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Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them DownThe Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them DownThe Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love a book title that accurately describes itself. In this case, The Republic of Pirates: Being the True Story of the Caribbean Pirates and The Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard while being a bit long-winded accurately summarizes the tale. 

Woodard's journalistic background and natural story-telling style lends well to understanding how a group of seagoing cutthroats got started in the pirate trade and how eventually they wound up founding and losing a pirate republic.

Woodard reintroduces us to many of the pirates we know from sources like Captain Charles Johnson's 1724 book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. This rogues gallery includes names like Edward Thatch aka Edward Teach aka Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, Charles Vane, Henry Jennings, Benjamin Hornigold, and Paulsgrave Williams.

He places their deeds in the context of Jacobite sentiment and the events leading up the the Rising of 1715, which was a major rebellion against King George I of Britain and his German house of Hanover in favor of reestablishing the reign of James II of the Scottish house of Stuart.

Along the way, Woodward introduces us to Jamaican governor Lord Archibald Hamilton, the career Royal Navy man and Jacobite conspirator  who selected and equipped many of the Golden Age of Piracy's most notorious pirates. 

Woodard plots a detailed chronological course for the major pirates, showing how they wound up taking over the weakly-governed islands of the Bahamas. He also introduces us to the flawed but heroic Woodes Rogers, who would eventually drive the pirates out of the Bahamas. 

A Bristol merchant, Rogers was one of the few men to have circumnavigated the world in his day, returning with his original ships and most of his crew. On his world-girdling voyage, Rogers rescued the marooned Alexander Selkirk, who would become the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

Involved both as a privateer and a slave-trader, Rogers seems at first blush one who would be voted most likely to be a pirate. Woodard establishes Rogers' motives and tells both the good and the bad about the man who eventually would twice be appointed as royal governor of the Bahamas.

I recommend this book to anyone who would like to get a larger vision for the problem of 18th century piracy in the Caribbean or who simply loves history told well. It is also an excellent source for fiction writers, especially the extensive endnotes.

View all my reviews

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Guest Interview: C.L. Dyck with Marc Schooley on König's Fire

It is my very great pleasure to introduce writer-editor C.L. Dyck's interview of Christian speculative fiction writer Marc Schooley as they discuss Schooley's latest book König's Fire.

Schooley's König's Fire has gained notice for Christian speculative fiction with a favorable mention in Publisher's Weekly. You can learn more about Marc Schooley at www.marcschooley.com

Writer-editor C.L. Dyck is friend to many Christian speculative fiction writers. A gifted writer in her own right, Dyck's thought-provoking essays can be found at her web site scitascienda.com.

Now before you eyes wander any farther, please click on the interview and enjoy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On writing - Guard your heart

One of the toughest things I've ever learned, and am still learning, is how to guard my heart against the comments of others. Rejection in its many forms can wound deeply, especially if what you are expressing comes from deep within you.  If you find yourself crying as you write, you've tapped into something that you deeply feel and intensely want to share with others.  Rest assured that there will be people who read your work who just won't get it. They can wound you deeply if you let them.

Thanks to the wonders of the Information Age, reviewers are no longer limited to the local newspaper's Sunday book column. Instead, average people using their home computers  can now determine the sales of your work and your future as a writer by posting their opinions at blogs and online booksellers.

If you have a thin skin, that is if you are easily offended, then you might not find this form of feedback to be the acclaim you've desired. My major mental defense against written criticism has been a line about life in the big city  from that profoundly deep movie, "Muppets take Manhattan," to wit: "Peoples is peoples."  I use that phrase to remind myself that you are going to experience both good and ill from critics because "Peoples is peoples."  Count on it. It's a fun maxim that stirs a chuckle instead of a sigh.

Criticism, even ill-meant criticism, can contain nuggets of truth that will strengthen you and improve your work, if you are prepared to receive them. Proverbs 17:10 says, "A single rebuke does more for a person of understanding than a hundred lashes on the back of a fool."  Therefore, stay humble and teachable without becoming a doormat for everyone who has an opinion.

As for an emotional defense against rejection, I've learned to guard my heart, first by choosing with whom I will share certain things, and secondly by first examining my motivations for sharing deeply felt observations with anyone.  Those closest to you may be unprepared to appreciate your work. Even Jesus experienced this in Mark3:21, "When his family heard what was happening, they tried to take him away. "He's out of his mind," they said."

Jesus warns us in Matthew 7:6, "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces."  There will be people who won't value what you have to offer them.  Simply put, they may not be ready to see the value in your words and may even violently oppose you. Those closest to us though their rejection can hurt us the most.  You cannot prove anything to someone who is unprepared to receive it. Give them grace, forgive them, and move on.

Take a deep look at your motivations for wanting to share your work with others.  If writing "burns in your bones," then you don't have much of a choice.  It can be a bittersweet calling with moments of great loneliness and moments of great joy, especially if your writing reveals the Lord's beauty.  However, if you are writing to win the acclaim of others, you can be deeply hurt through the sting of rejection and indifference.

Jeff Gerke in his book, The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, takes this issue head on in his first section, "The Spiritual Heart of Writing Christian Fiction,"  Jeff talks about entering a place of fullness in your relationship with God so that you no longer desire the acclaim of others and you are not greedy for success.   If you really want to write Christian speculative fiction, it's a necessary place to be.

Should you find the codependent need to earn the love of others, seek counseling to help you find emotional healing. You will be able to help others better and better weather the buffets of a hostile planet.  I learned this the hard way and lost years of writing time in the face of even the most feeble criticism. I found I could not articulate my deepest feelings in writing  because I was afraid of rejection and hog-tied by it. I found my identity not framed by the opinions of others, but established in my personal relationship with God.

Finally, in experiencing spiritual rejection, take comfort that you will experience rejection because our loving Lord Jesus is daily rejected on many levels.  Like Him, we will experience rejection from those opposed to his message of God's love and healing.  Like Him, we must also realize that we will be attacked by those under the sway of evil, because as Ephesians 6:12 says, "For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places."

Our work is not only read by humans, but by those beings who have spiritual connections to their unsuspecting mortal hosts.  Therefore what we write is transmitted to infernal places where the truth of the Gospel is deeply feared.  As James 2:19 says, "You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror."

Our writing as a testimony of our faith will earn on-going spiritual attacks.  Revelation 12:11 says, "And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die."

Count on big-time opposition, stand firm, and spend time before God daily in prayer, in His word, in meditation, and in worship. In doing so, you don the whole armor of God found in Ephesians 6:10-20 and like Paul serve as an ambassador of life to a dying planet.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

To live and die a writer - Robert Louis Stevenson

American painter John Singer Sargent's portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson

Today marks the 160th birthday of one of the most widely translated and beloved writers, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).  His creative genius gave us Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and the dark speculative novel,  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Though many know him as a novelist, he was also a poet, essayist, and travel writer.

The son of a devout Scottish Presbyterians, Stevenson by turns moved away from Christianity as he saw it practiced. Yet later in life while battling chronic respiratory illness and depression, he showed great courage in standing up for the rights and dignity of native peoples, particularly the Samoans, who he came to know and love through his residence  in the South Pacific.

While in Hawaii and following the death of Father Damien DeVeuster, he went with great anticipation to investigate the rumors that the Catholic priest had contracted leprosy though intimate relations with female lepers while ministering at the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.

Instead, the first-hand accounts of Father Damien's 16-year ministry of selflessness and resourcefulness profoundly affected Stevenson.    A former Presbyterian missionary to Molokai, Charle M. Hyde,  asserted that the rumors of of the priest's misconduct were true.  In a letter to a fellow pastor, Hyde characterized Father Damien as "a coarse, dirty man" whose leprosy should be attributed to his 'carelessness'."

