Monday, September 26, 2016

Mermaids and Pirates

“On the previous day, when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [on Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”
Source – Christopher Columbus – in the Caribbean - January 9, 1493

Sightings of mermaids have taken place all over the world. Even the famed pirate Blackbeard is said to have sighted them, and to have kept away from certain areas, for fear of encountering more of the creatures.

The earliest surviving tale of these mysterious beings, half-woman and half fish, date from about 3,000 years ago. The story involves a goddess who, upset because she had accidentally killed her human lover, threw herself into the sea. Perhaps she had contemplated suicide, but her divine virtue protected both her life and her beauty, transforming only her lower half into a fish, while maintaining her lovely face and allowing her to live under the waves.

According to legend, Alexander the Great’s sister was transformed into a mermaid. As such, she would stop passing ships, and ask if Alexander still ruled. If told that he still ruled and conquered, she would quiet the sea, but if told the truth, that Alexander had died years before, she would raise up a storm.

Image result for mermaid raises a storm

Some believe that the magical powers of mermaids come from association with sirens. Others believe that the two are one and the same. This give rise, not only to tales of magical powers, but legend of mermaids who rise from the depths to drag men down to their doom.

Whatever their origin, mermaids are conceived as beings more than mortal. It is said that they live eternally, unless killed, and that they have the power to bring good luck or bad luck. Some are perceived as beings with a fish’s tail, but others are said to be exactly like humans. These mermaids are sometimes seen on land. One such tale tells of a very young mermaid who came onto land to steal a little girl’s doll.

In this story, the mother of the little mermaid came to shore with her daughter the next day. She made the young mermaid apologize for the theft, and give the little human girl a necklace of valuable pearls in return.

So apparently mermaids are good parents.

Where there are mermaids, of course, there are mermen. Mermen are not nearly as widely reported as their female counterparts, but they do exist, and it is generally assumed that mermaids and mermen live together under the waves. Mermen, however, are usually described as being hairy and wild-looking, even brutish. Perhaps this explains the fascination that females of the species have with passing sailors.

Of course, tastes in masculine beauty have changed over the years. A modern viewer might see a brawny-chested, bearded merman as quite a “catch.”

Of course, the most famous of these under-sea creatures is The Little Mermaid. Many people will be surprised to learn that the tale is much older than Disney. In fact, it was written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. In this story, the Little Mermaid wants, not only to marry the handsome prince, but also to achieve a human soul. Though she trades her tongue and voice to a sea-witch, and endures terrible trials, the prince ultimately marries another.

At this point the Mermaid’s sisters also do a deal with the sea-witch, and get an enchanted knife that will return their sister to her original state if she kills the prince with it. Yet the Little Mermaid’s love is true. She cannot kill the prince, but throws herself into the sea to drown. Her only consolation is to be changed to sea-foam, and then into an air spirit, which has the chance to win a soul by doing good deeds.

Disney’s version of the story is credited with rejuvenating the studio.

The fact that mermaids are not real has never stopped humans from wanting to see them, however. Many, many false mermaids have been created, usually artificially attached monkey and fish parts. These have been shown in various places. The most famous, the Fiji Mermaid, was concocted by P.T. Barnum, and displayed for years in his museum.

But what did sailors see during the Golden Age of Piracy? Or even today, for that matter, because sightings are still reported. The “mermaid” is usually supposed to be a manatee or a dugong. These sea-mammals are known to sit upright in the water, and use their flippers much like hands. Still, it would take a desperate man, or one with a very vivid imagination, to see a beautiful woman in one of these!

But the human imagination is powerful. Without any actual mermaids, people have resorted to creating their own. One such attraction is Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida. Beginning in 1947, a natural spring was turned into an underwater theater, where beautiful young women wearing fabric tails would perform underwater ballet.

The attraction is now a state park and performances are still held, though the performers are now part time, and all are licensed scuba divers.

