Monday, December 5, 2016

Pirate Carpenter

Another job on the ship.

“Carpenter” is not a job that we associate with pirates. Building things just doesn’t seem like a very piratical activity. But pirates in the Golden Age sailed on wooden ship, and the job of Carpenter was one of the most important in the crew. Without repairs, even a wooden ship will sink.

The main job of the ship’s Carpenter was to care for the hull of the ship. Even in peaceful times, the hull of a wooden ship was under constant attack from barnacles, rot, and a nasty sort of burrowing clam known as a ship-worm.  Ships also took damage from running over coral or rock formations.

Masts sometimes broke under the strain of wind pressure, or failed because of tropical rot. Accidents damaged the decks, stairs, railing and furnishings of the ship.

Image result for 18th century carpenter

In a perfect world, the ship would carry a spare for every useful item on board. But in the real world such a wide variety of equipment would eat into valuable cargo space. So ships did the next best thing – they carried a wide supply of unworked wood, and one or more skilled Carpenters to turn it into whatever was needed.

Carpentry equipment during the Golden Age was tried and true. Many of the designs of tools and equipment went back to the middle ages. It was primitive, but all worked, and with it a trained man could make anything from a deck to a mast to a new arm for the ship’s figurehead.

Image result for repairing  a ship's figurehead
The first tool of an 18th century Carpenter was his work bench. This was a sturdy block of wood, about six feet long and about 18 inches wide. It had 4 strong legs on each end, making it unlikely to tilt of wobble. But unlike modern work-benches, it was chair-height instead of table-height. The reason was simple. The screw vise that we use today to steady a piece of wood we ae working on was not yet a common tool.

To keep a piece of wood steady, the carpenter placed it on the bench and then simply sat on it. This worked quite well for most applications. The Carpenter would sit, and then saw, drill, or chisel the wood to the desired shape.

Drills existed, but not in a form we would easily recognize. For small applications, the Carpenter might use a bow drill. The drill head was set on the end of a long shaft. The shaft was run through a loop in the string of a bow, and as the bow was moved back and forth, the bit would turn. 

For larger applications, one might use a Brace and Bit. This was a primitive sort of crank (the brace) with a removable drill bit. The Carpenter placed the bit where he wanted to drill, then turned the crank by hand. Though slow, this was a perfectly adequate way to drill wood. My own father owned a brace-and-bit set, which he used during the 1930’s and 40’s at job sites where no electricity was available.

An 18the century hammer and saw look very much like the modern equivalent, but both were designed so they could be repaired – the saw by replacing its blade, the hammer by replacing its wooden handle. Back in the day, you didn’t throw away a whole tool just because part of it was broken. Chisels were nearly exactly the same as those today.

Few modern-day Carpenters own an adze, but for the 18th century wood worker it was essential. This tool looks something like an ax, but the blade is horizontal rather than vertical. The adze can be used to cut grooves in wood, or to smooth a beam for use, or even to cut planks from a felled tree. It can take the place of an ax, and was used as a plane, the modern plane not having been invented yet.

With these simple tools, a good Carpenter could make nearly anything, using only the roughest pf materials. But his most important work lay in simply keeping the ship afloat.

All wooden boats leak to some extent. Water will come right through wood, given enough time. Furthermore, the normal flexing and moving of a ship at sea loosens all the ship’s joints over time. Water comes in at the seams. Day by day, the carpenter maintained these joints. Often this meant driving fibers such as frayed rope between boards that had too much space between them. The fibers would then swell and block the gaps. The Carpenter would finish it off with a coating of tar, to complete the waterproof seal.

 Image result for caulking the seams

Small holes were plugged by driving in a wooden wedge or cone. Once the device was in place, it swelled from exposure to water, and completed the seal. Excess wood could be cut away. Making these wedges and cones was also work for the Carpenter and his apprentices.

Larger leaks or damage from cannon fire could be “shored up” by placing a slab of wood against the hole on the inside and bracing it with a log or beam placed at a 45-degree angle and wedged between the plug and the deck blow. This was difficult, dangerous work. Even as the Carpenter and his mates worked, the water rose around them, and the sea fought them every inch of the way.

Cracked masts would be splinted, in much the same way a broken bone is splinted. This might involve a cooperative effort by the Carpenter and Bosun, as the proper pieces of wood needed to be selected and shaped, then hauled into place and bound to the mast with ropes. 

