Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Pirates in Paradise

Nothing says pirate event like standing on a sandy island under a palm tree, watching two tall ships firing cannons at each other on a warm night in December.

I was in Key West for the Fort Zachary Taylor Pirate Fest, part of the larger Pirates in Paradise festival.

The larger festival is purely "pirate" (or polyester pirate as some people call them). It included Captain Hook and a pirate Santa Clause. The part of it in the fort was focused much more on history although there were still some ren fair pirates.

The historical pirates had our own camp, officially the "careening camp". The idea was that we were camping on an island while our ship was being careened (this involved beaching the ship and scraping the growths off of the sides for extra speed). The festival continued into the fort with a couple of dozen vendors. These ranged from the same suttlers who set up at any historic event to a Utilikilt vendor (modern kilts).

The festival ran for four days. Each day had an attack on the fort. The first two days the pirates attacked unsuccessfully. On the third day they succeeded in capturing the fort. On the fourth day the British tried to recover the fort but failed.

The pirates were armed with small arms, mainly pistols and blunderbusses, and cannon. The British had more muskets and rifles and their own cannon. The pirates were aided by the tall ship, the Wolf which also fired on the fort.

There were three different two-masted ships that were part of the festival. At sunset each day they sailed past the camp, often firing on each other. There was also some firing from the walls at sunset most evenings.

Key West had a holiday parade on Saturday night and most of the pirates joined in that. I took a cab with a couple of others. We ran into a few more pirates near the start of the parade and decided to wait there. By the time the pirate unit went by we had around 20. Other pirates kept joining. I would guess that there were around 100 by the end of the parade.

On Sunday night the fort held a pig roast for the participants. The was accompanied by a "dead man's chest" auction to benefit the site and a show of some of the photographs that had been taken during the festival.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


A shallop (from the French chaloupe en fagot) was a small boat, larger than a ship's boat. The prow and stern were rounded. The stern was shaped like the bow except for the addition of a rudder and tiller. They could be disassembled into two or more pieces for easy transport. Both the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies had them. John Smith spent months on one mapping the Chesapeake. The one that the Pilgrims had was their chief means of transportation by water for some time. They were mainly coastal vessels. Larger ones might have a deck or half-deck. They were good craft for exploration since they were shallow-drafted and could be sailed or rowed.

These were not ideal pirate boats by any means but pirates tended to make due with whatever was at hand. Morgan probably had a shallop or two with him on some of his raids.

I've been looking at modern examples to study their rigging. They have the same type of sails as my Whitehall boat - a large sprit-rigged sail and a jib.

There are at least five modern shallops. The oldest was designed for Plimoth Plantation by William Baker who designed most of the 17th century reproductions built in the 1950s through the 1970s. There are no paintings or woodcuts that show shallops by name so he had to decide which type of boat to use. He went with a style that is common in Dutch paintings. This had the sprit-rigged sail and lee-boards rather than a keel.

The Pilgrim shallop was built to meet the Mayflower II when it arrived in America in 1957. Baker's plans called for it to be lapstrake (overlapped planks) but the builders refused, insisting that this was a sign of inferior workmanship. I've been on this shallop a couple of times, once for an afternoon sail and once for three days of filming a National Geographic video on John Smith's voyage.

The John Howland Society along with Plimoth Plantation built a larger shallop based on a description from William Bradford's History of Plimoth Plantation. There is an account here including the reasoning behind the design and a description of the launch.

Three other shallops were built for Jamestown's 400th anniversary. You can see them all here and here. (Note that one of these has a wineglass transom.) Here are pictures of one of them being built.

Here is a PDF document with a lot of information on shallops including naming the diffierent parts. Pirates who want to know more about ships should study this. This shallop was designed from the beginning to be broken down into two pieces. Note that each half can float on its own. The halves are kept together with special pieces from the keel and rails.

Here is a archaeological dig of an original late-17th century shallop.

There are numerous images of shallops on Google Image.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Live Piracy Map

This blob isn't about modern piracy but this is still pretty cool - a Google map showing all international pirate activity for the past several months.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

Spider Catcher

I'm not the only pirate to buy a Whitehall. Here is one on the West Coast who decided to use a Whitehall as a Spider Catcher. Basically this was a small, lightly armed boat used to catch and board larger ships. They were mainly used during the Revolutionary War.

His Whitehall is a bit small for this. Mine is a couple of feet longer and right about at the lower end of these boats. I don't have a small cannon but I do have swivel guns in two sizes which is probably more appropriate (and a lot more practical).

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Crusoe and Compasses

This is nitpicking but something bothers me about the last episode of Crusoe (besides the issue of slavery which I already blogged about).

Early in the episode Crusoe and Friday discover a damaged boat. It has an occupant who has a compass in his pocket. In the process of repairing the boat, the compass drops into a small fire. They pull it out. The wooden box is just a bit singed but Crusoe says that the needle has melted.

Really? The elements of this compass are a round wooden box, a piece of glass, a cardboard card, a brass spike to hold the needle, and the needle itself. The needle is iron and iron has the highest melting point of any of these ingredients. In fact, you could leave it in the fire until it burned out and fish the needle from the ashes unharmed (although heating can affect magnetism).

Crusoe and Friday borrow (meaning stealing) a compass from some mutineers. This one is similar except it is larger and housed in a brass case. At the end of the episode Crusoe pulls the compass from his boot and opens it showing that it is broken. Discouraged, he throws it into the sea.

Huh? The glass keeps the needle from slipping off but otherwise is unimportant. The needle should have been fine. He should have been able to have picked the broken glass out of the compass and still navigated with it.

Of course, if that happened the show would have ended on its 4th episode which isn't what the scriptwriters planned. On the other hand, given the ratings, the show might be in for a short stay, anyway.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Slavery in the GAoP

A recent episode of Crusoe involved Caruso and Friday finding a damaged boat and a compass. They repaired the boat but Friday seemed reluctant to leave the island. Eventually he admitted that he was worried about slavery, "Slaves in your country don't look like me, they look like you."

The practice of using African slaves in America has given a false impression of slavery in the 17th and 18th century. It was far more universal than just Europeans enslaving Africans. It also has some links with piracy (at least literary piracy).

First, at the same time that Europeans were obtaining slaves from Africa (most often buying Africans who had already been enslaved by fellow Africans), the corsairs of northern Africa were raiding European countries including England for people they could sell as slaves in the Mediterranean. In fact, slavery was not legal in England although it was being introduced to the English colonies about that time. Earlier in the 17th century Africans sold in America were treated as indentured servants but the growing number of free blacks alarmed the colonists and they decided to keep the Africans in permanent bondage.

