Monday, November 28, 2016

Taverns and Alehouses

Statistics say that, before it sank into the ocean in the great earthquake of 1690, the town of Port Royal, in Jamaica, had one tavern for every two houses. This statistic is true, if a little misleading. The business of selling drinks has changed a bit in the last 300 years.

Let’s start with some terminology. Today, we think of the terms “tavern,” “alehouse,” and even “bar” as being pretty much the same thing. And if we even know about the term “public house” we group it right in with the others.

But a Public House was a slightly different concern. It was, literally, a house that was public. Ale-brewing and beer-brewing at the time was untaxed an unregulated, and many, if not most, households saved money by brewing their own ale or beer. The two drinks are pretty similar. Grain, water, yeast and hops (if available) ferment together to make an alcoholic drink.

Both brews can be brought to a high art. But when the maker’s intention is mostly to kill water-borne bacteria (through formation of alcohol) and create drink that makes the drinker tipsy, it’s not hard to produce a mixture that’s at least satisfactory.  And if a home-brewer had plenty of his home-brew, it was to his advantage to sell it to passer-by.

So a Public House was a house – a private home – that had been opened to the public. Anyone with enough ale (beer is brewed in cooler climates than the Caribbean) could open his front door, hang out a sign, and invited pirates, and others, in for a drink. For a fee, of course.

Port Royal was not protected by the English regular Navy. Instead, a half-organized group of privateers and pirates made the place their home, and protected it as a matter of keeping a secure docking-place. The sailors from these often illegal or semi-legal ships wanted drink. And the home-owners needed cash. So doors were opened and strange sailors were invited in.

This, by the way, also indicates the benign intent of most pirates. If your town has a problem with badly-behaved pirate-sailors, you don’t open your front door to them. You don’t invite them under the same roof that shelters your wife and children. And yet the homeowners – or at least 1/3 of them – did.

Upon entering a Public House, the pirate – and perhaps a few of his friends – would sit down at the family dining table and agree on a price for drink. The homeowner, his wife, and perhaps even their children made pleasant conversation, and showed off any skills they might have at singing or playing music. If the pirate was too drunk to go home at the end of the evening, he could bed down in a spare room, for a small additional fee. If there was no spare room available, a pile of straw on the floor might be available for a slightly smaller fee. In the morning, the family waved him on his way, and if he had enjoyed himself, he might be back the next night.

Ale-house, and even pot-house, were similar terms, describing a place that sold only ale, and was probably in someone’s home.

A hostile was specifically a place for travelers, and featured stabling for horses. While a tavern, or even a public house, might also be able to put up a horse or two, there were not generally enough mounted travelers on the small Caribbean islands to require much in the way of rented horse-housing.

Actual taverns, purpose-built businesses intended for selling drinks and providing entertainment, were not regulated until 1752, and even then only those within 20 miles of London. The Caribbean, like most of the New World, was the wild, wild, west as far an entrepreneurial liquor-sellers.

Taverns sold other drinks besides ale, notably wine, rum, and whiskey.  They were open on a regular basis, not just when their owner had extra booze to sell. And they were probably more often frequented by local prostitutes. A proper tavern could be counted on to have several sleeping-rooms, and might offer a regular in-house musician, and even space enough for dancing.

Taverns often also offered newspapers and lyric-sheets. It was common at the time for song-writers to market their works directly. Since no recordings could be made and sold, the writer of a song would have sheets printed up with the words (usually the same group of popular tunes were re-cycled) and then went door-to-door selling them to taverns. If the tavern owner was interested, he would pay a penny or so, and the song-peddler would glue a lyric sheet to the wall.

Other sorts of notices were posted as well, and were a drawing point for potential customers. Notices of slave sales, rewards offered for runaway slaves and servants, and notices of pirate trials and hangings were all announced by being posted up in such public places. And a juxtaposition between dated notices and lyric sheets on the walls of ancient taverns give us some idea of what tunes were popular during what years. (Guess what? One of the favorite songs during the Golden Age of Piracy was a ballad about Robin Hood taking from the Rich to give to the Poor.)

And as for “bars” – well, that is a word tied to a structure, usually with shelves behind it and a bar-tender as well. A bar is useful if an establishment has one drink-server, several kinds of liquid entertainment, and customers who want to sit near or lean on the bar structure. The word also implies an emphasis on hard liquor – something far less common in the early 1700’s. If you had asked a pirate to tell you his favorite bar, he wouldn’t have known what you were talking about.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Pirates and Irish Whiskey

The Captain likes whiskey
The Mate he likes rum
Us sailors like both
But we can’t get us none.

