Monday, December 29, 2014

From Jean LaFoote to Captain Morgan - Pirates in Commercials

When people ask me, “Why pirates?” I almost always reply "Johnny Depp". He was, after all, the star who sent me into my grown-up pirate obsession. But he wasn’t my FIRST pirate. The first pirate I remember came on a TV commercial, many, many years before.

His name was Jean LaFoot, and he was the bad guy in the Cap’n Crunch TV commercials.
Originally voiced by Bill Scott, LaFoot, the barefoot pirate, was constantly trying to steal Cap’n Cruch’s cereal. When not doing that, he was attacking the good captain, or the kids who followed him, or trying to sink the good ship Guppy. When not in commercials, he co-starred in a series of mini comic books that came inside the cereal boxes. His popularity was large enough that, when a spin-off cereal was invented, he was made the mascot for it. See a commercial here.

Although I was very young at the time, something about the barefoot pirate stuck with me. I remember asking my mom if he was a real person. He wasn’t of course, but many years later, I found out that his name had been based on Jean Lefitte, an early 19th century French pirate who operated out of New Orleans, and is most famous for supporting the Americans during the War of 1812.

Of course, most pirates in commercials are more stereotypes and less history.  This very old ad for FedEx limits the pirate down to a parrot, a hook and an eyepatch. The message is simple… If this guy can run the FedEx software, you can too.

Other commercials evoke the yearning for freedom and the deep longing of the imagination that makes pirates so popular. This ad is for Clorox, a cleaning product that is most definitely not associated with pirates or the piratical lifestyle at all.

Pirates have the ability to be cute. Who makes a better spokesperson for eyedrops than an eyeball? And what gives an eyeball personality? Well, if it’s dressing up as a pirate (including the eyepatch) that’s pretty cute. And, more recently, the hook hand of a pirate has figured in another "eye ad". 

Sometimes the pirate theme gets out of hand. This Bud Light commercial is just confusing... If you drink our beer, your living room will be transformed into a pirate lair, and a pirate ship will appear in your backyard? One suspects that the audience is already supposed to be drunk to cheer for this ad. There is the disclaimer that the winner of this strange contest has a wife who agrees to the make-over of her house (including the cheerleaders on the boat?)  It's fun during the time the ad is running, but not much an incentive to drink this particular beer.


Another of the most distinctive pirate commercials in recent memory is the one for FreeCreditReport .com. It’s interesting that the Free Credit Report offer has itself been identified as a scam. The “free” report they were offering came only if the user signed up for a service that cost, and truly free credit scores are available by other means. But the series of ads produced, leading off with the pirate-themed commercial offered here, were distinctive and very fun to watch.

Of course, the theme restaurant alluded to here is Long John Silver’s. I wasn’t going to list any ads that were actually advertising pirates… No pirate movies or pirate toys, etc. But some people may not realize that the fast-food seafood franchise was names after Robert Lewis Stevenson’s famous pirate character. It was okay, because Stevenson had been dead for over 100 years, and any copyright had long since expired. Older commercials – this one dates from 1978, played a lot more heavily on the pirate theme than more modern ones. But the chain is still faithful to its pirate roots. It offers free food to anyone dressed like a pirate on September 19th (talk like a pirate day).

And last, of course, are the ads for Captain Morgan rum. The rum is named after a real 17th century buccaneer, who really wore a red coat, had facial hair much like the guy pictured on the bottle, and sailed a ship called the Satisfaction.

The earliest commercial I could find references pirate comradery. A group of barflies come to the aid of a friend who is busted by his girlfriend for not attending her cousin’s wedding. There’s not a lot of pirate reference until the end.

In later commercials the brand recognized the true value of its mascot and began to develop “The 
Captain” as a character. A string of ads chronicled a series of adventures in a world that does in fact look a lot like the Caribbean that the real Morgan moved around in. Strung together, they make a nice few minute’s entertainment.

