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 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.

 

Pirates and Yoda: an Unlikely Connection

“Judge me by my size, do you?” – Yoda

“Judge me by me size, do ye?” – Red Suarez, fictional pirate.

Eerie, isn’t it? Try this one:

“The future I cannot see” – Yoda

“The future I cannot see” – Cap’t Jack Sparrow.

Call me crazy, but I’m seeing a definite link between the syntactically challenged English Yoda speaks and the educationally challenged middle English spoken by fictional pirates. A link, a connection, a commonality.

Try it. Take any Yoda line, swap out the word “you” with the word “ye”, and say it like Long John Silver.

“Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.”

Creepy, am I right?

So? What give?  I’ve come up with three theories:

First theory: Yoda and pirates come from the same stock. One day those ghost hunting guys who keeps discovering Chupacabra tracks for cable television are going to uncover the remains of a Yoda-like creature that crash-landed in the Caribbean some 500 years ago. “Help me, you must,” cried the sole survivor. This theory is not very likely.

Second theory: convoluted sentence structure is a byproduct of being strong with The Force. Yoda is certainly robust in that respect. And it’s not a long stretch to imagine pirates as being strong in the Dark Side. Still, Darth Vader didn’t talk like a pirate, and Kylo Ren uses pretty good grammar. Even Luke Skywalker, about whom Darth Vader said “The Force is strong in this one” – even he got subjects and verbs in the right order. Another not very likely theory.

Third theory: Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, needed to give Yoda a quirky-yet-charming mannerism that would make him sound both familiar and alien. Clever choice, this dialect was. This would be the most likely theory.

Now, as I know you know, not all pirates talked like Yoda. Pirates mostly spoke in the dialect of their native lands – during the Golden Age of Piracy, this would have been England. And, since the greatest percentage of pirates were not men of culture and learning, they tended to use the rougher language of the streets – stab me in me vitals if that don’t be true!

If you read Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, you’ll get a great pirate caricature in Long John Silver. But read The Black Swan, by  Rafael Sabatini, and you’ll find a great mix of swashbuckling pirate and gentlemen of fortune that, while quite romantic, was probably equally accurate.

And, middle English, which was in use at the close of the Elizabethan Era, quite at the same time as the Golden Age of Piracy, was full of fun, convoluted sentence structures. This one is my current favorite: “Avoid taverns, brothels and gambling halls should I, were I you.”

Until the link between the citizens of Dagobah and Port Royal is defined, however, around Yoda my wallet should I watch. Arrgh.

Now’s the Time to Read Marigold’s End

 

Today. Right now. This minute. Don’t delay!

Go here: Smashwords.com and download your free copy while you can still get it for free. This, my friend, is a limited time offer!

Here’s the synopsis:

Struggling to deal with the loss first of his father and then of best friend, priggish, arrogant twelve-year-old Phineas Caswell finds himself aboard a ship on the very sea that took them both away.

Phineas’ one goal in life is to become a “landed” gentleman, and to marry the exquisite Susannah Kilburn – lofty goals for a penniless twelve year old Bostonian in the year 1706. To his horror, he is taken to sea by his well-intentioned but rather daffy Uncle Neville. Phineas finds he must learn to make his way among the frightening, gruff sailors aboard the ship, must hold his own against desperate pirates, and look beyond the past to find the meanings of courage, friendship, and home.

Patrick Caswell, Phineas’ sea-captain father, has disappeared into the Caribbean, rumored to have turned pirate. The Spanish treasure ship Tres Hermanas has been taken by buccaneers. In her hold she carried a cargo that will change the map of Europe. Queen Anne of England has dispatched secret agents to recover the treasure. But what has become of the treasure? What happened to Patrick Caswell? Who are these agents? Only Red Suarez holds the key. But he’s the vicious, self-appointed pirate king of Port Royal. Leave it to Phineas to bumble his way into a stunning adventure filled with naval battles, chases, and an amazing, all encompassing hurricane.

The sailor’s life has much to teach Phineas. Although he is a reluctant student, Phineas, Taylor the cabin boy, and the French princess Louise find themselves face-to-face with cruel buccaneers, and must learn the most difficult lesson of all in adventure as vast as the sea itself.

So, don’t delay. Download your copy today! Marigold’s End, by John D Reinhart.