Monday, February 13, 2017

Emeralds - Treasure of the New World

When we think of piratical plunder, we usually think of gold and silver. But in fact, pirates stole anything that had value – from armchairs to zebrawood. One of the most valuable items to be shipped out of the New World was emeralds, and pirate took them, along with any other valuable items they could find.



Emeralds are part of the mineral family known as beryl. In its most pure form, beryl is colorless. It is the presence of additional mineral deposits which lends clear beryl a color and transforms it into a valuable gemstone. Chromium is what gives emeralds their signature green color. If the beryl is touched by iron deposits instead, the result is an aquamarine, a stone that is much less valuable.

Emeralds had been first mined in Egypt, beginning about 360 BCE. The green gems were said to have magical properties. It was said that they increased intelligence, protected marriages, provided safety to women during childbirth, and enabled their possessors to predict future events.  Cleopatra, it was said, especially loved emeralds. Demand for the stones was high, though the gems from Egyptian mines are not considered today to be of very high quality.

Cleopatra's Emerald Mine

 By the early middle ages the mines were considered played out. Only a few stones of poor quality continued to be mined.

Egypt was thought to have the only emeralds in the world until the sixteenth century. But in , early 1500’s the Spanish found a mine in Muzo, near Columbia.  The Muzo people were a Carib-speaking people who lived in the Andes mountains, on the eastern slopes, in what is now Columbia. They were a warlike people, and performed cannibalism on their defeated enemies.



They also mined emeralds. Veins of the gems were close to the surface, and the Muza people picked the stones from surrounding rock with long poles, then flushed the area with water. They traded the emeralds all over the region, and when the conquering Spanish saw the gems, they knew they were looking for precious stones.

The Muza had been battling their enemies for centuries. Their experience with war helped them to fight off the encroaching conquistadores. It took 20 years for the Spanish to conquer them.

Rough emeralds in rock


When the Spanish did take control of the Muza area, they discovered emeralds of every size. Including some of the largest that had been found to date.  The Spanish claimed the mine and even forced the locals to work extracting all of the gems that could be removed. 

The stones were unusual not only in quantity, but in color. African emeralds tended to be blue, due to the existence of iron ore when they were developing. They also tended to have a large number of flaws, and to be smaller. Unlike Egyptian emeralds, New World emeralds had developed in sedimentary rock. They were large, with a pure, fiery green that Europeans had been seen before.



Meanwhile, in the Peruvian city of Manta, at about the time of the Spanish Conquest, an emerald the size of an ostrich egg was said to be worshipped and adored as a goddess. Its name was Umina. The emerald was only brought out and worshipped on high feast days and, according to the temple priests, the best way to honor the ‘mother emerald’ was to bring smaller emeralds, or ‘daughters’, to her.

Because of this, the conquering Spanish found a huge store of emeralds at the shrine. But the “mother” emerald remains a mystery. The priests managed to hide Umina, and she was never found again.


The stones that were found often received rough treatment. The conquistadors were soldiers, not gemologists.  Emeralds were enshrined in legend, and the Spaniards mistakenly believed that the beautiful, valuable stones should be harder than a diamond.  Because of this, the men “tested” the stones by smashing them against an anvil. We will never know how many stones were destroyed by this ‘testing’.

Despite these enormous losses, a large number of emeralds made their way back to Europe, where the royalty took note and quickly made the gems a part of their royal jewel collections. Skilled artisans set Colombian emeralds into New World gold. Because of the softness of emeralds, and the difficulty of cutting them, the gems were most often simply polished into a dome-like shape called “cabochon”. 



Like many of the treasure looted from the Spanish colonies, emeralds were stolen from the Spanish government by Spanish ship captains, mule train drivers, dock workers, and anyone else who had a chance to pocket some of the goods. Pirates, in turn, stole from both official transporters and the smugglers of illicitly acquired goods. We may never know where all the emeralds ended up. But isn’t it fun to imagine such a treasure washing ashore during your Caribbean vacation?




