Monday, October 31, 2016

A Pirate Ghost Story

The pirate MacGrath rowed into Dead Man’s Cove alone, with muffled oars,  under a sliver of moon no wider than her finger-nail. It was slack tide, and the sea and the shore were both eerily quiet. She whistled a little, under her breath, as she worked the oars, for whistling kept ghosts at bay, and the place was known to be haunted.

Not that the man she had come to meet, the informant who was supposed to tell her the sailing date of next year’s Spanish Treasure Fleet, was likely to believe in ghosts. The English had no proper respect for spirits. It was an English trait to think themselves a match for anything, and anyone. Scarlet MacGrath, the pirate, crossed herself and shivered. The Irish knew better.

As she came around the headlands, the bulk of a ruined castle rose up to the north.  Henry Morgan, they said, had taken the place, forty years ago. He had sacked the nearby town, let loose his bloody-handed men to work their will upon the helpless townspeople, then burned it all and killed anyone left standing. Men had called it “war” back in the old days. Now they called it “piracy” and hanged the perpetrators.  Morgan, if she recalled, had been knighted.

Now the place was a shambles, and even the stubborn, lordly Spanish had not cared to come into the ruins, even to rebuild.

Scarlet kept rowing until she felt the hull of her little craft first brush sand, then glanced over her shoulder and picked a spot to beach the boat. Her man was coming over the nearby ridge, on the old silver-hauling track. Damn fool had set his time by the clock, a landsman’s silly conceit. Midnight, a fool’s time.

In an hour the tide would come in, and she would be trapped here for six hours, until the moon pulled the water back out to sea, and her little boat could breast the moving water again.

She leaped out once the bow touched, her boots splashing through the lukewarm salt water. The sound was loud in her ears. Then threw the oars into the boat and pulled out a lantern, shuttered so it would not yet reveal its light. The boat scraped loudly on the rocky shore.

With the boat secure, she began her climb up to the castle. It looked like an Old-World thing, the black stone barely visible against the black sky, crenelated walls and broken towers, and a soft sound of movement within, as the Caribbean jungle closed in around the human remains.

Her contact had said the inner courtyard, as if by hiding inside a ruined building inside a ruined city and under a dark sky, he could hide his sin. He was a sinner, sure. He’s promised to betray the Spanish who employed him. Now he was lurking in the dark, waiting for a pirate. Well, the pirate was a sinner, too. But not a stupid one. Scarlet opened the shutters on her lantern, and the candle within gave forth its feeble glow.

At least now she could see the path. Old bones lay along the narrow way – the dead, never buried slipped under her feet in the dark. Scarlet tilted the bottle back again. The emptiness of the pierced into her, dug into her heart.  She was here for gold, gold that would buy freedom from the laws of the world, from the English and their governors and their bloody navy. Enough gold could buy anything. 

A Spanish treasure ship would be just about enough. Bones, she had seen before.
Some animal scuttled through the dark. Scarlet felt her heart stumble. She wanted the pistol that was secreted in her coat pocket. But taking it up meant dropping the bottle or the lantern. She wanted both. She waited until her heart steadied, then went on.

The castle gate had been blasted open buy cannon fire. Great broken stones lay scattered like dice cast by a giant’s hand. This was Morgan’s work, and the remains of the dead lay again among the stones. The words of the Rosary came to Scarlet’s lips, and she crossed herself with the hand holding the whiskey bottle. The light from her lantern danced and shivered. Ahead lay the dark tunnel of the gate.

She must spend some time breathing before she entered that. It was like going down the mouth of a haunt. How she wished she that she had a bit of rowen wood, to turn the evil spirits. But the only rowen was many miles away. She had light and drink and a pistol in her pocket. And friends, good friends waiting for her back on the ship, with beer and tobacco, and a bit of a fire in the ship’s galley to ward off the evening chill.

The lantern-light seemed to increase in the narrow passage, until her eyes were dazzled. A shadow moved behind her. She turned, holding the lantern high. But it was only her own shadow. Scarlet opened the shutters on the lantern clumsy as she still held the bottle, and went on.

A sharp, cold wind hit her when she stepped out of the tunnel, and the candle in her lantern guttered. 

