Monday, August 21, 2017

Boston in 1700

During the Golden Age of Piracy, Boston was the largest English city in the New World. It was a center of religion, politics, commerce, end education in the New England region of what is now The United States. And for much of its history, it was a haven for pirates.

The area of Boston has probably been inhabited for as long as 7,000 years. Archeological evidence suggests that it was fishing that made the area attractive. Giant fishing weirs, a type of permeant fish-trap, were built into the water, and maintained for centuries.

The area was officially discovered by soldier, adventurer and part-time pirate John Smith, the same man who figures in the Pocahontas legend, in1614. In 1620, the Puritans, a group of Protestants who were persecuted in England for their harsh religious views, founded the Plymouth Colony just south of Massachusetts Bay. This legendary group gave us many of the stories and traditions visible in out Thanksgiving celebration.

Captain John Smith

 Just as legend holds, the early colony was not financially profitable. Because of this, colony shareholders who lived in England were willing to sell their shares at a discount to the shareholders who had actually chosen to emigrate. 

Many colonies were founded in the region between 1620 and 1639, some of which thrived, many of which failed, being abandoned, or merging with other colonies. In 1628, the Cambridge Agreement was signed in England among the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The agreement established the colony as a self-governing entity, answerable only to the king.

The official settlement of the city of Boston took place in 1630, by a group of settlers who had rejected nearby Salem (later home of the Witch Trials) for lack of food and Charlestown for lack of good water. From the beginning, religion played an important part of the town’s life. In order to vote or take a role in government, men had to pass an examination with religious leaders, and be accepted into the local church.

The official founding of the town was September 7, 1630 and it was named after town of Boston, in the English county of Lincolnshire, from which several prominent colonists emigrated. From the beginning, settlers believed that they had a special convent with God, and they celebrated this by persecuting unbelievers, and also by establishing schools. The Boston Latin School was founded in 1635, and Harvard University in 1636.

Image result for map of boston 1700s

Boston benefitted from its excellent port, which became a trading center for such things as the fur and timber trades from the north and cotton, sugar, logwood and molasses from the Caribbean. The first American distillery was set up on Staten Island, Boston, in 1664. For a time, rum was even an accepted form of currency.

Boston also became a center for the American slave trade. Early slaves were Native Americans captured in local wars (most notable the Pequot War (1636-1638.) These slaves, which posed a danger of re-capture by local natives, were traded for Africans. Trade in slaves reached as far as the pirate island of Madagascar. By 1708, the number of salves in Massachusetts was figured at 550. By 1715, it had risen to 2,000.

Overall population grew quickly. In 1640 the population was 1,200. By 1680 it had reached 4,500, and by 1720 reached 12,000. In contrast, New York City did not reach a population of 12,000 until 1740. 

Six smallpox outbreaks took place from 1636 to 1698. Then in 1721–22, the most severe epidemic occurred, killing 844 people. 5889 people out of a population of 10,500 caught the disease, 14% died, and at least 900 fled the city, thereby spreading the virus.

Colonists tried to prevent the spread of smallpox by isolation. For the first time in America inoculation (introduced by Zabdiel Boylston and Cotton Mather) was tried. This primitive form of vaccination caused a mild form of the disease, but was very controversial because of the threat that the procedure itself could be fatal.  2% of those who were treated died.

Boston was also home to the first English-language newspaper in the Americas. The Boston News-Letter was published by John Campbell, the city’s postmaster, who developed a network of correspondents along the New York, Philadelphia, and Portsmouth post rider routes, and was the first to receive mail and information from newly-arrived ship captains. Campbell devoted considerable coverage to the activities of the pirates, providing a wealth of information for later researchers.

Although no specific trade in pirated goods was recorded, it is safe to assume that a certain amount of illicit trading took place in this bustling port, with its connections to both Madagascar and the Caribbean. Pirates of the time often claimed that their undocumented goods were “salvage,” taken from distressed ships who needed to lighten their own load because they were in danger of sinking.

The only verified connection to Golden Age pirates was the incarceration of the survivors of Black Sam Bellamy’s famous pirate crew. After a disastrous storm that destroyed Bellamy’s pirate fleet, The surviving pirates that had been apprehended on Outer Cape Cod were brought to Boston overland under heavy guard.

