Of Pirates and Black Cats

Actually, this post has nothing to do with black cats, unless you are afraid of them. If you are, you probably know that your fear is prompted by superstition, and sailors in general have always been considered among the most superstitious group of people.

In addition to not walking under ladders, you know that it’s just bad luck to bring a woman onto a ship, right? Or that you should never change the name of a ship?

According to Kevin Duffus, in the The Last Days of Blackbeard,  pirates had a particular fear of hanging. Of course, who wouldn’t? Although dropping from a gallows may not sound too bad, the strangling and neck snapping just can’t be much fun.

But most pirates, hanging had a much more sinister meaning. In their superstitious minds it was far better to be killed in battle, on land or at sea. In either case, your body was buried, either in a grave (marked or unmarked, single or mass, that didn’t matter), or dumped over the side at sea. Your corporeal self was interred, and your soul could ascend to heaven.

But, when pirates were hanged, their remains were tarred over and left to rot as a warning to other would-be pirates. As their bodies were not interred, their souls were left to wander the earth, listless and lost, for eternity.

For a man like  Black Beard it was far better to die with at least twenty pistol balls in his body and more than a dozen sword wounds, than to soil himself swinging from a gibbet in front of a jeering crowd.  Sadly for him, Lieutenant Robert Maynard, the Royal Navy officer responsible for his demise, decapitated the bearded giant and hung his head from the bowsprit of a ship for all to sea. Poor Black Beard must still roam the wilds of North Carolina if that particular superstition be true!

It brings a new light to the particular horror of cannibalism for sailors. Bad enough that the survivors in the boat eat the corpse of their fallen shipmate, they actually divvy him up, preventing his soul from getting to heaven. That’s a rum go for any seafaring soul.

I’m sorry if this post is a little gross – I do have a secret mission. I’m working on a plot to prove that pirates were not good people, and were very seldom sympathetic characters.  Thieves, robbers, thugs, murderers. And those are kind names. You had to be pretty smart to command a pirate ship. But the kind of smart that these men honored was deviousness and cunning – things that should never be embraced by a civilized people.

So, was you thinking of turning pirate, mate, be aware that you dunna have my blessing. And be ye wary of the noose!

 

Blackbeard in the Mysts of Thyme

You probably don’t remember that early video game called Myst, right? It was a really cool mystery role-player, but instead of first person move-arounds, it simply put you into rooms were cool stuff could be discovered. It was an all-surrounding environment, though, and I used to play it just to escape there. I used the title here only because the spelling looks ancient.

Let us be clear: the word mist was never spelled myst.

So, anyway, it’s a funny thing about Edward Teach. I’ve been reading Kevin Duffus’ book The Last Days of Blackbeard, and he makes a great argument for our Mr. Beard to have not only not been Edward Teach, but probably not Blackbeard, either.

In London, there’s a great big river – what’s it called? The Thames, that’s right. And there’s that song that says “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” Remember that one? In both cases, the “th” at the beginning of the noun is pronounced like a “t”. Our Mr. Teach most probably was actually Mr. Thatch, but without pronouncing that first “h.”

Here’s a shameless plug: in my book, Marigold’s End, the nasty pirate Red Suarez can’t pronoun the “th,” making his dialog the very devil to write!

So, Edward Teach was most likely Edward Thatch.

Most of what we know about Blackbeard comes from Samuel Johnson’s A History of Pyrates…” – the entire title is on our Further Reading page.  Captain Johnson, however, didn’t have the luxury of 300 years of history to research the notorious Mr. Thatch, and didn’t quite have his ducks in a proper row. A dicey historian at best, his works seems in part to be based on hearsay.

Mr. Duffus found no record of Edward Teach, or Thatch, or Drummond, as some suggest, having lived in RedCliffe, or Bristol, at the time the pirate was to have been there.

He did, however, find evidence of land being owned by a Captain James Beard in Bath, North Carolina, along the shores of the Pamlico River.  The records are muddy and confused – what must have been crystal clear in the 1690’s has been fogged over by the mists of time – but they point to some curious things. Captain James Beard married a local widow, named Elizabeth Marston. According to legend in Bristol England, Blackbeard’s mother cooked for a seafaring Captain Marston… ah HAH!

