Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Port Royal Earthquake

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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

As it still does.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Buccaneers TV Show

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

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

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

Woods Rodgers didn't actually look like this.

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

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

Robert Shaw

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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






Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Whores of Old Port Royal

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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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

A contemporary portrait of Mary Carleton

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

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

Mary on stage

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

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



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

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








Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Pirate Santa - Again!

Of all the posts I've made over the years, this is the one I get the most requests to re-post.

Christmas is nearly upon us; it’s time for eggnog, presents and… Pirates?



Well, yes. As a matter of fact, Santa dressed as a pirate, or pirates dressed as Santa, is a “thing”. And it make sense, after all. Both pirate captains and St. Nick lead rag-tag bands of outcasts. (When was the last time you saw an elf in polite society?) And they both have a history of re-distributing wealth.



One reason it’s so easy to link the two is that Santa has a backstory that’s s lot more fierce than his current incarnations. The gift-bringer was once known to bring coal (representing the fires of hell) to kids who weren’t good enough. And before that, he was linked to Odin, the Norse father-god who wandered the world and occasionally meted out justice, in the forms of rewards or punishment.



It’s generally believed, even by folks who don’t “Believe” in Santa, that the man in the red suit is a powerful force of nature. In movies like “Rise of the Guardians” he’s a Russian-accented powerhouse, leading the other guardians of childhood to protect the world. In “The Nightmare Before Christmas” Jack Skellington nearly wrecks the holiday, but when Santa is set free at the last minute, he calmly states that he has the power to set everything right by dawn.



So Santa, like a pirate captain, has impressive power, and the ability to travel. He might be carrying anything from gold to coal to the kind of odds and ends that might be accumulating in the hold of a pirate ship – or Santa’s bag of holding.

Both characters are often jolly. And even though Santa is gifted with glasses of milk on Christmas Eve, no one has ever claimed that he doesn’t enjoy a mixed drink after he’s finished driving the sleigh.



Santa’s long red coat with the white fur cuffs easily translated into an 18th century pirate coat, and red is a color that’s been associated with pirates ever since Captain Morgan donned his best red silk coat while recruiting a privateer navy to fight the Spanish.

Santa’s boots look quite a bit like pirate-style footwear. And various other details – his beard, reminiscent of Blackbeard, his sack full of loot, his wide-buckled black belt – all add to the likeness. Some artists have added a hook hand made from a candy cane, and it blends right in,



It’s even easy to see Santa in the tropics. After all, he needs some kind of vacation after the big night.
Santa as a pirate, or a pirate as Santa, is an image that goes back decades, and has been memorialized in nutcrackers, Christmas ornaments, paintings, and photos.



Probably the ultimate link is the children's book, "Pirate Santa" featuring Cap'n Slappy, one of the gentlemen who brought us Talk Like a Pirate Day. The story is one dear to a pirate's heart, about how Slappy, Santa's cousin, sets out to bring Christmas cheer to kids who were a little too - um - nonconforming, to make Santa's "nice" list.



The book makes a grand Christmas gift for a child, and since it's available by download, it can still be purchased in time for the holiday. 

Or, for grownups, pick up a copy of my own novels, Gentlemen and Fortune, Bloody Seas, and Storm Season, the tales of my redheaded female pirate captain and her adventures in the man's world of piracy. 

As an added bonus this year, I'll gift you with a little Pirate Santa music - enjoy! Yo Ho Ho Ho and a Merry Christmas to all!





Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Libertalia - The Pirate Utopia

As I have mentioned before, Golden Age pirates were pirates with a purpose. The piratical call of “Freedom!” has been preserved through the ages, but the rallying cry of “Give a working man  a chance!” has not, even though it was a more common statement at the time. Pirates, representing a variety of people who were being abused by the economic system of the time, were trying to promote a system in which every person had similar opportunities in life, and (at least) enough to eat and a place to live.

Enter Libertalia.



Libertalia was a legendary free colony forged by pirates. It was founded and ruled by the pirate Captain Misson (sometimes spelled Missin) a semi-legendary piratical figure described in The Robberies and Murders of the most Notorious Pyrates (1724).  

