Monday, December 30, 2013

Real Pirate History in Assassin's Creed 4

Few of the people who play Assassin’s Creed 4- Black Flag realize that this game is based on a book, and fewer still know that it is based on a non-fiction book. Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates tells the story of how a group of pirates came close to starting a new nation in the Bahamas in 1713. The story begins with Benjamin Hornigold, who figures prominently in the game.

Hornigold began his career as a privateer, a licensed outsource of England’s Royal Navy, during the War of Spanish Succession. During the war he had served aboard ships loyal to England, robbing Spanish ships and (legally) keeping most of the plunder.

But when the war ended, times grew hard for English sailors. Thousands of sailors lost their jobs, and because of the huge numbers of unemployed, wages plummeted. In addition, the Spanish continued to capture English ships and jail their crews. Life for sailors during peace became more difficult and dangerous than it had been during war.

Ben Hornigold, like others before him, took up pirating to make ends meet. Along with a young man named Edward Teach, he acquired a pair of sailing canoes in Jamaica and headed to New Providence port in the Bahamas.

Here he found an outpost of English power that had been long abandoned. Sacked four times during the war, the buildings had been burned, the fort’s cannons destroyed, and the population reduced to less than thirty families, most of whom were hiding in the woods.

Hornigold set up camp, and for the next six months, he and his friends robbed ships coming through the Straits of Florida. They were successful enough that they soon needed to send a man north to set up trading contracts and fence the stolen goods.

Soon ship owners were lending vessels to Hornigold’s cause and apprenticing younger relatives to him. Hornigold seemed to have a knack for teaching. More important, he paid beck his investors. The loan of a small sloop paid the owner back enough cash to buy four similar boats, and enabled Hornigold to capture a sloop of his own.

Over the next several months, Hornigold traded up, avoided the authorities, and established himself as a professional pirate and the most powerful man in New Providence. Then, in 1715, a hurricane sank the Spanish Treasure Fleet.

The Spanish ships went down off the coast of Florida, and within weeks fortune seekers were coming from all over the world to loot the wrecks.  Another pirate, Henry Jennings, organized an armed force to fight the Spanish military over the gold that was washing ashore daily. Hornigold took the opportunity to capture his largest vessel yet, a sloop-of-war large enough to hold 200 pirates. He quickly renamed it the Benjamin, after himself.

As rogues, adventurers and unemployed sailors streamed into the Bahamas, Hornigold organized them into an informal club called The Flying Gang, with himself as leader. These pirates strutted through the streets, drinking, whoring, and defying the last remnants of legal authority (a "troublesome old fart” in Hornigold’s own words.)  Hornigold also re-armed the fort, using cannons stolen on the high seas. He found manpower for his efforts by appealing to the pirates’ sense of self-preservation, and buying beer for any man who helped drag the cannons up the hill.

In the spring, the pirates were back at sea. Jennings and Hornigold had clashed in port, and they would soon clash again. Unbeknownst to each other, they separately attacked each of a pair of French merchant ships. Jennings, stymied by uncooperative winds, accepted the help of a young man named Sam Bellamy, who used his canoes to haul Jennings’ larger ships into fighting positions.

But when the merchant ship was captured, Bellamy used his canoes to make off with most of the treasure. Perhaps he didn’t like the fact that Jennings tortured his captives. Perhaps Bellamy and Jennings just didn’t get along. However it happened, once Bellamy was away from Jennings, he ran into Hornigold, and a friendship was formed.

Hornigold was not a man who enjoyed torture. Instead, he fancied such pranks as capturing and English ship – and then taking no plunder except the hats of every man aboard. He laughingly explained to the startled captain that he and his men had been so drunk the night before that they had thrown their own hats into the sea. He and his crew took replacements from their captives, and then let the vessel go free.

Hornigold did not like robbing English ships. He still considered himself a loyal subject to the English crown. This sometimes put him in conflict with his growing fleet of pirate ships.

For Hornigold was a pirate commodore. When Bellamy joined him, he was put in charge of a captured sloop. Then they were joined by Olivier La Buse (the Buzzard) a French pirate, who was not at all happy with Commodore Hornigold’s refusal to attack English vessels. Nevertheless, the group stayed together for some time. As they captured more and more vessels, the flotilla grew.

Eventually the Bellamy and La Buse went their own ways. But their firepower was replaced when Edward Teach took over a war ship owned by would-be pirate Stede Bonnet. While Bonnet hid in the captain’s cabin, reading books and being seasick, Teach, now calling himself Blackbeard, captained the ship, still following in Hornigold’s wake.

The pirate commodore lost some of his power to ship rot. The Benjamin, his flagship, was suffering badly from the tropical climate. Loath to let the ship go without realizing a profit, Hornigold sold her. He may have been surprised at how much his influence suffered when his powerful ship retired from pirating. Men like Teach, Bellamy and Jennings were acquiring larger and more powerful ships, and the New Providence pirates had little regard for history – even their own.