Stevenson hastily wrote a stinging rebuttal that left the author fearing he would be sued for libel. In the open  letter, Stevenson condemned Hyde for an anti-Catholic bias that blinded him to the worth of Father Damien's work. He also warned Hyde that his own mission work might well become eclipsed by this condemnation of a true Christian saint. This last warning proved prophetic when the Catholic Church canonized Father Damien on October 11, 2009.

While Stevenson had great respect for Christian missionaries in the South Pacific and counted many as friends, there is some doubt that Stevenson was a Christian.  His own pronouncements and family history seem to show that Stevenson who flirted with a good many beliefs and did not have a personal relationship with God. 

In the Grace Evangelical Society article,  "Robert Louis Stevenson: So Near, Yet So Far," author James Townsend portrays  Stevenson's life-long tortured struggle to know God.  In the end, the only way we may know for certain if Stevenson knew Jesus is to see him standing among the elect in Heaven. For my part, I hope I get to see him there,  shake his hand, and thank him for many wonderful hours of reading his books.

If you have not had the opportunity to read his work, do so.  If you haven't had the opportunity to read Treasure Island aloud to a child with all the right pirate voices, visit your local library and offer your services.  In doing so, you will be firing the imagination of  young minds and encouraging them them to read the work of truly great authors. Discriminating Christian parents can appreciate the Stevenson's unquestioned talent and still discuss with their children any ambiguities that may surface while reading his work.

Stevenson's struggles with Christianity show that Christian speculative writers must have a strong relationship with God so that evil does not eclipse the Gospel message. If  you are a writer of Christian speculative fiction, listen to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit as you write and confirm it in the Scriptures so there will be no doubt as to your witness.

As Marcher Lord Press publisher Jeff Gerke says in his book The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, "But in the end, you must let God be in charge of taking your fish and loves and multiplying them out to the people He knows needs them."  That can only happen if you know Him.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

On the gruesome art of keelhauling

16th century victim suffers keelhauling, an ancient punishment.
For my friends who were wondering what the term keelhauling actually means, here is my take on this terrible punishment. Keelhauling was a form of severe punishment first credited to the Dutch Navy in the 1500s.  During the Age of Sail, the victim was suspended by a rope from one fore yardarm which was attached to his back. A weight was attached to the victim's legs to ensure that the victim was properly oriented to the hull.  Another rope was fastened to him, which lead under the ship's bottom, and through a block at its opposite yard-arm. To keep the victim from drowning outright, the Dutch in later years would put an oil-soaked sponge in the victim's mouth that might contain a breath of air.

At the sound of a cannon shot, the punishment detail let go of the rope and the victim fell into the sea.  The punishment detail  or perhaps the entire ship's company then hauled briskly on the rope on the opposite side of the ship, drawing the victim along the hull on one side, then over the ship's keel. From there the rope dragged the victim over the opposite side of the hull until  the victim  was hoisted up on the other yardarm, where he might hang for a quarter of an hour.  There are accounts of keelhauling being repeated several times as 17th century author Christophorus Frikius claimed to have witnessed in his 1680 book  Christophorus Frikius's Voyages to and through the East Indies.

On large ships, victims were keelhauled from port to starboard while on smaller vessels they had to endure being keelhauled from bow to stern.  If a ship had not been recently careened, then the victim had to pass over razor-sharp barnacles and marine grown, causing numerous cuts and perhaps even a decapitation.  If not drowned outright, then the victim could die from painful wounds caused by keelhauling.

The Dutch and later other European Navies appeared to start using keelhauling in the 16th century. There is some doubt if the practice was officially condoned in the British Royal Navy, although I've run across a reference to it happening before 1797. The practice continued  in the French Navy until finally abolished in the mid-1800s. There is an account of a keelhauling of two Egyptian sailors by  the Egyptian Navy in 1882 at Alexandria, as mentioned in  the  The House of Commons Papers, Volume 33, 7 February -- 2 December 1882.

However, keelhauling may have not been an modern invention. Ancient Greek vases appear  to show ancient pirates or sailors be punished in this way.

The reputation of this brutal punishment caused slang English to use the  the word keelhauling for  rough treatment.

For writers of pot-boilers during the 1800s,  walking the plank and keelhauling were standard plot staples. I've even spotted a typo from that time, where the author actually meant close-hauling,  which is a point where the sailing ship is almost but not quite sailing, rather than the word keelhauling. It is alas, a word that sticks in  your mind, even if you don't know what it means.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review - Hero, Second Class

Hero, Second ClassHero, Second Class by Mitchell Bonds

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In which the reviewer expounds upon the notion that this is a Whacking Good Story, featuring heroic derring-do and perfidious villainy amid slaughter on a monumental scale, a Touching Love Story, and a good many puns.

Cyrus Solburg is the squire of the noble-hearted though dense hero Sir Reginald Ogleby, known as the Crimson Slash. Endowed with superhuman powers and desire to express them, heroes like the Crimson Slash fight villains with similar inclinations in a medieval world populated with a number of sentient races and various magical creatures. The two groups are regulated by the International Guild of Heroes and it's sinister counterpart, the Brotherhood of the Black Hand.

The two guilds manage an on-going stalemate, hoping to avert a second worldwide war. The first world war was fought by heroes and villains, using the full onslaught of their powers. Known as the Twenty Minute War, this conflict lasting 20 minutes nearly ended all life on the planet.

Enter the arch-villain Voshtyr Demonkin, who is determined not to repeat the mistakes his side made in that disastrous conflict. With the unfolding of Voshtyr's dastardly plot, things do not look good for our heroes.

Hero, Second Class by Mitchell Bonds takes more than a few gentle swipes at the fantasy genre. OK, general head-bashing is more like it. Therein lies the strength and weakness of this very likable tale, which refuses to take itself seriously, yet is part of an underlying heroic epic Mitchel calls The Hero Complex.

I would favorably compare Hero, Second Class to other classic humorous fantasy stories that include L. Sprague De Camp's The Compleat Enchanter, one of my all time favorites.

Christian concepts are integral to the story, yet do not bash the reader with an overt evangelistic pitch. To paraphrase fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, this story is about looking at life in an entirely new way.

Hero, Second Class is a story that I could re-read, especially should the next installment of the Hero Complex be released. I would recommend it to fantasy lovers who love gentle puns, marvelous heroic feats, and do not mind Capital Letters in the least.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Book Review - Lord's Prayer by R. T. Kendall

From time to time, I will recommend books for a Christian writer's devotional bookshelf. A close relationship with God can only help us offer life and hope to a dying world.

Lord's Prayer, The: Insight and Inspiration to Draw You Closer to HimLord's Prayer, The: Insight and Inspiration to Draw You Closer to Him by R.T. Kendall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found Lord's Prayer by R. T. Kendall to be not only thought-provoking, but a very good read. Books of this nature often tread the line between scholarly and popular works with very stilted prose. Kendall's writing has a clarity, flow, and freshness that brought new illumination to Jesus' model prayer about which millions of words have been written over the centuries.

I particularly liked Kendall's passages on the role of the Holy Spirit in "Thy kingdom come." He describes what that will mean to the church as God begins to move powerfully when our focus shifts from our own wills to His will.

I am not one to normally read the recommendations at a book's beginning, preferring for the book to stand on its own merits. I was struck by the diverse viewpoints of Christian leaders who could recommend this book, ranging from members of the Southern Baptist Convention to the current president of Oral Roberts University. I believes this speaks very powerfully about its contents.

