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The Fanciful, Mythical “Calico Jack Rackham” Pirate Flag

The popular fanciful “Calico Jack” Jolly Roger.

This is not a post I’d ever intended to write, believing–clearly foolishly–that publishing a book on pirate myths would once and for all send the Rackham’s pretended “skull and crossed swords” flag to perdition where it belongs. Or mostly so. How naive! It’s not just hope that springs eternal–so does myth flying in the face of contrary fact.

Although it’s well-documented that the “Rackham” flag is a fanciful 20th century invention, Wikipedia via trolls and the ignorant continues to spew nonsense regarding both Rackham and this flag, the latest of which I learned, via a historical forum on Facebook, is that the two crossed swords might represent Anne Bonny & Mary Read. (For the record, all either of them did with a sword–quite possibly a machete, in fact, based on a witness statement–as pirates as far as we know is wave them at frightened merchant seamen who had already surrendered.) But I’ll get to this ridiculous notion in a moment.

Trying to correct Wikipedia is like playing Whack-a-Mole; it’s never-ending. Wikipedia is a prime resource for the lazy and the gullible, and trolls and others attempting to distort facts are well-aware of this. It’s one of the best places today to replace fact with nonsense, or worse. Don’t get me wrong: there are excellent articles on Wikipedia, including some on pirates and piracy. But to the uninitiated it can be hard to tell the difference between these and those that are little more than nonsense. And even the best ones are often soon rewritten–and their important facts often disappear with the revision.

John “Calico Jack” Rackam (or Rackam) as depicted in an early edition of Charles Johnson’s pirate history (1726). The image is entirely fanciful, it is certainly not an eyewitness image.

A few facts about Rackham & Co. before I describe the 20th century origin of the flag:

  • There is no record of any pirate flag John “Calico Jack” Rackham ever flew, if he even flew one. The only record of any flag he flew is of a white one, probably as a French flag for deception. This doesn’t mean he never flew a black flag, but if he did we have no idea what it looked like. None of the witnesses at his trial mention a black flag.
  • Again, as noted above, the black flag attributed to him, with skull (“death’s head”) and crossed cutlasses (or hangers or falchions) is a 20th century invention. More on this in a moment.
  • Rackham was a a smalltime pirate who whose piracies prior to late 1720, if any (although likely; “Charles Johnson” claims he was once Charles Vane’s quartermaster), cannot be corroborated, and he would doubtless be entirely forgotten today were it not for two women who briefly sailed with him, Anne Bonny & Mary Read, and a publisher/editor, apparently Nathaniel Mist, who greatly “sexed up” their petty sea thieving. For most of his time in command, Rackham’s crew numbered only ten, including the two women and himself; he had added nine more drunk volunteers earlier the same day he was captured at sea. His piratical cruise lasted less than two months. It’s entirely possible that even his nickname, “Calico Jack,” is an invention.
  • At the time Rackham sailed with these women in his crew, he commanded a tiny 12-ton sloop named William he stole at anchor at New Providence (Johnson reimagined it as a swift 40 ton sloop), and was robbing small largely defenseless fishing and trading vessels in the waters off New Providence, Hispaniola, and Jamaica: seven small fishing boats, three merchant trading sloops, one small merchant schooner, and one small canoe. Most if not all of them were local “Mom & Pop” coastal seafarers, in other words. Hardly epic escapades. None of the vessels Rackham captured put up a fight.
  • Bonny & Read wore women’s clothing aboard, and dressed as men only the very few times they robbed small merchant traders and fishermen. There was only one battle they might actually have fought in together–the battle in which they and Rackham were captured–and it was over in a moment, literally. There wasn’t much of a fight other than a single “great gun”–apparently in this case a swivel gun, not a carriage-mounted gun–and possibly a pistol fired by the pirates, and neither did any damage. There is no record of any other resistance by the two women pirates or any of the men. The pirates surrendered immediately after Jonathan Barnet’s sloop fired a broadside and volley of small arms. No pirates are recorded as having been wounded or killed in the brief action.
  • Further, most of what “Charles Johnson” wrote about Bonny & Read cannot be corroborated in spite of extensive research. Although much of what “Johnson” wrote is clearly factual and has been corroborated (pistols hanging from silk slings is an example of what might be invention proved to be a fact by the Whydah wreck, for example), he also embellished–lied–often.
The pirate flag from Captain Blood (1935) starring Errol Flynn. This flag is a possible inspiration for the “Calico Jack” flag: crossed arms with swords instead of crossed swords, and the sword hilts are virtually identical to those of the “Calico Jack.” The color of the flag in the film is unknown, but I’d like to think it’s red as a “no quarter” banner which would be somewhat historically accurate. DVD screen capture.

As for the modern origin of the flag, I’ll quote from the draft manuscript of The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths (I’m too lazy to pull up the published final):

“Many…pirate flags depicted today, such as those purportedly of  Stede Bonnet, Calico Jack Rackam, and Blackbeard, are modern inventions without historical basis. The pirate flag we know incorrectly as Calico Jack’s, with crossed cutlasses under a skull, may well have been inspired by the flag used in the 1935 film version of Captain Blood, that of a pair of cutlass-holding arms crossed beneath a skull. And this film flag may have been inspired by the early flag of Bartholomew Roberts, that of a death’s head and an arm holding a cutlass, or by the Dutch red battle ensign with an arm holding a cutlass, or by the seventeenth century flag of Algiers (a notorious have of Barbary corsairs), or even by a Barbary corsair flag of no quarter. We simply do not know what the pirate flags of these three pirate captains really looked like…except that Blackbeard’s was a black flag with a “death’s head,” and not the commonly attributed black flag with horned skeleton. Similarly, the purported pirate flags of Christopher Moody and John Quelch are misattributions: Moody’s is actually the Barbary corsair flag of no quarter described later in this chapter, and Quelch never flew a pirate flag…

“The origin of our modern popular but fanciful renditions is a series of several books whose illustrations were passed from one to the next, with few or any changes. The earliest publication of this series discovered to date—and probably the origin—is Basil Lubbock’s The Blackwall Frigates, published in 1922. The book includes a plate of eight pirate flags, three of which are misattributions, although otherwise mostly accurate, and one is a fanciful flag taken from an illustration in Charles Johnson’s pirate chronicle. [Rackham’s purported flag is not among them.]

The “Jolly Rogers” depicted in The Blackwall Frigates, 1922. The “Calico Jack” flag is absent. I’ve no idea where the idea of a pirate pendant stiffened with battens came from; it’s not in the written piratical record anywhere.

“Most of these flags, with names now added, were reproduced in Charles Grey’s Pirates of the Eastern Seas. Patrick Pringle’s Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy, published two decades later, includes nine pirate flags, all reproduced exactly from Grey’s book. In 1959, Hans Leip’s Bordbuch des Satans (Log of the Satans) includes some very similar flags clearly inspired by Lubbock, Grey, and Pringle, although two have been miscaptioned. Leip also adds three new flags, all imaginary: those of Calico Jack Rackam, Stede Bonnet, and Henry Every [“Long Ben”]. [Every’s flag includes a skull with a bandana and earring, a clear giveaway that it’s an invention.]

The pirate flags in Hans Leip’s Bordbuch des Satans (Log of the Satans) , 1959. This is the first apparent appearance of the “Calico Jack” flag with crossed swords. Author’s library.

“Most of Leip’s pirate flags were reproduced exactly in 1961 in Pirates of the Spanish Main, part of the American Heritage Junior Library, with credit to Leip’s book. Pirates of the Spanish Main became a classic source of historical pirate lore—and mythical pirate flags—to literally thousands of young readers who imagined themselves pirates, not to mention to publishers of subsequent books on piracy. Similarly identified flags, some accurate, some, like those in the other books, not, were published in 1978 in Pirates, a title in the popular Time-Life “The Seafarers” series [including the “Calico Jack” flag with crossed swords]. It is no surprise that inaccurate images of pirate flags would appear in pirate books: for many publishers, the main purpose of images in a book is to get readers to buy it. The image of the “Jolly Roger,” whether accurate or not, is the perfect lure.”

The front cover of Pirates of the Spanish Main, part of the American Heritage Junior Library, 1961. This book inspired numerous young pirates and provided them with numerous iconic images. Author’s library.
Pirates of the Spanish Main in the attic scene in The Goonies (1985). Blu-ray screen capture.
The pirate flags depicted in Pirates of the Spanish Main, 1961. The are copies of those in Leip’s book. Author’s library.

The two most similar written descriptions of historical black pirate flags circa 1715 to 1730 to Rackam’s purported flag are “this flag was a black cloth in the middle of which was depicted a cadaver [skeleton] and scattered bones and crossed sabers” (I’ve translated this from French), and “The Ship hoisted a Black Flagg at the Main-Top-Mast-Head, with Deaths Head and a Cutlass in it…” Neither were hoisted by Rackham. The former is the only reference I’ve found to crossed swords among the many eyewitness descriptions of pirate flags.

Soon after I posted this blog, my friend Antón Viejo Alonso mentioned to me that conquistador Lope de Aguirre is said to have had three identical flags made in 1561, each with a black field with red crossed swords, the colors representing the blood he shed and the “lamentations and mourning” he caused. Whether this may have influenced Leip’s illustrator is unknown. Many flag designs appear to be parallel developments independent of previous or current similar flags, and not descendant, although clearly many also fall into the latter category. Black flags, and mortuary symbols on flags, have been around since antiquity, and have been used on land as well as sea. Aguirre’s flags were described by Friar Pedro Simón (1574 – circa 1628). The English translation of his work is entitled The Expedition of Pedro de Ursúa & Lope de Aguirre in Search of El Dorado and Omagua in 1560-1 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1861).

The modern “Calico Jack” flag of skull and crossed swords is a popular one in pirate films and among pirate fans. I myself own versions in both black and red, but I don’t represent them to be authentic. It’s an easy flag to imagine, substituting crossbones for crossed swords. I can even imagine myself creating it today or three centuries ago, given my interest in piracy and swordplay, not to mention, in a modern sense, its associations with Navy SEALs and Cutthroat Island (see below).

Morgan Adams flew it aboard the Morning Star in Cutthroat Island (1995); “Hoist the colors!” she orders at the beginning of the battle with Dog Brown’s Reaper. The flag flown from the Morning Star was slightly modified from the original 20th century illustration, although the original was used on posters and other promotional materials. The film, although it bombed at the box office (odd that a blockbuster is a film that makes lots of money, yet a blockbuster is also a very large bomb…), has a great soundtrack, plenty of comic book pirate action, and Geena Davis did a better job portraying a pirate captain than many men have in films.

Cutthroat Island Blu-ray screen captures.
The “Calico Jack” flag was also used on the teaser poster and other promotional materials.