If a whole mast was carried away, something needed to be rigged up to replace it, if the ship was to move at all. A pirate ship might cut down a tree, but if trees were in short supply, anything might do. Many ships have limped back into port with makeshift masts constructed out of anything available. The point was to get to shore before the ship sank, or ran out of food or water.

Because he was so vital, a merchant ship’s Carpenter commanded a high rate of pay, and was usually treated with respect by his captain. Because of this, pirate captains faced a shortage of skilled carpenters. Even Sam Bellamy, one of the richest and most persuasive pirates was forced to kidnap Carpenters in order to modify and maintain his ships. Carpenters Thomas South and Thomas Davis, who survived the sinking of Bellamy’s flagship, had been conscripted by Bellamy. Therefore, while six of their fellow pirates were found guilty and hanged, they were acquitted of all charges and spared the gallows.

Which is one way to be a pirate and have a real life, too. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Taverns and Alehouses

Statistics say that, before it sank into the ocean in the great earthquake of 1690, the town of Port Royal, in Jamaica, had one tavern for every two houses. This statistic is true, if a little misleading. The business of selling drinks has changed a bit in the last 300 years.

Let’s start with some terminology. Today, we think of the terms “tavern,” “alehouse,” and even “bar” as being pretty much the same thing. And if we even know about the term “public house” we group it right in with the others.

But a Public House was a slightly different concern. It was, literally, a house that was public. Ale-brewing and beer-brewing at the time was untaxed an unregulated, and many, if not most, households saved money by brewing their own ale or beer. The two drinks are pretty similar. Grain, water, yeast and hops (if available) ferment together to make an alcoholic drink.

Both brews can be brought to a high art. But when the maker’s intention is mostly to kill water-borne bacteria (through formation of alcohol) and create drink that makes the drinker tipsy, it’s not hard to produce a mixture that’s at least satisfactory.  And if a home-brewer had plenty of his home-brew, it was to his advantage to sell it to passer-by.

So a Public House was a house – a private home – that had been opened to the public. Anyone with enough ale (beer is brewed in cooler climates than the Caribbean) could open his front door, hang out a sign, and invited pirates, and others, in for a drink. For a fee, of course.

Port Royal was not protected by the English regular Navy. Instead, a half-organized group of privateers and pirates made the place their home, and protected it as a matter of keeping a secure docking-place. The sailors from these often illegal or semi-legal ships wanted drink. And the home-owners needed cash. So doors were opened and strange sailors were invited in.

This, by the way, also indicates the benign intent of most pirates. If your town has a problem with badly-behaved pirate-sailors, you don’t open your front door to them. You don’t invite them under the same roof that shelters your wife and children. And yet the homeowners – or at least 1/3 of them – did.

Upon entering a Public House, the pirate – and perhaps a few of his friends – would sit down at the family dining table and agree on a price for drink. The homeowner, his wife, and perhaps even their children made pleasant conversation, and showed off any skills they might have at singing or playing music. If the pirate was too drunk to go home at the end of the evening, he could bed down in a spare room, for a small additional fee. If there was no spare room available, a pile of straw on the floor might be available for a slightly smaller fee. In the morning, the family waved him on his way, and if he had enjoyed himself, he might be back the next night.

Ale-house, and even pot-house, were similar terms, describing a place that sold only ale, and was probably in someone’s home.

A hostile was specifically a place for travelers, and featured stabling for horses. While a tavern, or even a public house, might also be able to put up a horse or two, there were not generally enough mounted travelers on the small Caribbean islands to require much in the way of rented horse-housing.

Actual taverns, purpose-built businesses intended for selling drinks and providing entertainment, were not regulated until 1752, and even then only those within 20 miles of London. The Caribbean, like most of the New World, was the wild, wild, west as far an entrepreneurial liquor-sellers.

Taverns sold other drinks besides ale, notably wine, rum, and whiskey.  They were open on a regular basis, not just when their owner had extra booze to sell. And they were probably more often frequented by local prostitutes. A proper tavern could be counted on to have several sleeping-rooms, and might offer a regular in-house musician, and even space enough for dancing.

Taverns often also offered newspapers and lyric-sheets. It was common at the time for song-writers to market their works directly. Since no recordings could be made and sold, the writer of a song would have sheets printed up with the words (usually the same group of popular tunes were re-cycled) and then went door-to-door selling them to taverns. If the tavern owner was interested, he would pay a penny or so, and the song-peddler would glue a lyric sheet to the wall.