Now for the literary angle - the last couple of episodes of Crusoe have included flashbacks to a judge during the Monouth Rebellion. This ties in with Rafael Sabatin's Captain Blood. The book starts with Peter Blood, a retired soldier who became a doctor helping a wounded friend. It seems that the friend was part of the Monmouth rebellion and judged a traitor. For helping him, Blood was also convicted of treason. Rather than being executed, they were shipped to the Caribbean and sold as slaves. They eventually escaped and took to piracy until James II was replaced by William and Mary and they were pardoned.

While European enslaving of Africans was not the only slavery going on, it was the most systematic with special ships built to transport slaves. These made excellent pirate ships since they were large, fast, and well-armed. The Whydah was a former slave ship. In another fictional tie-in, Jack Sparrow's Black Pearl was also built to be a slaver.

It is commonly assumed that after pirates captured a slave ship they would free the slaves. This is incorrect. While many pirates were former slaves, pirates seldom had any compunction about treating slaves as plunder and selling them at the closest market.

To really complicate the issue, in the novel, Crusoe was both a slave himself and a slave owner at different points in his life prior to eing shipwrecked.

More on the Boat

Now that we have the Whitehall home I've been able to go over it carefully. The trailer shows its age. I've already replaced the hitch receiver and the winch. I had to cut the bolts in order to to get the old ones off. I'm probably going to have to cut the lug nuts off at some point, hopefully before I get a flat.

On the other hand, the boat itself is in really good condition. It needs a new coat of paint - the paint is coming off of the seams - but that is about it. I've been sanding it and, except for the seams and the keel, the old paint is in good condition. In fact it's a good thing that I didn't want to take it down to the bare wood. It would be tough trying to get the old paint off.

Instead I'm going to use a coat or two of primer and plain white paint. I'm going to use oil-based paint. Going through threads on Wooden Boat convinced me that I don't need expensive anti-fouling paint for a boat that will spend most of its time on a trailer. Likewise, it appears that even the high-end latex paint is questionable and I'm not sure about putting latex over oil.

I would have loved to put the mast ad sail up today but it was sprinkling all day and I'm not sure that I could get everything dried properly.

I've always been a sucker for classic varnished wood boat interiors and wine glass stem transoms. This boat has both and has the feel of a museum reproduction. Too bad it has to sit for the Winter but I probably got a big price break because it is the off-season.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Pirates of Tripoli

This movie was on TCM this afternoon. It is a pirate movie about a different group than normally shown - the corsairs of the Mediterranean. The real pirates of Tripoli were some of the most powerful pirates in history. They raided Europe for slaves, even England. By the early 19th century they had arrangements with most countries who paid tribute to the corsairs to keep their shipping safe. The fledgling US decided that the tribute was too expensive and sent in the Marines to clear out the pirates (twice). This is where the "Shores of Tripoli" line in the Marine hymn comes from.

You don't get any of that in the movie. It's pretty formulaic. A deposed princess goes to the pirates, looking for help in recovering her kingdom. She and the chief pirate are attracted to each other very quickly, and after some setbacks, the triumph.

Despite the corsairs being Muslems, the cast looks like any other pirate movie (the star, Paul Henreid was in other pirate movies). The ships are obviously models.

Still, it is entertaining. It isn't worth renting but it is worth changing the channel for when it is on.

Pirate Central

Wired has a report from "Pirate Central" in Somalia. This except show how little things have changes since the Golden Age of Piracy.
The conditions have to be right before pirates will head out "shopping" for a cargo ship to rob: a moonless night, a lull in patrols, and enough money to buy weapons and fuel for the motorized canoes.
Once they identify a suitable victim, seven to nine men don ski masks and black shirts, motor out into international waters, sidle up to the ship, and climb on board using a long bamboo pole with a hook on one end.
They threaten the captain and crew with long machetes, then steal all the money in the ship's safe… If they succeed in getting the cash, each pirate can clear between $600 and $2,000.
Agus and his partners have a hard time saving what they steal.... That's because pirates here are notorious for spending their booty on "happy-happy" — that is, a night of boozing and girls-for-hire. Agus' weakness is a woman named Yuna who works in a dance troupe that travels from island to island and charges men to dance with them.

The Buccaneers who accompanied Morgan's raid on Panama had the same problem. Most of them had spent their share of the loot in a few days.

Friday, October 24, 2008

We bought a boat

We bought a "new: boat on ebay. Not the three-mast pirate ship. We bought a 17' Whitehall Pulling Boat. This is a 19th century adaptation of a 17th century boat. It is long and fairly narrow with a wine glass transom (the rear end narrows like the silhouette of a wine glass - I've always loved these). These boats are known for being really fast rowers and good sailing boats.

Ours was made in 1987 at Mystic Seaport by the man who started the boat shop there. It comes with a sprit-rigged sail like the one I made for my dingy but bigger and with a boom at the bottom.

It should hold 4-5 people with two rowing stations. I'll have to figure a way for mounting a swivel gun. I'll probably clamp a short post to the side (one on each side) and use my small swivel gun.

It will be a while before I can go to pick it up. More later.

Here's the wineglass transom.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The ebay pirate ship

You really can find anything on ebay. There is a pirate ship currently listed. The description is:
2006 75' Sailboat Triple Mast Pirate Ship Replica Style Vehicle Description
What can I say about this boat that the pictures don't? It is a 2006 Custom Built Composite(Marine Plywood/fiberglass/marine plywood/fiberglass) Hulled 75+ ' Sailboat with a 60.4' Waterline length. It drafts 7.5' and has a wide beam of 15'. It weighs in at 33 ton. The decks are built of wood as are the masts! It has 14 sails and is powered by an electric motor for docking capable of 3 knots. This vessel has 4 staterooms! The bildge pump kicks on every 5 minutes. It needs some minor work and cleanup to make it right but is a steal at this price. The builder spent over $300k to build this boat.
For those environmentally correct pirates, it is solar powered.

Nothing about the number of cannons or even cannon ports.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Crusoe vs the Pirates

The pilot of the new NBC series Crusoe featured pirates. The series is loosely based on Robinson Crusoe. Very loosely. With a lot of other influences.

A big influence was the movie Swiss Family Robinson which was Robinson Crusoe with a family. In the Disney movie a family was shipwrecked on an island and built an elaborate tree house. Crusoe manages to build a comfortable tree house of his own. The Swiss Family also fought off pirates with traps. Crusoe does the same.

One thing I really liked - an accurate depiction of gunpowder. Gunpowder will not fire if it is wet but it can be dried again. Also, a bullet fired into a barrel will not set it off. It will just make a hole in the barrel. We see this in Crusoe.


Near the end of the pilot, Crusoe needs to detonate a barrel of gunpowder at a distance. He stuck the iron scouring stick (aka ramrod) in the barrel of his gun and heated the end of it then fired it into the barrel.

Would this actually work? Maybe. Touching a red hot piece of iron to gunpowder would set it off. There are a few other factors:

1) How straight does a scouring stick fly when shot out of a musket? Would it travel like a spear with the heated end first?