Site of the trial of Bellamy's pirates

They were held in Boston Jail, located at what is now 26 Court Street, a stone’s throw from the Old State House. Eight of the  men were tried on the latter building’s second floor in October
1717, found guilty, and hung on the mudflats of the Charlestown ferry landing (now filled in) on November 25.

Cotton Mather, the Puritan divine best known for his role in the Salem Witch Trials (held in Salem Town, only 33 miles form Boston, in 1692 and 1693) took an interest in the pirates, visiting them in their cells and delivering long-winded sermons about their impending, eternal
damnation. He did not, however persuade any of Bellamy’s men to recant.

Cotton Mather

Boston went on to have a rabble-rousing role in the American Revolution. Boston was an acknowledged center of smuggling, and did not take kindly to British efforts to shut down this lucrative trade. It was home of both violent protests against the Stamp Act and the Boston Tea Party. British retaliation against this latter, the shutdown of Boston Harbor, was the incident that inspired the formation of the Continental Congress.  

Monday, August 14, 2017

Quotes About Pirates

Pirates aren’t just historic individuals. Pirates are an idea that has moved the minds of lovers, poets, and philosophers. What does it mean to be a “pirate?” And who wants to be a pirate, anyway? – Here is one answer:

It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.
– Steve Jobs

Pirates have been around for a long time. Many cultures have a variation of this quote. From Greece to Malaysia and back:

Where there is a sea there are pirates.
– Greek Proverb

The following is a true-ism, repeated in many ways by many authors:

The average man will bristle if you say his father was dishonest, but he will brag a little if he discovers that his great- grandfather was a pirate.

And, phrased another way:
“Every generation welcomes the pirates from the last.”
― Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity

Some authors celebrate, not only pirates, but the sea-fairing life that leads to piracy:

“She found out that having something to do prevented you from feeling seasick, and that even a job like scrubbing a deck could be satisfying, if it was done in a seamanlike way. She was very taken with this notion, and later on she folded the blankets on her bunk in a seamanlike way, and put her possessions in the closet in a seamanlike way, and used 'stow' instead of 'tidy' for the process of doing so. After two days at sea, Lyra decided that this was the life for her.”
― Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

Of course, real pirates were often “bad guys,” by one definition or another. Many thoughts have been written about the balance between scalawag and hero:

“It took a special kind of madness to try to be a pirate and a good man at the same time.”
― Matt Myklusch, The Lost Prince

Though the scallywag most often wins out:

“Hero? No! We're pirates! I love heroes but I don't wanna be one! Do you know what heroes are? Say there is a chunk of meat. Pirates will have a banquet and eat it but heroes will share it with other people. I want all the meat!”
― Monkey D.Luffy

But piracy is very much a state of mind. Pirates are real and imaginary at the same time:

“I'm no longer a child and I still want to be, to live with the pirates. Because I want to live forever in wonder. The difference between me as a child and me as an adult is this and only this: when I was a child, I longed to travel into, to live in wonder. Now, I know, as much as I can know anything, that to travel into wonder is to be wonder. So it matters little whether I travel by plane, by rowboat, or by book. Or, by dream. I do not see, for there is no I to see. That is what the pirates know. There is only seeing and, in order to go to see, one must be a pirate.”
― Kathy Acker

But the fact is that though dreams become a part of the reality of pirates, the reality of pirates also asserts itself. We cannot ignore the reality of the historic:

“If England had not used the services of privateers and pirates during its long struggle with Spain, there is some likelihood that people today in North America would be speaking Spanish rather than English.”
― Robert Earl Lee, Blackbeard the Pirate

And finally, a philosophical truth:

“If someone drowned at sea a couple of hundred years ago they’d either start to decompose immediately or they’d get eaten by fish or other scavengers. The bones would eventually sink down to the seabed and either be slowly buried by marine silt or broken down further over the years, but the flesh would one way or another eventually become water, which would evaporate into clouds and then rain down upon the earth once again to become plants and flowers.
The flowers in your garden could once have been famous pirates such as Blackbeard or Calico Jack.”
― Karl Wiggins, Shit my History Teacher DID NOT tell me!