It was flown aboard the Black Pearl it in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) during the “Hoist the colors!” scene–again, a bad ass female pirate gives the order–and in the engagement following:

The “Calico Jack” flag is also in the Starz Black Sails series at the very end of the final season. I was the historical consultant for all four seasons, and for reasons of both history and legal liability I traced the origin of the purported Calico Jack flag for the producers. The writers wanted to use the flag because it was already popularly attributed to Rackham, the set designers wanted something that looked authentic, and the lawyers wanted to be sure there was no copyright or trademark infringement.

Black Sails Season 4 Blu-ray screen capture.
The Calico Jack Rackham flag as designed by the Black Sails production crew and sent to me for comment. Hopefully the Starz lawyers won’t mind me posting this. 🙂

Navy SEALs sometimes wear a “Calico Jack” flag patch on their field uniforms. Often the flag’s skull has an eye patch, a variant based most probably on choice of vendor. If my memory is correct–for the record, I’m a former Navy SEAL–its use began in the very late 80s when “real world” VBSS operations (board and search operations) were put to use. I might be mistaken, however. Pirate flag patches weren’t yet a fad in the Teams I served in (ST-3, SDVT-1) in the 80s. Certainly the “Calico Jack” patch remains in use today by Navy SEALs. Luminox, maker of a watch used by Navy SEALs, even has, or had, a special limited edition (375 watches only, I think) Navy SEAL watch with a Rackam skull and crossed swords on its face, although notably not the most common design of the flag, at least on one version. (See below, I couldn’t get captions to work on the tiled images.) Other military units wear the flag patch too.

US Navy SEALs (reportedly: I haven’t confirmed the image) sporting the Calico Jack Rackham flag, apparently after fast-roping onto a vessel for a photo op.

[Self-Promotion Alert!] The “Calico Jack” flag is also on the cover of The Golden Age of Piracy. Again for the record, the publisher chose the cover. I had no real input, although I’ve no problem with it. It certainly stands out and gets attention, and that’s what dust jackets are supposed to do. It slipped my mind when I first drafted this blog post that the Polish edition also uses the “Calico Jack” flag. (Sorry, Maciej Studencki, for missing this the first time around!)

The Polish edition, translated by Maciej Studencki.

If you’re looking for more details on pirate flags–accurate details, that is–you can read the book above or Ed Fox’s Jolly Rogers, the True History of Pirate Flags (author given as E. T. Fox). Or better yet, both. 🙂

If you’re looking to fly the flag, try ebay, lots of vendors carry it. It’s also available in red, and in design variations as well. There’s also a “weathered” version in red, but I’ve only seen it available at a few non-ebay vendors. Plus there are patches, stickers, T-shirts, rings, cufflinks, and more. If you want to fly the flag regularly, plan to pay a little more for sturdier nylon and construction; in particular, look for fabric that’s fade-resistant (all flags fade eventually). If you want to make your own authentically, you’ll need wool bunting or, in a pinch, silk.

When buying, remember, black means “good quarter if you surrender now,” which in practice means “surrender now and we might not murder, torture, or abuse you much,” and red means “no quarter, we’re going to kill you all.” Perhaps the best description of the meaning of the red flag of no quarter comes not from my books, or any other book on piracy, but from Les Aventures de Tintin: Le Secret de la Licorne (Casterman, 1946; reprints in many languages; in English, The Secret of the Unicorn). Enjoy! Don’t read French? “Tonnerre de tonnerre de Brest!” It’s never too late to start learning another language! Or, buy the English version. It’s a fun read, and there’s a sequel too.

Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted June 18, 2021. Last updated June 20, 2021.

The Romance of Swordplay: Some Favorite Images

Originally I’d intended to write a post entitled, “Whither Modern Fencing?” and illustrate it with some of my favorite inspirational fencing images. However, the likelihood of the subject turning into a lengthy near-rant was too strong, particularly if the draft of the first few paragraphs was any indication, so in the end I’ve decided to let the images speak for themselves. The accompanying commentary may be read or ignored according the reader’s inclination. Enjoy.

1. Untitled by Aaron Siskend, from “The Most Crowded Block”

“Aaron Siskind, untitled, from the project The Most Crowded Block, 1939-1940, printed later, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the artist, 1992.116.10, © 1940, Aaron Siskind Foundation.”

Quite possibly my favorite swordplay image other than personal ones of friends and family fencing, and if not my most favorite, then surely one of my top three. The swashbuckling adventure of youth, exactly what swordplay should always be at any age!

The lure of fencing is to fight with swords, not to participate in mere sport, at least not for most of us drawn to fencing. We want to fight one-on-one for honor, for romance, for the clash of steel-on-steel. We want to sword-fight for fun, for adventure, and, importantly, for the “All for one and one for all!” camaraderie fencing in the right circumstances can bring. These days, the purely sport mentality of too many fencing coaches, administrators, and parents often misses this fundamental truth. To paraphrase my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, “Fencing is not sport: fencing is swordplay!”*

At the end of a lecture I gave more than a year ago–has it been that long?–on the history and practice of modern Western swordplay for a local continuing education program whose students were mostly retired persons, several came up afterward and, pointing to the photograph above which was still showing on the projection screen, excitedly and animatedly agreed that it conveyed exactly how they felt about fencing, even to depicting how they themselves had played at “sword-fighting” in their childhoods.

For what it’s worth, during the practical sessions on the two following weekends, these retirees proved to be some of the most apt pupils I’ve ever had, learning far more quickly and easily than much younger students. Many had wanted to learn to fence since they were kids but had never had the opportunity. Life can make dreams difficult to come true, but this is no reason to stop dreaming, much less stop trying to make them come true.

And if you can do nothing else, improvise some swords and let your inner swashbuckler take over, no matter your age!

2. Douglas Fairbanks Fencing With Kids on the Set of The Three Musketeers

Douglas Fairbanks, film auteur and famous swashbuckling actor fences with a child on the set of The Three Musketeers, 1921. Publicity still, Douglas Fairbanks Productions. Author’s collection.

Evocative not only of the silent film era swashbuckler, but also of children’s fascination with swashbuckling heroes, then and now. Who of these children would not today still tell the story of he once fenced with Fairbanks as d’Artagnan! Fairbanks created the modern swashbuckler film genre, with its over-the-top tongue-in-cheek antics, best described–other than by viewing!–in the following New York Times review of The Three Musketeers, August 29, 1921:

“For here, plainly, is a D’Artagnan that not even Dumas ever dreamed of. He is the personification of all the dashing and slashing men of Gascony that ever fought their way through French novels, all for the smile of a lady. He never fences one man if there are six to fence instead, he never leaves a room by the door if there is a window or a roof handy, he never walks around any object (including human beings) if he can jump over them; he scales walls at a bound, carries prostrate damsels over roofs, hurls men one upon another, rides no horse save at a gallop, responds to the call gallantry at the drop of a hat, and general makes himself an incomparable D’Artagnan.”

A perfect description of our four-year-old, almost five now, son, too. 🙂

I still recall my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, telling me how Fairbanks and his entourage came to watch the Hungarians in the final round of the saber fencing at the 1932 Olympic Games, and saw Gyorgi Piller (one of my fencing “grandfathers,” in fact) win the gold. A few days before the Hungarians had been invited to Picfair, the famous eighteen acre estate he shared with his wife, Mary Pickford, for a large Olympic Games dinner party which featured two hundred invited guests including Charlie Chaplan, Clark Gable, and Constance Bennett.

3. The Duel Between Peter Blood & the Villain Levasseur in Captain Blood, 1935

Publicity still, Captain Blood, 1935. Errol Flynn is at the center, Basil Rathbone on the right, and Olivia de Havilland is overlooking. Author’s collection.

What a difficult choice from among the wonderful publicity stills of this duel! It remains my favorite film swordfight by far: it’s from the best film version of my favorite novel of youth (and still one of my favorite books, so much so that we’re publishing an annotated edition): it’s a pirate duel on the beach; it’s for the hand of one’s beloved (although not so in the novel); the villain, Basil Rathbone, deserved to be run through for his gaudy French accent (nothing personal, Rathbone, you’re one of my favorite villains and Sherlocks, and you actually could fence well); the duel is wonderfully choreographed; and even the accompanying music is great, although Erich Wolfgang Korngold was upset that he didn’t have time to compose it himself, and was forced to use Liszt’s Prometheus at the last minute. Last, Three Arch Bay near Laguna Beach, California, here made up to look like a Caribbean island, reminds me fondly of my many days spent on Southern California beaches in my youth and as a young Navy SEAL officer.

It is films like these, and novels like those written by Rafael Sabatini and his like (Sabatini wrote Captain Blood: His Odyssey) that inspired many of us to become fencers. They also inspired a number of true swashbuckling swordsmen and swordswomen of real-life adventure, the majority of whom from the early to mid-twentieth century have already passed away, and there are sadly far too few replacements.

Just as sad, the number of true swashbuckling fencer-writers is severely diminished. Even so, I’m happy to see a few today who are following in their adventurous footsteps. “Books are good enough in their own way but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life,” as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his excellent essay of advice on life, “An Apology for Idlers.” Likewise with movies and television too. Why not “take a walk on the wild side” and pick up both pen and sword as you head out the door for real adventure?

I’ve even written two of a planned five blog posts on The Duel on the Beach, greatly inspired by this duel and the one in The Black Swan. Here’s the first of the series: “The Duel on the Beach, Part I: In Fiction.”

4. Famed Fencing Master Fred Cavens Training Binnie Barnes for The Spanish Main

Publicity still for The Spanish Main, 1945. Fred Cavens on the left, Binnie Barnes on the right. Gotta love those tailored buttoned fencing jackets! They’ve long since disappeared from modern fencing due to convenience (i.e. zippers) and, in theory, safety (so a blade can’t slip into the gap between buttons although I don’t recall this ever being an issue with these jackets in practice). Author’s collection.

One of the last great pirate swashbucklers before the genre descended into B-movie purgatory (arguably almost elevated again to A-level status by the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, although the overweening element of fantasy disqualifies the films in my opinion), The Spanish Main’s best swordplay was not that of the star, Paul Henreid as Capt. Laurent Van Horn (combining the names of two real Dutch buccaneers, Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Vanhorn who actually fought a duel on Isla Sacrificios), but of his adversary Paul Emery as Capt. Mario du Billar, and equally that of Binnie Barnes as the anachronistic Anne Bonney. To this day I recall the first time I saw a passata soto: Binnie Barnes executed one in this film.

Fencing master Fred Cavens and his contemporaries, along with those who followed, gave us the film swordfights that have imprinted themselves indelibly on our swashbuckling psyches. Although swordswomen were in the minority, and still are, in swashbuckling films (actual history itself unfortunately tends to preclude sword-armed women except in rare circumstances), their were several worthy ones in this era, and often their swordplay was as good, or better than, the best of the male actors: Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, and Jean Peters all did superbly creditable fencing scenes. Reportedly, Bebe Daniels was a masterful swordswoman in Senorita (1927) playing a Zorro-like character, but only two prints of the film exist and apparently neither has been digitally transferred. Not surprisingly, Cavens trained all four of these women actor-fencers and choreographed their swordfights.

