Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | February 11, 2012

Pirates, archaeologists, and smugglers: a tale of three documentaries


Ile Sainte-Marie:  just another pirate paradise

Last week, “H2,” previously known as “History International,” aired three shows targeted towards the drunken pirate demographic.  The first I stumbled into (on G’Ma’s TV), and when I looked on the Comcast guide and set the DVR for a full showing of that I found two more.  The first, accidental discovery was the best as an actual documentary:  Pirate Island, about investigations of Ile Sainte-Marie off northeast Madagascar.  Ile Sainte-Marie was one of the premier pirate havens of the Golden Age, because it had everything you could ask for–a location close to the rich shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean yet undisclosed to the law, a harbor to keep ships same from both storms and the Navy, and a local supply of fruit and water.  Kidd, Levasseur, Every, and other legendary pirates of the era used the island as a base at one time or another.  It was known for having vestiges of pirate days, but no professional archaeological survey had ever been done.

Bell of the Whydah

The team leader for the investigations documented in Pirate Island is a modern name well known to pirate buffs, Barry Clifford.  Clifford reached fame in 1984 with his discovery of the Whydah (pronounced WID-ah, not WIDE-ah).  The Whydah started as a trading and slave ship in 1715, but two years later it was captured in the Caribbean by the pirate “Black Sam” Bellamy.  Bellamy added cannons, made the 105-foot vessel his flagship, and preyed off the East Coast.  Unfortunately, in April, 1717, the Whydah was caught in a storm near Cape Cod.  Gale-force winds snapped the mainmast, and the ship capsized and broke apart.  Over a hundred pirate corpses washed up on the beach the next day as well as scattered goods that were quickly picked over by wreckers.  Three hundred years later, Clifford found the wreck of the Whydah.  Over 200,000 artifacts have now been recovered, ranging from buttons and buckles to grape shot and grenades…and 10,000 coins and 400 jewelry fragments.  The key find was the ship’s bell, clearly inscribed with “The Whyday Gally 1716.”  Clifford had found the first positively identified pirate shipwreck.

According to Pirate Island, Clifford had found clues to Ile Sainte-Marie during the Whydah investigations.  Clifford and an experienced, tight-knit team began fieldwork in 1999.  The thing that most impressed me about the documentary of this research is how much more interested it is in the archaeology than the pirates themselves.  Once upon Lou’s time, I was trained in historical archaeology, got a BA with High Honors, and fully intended to pursue that as my profession.  Can it be that I graduated from Cal Berkeley twenty years ago this year?!?  I learned the methodology of this kind of digging (other than square holes).  First, research:  study direct historical accounts, establishing a framework from which to proceed and questions to be answered.  Two, fieldwork:  systematically collect data, not just artifacts but provenance, with ethnology on the side.  Three, lab work:  catalog and preserve.  Four, analysis:  ask how the archaeological evidence does or does not match history, and what said evidence can add to our understanding of the past.

Booty off Madagascar

Pirate Island only catches steps one and two of this process, but it is clear that Clifford and his team are true archaeologists, not treasure hunters.  They don’t hand pick finds, they do a slow, grid-based survey.  The documentary pays special attention to a classic historical archaeological technique, the diagnostic artifact.  A dated coin makes a good example.  Say you find a coin imprinted “1705” on the bottom of a pit.  You could toss the coin into the pit in 1705 or 1706 but not 1704 since the coin did not yet exist, therefore the pit can exist no earlier than 1704.  Diagnostic artifacts can be used to place both where and when, and if you find multiple diagnostic artifacts the identity of a site can be reasonably established.  Clifford’s team uses this method for three wrecks at Ile Sainte-Marie.  One is the Fiery Dragon of “Billy One-Hand” Condon, known from the historical record to have begun as a Dutch ship and to have taken treasure intended for Austria.  By finding porcelain fragments marked with the distinctive double eagle of the Austrian court, as well as futtocks (the ribs of a ship) of a shape unique to Dutch shipbuilders, identification of the wreck as the Fiery Dragon becomes very likely.  Similarly, the historical record states that two ships, the Great Mohamet and the Mocha Frigate, were scuttled by the pirates to block the harbor from the rapidly approaching British Navy.  Two wrecks are found side-by-side in the proper geographical location, containing artifacts such as cannons and ammunition that would otherwise have been valuable to pirates and thus indicative of a hurried disposal, in addition to a datable rum bottle (!).  Again identification becomes fairly certain.  Now add to this logic the reality of underwater archaeology–finding wrecks not by some ghostly hull but by a pile of ballast stones, the only thing that would actually have survived the elements three centuries later, on a silty bottom with murky visibility.