I discovered Lord's Prayer by R. T. Kendall to be a life-giving book and not a recycled sermon you might find on a book table at a Christian conference. I believe as you read this book you'll have "aha moments" as I did. For some, it will shift prayer away from just personal petitions to unselfish prayer that yearns for God's will to be accomplished.

As a disclaimer, publisher Baker Publishing Company furnished a review copy of Lord's Prayer. The receipt a book in no way affected my review.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Choosing a villain

Blackbeard's last moments.

In choosing a character for a historical novel, I do what I do best and research the time and its people. Pirate history is very colorful and there are no end of books. A careful look at their bibliographies shows there really are a handful of sources, notably Captain Charles Johnson (who is generally conceded to really be Daniel Defoe) and the earlier Alexander Oliver Exquemelin. Of the two sources, Exquemelin actually served as a surgeon aboard a pirate vessel. There is a vocal faction who believe that Captain Johnson was a real pirate, but that has never been proven. And too, the content of the Defoe/Johnson book is now regarded as part fiction.

Twentieth century researchers like Jan Rogozinski Dictionary of Pirates (1997) helped to organize what we do know about the major and many minor pirates. Still, there are gaping holes in our knowledge of piracy in the early 1700s. English, French, and Dutch pirates are generally known, but other nationalities are glossed over, perhaps because there is not much to tell other than a line or two that would resemble today's police blotters.

I became intrigued by a "real-life" pirate Nick Catania, whose fleet according to the Kingston, Jamaica entry in Wikipedia, was responsible for the 1703 fire that gutted Port Royal, Jamaica. But try as I might, I could not find a single mention of Catania, even by the governor of Jamaica in his official report to the Crown, days after the fire. There is another explanation for the Port Royal fire that does not include a pirate fleet or any kind of fleet, which I hope to include in an upcoming posting.

I've come to suspect that the 'historical' pirate Nick Catania is either a very minor pirate not worthy of much mention, an online hoax, or the Jamaican equivalent of Mrs. O'Leary's cow of the Chicago fire fame. The only source for the pirate Catania appears to be Wikipedia. Other web sites are merely quoting what they've found there. Looking for other sources, I tried to contact regional experts. Inquiries to Jamaican historians and even the Daily Gleaner have never been answered.

I loved the sound of the name 'Nick Catania' and there were pirates from the Mediterranean operating in the Atlantic during the 1700-1703 time frame, which are key years for my pirate stories. Additionally the Sicilian province of Catania has a pirate or two associated with it, notably the late 15th century Paolo de Campo, who along with his arch-rival Black Hassan preyed on Venetian merchantmen. For the dark aspects of these stories, the province of Catania also has a history of witchcraft and heresy, not to mention the active volcano Mount Etna, that fit in well with my character's charming yet evil and volatile personality.

For Nick Catania's physical description and emotional makeup, I drew from descriptions of Edward Thatch (Teach) AKA Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts, of which we do know a good deal.

I am pleased with the resulting character of my fictional Nick Catania. I hope when you get the opportunity to read Black Flag, Black Ship that you agree.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Feedback for future postings

It looks as if some of the book reviews and historical pieces are the most often read here at  Holy Speculation in an Unholy World.

If you are a regular reader of Holy Speculation, would you take a moment to give me some feedback about this blog.  I would like to ask which specific blog postings were your favorites and which you thought were stinkers.  What type of posting would you like to see (flash fiction, historical background, reviews, essays, etc.) and which I should heave over the side.

Finally, could  truthfully say you'd recommend this blog to a friend?  If the answer is yes, would you take a moment to do so?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Interview with a pirate

Nicolò Catania threw his sword belt that held his sheathed cutlass and a brace of pistols on the great black table that dominated the sea cabin of his flagship the Fury. He slammed the door to the cabin shut and strode across the cabin to fetch a jewel encrusted tankard and fill it with rum.

Once he had filled it to the brim with the finest New England rum that his men could steal, he thought of the stack of papers impaled on his table with a dead Sikh's kirpan. Like any monarch of a far-flung empire there were the reports of cronies to read and evaluate. There were the intriguing diagrams of new infernal devices being made at Captive Island and finally the estimates of what his men could expect as booty from the current enterprise.

He rubbed his eyes and sighed. His work was never done.

Catania turned and found the great table missing. In its place he found a much smaller writing desk, one that reminded him of his dead father's desk in his native Sicily. Seated at the desk, a bespectacled older man with graying hair and beard labored over what Catania took to be an enormous account book. At first glance, Catania l thought him to be a purser balancing his accounts.

The man looked up but did not smile and then returned his attention to the great volume before him. Catania tried to make out what held the man's attention, but the contents of the pages eluded him, blurring as he tried to read the entries.

For a moment, Catania thought he knew this purser. The man looked up from his paperwork , laid his quill pen down on a small piece of blotting paper and rose. The bearded man rose to study Catania's face eye to eye, keeping both hands spread out on the desk. From what Catania could tell, the man was unarmed.
That was some comfort, but who knew what might be hidden in the purser's clothing. Catania felt a moment of alarm but with great effort suppressed a desire to make for any number of weapons hidden in his cabin.

"Well, a good evening to you," Catania said with a great mock bow, "And for what reason do I have the pleasure of this meeting?"

"Your life," the man said, adjusting his spectacles. Sitting down and picking up the pen, the man said, "I've come to try and understand your life. What would make a man..."

"...make a man such as I turn to piracy and other pursuits?" Catania asked. Catania glanced at a spot on the starboard paneling and quickly looked back at the man, who was already poised to begin writing.

"Precisely," the man said. "Start whenever you wish. I'll only take a few moments of your time."

Catania began to pace, plotting a course which would soon take him near that spot in the paneling. First, he had to find out about the purser.

"I don't turn down many opportunities to talk about me," Catania said. "Who am I addressing?"

The man looked up from his pages and said, "I am a poor but earnest scribbler, you may call me..."

"I shall call you Mr. Scribbler," Catania said, "You see I don't really care who you are, a misguided seeker of truth, no doubt. I just needed a name and now that I have it, I am content. Well Mr. Scribbler, we encounter all types of seekers. They practically throw themselves on our swords."

The man nodded and made a notation in his book.

Without looking up from his work, the man said, "This is about God, is it not?"

"What?" Catania asked . The question startled him so much that he stopped his pacing.

"Your life," the man said, "it's about your opposition to God and dedicating your life to the service of evil. Why do you hate him so?

"Why shouldn't I hate him?" Catania shouted. "Scribbler, I didn't ask to be born. I didn't ask the God of the universe to create me. And for what? He doesn't need anyone or lack for anything. I think he created us to writhe in pain until he deigns to notice us and then pull us out of our misery. Christians call that grace. He created us to be an object of his grace to prove to the angels his greatness and nobility, not because he loves us. For that I'm supposed to be grateful?"

"No, I don't think so. That's not the reason," the man said, not breaking the speed of his writing . "That's what you tell the seekers before you kill them. You want the ones who come trying to save your soul from an eternity of suffering to themselves suffer one last attack against their hope in a loving God."

The man produced the dead Sikh's kirpan from beside the great book. "That's what you said to the worthy Sikh when he tried to reason with you,"

Catania snorted in contempt. "Fool, he thought to add me as a spiritual trophy, a monument to his own piety. I'm like the scorpion in the story. Scribbler, I do what I do because I am a child of darkness. I do what I want and when I want."

"And what is it that you want?"

"Why everything, all of it." Catania said., "to guzzle down and spew out as I please, to soil God's handiwork until the Son of Lawlessness arises. Then we will pull down Heaven, and sacrifice all of it to our father, the prince of darkness."

