Monday, May 29, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Men Tell No Tales

Warning - Spoilers

Rumor has it that this is the last of the POTC franchise – if it is, then it’s a good end. It it’s not, they left themselves an out. Either way is fine with me. As an end, it’s a good end. But I still love me some pirates.

The POTC franchise was not supposed to be. Disney had the idea of making movies based off of their most popular rides. After all, so many of the rides were created to celebrate movies. Disney started off the idea with the Tower of Terror, then the Country Bear Jamboree. Neither of these was what you’d call an instant classic, but the idea wasn’t scrapped.  The next two movies to be scheduled were Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Haunted Mansion.

Everyone remembers Pirates, but few recall Haunted Mansion, which is probably a blessing. But the massive, MASSIVE appeal of POTC took even Disney by surprise. There had to be more movies, but no one knew what they should be.

So the Pirates series has wandered. Commodore Norrington was originally supposed to be the Bad Guy, but that never worked out – the character was a decent human being from the beginning, and it was hard to overcome that. Step in Cutler Becket, in an effort to give us the smooth, ultra-civilized counterpoint to the pirates. We’ve seen evil Spaniards, man-eating mermaids, Davy Jones, and the goddess of the Ocean herself. The special effects got bigger, if not better, with every show.

Which leads us to Dead Men Tell No Tales.

POTC has always been dedicated to taking standard pirate tropes and turning them on their ears. By this movie the tropes were beginning to run thin. The telling of tales actually does take place, and a dead man tells them.

Armando Salizar is an old enemy of Jack Sparrow (along with half the inhabitants of the Caribbean) but his rage is such that, combined with the magic of the Devil’s Triangle) it grants him, and his crew, a cursed immortality. As previously noted, though dead, he tells his tale. By this time, cursed crews and skeletal sailing ships are old hat for Pirates watchers. In this movie, they’re well done, especially the half-disappeared crew. But we’ve seen this before.

More problematic, in my book, is the story of Will Turner. Last seen taking over captaincy of the Flying Dutchman, Will had promised to remove the curse from crew and ship by setting the Dutchman back on its rightful path, that of transporting the dying to the land of the dead. Under Will’s control, the cursed crew return to human forms, and Will’s father, Bootstrap Bill is proudly serving under his son.

When we pick up in this movie, Will is cursed, and he and his crew are growing barnacles. What happened? We don’t know, except that maybe Disney expected us to forget how this stuff was supposed to work.

Good pirate tales seem to require a love story, and this POTC provides us with the best one we’ve had since early Will/Elizabeth. The girl of science, the boy of magic, drawn together in a mutual need to find the fabled Trident of Poseidon. (Well, fabled in this story. I’d never heard of it as a curse-breaking artifact before.)

This is a great way to pit the modern world against the magic and freedom represented by the pirates. A note here, however. “Carina” isn’t the name of a star. It is a constellation in the southern sky. “Carina” is Latin for the keel of a ship, and the constillation was formerly part of the larger constellation of Argo Navis (the ship Argo) until that constellation was divided into three pieces. The other two are Puppis (the poop deck), and Vela (the sails of the ship).

Name aside, I liked the secret of Carina heritage, and the way her father offers up his life for her. But this is a Disney movie, after all. No dead body, no death. Notice that the body never surfaces.

One of the things other things I liked about this version of Pirates is that people have aged. Barbosa, having gotten some prosperity magic, has augmented his love of extravagant headgear with an enormous wig, and is living in a style appropriate for a modern-day Ren Faire pirate – complete with gold-plated skulls and a private orchestra. Will has grown into the solid body of a middle-aged man. Even Elizabeth has a few wrinkles.

But in this story, Jack has little to do. In fact, the years have dealt Jack some cruel blows. His issues with rum seem to have grown to full-blown alcoholism, and his memory is not so sharp as it was.  Also, he has no goals.. There are rules for Jack Sparrow. He does not have a story arc. He is an unrepentant pirate, and he must never stray from that course. Neither love nor money nor the effort of the King of England or the East India Trading Company can change that.