Judging from songs and stories from the Golden Age of Piracy, rum was the drink of the common man, and whiskey the drink of the well-to-do. Part of this, of course, was because rum (which was manufactured in the Caribbean) was easier and cheaper to get.

But whiskey was a drink with a noble ancestry. And it was often (but not always)
licensed and taxed.

The word whiskey is a modification of the old Gaelic word uisce meaning "water"  Distilled alcohol was known in Latin as aqua vitae ("water of life"). This was translated into Gaelic as Irish: uisce beatha "water of life".

The earliest Irish mention of whisky comes from the seventeenth-century Annals of Clonmacnoise, which attributes the death of a chieftain in 1405 to "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae" at Christmas.  The oldest licensed distillery in the world is the Bushmill distillery in Ireland. Even today, the Bushmill’s bottle has the date of its origin 1608, impressed into the bottle.

The square Bushmill’s bottle also still keeps the original shape of a “case bottle” – a bottle specifically designed to fit perfectly (with many similar bottles) into a wooden case for shipping.

The basic manufacture of whiskey involved (and still involves) coarsely grinding grain, mixing it with water and yeast, and letting it ferment. If this were left alone, the results could be drunk as beer. But whiskey is distilled, a process which increases pulls the alcohol out of the concoction.

The science behind this is that alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water. By keeping the nix at a controlled temperature, the vapors from the liquid can be caught, cooled back into a liquid form, and kept for drinking. The classic Irish process involves distilling the liquid three times. This yields a whiskey that is about 40% alcohol.

The folk-production of whiskey in Ireland produced a product called poitin. The product was produced in remote areas, away from the interference of the law. Stills were often set up on land boundaries so that the production could be blamed on the neighbors if the law showed up. The fire to heat the liquid was provided by turf. Smoke was a giveaway for the Guards (the authorities), so windy, broken weather was chosen to disperse the smoke. The still was heated and attended to for several days to allow the process to run through.

The word poitín stems from the Irish Gaelic word "pota" for pot, this refers to the small copper pot still used by poitín distillers.

The quality of poitín was highly variable, depending on the skill of the distiller and the quality of his equipment. A reputation could be built on the quality of the distiller's poitín, and many families became known for their distilling expertise.  But a bad batch could put a distiller out of business overnight.

Scotland was also a great producer of whiskey but in 1707 Scotland and England merged, and Scotch whisky began to be taxed at the same rate as English whisky. (Note – the spelling change here is deliberate. Irish and American distilleries make whiskey. Scotch and English distilleries make whisky. No one quite knows why.)  The Scots hid untaxed whisky in many locations – including under church alters and kept up production by distilling their product at night. This is the original source of the word moonshine.

During the 1600’s it became common practice to age whiskey in wooden barrels before drinking it. This mellowed the taste. Today, it’s required for Irish whiskey to be aged in wooden barrels for at least 3 years, though the actual product is usually aged for three times that.

Whiskey was said to cure various diseases, from smallpox to a sore throat. The substance does have antiseptic properties (it’s the alcohol.) But most of the so-called curative properties of whiskey were simply a dulling of the symptoms. Enough whiskey can mask almost anything.

Whiskey was a traditional part of Irish life and traditions. No guest must ever be turned away, and a family needed to offer whiskey to all guests. Whiskey defined the social circle. In Ireland, women as well as men drank the “water of life,” unlike many other cultures. And whiskey was the drink of choice for an Irish wake. There are even tales of the dead coming back to life in order to enjoy the festivities.

Whiskey also found its way into folk songs and sea shanties. Even more than rum (which was made on plantations by rich people) whiskey (often made on the fly by the poor) was a drink for rebels. “Whiskey in the Jar,” the most famous song about the drink was a song about a highwayman. The “Wild Irish Rover” has spent all his money on whiskey and beer, but comes home with great riches.  Another song says, “If whiskey was water and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.”

The unique thing about whiskey, however was that, at the same time the lore of the drink acknowledged the harm that the drink can cause. “Whiskey killed my dear old dad,” says one song, and others tell of men driven to poverty, rags and even madness by the drink.

And yet the love of whiskey lived on.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Point of Piracy.

Who were pirates protesting against?

It’s no secret that the pirates of the Golden Age were in a state of rebellion. “At war with the world” is the phrase used sometimes. But what exactly were the pirates rebelling against? Were they in fact fighting everyone?