Historian and activist Marcus Rediker describes the pirates as follows:
These pirates who settled in Libertalia  would be "vigilant Guardians of the People's Rights and Liberties"; they would stand as "Barriers against the Rich and Powerful" of their day. By waging war on behalf of "the Oppressed" against the "Oppressors," they would see that "Justice was equally distributed."



No one knows for sure if Libertatia actually existed. Pirates aren’t noted for keeping good records about their societies.  But real or not, the radical ideas that it represented inspired undisputed real-life events. For example, after the American Revolution, a group of pirates fleeing from England were wrecked on an island and set up their own society. They called their new island "the Republic of Spensonia", after a fictional country created by the English author and political reformer Thomas Spence.



These pirates stood against monarchies, slavery, and capitalism as a way of distributing wealth. The pirates practiced a form of direct democracy, (one man one vote) where the crew held the authority to make laws and rules. Their system encouraged leaders to think of themselves as the equals, not the superiors, of those they led.  

The pirates insisted that "every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired." They resented the "encroachments" by which "Villains" and "unmerciful Creditors" grew "immensely rich" as others became "wretchedly miserable." They spoke of the "Natural right" to "a Share of the Earth as is necessary for our Support." They saw piracy as a war of self-preservation, and had no need for money "where every Thing was in common, and no Hedge bounded any particular Man's Property," and they decreed that "the Treasure and Cattle they were Masters of should be equally divided."

Libertalia’s motto was said to be "for God and liberty," and its flag was white, in contrast to a Jolly Roger. Thecitizens were anarchists, waging war against states and lawmakers, attacking ships, sparing prisoners, and freeing slaves. It is said that Misson's crews often were equal parts African and European, as he did not support slavery. The pirates of Libertalia called themselves Liberi, and lived under a communal city rule, a sort of worker owned corporation of piracy. They had articles (shared codes of conduct), and used elected systems of re-callable delegates.



Captain Misson, founder of Libertalia, was French, born in Provence, while in Rome he ran into Caraccioli - a "lewd Priest" who gradually converted Misson and a sizeable portion of his crew to his way of thinking:

he fell upon Government, and shew'd, that every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired... that the vast Difference betwixt Man and Man, the one wallowing in Luxury, and the other in the most pinching Necessity, was owing only to Avarice and Ambition on the one Hand, and a pusillanimous Subjection on the other.

Convinced by the priest’s persuasion, the whole crew became pirates. They shared everything, including the ship, and freed the first cargo of slaves they encountered, urging the Africans to join them as brothers.



Off the coast of Madagascar, Misson found a perfect bay in an area with fertile soil, fresh water and friendly natives. Here the pirates built Libertalia. No more were they English, French, Dutch or African. They were Liberi.  They created their own language, a polyglot mixture of African languages, combined with French, English, Dutch, Portuguese and native Malagasy.

Thomas Tew

Shortly after work on the colony began, they were joined by the pirate Thomas Tew. The Liberi - "Enemies to Slavery," aimed to boost their numbers by capturing another slave ship. Off the coast of Angola, Tew's crew took an English slave ship with 240 men, women and children below decks. The African members of the pirate crew found that many friends and relatives were among the formerly enslaved.

The pirates settled down to become farmers, holding the land in common - "no Hedge bounded any particular Man's Property." Prizes and money taken at sea were "carry'd into the common Treasury, Money being of no Use where every Thing was in common."

Was the colony real? The pirates of the time certainly believed it was. Members of the infamous “Flying Gang” who took Nassau in the Bahamas in 1715, and held it until 1718, claimed to anyone who would listen that they would “Make another Madagascar” of their new conquest.



But modern scholarship doubt that Libertalia (or Libertatia) was ever a real place. Certainly there were pirate settlements on and around Madagascar, which Libertalia may have been based on: Abraham Samuel at Port Dauphin, Adam Baldridge at Ile Ste.-Marie, and James Plaintain at Ranter Bay were all ex-pirates who founded trading posts and towns. These locations appear frequently in official accounts and letters from the period, while Libertalia appears only in Johnson’s General History, Volume 2. Give the piratical tendency to – um – overstatement, especially when telling stories, the whole thing may be a myth.