In a more down-to-earth train of thought, there were many, many pirates in the world, and they no doubt left many, many children behind them. After three of four hundred years, it’s pretty likely that all of us have at least some pirate blood.

Here’s lots of love to all my pirate brothers and sisters.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Simon the Dancer - A Dutch Pirate

Siemen Danziger was a 17th-century Dutch privateer and corsair. From fighting the Spanish to marrying a Governor’s daughter, he lived a life of adventure that might be the envy of any buccaneering pirate.

Born at about 1579, he lived when spelling was as much an art as a science, so his name has been written in many ways. Danziker, Dansker, or Danser, in Dutch, he was known by the Turks as Simon Re'is. The English called him Zymen Danseker and Simon the Danser,

Danseker served as a privateer in the Eighty Years' War. This war, which started in 1568 and lasted until 1648, was a rebellion of the Dutch provinces which had been held by Spain. The Dutch, who wished to have political freedom, also wanted to be free to pursue the new religion of Protestantism. We have no real records of Danseker’s success or failure as a privateer, but he left the life, possibly with some level of fortune, and settled in Marseilles, France, where he married the governor's daughter.

Then in 1607 he turned pirate, stole a ship, and sailed for Algiers.

What had happened? Did his money run out? Did he tire of his wife or his in-laws? We’ll probably never know for sure. But given his sudden break for freedom, I wonder if his trip to France had been some kind of dodge, and if his privateering pay had been no more than enough to set up a flash-front with the intention of marrying well.

One on the Turkish side of the Mediterranean, he found service with Redwan, the Pasha of Algiers. Here he "was made welcome as an enemy of the Spaniards" and became one of the leading captains within a year of his arrival. Often bringing Spanish prizes and prisoners to Algiers, he became known under the names Simon Re'is, Deli-Reis (Captain Crazy) and Deli Kapitan among the people on the Barbary coast and the Turks due to his exploits on the sea.

Along with the English pirate John Ward, Danseker became one of the two most prominent renegades operating in the Barbary coast during the early 17th century. Both men, traitors to their Christian and European roots, were said to command squadrons in Algiers and Tunis equal to their European counterparts, and represented a formidable naval power as allies. Danseker captured over 40 ships in a two-year period.

Among Danseker’s accomplishments was said to be the introduction of the Round Ship, or Cog, to the Mediterranean fleets. This vessel, a fore-runner of the galleon, had been designed as a cargo vessel. But the high “castles” at the front and rear of the vessel proved to be excellent perches for armed men – especially those using longbows, a weapon that still dealt more damage than the primitive firearms of the time.

The round ship had another advantage, in that it is considered the first ship to be steered by a central rudder in the back. This rudder was controlled by ropes, and the arrangement replaced the older method of steering using a left-side oar that trailed in back of the ship.

He incorporated captured ships into his fleet, and was supplied by Algiers with men and use of their shipyards. This was a time of rapid advancement in ship design. Danseker was the first to lead the fleet of Algiers out of the Straits of Gibraltar, the farthest distance any had ever successfully navigated. He traveled as far as Iceland, which would later be attacked by the Barbary corsairs in 1616.

Image result for Mediterranean Sea

After years of pirating he had become quite rich and lived in an opulent palace. Danseker attacked ships of any nation and made trading in the Mediterranean Sea increasingly difficult for every nation. Many nations therefore looked for ways to stop his attacks (by counterattack, bribes for safe-passage or even employing him as a privateer in their navy). This helped to cement the wealth of the Turks, who became enriched by the “taxes” on merchant ships (actually protection money against pirates.)

Eventually, a French fleet under the command of De Beaulieu de Pairsac, assisted by eight Spanish galleys, threatened to capture Danseker, but he was able to escape because of a sudden storm. He sailed along the coast with his ships where his pursuers could not reach them. Eight more Spanish men-of-war, under the command of Don Luis Fajardo de Córdoba, and an English squadron, under the command of Sir Thomas Shoreley, were also trying to capture Danseker, and their captains seem ot have been impressed by his bravado. Some of the exploits of Simon The Dancer are mentioned in a report written by Andrew Barker in 1609.

