Monday, May 26, 2014

Taking Care of a Pirate Ship

We like to think of a pirate crew as being jolly fellows, out for a good time, drinking rum to excess and then sleeping it off with abandon. But the Golden Age of Piracy was an age of wooden ships, and wooden ships need taking care of, especially in a tropical climate.

If you ever read Captain Johnson’s The General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (published in 1724 and still available today) you will notice that, about every six weeks to three months, the pirates “stopped to clean.”

So what, exactly, were they cleaning?

It was the bottom of the ship, the proper name for the task was “careening,” and doing so took quite a lot of work. First, a safe harbor had to be found, far from the prying eyes of the authorities, because the pirates would be effectively helpless for the duration. Fortunately the Caribbean offers many uninhabited islands, and anyplace off the regular ship lanes would do. A spot with fresh water, fruit trees, and wild game was ideal.

Next the vessel had to be lightened. This was done by putting everything in it, piece by piece, into the longboat, and rowing it to shore. There it was unloaded, so the boat could go back for more. Soon the island’s shore would be stacked with crates and barrels. This was where it was handy to have water nearby, because the pirate ship’s water supply, usually several tons in weight, could simply be emptied into the ocean.

Then long, heavy ropes were run from the ship to the land, and the pirates went to work. Using nothing more than the strength of human bodies, they dragged their entire ship onto dry land.

Of course, this was very difficult, but they had a few tricks to aid them. For one thing, a beach with a long, gentle slope would have been selected. For another, the work would be done at high tide, with the ocean helping. Then, as the water retreated at low tide, more of the boat would be out of the water.

Why go to all this effort to clean the bottom of a ship, where no one would ever see? They weren’t just cleaning off dirt. The pirates were removing barnacles, seaweed and other marine growths. It was very important to keep the bottom of the boat as smooth as possible. An uncleaned hull could be dragging tons of shells, and hundreds of yards of trailing weed. Such things could cut a ship’s speed in half. Pirates depended on speed, both to catch their prey and to escape from Navy ships.

Merchants knew this too. But for them, taking the time to clean a ship meant time taken from running cargo. It cut into profits. Furthermore, merchant sailors counted on having time off when the ship was docked. Cleaning the bottom of a ship was hard, dirty, work, and they wanted extra pay for doing it. Pirates were cleaning for their own lives, and didn’t mind nearly so much.

Another thing that drove the pirates to clean so carefully was a creature called teredo navalis, or the common shipworm. It was not actually a worm at all, but a saltwater clam. But its home was on floating wood, and in the age of wooden ships it was a plague like no other.

Shipworms dug into the hulls of ships and turned them into honeycombs, so riddled with holes that they could be torn apart by a man’s hands. A ship riddled with these creatures was a floating coffin, constantly leaking, delicate enough to break apart at the slightest stress from wind or water.

Merchant sailors, and the navy, tried everything to keep shipworm at bay. In 1710, the best they could come up with was a coat of white lead paint next to the wood, and a coat of tar over the white paint. Pirates often couldn’t get these things, so they careened regularly.

Of course, being pirates, they did their best to keep the work as easy as possible. On at least one occasion, pirate captain Sam Bellamy took advantage of the crew of a merchant ship he had captured by forcing them to clean his pirate ship. The merchant sailors took two weeks to finish the job, which is probably why the practice didn’t spread.

But on many occasions, the pirates turned this chore into an excuse to party. The incentive to get the ship back in the water was high. But some crews made themselves feel more secure by building an on-shore barricade from sand or barrels, and arming it with the ship’s cannons (which, being heavy, had to come on shore anyway.) Some descriptions of this make it sound like boys building a fort, with much more elaborate fortifications than were actually called for. Given the cooperative nature of pirates, I can easily imagine some competition between groups to see who could make the coolest wall.

But a more universal practice was the after-careening party. With the ship back in the water, work turned to gathering fresh provisions… shooting birds, hunting for wild pigs or goats, picking fruit and peppers. In the meantime, the ship’s cook would be setting up for roasting, stewing, pickling, frying and baking. The liquor was already on shore. Sometimes the party lasted for days.

In fact, one pirate party, along a particularly popular stretch of beach in the Carolinas, is said to have gone on for months. As one pirate crew ran out of booze, or stamina, the next crew would show up, with barrels full. At some point, prostitutes began to arrive. It became the longest running celebration in history.

Except that, afterwards, the ships probably needed to be cleaned again.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Pirate's Favorite Songs

What music did pirates listen to?

Many people have written about sea shanties, and songs such as “What do You do With a Drunken Sailor?” are deeply embedded in our concept of all things having to do with ships and the sea.