In the first movie, Jack was instrumental in taking Will Turner to sea, and in influencing Barbosa to alter his plans. Jack did this for Jack’s own reasons, not to aid Will and Elizabeth, but he did them. Since then, his influence on movie plots has come and gone.

His most interesting part of this adventure comes in flashback. In the dead man’s tale, when Captain Salazar shows us the young Jack, a would-be pirate lad whose ingenuity and Bug-Bunny like luck doom Salazar and his crew, and turn Jack into a pirate captain.

When he gains captaincy of his fist pirate ship, we see Jack’s new crew gift him with tribute – the thigs we see with Jack now, things he treasures. The hat, the sash, hair beads, and so on. Yet seeing this, we understand why, for the first half of the movie, Jack has been demanding payment from everyone he encounters. Like a confused old retired soldier who wants to be saluted because it reminds him of his youth, this older version of Jack is trying to relive a time when he wits led him and his compatriots to an amazing victory, and brought him adoration.

Seeing how far he’s fallen, it’s very sad.

Yet still, it’s a Disney movie. So Will gets to come home to Elizabeth, Henry gets Carina (or Carina gets Henry) and all the curses are broken. Jacks even gets to sail off into the sunset on his beloved Black Pearl.

One last note here – In all the POTC movies, the one thing we have lacked is pirating. There’s been a true shortage of people in boats robbing other people. That’s what pirating is, folks. At then end of this movie – and this may be the end for Pirates, Jack Sparrow sails off into the sunset, minus even his magic compass.  I hope he robs someone. I really do.

Monday, May 22, 2017

My First Pirate Festival.

Being the story of the how an oddball group faced hardships, disorganization, and lack of funds to attend a pirate festival that helped change one girl's life. 

 It was 2008. Deep in the Midwest. I’d been watching pirate movies, drooling over Mr. Depp. And, because I’m a costume geek, I’d also been drooling over Mr. Depp’s shirts, and designing pirate coats on the side.

And then, in a simple radio ad, I learned that at thing called a pirate festival existed. Port Washington Wisconsin, three hours north of me, along the shore of lovely Lake Michigan. Yes, people on the coasts are laughing at me. But interesting things like pirate festivals come last to the heartland, and while I had been to a host of Renaissance Fairs, no pirate faire ever crossed this girl’s radar.

A pirate fan's dream

 I wanted to go. One problem. I had no money.

Like, eating ramen for weeks, knowing exactly which gas station always had the best prices, repairing holey socks kind of poor. There was no way I could even afford the gas to drive three hours north.

Well, maybe the gas.

The next time I got together with my friends, I told them about my plan. They all complained about being broke, too. None of us could afford to go alone.

My friend Sue had a van. She’d drive, taking us all. I’d pitch in, paying half of the gas. Cathy had a tent, big enough to hold us all. A nearby campground charged $8 a night. Jeff would provide dinner. Cathy would bring muffins for breakfast. Gradually, it all worked out.

We were going to a pirate festival.
Of course, everyone had to work on Friday. And then we had to organize. (Getting together a squad of artists, writers, and free spirits is probably harder than herding cats.) Then, in the days before even Mapquest, we got lost.

We finally pulled into the campground at dusk. We had thought, from the apparent size of the fest, and the nearness of the campground, that there would be other pirates. No luck. Even the campground staff knew nothing about any local Pirate Fest. In fact, the campground was deserted, even spooky. Jeff built a fire and started dinner. Sue and Cathy started putting up the tent. And then we discovered that no one had remembered to bring anything to blow up the air mattresses with.

Spirits were low already – we had been crowded into a van, lost, and the tent was not being cooperative. I felt a deep terror that someone was going to say, “Let’s go home!” and everyone else was going to agree. So I blew up two twin-sized air mattresses and one queen-sized air mattress by lung power alone.