Other sorts of notices were posted as well, and were a drawing point for potential customers. Notices of slave sales, rewards offered for runaway slaves and servants, and notices of pirate trials and hangings were all announced by being posted up in such public places. And a juxtaposition between dated notices and lyric sheets on the walls of ancient taverns give us some idea of what tunes were popular during what years. (Guess what? One of the favorite songs during the Golden Age of Piracy was a ballad about Robin Hood taking from the Rich to give to the Poor.)

And as for “bars” – well, that is a word tied to a structure, usually with shelves behind it and a bar-tender as well. A bar is useful if an establishment has one drink-server, several kinds of liquid entertainment, and customers who want to sit near or lean on the bar structure. The word also implies an emphasis on hard liquor – something far less common in the early 1700’s. If you had asked a pirate to tell you his favorite bar, he wouldn’t have known what you were talking about.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Pirates and Irish Whiskey

The Captain likes whiskey
The Mate he likes rum
Us sailors like both
But we can’t get us none.

Judging from songs and stories from the Golden Age of Piracy, rum was the drink of the common man, and whiskey the drink of the well-to-do. Part of this, of course, was because rum (which was manufactured in the Caribbean) was easier and cheaper to get.

But whiskey was a drink with a noble ancestry. And it was often (but not always)
licensed and taxed.

The word whiskey is a modification of the old Gaelic word uisce meaning "water"  Distilled alcohol was known in Latin as aqua vitae ("water of life"). This was translated into Gaelic as Irish: uisce beatha "water of life".

The earliest Irish mention of whisky comes from the seventeenth-century Annals of Clonmacnoise, which attributes the death of a chieftain in 1405 to "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae" at Christmas.  The oldest licensed distillery in the world is the Bushmill distillery in Ireland. Even today, the Bushmill’s bottle has the date of its origin 1608, impressed into the bottle.

The square Bushmill’s bottle also still keeps the original shape of a “case bottle” – a bottle specifically designed to fit perfectly (with many similar bottles) into a wooden case for shipping.

The basic manufacture of whiskey involved (and still involves) coarsely grinding grain, mixing it with water and yeast, and letting it ferment. If this were left alone, the results could be drunk as beer. But whiskey is distilled, a process which increases pulls the alcohol out of the concoction.

The science behind this is that alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water. By keeping the nix at a controlled temperature, the vapors from the liquid can be caught, cooled back into a liquid form, and kept for drinking. The classic Irish process involves distilling the liquid three times. This yields a whiskey that is about 40% alcohol.

The folk-production of whiskey in Ireland produced a product called poitin. The product was produced in remote areas, away from the interference of the law. Stills were often set up on land boundaries so that the production could be blamed on the neighbors if the law showed up. The fire to heat the liquid was provided by turf. Smoke was a giveaway for the Guards (the authorities), so windy, broken weather was chosen to disperse the smoke. The still was heated and attended to for several days to allow the process to run through.

The word poitín stems from the Irish Gaelic word "pota" for pot, this refers to the small copper pot still used by poitín distillers.

The quality of poitín was highly variable, depending on the skill of the distiller and the quality of his equipment. A reputation could be built on the quality of the distiller's poitín, and many families became known for their distilling expertise.  But a bad batch could put a distiller out of business overnight.

Scotland was also a great producer of whiskey but in 1707 Scotland and England merged, and Scotch whisky began to be taxed at the same rate as English whisky. (Note – the spelling change here is deliberate. Irish and American distilleries make whiskey. Scotch and English distilleries make whisky. No one quite knows why.)  The Scots hid untaxed whisky in many locations – including under church alters and kept up production by distilling their product at night. This is the original source of the word moonshine.

During the 1600’s it became common practice to age whiskey in wooden barrels before drinking it. This mellowed the taste. Today, it’s required for Irish whiskey to be aged in wooden barrels for at least 3 years, though the actual product is usually aged for three times that.

Whiskey was said to cure various diseases, from smallpox to a sore throat. The substance does have antiseptic properties (it’s the alcohol.) But most of the so-called curative properties of whiskey were simply a dulling of the symptoms. Enough whiskey can mask almost anything.

