Saturday, June 30, 2007

Eye Patches and Pirates

Pirates and eye patches seem to go together. Why? Here are some possible reasons:

Last year Mythbusters did a special pirates episode. One of the myths they explored was that pirates wore a patch over a perfectly good eye so that they could remove it and see in the dark. They tried it and it worked so they classified it as plausible.

Presumably a pirate would do this in anticipation of taking a ship and having to do a hurried search of the hold. There is a gaping flaw in this theory - no one in his right mind would cover an eye before going into battle.

The Pirate Master site says this:
Another theory: the eye patch stereotype predates the "Golden Age of Piracy" by some 200 years. Up until the 1500s one of the key tools of maritime navigation was the cross staff, which required the navigator to look directly into the sun at high noon. This led to a lot of sailor/navigators who were partially blind in one eye. After significant sight loss, many would likely have taken to wearing an eyepatch over the afflicted eye. By the 1500s other tools like the back staff had been invented which eliminated the need to look directly into the sun, but by then the sailor/eyepatch image had snuck into public consciousness.
There are lots of problems with this one. First, it gets the dates wrong. While the cross staff was invented around 1300, it was not used for navigation until after 1500.

More important, looking at the sun does not make you lose an eye. If you look long enough it causes blind spots. even with multiple blind spots, there would be no need to wear an eye patch.

Most important, this would only affect navigators and it would affect all navigators equally regardless of any association with piracy.

Unlike many things that we think of as "pirate", eye patches are not associated with sailors, just pirates. This makes this a very unlikely reason for wearing an eye patch.

There can be no doubt that piracy was dangerous. All of the surviving articles that pirates sailed under list cash sums to be paid to anyone who loses an arm, leg, or eye. There was good reason for this. Since pirates tended to attack any ships they came across, they might see more fighting than any other sailors, even members of a navy.

While some pirates undoubtedly lost an eye, this does not seem to be how they were perceived. When researching this posting, I looked over most of the period pictures of pirates. I couldn't find any with an eye patch.

The root of all pirate legends, Hollywood seems to have invented the image of a pirate wearing an eye patch in the 20th century. This site indicates that it came from the 1950 Treasure Island along with talking like a pirate and nearly everything else pirate-like.

Probably the people doing the research saw the same articles I mentioned above and over-represented pirates in eye patches.

I am still researching this but one strong indication is the lack of pirates (real and fictional) under Wikipedia's list of eye patch wearers.

So - bottom line, some pirates definitely lost an eye but not enough to influence the image of pirates until it was defined by Hollywood in the 20th century.

A pirate who wants to wear an eye patch is on solid historic ground but he should be in the minority and he should represent it as an eye lost in battle.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Pirate Master

I don't watch many reality shows and this is my first network one. I prefer something like Monster Garage or Junkyard Wars where people make something - or Robot Wars where they destroy each other's creations. But, Pirate Master has a pirate theme so I felt obligated to watch.

The format is simple. The contestants are divided into two teams by random chance and sent off to recover a treasure. The winning team chooses the captain for the rest of the episode. The captain chooses a first and second mate, decides how the treasure will be split, and chooses three people to get the black spot. One of the people who gets the black spot is "cut adrift". This person is chosen by popular vote from the remaining crew.

There is a lot of deal making and some bribes and pay-offs.

It doesn't really have much to do with pirates. In fact, it could as easily be called Treasure Hunters.

The show would be better if it followed the format of Stan Lee's "Who wants to be a superhero?" In that show, the would-be heroes were put to two tests each episode and people were eliminated on the basis of how they did in the tests and other factors.

I can see that here. Have a show called "Who wants to be a pirate?" The would-be pirates would compete in things like swordplay, plank walking, navigation, parrot-training (ok, this is a stretch). It would be a lot more fun to watch. It might also get better ratings. Pirate Master isn't doing very well.

What does a pirate look like?

How should you dress if you want to represent a pirate? This is a conundrum. The contemporary pictures were not drawn by eyewitnesses. At best, they represent how a contemporary person interpreted the descriptions of others.