In 1609, while taking a Spanish galleon off Valencia, Danseker used the opportunity to communicate a message to Henri IV and the French court through the Jesuit priests on board. He claimed to desire a return to Marseilles, having left his wife and children behind long ago. He also wished to be exonerated for his crimes. Whether this was a sincere wish to see his family, or merely a way to escape the increasing pressure in the Mediterranean, the ploy worked.

He was reunited with his family later that year, shortly after arriving in Marseilles with four well-armed warships on November 17, 1609. Once here, Danseker presented to the Duke of Guise "a present of some Turks, who were at once sent to the galleys" as well as a considerable sum in Spanish gold.

He had lived in Marseilles for a year when French authorities asked him to lead an expedition against the corsairs. Rumors that he had been captured spread, but he returned to France later that same year. Then in 1615 he was called up by Louis XIII to negotiate the release of a group of French ships being held by Yusuf Dey in Tunis. According to the account of William Lithgow, Dansker was led ashore in a ruse by Yusuf, captured by janissaires, and beheaded. 

Monday, July 31, 2017


I’m talking here about the 1976 movie starring Robert Shaw. At the time, the film was a considered a flop, but it has survived, mostly I think because it’s a pirate movie, and they just seem to stick around. 

Pirate movies had fallen out of favor after the 1950’s. In an era before computer effects, they were horribly expensive to make, and when the 1960’s brought around drug culture, the Vietnam war, protests of the Vietnam war, and fear of nuclear war with Russia, the adventures of a bunch of sea-thieves seemed to lose their charms.

But in 1973 a version of The Three Musketeers did extremely well, and when Jaws became the first real summer blockbuster in 1975, studio executives were willing to risk the investment in a pirate movie.

The cast list is fascinating. Robert Shaw had played Quint in the aforementioned Jaws, and had also been a Bond villain. In Swashbuckler, he plays the main pirate, Captain “Red” Ned Lynch. A very young James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader) plays his friend Nick. Peter Boyle, most famous as the Monster in Young Frankenstein, is the Evil Lord Durant. And Geneviève Bujold plays the young English noblewoman, Jane Barnet.

Requisite underwear shot

Other notable actors are Geoffrey Holder – famous for his fruity laugh, as Cudjo Quadrill, a former slave and knife artist, and Angelica Huston as “The Woman of Dark Visage.” Award winning character actor Beau Bridges (brother to Jeff Bridges) plays the often ridiculous Major Folly.

In this movie the pirates are definitely the Good Guys. Lest there be any confusion, the opening monologue refers to Lord Durant’s cruelty, and to the innocent prisoners wasting away in his dungeons. Throughout the film, Lord Durant kills people for fun. He arrests the current Lord Justice for no noticeable reason, and throws that worthy man’s wife and beautiful. feisty daughter into Jamaica’s slums.

But it’s his private life that creeps us out. Many of Durant’s scenes take place in his bathroom/lounge, a place inhabited by numerous scantily clad young women, strapping, shirtless black men, and Angelica Huston, who lurks like a vulture. But worst of all is a creepy blond boy, listed in the credits as “the lute player.” At Durant’s command, and with evident erotic glee, this person dons long steel fingernails and uses them for suggestive torture. It’s weird as hell, and it didn’t look especially convincing, even in in 1976.

Less creepy as a monster

The producers weren’t making any effort at historical accuracy, but they landed on it by accident a couple of times. The mix of races on the pirate ship, the easy authority of James Earl Jones, the pirate’s second in command, all ring true. In addition, the townspeople, also people of many races, show their support of the pirates in various ways. This stands to reason, as the pirates in this movie do what pirates have always done – they capture money, and then spend it on women and liquor. Thus, the local economy is improved.

And the film is not shy with the women. James Earl Jones likes to have a blond girl on one knee, and an African girl on the other, and there is no doubt that he takes them both to bed. Several pirates are shown in bed with their doxies, and the women enjoy showing off pirate-supplied jewelry. After an adventure, the pirate ship is filled with women, and Robert Shaw tells his crew to “sleep well, lads,” as he heads into his cabin with a willing wench.

