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.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Pirate Food

We’re a jolly good ship and a jolly good crew,
But we don’t like the food, no I’m damned if we do.
(sea shanty)

It’s common knowledge that food at sea was terrible. The meat was rotten, the bread was full of bugs, and sailors often died from scurvy, a horrible disease which caused sores, rotting teeth and eventual death. But common knowledge isn’t always right. Members of a pirate crew often ate the best food they had ever experienced. The lure of fine food was a strong recruitment tool for pirates.

True, preserving food for long journeys was not an easy thing to do in the 18th century. Salt was the preservative of choice. But one need only look at the McDonald’s hamburger that’s remained unchanged for over a decade to see that salt can make an excellent preservative. 

Cooking facilities at sea were primitive at best. Often a ship had nothing more than a metal box full of sand, in which the cook could light a fire and heat preserved food. In rough weather, the fire needed to be put out, and men ate raw, salted beef.

A more sophisticated arrangement was to hang an iron stove from the beams above on chains. This allowed the cooking surface to remain level in rougher seas and provided greater protection from fire. But it also took up a lot of space, because the hot stove must not touch the walls, even when the boat was pitching wildly. Only large vessels could manage such luxuries.

The floor of the galley (ship’s kitchen) was often lined with sheets of tin, to prevent hot coals from setting the ship on fire. Also, the galley was usually located toward the rear of the ship, generally a more stable area. Still, the galley was not large, and equipment was usually only a few pots, wooden or iron ladles and spoons, and a few wooden trays. It’s no surprise that ship’s food was often simple and monotonous.

Beef was stored on ships in barrels. The type of bread used, a hard wheat biscuit of about the size and shape of a Pecan Sandy, was always made on shore. It was especially formulated and double-baked (like a biscotti) to keep it fresh as long as possible. Bags full of it were kept in storage. Sailors also ate reconstituted dried peas (think split-pea soup) which provided good nutrition and some vitamin C. 

But merchant ship owners were highly motivated to reduce costs. These men often did not sail their own ships, and so had no incentive to provide anything but the cheapest food. Captains often earned a commission based on how much profit the ship made, so feeding the crew cheap, poorly preserved food increased a captain’s pay. It was a simple matter to keep one supply of food for the crew and a different one for the officers. Often the captain kept live chickens for fresh eggs, live goats or a cow for milk or meat, live pigs for ham. The sailors never enjoyed such luxury.

Merchant sailors had no unions, and no regulations existed for safe working conditions or decent food, so anything might end up on a sailor’s plate. Jokes about horse meat were common. The early days of The Golden Age of Piracy coincided with the rise of Capitalism, and pirates were often directly protesting the emphasis on ‘profit above all’ that led to sailor deaths.

Item 1 “Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.”

This is a direct quote from Bartholomew Robert’s pirate articles (regulations) a set of rules signed by every man who became a pirate. Often the “pirate articles” were the only law pirates recognized. And first on the list was that everybody ate the same food and drank the same liquor. And everyone could eat (and drink) as much as he liked.

Sailors often came from the lowest ranks of society, often the children of farmers who had been chased off their land by the greedy landlords, or members of London’s urban poor. For people like this “Enough to eat” was a concept they had never experienced.

Pirates bragged about the fine food they ate as part of their recruitment efforts. “All the fresh food you want, all the liquor you want,” was repeated over and over. For men starved for a healthy diet, this must have been high incentive indeed. Often whole crews deserted and joined the pirates.

On merchant ships, sailors often didn’t even get their meals on plates. A “mess” or mealtime group was simple given some bread and a bucket of boiled beef, which they were expected to share. On better boats, men were able to use plates. Plates made of use at sea were usually made of wood or pewter, and were often square.

When I visited the Bounty (May she rest in peace) I saw how tables folded out of the sides of the ship in the crew quarters. The sailors sat on whatever was available, and wrapped their forearms around their plates, to keep them from sliding away from the ship’s motion. Since only ships which provided better accommodations also provided plates, this may be the origin of the term “square meal.” Sailors were always identified by the way they clutched their plates, even on land. It was a habit that was hard to break, since if you lost your food, you didn’t get more.

