Monday, March 27, 2017

Last Episode of Black Sails.

The Last Episode of Black Sails

As many of you may know I have spent the last four years reviewing a television show on Starz, which is called Black Sails. It’s about pirates, and wanted a pirate expert to lend some historical knowledge into the mix. 

I was delighted, and I’ve followed the show for its entire four season run. I’ve watched as the characters run through their story arches; They have been raised up, cast down, and have scrambled back into power. I believe that it’s the best TV show ever made about pirates.

Pirates and TV don’t usually go well together. The classic pirate story is about the quest of r treasure… A full-throated quest for the one big score that will make everyone’s fortune for life. The theme was set by no less writer than Robert Lewis Stevenson, in his classic work, Treasure Island.

The problem is that, once the treasure has been found, there is no reason for the pirates to go on pirating. They can go ahead with their plans to move to London, buy a big house, and ride around in a carriage. Compared to the exciting life of a pirate, it seems like an enormous let-down.

Stevenson “fixed” the problem that he had created by taking the treasure away from the pirates in the end. And then he fixed the problem that was created by that disappointing fact by allowing the villainous and charismatic Long John Silver to escape – probably with a pocket full of gold and gems. I believe that the fascination with what Silver might be up to next is what cements the novel as a classic for the ages.

Black Sails is partially inspired by Colin Woodard’s wonderful non-fiction work, The Republic of Pirates. Woodard makes a brilliant case for the piratical quest, not for riches, but for freedom. This battle gives the show legs… Freedom is never as easy to win as cash, and holding it can be even harder. With this struggle connecting our pirates, the story might go on indefinitely.

Black Sails in a combination of the two images. The central conceit of the show is that the most powerful pirates from Treasure Island exist in the same world as the real-life pirates of Nassau. This is an interesting idea, especially since Captain Flint (his first name is never revealed) has been dead for several years before the novel starts. Flint appears as a nightmare, as a threat, and as the image of a ghost, but no more. Still, his image hovers over the book, and Flint manages to appear in all film versions of the story.

Sliver appears in the book as a hardened, aging man. He is missing a leg, yet his obsession with treasure drives every moment of the plot. Stevenson’s quote, “All men feared Flint, and Flint feared Silver” speaks volumes about a hard-driving cripple who was willing to rule form behind the throne.

The TV series is set in piracy’s Golden Age, some twenty years before the actions of the book. This pits them against such characters as Charles Vane, Ben Hornigold, and the historic Blackbeard. It also places them on the island of Nassau, center of what was trying to be a pirate kingdom.

Backing up this cast has been a bevy of background characters. Early on, we saw Dutch, English, Chinese and African pirates, working together in what looks like harmony. Ruling over them - in a fashion – are the Guthrie family. (The actual name of a merchant clan who made a fortune fencing pirate cargo and selling powder, shot and run in return.

Flint is Captain of the Walrus, a fantasy-huge pirate ship, run by terror and blood.

Onto the ship come John Silver, a man being transported in bondage via merchant ship. Who is he and where is he from? We don’t know, but he signs on with the pirates, as any desperate soul might do.

Flint, in this incarnation of pirate myth and legend, is the man bent on creating a free pirate nation. He is the driving force of the action – most of the other pirates want only a share of personal power, or money, or rum, or love.

The show has been far from perfect. In order to follow the rules of TV – weekly involvement of all the characters, regular cliffhangers, and a plot that’s always clear enough for the audience to follow, the writers have, on many, many occasions said “No one will notice.” Well, we have noticed. We noticed when, just because the writers had to waste a night for the sake of the timeline, it takes Flint and his band of cut-throats an entire night to get past a locked door.

Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham murder most of their own crew, for no good reason, and end up facing the consequences. Several characters appear to be immortal, surviving beatings that should have killed 18th century people with no access to surgery or antibiotics. One fellow even, literally, rises form the dead.

Yet the show has had many marvelous moments as well. The costumes have been good, sometimes brilliant. Background details, from old buildings slowly decaying into the jungle to period-appropriate rum bottles to the clean blue sea surrounding Nassau are better than good. Shots of characters moving through the darkness, waiting in fog, talking by candle light, are beautiful beyond description. Sometimes, amidst the smoke and broken building, I thought I saw the Pirate Republic.