The Bahamas was still the center of pirate culture, and as the pirates grew more powerful and numerous, they destabilized the entire Caribbean economy. Merchants were increasingly unwilling to haul cargo. Insurance companies were being hit with excessive claims. Slaves and bond-servants, who were welcomed to freedom in the Pirate Republic, began to stage rebellions. Merchant sailors, learning of the profits enjoyed by pirates, staged work stoppages to gain higher pay and better living conditions.

For years, the Spanish, French and English governments had tried to control pirates by force. In 1717, the English government came up with a radical idea. Instead of killing the pirates, they would pardon them. Any man renouncing piracy would be given a free pardon for all his crimes. As long as he promised to pirate no more.

News of the pardon came to New Providence in 1718, in the form of a new Governor, Woods Rogers. By this time the entrance to the port was clogged with abandoned and half sunken ships. Rogers bribed a pirate to navigate his ship into the harbor. He arrived with pardons in hand.

The pirates quickly fell into two camps. Some longed to return to the comforts of lawful society. Others, angry at the world, still wanted to defy authority.

A pirate named Charles Vane championed continued rebellion. Hornigold suggested taken the pardon, reminding his comrades that they could always go back to their old ways. Vane, as it happened, was a known sadist, and a bit of a coward. Hornigold, his history as a pirate leader now recalled, won the debate. Though piracy in the Caribbean was not over, the days when pirates claimed their own nation and challenged the world’s kingdoms were on the decline.

What happened to Hornigold? For a short time he lived off his acquired plunder, but like most pirates, he was no accountant. In need of work, he hired on as a pirate-hunter, and spend over a year chasing his former comrades. When war broke out again with Spain, he fought on the side of England. He was captured by the Spanish in 1719, and never heard from again.

Hornigold’s career was not as flashy or colorful as men like Blackbeard, and since he treated his captives politely, he was not a good example of the evils of piracy. He has long been resigned to the sidelights of history. But in the latest game, Assassin’s Creed, he is revived in as mentor and leader. I think he’d be pleased by this.  

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Pirate Christmas

In the 18th century, Christmas was a time for church-going, family visits, caroling, feasting, dancing and drinking. In at least one of these, pirates excelled.

Did pirates celebrate Christmas?

Being humans, and coming primarily from Christian countries where Christmas was a major social and religious holiday, it seems reasonable to assume that they did. If pirates excelled at anything, it was having a good time. Between stories of Christmases at sea, and what we know about celebrations in the 18th century, we can make some reasonable assumptions about how they celebrated.

Christmas nearly three hundred years ago was quite a bit different than today. The tradition of the Christmas tree had not yet been introduced from the Germanic countries, Santa Claus and his reindeer were unknown to English culture, and the huge emphasis on gift-giving was nowhere to be seen.

The most dramatic tradition was decorating with evergreen. Not only pine boughs, but boxwood, rosemary, lavender, bay, and flowers were traditionally brought into the English homes and churches for the holiday. Officially, these greens and blooms celebrated the everlasting nature of Christ’s love. In fact, they were also a celebratory decoration that raised human spirits during the darkest time of the year.

Caribbean pirates, if they felt like decorating, had ample access to both pine boughs and tropical blossoms. We know that pirates often went ashore along uninhabited shores to find water, gather fruit, hunt wild animals for meat, and clean their ships. So it’s no stretch to imagine them stopping off to gather some Christmas decorations.

The centerpiece of the traditional English feasting table, the roasted boar’s head, was also an item that pirates had easy access too, as the Caribbean was overrun with wild hogs, introduced by the Spanish. For pirates, the hunt would be part of the excitement of the holiday.

Sailors have a long tradition of entertaining themselves with song, and Christmas carols were very popular at the time. Pirates wouldn’t have sung about Rudolph or Santa Claus. Even traditional songs like “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings” wouldn’t be written for well over a hundred years. But “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The First Noel,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” and most appropriately “I Saw Three Ships” were all songs contemporary with pirates. Many writers over the years, including Robert Lewis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island) and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol) have written scenes in which sailors, far from home, remember their families by singing the old traditional songs. Pirates, who had left behind their entire culture to become outlaws, were even more likely to use this kind of ritual to comfort themselves.

Interestingly, a pirate Christmas would have been a multi-cultural one. The nations of Europe were still involved in a series of religious wars that went back two centuries, and were torturing and murdering Africans and Native Americans in the name of converting them to Christianity. But pirates had no ambitions to convert anyone to anything, and demonstrated over and over that they judged compatriots by character, not religion.

On a pirate ship, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and several kinds of Pagans might live and work side by side. Pirates were primarily interested in successful robbery and having a good time, and if some of the crew had an idea for any type of celebration, it was likely to be warmly welcomed.

Apart from churchgoing, the average Englishman celebrated Christmas by eating fine food, often to excess, drinking spiced wine or liquor, often to excess, singing, dancing, and playing games. Pirates consistently had access to better food than most sailors, plenty of liquor, and exotic spices. They enjoyed dancing the traditional men’s daces known to sailors, and may have faked if for some couples dancing, especially since they had no problems with homosexual couples (or with making fools of themselves, at least after a few drinks.)