Wearing a costume is half the fun.

We ate. We piled into the tent. Exhausted, we slept like rocks.

The morning dawned bright and hopeful. We ate muffins, made coffee over the campfire, dressed up like pirates, and headed into town.

Halfway there, Sue realized she needed batteries for her camera. Cathy’s boots were already killing her. She wanted flip flops. Jeff, who is Irish by heritage, knew he’d never make it without sunscreen. I had a bad feeling I was going to need safety pins.

We went to Walmart.
Lady Barbossa

No sooner had we walked in the front door,than were ran into other pirates. A woman in a huge hat and a long coat who introduced herself as “Lady Barbossa” and was towing a couple of adorable little goth-girl pirates. As we stood chatting (she had come in for shoe laces) a young man in a pirate hat ran up.

“We’re here! We’re in the right place! Some guy just asked me what was going on with all the pirates. He said he saw Jack Sparrow eating breakfast at McDonalds!” We’d all been a little nervous. As it turned out, the festival had advertised in three states. But nowhere within fifty miles of the fest. The locals had no idea what was going on.

Clearly, SOMETHING was happening. 

They certainly got an eyeful that day. Over a thousand people in pirate costumes showed up. Little boys wore Captain Hook costumes their parents has bought from The Disney Store. Little girls wore pink skirts and skull-and-crossbones t-shirts. Grownups were decked out in custom-make pirate finery, skull-and-crossbones biker leathers, and Jack sparrow logos. We ate lunch with a grown man who told us that he felt he couldn’t come without a costume. Unable to sew, and also unable to find an adult-sized costume, he had ordered a child size and cut open the seams so he’d fit inside.

A fife-and-drum corps marched through the square and up a grassy hill, heralding the arrival of the “Royal Governor.” Historical reenactors stood by with black-powder muskets. The pirates acted out a skit in which the “Governor’s daughter” had married a pirate in secret. After assorted shenanigans, the “Governor” announced that, until he got everything sorted out, all the pirates were pardoned. Much cheering.

For the rest of the day, I listened to pirate music, shopped pirate merchandise, tasted grog, and enjoyed the fantasy. My diverse friends all found something they loved. I felt like a pirate.

In spite of the lack of funds, in spite of the diverse personalities, we had found a place where we all belonged. As an additional blessing, Sue picked up what looked like a dollar bill blowing through the square. It was a twenty, wrapped in a ten. After a genuine effort to find the owner, we used it to fund a group lunch.

It’s still one of the great days of my life.

My advice to you is to find a pirate festival, wherever you may be, and go to it. Wear whatever you want. Enjoy the music, the atmosphere, the people.

Port Washington Pirate Festival. June 2,3,4, 2017.

Monday, May 15, 2017


Pirate stories revolve around gold. Spanish gold, in preference, but any gold will do. Gold – getting it, keeping it, occasionally even getting rid of it, makes a pirate story work. It made the discovery and exploitation of the New World work, too. Without gold, history would have taken a very different turn.

As we now know, Columbus was far from the first European to set foot in the Western Hemisphere. The Vikings had established colonies in Greenland and northern Canada, and had dealings with several native American tribes.

There is also evidence that Europeans fished the Grand Banks of Newfoundland for codfish long before Columbus made his fateful voyage. Fish and trade with Native Americans brought riches to those who dared to think outside the box. But these were working class riches. No kings lusted after codfish.

But on his first voyage, Columbus saw something to whet the appetite. Rowing out to meet him came natives… Nearly naked, rowing canoes, and wearing gold jewelry.

Gold jewelry was uncommon in Europe. Even nobility often didn’t own jewelry made of solid gold. In 1522, Anne Boleyn, child of a noble English family, educated in France, sent to be lady-in-waiting to England’s queen, brought with her only one piece of “gold” jewelry. It was really base metal, with a thin coating of gold, and the coating was visibly wearing off.   

And in the Caribbean, half-naked “savages” wore jewelry of solid gold.

