Monday, July 17, 2017

An Ounce of Lead

Pirates and lead go together in this infamous phrase. “And ounce of lead” meant a bullet, or, as it was called at the time, a shot. Whatever it was called, it was probably close to 62 caliber by modern calculations, and when it hit, it hurt.

But why were the projectiles for 18the century muskets and pistols made out of lead?

For one thing, lead is a common metal. It is one of the earliest known elements, dating back to pre-history. And it has a low melting point, making it easy to extract from ore and to work after it is extracted. Lead does not oxidize (rust) easily, so it is fairly easy to keep around.

In addition, when people began using firearms to fling small objects at each other, it was quickly discovered that lead projectiles do a lot of damage to the human body.  A lead projectile flattens as soon as it meets resistance, and it flattening, it spreads out. A 1” round shot going into the body makes a 1” hole. Coming out, it may make a 4” hole. Or it may break to pieces and spread out, doing even more damage.

Ancient Roman plumbing

Lead has many uses in the early 18th century. Dating back to early Roman times, it had been used for water pipes. That’s right, just like the ones in Flint Michigan. (As of this date, Flint still does not have drinkable water.) In fact, Roman word for lead – plumbum – is the origin of our modern word, plumbing. What happened to the people who drank water carried in these pipes?

It depended. As noted above, lead doesn’t usually react with water. But if the water is even a little acidic, it can pick up molecules of lead and carry them along. This can cause lead poisoning. Some scholars believe that lead poisoning of the general population contributed to the fall of Rome, while others are skeptical.

The problem is that lead is very easy to get and easy to work with. It can be melted over a campfire (at 621 degrees Fahrenheit) which made it easy to cast. Lead was used to make the type which was set into plates to print books, posters and newspapers. People who worked with it often dies of lead poisoning.

From Roman times onwards, folks who enjoyed drinking wine noticed that wine stored in lead containers tasted better than wine stored other ways.  This is because lead reacts with alcohol to produce lead acetate (Pb(CH3COO)2) also called sugar of lead. This substance sweetened the wine.

Unfortunately, it also poisoned the drinker, if he enjoyed enough of it. Unfortunately, no one quite understood why. The Roman Catholic Church forbid the use of wine containing sugar of lead in communion, and wine bottlers who used it were viewed with suspicion, but the use of lead to sweeten wine remained in practice until long after the age of pirates.

Lead was also used for a variety of other purposes. White lead paint was applied to the underside of ships to discourage the growth of seaweed and discourage parasites such as shipworm from damaging the wooden structure. Guess what? These things didn’t like the poisonous lead.

Sheet lead was also used as we might use plastic today. For example, when the flint of a flintlock pistol was clamped into the gun, it was often wrapped in a small piece of sheet lead, which helped the jaws of the clamp to grip if firmly. These pieces of flint were often taken out for sharpening (a sharp flint makes a more reliable spark) and were also often replaced. The men who did this work would never have thought to wear gloves. But today we know that touching lead with bare skin can cause the metal to be absorbed through the skin.

Notice the sheet lead wrapping the base of the flint

Another way that pirates encountered lead was casting shot for their pistols and muskets. Some shot was shipped – and could be stolen – as ready-made round balls. But it the size didn’t fit the available guns, or if the only lead available was solid blocks, the pirates would melt it down (something easy to do, even on a ship) and cast their own projectiles.

Equipment to cast lead is simple – an iron pot, a fire, and a mold. The most simple mold-release agent was simple carbon from a smoking candle, and the shot could be hardened by dropping the recently cast spheres into water.

Shot casting kit

How-too instructions are currently available online, if you want to turn old lead pipes into anything from bullets to collectible figurines. But beware! You’ll also be told to wear breathing protection, and long sleeves, and to never get the fumes into your eyes. In fact, it’s not even recommended that you bring any of your lead-casting paraphilia into your home after you’ve used it. Don’t even put the clothes you wear while doing it next to clothing you use for any other purpose! Today we take the dangers of lead poisoning seriously.

It’s likely that many working-class pirates suffered from some level of lead poisoning. Symptoms can vary widely from individual to individual, and can start with relatively low levels of exposure, or at higher levels.

The symptoms – among which are muscle pain, abdominal pain, problems sleeping, depression, and reduced libido, are much like the symptoms of hard work and excessive alcohol. Pirates were also known to have hallucinations and personality changes, also easily attributed to drink. Damaged gums could be blamed on scurvy. Lead poisoning might have plagued many a pirate crew, and it would be hard to tell for sure, without modern blood testing.