2) After traveling a distance, would the hot end cool off or would it still be hot enough to set off the powder?

3) Would a red hot scouring stick penetrate a barrel or would it flatten? The end would have been pretty soft.

This seems like something that the Mythbusters should try.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Defending (reenactor) Pirates

When I was at the Grande Muster at Saint Mary's City, one of the militia members complained to me about the pirate reenactors. As far as he was concerned, pirates were nothing but rapists, thieves, and murderers and he didn't know why anyone would want to recreate that. I can answer that.

First, there is some irony when someone who reenacts colonial militia complains about anyone else. after all, the colonists were stealing from, killing, and raping the Indians. The militia was there to keep down the Indians as much as anything.

Regardless, pirates have been romanticized since the GAoP. The first couple of books on pirates were written from first-hand experience and are still in print (here, and here). While everything the reenactor said about pirates is true, they also had some admirable traits. They were a rare example of democracy and meritocracy. Everyone got a vote. They chose their captain and, if he wasn't successful, they would choose a new captain.

Piracy also offers military reenactors a chance to cut loose a bit. A lot of military reenactment is marching and doing things as a unit. Pirates had to work as an effective unit but they didn't have (or need) the military discipline that military units have. It also allows for a great deal of individuality.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pirates invade Maryland

I was at the Grande Muster at Saint Mary's City, Maryland. This was Maryland's original capitol. The muster is a gathering of 17th century reenactors. Usually they represent colonial militia or units from the English Civil War or the 30 Years War. All three of these were represented, as usual, but an additional group showed up - the Sea Rats of the Atlantic who are pirates. They also brought a small rowboat.

In addition, a trio of people from Henricus colony near modern Richmond brought a really nice boat. We figured it up and it could hold ten.

Saturday afternoon features a tactical battle. Because the number of reenactors has been dropping for years, it was suggested that we just fight an imaginary foe. Then the Sea Rats told us how many people they had. We ended up fighting them.

Of course, they were slaughtered. Not only were they outnumbered, but our side has some really good musketeers. Everyone had fun.

On Sunday we launched both boats then stormed the camp from the water. We had a mixture of Sea Rats and colonial troops attacking. The rest of the Sea Rats helped the Saint Mary's Militia fight off the attack (even though we successfully stormed the gun emplacement).

This was so much fun that it will be the tactical event next year.

After that I got to go sailing on the bigger boat. It did pretty well but the wind was weak and fitful so we didn't get very far.

An award is given to the best group. This year the Sea Rats got it.

Next year there will be two events at Saint Mary's City. In addition to the fall muster, they will celebrate Maryland's 375th anniversary on June 20. That event will feature several tall ships.

The Sea Rats' camp.

A couple of marooned pirates.

Lining up for the award ceremony.

Setting up the boats.

Friday, September 26, 2008

PoTC 4

There will be a Pirates of the Caribbean 4 staring Johnny Depp according to Disney. Depp just signed a three picture contract including Jack Sparrow in Pirates 4, the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (directed by Tim Burton), and Tonto in the Lone Ranger.

Depp gets the largest advance salary in history for Pirates 4 - $55 million. Considering that the PoTC franchise has taken in over a billion and a half, that seems fair.

No further word on cast, plot, or release date. I'm hoping that they give Will and Elizabeth a rest and limit them to a cameo or skip them completely. They've done about everything that they can with those characters and Elizabeth's character has enough trouble as a single mother (ok, she's married but Will is about as absent as is possible).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Royal Navy won't fight pirates 'in case they claim asylum'

The British Navy isn't what it used to be. Granted, modern pirates aren't swashbucklers, either, but really!

British Foreign Office officials are understood to have advised the Royal Navy not to confront or arrest pirates in the region for fear of transgressing human rights legislation or encouraging their seeking asylum once taken to the UK.

The possibility of piratical sea-scum being clapped in irons and returned to Blighty, there to roast swans in rent-free council flats rather than dancing a final hornpipe on the end of a rope at Execution Dock, has led to a predictable outburst of tubthumping.

The Navy has issued a boilerplate denial that it is soft on piracy, saying that "Royal Navy commanding officers take decisive action to aid ships under attack in international waters, including the use of force or detention if necessary".

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How to make a pirate map

I missed this on TLAPD (Talk Like A Pirate Day), but Wired has instructions for making your own aged-looking pirate map. Basically, you crumple a paper bar, draw on it, and burn the edges. The part I like is under variations:

Make two treasure maps – one real and one fake. After both the real and the fake maps have been drawn, don't burn the edges of the fake map, but instead cut out another piece of paper bag about the same size as the fake map and crumple it several times. Fold the real map in half or quarters and put it in the middle of the blank piece of paper bag. Then glue the just the edges of the fake map to the blank, hiding the real map inside. Once the glue has dried, burn the edges of the map as described above...just don't burn a hole in the middle of the map. (This is useful for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign to see how long it takes the party to figure out they're following a fake map while the real one is right under their noses).

Seen on a T-Shirt

Rules of the High Seas

1. Ye Captain is always right.
2. If ye lose an eye, arm, or leg in service, TOUGH LUCK.
3. All booty belongs to yer Captain.
4. If ye "poops out" on the POOP DECK, ye hang from the yardarm.
5. All rum belongs to yer Captain.
6. Mutineers will walk the plank.
7. Any problems with ye rules, ye die.

Ye Management

Friday, September 19, 2008

What's Cooking? #400 - Prepare to be Boarded!

Everyone's getting into Talk Like a Pirate Day

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Thursday, September 18, 2008, Issue No. 400
Talk Like a Pirate!
Talk Like a Pirate!
You know you want an eye-patch, a parrot, and a fast galleon to sail the seas. It's International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and there's no better (or sillier) chance to have a day's worth of fun with your food. Let Allrecipes help read your treasure map with offbeat pirate recipes, Caribbean dinners, and a tipple of every pirate's favorite spot o'drink--rum.
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Marinating these ribs overnight (or at least 6 hours) makes them delectably succulent!

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

It's Pirate Week on Wired

Today's entry is about a pirate movie and Salmagundi. This is supposed to be pirate food. Basically, it means "whatever the cook has on board mixed together."

A lot of pirate references give a very ornate tavern version of salmagundi. This seems to have come from the web site for Cutthroat Island.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Pirate Vacation

Last year we took a pirate vacation, visiting spots with pirate associations including Williamsburg (Blakbeard's crew was tried and executed there), the museum housing artifacts from Blackbeard's ship, and Charleston which Blackbeard held for ransom (the whole city).

This year we started further south and are working our way north.

We started at St. Augustine. This city is approaching it's 450th anniversary. It was originally founded by the French. The Spanish were afraid that the French would use the settlement as a base for piracy and sent an expedition to found their own colony. They captured a number of French and slaughtered the protestants, then founded the city.