So now it’s almost over. Stupid in places, brilliant in others, Black Sails has managed to line up what looks like a very strong finale. Friendship, grief, honor, ambition, lust, ships, loyalty, blood, and love are on the line. Oh, and a whole lot of money, neatly squirreled away in a single huge chest. All on a spooky island, that no is quite sure of how to reach.

Yes, it’s going to be good. April 2nd, 2017 is the fateful day. If you haven't been watching - Yes, you can catch up with it on the Starz site. And if you like, it’s also available on DVD.

Long live pirates!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Pirate Words

Whenever you read about pirates, you come across words that appear few other places – and sometimes nowhere else. In addition, words have changed their meaning over time. Let’s take a look at some words from the pirate era.

Pirate – A person who robs others on the sea. The word “Pirate” covers over 3,000 years of history and perhaps even more. Pirates don’t wear special clothing or sail any special type of ship. They just take stuff.

The Golden Age of Piracy – This is what we think of when we think of pirates. The period covers the years from about 1690 to about 1725 – some say less, some say longer. These are the pirates who wore three-cornered hats and long coats. (Because that’s the kind of clothes everyone wore at the time.) These pirates also considered themselves to be brothers fighting against an unjust system.

 Privateer – Outsourced navy. When navies needed more ships than they could afford, they gave (or sold) privateering licenses to ship owners. These men armed their ships, recruited crews and captains, and took on the job of harassing enemy shipping. Their pay was a percentage of the value of ships and cargo that they captured. The rest went to the government that issued the license. (Many privateers became pirates when the wars they were licensed for ended.)

Ship – Technically, a type of sail-plan on a sailing vessel. “Ship-rigged” vessels have three masts, and all three masts carry square sails. In modern times, this technical usage has been expanded to include all sailing vessels, no matter how many masts or what shape of sails. (However, any type of sailing vessel can properly be called a “boat.”)

Swim – To move through the water. In the 18th century, fish and ships “swam” but people from Europe did not. Water near human habitation was usually too polluted to be safe, and water far from humans held things that wanted to eat people. The very few people who did learn to move through water were considered to be very odd.

African American – This term did not yet exist. There were plenty of Africans, but the United States of America did not yet exist.

Britain – This is a tricky one. In 1706 Britain didn’t exist. In 1707 it did, because England
and Scotland had merged to form the nation of Great Britain. So before 1707, the proper name for it is England, and after that it’s Britain. (England still existed, as a part of Britain. Yes, it’s kind of confusing.)

Rum – An alcoholic drink made from the by-products of sugar production. Because sugar was a major crop in the Caribbean, rum was also made in great quantities. The drink was beloved by nearly everyone, but pirates drank many kinds of liquor. England’s Royal Navy made rum their official drink in 1655. It replaced brandy.

Before the Mast – The crew in a ship had sleeping quarters in the front part of the ship (the ride was rougher there, because the front bounced up and down) The officers slept in the back of the ship, where the ride was smoother. The mast was in the middle. So if you “sailed before the mast” you were a member of the crew.

Midshipman – A child or young man in the Royal Navy who was training to be an officer. Midshipmen could start as young as six, going out to sea in an apprenticeship. When they had learned their craft, and had distinguished themselves in some way, they could take a test and perhaps qualify as lieutenants. Until they did, they were neither crew nor officers, so they slept in the center part of the ship. Hence, midshipmen.

Bully – Brave, self-confident, like a bull. Sailors, who were faced deadly dangers in their work every day, and were strangers in every new port they entered, prided themselves on their bravery. During the Golden Age of Piracy, there was no downside to this. It was high praise to call a man a “bully boy.”

Flyer – A captain who was willing to push his ship to the limits. This was a dangerous business, as it could damage sails, spars and even masts, and could also endanger the lives of the crew. Because of the association, it became synonymous with Reckless bravery.

The Flying Gang – A gang of pirate captains and their crews that ruled the island of Nassau between 1715 and 1718, when the island had no other form of government.

An Ounce of Lead – The weight of a bullet. To give someone ‘an ounce of lead” was to shoot them.