Needless to say, this excited the Powers That Be, and this effectively green-lit all subsequent voyages of exploration.

So why did the natives have gold?

Credit the Andes Mountains. Their geological formation has brought up many kinds of metal. Lead, copper, silver, and yes, gold, are abundant in the Andes.

Natives took these metals from streams that flowed out of the mountains. They liked the gold and silver, but only as a decorative material. They used it to make jewelry and to decorate statues and temples, but they did not make coins. The Carib, the Arawak, even the Incas used a barter system. They traded ducks for wool and thatched houses to pay their taxes.

One constant was that doing work for the Incan government was recorded, and could be “held” for years, being doled out to pay taxes or perhaps even traded for other goods. Sometimes the work that people did was to decorate public buildings or create statues. Gold was often used for these purposes.

The natives valued gold. It’s relatively easy to bring out of ore, it shines, and it does not ever tarnish. It’s also so soft that it’s easy to “work.” Gold can be pounded into a foil thinner than paper, or it can be shaped into cups, statues, and of course, jewelry.

But they didn’t value it more than beautiful bird feathers, or shiny shells, or other pretty things. Still, they had been picking up bits of gold that washed down from streams that began in the Andes for thousands of years. The Incas had a lot of gold.

So much that, when the Spanish conquistadores captures the Incan emperor, Atahualpa, he offered to fill a giant room half full of gold, and then fill it again twice with silver, if the Spanish would let him go. They agreed, not really believing him, and were shocked when the metal actually showed up. The gold alone, some 13,000 pounds of it, would be worth over two hundred and fifty Million dollars today.

As the Spanish took over land in South America, they began to systematically mine gold. The mines were crude by modern standards, but they followed veins of gold, and produced the metal in near-industrial quantities. Between 1500 and 1650, the Spanish (officially) shipped 181 tons of gold out of the Americas, and 16,000 tons of silver. (These are some of the official numbers, but other sources estimate that as much as 20% more was collected and shipped out on the down-low. (It’s hard to stay honest, even if you want to, when you are collecting and shipping money.)

This would be worth today over 11 billion dollars. Doesn’t sound like much today, with multi-billion dollar governmental programs. But back then, it had a profound effect on even everyday life. As more precious metals came in, their value dropped. This cause inflation. One example is that between 1500 and 1650, inflation drove prices up 500%. In other words, in 1650, a loaf of bread cost 5 times as much as it did in 1500.

Of course, as it usually does, this left the poor in the lurch. Prices had risen, and landowners wanted to convert farmland into something that generated money. This involved throwing subsistence farmers off the land they had held for hundreds of years, which created a new class of homeless. These homeless men and women were then available to become cannon fodder in decades-long wars.

When the wars ran out, it left a generation that knew only fighting, and, in the case of sailors, capturing ships.  These men, unemployed, became pirates.

So the pirates were made by gold, in many ways. In today’s world, with money becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of the few, and the ranks of the homeless increasing, I wonder what changes we may see coming in the world?

Monday, May 8, 2017

Charleston, City of Pirates

Founded in 1670, the city of Charleston is intimately linked to pirates and piracy. It has been raided repeatedly, is the fabled birthplace of the notorious Anne Bonny, and counts as part of its history a siege by Blackbeard that blockaded the port for nearly a week. In literature, it is the final resting place of Captain Flint, the legendary pirate from Treasure Island.

The colony was officially chartered as a colony in 1663, granted by King Charles of England to a group of men who had stood by the king during hard times. But it took 7 years, until 1670, to actually begin building a town.

Most of the original settlers came from Bermuda, brought to work in a colony that was supposed to be run more like a corporation than a government. The original site of the city was several miles from the current location, and the tiny settlement was called, not Charleston, but Charles Town, after the king.

The new settlement was under almost constant attack, from the local Natives, the French and Spanish, who were trying to claim the area for themselves. Pirates also attacked, and by 1680 a new city was planned – the first really planned city in the New World. Two things remain from the original town. “Pink House” – a genuinely pink residence, rumored to have been a boarding house for pirates who were in town selling their ill-gotten goods.

