Monday, April 27, 2015

The Royal Navy Part 1

The contrast between pirates and the Royal Navy makes for good theater. On the one side pirates, the drunken, greedy, disorganized criminals in their motley clothes. On the other, the proud naval officers, sober, serious, devoted to duty, sporting crisp uniforms and…

Except that’s not at all the way the Royal Navy worked in the very early 1700’s.

In 1717, the Royal Navy had no uniforms. No navy did. In the army, uniforms made for an impressive spectacle. It also reduced costs, since the “uniform” clothing could be ordered in bulk. But at sea, it was the ship that made the impression. Details of the men sailing it were not so important.

Besides, the sailor did have a certain level of similarity in dress. They all tended toward the same cut of baggy work pants in either red or canvas-white (as ubiquitous as blue jeans are today)  Working men wore short jackets, of about the same cut, and most sailors, whether navy or not, favored blue. Most sailors also favored checked shirt, and blue was the most common color, followed by red.

Blue for sailors had been ordained 1,700 years before by the Romans, who were trying to camouflage their ships. The Romans also dyed their sails blue, but that tradition did not last. Red was likely popular because it was both inexpensive and durable, being produced by iron oxide (rust).

Further uniformity was brought about because the ship supplied a “slops chest” of clothing that was available for purchase. The sailors had to pay for the clothes, and the service was outsourced to third-party suppliers. Therefor the supplied clothing tended to be similar, if not identical.

Officers, especially captains, dressed any way they pleased, and there was much more variety here. A captain could wear literally anything he chose. It was an era of grand clothing, with silks, brocades lace and embroidery being common for men who could afford them. Usually the only way to determine who was in charge was by the grandeur of a coat. Well-heeled lieutenants might be able to afford to dress better than their commanding officer, but would quickly find out it was not good for the career.

In Britain, uniforms were designed after a petition from the officers to Parliament in 1760. By this time, other nations has used uniforms for years.

Saluting was not a tradition in the navy until about 1800. During the Golden Age of Piracy, and for some time thereafter, the naval greeting was to touch or tip the hat, the same as for civilians.

The navy was also a much more drunken than we imagine. The British rationed a gallon of beer or wine for each man each day, or a pint of unadulterated brandy or rum. Interestingly enough the service also punished men from drunkenness. They got around this by re-defining what it meant to be drunk. In the navy, drunkenness was being so impaired by drink that a man could not stand up and say his name.

The officers, in addition to the ration of liquor, were expected to supply additional drink for private social use. Cases and cases of wine, brandy, sherry, gin, and rum were purchased out of the private funds of the captain and officers, and stored on the ship. It was not at all uncommon for every man on board to be in an alcoholic haze. The phrase “The sun is over the yardarm” signaled that it was about 11:00 in the morning, and time, not to begin drinking, but to begin drinking HEAVILY.

The navy also anticipated “sharp dealing” as it was called. For example the position of “Purser” the man who managed the ship’s money, was not a paid position. Instead, those wishing to have the position paid the navy a considerable sum, and were expected to make it up by cheating. Either they would pay less than allocated for supplies in foreign ports (often resulting in spoiled or otherwise sub-standard food) or they found ways to get extra money that didn’t need to be spent.

One way was to charge a 10% fee on the sale of all clothing from the slop’s chest to the sailors. Another was to write monthly pay-tickets for non-existent personnel, cash the ticket and keep the money. This led, much later, to the start of a tradition whereby each week during inspection, every man on the ship stepped forward and told the captain his name.

Pay also happened in a more piratical way than you might expect. While everyone but the purser received at least nominal pay, the navy actually ran on an institution called “prize money”. Simply put, when a Royal Navy ship captured a ship of an enemy nation (either a war-ship or a merchant) the captured ship or “prize” belonged to the captain and crew of the vessel that captured it (There were rules for when multiple ships were involved in a capture.)

