Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Pirate Nests

The image of a pirate haunt – or pirate nest, as they were sometimes called by royal authorities and customs officials, calls up images of violence, debauchery and decay. After all, who would let pirates wander freely around their town, among their wives and children?

Well, as it turns out, a lot of people would. Pirate “nests” included Charleston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Newport, and Boston. These were towns where a pirate ship could go through the charade of stowing the Jolly Roger, breaking out a more acceptable flag, and sailing grandly into port.

Philadelphia, Pirate Nest. 

 Then, with a wink and a nod, the ne’r do wells would go about selling wares of dubious origin. If questions were asked, the answer might be that the goods “Had been retrieved from a ship that was taking on water, and needed to lighten her load.” This, they claimed, explained the lack of manifests, bills of sale, or known port of origin.

But questions were seldom asked. When good are being sold at half, perhaps a third, of their actual value, why ask? Everyone knew the sellers were pirates, after all. And those that played along made a handsome profit.

Boston Harbor

 In the late 1600’s goods were coming from all over the world. Pirates, who had been robbing the Spanish for over a century, were also taking silks, velvets, gold and ivory from the Moghul Empire in India. Many pirates of the time used the island of Madagascar as a base of operations, but they needed civilization to fence their goods. So when it was time to settle down, they went to English colonies in North America.

Most Englishmen were okay with robbing this guy

 Goods purloined from merchant ships helped to build the New World. Dealing with pirates helped the British colonies feel – and be – independent of the Crown. Here, far from “the law” fortunes could be made. All you had to do was to not look too closely at who you were dealing with.

When the better-prepared pirates wanted to leave the life, they might settle down in such a place. The Governor Eden of North Carolina issued the King’s pardon to Blackbeard, then helped him to set up a suitable house. Local rumors said that the newly pardoned pirate married a local girl – though there is no proof.

The man who signed Blackbeard's pardon/ 

 But many respectable merchants were fathers-in-law to retired pirates. Money mattered more than family in the new world, and when a dashing, rakish young man showed up with plenty of money and a history of dealing with the locals, it was natural that young women would be interested, and their fathers accepting.

When pirates bought property, and married into prominent local families, it was natural that communities would rally around a pirate who was under attack or suspicion from the authorities.

Jailbreaks and riots organized in support of alleged pirates happened throughout the British Empire during the late seventeenth century. Local political leaders openly protected men who committed acts of piracy against powers that were nominally allied or at peace with England. In large part, these leaders were protecting their own hides: Colonists wanted to prevent depositions proving that they had harbored pirates or purchased their goods. Some of the instigators were fathers-in-law of pirates.

Riot in progress!

 One example of a pirate protected by his community was a former pirate named Moses Butterworth, who in 1701, was languishing in a Middletown, New Jersey jail, accused of piracy. Butterworth had already confessed to sailing with the notorious Captain Kid.

Governor Andrew Hamilton and his entourage rushed to Monmouth County Court to try Butterworth for his crimes.

But Samuel Willet, a community leader, sent a drummer to sound the alarm. Thomas Johnson gathered a company of men who, armed with guns and clubs, attacked the courthouse. A contemporary estimated the crowd at over a hundred East Jersey residents. The noise of shouting men, along with the “Drum beating,” made it impossible to speak to Butterworth. No one was able to ask him about his financial and social relationships with the local gentry.

After a scuffle in which two townsfolk were injured, the so-called pirate was freed and the Governor, a sheriff and judge were locked up in his place. When the judge and his people were finally released they confessed that they had feared for their lives.

Governor Andrew Hamilton

 The townspeople believed that they were protecting their own freedom to deal with whomever they pleased. But these people were protecting their own hides as well.  Colonists wanted to prevent depositions proving that they had harbored pirates or purchased their goods. Some of these instigators were fathers-in-law of pirates.

But these otherwise upstanding members of the community rebelled in support of sea marauders. Many colonists were afraid that crack-downs on piracy hid darker intentions to strengthen royal authority, or perhaps set up admiralty courts (which operated without juries,) or even force free-thinking colonials to join the Anglican Church.