Swearing, she dropped to her knees, fumbled in her pocket, past the gun, to a tinder box with flint and steel. She struck, and struck again and again trying to shield the candle with her body, but the space was too open, the wind too fresh.

She groped forward then, on hands and knees, seeking a sheltered place. Damn the spy! He should have come by now. Should have had his own light. He was the one who had insisted on this haunted place. Could it be a trap? Could he be waiting with a friend or two, to catch her up? There was a bounty on her head in Spain.

But that was madness. This place was boneyard, a slaughterhouse, a haunted cemetery.             No sane man would come to such a place.

Shoving the bottle into her pocket, she scrambled to her feet and stumbled toward the tunnel. For two steps she was all right but then she tripped and went down again, dropping the lantern, which shattered with a crash. She was on her hands and knees, in the dark, with the wind moaning around her and the bodies of the dead under her hands.

For too long, Scarlet crawled about like a mad thing, her skirts tangled under her and her hands cut by the glass of the shattered lantern. The cool of the night had settled in, and a fine clammy mist had settled into the castle’s courtyard. The rocks were slick with it.

She lurched to her feet, arms reaching out, and blundered alongside a skeletal tree. Some sort of mass hung in it, perhaps a downed flag or a piece of rotting curtain blown down by the wind. But her hand touched something soft and warm. Her hand knew, before her mind did, and a long, long shudder rant through her body. It was a body, a human body. A man, in a decent coat (by the feel of the wool) and he was going cold.

The horror of the hanged man knocked her backwards. She had feared hanging half her life. Her eyes locked onto the body, swaying in the breeze, the faint light of the moon gradually revealing the white face, staring eyes, the hands still clutching at the leather belt wrapped around the throat.

She had not expected hanging.

A great tiredness came over her.  Alone in this desolate place, alone with the dead.

A prickling came along her back, as if she was being watched. The cold mists seemed to coalesce. She saw faces. The place was full of bones. The words of her prayers choked in her throat. The damned Englishman had come here, and had died here, and she had been lured in, and would die beside him, of whatever had brought him down.

The misty forms came closer. Skeletal hands reached out, crawling across the ground. Eyes glowed in the darkness.

She had expected screams from them. But she heard murmurs instead. No threats. No rage. Only pain and loss that reached out to her own loneliness. She felt them. The cold of them. Their hunger and thirst. Especially the great, great thirst that the dead feel.

A hand plucked at her ankle and she pulled away. Another form of mist `crept closer.  All along the ground were the bones of the slain.

She could escape. She could climb up the rotting tree. She could get above them. She could wait them out until sunrise, and then go back to her little boat, and row it out into the friendly see, and to her ship and her crew who would welcome her and her surround her with their comradeship and their good cheer.

The misty, skeletal hands clutched at her ankles, plucked at her skirts.

She would not go up the dead tree. She would not go up with the dead man, and die as he had died, by misadventure or by an excess of terror or a shortage or friends, he the traitor had died.

But she did not lack for hope or friends. She lacked only gold, and was the Irish who knew that gold could be lived without. The spectral figures clutched up to her knees, and she took the whiskey bottle from her pocket and shouted “Drinks on the house!” then threw it with all her might.

She ran to the shore, falling over rocks and into holes. She did not look back.


If you enjoyed the story of Scarlet MacGrath the pirate, check out more of her story. Available on Amazon.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Pirates and Plague and Witches, Oh My!

Pirates are associated with the pleasures of the tropics – sunshine, palm trees, ocean breezes and rum. With their distinctive clothing and their isolation in the Caribbean, it’s hard to place them in history. The average reader, after all, doesn’t have a firm idea of when Queen Ann’s War (The War of Spanish Succession) took place. And who cares, right? The Golden Age of Piracy is just kind of hanging out there, history-wise.

What could be relevant about the history AROUND pirates, anyway?

You might be surprised. Let’s start with Witches. The Golden Age of Piracy is generally considered to have started in 1690. And guess what happened from 1692-1693? The Salem Witch Trails.