The captured ships and their cargos were sold, either at common auction or in a direct sale to the British Government. Money from a capture, often enough to make a man rich for life, was distributed to the captain and crew according to a prescribed formula. The money was divided into eighths. One eighth went to the ship’s Captain, and one eighth to the Admiral who wrote his orders. The Lieutenants, Captain of Marines (if present) and Sailing Master shared an eighth between them. The next eighth was divided between the ship’s Chaplain, Carpenter, Gunner, Boatswain, Lieutenant of Marines, and Master’s Mates. One eighth was divided among the junior warrant and petty officers, their mates, sergeants of marines, captain's clerk, surgeon's mates, and midshipmen.

The final two-eighths was divided among the sailors. As you can see, the divisions were between larger and larger groups of people, resulting in a smaller and smaller share for each man. The final division, by members of the crew, might be split among many hundreds of people. But the money inspired men of all levels. The largest payout ever was after the Spanish ship Hermioney was captured by the Active and the Favourite in 1764. The two British Captains received about £65,000 apiece (about 500 year’s salary) and the men about £485 each.

However, this money might take months to get back to the people who had earned it. To increase morale, British captains sometimes confiscated all the money found on a prize, divided it into appropriate shares, and passed it out in in person, immediately. It was not technically legal, but it happened often.

The lure of such prize money was what brought men to the service. It was certainly not the actual pay, which was barely enough to live on – by definition about ¼ of what was given to merchant officers and sailors. Prize money was on everyone’s mind and often caused poor decisions, since a ship that was sunk could not be sold. Trying to preserve enemy ships for sale was known to lose battles.

So there we have it… The navy was just as drunken, disorganized, and treasure-mad as the pirates, and often dressed much the same.

Just one more reason why the pirates did so well during the Golden Age.

Next week – more navy triva.

Monday, April 20, 2015

All the Things on a Pirate Ship.

A pretty good pirate ship just came up for sale, and I began thinking… If you have the ship, what else do you need? What are the things that a ship needs to do business on the water?

It helps to remember that, in the 18th century, a ship was very much like a space station. It was headed into a hostile environment and needed to carry with it all the supplies necessary for itself and its crew.

We will assume that your pirate ship comes with all the sails and rope it will need, and with cannons and a Jolly Roger.

So the first thing you will need is another full set of sails. Sails wear out, tear, and are sometimes carried away by the wind. Without sails to move the ship, it is dead in the water, and everything on it will probably die as well. So you need to have spares for everything, one set at least. Plus a lot of spare canvas, to make things like canon cartridges and hammocks. You will also need enough rope to replace every piece of cordage on the ship, at least twice over, for the same reason.

You will need water and food for your crew. Since this is the 18th century, this will be stored in barrels. In addition to a minimum of 2 month’s supply of water, you must supply your crew with a nutritious diet. This means beef, pork, cheese, dried peas, dried fruit, oatmeal, hard tack, flour, salt, spices and more. If you want to have milk, you must carry a cow or goat, and if you want eggs, you must carry chickens. Then you need to carry food and water for the animals.

For the galley, you will need pots and pans, spoons, buckets, mixing bowls, etc. You will also need to carry all the fuel (firewood) necessary to heat your food.

It would be very pleasant to have coffee, tea, teapots, coffee pots.

You should have replacements for, at least, every mast, spar, crosstree, yard and boom. Plus extra wood for miscellaneous purposes, such as repairing holes shot in the ship and replacing rotten or otherwise damaged parts. And you will need a full set of carpentry tools to form and shape this wood.

We assume the ship has one anchor, but you will need a spare or two.

The ship requires one or two small boats, for getting back and forth to shore.

It really helps to have a portable blacksmith’s forge (the size of an outdoor grill) and a full set of a blacksmith’s tools. Oh, and charcoal to run the forge.

You will need navigational equipment, a compass, equipment to estimate speed, a barometer, charts, telescopes, and a logbook to write it all down.

If you are going to fight, you need cannons, gunpowder, shot for the cannons. And you will need measuring equipment for the powder. To fire the guns, you will need, for each gun, a rammer, a sponge, a worm, fuses, a fuse-holder, a pick, and a tub for water.

Also, in case you get into a fight, you will need a complete range of medicines, scalpels, needles, sewing gut, compresses, and splints. It would help if this included pain killers like opium. 

We will assume your pirate will bring all the swords and pistols they will need, plus their own hammocks, clothes, plates and eating utensils.