Over the centuries, St. Augustine has been attacked by pirates, privateers, and the English numerous times. Sir Francis Drake, possibly the greatest privateer, raided the city and leveled it in 1586. Robert Searle raided it but didn't level it in 1668. The British attacked in 1702 and 1740. The Spanish eventually built a stone fort to defend the town and a smaller stone outpost a few miles downstream to warn of attackers. Both are still in existence and open to the public.

While we were there we went on a sunset sail on a sloop (two-masted boat). This one was around the size preferred by pirates in the golden age of piracy. The captain believed in doing as much sailing as possible instead of using the motor so we tacked out of the harbor. I've been on sails lke this before but this was the first one that included any tacking.

Currently we are in Savannah where Treasure Island's Captain Flint is supposed to have died. No such pirate actually existed the restaurant, The Pirate House, claims to be haunted by his ghost. The Pirate House incorporates the oldest building in Savannah plus a pirate theme.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eyepatches and dark places

Since I've been blogging about Mythbusters pirate specials, I thought I would take one last shot at the eyepatch myth.

According to the myth, pirates wore an eyepatch over a good eye so that they could go into darkness without having to wait for their eyes to adjust. The Mythbusters confirmed that this works but ignored the larger question - did pirates do this?

I've pointed out how insane it is to cover one eye when you are in a fight. I've also pointed out that eyepatches were not associated with pirates historically. The association came long after the golden age of pirates ended. Eyepatches aren't even associated with sailors in general.

For my final word (for now) on the issue I am going to question why they would need an eye that is dark-adjusted?

The myth is pretty sketchy about this. The implication is that pirates will be wandering around in dark places where someone might be waiting in ambush. I doubt that anyone who thinks this has ever been on a period ship.

Keep in mind that most pirates tended to attack ships that were weaker than their own and that most pirate ships were on the small side. Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge and the Wydah were unusually large for pirate ships and they weren't that big.

The Queen Anne's Revenge is described as a ship of over 200 tons. This was actually a measure of size. Large barrels were called tuns and, when filled with water or wine, weighed a ton. There were ships larger than that but this is on the large size so I will use it as the upper end of ships that a pirate would be likely to take*.

I am very familiar with three ships in the 100-180 ton range - the Santa Maria (Columbus), the Susan Constant (Jamestown), and the Mayflower (Pilgrims). I have been on these ships several times and I have been in areas closed to the general public.

The Santa Maria only has the main deck and a quarter deck. The Susan Constant and the Mayflower have an extra deck. All three ships have a large hatch that opens onto the hold for loading and unloading cargo. The Queen Anne's Revenge also has the lower deck. See here for a cross-section.

If you take a ship of this size then there will be plenty of light on the lower deck. This was a multi-function deck with one function being a cannon deck. If the ship was in a fight then the cannon ports would be open letting in the sunlight. It would be dimmer than on the main deck but not so dim that you couldn't see. In fact, if you had an eye covered and pulled off the patch then that eye would be blinded.

The same would be true for an cabins on the ship. Cabins were normally located at the stern of the ship and had windows for letting in light and a breeze. Even the Santa Maria's cabin which has solid shutters has plenty of light when the door is open and the shutters are closed.

That leaves the hold.

When a cargo ship is underway the main hatch is covered and battened (a canvas cover would be tied over the hatch cover). Access to the hold would be through smaller hatches which would not let in much light. "Ah Ha", you say. "Here's where they need dark adjusted eyes."

Not necessarily. If you are a pirate and you have just taken a ship which will you do:
  • Lower yourself into a dark hold through the smaller hatches.
  • Throw open the main hatch and see what you just captured.
No self-respecting pirate would feel his way around when he could let in the light. Especially since the captured cargo would be coming out through the main hatch.

What if you see some crew members slipping into the hold to make a final stand? Same thing. Let in the light first. It doesn't take long and you will see better than you could with one dark-adjusted eye.

Notice that when the Mythbusters tested this myth, they didn't use a real ship. They used a darkened warehouse. You could probably have stored the Queen Anne's revenge in that warehouse with room left for the Wydah.

Of course, the Mythbusters weren't trying to examine history. They were trying to fill a show with colorful myths. Too bad that in doing so they spread a new pirate myth.

* I am not including Spanish treasure ships taken by the English Sea Dogs in this. Some of them were much larger than 200 tons but there is no association between eyepatches and the Sea Dogs.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Upsidedown Boat

My last post took issue with a Mythbusters pirate episode. I thought I might as well comment on their second pirate episode. In this case they tried something from Pirates of the Caribbean, Curse of the Black Pearl.

Early on in the movie, Jack Sparrow and Will Tanner need to get aboard the Interceptor. They do this by turning a rowboat upside down and using this as an improvised diving bell and walking underwater to the ship.

Would this work? Not as shown. The Mythbusters tried this and found that the trapped air in the boat gives it too much buoyancy. It would have floated to the surface. If the pirates carried enough weight to keep them down then they would not have been string enough to hold the boat down.

Myth busted, but there is a flaw there. Normally the Mythbusters figure out how to make a myth work but they didn't try in this case. This seems like a big flaw.

First, the concept of a diving bell was well know by the end of the 17th century. Sometimes an actual bell would be used. An improvised diving bell could be constructed by weighting down a large barrel. There isn't a lot of difference between a barrel and an upsidedown boat so the concept could work. The flaw in the Mythbusters methodology is that they tried weighting down the pirates instead of the boat.

This would be tricky. With a diving bell, you would make it heavy enough to stay down. If it was heavier than it needed to be then you used a block and tackle to suspend the barrel.

Jack and Will would not have that option. They would have to find a balance between heavy enough to stay down and light enough to carry. Further, they could have to use objects at hand. I'm not sure how much iron mongery they would find near the water's edge and they would have to be careful about attracting attention. They would also have to find places on the boat that were strong enough to support the weight and well balanced enough that the boat didn't turn over and let the air out.

So it would be possible but very difficult to pull off. On Mythbusters that usually gets a Plausible rating.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Awash in Rum

Mythbusters replayed one of their pirate specials last night (again). I've poked holes in these before but I've never commented on the one about washing with rum. The myth is that pirates used rum to remove stains.

The connection between pirates and rum is strong in popular culture. Treasure Island has the song fragment Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum plus lots of rum drinking. The major brand of rum is named for a pirate, Captain Morgan (technically a privateer). Pirates of the Caribbean had lots of rum references.

The connection goes beyond popular culture. Rum is made from sugar cane which is grown in the Caribbean and it continues to be very popular there. A large portion of Port Royal sunk in an earthquake at the end of the Golden Age of Piracy. Underwater excavations of this show that every house had a room set aside for drinking rum in addition to a huge number of taverns that served it.

Since Port Royal was supported by piracy when it sank, this is a strong association between the two. There are many associations between pirates and drinking and, since rum was most easily available, this would have been the logical spirit. Some articles specified that drinking after dark could only be done on the open deck. Calico Jack Rackham was drunk on punch when he was captured.

