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.