Pirates also went ashore to celebrate. Sam Bellamy took over an entire English colony one New Years, and partied so successfully that much of the male population of the town left with him when he finally sailed away. Pirates were often warmly welcomed by business associates who enjoyed partying with these charming rogues. Many pirates also had family in the New World, and some may have gone home for the holidays.

If you’d like to take a pirate home for the holidays, check out the sidebar for the books in my series, The Pirate Empire. The Kindle editions make a great last-minute gifts.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a hearty Yo Ho Ho Ho!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Secret Pirate Sayings

Nautical Terms That Make no Sense Until You Know What They Mean

Kiss the Gunner’s Daughter

If a sailor was to be flogged as a form of punishment, he would need to be tied down first. Sometimes the grating that covered the main hatch would be set on its side and used. Sometimes he would be bound to a mast. Or he might be bent over the barrel of a gun and tied down. If he was, his shipmates might jokingly say he was “kissing the gunner’s daughter.”

Dead Reckoning

Method of navigation which calculates a ship’s position based on its last known position, using estimates of how far and in what direction the ship has traveled. It is the oldest method of navigation, but not the most accurate. It is a miss-spelling of “ded reckoning,” short for “deductive reckoning.”

Keel Hauled

A form of punishment in which ropes were used to drag a sailor under the belly of the ship. Besides the danger of drowning, the sailor faced damage from contact with the barnacles and growths on the underside of the ship. The term comes from being hauled under the keel, or center line of the ship.


The term for measuring a boat’s speed through the water. It comes from the method of using a rope marked with knots at even intervals to measure the boat’s speed. At one end of the line there would be a log that was thrown from the stern. The knotted line was allowed to run freely for a specific amount of time after which it was hauled back aboard, where the number of knots could be counted giving the number of knots of forward speed.


A “lubber” meant a large, clumsy person. Calling a man a “land lubber” was an even greater insult, since sailors regarded landsmen as ignorant, since they did not know the even simplest things about ships. “Landlubber” has nothing to do with “land lover.”

Son of a Gun

Very often, when a navy ship came into port, the sailors were not allowed to go on shore, for fear they would desert. Prostitutes would go aboard to service the men, and since there was no private space in the crew quarters, the women would make space on or around the guns. Nine months later, if a child was born, he might be called a “son of a gun.”

Batten Down the Hatches

“Batten down” means to tie down or secure. Hatches are openings in the upper deck of a ship which allow passage of people or cargo to the decks below. Battening down the hatches means to secure the covers over these openings, so rain or high waves will not swamp the ship.


Sailing ships with severe damage to rigging or other parts might be beyond repair, but could still be useful. A ship incapable of sailing was called a hulk. It might be used for storage, training, spare housing for sailors, or as a base for doing repairs on more seaworthy ships. Because large vessels were more useful for this purpose, the word “hulk” came to mean a large clumsy thing.

Hull Down

A ship was said to be “hull down” when its masts were visible above the horizon, but the hull or body of the ship was hidden by the horizon.

Before the Mast

Meaning the area of the ship in front of (before) the main mast of the ship. The common sailors had their living quarters here, and so were said to “sail before the mast.” The officers, in contrast, had their cabins near the rear of the ship, where the ride was more smooth. Officer trainees were housed in between, and became known as “midshipmen.”

Dog Watch

A watch was a four-hour work shift. A dog watch was a half-length watch, usually in the wee hours of the morning. Such an arrangement might help to rotate the system over different days for fairness, or to allow both watches to eat their meals at approximately normal times.

Following Sea

Wave or tidal movement going in the same direction as the ship, and helping it along.


The ship’s bathroom. So-called because in the days of sail, this area was situated as far forward as possible. Since the wind generally came from behind a sailing vessel, this meant that the smell of human waste was always downwind.


An obsolete term for the left side of the ship. Traditionally sailing ships tied up with the left side attached to the quay. For this reason the left was originally called the “lay-board” side. Later this was changed to “port” because “larboard” sounded too much like “starboard,” the right side of the ship.

Blow the Man Down

Knock a man down by hitting him (giving him a blow.) Similarly, “blow me down” means “knock me down.”

Pieces of Eight

A Spanish silver coin, made in such a way that it could be cut into eight pieces This was done to make change from a purchase or to otherwise divide money. The smallest piece of the coin, a pie-shaped piece of silver, was called a “bit.” From this we get the description of a quarter as being “two bits.”


A Spanish gold coin worth 2 reales. Spanish coins came in one two, four and eight reales units, and the two-reale coin was called a doubloon, or a “double one.”

Monday, December 9, 2013


It was 1719, and trouble was brewing aboard the English slave ship Hanover Succession. Jacob Key, the first mate, stood in open opposition to the ship’s master, with half the crew behind him, demanding that the ship return immediately to port.  John Clipperton, the master (captain) retorted that Key was refusing to do his duty.