So protecting pirates was a social, economic and political statement.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

William Hogarth – a Picture of Pirate Times

Much as we would like to know what pirates really, really looked like, there is little pictorial evidence available. No cameras existed at the time, and people with the talent to make accurate pictures did not hang out with pirates – or if they did (many sailors, after all, have proved talented artists) their work has been lost to time.

Most artwork was paid for by the rich and powerful – people who wanted beautiful paintings of their friends or themselves, or of lovely landscapes. Pirates, or the poor, the downtrodden, or the often homeless or hungry people who became pirates, were not things people necessary wanted pictures of.

A woodcut of Jack Rackham
Not as detailed as an engraving
But one man – William Hogarth, an engraver with an eye for the humor and a love of the street life of London – has given us a wonderful group of works that portray what the early lives of pirates might have been.

Self-portrait of Hogarth
Using engraving 

Hogarth came from the lowest rank of the middle class. He was apprenticed in his early teens to an engraver. This was an up-and-coming art form, which catered to the less affluent of London’s citizens.

Engraving was one of the early forms of reproducing artwork. It involved etching an image into a metal plate. When ink was rubbed across the plate, it remained in the etched lines and came off the smooth metal surface. Such a plate could be used to make hundreds of images. The technique was also made an image that was much more subtle and detailed than the method of carving a picture into wood, which had come before it.

The Idle Prentice in a gaming den

Hogarth worked in a shop that created what were called Trade Cards. These earliest versions of business cards were commissioned by shop owners to promote their businesses. The cards showed pictures – the business, or some image representing it – a sheep for a wool merchant, cupids for someone who sold perfume, and so on.

The cards quickly became popular as an end to themselves (they would later be called Trading Cards) and the business of engraving pictures for them created a new art form.
Hogarth was so good at his craft that he was a self-employed engraver by the age of 23, and at 27 was  to create a painting. The client initially rejected the painting, saying Hogarth was “an engraver, and no painter” but he successfully sued and won the money promised in the contract.

The South Sea bubble - colorized.

After this, Hogarth began creating large-sized engravings suitable for framing. He favored satire – in other words, humor with a message. His first work was a comedy about the so-called “South Sea Bubble.” This was a stock-issuing company that was supposed to explore the Pacific Ocean. Instead, it did little beside sell stock, in a Bernie Madoff-style pyramid scheme. Thousands of Londoners lost fortunes, even as others clamored to get in on the action.

The Enraged Musician

After that, he created more works. Some were paintings of the well-to-do. But he increasingly leaned toward images of London itself, with its drunks, prostitutes, madmen and street children. One work, “The Enraged Musician,” is visual image of the sounds of the city. While a well-to-do violinist tries to practice his craft, he is enveloped by street noises. A milkmaid calls her wares, a coachman blows his horn, a knife sharpener works his grindstone, a homeless woman with a baby sings in hopes of earning a few coins. These were probably the sounds Sam Bellamy heard as a boy.

The Distressed Poet

Many of Hogarth’s engravings illustrate the homes of the very poor. “The Distressed Poet” shows a would-be writer living in a garret with a foodless pantry and a bill collector at the door. In “The Harlot’s Progress,” a series of six prints, we see a young woman’s seduction into prostitution, and her slow downfall to abject poverty and death. Of special note is the third image, which shows her at home in a common small apartment. The picture is so detailed that we can make out the kinds of cheap artworks the harlot has pasted to her wall – a picture of a famous outlaw, and some trading cards, it looks like.

From "The Harlot's Progress"

The series, “Industry and Idleness” shows the progress of two young men, one who obeys the status quo and rises through London society, the other who is put off by the dull work required of him as an apprentice and falls into bad company while looking for fun.

Tom Idle goes to sea

As “Tom Idle” falls through the ranks of society, he chooses to go to sea. This indicates the low social status of sailors, and also shows us exactly what seamen were wearing in 1747. Later we see him in the room of a prostitute (which probably hadn’t changed much in the last 30 years) and in a rowdy, lower-class drinking house. Both settings suggest that “Tom” might have been engaging in a little piracy during his travels. (Watches in the hands of the lower classes – see the prostitute looking at the dangling watch –  was usually a visual shorthand indicting theft. A poor person couldn’t afford and wouldn’t need a watch.)