"It will not happen that way, and at some level you know it," the man said as he closed his great book. From beside the book he held up a smaller volume.

"This book tells a different story," the man said.

Catania at last reached the spot he had plotted for his pacing. He pressed in on the wood paneling. A small hidden door sprang open. Catania reached into the recess and pulled out a primed pistol.

He cocked it turned to say, "And my pistol has a different report!" but the man and the desk were gone. Once more the great black table was in its appointed place. The Sikh's dagger pinning his papers to the table was gone. In its place rested the small volume.

With his pistol's muzzle, Catania flipped open the little book. It was a 15th century pocket Bible, its verses rendered in beautiful handwritten Latin. A small scrap of parchment lay inside. On it were the words, "The King of Kings will return soon, Catania. Choose the excellent way. W. H. Hayes"

From the open pages, the odor of cinnamon and temple incense rose, filling the cabin with a smell that even some of Catania's crew would have found wonderfully refreshing. Catania gagged, covered his mouth and nose and made for the quarterdeck. He did not return until his cabin boy had thrown the volume overboard and aired out his cabin.

Catania could not sleep that night. He sat in a chair, clutching a brace of pistols, waiting for a divine messenger to appear.

None came.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Review - The Word Unleashed

The Word UnleashedThe Word Unleashed by Steve Rzasa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Steve Rzasa's The Word Unleashed lets fly the finale to an action-packed story started in The Word Reclaimed. Even though it is the second half of a larger story, The Word Unleashed can be read on its own.

Baden Haczyk, the son of a freighter captain discovered a rare book on board a mysteriously destroyed freighter that embroiled everyone he loves in a far-flung conflict for control of an interstellar empire.

Now Baden is caught in the middle of a far-ranging coup as he tries to decide what to do with the mysterious book. A single-minded secret police inspector is determined to confiscate the book over the bodies of every who stands between it and him. Baden's friends, family and new allies are polarized by the book's presence, which seems to demand a decision from everyone who encounters it.

Rzasa's grand story is told from multiple viewpoints. He manages to keep all the action moving well without the reader becoming dizzy from a large cast of characters and locations.

Rzasa also manages to reveal more about the motivations of his characters, and the bad guys are less one-dimensional in this installment. There are more space battles and ground actions, with enough plot twists that surprised me and kept me from skipping ahead in the book.

As I mentioned in my review of The Word Reclaimed, Rzasa handles religious issues well, since they are integral to the story. His even-handed and thought-provoking approach ensures that you are not left with a sappy, cookie-cutter ending.

I recommend this book for lovers SF military stories and space opera. If you have a love of history you will spot a number of interesting parallels.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When Heaven intervenes

One of my favorite cable TV series, Against All Odds, details instances where God manifested his power in defense of Israel, not in the times of the Patriarchs, but in very recent history.  The video excerpt from that series illustrates this very powerfully.  Watching that series stirred my blood, there can be no other way to describe it.

I have long been dissatisfied with the way God's involvement has been portrayed in movies and particularly in books.  For years we've been subjected to a steady barrage of stories where Christian characters are either portrayed as incredible idiots for believing that an uncaring God would act on their behalf, or just as dependent on as everyone else in fighting evil though a liberal application of gunpowder and little more. 

The only real difference I could see in this latter class of story was that the Christian heroes didn't cuss or smoke or run with those who did.  Otherwise, they used the same methods with the same expected outcome. There was no evidence of God's power as a witness to an unbelieving world that He loves us and does act on our behalf.

As a charismatic Christian, I have seen the miraculous and it is mind-blowing.   I began to think about the Old Testament miracles and those in the New Testament involving direct clashes with evil. In every case, the bad guys lost big time.

So, in writing Black Flag, Black Ship, I wanted to evoke the same feeling of awe and wonder as I've felt in real life, but in a fantasy setting. I have taken great pains to be faithful to scripture in portraying both the angelic and the demonic.  I also wanted to ensure that when describing evil people and their actions that the forces of hell are not exalted. 

I did not want the reader left with a sense of fear, open to the notion that humanity is without hope in the face of evil, that somehow evil will win in the end.  It will not, because the forces of darkness have already lost.

The scripture Colossians 2:15 is my compass needle which I use to navigate my way from start to finish in my stories:  "And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross."

Gospel accounts of Jesus and his encounters with the demonic all show his power over the devil and his minions. These scriptures also portray the absolute terror that demons felt when encountering the Jesus, and that was before Jesus' death on the cross.

Some writers just haven't gotten it that Jesus is Hell's worst nightmare.  I have.  I want to take every opportunity to state that Jesus is lord of all.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review - The Word Reclaimed

The Word ReclaimedThe Word Reclaimed by Steve Rzasa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Word Reclaimed is an Excellent Christian military SF novel told from multiple viewpoints.  In the distant future, Mankind has spread out across the stars and the majority of humanity is ruled by an imperial family who control a number of star systems in what is called the Realm of Five.

To maintain stability, the royal family has banned religions that claim to have an exclusive grasp of religious truths. A highly efficient secret police enforces the ban ruthlessly, pursuing violators across human-controlled space.

Baden Haczyk, the son of a freighter captain finds a rare book on board a mysteriously destroyed freighter that soon embroils everyone he loves in a far-flung conflict for control of the empire.

Steve Rzasa has written a tightly woven, fast-paced tale of empire, intrigue, belief, and battle that fits in well with classics like Jerry Pournelle's Mercenary, Poul Anderson's Star Fox, and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  Space and ground battles and the associated military technologies are well-conceived and exciting without drowning the reader in a mass of detail.

The characters a believable and compelling.  Character development is on par for a multiple viewpoint story. I would have liked have seen more character development for some of the story's heavies.  Nonetheless, I was thoroughly engaged and rooting for the good guys.

Rzasa handles religious issues well, since they are integral to the story.  His even-handed and thought-provoking approach is commendable.

As part of a two-part story arc, the book does lead tightly into the sequel, The Word Unleashed, which I very much look forward to reading. The Word Reclaimed can be read on its own, but if you're like me, you will want to find out what happens to your favorite characters.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Salvage divers in the age of sail

Giovanni Borelli's 17th century drawing shows his ideas for diving gear.
In the age of sail, salvaging shipwrecked cargo was big business.  This was a natural offshoot of the transportation of wealth on a worldwide scale by the Portuguese and Spanish in their treasure fleets and the English, and Dutch in their East Indiamen.

The vast distances these ships traveled meant that an unhealthy percentage of them would not make it to home port, either victims of  navigational error, storms, or piracy. 
Battle and storm damage as well as the ravages of marine growth prematurely aged even the most stoutly made hulls. As a practical matter, Spanish galleons were required to carry a diver who was used to find leaks when an inspection inside the hull couldn't locate them. 
Spanish colonial ports had salvage divers and the necessary equipment to rescue a ship's cargo from shallow depths up to 50 feet.  These men were paid two and half times the going rate for an ordinary seaman, reflecting to an extent the hazards of their profession.  Additionally they received bonus payments for retrieving treasure and cannon.

The fanciful 1680 illustration of Giovanni Borelli's proposed underwater breathing apparatus to the best of our knowledge was never built. Instead as done centuries before,  free divers used stones to quickly descend to the bottom.  
These divers spent about three minutes under water before having to take a breath.  In the Caribbean, black pearl divers were sought out for their excellent underwater vision. There were reports of Caribbean Native American divers who could dive for up to 15 minutes, but historians have discounted these as embellishments.
The taxing nature of the work meant that a single diver could only make one deep dive a day.  Consequently salvagers had to have many divers available.  Even then the profession was very deadly with men drowning or suffering from pressure related ailments, some of which were fatal.

