Monday, 28 May 2012
Review, 'In the Wake of the Buccaneers'
In the Seas of the Dead Man’s Chest: A Pirate-Ship’s Cruise,
A book review of "In The Wake of the Buccaneers." By A, Hyatt Verrill.*
From the Illustrated London News, 1923. Researched by Dennis Lien; digitized by Doug Frizzle, May 2012.
Sam, black as ebony and muscled like a Hercules, pilot and “captain" of the Vigilant, cared nothing about pirates and had no desire to emulate their doings. “Ah's a man o' peace, Ah is," he said, “An’ Ah’s tellin’ you true. Chief, if Ah sees a man wif a gun or pistol approachin’ me, Ah don' mek to remain to argify. No, Sir! Ah jus' says to mah feet. ‘The Lord put you on mah laigs for to run, an' now you obey the Lord.' "
On the other hand, his Chief's enthusiasm was ecstatic. His heart sang and his mind thrilled to the names and the deeds of the buccaneer: "Strange incomprehensible, quixotic men, these reckless buccaneers. Cruel, relentless, unprincipled, and yet with their own inexorable laws, their own code of honour, their streak of gallantry and their bravery which, despite their sins and their wickedness, we cannot but admire . . . we must not judge them by modern standards. In their days piracy was a profession rather than a crime, and, while openly frowned upon by the powers, privately abetted and encouraged. To us these men appear bloodthirsty monsters, but we must bear in mind that in their day life was cheap and torture was legalised as a punishment for the most trivial crimes. Such pleasantries as burning holes through liars' tongues, cutting off eaves-droppers’ ears, branding the palms of thieves' hands, or putting out eyes were in the same category as ten days’ imprisonment or ten dollars' fine to-day. . .In the days when the Virgins were a haven for pirates the bodies of men hanging in chains and surrounded by carrion crows were almost an essential part of the waterside landscape in all seaports, and attracted no more attention than an illuminated advertisement on Broadway does at the present time."
They were essentially of their hour—and what characters to conjure with: "Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest—Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"
Blackbeard, or, Old Teach; "Of immense size and coarse and brutal aspect, Teach nurtured a huge black beard which covered his ugly face to his eyes, and which, falling to his waist, was braided into innumerable small pigtails, the ends being tied together over his ears. His hair, also of inky hue, fell to his shoulders, and almost met his beetling, bushy black eyebrows over his forehead. As though not ferocious-looking enough naturally, he was accustomed, when making an attack, to stick burning slow-matches in his hair and beard which surrounded his fierce face and gleaming eyes with a ring of fire and smoke, and, according to a contemporaneous description, 'glowed most horribly.'" Add to this fourteen wives and a fighting death while he held his "all but decapitated head in place with one hand" and pulled pistol-trigger with the other, and what picture could be more completely satisfactory?
Then the much-maligned Captain Kidd, victim of a “frame up"; the "sparkish" Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who turned from privateering to piracy, only to die in his bed, at Spring Gardens; Red Legs, the moral "pirate who scuttled ships and sacked towns, but was never known to harm a woman or torture or kill a prisoner; Bartholomew Sharp, "sea-artist and valiant commander," whose "Dangerous Voyage" included the crossing of that Bridge of the World, the Isthmus of Panama, a canoe-attack on the Spanish Fleet off Perico Island, and the ravaging of the western coast of South America; Major Stede Bonnet, a wealthy pillar of the Church in Barbadoes, who went adventuring, joined Blackbeard, and in due course was hanged at White Point, thus escaping finally from the nagging wife who had driven him to roving; George, Earl of Cumberland, Knight of the Garter, who "as privateer, always flaunted in his hat a claret-coloured diamond-studded glove given to him by Queen Elizabeth; Rock Brasiliano, who “had no good
behaviour or government over himself in his domestic or private affairs”; the “most esecrable scoundrel” Lolonais; William Parker, who took San Jerome by storm; and most remarkable of all, Henry Morgan, who, in a scant five years, scourged the Caribbean and the Spanish Main, was knighted, and became Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica and whipper with scorpions—an unfitting reward for his astonishing attack on Panama, then so rich that it was called the Castle of Gold.
