Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Pirate Santa - Again!

Of all the posts I've made over the years, this is the one I get the most requests to re-post.

Christmas is nearly upon us; it’s time for eggnog, presents and… Pirates?

Well, yes. As a matter of fact, Santa dressed as a pirate, or pirates dressed as Santa, is a “thing”. And it make sense, after all. Both pirate captains and St. Nick lead rag-tag bands of outcasts. (When was the last time you saw an elf in polite society?) And they both have a history of re-distributing wealth.

One reason it’s so easy to link the two is that Santa has a backstory that’s s lot more fierce than his current incarnations. The gift-bringer was once known to bring coal (representing the fires of hell) to kids who weren’t good enough. And before that, he was linked to Odin, the Norse father-god who wandered the world and occasionally meted out justice, in the forms of rewards or punishment.

It’s generally believed, even by folks who don’t “Believe” in Santa, that the man in the red suit is a powerful force of nature. In movies like “Rise of the Guardians” he’s a Russian-accented powerhouse, leading the other guardians of childhood to protect the world. In “The Nightmare Before Christmas” Jack Skellington nearly wrecks the holiday, but when Santa is set free at the last minute, he calmly states that he has the power to set everything right by dawn.

So Santa, like a pirate captain, has impressive power, and the ability to travel. He might be carrying anything from gold to coal to the kind of odds and ends that might be accumulating in the hold of a pirate ship – or Santa’s bag of holding.

Both characters are often jolly. And even though Santa is gifted with glasses of milk on Christmas Eve, no one has ever claimed that he doesn’t enjoy a mixed drink after he’s finished driving the sleigh.

Santa’s long red coat with the white fur cuffs easily translated into an 18th century pirate coat, and red is a color that’s been associated with pirates ever since Captain Morgan donned his best red silk coat while recruiting a privateer navy to fight the Spanish.

Santa’s boots look quite a bit like pirate-style footwear. And various other details – his beard, reminiscent of Blackbeard, his sack full of loot, his wide-buckled black belt – all add to the likeness. Some artists have added a hook hand made from a candy cane, and it blends right in,

It’s even easy to see Santa in the tropics. After all, he needs some kind of vacation after the big night.
Santa as a pirate, or a pirate as Santa, is an image that goes back decades, and has been memorialized in nutcrackers, Christmas ornaments, paintings, and photos.

Probably the ultimate link is the children's book, "Pirate Santa" featuring Cap'n Slappy, one of the gentlemen who brought us Talk Like a Pirate Day. The story is one dear to a pirate's heart, about how Slappy, Santa's cousin, sets out to bring Christmas cheer to kids who were a little too - um - nonconforming, to make Santa's "nice" list.

The book makes a grand Christmas gift for a child, and since it's available by download, it can still be purchased in time for the holiday. 

Or, for grownups, pick up a copy of my own novels, Gentlemen and Fortune, Bloody Seas, and Storm Season, the tales of my redheaded female pirate captain and her adventures in the man's world of piracy. 

As an added bonus this year, I'll gift you with a little Pirate Santa music - enjoy! Yo Ho Ho Ho and a Merry Christmas to all!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Libertalia - The Pirate Utopia

As I have mentioned before, Golden Age pirates were pirates with a purpose. The piratical call of “Freedom!” has been preserved through the ages, but the rallying cry of “Give a working man  a chance!” has not, even though it was a more common statement at the time. Pirates, representing a variety of people who were being abused by the economic system of the time, were trying to promote a system in which every person had similar opportunities in life, and (at least) enough to eat and a place to live.

Enter Libertalia.

Libertalia was a legendary free colony forged by pirates. It was founded and ruled by the pirate Captain Misson (sometimes spelled Missin) a semi-legendary piratical figure described in The Robberies and Murders of the most Notorious Pyrates (1724).  

Historian and activist Marcus Rediker describes the pirates as follows:
These pirates who settled in Libertalia  would be "vigilant Guardians of the People's Rights and Liberties"; they would stand as "Barriers against the Rich and Powerful" of their day. By waging war on behalf of "the Oppressed" against the "Oppressors," they would see that "Justice was equally distributed."