Whiskey was a traditional part of Irish life and traditions. No guest must ever be turned away, and a family needed to offer whiskey to all guests. Whiskey defined the social circle. In Ireland, women as well as men drank the “water of life,” unlike many other cultures. And whiskey was the drink of choice for an Irish wake. There are even tales of the dead coming back to life in order to enjoy the festivities.

Whiskey also found its way into folk songs and sea shanties. Even more than rum (which was made on plantations by rich people) whiskey (often made on the fly by the poor) was a drink for rebels. “Whiskey in the Jar,” the most famous song about the drink was a song about a highwayman. The “Wild Irish Rover” has spent all his money on whiskey and beer, but comes home with great riches.  Another song says, “If whiskey was water and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.”

The unique thing about whiskey, however was that, at the same time the lore of the drink acknowledged the harm that the drink can cause. “Whiskey killed my dear old dad,” says one song, and others tell of men driven to poverty, rags and even madness by the drink.

And yet the love of whiskey lived on.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Point of Piracy.

Who were pirates protesting against?

It’s no secret that the pirates of the Golden Age were in a state of rebellion. “At war with the world” is the phrase used sometimes. But what exactly were the pirates rebelling against? Were they in fact fighting everyone?

The first thing to note is that many Golden Age pirates considered themselves loyal members of a nation. Benjamin Hornigold, for instance, strongly resisted attacking English shipping, as he considered himself a loyal subject of the English Crown.

The statements that pirates were in rebellion against the “natural order of the world” and hence against “everyone” were mostly written by The Powers That Be… businessmen who controlled the information distribution of the time. These people – owners of Corporations and Insurance Companies that were the entities being robbed by pirates, had a lot to say about pirates. But they had a definite conflict of interest.  In short, they are not reliable sources.

We have specific examples that indicate that it was corporate interests, rather than governmental or social ones that inspired pirate rage.

When Sam Bellamy, a pirate captain on the rise, captured ships owned by private individuals, he did not simply take the ship and its cargo. He offered her captain ownership of his own previous flagship and some cargo of value, in addition to a cash payment, in exchange for the privately owned vessel and its cargo.

To me it seems clear that, while Bellamy didn’t mind robbing a corporation, he did not want to deprive a private ship-owner of his livelihood. Speeches by other pirates make it clear that pirates were fighting against an economic system, not a government.

Pirates were also entirely neutral on the subject of religion. Their ranks included Christians (both Catholic and Protestants), Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, and unconverted Africans. These people got along in peace because they did not try to convert each other. While the rest of the world was engaging in religious wars, pirates were practicing tolerance.

(Not that the rank-and-file pirates didn’t need a little help, such as when one pirate suggested that the word of a Christian was worth more than that of a Pagan. His captain, Stede Bonnet, informed him that “pirate” was a religion as well as a profession, and that it was not surmounted by any other alliances. Being the captain, Bonnet won the argument.)

Just as pirates had little conflict between religions they seem to have had little conflict between races. As we have seen before, crews that captured slave ships often incorporated the newly freed slaves into their crews. This is especially impressive because these slaves were not skilled as sailors.

Skilled mariners of all kinds had a fine contempt for anyone who did not know how to sail. They had reason for this. The skills necessary to sail a ship took years to learn, and untrained workers were a danger to others on a ship. But while the “establishment” sought to drive sailors apart by paying them varied rates based on even the most trivial of differences in skills or experience, pirates recognized only a few pay-grades.

Recent additions to a crew, whether skilled or unskilled, whether European, African, Native or even Asian, were fairly paid. Often equally paid. Pirated did not differentiate by race.

On the subject of women, we have less information. Nothing like “women’s rights” existed in the 18th century. Women had no rights.

We do have a few clues, however. The very rare female pirates – Anne Bonney and Mary Read, seem to have been accepted in their own crew. Witnesses to the pirate’s crimes say that both women seemed to operate on an equal footing with male crew.

Prostitutes loved pirates, to a greater degree than even their free-spending ways would suggest. They came from all over to work in the Caribbean, and the pirates seem to have treated them well. And since prostitution was virtually the only work open to women in the 18th century, we can safely say that pirates supported the idea of “career” women.

In other areas, pirates were definitely liberal. They were the originators of workman’s compensation, and health insurance. Their desire for improved working conditions means that they would almost undoubtedly have been pro-union. (In fact, piracy can be considered its own form of unionization.)

And last but not least, pirates were accepting of homosexuality. In fact, they practiced a form of gay marriage in which two men joined in a pirate-legal union that included property rights and inheritance, as well as sexual expression. This is especially impressive considering that the rest of the world punished homosexuality with death.

