Really! There really, really was a Captain (Sir) Henry Morgan, (1635-1688). He was a “paid pirate”, aka “privateer”, and on a company’s payroll way back in the day. So what, prefer to know him as a pirate!
Another pirate, José Gaspar, invades Tampa, FL in the Gasparilla Parade in January. However, unlike Mr. Morgan, there really, really is no evidence in existence of Mr. Gaspar and he is likely folklore. So what, we like legends too!
On the subject of pirates – or “pyrates”, that fancy way of spelling it – here is a short refresher in “pirate-speak” and general boating terms. Be sure to invoke loudly, either with that Captain Morgan tonight at the bar, or at the parade this weekend:
Pyrate - A robber at sea. Any act of theft while on the oceans is pyracy in the most general sense.
Privateer - a privateer is a sailor with a “letter of marque” (see below) from a governement. This letter “allows” the sailor to plunder any ship of a given enemy nation. Technically a privateer was a self employed soldier paid only by what he plundered from an enemy. In this, a privateer was supposed to be above being tried for pyracy. Tell that to Cap’n Kidd. Most often, privateers were a higher class of criminal, though many turned plain pyrate before all was said and done.
Buccaneer - originally a term for those privateers who fought against the Spanish, later a general term for pyrates of the atlantic, specifically the Caribbean. The buccaneers were first hunters of pigs and cattle on the island of Hispanola, but were driven off by the Spanish and turned to pyracy. Buccaneers were said to be heavy drinking, cruel pyrates.
Corsair - This term was used for Christian and Muslim privateers in the Mediterranean between the 16th and 19th centuries. The Barbary corsairs centered on North African states and were often “hired” by Muslim nations to attack Christian ships. The Christian Corsairs were known as the Maltese corsairs and they took their orders from the Knights of St. John to attack the Turks.
To Go on Account - a pleasant term used by pyrates to describe the act of turning pyrate. The basic idea was that a pyrate was more “free lance” and thus was, more or less, going into business for himself.
Avast Ye! - a hailing phrase to indicate that the hailed must “stop” and give attention.
Landlubber - a term given to one fond of land as opposed to sea. The terms doesn’t derive from “land lover” but rather from the root of “lubber” which means clumsy or uncoordinated. Thus, a landlubber is one who is awkward at sea for familiarity with the land. Of course, this terms was used to insult the abilities of one at sea.
Davy Jones’s Locker - a fictional place at the bottom of the ocean. In short, a term meaning death. Davey Jones was said to sink every ship he ever over took, and thus, the watery grave that awaited all who were sunk by him was given his name. To die at sea is to go to “Davey Jones’s Locker”.
Walk the Plank - Perhaps more famous than historically practiced, walking the plank was the act of being forced off a ship by pyrates (as punishment or torture) into the watery grave below. History suggests that this might have happened once that can be vaguely documented, but it is etched in the image of the pyrates for its clearly dastardly content.
Swing the Lead - The Lead was a weight at the bottom of a line that gave sailors a way to measure depth when near land. To Swing the Lead was considered a simple job, and thusly came to represent one who is avoiding work or taking the easy work over the hard. In todays terms, one who swings the lead is a slacker.
Keel Haul - another term made famous by pyrates. This is the act of throwing a man overboard, tied to a rope that goes beneath the ship, and then dragging him from one side to the other and hauling him out. Besides the torment of being dragged under water, this would drag the victim across the barnacle studded ship’s hull and cause great pain and injury. This was a serious punishment and not administered lightly.
Sea Legs - after walking on a ship for long periods of time, sailors became accustomed to the rocking of the ship in the water. So, early in a voyage a sailor was said to be lacking his “sea legs” when the ship motion was still foreign to him. Often, after a cruise, a sailor would have trouble regaining his “land legs” and would swagger on land.
Yellow Jack - like any “jack” or flag, the yellow jack was used to indicate a particular disposition of a ship. In this case the yellow was to signify the yellow fever. A yellow flag flying meant that there was illness aboard. Often this was used to trick pyrates away from potential targets.