More recently we’ve seen mermaids in Pirates of the Caribbean. Many people were shocked to see the man-eating version of these beautiful creatures, but the Pirate’s franchise was only honoring all the lore of mermaids – including their ability to walk on land.

Mermaids have many fans, and mermaid clubs are springing up all over. It’s a popular Halloween costume, and fabric tails for kids can be purchased for as little as $5.99.  But if you want the real thing – a custom-made silicone tail that will convince your friends and family that you’ve actually turned “fishy” you can have that too.

Of course, these come with a steep price, meaning several thousands of dollars. But for a true mermaid fan, no expense is too great. Nowadays mermaid pools, with ladies (and gentlemen) in this high-end swimwear can be seen at many pirate events, and even at Renaissance Fairs.

I wonder what Columbus would have to say?

Monday, September 19, 2016

What did a REAL pirate sound like?

Well, we’ve just about made it through Talk Like a Pirate day, a day that really annoys many of the people who recreate historic pirates (not me, but that’s another story…) Everyone knows the traditional pirate speak… As Cap’n Slappy and Old Chum Bucket, the originators of Talk Like a Pirate Day, inform us “Avast, there me hearties, how you be keeping, an’ why you be ye not speakin’ yer mind on this most glorious holiday! Aaare!” 

By this time, most of the folks reading this blog know that all of this started as a result of one man, actor Robert Newton, who played the part of long John Silver in Disney’s first live-action movie, Treasure Island, in 1950. Newton set the standard for pirate talk forever after.

But did you know that all he did was to emphasis his own broad West Country accent? The West Country of England was known for its smugglers and pirates, and so there’s a solid bite of truth in Newton’s original vocal interpretation.

But pirates were so much more! For instance, some historians estimate that as many as 30 percent of pirates were of African origin. So, if you want to shake things up (especially if you have some African heritage yourself) try adopting a West African accent (that being the region of Africa where many of the slavers traded their wares.) Here’s a link to a proud British/African explaining how to imitate his accent. English slave traders, African slaves, plus pirates equals African pirates…

And I wish more folks of African ancestry wanted to play as pirates!

Another accent found in the real pirating world was the Irish. Many Irish, as well as Africans, were shipped to the Caribbean as slaves, and the “Caribbean accent” of today is heavily influenced by the lilt of Ireland. So an Irish accent is perfect for a pirate!

And just in case you doubt the Irish in real pirate speak… Check out this video of some really interesting Irish speakers on the Emerald Isle of Montserrat in the Caribbean.

Of course, some of the most famous pirates, including Olivier Levasseur– The Buzzard – were French. So, if you’re partial to French, you might try out a French accent for your pirate persona.  Levasseur was from a so-called good family. So you don’t even have to make an effort to sound “rough.” Being a French pirate would also be a great excuse to swill wine and wear some nice pirate clothes.

Dutch pirates have been used for comedic effect in shows such as Black Sails (coming again this January for its last season on Starz.) But many, many Dutch were pirates. One of the most interesting was Hendrick Quintor, a Black man of Dutch nationality who sailed with Sam Bellamy on the Whydah Galley.  I think a Dutch accent on a Black pirate would be sure to be engaging, encouraging members of the public to ask questions and learn about historic pirates.

Or, if you enjoy playing Bad guy pirates, you might want to channel the ghost of Roche Braziliano, whose family emigrated from the Netherlands to Brazil, and who sailed with the notorious Captain Morgan. Either of these men, or any of a hundred others, would have had an accent like this.

The point is that ANY accent can be a pirate accent! Pirates came from nearly every nation, so Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and even Chinese and Japanese can be pirate accent.

But what about English? You see, the English language has changed a lot in 300 years –even more than most languages. How did native English speakers sound 300 years ago? Well, you might be surprised to learn that they sounded American! It’s a generation, of course, but once English speakers migrated away from the British islands, their language largely stopped changing. (All languages change over time, some more than others.)