So pirates were 18th century liberals, supporting worker’s rights, minimum wage, universal health care and personal freedom. The point after all, was to have a happy life.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Jewish Pirates in the Carribean

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean Blue

Most people in America remember this convenient rhyme that tells them when Columbus “discovered America”  What they don’t teach us about the same year is that an even more momentous event occurred. On January 2 of 1492, Spain ended a war that had been going on against the Moors of Norther Africa for almost 700 years.

You may remember from your school days a little about the Crusades – religious wars in which the Christians of Europe tried to conquer and hold the Holy Lands of the Bible – especially Jerusalem.

Well, the Muslims and Moors, the people holding her Holy Land, had their own plans for conquest.  They invaded the Iberian Peninsula (location of Portugal and Spain) in the 700’s and held large portions of it for over 700 years. The conquest had a profound effect on culture in the region. It was also, I believe, one important reason why Spain clung so relentlessly to the Catholic religion in a changing world. After all, the conflict between the invaders and the people had largely been a matter of religion.

On January 2 pf 1492, the last of the Moors were expelled from Spain, and this made it possible for the Spanish government to do things like start programs to improve trade. Such actions included funding a crackpot named Columbus who thought he could reach India by sailing west.

One of the major supporters of this expedition was Spain’s richest Jewish families. These Jews had entered the country as bankers, traders and money-lenders of the Moors, and had become important to the Spanish economy. Now, the government of Spain, long accustomed to wagging religious war against the Muslims, seemed about to turn on their Jewish neighbors.

These were the days of the Spanish Inquisition. Today we can make jokes about it, but at the time it was deadly serious. The Catholic Church, ruler of the religious lives of all Catholics in Europe and the world, had decreed that people who did not worship in ways determined by the Church must be “taught the error of their ways.” This might involve public humiliation, confiscation of property, and/or torture. About 2% of those accuses were burned alive at the stake.

Since 1580, the Inquisition in Spain had been particularly dedicated to examining the religious life of the Jews. In order to better get along with society, many Jewish people had converted to Catholicism. These New Christians were often called conversos and were subject to intense scrutiny by the ruling elite. The government suspected – sometimes correctly – that these so-called conversions were merely matters of form. Some of Spain’s Jewish citizens continued to practice their ancient religion in secret. Yet it was difficult to act against people who for centuries had carried out banking and trading jobs that Christians did not want to be involved in.

Jews, and even the conversos had already faced suppression and unequal representation under the law. They had become suspect during the plague years of the 1300’s when desperate people looked for someone to blame for the sickness that destroyed whole cities. The Jewish population was handy scapegoat.  In many cases, riots broke out that destroyed Jewish neighborhoods, and Jewish citizens were driven from their homes or killed outright.  When a rich Jewish converso actually staged a rebellion in northern Spain in 1580, the stage was set for a massive retaliation against anyone of Jewish heritage.

So the Jews of Spain began to look for somewhere to go where they could be safe. Already the Jewish populations of England and France had been expelled from their former homes. And it is believed that Jewish bankers provided at least some of the money to finance Columbus, as well as encouragement to the king and queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella to explore the world.

Jews from Spain may have migrated to Jamaica as early as 1494. In order to hide their origins, they settled as “Portuguese” and lived in their own communities. Only when England overtook the island in 1655 did they dare to revel themselves. An edict by King Charles in 1660 granted them citizenship, but Jewish citizens still did not receive equal rights with non-Jews until 1835.

Once established in the New World, many Jews went on to support and finance pirates. Whether their motives were purely those of profit or if they were seeking retribution for a country that had invented an entire action of the Church to hunt them down can only be imagined. But ships named after old-testament figures such as Prophet Samuel, Queen Esther and Shield of Abraham held privateering licenses and attacked Spanish shipping.

In fact, it was a Dutch pirate of Jewish descent who is credited as the only captain to have ever actually captured a Spanish treasure galleon. In the battle of the Bay of Matanzas in Cuba, during the Eighty Years' War, in 1628, Moses Cohen Henriques, under the command of Dutch naval officer and folk hero Admiral Piet Pieterszoon Hein, Henriques stumbled upon a Spanish galleon that had become separated from its fleet in the dead of the night. The daring captain captured it at once.