But, sadly,  there’s no ah-HAH to be had. Could the Captain Marston of Bristol actually, through the cloudy lens of history, actually be the Captain Marston of Bath, North Carolina, who died and left a wife and young son behind?  Could James Beard have given his last name to the son?

Is Blackbeard actually incorrect? Was he a fellow named Edward Beard that grew a great, shaggy black beard, and was called Edward “Black” Beard?

Mr. Duffus believes that do be the case, and refers to him as Black Beard.

The difficulty of piercing the veil of time is most frustrating when you’re trying to piece together a novel about Blackbeard, or Black Beard, or Edward Teach/Thatch/Drummond/Beard.  Even his ship is a mystery!

Ah, but such is the writer’s task – peering through the mysts of thyme!

 

Of Ships and Shapes, Part II

One more thing about the shapes of ships – we’ve talked about this before: try to keep up. You’ll remember that I’m trying to figure out the shape of Blackbeard the Pirate’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.

You’ll also recall how we talked about tonnage being available space, not weight, and how sailing ships had a specific balance between fore and aft, wind and water, to make ’em easy to sail.

One thing we forgot to discuss was, well, the shape of the ship.

Here are some details that teach us about ship shapes:

1778: HMS Pandora, 114 feet long, 32 feet wide, 3.5/1 length to width

1779: USS Constitution, 175 feet long, 43 feet wide, 4/1 length to width

1869: Cutty Sark, 212 feet long, 36 feet wide, 6/1 length to width

1991: USS Arleigh Burke, 505 feet long, 31 feet wide, 16/1 length to width

What does this tell us? We’ll start at the top: Pandora was a frigate, fast and efficient for her day. More than that, she was a stable ship, carrying 26 guns.  Constitution was designed to outsail anything the Royal Navy had to offer, which she did. Cutty Sark was designed to quickly haul tea around the Horn from China. In her day, she was the fastest ship afloat. Arleigh Burke is a modern destroyer, built to cut through the water quickly, which she does.

Do you see the trend? As ships get more modern, they go faster and faster. But so does the ratio of length to width. We can assume, and it’s true, that a narrower ship will sail faster than a broader ship.

So, why build broad ships? Because wider hulls carry more cargo, and more cargo means more money per voyage.

Since Queen Anne’s Revenge was built to haul cargo, we can assume she had a length-to-breadth ratio in the range of 3 to 1. Kevin Duffus, in his book The Last Days of Black Beard, felt she had a length on only 104 feet. We know, then, that her breadth was about 30 feet.

See? All this math pays off. Kind of.

Of Ships and Shapes

In previous posts, we’ve been looking at possible designs for Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR), at how Disney’s fanciful design probably didn’t work, and had a discussion how ships were measured in the Golden Age of Pirates.

Something else came out of looking at Disney’s QAR – a question about freeboard.

Here’s a cool test: throw a baseball bat into your bathtub. Oh, uh, fill the tub with water first. See how, even though the bat is made out of wood, she sits low in the water like a submarine. You could blow wind at that thing all day long and have no effect on how it moves in the water. Go ahead and try it. We’ll wait… Now, splash some waves around her. They wash right over – there is no dry place to stand.

Now take an empty shoebox and drop it into the tub so that it floats like a boat. Give her a blow, and off she goes, skittering across the water like a dry leaf. The slightest breeze tells the shoebox where to go. Give her some waves – even big ones, and she stays dry as a pirate’s bones.

Was you a sea cap’n in Blackbeard’s day, the ship you’d be looking for would have properties of both the shoebox and the bat. You’d want her to sit low in the water, where wind and wave would have no effect. But you’d want to sit high above the water, too, so that you could fit cargo, crew, and guns up where it’s dry.

The shapes of ships in the sailing days, then, were just that mix: cut the baseball bat in half width-wise, and you get a nice, semi-circular cylinder. Cut the shoebox in half height-wise, and you get a nice, dry box that sits upon the seas. Now, scale them so that they are the same width and length, and connect one to the other, and there, you have a nice, dry hull that has good seakeeping capabilities.