Also, the real Captain Morgan, Sir Henry Morgan, probably drank himself to death on rum.

So, pirates drank rum. Did they do anything else with it?

This is where the myth runs into trouble. Everyone in the Caribbean had access to rum and most drank it. Everyone of these people also had to deal with stains. Even bloodstains were not unique to pirates. If pirates used rum as a cleaning agent then so would everyone else.

So did they? If it works then you would expect it to still be used today as a folk-cleaner like soda water is.

Funny thing - if you Google "rum stain remover" then you come up with references to the Mythbusters episode and ways of removing rum stains. In fact, the only reference I can find to rum as a satin remover is:
Apply mixture of 1/2 rum and 1/2 Coke to self until you no longer care about some little stain.
This joke may be were the "myth" came from.

I think that, like the one about eye patches, this needs a special classification. Not only is the "myth" busted, but it is busted as being a myth. It is more like something that someone invented just for the show.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What Would Jack Sparrow Do?

Around fifteen minutes before the pirates were to attack the encampment at Paynetown, Tom Grooms and I were wondering what Jack Sparrow would do in this situation?

On Saturday we had attacked the encampment with three boats and six pirates against a battery of cannons, two boats with troops, and a militia. Since the script called for us to win, we won, but it was an unlikely victory.

Jump ahead to Sunday. As of 12:45 the pirate fleet consisted of two boats. Tom and I were in one. The other had a couple of jugglers who were armed with a non-firing wooden cannon, one pistol, and some belaying pins. At 12:50 we were joined by a third boat with a woman and an unarmed child.

So what would Jack do?

Probably row away, land in an inconspicuous place, and sneak into camp. Once there he would distract the lookouts by pointing into the distance and ask, "What's that?" while picking their pockets, then leave.

If he felt the need for a quick exit, he might even commandeer the coffin set aside for the pirate funeral later in the day and use this as a makeshift boat.

Instead, we followed the script. By our 1:00 attack we had been joined by two more boats with four more pirates. In addition, the pirate captain lead an overland force and attacked the militia from behind. It turned out to be a credible victory, after all.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Billy Bones's Fancy

I've been reading an electronic version of Treasure Island and I wanted to look up the famous map. I found that Google has a scanned abridged version (missing the map) on-line. One thing that I found interesting is that this version has notes in the back which include what the editor alleges to be the full version of the song that the captain (Billy Bones) constantly sings. I'm skeptical but I thought that it was worth repeating. The part about Davy Jones and his big black key may have inspired PotC 2 & 3.

Billy Bones's Fancy
(to the tune of "Blow the Man Down")

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest;
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest;
Yo-'ea'-ho, and a bottle o' rum!

They drank and they drank and they got so drunk,
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!
Each from the dead man bit a chunk;
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!

They sucked his blood and they crunched his bones;
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!
When suddenly up came Davy Jones;
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!

And Davy Jones had a big black key;
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!
The key to his locker beneath the sea;
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!

He winked and he blinked like an owl in a tree;
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!
And grinned with a horrible kind o' glee;
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!

'My men,' says he, 'you must come wi' me-'
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!
'Must come wi' me to the depths o' the sea;
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!

So he claped them into his locker in the sea,
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!
And he locked them in with his big black key;
Yo-'ea'(heave-ho), and a bottle o' rum!

For good measure, here's the map I started out looking for.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Paynetown 2008

The Pirates of Paynetown event of 2008 is over. It was a huge success with a capacity number of participants.

The site is well-suited to a pirate event. It overlooks Lake Monroe so that there are no obvious anachronisms on three sides. When filled with tents it seems like a temporary encampment of pirates.

The weather was perfect - more like September than August with enough wind to do a little sailing.

Last year there was only one attack on the camp. This year there were two.

The attack on Saturday was short on pirates. The largest ship from last year couldn't make it so we ended up attacking the camp with six pirates in three small boats. My 10' rowboat was not the smallest craft. Opposing us were two larger ships, a bank of cannons, and a militia.

Things were better on Sunday. We had nine pirates spread over five boats. In addition, a party of pirates attacked from the land.

Last year had a hanging. This year there was a pirate wedding on Saturday and a funeral on Sunday. There was also jugglers and craftsmen demonstrating rope-making, blacksmithing, and other trades.

After hours there was a pirate pot-luck dinner and lots of music.

See here for pictures.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Admiral George Anson

I didn't know anything about Captain (later Admiral) George Anson (1697-1762) until I saw this article on a study of historic global temperatures based on old ship's logs. It mentions Anson. His Wikipedia entry is rather interesting. He was a British officer and his most famous exploits were after the Golden Age of Piracy but he took a Spanish treasure galleon, taking 1,313,843 pieces of eight.

Spain and England were at war with each other at the time so Anson had a free hand to attack Spanish shipping and ports in search of treasure.

He also circumnavigated the globe in an age when that was still a difficult achievement. In fact, of eight ships, only the flagship completed the entire voyage.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Microsoft and the Flat Earth

This is more about ships in general than piracy but I don't want this blog to goo too long without updates.

Microsoft has a new ad campaign for Windows Vista. It starts out with a sailing ship and the tagline, "At one point the world thought that the world was flat." There are some problems with this campaign.

First, no educated person in 1492 thought that the world was flat. Sailors also knew that the world was round since they had first-hand experience with objects vanishing over the curve of the planet.

The ad also shows a ship. It's a nice ship - a bark with lots of sails. It also looks suspiciously like the Charles W. Morgan, which was built in 1840. They might have had Old Ironsides in mind instead. This was built in the 1790s. I guarantee that no one thought that the world was flat when either ship was built.

A lot of our idea of what a sailing ship should look like comes from the very end of the sailing period. These were large, graceful ships with lots of complicated sails. Obviously someone from Microsoft wanted a good-looking ship for their ad so they chose one from the wrong century. Ironic since the only advantage that most people see from Vista is the new graphics engine. In order to convince us that there is more to it than a pretty interface, they used a pretty but inaccurate image.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Pirates on the Santa Maria

We had our first pirate event on the Santa Maria. It went very well. We had ten pirates. Everyone got along. This was the first time I can remember getting thank you notes from participants.

The ship was fairly busy. The way we worked it was for me to stop the tour for a few minutes while I jumped forward from the 1490s to the 1690s and tried to recruit some new pirates. Once I finished explaining the tools of the trade they resumed the regular tour.

We had at least one family that came just for us and put a Jack Sparrow shirt and pirate head scarf on their son. I let him fire my small swivel gun.

Here are a few pictures:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is He a Pirate?

Have you ever noticed how few pirate movies actually feature acts of piracy? Here's an example of what I mean.

