activities held in almost equal horror by the Elders of the community.

It takes little imagination to see the slave-owners of the Caribbean, living in fear of the huge number of slaves held barely under control, projecting their own terrors and traditions onto the Africans.

While the Vodou religion remained a lower-class phenomenon in rural Haiti, it became something of a tourist attraction in more cosmopolitan New Orleans. The religion lived underground, but more theatrical priestesses made a fortune catering to rich tourists. If the “trade” wanted love magic, love magic would be produced. If something spookier was called for, a curse would be dreamed up.

Sticking pins in “Voodoo dolls” became a thing. One item that made this unique to the culture was the style of the dolls. As we’ve seen before, Vodou alters and statues were folk pieces. They were made by the very poor, and depended more on emotion than symmetry or fine materials. The asymmetrical, cobbled-together look of the dolls gives them a horrifying, alien feel.

The last question is, do these dolls work? While no one has ever proved the existence of magic, there are certainly examples of people who knew themselves to be under a curse to wither and die. Like the “placebo effect” which allows a sugar pill to cure some cases of cancer, the belief in magic was all you needed to bring a curse to life. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Origin of Zombies

I promised Zombies in last week's post, since Zombies have appeared in several piratical works. What are Zombies, and where do the Zombie stories come from?

Once again, it all starts in the Caribbean. In our previous post, we discussed how Vodou is a conglomeration of African folk religions, forcibly transported to the New World and melded together by shared slavery. The Bokor or priest/priestess communed with the spirits, practiced healing arts (both spiritual and medicinal) and was a center of the slave community.

However, human nature being what it is, sometimes people want to bring bad luck to one another. When this happens, the individual could work certain charms themselves, or they could pay the Bokor to work spells on a higher level. Some Bokors did this kind of thing regularly, others did not. It wasn't seen as a big deal, either way.

One of the most powerful spells that could be worked was to create a Zombie (zonbi in the Haitian Creole language). According to legend they did this by digging up the body of a recently deceased person (sometimes poisoned or cursed to death by the Bokor), treating it with special drugs, and bringing it back to life.

This Zombie would then work for the Bokor or the person who had paid for the spell. The Zombie had no mind to speak of, but it could do certain repetitive tasks, and it never suffered from hunger or became tired. A Zombie would turn the mechanism that ground sugar cane, or chop cane stalks endlessly. It never needed rest, and ate only a small amount of a special mixture prepared by the Bokor.

What made this so terrible? After all, the deceased wasn't suffering. The soul had gone on to the next world, and the mind was not re-animated by the magic.  I suspect that the greatest horror was linked to the appalling conditions that the slaves worked under. Constantly undernourished, unsheltered and overworked, death must have seemed like the only release. How terrible to learn that, even after death, they must continue to work?

There were also stories of men who, turned down by a woman, paid to have her turned into a Zombie to become that man's sexual slave. While this would be horrible for the woman, it didn't tend to work out very well for the man either. Killing a woman you care for, re-animating her corpse, and then having sex with the unresponsive husk was more likely to bring madness and regret than pleasure.

How did this sort of thing happen? To the inhabitants of the island, and even to their masters, the simple word "magic" explained it all.  But the modern person wants more information.

A 1962 case sheds some light. A man named Clairvius Narcisse claimed that, 20 years before, he had been poisoned by a Bokor. He fell into a trance and was presumed dead, and buried. (Because of the heat and lack of embalming, Haitian burials take place within 24 hours of death, often in as little as 12.)

Clairvius awoke in his coffin, was dug up and given a drug which made him confused and suggestible, then taken to a sugar plantation and put to work. He worked on the plantation for two years, then came back to himself somewhat and escaped, along with other workers who had been treated similarly. Still disoriented and far from home, he wandered as a homeless beggar for 18 years, before stumbling back to his home village, where he recognized his sister.

The case was investigated by several Americans, who suggested that a neurotoxin created from a local toad was the original drug which put Clairvius into his coma. Then a plant extract called datura might have been used to keep him compliant. What did the plantation owners have to gain? Free labor. All it cost was 20 years of a human life.

At first I wondered how the African slaves, recently come to the islands, could have knowledge of these drugs. However, more careful reading reminded me that they were confined with, and learned from the last of the Native islanders. The native population had studied local animals and plants for centuries, and taught their skills to the newcomers.

Whether raised by magical or mundane means, slaves feared being made into Zombies. For this reason they buried their dead as close to the homes of the living as possible, or barring that, at a crossroads (symbol of the meeting place or life and death) or even in the middle of a street, where traffic could be assumed to prevent grave-robbing.

Europeans were fascinated, and more than a little afraid of the African magic. In places like New Orleans, where people of color became free, Vodou became a bit of a tourist attraction. But in Haiti, it remained a slave religion, heathen and dangerous.

Writers and film makers took advantage of this exotic legacy. Many Americans were first introduced to Zombies in the 1932 film The White Zombie, featuring Bela Lugosi as the evil Zombi-making magician. Quickly cobbled together after the success of Dracula, the movie featured an over-the-top plot and bad acting.