Caribbean Native American divers were heavily sought for Spanish salvage operations. To augment these divers, black slaves were pressed into service, with reports of freedom being granted to some for being the first to retrieve treasure from a wreck.

Surface crews assisted the divers, using derricks to raise heavy objects like brass cannons. The surface crews  also used grappling hooks and long-handled tongs of the same sort as used by oystermen to retrieve small objects.  The divers attached ropes to large objects, such as cannons, and gained entry into the wreck to retrieve cargo there.
For wrecks in deeper waters and where the wrecks were in calm sites,  salvagers used metal diving bells, some of which were even equipped with small glass windows to allow for more efficiency. The divers could either use the diving bell's air to extend bottom time or they could work sitting inside the bell. Even so, the air quickly fouled.
I have read of barrels being use to transport air to a diving bell, but I don't know how practical that proved.  Also working at a reef on in shallow coastal waters diving bells did not prove to be very practical as they could easily tilt and lose their precious air.  As effective as early diving bells could be for salvage work, they worked best only under ideal conditions.

Frequently ships broke up on reefs and the contents of these vessels could be scattered for some distance. This kind of wreck called for divers and surface salvage work. Depending on wave action and currents, debris from a wreck could be covered and uncovered by shifting sand from season to seadon.  Salvage operations could go on for years, even decades, depending on the cargo's value and ease of access to the wreck site.

Rather than mounting their own salvage operations, pirates waited for the treasure to be retrieved and then attacked the salvage vessels.  Consequently, Spanish salvage operations used a number of heavily armed frigates to ward off poachers and attackers.

In Black Flag, Black Ship,  a certain pirate crew employs divers for a very mysterious purpose.  Read Black Flag, Black Ship to find out!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Pirate Hunters - Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Part II

     Captain Stephen Decatur storms an enemy gunboat.

On Friday, August 3, 1804, the American squadron again approached Tripoli, where Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, now Captain Decatur, months earlier had blown up the captured USS Philadelphia right under the very noses of the Barbary pirates.

American squadron commodore Captain Edward Preble again approached Tripoli to show American resolve in protecting U. S. vessels and sailors from pirate attacks. With limited resources, he could not invade Tripoli or completely destroy the fortifications and vessels guarding Tripoli.  He could hurt the Barbary pirates enough to make them come to terms with releasing the captured captain and crew of the USS Philadelphia and to help them think twice about attacking other American vessels.

Preble planned  a daring assault.  At 2:30 PM, he boldly advanced the squadron to point blank range and commenced the attack.

Earlier, he had dispatched six gun boats, three each  under the command of Captains Decatur and Sommers. Prebble ordered them to cause as much damage as possible, board enemy vessels, seize them and their crews and then leave the harbor with their prizes.

He had also directed two bomb ketches, two-masted vessels armed with heavy mortars, to bombard the fortified positions and the town.

The heavy frigate USS Constitution under Preble's command and her attending ketches and brigs were to provide covering fire for the attacking gunboats and fire upon the Pasha's Castle, Fort English, and other fortified positions.

Against their six gunboats, the Barbary pirates had 19 gunboats with full compliments of 30 to 50 crewmen. Each opposing gunboat had a heavy gun in the bow, with two lighter guns in the stern.  The shore artillery in the fortified positions held an estimated 120 guns.

Pasha  Yusuf Karamanli of  Tripoli  treated the upcoming attack with contempt, making a number of disparaging insults about the Americans. After all, he held the captain and crew of the USS Philadelphia in his dungeons.

The Barbary pirates in the gunboats at anchor beneath Tripoli's heavy guns  reflected their leaders'  disdain for the Americans. They did not even bother to make ready to sail in case the attack came close to their positions.  Some citizens of Tripoli sat on their rooftops to watch their anticipated victory.

As the attack commenced, contrary winds drove Captain Sommers and one of his gunboats away from the enemy gunboats. Sommers was able to work his way to the rear of the enemies gunboats, causing considerable havok there but was unable to seize a gunboat.

Captain Decatur's division of three boats succeeded in reaching the pirate gunboats, aided by Lieutenant James Decatur's gunboat.  Lieutenant Decatur was Captain  Stephen Decatur's brother and had been assigned to Captain Sommer's boat division.

When  the American gunboats approached the enemy, the USS Constitution and the rest of the American squadron alternately  fired shot at the fortifications and  grapeshot at the enemy boats, literally sweeping those vessels of all crew on deck.  The enemy positions returned fire, succeeding in striking the attacking ships.  During the battle, the enemy gunboats attempted several times to surround the squadron as they had successfully done with the USS Philadelphia. Captain Preble and his men beat off those attacks.  Through skillful maneuvering, Preble kept the Constitution where she was needed most to carry the attack to completion.

Captain Decatur in Boat No. 4 boarded one gunboat with his crew of fifteen men and after hand-to-hand fighting  took it as a prize.  Lieutenant Tripp in Boat No. 6 also succeeded in taking one enemy gunboat as  a prize. Lieutenant Bainbridge in Boat No. 5 had the lanteen yard holding the boat's mainsail  shot way, preventing him from taking a gunboat.  He was able to support the attack with steady musket fire from his boat.

Lieutenant James Decatur in Boat No. 2 attempted to board an enemy gunboat, which promptly raised a white flag.  As Lieutenant Decatur stepped aboard the enemy gunboat, he discovered the surrender was really a ruse. The enemy commander shot James Decatur in the head. As the enemy vessel escaped, James Decatur's second in command Midshipman Brown retrieved him and took him to the USS Constitution where James Decatur died within minutes of boarding the Constitution.

Captain Decatur  divided his crew between the captured boat and his own boat.  As he was returning to the squadron he learned that his brother  had been killed.  An officer who was highly regarded in the squadron,  Lieutenant Decatur's loss was keenly felt.  Captain Stephen Decatur immediately set out to find the Barbary pirate captain who had killed his brother.  Decatur's reaction was not only the anger of a brother, but also the anger of an officer who had a comrade killed in such a base way.

Accompanied by Midshipman MacDonough and nine sailors,  Captain Stephen Decatur succeeded in finding the enemy captain's vessel and boarded it.  They faced a full compliment aboard the gunboat.  Decatur made his way to the enemy captain, who managed to wound Decatur in the arm and chest with a spear.  A stronger man than Decatur, the Barbary pirate captain pressed Decatur to the deck, where he intended to kill him with a dagger.

A Barbary pirate came up with a sword to aid his captain and kill Decatur. One of Decatur's men who had been wounded in both arms threw himself between the pirate's sword and Decatur, suffering a fractured skull in the process. No one is quite sure if this sailor was Reuben James or Daniel Frazer, both of whom at various times fought under Decatur.

Nonetheless, this unselfish act allowed Decatur to pull a pistol out of his pocket and shoot the enemy captain.  Decatur and his men captured the gunboat and returned to the squadron with a second prize. Only four of Decatur's men were unwounded.

Enemy causalities on board the two prizes taken by Decatur and his men consisted of 33 Barbary pirate officers and crewmen killed. Another 27 Barbary pirates had been captured with 19 seriously wounded.

The action ended at about  5 PM.  Lieutenant Decatur was the only person killed.  Two officers and eleven sailors were wounded.

As Lieutenant Decatur's brother, it fell to Stephen Decatur to clean his brother's corpse and to prepare  him for burial the following day.  He sat through the night keeping vigil over his brother's body.