In a garret room with his whore

The industries apprentice also offers some interesting details. One image shows the morning after his marriage to his boss’s daughter. While the industrious apprentice – now an apprentice no more – hands out coins to people who have come to beg outside his window, a servant scrapes leftovers into the apron of a poor woman, who seems mighty pleased to have them.

Notice the woman by the door receiving table scraps. 

A certain level of poverty there folks. When the leavings off someone’s plate is a treat.
Lastly we will look at the twin pictures “Beer Street and Gin Lane.” These imaginary streets show the difference between the best side of the English lower classes – the idealized beer drinkers, and the kind of poverty caused by people trying to drown their sorrows in gin.

Gin Lane

Gin was a new drink in England, and because it was strong and cheap it was causing social problems. On “Gin Lane” people pawn their tools and household goods to buy liquor (the three balls over the door signal a pawnshop.) We see people starving, fighting with dogs for bones, abandoning their children, and dying young, as buildings collapse form neglect.

Beer Street

On the more idealized Beer Street, everyone seems happy and healthy. (It is interesting to note that British beer is so nutritious that even today, British alcoholics do not suffer the same malnutrition as American ones.) It may be interesting to note the couple “making out” in the street, as well as the ragged condition of the artist painting an advertisement for gin.

A single blog can't even begin to scratch the surface of these engravings. I strongly urge you to look at some of them yourself. In a world with Google Images it's easy to see his work. Look, and look deep - there's a three hundred year old world in there. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Port Royal Earthquake

So many things about Pirates are uncertain. Even the dates of the Golden Age of Piracy are open to debate. Some people say that the era ended with the hanging of Jack Rackham in 1720. Others note the hanging of William Fly in 1725. And yet others claim that the Golden Age went on into the 1740’s – or beyond.

But the Age of the Buccaneers – now that has a definite end point. A very specific end point. The era of piracy ended at 11:43, on June 7, 1692.

This time and date mark the Great Jamaica Earthquake of 1692.
Jamaica had been captured buy the English in 1655. Though initially laid low by unfriendly natives and tropical diseases, the English (Among whom was a very young Henry Morgan) held the territory. 

The Spanish had not considered the island valuable, since it had no reserves of gold or silver. But for the piratical English, it was a toehold in the New World.

In short order, the city of Port Royal was the busiest – and the wickedest – place in the New World. 
Pirates and whores rubbed shoulders with prosperous merchants and King’s officers, rum flowed like water, and the party never stopped.

Almost at once, ministers told their parishioners that God did not like what went on in the wicked city, and that his wrath was sure to strike down the pirates. But nobody listened. They were too busy making money and spending it.

What they should have been paying attention to was the mysterious shaking that troubled the island. No one knew what caused it. Theories ranged from underground wind storms that battered the land to tempests in an underground ocean. Today we know that Jamaica lies at the boundary of the Caribbean tectonic plate with the Gonave microplate. The area is not geologically stable, and earth tremors happened monthly.

The Spanish, when they had held the island, had built low-slung houses, supported by wooden pillars sunk deep into the earth. The English however – celebrating piratical loot that was making the town wealthy, chose to replicate the brick-and-stone architectural style of their homeland. Some stone structures were three stories high, built on volcanic sand.

The day of Saturday, June 7th was hot and still – what is now called “earthquake weather.” The ships in the harbor had been becalmed for weeks, and lack of wind had brought trade to a standstill. The rich men of the town may have gone to church – the local minister read prayers every day, in attempt to save the souls of his extremely wayward flock – and the merchant’s wives were mostly in bed, suffering from nervous stress and headaches – further signs that something was not right, if anyone had realized.

When the quake came (an estimated 10 on the Mercer scale) the first sign was a wave that towered over the 3-story fort at the mouth of the harbor. The ground shook, then shook again so strongly that the town’s stone buildings collapsed. Survivors spoke of the ground moving exactly like waves on the sea.

At the same time, sea water rose up under the sand, causing both buildings and people to sink into what had become quicksand. Movement of the tectonic plates and shifting of the waves caused people to be swept away as if they were adrift in a storm. One gentleman was sure he was going to perish, but saw the upper part of a house surging past. He caught onto the roof and was saved.

