Monday, June 24, 2013

The Duties of Pirates

Piracy was a specialized job – blue-collar for sure, but not without its requirements for knowledge and specialization. Every position on the boat required some kind of specialized knowledge.

Sailors – The very lowest position on a pirates ship, that of common sailor, required about a year of training. Every rope, sail, and bit of wood on a ship had a specialized name, and a sailor had to know them all, understand their function, and remember how to use them. Sailors held landsmen in contempt, as people who were brainless for not understanding even the most basic information about the important task of sailing. In the rare occasion when a landsman joined a pirate crew, he either had specialized skill such as medicine or carpentry, or he would be put on the training program, which mostly consisted of being handed a piece of rope (picking up a rope on his own was considered too much mental activity for a landsman) and told to pull.

Topmen were a special class of sailors, skilled in climbing through the topmost rigging of the ship. Topmen had the skills of a circus acrobat, able to haul lines and tie knots while hanging upside down, or run along a ship’s horizontal spar, forty feet in the air while the ship tossed and pitched. Most sailors never reached this illustrious level of skill.

The Cook had specialized skills for cooking at sea. Often these people did little more than heat up salted beef, reconstitute dried peas, and measure out quantities of ship’s biscuit. A more talented cook took plunder in the form of live animals, fruit, fine wine, captured cheeses and sausages, fresh fish, and exotic spices, and turned it all into very fine eating for a pirate crew. The most famous fictional cook was Long John Silver, who not only starred in the novel Treasure Island, but also had a chain of seafood restaurants named after him.

The ship’s Surgeon was not as prestigious a position as it sounds to  a modern ear. We think of surgeons as being the highest form of doctor. In the 18th century, the title surgeon denoted someone able to lop off arms and legs with a knife and saw. Training was on-the-job, and consisted mostly of learning to take a limb of cleanly at the nearest joint before the patient bled to death. When there was no surgeon, the carpenter might be pressed into service. The tools were much the same.

Gunners – Every cannon on a warship required an assigned crew, a group of 3-12 individuals who practiced operating the weapon and firing. Specialized positions included “carriers” who moved powder and shot, “spongers” who cleaned burning debris out of the barrel, “loaders” who pushed powder and shot into the cannon, “layers” ran the gun into position, and the gun captain, the leader for the gun team, primed the gun and fired it.

The Master Gunner was in charge of all the cannons, and organized cleaning, storage, preparing powder charges, maintaining ammunition, and repairing guns that had become damaged. He was assisted by one or more Gunner’s Mates.

Another technical position on a sip was the Carpenter. The carpenter and his assistants, the carpenter’s mates, were so necessary that a pirate crew would kidnap unwilling individuals to fill these positions if necessary. The carpenter repaired the ship if it was damaged, plugging leaks in emergencies, cleaning the seaweed and barnacles from the bottom to keep the ship fast and strong, and performing more extensive repairs to planking and masts as needed.

The Bosun (a contraction of the word “boatswain”) was the man in charge of the use of sails and rigging. He made sure that the ship was properly powered, that sails were used properly, that the ropes were preserved with tar and rigged so that they worked properly. He was the manager of the common sailors. He also had odd jobs like using a special whistle to signal the crew for mealtime and special activities. He was also the person in charge of dispensing justice in the form of whippings, as required.

The Navigator was responsible for finding a ship’s position, and guiding the ship to where it was supposed to be. Navigators were highly trained individuals, highly paid in the merchant marine, and unlikely to turn to piracy. Like carpenters, they often joined a pirate crew because they had been forced.

The Quartermaster was technically the second in command on a pirate ship. As the captain was in charge of obtaining plunder, the quartermaster was in charge of distributing plunder. He also kept track of ship’s stores, including food and water. When pirates stole valuables, instead of cash, the quartermaster found fences for the goods and sold them for the best possible prices. When the ship wasn’t in battle, the quartermaster was in charge. In a pirate crew, if a captain was killed or deposed, the quartermaster was the next logical choice for the position. Calico Jack Rackham was Charles Vane’s quartermaster before Vane was voted out, and was elected captain after him.

Captain – The pirate captain gets all the notoriety, but in fact, captains were no more than members of the crew most of the time. A captain could propose a plan for capturing ships, but the crew were free to out-vote him. The captain inhabited the grand aft cabin of a ship, but any member of the crew was free to enter it at any time. The pirate captain was in charge during chase and battle. If he was an effective leader, however, chasing and capturing ships took up much of the crew’s time.