And Fred, or formally, Frédéric Adolphe, Cavens? He set the standard for sword choreography in film, largely unmatched these days although through the first decade of the 21st century his descendants followed worthily in his footsteps (or rather, footwork?). And for a fact there are sword choreographers and fight directors today who can arrange exciting swordfights that evoke a sense of the reality of swordplay–if only their directors would let them.

5. The Climactic Duel in The Spanish Main

A classic image: crossed swords between villain and hero, plus a damsel in distress! O’Hara’s character is not entirely helpless, thankfully: she does attempt to fight, although not at all to the degree of Binnie Barnes as Anne Bonny, who must, per the dictates of popular culture at the time, die in action, her love for the hero unrequited. Heroes, male ones I mean, never seem to end up with the action heroine, but with the “great lady” instead. Male protagonists only marry “girls” who wear dresses, not breeches, at least at the time, apparently. And sadly. Even so, the breech-wearing O’Hara did get the guy in Against All Flags. Publicity still, author’s collection.

I honestly can’t claim that this image from The Spanish Main (see image and notes above) is one of my absolute favorites, but it perfectly illustrates more than one swashbuckling trope, and, more important to me, I recall complaining excitedly to one of my fencing masters, Dr. Eugene Hamori, when I was nineteen years old that John Emery on the left above (though doubtless I didn’t recall his name at the time) was a much better swordsman than Paul Henreid on the right–but he had to lose! It bothered me as a fencer that a skilled swordsman must ignore so many tempo opportunities with which to skewer–to pink, to use the 17th century expression–his adversary. But scripts are scripts for a reason and far more “winners” of Hollywood duels were inferior fencers as compared to their adversaries. I’ve been unable to find anything out about where Emery learned to fence, unfortunately.

The tropes? There’s the swooning or near-swooning heroine watching two men duel to the death, although not always over her; the swordfight in the dungeon (similar tropes are the duel on the beach already noted in this post, and the swordfight in the tavern); and, above all, the duel to the death between hero and villain, often but not always at the climax.

Readers will notice one thing in common with many of these images: the fencers are often in an en garde position with swords crossed, or more correctly, with blades engaged. Inaccurately, fencers are often in a modern sixte guard rather than the much more historically accurate tierce, a reflection of their modern training. Notably, John Emery is en garde in tierce, not the usual modern sixte as his adversary is, although Emery’s tierce is probably that of saber, not historical smallsword. But no matter, it’s surprisingly correct for a genre swashbuckler.

6. Maureen O’Hara Engaging the Cardinal’s Guards in At Sword’s Point

Maureen O’Hara as Claire, daughter of Athos, engaging multiple adversaries–a classic Hollywood trope, one generally fatal to the single defender in reality–in At Sword’s Point (also billed as Sons of the Musketeers), RKO Radio Pictures, 1952. Author’s collection.

Yet again, a difficult choice among a number of swashbuckling film stills of Maureen O’Hara, one of classic Hollywood’s greats. Here she comes en garde against several of the Cardinal’s Guards. She does a credible job taking a fencing lesson early in the film, and holds her own with the male lead, Hungarian-born Cornel Wilde who was not only a US National Champion in saber fencing, but also was selected to the US Olympic Fencing Team–until he chose to take a stage role instead!

Here O’Hara fences in riding boots, that costume accessory–“fetishwear,” a UK journalist described it–so alluring to painters, writers, and costume designers of swashbuckling flare. Here at least it’s historically accurate, for she had been riding. But if her boots are as stiff as those of the cavalry, she won’t be able to move well. In fact, cavalrymen dismounted in action would often abandon their boots in order to make their escape afoot, for the boots hindered running to an extreme degree.

O’Hara also thrusts and parries in the 1952 film with Errol Flynn, Against All Flags, really a B-level pirate flick but still fun and still better than most of the B pirate genre. Women running around with swords, women as pirate captains, women as erstwhile musketeers is nothing new in fiction or film, although some would have us believe this today. If anything, the older films–Against All Flags, The Spanish Main, At Sword’s Point, Anne of the Indies, among others–have more redoubtable women sword-adventurers than many films do these days (although some video games have rectified this in that medium). Admittedly, though, there is an unfortunate tendency for the sword-bearing female lead to either give it all up for love, and by implication, marriage, or to die unrequited so that the male protagonist can marry his true love, naturally non-sword-wielding and often demure and largely obedient to her husband-lord-and-master. I prefer independent sword-wielding women myself. I married one, after all.

7. Jean Peters in Anne of the Indies, 1951

Jean Peters in Anne of the Indies, 1951. Author’s collection.

One of a pair of well-posed publicity stills showcasing Jean Peters engaged against Blackbeard the Pirate. It’s a favorite of mine, one of three common poses in images like this: blades crossed, or one adversary attacking while one parries, or one adversary running the other through. I’m torn between the two, the other showing Peters running Blackbeard through. But this one shows her spirit better, I think.

Jean Peters, known not only for her films but, in popular star worship and gossip, for her marriage to Howard Hughes, for which she left her short but notable acting career behind, plays Anne Providence, really Anne Bonny, or at least Anne Bonny as imagined in the popular mind. I remain both astounded and bored senseless with the mindlessness with which novelists, playwriters, and filmmakers continue to elevate Anne Bonny over Mary Read, assuming anything Charles Johnson wrote about them is actually true, for most of what he wrote about the two women cannot be verified. But even if partly true, why runaway girlfriend Anne Bonny over the martial Mary Read? Anne Bonny as described by Charles Johnson’s account makes her a dilettante along for a brief piratical ride. But, if the account has any merit, Mary Read had been a soldier and fighting seaman in disguise as a man. Yet it’s Bonny who gets all the attention, which says much about what readers and viewers are interested in. A few more details on the subject can be found in The Women in Red: The Evolution of a Pirate Trope.

The film, in spite of its many pirate clichés and bad Hollywood history, is still quite enjoyable and often more serious than the usual pirate film. But it’s the swordplay I enjoy most, brief as it is, or perhaps second most–the fierce female pirate captain remains a favorite. Peters is as good as any of her male contemporaries when fencing Blackbeard with sharps in a tavern duel, more or less, a common trope albeit probably not one in reality. Brawling in taverns, sure, even murder in taverns, but dueling was typically conducted outdoors and out of sight.

Her duel is one of the better film affrays with swords, even if Blackbeard is stoutly barrel-chested rather than tall and lean as he was in reality, and even if both adversaries are wearing those damn Hollywood boots. Peters carries off her swordplay with élan and well-focused cold-blooded anger, which can actually be quite useful for a fencer. Hot blooded anger often has poor results, but cold blooded fury can lead to victory.

As an aside regarding Howard Hughes, Disney’s film The Rocketeer portrays a Howard Hughes-like character, along with a swashbuckling actor-swordsman based on Errol Flynn and unfounded rumors that he was a Nazi sympathizer.

8. D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers in the Eponymous Film, 1974

Publicity still for The Three Musketeers, 1974. Author’s collection.

Yes, I know it’s not an image of swordplay per se, but it perfectly captures not only the camaraderie of fencers but also the moment these musketeers bond immediately prior to their fictionally famous combat against the Cardinal’s Guards. This 1973-74 film ranks high among the best, in my opinion, of The Three Musketeers and related films. It and its second part, The Four Musketeers, both starring Michael York, Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, et al, rank among the finest and is hands-down my favorite. I saw them when they first arrived in theaters in Los Angeles, well, Northridge to be precise, in a twin theater in the local mall. And nothing excited me more than at the end of the first to see a teaser for the continuation! (It’s not a true sequel, the film was cut into two parts due to length, for which the actors rightfully sought and got more money.)

York was perfect at the young swashbuckler d’Artagnan. Reed was probably playing himself as Athos, a perfect fit. Chamberlain was, I believe, starring in a Shakespeare play (Richard III?) I saw in the sixth grade in Seattle a half century ago, although it might have been his understudy. (“It’s Dr. Kildare!” the girls, and probably a teacher or two, gushed as we stood in line.) Decades later I saw him starring in Spamalot. (“Run away! Run away!” I still joke from the film to beginning fencers when teaching them that the retreat is their first line of defense after a good en garde.) Frank Finlay as Porthos was far too short (the character, based on Dumas’s father, was a giant) but certainly had the right attitude, and Raquel Welch was surprisingly good as Constance. Faye Dunaway was perfectly alluring, cold, and frightening as Milady de Winter. And the Cardinal? Like Reed, I imagine Charlton Heston was playing a bit of himself in the role, and flawlessly. Last, the swordplay, if often inauthentic (novelist and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser admitted this to me in a letter) was well-choreographed by William Hobbs and perfectly suited the mood of the film. Yes, Hobbs was perfectly capable of historically accurate choreography, just watch The Duellists, it’s the gold standard.

The 1935 version of The Three Musketeers, starring Walter Abel and Paul Lucas, is also quite creditable. The aforenoted notable Fred Cavens choreographed the swordplay, with a young Ralph Faulkner doubling some scenes. Faulkner would go on to become one of Hollywood’s leading fencing choreographers, largely succeeding the retiring Cavens. Faulkner was still teaching in Los Angeles in the late 70s when I first learned to fence: in his 90s, I believe, his legs and eyesight failing, he taught admirable lessons from a chair, and was the inspiration and early master of at least one Hollywood fencer-choreographer gentleman I’m acquainted with. Sadly, I never was able to get away to get a lesson from Faulkner, if only to say I’d had one.

The 1939 comedy-drama version of The Three Musketeers with Don Ameche, Binnie Barnes (previously noted in The Spanish Main), and the Ritz Brothers is quite good as well, the Ritz faction providing laughs even while staying true to the core of the story. There were laughs in the 1973-1974 version by director Richard Lester and novelist-screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser as well, although these two films cannot be classified as comedies. I have great fondness for Douglas Fairbanks’s 1921 version (see photo above), given its role in helping create the modern Musketeer genre, and similarly for the 1948 overwhelmingly much too bright Technicolor with almost gaudy stage costumes version starring Gene Kelly, mostly because it was played at the Pacific Coast NCAA fencing banquet in Los Angeles in 1978, in old school fashion with a 16mm projector set up in the room.

I still to this day can’t bring myself to watch most, perhaps all, of the modern film and TV versions, spoiled as most are by a juvenile brat pack mentality or by hyper-exaggerated melodrama, not to mention their steampunk- and video game-inspired costumes. (Will swashbuckling costume designers ever return to historical accuracy, not that it’s often been a priority anyway?) And, frankly, the swordplay is usually terrible as well, both in authenticity and, worse perhaps, basic choreography.