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

Shanties were work songs, and their length and structure was adapted to specific types of work. Capstan shanties had a rhythm useful for keeping men in step as they turned the capstan. “Long haul shanties” had long lines and many verses, to keep the sailors in rhythm while they raised sails or pulled the ship in to shore, while “short haul” shanties were briefer, so the men working on a shorter task would not run out of work before the song was over.

Come all ye young fellows that follows the sea
To me, way hey, blow the man down
Now please pay attention and listen to me

But, one and all, shanties were work songs. And while they were enjoyable to listen to or to sing, once work was done, sailors wanted to listen to something different.

Much classical music comes down to us from this period, but working class people were not likely to have opportunity to hear much of it.  It required technical skill and a high-quality instrument – often an orchestra of them – to perform. In the days long before music was recorded, this kind of live performance was a luxury of the rich.

Instead, travelers such as sailors and pirates crowded into alehouses to drink and sing. Popular music of the time was not something you listened to. It was something you made yourself.

Alehouses hired fiddlers when they were able, and if they encouraged dancing, might have a small band, composed of whatever musicians they were able to hire. A group like this rarely had more than three players, usually a fiddler, with perhaps a drummer, and a trumpeter. But most often the fiddler played alone.

Alehouse patrons sang, with all the abandon of people who know for certain they won’t be recorded, and are too drunk to care, anyway. Even when an establishment was too poor to afford even a single fiddle, the patrons would sing.

What did they sing? Some were folk songs, like “Greensleeves” or “Barbara Allen” which may have been around for centuries. But others were brand new. Songwriters composed lyrics which were printed on “broad sheets,” large, single sheets of cheap paper that were sold by vendors in the street for a penny apiece.

Alehouse owners bought these sheets and pasted them onto their walls. It was a “draw” for potential patrons, who might want to learn some new music. The more literate would read and sing, and the less literate (or less sober) would come in for the chorus, or try to follow along, if they had heard the words some time before.

It seems amazing that any of these inexpensive, temporary, cheaply produced sheets would ever come down to us, but in fact, many have.  A few wealthy men took an interest in this art form, collected the sheets, and pasted them into scrap books, which have survived over 3 centuries.

So what were the songs about? Most were about love. Some were about heroes, and a few were even about pirates. Songwriters used the same tunes over and over. It was easier to just write new words, and the patrons liked something familiar. Examples of this phenomena include “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” which has the same tune as “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” and a French tavern-song called “Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre”, so popular that it inspired silk dresses, printed souvenirs, hairstyles, and even a type of soup.

Four of the English songs on one on-line list are about Robin Hood, which offers some perspective on Captain Sam Bellamy, whose pirate crew referred to themselves as “Robin Hood’s men.”  This wasn’t just a reference to an old story. These men were tying themselves to currently popular media.

A song which has stood the test of time was “SpanishLadies” whose catchy first stanza was made famous by the movie “Jaws.” Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) has done something typical of alehouse songs. He has changed the song to match his own circumstances, turning the home port of “England” to “Boston”, since he is an American.

Listening to these songs in a tavern, 300 years ago, would be nothing like reading about them online, or even tuning in to a YouTube video. For one thing, all the participants would be drunk or close to it. A few strong singers would try to lead, with other participants carrying on at full volume, despite not knowing all the words, or perhaps having an entirely different version of the song in mind. The chorus would be the loudest part. But the full experience included the winks and nudges of singers who noticed or imagined a dirty bit, background shouts of bartenders and servers, the flickering light of candles, the smell of smoke and bodies, and a great deal of conviviality, and what can only be termed fellowship.

Indeed, one scholar suggests that the closest modern equivalent is a group of alumni gathered after a football game, trying to sing the old school song. With beer, of course.

I could never have hoped to include enough songs to make any impression, but to those who want to learn more (and hear more of the music) enjoy the link

Monday, May 12, 2014

Pirate Fort, USA

On August 28, 1565, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain, newly designated as the Governor of Florida, first sighted the land that he had been assigned to explore and rule. Populated by the Timucuan Indians, whose village of Seloy stood nearby, the area was threatened by the encroaching French, whose fleet patrolled the coastal waters.

Don Pedro landed eleven days later with 600 men, and fortified his position with a crude wooden fort. He named his new settlement San Agustin after the saint upon whose day he had sighted the land. St Augustine is the oldest European settlement in the United States, founded forty-two years before the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts.