Take a Caulk - on deck of a ship, between planks, was a thick caulk of black tar and rope to keep water from between decks. This term came to mean to “take a nap” either because sailors who slept on deck ended up with black lines across their backs or simply because sailors laying down on deck were as horizontal as the caulk of the deck itself.
Shiver me Timbers - This term was used to express shock or surprise. The idea of timbers shivering comes from the vibration set up in the mast (timbers) by either running aground or a solid hit from a larger gun. The suggestion is that something has shaken the speaker from a state of less awareness.
Long Clothes - Long clothes were a style of clothing best suited to land. A pyrate, or any sailor, didn’t have the luxury of wearing anything loose that might get in the way while climbing up riggings. Landsmen, by contrast, could adorn themselves with baggy pants, coats, and stockings.
Black Spot - Tipping the black spot was a way pyrates gave a death threat. As in the Novel, Treasure Island, a paper was marked with a black smudge on one side and often a message on the other to make the threat specific.
Bilge - The lowest part inside the ship, within the hull itself. If any place on the ship was going to be dank and musty, the bilge was such a place. It was the first place to show signs of leakage and was often considered the most filthy, deadspace of a ship. Hence, a “bilge rat” is a creature considered most lowly by a pyrate. Though, many a pyrate found himself eating those same rats to survive!
Bowsprit - the furthest front of the ship is the bowsprit. It is usually used as a lead connection for a smaller navigational sail. It was from the bowsprit that Blackbeard’s head was hung as a trophy.
Broadside - a general term for the vantage on another ship of absolute perpendicular to the direction it is going. To get along broadside a ship was to take it at a very vulnerable angle. This is of course, the largest dimention of a ship and is easyiest to attack with larger arms. A “Broadside” has come to indicate a hit with a cannon or similar attack right in the main part of the ship.
Careen - to careen a ship is to take it into shallower waters or out of the water altogether and to remove barnacles and pests from the bottom. Pests include mollusks (worms), shells, and plant growth. Often a pyrate needed to careen his ship to restore it to proper speed. Also, careening was dangerous to pyrates as it left the ship inoperable while the work was being done.
Come About - to bring the ship full way around in the wind. Used in general while sailing into the wind, but also used to indicate a swing back into the enemy in combat.
Fo’c's’le - This is a term used for the Forcastle or frontmost part of the ship. Usually under the front deck and above the lower deck.
Gunwalls - the “sides” of the top deck. These “walls” were the only thing keeping things on deck from sliding into the water. Of course, these railings and walls had openings for the heavy arms or guns.
Jury Mast - a temporary or make-shift mast erected on a sea vessel after the mainmast has been destroyed. Often, in combat, the mast was the most damaged (providing the ship didn’t sink). Without the mast, a ship was powerless, so a term grew out of the need to make masts to power damaged ships.
Jolly Boat - a light boat carried at the stern of a larger sailing ship. This (probably) Danish Yawl (jol), proved better at high sea when a larger ship could harldy carry any sail.
Long Boat - the largest boat carried by another ship. This was used to move larger loads, often anchors, chains, or ropes. In the case of pyrates, the longboats were used to transport the bulk of heavier treasures.
Quarter - deriving from the idea of “shelter”, quarter was given when mercy was offered by the pyrates. To give no quarter was to indicate that none would be spared. Quarter was often the prize given to an honourable loser in a pyrate fight. If enraged, however, a pyrate would deprive the loser any such luxury.
Yardarm - the main arm across the mast which holds up the sail. The yardarm was another vulnerable target in combat, and it was also a favourite place from which to hang prisoners or enemies. Black Bart hung his governor of Martinique from his yardarm.
Mizzen - a term meaning “middle” on a ship. The Mizzenmast was usually the largest and, perhaps, most important mast.
Poop Deck - the deck at the furthest back of a ship. Usually above the captain’s quarters, the poopdeck was usually the highest deck of the ship.
Letter of Marque - a document given to a sailor (privateer) giving him amnesty from pyracy laws as long as the ships plundered were of an enemy nation. A large portion of the pyrates began as privateers, with this symbol of legitimacy. Still, the earnings of a privateer were significantly better than any given a soldier at sea in any Navy.