But it’s a telling myth. A powerful statement about a desire for a bold social experiment, conceived by outlaws considered the dregs of society. It’s interesting to note that these pirates didn’t dream of fantastical wealth, ultimate power, or eternal life. All they wanted was a peaceful existence where no one took advantage of them.

So far, there has never been a serious archeological search for Libertalia. What would we do if we found it?  

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Fire Ship!

The Golden Age of Piracy was a time of wooden ships- wooden ships, held together with tar, and waterproofed with pitch. They were floating death traps, tinderboxes, piles of kindling. And they were filled with fire.

The galley, of course, kept a kitchen fire burning. The best kind of galleys had a floor lined with sheets of tin, an effort to keep sparks from setting the ship alight. Often the only “stove” was a steel box to hold the fire. The box might be sitting in a bed of sand – a known insulator – or it might contain sand, as a base for the fire.

Cutaway model showing a ship's galley

 But the fire, a simple thing like a campfire, burned night and day. It was necessary to cook food for perhaps a hundred men, in a space perhaps six by six feet. Pots of boiling water were secured on the moving ship as well as they could be. An overturned pot could mean scalding wounds that meant almost certain death, either from the immediate injury, or, more horribly, from lingering infection.

But there was much more fire. Every light source was fire. Lanterns, candles, everyone was a possible source of conflagration for the entire ship.

Of course, precautions were taken. Simply the fact that almost all candles were confined behind glass was one. However, in these primitive times glass was sometimes not available. In this case, very thin pieces of animal horn, straightened by boiling or soaking in ammonia, were used as we might use plastic. Of course, this meant that the light of the candle behind the protective layer of horn was dimmed by the non-transparent layer, but it was better than setting the boat on fire.

Lantern with a horn window

Smoking was also often prohibited. On merchant or navy ships smoking might be completely banned, but pirates embraced a more easygoing lifestyle. In order to allow their crews to smoke as they liked, pirate ships permitted the practice, but limited it to the open-air deck.

Some pirate ships even supported open-air smoking by providing their crews with a long, slow-burning fuse on deck, which made lighting a pipe easier. They also might provide a tub of wet sand for extinguishing pipes and cigars.



Most secure was the powder room. Home to the ship’s gunpowder, this room was as completely secure as the technology of the time could make it. Not only was it sealed tightly, but no lights -candles or lanterns. Instead, a window – leading into the rest of the ship, and covered with unbreakable horn, not delicate glass – let illumination in.

Anyone working in the powder room, either stowing supplies or handing gunpowder out to power the cannons during an attack, was required to take off all metal, which posed the danger of striking a spark. These people were also required to give up their shoes. Special slippers were used instead. Pirates didn’t yet understand that static sparks were electricity, but they did grasp that any spark at all could set off the powder and kill everyone on board.

A barrel of pitch going up in flames

 So what happen if a ship did catch on fire?

For one thing, there was little use putting it out. Literally everything on the boat was flammable. If the fire was tiny, someone might be able to throw drinking water on it. Or if it spread unusually slowly, someone might be able to set up the ship’s pumps to direct a stream of water on it.

But fires tend to go up, and that meant flames getting into the great canvas sails. The sails would burn, and drop flaming material all over. Unless luck was on the side of the sailors, the only thing to do was abandon ship.

If everyone was quick, the ship’s small boats could be lowered, and people could pile into them. If they weren’t so fortunate, the crew might find themselves in the water clinging to whatever was floating nearby.

A ship blows up

 The boat might burn and sink. Or it might not sink quickly enough, and the gunpowder would explode.

Eyewitnesses to such events speak of the ship’s cannons, usually kept loaded, firing themselves one by one, set off by the intense heat.

An exploding powder magazine destroyed the entire ship instantly. Bodies of those unfortunate enough to still be aboard were torn to bit and thrown for as far as a mile.  If any other ships were nearby, they would probably be set on fire by flying debris. The shockwave could be heard for miles. Humans anywhere in the vicinity were deafened for hours, even days, by the enormous blast of sound. An exploding ship was such a horrible event, it might leave witnesses with PTSD.