Monday, February 6, 2017

Israel Hands

Israel Hands holds a unique position in all of the lore of pirates. He is, at the same time, a character out of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and a real-life pirate of some fame.

First the historic man. Like most pirates, the real Israel Hands first comes to our attention as a grown man, his origin completely unknown. It seems that he was Blackbeard’s second-in-command.


 On April 4th or 5th, 1718, Blackbeard, sailing the Queen Anne’s Revenge, had been harassing shipping coming to and from the port of Vera Cruz, Mexico. While doing this, he captured a logwood cutting ship named the Adventure and captained by David Herriot.

Blackbeard forced Herriot to join his crew, and gave the ship to Hands, who became her captain. Hands continued in the ship as companion to the Queen Anne’s Revenge, until June of that year, when Blackbeard (some say intentionally) ran the ship aground on a sandbar near Beauford Inlet NC.

Hands attempted to use the Adventure to help kedge the Queen Anne’s Revenge  off the bar, but the much larger ship was too badly stuck. So Blackbeard and Hands loaded the Adventure will all of the treasure and half the crew of the QAR and set sail for the Ocracoke Island, off the shore of North Carolina.



It was here that Blackbeard spent time “going straight.” He made contact with Governor Eden, spent treasure buying a house in the town of Bath, received a pardon for his piracies, a according to some sources. Married a local girl.

But Blackbeard also kept up his old ways. Hands and the remaining pirates formed a camp on Ocracoke, where they could watch the local shipping lanes, and occasionally sailed out for quick raids, mostly on shipping from Virginia. In between these pirating adventures, Blackbeard threw epic parties on the island, along with visiting pirates such as Charles Vane and Jack Rackham.



It is said that at during a long night of drinking and cards, Blackbeard shot Israel Hands in the knee. When Hands, understandably upset, complained, Blackbeard replied with the immortal words, “I have to kill one of you now and again, or people will forget who I am.”

The next morning the island was attacked by members of the Royal Navy, and Blackbeard was killed and beheaded. The fate of Israel Hands is a little uncertain. He did not take part in the battle. Some people place him on the mainland, some at camp in the island. Some claim that he received a pardon in exchange for testifying against his fellow pirates and the corrupt officials that they dealt with. Others say that he merely pointed out that he had taken no part in the battle, and that there was only his attendance at the party the night before to link him to the pirates. (One other man escaped hanging with this same excuse.)



And after that? We don’t really know. Captain Charles Johnson writes that Hands died in poverty, but Johnson was writing to please a publisher, and the authorities wanted MORAL tales about pirates, and that meant an unhappy death for those who did not reform. Hands’ actual ending remains a mystery.

But his name lived on, and what a grand one it was! “Israel Hands,” possibly Dutch, maybe even one of the renegade Jews who had fled Spain for Holland inches ahead of the Spanish Inquisition. It’s a great name for a pirate, and that’s for sure.

So he conjured up a sailor named Israel Hands, fond of spitting, and coxswain of the ship Hispaniola. This Hands is second in command to Long John Silver, in much the same way the historic Hands was to Blackbeard. This Israel is also noted as having been Flint’s gunner, and then men set great store by his talents.



But in the fictional work, Hands is a man who wants his dues now, and not in the uncertain future. Silver berates him for it “I know the sort you are. I'll finish with 'em at the island, as soon's the blunt's on board, and a pity it is. But you're never happy till you're drunk. Split my sides, I've a sick heart to sail with the likes of you.”

Hands and a pirate named O’Brian are the only two aboard the Hispaniola when Jim Hawkins swims out to cut the ship’s anchor cable. Hands and O’Brian are deep in their cups, fighting about something that is never explains. Jim does not see the murder done, but Hands kills O’Brian, though he is injured himself.



Jim comes across Israel Hands, who asks for brandy, and announces that he has no regret that he has “settled (O’Brian’s) hash.” Jim tries to enlist Hand’s aid in getting the ship steered around the island and run aground on a sandy shore. But Hands turns traitor, takes up a knife and tries to kill Jim.