Furthermore, it suffered from the fact that classical Zombies aren't very frightening. After all, they are workers who do what they are told. Creepy? Oh, yes. Creepy as anything. But not very scary. It wasn't until 1968, and Night of the Living Dead Zombies became scary. But the frights are entirely invented. Classic Vodou Zombies don't eat people.

Next week - Voodoo Dolls

Monday, January 5, 2015

Voodoo in the Caribbean

One of the things the Caribbean is famous for is Voodoo – Vodou in the preferred spelling of modern practitioners. The origin of dark magic, curses and walking dead, vodou has been used to spice up a variety of pirate movies and novels, most recently in Pirates of the Caribbean 4 – On Stranger Tides.

But the truth is, perhaps even stranger. Vodou is a modern religion, and a religion of recent origin. It grew out of the slavery of Africans in the 17th and 18th century. In short this ancient religion is very modern. It’s roots are in oppression, and it has been a unifying force for the various underclasses of the islands.

The primary “flavors” of Vodou are Haitian, Jamaican, and New Orleans. We will be discussing primarily the religion of Jamaica and Haiti, for the New Orleans religion is substantially different.
When the planters of the islands bought slaves, they made an effort to buy Africans from a variety of different tribes, cultures and languages. Their reasoning was simple. If the slaves did not share a common language or culture, it would be much harder for them to rise against their oppressors. The island planters, being more isolated from Europe and from other Europeans, felt especially vulnerable.

The slaves had every reason to try escape or the overthrow the masters. Working on a sugar plantation was a death sentence. In the early days, slaves’ lives less than three years on average, and living conditions never improved much.  Yet the horrible living conditions also provided an excellent reason to band together. Soon the slaves communicated in languages based off the languages of their overseers (English on Jamaica, French in Haiti) flavored with words from their own many languages. 

They also began to meld their religions.

While many, many tribes were represent among the slaves, their religions often held common themes. Similar deities melded together. Folk traditions grew together.

During this time religion and medicine with interlinked. Europeans still attributed sickness to 
witchcraft, in addition to such things as “bad air” sin, and having too much blood. The emerging Vodou cults attributed sickness to the attentions of wandering ghosts, or such things as having a persimmon tree too close to the house.

The African healers also met and learned from the last surviving members of the Native population, discovering how to use local plants and materials to create effective medicines. When the medicines did not work, these skilled healers used “spirit powers” to defeat the attacking ghosts and encourage their patients to get well.

Was it the placebo effect? Was it magic? We may never truly know, but these healers and religious leaders won the hearts of the slaves, and began the creation of an underground civilization that made the situation almost bearable.

Although Haitian Vodou agrees that there is only one Supreme Being, it recognizes many powerful spirit “deities” as well. These are the loa (or lwa) and are roughly analogous to the Catholic saints. They each have their areas of power and protection, accept offerings and prayers, and intercede on behalf of their followers.

Of course, all of this was done in complete secrecy. Slaves were required to become Christians, at least officially. In Haiti this mean being baptized as Catholic. However, one the baptism was preformed, the overseers were only concerned that an outward appearance of Christianity be upheld.

Vodou made use of the cross, but found different meaning in it. For them, it was the sign of the crossroads, the place where life and death meet. Often crosses were decorated with rum bottles, sign of joy, and chains, sign of the painful nature of a life without freedom.

The Bokor, or priest/priestess of the lwa, disguised the lwa as Catholic saints. For instance, Damballa, the spirit master who created the waters and the earth by shedding his skin like a serpent is often represented by St. Patrick, who drove the snakes out of Ireland.

Much of the work of the Bokors was spiritual healing. They called upon the lwa and made offering to them, gave patients and petitioners spiritual duties, and created alters and statues.

To the Western eye, these figures, along with their alters, appeared to be visions from hell. Several of the lwa bore snake aspects, so the representation of serpents was common. In order to show power, figures were often decorated with bull’s horns, giving them a devilish appearance. The colors of red and black appeared often. And, since Vodou incorporates aspects of ancestor worship, human skulls are sometimes used in religious art. 

Vodou was a religion of the persecuted. The slaves rose in rebellion, were violently put down and tortured in punishment, and rebelled again. Their religion, and their religious leaders, supported them.
Some of the images became horrible. They had always looked crude, being the work of poor people who could not afford fine materials. But now they showed spirits who had suffered along with their worshipers. Protective spirts who had fought hard for the people might be shown missing hands, arms, legs, feet. Eyes were missing. The statues bore the chains of servitude.

And yet the makers of these strange, powerful objects took one further step, which I find quite indicative of peaceful nature of the religion. They bound these frightful figures. The Bokor bindings were of rope. While chains showed strength to endure under oppression, ropes were a poor man’s binding. These were designed to hold back the destructive power until it was needed.

Next week... Zombies!