The first thing to note is that many Golden Age pirates considered themselves loyal members of a nation. Benjamin Hornigold, for instance, strongly resisted attacking English shipping, as he considered himself a loyal subject of the English Crown.

The statements that pirates were in rebellion against the “natural order of the world” and hence against “everyone” were mostly written by The Powers That Be… businessmen who controlled the information distribution of the time. These people – owners of Corporations and Insurance Companies that were the entities being robbed by pirates, had a lot to say about pirates. But they had a definite conflict of interest.  In short, they are not reliable sources.

We have specific examples that indicate that it was corporate interests, rather than governmental or social ones that inspired pirate rage.

When Sam Bellamy, a pirate captain on the rise, captured ships owned by private individuals, he did not simply take the ship and its cargo. He offered her captain ownership of his own previous flagship and some cargo of value, in addition to a cash payment, in exchange for the privately owned vessel and its cargo.

To me it seems clear that, while Bellamy didn’t mind robbing a corporation, he did not want to deprive a private ship-owner of his livelihood. Speeches by other pirates make it clear that pirates were fighting against an economic system, not a government.

Pirates were also entirely neutral on the subject of religion. Their ranks included Christians (both Catholic and Protestants), Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, and unconverted Africans. These people got along in peace because they did not try to convert each other. While the rest of the world was engaging in religious wars, pirates were practicing tolerance.

(Not that the rank-and-file pirates didn’t need a little help, such as when one pirate suggested that the word of a Christian was worth more than that of a Pagan. His captain, Stede Bonnet, informed him that “pirate” was a religion as well as a profession, and that it was not surmounted by any other alliances. Being the captain, Bonnet won the argument.)

Just as pirates had little conflict between religions they seem to have had little conflict between races. As we have seen before, crews that captured slave ships often incorporated the newly freed slaves into their crews. This is especially impressive because these slaves were not skilled as sailors.

Skilled mariners of all kinds had a fine contempt for anyone who did not know how to sail. They had reason for this. The skills necessary to sail a ship took years to learn, and untrained workers were a danger to others on a ship. But while the “establishment” sought to drive sailors apart by paying them varied rates based on even the most trivial of differences in skills or experience, pirates recognized only a few pay-grades.

Recent additions to a crew, whether skilled or unskilled, whether European, African, Native or even Asian, were fairly paid. Often equally paid. Pirated did not differentiate by race.

On the subject of women, we have less information. Nothing like “women’s rights” existed in the 18th century. Women had no rights.

We do have a few clues, however. The very rare female pirates – Anne Bonney and Mary Read, seem to have been accepted in their own crew. Witnesses to the pirate’s crimes say that both women seemed to operate on an equal footing with male crew.

Prostitutes loved pirates, to a greater degree than even their free-spending ways would suggest. They came from all over to work in the Caribbean, and the pirates seem to have treated them well. And since prostitution was virtually the only work open to women in the 18th century, we can safely say that pirates supported the idea of “career” women.

In other areas, pirates were definitely liberal. They were the originators of workman’s compensation, and health insurance. Their desire for improved working conditions means that they would almost undoubtedly have been pro-union. (In fact, piracy can be considered its own form of unionization.)

And last but not least, pirates were accepting of homosexuality. In fact, they practiced a form of gay marriage in which two men joined in a pirate-legal union that included property rights and inheritance, as well as sexual expression. This is especially impressive considering that the rest of the world punished homosexuality with death.

So pirates were 18th century liberals, supporting worker’s rights, minimum wage, universal health care and personal freedom. The point after all, was to have a happy life.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Jewish Pirates in the Carribean

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean Blue

Most people in America remember this convenient rhyme that tells them when Columbus “discovered America”  What they don’t teach us about the same year is that an even more momentous event occurred. On January 2 of 1492, Spain ended a war that had been going on against the Moors of Norther Africa for almost 700 years.

You may remember from your school days a little about the Crusades – religious wars in which the Christians of Europe tried to conquer and hold the Holy Lands of the Bible – especially Jerusalem.

Well, the Muslims and Moors, the people holding her Holy Land, had their own plans for conquest.  They invaded the Iberian Peninsula (location of Portugal and Spain) in the 700’s and held large portions of it for over 700 years. The conquest had a profound effect on culture in the region. It was also, I believe, one important reason why Spain clung so relentlessly to the Catholic religion in a changing world. After all, the conflict between the invaders and the people had largely been a matter of religion.