In one of the most famous scenes from the book, Jim climbs the rigging and takes refuge in the crow’s nest. The pirate approaches.



“He (Hands) began to see the dice going against him, and after an obvious hesitation, he also hauled himself heavily into the shrouds, and with the dirk in his teeth, began slowly and painfully to mount. It cost him no end of time and groans to haul his wounded leg behind him, and I had quietly finished my arrangements before he was much more than a third of the way up. Then, with a pistol in either hand, I addressed him.
"One more step, Mr. Hands," said I, "and I'll blow your brains out! Dead men don't bite, you know," I added with a chuckle.

Dead men don’t bite, but some of them do live on. Israel Hands, real pirate and fictional. I wonder what he’s think of his fictional legacy?





Monday, January 30, 2017

Was the English Navy the Bad Guy?

Last week we looked at why the Spanish are so often portrayed as the Bad Guys in pirate stories. (Answer – they had the treasure, but no tolerance for anyone who was different from them.) But the other group that’s so often shown as Bad Guys of pirate tales is the British Royal Navy.



Any truth to this point of view?

Well, clearly any force that stands for law and order is going to stand in opposition to pirates, who were defined by taking things that didn’t belong to them. But the Royal Navy were no saits themselves.

(One note here. In many stories we talk about the English Navy, and in other stories we talk about the British Navy. In 1707, England and Scotland unified to become Great Britain. Before that date, the two counties kept separate armies and navies, and afterward they were combined.)



The Navy of the Golden Age of Piracy was a lot different than it is often portrayed. For one thing, there were no uniforms. They weren’t adopted until 1748. Officers did tend to wear blue, and sailors often bought their clothes from the same suppliers, so there was some uniformity of dress, but there was nothing official.

For another thing, navy captains had total authority on their ships, and often abused their power. “The floggings will continue until moral improves” was much more true of the navy than pirates. This came partially from a class status – the upper classes (where captains came from) were taught to believe that folk from the lower classes were little better than animals.



Navy captains were also isolated. When a ship was at sea, it was cut off from all contact with the outside world. The ship’s captain, the highest rank, had no peers available for conversation. He could, and did, socialize with his officers, but the division of rank always stood in the way. Isolation was said to drive some captains mad.

The navy was also charged with upholding British policies. We in America have been taught to think of British rules as just, the British system of government as fair and enlightened. But looking at British policies today, we would consider them barbaric, to say the least.



First, of course, was the class system. Class was everything. In England only a very few people owned land. Farmers did not own the land they farmed, they rented it. This meant that they had very few legal rights, Only land owners, for instance, could vote.

As the world was moving from a system in which power came from land to one in which power came from money, the ruling classes were taking steps to secure their money and property. Crimes against property were beginning to be harshly regulated, in a system that eventually was nicknamed “the bloody code.”Theft, debasing coinage, poaching, begging without a license, hanging around with gypsies, would all eventually be punishable by death.

In the navy, it was against regulations to be drunk on duty (strange in a service that issued a pint of rum to every sailor every day.) Such an action was punishable by flogging.  So was failing to salute an officer. But striking a superior (even if the lower individual was struck first) was punishable by death.



It was also punishable by death to engage in homosexual acts. The navy kept men isolated on ships, sometimes for years, and were simply expected to do without. If a sailor became desperate enough, he might molest the livestock kept on board. But that was punishable by death as well.

Navy ships did carry livestock. Sailors ate meat preserved with salt, but officers kept sheep, pigs, goats, and even cows in order to have fresh meat. Chickens and ducks supplied eggs. The animals were kept far away from the officer’s cabins: closer to where the crew slept. The class a person was born into meant everything.

Places Britain has invaded

Women had few rights, and poor women had, essentially, none. For instance, it was legally impossible for a woman to be raped by a man of a superior class. According to law, she MUST be honored by the attention, and pleased that she might become pregnant with a “superior” child.