Later, in court, Clipperton claimed that Key had been conspiring with the crew since they had left Africa, and that the men had “combined together” for ominous purpose. He called Key an “Old rogue and a villain,” while Key replied by naming Clipperton a “Young rascally dogg,” and saying, “I’ll take charge of the ship, for you intend to destroy it!”

The dispute, which brought the ship back into its Charleston port, and the captain and crew into a mutiny trial, was based on one compelling problem: the Hanover Succession leaked, badly. The crew, experienced sailors, viewed it as unsafe. The captain, younger, wanted only to complete his voyage back to England, whatever the cost. The conflict rose to violence when Clipperton tried to set the vessel onto its final leg of the trade route. Just out of port, the crew mutinied. Key nailed a proclamation to the main mast, and members of the crew threw down their tools, vowing that they would “heave no more.”

Most modern Americans know of mutiny, if we know it at all, through the story “Mutiny on the Bounty.” The captain was cruel, the sailors wanted to go back to Tahiti. The crime of mutiny was punishable by death. The word, mutiny, occurs from time to time in pirate literature. Long John Silver led a mutiny aboard the Hispaniola in Treasure Island.

But what did it mean to mutiny, and why did it happen?

Under the system of the time, sailors had no way to protect themselves from unsafe working conditions or loss of pay. They were under orders from their superiors, dependent on the ship for food, water and safety. But sailors were highly skilled at their jobs, and often had opinions of their own about what was necessary for their survival.

The first course of action for a sailor unhappy with his work was to “jump ship,” in the next port. As he was usually under a work contract, this was an illegal act, but one that was common enough that it was usually not prosecuted by merchant captains and ship owners. A sailor who did this gave up any pay he had not yet received.

If pay was the issue, or if the ship was at sea when a dispute broke out, sailors might stage a work slowdown or a work stoppage. Saying “the beatings will continue until moral improves” might seem funny to us today, but some captains tried it 300 years ago. If they did, they were likely to face an angry crew who refused to work. If the sailors did not do their jobs, the ship did not move, or moved off course and into dangerous waters.

Sailors had to be desperate or very angry to try such tactics, which, might kill them at sea, or at the very least land them in jail when they got into port. But in some instances, they were exonerated. If they could prove that the captain was chronically drunk, the ship was unsafe, or they were in real danger of death from lack of food or water, they might win a court case. Since there were no labor laws at the time, this was the crew’s only way to keep themselves safe at work.

Mutiny was the middle level of a crew’s rebellion. A mutiny was an organized takeover of a ship, an overthrow of the officers, and usually a diversion of the ship off its course. In the merchant service – cargo ships – this meant a violation of work contracts, loss of income for the ship’s owner, which might bring jail time, and also some violence, which was also illegal. In the navy, it meant denying the authority of the King, as represented by the King’s officers. This represented treason, which was why the Royal Navy was so unforgiving of mutineers.

Mutiny against a pirate captain could not happen. Pirate captains were elected officials, and if a crew was unhappy with their captain’s performance, they only needed to raise a vote of “no confidence” and then elect another captain. Calico Jack Rackham became captain when Charles Vane was voted out, and the French pirate Olivier Levasseur was in and out of captaincy several times. Indeed, a departing pirate captain has left us a famous quote on the subject, “…since we met in love, let us part in love." -Howell Davis, dismissed from his ship. He was put out in a rowboat, and paddled away, refusing to be angry with the crew that had voted him out of office.

On the Hanover Succession Jacob Key, an experienced first officer, found himself on a ship that was leaking badly, poorly provisioned, and just setting off on a trans-Atlantic journey. The crew were exhausted from working the pumps, not only during their work shifts, but also during their time off. His quote, recorded at his trial, of “Damn you, I’ll make you take a spell at the pump as well as the rest.” indicates his belief that the captain did not appreciate the seriousness of the danger or the exhaustion of the crew.

The fact that Keys was second-in-command was a necessary ingredient in a successful mutiny. Skilled officers were needed on the crew’s side, because though the crew held all the skills necessary to run the ship, they needed a skilled navigator in order to find land. This meant officers. In Mutiny on the Bounty the lead mutineer, Mister Christian, was the second officer. Henry Avery was second officer on the Charles II when he stole the ship. And in Treasure Island the mutiny on the Hispaniola was led by Long John Silver, a former ship’s quartermaster.

The mutiny by Jacob Keys and his fellow sailors did not result in hangings or other reprisals. The so-called mutineers simply commandeered their leaking ship and brought it back to port, faced the authorities, and then went their ways, to find other ships. This was possible because their ship was close to port at the time of the mutiny.

What happened when a ship was far out at sea? If the sailors did not have an officer to lead them, then they might be required to “work for their lives” pumping a sinking ship, being unjustly beaten, or half starved.

If they did have means of navigating the ship, then they might take over the vessel once and for all. During the Hanover Succession’s mutiny, Jacob Key did threaten to take the ship’s row boats for the crew, leaving Captain Clipperton alone on his sinking ship.