Salem is only 25 miles from Boston Massachusetts, a major trading port for pirates. For those who aren’t up on the details of the Witch Trials, they are the last major witch hysteria i Western civilization.

The drama of the Trials unfolded when, in a region battered by war and threatened by Native uprisings, a group of schoolgirls claimed to be possessed by evil spirits. The girls accused first their family’s Caribbean slave, and then various unpopular members of their community, of witchcraft.

By the time the hysteria had died down, 57 people had been arrested for witchcraft, 3 people had been executed, one man died by torture, and several others died in jail. In all, over 200 people were accused of witchcraft.

Cotton Mather, the fire-and-brimstone minister, was the man who persuaded the Salem court to accept “special evidence”… That is to say, the claims of the schoolgirls that they were being attacked by invisible demons and ghosts while on the witness stand. Mather went on to write books defending the use of Special Evidence in the trials and describing the Invisible Forces of wickedness that beset Christians.

Mather made good money off his writing and in later years harbored the notion of writing another tell-all book, this time about pirates.

After the hurricane that sunk the flagship of pirate prince Black Sam Bellamy in 1717, the survivors were jailed in Boston. Cotton Mather fancied writing a best-seller about pirates. He visited the remainder of Bellamy’s crew in prison, wrote down their stories, and attempted to create his own “happy ending” by persuading the pirates to confess.

He didn’t get his confession. But he did leave a set of notes that led modern day historians to the wreck of Bellamy’s ship, the only certified pirate ship ever discovered and excavated.

Cotton Mather

The Golden Age of Piracy also took place only 25 years after the last serious outbreak of the Black Death. The Great Plague of London killed roughly 100,000 people, a quarter of the population of London, in 18 months. It strained the infrastructure of the city alomost to the breaking point, and left a lasting scar on the psyche of the British.

Plague had changed the psyche of Europe. All in all, from 1350 to 1665, the Black Death wiped out half of the world’s population. The massive number of deaths created the image of the Grim Reaper and planted thoughts of death firmly in the mind of the population.

It was the Black Plague that gave Death a personification. Usually a skeleton or skeletal figure, Death carried a scythe to reap the lives of the living. Or a bow-and-arrow to strike from a distance. Death might also bear a shovel, the better to bury his victims.

 But these images of the Grim Reaper did not usually show a clean skeleton. Bodies don’t simply dissolved into skeletons. Instead, depictions of death show bodies with strips of skin still attached. Skin broke open first over the joints, the eyes sank and the structure of the face fell in. Images show the dead with internal organs falling from burst abdomens, with hair still attached to naked skulls.

Plague struck at random, killing young and old rich and poor alike. It had broken society completely down. During the worst of the plague years, in the 1300’s, bands of criminals wandered the stricken countryside, taking what they wanted, in much the same way that pirates would later wander the seas.

Immediately after the worst of the plague the world was beset by its first ever labor shortage.  Serfs discovered that their skills at growing food and raising livestock were suddenly in demand. They bartered the demand for their skills into improved working conditions and status. Years later, when the population again grew, the memory that peasants could bargain with lords and come out ahead.

This notion lived in in pirates.

What also live on was the understanding that life could be short and it was wise to make the most of it. “A short life and a merry one!” was the motto of the pirates. And it was a wise one in the time. And it’s a wise idea now. Life is not sure, so eat, drink and be merry! (And be kind to your fellow travelers, please.)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Punishing Pirates – The Horror of the Gibbet

It’s the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean – Curse of the Black Pearl. Captain Jack in his raggedy rowboat sail past a string of hanging corpses. “Pirates Be Ye Warned” says the sign. Jack pauses his bailing to salute his fallen comrades, even as his own craft begins to sink.

These pirates were being “gibbeted” a horrible punishment, meant to inspire terror in potential wrong-doers.

Gibbeting was firmly rooted in Christian belief in the sanctity of the human body. Church doctrine said that in order to be raised on Judgement Day, a person needed to be buried “entire” – in other words, whole of body.

This belief inspired several medieval practices, including severing heads and displaying them on pikes, and cutting traitors into several pieces and sending the pieces to the far corners of a kingdom. Not only could the remains not be visited by followers, but the very gates of heaven were denied to the soul of the deceased.