No one knows for sure if Libertatia actually existed. Pirates aren’t noted for keeping good records about their societies.  But real or not, the radical ideas that it represented inspired undisputed real-life events. For example, after the American Revolution, a group of pirates fleeing from England were wrecked on an island and set up their own society. They called their new island "the Republic of Spensonia", after a fictional country created by the English author and political reformer Thomas Spence.

These pirates stood against monarchies, slavery, and capitalism as a way of distributing wealth. The pirates practiced a form of direct democracy, (one man one vote) where the crew held the authority to make laws and rules. Their system encouraged leaders to think of themselves as the equals, not the superiors, of those they led.  

The pirates insisted that "every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired." They resented the "encroachments" by which "Villains" and "unmerciful Creditors" grew "immensely rich" as others became "wretchedly miserable." They spoke of the "Natural right" to "a Share of the Earth as is necessary for our Support." They saw piracy as a war of self-preservation, and had no need for money "where every Thing was in common, and no Hedge bounded any particular Man's Property," and they decreed that "the Treasure and Cattle they were Masters of should be equally divided."

Libertalia’s motto was said to be "for God and liberty," and its flag was white, in contrast to a Jolly Roger. Thecitizens were anarchists, waging war against states and lawmakers, attacking ships, sparing prisoners, and freeing slaves. It is said that Misson's crews often were equal parts African and European, as he did not support slavery. The pirates of Libertalia called themselves Liberi, and lived under a communal city rule, a sort of worker owned corporation of piracy. They had articles (shared codes of conduct), and used elected systems of re-callable delegates.

Captain Misson, founder of Libertalia, was French, born in Provence, while in Rome he ran into Caraccioli - a "lewd Priest" who gradually converted Misson and a sizeable portion of his crew to his way of thinking:

he fell upon Government, and shew'd, that every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired... that the vast Difference betwixt Man and Man, the one wallowing in Luxury, and the other in the most pinching Necessity, was owing only to Avarice and Ambition on the one Hand, and a pusillanimous Subjection on the other.

Convinced by the priest’s persuasion, the whole crew became pirates. They shared everything, including the ship, and freed the first cargo of slaves they encountered, urging the Africans to join them as brothers.

Off the coast of Madagascar, Misson found a perfect bay in an area with fertile soil, fresh water and friendly natives. Here the pirates built Libertalia. No more were they English, French, Dutch or African. They were Liberi.  They created their own language, a polyglot mixture of African languages, combined with French, English, Dutch, Portuguese and native Malagasy.

Thomas Tew

Shortly after work on the colony began, they were joined by the pirate Thomas Tew. The Liberi - "Enemies to Slavery," aimed to boost their numbers by capturing another slave ship. Off the coast of Angola, Tew's crew took an English slave ship with 240 men, women and children below decks. The African members of the pirate crew found that many friends and relatives were among the formerly enslaved.

The pirates settled down to become farmers, holding the land in common - "no Hedge bounded any particular Man's Property." Prizes and money taken at sea were "carry'd into the common Treasury, Money being of no Use where every Thing was in common."

Was the colony real? The pirates of the time certainly believed it was. Members of the infamous “Flying Gang” who took Nassau in the Bahamas in 1715, and held it until 1718, claimed to anyone who would listen that they would “Make another Madagascar” of their new conquest.

But modern scholarship doubt that Libertalia (or Libertatia) was ever a real place. Certainly there were pirate settlements on and around Madagascar, which Libertalia may have been based on: Abraham Samuel at Port Dauphin, Adam Baldridge at Ile Ste.-Marie, and James Plaintain at Ranter Bay were all ex-pirates who founded trading posts and towns. These locations appear frequently in official accounts and letters from the period, while Libertalia appears only in Johnson’s General History, Volume 2. Give the piratical tendency to – um – overstatement, especially when telling stories, the whole thing may be a myth.

But it’s a telling myth. A powerful statement about a desire for a bold social experiment, conceived by outlaws considered the dregs of society. It’s interesting to note that these pirates didn’t dream of fantastical wealth, ultimate power, or eternal life. All they wanted was a peaceful existence where no one took advantage of them.

So far, there has never been a serious archeological search for Libertalia. What would we do if we found it?  

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Fire Ship!

The Golden Age of Piracy was a time of wooden ships- wooden ships, held together with tar, and waterproofed with pitch. They were floating death traps, tinderboxes, piles of kindling. And they were filled with fire.