But if the ship had been sound, and the disagreement with the captain only brutality, drunkenness, spoiled food, or withholding pay, the angry crew might have put the captain off in the rowboat, keeping a sound ship for themselves. This would have been the final level of 18th century labor dispute… Taking the ship and turning pirate.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Pirate Tropes in Curse of the Black Pearl

Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl was the open gate that led many, many people into the world of pirates. The movie was funny, fresh and full of adventure, and Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow didn’t hurt the movie one bit.

But I believe that there’s more to the movie than meets the eye. Though it was inspired by the Pirates ride at Walt Disney World, it also gave a call-out to almost every other pirate production that’s ever been made. In short, the writers and producer made an effort to honor ever single pirate trope that’s ever existed. Let’s take a look at that, and have one more stroll through a grand movie.

But first – What’s a trope? The dictionary defines “trope” as “Something recurring across a genre or type of literature, such as the ‘mad scientist’ of horror movies or ‘once upon a time’ as an introduction to fairy tales.” There are dozens of pirate tropes. Let’s count them in the movie.

The Castaway
Will Turner is the sole survivor of a ship wreck (actually an attack by pirates.)  The “sole survivor” or castaway goes back at least to Robinson Crusoe, which was first published in 1719.

The Governor’s Daughter
Has been the traditional love interest of pirates and naval captains in countless stories. And lest we forget Elizabeth Swan’s status, her maid stage whispers “You’re the Governor’s daughter!” just as the pirates attack.

Pirates Be ye Warned!  
The sign beside the hanging pirate corpses as Jack sails into port.

The Dishonest Port Official  
In real life, people like the harbormaster who agrees to call Jack “Mister Smith” were one of the prime mechanisms that allowed real-life pirates to operate. The character shows up in dozens of movies.

The Legendary Ship  
The Black Pearl is a magical ship “crewed by the damned and captained by a man so evil that Hell itself spat him back out.” This goes all the way back to the legend of the Flying Dutchman.

The Tongue-Tied Man of Action
Commodore Norrington proves himself brave, intelligent, resourceful and efficient over the course of the movie, but he struggles mightily when trying to propose to Elizabeth. A stereotype dating at least to the Horatio Hornblower series.

Bugs Bunny  
Jack is considered to be one of the Bugs Bunny type, a sort of trickster hero who loves to laugh, but who fights with no holds barred, and often completely contradicts the rules of common sense or the laws of physics. (“I never studied law”) The trope actually pre-dates Bugs, and may have been invented by Groucho Marx, originator of Bug’s favorite threat, “I suppose you realize, this means war!” Notice that Jack is being a good guy until Norrington threatens to hang him, at which point Jack turns suddenly menacing, and makes a wild escape.

The Epic Sword Fight 
Enough said.

Throwing a Sword  
When Will throws his sword to lock the door, he proves he can do it (for later in the movie). He also harks back to many other pirates who have performed this classic, and impossible, maneuver.  My favorite is Captain Lynch in the movie “Swashbuckler.”

Pirates Attack a Town 
Captain Henry Morgan made his career from sacking Spanish towns, and Hollywood has used it consistently, largely because it’s a lot easier to choreograph a fight on land, and a lot easier to finance a town set than a full-scale warship.

Two Type of Pirates lists two different classic forms of movie pirates – the lovable ad mostly non-threatening bumbler, and the bloodthirsty cut-throat. POTC has both, in the forms of Jack and Barbosa. And Barbosa has….

A Magnificent Pirate Hat  
Barbosa’s hat, remarked on by Jack later in the film. Also, William’s magnificent hat, when he decides to rescue Jack.

Parlay and the Pirate Code  
Two non-historical pieces of pirate lore that have been driving pirate stories for decades. Elizabeth also gives a shout-out to real pirates Henry Morgan and Bartholomew Roberts.

Ghosts, curses, and zombies have been tied up with the lore of the Caribbean since slavery and Spanish conquest, which is to say, forever.

The Captain’s Exotic Pet
Exotic pets have been a pirate staple since Long John Silver’s parrot. A pet monkey specifically appears in the movie “Cut-Throat Island.”

Characters throughout the movie tell stores to each other, harking to the classic sailor’s past time of telling yarns, stories which, while entertaining, are not necessarily true.

A Son Picks up His Father’s Destiny 
Will, like so many boys going to sea (including Jim Hawkins) faces his heritage as the son of a sailor.

A real pirate haven, and a legendary city of vice and depravity. In fact, Port Royal was an even more legendary and debauched location, earning the nickname of the “Wickedest city on earth” long before the establishment of Las Vegas. Tortuga is an especially good name for a pirate port, because there are four islands named Tortuga in the Caribbean, so the writers can place their port in several locations.

Pirates and Prostitutes   
Virtually every pirate book or movie has a prostitute or pirate wench in it somewhere. We also get to see drunken carousing and brawling.

Dinner with the Pirate Captain
Especially when the governor’s daughter arrives so famished she tears into the food with her hands.

The Legendary Treasure  
It’s usual for there to be some kind of “special” Spanish or buried treasure in pirate stories. The glorious turnaround in POTC is that the pirates are not trying to find the treasure, but to give it back.