The old Powder House is also still standing. This structure housed, not people, but black powder for cannons.

French, Scots-Irish, Scottish, Irish, and Germans migrated to the developing seacoast town, but Africans outnumbered them all. From very early times, slaves imported from Barbados and Native Americans captured and enslaved. During various times, the importation of slaves was outlawed. All free white men were required to carry guns – even in church. The point was to be ready in case of an uprising.

It’s been estimated that, between 1500 and 1864 (when slavery officially ended) that there were some 250 slave rebellion or revolts in North America. The earliest was while the territory was still under Spanish control, in 1526. This revolt was successful. Following a sickness that killed many of the Whites, the slave population rose up, and succeeded in breaking free and going out into the wilds to take up residence with the Native Americans.

In 1711, another bout of disease weakened the colonists, and a slave named Sebastian raised a small force, captured some guns, and kept the town in terror for weeks. He was finally killed by a hired “Indian Hunter."

Sickness was a persistent problem for the colony. Charleston has a humid subtropical climate. Smallpox, yellow fever and earthquakes (which then caused fires) plagued the city, which soon gained a reputation as the least healthy city in North America (though some would-be jet setters of time spent summers in Boston and winters in Charlestown.)

It was rumored that the African slaves were immune to yellow fever, but they initially caught it at roughly the same age of the Whites. Yet by 1750, most of the population seems to have become immune to the disease, so much so that people stopped calling it “yellow fever” and began to call it “the strangers disease.”

Anne Bonny is said to have been born in the town sometime around 1697. Although Charleston was the second-largest city in North America – Boston was bigger – it was still too small to support even a single full-time attorney. – under 6,000. Anne- then Anne Cormak – grew up living partially in town and partially at her attorney-father’s plantation.

Charlestown by this time sported one of the busiest ports in North America, and piracy was well-tolerated. Pirates needed to connect with people who had money in order to sell their stolen goods. The stolen articles provided a low-cost variety of goods to improve the lives of locals, while re-sale of goods enriched local merchants.

Part of the issue may be that the town had no town government. The original lords who had permission to found the settlement neglected to incorporate it. Later efforts to do so were thwarted by state officials, including the governor. The city was run by a hodge-podge of colony appointees and church officials.

Pirate House - or was it really?

In late May 1718, Charles Town was besieged by Edward Teach, commonly known as "Blackbeard", for nearly a week. His pirates plundered merchant ships and seized a number of prominent people as hostages, while demanding a chest of medicine from Governor Robert Johnson. Once the pirates received it, they released their hostages, nearly naked and terrified.

Blackbeard sailed up the coast for North Carolina. The wreck of Blackbeard's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, has since been discovered. Investigators have found what may be the contents of the medicine chest. Items include a urethral syringe (used to treat syphilis), pump clysters (used to provide enemas), a porringer (possibly for bloodletting), and a brass mortar and pestle for preparing medicine. Legend has always said that Blackbeard was looking for medicines and equipment to treat syphilis, likely caught by cavorting with prostitutes.

Today, Charleston shows off its heritage with art, music and a blending of cultures. English, French Huguenot, African and Southern American have created a vibrant culture that still shows off its piratical roots. Locations like Pirate House – a building that may or may not have hidden stolen goods, smugglers, and Blackbeard himself. Is any if it true? Probably not, but it’s fun to take the tour. Many places are also said the house the ghosts of pirates and their victims.

Pirate festivals crop up from time to time (this year’s is postponed due to renovation of the historic structure that hosts the fest) and you can walk the streets of the old city, which really felt the trod of pirates’ boots. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Science of Writing in the 1700’s

Another tribute to science. Writing has often been the cutting edge of human technology. From the ancient Phoenicians, who invented writing by scratching tallies of their trade goods into slabs of clay, to the latest voice-recognizing, document transcribing software, writing is near the heart of human communication.