Did lead poisoning contribute to the downfall of the pirates? One of the hallmarks of lead poisoning is also decrease in cognitive abilities. This may explain the sometimes vast differences between the pirate deck-hand, a fellow who prided himself in speaking and living by simple truths, and the wily and devious pirate captains, who, with their elevated status probably didn’t cast round shot or paint the boat.

Is it true? I don’t know, but it’s something to think about. One more bit of trivial from the age of pirates.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Phantom Islands

The world of 18th century pirates was filled with ghosts, sea monsters, and even Phantom Islands. A phantom island is a supposedly real island that appeared on maps for a period of time (sometimes centuries) during recorded history, but was later proven not to exist.

The most famous phantom island is probably Atlantis. This large island (or small continent, depending on who you listen to) was first recorded by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. He claimed that Atlantis was located “past the pillars of Hercules” – in other words, outside the familiar Mediterranean Sea, in the wide ocean that was eventually named after it.

Plato was trying to make a point about pride. His story tells of a technologically advanced society that fell out of favor with the gods because of the arrogance of its leaders. In his story, Atlantis eventually sank beneath the waves.

This mythical place inspired the name of the Atlantic Ocean, and other imaginary islands have inspired names for real land forms. One is Brasil or Hy-Brasil, an island traditionally believed to lay off the west coast of Ireland. Supposedly, it was shrouded in mist, and could only be seen once every seven years. When explorers saw the South American mainland rising out of the morning mists, they must have thought of Ireland’s imaginary twin.

How do the stories of Phantom Islands begin?

Sometimes, they are started by mirages. Just as the desert can provide images of water to travelers, the sea can offer up imaginary lands. Temperature inversions – layers of warm air laying above cooler air – can actually bend light, making a small object appear to be a towering mass. These kinds of inversions are rare, but can give a definite impression of land.

Another way that a phantom island can be recorded is that the explorer is simply lost. This happened a lot more 300-500 years ago. Misplaced travelers saw Greenland, or Africa, or Japan, when they believed they were far away from those locations, and thought they’d found something new. This is probably the origin of St Mathew Island, said to lie off the coast of Africa. Sailors who reported seeing it were probably looking at Ascension Island, which really does exist.

Once an island had been put on a map, there was social pressure for voyagers to confirm its existence. A sailor stands in a bar (or an officer stands before his superiors) and tells a tale of his travels. “Oh, you were near Saint Brendan’s Isle!” says someone. “Did you see it?”

What’s a man to do? “Of course I saw it!”

Some phantoms, such as Saxemberg Island, may have actually existed. It was discovered in 1670, and spotted again in 1804, 1809, and 1816, always in exactly the same location. This island is so well reported that it may have once existed… A piece of land that sank under the sea in some volcanic event.

Plenty of real things have been mistaken for islands. Ice bergs, fog banks, floating masses of seaweed (especially with the help of temperature inversions that makes them seem mountainous.)  Antarctica has inspired several phantoms, The Terra Nova islands, for instance, were discovered in  near Antarctica 1968, and haven’t been seen since.

Some phantoms are philosophical construction. Rupes Nigra was an island invented in the 14th century   to explain why compasses point north. Since no one yet knew about the Earth’s magnetic poles, someone invented a magnetic, black island at the exact place we now call magnetic north.

Some phantoms islands were deliberate fabrications. When money is involved, all things are possible. Croakerland, for instance, was a hoax invented by the famous Arctic explorer, Robert E. Peary, to gain more financial aid from one of his financial bankers, George Crocker. And Isles Phelipeaux and Pontchartrain were invented in the Great Lake Superior in 1744 to persuade French financial backers to cough up more money for further explorations in the area.

But there are plenty of honest explorers out there, too. Johan Otto Polter, found an island he named Kantia. In 1884. But when he returned later, in four expeditions through 1909, he failed to find it again, and disproved the island's existence.

Map of The Island of California

One of the most famous cartographical errors in history is the description of California as an island. This may have been inspired by fiction. A 1510 Spanish romance novel Las sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo - described the island in this passage:

Actual Strait of Baja

 Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.

Men love those sex-starved Amazons. Whether it was this titillating tale, or an offer by the King of Spain that explorers could lay claim to any new islands they found, but could not similarly profit from discoveries of new sections of mainland, California was shown as an island for nearly 200 years.

Maybe not what they had in mind
Which leads us to one of the most enduring parts of Phantom Islands… their tendency to endure. Once put onto a chart, the predisposition is for the island to stay put. After all, to erase it is, in effectively call its discoverer either a liar or a fool. So, even today, a few unlikely islands and reefs still endure. Once such is Yosemite Rock, “discovered” in 1903, and supposed to be approximately 83°W, 32°S (Northwest of Robinson Crusoe Island). With all our technology, it’s never been officially disproved. Instead, in the Operational Navigation Chart of the United States Department of Defense it is listed as "Existence doubtful."

