Monday, May 30, 2016

Burial at Sea

From the beginnings of our exploration of Earth’s oceans, sailors have perished on board ship. Since human culture demands ritual care for the diseased, it was necessary to find some way to dispose of the dead body, while maintaining both cleanliness and moral for these left behind. The answer was called burial at sea.

Burial at sea is, obviously, a misnomer. One cannot “bury” a corpse on the ocean floor. Instead, the body was simply placed into the ocean, with appropriate ceremony. The word “buried” was simply a term used to relate the necessary event with the much more traditional methods used to homer the dead.

For the purpose of this article, the primary sources are records kept by the English Royal Navy, and accounts of sailors testifying in court about the care given to deceased sailors by merchant captains.

The disposal of a dead body into water was very much at odds with the traditions of Christianity. For hundreds of years, it had been believed that, upon the arrival of the end of the world, Christians would arise from their graves, whole and incorrupt, to face judgement before God. This became a problem if there was no “body.” For this reason, Christianity taught that cremation, dismemberment, and burial in unhallowed ground must be avoided at all costs.  Such activities would literally prevent the dead from arising and reaching heaven.

For this reason, the Catholic nations, most notably France and Spain, did not practice burial at sea. Instead, whenever possible, navy ships of these nations temporarily buried deceased crew members in the ballast of the ship. The ballast, usually a massive amount of sand or rock, was located in the bottommost part of the ship. Its purpose was to counterbalance the huge weight of the tall masts, and allow the ship to remain upright.

Surely it was an unhealthy practice, possibly mitigated by the fact that the area was usually quite wet with sea water, which may have partially preserved the corpses. When the ship returned to port, bodies were shipped home for permanent burial.

England, which had recently broken from the Catholic Church (1534), was able to create new traditions more useful to a nation determined to make itself a major power by sea. To this end, the Anglican Church, the official church of England, began developing a service to bury the dead at sea, which was considered “just as good” as a land burial, at least for purposes of getting to heaven.

The same Office may be used; but instead of the Sentence of Committal, the Minister shall say,

UNTO Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the deep; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.

This image, that the dead bodies of those buried at sea were somehow “incorruptible” and would arise whole upon judgment day must have been a very great comfort to those who lost loved ones at sea, as well as to those who faced perils on the water. People of the Golden Age of Piracy too their religion very seriously indeed.

The ritual for burial of the dead called for the ship to come to a complete stop. All on board cleaned themselves and dressed in their best. The body was prepared by cleaning and dressing it, and by sewing it into a sturdy length of canvas, which acted as a coffin. Great care was taken to create a package that would not easily submit to the appetites of sea creatures. The body was weighted, usually with two cannon balls which were incorporate into the package at the corpse’s feet.  A minister, if available, the ship’s captain if not, read the ceremony. At the end, the body would be slid quietly into the water.

Of course, such ceremonies were not always possible. Storms might kill men and at the same time take their bodies. Men died in battle, and were sometimes simply thrown overboard in a effort to keep the ship’s deck clear for action. This is the image that we think of in the death of pirates.

What we may not remember, however, is that pirates were people, people with friendships and ties to loved ones on land. Therefore, pirates almost certainly followed the traditions of the navy in this: on the nearest peaceful day after a storm, or after battle, a ceremony would be held for those lost. In the absence of a body, an empty sailcloth container was used, still weighted with cannon balls.

Merchant ships, however, were often an exception to this. A merchant captain did not want to stop this ship, since doing so cost time and therefore money. Merchant captains also did not have the handy instructions for such ceremonies which were given to navy personnel.

So, sometimes, merchant sailors who died at sea were simply dumped overboard. This led to bad feeling among the sailors, who occasionally mention such incidents in court cases brought against merchant captains. Indeed, the promise of a "proper burial" was a recruiting incentive for pirates. 

Lacking the support of authority figures, sailors invented their own way of honoring the dead. After disposal of the body (by whatever means) a brief get together was held by the main mast, in which the deceased sailor’s co-workers auctioned off his possessions among themselves.

This may seem very hard-hearted, but it had a definite purpose. The private belongings of a common sailor were worth practically nothing. If the deceased had family, it was not cost effective to send these things home. And if the sailor had been sending money home to a wife, children or aged parents, the loss of that income would be cruel blow.

