Monday, June 29, 2015

Sailor's Knives

What sort of knife did a pirate carry? One with a point or one with a squared-off end?

A modern sailor's knife has a squared-off point but this is a fairly recent innovation. has an interesting quote.

Jim found a book called The Making of a Sailor, or Sea Life 
Aboard a Yankee Square-Rigger, by one Frederick Pease Harlow. 
The book was published in 1928, but recounts the author's 
experiences at sea as a boy about six decades earlier. On 
pages 90-93 Harlow describes the outset of a voyage to 
Melbourne, Australia. The first and second mates are choosing 
up the port and starboard watches for the voyage from the 
newly hired crew. The first mate, naturally, chooses first. 

  "`I choose you... What's your name?'  

  "`Hans, sir,' he replied. 

  "`Let me have your knife,' requested the mate, who stood on 
top of the main hatch, with a hammer in his hand, which he 
was all the while turning and twisting. Upon receiving the 
sheath-knife, which is as much a part of sailor's uniform as 
his overalls and is always carried in a sheath or scabbard, 
hanging from a strap about the waist and back of the hips, 
where it is handy for cutting rope, for a sailor is not 
dressed without his knife, the mate put the point of the 
knife across the iron band on top of the combings of the 
hatch and struck a sharp blow with the hammer, breaking off 
the point. 

  "`You probably didn't have the mate, in your last ship, 
break the point off your knife.' said Mr. Burris. `But I 
always keep a ship sweet and clean by seeing that every knife 
aboard the ship has no point. This is for your own 
protection. If you get into a fight with a shipmate you know 
you can't stick him with your knife or he, you. Knowing this 
you both will fight like men and use your fists, the weapons 
God has given you to fight with.'  

  "Returning the knife to Hans, he was told to stand over to 
the port rail... 

  "The second mate then chose Jim Dunn... His knife was 
broken in the same manner and he was told to stand over to 
the starboard rail... The selection and knife-breaking 
continued until the 14 men and two boys were all divided into 
two watches. 

  "Going forward, I followed the men into the forecastle. A 
big Irishman by the name of O'Rourke, was much put out by 
having his knife point broken and was saying as I entered, `I 
don't know phat ye's fellers tink about it, an' I haven't 
been to sea for ten years, but fifteen years ago I sailed in 
the [Clipper] ships Live Yankee [built 1853, wrecked 1861] 
and the Phantom and if ships of that caliber can make a viage 
widout breakin' our knives, why in the... does an old tub 
like this wan want to do it?'" 

It goes on to say that a law was passed in 1866 saying: 
No seaman in the merchant service shall wear any sheath 
knife on shipboard. It shall be the duty of the master of any 
vessel registered, enrolled, or licensed under the laws of 
the United States, and of the person entering into contract 
for the employment of a seaman upon any such vessel, to 
inform every person offering to ship himself of the 
provisions of this section, and to require his compliance 
therewith, under a penalty of $50 for each omission...

This tells us that pointed knives were used prior to 1866. O'Rourke, who hadn't sailed for ten years,  seemed to think it was standard to have a pointed knife.

Given this, and given the need for pirates to be well-armed, I doubt that anyone was breaking off the tips of pirates' knives 150 years before this law was passed.

That said, there is a practical reason for squaring off a sailor's knife. If the knife has a point, a sailor will inevitably use it to pick open knots, possibly damaging the rope in the process. If the point is removed, the sailor will have to use a rounded marlin spike instead.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Three Against 50

Can three take on overwhelming numbers and win? Here is a video where some fencers did just that.

I've done that on a smaller scale so I feel qualified to comment on it.

Why did the three masters do so well? They did everything right.

First, they never fought all 50 at once. The first thing they did was run. After that they used natural features (the staircase) to break up the attackers. They also flanked the group so that they blocked each other. For the most part, none of the masters faced more than 2 or 3 attackers at once.

All of that takes its toll. By the five minute mark the masters have changed tactics. The attackers' numbers have been reduced and they have broken into smaller groups. The masters start using distraction. One engages a group and a second master attacks from the side. In another case, the master points out one attacker then attacks the man beside him.

The masters also use some defensive tactics. The object is to burst a balloon on each fencer's chest. The attackers face the masters, exposing their balloons but the masters often turn away, shielding their balloons with their bodies.

Eventually exhaustion and sheer luck take their toll on the masters.