Pirates stole food and liquor, not just treasure, so pirates re-supplied whenever they robbed a ship. If the captain was keeping fine whiskey and good cheese for himself, they took it. If there were animals, they took those and ate them (If a cow gives a gallon of milk a day, that’s  plenty for five officers, but it doesn’t go very far for 100 pirates. Better to put the animal into a stew, which everyone can share.)

When there were a variety of liquors, pirates called upon the cook to make “punch.” Any liquor available was emptied into a large bowl or barrel, and it was flavored with fruit juice and spice. Don’t think for a minute that this equates to today’s “spiked” punch. The pirates were aiming for the greatest “kick” possible, and the concoction was almost 100% hard liquor. Putting it all into one mixture was a simple way to make sure that everybody had equal access.

Pirates also stole cargos of spices, cinnamon, peppers, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and ginger, which were very expensive.. Even middle class people couldn’t always afford such luxuries. Many commentators mentioned that the pirates loved highly spiced food.

Salmagundi, an English dish made of the widest possible combination of cold, cooked seafood, meat, nuts, flowers, leaves and vegetables, flavored with oil, vinegar and spices was perfect for the pirate diet. This dish had no specific format, but incorporated any available ingredients. One recipe goes as follows:

"Cut cold roast chicken or other meats into slices. Mix with minced tarragon and an onion. Mix all together with capers, olives, samphire, broombuds, mushrooms, oysters, lemon, orange, raisins, almonds, blue figs, Virginia potatoes, peas and red and white currants. Garnish with sliced oranges and lemons. Cover with oil and vinegar, beaten together." (from The Good Huswives Treasure, Robert May, 1588–1660)

The origins of this dish is not clear, but the name may be derived from a French word meaning “odds and ends.” In the Caribbean, the name was further corrupted into “Solomon Grundy” and used to describe a hot stew with an equally wide variety of ingredients. Each pirate cook had his own recipe, and pirate crews occasionally held cook-offs to see whose stew was the best.

Pirates, unlike merchants and navy sailors, kept good relationships with native populations. The natives were happy to meet any Europeans who didn’t want to enslave them or convert them to Christianity. Pirates saw the natives as oppressed minorities, much like themselves. The two groups often met to trade guns, gunpowder and European manufactured goods for preserved or fresh meat and produce. Local suppliers meant better food.

What a pleasure this must have been for the pirate cooks! To go from a job where raw materials for your craft were terrible, and you usde them to make a product that everyone complained about, and move up to a craft with a wide variety of fresh ingredients where you could use your imagination and skills to made food that not only pleased the diners, but inspired them to brag about you!

Monday, November 4, 2013

A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates

and Also Their Policies, Discipline and Government, From Their First Rise and Settlement in the Island of Providence 

By Captain Charles Johnson

In 1724 the publisher Charles Rivington of London brought forth a book which would profoundly influence the popular notion of pirates. It is still in print almost 300 years later. Much about the book remains shrouded in mystery. Indeed, we are not even sure who wrote it.

And yet it remains THE book, the original volume that shaped the word’s notion of pirates. Dozens of versions are available today. You can have hardback, paperback, facsimile edition, or you can browse the Google edition or upload it to your Nook or Kindle. East Carolina University offers a page-through digital copy of a first edition.

The story of the book probably begins about ten years before it was actually written. In 1712, British author Charles Johnson had an play produced at Drury Lane titled The Successful Pyrate. It celebrated the story of an outlaw, Henry Avery, and people of the time were shocked. Though modern folk are very familiar with anti-heroes and the glamorization of criminals, in the eighteenth century the notion of making a pirate the central character of a play was outrageous.

Though the original play was not successful, the amount of talk and scandal surrounding it encouraged others to write and produce work celebrating the lives of pirates, highwaymen, and even notorious prostitutes.

The General History of Pyrates (as it is commonly known) seems clearly to be a response to this fad, and the pseudonym chosen by the author, Captain Charles Johnson, seems to link directly to the original failed play.