Monday, July 3, 2017

Logwood Cutters

It’s been mentioned before, that the word ‘buccaneer” is closely related to the word “bacon” and that the term defined Englishmen who lived along the Spanish coast of the Americas, where they made their living by cutting a species of tree known as “logwood”, killing and smoking the meat from local pigs, and occasionally paddling out the attack Spanish boats that seemed vulnerable.

Making smoked meat
These were casual pirates. Their main interest was the illegally harvested wood. Logwood is a small tree which grows in clumps close to the seashore. Technically, the tree is a legume. It produces a single, edible bead in each of tis many small pods, and flowers with lovely yellow blossoms.

But it was the heartwood, and the sap, that made the trees valuable. The sap could be used to make a good-quality brown dye. The same sap, when treated with simple chemicals, could also produce purple dye. As English landowners converted their holdings from small, rented subsistence farms to larger spaces for cash crops, the business of wool production flourished, and dyes like logwood were in high demand.

Logwood cutting began in the early 1600’s and continued into the 19th century, leaving a mark on local culture. The nation of Belize called them “Baymen” and the egalitarian lifestyle they led strongly influenced the formation of Belize’s government. 

The Spanish, of course, didn’t like this. They objected to foreigners on soil that they had taken from the natives, and they were enraged by that fact that these people weren’t even Catholic. They chased the logwood cutters off whenever they found them, and sometimes pounded them with cannon fire, captured them and held them as slaves, or caught them and tried to convert them, by torture if necessary.

Logwood tree

Despite this, camps flourished. It was a long coast, with plenty of hidden coves to beach boats on, and lot of jungle to hide in when the occasion arose. With few possessions to protect, these buccaneers had little to lose.

In addition, they were on generally good terms with the natives. The Spanish has long ago conquered the Central and South American population centers, but plenty of natives had fled into the woods. Though the buccaneers occasionally stole canoes and probably posed a danger to native women-folk, they had no interest in changing the native’s religion or chasing them off the land.

Indeed, the buccaneers were willing to trade European manufactured goods for items like food, medicine or tanned animal hides. They were one of the few groups to supply the native with guns, shot and powder (which further enraged the Spanish.) English wild men also brought mirrors, iron pots, knives and so on. Both groups kept a lookout for their enemies, and offered other kinds of support.

After life as a European peasant, logwood cutting must have seemed like paradise. The men worked when they wanted, ate and drank when they pleased, and endured no government but the opinion of their friends. All were equal. Escaped slaves, escaped bond servants, sailors who had jumped ship, all lived together on equitable terms. Of course, it was a rough life. Literate folk who encountered camps of logwood cutters came away with tales of drunkenness, constant swearing and cursing, and occasional violence. These were men who “didn’t know their place.” Or, more likely, they were aiming to carve out a new place for themselves.

One of my favorite observations about the culture comes from an archaeological excavation of a log-cutter camp. The remains of several such camps have been examined, but this one provided something different. Literally hundreds of clay pipes, almost all broken, were scattered around the site. The archaeologist had no idea why this camp should be so well-stocked with pipes, or why they lay in broken heaps.

My own theory is simply that one of this group’s informal raids had provided them with a shipment of pipes. Clay pipes were considered disposable at the time. Pipes could be rented in taverns, but with each new user, the tip was intentionally broken off, for sanitary reasons. After a few uses, the pipe stem would be too short, and the pipe would be discarded. This group, having far more pipes than they actually needed, may have made them a single-use item. Having an abundance of anything, even clay pipes, probably made them feel rich.

When enough logwood had been accumulated, the group would load it onto one or more boats and take it to Jamaica, where they would sell it, and load up on supplies, including vast amounts of rum.

As time went on, dyers in Europe discovered that when logwood sap, treated with copper, it produced a stable black dye, something that had not been available before. Demand grew even larger. This dye colored the formal black eveningwear of the rich, right up through Victorian times. A large-scale planter, Henry Barham, came to the Caribbean in the late 17th century and began planting logwood trees on Jamaica. Rich men made an effort to civilize the trade.

With more and more money coming from the logwood trade, by the early 1700’s the easygoing life of the buccaneers began to break down. The English government pressured the Spanish to recognize these informal English settlements, (though exactly how many settlements and what their locations were was never made clear.) By the end of Piracy’s Golden Age, slaves were doing most of the logwood cutting. Enslaved people, mostly from Africa, harvested the wood for masters who remained in town.

African families were based in settlements near their owners. The women and children worked as house servants, while the men lived in nearby camps and cut the valuable wood. Some of the men took the opportunities offered by their unsupervised work to strike out for freedom, but ties to their families kept most in line. These people were not freed until 1853.