While on the subject, I should add the two most notable film versions of Cyrano de Bergerac, given that Cyrano is a cadet in a guards company, much akin to the musketeers of the King and Cardinal (in fact, there are even a series of novels by Paul Feval fils placing Cyrano and d’Artagnan together): the 1950 version starring Jose Ferrer (in English) and the 1990 version, which I first saw in a small theater in La Jolla, California, starring Gerard Depardieu (in French). Both are outstanding versions of the play, each with its own style. I might prefer the French version just a touch more than English, but it’s a difficult choice to make.

One day I want to watch the play from a box, as Cyrano does in the play. And like Cyrano, I’ll be sorely tempted to call down to the stage if the acting is bad, although this was in fact just a pretext for the large-nosed swordsman. A duel on the stage and grounds immediately afterward would complete the daydream. For fans of the play or films based on it, try Cyrano, My Love (Cyrano, Mon Amour), its a comedy in the vein of Shakespeare in Love (that is, not historically accurate but enjoyable to watch) about Edmond Rostand writing his famous play. As of the original date of this post, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime. Also check out Roxanne starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah: the swordplay, of tennis racquet versus golf club, in well-choreographed and enjoyable.

9. Obi-Wan Kenobi Versus Darth Vader in Star Wars, 1977

Star Wars publicity still, 1977. Cool, colorful swordplay, even if inauthentic. But, given fantasy swords, fantasy swordplay can–arguably–be forgiven. Author’s collection.

I first saw this film in the summer I graduated from high school. I’d seen the full page color ads in the Sunday LA Times entertainment section, and was already well-enticed. A substitute teacher saw it the week it was out and his description, something to effect of “Entertaining if lightweight, generally pretty cool” only increased my desire to see it. And it did not disappoint, at least not to a seventeen-soon to be eighteen-year-old romantic adventurer in the making.

I don’t recall where I saw it the first time, either in San Diego, California or Huntsville, Alabama. I saw it once or twice again that fall of 1977 at the long-since demolished Plitt Twin Theaters in Century City, LA, with its, for the time, state of the art sound system: you could hear the sounds of Vader’s ship above as it docked, just as the defending soldiers look up in the film. Already fans in the theater had lightsabers that lit up slowly from hilt to tip as in the film, which gives some idea of the effect on pop culture the film was already having. I was entranced with the film! It was, and remains, escapism at its best.

All this said, as enjoyable as the film was and is (and to hell with Lucas for not releasing the original version on Blu-ray, but instead the updated version with awful added special effects), I’ve never regarded it as anything more than what it really is: a space opera, which is nothing more than a Western set in outer space. It’s the updated version of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials–Westerns in space–from the 1930s I watched as TV reruns when I was around eleven years old. The science of Star Wars is bad, the tactics are ludicrous (suicidal on all sides), the dialogue in any other setting often silly or even cringeworthy. Didn’t Harrison Ford tell Lucas something to the effect of, “You can write this sh*t but you can’t say it!”? Still, I suppose it’s better than the modern dull suburban party conversation, as a journalist acquaintance put it, that passes for dialogue in costume TV and film these days (and in too many historical novels too).

So, not for me arguments over canon, which is in any case nonsense given how popular films and sequels are written (on the fly, to maximize profit, and to some degree satisfy or gratify egos), or whether which sequels are great and which terrible, or misogynistic whining about any of the versions celebrating women. I’m a fan of strong women, therefore of the last three of the series, not to mention that our four-year-old sees his mother as the sword-fighting Rey. I could add a rant here about sexism in action films and their audiences, but there are plenty of writers who’ve already done it better.

I could also rant at length about the idea of the “hero’s journey” given that I find it unrealistic: the ideal Joseph Campbell gives us, and which influenced Star Wars, or so I hear, gives us villains as well as true heroes. Further, in my experience this is not how heroes and heroism are made. The hero’s journey is a device of fiction, not fact. It may make for good storytelling, but it also helps prop up autocrats of all sorts, including the worst of them. After all, to their supporters they’re heroes whose hero’s journey validates their autocracy and other misdeeds.

But back to swordplay! In the film it’s pure well-choreographed Hollywood, but no matter: the swords and swordplay are flawed fantasy that match the film well. And the idea of the old master facing his student is something of a trope too, but it’s done well in this film, if not quite so in the sequels, even given the mystical silliness of the Force. For me, I was soon introduced to someone who might be a real Jedi master, in the form of my first fencing master whose adventures and escapades could rival those of Obi-Wan Kenobi–and Dr. Zold’s were real. Likewise those of my second fencing master, Dr. Hamori. Mysticism and magic swords are always appealing but it’s long study, practical ability, and character, plus a good dose of good Fortune, that really make the difference in swordplay, and for that matter, life.

Today, modern “Olympic” fencing in the US and France, and probably other places, have showcased “lightsaber” fencing to some degree, primarily as a recruiting lure. Modern fencing, as noted above, has forgotten why most fencers want to fence. Star Wars and its fans have not. Modern fencing needs a strong return to its swashbuckling roots, although I’m cynical about the prospect. I don’t like the term “Olympic fencing” but it’s apt, for the FIE (the international governing body), not to mention USA Fencing, will do almost anything to keep fencing in the Olympic Games, even if it means turning fencing into little more than a game of audience-friendly tag. If fencing or any sport can’t draw an audience–pay the bills–it’s out. And the governing bodies are unwilling at any cost to lose the cachet–and money–that being an Olympic sport brings, sadly.

The best that can be said of the swordplay of the Star Wars franchise is that it’s exciting to watch and, importantly, inspires swashbucklers as once the old costume historical swashbucklers did (and still do for those who watch them). For this alone it can be forgiven its flaws.

10. The Duel on the Cliffs in The Princess Bride

Publicity still for The Princess Bride (1987). Author’s collection.

There’s no need to describe this image, nor even the accompanying dialogue, so well is this film known among romantics and swordplay enthusiasts. I doubt any of the hundreds of beginning fencers I’ve taught in more than twenty years have not recognized any reference I’ve made to the film. (And for that matter, to Monty Python and the Hold Grail, too.)

No, the dialogue references to fencing masters don’t actually reflect the swordplay of the moment, and yes, it’s all entirely Hollywood fencing. But it’s beautiful Hollywood cinematic swordplay! Perfect for a fantasy film. I’m still hopeful to see–even influence or have control over–historically accurate swordplay in remakes of some of my favorite films, but such accuracy is not required for all films.

As for fencing left-handed? (If you’re reading this blog and haven’t seen the film you’re probably an unlikely exception, but to help you out, the dialogue associated with the film above refers to left-handed fencing. “I’m not left-handed either…”) There are a number of reasons to learn to fence with the off or non-dominant hand. Foremost, it helps keep the body balanced. Fencing is a notoriously one-sided sport, with obvious imbalances in strength and flexibility that develop within a year or two. Spending a third to half of one’s time fencing opposite-handed will prevent this, for the most part. Second, it helps “rewire” your nervous system, creating new pathways. A more balanced body and mind, in other words. Third, if your dominant hand or arm is injured, you can easily switch to the other side while healing, short-term or long-term. Last, if you ever become a fencing teacher, it will enable you to give lessons with either hand to the benefit of your students. The downside? It limits your practice with your dominant hand, with which most fencers prefer. And it may take a few years before you become near-equally proficient with with your non-dominant hand/side.

Most importantly, you can join the ranks–indeed, the trope–of ambidextrous fencers! I’ve only known one truly ambidextrous fencer (Dr. Ted Cotton of Loyola University in New Orleans, he’d wear two gloves and choose which hand to fence with based on which might prove stronger against his adversary at the time), and only a few who could fence nearly as well with the offhand as with the dominant.

11. Swordplay in Le Bourgeois Gentilehomme

Charles Robert Leslie, “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” circa 1841. The foils are not the crowned sort common in the late seventeenth century among French fencers, but the lunette form of the nineteenth century. Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum.

There’s probably far more choreographed swordplay in the theater than in film, simply due to volume, but we seldom recall theatrical swordplay the way we do film swordplay, no matter how well done–and often it’s quite excellent. Like the theater itself, theatrical swordplay tends to be highly stylized, with larger, slower actions the audience can follow.

A few years ago when my wife and I visited my old master, Dr. Eugene Hamori, in Budapest, he took us to an outdoor performance of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company on Margit Island. Subtitles–or rather, overtitles?–were in Hungarian, although most Hungarians in the audience probably spoke English. That said, Shakespeare is difficult for most native speakers, and usually frustratingly obscure to English as a second language (or third or fourth) speakers. Only Americans seem to hold the arrogant position that one need ever know only one language. We were a bit disappointed in the duel in the final act, for it was over far too quickly. Perhaps as fencers we expected more, perhaps we were conditioned by the Laurence Olivier film version to expect more. Still, it was an enjoyable evening. By chance we also ran into Kristina Nagy, a noted HEMA longsword and modern saber fencer, during intermission. Only a day or so before she had shown us around the famous fencing salle at Semmelweis University.

The image above, illustrating the fencing scene (Act III, scene 3) between M. Jourdain and Nicole the maid in a nineteenth century production of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilehomme (1670) is a favorite of mine not because it illustrates stage swordplay, but because it captures Molière’s satire on swordplay (and of course, the bourgeoisie) in general. A few lessons do not a fencer make, much less a combat swordsman or swordswoman capable of effective swordplay in duel or battle. Further, arrogance can lead to defeat, can even be fatal were the swords sharp. Here, M. Jourdain is easily hit by Nicole. I’ve seen a lot of fencers fall victim to the “magic sword” fallacy: a few small victories and they forget that fencing requires patience and focus always. You can’t just walk out and wave your sword around and expect it alone to hit your adversary or achieve your victories just because you believe you’re more skilled. “But I’m better than he is!” is one plaintive excuse I’ve often heard from losers, along with, “But I take so many lessons a week from so and so!” (FYI, you don’t need that many lessons.)

In fencing as in warfare arrogance can be fatal. A single mistake is enough. An old SEAL Master Chief I worked with at SEAL Team THREE used to say that, “Even a toothless old man sitting in an outhouse and armed only with an old muzzleloader can still kill you if you’re not careful.” And that “ignorant” with a sword? Beware, for he or she is likely to ignore all the conventions you’ve been taught to expect–and hit you in spite of all your lessons, skill, and previous successes.