 

The challenge lay in the mix between the above-water box and the below-water bat: too low and she wallowed like a pig in mud, but too high and the wind pushed her sideways. It’s a problem of too much freeboard – the sides of the ship actually act like a sail, making it extremely difficult to steer on a windy day. Worse, too much freeboard can be deadly, as the Swedish found out with the Vasa in 1628 – the richest, most powerful warship in the world in her day. The Vasa took a sudden random breeze against her high, high sides, and over she went, upside down and sinking in just ten minutes with all hands.

That brings us back to Disney’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, and that enormous, enormous stern castle. It makes for great film making inside, with that cool window and all that headroom. But it would make for dreadful and dangerous sailing. Her stern would sit low in the water, pushing her bow up like a motor boat. And any wind other than dead over the stern would push sideways against that beautiful stern castle, making her sail sideways. Worst of all, she has a very shallow draft, the baseball bat part of the hull, which means she’d roll like a beach ball.

In our search for the true Queen Anne’s Revenge, we have to remember that Concord, the original ship, must have been a well-designed merchant ship, drafted with a steady and wise hand.

The search continues!

 

Of Tons and Guns

Sometimes you goof things up. You give the dog the cat’s food – he loves that! You unthinkingly dip your cracker into the jar of pasta sauce, assuming it’s the Nutella.

I goofed up. In my novel Marigold’s End, a Phineas Caswell Adventure, I refer to the Kathryn B, really the star of the book, as about a hundred feet long.

By today’s standards, that’s how we think. It’s because ships and boats are so specialized, and so standardized, that their length is the most logical way to categorize them. I have a friend that owns a 35 foot sailboat. A modern destroyer is about 550 long.

In the Golden Age of Pirates, between about 1680 and 1730, the luxury of such standardized descriptions just wasn’t available.  In those days, the times of the pirates of the Caribbean, a ship had to be a jack of all trades.

A good example is Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge (I’m dying to get actual dimensions on her and have therefore been researching her quite a bit). She began life in 1710 as English merchant ship, was captured by the French and converted into a slave ship, and then was taken by Blackbeard and made into a pirate ship.

First and foremost, ships of this time were built as merchant ships.  If you had a hundred tons of molasses to ship to Jamaica, you wouldn’t care how long a ship was, you’d care about how many tons she could hold.

Here’s a funny thing: when you think of a ton, you think about 2000 pounds. In ships, a ton is a measurement of cubic footage, not weight. You look at the available space into which you can cram cargo, run some math on it, and boom, there’s your tonnage.

Queen Anne’s Revenge, therefore, was considered a ship of about 200 tons. Not her weight, of course, but the amount of cargo she could carry. The Kathryn B, being a little 100-foot long brig, could probably manage 150.

In the Golden Age of Pirates, most countries could not afford the expense of building and maintaining fleets of warships. Instead, they relied on merchant ships, commandeering them and mounting extra guns in time of war.

Later, in the Golden Age of Sail (all these Golden Ages makes you think there should be some Little Golden Books about them), in the second half of the 18th Century, warships became specialized, and were identified by their guns. For example, Lord Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, the Victory, was a first-rate, 100 gun ship of the line. Captain Jack Aubrey’s first frigate, the Surprise, was a fifth-rate, 28 gun ship. Captain Isaac Hull’s Old Ironsides, the American ship U.S.S. Constitution, is rated as a 44 gun frigate.

Although the specific length of each type of ship wasn’t an identifying feature, it made sense that a 100-gun ship would be longer than a 28-gun ship. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th Century that a ship’s external dimensions gained importance.

So, you go swap out the dog’s food and put away the pasta sauce, and I’ll seriously figure out the gross tonnage of the little Kathryn B and the actual size of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Hey, how’d you get the easy job?

Davy Jones is Mad About his Locker

You’ve seen Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Pirates abound, of course, and sea monsters, and that poor devil with a squiddy face. I wonder if he likes sushi…

And there’s the Queen Anne’s Revenge, as pictured above. Ah, the QAR, with that enormous cathedral-style window in the transom, and those soaring balconies. Let’s not even talk about the skeleton figurehead, and all those carvings. Someone must have taken years to carve all that awesome stuff.