Sometime during the night, Decatur supposedly said to Midshipman Charles Morris as he gazed down at his brother's corpse, "I would rather see him thus, than living with any cloud on his conduct."

Afterward, Captain Decatur's showed great compassion to the wounded pirates captured in the raid, reportedly even asking Captain Preble if  the seriously wounded pirates could be returned  to Tripoli where they could get better treatment.

In Tripoli, reaction to the American attack was one of panic.  Ordinary citizens fled Tripoli. The Pasha was said to be in hiding in a bombproof room.

A leader of Tripoli asked on of the USS Philadelphia's imprisoned officers if the attackers were truly Americans or devils in human form.   He complained that the English, French and Spanish consuls had told the leaders of Tripoli that America was young nation that got its independence because of French strength. They led the Barbary pirates to believe that the Americans could not protect their own merchants so the  pirates could expect a brisk business taking American ships and crews for ransom.

The Barbary pirates realized that they had greatly underestimated the resolve and fighting ability of the U. S. Navy. One of the wounded Barbary pirates returned by Captain Preble was supposed to have said, "The Americans in battle are fiercer than lions and after victory, kinder than Muslims."

As shaken as the Pasha was after the August 3rd attack, he was not yet ready to give up the Philadelphia's crew.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The bunko mates

The clipper ship Challenge -- a marked ship

Ship discipline has always been a problem for sailors and their officers.  In history you can find splendid examples of officers who were firm and enforced their articles of discipline without brutality. They led their men through personal example, positive discipline, and a genuine concern for sailor welfare. 

Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson is a splendid example as is his American contemporary Captain Stephen Decatur. Incidentally, I will soon write two more installments about Decatur's brushes with pirates and his later years.

In fiction,  Patrick O'Brian's Captain Jack Aubrey and C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower are officers who detest the lash and uses it sparingly.

As a young U. S. Army officer, I often heard the maxim, "Lead by example."   Over the years, I've discovered that the path to greatness or infamy stems from how one leads by example.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, condition at sea were brutal. Men aboard both warships and merchantmen fought the elements and endured tainted foodstuffs, with death a daily possibility. At times seamen at the end of their physical and mental limits were hard pressed to endure much more. 

Good leaders coaxed and encouraged their men without coddling.  Bad leaders found that for the short term the liberal application of bullying and brutality achieved results.

Since captains were absolute monarchs when their ships were at sea, it was very easy to slip into the dark ways of leading a crew. These ships were often called ships of blood.

Even if men were killed and maimed during discipline, it was very difficult to determine who did what to whom once the ship reached port. Often sailors simply jumped ship and no one in authority was the wiser.

Captains rarely disciplined men directly, relying on the junior officers to keep order.  On ships where blood ran freely, the first and second mates were called "bucko mates." They carried belaying pins or tarred rope and used them with enthusiasm. These officers defended their actions, stating that Johnny Tars were anything but gentlemen and life aboard ship called for bigger and meaner men to keep them in line.

In U. S. Maritime history, the voyage of the Challenge in 1851 is a notorious example of the violence wielded by "bucko mates." Captain Robert "Bully" Waterman was in a bad way. He had the clipper ship Challenge to take around the Horn to San Francisco with $60,000 of freight, a few experienced men and the rest of the crew the scrapings of the docks.  He could earn a $10,000 bonus if he made it to San Francisco in 90 days.

When James "Black" Douglass offered to come aboard  as first mate, Waterman gladly accepted him.  Former sailors under Douglass were waiting for him  to step ashore. The Challenge was his ticket out of New York in a hurry.  Waterman no doubt believed he could win his bonus if Douglas could get his crew in shape.  Douglass' reputation for sadistic brutality was well-known.

Before the voyage ended one man would be knifed to death, and the rest save one man were beaten.  On October 29, 1851, the Challenge arrived in San Francisco after 102 days at sea. Sailors on the docks, who saw men being carried off the Challenge on stretchers, became so angry that they chased both Waterman and Douglass for the better part of a day.  The mob was determined to lynch both men from the yardarms of the Challenge. Both men turned themselves into the authorities for protection and they were eventually brought to trial.  

Prosecuted in the the Federal Court of  Judge Odgen Hoffman under a U. S. law written in 1835, the law called for punishment of ship's officers when it could be clearly established that sailors were mistreated.  The law was so vague that successful prosecutions were rare.

With the California Gold Rush in full height,  entire ship crews deserted and took off for the gold fields once they anchored in San Francisco Bay. Only a few witnesses could be rounded up and they provided contradictory testimony.  Perhaps most damaging was the testimony of crewman Charles Pearson, a Navy veteran who served under Steven Decatur. He said he had been beaten,  but admitted that the crew was a miserable lot.

In the end, the crewmen were exonerated.  Waterman was fined $400.00.  Douglass was fined $250, and the second mate Andrew Coghill was sentenced to 30 days in jail.  There is a small measure of justice in that Waterman's obsession with crew discipline no doubt contributed to his slow voyage  and loss of the $10,000 bonus. 

The Challenge became a marked ship.  The owners had such a difficult time finding crew for her that the new captain had to offer $200 head money.  As for the two men who gave her the tainted reputation, they never served on another ship, as far as anyone knows. 

Waterman never left California. Instead, he started raising  poultry and cattle.  Later he became San Francisco's port warden and inspector of hulls. As for the bunko mate Black Douglass, beyond never signing on another ship, it's as if he stepped off history's page.

 In Black Flag, Black Ship, we meet Liam Gallagher, a vicious bunko mate aboard the slave ship Vanity.  Will Gallagher get a free hand to fulfill his sadistic urgings?  Read the book to find out what happens to him.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Review: The Dark Man

 The Dark ManThe Dark Man by Marc Schooley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Set in the not-too-distant future, this book is a quirky, surreal adventure story that is an emotional roller coaster up to the book's climactic end. Charles Graves is a master of disguise, a government agent dedicated to uncovering underground churches and "reclaiming" its members for a terrifying state religion and its censorship of every form of expression. Outwardly at the top of his game, inwardly Charles is unraveling at a terrifying rate.  I hesitate to say much about the excellently woven plot and vivid characterizations as it might reveal too much this book's great story.  I can say that this book is definitely an adventure book that oddly enough reminds me a bit of Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand with its quirky mental puzzles and The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It is definitely a story of personal redemption and the price one has to pay to do the right thing.  This is a book I will recommend to my friends and I will re-read it.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pirate Hunters - Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Part I

U.S. Navy  Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and his men escape after a daring raid against Barbary pirates.

In 1804, U.S. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur received orders that would make him a hero in the eyes of his countrymen and ultimately the youngest captain in the U. S. Navy's history. 

The newly formed United States dispatched a U.S. Navy squadron to the Barbary Coast of North Africa to prevent U. S. merchant sailors from being taken captive by the Barbary pirates. 

As I've recounted before, the pirates of  North African for centuries raided European shores and captured ships, taking thousands of Christians captives for the North African slave market. The European powers, including the Muslim Ottoman Empire, tolerated the raids and often supported the Barbary pirates as a surrogate navy against rival nations.

Ships of the U. S. squadron pursued the Barbary galleys wherever they found them.  Unfortunately, in one of those chases, the USS Philadelphia ran aground on on uncharted Kaliusa reef  about five miles east of Tripoli.  Quickly surrounded by gunboats from Tripoli and under bombardment from the gunboats and shore batteries, Captain William Bainbridge after several hours of trying to free the Philadelphia in the face of a falling tide surrendered his ship and men to the pirates. The pirates later re-floated the Philadelphia and took the ship to Tripoli. Bainbridge and his men were enslaved.