In London in the 1600’s the fate of executed pirates was a matter of great ceremony. A veritable parade, led by on official carrying a silver oar – symbol of the British Admiralty’s authority to rule the seas – led the condemned pirate to Execution Dock, located on the Thames River. The Admiralty’s authority began at the edge of the sea, and so the place of execution was located in the mud flats of the Thames, below the high tide line.

Here the pirate was hanged, and here the body would remain until it had been “washed by three tides.” The Thames at this point was close enough to the ocean that tides made the level of the river rise and fall. After the dead body had been through this ritual, it would be covered in tar and left on display until the corpse fell utterly apart.

The bodies of famous pirates were something of a tourist attraction, and the authorities wanted them to stay around for as long as possible. Most notable was the body of William Kidd. To this end, for certain pirates, a gibbet, or iron cage, was often made to surround the body.

There was no special design for these. Nobody published plans. Instead, officials went to a local blacksmith and ordered a gibbet to be made. Each one was its own gristly work of art. Some were designed to simply hold the body, letting the arms and legs flop loose. Others contained the appendages in their own iron supports – either jointed, for eerie movement, or held firmly still by iron bands. Some held the whole body, like a loosely woven iron mummy.

Gibbets weren’t just for pirates, of course. Other criminals – murderers especially, were contained after death in similar structures. The classic location for display of these remains was a crossroads. It was popularly believed that – should the dead man get loose from his confines and decide to go for a stroll that the many choices of direction would keep him from finding his way into town.

Gibbets were designed for maximum horror. The point of the iron container was to hold the body in the shape of a human. Gibbets were hung out of reach of passersby, and suspended by chains designed to move and rattle in the wind. When they were first put up, crowds would gather in a kind of macabre holiday.

But very soon, the horror would set in. First was the smell. People living downwind suffered, and needed to close their windows when the wind blew from the gibbet. Animals – birds, and small predators, gathered to feed, and their activities could be plainly seen. In the early days, brave little boys might dare each other to play near the corpse. Lovers might meet near the gibbet, sure of being alone.

But as time went by, the place grew more and more horrible, and a tarred body might last – to some degree – for decades. The remains of William Kidd are said to have hung for twenty years. Bits of bone might be found under the gibbet, and strange plants were said to grown there… Believable, since the area was most horribly fertilized.

In the end, gibbeting fell out of favor. Early Victorians finally made the connection between filth and sickness. And the gibbet’s goal of preventing crime had not materialized. In fact, the gibbet was a location of yet more murders, such as a case where one servant girl invited her friend to a picnic near such a place, then poisoned her.

The finally gibbet in England was removed by the nearby townspeople in 1832, and two years later the practice was officially banned.

But, strangely enough, some of the hanging corpses on the gibbet achieved a kind of immortality. In a time of unmarked roads, when people navigated by landmarks, a body in a gibbet was notable enough – and long-lasting enough – to be noted by travelers. So we have place names like Old Paar Road, named for the corpse of a murderer who had once marked a crossroads.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Turtle Soup and Pirates

One of the great foods of the 18th century… Indeed, of centuries before, and at least one century afterwards, was turtle. Slow moving, plentiful, and tasty, turtles were a preferred food, especially for sailors.

On merchant and navy ships, turtles of all kinds, but especially sea turtles, were kept in ship’s holds as a ready food source. The animals needed little space, and their slow-moving metabolisms allowed them to live for months on little or no food. A section of the ship could be petitioned off for turtle storage, and the animals would stay there, alive, until they were needed for dinner.

To people today, myself included, this seems horrific. Keeping an animal in close confinement, without food or water or any of the possible pleasures of life, feels like an assault on the morals of eating. Yet men like the pirates of old faced disease and death due to lack of fresh food. They needed the calories and nutrition that fresh turtle meat provided.

And, in many ways, it wasn’t much worse than a modern-day factory farm.

I’ve got my own opinions about turtles, formed not in the least because of my beloved pet, Karai, a Midwestern box turtle (technically a tortoise.) She chirps pleasantly, and watches TV with me, and eats strawberries, I would never eat her or any of her kin. So I’ve decided to look at turtle hunting and eating as a history lesson.