The show also is one of the only pirate movies to film with a real (replica) pirate ship. Lynch’s vessel, the Blarney Cock, is actually an exact replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. The actual Golden Hind floated in 1577, and would have been sadly outdated during the year of the movie, 1718. But it’s wonderful to see a replica of real vessel that was owned by real pirate.

She’s very small, though she carries cannons (which also seem small, though they would be accurate for Drake’s time.) Too many pirate movies put the pirates on vast ships where the captain eats at a table 17 feet long. There are places where the Golden Hind’s whole width is less than 17 feet. She’s crewed by an appropriate number of pirates, and they actually do things like sing real shanties, and make real repairs. In one scene, the pirates are using a period-accurate paint brush to paint the deck red. (This was said to make the crew braver, because if someone was wounded the red blood would not be so noticeable.)

102 feet long, 20 feet wide. Not big

 The town also looks more accurate than most pirate movies. It consists of rich-people housing and slums, nothing in between. There are vegetable shops, taverns and whorehouses, and the streets are filled with pickpockets, small businessmen and prostitutes. No one looks too clean or too well dressed, though the clothing that has any noticeable style is not period accurate.

Cudjo is the leader of a highly unlikely troop of circus performers, and flashes a lot of 20th century leather armor and knives. He is an example of several people who are in the cast mostly because they were famous at the time. Can’t fault the actor, though. He’s exotic and that was his main job here.

The plot is entirely predictable. All the people hate Lod Durant and love the pirates, who steal from the nobles and then spend it as if gold was water. Then the pirate captain meets the Lord Justice’s beautiful, feisty daughter, and falls in love with her because, um – she’s beautiful and feisty. The pirates and the town people rise up to stop the Evil Lord Durant from making off with a large amount of ill-gotten wealth. Durant dies, justice triumphs. The creepy kid with the fingernails impales himself while falling down a flight of stairs, and Anjelica Huston steals Durant’s dead body for reasons we probably don’t want to think about.

There are several mildly interesting chase scenes, all technically believable, and a couple of rousing fights. All of this is damaged by a lack of good music. Someone went cheap on the music for this film, and the soundtrack only offers one “adventure theme” that plays over and over and over. By mid-movie it’s annoying. It also makes no use of any of the music existent at the time, or of sea songs. What a waste.

Swashbuckler is worth a look, though it only gets 3 stars. It has some fine bits of dialogue, a great location, and raunchy poetry. Shaw shines as a pirate, and seeing James Earl Jones as a young man is a beautiful thing. The chemistry between the two of them really works. “Nobody’s ever dared stand up to us more than once,” says Shaw, and you believe him.  So grab some popcorn and enjoy a good, silly pirate flick in Swashbucker.

Monday, July 24, 2017

How to Become a Pirate

People often wonder how pirates recruited. Did they kidnap people and force them to join the crew? Did the worst of the worst of rapist s and murders simply go down to their local seaport and sign on? Were children brought up to be pirates?

A little of each is true.

Maybe Not Quite Like This

In the past – as recently as the 1500’s in some places, as recently as yesterday in others, children were born to a pirating life. Probably the most famous of these pirates is Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland. Grace inherited her father’s pirate fleet, after a youth spent on shipboard learning the trade. When pirating was a family affair, a tradition of taking ships out to robe the neighbors, or the inhabitants of the next country, people were indeed born into the pirating life.

For the most part, this tradition ended with the growth of corporations and corporate shipping. Raiding between clans or nations was just that… raiding. But attacks on powerful, rich, international entities like corporations brought legal reprisals.

At the beginning or piracy’s Golden Age, a large number of young men who had been employed by their national navies suddenly found themselves out of work. Often this included entire crews, from officers on down. Common sailors often followed a captain who turned to piracy.

Ben Hornigold was one such captain. It seems certain that Hornigold was a good leader, beloved by his crews and skilled at running a ship. When the European wars ran out, Hornigold continued to do what he considered to be his duty as an Englishman, robbing French and Spanish ships. As a navy captain at the time, this was legal, even praiseworthy behavior. But without the support of a national war, actions that he had been carrying on for perhaps a decade suddenly became illegal.