Pirates of the Caribbean I - Barbossa and the crew of the Black Pearl are proper pirates. We get our first glimpse of the Pearl as having just sunk a merchant ship. Later the crew of the Pearl sack Port Royal. But what of Jack Sparrow? We first see him in a leaky boat. He admires the Interceptor then rescues Elizabeth and is arrested for past charges. While a list of charges is read at his hanging, we never see him doing anything that deserves a death sentence except possibly the commandeering of the Interceptor (which Will was pardoned for). In fact, this is a sore point for the crew in the second movie. They are hoping for "something shiny". It appears that Jack hasn't been much of a pirate captain which would be why they abandon him at the end of the third movie.

Will and Elizabeth are arrested for helping pirates (specifically Jack). Will commands various ships and Elizabeth becomes the pirate king but neither actually practices any piracy (except for the Interceptor).

What about the prototype pirate, Long John Silver? He certainly had some disreputable deeds in his past but, like Jack, we don't see much of them. When he first appears he is a tavern owner who signs on as ship's cook. He does lead a mutiny but that is different from piracy.

Captain Morgan on Cutthroat Island is another pirate who is wanted for past, mainly unexplained deeds, but is currently engaged in treasure hunting rather than piracy.

If you want a real pirate then look to Captain Blood. Even here he has to have justification so we see him torn from his medical practice for helping a rebel and sold as a slave. From there his only alternative is escape and piracy. Even here he is a moral pirate, mainly attacking the evil Spanish and eventually being pardoned.

There is a simple reason for all of this. We are meant to sympathize with the pirates so their harsher nature is hidden. It's hard to root for someone while he's robbing and torturing the innocent. Of course, this hides a lot of the real nature of pirates. We end up with guys in tricorns who say "arr" a lot and spend their time looking for buried treasure.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Taking the helm

Being at the whipstaff of the Half Moon was enlightening.

For those who are not familiar with the whipstaff, it was used to steer large ships during most of the 16th and 17th centuries. As recently as Columbus, ships had a single deck and were steered with a tiller. When additional decks were added, they added the whipstaff. The whipstaff it a pole with a collar that attaches to the tiller. There is a pivot point where it goes through the upper deck. The person at the helm pushes the whipstaff which then moves the tiller. This was, the helmsman can see out (at least to the sides) and, more importantly, can hear commands.

The hard thing about the whipstaff is which way you move it. Anyone who has used a tiller is used to moving the tiller right to turn left. This is switched with the whipstaff. You push it to the left to turn left.

There is an effort to moving the whipstaff. Also, if you push it all the way to one side then it slides down through the pivot and you have to pull it back up to center it again. An hour at the  whipstaff is tiring.

At times the captain simply gives orders about how the ship should be steered - left 1/4, right 1/2, etc. Other times he would point to a landmark in the distance and ask that this be kept close to the port or starboard. At sea the captain would give a compass heading and the helmsman would use the compass in the binacle which is right in front of him. At these times he doesn't even need to see out.

The captain pointed out that the tiller doesn't really move much - maybe 15 degrees each way. The tiller acts more as a trim tab. The real work in turning the ship is done with the sprit sail and the mizzen. These pull the front or back the ship around.

The ship's wheel was invented around 1690 and became popular in the early 18th century. It had cables that went to the tiller. Turning the wheel pulls the cables, moving the tiller right or left. This has several advantages. The wheel can be mounted higher. Because of ratios, it cam make turning the ship easier. It can pull the tiller further to either side. And, it can be tied off as needed.

Regardless, steering the ship was not something that a captain normally did. In a tricky situation the captain would want to be mobile rather than stuck at one spot.

Sailing the Half Moon

I spent the weekend at the School of the Sailor on the Half Moon. This is a reconstruction of the ship Henry Hudson used in his 1609 voyage. Some of the photos I took are here. The official web site for the event is here.

I got to do some things that most pirate reenactors never do - I spent a weekend living on a 17th century ship, working the sails, and taking the helm (I spent two 1-hour shifts at the whipstaff).

In addition to sailing, we also did some live fire. I shot a dog-lock musket and an English-lock pistol. There was also a matchlock but I've live-fired my own. We also sang sea shanties and broke into smaller groups to concentrate on specific skills like navigation and knot work.

The event was educational.

The Half Moon is rated at around 100 tons (the size of the cargo hold) which is similar to the Santa Maria but it felt a lot smaller. The difference must be in the depth of the hold. I'm sure that the main deck on the Santa Maria is much larger than the weather deck on the Half Moon.

On the other hand, the Half Moon has an orlop deck which is where we slept.

The Half Moon would make a fairly decent pirate ship. It is fairly handy. It would require more guns. It only have a pair of 2-pounders and a pair of swivel guns.

It would also require cleaning up the ship's lines. The captain pointed out that the cabins present as much surface area to the wind as most sail boats. This makes it harder to steer. The wind can catch the rear of the ship and blow it sideways.

This part of the ship is there so that the captain and crew can live in some comfort. Pirates often removed these structures to improve their speed and maneuverability.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Portable Piracy

How does the modern pirate adapt? He uses a fold-up urban skiff.

Think of the possibilities. No one would expect you to fold out what looks like an oversize golf bag into an actual sailing vessel. Of course, it won't take much to swamp this thing but it's easier to carry around than a hollowed out log.


I've been reading the section on small-arms in Sea Rover's Practice. What he describes as a pirate gun is pretty close to the Brown Bess. It is the same size, muzzle bore, and general shape. This is basically a 10-gage barrel firing a .75 round ball.

According to the book, pirates increased their rate of fire by thumping the butt against the ground instead of ramming it with the scouring stick (aka ramrod).

I have quite a bit of experience firing blanks from similar pieces and some experience with live fire. Also, most of my experience has been doing earlier periods which gives me a different point of view.

Thumping the gun instead of ramming is common during reenactments. If you don't use the scouring stick you aren't going to leave it in the barrel. I don't see any problem doing this with a loose ball. Even with the fouling from several shots, the ball will still be loose enough to go down all the way with a little thump.

A ball with wadding is a completely different matter. I've never tried firing it this way. When I fire with wadding or a patch it takes some effort to get the ball down the barrel.

So how did the pirates do it? I'm betting that they didn't bother wadding. This is where my early-period experience gives me a different perspective.

Paper cartridges were known for over a century by the GAoP but they were not used by the infantry until late in the 17th century. Instead they used a bandoleer with wood or tin chargers hanging from a leather belt.

Paper cartridges were used by cavalry and civilians. Later cartridges had a ball as part of the cartridge but for most of the 17th century a cartridge was just a powder charge rolled in paper. You bit off the end, poured a bit in the priming pan then poured the rest down the barrel. You carried balls in your mouth and spit one down the barrel after the charge.

Later they started including the ball at the end of the cartridge. The powder would be poured down then the empty cartridge with the ball attached stuffed into the barrel.

So, did the pirates attach a ball to the cartridge? I'm guessing that they did not which is how they kept up the rate of fire.