Robert Newton as Long John Silver started the use of this exclamation, but Geoffrey Rush says it with the conviction of a pirate who’s come up with it for the first time.

Cotton’s Parrot 
See Exotic Pirate Pet

Woman Disguised as a Male Pirate
In honor of Mary Reed and Anne Bonny

Motley Pirate Crew
In fact, pirate crews were varied, and contained people from many races. Having each member of the crew be a different nationality is traditional.

Disabled Pirates
A classic trope since Long John Silver’s wooden leg. POTC combined the one-eyed pirate with the wooden leg to give us a pirate with a wooden eye.

A Storm at Sea 
Features in nearly every pirate movie, even if the special effects are only a toy boat in a bathtub.

Mysterious Island  
Seen as early as Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island (duh)

An actual pirate practice, noted in Treasure Island. Hollywood added the pistol to shoot yourself with.

Impossible on an actual pirate ship, where the captaincy was an elected position. Though a crew that mutinied often became pirates afterwards.

The Pirate Captain so Mean, He Shoots a Member of His Own Crew 
Barbosa shoots a member of his own crew in the cave to see if the curse has been lifted. It doesn’t work, but the pirate does look indignant and say, “Hey, you shot me!” Appears in dozens of pirate movies, including Disney’s Peter Pan. The quickest way to show that a pirate captain is ruthless.

Throwing the prisoners in the brig
Hollywood pirate ships have large and well-used brigs

“I’ll have your guts for garters!”
Many pirate threats and phrases are used over and over. POTC hits almost every classic pirate word, including savvy, parlay, old hob, sweeps, scabrous dogs, broadside, whelp, off the edge of the map, here there be monsters, and The ship is ours!

Which a sailor jokingly claims flopped up on deck to tell Norrington about the pirates.)

Sea Battle
Another standard. POTC minimizes damage to the Black Pearl by having the Interceptor throw all her cannon balls overboard before the battle.

Swinging From Ship to Ship on Ropes
Possible? Probably not. But it shows up I every movie.

Lead Character Trapped in a Sinking Ship
Will frees himself, but it’s more traditional for the trapped character’s romantic interest to save him/her.

Davy Jones’ Locker
Doesn’t actually appear, but Will talks about it.

East India Trading Company
Very often, the East India Trading Company is the bad guy in a movie where pirates are the heroes.  In POTC the Company never actually appears, but it is mentioned twice, once in the beginning when Jack’s pirate brand is revealed by Norrington, and again on the tropical island when Elizabeth recounts Jack’s adventures.

Walking the Plank
An entirely imaginary pirate activity. The (very few) pirates who ever made anyone walk the plank had actually gotten the idea from pirate novels. But it’s a standard pirate trope.

Pirate Rescued from Hanging
May real pirates were hanged, but no one wants to see it in a movie. It’s heartbreaking to see a good guy pirate die, and not terrible enough for an evil pirate. The rescue, by a pirate ship coming over the horizon, is a classic.

So, I count 40 separate pirate tropes in one movie. Are there even more? If you can find them, please leave a comment. I’d love to find them.

Does this mean POTC is a cliché? Certainly not! By touching on so many of the classic elements of fictional piracy, the movie’s creators give their creation the feel of being part of a great tradition. And so it is.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

Pirates and Slavery in the New World.

The Golden Age of Piracy corresponds closely with the beginning of the age of slavery. Both slavery and piracy are woven together in the history of the Caribbean.

It has been estimated that as many as 90 percent of pirates were former slaves.

If these numbers seem unnaturally high, remember that, at the time, Europeans were slaves as well as Africans. You have probably read about this in history, although European slaves are often referred to as “indentured servants.” Let’s take a look at that.

“Indentured servants” are often portrayed as poor people who wanted to immigrate to the New World, and did not have the means to afford the trip. Because of this, they signed on to work for richer individuals for a set period of time – often seven years, in order to pay for their passage.

While this undoubtedly happened, especially in North America, in the Caribbean the seven-year term held a more grim aspect. The average life of a worker on a sugar plantation was only 2 years.

Europeans were not physically equipped to live in the tropics. Europe at the time was undergoing a Little Ice Age, and temperatures were at record lows. It has been estimated that in England, the temperature never rose above 75 degrees Fahrenheit during all of the 1700’s. Leaving this place coming to the tropics, where average temperatures were in the mid-80’s, was a death-toll for many. There was no air conditioning. There was no such thing as sun-block. Laborers worked in the sun, with no available shade and little access to clean water. Clothing was traditionally made of wool. Newcomers faced exotic diseases, and even more exotic foods, which they were not willing to eat.

Furthermore, “owners” of the indentured had no motivation to care for these “servants.” No oversight body protected their interests. They had no legal rights, and could be whipped, tortured, even killed with no consequences for the owner. Indeed, illiterate farm workers, living in the wilderness, would not be able to assert their freedom, even after their term was up. They were, in short, slaves in fact if not in name.