The English dealt in slavery. They enslaved their Catholic neighbors the Irish, and by 1717 were building purpose-built ships to carry large numbers of slaves from Africa. Slave uprisings were a matter of great concern in the New World. It was considered a social requisite for land owners in English colonies to join a militia, and the navy was required to uphold the rights of slaveholders.


So while the Royal Navy, upholding rules that we wouldn't approve of today, helping to establish and protect the trade in slaves and operating under rules of class that seem barbaric to us, does, in fact, make the Royal Navy well qualified to be the bad guy in a pirate story

Monday, January 23, 2017

Why Were the Spanish the Bad Guys?

You see it all the time in pirate movies. Bad guy Spaniards. In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides the Spaniards come in at the end of the movie and destroy the Fountain of Youth because it’s “unnatural.”

In the 1956 movie The Black Swan, we open with our hero, Jamie Warren, being tortured by the evil Don Miguel.

In the 2007 movie Elizabeth: the Golden Age the evil Spanish insult Good Queen Bess, then launch an attack against England.



Every time the pirates aren’t in conflict with England’s Royal Navy, they are fighting the Spanish. And while the Navy is usually portrayed as uptight buffoons, the Spanish come off as evil – literally mustache twirling bad guys, swarthy, overdressed, and fond of torture and rape.

Why? What was wrong with the Spanish? Why were they so often the Bad Guys?

First and foremost, Spain claimed all of the gold and silver rich lands of Central and South America. While today it seems ridiculous that a country of only 195,364 square miles (about 31,000 mile larger than the state of California) would claim over 8,149,627 square miles of territory – all of which already belonged to other people.



But the racism of the time said that non-Christians weren’t really people, and that they had no rights. International policy also ran along the lines of “might makes right” so that it was perfectly OK to attack and over-run a foreign nation. As far as Spain, and the Spanish, were concerned, they actually owned all of the Caribbean, and Central and South America, and no one had the right to even come into the place without their permission. So they were not at all friendly to people who wandered into their territory.

Trying to defend and indefensibly large chunk of territory, one of the policies that Spain enacted was a law stating that any person carrying even a single Spanish coin, or any ship transporting even a single Spanish coin, was a pirate. Pirates were punished either by being hanged, or by being sentenced to work rowing a Spanish galley ship until they died. And since the only money being minted in the New World was Spanish money, and all trade was carried out in it, many, many “false pirates” were arrested and killed.



The Catholic Church, once the only Christian church in Europe, had given the territory to Spain, and had also instructed Spain to “keep the faith.” In other words, to prosecute any non-Catholics. This Spain did by establishing the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition was charged with “converting” non-Catholics, by torture if necessary. Protestant English and Dutch, as well as Native Americans and Jews were “put to the test” until they changed religion. And woe to the person whose conversion was not deemed “sincere” enough! People were burned at the stake in Spanish territory, and this did not make anyone more fond of the Spanish.

Lastly, we here in the United States are largely descended from the English. Our system of Law is based on English law, and our national language (by practice, if not by actual law, because we don’t have an “official” language) is English. Most of North America was first settled by the English. So we have a history of siding with the English, and the textbooks that teach our children were written by those who sided with England.  



The animosity between England and Spain goes back a long way. In the 1530’s the King of England, who happened to be married to a Spanish princess, wanted a divorce. His wife had not been able to bear a live son (only a single daughter, Mary), and since England had just come out of a civil war lasting almost 100 years over a question of a woman inheriting the English Crown, the matter seemed very important.

This sort of thing had happened before, and it was considered wise for the queen in question to step down for the good of the country. But this Spanish princess had her reasons, and she did not. In order to get his divorce, the king was forced to form his own church, and make himself the head of it.

Divorce in hand, the king (now a Protestant instead of a Catholic) married another woman, who also had a single child, also a girl. Still later another wife finally gave him the son he believed he needed. When this English king died, his chain of succession looked like this: A son, Protestant. An older daughter, Mary, who still clung to her Catholic faith, and a younger daughter, Elizabeth, a Protestant like her father and brother.

Then the only son died.