Their names are legion; many they "bereaved of life"; many were tortured, many butchered out of hand, hanged at the yard-arm or forced to walk the plank. They profited none but themselves, and that of course, they did handsomely. Their ways were co-operative; all shared according to plan. This was the method of it. The boatswain would get to work under the eye of the Captain. "Dumping a chest of coins upon a sheet of tarry canvas, this fellow would count them out in piles, one for each man, and to every coin he tossed on the piles for the crew he would throw five upon that which formed the Captain's share. Pieces of eight crudely struck from silver bullion, dull-golden onzas, castellanos, doubloons, guineas, louis d'or, oddly shaped 'cross-money,’ in turn were divided. Then came ingots of gold and bars of silver, altar-pieces and chalices, dishes of beaten gold, jewelled girdles, rings and bracelets, necklaces of pearls and emeralds—a collection worth a king's ransom. And these, after the glowering chieftain had taken his pick, were gambled for by the tossing of coins or with dice, for so varied and miscellaneous, was the lot that to apportion the articles fairly was impossible. Last of all came the women…”
And note the value of the "dividends"; "Not infrequently a successful foray would result in so vast an amount of loot that when the prizes were divided even the common sailors would receive as much as five thousand pieces of eight. . . The purchasing power of such a sum was then equivalent to about a quarter of a million (dollars) at the prevent time."
With such "easy money" to be had for the boarding and sinking, it seems almost uncanny that the pirates should have thought it necessary to "insure" themselves before sailing but they did! Having decided that "No prey, no pay" was to be the rule they proceeded to the drawing up of a schedule of compensations for injuries.
Such are a few of the unusual "points" resulting from Mr. Hyatt Verrill’s cruise in the wake of the buccaneers. There are a fascinating number of others.
How many know the origin of the term "buccaneer"? Here it is. "One of the principal articles of food and of sport was the smoke-dried flesh of cattle and hogs, a product peculiar to Hispaniola and the neighbouring islands, and known by the Carib name of boucan or bucan. Tortuga, with limited agricultural resources but innumerable wild animals, was particularly well adapted to the bucanning industry, and a very large proportion of the settlers devoted virtually all their time to hunting and curing meat. As a result, the inhabitants soon became known as boucaniers, bucaneers, or buccaneers, a name which was to become famous throughout the world. The original significance of 'buccaneer' was wholly lost, and, becoming synonymous with 'pirate,' it was destined to carry terror to the hearts of Spaniards far and near."
Few, also, can be aware of Saba, neighbour of St. Eustatius, and "jutting from the tumbling sea for nearly three thousand feet—the most remarkable island, the most topsy-turvy, as bit of land in all the seven seas. . . Viewing the island from the sea, one would scarcely dream that a human being dwelt upon this mid-sea pinnacle, but a thousand feet above the water, snugly hidden in an extinct crater as though dropped from the clouds, is a delightfully neat, pretty, and typical Dutch village. . . A flight of roughly hewn stone steps leads upwards towards the clouds . . . eight hundred steps," and everything and everybody has to pass up them, even the wood for the fashioning of the boats, which have to be let down the sides of the cliffs by the builders, "exactly as though their island were a ship and they were lowering their craft from the davits."
Then there are Nevis, once the world's most famous Spa, where "Horatio Nelson, Esq., Captain of H.M.S. Boreas," wedded "Frances Herbert Nisbet, widow"; the "drowned city" which was the capital of Jamestown; a few miles beyond Puerto Plata, the site of Isabella, the first European settlement in the New World, which Columbus believed to be a great gold-mining centre; the golden altar of San José, hidden from Morgan by a coat of white paint; and many another Romance.
Never in her old age could the Vigilant—pirate-ship, privateer, slaver, man-o'-war—have sailed more blithely than when our author sent her adventuring again; seldom can author have reaped richer harvest of the seas. "In the Wake of the Buccaneers" is vastly entertaining, a Skeltery of Skelteries—and all the tuppenny-colouring is true! How Claud Lovat Fraser would have revelled in illustrating it! E. H. G.
“The piece of eight was the granddaddy of our own American dollar. This famous coin (still very common and known as the 'Spanish dollar’) was a silver piece with a value of 4 pesetas or 8 reales. Roughly, a real was worth 12½ cents, or 1-100th of a doubloon." A piece of eight was thus worth about 1 dollar, and a doubloon, 12½ dollars. The onza, or double doubloon of 200 reales or 100 pesetas, was equivalent to about 25 dollars. "Cross-money" was a curious fractional currency consisting of slugs of various sizes cut from pieces of eight and so hammered as to obliterate the inscriptions except the cross-like part of the Spanish coat-of-arms.”
Photographs from "In the Wake of the Buccaneers," by A. Hyatt Verrill. By Courtesy of the Publisher, Leonard Parsons.
*"In the Wake of the Buccaneers" by A. Hyatt Verrill. Illustrated with Drawings and Photographs by the Author, and Rare Old Engravings. (Leonard Parsons: 21s. net.)
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.