Fearing that the frigate Philadelphia would be a dangerous addition the pirate ships, both as a warship and model for Barbary frigates, Commodore Edward Preble  ordered Lieutenant Stephen Decatur to enter Tripoli's harbor and destroy the Philadelphia.

The ship they used was a French ketch built for Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. It was later sold to Tripoli  and renamed the Mastico. 

The American squadron captured the vessel and seized it after learning from an eyewitness that the Mastico was one of vessels that had captured the Philadelphia.   Commodore Preble ordered the ship now renamed the Intrepid to make the attack since it was a vessel familiar to the Barbary pirates.

Disguised as Maltese traders, Decatur and his detachment of nine Marines and 65 sailors aboard Intrepid on February 16, 1804, were able to enter the harbor without exciting suspicion.  Using a ruse that their ship had lost its anchors during a storm, they asked permission to tie up to the Philadelphia

The plan almost went bad when someone aboard the Philadelphia noticed that the Intrepid still had its anchors. Decatur and his men then boarded the Philadelphia, captured or killed all but two of its enemy crew without firing a shot, and then set it afire.  

Decatur stayed aboard until he was sure that the fire could not be extinguished.  By now shore batteries were firing on the Intrepid as Decatur and his men tried to escape. The Philadelphia's guns began to cook off and the frigate's gunfire into the town may have helped suppress the shore batteries. When the flames reached the powder magazine, the Philadelphia blew up. Lieutenant  Decatur and his men were able to get safely way without a single American raider killed.

British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, who that time was blockading the French military port of Toulon, called the action, "the most daring of the age."  It earned Decatur  the acclaim of a nation and set jealousy festering in the hearts of service rivals with horrible results.

Pirate Hunters - Lieutenant Stepehn Decatur Part II

U. S. Navy  Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, foreground,  and his men battle a Barbary pirate during the  daring raid of August 3, 1804.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A sailorman's tattoo

Joe Plaice’s tattooed hands in the film, Master and 
Commander The Far Side of the World

The practice of tattooing can be traced back as far as 2,000 BC in Egypt where tattoos were found on female mummies from that era.  The famed Iceman of the Alps, who may have died about 5,000 years ago, sported 57 tattooed dot marks that may have been scars left after early acupuncture. If so, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine someone else with similar marks connecting the dots of the scars in a fanciful pattern.

No one knows when the first sailor got a tattoo, but the consensus is that the practice among seamen is very ancient. Being both practical and supersitious persons, sailors have long favored tattoos as an aid to identification and as talismans.

As a form of identification, tattoos set sailors apart from landsmen and in the case of slave ship crews, it set them apart from slaves and their brands. Sailors apparently believed that certain tattoos acted a talismans and averted disaster. Here are a few examples of these superstitions  from the 18th and 19th centuries published in 1989 by researcher Ira Dye, no pun intended - honest!

Tattoos of a pig on one instep and a rooster on the other will save a sailor from drowning.  There are a number of explanations for these tattoos. One theory stated that pigs and chickens often survived shipwrecks, so having them on a sailor's feet would ensure he would safely reach land.

The tattoos H-O-L-D F-A-S-T  with one letter on the back of each finger next to the hand knuckle will save a sailor whose life depends on holding on to a rope.  This tattoo design was popularized in the movie Master and Commander The Far Side of the World.

A crucifix tattooed on the back will either save a sailor from being flogged, as no boatswain's mate would flog the cross, or if he did the cross would alleviate the victim's pain.

A seaman who could stand the pain of getting  a full-rigged ship tattooed on his chest would automatically become a good topman, that is a sailor who climbs the masts to tend the sails and rigging.

And finally, a sailor with a crucifix tatooed on each arm and leg "could fall overboard among 775,000 white sharks, all dinnerless, and not one of them would so much as dare to smell his little finger."

In Black Flag, Black Ship, a pair of tattoos on a sailor alerts young Nathan Cohagan to an ominous plot aboard the slave ship Vanity.  To find out what these tattoos signify and what happens, you'll have to read Black Flag, Black Ship to find out.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Review: Eternity Falls

Eternity Falls Eternity Falls by Kirk Outerbridge

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An edgy hard-boiled future detective story, Eternity Falls sucks you into a dystopian world reminiscent of Blade Runner and Neuromancer.  In the late 21st Century private investigator and former government religious counter-terrorism agent Rick Macey is called in to investigate an impossible crime, the death by natural causes of a highly visible spokesperson for a long-established immortality treatment.

What starts out as a predictable Micky Spillane style detective story takes some unexpected twists, which frankly I did not see coming. The story moves briskly with plenty of action in a futuristic society where bioelectronics circuitry allows everyone to be physically plugged into the network.

Author Kirk Outerbridge understands the ramifications of today's obsession with the Internet and takes it to a very unsettling and dehumanizing post-Christian future.  The religious themes he introduces are natural extensions of the story and do not present a jarring presence.

Because of its edgy content, I would recommend the book for adult readers.  I do think Eternity Falls is very well written.  I would read a sequel if Outerbridge develops this book into a series.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Mini-review: Eternity Falls

Eternity Falls Eternity Falls by Kirk Outerbridge

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An edgy hard-boiled future detective story, Eternity Falls sucks you into a world reminiscent of Blade Runner.  Full review Sunday night, June 13.

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Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Royal African Company

Most fans of Pirates of the Caribbean know of the quasi-governmental entity known as the East India Company, which by the way in history did not in the slightest resemble the monstrous organization depicted in the movie.  What most folks don't know is that during the 16th through the early 19th centuries maritime trade was an incredibly risky undertaking. 

The large, lumbering sailing ships known as the East Indiaman took two years to complete their journey to India and Indonesia where they traded European goods for cloth from India, jewels, and spices, notably cloves from Indonesia. These vessels frequently became victims of storms, pirates, and even hostile governments and trading companies. Although private subscribers invested in these companies, the expenses were staggering.

Consequently, governments frequently underwrote part of the working capital for the enterprises.  The English, Dutch and French all had large trading companies for various parts of the world which had transportable raw materials, the spice trade being one of the most lucrative.  English, Dutch, and French  merchants created East India companies to exploit this trade, which at the time was weakly held by the Portuguese.

Competition among European nations grew so intense that the English decided to start a war with the Dutch in order to win trade concessions.  Some authorities claim that as part of the plot to get the Dutch to declare war on the English, King Charles II and his brother, James the Duke of York, formed the Royal African Company. Under  this commercial front, they sent Admiral Robert Holmes to seize Dutch West African trade posts  from the Cape Verde south to Nigeria with the orders "kill, take, sink or destroy such as shall oppose you."

The Dutch did act as King Charles and James had hoped, allowing the English to declare war on the Dutch after they announced on February 22, 1665 that they would attack English shipping.  The Dutch did retake some of their West African holdings, but the English held on to a strategic fort.  Known as the Castle, this fort allowed the Royal African Company to control trade along the West African coast.

The Royal African Company  traded in gold, ivory and slaves from the late 1660s through 1698.  Slaves purchased by the Royal African Company were branded with the initials "DY," which stood for "Duke of York." 

In 1698, it lost its exclusive charter right to traffic in slaves, which amounted to about 5,000 African captives a year.  Merchants from Bristol, some of whom were secretly "poaching" on Royal African Company rights, quickly boosted the number of slaves taken to 20,000 a year. In 1723, the Royal African Company dropped its trade in African slaves in favor of maintaining its gold dust and ivory trade.

The Royal African Company's charter allowed in to maintain its own forts and trade centers along with its own soldiers and merchants known as factors. It also had a few coastal and river vessels for trade and enforcement of its concession along the West African Coast. Company employees signed on for a seven year tour.  Thanks to tropical diseases and the danger surrounding West African trade, few lived that long.