In the early 1700’s, most writing was done with a pen on paper. It sounds pretty normal, except that the pen was made out of a goose feather, and the paper… Well, that wasn’t quite the same as ours either.

Paper, as most of us know, was invented by the Chinese. In Europe, as soon as people had stopped using slabs of clay to write on, they had moved to parchment, or vellum. This was animal hide that had been treated, bleached and stretched thin – essentially super-thin leather. The advantages of this was that parchment didn’t need a lot of specialized equipment to make, and it was very durable. But it was expensive, and hard to make in large quantities.

Paper making came to Europe through India and the Middle East. The first papermaking plant in Spain was built in 1056, and by 1692 the skill had reached all the way to Sweden.

The difference between parchment and paper is that paper is made from a variety of materials. Linen and cotton rags were pounded into pulp, then mixed with a glue-like substance and pressed into molds before being dried. This meant that paper could be made to specific sizes, with no waste. Later, paper mills were developed. Here, water powered a series of trip-hammers that quickly pulverized the raw materials.

Driven by a fresh need for writing materials, the development of paper was quick. By 1400, all paper was produced in paper mills, and had undergone dozens of improvements.

In 1700, a pen was a quill.  What’s that? A quill in a feather, the large feathers from the wing tip of a goose or swan (and, later, a turkey.) The best feathers were the ones that had been shed normally in a process called molting, something that most birds go through every year.

The reason that a quill could be made into a pen was that it was a hollow tube. For a bird, the hollow shape gives lightness without sacrificing strength. For a human, the tube provides a delicate shape and flexible texture that technology at the time could not match.

Before quills, there had been reed pens. Reeds are also hollow, but they have less flexibility. They were wonderful for writing on slabs of clay, and perfectly fine for writing on parchment. But they dug into the soft new paper.

So pens made from quills became popular. They were used in the medieval period, and by 1600, efforts to write in a more elegant way meant that the technology of the quill superseded the technology of the reed.  

Like reeds. Quills were carved into a point at the tip, and given a split up the middle. The hollow tube of the feather held the ink, the narrow point directed it, and the split allowed variations of pressure to control the width of the line.

The technology of the quill pen, with its flexible tip, hard point, and deep ink tube is so superior that some master-calligraphers still use them to do fine work on expensive paper.  

But the latest technology for writing in 1700 was the pencil.

Pencils did not exist before 1565. It was at about this time that a large deposit of graphite was found in England. The deposit was a large, solid block, and such a thing had never been found before. The science of chemistry was in its infancy, and the chemists of the day mistook the soft, grey metallic material for lead. This mistake – almost 500 years ago – is why we still call the material inside a pencil “lead.” Pencils have never written with lead.

The original pencils were simply sticks of graphite sawed from the original block. But it was quickly discovered that graphite had a much more valuable use. If graphite was rubbed inside the mold for a cannon ball, the finished ball would release much more easily. The English government took over the graphite mine and took out all the graphite they needed – then flooded the mine, to prevent anyone else from taking the graphite.

Meantime, people who wanted to write with a pencil wrapped their sticks of graphite with yarn, or sheepskin. The square sticks of graphite were only available in England, but early-adopters smuggled them to other countries in Europe.

Lacking the pure graphite of the one deposit in England, scientists began to try to find a way to make a pencil out of graphite dust. Germans worked on the earliest processes, which did not work very well. The Italians invented a process to encase a rod of graphite in wood, making a pencil that we would recognize today.

But it wasn’t until 1795, when Napoleonic France was utterly cutoff from English graphite, that graphite dust was mixed with clay to make the composition we know today.

In 1843, a method was developed to make paper from wood pulp, rather than cloth pulp. This gave a harder surface, which wore out quill pens at an alarming rate. It was only then that steel pen tips came into common use.

So that’s it, the technology of writing. Wonderful, modern things were happening in the Age of Piracy.