Pirates – and the military – were happy to put these horrifying facts to use. Setting an older, damaged, or un-needed ship on fire and sending it into a mass of enemy shipping was sure to start a panic. The secret was to steer the un-manned ship into enemy lines, while preventing the sails from catching on fire until it had crashed into the enemy. Doing so was a matter of both luck and skill.

Armada hit by fire ships

 When Spain attacked England with an armada of 130 warships, Sir Francis Drake, pirate, admirable and English patriot, raided their supplies, then sent fire ships into the massed formations.


History credits storms for the destruction of this invading force, but Drake, his piratical crews, and their fire ships were at least equally responsible for turning back this invading force and changing the history of the world. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Fried Chicken in the Pirate Era

As a person raised in the southern United States, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when fried chicken didn’t exist. It’s the perfect celebration food, a perfect picnic food (it travels well at room temperature) and has been on my table on Sundays for most of my life.



In fact, a Roman cookbook written in the 4th century contains a recipe for deep-fried chicken called Pullum Frontonianum. This dish, attributed to Apicius, a famous lover of good food, was probably an exotic treat for the well-to-do, rather than a weekly staple.

But most people agree that the first Europeans to really popularize deep fried chicken were the Scots. 

They may or may not have been using the extra calories to fend off the notorious cold and wet weather of their homeland, but they also proved that they possessed something necessary for fried chicken – a reliable source of fat.

After all, this was an era when you couldn’t just go down to the store and buy a can of Crisco. 

Animal fat was the order of the day, and you had to be the owner of healthy, well fed livestock to have enough fat available for deep-frying.



What created the fried chicken that we know today was contact between Europeans traders and African cooks. Because while the Scots deep fried their chickens, they did not use breading or spices.
Africans, who had access to a wide variety of spices, cooked their chickens in palm oil, but they used breading and a spice mix to add interest. A typical West African spice mix might include paprika, various chilies, black pepper, and mint.

When Africans were taken as slaves, they were often given the undesirable job of cooking, and it didn’t take them long to improve on the Scottish method of deep-frying chickens in animal derived fat. In addition, slaves were sometimes allowed to keep their own chickens as livestock. This led to the pejorative association of fried chicken with African-American culture.



That’s too bad, because fried chicken is a gift we all appreciate. A perfectly fried piece of chicken, with its crisp, well-seasoned skin, tender and juicy meat, and comfort-food feel is about as good as it gets. We all enjoy it, so let’s give credit where it’s due.

But what has this to do with pirates?

Well, like those early slave-owners, pirates had what it took to make good fried chicken.

Ships were known to have an excess of food-grade fat available. When boiling the traditional meal of salted beef or pork, fat rose to the surface of the pot and was skimmed off by the ship’s cook. The material, called “slush” was considered the property of the cook, who often sold it when the ship was in port. The money made from this was called the “slush fund,” a term still in use today.



On a pirate ship, where the cook made a share of the profits, he could be assumed to be a lot more generous with his slush, so cooking in hot oil became a possibility. Pirates were also known to party on deserted beaches, where having a large pot of boiling oil would be safer than on the deck of a moving ship.

Also present were chickens. Merchant captains often kept a dozen or more birds alive on ship. The chickens provided eggs and fresh meat for the captain, and could be fed off crumbs of ship’s biscuit and the weevils that accumulated in the bread.



Pirate who captured a ship rich in chickens were likely to turn the creatures into meat. Part of this could be attributed to the “live for today” philosophy of the brigands, and part of it was the more pragmatic fact that any eggs laid would be too few for everyone to have a share.

Pirate ships often carried a high percentage of African crew members, whether as escaped slaves or simply as sailors whose ancestors came from Africa. And pirate cooks had access to a wide variety of expensive spices. After all, spices from the Caribbean were shipped all over the world, and captured spices didn’t have to be paid for.

Ship's galley
A wide variety of sources confirm that pirates enjoyed spicy food and unusual taste combinations. So a pirate crew would be open to trying a Scottish dish with West African flair. 


Fried chicken on a pirate ship. Who would have thought? 

** I was inspired to write this blog while doing research for my series of novels - The Pirate Empire. Many folks have said that they learn as much from my fiction work as they have from other writer's non-fiction. Want to have even more fun while learning about Golden Age pirates? Pick up a copy of Gentlemen and Fortune. Available on Amazon now!