By the late 1690s, the French Senegal Company (Compagnie de Sénégal) was the principal competitor.  French forces did periodically take over British West African trading posts and forts.  In fact, the River Gambia fort known as Fort James was the site of many such battles in the early decades of the 1700s.

The rivalry between the English and French at Fort James plays a key part in Black Flag, Black Ship.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Henrietta Marie - slave ship of the triangular route

In the warm Gulf of Mexico waters 35 miles west of Key West a submerged concrete and bronze marker facing Africa bears these words:  "In memory and recognition of the courage, pain and suffering of enslaved African people. Speak her name and gently touch the souls of our ancestors."

With those words, the marker placed in 1993 by the National Association of Black SCUBA Divers commemorates the wreck of the Henrietta Marie, one of the earliest confirmed slave ship wrecks by name ever found in the New World. During the summer of 1700, just after delivering 190 slaves to Jamaica, the homeward bound Henrietta Marie  sank at latitude 24° 40.387’ N, longitude 82º22.395’ W on New Ground Reef. No one knows for certain, but it is believed that the the ship and crew were the victims of foul weather in mid-July 1700.

The Henrietta Marie was accidentally discovered by salvors working for renowned treasure hunter Mel Fischer as they searched for the wreck of a Spanish treasure ship. In the Henrietta Marie's debris field lie the twisted remnants of its keel timbers and artifacts such as  over eighty sets of shackles for adults and children known as "the bilboes,"  two anchors, cast-iron cannon, Venetian glass trade beads, iron trade bars, ivory tusks, and a large collection of English made pewter tankards, basins, spoons and bottles. Cargo manifests recorded in Jamaica show the ship also carried 48 tons of sugar, log-wood, ginger, and leftover trade goods. Most important, salvors found the ship's bell positively identifying the wreck as the "Henrietta Marie 1699."

Considered a fast and sturdy vessel, the Henrietta Marie at 170 tons and eight cannon was a typical European merchantman with a square stern,  three masts, and multiple cargo decks. Ships of her type ran the "triangular route" taking British trade goods to Africa to barter for slaves, slaves from Africa to British colonies in the West Indies and North America, and tons of  raw materials like sugar and indigo from the colonies to England. 

Captured from the French by the Royal Navy, the ship was sold to merchants and christened  the Henrietta Marie. Before her voyage in 1699-1700, the Henrietta Marie had made an earlier trip during 1697-1698. Arriving back in England she was refurbished and given a new ship's bell inscribed with the date 1699.

Her master on the last voyage  had a crew of 18 to 20 men.  While a ship of this size could have been crewed by a dozen sailors if it was a merchantman, the extra hands were needed aboard a slaver to watch the captives. Men recruited for slavers came from the dregs of society. Sadly, they were often violent and alcoholic.  

The  Henrietta Marie left England, taking some three months to reach the stretch of West Africa coast between Gambia and Benin that was the trading territory of the British Royal Africa Company.  There the ship and crew spent months collecting slaves by offering trade goods to local kings who had turned slavery, which originally has been a cruel by-product of African warfare, into a primary business.

Scholarly estimates place the number of African slaves sent to the New World between 9 to 15 million persons with as many as three to five million souls perishing during the transit from Africa to the West Indies, which is called the "Middle Passage."  While some estimates place the fatalities to be as little as 1.4 million, these are still staggering numbers that almost numb the mind.

The number of slaves aboard the Henrietta Marie  may have been about 250 persons when the ship left Africa, possibly Nigeria.  From slaves sales records in Jamaica it is know that 190 persons survived the 14 week voyage of the Henrietta Marie from Africa to Jamaica.  Their ultimate fate is not known, but it's believed that they lived and died working in Jamaican sugar plantations within five to ten years after their arrival in the New World.

Among the Europeans, only the Quakers and the Moravians seemed to be genuinely concerned about the plight of  African slaves. It would been nearly a hundred years after the sinking of the Henrietta Marie before slavery would be abolished, largely due to efforts of English Quaker and evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce, John Newton, Hannah More, Charles Middleton, Thomas Clarkson, and Granville Sharp.  The first-hand accounts of Newton, Rev. James Ramsay, and  former slaves Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano challenged public perceptions of slavery and helped fuel abolitionist sentiments.

In Black Flag, Black Ship,  I based the slave ship the Vanity on the real life  Henrietta Marie.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ships of Black Flag, Black Ship - Part II: The Frigate

The HMS Surprise from Daniel Fritsche on Vimeo.

During the Age of Sail, one ship evolved from a Mediterranean coastal galley to a far-ranging, fast vessel that served both as the eyes of  the fleet and potent enough to take on ships larger than itself. The frigate served many missions, both as a scout, a convoy escort, and a commerce raider.  In the British Royal Navy the frigate was the first ship that captains, or post-captains as they were called, could command.

Frigates began  in the 15th century as fast, maneuverable galleys equipped with sails and oars. During the 80 years' War (1568–1648), when Spain tried to retrieve the rebellious Netherlands, privateers in the service of the Spanish crown known as Dunkirk Privateers, or Dunkirkers, developed a sail-only short-range raider that they called a frigate.

Based on their experience fighting the Dunkirker frigates the Dutch Navy developed  the first ocean-going frigate. This 300-ton, 40-gun ship proved to be a potent development. Under the brilliant leadership of Dutch Admiral Maartin Troomp, their stunning success during the 1639  Battle of the Downs against the Spanish fleet led many European sea-going powers to develop frigates of their own.

The term  "frigate-built" appeared in the 17th century to describe a fast, maneuverable ship.  Eventually the French used the word frigate as a verb and adjective to mean "built long and low." Vessels in that day were considered ships if they carried three masts with square-rigged sails and had at least 28 guns on one or two decks. In the British rating system that sorted ships from most powerful (first-rate) to least powerful (sixth rate), frigates weighed in as fifth or sixth rate ships. Vessels that carried fewer than 20 cannon, such as gun sloops and cutters, were considered unrated vessels.

Don't let the notion of size fool you.  The frigates could perform many tasks while the larger vessels, called ships or the line, were designed as huge gun platforms intended only to form into battle lines to attack other enemy fleets. While cost-saving measures during peacetime mothballed ships of the line, navies kept the frigates working hard. Some captains became so enamored of their frigates that they actually refused promotion in order to continue commanding frigates.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the 36-gun  HMS Phoenix which along with the 74-gun HMS Dragon may have saved England from a French invasion when the  two ships spooked French Admiral Villeneuve. Thinking the two ships were advance scouts of a much larger British fleet, Villeneuve abandoned his mission of sailing to Brest to escort the French invasion fleet across the English Channel.

Instead, he took the combined French and Spanish fleets to Cadiz, Spain, where the fleets were blockaded for a time by the British frigates until Villeneuve attempted to leave the harbor with his ships.  Villeneuve's flight was observed by the British frigates which took the word to the main fleet under Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson.  The ensuing Battle of Trafalgar decisively ended French and Spanish naval threats.

The formidable nature of frigates have led many authors to make them their ship of choice.  These include C. S. Forrester and Patrick O'Brian. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey novels featured the frigate HMS Surprise under the command of Post-Captain Jack Aubrey. The video animation at the top of this post depicts the HMS Surprise as she would have been during Aubrey's command.

In my own novel,  Black Flag, Black Ship, a British vessel and a black frigate galley with a fearsome reputation encounter one another off the coast of Africa. What happens may astound you.  Read Black Flag, Black Ship to find out!