Hornigold was a natural teacher, and he taught men to be pirates. His most notable student was no less than Blackbeard himself. But scholars charting the “linage” of Hornigold-taught pirate captains believe that 1,500 individual pirates owe their occupation to the “school for pirates” that Hornigold ran as he sailed through the Caribbean.

Some pirates joined the trade for revenge. The Lioness of Brittany, Jeanne de Clisson, vowed revenge when her husband was accused of treason and beheaded by the King of France. She sold her lands to by three war ships, and set about a career in piracy, being sure to behead any Frenchmen of the noble classes who had the misfortune to be captured by her black-hulled ships.

Jeanne was of a time period (the mid 1300’s) and a class (nobility) which allowed her to retire quietly once her pirating career was over. Most pirates who became Gentlemen of Fortune came from a much lower class.

Common sailors were often badly mistreated by their captains and officers. Food was often far worse that it had to be, beatings were common, and punishments could run to the sadistic, as sailors might be hung up by their wrists, deprived of rest and sleep, and sometimes even killed. This sort of thing led to rage that led crews to disregard their own futures in order to get payback. Some crew rose against their officers due to some initiating factor. This might become a mutiny, or might lead to full-blown piracy.

The most common way that a person became a pirate was to be robbed by pirates. Once they captured a ship, pirates took opportunity to recruit from among the ranks of the captured sailors. Offers of money, better food, more liquor, or a chance to get back at people who had abused them led many men to sign the papers that made them pirates. It should be noted that, by far, the most popular name for a pirate ship was “Revenge.”

But it was a frightening business to leave everything one knew to take up a life of crime that might end in hanging. Some sailors approached pirates on the quiet, asking for a show of being kidnapped, so they could later deny that they had joined the brigands willingly. The pirates usually complied.

Some folk were actually kidnapped, but not many. Skilled workers, who were paid more and treated better on merchant ships, were not so anxious to take up with sea-thieves. Sam Bellamy is known to have forced carpenters to join his crew, though he did make an effort to take single men, who were not married and presumable had few family ties.

But the reasons for becoming pirates, and the methods used to achieve this goal, were as varied as the people who had them.

Stede Bonnet, a rich man from a rich family, paid to have a pirate ship built and hired a crew. His reason is said to be that he didn’t like living with his wife.

The cross-dressing former soldier Mary Reed seems to have gone to the pirate island of New Providence with the intention of simply being herself. In a world where women were confined to the home, Mary had a unique solution to her desire for freedom.

Many African slaves who had been captured by pirates were freed and joined their liberators. Hampered by lack of experience as sailors, few of these black pirates became famous, but they made up large percentages of some pirate crews.

The nine-year-old boy, John King, kicked his mother in the shins and demanded that Sam Bellamy’s crew allow him to join. We don’t really know what prompted the child, but one report states that “the boy’s father didn’t like him.”

The fact is that, if you wanted to be a pirate, it wasn’t that hard to find a way.

Monday, July 17, 2017

An Ounce of Lead

Pirates and lead go together in this infamous phrase. “And ounce of lead” meant a bullet, or, as it was called at the time, a shot. Whatever it was called, it was probably close to 62 caliber by modern calculations, and when it hit, it hurt.

But why were the projectiles for 18the century muskets and pistols made out of lead?

For one thing, lead is a common metal. It is one of the earliest known elements, dating back to pre-history. And it has a low melting point, making it easy to extract from ore and to work after it is extracted. Lead does not oxidize (rust) easily, so it is fairly easy to keep around.

In addition, when people began using firearms to fling small objects at each other, it was quickly discovered that lead projectiles do a lot of damage to the human body.  A lead projectile flattens as soon as it meets resistance, and it flattening, it spreads out. A 1” round shot going into the body makes a 1” hole. Coming out, it may make a 4” hole. Or it may break to pieces and spread out, doing even more damage.

Ancient Roman plumbing

Lead has many uses in the early 18th century. Dating back to early Roman times, it had been used for water pipes. That’s right, just like the ones in Flint Michigan. (As of this date, Flint still does not have drinkable water.) In fact, Roman word for lead – plumbum – is the origin of our modern word, plumbing. What happened to the people who drank water carried in these pipes?