On January 2 pf 1492, the last of the Moors were expelled from Spain, and this made it possible for the Spanish government to do things like start programs to improve trade. Such actions included funding a crackpot named Columbus who thought he could reach India by sailing west.

One of the major supporters of this expedition was Spain’s richest Jewish families. These Jews had entered the country as bankers, traders and money-lenders of the Moors, and had become important to the Spanish economy. Now, the government of Spain, long accustomed to wagging religious war against the Muslims, seemed about to turn on their Jewish neighbors.

These were the days of the Spanish Inquisition. Today we can make jokes about it, but at the time it was deadly serious. The Catholic Church, ruler of the religious lives of all Catholics in Europe and the world, had decreed that people who did not worship in ways determined by the Church must be “taught the error of their ways.” This might involve public humiliation, confiscation of property, and/or torture. About 2% of those accuses were burned alive at the stake.

Since 1580, the Inquisition in Spain had been particularly dedicated to examining the religious life of the Jews. In order to better get along with society, many Jewish people had converted to Catholicism. These New Christians were often called conversos and were subject to intense scrutiny by the ruling elite. The government suspected – sometimes correctly – that these so-called conversions were merely matters of form. Some of Spain’s Jewish citizens continued to practice their ancient religion in secret. Yet it was difficult to act against people who for centuries had carried out banking and trading jobs that Christians did not want to be involved in.

Jews, and even the conversos had already faced suppression and unequal representation under the law. They had become suspect during the plague years of the 1300’s when desperate people looked for someone to blame for the sickness that destroyed whole cities. The Jewish population was handy scapegoat.  In many cases, riots broke out that destroyed Jewish neighborhoods, and Jewish citizens were driven from their homes or killed outright.  When a rich Jewish converso actually staged a rebellion in northern Spain in 1580, the stage was set for a massive retaliation against anyone of Jewish heritage.

So the Jews of Spain began to look for somewhere to go where they could be safe. Already the Jewish populations of England and France had been expelled from their former homes. And it is believed that Jewish bankers provided at least some of the money to finance Columbus, as well as encouragement to the king and queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella to explore the world.

Jews from Spain may have migrated to Jamaica as early as 1494. In order to hide their origins, they settled as “Portuguese” and lived in their own communities. Only when England overtook the island in 1655 did they dare to revel themselves. An edict by King Charles in 1660 granted them citizenship, but Jewish citizens still did not receive equal rights with non-Jews until 1835.

Once established in the New World, many Jews went on to support and finance pirates. Whether their motives were purely those of profit or if they were seeking retribution for a country that had invented an entire action of the Church to hunt them down can only be imagined. But ships named after old-testament figures such as Prophet Samuel, Queen Esther and Shield of Abraham held privateering licenses and attacked Spanish shipping.

In fact, it was a Dutch pirate of Jewish descent who is credited as the only captain to have ever actually captured a Spanish treasure galleon. In the battle of the Bay of Matanzas in Cuba, during the Eighty Years' War, in 1628, Moses Cohen Henriques, under the command of Dutch naval officer and folk hero Admiral Piet Pieterszoon Hein, Henriques stumbled upon a Spanish galleon that had become separated from its fleet in the dead of the night. The daring captain captured it at once.

Several smaller vessels were also taken in the same raid. In total,  the Dutch fleet captured 11,509,524 guilders (about 6 million dollars) of booty in gold, silver, and other expensive trade goods, such as indigo and cochineal, without any bloodshed. The Dutch gave the Spanish crews enough supplies for them to march to Havana and released them.

The Dutch succeeded in taking over a section of Brazil from 1630 – 1654, and Henriques  went on to lead a Jewish community during the Dutch rule, and established his own pirate island off the Brazilian coast. After the Portuguese recapture of Northern Brazil in 1654, Moses Henriques fled South America and ended up as an adviser to Henry Morgan, the leading pirate of the time.

Though Jewish people, and Jewish pirates in particular, did not generally advertise their religion, even in the Golden Age of Piracy, it is safe to assume that many of them were supporters of the pirates: Merchants willing to deal in Spanish goods, and traders who supplied power, shot and rum to anyone with money to spend were parts easily assumed by Jewish merchants with an ax to grind. It’s also likely, since Jews valued education, that many of them served as navigators and officers aboard pirate ships.

How many of them were there during the time period. We may never know exactly. But a recent study offers some clues. It’s been assumed that today about 200 individuals in Jamaica can trace their ancestry back to the Jewish settlers. But when the matter was actually examined, it was discovered that the number is over 200,000.