The moral here is that a skilled swordsman can take on multiple attackers and win if he uses the right strategy and if he can dispatch them before he runs out of energy.

Friday, March 7, 2014


Tricorns are under attack. Some people who claim to be interested in portraying pirates as accurate as possible say that this style hat should not be used and may not have even been around during the GAoP. On the other end, some pre-1840 events have banned "pirate hats" (tricorns).

Someone call Colonial Williamsburg and tell them to stop selling all of those pirate hats.

So, what did pirates wear on their heads?

There are plenty of contemporary woodcuts to use as reference and it's easy to find ones with tricorns.

There are some excceptions
And it's hard to tell quite what Blackbeard is wearing here

Granted that these are mainly captains and might be dressed better Certainly the ones with the whigs were. I looked over a lot more woodcuts and found the most common headgear was either a tricorn, a high, round-crowned hat with an small brim or a cap.

An interesting point here is that the fact that the artists probably never saw the real pirates is a point in favor of them wearing tricorns. The artists were creating images based on descriptions and typical sailors.

Bottom line, pirates wore tricorns.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What to do with the women?

A recurring question in pirate reenacting forums is what to do with women. The hard-liners insist that there is no place for women in the ranks. The question the historic accounts of women disguised as men and count the pirates who were openly women as aberrations.

As far as I can tell, these hardliners do not run any actual events or head any pirate crews. If they did then they would have to face the reality - women are going to show up and expect a place. Some are willing to spend their time cooking and sewing but not many. That leaves three possible roles.

The first is women taking up arms while in dresses. This is the least jarring and there are accounts of women carrying arms throughout history. This works best when the women are among the defenders and every hand would be needed.

The second and third option involve women dressing as men but I am going to split them up as two categories. The first is women playing men. A lot of reenactment allow women into the ranks as long as they are dressed as men. If anyone asks, they explain that this is what they are doing. Some women are better at this than others but most spectators get the idea.

The third option is to play a woman who was disguised as a man. This is harder because the woman needs to look convincing. I do know a few women who can do this. There are historic accounts of a few women who were discovered in the ranks. The book The Weaker Vessel documents the presence of women in the military multiple periods so there is a historic precedence. Moreover, many of these women only came to light later when they claimed pensions. Piracy by its nature was poorly documented so he presence of disguised women is more open to speculation.

None of these are perfect solutions but, as I said, the women who show up need to be accommodated. Most reenactments are already stretching things by the men they allow in. Most reenactors are older and heavier than the people they portray. A truly authentic pirate event would limit participation to men in their 20s and possibly early 30s and have a BMI limit of underweight. You could count the pirates who qualify for this on the fingers of one hand at most events. So we make allowances for the men. That makes it difficult to exclude the women on historic grounds.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Captain Blood

There was a real Captain Blood. He wasn not a pirate but he did manage to steal the crown jewels of England in 1671. He didn't get far and was apprehended along with the jewels. King Charles II pardoned him and given land in Ireland worth 500 pounds per year. Charles may have been impressed with Blood's daring.

Sabatini certainly knew about this Captain Blood. Both practiced medicine and both had Irish connections. On the other hand, the fictional Captain Blood's exploits were set later and were heavily influenced by Sir Henry Morgan.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Searle's Raid 2013

The annual reenactment of Searle's Raid on St. Augustine was held March 1 & 2. This was the last major pirate (privateer) attack on the city and led to the construction of the still-standing stone fortress.

The actual raid was long and bloody, ranging from one end of the town to the other.

The Raid consists of two events. On the first Friday of March, the Spanish troops march through town warning the inhabitants that the English have been sighted. For this part, everyone is Spanish. We assembled at the Cathedral and marched up St. George Street at drum beat. I didn't get a good count but I think there were around 40 people involved in that part.

Dinner was served at a historic bakery on St. George although most people slipped across the street to the Taverna for a drink.

The weather on Friday was cooler than usual but pleasant. Saturday was colder and windy with gusts over 40 MPH. By the end of the day all of the shade flies had blown down or been taken down.

The troops were camped on the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park although we were in a different location than usual. A wedding party had reserved our regular spot under the trees. The new spot made it easier to see how large the camp actually is and made the event seem a bit more military.

The pikes drilled and the swordsmen practiced their choreography during the day. Many people did not arrive until Saturday. I counted at least 80.