What the rum company probably doesn’t want you to know is that, after a lifetime of adventure, the historic Morgan died from liver failure due to his heavy drinking. But, hey, while pirates are great at advertising food, drink, adventure, staying up late and general fun, I doubt we’ll ever see a pirate advertising an old-age home.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Pirate Santa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’ll leave you all a little early tonight, as I go off to wrap my own loot. Yo Ho Ho Ho and a Merry Christmas to all!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Roaring Dan of the Wanderer

Roaring Dan’s Rum was named after the captain of the Wanderer, a rough, tough sailor, who made his fame by wrecking ships and stealing their cargo. He once sank the ship of a competitor with all hands aboard. Roaring Dan Seavey liked to sneak into ports and rob vessels that were tied up for the night. He also transported women for nefarious purposes, and was an important player in the venison poaching trade.


Yup. Because Roaring Dan was born in 1865, and did most of his pirating in the 20th century. In the Midwest. The Great Lakes to be specific.

Like a lot of pirates, Dan went to sea young, joining the navy at age 13. He married and had 2 children, and settled in Wisconsin, where he fished, farmed and owned a saloon. But like a lot of men who had been pirates before him, he wanted more.

Dan left his family in 1900 to head up to the Klondike in Alaska, joining thousands of others in a gold rush. But like a lot of others, he lost everything instead. Finally he fled south to Minnesota and acquired (we don’t know how) an old schooner, which he named the Wanderer.

One of Dan’s signature moves was to alter lights that marked the shipping lanes.  The practice was called “moon cussing” by the locals. Once a misguided ship had run aground, Dan would sail in and loot the wreck.

He also made so much money poaching venison on private land that the Booth Fisheries tried to beat him at his own game. Dan hunted down one of their ships, attacked it with a cannon, and sank it.

But his most famous exploit was capturing the Nellie Johnson. The adventure did not involve cannon, but rum. Dan showed up at the Grand Haven, Michigan dock where the schooner lay at anchor with friendly look and a great deal of liquor. He shared this with the Nellie Johnson’s crew. Once they were all drunk, he threw them overboard and sailed for Chicago, where he sold the cargo.

Pursued by the authorities, Dan was eventually arrested for piracy and dragged back to Chicago in chains. Conveniently, the owner of the Nellie Johnson never appeared to testify. Dan got away with it, and claimed for the rest of his life that he’d won the ship in a card game.

Like a lot of pirates, he eventually retired and became a law enforcer. Since the days of the privateers were long over, this took the form of a job with the US Marshall’s Service, where he worked to curb poaching, smuggling, and piracy on the great lakes.

Though the Wanderer was destroyed by fire in 1918, Dan stayed on the water, now using the kind of motor launch favored by the very smugglers he was chasing. When Prohibition made the sale of alcohol illegal in the US, he may or may not have smuggled liquor in from Canada.

In the kinder, gentler 20th century, it was possible for a pirate to actually retire. Dan stopped his activities in the late 1920’s. He died in a Wisconsin nursing home in 1949, at the age of 84.

We don’t think of pirates in the peaceful Midwest, but piracy is a worldwide practice. In fact, the Great Lakes have seen as much piracy as any other body of water. Rum running, venison poaching, illegal clear-cutting of timer on private land, these were the work of Great Lakes pirates, and many of them were colorful characters like Roaring Dan’s Seavey.

So when the cold closes in and the snowflakes begin to fly, raise a glass of rum to the pirates of the Midwest and remember that piracy is never too far away. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pirate Card Games

Once in a while when I read pirate fiction, the pirates will be playing poker. This drives me absolutely mad, since the card game poker wasn’t invented until about 1850 (roughly 150 years after the Golden Age). It grew up along the Mississippi river boats, and then spread to the California gold fiends. It is a product of the American frontier.

In the early Caribbean, card games were certainly popular, but they were games that had originated in Europe.

The cards themselves were very much like the ones we use today. A deck held 52 cards, with the same four suits as our own, and the number 1-10 in each, plus the 3 face cards of Jack Queen and King in each suit.