Scholars think that the least evolved English in the Americas is the language of the Appalachian Mountains. English-speakers migrated here, and then their language didn’t change. Instead, “English” migrated away, making changes that define a so-called English accent today. So if you want to stir things up, try the “pirate accent” here.

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Pirate’s Letter Home

Sometimes I wonder about whether pirates ever wrote letters home. It’s a hard topic to research, since I have never found an example of a pirate’s letter to a private individual. Some open letters by pirates have been published. We’ll look at those at a later date.

What was mail like at about 1700? Very, very different than it is now, that’s for sure.

For one thing, right now most of us have a device in our pockets that allows us to speak to nearly anyone on the planet. We can use it to send text messages, to send emails, to send pictures and videos. Communication was very different 300 years ago.

People communicated by hand-written letter. There were no envelopes, so once the letter was written, the paper was folded up to protect the writing, and the result was held shut with a blob of wax. (Despite all the celebration of “wax seals” in movies, and modern sale of the things in card stores, only official documents and those written by royalty or the very rich were sealed with much more than a blob of wax.)

The wax was used because of the primitive nature of glue at the time – glue was rare, and glue that worked might destroy the paper it was attached to. Some letters were sewn shut.

Here's a video of one way to write and seal a letter. 

As well as no envelopes, there were also no stamps. (The first postage stamp, called the Penny Black, was introduced in 1840 in Great Britain.)  In 1700, the fee to have a letter delivered was paid by the person receiving it.

Why? For one thing, the postal system was not well organized. Letters in England were carried by post boys on horseback. Being a post boy was not a career, merely and occupation for a young man with some tolerance for traveling and having adventures. Since these young men were paid when they delivered the letters there was some chance that the young man would show up with the mail. There was no set schedule for deliveries. The post boys rode when there was mail, and went where the mail needed to be taken. No daily deliveries!

The original mail service had been set up by Henry VIII, and it relied on a set of post-roads, roads that were maintained by the government. (Few roads were.) These roads were better than most, but were still unpaved. Muddy, meandering, surrounded by robbers, these roads rarely let travelers exceed 3 miles per hour. Post boys, noted by their red jackets, were famous for taking time off to fish, drink beer and flirt with women, or simply take a nap on roadside grass.

Postmasters were usually innkeepers, since part of the postmaster’s job was to keep at least three horses on hand for the use of post riders. Postmasters were also the ones who recruited post boys, which may have explained why so many of these riders were lackadaisical in their duties. Being a post master cemented an innkeeper’s place in the community as a source of news and gossip.

The limits of actual service were very small as well. Mostly, it was for areas within 100 miles of London. (Mail traveling from London to Bath, 115 miles away, took 3 days by regular post, 2 days express.) Postage within the city limits of London cost a penny in 1660, half a day’s wages for many people. Postage outside the city was a shilling, or a week’s wages.

Many letters were never delivered. The red-coated post boys were targeted by robbers, who cut the post bags off the saddle while post boys stopped for a drink. Letters were also sometimes lost or simply abandoned. In November of 2015, a trunk full of letters was found in the back of a historic postmaster’s trunk in the Netherlands. Over 2,600 undelivered letters were discovered.

Modern academics are not opening the letters – they rely on X-rays to read the contents without disturbing the seals or the aging paper. But the original postmaster does not seem to have been so delicate. Many of the letters were opened.

They reveal the voices of a wide range of people, from the barely literate, to scholars with beautiful handwriting. They tell the stories of academic achievement, financial problems, and love. One told the story of an opera singer who had left her lover, and now wanted him to take her back (and pay her passage home to him.)

The trunk contained mail from France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. Some of the letters were written in Latin.

Mail moved officially between countries on vessels called Packet Ships (a term for any ship carrying an official packet of mail in addition to its other cargo.)  During the Golden Age of Piracy, no regular shipping routes were in use, so the shipping of mail was very irregular.