Francisco de Quevedo has a similar hilarious scene in his picaresque novel Historia de la Vida del Buscón, Llamado Don Pablos, in which a student of La Verdadera Destreza (The True Art: Baroque swordplay insufferably infused with geometric circles and other esoterica unnecessary to the teaching of swordplay but much beloved by those seeking “secret knowledge”), with his angles and arcs, is comically defeated by a soldier lacking in the true art. Quevedo himself, one of Spain’s greatest literary icons and treasures, was a proponent of the Destreza Común, or common swordplay. Quevedo once humiliated Don Luis Pacheco y Narvaez, the leading master at the time of the school of La Verdadera Destreza, in a duel: with his rapier he removed Narvaez’s hat. 

An end note on the play: many years ago I would disparage the patronizing use of “Bourgeois” by social elites, including in the play which is nonetheless quite funny. I found the attitude offensive: I don’t believe in social castes, including the nobility de facto or merely perceived. Today, after decades of dealing with certain elements of the middle and upper middle class–many of whose members are socially elitist, the American bourgeois, so to speak–, I’m much less sympathetic, equal now to my antipathy toward all social elites and social climbers. That you’re the “Director of Pomposity at Such and Such Corporation” has no bearing on how I’ll regard your behavior or your teenager as a fencing student, nor will it make your teenager a better fencer–or you a better person. There is a positive side to such bourgeois behavior, however: the comic relief is never-ending. Or, put another way, a wonderful font of material for a writer.

12, 13, 14, & 14a. Three by Howard Pyle

Howard Pyle, “The Duel Between John Bulmer and Cazaio,” from part one of “In the Second April” by James Branch Cabell in Harper’s Monthly, April 1907. The duel captures the dynamic of the aggressive attacks of the Italian school on the right and the self-collection of the French which rested on defense via the parry on the left, somewhat alluded to, less the Italian reference, in the story. One imagines the riposte will find Cazaio’s shoulder, as in the story. Author’s collection.
“There Was a Spirited Encounter Upon the Beach of Teviot Bay,” by Howard Pyle, from “The Second Chance” by James Branch Clabell in Harper’s Monthly, October 1909. I’ve adjusted the color, which was faded from the original, to better reflect the original painting. The duel shown here is merely mentioned in the story, not described. The details were left up to the artist. Author’s collection.
Howard Pyle, “Why Don’t You End It?” for the frontispiece of Mary Johnston’s To Have and to Hold, 1900. The duel for command–a pirate myth–takes place on what is known today as Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia. Johnston’s novels were a significant influence on Rafael Sabatini’s writing style. From a copy of the book in the author’s collection.
“I Had Met My Equal” is the title of the original painting. The line is likewise from the novel. The painting represents the final of three duels: the hero challenges all comers for command–great fiction but entirely a myth. The painting currently resides in the Kelly Collection of American Illustration Art. Howard Pyle, 1900.

Here I simply couldn’t choose only one of Howard Pyle’s famous paintings of swordplay, so well do they depict swordplay not only in the popular mind, but often in the my mind of fencers themselves. For those of us who grew up on swashbucklers, they evoke how we see ourselves. Pyle’s influence on swashbuckling film, including pirate films, is enormous. His iconic images are imitated even today.

The scenes are similar: one adversary lunging, the other parrying, easily the most evocative of fencing actions, and easily posed, even if fencers seldom look so good. Spectators are inevitably in the background, although many duels were fought without witnesses in the late 17th century. We imagine the Dominican friar kept largely quiet during the duel in the first image (in fact, he tried to stab John Blumer in the back after the duel), likewise the gentlemen in the second which has a rather unusual arrangement for the era, more typical of duels in the late 19th century in Pyle’s era. Would pirates have kept silent during a duel? We don’t know, in spite of all my research into the subject of piracy. The only similar duel was between the aforementioned Dutchmen and was over so quickly that it’s unlikely anyone had to time to say much of anything. We do know that in the late 17th and early 18th century some public duels, particularly among soldiers, had noisy spectators: some chided Donald McBane for retreating so much. His retort was to imagine what they’d do in his place.

Until recently, anything more than polite applause from spectators, and silence from fencing masters or coaches, was mandatory in fencing. Today it’s often noisily noisome. Spectator comments are distracting to both fencers, as for that matter is coaching, not to mention that coaching also informs the adversary, not just the coach’s student, and flies in the face of the tradition that fencing should be a single combat between fencers alone.

Of course, fencers remain forbidden to talk to each other during a fencing bout, although often they do in fiction and film, and should–at least if the dialogue is well-written!

The story accompanying the first image does have fairly detailed swordplay, as does the third. The first, “In the Second April,” is apparently set in the late 18th century although the historical allusions the author tosses about are eclectic and often anachronistic or fanciful. The story opens with a reference to a 1670 treaty as if it has just been signed, then transitions to references to George Guelph, who might be George I, II, or III. John Bulmer–the Duke of Ormskirk–claims to have studied under late 18th century fencing master Angelo, then tells his adversary that he is clearly of the school of Boisrobert, strong in attack but weak in parry. (A possible inspiration for the exchange in The Princess Bride?) Boisrobert (also Bois-Robert) and Berthelot are two fencing masters named by Alexandre Dumas in Sylvandire, a romance set during the reign of Louis XIV, and also in Le Chevalier d’Harmental (co-authored with Auguste Maquet) set in 1718. In the latter romance a character is recommended to change fencing masters, giving up Berthelot for Boisrobert, with accompanying advice on giving ground when necessary and parrying in time, suggesting an emphasis, French school-wise, on parrying. James Branch Cabell more or less reversed the teaching of the fencing masters. Boisrobert and Berthelot appear in no records of fencing masters I have reviewed.

15. The Duel on the Beach by N. C. Wyeth

“The Duel on the Beach” in Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1931. Author’s collection.

Perhaps the most evocative image of imagined pirate swordplay, in particular the duel on the beach. Given that I’ve already written an extensive blog post about this image and the story and book it illustrates (The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan), I’ll keep my comments short. So much a favorite of mine is it, that I’ve a copy on canvas nicely framed. The image above is taken from the short story that soon afterward was turned into the novel The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. The painting was not commissioned for the story, however.

In spite of its historical inaccuracies, I can’t imagine a more romantic image of swordplay!

Now, on to a few historical images…

16. A Pass in Tierce, with the Unarmed Hand Used for Opposition, Late 17th Century

“With advancing of the left foot the Sword of the offending party is put by and the Deffendant makes his point good in tierce.” From The Art of Fencing Represented in Proper Figures Exhibiting the Several Passes, Encloses, Disarms, &c. by Marcellus Laroon, various editions suggested to date from the 1680s to circa 1700. The wound, passing as it does probably just beneath the clavicle through the ribs in the back, and surely through heart or lung, might well have been fatal. British Museum.

I’m including a sample or a few of my favorite historical fencing images, although again there are far too many to post them all. Up first is perhaps my most favorite, or at least is tied for the top three, that of a pass made while thrusting in tierce while using the unarmed hand to oppose the adversary’s blade. The thrust was probably preceded by a bind in tierce. The reality of swordplay is that the unarmed hand should be brought into play to minimize the possibility of an “exchanged thrust” or double touch, notwithstanding the argument of many masters of the past two to three centuries that the sword alone is sufficient to both attack and defend. But enough of technical issues.

Beyond its swashbuckling imagery, I particularly like that the fencer on the left is black, for black fencers were far more common than is generally known. I even wrote an article for American Fencing magazine on the subject some years ago, “The Black Fencer in Western Swordplay (Spring, 2011).” The scarf on the black fencer’s head is typical of a gentleman when not wearing a wig, and not, as some have suggested, an indication in this instance of piracy or African culture. The fencer on the right is a fop, easily discovered by the comb fashionably tucked in his wig, and perhaps by the two pigtails of his wig as well. Both men have discarded their scabbards in order to fence more unencumbered, although their rencontre is clearly hasty enough that they have not discarded their coats. Or perhaps they hope their coats will prove a bit of protection against thrusts. Certainly it was advised to keep one’s coat on when engaged with an adversary armed with a cutting sword.

The image is one of a number in a series by Marcellus Laroon, a Dutch artist in London who was proud of the scars he bore from his own dueling. He’s best know for an exceptional series of detailed images of the working London poor, The Cries of London.

17. A Duel Somewhere in France, by Louis François du Bouchet circa 1670.

“Duel tussen twee mannen met degens,” from “Diverses figures” by Louis François du Bouchet. Rijksmuseum.

For two or more decades this classic swashbuckling image churned quietly in my fencing subconscious until one day recently I realized, as I was rereading The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini, that it quite probably inspired the scene for the duel on the beach in the finale. I even wrote a blog post about it, “The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan.”

The drawing is by Louis François du Bouchet, marquis de Sourches (1645 – 1716), circa 1670. Bouchet is best known for his Mémoires du marquis de Sourches sur le règne de Louis XIV, publiés par le comte de Cosnac et Arthur Bertrand (Paris: Hachette, 1882-1893). 

If nothing else, the image provides the wishful swashbuckler with hours of inspiration in swordplay, including imagining exactly what the two swordsmen are doing. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but the extreme position of the sword-hand of the swordsman on the right strongly suggest an attempted angulation (cavé) after being parried, although the hand in supination (quarte) would be more common and more functional in most cases, although a bit slower going from full pronation to full supination. Of course, we assume they’re swordsmen: perhaps one is a pre-Mlle. La Maupin, the famed opera singer and duelist…

18. The Fencing Master, late 17th Century

“Le Maistre d’Armes” by Nicolas Bonnart circa 1678-1693, published in Recueil des Modes de la Cour de France. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Although as little as ten percent of a fencer’s development might be laid at the feet of the fencing master (this point was originally made to me by noted fencing master Kaj Czarnecki in 1980), it is a critical ten percent that lays the foundation for everything else, including independence on the strip, and, ideally, in life. Many of my fondest fencing memories are of lessons in which I was taught not only technique, but also tempo, tactics, strategy, patience, perseverance, focus, and strength of will. Lessons from my masters, Dr. Francis Zold and Dr. Eugene Hamori, also advanced my already romantic swashbuckling inclinations. Rafael Sabatini captured the romance of the fencing lesson in Scaramouche (1921):

“From a room beyond, the door of which was closed, came the stamping of feet, the click and slither of steel upon steel, and dominating these sounds a vibrant, sonorous voice speaking a language that was certainly French; but such French as is never heard outside a fencing-school. “Coulez! Mais, coulez donc!…So! Now the flanconnade—en carte…And here is the riposte… Let us begin again. Come! The ward of tierce… Make the coupé, and then the quinte par dessus les armes… O, mais allongez! Allongez! Allez au fond!” the voice cried in expostulation. “Come, that was better.” The blades ceased.”

It’s little different today, at least in traditional clubs and salles.