Mary inherited the throne, and being angry about being cast aside, took out her rage on all the English who had joined their monarch’s church. She re-established Catholicism as the State Religion, and burned anyone who would not change back. She also married the King of Spain, Phillip.

Then Mary became ill.

Desperately, Mary tried to convert her younger sister, Elizabeth, to Catholicism, but the younger sister (who was not only loyal to her father’s religion, but depended on the support of non-Catholic England for her very life) would not convert.

Phillip, still king of Spain, was attracted to the younger woman, and also wanted to continue his alliance with England, Phillip asked Elizabeth to marry him. While his wife was still alive.

Elizabeth was outraged. There are rumors that Phillip then tried to rape her. We’ll probably never know for sure if it actually happened. But if it did, this was a head-of-state, king of one country, propositioning and possibly sexually assaulting the soon-to-be-head-of-state of another country. Imagine Donald Trump attacking Kate Middleton. Especially if she had the power to declare a war.



Mary died and Elizabeth became Queen of England. England and Spain didn’t get along.

And it didn’t hurt that the English were outraged over the way Spain treated the Protestant English sailors that they could catch. And it really didn’t hurt that England wanted the tons of gold that Spain was stealing from the New World natives. And it really, really didn’t hurt that there were a lot of brave English sailors willing to risk life and limb to become filthy stinking rich by stealing Spain’s gold.

And that’s why you usually see Spain as the bad guys in pirate stories.






Monday, January 16, 2017

Pirates Actually DID Expect the Spanish Inquisition

When we think of the Spanish Inquisition, we imagine a group of fanatic Medieval Churchmen who torture people for fun and burn “witches” at the stake. It doesn’t seem to have any effect on pirates.


 But the Spanish Inquisition was a legal entity that started in 1478, set up by the same Spanish rulers who financed Columbus’ trip to the Caribbean. And the Inquisition lasted until 1854, well after the end of piracy’s Golden Age. For some pirates it was a matter of life and death.

What was the Spanish Inquisition, anyway?



An Inquisition was a legal entity that operated under “license” from the Catholic Church. There existed a broad “Christian Inquisition” and three more regional inquisitions, the Portuguese Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, and the Spanish Inquisition. All were intended to protect the Catholic Church by finding and stopping entities that placed it in danger – from Christians who did not practice their faith in accordance with the rules of the Church to witches to homosexuals.

The Spanish version of the Inquisition was mostly aimed at making sure that Jews and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism maintained the practices of the Catholic religion. Southern Spain had been invaded and held by Muslim Moors for centuries, and because of this, the Catholic Spanish felt that their religion was under attack. When the Spanish began to drive out the Moorish forces, the Spanish government required that all Moors and Jews who remained in Spanish territory converted to Catholicism.



Many people converted in public, but maintained their ancestral religions at home. The Spanish Inquisition was specifically aimed at finding these people and punishing them for backsliding in their religion.

The Inquisition would come to a town, and announce a period of 30 – 45 days of “grace” in which anyone who confessed to wrong-doing would be forgiven and taken back into the Church. These people were punished, of course. Often they paid huge fines, or suffered physical punishment. Always, they were encouraged to inform on other sinners.

Once the grace period was over, action began against the sinners who were accused but had not confessed. Individuals were first incarcerated – sometimes for years. While in prison, the accused were not told what they were accused of, and often their property was confiscated to pay for their incarceration and trial.



Eventually the prisoner war interrogated. This often involved torture, but the torture was strictly regulated. Breaking the skin was forbidden. Inquisitors relied on a form of waterboarding where a rag was stuffed into the accused’s mouth, and water was poured on it to give the sensation of drowning. Also in use was the rack, where victims were tied to a device that pulled on their arms and legs. This could tear tissue and dislocate joints.

Most closely linked with the Inquisition was a torture method called strappado.  In this, the victim’s arms were tied behind the back, then attached to a rope and pulley. The victim was lifted by the bound arms, and sometimes dropped and lifted again.



If a person being interrogated by these methods gave a confession after the torture had stopped, it was considered a confession under free will, and not under coercion.