Perhaps I enjoyed Pirate Island because it flexed mental muscles that had nearly atrophied.  Perhaps I enjoyed it because it was good to see a documentary that was only indirectly about pirates.  The documentary is so uninterested in romanticized pirates that scant mention is made of the possibility that Ile Sainte-Marie may be the location of Libertatia, the legendary pirate commune that may or may not have been a fabrication of the Captain Charles Johnson that may or may not have been a fabrication of Daniel Defoe.  Pirate history is the context, not the point,  It is solid archaeology that is center stage.  I, personally, find that kind of documentary very refreshing.

Felony turned enterprise turned sport turned Federally acknowledged symbol

The second documentary I watched, which came on “H2” immediately after Pirate Island, was much less satisfying.  The topic and title had great promise:  Rumrunners, Moonshiners, and Bootleggers.  The problem was that the show focused more on illegality than alcohol, the history of crime over the history of booze.  This naturally calls for a lot of time on Prohibition, which sucked, although in fact the Twenties were, as a direct consequence of Prohibition, a stupendously experimental time, full of social and sexual liberation, outright drunkenness, and jazz.  But one can hear tales of Capone only so many times before there’s nothing left to reveal.  Furthermore, the documentary kept circling back to the moonshiners.  Everybody should know this about me:  I grew up on Southern Comfort, and worship single malt whisky, but orbit the planet rum.  Do I like Basil Hayden and Buffalo Trace?  Sure, but rum is my daily inebriant, my subcultural symbol, and my historical center.  Bourbon is not my star, and moonshine, even under the best conditions, is not bourbon.  Moonshine scares me.  Moonshiners scare me more, because they are the Southern equivalent of drug lords.  I really can’t think of a good thing to say about a backwoods still:  Moonshine is all kick with no flavor, contraband for the sake of being contraband, wrapped in a culture rampant with pure racism.  Then there’s the direct link between running moonshine with stock car racing and thus NASCAR.  Just not interested.

The rum schooner Almeida, 1925

Nevertheless, there are the rumrunners, which means boats and rum.  The actual connection between rum and “rumrunning” is complicated.  As I learned in Wayne Curtisand a Bottle of Rum, the use of the word ‘rum’ as a synonym simply for alcohol, but usually with a negative connotations, dates back to the early days of the nineteenth century temperance movement.  The symbol of “demon rum,” representing all the evils of drinking, lasted into the twentieth century even as most everyone in the United States was leaning towards whiskey.  “Rum” was short and simple, easy to rhyme or alliterate, and this is one reason “rumrunning” really was just a catchy term for transporting any illegal alcohol over water…and drinkers during Prohibition weren’t exactly picky.  Rumrunning, however, did marvelous things for rum.  Although Prohibition-era rumrunners turned their largest profits off British gin and Canadian whiskey, the backbone of their operation was Caribbean rum.  This meant new life for island distillers and new popularity for a kind of booze that had been downtrodden for a century.

Bill McCoy, some friends, and some booze

The King of the Rumrunners was William McCoy.  An experienced seaman and yacht builder from New York, Bill, along with his brother Ben, were operating a boat service and yard in Florida when Prohibition hit.  Their business cut by the expanding motorway system, the brothers decided to go on the smuggler’s account.  Rum from the Bahamas was their first cargo.  Then they sold everything, moved to Massachusetts, and bought the schooner Henry L. Marshall.  Bill McCoy became the star of “rum row,” the line of large ships that existed off Long Island, just beyond U.S. jurisdiction, that was essentially a floating liquor store with small, fast motorboats running to and from the coast.  Business going well, McCoy bought another schooner, the Arethusa, which he renamed Tomoka after the river from his hometown, very shrewdly registered as a British vessel, and armed with a mounted, concealed machine gun.   McCoy became known as an honest businessman; he never cut his liquor or tried to pass off cheap booze as expensive brand names.  Some say this is the origin of the phrase “The Real McCoy.”  Everything was great until November 23, 1923, when the US Coast Guard Cutter Seneca ended McCoy’s rumrunning career with a shot across the bow as he tried to flee.  McCoy pleaded guilty and only served nine months, after which he went straight.  There is precious little I can find on McCoy’s schooners, including whatever happened to them.  McCoy–who never drank?!–was the only part of the show that really got me excited.  But from Solo to Reynolds, I’ve always had a deep spot for smuggler captains.  How can ye not love the scoundrel?  McCoy’s tale, however, is not nearly enough to make Rumrunners, Moonshiners, and Bootleggers recommendable.  If you want something more intriguing and entertaining, try Ken Burns’ Prohibition.  Wait…did I just recommend Ken Burns?!?