What was not the same was the look of the cards. No one had yet thought of designing the cards so that they looked the same with either end up. The royal figures had heads and feet, and the “pip” cards likewise had only one “right” way up.  The backs of the cards were blank, and the edges were not rounded in the manner of modern cards. Also, they were printed on plain cardboard, without the waterproof coating we expect now. Cards were also much harder to come by. It’s easy to imagine them being dog-eared and dirty.

A lonely pirate might pass the time by playing Patience, which was the word used at the time for the game we call Solitaire. The version at the time was the one most likely to be found today on a computer, an arrangement of cards that starts out with seven piles of face-down cards, and ends with 4 piles, face up, each containing only one suit and arranged from ace to king.

The classic English game was Cribbage, in almost exactly the same form it is played today. It was descended from an even older game called “Noddy”. Cribbage boards, the scoring mechanism for the game, have been found in the wrecks of pirate ships. Today cribbage is the “official” game of the American submarine service. 

Seafaring novels set during the Napoleonic wars (1799-1815) often mention the game Whist, a game similar to modern-day Bridge. But this game is believed to have come into being at about 1728 – too late for our period.

France, a major player in the Caribbean, was also a major producer of playing cards. Produced a number of famous card games, including Piquet (pronounced P.K.).

Piquet was developed at about the year 1500, possibly from an even older Spanish game. It uses a deck of 32 cards, from 7-King in each of 4 suits, plus the Aces, which are high. It is a game for 2 players, each of whom receives 12 cards, and can discard and re-draw to improve their hand. The game then progresses something like Bridge, with combinations being made to score points by "taking tricks."

This is a scientific game. It’s possible to figure out exactly what cards your opponent holds by noting your own cards and your opponents’ discards. Possibly because this led to over-confidence, betting sometimes reached fantastical heights. French nobles sometimes wagered whole estates on a single game. Eventually the king of France banned Piquet, though play did not actually die out for another two centuries.

This may also have been one of the reasons that pirate ships banned card games except on shore.

The spiritual, if not quite factual, ancestor of all these games was the Spanish Ombre. A complicated game, it was, like the others, a trick-taking game similar to Bridge. Its name is derived from the official statement that one had won the game, similar to the exclamation “Check!” in chess. It was actually the Spanish word “hombre,” meaning “I’m the man!”

Of course, there were dozens of other card games. The number of ways that a single deck of cards can be dealt, stacked, combined, spread and recombined in almost limitless variations. Where today we have a variety of card types (Uno, Go Fish, Old Maid) , in the early 1700’s there was only one basically type of was only one type of deck. The variations were wide indeed.

While many card games required “tricks” to be acquired, the Irish game Maw (sometimes rhymed with cow) was a game of discarding. The first person to lay all his cards on the table was the winner. It was, ideally, a five person game.

Maw had one other interesting detail. It was against the rules to tell the rules to any other player. The official statement was, “I can only tell you the first rule, and that’s this one.” After that, players needed to figure it out for themselves. The appearance of certain cards reversed the order of play, caused play to skip a player, changed the cards that were “high” or made other changes. If a new player didn’t figure it out he payed a penalty.

So a tavern full of pirates playing cards would have been a vibrant and loud affair. The cards would slap, the cribbage board would clack, arguments would break out over the rules of the various games, and every once in while someone would clash his tankard to the table top and shout, “I’m the man!”


Monday, December 1, 2014

Hook Hands, Peg Legs and Eyepatches

It seems like whenever someone wants to create a pirate costume or drawing of a pirate, the first thing they do (well, maybe after the tricorn hat and the parrot) is to add a patch, a pegleg or a hook. How come? What’s the big deal with these and pirates?

To begin with, all of these things were real in the 18th century. People really did have pegs for legs and hooks for hands, and wear patches over their eyes.  And I’ve personally encountered people who think that this was some kind fashion statement, in the same way that people today wear tattoos, or decorative scarring, or practice extreme body modification.