Captains were notorious largely because the institutions hunting pirates – Navies and colonial governors -  were top-down organizers. On a navy or civilian ship, the captain was a gentleman, of a different social class entirely than sailors or even officers. In a pirate crew the captain might have risen from the position as a common sailor through talent. These people had much more in common with their crews.  They ate the same food, drank the same liquor, faced the same dangers. True, pirate captains made more money than their crews, but the pirate captain’s share was only twice the amount earned by the lowest of sailors.

Can you imagine if any institution today paid its CEO only twice what they guy in the mailroom was earning?  

Monday, June 17, 2013

8 Things that were very different in the year 1700

This blog describes the Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730). When enjoying a pirate story or movie, we know that the world was a different place so long ago. A very different world indeed. Most of the things we take for granted didn’t exist yet. Many modern discoveries had not yet been made. Here is a list of some of the differences between that world and this one.

1. There were only six planets

Neptune, Uranus and Pluto had not yet been discovered.

2. Kings and slaves were born to their positions by Divine Will.

The concept of the “self-made man” was considered crude and improper. Common belief held that Kings ruled countries because God wanted them to.  People of hereditary wealth or social position were believed to be better people, somehow, than poorer folks, because if they weren’t, why would God have chosen them to be rich?

This showed up in some odd ways. For instance, it was perfectly legal for an upper-class man to force a poorer woman to have sex with him. It could not be “rape” because the chance that he might impregnate her with an upper-class child was supposed to be an honor.

Similarly, slavery was considered to be okay. Nearly every European nation not only imported African slaves, but enslaved members of their own lower classes. Slavery was in the Bible, after all, so it must be okay. The first wide-spread protests against slavery didn’t begin until the middle of the 18th century.

3. Germ theory had not yet been proposed.

No one knew what germs or viruses were. No one, not even doctors, understood the importance of keeping wounds clean. Diseases were believed to be caused by “bad air,” or because of an imbalance in body fluids.

Also because of this, people drank whatever water was available, and made no effort to filter it, boil it or treat it in any way to reduce germs.  Naturally, water was considered to be dangerous. People seldom washed, because keeping your own dirt around you was safer than taking it off and then acquiring new dirt, which might cause sickness.

Because people did not know about germs or how to kill them, it was much harder to preserve food. Canned food – either in jars or actual cans, did not exist. Chemical preservatives did not exist. Milk wasn’t pasteurized, and was usually sold directly from the cow. Someone would lead a cow up to the house and milk it in front of you. People bought meat from a butcher within hours of the time it was killed. In the winter and early spring fruits and vegetables were nearly impossible to get.

4. There were no brands, no logos, and no fashion designers

People grew their own food, or bought locally. If you bought flour, you bought it from the local mill, and there was no packaging or brand name involved. A maker of guns, carriages, or furniture might be locally famous, but since products were made individually by craftsmen the names of manufacturers were not selling points the way they are today.

Ready-made clothing was rare. People bought cloth and hired someone to sew it, or did  the work themselves. There were no commercially made patterns. The concept of “designer” clothing did not exist. A well-dressed person took credit for having the good taste to choose quality materials, matching ribbons or trims, and put together their own “look.”

This extended even to the realm of animals. “Breeds” of dogs were virtually unheard of. There were types of dog – spaniels, shepherds, hounds, terriers. You might buy a dog because the mother was good at catching rats, but not because she had a pedigree.

5. Social protection laws did not exist.

Drinking was legal at any age. Any child old enough to make a purchase could buy liquor. There were no illegal drugs (although most modern recreational drugs hadn’t been invented yet.) Prostitution was legal in most places.

There were no laws protecting women, children or animals. “Disciplining” a wife or child with beatings was considered part of a family man’s duty. Children could be chained or starved by their parents, and had no legal protection.

There were no laws protecting animals from abuse. The bodies of horses killed by their owners were left in the street. Cock fighting, dog fighting and bull baiting (a “sport” where a chained bear was killed by trained dogs) were legal and popular.

Divorce was nearly impossible, but there existed a law by which a man might “sell” his wife to another man. Women were property, with few if any legal rights. Women could not own property, vote, hold office, go to college or enter into contracts.

