Monday, July 31, 2017


I’m talking here about the 1976 movie starring Robert Shaw. At the time, the film was a considered a flop, but it has survived, mostly I think because it’s a pirate movie, and they just seem to stick around. 

Pirate movies had fallen out of favor after the 1950’s. In an era before computer effects, they were horribly expensive to make, and when the 1960’s brought around drug culture, the Vietnam war, protests of the Vietnam war, and fear of nuclear war with Russia, the adventures of a bunch of sea-thieves seemed to lose their charms.

But in 1973 a version of The Three Musketeers did extremely well, and when Jaws became the first real summer blockbuster in 1975, studio executives were willing to risk the investment in a pirate movie.

The cast list is fascinating. Robert Shaw had played Quint in the aforementioned Jaws, and had also been a Bond villain. In Swashbuckler, he plays the main pirate, Captain “Red” Ned Lynch. A very young James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader) plays his friend Nick. Peter Boyle, most famous as the Monster in Young Frankenstein, is the Evil Lord Durant. And Geneviève Bujold plays the young English noblewoman, Jane Barnet.

Requisite underwear shot

Other notable actors are Geoffrey Holder – famous for his fruity laugh, as Cudjo Quadrill, a former slave and knife artist, and Angelica Huston as “The Woman of Dark Visage.” Award winning character actor Beau Bridges (brother to Jeff Bridges) plays the often ridiculous Major Folly.

In this movie the pirates are definitely the Good Guys. Lest there be any confusion, the opening monologue refers to Lord Durant’s cruelty, and to the innocent prisoners wasting away in his dungeons. Throughout the film, Lord Durant kills people for fun. He arrests the current Lord Justice for no noticeable reason, and throws that worthy man’s wife and beautiful. feisty daughter into Jamaica’s slums.

But it’s his private life that creeps us out. Many of Durant’s scenes take place in his bathroom/lounge, a place inhabited by numerous scantily clad young women, strapping, shirtless black men, and Angelica Huston, who lurks like a vulture. But worst of all is a creepy blond boy, listed in the credits as “the lute player.” At Durant’s command, and with evident erotic glee, this person dons long steel fingernails and uses them for suggestive torture. It’s weird as hell, and it didn’t look especially convincing, even in in 1976.

Less creepy as a monster

The producers weren’t making any effort at historical accuracy, but they landed on it by accident a couple of times. The mix of races on the pirate ship, the easy authority of James Earl Jones, the pirate’s second in command, all ring true. In addition, the townspeople, also people of many races, show their support of the pirates in various ways. This stands to reason, as the pirates in this movie do what pirates have always done – they capture money, and then spend it on women and liquor. Thus, the local economy is improved.

And the film is not shy with the women. James Earl Jones likes to have a blond girl on one knee, and an African girl on the other, and there is no doubt that he takes them both to bed. Several pirates are shown in bed with their doxies, and the women enjoy showing off pirate-supplied jewelry. After an adventure, the pirate ship is filled with women, and Robert Shaw tells his crew to “sleep well, lads,” as he heads into his cabin with a willing wench.

The show also is one of the only pirate movies to film with a real (replica) pirate ship. Lynch’s vessel, the Blarney Cock, is actually an exact replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. The actual Golden Hind floated in 1577, and would have been sadly outdated during the year of the movie, 1718. But it’s wonderful to see a replica of real vessel that was owned by real pirate.

She’s very small, though she carries cannons (which also seem small, though they would be accurate for Drake’s time.) Too many pirate movies put the pirates on vast ships where the captain eats at a table 17 feet long. There are places where the Golden Hind’s whole width is less than 17 feet. She’s crewed by an appropriate number of pirates, and they actually do things like sing real shanties, and make real repairs. In one scene, the pirates are using a period-accurate paint brush to paint the deck red. (This was said to make the crew braver, because if someone was wounded the red blood would not be so noticeable.)

102 feet long, 20 feet wide. Not big

 The town also looks more accurate than most pirate movies. It consists of rich-people housing and slums, nothing in between. There are vegetable shops, taverns and whorehouses, and the streets are filled with pickpockets, small businessmen and prostitutes. No one looks too clean or too well dressed, though the clothing that has any noticeable style is not period accurate.

Cudjo is the leader of a highly unlikely troop of circus performers, and flashes a lot of 20th century leather armor and knives. He is an example of several people who are in the cast mostly because they were famous at the time. Can’t fault the actor, though. He’s exotic and that was his main job here.

The plot is entirely predictable. All the people hate Lod Durant and love the pirates, who steal from the nobles and then spend it as if gold was water. Then the pirate captain meets the Lord Justice’s beautiful, feisty daughter, and falls in love with her because, um – she’s beautiful and feisty. The pirates and the town people rise up to stop the Evil Lord Durant from making off with a large amount of ill-gotten wealth. Durant dies, justice triumphs. The creepy kid with the fingernails impales himself while falling down a flight of stairs, and Anjelica Huston steals Durant’s dead body for reasons we probably don’t want to think about.