There are a few eyewitness accounts. From that, the average pirate dressed like an average sailor. That means either long pants or slops and a short jacket.

The problem is that, if you dress like an 18th century sailor, most people are not going to know that you are portraying a pirate.

There are some things that you can do to liven up an impression. Sailors in general and pirates specifically would have access to some exotic accessories and some affected an unusual appearance.

Gold earings and a silk skarf or bandanna can certainly be justified.

Captains dressed better than crewmen, often dressing like a navy officer. They were more likely to add extra touches. Blackbeard is the ultimate example with a long, bushy black beard that he tied up with ribbons.

Pirates fought more often than regular sailors, probably more often than seamen in the navy. They walked around heavily armed. There are several descriptions of pirates wearing a sash with a brace (pair) of pistols tucked in it. They often wore a sword on a baldric.

Pirates often went into battle with a badric holding up to six holstered pistols. This was important in hand-to-hand combat. It takes several seconds and both hands to load a pistol and you only get one shot (or none if the powder is wet). The only way to get multiple shots was to carry multiple pistols.

I'm not sure about justification for bucket topped boots. At sea, pirates tended to go barefoot to avoid slipping. On shore, at port, they might dress up.

The tricorn (a three-cornered hat) was pretty universal from the late 17th century through the early 19th century. It is not something that a pirate would wear at sea - it is too easily knocked off while climbing the rigging or simply blown off, but it is something else that a pirate might wear at port to dress up.

The parrot as an accessory comes from Treasure Island. Long John Silver kept one. They are common in the Caribbean and were in demand elsewhere. Some pirates were known to give parrots as gifts. There is no reason why a pirate could not pick up a parrot as a pet or something to be sold later.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Pirate's Dinghy

Too many pirates don't have a boat. We didn't want to be land-locked pirates. On the other hand, we didn't want anything too large to handle nor did we want to spend all of our booty on a boat.

I spent days searching ads before I ran across Walker Bay. This is not a traditional wood boat. It is cast plastic. Still, it has a lot of things in its favor:

  • It's cheap.
  • It is tough - no "hole in the water that you fill with money."
  • The way it was cast it looks like a lapstrake wooden boat (one with over-lapping planks).
  • It is light enough for me to move by myself.
  • It is small enough and light enough to fit on the top of my van.
  • It can take a sail.
Here's what it looks like when assembled.

The sail kit that you can get for it does not look at all period and it more than doubles the price of the boat. I decided to make my own sail.

I started with a couple of old pike poles, and added a sail made from a canvas drop-cloth and some white duct tape. I used a sprit-rig which seems like the best choice because:

  • It was in use for centuries
  • It does not need standing rigging
  • It does not have a boom so my wife will not get hit in the head when tacking.
  • It is supposed to be beginner-friendly.

I added some wood-grain contact paper around the rail. It really improves the look of the dinghy.

Now I need to make a tiller and dagger-board and I'll be ready to sail.

So you want to be a pirate!

I've been reenacting in different periods for around 30 years but a lot of the events and sites that we used to go to have fallen through. So - my wife and I decided to try pirating. There are pirate events and we even know some of the people who go to them. Also, it gives me an excuse to get a sailboat which I've been wanting to do for years.

Getting a costume is easy. I've been doing a pirate with just the stuff from my closet for years. Recently I got a new coat, a nice, 1760-1770s gray wool frock coat with big buttons. It's nicely made and a good price.

Now, when doing a pirate impression there is the big question - should you go with what they actually looked like or what people expect? I'm compromising and calling myself a captain. They seem to have worn the longer coats. The regular seamen dressed like any other sailors with shorter coats that were easier when climbing the rigging.

The other thing I'm doing in having some sloops made. These were wide pants that end at the knee. They developed during the 17th century when most people wore full breeches that were gathered at the knee. I found out a couple of years ago that these hold water. The sloops are not gathered at the knee and are fairly light weight material so they can dry quickly.

I can use these with my other 17th century stuff so these should be generally useful.