Therefore, the auction was held. Sailors honored their comrade by bidding much more than the value of the few simple items (sometimes only a knife, a spare shirt, and few trinkets) their friend had left behind.  The sailors’ goal was to provide for the family. By claiming that the money sent home was the result of an “auction” they save the family the shame of accepting charity, while gaining keepsakes for themselves.

More well-off sailors, including pirates, were famous for wearing a single gold earring. The earring was supposed to be taken and used for burial services, should its owner die far from home and alone.

And why would this be honored? Why not steal the earring and let the body decay? Because any other sailor knew that he himself might be in the same circumstance someday. It was, as we say today “paying it forward.”     

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Port Washington Pirate Festival

June 3-5 in Port Washington Wisconsin 

It’s hard being a 21st century, modern day pirate. Any way you look at it, the ocean is roughly 1,500 miles away. And, if you’re as close to Chicago as I am, the weather is hardly tropical. But these terrible problems have been mitigated by wonderful reinstatement.

The Port Washington Pirate Festival is back!

Port Washington was my first pirate festival, and it became a yearly ritual. Situated beside the wide waters of Lake Michigan, in the picturesque resort town of Port Washington, the festival was lively, colorful, and full of interesting people. It introduced me to pirate rock and pirate folk music. It provided my first cruise on a tall ship. And, while dressing for one of the events, I had the revelation that ultimately revealed the character of Scarlet MacGrath, the pirate heroine of my novel series.

The pirate festival was free. On our first visit, we visited on the cheap, by staying at a local campground. In future years, we opted for each of a variety of low-cost local motels – several of which are nearby. Port Washington also offers a high-rise Holiday Inn, situated right next to the action.

Port Washington is a small town, and the festival takes place on a lovely strip of land between picturesque buildings and the wide expanse of the historic port. Local fishing boats, decorated with pirate accoutrements, bob in the waves.  A gazebo sheltered singers and musicians.

The fest’s organizers also invited historical reenactors to set up an encampment, where visitors could learn about real 18th century life, from blacksmithing to waving to recreational ax-throwing. The reenactors also provided a small troop of redcoats for the pirates to harass.

The festival, in true pirate fashion, provided a Buccaneers Bash on Friday night, with a tent full of music and loud music. On Saturday, the tall ship (Windy II during my first time at the fest) sailed into the harbor with black powder cannons blazing. The “governor” made a speech, the pirates kidnapped his daughter, and subsequently “negotiated” for a weekend long free pardon for all the pirates. Much cheering. Toasts of rum.

The body of the fest was pirate acts – mostly musical – and a “thieves’ marketplace” for vendors. I will say that the variety of vendors covered a lot of ground. Exotic carved wooden folk art from Thailand, pirate garb vendors, arms merchants (of the 18th century variety) mingled with jewelry, kid’s trinkets, and a variety of other crafty type wares.

Vendors claim to have all done well. The only exception? A soap merchant. Soap and pirates… maybe this one was doomed from the start.

The good ship Windy II offered cruises starting at about $30. For additional fees, guests could be aboard during the Saturday morning “attack” on the port, or during dinnertime (with a meal) and late Saturday night, when the fireworks were let off. Fireworks over a pirate event. Truly grand.

In between the educational events, (is sampling historically accurate grog research?) and listening to electric guitars belt out sea shanties, the people-watching was prime. Small children dressed in finery from the Disney Store, reenactors who had slaved over their wool and linen garb for dozens – if not hundreds – of hours, moms who grabbed a pattern from Simplicity and a dozen yards of stripped fabric, and biker-types who dress like this every day and are just a little scary-looking. But it was a friendly group - everyone happy. And why not? We were pirates!

I spent many happy hours wandering through this wonderful event. I even like to think I contributed to it – when the committee asked for suggestions, I told them that they needed belly dancers. Belly dancers and pirates are two great things that go great together. (Even better than peanut butter and chocolate.) The very next year, a troop of belly dancers appeared.

Image result for port washington pirate festival

And then… it disappeared. A notice went up, and the Port Washington Pirate Festival was no more. For three long years, the pirates in the Midwest had to do without.