A few people were able to convince the inquisitor that they were innocent, but most confessed. Those who confessed would then make a public confession of their crime, and accept punishment, which might include fines, whipping, and possibly a sentence to row on a galley ship for several years. This was a harsh punishment, and a term of 5 years of this labor almost always equaled a death sentence.  

Of course, the ultimate punishment was burning at the stake.



But we are concerned with pirates. How did the Inquisition affect pirates?

For one thing, the conditions of the Inquisition drove many Jews out of Spain. Some came to the New World, but the Inquisition followed them. The first execution of unrepentant Jews in the New World took place when Hernando Alonso, a secret Jew, was burned at the stake on October 17, 1528.

Other Jews fled to the Netherlands, where they were offered sanctuary by the Protestant government there. This population of Jews, angry at Spain for prosecution of their relatives and confiscation of their family fortunes, often became pirates. Their piracy gave them a chance to fight back and regain wealth. Many of the pirates listed as “Dutch” were in fact Jewish.

Image result for dutch jewish pirate

Another issue of interest to pirates were galley slaves. As previously noted, service as a rower on a Spanish galley was a miserable and short life. Pirates were known to liberate slaves, and though galleys were not common in the Caribbean, pirates did encounter them sometimes, and added these people to their crews.

The Inquisition also targeted Native Americans who had been converted, but tried to maintain their own spiritual lives. Spanish punishment of these people destabilized relationships with the natives, and some groups of pirates used this to their advantage, forging friendly relationships with the natives, and using them to re-supply pirate ships.



Very occasionally, Protestants were caught up in the Inquisition. After all, the stated objective of the Inquisition was to protect the Catholic faith. The entire existence of the Protestant religion was seen as a threat, and an over-enthusiastic Spaniard might bring the Inquisition to bear on captured English sailors. If these individuals were not killed outright, they would be tempted to take the law into their own hands and become pirates.

The Inquisition held sway throughout the Golden Age of in all Spanish colonies throughout piracy’s Golden Age. It’s one more reason why the Spanish are almost always the Bad Guys in pirate stories.






Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sunburned Pirates

Pirates in the time of the Golden Age were almost always described as “swarthy,” a term that meant dark-skinned or suntanned. It was also something of a cultural slur. Rich people had big houses and stayed indoors. Poor people worked outside and suffered in the sun.

In today’s world of SPF factors and air conditioning we can’t really grasp how damaging the sun can be, but 18th century pirates knew first hand.



Sunburn is actually a form of radiation poisoning, and like radiation, it can kill. This surprises most people today, because we associate sunshine with a healthy lifestyle.

Sunshine helps the human body to produce and store Vitamin D. It also helps the body produce serotonin, which improves mood and helps fight depression. Sunlight can also kill germs. But, like any good thing, too much can be harmful.

Sun exposure is greater nearer the equator. In these regions, sunlight strikes the earth more directly, and is not scattered by the atmosphere. And many pirates came from parts of Europe which were not only far from the equator, but known for their cloudy weather.



Because moderate amounts of sunlight are necessary for good health, people in these regions have lost much of their protective skin coloring. Their pale, unpigmented skin helps their bodies to absorb scares sunlight. Even their hair and eyes are lighter. Did you know that brown eyes are a natural sort of sunshade for the eyes?

When people from the northern parts of Europe came to the Caribbean, they suffered terribly from the sun. Deep sunburn damages the body’s DNA, which can cause cancer. Burned skin cells turn red and dry. They dry, and can peel off.



The body’s response to the burn is to rush blood to the area. This makes the area grow hot.  Melanin production steps up, since melanin can absorb radiation. In extreme instances – second degree sunburn, the skin blisters, just as it would from a heat burn.

A third degree burn really looks like a burn. The skin is bright, meaty red and falls off in chunks. Underlying tissue is exposed and damaged. The body loses moisture from the opening, and the victim risks shock, dehydration and death.



Why didn’t those early pirates use sunblock?