Other weren’t so lucky. The mixture of sand and water dragged them down, and they were never seen again. Geysers also shot up unexpectedly, catching other people and throwing them a hundred feet in the air. At least one man was dragged down into the sand, and into an underground river of salt water that had not been there five minutes before. Then a geyser lifted him into the light again. He later named this as the moment he “found God.”

Some people were only partially engulfed, and screamed as they lay trapped, knee deep, hip deep or waist deep in sand. Some were sucked down until only their heads were clear, and remained there until they suffocated, or were eaten by wild dogs.

The scene was absolute chaos. There were no police, no firefighters. Most of the militia had been one of the three forts, which had either collapsed or been engulfed in water.

The next tremor caused turmoil in the harbor. Ships tore from their moorings and smashed to pieces, which surged into the town further damaging buildings and beating people to mush. One three-master was lifted up, carried over the ruins, and deposited on top of a house, several hundred yards inland.

And the tomb Sir Henry Morgan, pirate, privateer, Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica and Knight of the Realm was ripped open, the lead-lined coffin carried out to sea.

Almost at once, looters began to do their work. The stone buildings – almost universally homes to the rich merchants and government officials, had been utterly destroyed, but the humble huts used by escaped salves, natives, prostitutes, and pirates had scarcely been touched. The pirates stripped gold, silver and jewels from the hands of the dead, raided the collapsed warehouses to steal trade goods like tobacco and luxury item like silk, and waded into the ruins of taverns to see if any rum casks remained intact.

That night a wild party broke out, a reminder of Port Royal’s halcyon days, when Morgen’s fleet was in town, and the man himself was buying rounds and matching his followers drink for drink.

In the morning there would be cholera, profiteering on water supplies, and a continuation of the screams of the wounded. One third of Port Royal had sunk into the sea. One half of her population was dead, or would die in the next few days.

Preachers used the disaster as a warning against the supposed sins of the city. Drunkenness, theft, and lust, they said, had angered God and caused the disaster. But no one ever mentioned the rich merchants (whose measuring scales, excavated from the ruins, were proven to be tampered with, giving a greater profit to these merchants) and the slave-holding aristocrats who  beat, tortured, raped of killed their “property.” 

These men were well on their way to creating a slave culture that would go on in the Caribbean for over two hundred years. But it was easier to blame the pirates, who did not live by the tenants of "polite society" A clean coat and weekly attendance at church covered a multitude of sins.

As it still does.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Buccaneers TV Show

Okay – It’s cold, the sky is grey, and a lot of us are sitting at home, thanking heaven for central heating and wishing that new episodes of Black Sails were still coming out.

As seen on Amazon
Never fear. Today I present to you a TV show that folks in the US have probably never seen. It’s available on Amazon Prime right now, and DVD’s of the series are available for less than $10.
I’m talking about the 1956 British series The Buccaneers, a children’s show starring Robert Shaw (who also played Quint in Jaws.) And before you say “kid’s series,” and flee, this is not quite “Jake and the Neverland Pirates.” Remember Dr. Who, which also started out as a kid’s series at about the same time. It turned out ok.

The year is 1720.  Though Shaw was supposed to be the star, he was not available for shooting when the first two episodes were produced. At first the series seems to be about a real person, Woods Rogers, as he shows up to take over the position of Governor to the island of Nassau in the Bahamas. Given the fact that Rogers is supposed to be a good guy in the 1950’s mold (kind, wise, and good-looking) the transfer of power goes off in a surprisingly historical fashion. The island is in chaos, but Roger’s offer of pardons brings most of the pirates to heel.

Woods Rodgers didn't actually look like this.

We get a good, quick look at Ben Hornigold, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane and Blackbeard, and all behave in a way that’s fairly close to history. It’s important to note that someone seemed to want to use this show to teach British history to children, so a high percentage of the details are right. I also think that the time period of the show – 1956, when service men who had served in WWII were still settling down after the war. After all, the arrival of Rogers in the islands signaled a “taming” of pirates, just as the people of the 1940’s and early 50’s were expected to turn their backs on the wild lives they had lived before.