6. The death penalty was used for some pretty odd stuff.

Prostitution was legal, but being homosexual was punishable by death. Counterfeiting was punishable by death. (A male counterfeiter was hanged, a female was burned at the stake.) Stealing an object worth more than 40 shillings from a house, or five shilling from a shop was punishable by death. Cutting down a tree was punishable by death. If a child between the ages of 7 and 14 had “a bad character” and this was testified to by both his parents, he could be hanged.

“Mayhem” was punishable by death in some of the American colonies. Theft was considered more serious if the criminal wore a mask to conceal his identity. Just wearing a mask, with intent to commit a crime, was punishable with death in some places, even if no crime was actually committed.

7. Geology was not a science.

Rocks were believed to be eternal and unchanging. No one had yet discovered that land masses moved.

8. No one knew that sugar caused tooth decay.

Cavities were rare among working-class people, because sugar was expensive and rare. Upper class people, who could afford sweets, had terrible teeth. Dentistry was pretty much limited to pulling teeth that were too terribly rotten, and occasionally making dentures. For the very rich, lead fillings were available. (Yes, lead.  The stuff that gives you lead poisoning.)

The divergence between rich and poor was so pronounced that modern archaeologists estimate the social class of 18th century cadavers by examining the teeth. (In Pirates of the Caribbean Elizabeth Swan should have teeth that looked like Jack Sparrow’s, and Jack should have had perfect teeth. )

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Short Biography of Captain Jas. Hook

Perhaps the most famous pirate ever, James Hook (not his real name) is the villain of the Peter Pan story, created by J. M. Barrie, originally as a play and later for the novel Peter and Wendy. Mr. Barrie’s original villain for the famous play was Peter Pan himself, showing the pirates only in an image on a painted curtain as the children fly back to London. 

Barrie, however, soon rewrote the play to give the pirates a much more prominent part, for the simple reason that children love pirates.

Barrie states in Peter and Wendy  that the circumstances of Hook’s birth are so scandalous that "knowledge of them would set the country ablaze.”  A later, unauthorized book, “Capt. Hook: Adventures of a Notorious Youth” lists his parents as “a certain Lord B__” and Queen Victoria. In this book, Hook has a romantic and sports rivalry with Alfred Darling (Wendy’s father) before he burns his school records and runs away to sea.

All sources agree that Hook, whatever his origins, was educated at Eton. Barrie went so far as to give a speech at the school, “Captain Hook at Eton,” and in the play, Hook’s last words are the Eton motto, Floreat Etona.

Barry quickly became enamored with his second-most famous character. He variously described Hook as “the handsomest man I ever saw,”  with an “Elegance of diction… even when swearing.” Hook is blue-eyed, dark haired, cadaverous, yet elegant in dress, choosing to emulate the style of English king Charles II. He has personally invented a device that enables him to smoke two cigars at once, for twice the panache. 

His elaborate, curly dark hair is usually a wig, and almost always accompanied by bushy black eyebrows and a luxurious mustache. Barrie was quite clear that Hook was brutal in the extreme, but also stated that his brutality only made him a better pirate captain.

Intelligent, brave and daring, Hook has only two fears.  The best known is his terror of the ticking crocodile which ate his hand and now follows him, hoping for the rest. But he also fears the sight of his own blood. Barrie said that a rare disease had rendered Hook’s blood yellow in color – a shameful thing for a pirate.  

Another factor of Hook’s character lies in the fact that he is most often portrayed by the same actor who plays the father of the Darling children. Barrie had originally wanted the part played by the actress who portrayed Mrs. Darling, as she is the parent closest to the children’s fantasy life. But the actor, Gerald du Maurier, campaigned for the part and got it, and the portrayal of both parts by the same actor has since become traditional.  In the Disney cartoon version, though the characters look very different, both are voiced by Hans Conried.

Hook’s famous rivalry with Peter Pan began when Peter cut off Hook’s hand and fed it to a salt-water crocodile. Whether this was unintentional or on purpose changes depending on who’s telling the story. Another detail is also in flux – which hand did Peter cut off?  Barrie said it was the right one, and Disney’s cartoon backs him up. But Dustin Hoffman, the most famous live-action Hook, used his left hand for the hook, and most film versions have done the same. 

It’s very clear that Hook dies at the end of Barrie’s play. Other playwrights attempted sequels with other villains, but the public made their wishes clear: only Hook would do as a nemesis for Peter Pan. In “Peter Pan in Scarlet,” the only authorized sequel, Hook reappears as Ravello, a circus performer who becomes Peter’s valet and lures the boy into becoming a replacement pirate. The work clearly states that Ravello is what’s left of Hook after passing through the crocodile.

