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Posts Tagged ‘pirates

“With the sextant he made obeisance to the sun-god”*…

 

exam-final-Fig5_Boombaar_HSM

A practice exam in the navigation workbook of C. J. Boombaar (1727–32)

 

In 1673, in a North Sea skirmish that killed nearly 150 men, the French privateer Jean-François Doublet took a bullet that tossed him from the forecastle and broke his arm in two places. How did the precocious young second lieutenant choose to spend his convalescence? Doublet repaired to the French port city of Dieppe, where he signed up for three months of navigation lessons…

During the 16th to 18th centuries, Europeans embarked on thousands of long-distance sea voyages around the world. These expeditions in the name of trade and colonisation had irreversible, often deadly, impacts on peoples around the globe. Heedless of those consequences, Europeans focused primarily on devising new techniques to make their voyages safer and faster. They could no longer sail along the coasts, taking their directional cues from prominent landmarks (as had been common in the preceding centuries). Nor did they have sophisticated knowledge of waves and currents, as did their counterparts in the Pacific. They had no choice but to figure out new methods of navigating across the open water. Instead of memorising the shoreline, they looked to the heavens, calculating time and position from the sun and the stars.

Celestial navigation was certainly feasible, but it required real technical skills as well as fairly advanced mathematics. Sailors needed to calculate the angle of a star’s elevation using a cross-staff or quadrant. They needed to track the direction of their ship’s course relative to magnetic north. Trigonometry and logarithms offered the best way to make these essential measurements: for these, a sailor needed to be adept at using dense numerical tables. All of a sudden, a navigator’s main skill wasn’t his memory – it was his mathematical ability.

To help the average sailor with these technical computations, maritime administrators and entrepreneurs opened schools in capital cities and port towns across Europe. Some were less formal arrangements, where small groups of men gathered in the teacher’s home, paying for a series of classes over the course of a winter when they were on shore…

How did the sailors of early modern Europe learn to traverse the world’s seas? By going to school and doing maths problems: “When pirates studied Euclid.”

* “With the sextant he made obeisance to the sun-god, he consulted ancient tomes and tables of magic characters, muttered prayers in a strange tongue that sounded like Indexerrorparallaxrefraction, made cabalistic signs on paper, added and carried one, and then, on a piece of holy script called the Grail – I mean, the Chart – he placed his finger on a certain space conspicuous for its blankness and said, ‘Here we are.’ When we looked at the blank space and asked, “And where is that?” he answered in the cipher-code of the higher priesthood, “31 -15 – 47 north, 133 – 5 – 30 west.” And we said, ‘Oh,’ and felt mighty small.”                           – Jack London, The Cruise of the Snark

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As we find our way, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to John Locke; he died on this date in 1856.  A namesake of the famous philosopher, Locke trained as a doctor, but turned to geology– and to the invention of scientific, surveying, and navigational instruments, including a surveyor’s compass, a collimating level (Locke’s Hand Level), and a gravity escapement for regulator clocks.  The electro-chronograph he constructed (1844-48) for the United States Coast Survey was installed in the Naval Observatory, Washington, in 1848.  It improved determination of longitudes, as it was able to make a printed record on a time scale of an event to within one one-hundredth of a second.  When connected via the nation’s telegraph system, astronomers could record the time of events they observed from elsewhere in the country, by pressing a telegraph key.

Locke,_John source

 

Written by LW

July 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There was a sound in their voices which suggested rum”*…

 

Pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Read depicted in 1724

How many real-life pirates can you name? While Captain Kidd or Blackbeard might come immediately to mind, names like Anne Bonny and Mary Read probably don’t. But as noted historian Marcus Rediker writes, they were just a few of the many women who sailed the seven seas disguised as men.

These women pirates have been almost completely obscured by the lore that surrounds their male counterparts. But they weren’t that uncommon: Marcus writes that women pirates “were not entirely unusual cases” and that they were part of “a deeply rooted underground tradition of female cross-dressing, pan-European in its dimensions but particularly strong in modern England, the Netherlands, and Germany.”

This tradition hinged on women with nothing to lose: people so marginalized and forgotten that all was opportunity. Women dressed as men to escape poverty and follow adventure on land, and women like Bonny and Read did it at sea…

Tap the barrel of rum at “Women were pirates, too.”

* Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

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As we raise the Jolly Roger, we might spare a thought for William Kidd; he was hanged on this day in 1701. Better known as “Captain Kidd,” he was a Scottish privateer, hired by European royals to attack foreign ships, mostly in the Caribbean.  But when, on an expedition to the Indian Ocean, his crew insisted on attacking the Quadegh Merchant, a large Armenian ship laden with treasures, Kidd found himself on the wrong side of the British government.  He was publicly executed in London in 1701, as a warning to other pirates.

Legends persist about Captain Kidd and the treasure some believe he buried in the Caribbean.

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Written by LW

May 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“There was a sound in their voices which suggested rum”*…

 

While pirates have a reputation for crime and cruelty, they are also known to be flamboyant dressers, if most depictions in popular culture can be believed. And there’s one essential accessory sported by everyone from Jack Sparrow to Captain Morgan: the gold hoop earring.

When exactly men of the sea began to put rings in their ears is anyone’s guess, but there are a handful of legends that claim to explain the fashion. The most popular myth behind the jewelry trend is that sailors would wear gold and silver earrings so that no matter where they died, they would be adorned with a way to pay for their burial. Since gold and silver were accepted forms of payment just about everywhere in the world, having a hunk of it stuck in your ear where it won’t wash away at sea was a pretty solid insurance policy…

Consider the other possible explanations at: “Why Do Pirates Wear Earrings?

* Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

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As we catwalk the plank, we might recall that it was on this date in 1844 that John Cox Stevens and eight friends met on his yacht Gimcrack, anchored in New York Harbor, to found the New York Yacht Club, usually considered the first yacht club in the U.S. though the Detroit Boat Club pre-dates it by 5 years.

The burgee of the New York Yacht Club

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Written by LW

July 30, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Veni, vidi, vici”*…

 

A young (and unshaven) Julius Caesar

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In chapter 2 of his Life of Julius Caesar, the Greek historian Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.120) describes what happened when Caesar encountered the Cilician pirates, who infested the Aegean Sea, in 75 BCE.  To that point, the Cilician’s had regularly offered the Roman senators slaves, which the nobles needed for their plantations in Italy– and which the Senate accepted as tribute, refraining from sending the Roman navy against the pirates.

The translation below was made by Robin Seager.

First, when the pirates demanded a ransom of twenty talents, Caesar burst out laughing. They did not know, he said, who it was that they had captured, and he volunteered to pay fifty. Then, when he had sent his followers to the various cities in order to raise the money and was left with one friend and two servants among these Cilicians, about the most bloodthirsty people in the world, he treated them so highhandedly that, whenever he wanted to sleep, he would send to them and tell them to stop talking.

For thirty-eight days, with the greatest unconcern, he joined in all their games and exercises, just as if he was their leader instead of their prisoner. He also wrote poems and speeches which he read aloud to them, and if they failed to admire his work, he would call them to their faces illiterate savages, and would often laughingly threaten to have them all hanged. They were much taken with this and attributed his freedom of speech to a kind of simplicity in his character or boyish playfulness.

However, the ransom arrived from Miletus and, as soon as he had paid it and been set free, he immediately manned some ships and set sail from the harbor of Miletus against the pirates. He found them still there, lying at anchor off the island, and he captured nearly all of them. He took their property as spoils of war and put the men themselves into the prison at Pergamon. He then went in person to [Marcus] Junius, the governor of Asia, thinking it proper that he, as praetor in charge of the province, should see to the punishment of the prisoners. Junius, however, cast longing eyes at the money, which came to a considerable sum, and kept saying that he needed time to look into the case.

Caesar paid no further attention to him. He went to Pergamon, took the pirates out of prison and crucified the lot of them, just as he had often told them he would do when he was on the island and they imagined that he was joking.

* (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) Julius Caesar, in a letter to the Roman Senate, 46 BCE (after his short war against Pharnaces II of Pontus)

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As we exclaim “Great Caesar’s Ghost!”, we might recall that it was in this date in 1914 that Franz Ferdinand, 51 year old heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo, then the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovnia, where he was visiting to inspect the Empire’s troops.  A member of the Black Hand nationalist group, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed both the Crown Prince and his wife as they were being driven through the city.  The assassination– triggering, as it did, competing accusations and the “calling” of interlocking alliances– ignited World War I, which broke out one month later.

Franz Ferdinand

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Written by LW

June 28, 2014 at 1:01 am

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