At 4:00 the trolly took us to town for the actual battle. The English assembled a couple of blocks further south, fired a few volleys, then marched onto the square where we had our first battle. This fight was shorter than usual. We were only given a 15 minute permit instead of the usual 30 minute one. The Spanish made an orderly retreat followed by the British. At various times we stopped and exchanged fire. We also took the opertunity to loot some of the businesses and take some women hostage.

The Spanish made their stand just north of St. George Street where the English besieged them until they surrendered and agreed to pay us to leave (mainly in cattle).

A few observations - the English musket volleys were much better. The Spanish had ragged volleys while the English had crisp ones. There were around 40 on each side to it was a credible battle.

I've been to this event three times and this was the first time that the food was served on time. My compliments to the kitchen crew.

After dark it got downright cold so several of us went to Dunkin Donuts to warm up.

The event in general is a blast. Everyone is friendly and funny.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Whistling in the Theater

I just ran into this one but it is all over the Internet:

Unlike "the Scottish Play" and other superstitions which involve many theories, the whistling superstition seems to be quite straight forward. Back in the day (waaaaaay back) the stage crews were made up of primarily sailors. Why, you ask? Well, the rigging we use backstage at most theatres is based on that which is used on a ship. It made perfect sense, the fly lines needed to go up and down the same way that the sails did on a boat.

What does this have to do with whistling? Well, you can't have everyone on a boat yelling to one another. What if it's very loud and your voice doesn't carry to the other side of the boat? They used whistles! They had different whistles to signal which lines should go up or down or wherever! This system carried over to the sailors who worked back stage at the theatres.

It is said, because of this, it was considered bad luck to whistle backstage as you might signal the crew to change a scene or move a fly line when they aren't supposed to. Furthermore! The superstition says, the crew also used whistles to signal when people should get out of the way so that a set piece did not hit them. This has, over the years, turned into the thought that if you whistle on or backstage, your punishment will be that a set piece falls on you!

It is almost impossible to track down the origins of something like this on the Internet but here is a likely early source.


The Superstition:
Whistling is expressly prohibited in the theatre, pertaining to all parts of the building, particularly the dressing rooms, where it is said that if heard, someone (not necessarily the whistler) will soon be out of work.

The Origin:
The reason for this superstition is as follows: before the advent of walkie-talkies or clear-coms, cues for theatre technicians were called with a sailors whistle. Therefore, one who whistles in a theatre may, inadvertantly, call a cue before it's time, setting all types of catastrophy into motion. Should this happen, someone (not necessarily the whistler) will likely get fired, making the superstition come true.

There are four parts to this:
  1. Sails and curtains are essentially the same thing
  2. Both are so complex that only sailors can hope to operate them
  3. Sailors (and stagehands) communicate by whistling
  4. An actor who whistles might be mistaken for a stagehand and cue the wrong thing at the wrong time
Let's look at these in detail

Sails and curtains are essentially the same thing. No one who has worked sails and worked backstage would suggest such a thing. They are both large and made from cloth but otherwise they do completely different things. Sails are made to be shaped to catch the wind efficiently. Curtains hang and are either drawn apart or raised.

Both are so complex that only sailors can hope to operate them. This sells a lot of people short. Anyone involved in building, especially large stone buildings, would be familiar with complex block and tackle setups. Even farmers with a loft in their barn used a block and tackle regularly. At the same time, stage curtains are not all that complex to operate. If you have drawn curtains apart at home and raised some blinds then you have done the same thing as a stage hand, just on a smaller scale.

Sailors (and stagehands) communicate by whistling. At sea, commands are issued using something called a bosun's pipe or bosun's whistle. This is a loud whistle. If you cup your hand around it properly then you can produce a second tone. Only the bosun would use this. I can't imagine stagehands using a bosun's pipe or even puckering and blowing. When I was in high school productions the people backstage were under strict orders to be as unobtrusive as possible. Whistling would distract the audience from the play.

An actor who whistles might be mistaken for a stagehand and cue the wrong thing at the wrong time. If no one is whistling backstage then there is no chance of mistaken cues.

This fails on every level.

I heard an alternate version that sailors don't whistle for fear of whistling up a storm and that this carried over to the stage. This still assumes that sailors were hired as stagehands because no one else can pull on a rope.

There is just no way that this myth can be true.