Remember, Queen Anne’s Revenge is the name Blackbeard gave to the French slaver La Concorde, after he captured her. National Geographic argues that he took her specifically because she was a slaver, and her crew was depleted by disease, and only half her gunports had cannons behind them. How he could have known all this in advance of meeting her…

While she looks menacing and theatrical and creepy, I often wonder who did all that work on her? This would have been around 1718, so the only power tools available were those that you powered yourself. Perhaps those are all real skeletons, wired together and mounted out on the forepeak. That’s really creepy, and would take an immense amount of medical work and craftsmanship to get them to stay together, but it might be easier to accomplish then carving them out of wood.  As our Mr. Beard had the QAR for less than a year, he must have had quite a contingent of artists and craftsmen in his crew.

Of course, ships in the Golden Age of Pirates, around 1680-1730, were only powered by the wind. Shipwrights of the day focused on designing long, straight lines, from a ship’s stem to her stern. She was as carefully balanced above and below the waterline as she was from her cutwater to her rudder. The goal was to make it easy for the sails to move the ship, and, through thoughtful symmetry, to make it easy for the crew to sail her.

A great example is the Sovereign of the Seas, the very largest, gaudiest ship of her day – launched in 1637. She was built to intimidate every other ship on the sea (if you’ve ever built a model of her, you were probably intimated by all that gold work: she’s the most tedious thing in the world, all guns and gold leaf. Oh, and some rigging). If you put your finger where it seems like her center of gravity would be, you find yourself at the main mast, near the center of the ship.

Compare her  with the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and you’ll see how much more balanced, fore and aft and above and below, she is.  Queen Anne’s high, high stern would be heavy, and would push her bow up out of the water. Put your finger on the place you think her center of gravity will be – not quite the center of the ship!

While her shallow draught below the waterline would allow her to sail into places most other ships could not go, she has very little compensation against the weight of her masts and sails, and the pressure of the winds. Sadly, she would be very difficult to sail on a nice day, and would find herself extremely challenged to stay upright on anything more than a slight breeze.

But, she accomplishes her mission in the Disney films: she is menacing and awe-inspiring.  As the Queen of Creepy Ships, she ranks right up there!

In our search for a correct interpretation of Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, however, I’m afraid we’re going to have to take a pass on the squiddy-faced fellow’s ride.

 

Pirate Terms Gone Awry

Researching pirates from the “Golden Age of Piracy”, about 1680 to 1730, is a difficult business. While there are scores of books and movies to draw from, you find that they themselves mostly draw from Cap’t Charles Johnson’s book, A General History…of…Pirates. The link on his title takes you to our Further Reading page, which features the full title of the book.

My most recent novel, Marigold’s End, A Phineas Caswell Adventure, puts the young protagonist in the midst of the worst of the worst. The novel I’m working on now requires even more research – sadly, most of it comes out from Cap’t Johnson!

What makes Johnson’s book so compelling is that it is the only one. Period. It was written in 1724, and it describes all of the nasty fellows of the day.  Beyond his book, there is simply no other organized documentation. There are the records kept by the colonial governors, by the courts, and by the shipping companies. But those generally detail specific events, and don’t tell the story. And they’re not literary in the least, making it very difficult for we 21st century pirate hunters.

I had planned to write this post about how the word “long” got into Long John Silver’s name. But, in my research, I hit a rather blank wall. I’ll tell you what I know:

Pirates did not wear earrings as fashion. They wore earrings, like every other sailor of the day, to denote their survival of a shipwreck.

Pirates did not wear fake eyepatches to be able to see better in the dark.

Pirates didn’t wear hooks or wooden legs because they wanted to.

And, pirates did not get the word “long” added to their name because they consumed human flesh.

If you look it up on many of the blogs out there devoted to pirate stories and legends,  you’ll see that the term “long pig” is cannibal reference to human flesh. Imagine your ship has been becalmed, without a breath of wind, for a month straight. All your food supplies are gone. No fish are biting. No bird can reach you because you’re in the middle of the Atlantic under a hot, broiling sun.

Maybe the topman Simpson has a fall, breaking his neck. You and your shipmates are literally starving to death – you’ve even eaten your leather belts. And then here’s Simpson.