Several smaller vessels were also taken in the same raid. In total,  the Dutch fleet captured 11,509,524 guilders (about 6 million dollars) of booty in gold, silver, and other expensive trade goods, such as indigo and cochineal, without any bloodshed. The Dutch gave the Spanish crews enough supplies for them to march to Havana and released them.

The Dutch succeeded in taking over a section of Brazil from 1630 – 1654, and Henriques  went on to lead a Jewish community during the Dutch rule, and established his own pirate island off the Brazilian coast. After the Portuguese recapture of Northern Brazil in 1654, Moses Henriques fled South America and ended up as an adviser to Henry Morgan, the leading pirate of the time.

Though Jewish people, and Jewish pirates in particular, did not generally advertise their religion, even in the Golden Age of Piracy, it is safe to assume that many of them were supporters of the pirates: Merchants willing to deal in Spanish goods, and traders who supplied power, shot and rum to anyone with money to spend were parts easily assumed by Jewish merchants with an ax to grind. It’s also likely, since Jews valued education, that many of them served as navigators and officers aboard pirate ships.

How many of them were there during the time period. We may never know exactly. But a recent study offers some clues. It’s been assumed that today about 200 individuals in Jamaica can trace their ancestry back to the Jewish settlers. But when the matter was actually examined, it was discovered that the number is over 200,000.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Pirate Ghost Story

The pirate MacGrath rowed into Dead Man’s Cove alone, with muffled oars,  under a sliver of moon no wider than her finger-nail. It was slack tide, and the sea and the shore were both eerily quiet. She whistled a little, under her breath, as she worked the oars, for whistling kept ghosts at bay, and the place was known to be haunted.

Not that the man she had come to meet, the informant who was supposed to tell her the sailing date of next year’s Spanish Treasure Fleet, was likely to believe in ghosts. The English had no proper respect for spirits. It was an English trait to think themselves a match for anything, and anyone. Scarlet MacGrath, the pirate, crossed herself and shivered. The Irish knew better.

As she came around the headlands, the bulk of a ruined castle rose up to the north.  Henry Morgan, they said, had taken the place, forty years ago. He had sacked the nearby town, let loose his bloody-handed men to work their will upon the helpless townspeople, then burned it all and killed anyone left standing. Men had called it “war” back in the old days. Now they called it “piracy” and hanged the perpetrators.  Morgan, if she recalled, had been knighted.

Now the place was a shambles, and even the stubborn, lordly Spanish had not cared to come into the ruins, even to rebuild.

Scarlet kept rowing until she felt the hull of her little craft first brush sand, then glanced over her shoulder and picked a spot to beach the boat. Her man was coming over the nearby ridge, on the old silver-hauling track. Damn fool had set his time by the clock, a landsman’s silly conceit. Midnight, a fool’s time.

In an hour the tide would come in, and she would be trapped here for six hours, until the moon pulled the water back out to sea, and her little boat could breast the moving water again.

She leaped out once the bow touched, her boots splashing through the lukewarm salt water. The sound was loud in her ears. Then threw the oars into the boat and pulled out a lantern, shuttered so it would not yet reveal its light. The boat scraped loudly on the rocky shore.

With the boat secure, she began her climb up to the castle. It looked like an Old-World thing, the black stone barely visible against the black sky, crenelated walls and broken towers, and a soft sound of movement within, as the Caribbean jungle closed in around the human remains.

Her contact had said the inner courtyard, as if by hiding inside a ruined building inside a ruined city and under a dark sky, he could hide his sin. He was a sinner, sure. He’s promised to betray the Spanish who employed him. Now he was lurking in the dark, waiting for a pirate. Well, the pirate was a sinner, too. But not a stupid one. Scarlet opened the shutters on her lantern, and the candle within gave forth its feeble glow.

At least now she could see the path. Old bones lay along the narrow way – the dead, never buried slipped under her feet in the dark. Scarlet tilted the bottle back again. The emptiness of the pierced into her, dug into her heart.  She was here for gold, gold that would buy freedom from the laws of the world, from the English and their governors and their bloody navy. Enough gold could buy anything. 

A Spanish treasure ship would be just about enough. Bones, she had seen before.
Some animal scuttled through the dark. Scarlet felt her heart stumble. She wanted the pistol that was secreted in her coat pocket. But taking it up meant dropping the bottle or the lantern. She wanted both. She waited until her heart steadied, then went on.