During the Golden Age of Piracy, turtles were plentiful on the beaches and islands of the Caribbean. Many tales of pirates also involve turtle hunting, or “turtling” as it was called. When Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham went looking for the man who betrayed them to Woods Rogers, the Nassau governor, they found him as he was hunting turtles.

When Charles Vane was shipwrecked on an empty island, he survived by eating turtles.

Pirates, known to taking to shore for drinking parties, often celebrated with turtle soup.

The first actual record of eating turtles in the New World goes all the way back to 1609, when a group of Englishmen, shipwrecked in Bermuda, finally headed toward Virginia on the the Sea Venture, along with supplies of turtle meat.

Indeed, 17th century over-turtling resulted in some of the very earliest efforts to protect wildlife. But this very early form of environmental protection didn’t work. The turtle population was decimated in Bermuda. So aspiring turtle-eaters had to go farther afield.
Most popular, and supposedly the best eating, were giant sea turtles, some weighing over 400 pounds. One of the benefits was that the turtle yielded a pot to cook itself in – the turtle’s top shell made a suitable cooking pot.

I won’t go into the methods of killing a sea turtle – but the usual method was quick. Once the shell was cut open, the animal supplied 3 sections of meat. The forequarters (musculature that moved the head a front flippers) the rear quarters (muscles that moved the tail and hind feet) and a narrow band of muscle along the shell that joined them. Unlike other animals, turtles don’t have much in the middle.

A typical recipe for turtle soup “in the wild” suggested cooking and eating the center loin muscles, then chopping up the rest of the meat, adding spices (thyme, parsley, savory and young onions, according to one recipe) and a couple of bottle of wine.  The turtle’s tripe and maw (the digestive tract) were considered the best part, and cooks encouraged them to be boiled in veal stock, with plenty of added butter. Killing and dressing a 400 pound turtle took hours. And cooking it took even more. 6-8 hours were needed to prepare the dish.

The resulting soup was apparently quite addicting, and those who ate it soon wanted more. This led to price increases, as rich men in England were clamoring for the famous soup. In short order, turtle soup became known as the food of the wealthy.

In response, England’s middle class soon created a dish called mock (fake) turtle soup. The recipe for THIS started with a calf’s head (the bony, cartilage-rich head helped create the slightly gelatinous texture of Real Soup) and included beef, chicken stock, lemon, herbs, tomatoes, wine and grated hard
boiled eggs.

The taste of real turtle flesh is said to be a cross between crab and beef. Apparently this came close. It was wildly popular for nearly a century, and can still be found in some upscale restaurants. The image of the Mock Turtle can also be found in Alice in Wonderland, where Lewis Carroll described an animal with the body of a turtle, but the head and feet of a calf. (Calf’s feet were sometimes used to make mock turtle soup instead of the head.)

Why do people no longer eat real turtle soup? One reason is that many turtles are now protected as endangered species. Another is probably that once more people lived in cities, they no longer ate nearly such a wide variety of creatures. Our ancestors thought nothing of devouring raccoons, opossums, parrots, monkeys, and any other meat that became available. In this wild variety, turtle fit right in. To modern folk, it’s far more exotic, and maybe a little frightening.

Turtle soup, food to former presidents, kings, nobles and pirates, can now be had only in the most expensive and exotic of eateries. Or the most primitive. Cajuns and rural southerners still have turtle hunts, and make delicious soup from the animals captured.

And this is why the historical turtle soup is a uniquely piratical dish. The people who ate it were the wealthy… and the very poor. The lure of selling turtle meat for profit never seems to have persuaded poor sailors from enjoying the dish, and they benefited from the healthful properties of wild-caught ocean protein.

Event today, it’s well known that the healthier, more varied diets available to the rich grant longer life. In the 1700’s pirates grabbed a little bit of this “good life” for themselves.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Run Aground!

First one must imagine sailing during the early 18th century. Navigation was as much an art as a science. The compass showed north, and calculations gave a good approximation of the latitude (the distance north or south of the equator) but no one had yet figured out how to calculate longitude (the distance from east to west.) Because of this, it was impossible to ever tell exactly where you were.