Come on, lad. It ain’t like you’re doin’ him no harm – he’s already in heaven. What point is there in starvin’? God knows when you’ll eat again… just close your eyes, boyo. It tastes just like pork.

So, like the rest of the survivors, you choose to stay alive and eat the long pig. When finally a breeze comes and you finally sail out of the doldrums, you vow you’ll never tell anyone about it.

But then start the rumors, once you’re ship’s in port and paid off. You know about John Silver, don’t ye? They say he’s Long John Silver, if ye catch my meaning…

It’s a compelling story, but it’s just not correct. The phrase “long pig” was first used in print in 1847 – well over a hundred years after the likes of Long John Silver and Blackbeard.

The term appears to be a translation of a Polynesian word for human flesh. While it can be used in reference to a crew – they ate long pig – it doesn’t belong in the lexicon of the Golden Age of Piracy.

I went to Chapman’s The Sailor Lexicon, by Admiral W. H. Smyth. It’s a lexicon. It has 15,000 slang and professional sailor terms. There’s no mention of long pig in it.

So, my friend, be careful what you confer to our piratical brethren. They were rough, nasty folk, and they were the scourge of the seas, and they very probably were forced into cannibalism upon rare occasions.

And, while the Long in Long John Silver, a fictional creation of Robert Louis Stevenson in 1881, may have been meant to include Silver in that group, it was most likely applied because it was a popular and fanciful term in Stevenson’s day, not Silver’s.

 

The Smithsonian Weighs in on Queen Anne’s Image

Just so you know, I think this computer-generated ship image from the Smithsonian Institute is a little suspect. There, I said it.

She appears to be based on the Hispaniola from the 1950 film Treasure Island. Correct for her size, this ship has three masts, and a well found shape. That squares with Queen Anne’s Revenge, but this ship, from a video called “How Blackbeard Tricked Out His Ship,” on the resources page at si.edu, seems a tad too undefined to accurately represent the Queen.

As we’ll recall from previous posts, Queen Anne’s Revenge was built in England in 1710 as Concord, a 200-ton merchant ship. She was taken by the French and renamed La Concorde de Nantes. She worked the slave trade between the French Caribbean plantations and Guinea.

Benjamin Hornigold, a privateer turned pirate, had used his small fleet of piraguas (sailing canoes) to attack and overwhelm the small sloop, Happy Return.  With that sloop and his canoes he attacked and overwhelmed a heavily-armed merchantman named Ranger. Once he was in command of that powerful ship, he let go of the piraguas, and put his second-in-command, a fellow named Edward Thatch, in charge of the Happy Return.  With Happy Return and Ranger, Hornigold took the 26-gun Concorde de Nantes, and gave her as a reward to Thatch.

Thatch decided to part company with Hornigold, and began his solo career as the pirate Blackbeard. The first thing he did was change the ship’s name to Queen Anne’s Revenge, and then mounted as many guns in her as she could carry.

That’s where the Smithsonian’s interesting model comes in – the orange guns are those they feel would have been added to her. It’s sort of funny that Blackbeard would have added so many guns to what was already a well-found ship. The British of that period wanted as many guns as they could cram aboard, hoping  to find a competitive edge of French and Spanish warships of similar tonnage. In fact, the guns invariable ended up on the foredeck and quarterdeck, adding enormous weight far above the waterline, making the ships harder to sail and somewhat crank. The lesson: hardware can never stand in for good seamanship.

So, here at PhineasCaswell.com, you know we’re on a quest to find an accurate image of this ship. Here’s the question: is this Queen Anne’s Revenge?

I think we’re voting no on this one. For size, yes, for accommodation of the guns, probably. But, is this what Queen Anne’s Revenge actually looked like? I think not.

Let me know what you think – and certainly let me know if you have an image of the QAR you’d like to share.

For more about Blackbeard from the Smithsonian Institute, visit here.

A Step Closer to Queen Anne’s Revenge

One of the things I love most about writing is the marvelous places you visit – some in person, some in your head, and some on the Internet.

As you may have surmised, I’ve been piecing together Blackbeard’s story. Some parts are very hard to fit together – his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) being among the hardest.