Don Pedro’s first order of business was to destroy the nearby French garrison, which he did using his excellent military skills, and to drive off the French ships, which he also accomplished (this time with the aid of a hurricane.) Now, from its strategic position in northeastern Florida, the Fort of St Augustine could protect the route of the Spanish Treasure Fleets taking gold and silver back to Spain, and also provide protection from the French and English, who, having gained a toe-hold in North America, were beginning to drift south, toward the richer pickings in the Spanish Empire.

Originally the settlement of St. Augustine had been intended as a landing point for more settlers, and a base to further explore and colonize the region. But relations with the natives were never good – natives attacked and burned the fort in 1566, and continued to mount irregular raids after it was moved and rebuilt. In addition, deserters from the French forces turned pirate and made efforts to rob the settlers. The French government also tried to re-take the region.

The English began raiding when Sir Francis Drake, the Elizabethan pirate and privateer, attacked in 1585.  He burned the fort again, driving the Spanish into the forest, but did not have enough men to hold the ground. When the English captured Jamaica in 1655, the island was used as a base for English buccaneers and privateers to attack the coast.

Then, in 1668 English privateer (and part time pirate) Robert Searle attacked St. Augustine. His aim was to loot the silver ingots held in the town’s royal coffers.  Under the cover of night, Searle and his men slipped into the harbor and attacked the sleeping town, killing 60 people and pillaging government buildings, churches and homes.  Because of the devastation wrought by these bloodthirsty pirates, Spain’s Council of the Indies finally issued money to build a massive stone fortress on Matanzas Bay to protect the city.

Spain was still thinking in terms of “castles” when they built stone forts. The so called “Castillo de San Marco” is made of a stone called coquina, (coe-keen-a.) Spanish for "small shells." The stone is composed of ancient shells that have bonded together to form a type of very soft stone similar to limestone.

Workers were brought in from Havana, Cuba, to construct the fort. The coquina was quarried from the King's Quarry, in what is today Anastasia State Park across Matanzas Bay from the Castle, and ferried across to the construction site. Construction began on October 2, 1672 and lasted twenty-three years, being completed in 1695.

One wonders what the workers thought of this native stone. Not much stronger than the shells it was composed of, the coquina stone seemed much too weak to withstand cannon fire. Yet the Castillo de San Marco is the only fort in the United States that has never been captured! How could this be? When bombarded by cannon fire, the soft stone walls absorbed the cannon balls, as if made of soft mud. Even today, the iron balls can be seen, embedded in the undamaged stone.

St. Augustine, with its strong fort, continued to grow, but remained a military outpost, rather than a plantation town. It was ceded to the English at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, and was re-ceded to Spain at the end of the American Revolutionary War. It finally became part of the United States in 1819.

Today, St. Augustine is primarily a tourist town, cashing in on its rich history. Home of the oldest house in America, birthplace of the first European child recorded in the New World, the earliest free African settlement, and with an undefeated fort, the city has much to offer. It is also a haven for pirate lovers.

Every year, the pirate attack of 1668 is re-enacted in early March by local historical groups. The next event takes place on March 7th, 2015, which gives you plenty of time to plan your trip! Searles Bucaneers

Monday, May 5, 2014

La Buse - The Pirate with the Buried Treasure

Some pirates became what they were out of rage, some from an altruistic desire to elevate the lower levels of society, some even because they wanted to run away from home. This is the story of a French pirate who did it for fun, and left behind a mystery (and perhaps even a treasure) that lasts to this day.

Olivier Levasseur was born in the town of Calais, in northern France, sometime between 1688 and 1690. His family was wealthy, and he received an excellent education, then chose a career in the French navy. During the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) he procured his own ship and a letter of marquee from King Louis XIV, and became a privateer.

Capturing enemy ships and keeping a percentage of the value of ship and cargo was the job of a privateer, and it was a fine way to gain treasure. Levasseur had no real need of the money, but he seems to have become addicted to the excitement of hunting and catching ships.  When the war ended, all French privateers were ordered to return home, but Levasseur ignored the order, stayed in the Caribbean and became a pirate.

He soon earned the nickname of “La Buse” (The Buzzard) because of the speed and ruthlessness with which he attacked his enemies. His other nickname, “La Bouche” (The Mouth) is somewhat less flattering.
By 1716 he was traveling with English pirate Benjamin Hornigold’s pirate company. It was at this time that people began to note the scar over his right eye, which limited his sight.

The Frenchman sailed with Hornigold for approximately a year, befriending pirates Sam Bellamy and Edward Thatch, later known as Blackbeard. The long association is remarkable, for Hornigold refused to attack English ships, even when they were easy targets. Levasseur, who had fought against the English during the war, had no such scruples.

Played by Basil Rathbone in "Captain Blood."