Most other sequels dodge this point. Hook, like Pan, is immortal, timeless, and will return, no matter what.

And Mr. Smee, Hook’s famous sidekick? Bartholomew Quigley Smeethington originally met Hook on the ship, Sea Witch, and followed him onto the Jolly Roger, Hook’s magical brig that has the power to carry her pirate crew between Neverland, Earth and other magical realms. 

Smee has been described by various authors as “Irish,” the ship’s bosun, the ship’s first mate, Hook’s valet, Hook’s left-hand man, and the Jolly Roger’s cook. Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins put their minds together on the set of the movie Hook, trying to figure out what, exactly, the relationship between Hook and Smee might be, and decided that, more than anything the pair reminded them of an old gay couple.

Hook has become such a famous pirate that he may have transcended his famous rival.  He has appeared in countless stage productions, animated series guest appearances and video game plots.  He can be met in the Disney parks. He’s in a Japanese TV series, Italian comic books, and the book Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom. He currently appears on the TV series Once Upon a Time, sailing the Jolly Roger between worlds and betraying alliances left and right. 

You see, Hook has recently achieved a remarkable feat for a fictional character. He’s outlived his copyright. Now in the public domain, available to all writers, he may just show up anywhere. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Pirates in Art

My education is in art history, and I love looking at how artist portray their subjects. Especially when they are not recording something that they have actually seen, but are imagining scenes from the past, or imagining something that may never have happened at all. Often it tells us more about the artist than the subject.

Pirates have been popular in art since the end of the 17th century, and because this coincides with the popularity of printing, we still have many of these images available to us. We will look first at some illustrations from The General History of Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson.

This book was first published in 1724, when some of the most famous pirates were still alive. In this illustration, however, we see Captain Bartholomew Roberts who had been executed for piracy in 1722. The illustrator probably did his work from descriptions, as Roberts was primarily active in the East Indies. Notice the general style of the piece – Captain Roberts wears  wig, fashionable hose with stockings and garters, and a neatly fastened coat, typical of his day. (We can count on the accuracy of pirate fashion here – the author and illustrator probably wore clothes just like these.)

Roberts’ might be a successful merchant captain, except for the cartridge case hanging in front of him, or the sword in his hand.  Behind him is pictured his ship, the Royal Fortune, depicted in both side and front views, as was typical of ship portraiture. (People who knew about these things gained a lot of information from these two views of the famous ship.) Behind Roberts and his ship are several other, smaller ships. Roberts, at his height of power commanded a small fleet, and the illustrator does him proper tribute.

We can contrast this with a picture of Calico Jack Rackham
from the same period. Rackham was active in
the Caribbean, and the illustrator had access to descriptions by people who had seen him, and might even have himself attended Rackham’s hanging. This is a portrait of a small-time pirate, not prettied up for consumption. Rackham’s nose is his most distinguishing feature, and he wears no wig or other emblems of respectability.

Also in the book are illustrations of Calico Jack’s famous crew members, Anne Bonney and Mary Read. Here the illustrator is faced with a problem. These were women who dressed as men. Mary, in fact, had lived most of her life disguised as a man, and was never caught until she chose to reveal her identity. How to reveal the gender of these pirates, while accurately showing their clothing?

In this case, both women are shown in male dress, but with female headgear. A decent woman in the 1720’s would never have gone outside without something covering her head, and these tiny lace “fichu” were in style at the time. I think this looks rather ridiculous, as I am quite certain that neither Ann nor Mary Read, who served in both the Royal Navy and the British Army before becoming a pirate, ever wore such a  thing in her life. But the illustrator was bound by the morals of his time, and also by what his audience would expect.

A few years later, in a Dutch edition of the book, this problem was solved in an entirely different manner. Here, a new artist takes literally an eyewitness account which says, “I only knew they were women by the bigness of their breasts.” He rips the ladies’ shirts open, gives them much more believable headgear, and places them both in exciting action- packed poses. Though sales of the English book, with the original, much more modest illustrations, were by this time foundering, the Dutch edition, with the new illustrations prominently displayed, was an instant best-seller.  Anne Bonny proved that Sex Sells.