The French fencing master above is wearing a padded (with horsehair, probably) leather plastron to prevent bruising from repeated thrusts. One may fence for hours with scarce a bruise, but a student hitting the same spot repeatedly during the same exercise will bruise even the thickest skin eventually, often sooner than later. His shirt is tied at his waist, outside of his breeches rather than being tucked inside, probably so the shirt doesn’t ride up. Both hands are gloved, possibly for giving lessons with either hand, but certainly for protecting the off-hand when using it to parry or oppose. His shoes are of a sort used by fencers and masters for at least two and a half centuries: the toe of the lead shoe is open to prevent jamming or bruising the toes or toenails when lunging (a problem even today if shoes are ill-fitting and the floor has a good grip). Likewise the thick short socks worn over the stockings are to prevent blisters and other injuries to the feet. In the master’s pocket is a handkerchief, its use obvious. His wig, or possibly hair, is tied at the nape of the neck to keep it out of the way. Hats were often worn while fencing indoors, and were formally doffed and donned as part of the salute. Note that sword saluting was a practice only of the fencing salle, not of the duel, or at least not among the French and those who followed their practices.

19. A German Salle d’Escrime

“Gezicht op een schermschool: Representacion en perspectiva d’ana sala de esgrima,” 18th century. Attributed publisher: the Remondini Family, Bassano del Grappa, Italy. Rijksmuseum.

An 18th century exhibition in a German fencing salle. It captures much of the allure of swordplay, and more than hints at the sound of blade on blade. My blood has always quickened with excitement at that sound, especially when heard from a distance. There is no other like it! The entire atmosphere of a fencing club is electric. In fact, parry strongly enough or get hit hard enough on your mask, and you’ll even smell ozone.

Multiple weapons are at play in the image: long- or great sword, smallsword, sword and dagger, German dusack, halberd, and quarterstaff. Given the directors or marshals (aka referees in modern fencing parlance), it is clearly a competition. The boxes and grandstands are filled with spectators, and there’s even a drummer, probably to assist with announcements such as the beginning and ending of bouts. Notably, there are no fencing masks, which would not come into regular use until the 19th century. Some of the participants are taking refreshment. Such a display today is more akin to a HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), sometimes known as WMA (Western Martial Arts, whose name cynics claim was created by North Americans so they wouldn’t feel left out) tournament, with its broad variety of historical weapons, even if the greatest focus is on the longsword. Frankly, although HEMA is still sorting itself out (and learning that a lot of things, competitions and judging, for example, are not as easy as its members originally thought, and that the theoretical and practical foundations of modern fencing are actually quite sound), its participants seem to be having a lot more fun than many modern fencers who tend to take themselves and their sport far too seriously. O parents! Why must you spoil swordplay for your children! Perhaps that’s the key: parents seem largely absent from HEMA, at least by comparison to modern Olympic fencing…

20. A Family of Fencers

Study of a man, child, and woman, almost certainly a family, by Gillis Neyts, Flemish school, mid-17th century. British Museum.

A family, certainly, the likely father holding a rapier or transitional rapier, the boy holding a dagger or toy sword, the mother holding a set of keys. Does she fence too? I hope so. As much as I love fencing and teaching fencing, I’ve probably had as much or more fun fencing for fun with my four children over many years, particularly when they’re little and fully embrace the swashbuckling fun of swordplay. And my wife? The best bouts I’ve ever fenced were with her. One went eleven minutes of intense fencing before the first touch (she got it). Club members stopped fencing to watch! The FIE be damned: fencing doesn’t need a touch or more per minute to be interesting.* It just needs bouts consisting of focused fencing that leads to moments of furious fencing. How many touches are scored is immaterial. The anticipation of touches alone is far more alluring to audiences than attempts to force fencers to score quickly. Ah, “what fools these mortals be!” Or certainly some of them.

*A relatively new rule penalizes fencers during direct elimination bouts if a touch isn’t made within each minute. The rule is almost universally loathed. It was created to force fencers to be more aggressive, epee fencers especially, on the theory that aggressive fencing is more likely to draw the audience fencing needs to remain an Olympic sport. Frankly, the IOC is ruining sports and sport. Think the IOC isn’t all about money? Just take a look at its attitude toward the Tokyo Olympic Games during the pandemic, last summer and at present. Why do sports put up with this? Money, prestige, and, to paraphrase Casanova, most people are feckless when push comes to shove.

21. Women Gladiators, 17th Century

Combate de Mujeres by Jusepe de Ribera, lo Spagnoletto (the Little Spaniard), 1636. Women Gladiators is the museum’s English title. Prado.

A painting I enjoy because it shows women gladiators, or duelists, or fencers (depending on the interpretation), and because my wife and I saw it in the Prado, an art museum that should not be missed by anyone visiting Madrid. Women have fenced and otherwise fought with swords not only for centuries, but likely millennia. Surely Atalanta, or at least the women who inspired her creation, fought with a sword at times on the voyage of the Argo!

What the painting depicts remains up for debate. Early interpretations suggest a rendering of the famous 1552 duel in Naples between Isabella de Carazi and Diambra de Petinella. Later analysis suggests this to be unlikely. Another theory is that the painting is an allegory of the conflict between Spain and Naples. Another theory is that it is an allegory of “Counter-Reformation feminine virtue over courtly vice.” The Prado considers it most likely that the work was part of series of paintings depicting scenes of the ancient world. Women gladiators were relatively common in ancient Rome, after all. The Prado has a second 17th century painting with the same title, Combate de Mujeres, attributed to Andrea Vaccaro, for the the History of Rome series for the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid.

22. Sport Epee a Century or So Ago

Humorous epee images by famous French poster artist and illustrator René Prejelan. 1914.

Another image I’ve done a blog post on, so I’ll likewise keep my comments short. Why one of my favorites? Because it shows that little actually ever changes in fencing or in life. Criticisms of modern fencing notwithstanding, epee of more than a century ago looked a lot like it does today. And the drawings–caricatures–are so accurate they make me laugh. “Plus ça change…” See “Sport Epee Humor” for more details and translations, including comments that might otherwise go here.

23. Le Duel Guillou-Lacroix, 1914

“Duel Guillou – Lacroix” at Chéri-Halbronn, Neuilly-Saint-James, July 4, 1914. Press photograph, Agence Rol. French National Library.

Dueling, the origin and foundation of modern competitive fencing (even if modern fencing is in the process of forgetting this) and the inspiration for most stage and film sword combat, not to mention much of our swashbuckling dreams, is really, or was really, an absurd practice that proved little more that the courage to engage in single combat. A critic once pointed out that the most common soldier in combat faced more dangers and proved to be of far greater courage. Nonetheless the practice of dueling persisted for centuries and the romance of dueling still persists.

In reality most fencers never fought a duel even when the practice was prevalent, epee duels were often fought by men with little or no fencing experience, and most of the best duelists were not the best sport or “salle” fencers. Still, dueling still attracted a fair number of skilled swordsmen, and occasionally swordswomen, even among those considered rational and well-aware that the practice was ultimately a perverse one, my first fencing master included.

The photograph above is by far my favorite among images of real dueling. The tension is clear: these men are fighting with weapons capable of killing, even if they hope to avoid that end and settle the affair with a minor or wound or two, as epee fencing was largely designed to do. Both men are skilled fencers, yet, as is common in photographs of actual fencing, they don’t have the look of posed images of fencing technique.

The duelists are Robert Guillot (left) and René Lacroix, and the reason for the combat a “polemique de presse“–an opinion piece that attacked an individual or institution. Such writings were in fact the most common source of duels in the early twentieth century. This encounter was one of those almost joyously celebrated in the press: expert swordsmen; a large audience; famous fencers and fencing dignitaries in attendance, assisting, and officiating; and a lengthy duel exhibiting “sang-froid” and expert technique. One expert fencer in attendance claimed it was one of the most beautiful duels he had ever seen.

The duel lasted five reprises or periods, each apparently directed by a different directeur de combat. By the end of the third reprise, M. Lacroix had twice wounded M. Guillot in the arm. Even so, M. Guillot continued for two more reprises until, unable to hold his epee anymore, an end was called by the attending doctors. The technique of the duel was classic: counter-attacks, doublés, envelopments, esquives du bras, beat attacks, straight attacks, dérobements, and conventional parry-ripostes. If M. Guillot persisted in his low guard, it’s not surprising he was hit twice in the arm.

Most nobly, the duelists, in a practice that continues among a few of us in sport fencing today, used their left hands to point out their adversaries near misses where the point put a hole in the shirt or brushed the skin. Many fencers I find will not do this today, fearing to give their adversary any advantage. But it’s a noble practice indeed to point out how close your adversary came to hitting you, as it helps their fencing. “Plaqué!” one should shout when the adversary’s point hits flat, meaning, “Almost! You hit flat! Adjust your point control! Next time you’ll hit me!”

In many ways this duel epitomizes what many of us would like to see return in modern fencing: a wide variety of technique, a “hit and not get hit” mentality, and a strong sense of honor and fair play. In fact, most modern epee touches are double touches, even if the machine indicates only a single; the other touch is simply “late” but would in reality still make a wound. The tendency to turn swordplay into a game of tag rather than of “hitting and not getting hit” has been the bane of fencing for millennia.

24. New Orleans Nostalgia

An epee tournament in New Orleans, circa 1979. Photograph by Diane Szegfu.

I debated whether to include any personal images in this post, but in the end decided that a few are appropriate. If I regret not posting any in particular, it’s group photographs showing the strong camaraderie of fencing over more than four decades. Some of my best friends and best times have been associated with fencing. But group photographs in the context of this blog might be less meaningful except to those in them, so I’ve somewhat sadly omitted the images.

The photograph above is one of my favorites for several reasons beyond that it’s an early image of me as a fencer. (O vanity, O vanity!) Cool old school uniforms were still around, including the classic “Joseph Vince, Beverly Hills” high thread count canvas jacket with silver buttons I’m wearing, and the leather and canvas glove as well. The former are no longer authorized for wear (a blade might slip between the buttons, the authorities say) and the latter are no longer made, although Prieur still makes a beautiful leather finger-and-palm glove of exceptional quality, and also an all leather coaching glove of similar quality. The mask the fencer on the right is wearing is an old school three weapon mask. Similar masks today are worn only by some fencing teachers and HEMA fencers. The extra leather on the mask above is there to absorb saber cuts. It’s been replaced today by synthetic materials. Three-weapon fencers were common back then, and by that I mean three-weapon fencers who could fence one weapon exceptionally well and the other two very well. A rare thing today, indeed.

I also love the photo because it illustrates how unique en garde positions are: to this day I can recognize each of the fencers by their en gardes alone.

Further, a couple things are missing from the photograph, and I wish they were missing today: obnoxious parent spectators and strip-coaching coaches. With the emphasis on youth fencing today has come the parent spectator, often annoying, too often distracting. And with coaching now permitted during fencing, at least in the US, has come the loud-mouth ego-centric coach driven to make his or her presence known. ANY form of coaching during a bout was illegal back then, and coaches–more often than not they were legitimate fencing masters–had better things to do than hold their students’ hands. In fact, those two gentlemen on the strip? They would have adamantly refused any assistance even were it legal.