 But this year the festival is back!  Under new management, with limited resources it’s true, but back. The belly dancers. The tall ship (not the Windy II, but a historic vessel, the Denis Sullivan  will be offering cruises – for a fee, I’m sure. The belly dancers are back. And I’ll be doing my part, spinning pirate tales, exploring the secrets inside a pirate chest, and autographing copies of my books.

So, if you are in the Midwest on the first weekend in June – that’s June 3,4 and 5 this year, come one up to Port Royal and have a good time.

 Yes, all these pictures are actually from the fest. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Story of Ben Gunn, Pirate

Treasure Island contains dozens of pirates – from Long John Silver, whom no one will ever forget, to George Merry, whom few remember. Stuck somewhere in the middle of the pack is Ben Gunn. A bad pirate but a good man, Ben is one of the characters that give Treasure Island its depth.

In the novel, Jim Hawkins stumbles across Ben after the pirates have mutinied and are searching the island for Flint’s treasure. Ben is a former pirate who was marooned on the island three years before. He had led a ship in search of the treasure. But without the map – formerly in the hands of Billy Bones and now possessed by Jim – the group was unable to locate the loot.

After 12 days of hunting, they sailed off, leaving Ben behind. Over the next three years, Ben kept himself alive by catching wild goats. He built himself a shelter and a small boat. Time on the island has caused him to reflect upon his life, so that he had decided to reform his morals. But he has never ceased searching for the Flint’s treasure.

As a literary device, Ben provides plot twists, surprises, and even some comic relief. If it wasn’t for him, the story of Treasure Island would have played out much differently.

The character, like Robinson Caruso, was most likely based on Alexander Selkirk, a sailor who chose to stay on a lonely tropical island rather than go on in a leaky ship under poor leadership. Three years after being left behind, Selkirk was rescued by the same captain he had abandoned three years before.

Like Selkirk, Ben lives on goats, clothes himself in goatskin, and longs for cheese. This latter is especially interesting in light of recent discoveries that cheese might be considered an addictive substance.

In the book, Ben Gunn is a nobody. He is a little off-balance from his long, solitary stay on the island. He tries to help Jim and the rest of Jim’s company, but even his efforts to frighten the pirates with spooky moaning noises fail. At first the pirates believe it is the Ghost of Flint, and are terrified. But when Long John Silver recognizes the voice of Ben, the other pirates lose their fear, even if Ben is a ghost. To quote the pirate George Merry, "Nobody minds Ben Gunn [...] dead or alive, nobody minds him"

But Ben Gunn is an integral part of the famous tale, and he appears in all of the Treasure Island movies.  Movies, however, provide a wider variety of expression, and Ben Gunn has been played by many different actors and in many different ways.

In some movies – in Disney’s famous version from 1950, Geoffrey Wilkinson  plays Ben is just about what we’d expect – comic relief. 

The Muppets, in 1996, went far astray. The rule in Muppet movies is that all the Muppets must be shown. So in a story with no women, Ben became Benjamina, and was played by Miss Piggy. This Ben has parlayed her way into leadership of the local savage tribe (which doesn’t appear in the book) and is bedecked in gold and jewels – obviously living the good life. We wouldn’t expect anything else from the world’s most famous pig.

The Disney’s 2002 steampunk version of the tale – Treasure Planet – also uses Ben for comic relief. But in this version Ben is a robot, B.E.N. a Bio-Electrical-Navigator. Ben is missing part of his computer circuit (a callback to the original character’s mental difficulties) and when the missing piece is restored, he is able to info-dump a lot of crucial information that saves our heroes, even as the pirates perish.

In the 2012 version of the movie, Elijah Wood (formerly Frodo Baggins) plays Ben as a man completely consumed by isolation-induced madness. He paints his face with white lime, wears feathers in his hair, and rambles in his speech. He has become a religious fanatic, obsessed by goats, which he thinks are symbols of the devil, and with Silver, who he also thinks of as Satan incarnate. Ben in this version has the guts to attack by night and murder members of Silver’s crew. But in the end, he chooses to stay on the island rather than go back to civilization.

