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A perfect piratical present. March 14, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Aaaarrrr! Yaaarrrr!!! Listen up, mateys! What do you buy for the little pirate-to-be’s birthday?

Silence Dogood here. My nephew’s turning five years old. His family lives across the continent from me and our friend Ben, so we don’t get to see him often and enjoy his growing up. I asked his mother to tell me what interested him now, so I could get him birthday presents that reflected what he liked, not what I or OFB had liked at his age. To my delight, she replied that he was fascinated by pirates.

Aaaarrrr!!! Here was something OFB and I could totally relate to. A few years ago, we’d made “treasure chests” out of Captain Morgan boxes for our somewhat older, much closer niece and nephew’s birthdays and filled them with pirate booty. It was the most fun I’d ever had putting presents together.

For a five-year-old, though, we needed a somewhat stripped-down version. Getting down to the bare skull-and-crossbones, it seemed to me that the perfect piratical present for a five-year-old would contain a treasure chest loaded with treasure, a small Jolly Roger flag, a bag of coin-shaped chocolates wrapped in gold foil, and an amazing, interactive book.

Fortunately, the treasure chest part proved no problem. Our favorite marble website, Land of Marbles, offers a pirate chest filled with shiny, glittery, colorful marbles, “gems,” and “gold” doubloons and “silver” pieces of eight. (Must have pieces of eight!) It also offers a big marble with the skull-and-crossbones on a field of black, perfect for completing the set. We acquired the pirate flag last time we were in North Carolina, which claims Blackbeard as a famous resident. And there are two candymakers near us—one within walking distance—that offer bags of gold coin chocolates.

The book proved to be the greatest challenge. Getting a “Pirates of the Caribbean” book or DVD seemed like an obvious solution, but surely a pirate-loving kid would already have all those. (We did get a movie-themed birthday card. Thank you, Johnny Depp.) Instead, we found the most amazing, historically accurate book on pirates imaginable.

Called Pirates vs. Pirates, it pitches ten pirates from different eras and areas against each other until only one remains. It’s like a video game in a book, with tons of action and historical factoids about each type of pirate, letting you guess who’d have won these mythical battles, then giving you their answers based on weaponry, fighting style, even food and first aid available to each type of pirate. There’s a ton of real, historical information hiding in these pages, and the graphics are unbeatable.

The winner? A buccaneer like Captain Morgan, a privateer like Sir Francis Drake, a corsair from the East? According to this book, it would be a “roundsman,” something I’d never even heard of (named for the rounds of bullets in his pistol). I’m sure my nephew will learn a lot while having fun as well. And, er, as OFB is a passionate marble collector as well as a pirate fan himself, we picked up an extra pirate treasure chest from Land of Marbles for ourselves. There’s no such thing as too much treasure, right, me hearties? Aaarrrr!!!!

‘Til next time,


The return of Captain Morgan. August 9, 2011

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Aaaarrrr!!! Yarrrr!!! Fans of Captain Morgan, rejoice!

Well, fans of the actual pirate, rejoice. Fans of Captain Morgan rum in its many incarnations have most likely never stopped rejoicing. It appears that Captain Morgan’s legendary flagship has at last been discovered, and is now being recovered, off the coast of Panama.

Captain Morgan, later Admiral Sir Henry Morgan, Lieutenant Governor and later acting Governor of Jamaica, was one lucky pirate while he lived. While his famous contemporaries, such as Blackbeard and Black Bart—the Great Pirate Roberts, most successful pirate of all times in terms of both plunder and personal style—suffered ignominious deaths at the hands of the British Navy, Captain Morgan survived and thrived, receiving a knighthood, an admiralty, and the rule of Jamaica for his efforts. (He eventually died—take note, all you rum-drinkers—of alcoholism-related liver failure.)

But Captain Admiral Governor Royal Sir Henry’s real-life adventures and successes, stunning as they were, are nothing compared to his astounding afterlife as the spokespirate for Captain Morgan rum. No pirate, living or dead, real or fictional, ever had it so good. The annual revenues from sales of Captain Morgan rum would dwarf the combined plunder of every pirate who ever lived. Even famed real-life pirates like Blackbeard and Jean Lafitte, and fictional pirates like Captain Hook, have faded to also-ran status in the face of Captain Morgan rum’s pervasive ad campaigns and ever-present bottles. The only pirate who poses the least threat to Captain Morgan’s modern-day supremacy is Cap’n Jack Sparrow, since Long John Silver’s seafood franchise has opted for a nautical rather than piratical theme and Cap’n Crunch is actually the good guy, not the pirate. 