Still, I remain hopeful! Tournaments in which the modern fencing-as-business, win-at-all-costs to keep the parents’ checks coming coaches, not to mention “fencing parents,” are absent run quite smoothly, there is little if any coaching–everyone wants to win or lose on their own merits and fortune–and fencing’s roots, of swordplay for swordplay’s sake, for one-on-one competition without outside assistance, remain intact.

As for the city in which the photo above was taken? There is no place in the US more romantic than New Orleans to fence.

25. A Fencing Lesson in New Orleans

My wife, Mary Crouch, taking a lesson from Dr. Eugene Hamori in New Orleans. Author’s photograph.

Certainly a favorite of mine: my wife taking a lesson from my–and in many ways, now her–fencing master, Dr. Eugene Hamori, during a visit to New Orleans a few years ago. For me, it was an opportunity to watch and learn, and also to be critiqued and learn as I gave lessons under observation. In fact, after a long lesson from him, Dr. Hamori had my wife take a lesson from me under his watchful eye. No independent study can ever teach as well as such hands-on instruction and practice under the eye of a great teacher.

I was taught by example and by direct lesson that the fencing master’s ultimate purpose is, beyond instilling mere fencing skill, to set the student free: to endow the student with the ability think and act independently under pressure. Unfortunately, today too many modern “coaches” have abandoned this noble duty, instead binding students to themselves to the point that many are unable to fence skillfully without their coaches at their sides. Whiplash might even be the most common fencing injury today, so quickly do some fencers’ heads snap to look at their coaches after each touch. Modern fencing was originally based on the idea of single combat in a duel, in which assistance was forbidden and spectators and fencing masters were expected to remain silent. Not so today in sport fencing where bouts often seem to be as much a duel between coaches’ egos as between two fencers, to quote Dr. Hamori.

Much of the fault lies with the governing bodies and their ready acquiescence to coaches and parents, the former often engaging in loud antics designed to reassure the latter that they’re getting their money’s worth, and of course, to ensure that those checks keep coming. USA Fencing, for example, in recent years has actively promoted coaching during bouts, as noted above, in spite of the obvious problems–interference with referees and fencers, &c–this would create, not to mention that it’s against the rules in international competitions, and was until recently in US competitions. This forced USA Fencing recently to issue a Code of Conduct for Coaches, but without acknowledging its significant role in the problem, of course, nor even with a hint of irony. But codes of conduct work only as well as they are (1) taken sincerely to heart, and (2) strictly enforced.

Traditionally, a fencing teacher acquired teaching skill either through a university-level fencing master’s program or via a formal or informal apprenticeship under an accredited fencing master, usually with some years experience as a successful fencing student and competitor as a prerequisite. Fencing-teachers-to-be were typically selected for their combination of fencing and teaching aptitudes. I’ve known more than one Olympic fencing medalist who has admitted to me that he was a terrible fencing teacher and wanted little to do with the practice. Such honesty is unusual these days.

This traditional teaching-training format is often truncated or even ignored today; anyone can call themselves a coach, after all, and many do in spite of their lack of education or ability. And where it was once considered worse than rude to give unsolicited advice, and if solicited, to give advice beyond one’s understanding, such is commonplace now, although accounts from past centuries suggest it’s always been something of an issue, given human nature and the foolish arrogance and insecurity it often produces. Doubtless the Internet’s culture of “know little or nothing experts” and “my opinion is as good as anyone’s” has bled into this area today.

Even so, worldwide the traditional form of training fencing teachers, up to and including masters, still runs strong, and in the US the United States Fencing Coaches Association is doing what it can to support this important method, although it too is under siege, in part by apathy, in part by the logistics of time and money, in part by the ascendancy of “the coach” rather than “the maestro.” Now to answer the question that must be popping up in some readers’ minds: how did I learn to teach fencing? I was mentored for twenty years by Dr. Eugene Hamori, my second fencing master, after I’d been a fencer for twenty-one. I teach much as he did and also a bit as my first master did, although doubtless less skillfully, in a style derived from Italo Santelli, his proteges László Szabó and Lajos Csiszar, and from Gyorgi Piller via László Borsody. It’s a heritage to proud of.

26. Singlestick Without Jackets!

Singlestick with an old friend in his yard which is perfectly suited to outdoor swashbucklery. Photo by Mary Crouch.

Practicing singlestick at full speed with a very old friend! For protection we wear only masks (we don’t really want our heads broken), gloves, and light elbow pads (mostly to avoid chipping the humerus or ulna). Why so little protection? Because, even if we do our best to limit ourselves to light and moderate blows, we’ll still often get hit hard enough not to want to get hit. It’s a good way of training, of trying to hit and not get hit. We prefer singlesticks even though some of the modern synthetic backswords are better training weapons, because this was the traditional method of training for backsword and broadsword in the 17th and 18th centuries. Oddly, many practitioners today of smallsword and backsword use replica weapons, albeit blunted, rather than period foils or singlesticks even though this was not the practice in the era of these arms. In other words, their “authentic” practice is inauthentic.

Modern fencers could learn much from practicing with less protection, in particular about not getting hit. Some masters in past decades, and probably some today, had some or all students take lessons without jackets. Some fencing teachers object to this, because it’s useless unless you hit the student when he or she makes a mistake. But that’s the point! These old masters did hit the student who made an egregious error. And they hit hard! And the students remembered it! Such students make few errors. Still, although the practice has merit if not abused, at least for some fencers, it is generally considered unsafe at full speed by many Olympic style fencing teachers today. I’ve only used it regularly with one student, a former member of the Polish national epee squad (his master was Bohdan Andrzejewski, the 1969 Epee World Champion) who had always received his lessons without a jacket, and insisted I give him lessons this way. He made the fewest errors of any student I’ve ever had. I’ve also decades ago seen noted epee master Kaj Czarnecki, who recently passed away, hit unjacketed Army pentathletes hard on the breastbone if they flèched without taking the blade or having a full tempo over their adversary. They didn’t make many mistakes either.

The practice does have its limitations: some of us with thick skin or heads will soon start slipping into bad habits as our concern over hard hits diminishes. For a similar reason did we, when I was a Navy SEAL, train 80 to 90 percent with live rounds. They’re not only more realistic training for real combat, but they make you pay attention in a way non-lethal training cannot. Similarly, old masters training students for duels often had the students remove their shirts. The master, whose epee had a point d’arrêt with one or more sharp prongs, would hit the student if he made an egregious error. One fencer, training for a duel, set up a practice sword, sharp-pointed, and practiced his beats and binds against it so that he would lose his fear of a naked point, something sport fencing had never conditioned him too.

Amusingly, a few of the boldest fencers with a heavy saber or backsword I’ve ever met melted into timidity when asked to fence without their heavy fencing jackets. A couple declined to participate. Another said he was cold and put a fairly heavy street jacket on, then ignobly proceeded to fence against those wearing only T-shirts. Protection against hard blows is necessary for regular practice, but it also inspires an unrealistic forwardness–aggressive attacks that hit hard while ignoring the possibility of getting hit–in some fencers.

I also recall an old fencer whom I knew for decades, Joe Dabbs, who told me about traveling with, I think, the Swedish CISM (military) Fencing Team through Europe back in the 60s. While practicing with the French Team, I think it was, two of the French fencers had a disagreement. Their coach or officer ordered them to strip to their jockstraps and put on fencing masks and gloves. Then, armed with fencing sabers, they fought a “duel” of sorts. I’ve seen what a skilled fencer can do with a saber through a fencing jacket (a nasty welt from shoulder to gut that dropped the recipient to the piste). I can imagine what one could do to bare skin. Hopefully the two French “duelists” made friends again over a bottle or two of wine or one of brandy afterward.

27 & 28. Fencing Before & During the Pandemic

My wife making a renewed attack with prise de fer following a powerful false attack on my preparation as part of a second intention action, as I counter-attack and beat a hasty retreat via a half-retreat and fumbled crossover. Photo by Chad Scales at our old salle seven or more years ago.
Only the two of us, my wife and I, crossing epees early during the pandemic in 2020 (May, perhaps?) on a day on which we’d intended to host a Brunch, Bourbon, and Bouts for our fencing friends. In lockdown, only the two of us could attend. But the mint juleps, made with Jack Daniels and homegrown mint were excellent, as was the fencing for fun under ancient oaks and sweet gum. Photo by Bree Little.
Fencing on the 4th of July 2021. From a FB post: “Mary and I finally had a chance to fence on the footbridge over Aldridge Creek at last light and into the darkness on a 4th of July, with uninterrupted fireworks on all sides, a hazy shroud of acrid blackpowder smoke drifting between us, and of course the sharp pulse-quickening sound of blade-on-blade, evoking a medley of scenes and memories from swashbuckling fiction and film.” Photo by Courtney Little.

One of fencing’s great joys is fencing with friends and family. I’m still fencing with a friend I first fenced in 1979, and my wife and I have had some of our best bouts fencing each other over the past dozen or more years. It usually takes five or more minutes for the first scored touch between my wife and me–we disregard competitive fencing limits on time for our bouts–and once it took eleven minutes. My old Greek friend Elias Katsaros, just noted, and I now fence each other fun, with French grips and in true “hit and not get hit” form, seeking clean, clear single touches as if we were dueling. We also often go a few minutes without a single touch, often also drawing spectators, so focused and active is the fencing: I with my beats and binds, he with his straight-arm counter-attacks and occasional coups de chat. No score is kept, nor necessary.

The pandemic put a stop to much of this for a year. Yet the year off was a sabbatical of sorts, a time to review theory and teaching methods, redevelop and renew footwork, update fencing equipment, rediscover old swashbuckling novels, write letters and send books to old fencing friends, and more. I’ve written already (“Of Sacrifices Great and Small”) that fencers should not bemoan the year off: fencers have for millennia had to absent themselves from swordplay for reasons of national or international crisis, war and pestilence predominant among them. Fencers I know in Europe and Latin America seem to have handled this better than fencers in the US have on average, surely for cultural reasons.

A few years ago while visiting my fencing master and old friend in New Orleans, I mentioned that getting some of our students to try competition was somewhat difficult. I don’t push competition on those who aren’t interested, but competing occasionally is good for the fencing soul, at least during the early years. “No, Ben,” he replied with a friendly sternness. “Fencing is foremost about friendship and camaraderie. If they want to compete, fine. If not, fine. Let them enjoy fencing and fencing friendships first.” This advice came from an Olympic gold medalist and one of the last of the the thirty-odd Hungarian fencers who for half a century won almost every major saber medal in the world. I see fewer and fewer clubs these days with this traditional sense of camaraderie and, frankly, great parties, we had “back in the day,” but enough of us are still around to carry on the tradition. And do.