Nor were many of them willing. Convicts, prostitutes, the poor, and victims of Europe’s religious wars were often “transported,” which is to say, ripped from their homes and sent to the Caribbean. European powers desperately needed workers on the new plantations, and no sane person would sign up to work on a sugar plantation.

France had its own problems with Caribbean slaves. Upon establishing colonies in the New World, notably Martinique, the Catholic French decided that this would be a perfect place to park their religious minority, the Protestants. First they sent their Protestant nobles, giving them land grants. But when the French Government then tried to enslave the poorer French Protestants, and sell these people to the Protestant land owners, the rich Protestants were so uncomfortable with the arrangement that they freed these slaves. Then they all moved to North America, depopulating the island of Martinique for decades.

In the meantime, wars and expanding trade produced a demand for sailors that also outstripped supply. England’s government responded first by paying men to recruit sailors. Recruiters simply bought sailors drinks until they were too drunk to know what they were doing, then convinced them to sign the papers. When that didn’t work, tricksters resorted to throwing silver coins into the sailor’s beer mug when he wasn’t looking. “Accepting” this money was excuse enough to enlist a man in the Navy against his will. This produced a demand for glass-bottomed mugs.

When all else failed, the government authorized “press gangs” to simply round up sailors, force them onto ships and sail away with them. The sailor’s families were left behind, and often the men were kept on the ships for years. Captains knew that if they let the men go ashore, even for a single day, they would likely desert, so they were held virtual prisoner. Wages were promised but might take years to arrive, if they ever did. And when one of the many wars was over, the navy saw no reason to end a sailor’s service by transporting him back home. He was simply dumped in port, wherever the ship happened to be. This too, was slavery in fact.

By the time of the Golden Age, most of the population of sailors had either lived in conditions of slavery or had spent a life working hard to avoid it.

Into this came the African slave trade. Much has been written about the horrors of the Middle Passage, the crowding, stench and death. At the time, Africans were doing what Europeans had done for years, scraping up their own unwanted, poor and the unlucky to make slaves. But the need for massive numbers of unpaid workers in the European colonies changed the practice. Never before had slaves been wanted in such massive numbers.

And the advantage of enslaved Africans was immediately apparent. These people did not die of heat stroke. They did not break out in blistering lesions from the sun. They were hardy and resistant to tropical diseases. Soon, they were the slaves of choice for Caribbean plantations.

Very often, pirates encountered shipments of slaves coming into the New World. Their responses were varied. Sometimes they simply took and sold these people as plunder, making no distinction between humans and other goods. But on other occasions they made an effort to free the slaves. There were also several instances where a crew of pirates would take other goods from a slave ship, then remove all the slave’s chains, open their prisons, and “let them work the matter out for themselves.” Since slaves on such a ship would normally outnumber crew by a factor of 20 to one, a bloodbath seemed assured.

But where would free slaves go? They could not be expected to sail back to Africa.

In fact, many Caribbean islands had communities of escaped, warlike slaves. Jamaica, for instance, had a population living deep in the mountains. They called themselves the Maroons, and were so successful at raiding plantations that they were often in danger of taking over the island. And there is some evidence that pirates helped to arm these groups… for a price. Other European traders believed that rebelling slaves were evil and unnatural. But since pirates had sworn to uphold their own personal freedom, they were sympathetic to other groups fighting for the same thing.

In fact, this seems to have been a dividing line for slaves on ships captured by pirates. If the slaves wanted to fight, and if the pirates could communicate with them, (not always possible, given the language barrier) the pirates would free them. If the slaves could not communicate, or seemed more frightened than angry over their circumstance, the pirates left them in their enslaved state.

Pirates often relied on terror to take bigger, better armed ships, and pirate captains soon learned that African crew members were very useful in frightening opponents. European culture stated that everyone in society had an immutable place.  An effort to leave the class you were born into was regarded as a sign of mild insanity. Working class people should remain working class. Nobility would always remain noble. And slaves who were unhappy with their lot were rebelling against “God’s will.”

The sight of a groups of armed Africans, part of a pirate crew and ready to get revenge on any Europeans they might encounter was terrifying.

But even as this notion was being taught, published and preached, another radical idea was rising. Slavery had been a part of European culture since before recorded time. But for the first time, people began to be uncomfortable with enslaving people who were “like them.” British Protestants would enslave Irish Catholics, but were less happy with slaves who shared their religion. For the French, as we have seen, slavery between people who shared a church was impossible. Increasingly, imported slaves were African, because African slaves were not “like” any of the Europeans, and could not become “like” them because of skin color.

Pirates agreed with this basic idea, but had different ideas about what “like us” meant. Pirates, like all sailors, were used to shipmates from all over the world. What made slaves “like them” or not “like them” depended more on attitude. If a slave was angry, ready to be violent, and could communicate, pirates accepted them as “like us.” If they were cowed, or loyal to an existing master, then they had accepted their role as chattel and would be treated accordingly.

For this reason, pirate crews tended to have a high percentage of African crew members. Estimates say that Blackbeard’s crew may have been 30% African, and at one point Sam Bellamy had more Africans than Europeans in his pirate crew.