It depended. As noted above, lead doesn’t usually react with water. But if the water is even a little acidic, it can pick up molecules of lead and carry them along. This can cause lead poisoning. Some scholars believe that lead poisoning of the general population contributed to the fall of Rome, while others are skeptical.

The problem is that lead is very easy to get and easy to work with. It can be melted over a campfire (at 621 degrees Fahrenheit) which made it easy to cast. Lead was used to make the type which was set into plates to print books, posters and newspapers. People who worked with it often dies of lead poisoning.

From Roman times onwards, folks who enjoyed drinking wine noticed that wine stored in lead containers tasted better than wine stored other ways.  This is because lead reacts with alcohol to produce lead acetate (Pb(CH3COO)2) also called sugar of lead. This substance sweetened the wine.

Unfortunately, it also poisoned the drinker, if he enjoyed enough of it. Unfortunately, no one quite understood why. The Roman Catholic Church forbid the use of wine containing sugar of lead in communion, and wine bottlers who used it were viewed with suspicion, but the use of lead to sweeten wine remained in practice until long after the age of pirates.

Lead was also used for a variety of other purposes. White lead paint was applied to the underside of ships to discourage the growth of seaweed and discourage parasites such as shipworm from damaging the wooden structure. Guess what? These things didn’t like the poisonous lead.

Sheet lead was also used as we might use plastic today. For example, when the flint of a flintlock pistol was clamped into the gun, it was often wrapped in a small piece of sheet lead, which helped the jaws of the clamp to grip if firmly. These pieces of flint were often taken out for sharpening (a sharp flint makes a more reliable spark) and were also often replaced. The men who did this work would never have thought to wear gloves. But today we know that touching lead with bare skin can cause the metal to be absorbed through the skin.

Notice the sheet lead wrapping the base of the flint

Another way that pirates encountered lead was casting shot for their pistols and muskets. Some shot was shipped – and could be stolen – as ready-made round balls. But it the size didn’t fit the available guns, or if the only lead available was solid blocks, the pirates would melt it down (something easy to do, even on a ship) and cast their own projectiles.

Equipment to cast lead is simple – an iron pot, a fire, and a mold. The most simple mold-release agent was simple carbon from a smoking candle, and the shot could be hardened by dropping the recently cast spheres into water.

Shot casting kit

How-too instructions are currently available online, if you want to turn old lead pipes into anything from bullets to collectible figurines. But beware! You’ll also be told to wear breathing protection, and long sleeves, and to never get the fumes into your eyes. In fact, it’s not even recommended that you bring any of your lead-casting paraphilia into your home after you’ve used it. Don’t even put the clothes you wear while doing it next to clothing you use for any other purpose! Today we take the dangers of lead poisoning seriously.

It’s likely that many working-class pirates suffered from some level of lead poisoning. Symptoms can vary widely from individual to individual, and can start with relatively low levels of exposure, or at higher levels.

The symptoms – among which are muscle pain, abdominal pain, problems sleeping, depression, and reduced libido, are much like the symptoms of hard work and excessive alcohol. Pirates were also known to have hallucinations and personality changes, also easily attributed to drink. Damaged gums could be blamed on scurvy. Lead poisoning might have plagued many a pirate crew, and it would be hard to tell for sure, without modern blood testing.

Did lead poisoning contribute to the downfall of the pirates? One of the hallmarks of lead poisoning is also decrease in cognitive abilities. This may explain the sometimes vast differences between the pirate deck-hand, a fellow who prided himself in speaking and living by simple truths, and the wily and devious pirate captains, who, with their elevated status probably didn’t cast round shot or paint the boat.

Is it true? I don’t know, but it’s something to think about. One more bit of trivial from the age of pirates.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Phantom Islands

The world of 18th century pirates was filled with ghosts, sea monsters, and even Phantom Islands. A phantom island is a supposedly real island that appeared on maps for a period of time (sometimes centuries) during recorded history, but was later proven not to exist.

