Friday, January 25, 2008

The Treasure of the Black Swan

It's the 16th century all over again. A salvage company recovered something like $500,000,000 in sunken treasure from a ship in international waters. Spain says that the treasure is theirs. They never admitted giving up on any ship that sank. Ever. By their reasoning, anything recovered is theirs. Thanks for finding it and bringing it up.

The treasure hunters haven't named the wreck or the site. They have given it the code name of the Black Swan.

Spain insists that the treasure hunters are nothing but pirates and has seized the treasure hunters' ships. I'm not sure that Spain is quite clear on how piracy works but usually the party who seizes someone's ship is the pirate.

More here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Pirates and Slavery

Pirates and slavery were linked in a number of different ways. It is often overlooked but at the same time that Virginia colonists were importing African slaves, corsairs from Northern Africa were sailing up the English Channel and taking English as slaves to be sold in Africa. I was reminded of this by a showing of the silent version of The Sea Hawk. Adapted from a Sabatini novel by the same name, it is about an English nobleman who is taken captive by Moors.

Jump forward from the early 17th century to the golden age of pirates (late 17th to early 18th centuries) and there is a different relationship between pirates and slavers. There are no longer any pirates string enough to invade European countries. Instead they prey on slavers. The waters off of Africa were often patrolled by pirates hoping to catch a slaver.

Romantic tradition has pirates capturing a ship full of slaves and freeing them. Althought there were exceptions, in general this went against the mercenary instincts of pirates who simply considered slaves as part of the haul. On the other hand, slaves were a lot of trouble to handle and pirates would prefer to take a slave ship when it was on its way to buy slaves. At that point its cargo would be trade goods.

A slave ship was desirable on its own. They were generally strong, fast, and well-armed - the perfect combination for a pirate ship. That is the origin of the Whydah.

The final association between pirates and slaves is that it was the only profession open to many ex-slaves. Blacks were often a large portion of pirate crews and many of these were escaped or freed slaves. Sometimes pirates recruited slaves when raiding sugar plantations.

There is a lot more about black pirates here.

The writers at Disney were aware of the ties between pirates and slaves. The back story for Captain Jack is that he was, at one point, employed by the East India Company as captain of the Wicked Wench. When he refused to transport slaves, Sparrow was branded as a pirate and the Wench was sunk. Sparrow bargained with Davy Jones who raised the ship and rechristened it the Black Pearl. This back story gave Sparrow and the other pirates the moral high ground over the East India Company. After all, pirates steal from people but the East India Company stole people.

Friday, January 4, 2008

RIP George MacDonald Fraser

George MacDonald Fraser passed away on Wednesday, Jan. 2. He is best known for his Flashman books but he gets mention here for his 1983 book, Pyrates. Like all of Fraser's books, this one was very well researched. Unlike the others, it was also a complete farce. The book followed several pirates, all based on historic ones but with their traits exaggerated. For example, where Blackbeard fastened burning slow match to his beard (or wore it under his hat), Fraser's version was Firebeard who attached firecrackers to his beard and set them off during battle.

Fraser also wrote the screen play for the 1970s version of the Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers - the best and most accurate versions of the novel.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Ship or Fort

Ok, a pirate ship is attacking a town which is guarded by a fort. Which has the advantage?

This gets complicated fast. A small pirate ship will have the disadvantage, especially if it has smaller cannons. The fort will also have an advantage if it is high on a hill since the elevation will rob the ship's cannon balls of their momentum while aiding the fort's cannons.

But let's assume that the fort is a guarded with stone walls on modest rise but not really up in the air. Let's also assume that the pirate ship has several good-sized cannons. Who would win?

The answer is counter-intuitive. At first glance it seems like a wooden ship is going to be a sitting duck against a stone fort.

Here's an experiment to try. Take a sledge hammer and go hit a stone wall a few times. Chances are pretty good that you will damage it. Now, take the same hammer and go hit a tree. Chances are really good that you will not do much damage. Stone is brittle so it doesn't react well to cannon fire. A wood ship, on the other hand, is difficult to sink with cannon fire. If the ship is made from live oak then it is nearly impossible to sink (Old Ironsides earned her name because cannon balls bounced off).

Of course, a fort has to have stone walls. If it has timber walls then the pirates can storm the walls on foot and cut a hole. If it has earthen walls then they can climb them. The best forts had earthen walls faced with stone. These were expensive and took up a lot of land. They are also bigger and require more people to defend.

A ship has some other advantages. A fort often has cannons facing the wrong direction. Moving them takes time. A ship can bring all of its cannon to bear by simply turning.

A fort's cannons are difficult to aim at a moving target. The best thing is to wait for the ship to come in range and try to hit it then. This is harder if the ship is turning or changing speed. Again, the ship can turn so the gunners can wait until their guns are aimed properly before firing. This takes talent.

The ship does not even need to fight. The easiest way past a fort is to slip past in the dark, carried by the tide. Once the ship is past the fort, the town can be taken and the residents held hostage until the fort is surrendered.

Morgan came up with a new twist. After slipping past a fort, he found it strongly manned when he went to leave. He spent the next day rowing men to shore for a land assault. The commander of the fort repositioned the cannons to cover the land instead of the bay. It turned out that Morgan tricked them. The boat had taken the same load of men back and forth all day. They would row to shore then hide beside the boat and be towed back to the ship. In the dark of the night, Morgan's fleet raised anchor and let the tide carry them past the fort. This was so clever that Sabatini had Captain Blood do the same thing.