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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.

View all my reviews >>

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.

View all my reviews >>

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.