This has, however, been a great year for pirate ships. This spring, the government of North Carolina finally agreed to recognize a shipwreck their experts had been studying for years as Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. And now we have Captain Morgan’s own flagship, pricelessly named Satisfaction, discovered and identified off the coast of Panama. Satisfaction and four other ships were lost in 1671 as Captain Morgan attempted to loosen Spain’s stranglehold on the New World by securing Panama City for the British Crown.

Unfortunately, Captain Morgan couldn’t get no satisfaction, but neither did the Panamanian government, at least until now. All treasures from the shipwreck are officially the property of the Panamanian government and will be on display in Panama. In the “what goes around comes around” mode, the recovery was led by archaeologists from Texas State University funded by, who else, Captain Morgan (rum) USA.

At least all of us pirate enthusiasts can get some satisfaction, even if we can’t afford a trip to Panama. We can see artifacts from Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, NC. Aaaarrrrr, me hearties!!! You savvy?!! Time to stir yer stumps before yer sent off to Davy Jones’s locker!

Revenge best served cold. June 13, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Aaaarrrr!!! Yaaarrrr!!! It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today with good news for pirate lovers everywhere: Blackbeard’s flagship, the famous Queen Anne’s Revenge, has been found.

Actually, it was found 15 years ago, off the coast at Fort Macon, North Carolina. But, and in spite of accounts of the exact location of its shipwreck (strangely, it ran aground on a sand bar in 1718, leading to Blackbeard’s defeat and death; some historians speculate that Blackbeard, aka Captain Edward Teach, ran the Revenge aground deliberately as a battle tactic), North Carolina’s Department of Cultural Resources wouldn’t declare its identification until now. “Ending 15 years of uncertainty,” as our local paper put it.

Admittedly, when I looked at the photo of a ship’s deck accompanying the announcement, I thought the North Carolinians had been right to refrain from making the ID, since I found it challenging to believe that Blackbeard would have had three plastic lawn chairs lined up against the Revenge’s starboard rail. But after reading the caption, I saw with great relief that the ship in the photo was actually a research vessel, the Dan Moore, and Blackbeard’s 3,000-pound anchor was being brought aboard. It’s just one of tens of thousands of artifacts that have been recovered from the ship over the years, which, as the article says, “fit the origins of the ship, the crew and the places it was known to have visited.”

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. Taking 15 years to positively identify Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge is surely living up to that proverb. No doubt our hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the great Benjamin Franklin—no slouch himself when it came to coining proverbs—would approve. 

Now haul old Anne up and let us take a look at ‘er. And move it, lubbers, we don’t have another 15 years to kick our heels while yer ditherin’. You savvy?


                                   Richard Saunders



A pirate looks at… Virginia.* May 29, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, ready to share a fun event and some piratical trivia with you. Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, we’re a little pirate-obsessed. We’re not even immune to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, though we give thanks to God for the long-overdue departure of Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom. Much as we love Bill Nighy, the series hasn’t been the same since the departure of the evil British overlords.

But I digress. Our real obsession is real-life pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy. So we perked up when we saw that Hampton, Virginia, is holding a Blackbeard Pirate Festival from June 3-5, complete with street skirmishes and sea battles. Check it out for yourselves at www.blackbeardpiratefestival.com. We just wish we could attend! They claim that Blackbeard’s final battle took place at Hampton. (See our trivia below for a few thoughts about that.)

Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach, is perhaps the best-known (though hardly the most successful) real-life pirate of all time, unless you count Captain Morgan. (Fictional pirates like Long John Silver and Captain Hook don’t count.) He certainly knew everything about successful theater: He regularly put flares in his hair and beard and lit them during attacks, giving his enemies the impression that the Devil himself was attacking them as flames rose up around his head.

Blackbeard was a huge, burly man, fierce and fearless enough to set the standard for pirates for all time. His pirate flag would have put the fear of God into anyone: a horned skeleton held an houglass, to show that time had run out for his victims, and in the other hand held a spear pointed at a bleeding heart. In addition to his famous beard, tied in octopus-like sections with red ribbon, Captain Teach was literally armed to the teeth, bristling with cutlasses, pistols, daggers, and assorted other weapons. 