What most versions agree on, however, is that Ben finds Flint’s treasure himself, even though he doesn’t have the map. (He’s had 3 years, and Flint left a lot of clues – it’s entirely plausible)

So what happens to Ben? In the book, he goes back to England with Jim and company. Given £1,000 worth of treasure (a tiny percentage – less than 1/100th) Ben blows it all in 19 days of high living. Though he is given a job-for-life by Squire Trelawny, a member of the expedition, he is teased about his poor money-management for the rest of his life.

In 1957, Ben Gunn got a “biography” when R.F. Delderfield published the novel, The Adventures of Ben Gunn. The book tells the story of Ben Gunn’s life, as told to Jim Hawkins (the narrator of Treasure Island). The book gets generally good reviews.

Jim and Squire Trelawny seem to find Ben’s difficulties in readjusting to the outside world funny, and Robert Lewis Stevenson expects the reader to, also. But I don’t know what anyone expected. Ben is a poorly-educated man. He’s fresh off a traumatic event, being marooned for three years. He’s never been taught what to do with large sums of money, and is rightly overwhelmed by traveling from a deserted island to one of the largest cities in the world.

It’s probably just what the rich often seem to expect. “I can handle a lot of money. Why can’t everyone?” In modern times, Ben could be expected to have some time under treatment by a counselor, and maybe an attorney to represent him in the splitting of the gold. In Stevenson’t book he gets the money, blows through it, and spends the rest of his life working as a servant for Trelawny. At least he isn’t left entirely out in the cold. 

And hopefully he gets plenty of cheese. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Muppet Treasure Island

It’s recently been pointed out to me – and I find this hard to believe – that I’ve never done a post about one of my favorite pirate movies, Muppet Treasure Island. Well, that lack of material ends now. This week, it’s the Muppets!

Muppet Treasure Island was released in 1996, the second movie after the tragic death of Muppet founder Jim Henson. It followed Muppet Christmas Carol, a movie which was successful, and it used some of the same storytelling techniques. Like the previous movie, it uses live humans as the main characters (in this case Kevin Bishop as Jim Hawkins, and Tim Curry as Long John Silver) and employed Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as narrators.

The original intent had been for Gonzo and Rizzo to BE Jim Hawkins (one playing a character named Jim, the other playing a character named Hawkins.) But the writers quickly realized that the heart of Treasure Island is Jim’s development. Since Muppets, almost by definition, do not develop their characters, the lead in Treasure Island must be human. And if Jim was human, Silver, to maintain the proper relationship, must be human too.

Muppet movies as usually short, and MTI clocks in at 99 minutes (1 hour and 39 minutes.) For this reason, the story has been substantially modified. It has also been modified in order to stick to the “rules” of the Muppet universe.

Muppets need a G rating, and the material needs to be innocent and kid-friendly. This means that the drunken antics of the pirates can’t be shown, and also that certain sections of the book, including Jim’s killing of Israel Hands needed to be cut out. Another “rule” of Muppet movies is that ALL the important Muppets must make an appearance in every movie. (This will be important.)

The movie starts a chorus of Muppet wildlife singing “Shiver My Timbers” as Captain Flint and his human crew take the treasure to be buried.  The song, the ferocious-looking Flint and the human pirates convey a sense of danger and dread, and the scene ends as Flint pulls his pistols and murders his crew members (off screen.)

Cut to the inside of an Inn, where it is revealed that this is a story being told by Billy Bones – played by Billy Connolly. We also meet Jim Hawkins, Gonzo and Rizzo, who are three friends who work at the Inn in exchange for a food and a place to sleep. Gonzo longs for adventure, Rizzo longs for food, and Jim longs to go to sea, following the footsteps of his deceased father.

This very night, Blind Pew and a host of former pirates - some human, some Muppet - show up, trying to steal Bones’ map. Bones dies of heart failure (played for laughs with several fake-out deaths) and various Muppet hijinks ensue. Jim and his friends end up on the road, alone, carrying the map.

By cutting out Jim’s mother and his ownership interest in the Inn, the story moves forward much faster, and several characters are eliminated, making for a more streamlines story.