Pirates of the Golden Age were not only robbing to make themselves rich, they were sending a message to the powers that be. They were saying that the common man would no longer be ignored. And part of that message was free Africans, armed and facing the foe.

Monday, November 18, 2013

How to Make a Pirate Hat.

There are three main kinds of pirate hats – the tricorn hat, like Jack Sparrow’s, the cavalier hat, like Will Turner’s, and the Dutch hat, like Davy Jones. We are going to mostly look at the tricorn and the cavalier hats today.

The first thing you need is a hat. For the tricorn, the go-to pirate hat, you will need a hat with a low, rounded crown (the part your head fits into) and a wide (3 ½ or 4 inches) brim. For the best look, use a wool felt hat in black or brown. You will be able to tell the material of the hat by reading the tag on the inside, along the back of the hat band. If the hat has no tag, but is “fuzzy” and feels like felt, it’s probably what you want.

Of course, any kind of hat with a brim will do. The main thing is the "tricorn" shape. 

I got my last pirate hat at a second-hand store for about $2. It needed some work, but no one has ever suspected that it started out as something else. The place to get the ultimate pirate hat blank is here here.
The slouch hat works just fine. Of course, this is still $35. You can also use a hat like this this. (I have purchased a hat from here. Delivery took a while, but it was inexpensive, and the hat was great.)

You will need an object to poke a hole in the hat. An ice pick or a knitting needle is perfect. You will need some material to tie up the sides of the hat. The very best thing you can use is shoelaces – two pairs of black or brown. This stuff is going to show, so you want to think about that when choosing color. You can also use ¼” ribbon.


Given these materials, it’s very easy to make the hat. Simply grab the back side of the brim and fold it up, toward the top of the crown. Hold it in place firmly and use the ice pick to punch four holes, like the points of a square, right through the brim and the crown.

Punching holes for lacing

Cut the shoelaces in half. The aglet on the end of each half makes a perfect tool to poke the shoelace through the tiny holes. Make two vertical stitches to sew up the side of the hat. Just poke the string through two holes and tie it on the inside. Do the same with the other two holes.

Using white lacing here so you can see it
Repeat this, putting up the sides so they meet in a point toward the front of the hat. You will find that it’s very natural for the hat brim to go up in three sections.

Finished hat with black lacing
Is that it? Yes it is.

Hats from this period are all based on a low, wide-brimmed form. If you start with a very wide-brimmed hat, put up only one side, and add a feather on that side, you have the cavalier hat. If the brim is slightly narrower, and you put up 3 sides, you get the tricorn.

If you cut the tip off the tricorn, you get the Dutch hat. Why would you cut the tip off the tricorn? Well, wear the hat for a while, and bump the tip into a few things, and you’ll see why. If you want this type of hat, first put it up in the tricorn shape, then mark the area you want to cut off with chalk, then take the brim down and cut. This hat works best if you put trim around the edge of the hat brim.

Notes for hats
If the hat you are working with is too stiff to bend, steam it or wet it with warm water, and work with it while it’s damp. If it is too soft, fabric stores sell a product called fabric stiffener, which you can use as directed to fix it.

If the crown of your hat isn’t the shape you want (my last pirate hat started out with a shape more like a cowboy hat) change the shape by filling the crown of the hat with warm water and letting it sit for a few minutes. Then use your fist to punch the hat into shape. You can also make a too-small hat bigger by wetting it and then forcing it onto your head and wearing it until it’s dry.

If you do this, be careful. Any kind of wetness weakens the fabric of the hat. You can accidentally put your hand right through it. I was working with a $2 hat, so I had little to lose.

If you want to put trim around the edge of your hat brim, put it on the underside of a tricorn because that is the side that will show. On a cavalier hat, you must put it on both upper and lower sides of the brim, as both will show. It’s best to sew it on with a sewing machine, using a zig zag stitch, but hot glue will do.

Real tricorn hats were never worn with feathers in them, but you’re a pirate. Feel free to deck your hat out with feathers or gems. One big pin is a popular option, usually put on the left hand side. A huge feather is traditional on a cavalier hat, sweeping out behind. Once again, a big pin is a great accessory.

If you can’t find a felt hat, most fabric stores sell a kind of wide-brimmed straw hat that also makes a fine pirate hat. (If you watch the background of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you will see people wearing tricorn straw hats)  Just make sure it fits. If you want to paint a straw hat, you can use regular spray paint. A straw hat looks better as a grungy pirate hat.

Pirates aren’t limited to only one kind of hat. Society at the time said that men wore hats. Pirates stole gentlemen’s hats and then wore them until they fell apart, so if your hat has seen better days, so much the better. If it needs to be grunged up a little, grease, spray paint, or actual dirt can be used. Sand paper can simulate wear. And rubber cement can simulate sweat stains on the crown.

Whatever you do, have fun. And if you enjoyed this post, and would like to support pirates and this pirate blog, click the links in the sidebar to buy a copy of Gentlemen and Fortune, the first book of my novel series, The Pirate Empire.