Rich people often send mail by private carrier in order to circumvent all this, and poorer folk sent letters along with kind strangers who happened to be traveling in the right direction. Since post roads were often used by general travelers, (despite the fact that they were bad, they were better than other roads) it would not have been much of a chore to drop a letter off with an innkeeper/postmaster. Then, another traveler might carry it along. Or not. You never quite knew.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Pirate Phrases… Real or Hollywood?

With Talk Like a Pirate Day right around the corner, many of us are brushing up on our pirate phrases and language. Here’s a fun list of common sayings. Can you tell if they’re fictional or the Real Deal?

Espy, descry: To see something. Usually when searching the horizon for a sail. Authentic.

Me hearties!: During the Golden Age of Piracy the phrase was “My hearts!” as in “Friends of my heart.” “Heart” was also a slang term for a “stout heart,” and thus for a sailor. By the late 18th century the pronunciation was often rendered as “My hearties,” and in the 19th as “Me hearties.” A little authentic, a little from Hollywood, so your answer is right no matter what you guessed.

Pluck a crow: To pick a fight. Authentic.

Catch a Tartar: Pick a fight with someone stronger than yourself. The reputation of Genghis Khan and his so-called Tartars was still strong in the 18th century. Authentic.

Shiver me timbers: Timbers are the wooden parts that make up the ship’s hull and support the decks and, they did shiver, meaning they splintered and shattered, as in “shivered to pieces.” This was most likely to happen in a ship that has run aground. However, the phrase was not used by pirates. It was first popularized by novelist and naval officer Francis Marryat (famous for his semi-autobiographical novel Mr. Midshipmen Easy) in the early 19th century. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver made it famous in Treasure Island. Though this period is often thought of in connection with pirates, it was in fact 100 years later. Fiction.

Dead man’s chest: The phrase became famous through Treasure Island and no one is quite sure what Stevenson meant. “Dead Man’s Chest” is the English translation of caja de muerto, or coffin. Caja de Muerto is the name of an island off Puerto Rico, so-named because it resembles a coffin. Fun to know, but real pirates probably never talked about it.

Show your heels: To run away. Authentic. Also – having light heels meant likely to run away.

Ballast her well: Ballast was the weight put into the bottom of a ship which causes it to stay upright in the water. This phrase was also use to request that a bartender pour a tankard completely full. Authentic.

Yo ho ho: Though “Yo ho,” was a chant used to help a group work together when hauling or heaving. It was popularized in Treasure Island. Fiction.

Piece-of-eight: a Spanish dollar, worth eight reals or royals, and the currency upon which the U.S. dollar was founded. A silver coin that could be divided into eight pieces. Authentic.

Plain-dealer: one who speaks plainly Many sailors, seamen and pirates prided themselves on speaking plainly and honestly. They felt that this was a contrast to landsmen, who often lied and acted dishonestly. Authentic.

Thundering fellow: a loud, shouting person with a deep voice, often the bosun. Authentic.

Arr!  A common phrase on the West Country of England, exaggerated by Robert Newton who played both Long John Silver and Blackbeard in the 1950s. Newton exaggerated his own West Country accent, as in “Arr, yer a good ‘un, Jim,” which was his pronunciation of “Aw, you’re a good one, Jim.” Fiction.

Linguister: a translator, one who speaks other languages. Authentic.

Jackanapes: A cocky or impudent person. From the term “Jack, from Naples.” Monkeys were often carried by traveling entertainers, many of whom came from Italy, or pretended to. The term may have been applied to sailors a sailor due to their ability to climb aloft. Sailors, like monkeys, were also known for being impudent. Authentic.

Smart as paint: Although this phrase may sound like the modern-day “smart as a cheese sandwich,” it was a genuine complement. “Smart” is a term often meaning well-dressed or fashionably decorated. Ships were painted to make them look “smart” and so by saying that a person was “smart as paint,” one was comparing him to the origin of a ship’s “smartness.” But it’s entirely fictional, invented by Robert Lewis Stevenson for Treasure Island