Eventually the Hornigold party split, and Levasseur decided to try his luck on the West African coast. He teamed up with two more Englishmen in 1719, Howell Davis and Thomas Cocklyn. In 1720, the three attacked the slaver port of Ouidah, on the coast of Benin. Together they reduced the local fortress to ruins.

Later that year, he was shipwrecked in the Mozambique Channel and stranded on the island of Anjouan.
Legend says that Levasseur was instrumental in the building of a pirate fortification near Madagascar. 
Whether he built it or not, from 1720 onwards he launched his raids from a base on the island of Sainte-Marie, just off the Madagascar coast. Once again he had teamed up with English pirates, this time John Taylor and Edward England. His bad eye had been getting worse, and by now he was completely blind on that side, and began wearing an eye patch.


Pirates had dreamed for years of duplicating Henry Avery’s feat of capturing one of the Great Mughal's heavily armed and heavily laden pilgrim ships to Mecca. But opportunities like this do not come often. Levasseur and his friends first plundered a ship called the Locatives, and sold the loot to Dutch traders for £75,000 (about $17,077,500 in today’s money.)

Despite their success, the pirates had a falling out. It’s been suggested that Levasseur and Taylor got tired of England's kindness toward their captives. In any event, they marooned him on the island of Mauritius.

Edward England

At this point, Levasseur had no need of money. He could easily have retired on his last, enormous prize. But money had never been the point to his career. It was excitement the Frenchman was after. He found it, and everlasting fame, in his next exploit.

He and John Taylor were off the coast of Reunion island when they spotted an enormous ship, the Portuguese great galleon Nossa Senhora do Cabo (Our Lady of the Cape) also known as the Virgem Do Cabo (The Virgin of the Cape).  The vessel was loaded with treasures belonging to the Bishop of Goa and the Viceroy of Portugal, who were both on board returning home to Lisbon.

It seemed at first that the fight of a lifetime was brewing… the Portuguese ship showed a total of 74 gun ports, and Levasseur had only 26 cannons aboard his ship, while Taylor had even fewer. But the pirates had stumbled upon their prey at the most opportune time imaginable. The Cabo had been damaged in a storm, and to keep her from capsizing the crew had dumped all of her 72 cannon overboard, then anchored to undergo repairs. The pirates made their capture without firing a single broadside.

The booty consisted of bars of gold and silver, dozens of boxes full of golden Guineas, diamonds, pearls, silk, art and religious objects from the Se Cathedral in Goa, including the Flaming Cross of Goa made of pure gold, inlaid with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. It was so heavy, that it required 3 men to carry it over to Levasseur's ship. The total treasure was estimated at over 2 billion dollars in today’s money.

When the loot was divided, each pirate received at least £50,000 in golden Guineas (approximately $12,000,000), and 42 diamonds each. Levasseur and Taylor split the remaining gold, silver, and other objects, with Levasseur taking the golden cross.

For several years Levasseur concentrated on spending his treasure. Then, in 1724, he sent a negotiator to the governor on the island of Bourbon to discuss the amnesty that had been offered to all pirates in the Indian Ocean. However, the French government wanted a large part of the stolen loot back, so Levasseur decided to avoid the amnesty and settled down in secret on the Seychelles archipelago, just north of Madagascar.

Local custom permitted a man to have as many wives as he could afford, and several pirates set up tiny kingdoms for themselves. But the area was without the trappings of “modern” life. Food, clothing, and entertainment were very crude, and for a man from a civilized background, life must have occasionally been tedious. Levasseur continued to sail looking for more adventures.

Eventually he was captured near Fort Dauphin, Madagascar. The French authorities then took him to Saint-Denis, RĂ©union and hanged him for piracy at 5 p.m. on 7 July 1730.

Legend says that when he stood on the scaffold he had a necklace around his neck, containing a cryptogram of 17 lines, and threw this in the crowd while exclaiming: "Find my treasure, the one who may understand it!" What became of this necklace is unknown to this day.

The cryptogram, however, is said to endure. The codes and symbols in it have been linked to the Masonic Lodge, the Zodiac, the Clavicles of Solomon, and the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Arcane rituals, it is said, must be carried out in exact order for the treasure to be found.

A man named John Cruize-Wilkins, son of the man who re-discovered the cypher, has devoted his life to finding the treasure, and spend hundreds of thousands of his own money on earth-moving equipment, diving equipment, and permits. He knew that Levasseur was a scholar, and his description of how he believed the treasure was hidden is said to sound like a Dan Brown thriller.

And why would a pirate go to all that trouble to hide a treasure that no one was trying to steal?

"It's amazing what these guys did... the passion," Cruise-Wilkins marvels. And after all, what else did a semi-retired pirate have to do?