But what do we really know about the man who was known as Blackbeard, the man who called himself Edward Teach (often spelled in a most flexible manner, as was common at the time, including Thatch)? Let’s check out some Blackbeard trivia and find out:

* Blackbeard was British. Given that he’s the official state pirate of North Carolina, basing his operations out of Okracoke, and is also claimed by Virginia and even South Carolina (he once held the entire city of Charleston, South Carolina for ransom, which was duly paid), you’d be forgiven for assuming that he, like his fellow pirate captain and sometime-colleague Stede Bonnet, was American. But he was actually from Bristol.

* We don’t know his real name. Blackbeard sailed the seas as Captain Edward Teach (or, as noted, some rather creative spelling of his last name). But pirates typically adopted “stage names” to protect their families back home from their notoreity, and it’s believed that Blackbeard did this too, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment; it’s proved impossible to trace anyone’s ancestry with the name Edward Teach or its variants back to Bristol at the time. (Stede Bonnet was a rare exception, as was Captain—later Admiral—Sir Henry Morgan.) One contemporary gave Blackbeard’s real last name as Drummond.

* He came from a wealthy, educated family. Many people assume pirates took to the high seas in desperation, to raise money because they were poor, had trained as sailors, and, out of a job once the wars that powered the British Navy came to an end, turned their hard-won skills to illegal uses. But in some high-profile cases, boredom, the lust for adventure, or the excitement of battle and/or living on the edge seemed the greater draw. This was certainly true of privateers like Sir Francis Drake and wealthy planter-turned-pirate Stede Bonnet, as well as the educated dandy Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, aka The Great Pirate Roberts, the most successful pirate of all time. Apparently, it was also true of Blackbeard, who was well educated in a time when this was a rarity, and could read and write fluently. Certainly the Drummond family was prominent; its head was the Earl of Perth. And his actions as a pirate tend to support the theory of a gentlemanly upbringing (see below).

* His behavior belied his appearance. There is simply no question that Blackbeard, tall, broad-shouldered, bristling with weapons, with a long, black beard that covered his face to the eyes (according to eyewitness accounts) and was tied into multiple tails, was the most ferocious-looking pirate who ever lived. And he apparently used his theatrically terrifying appearance to good effect, spreading his legend far and wide to intimidate his opponents. But in practice, he was a very different man: He never harmed a single captive, and he led his crews by consensus rather than handing down orders like the higher-ups in the British Navy.  

* His weakness was women. Women certainly weren’t Blackbeard’s downfall, but he was clearly addicted to them, given his practice of having 12 to 14 wives simultaneously like some Caliph or Satrap. (Contrast this to a fellow pirate, “Calico Jack” Rackham, whose fidelity to his consort Anne Bonny, or Bonney, caused him to break with pirate tradition and sail with her onboard in defiance of the pirate code.) However, Blackbeard’s appetites didn’t turn him into a fool: He spread his wives out over many ports, presumably to avoid domestic disputes, thus launching the concept of “a wife in every port” that still dogs sailors to this day.

* His death can be claimed by both Virginia and North Carolina. North Carolina, because he died in a battle at his home base there at Okracoke Island; Virginia, because its governor, Alexander Spotswood, commissioned the man who brought him down, Lieutenant Robert Maynard. Blackbeard remained brave, bold, and defiant to the last, toasting the man who was ultimately to claim credit for his death and take the reward money (by hauling Blackbeard’s severed head back to Virginia as proof) and by destroying both Maynard’s sloops.

* Blackbeard’s ship had the best name. Yes, The Golden Hind is pretty impressive, but not as impressive as Queen Anne’s Revenge. It was actually found and excavated in 1997, and you can see the spoils for yourself at the North Carolina Maritime Museum.

So aaarrr, yaaarrr, me hearties!!! If you’re in range of Hampton, Virginia, the first weekend of June, haul yerselves over and take in the festival while toasting that great and mysterious figure, Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. It’s time to take a pirate stand. You savvy?!!


                         Richard Saunders  

* With apologies to Jimmy Buffett.

Blackbeard in the news. August 17, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Aaaarrrr!!! Yar! It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about all things piratical, or at least all the pirate news that’s (apparently) fit to print.