There are several mildly interesting chase scenes, all technically believable, and a couple of rousing fights. All of this is damaged by a lack of good music. Someone went cheap on the music for this film, and the soundtrack only offers one “adventure theme” that plays over and over and over. By mid-movie it’s annoying. It also makes no use of any of the music existent at the time, or of sea songs. What a waste.

Swashbuckler is worth a look, though it only gets 3 stars. It has some fine bits of dialogue, a great location, and raunchy poetry. Shaw shines as a pirate, and seeing James Earl Jones as a young man is a beautiful thing. The chemistry between the two of them really works. “Nobody’s ever dared stand up to us more than once,” says Shaw, and you believe him.  So grab some popcorn and enjoy a good, silly pirate flick in Swashbucker.

Monday, July 24, 2017

How to Become a Pirate

People often wonder how pirates recruited. Did they kidnap people and force them to join the crew? Did the worst of the worst of rapist s and murders simply go down to their local seaport and sign on? Were children brought up to be pirates?

A little of each is true.

Maybe Not Quite Like This

In the past – as recently as the 1500’s in some places, as recently as yesterday in others, children were born to a pirating life. Probably the most famous of these pirates is Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland. Grace inherited her father’s pirate fleet, after a youth spent on shipboard learning the trade. When pirating was a family affair, a tradition of taking ships out to robe the neighbors, or the inhabitants of the next country, people were indeed born into the pirating life.

For the most part, this tradition ended with the growth of corporations and corporate shipping. Raiding between clans or nations was just that… raiding. But attacks on powerful, rich, international entities like corporations brought legal reprisals.

At the beginning or piracy’s Golden Age, a large number of young men who had been employed by their national navies suddenly found themselves out of work. Often this included entire crews, from officers on down. Common sailors often followed a captain who turned to piracy.

Ben Hornigold was one such captain. It seems certain that Hornigold was a good leader, beloved by his crews and skilled at running a ship. When the European wars ran out, Hornigold continued to do what he considered to be his duty as an Englishman, robbing French and Spanish ships. As a navy captain at the time, this was legal, even praiseworthy behavior. But without the support of a national war, actions that he had been carrying on for perhaps a decade suddenly became illegal.

Hornigold was a natural teacher, and he taught men to be pirates. His most notable student was no less than Blackbeard himself. But scholars charting the “linage” of Hornigold-taught pirate captains believe that 1,500 individual pirates owe their occupation to the “school for pirates” that Hornigold ran as he sailed through the Caribbean.

Some pirates joined the trade for revenge. The Lioness of Brittany, Jeanne de Clisson, vowed revenge when her husband was accused of treason and beheaded by the King of France. She sold her lands to by three war ships, and set about a career in piracy, being sure to behead any Frenchmen of the noble classes who had the misfortune to be captured by her black-hulled ships.

Jeanne was of a time period (the mid 1300’s) and a class (nobility) which allowed her to retire quietly once her pirating career was over. Most pirates who became Gentlemen of Fortune came from a much lower class.

Common sailors were often badly mistreated by their captains and officers. Food was often far worse that it had to be, beatings were common, and punishments could run to the sadistic, as sailors might be hung up by their wrists, deprived of rest and sleep, and sometimes even killed. This sort of thing led to rage that led crews to disregard their own futures in order to get payback. Some crew rose against their officers due to some initiating factor. This might become a mutiny, or might lead to full-blown piracy.

The most common way that a person became a pirate was to be robbed by pirates. Once they captured a ship, pirates took opportunity to recruit from among the ranks of the captured sailors. Offers of money, better food, more liquor, or a chance to get back at people who had abused them led many men to sign the papers that made them pirates. It should be noted that, by far, the most popular name for a pirate ship was “Revenge.”

But it was a frightening business to leave everything one knew to take up a life of crime that might end in hanging. Some sailors approached pirates on the quiet, asking for a show of being kidnapped, so they could later deny that they had joined the brigands willingly. The pirates usually complied.

Some folk were actually kidnapped, but not many. Skilled workers, who were paid more and treated better on merchant ships, were not so anxious to take up with sea-thieves. Sam Bellamy is known to have forced carpenters to join his crew, though he did make an effort to take single men, who were not married and presumable had few family ties.

But the reasons for becoming pirates, and the methods used to achieve this goal, were as varied as the people who had them.

Stede Bonnet, a rich man from a rich family, paid to have a pirate ship built and hired a crew. His reason is said to be that he didn’t like living with his wife.

The cross-dressing former soldier Mary Reed seems to have gone to the pirate island of New Providence with the intention of simply being herself. In a world where women were confined to the home, Mary had a unique solution to her desire for freedom.

Many African slaves who had been captured by pirates were freed and joined their liberators. Hampered by lack of experience as sailors, few of these black pirates became famous, but they made up large percentages of some pirate crews.

The nine-year-old boy, John King, kicked his mother in the shins and demanded that Sam Bellamy’s crew allow him to join. We don’t really know what prompted the child, but one report states that “the boy’s father didn’t like him.”

The fact is that, if you wanted to be a pirate, it wasn’t that hard to find a way.

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.