It’s the third episode before Shaw, in the form of pirate captain Dan Tempest. Too late to accept the pardon, Tempest is arrested for piracy, and then given a chance to redeem himself by captaining a trade ship to Jamaica. He encounters Blackbeard along the way, wins and engagement, and somewhat redeems himself. Tempest considers still considers himself a pirate.

Robert Shaw

Now, remember that these are half-hour episodes, created in black-and-white half a century ago. But by this time I was already seeing things about this series that I really liked. Little things like the fact that some of the ships have tillers instead of wheels for steering. (The early 1700s were a period of transitions between the two.) Also, some of the pirates wear their 3-cornered hats with a flat side in the front instead of a point, which is also historically accurate. When the sailors move heavy objects, such as cannons, they use correct the correct knots in the ropes.

Little things like this go a long way with me. Simply put, this early TV series is not tied down to decades of cinematic pirate lore, so different from actual history. The series had the use of a real ship, and made good use of it, showing some actual sailing, with correct orders being given, and the actions of sails, line and anchors makes sense. Britain has always been a sailing nation, and put at least as much concern into historic ships as America does into cowboy epics. In addition, in 1956 some sailing ships were still hauling cargo professionally.

As the show went on, I saw issues being dealt with that you don’t see in modern movies. Slavery, for instance. Dan Tempest doesn’t like slavery, but the practice was perfectly legal during his time. When he encounters a ship full of rebellious slaves (both Black and White, it should be noted), what does he do about it? Other episodes deal with shortages of gunpowder, diseases such as typhus, relations with Native Americans, the scarcity of women, and issues with the legal rights of indentured servants. And most of the classic “Pirate’s Articles” are repeated by a group that’s going out “on the account.” Including, “Lights out by 8:00” and, “no drinking below decks.” Someone did quite a bit of homework.

And throughout all of this is Dan Tempest. Robert Shaw plays a pirate as I have always liked my pirates to be played. He moves and speaks and acts as if life may be over at any moment, and he needs to wring all the pleasure possible out of it right now.  He drinks, fights, and talks back to authority figures with an enthusiastic pirate spirit. This is the first time Shaw sang “Farewell Spanish Ladies” on screen, and also the show that taught him to fight with a sword.  

Early episodes try to make him into a farmer in the island’s interior, but he quickly finds his way back onto the high seas. Early episodes also ty to tie him down to a wife and family. (See above: the taming of the pirates.) But, whether because the show wasn’t doing as well as the sponsors would have liked, or because whoever wanted the moralizing tone worked into the program let their attention wander to some other project, Dan Tempest does not settle down as expected.

Blackbeard is the bad guy
The fiery Spanish tavern-singer who has been the love of his life runs off the Jamaica, leaving only a note saying, “I don’t cook, I don’t clean!” Dan himself does not seem to be too honest. If bags of gold aren’t being watched, he’s perfectly willing to pocket them. Even when he’s trying to “go straight” he practices some sharp trading.  He’s also willing to kiss a lady or two, even if she’s being courted by someone else.

The Buccaneers makes good use of its budget for sets, but this is no Black Sails.  Some of the fight scenes are laughable, with actors obviously pulling punches and missing hits. A few of the episodes are obviously padded out, with lots of shouting about the same thing over and over instead of character development. But all-in-all it’s a very pleasant surprise.

I’m watching it one episode a day, to make it last.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Whores of Old Port Royal

In the days of Captain Morgan – yes, that red-coated fellow on the rum bottle – Port Royal was officially the Wickedest City on Earth. Not only was the place officially an “open port” – a place where pirates were not prosecuted, and could come, go, and sell their ill-gotten goods without interference from the authorities. Not only was it a place nearly drowned in rum, where one in three buildings housed a tavern. But it was also a place where prostitution was legal, and where working women made names for themselves – and fortunes to take back to England.

The women were colorful – one could afford to be, in a city filled with pirates. They sported names like Salt-Beef Peg, No-Conscience Nan, and Buttock-de-Clink Jenny. Attitude was everything. A contemporary writes:

“A little Reputation among the Women goes a great way; and if their Actions be answerable to their looks, they may vie (in) Wickedness with the Devil: an Impudent Air, being the only Charms of their Countenance, and a Lewd Carriage the Studied grace of their Deportment. They are such who have been Scandalous in England to the utmost degree, either transported by the State or led by their Vicious Inclinations; (to) where they may be Wicked without Shame, and Whore on without Punishment.”