Looking for a ship to take them to Treasure Island, Jim and company show up on the doorstep of Squire Trelawney, Fozzie Bear, who in this movie is the dimwitted son of a shipbuilder. To prove that Fozzie is playing a confused character (and it’s not just Fozzie’s own mental and emotional limitations) the character is given a sidekick, Mr. Bimbo, and invisible man who lives in Fozzie’s finger. Clearly, this character is just the sort of person who would loan a valuable ship to complete strangers on the strength of a treasure map.

This action speeds up the story once again, and eliminates some more of the pirate doings.

Along with the ship comes Long John Silver – Tim Curry, with a pet lobster on his shoulder instead of a parrot. The crew of the ship consists of various lesser-known Muppets, including Sam the Eagle and Sweetums.  Kermit plays Captain Smollett, and immediately wins our support by telling Jim, “I knew your father. He was a good man.”

But Jim’s job as cabin boy means that he assists Silver in the galley, and just like in other versions of the tale, the two form a father/son relationship. Unlike other versions, Rizzo books a number of middle-aged rat couples on a “Caribbean cruise” aboard the ship, and Gonzo finds out what the pirates are up to, and is tortured (which Gonzo, being Gonzo, finds both cool and enjoyable) Dr. Honeydew and Bunsen show up to un-do the results of the torture.

In order to provide a fun musical number, the ship is caught without wind, and the crew suffers from “cabin fever.”  This results in more chaos, Carmen Miranda costumes, square dancing, singing in German, Mariachi hats and an appearance by Lew Zealand and his boomerang fish.

Once they reach the island, Silver kidnaps Jim in order to obtain the compass left to the boy by his seafaring father. Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo and Rizzo go to the rescue and end up captured by savage pigs.

And here we have a problem. The real story of T.I. contains no women. How can the Muppets add Piggy to the mix? Answer: Make Piggy the leader of the local natives, and also give her the part of Ben Gunn (now Benjamina Gunn), maroonee. The Swedish Chef shows up at the feast, dressed like a pig.

Here we learn that Benjamina and Smollett were engaged to be married, and Smollett left Benjamina at the altar. (Frogs always get cold feet.) After a confrontation, Benjamina agrees to help her former lover.

Meanwhile, the pirates have a musical number (played by The Electric Mayhem) and find the original location of the buried treasure, only to discover it has been removed. The causes a brief mutiny against Silver, who puts his life on the line to allow Jim to escape. The pirates then capture Benjamina and Smollett, and find out where Benjamina has hidden the gold. Then the pirates and hang them over a cliff. As the rope slowly frays, the two make up and have an upside down duet and fall back in love.

They are rescued when Jim brings the ship under them, and the figureheads (played by Statler and Waldorf) catch them. A fight with the pirates follows. Jim and his Muppet friends prove very brave, and Silver and his men are captured.

True to T.I. tradition, Long John Silver escapes before he can be brought to justice, getting away with a lifeboat full of treasure. But the boat sinks, and Silver loses it all. The movie ends with the rats scuba diving to the tune of reggae music, trying to raise the treasure.

The movie charming because it simply uses the Muppets to add warmth and color to an already colorful tale, while remaining in the spirit of the original and letting all the Muppets pretty much be themselves.

One more interesting fact about the movie – because of it, Hormel (makers of Spam) sued Henson Productions, claiming that the wild pig character Spa’am had damaged their product name integrity. The judge threw it out, on the basis that 1. Hormel could not prove that any damage was done. 2. “Hormel should be pleased to have their product associated with a genuine source of pork.”

Whether it’s as a genuine source of pork or hamming it up, the Muppets add a lot of affection and humor to a sometimes frightening tale. It’s a wonderful way to introduce kids to a classic story, and an loving retelling that will warm the hearts of adults as well.  


Monday, May 2, 2016

Jim Hawkins

Much is written about Treasure Island – it’s the most iconic pirate story of all time. And much has been written about Long John Silver, the pirate star. But there’s a lot more to this story than just one guy, so I’d like to put in a word for Jim Hawkins, the young man who narrates the story.

Robert Lewis Stevenson, the author, knew his pirates, and the fact that this boy is named Hawkins is likely no accident. Admiral John Hawkins was an Elizabethan naval hero and sometime pirate (but only, you know, when no one was looking.)  So Jim Hawkins starts out with an illustrious name.