She went hard aground off of Beaufort, North Carolina, in November of 1718, and all traces of her were lost. We know she was a British ship first, and was taken by the French and used as a slaver named Concorde. Blackbeard took her and renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge. Her skeletal remains have been found, and many artifacts have been taken from her. But, no one knows what she looked like.

Archaeologists at the Smithsonian, however, believe she resembled the ship in the image, Le Mercure, of 1730. She’s only twenty or so years newer than QAR,  which is very close in terms of ship design from that era. Technological leaps were still relatively slow in coming.

We have to remember that, at this time, purpose-built warships seldom fell into the hands of pirates. They instead modified merchant ships to their purpose. Le Mercure appears to be pierced for 20 guns – Blackbeard would have up-gunned her to 40, which appears plausible if he used the quarter- and fore-decks.

Although she’s not Queen Anne’s Revenge, she’s in the ballpark.

A Letter of Marque

In the Golden Age of Piracy, the last thing you wanted to be called was a pirate. Pirates were dirty scoundrels, the scourge of the seas, and when caught, were most often hanged for their crimes. Blackbeard’s head, after he lost it in his fight against Lieutenant Maynard, hung from the bowsprit of Maynard’s ship, Ranger, as a grim reminder to all other pirates of their certain fate, was they caught.

So, you can see why it was unhealthy to refer to one’s self as a pirate.  A person on the other end of a pointing finger that hurled the word as an accusation could very well find himself hanged.

But, to be called a privateer, well, that was a different story.  A privateer was authorized by his government to attack and capture ships of a specific other government – for example, England sent out hundreds of privateers to attack ships bearing a Spanish flag. The Spanish equally dispatched them to attack English, French, and Dutch ships, among others.

For governments, privateers were an easy way to build an ad-hoc navy. In fact, ships taken by privateers were often brought into a home port and purchased by the government. Everyone associated with the privateering ship, from her owners down to the cabin boys on board, got paid, and the ship went into the navy.

To be a privateer, however, you had to have a commission from the king, or a local governor. To get it, you had to be a person of fair standing (obvious scoundrels need not apply), and you had to have a ship, fitted out at your own expense, and a crew that could fight.

This commission was in the form of a “letter of marque,” and you guarded it with your life.  The letter, signed by the king or a regional governor, stated that your actions were on behalf of the crown.  It gave you legal permission to attack other ships. Most important, should your ship get taken in an action, and you were captured, the letter of marque guaranteed that you would be tried as a prisoner of war, and not as a pirate.

There were many moments when an English schooner was waylaid on the high seas by an English warship. The naval first lieutenant, with half a dozen marines, stands, arms crossed angrily in the schooner’s sally port, swaying over the heavy waves, with a firm look of accusation on his face.

“Oh, no, sir,” says the schooner’s captain, nervously. “We don’t be no pirates, sir. We got ourselves a commission. Here, here comes Saunders with it now, sir.”

The lieutenant takes the proffered document from Saunders’ dirty, trembling hands and reads it carefully, noting the exchequer’s seal on the bottom. He glances about the schooner’s deck, noticing scars in the woodwork from another ship’s guns, the polished cutlasses in the rack around the main mast, the poorly stacked crates and casks waiting to be taken to the hold.  He glances at the letter one more time, then hands it back.

“We have a report that you attacked the Elizabeth, a pink under the English flag out of Dover,” he says frostily.

“Oh, no, sir,” the captain replies sheepishly. “As ye can see, why, we don’t have no commission to be attacking English ships, does we?” He chuckles with a slight wheeze, knowing that the commission is his get-out-of-jail-free card. 

The privateer’s commission was a powerful, but limiting tool. Privateers were forbidden to attack ships of their own country. But it happened nevertheless, and the line between privateer and pirate was often hard to see.

In truth, many of the most famous pirates, including Blackbeard, began their sea roving careers as privateers. Sir Henry Morgan drifted in and out of piracy, but always retained his commission as his defense. Despite his attacking English ships, he was actually knighted by the king himself for his service to the crown.

So, when the day was done, and the pirate caught, he might well save his neck if he could just provide that one document, the letter of marque.