In other words, the Port Royal prostitutes made more money if they had a reputation. They looked like prostitutes, and made no pretense of being anything else. Exactly what made up their “wickedness” is not specified, but this was a time period when women were not supposed to have any sort of independent sexual life. Merely acting “sexy,” or taking lovers for pleasure as well as profit may have been what shocked the writer of the passage above.

 Notice that, while some of these women have been “transported” – meaning shipped to the English colonies as punishment for crimes, others have come to the New World out of choice. Why?

The answer is that, when the pirate fleets were in port, money flowed like rain-water. Men were walking around with the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in their pockets, and also carrying an understanding that disease, injury, enemy weapons or the sea itself might kill them at any moment. They wanted a good time, right now, and were willing to pay for it.

How good a time, and how much money? Three hundred and fifty years have passed since Morgan’s day, but some stories remain. In one case, a pirate paid a certain woman the modern equivalent of $25,000 merely to strip naked. (Women’s clothing of the time was so bulky and hard to take off that women who did not have servants rarely removed all of it. Prostitutes serviced customers by lifting their skirts, even if they had a room for the night.)

But most famous of the ladies of Port Royal was Mary Carleton. She had been born in the English district of Canterbury, daughter of a fiddler. But in 1663 she rode a barge into London, walked into the first tavern that would admit a woman, and became Maria von Wolway, a German princess, running away from an arranged marriage. Mary claimed that her common clothing was a disguise, and that she was a rich orphan who had left estates and jewels behind her because she wanted to marry for love.

A contemporary portrait of Mary Carleton

She threw herself on “the kindness of strangers” and since she was pretty, and presumably rich, she found no shortage of kindness. She quickly married a man named John Carleton who thought he was getting a prize. It soon turned out that Mary was not only not German and not a princess, but that she was already married to a shoemaker named Thomas Stedman, and had borne him two children, neither of which had survived.

In the mid-1600s divorce was impossible. But John Carleton took Mary to court for bigamy and false representation. Mary countered by accusing her husband of falsely representing himself as a lord. Both sides published pamphlets publicizing their side of the conflict. The case became a popular scandal, the talk of taverns and coffee houses all over London.

Mary on stage

At her trial, Mary announced that, even though she wasn’t a princess, she had worked hard to cultivate the accomplishments of one, and that ought to count for something.  She was acquitted. After the trial, she wrote an autobiography (probably ghost-written) and starred in a play about her life. This brought her more admirers. Once of them persuaded her to marry him. Shortly after she did, Mary ran off with his money, valuables, and keys while he was drunk.

For the next ten years, Mary made a career of pretending to be a rich virgin heiress on the run from an arranged marriage. She duped many men and stole many valuables, often from husbands who were too embarrassed to admit they’d been taken. She was finally convicted of stealing a sliver tankard and sentenced to penal transportation - in other words, she was thrown out of England and sent to live in Port Royal.

For two years she was the toast of the wicked town. She may have had sex with Morgan himself. She certainly serviced his men. But Port Royal lacked the thing that Mary loved – gullible guys who wanted to marry a rich virgin. Pirates were more direct, less inclined to marry, and apparently more impressed with practiced skill than blushing virginity. After two years, Mary stowed away on a ship and went back to England, where she was soon up to her old tricks.

In many ways, Mary Carleton was like the pirates she knew. Though she made an enormous amount of money over the course of her life – not only stealing valuables, but receiving many rich presents from men who courted her – she never used the money to set up a comfortable life for herself.  She seems to have been addicted to the thrill of the chase. I believe that it is significant that she never pretended to be a rich widow – only a virgin heiress. Apparently playing this part was more important to her than life itself. In December of 1672 she was captured when a man searching for stolen loot recognized her. She was tried in the Old Bailey. Because she had returned from penal transportation without permission, the sentence was death, and Mary was executed by hanging on January 22, 1673.