Captain Johnson was clearly not a real person. He existed only as the author of the book.  Scholars have wondered about the real identity of the author for many years. It became popular to assume that Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Caruso, had written the book. Indeed, many current editions carry his name. Defoe, like the author of The General History, was very familiar with ships and sailing, the time periods were correct, and it seemed logical to assign the work to a known author.

But other people were not so happy with this. Why, for instance, should Defoe choose a pseudonym for this book alone? Arne Bialuschewski of the University of Kiel in Germany has recently suggested Nathaniel Mist, a former sailor, journalist, and publisher of the Weekly Journal, as a more likely candidate. Charles Rivington (publisher of the History), had printed books for Mist, who lived near his office. Further, the General History was registered at Her Majesty's Stationery Office in Mist's name. As a former seaman who had sailed the West Indies, Mist, of all London's writer-publishers, was uniquely qualified to have penned the History.

I enjoyed reading the book, but it must be taken in context. The General History is a work of its time. It is chatty and wandering, occasionally speaking directly to the reader in a you're-not-going-to-believe-this tone. At one point it wanders away to suggest a get-rich-quick scheme for English captains who may want to smuggle slaves into Brazil.

Printed in two volumes, the book is divided into chapters giving autobiographies of various pirates, and has been credited with making characters such as Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham and Bartholomew Roberts into legends.

Love of the subject matter shines through on every line. The author may say, repeatedly, how reprehensible pirates were, recite the damage they did, and call for their eradication. But he also recited in loving detail all the gossip about pirates.

Among its tales of famous and successful pirates, the book contains the story of a pirate ship which ran aground near the coast of South America. While waiting for the rising tides of the season to lift them off, the pirates found themselves running short on provisions, and sent a party off in their only longboat to obtain supplies. Only after the boat had rowed away did the pirates realize that without it they had no way to get to shore and get water. The entire crew nearly died before their comrades returned. Tales like this don’t make it to modern story books.

Another section recounts a series of increasingly threatening letters between an English privateer and a Spanish town. The English demand surrender and threaten to attack and burn the city. The Spanish brag that they can hold out forever, and threaten to torture every attacker that they capture. What makes the exchange hilarious to the modern eye is that the English captain signs each of his letters “Your humble and obedient servant” and the Spaniard signs his “I kiss your hand.” Plainly, these were typical closures of the time, as innocuous to the writers as “Yours truly” is to us. 300 years later, the effect is quite different.

For many people the books were fact. After all, whoever “Johnson” was, he lived during the Golden Age of Piracy, and had access to real pirates, and the friends of real pirates, when he wrote his book. But many of the stories have been proven false. The reasons are probably as follows: Human memory only goes so far. To a pirate, a good story is far more important than the truth. And when you’re buying a man drinks so he’ll recite stories of his youth as a pirate, he’s likely to keep talking as long as the rum holds out.

For this reason, The General History tells of how Anne Bonny, sailing with her lover, Calico Jack Rackham, took interest in a handsome young man on a ship they had captured. According to The History, Anne was alone with the fellow when Jack stormed in, shouting in jealous rage. It was at that point that Mary Reed revealed her true gender, and agreed to join Jack and Anne.

Historical documents say that Anne and Mary became friends on the island of Nassau, long before Anne went to sea. But the former story is more compelling, so that’s the one that was written down.  Editions of The General History were usually heavily advertised as containing the stories of the two cross-dressing women. Dutch editions of the book went so far as to commission a racy new picture of the two women, their shirts open to reveal their breasts. It also moved this illustration right up front near the title page. With this change, Dutch editions flew off the shelves.

Though not completely accurate, The General History set the stage for pirate tales, and has been the inspiration for authors from JM Barrie and Robert Lewis Stevenson to the creators of Pirates of the Caribbean.  

Books have always been an important way for pirate lovers to celebrate their passion for the freedom of the open sea. If you enjoy this blog, and would like to support it while getting your own ‘pirate fix’, please click this link to enjoy the adventures of my own fictional pirate captain, Scarlet MacGrath, in The Pirate Empire series.