You will need crew, of course. While you can have a few landsmen, most of the people on your boat must be skilled sailors. These should include a navigator (and hopefully a spare, so they can compare results for a more accurate reading). A gunner will have the expertise to care for, repair and operate the guns, and he should have a gunner’s mate to help him. A carpenter will do the woodworking the ship needs. A surgeon will take care of the ship’s medical needs, and he should have an assistant, called a loblolly boy. A boatswain helps organize the crew. A quartermaster will manage the ship’s money and make sure the crew gets its fair share of the plunder. It would be nice to have a sailmaker. It would also be nice to have a cooper, to take care of the barrels.

Lastly, and very importantly, you will need alcohol. Navy ships allotted one pint of liquor per man per day, but pirates expected more than that. Figure one quart of liquor per man per day, plus wine, plus beer. If you run out, you’ll just have to capture a ship and take what you need.  

Monday, April 13, 2015

Authentic Pirate Rum Drinks

Spring is finally starting to show up in my part of the world, and everyone is preparing for festivals, outdoor parties and nights under the stars. For those of us who enjoy pirating, it helps to have some rum available. For those of us who, like me, are nuts about authenticity, it’s fun to drink the same type of concoctions that would have been drunk during the Golden Age.

Pirates and rum are linked forever by place and history. If you want your rum to be “authentic” then get the cheapest, newest rum available. Pirates drank what there was, and the main point was to enjoy the effects.

Recipe for Spiced Rum

Spiced Rum is big right now, and you may want to try making your own. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, all common in the Caribbean, are the proper spices to use. Recipes are entirely based on the tastes of the person mixing it, so you can experiment, adding spices and then letting it steep for up to a week, then straining out any solid matter and deciding if you like the taste.

Working on such a recipe is also a good excuse to drink large quantities of rum.

If you are in a bit of a hurry, you can also produce your own spiced rum by gently heating 2 tablespoons of brown sugar with one tablespoon of water. When the mixture is a warm liquid with no visible grains, add your spices and continue heating just until they are thoroughly absorbed. Add to your rum.

Recipe for Grog

People wishing to be “authentic” may wish to create some grog. While the grog has been used as a term for nearly any type of liquor, it was in fact a specific drink with a specific name. A British naval officer, Admiral Vernon, called “Old Grog” for wearing an old grosgrain coat, realized in 1740 that giving sailors a pint of liquor every day and then expecting them to do dangerous and technical work was a bad idea. He therefor ordered that the rum ration should be cut with 3 parts of water, and added the daily ration of lime juice (intended to prevent scurvy) to the mix. The recipe is as follows:

½ cup rum, 1 ½ cups water, 2 tablespoons lime juice. Mix together. Drink this every day and I guarantee you won’t get scurvy.

Many of the pirate drinks were mixed together well in advance and then kept for some special occasion – plain rum being just fine for everyday drinking. Below are a couple of such recipes.

Recipe for Lemon Shrub 

Lemon Shrub is more of a cold-weather drink but nights out on the ocean can get chilly.  The recipe calls for 2 cups of rum, the zest of one lemon, ½ cup of lemon juice and ¾ cup of sugar. Mix it all together, seal it in a glass bottle, and put it away in a cool dark place for a week. To serve, add 1 part of the rum mixture to 2 parts boiling water. You could probably use this as an excuse to drink rum for a cold.

Recipe for Milk Punch

Milk Punch sounds fairly harmless, but don’t drink this and drive. Ingredients are: 2/3 cup of brandy, 1 1/3 cup of rum, 2 cups milk (warmed), 3 cups of water, juice of 2 lemons, zest of one lemon, 4 tablespoons of sugar, 1/8 teaspoon of ground nutmeg.

Mix all ingredients and let stand for 2 hours. Then bottle tightly and keep for at least two weeks before drinking. If it kept for a long time, there is some chance it will become effervescent (like champagne) and may “pop” when opened. Be careful.

Recipe for Rum Punch

The classic drink, however, is Rum Punch, Pirates and other denizens of the Caribbean loved this, and looked for any excuse to mix up a batch. The “theory” behind this punch is one part sour, two parts sweet, three parts strong, four parts weak.