Finally, there is True Caribbean Pirates, which could also be called “Pure Documentary Yo Ho.”  It could even be called “Blue Logan’s Pirate Story Time:  The Movie,” because it’s nearly the same Greatest Hits that I use for my typical festival hour.  Seriously, I hadn’t seen this before I concocted my show, or even until now, and this has been around since 2006 when Dead Man’s Chest was making piracy all big time.  All the Superstars are here and their most famous exploits.  Henry Morgan rampages around the Spanish Main.  Blackbeard turns the Concorde into the Queen Anne’s Revenge, blockades Charleston, and faces off with Maynard at Ocracoke.  Calico Jack brings Anne Bonny aboard, discovers “Mark” aka Mary Read, and drunkenly surrenders to Barnet.  Bartholomew Roberts takes over after the death of Howell Davis, brazenly hangs the governor of Martinique, and is cut down by grapeshot, ending the Golden Era with a bang.  These are the Gospels of real pirate nuts captured in one convenient two-hour package.  This makes True Caribbean Pirates either a perfect primer for the uninitiated or a K-Tel collection for those who need a quick hit of pirattitude.

Ann Bonny will make you give up the booty.

Especially pleasant is that the experts used are people central to modern pirate subculture.  There’s Christine Lampe of No Quarter Given.  There’s Gail Selinger, who wrote my go-to reference, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates.  There’s Benerson Little, who wrote the excellent The Sea Rover’s Practice on pirate tactics.  It is always good to see ‘our people’ being called upon for advice and testimony.  And there’s no lack of attitude even in the commentators.  On the death of Blackbeard, James Nelson, author of The Only Life That Mattered, says, “Blackbeard went cutlass and pistol with Maynard before he finally dropped to the deck.  He died a pirate’s death.  He died the death that you would expect someone like him to die.”  How else can you respond to that but with a “Ya-Harr?”

Royaliste in battle.  This pic is not from the show.

The reenactments here are very entertaining.  That’s no wonder since they hired some serious, professional pirate players like NQG’s Buccaneers.  A look at the credits reveals that, even though they are not named in the show, they are some lesser known pirates in supporting roles, men like Stede Bonnet, Israel Hands, and Benjamin Hornigold.  They also use real tall ships, four supposedly, although the only one that seems to be taking any credit is the Royaliste.  (By the way, I have word that the Royaliste has now been obtained by scalawags in nearby Portland, who are working hard to get her in shape.)  Most of the main characters are played by ‘Hollywood’ actors, not reenactors, but they all do a creditable and appropriately flamboyant job.  David Joseph Boyd, who plays Rackham, does justice to the following lines, said to convince “Mark” Read to join the crew:  “Do you have a mind to go pirating?  Less work, more pay, better rum!”  Did he actually say that?  Who knows, and who cares?  It made me pause for several  minutes while I laughed to fill the house.  True Caribbean Pirates is fun and real history.  I nominate it for the show that most encapsulates the new age of educated pirate fandom.

Beware gaudily dressed pirates, Ms. McCormick

LAST MINUTE ADDITION!  Last night, after once again finding something on G’Ma’s DVR, I had one more pirate show to include–Globe Trekker:  Pirates, Galleons, and TreasureGlobe Trekker is a travel show for the modern, young, independent adventurer, the kind that hauls a backpack and hitches rides, not pulls luggage and reserves suites.  There is a very, very strong emphasis on ecotourism; this is left-wing wandering, attuned to the evils of deforestation or the good deeds of direct, local preservation.  Thus when Globe Trekker turns to pirate and colonial history, it is nearly overtaken by The White Man’s Burden.  The conquistadors that set the story in motion are guilty of pillaging and genocide (and the plague of gold lamé “Native” costumes).  The host, the rather cheery Megan McCormick, makes sure we know that El Camino Real, the treasure road between Panama City and Portobelo, was made by slave labor.  It gets a bit heavy handed.

McCormick does visit some serious pirate historical sites.  In Portobelo, Panama, captured by Henry Morgan in 1668, she passes the King’s Warehouse, which would have held the treasure waiting for the annual fleet.  In Cartagena, Colombia, she goes to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the city’s oldest surviving church, built in the late 16th century around the same time that Francis Drake sacked the place.  This church has something the host identifies as “The Tomb of the Unknown Pirate,” which sounds like some sort of pilgrimage site for freebooters (and about which I can find nothing).  Morgan, famous for capturing the treasure ship Cagafuego (“shitfire” in Spanish) in 1579, died of dysentery in 1596, in other words…oh, you finish that joke.

The Grog Shoppe, a bar in the middle of historic Port Royal. (Thanks, NQG.)

Then McCormick leaves the Buccaneer Era for the Golden Age, heads to Jamaica, and gets HAPPY.  These are, come to think of it, likely Bucket List items for me:  ride in a taxi while the driver shakes the car with dub reggae…explore the mostly submerged ruins of Port Royal…sample rum served by a Dreadie bartender…eat some legitimate buccan.  The show then leaves all pretense behind and checks out Pat Croce’s Pirate Museum and the Mel Fisher Museum.  Fact is, the path of this Globe Trekker, which even includes a little tall ship time with reenactors, sounds like a very nice vacation.  And perhaps this is the conclusion to be reached after four hours of pirate shows:  I like my pirates with equal proportions of reality and make believe.  Give me archaeology and black powder, rum and boats, context and straight up pretending.  That’s a fair course, right?


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