The galley, of course, kept a kitchen fire burning. The best kind of galleys had a floor lined with sheets of tin, an effort to keep sparks from setting the ship alight. Often the only “stove” was a steel box to hold the fire. The box might be sitting in a bed of sand – a known insulator – or it might contain sand, as a base for the fire.

Cutaway model showing a ship's galley

 But the fire, a simple thing like a campfire, burned night and day. It was necessary to cook food for perhaps a hundred men, in a space perhaps six by six feet. Pots of boiling water were secured on the moving ship as well as they could be. An overturned pot could mean scalding wounds that meant almost certain death, either from the immediate injury, or, more horribly, from lingering infection.

But there was much more fire. Every light source was fire. Lanterns, candles, everyone was a possible source of conflagration for the entire ship.

Of course, precautions were taken. Simply the fact that almost all candles were confined behind glass was one. However, in these primitive times glass was sometimes not available. In this case, very thin pieces of animal horn, straightened by boiling or soaking in ammonia, were used as we might use plastic. Of course, this meant that the light of the candle behind the protective layer of horn was dimmed by the non-transparent layer, but it was better than setting the boat on fire.

Lantern with a horn window

Smoking was also often prohibited. On merchant or navy ships smoking might be completely banned, but pirates embraced a more easygoing lifestyle. In order to allow their crews to smoke as they liked, pirate ships permitted the practice, but limited it to the open-air deck.

Some pirate ships even supported open-air smoking by providing their crews with a long, slow-burning fuse on deck, which made lighting a pipe easier. They also might provide a tub of wet sand for extinguishing pipes and cigars.

Most secure was the powder room. Home to the ship’s gunpowder, this room was as completely secure as the technology of the time could make it. Not only was it sealed tightly, but no lights -candles or lanterns. Instead, a window – leading into the rest of the ship, and covered with unbreakable horn, not delicate glass – let illumination in.

Anyone working in the powder room, either stowing supplies or handing gunpowder out to power the cannons during an attack, was required to take off all metal, which posed the danger of striking a spark. These people were also required to give up their shoes. Special slippers were used instead. Pirates didn’t yet understand that static sparks were electricity, but they did grasp that any spark at all could set off the powder and kill everyone on board.

A barrel of pitch going up in flames

 So what happen if a ship did catch on fire?

For one thing, there was little use putting it out. Literally everything on the boat was flammable. If the fire was tiny, someone might be able to throw drinking water on it. Or if it spread unusually slowly, someone might be able to set up the ship’s pumps to direct a stream of water on it.

But fires tend to go up, and that meant flames getting into the great canvas sails. The sails would burn, and drop flaming material all over. Unless luck was on the side of the sailors, the only thing to do was abandon ship.

If everyone was quick, the ship’s small boats could be lowered, and people could pile into them. If they weren’t so fortunate, the crew might find themselves in the water clinging to whatever was floating nearby.

A ship blows up

 The boat might burn and sink. Or it might not sink quickly enough, and the gunpowder would explode.

Eyewitnesses to such events speak of the ship’s cannons, usually kept loaded, firing themselves one by one, set off by the intense heat.

An exploding powder magazine destroyed the entire ship instantly. Bodies of those unfortunate enough to still be aboard were torn to bit and thrown for as far as a mile.  If any other ships were nearby, they would probably be set on fire by flying debris. The shockwave could be heard for miles. Humans anywhere in the vicinity were deafened for hours, even days, by the enormous blast of sound. An exploding ship was such a horrible event, it might leave witnesses with PTSD.

Pirates – and the military – were happy to put these horrifying facts to use. Setting an older, damaged, or un-needed ship on fire and sending it into a mass of enemy shipping was sure to start a panic. The secret was to steer the un-manned ship into enemy lines, while preventing the sails from catching on fire until it had crashed into the enemy. Doing so was a matter of both luck and skill.

Armada hit by fire ships

 When Spain attacked England with an armada of 130 warships, Sir Francis Drake, pirate, admirable and English patriot, raided their supplies, then sent fire ships into the massed formations.

History credits storms for the destruction of this invading force, but Drake, his piratical crews, and their fire ships were at least equally responsible for turning back this invading force and changing the history of the world.