While skin care for sunburn goes back to the ancient Egyptians, who used rice bran – a substance that actually does absorb UV rays. Native Americans used deer fat to make a paste of tannin, a plant extract. This also dyed the skin a yellow-brown shade. Mediterranean countries also used olive oil, which had no effect on the sunburn, but soothed the skin. Aloe vera, popular today, was a North African plant that had not yet crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

And modern sunscreens? The first of them would not be created and marketed until the 1920’s. And really effective sunscreens did not arrive until the 1950’s – 250 years too late for the pirates.



Modern sunscreen uses one of two methods to protect the body. Some use plant extract to absorb UV rays, and others use chemical methods to scatter the UV rays. The SPF (sun protection factor) stands for the increased amount of time in the sun that the sun protection offers.

In the modern world, the Food and Drug Administration regulates the claim that a sunscreen or sunblock protects the skin, and to what degree. An SPF of 15 allows a person to spend 15 times as long in the sun.

Regular application of sunscreen can offer real protection, but it must be renewed regularly. For best results, it should be applied 30 minutes before going out into the sun, and renewed about an hour after. Sweating or swimming requires more frequent applications. Even though you may not see the difference after exposure to moderate sunlight, UV photography can show an improvement.



So what did the pirates do?

There wasn’t much they could do. Most already had a “base tan” from years outdoors. But as a former inhabitant of a tropical state, I can affirm that this is not as much protection as one might suppose.

In my tropical home, sunshine ate the finish off cars and woodwork, bleached fabrics and burned people who had worked outside for years. The only real protection was to stay out of it.

So, that’s what the pirates did. You have noticed the long sleeves on shirts of the time. Long sleeves might be hot, but they protected the skin under them. Pirate pants were longer than the short, tight breeches worn by richer folk. Longer pants protected the legs. Bandanas or head scarves absorbed sweat, but also protected the scalp from sunburn. (Yes, the skin under your hair can become sunburned.)



One of the advantages of life on a pirate ship was that the captain and officers came from the same level of society as the crew, and knew their troubles. Many ships rigged canvas awnings to protect crew members from the sun, and you can bet that pirate ships did this regularly.

Pirates who had been to the Indian Ocean came back with Western-style clothing made from the thin, lightweight cottons of India. And pirate captain Ben Hornigold once robbed a ship of only the crew’s hats, because his men had lost their own. (Okay – they’d thrown them overboard in the middle of a drunken party. But the pirate’s hats were gone.)

So get your sunlight. But protect your skin as well. It’s the piratical thing to do.


Monday, January 2, 2017

Honest Pirates, Deceitful Landsmen

One of the things that people who play at being pirates tend to forget is that pirates considered themselves to be the Good Guys. Not only did most of them take up piracy in a fight for justice, but the words of historic pirates frequently repeat the mantra that pirates themselves were the only honest men in the world. Merchant captains, business owners, and even dockside women were aligned against them.

Let’s take a look at some of the facts that bolster this belief.



First, pirates came almost exclusively from the ranks of sailors, and sailors lived a simple life. Food was monotonous but nourishing. Duties on board ship were clear and repetitive. Decks needed to be cleaned, sails trimmed and tended, the wheel manned, brass polished and wood painted.
Independent thought was not only largely unnecessary, but actively discouraged.  Captains did not want crew input on improved navigation or ship’s operations. These were the sphere of gentlemen, a rank to which no common sailor could ever rise.

On shore was holiday. No work, exotic foods and sights, alcohol and gambling. On board ship, money was earned bout could not be spent. On land, spending money was the prime occupation. With no training in budgeting and no way to transport any valuable item that was larger than a sea-chest, sailors devoted their money to fun.



Most pirates experienced a similar life, with the addition of a little excitement attacking ships at sea.

But uneducated as sailors, and most pirates, were, it did not escape their attention that the odds were stacked against them.

On board ship, the captain did his best to reduce costs. Sometimes this meant cheating the crew out of earned wages, and sometimes this meant under-staffing a ship. With no government oversight regarding wages, a sailor had no recourse if his captain simply refused to pay him. With no regulation on how many men it took to run a ship, understaffing meant overwork, sometimes to the extent of causing death.