Longtime readers know that our friend Ben, Silence Dogood and I have a fondness for almost all things piratical, as long as they’re historical and/or just good fun. (The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and International Talk Like a Pirate Day come to mind.) While we recognize that today’s pirates are just trying to make a living the way their famous forebears did—plundering, capturing, ransoming, and generally terrorizing all comers on the High Seas—we find it a lot harder to warm up to them. And harder still to believe that they’re getting away with it in today’s high-tech world.

But they are getting away with it, I realized, when my eye was drawn to a prominent portrait of Blackbeard, aka Captain Edward Teach, on, of all things, the front page of this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal. Now, the Journal is best known as a financial publication, and it could be argued that piracy as a general practice is not exactly unknown in the world of high finance. But no, this was an article about piracy in its original sense: robbery at sea. (Check out the article online; it’s great! It’s “Who’s a Pirate? U.S. Court Sees Duel Over Definition” by Keith Johnson, Saturday/Sunday edition August 14-15, 2010, at www.WSJ.com.)

The focus of the article is the ongoing trial in Norfolk, Virginia, of six Somali pirates who’d attacked a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Ashland, this past April. It’s the first U.S. trial for piracy since a blockade runner was hauled in on piracy charges in 1861, during the Civil War. The problem? It appears that a legal definition of a pirate is nowhere to be found.

Apparently, conviction for piracy in the U.S. carries an automatic sentence of life in prison, a downgrade in our kinder, gentler times from the original sentence, summary execution. But the crux of the legal dilemma is this: Are you a pirate if, like the Somalis on trial, you make an unsuccessful attempt to plunder, capture, ransom, and terrorize, or only if you succeed?

To this untrained eye, you’re a pirate if you’re trying to be a pirate, whether you ultimately succeed or qualify for Darwin Award status. But to the legally appointed American defenders of the Somalis, herein lies the loophole that will free their clients from the consequences of their actions. No wonder lawyers have such a bad name. (As in, “What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the sea?” “A good start.”)

Now of course, as with many things, the situation is far more nuanced than it seems. As I understand it, most Somali pirates aren’t hardened criminals, but 18-year-old boys who’ve taken up piracy in a desperate attempt to feed their extended families and communities in a country that’s descended into chaos. But it still seems to me that these lawyers’ efforts would be better directed at trying to establish viable (and legal) means of providing a livelihood for their clients, and Somalis in general, rather than putting such tremendous effort into getting them off on a technicality.

But I’m straying from the point here, which is that the WSJ article contained fascinating nuggets of information about pirates and piracy through the ages. For example, definitions of pirates range from Cicero’s “the common enemy of all” to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1820 definition of piracy as “robbery upon the sea” to a 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty defining piracy as “any illegal acts of violence, detention or depradation committed for private ends on the high seas.”

The article also notes that “Piracy was the world’s first crime with universal jurisdiction, meaning that any country had the right to apprehend pirates on the high seas.” And the article’s author, Keith Johnson, reminds us history buffs that pirates were responsible for the establishment of the U.S. Navy, after President Jefferson got sick of paying tribute fees to the pirates of the Barbary Coast so U.S. merchant vessels could have safe passage.

Most interesting of all to me was a graphic included with the article that suggests that piracy is enjoying a resurgence all over the globe, not just in Africa but throughout Southeast Asia, in China and Vietnam, in the Americas, in Bangladesh, and even in the Arabian Sea. Over 200 attacks on ships occurred in the first 6 months of 2010 alone, and “an estimated 18 ships and their crews are currently being held for ransom.” I can’t say how many pirate attacks occurred per year in the Golden Age of Piracy, roughly 1650-1720 (or, according to some sources, 1690-1730), but I’d be surprised if it was over 400.

I will say that what today’s pirates have in determination, they lack in style. Where are the hallmarks of the great pirates of yore: Blackbeard with burning flares in his trademark beard and hair; Black Bart, the Great Pirate Roberts, most successful of all pirates, with his extremely dandified outfits and love of ostentatious jewels and a proper high tea; Stede Bonnet, with his refined planter’s manners and utterly ruthless approach to captured ships; Captain Morgan, who conveyed his piratical finesse into a governorship in Jamaica; Jean Lafitte, whose legendary gallantry and Creole savoir-faire was matched only by his bravery. It’s the larger-than-life nature of these pirate legends, and their fictional counterparts, that set pirates apart from common criminals and make them appealing.

Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, we miss the good old days.

                  You savvy?