Bobby Driscoll 1950

And the boy is bright. While Billy Bones, the pirate with the map, is slowly drinking himself to death at the Benbow Inn, home of Jim’s family, Jim is wise enough to notice that the pirate’s bloodcurdling tales of high-seas robbery and murder don’t just horrify the local farmers and tradesmen – they thrill and entertain.

So when Bones dies, and Jim and his mother discover the map, Jim is already set up to imagine a little adventure for himself. As a person not yet legally an adult, Jim needs the help and support of an adult – and in the book this is Doctor Livesey – the local physician.

Drawn by N.C. Wyeth

In many ways, Treasure Island is Jim’s coming of age story. The novel is also a turning point in Jim’s life. Livesey is all that a man should be – wise, kind, purposeful and practical. He stands in contrast to Long John Silver, who is… well, he’s a pirate, need we say anything more? While movies of the tale often play up the father/son relationship between Jim and Long John, the book makes it clear that one of Jim’s desires is to make Doctor Livesey proud of him.

It should be noted, also, that in the book, Jim has a father who dies only a few months before the real action of the novel kicks in. The boy has not suffered from the lack of a male role model.

Image result for jim hawkins
From Treasure Planet

Movies usually show a different version of Jim’s home life. In most, his father is long dead, and his widowed mother stressed by running the Inn single-handedly. In Treasure Planet, Jim's father walked out on his family, leaving young Jim growing into a juvenile delinquent. In some (such as one of my favorites Muppet Treasure Island) Jim is an orphan, working at the aforementioned Inn for his room and board.

Muppet Treasure Island
 Jim’s age is never mentioned, and varies wildly in movies. Some version show him as young as seven, and in others he is a (more likely) fifteen or sixteen. It’s important to remember that one of Jim’s actions is the shooting (in self-defense) of a pirate bent on murdering him. Not an appropriate action for a seven-year old, and a serious business for a person of any age.

Stephenson, writing in the 1800’s, was trying to make a story of wild adventure where a boy could be the center of the action. He could not gloss over the realities that his characters lived in, however. Jim can’t hire the ship that takes him to Treasure Island, and he can’t sail it – he doesn’t know those skills. But he does learn.

Jackie Cooper 1934

Confined to the actual abilities of an actual boy, Jim discovers Siler’s plans to mutiny while inside an apple barrel, trying to reach the last of the fruit. On the island, his nature drives him to go places where adults might not go, which in turn leads him to the marooned Ben Gunn. Gunn becomes a powerful ally, which he would not have done if Jim had not met him.

Played by a Dog on Wishbone

In the book unlike the movie, Jim and Silver do not have a final farewell, and Silver gets away with a sizable sack of treasure at the first civilized poet on the way home. The adults are in town, “having rum punch” and probably looking up some of the local women – activities that Jim is still judged to immature to take part in.  

In the end, Jim and his companions take the place of Billy Bones – they have adventures to tell that excite the neighbors, and will probably keep Jim drinking for free in taverns for the rest of his life. For in the book Treasure Island, there is more gold left to be had on the mysterious isle.

Shirley Manson 1920

The Part of Jim Hawkins has been played by many famous actors. In 1920 the part was played by a woman, Shirley Manson. In 1934, Jackie Cooper took the part.

Probably the most famous Jim was Bobby Driscoll, in the 1950 Disney production. This is a very young Jim (Driscoll turned 12 during shooting), but Bobby had done other work for Disney. He would later be the voice and acting model for Peter Pan.

Christian Bale, (later Batman) took the part in 1989 at age 15 for a highly praised version of the story.

Christian Bale 1989

Think that Jim Hawkins emerges from the story as a cross between his two heroes. Like Silver, he has proved himself to be an unconventional thinker, a dreamer, and able to kill when necessary But like Livesey, he cares about the expectations of society – he won’s be running off any time soon for life as a criminal.

On the other hand, I can’t believe that Jim sits home in his parent’s Inn and his tiny corner of England for the rest of his life. I think he’s bound to have some more adventures of his own. And since no one had written them yet, it may be something I have to do someday.