Even on ships with honest and well-meaning captains crews could be cheated by suppliers. On land one’s customers were likely local and able to sue in court. But selling to ships – there were only the most basic precursors to shipping companies, and almost all ships bought their own supplies – enabled merchants to sell sub-standard goods at standard prices.



So, food that was represented as well-preserved might be rotten. Items – such as cheese or eggs - represented as fresh might be far from that. Out at sea, there was no choice but to eat whatever was provided. And when the journey ended in some far off land, there was no chance to go back and bring the dishonest merchant to justice.

Still, the sailors knew that they’d been cheated. In fact, their perception of ship’s supply yards where that they were staffed by people willing to sentence honest sailors to a diet of deadly food simply to line their own pockets with gold. And far too often they were right.

On shore, sailors totally untrained in how to handle money were easy prey for those looking to make a quick fortune. Taverns, sleeping-rooms, even clothing sellers had “special” prices for sailors. It wouldn’t necessarily occur to a man on shore for a few days that he could get better prices by traveling a few blocks inland.

The docks made themselves welcome in other ways. They had the things that sailors needed, and didn’t mind that their customers were rough men with no known history. Dockside taverns also expected their customers to become very, very drunk. After all, that was the goal of a sailor on shore.

This very state of drunkenness left sailors, even pirates, open to further on-shore scams. They were open to being cheated at cards or dice. They might be openly robbed. But the most impressive scam was the investment counselor.



This man approached a sailor who appeared to be flush and was drinking. The investment counselor sat with this individual, bought a few rounds of drinks, and remarked on how well the sailor had done for himself.

So very much money – perhaps years of wages – should not just be spent on fun. It should be invested to provide lasting income in the future. The counselor appeared well-informed and well-intentioned. Soon he had the sailor or pirate agreeing that a wise investment was the way to go. In the morning, the pirate would wake up alone, having given his money to a man who had not even provided a name or address in return. So much for investing.

But the most perfidious landsmen were women. Some hard-hearted girls met boys coming off ships, pretended to be smitten, and persuaded the young man to take them dancing. With dancing came liquor, and then a room needed to be rented to sleep it off. Often the young woman offered to consummate their budding relationship.



In the morning, of course, the young man woke up without any of his cash. In fact, some of these women even stole his clothes and shoes. Being “taken” in such a way was almost an initiation for young sailors –  as common as being whipped for the first time. It was celebrated in song and story, usually with a humorous twist.

Also the source of mocking songs were cases where women with contagious sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, which was often fatal, sold themselves to men, promising that they were “clean.” While these women, sick and without resources, had few choices and fewer opportunities, the men they infected felt that they had fallen victim to a scam. “She said she was a virgin” repeated many a man as he cried into his beer.



But the most often repeated cry against woman was the untrue lover. Men were often virtual prisoners on board the ships where they served. Merchant captains took ships on longer voyages than promised, and the Royal Navy literally kidnapped sailors. These men kept themselves going with memories of promises made by sweethearts back home. How sad they were when they returned years later to find that their old sweethearts had moved on.

These wandering men, cut off from family, often liked to pretend that they were romancing the dockside prostitutes they met on land. The women enjoyed the money, the company, and the respect that the men gave them, and may have even felt affection for some clients. But in preserving the illusion of a relationship with a man they would only know for a few days at most, these women were known to make promises.



The women probably saw this as a professional ploy to make more money, but the men seem to have fallen for it time and again. Song after song tells of the woman who was untrue. In fact, one of the oldest of sailor’s songs, dating back to the era of Buccaneering Pirates, and in constant uses since the 1500’s. The Fair Maid of Amsterdam places a woman in the worst possible place upon the return of her eager sailor…. She’s sitting on the knee of a soldier, having betrayed no only her sailor beau, but his profession as well.

Injustices, large, small, and imaginary gave potential pirates a firm belief in the dishonesty of those around them. Pirates had no such tricks. They robbed you out in the open, and made no bones about it.