When I am doing live fire I usually use a patch with my ball. I know people who insist that this is not needed but I find that it help with accuracy. Without a patch a loose ball can start to roll down the barrel. This makes it deflect a bit in the direction it is rolling. Chances are pretty good that it will roll a different direction the next shot. The deflection isn't much - a few inches over 50 yards - but this can make the difference between hitting and missing a target. With a patch the ball can't roll so it is more consistent. This means that there are trade-offs. If you want a more accurate shot you have to take longer loading.

On the other hand, if you are firing in the general direction of the enemy you might just add more shot. You might load with two balls or a combination of a large ball and three or more smaller ones known as buck and ball. We know that this load was used as early as Jamestown. The first body discovered in the original settlement had been shot in the knee from behind with this charge (probably an accident).

Since cartridges with attached balls were still brand new during the GAoP, mmy guess is that pirates didn't bother with them. Their first load might include buck and ball with a cartridge rammed on top of it to keep the shot in place but reloads would just be a ball which would be kept in the mouth. The cartridge would be discarded. That would give the fastest rate of fire.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Pirates of the Scioto

My wife and I decided to try to start a local pirate group, the Pirates of the Scioto. I started a Yahoo Group for this and I asked the Santa Maria about being able to hold pirate events on the ship. If I get an ok then I will put up a recruiting posted at the ship.

What we want the group to be is an extension of how we have approached recreating piracy - keep the basics accurate but allow some things to be over-the-top because, after all we are pirates.

I'd like to see keep costumes based on late 17th/early 18th century clothing, especially sailor's clothing. At the same time, if we keep it too accurate then no one will know that we are pirates.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Pyratecon 2008

Pyratecon has come and gone. I didn't hear the official attendance but the organizers were hoping for 1,000 with 600 pre-registered before the event started.

With those numbers, several of the venues were too small. The pirate party Thursday night was fine. The bar was full but there was plenty of room outside and it was a nice night. The pirate dinner Friday night was far too crowded. Organizers asked people to stagger their arrival but the first ones in didn't leave so it just got more and more crowded. At one point I heard a waitress wonder if the balcony could hold everyone. The first band was good but it was hard to hear them. I would have liked them to play longer. The second band wasn't as good although they were acceptable. The bar events on Saturday night were a lost cause. If you were lucky you could stand close enough in Bourbon Street to see the bar.

The dealer rooms were a little crowned on Friday morning but things thinned out over time. I would have liked to see more vendors selling historically accurate items but that's me.

We went to most of the workshops and talks. They were all good and were under-attended. The sea-chantey workshops were especially fun. The celebrity actors from Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl were interesting. They all played small but important parts as members of the cursed crew. None were in the sequels (no surprise, TBS showed the movie Sunday and I noticed that all three were killed outright or blown to bits). They were all interesting characters and happy to be part of the festivities.

The Saturday night parade was a huge success. Hundreds of pirates marched (swaggered?) up Bourbon Street, watched by thousands of people. The only problem was at the end when most of the parade wanted to keep going past past the Funky Pirate bar that was the official end.

So - who attends a pirate convention? There were several different types.

At the low end were the semi-pirates. These were people who had some sort of costume. There were some people who could (and probably did) wear the same outfits to goth bars and ren fairs. A lot of people had fancy costumes - red or black silk shirts, brocade coats, etc. Then there were the historic pirates. That's the group we were part of. Then there were the people doing specific characters. We saw a very good Blackbeard, eight or nine Jack Sparrows, two Barbosas, a Tia Dalma, and a couple of British Naval Officers who might have been doing Norington.

There were also a couple of ninjas which seems like asking for trouble.

A lot of locals got into the act. We noticed several costume-shop pirates in the French Quarter after the parade. Outfits like these. I always wondered where someone could wear one of these outfits in public - the French Quarter.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Almost time for Pyratecon

Just a day and a half before we leave for New Orleans. I'm looking forward to this. Not that I expect much accuracy. But, a chance to run around the French Quarter dressed like a pirate doesn't need much excuse.

Just to get in the mood on the way down I have my N800 Internet Tablet loaded with a couple of e-books (Treasure Island and a Captain Blood sequel), a Pirate podcast from Talk Like A Pirate Day, and the silly Pirate Movie which I've never actually seen. I might load a copy of Treasure Island, too - either the 1950s one or the Muppet one.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

More on Muskets

Here's a thought I just had - the original pirates of the Caribbean were largely recruited from the Cow Killers. These were hunters who shot wild cows left on the islands by early Spanish colonies. The colonies were abandoned as new sources of gold were found and the cattle released into the wild.

By the 2nd quarter of the 17th century a group of non-Spanish had moved into the islands. They were largely English and French. They shot cattle and dried the meat over a slow fire. The process was known as boucaning. It is the root word for barbecue and buccaneer (boucanier - someone who boucans).

Every now and then the Spanish would try to clear the cow killers off of "their" islands. The main place for displaced cow killers to go was Tortuga.

When the English recruited people to raid the Spanish they got a lot of men who had been cow killers, enough that the French word for the cow killers became synonymous with pirates.

So, we have a significant portion of pirates who used to make their living shooting animals with their muskets. They were good shots, too. Are these men going to toss their muskets into the ocean and switch to blunderbusses? I doubt it.

So the people who insist that pirates had no use for long weapons haven't really thought about where the pirates were recruited from.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Eyepatch Myth (again)

Mythbusters showed their original pirate episode this week. This included the myth that pirates with normal vision wore an eyepatch so that they could go into a dark room without having to wait for their vision to adjust. The Mythbusters proved that this works but didn't comment on whether pirates actually did this.

I've written about this before but I had a slightly new insight. First I will cover the reasons why I think that this is a myth:

A pirate would want both eyes in a fight. Covering one gives you a literal blind spot and affects depth perception. This will get you killed in a fight.

There are few places on a ship where you need to go into a dark place quickly. The hold is one such place but this overlooks how pirates actually operated. Pirates normally forced the crew of a ship to surrender then spent hours or days ransacking a ship. Someone hiding in the hold might have a long wait and would be fairly ineffective. Someone hiding in the hold, waiting to attack pirates individually as they entered would be quickly discovered and put to a painful death. This would also be one fewer person trying to save the ship in the first place. Any fighters hiding in the hold would be expected to emerge and join in the fight before the crew surrendered. This is how Maynard captured Blackbeard.

I have been collecting books on pirates since the 1980s but I never ran across this myth until Mythbusters ran it. I've been looking through books on piracy since then and I only find it in the newer ones. That makes me think that this is not only a myth, it is a recent on. I'm guessing that it was invented after 2000.