The most famous phantom island is probably Atlantis. This large island (or small continent, depending on who you listen to) was first recorded by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. He claimed that Atlantis was located “past the pillars of Hercules” – in other words, outside the familiar Mediterranean Sea, in the wide ocean that was eventually named after it.

Plato was trying to make a point about pride. His story tells of a technologically advanced society that fell out of favor with the gods because of the arrogance of its leaders. In his story, Atlantis eventually sank beneath the waves.

This mythical place inspired the name of the Atlantic Ocean, and other imaginary islands have inspired names for real land forms. One is Brasil or Hy-Brasil, an island traditionally believed to lay off the west coast of Ireland. Supposedly, it was shrouded in mist, and could only be seen once every seven years. When explorers saw the South American mainland rising out of the morning mists, they must have thought of Ireland’s imaginary twin.

How do the stories of Phantom Islands begin?

Sometimes, they are started by mirages. Just as the desert can provide images of water to travelers, the sea can offer up imaginary lands. Temperature inversions – layers of warm air laying above cooler air – can actually bend light, making a small object appear to be a towering mass. These kinds of inversions are rare, but can give a definite impression of land.

Another way that a phantom island can be recorded is that the explorer is simply lost. This happened a lot more 300-500 years ago. Misplaced travelers saw Greenland, or Africa, or Japan, when they believed they were far away from those locations, and thought they’d found something new. This is probably the origin of St Mathew Island, said to lie off the coast of Africa. Sailors who reported seeing it were probably looking at Ascension Island, which really does exist.

Once an island had been put on a map, there was social pressure for voyagers to confirm its existence. A sailor stands in a bar (or an officer stands before his superiors) and tells a tale of his travels. “Oh, you were near Saint Brendan’s Isle!” says someone. “Did you see it?”

What’s a man to do? “Of course I saw it!”

Some phantoms, such as Saxemberg Island, may have actually existed. It was discovered in 1670, and spotted again in 1804, 1809, and 1816, always in exactly the same location. This island is so well reported that it may have once existed… A piece of land that sank under the sea in some volcanic event.

Plenty of real things have been mistaken for islands. Ice bergs, fog banks, floating masses of seaweed (especially with the help of temperature inversions that makes them seem mountainous.)  Antarctica has inspired several phantoms, The Terra Nova islands, for instance, were discovered in  near Antarctica 1968, and haven’t been seen since.

Some phantoms are philosophical construction. Rupes Nigra was an island invented in the 14th century   to explain why compasses point north. Since no one yet knew about the Earth’s magnetic poles, someone invented a magnetic, black island at the exact place we now call magnetic north.

Some phantoms islands were deliberate fabrications. When money is involved, all things are possible. Croakerland, for instance, was a hoax invented by the famous Arctic explorer, Robert E. Peary, to gain more financial aid from one of his financial bankers, George Crocker. And Isles Phelipeaux and Pontchartrain were invented in the Great Lake Superior in 1744 to persuade French financial backers to cough up more money for further explorations in the area.

But there are plenty of honest explorers out there, too. Johan Otto Polter, found an island he named Kantia. In 1884. But when he returned later, in four expeditions through 1909, he failed to find it again, and disproved the island's existence.

Map of The Island of California

One of the most famous cartographical errors in history is the description of California as an island. This may have been inspired by fiction. A 1510 Spanish romance novel Las sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo - described the island in this passage:

Actual Strait of Baja

 Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.

Men love those sex-starved Amazons. Whether it was this titillating tale, or an offer by the King of Spain that explorers could lay claim to any new islands they found, but could not similarly profit from discoveries of new sections of mainland, California was shown as an island for nearly 200 years.

Maybe not what they had in mind
Which leads us to one of the most enduring parts of Phantom Islands… their tendency to endure. Once put onto a chart, the predisposition is for the island to stay put. After all, to erase it is, in effectively call its discoverer either a liar or a fool. So, even today, a few unlikely islands and reefs still endure. Once such is Yosemite Rock, “discovered” in 1903, and supposed to be approximately 83°W, 32°S (Northwest of Robinson Crusoe Island). With all our technology, it’s never been officially disproved. Instead, in the Operational Navigation Chart of the United States Department of Defense it is listed as "Existence doubtful."