Most navigators also used a version of navigation called “ded reckoning.” This worked by making notes to the effect of “we traveled northwest for 6 hours at about 7 knots, and then turned and traveled for 2 hours at about 4 knots.” Assuming that you knew where you were when you started and did the math right, you could figure where you were at the end of the day.

If you think this seems like a terrifyingly vague way to determine where you were you would be right. Add to this that many European ships were traveling to places that they had no record of, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Ships ran aground. This happened when the bottom of the bottom of the ship (like icebergs, ships have a lot of their bulk underneath the water) hit the bottom of the sea (coral reef, rock outcropping or shore.) Because all this was happening underwater, it was hard to tell how deep the water under the boat was.

Ships tried to get information about the bottom of the sea by dropping a piece of lead coated with wax and tied to a string. Once the lead weight hit the bottom it would be pulled up and examined. The length of the string told how deep the bottom was, and whatever stuck to the wax gave an indication of what was down there… It might be soft sand or hard rock.

This system was far better than nothing, but a sudden change might leave a ship bumping along the bottom. If the ship struck hard enough, it might run aground.

A grounded ship was in trouble. Striking a hard surface would damage the bottom of the boat, allowing water to get in. This was when the ship’s carpenter might show his skills. A good carpenter might be able to plug any holed before the ship took on too much water.

But even if the hull was not damaged, or the damage could be repaired, the ship was now stuck. Friction with the sea bottom might prevent the vessel from moving.

The crew could do many things to get off the underwater hazard. In some cases a rising tide might simply lift the ship clear. But if the accident happened when the tide was already high, a receding tide might leave the ship literally high and dry.

Ships were not designed to hang in the air, supported at one point by a solid object, but with other parts dangling unsupported. Some ships came through accidents like this but in many cases the keel (essentially the spine of the ship) broke. A ship with a broken keel was damaged beyond repair. The crew’s only recourse was to load supplies into smaller boats and try to get home some other way, or to move supplies to the nearest shore, assuming an island or mainland was nearby.

Another method was to lighten the ship. Cannons could be thrown overboard (each cannon might weigh as much as several tons) or heavy cargo could be pitched over the side or if the crew was lucky, hauled to a nearby shore. If the crew was desperate, even the precious drinking water might be pumped over the side.

These actions might allow the ship to float free on the next high tide.

Other actions taken to free s ship that had run aground included running a line to another ship, or even a small boat, and attempting to tow the larger sailing ship clear. Obviously efforts would also be made to harness the wind to drive the vessel off the ground. Once again, if some other kind of solid matter – an island perhaps – was close enough, rope might be tied to anything handy, such a spike run into rock or perhaps a palm tree, in an effort to haul the ship free.

If the vessel was stuck in mud, it might have an un-damaged hull and yet be held firm by suction. In order to break the tension of the mud, the crew might try moving suddenly from one side of the ship to the other, trying to cause enough side-to-side movement that the suction would break. War ships sometimes fired their guns into a muddy entrapment, hoping the shock and vibration would set them free.

These were the good ways to run aground.

The worst way was to be blown onto a rocky shore by storm winds. This was every sailor’s nightmare.  On a dark night or in an unfamiliar place, the grounding might come without warning. The momentum of the ship would put a terrible strain on the masts, and it was very common for them to break.

The loss of masts and therefor sails, meant that the ship lost all headway. This put it at the mercy of the sea. With no forward momentum, the ship would turn broadside to the waves. And if the seas were high, waves could wash up over the deck. A strong enough sea might even roll a ship upside down.

This was the disaster that sunk the mighty pirate ship Whydah, flipping her upside down and killing all but 7 of her 150 man crew. It destroyed the Spanish Treasure Fleet of 1715, wiping out 11 out of 12 vessels and strewing gold over Florida’s coasts, and dropping so many doubloons into the sea that they are still washing ashore today.

So, if you go sailing, thank your lucky stars that we now have accurate maps not only of the coasts but of the sea’s bottom as well. And thank them again for boat motors and GPS. Sailing is safer now, though less romantic.