One way to implement this is: One cup key lime juice, two cups brown sugar, three cups of rum and four cups of crushed ice. You may, if you like, substitute regular lime juice for the juice of key-limes (both are available bottled) and white sugar for brown (though brown sugar is more like what the pirates would have used.) Either way, this is very easy to drink, so beware! Pirates didn’t drink and drive, and neither should you.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Pirate Ship – Chasing Prey

A fat merchant ship is in sight. The pirate vessel sets sails, bears down on it, and within minutes the merchant captain is signaling his surrender… Now the pirate plunder can begin!

Well, not quite. Visibility at sea is measured in miles, and sailing ships don’t travel all that fast. In addition, the merchant ship, while often slower than the pirate ship, wasn’t that much slower. In fact, a pirate attack was much different than the stereotypical version from the movies.

To begin with, the pirates had to sight their prey. One way to do this was to simply hang out in a known shipping lane, or near to a port city. Pirate ships didn’t have what we would now call a crow’s nest. Pirates trying to spot prey ships simply hung out in the rigging and watched the horizon.

A ship on the horizon might or might not have also seen the pirates. They wouldn’t be flying a Jolly Roger. Ships at sea didn’t show any flags, since there was mostly no one to see them. A merchant captain might be suspicious simply because the newcomer was an unknown. Or he might be in the mood to share information or break up the monotony of his voyage by visiting. If the pirates were lucky, and managed to look innocent, the merchants might approach them.

If the merchant was not so extremely accommodating, the pirates might help things along by offering a friendly hail of their own. They might ask for news, or for help finding their position at sea. This would work better or worse depending on the nature of the pirate ship and the accent of the captain. A battered vessel with sails torn by cannon balls would not represent well. A pirate captain with a lower-class accent could not pass himself as a gentleman.

Stede Bonnet, one of the worst pirates to ever sail, was especially good at this particular ruse, as he was actually from a good family.

If the merchant captain didn’t like the look of the pirate ship, he might do one of several things. He might ignore the hail and continue on his way. He might alter course to have the advantage of the pirate ship. He might change course in such a way as to make it harder for the pirate ship to catch him. He might stand and fight. Or he might “show his heels” in other words, run for it.

It all depended on the wind, the state of both ships, any nearby land, and even the time of day. And no matter what happened, the issue would not be resolved for several hours.

If the pirate ship was much faster, it might run down the merchant in as little as four hours. If they were more evenly matched, it might take even longer. Chases were known to last for days.

It was a given that the pirate ship was faster and more weatherly. Pirates chose their vessels for their sailing characteristics (as opposed to the merchant, who wanted a solid ship that would carry a large load). Pirates also continually worked on their ships, like young men tinkering with a sports car.

Pirates kept the bottoms of their vessels clean, dragging the entire ship onto land as often as every six weeks to clean marine growth off the bottom. When they could not do this, they worked from above the water, cleaning as far down the sides as they were able.

The pirates also continually worked on the ballasting their ship, moving cargo in the hold to keep it sailing at the best possible angle. They adjusted the masts and sails, trying different angles, different rigging and combinations. Some went so far as cutting away unnecessary parts of the vessel to lighten it.

What the merchant captain was hoping for was to make the chase last until dark. Neither ship would use any sort of lights. With a little luck, the merchant would be able to lose the pirates in the dark. Then the merchant would take down all his sails – the most noticeable part of the ship – and lie to in the troughs between the waves. A ship in this position was nearly impossible to see.

But these ploys weren’t always successful. Maybe the wave-troughs weren’t deep enough to hide the ship. Maybe a light flashed –someone forgot to shield a lantern, the pirates spotted the glow of a sailor’s pipe. Maybe the moon was full. Maybe the pirates just got lucky.

Actual chases often want on for days, sometimes as long as a week. Sometimes the merchants got away. Occasionally, unable to escape, the merchant would turn and fight. This rarely worked out, especially later in the age of piracy. Pirates “punished” merchants who stood against them, and sailors were neither hired for not trained for ship-to-ship battles.

The end usually came simply when the pirate ship was close enough to fire a single shot across the merchant’s bow, or for the pirate captain to be seen brandishing his sword. Either was a sign for the merchant ship to be boarded.

THAT was when the looting could begin.