Hanger – Sword. It was fashionable for high-born men to carry swords as a fashion accessory. The blades were so heavy that they needed to be slung off a baldric (shoulder hanger). Pirates, who aspired to be gentlemen, also hung swords off their shoulders.

Gentlemen of Fortune – Pirate’s term for himself. According to society, gentlemen were born, not made. According to pirates, fortune (and gold) could make a gentleman out of a criminal.

There you go – pirate words for pirate lovers. This coming weekend (March 25th) I’ll be at the Indiana Pirate Festival, telling pirate stories and autographing my books. If you’re in the Midwest, stop on by for day of pirate fun.

Monday, March 13, 2017

San Domingo, Gateway to the Caribbean

Before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, the island that we now call Hispaniola was populated by the native Taíno people. They called their island Quisqueya (mother of all lands) and Ayiti (land of high mountains. Columbus was the one who named it Hispaniola. The island includes the territory of today's Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Before Columbus, the island's territory consisted of five chiefdoms: Marién, Maguá, Maguana, Jaragua, and Higüey.

Hispaniola (orthographic projection).svg
Island of Hispainola

First founded in 1496, when the Spanish settled on the island, and officially from August 5th, 1498, the city of Santo Domingo became the oldest European city in the Americas. Bartholomew, brother of Christopher Columbus, founded the settlement. He named it La Nueva Isabela, after an earlier settlement in the north, which had been named after the Queen of Spain.

In 1495 it was renamed Santo Domingo, in honor of Saint Dominic, and it came to be known as the "Gateway to the Caribbean." The expeditions which led to Ponce de León's colonization of Puerto Rico, to Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar's colonization of Cuba, to Hernando Cortes' conquest of Mexico, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa's sighting of the Pacific Ocean were all launched from the city of Santo Domingo.

Statue of Columbus

 In June 1502, the city was destroyed by a major hurricane, and the new Governor, Nicolás de Ovando, had it rebuilt on a different site. The original layout of the city and a large portion of its defensive wall can still be seen today.

Diego Colon arrived in 1509, and assumed the powers of admiral and Viceroy (official representative of the King.) In 1512, a court with royal appointed judges was set up.

The Spaniards used this settlement as their first foothold of power in the Americas, from which they conquered other Caribbean islands and much of the South American mainland. Eventually, however, its influence began to wane as the Spaniards focused their attention more on the mainland after conquering Mexico, Peru, and other regions of Latin America.

In 1586, the Englishman Francis Drake captured the city and held it for ransom. The Spanish called Drake a pirate, and the English called him a national hero. He was later knighted. Drake's invasion, part of a growing force of Buccaneer Pirates, signaled the decline of Spanish dominion over Hispaniola.  Spanish policies of large plantations run by slave labor reduced the population of the island.

Then, 1655 Oliver Cromwell (political and military leader of England) sent an expedition that attacked the city of Santo Domingo.  It was defeated. The English troops withdrew and took the less guarded colony of Jamaica, instead. Jamaica became the toe-hold that England had wanted in the Caribbean. Lacking enough naval force in the New World to defend their new possession, the English governor opened Jamaica’s capital city, Port Royal, to pirates.

With Spanish power waning and Frances’ power on the rise, the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, included the acknowledgement by Spain of France's dominion over the Western third of the island, which is now the nation of Haiti.

From 1795 to 1822 the city of San Domingo changed hands several times, along with the colony it headed. The city was ceded to France in 1795 after years of struggles, and it was briefly captured by Haitian rebels in 1801. France recovered it in 1802, and was once again reclaimed by Spain in 1809. In 1821 Santo Domingo became the capital of an independent nation after the Criollo bourgeois within the country, led by José Núñez de Cáceres, overthrew the Spanish crown. The nation was unified with Haiti just two months later. The city and the colony lost much of their Spanish-born peninsular population as a result of these events which caused a great deal of instability and unrest.

Today the city is not only the capital of the nation of the Dominican Republic, it is also a popular tourist attraction. The city has a rich cultural heritage, featuring theater and performing arts. The area is famous for its beaches, its February Carnival is legendary, and sports fans can enjoy world-class baseball.

The Ciudad Colonial, as the old part of the city is known today, features a cathedral that dates form the 1500’s, a historic fort that has figured in much of the nation’s Spanish history, and the oldest paved street in the New World, built in 1502. The area also features historic restaurants.