They were not. In fact, these things were standard medicine at the time. They were, simply, the best way of helping disabled people to go on with life in a normal way.

Loss of limbs was much more common during the 18th century, especially among sailors. Not only were men wounded in battle, but the everyday activity of the ship was dangerous (something we have trouble relating to in a world were OSHA regulations protect us).  People tripped and fell down hatches, or missed their grip and plunged from the high masts. Things dropped from the masts and landed on those below.

In an age before the invention of antibiotics, any sort of wound could be dangerous. A broken bone – especially a compound fracture – often became infected.  In order to save the patient’s life, the affected part would be amputated.

Any limb severely damaged would probably face the same fate. Remember, anesthetics had also not been invented yet, so surgery took place with the patient screaming and trying to get away. Reconstructive surgery was hardly more than a dream. Since a crushed hand, foot or leg could not be reconstructed, and was at great risk of infection, it was safest to simply remove it.

For the rich, skilled physicians and talented craftsmen teamed up to create the most workable and aesthetically pleasing results possible. During the 1600's it had been discovered that the stump of a severed limb could be sculpted during the amputation process to make it better adapted to receive a prosthesis.

In the case of a leg, the stump needed to be formed as much as possible into a cone, When walking on the stump, the weight would be dispersed over the surface of the leg, rather than concentrated on the end of the stump, which would be very painful.

Of course, this assumed a competent medic. Pirates most often recruited from among common sailors. Officers and skilled workers were harder to persuade to abandon everything for the sake of freedom. In the absence of a surgeon, the ship's carpenter (good at using saws) the cook (skilled at butchering animals) or even barber (practiced with knives) would be pressed into service. If worse came to worse, any brave man with an axe could try. A person badly enough injured to need an amputation was in danger of death anyway.

These results often yielded very unsatisfactory results. The most famous legless pirate - Long John Silver - didn't have a wooden leg. He used a crutch instead. One assumes that putting weight on the remnants of a botched amputation were too painful to endure.

Must have been pretty bad. Crutches of the time were simple wooden "T"s without even a hand grip. Actors who have played Silver remark on how painful these crutches are to use.

And this leads us to why amputations and pirates go together - Writers.

Robert Louis Stevenson created Long John, and gave him the missing leg to make him distinctive. Similarly, J.M. Barrie gave his pirate a hook hand and the name Hook to make him a memorable, frightening character. And when Chris Columbus wrote a screenplay about a group of kids looking for pirate treasure, and needed a pirate that could be positively identified by his remains, he created One Eyed Willy.

It's been suggested that the eye patch thing actually had a reason. Famously, the Mythbusters postulated that wearing an eye patch enabled attacking pirates to keep one eye acclimated to the dark, so they could run belowdecks on a merchant ship without being blinded by the change of dark to light. This is persuasive, except that every effort was made to keep the lower decks on a ship as brightly lit as possible. After all, people had to work down there.

Historically, there are no really famous pirates missing either legs or hands. Pirates who lost limbs in the course of their work were paid a benefit out of the ship's operating fund so they could retire comfortably. One pirate did have a disabled eye. French pirate Olivier Levasseur (aka The Buzzard) had an eye that had been damaged by a sword stroke, and wore a black silk patch later in life.But he wasn't famous for the patch, and pictures don't show it, choosing instead to show the dramatic scar.

So hook hands, peg legs, and eye patches are associated with pirates simply because they could be. And because some very good writers chose to make these kinds of disabilities a distinctive mark of their greatest creations. It worked. We associate disabilities with pirates.

One other kind of prosthetic that was fairly common at the time was the prosthetic nose. People lost their noses - to frostbite, injury, and to disease. Syphilis, in its later stages, can cause skin lesions that ultimately cost the patient extremities like noses and ears.

My favorite is this ivory nose, although silver was also used by those who could afford it. Those who couldn't afford it wore a flap of leather to hide the disfigurement.

Anyone inspired to create a new pirate?