Roughly 100 years later, the Victorians also pictured pirates. This woodcut by August Francois Biard dated 1861, shows a group of pirates attempting to lure an American ship within range before attacking. Dressed in workman's’ clothes, and national costumes from several nations, the pirates crouch and lie on the deck, straining to see and frantically shushing each other. The scene features a fiddler standing on tiptoe and, to the right an embracing “couple” with its female half played by a pirate with rather extravagant whiskers.  The piece is both tense and funny, an excellent work of pirate art.

The next work, a colored engraving, is perhaps my favorite piece of pirate art, due to the fact that everything in it is wrong. The sleeves on the carousing captain’s coat indicate that the artist is trying to portray an 18th century buccaneer, but his carefully trimmed facial hair is purely Victorian theater. Behind him his crew “carouses” by raising matched glassware in a hearty toast. There are (shock!) females with them, drinking strong spirits (the raised liquor glasses). So as not to shock the delicate eyes of his audience, the illustrator shows the women, not only in neat, tidy Victorian hairstyles, but perfectly corseted in the Victorian style as well!

But my favorite part of this picture is the wench between the captain’s knees. Not only is her position scandalous, but her hair (which to us seems carefully styled) is in the Victorian equivalent of complete disarray. She, also, is drinking strong liquor with her man, and her wanton nature is revealed, not only by the fact that her ankles (!) are sticking out, but by the blush on her cheeks! Real ladies didn’t have “passions” displayed in this way. Real ladies were fashionably pale. I’m sure the audience that this picture was intended for believed they were seeing the depths of depravity here, but the modern viewer giggles.

But it is Howard Pyle, originator of the so-called Brandywine School of illustration, who gave us our modern vision of pirates. Part of a larger movement of meticulous research for artwork, Pyle’s costumes, when he wants to outfit a pirate in coat and hat, are perfectly accurate.  But Pyle also realized many of the facts of pirate life – that pirating was a working-class job, that men who lived at sea and sailed for a living didn’t always have time to button their coats or keep their hems tidy. His pirates often wear torn, dirty clothing, and bits of foreign garb. (A contemporary of Henry Avery, describing Avery’s crew coming ashore said they were “dressed so strangely we did not know what to think of them.”)

 Furthermore, Pyle’s pirates are alive. They lean forward in anticipation as treasure is counted. They strain in effort as they fight. My favorite Pyle painting shows a band of men in a sailing canoe (a first ship for several historical pirates) coming up to attack a Spanish treasure galleon. We feel the tension by seeing the size difference – the canoe versus the towering, four-story galleon, which is bathed in a golden light to show what riches lie within.  These truly are desperate men, to try such a thing.
The images of pirates are always updated to speak to a current viewer. Today’s pirate picture is often a woman warrior. Scantily clad images range from not-safe-for-work male fantasies of female aggression and availability to female ideals of strong women who are not to be trifled with. The pirate, always a symbol of the forbidden, permits the female consumer of pirate art to see herself as all the things women are only now escaping from – the agreeable, neat, clean, nice, pretty (as opposed to beautiful) helper, the tireless uncomplaining worker, the one who’s never in charge, because that would be “bossy.”

Instead we have images of Women as Pirate Captain, as Pirate Queen. Grace O’Malley, the real-life Irish

leader has been revived, and Anne Bonny is as famous as ever. Once again, this time for slightly different reasons, pirate sex sells.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Free E-book

For a limited time, I am offering the first story in my Pirate Empire fiction series FREE!

This blog started from my researches into pirate life for this very fiction series. The more I read about pirates, the more I wanted to share the many fascinating facts about these free-living men and women. This has already been an incredible journey for me, learning about writing, editing, publishing, (and, of course, pirates!) and making many new friends along the way. I've presented these works at arts events, over the internet, even on TV!

Now I want to share this with you. Here is your chance to read about Scarlet MacGrath, my very own fictional pirate, the one who started it all!

The year is 1717, and pirate Captain Scarlet MacGrath wants nothing more than a decent meal, a glass of rum and a good man waiting for her in the next port. But life rarely works out that neatly. When the rum runs out, Scarlet sets sail to look up an old friend. But friends turn into enemies pretty quick in this part of the world, and before long Scarlet, her crew, and the good ship Donnybrook are caught between the lawless Donnelly boys and the bloody-handed Red Ned Doyle himself. Can Scarlet use her charms to free herself and her crew, or will it be cutlass and cannon?