Ozama Fortress

The year 1992 marked the 500th anniversary, El Quinto Centenario, of Christopher Columbus' Discovery of America. The Columbus Lighthouse – Faro a Colón – was erected in Santo Domingo in honor of this occasion, with an approximate cost of 400 million Dominican pesos

Monday, March 6, 2017

Off the Edge of the Map

“You’re off the edge of the map, mate! Here there be monsters.” Hector Barbosa - Pirates of the Caribbean – Curse of the Black Pearl

Not quite right. It should be a chart – a sea map. And why would a place that had not yet be described on paper necessarily contain monsters? The answers lie in the history of cartography, the art (and science) of map making.

Cartography is an old skill. No one knows quite how old. Some cave paintings may be early maps – or they may not. It’s hard to tell. The Greeks and Romans certainly practiced map making. And Chinese examples predate western ones.

The earliest maps could be surprisingly exact. A map of ancient lands near what is now Kirkuk shows a use of accurate surveying techniques. Parts are labeled, the four directions are shown, 12 hectares of land belonging to person named Azala is marked in cuneiform letters. Scholars believe the map may be as many as 10,000 years old.   

But the oldest map intending to show the whole word is mostly symbolic. It is Babylonian, and not quite 3,000 years old, and omits Persia and Egypt, places well known to the Babylonians.  Its round shape was a symbolic image.

Maps like this convinced Alexander the Great that
he had conquered the Whole World. 

The ancient Greeks knew the area near their own city-states very well, but their ideas of the shape of the world were bounded more by philosophy than geography.  Greek philosophers believed that the world was a flat disc, with land in the center and water all around the edges.  When Eratosthenes of Cyrene realized that the earth was a sphere, calculated its circumference, and figured out the tilt of the sphere’s axis, things opened up.

Medieval map makers followed the ancient Greek practice of using philosophy instead of science to create maps. In an age when most people didn’t travel far, this was easier to get away with. But when Columbus discovered the New World (I still use this phrase, because he hadn’t known it was there before) two things radically changed. World maps needed to include a lot more territory, and they were suddenly in hot demand.

Spain and Portugal, heirs to the Islamic scholars who had held territory in the region for centuries, became the gold standard of map making. But even the very best maps were trying to describe a lot of territory that wasn’t well known.

Here are dragons

When people didn’t know, they sometimes used the romantic Latin phrase terra incognita, which simply means “place we don’t know about.”

Blank places on maps were also artistically undesirable. When the map maker was describing the true outer limits of European exploration, and the lines just ended in some regions, the map looked incomplete. (Because it was.) So, relying on the art of cartography, map makers offered up pictures of exotic fish and animals.

The earliest phrase that is somewhat like “here there be monsters” was “here are dragons.” This phrase only appears on 2 historic maps. The location of the first, form about 1503, may be an accurate description of what was there, since Komodo dragons – real creatures that will really eat your face – lived nearby. The other “map” is in fact the earliest known globe. Made from 2 halves of an ostrich egg, the globe is believed to date from 1504.

The egg globe

The standard form for Western map-makers was “Here are lions.” The phrase decorated many spots where lions don’t live, but the meaning was pretty clear – bad stuff here, folks! Travel carefully!

Frightening images may have been included on maps to impress purchasers who would be staying at home while others sailed. Or they may have celebrated the bravery of those who went to sea. Exotic images may have seemed informative, or indicated that the map-maker was familiar not only with the shape of the world, but also with its inhabitants.

Art on maps also made them beautiful. In an age when the rich displayed their wealth with elaborate homes and clothing, ornate maps would seem more valuable. Given a choice of a plain map or one with decorations, the more richly adorned piece of paper probably seemed of offer more authority.

By 1600, the world map was at least roughly filled in, and details of water depth and location of settlements began to overshadow decorative elements. By the mid 1600’s Dutch cartographers were publishing atlases with detailed drawings of the large land masses of the world. Science drove out mythology.

But the edge of the map still calls us. Now it may be Mars, or the moons of Jupiter, or the stars themselves. Will we ever meet the monsters? Maybe. Or maybe they are simply the dark places in our own imagination.