The one place I had run across the idea of using an eyepatch to preserve night vision was in a novel - Not Quite Scaramouche by Joel Rosenburg. In this book, three soldiers are accumulating funds for their retirement by robbing thieves. One of them flashes some money in a tavern while wearing an eyepatch. As soon as he leaves he moves the patch to the other eye and leads the inevitable cutthroats following him into a trap. This book was published in 2001 which is exactly right for my theory.

So my guess is that a fan of Rosenburg speculated that lots of people wore eyepatches to preserve night vision historically. From there it is an easy jump to assume that the group of people associated with eyepatches must have worn them for some reason besides the obvious.


As for eyepatches in general, I have yet to see a contemporary description of a pirate wearing one for any reason. A pirate who lost an eye would be given a lump sum payment and would probably either retire or take a non-combat job. Treasure Island was on the money with Long John Silver becoming a cook after losing a leg.

I might as well mention my theory that image of the pirate with a pegleg is a combination of Long John Silver (on crutches) and Captain Ahab (pegleg but not a pirate).

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Review: Pirate Freedom

Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe

There aren't many pirate novels being published these days but this is a good one. Wolfe did a lot of research on pirates, sailing, and geography for this novel.

The plot is fairly straightforward but the set-up is strange. Chris, a boy raised a post-Castro monastery in Cuba goes into the outside world and finds himself in the late 17th century. He becomes a sailor, a captain, a cow killer, and finally a pirate.

The novel is in the form of a confession or memoir written by Chris in the early 20th century where he is a priest looking back at his youth. There is no explanation for the time-travel. It just happens.

If the book has a flaw it is that there are too many coincidences. Nearly everyone that Chris meets returns later. Also, for some reason, all women seem to want him. He has four or five women chasing after him at different points.

The novel is at its best when talking about sailing and actual pirate raids. Without giving a great deal of detail, Wolfe manages to invoke the feeling that he was actually there.

Unlike larger than life characters like Captain Blood, Chris is very human. He makes mistakes and admits them, often judging himself harder than an outsider would.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Long guns

Many pirate books insist that pirates scorned all firearms except pistols and blunderbusses. This is based on a Hollywood-inspired view of how sea battles work.

In the movies two ships will blast away at each other with cannons. Finally they pull alongside and grapple with the pirates swinging across to their prey which they take and lillage moments before it sinks. There are some problems with this.

First, pirates didn't want to sink other ships if they could help it. It could take days to find and transfer all available valuables from one ship to the other. Yes, if they needed to they would blast away with cannons, but this was a last resort.

It was far better to use small arms against an opposing ship. This phase of the battle would go on before the ships were within grappling distance and could go on for some time.

A pistol is a short-range weapon. A blunderbuss is a short-barreled shotgun. It is best when fired into a crowd at short distances. Neither is useful as a ship-to-ship weapon.

That's where the long guns come in. I am lumping muskets, rifles, and carbines together in this classification. Pirates tended to use whatever they could get a hold of.

Sometimes pirates didn't even attack from a ship. There are accounts of pirates taking a ship from dug-out canoes using long guns.

All of this is justification for my newest toy, a snaphaunse musket.

The "modern" flintlock was invented in France around 1630. There were other variations that were in use before this and continued in use decades later. All of them have a pan which holds priming powder. The powder is kept in the pan with a cover. A spring-loaded cock knocks a flint against a striking plate which ignites the priming powder. The resulting flame goes through the touch hole and ignites the main charge.

The flintlock combines the striking plate (called a frizzon here) and the pan cover.

With the snaphaunce the pan cover is separate from the striking plate (called a battery in these locks). In early snaphaunces the musketeer had to open the pan cover by hand but later an internal level was added to the lock to open the pan.

If this seems complicated, it was. I've counted pieces and the snaphaince has at least twice as many pieces as a flintlock. That made it more expensive which is what eventually did it in. Regardless of this, it was a reliable lock and was used from the late 16th century through to the early 18th century. According to The Rifle Shoppe which is where my lock came from, both the lock and the fan-tailed stock usually associated with earlier pieces were still being exported to the colonies at the end of the 17th century.

This means that pirates must have had some. Like I said, they tended to use whatever they could get a hold of.

Flintlocks are probably over represented at pirate events. This is understandable. They are still cheaper to make and much more common. Many pirate reenactors use later century weapons from a time when most guns were flintlocks.

Friday, February 22, 2008

It's hard to be a pirate in the winter

I haven't been posted very often. It's hard to feel piraty when it is snowing outside and the temperature is in the single digits. You think of pirates in the Caribbean where it is always warm. Some pirates did have to put up with northern waters and storms.

The Pilgrims had the worst of some pirates. Shortly after the first Thanksgiving, the ship the Fortune arrived with new colonists and a demand for profit from the investors. They were upset that the Mayflower had been sent back empty. The fact that half the colony was busy dying at the time made no difference to them.

The Pilgrims quickly filled the Fortune with lumber which was in demand because of a timber shortage. The ship arrived in November and was filled in a few weeks so it must have been sailing back in the December-January time frame.

Unfortunately for the Pilgrims and their investors, the ship was seized by pirates off of France and the cargo stolen.

Then there was Bellamy and the Whydah. They crashed in a storm on April 26 off of Cape Cod. It would have been warmer than it is outside my window right now but it would have seemed cold to them. The waters off of Cape Cod are cool in the middle of the Summer. In mid-spring they must have been very chilly.

I know that there were lots more pirates but that's enough to make me feel better about a long, cold Winter.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Get Fuzzy and PoTC

Get Fuzzy mentions the Vasa here and here.

It's a warship, not a pirate ship, but it is a historic ship.

Which sank shortly after it was launched.

In Pirates III (At Worlds End), Jack realizes that they need to escape Davy Jones's Locker by turning the Black Pearl upside down at sunset. He does this by running back and forth on the deck. The others join him and Barbossa cuts loose the cannons so that they can roll back and forth, also.

The captain of the Vasa did something similar before the ship was launched. Thirty men run back and forth across the deck. The ship began to rock after only three passes. They quickly stopped for fear of sinking the ship.

When the Vasa was officially launched a gust of wind caught it and pushed it over. The cannon ports were open in preparation for firing a salute. Water poured in the ports and the ship sank. Many of the crew including the captain were killed.

The inquest into the sinking was a tricky thing. The real problem lay in the design but the king, Gustavus Adolphus, had been involved in the design and questioning any decision of the king was considered punishable.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Treasure of the Black Swan

It's the 16th century all over again. A salvage company recovered something like $500,000,000 in sunken treasure from a ship in international waters. Spain says that the treasure is theirs. They never admitted giving up on any ship that sank. Ever. By their reasoning, anything recovered is theirs. Thanks for finding it and bringing it up.

The treasure hunters haven't named the wreck or the site. They have given it the code name of the Black Swan.

Spain insists that the treasure hunters are nothing but pirates and has seized the treasure hunters' ships. I'm not sure that Spain is quite clear on how piracy works but usually the party who seizes someone's ship is the pirate.

More here.