The castle gate had been blasted open buy cannon fire. Great broken stones lay scattered like dice cast by a giant’s hand. This was Morgan’s work, and the remains of the dead lay again among the stones. The words of the Rosary came to Scarlet’s lips, and she crossed herself with the hand holding the whiskey bottle. The light from her lantern danced and shivered. Ahead lay the dark tunnel of the gate.

She must spend some time breathing before she entered that. It was like going down the mouth of a haunt. How she wished she that she had a bit of rowen wood, to turn the evil spirits. But the only rowen was many miles away. She had light and drink and a pistol in her pocket. And friends, good friends waiting for her back on the ship, with beer and tobacco, and a bit of a fire in the ship’s galley to ward off the evening chill.

The lantern-light seemed to increase in the narrow passage, until her eyes were dazzled. A shadow moved behind her. She turned, holding the lantern high. But it was only her own shadow. Scarlet opened the shutters on the lantern clumsy as she still held the bottle, and went on.

A sharp, cold wind hit her when she stepped out of the tunnel, and the candle in her lantern guttered. 

Swearing, she dropped to her knees, fumbled in her pocket, past the gun, to a tinder box with flint and steel. She struck, and struck again and again trying to shield the candle with her body, but the space was too open, the wind too fresh.

She groped forward then, on hands and knees, seeking a sheltered place. Damn the spy! He should have come by now. Should have had his own light. He was the one who had insisted on this haunted place. Could it be a trap? Could he be waiting with a friend or two, to catch her up? There was a bounty on her head in Spain.

But that was madness. This place was boneyard, a slaughterhouse, a haunted cemetery.             No sane man would come to such a place.

Shoving the bottle into her pocket, she scrambled to her feet and stumbled toward the tunnel. For two steps she was all right but then she tripped and went down again, dropping the lantern, which shattered with a crash. She was on her hands and knees, in the dark, with the wind moaning around her and the bodies of the dead under her hands.

For too long, Scarlet crawled about like a mad thing, her skirts tangled under her and her hands cut by the glass of the shattered lantern. The cool of the night had settled in, and a fine clammy mist had settled into the castle’s courtyard. The rocks were slick with it.

She lurched to her feet, arms reaching out, and blundered alongside a skeletal tree. Some sort of mass hung in it, perhaps a downed flag or a piece of rotting curtain blown down by the wind. But her hand touched something soft and warm. Her hand knew, before her mind did, and a long, long shudder rant through her body. It was a body, a human body. A man, in a decent coat (by the feel of the wool) and he was going cold.

The horror of the hanged man knocked her backwards. She had feared hanging half her life. Her eyes locked onto the body, swaying in the breeze, the faint light of the moon gradually revealing the white face, staring eyes, the hands still clutching at the leather belt wrapped around the throat.

She had not expected hanging.

A great tiredness came over her.  Alone in this desolate place, alone with the dead.

A prickling came along her back, as if she was being watched. The cold mists seemed to coalesce. She saw faces. The place was full of bones. The words of her prayers choked in her throat. The damned Englishman had come here, and had died here, and she had been lured in, and would die beside him, of whatever had brought him down.

The misty forms came closer. Skeletal hands reached out, crawling across the ground. Eyes glowed in the darkness.

She had expected screams from them. But she heard murmurs instead. No threats. No rage. Only pain and loss that reached out to her own loneliness. She felt them. The cold of them. Their hunger and thirst. Especially the great, great thirst that the dead feel.

A hand plucked at her ankle and she pulled away. Another form of mist `crept closer.  All along the ground were the bones of the slain.

She could escape. She could climb up the rotting tree. She could get above them. She could wait them out until sunrise, and then go back to her little boat, and row it out into the friendly see, and to her ship and her crew who would welcome her and her surround her with their comradeship and their good cheer.

The misty, skeletal hands clutched at her ankles, plucked at her skirts.

She would not go up the dead tree. She would not go up with the dead man, and die as he had died, by misadventure or by an excess of terror or a shortage or friends, he the traitor had died.

But she did not lack for hope or friends. She lacked only gold, and was the Irish who knew that gold could be lived without. The spectral figures clutched up to her knees, and she took the whiskey bottle from her pocket and shouted “Drinks on the house!” then threw it with all her might.

She ran to the shore, falling over rocks and into holes. She did not look back.


If you enjoyed the story of Scarlet MacGrath the pirate, check out more of her story. Available on Amazon.