29. Raising a Swashbuckler!

My wife fencing on a balance beam with our son when he was three, in emulation of the pirate trope of swordplay aloft. Author’s photograph.

So, you want to raise a swashbuckler? Or as likely, have no choice? Well, there is a tried and true method. Start them early on fencing lessons, surely? Nay! Not at all!

Rather, let them run and jump and climb and swing from ropes from their earliest years! Play games with them: tag, chase, and hide-and-seek! Let them throw and catch balls, right and left-handed–practice both! And catch coins and marbles for dexterity. Let them climb stairs and walk on balance beams–and fence on balance beams! (Or at least such as you and they safely can.) Encourage them to play (safely) with sticks, the most natural of pretend swords. They’ll need little encouragement except for safety!

Let them play in forts and treehouses, and imagine them as pirate ships and spaceships! Using a foam sword, teach them the Princess Bride sword trick of tossing a sword into the air with a foot and catching it in the hand. It’s actually an ancient trick, but one that even a three-year-old (our son above proved it) can learn to do well–and especially, have fun doing it. And swordfight with them using the same safe swords! Let them experiment, let them leap and spin and try out all the sword techniques they’ve seen on TV and in film–it won’t hurt them at all.

Fencing lessons? Wait until they’re at least ten. Although children can be taught to fence earlier than ten, it must be done carefully, slowly, and most importantly, it must be fun! Not, as is common, merely as part of a process that’s little more than a cash cow to fund a fencing business. If your child does start before the age of ten, make sure the program is one that emphasizes rudimentary fencing skills, exercises, games, and, especially, fun, and is taught by a kind and gentle teacher.

And competition, if they’re interested? Wait until they’re at least thirteen or fourteen with a year of instruction and practice behind them and limited expectations their first year. And parents, listen well: leave those wagging fingers, stern looks, and shouting at home. A child’s love of fencing, not to mention the development of fencing skill, is easily lost if competition is introduced too early or overemphasized. “Yes, you often are,” I once told a huffy, quite arrogant, and visibly annoyed helicopter parent in answer to her question, “Oh… So parents are the problem?”

Equally important, encourage your children to read anything they please. And while they’re at it, introduce a few books of adventure with swords: Dumas, Sabatini, Cervantes and their many descendants down to the present. Every culture has a form of noble courageous swashbuckling trickster adventure, often sword-in-hand. Let your children discover it!

And while you’re at it, take a look once more at the first photograph in this blog: it’s what fencing is all about, after all.

*What he actually said to me in 1977 was, “Fencing is neither art nor science: fencing is fencing!”

Copyright Benerson Little 2021. All rights reserved by the creators of the personal photographic images above: written permission is required before any use. Blog first posted May 20, 2021. Last updated July 8, 2021.

Hollywood Boarding Actions: “Alright, My Hearties, Follow Me!”

An English privateer coming alongside a Spanish galleass in The Sea Hawk (Warner Bros., 1940) starring Errol Flynn. The scene was shot in an indoor set, with partial replica ships–sets, that is–sitting in a water tank. The ships were moved together on rails hidden underwater. Author’s collection.

We may have only seen the ship-to-ship action coming alongside “board and board” in but a single film, and certainly in no more than two or three, but the Hollywood image of “Boarders away!” is indelibly impressed on our swashbuckling psyches.

I’m not going to go into the details of coming alongside, nor many of the actual boarding action afterward, which in Hollywood films the latter is usually composed of “cutlass-sharpening hack-and-slash” action. Plus, I’m lazy, or rather, in a hurry to complete longer more detailed blog posts, making this one a bit of a placeholder as I finish the remaining three “Duel on the Beach” posts. For more detail on how boarding actions actually happened, see The Sea Rover’s Practice (and also the associated pdf of additional information and comments).

A boarding action with ships pretty much equally “board and board” in The Son of Captain Blood (Paramount, 1963) starring Sean Flynn, son of Errol Flynn. The scene arrangement may be an homage to the similar scene in The Sea Hawk or simply a convenient way to shoot it. Author’s collection.

I will note the two most outstanding parts of the image. First, for reasons of simplifying the image for audience, not to mention of shooting it and for the powerful graphic image it makes, Hollywood usually shoots the scene in only one fashion: the two ships are perfectly lined up broadside to broadside, as in the images above and in the one below. However, in reality this was not the most common method. Ideally, the boarding vessel put its forecastle at the waist (basically, the center) of the ship to be boarded. This was to facilitate boarding by sending boarders aboard at the lowest part of the attacked ship. Plus, the main shrouds were located here, and this was by far the safest place to board an enemy ship.

And no, there was no swinging from one ship to another!

The usual variety of ship boarding arrangements is depicted below, with forecastle to amidships (no. 1) the most common.

Illustration from The Sea Rover’s Practice by Benerson Little (Potomac Books, 2005).

The second point to make is that boarding was generally undertaken only after the enemy’s fire was suppressed and, if possible, its decks cleared. Often, an attacked vessel’s crew would retreat to closed quarters (behind fortified bulkheads and below locked hatches) and fight from a fortified position rather than on the open decks. The point is this: boarders standing on the gunwales as the ships come alongside, as Hollywood has it, would be cut down by a hail of musketry, swivel gun fire, and great guns (as cannons are known as sea) loaded with small shot!

Two pirate ships engaged at “pistol shot,” soon to be “yardarm to yardarm” as they come alongside to board. Again, this is an easy way to shoot scenes like this, making it clear to the audience what’s going on. No, you wouldn’t see the fireballs and fiery explosions of which the film’s director was so fond! Publicity still from Cutthroat Island (MGM/UA, 1995). Author’s collection.

So, what might these boarding actions actually have looked like? Well, a minority may have looked somewhat like those above, albeit without men exposed on the rails until boarders were actually “away.”

“Slag bij Livorno” (“Battle of Livorno”) by Reinier Nooms, 1653 – 1664. Rijksmuseum.

In the painting above, three ships are yardarm-to-yardarm, with boarders attacking. All three ships are evenly alongside, as in the Hollywood images above. It is impossible to tell from the painting (accounts of the battle might provide the answer) which two ships came alongside first. A second Dutch man-of-war has come alongside in support of the first. Ideally, such support was provided by boarding across the deck of the allied vessel, but this, as the painting illustrates, was not always possible. To the right is another pair of ships equally alongside. In all these cases, boarding appears to have been intended: the sprit and sprit-topsail yards have been brought alongside the bowsprit and sprit-topmast respectively in preparation for boarding.

“Na de Zeeslag” (“After the Battle”), Reinier Nooms, 1652 – 1654. Rijksmuseum.

In the illustration above, the boarding action is more typical, if atypically backwards: facing opposite directions, that is. But the ships have their heads ideally placed amidships. This and the painting above are two of the few mid- to late seventeenth images actually showing boarders in action.

Detail from “Zeeslag met overname van een schip,” 1652 (?), Reinier Nooms, 1652 – 1654. Rijksmuseum.

Above is the classical, preferred method of boarding: ship’s had to the waist. The off-side ship has boarded the near, and boarders on the gangway from the quarterdeck to the forecastle (a common feature of many Dutch ships of this era) are attacking defenders in the waist below.

So, as with everything Hollywood, there’s usually a bit of truth at its core, but distorted for reasons of practicality of illustration, or ignorance, or sometimes even mere laziness. Even so, if nothing else, the Hollywood images do evoke the reality, at least from a distance!

*The title quote is from Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn, screenplay by Casey Robinson (Warner Bros., 1935).

Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted January 25, 2021. Last updated February 5, 2021.

Ghosts & Monsters for Halloween: Cinematic Nautical Romances & Swashbuckling Adventure

Blackbeard’s Inn from Blackbeard’s Ghost. Walt Disney Productions, 1968.

A brief and definitely eclectic list of cinematic nautical, piratical, or generally swashbuckling Hallowe’enish romance and adventure while I try to finish part three of The Duel on the Beach. Enjoy!

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

A widow, a sea captain’s ghost, a haunted house, and true love–one of the great films of fantasy intersecting reality. Starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1947, based on the novel by R. A. Dick.

Lobby card with a superimposed image of Gene Tierney not from this film but from another, doubtless to drive sex appeal. Ms. Tierney is buttoned up head to toe in the movie (see the image below), given the period in which it’s set. Titillation drives advertising, but the film is far more sophisticated.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman in the modern era: lost wandering souls, ancient sins, excellent insight into human nature, with spellbinding action and story, plus true love. An outstanding, elegant, sophisticated film starring Ava Gardner and James Mason. The New York Times has a short but updated review on a new digital transfer here.

The Spirit is Willing

Nautical in the sense of a sea captain’s ghost, not to mention those of his wife and mistress, the cellar ghost scenes in this comedy of sex, mores, and manners frightened me into nightmares for weeks when I was eight or nine years old, humor notwithstanding. Paramount Pictures, 1967. Starring, among others, Syd Caesar and Vera Miles. Based on the novel The Visitors by Nathaniel Benchley.

Blackbeard’s Ghost

Lighthearted, lightweight, fun, much more enjoyable than The Spirit is Willing (and rated G too), and with the coolest old pirate house ever filmed even if it was probably only paint-on-glass. Starring Peter Ustinov, Dean Jones, and the ever enchanting, ever captivating, down-to-earth Suzanne Pleshette. Based on the novel by Ben Stahl.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Not as much a true pirate swashbuckler as it is swashbuckling pirate ghost story with a host of other fantasy nonsense added as well, in spite of its inspiration from the Disney ride depicting buccaneers sacking a hapless Spanish town. Declares Captain Barbossa to his captive and captivating Elizabeth Swann: “You best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner… you’re in one!” Starring Johnny Depp, Kiera Knightley, et al. Walt Disney Pictures, 2003.

The Black Castle

By no means a great film, yet still an enjoyable diversion, with swordplay (albeit mediocre), a dark castle, a Green Man tavern, evil villains including a one-eyed swordsman, alligators in the dungeon (why not?), coffins with living occupants, and, naturally, a fair maid in distress. Starring Boris Karloff, film swashbuckler Richard Greene, Lon Chaney, and Paula Corday. Universal, 1952.

The Brotherhood of the Wolf

Last, the only film on the list truly bordering on twenty-first century modern horror in style, but with a cross-genre historical costume swashbuckling cape and sword twist. Based on the true story, never solved, of the Beast of Gévaudan. In this telling, the chevalier de Fronsac and his Iroquois friend Mani (a specialist in Eastern martial arts no less) investigate tales of the beast on behalf of the King. I’m not usually a fan of Eastern martial arts anachronistically slapped onto Western martial arts in period films set in Europe or the UK, but it more or less works this time–and it’s fantasy, after all. Starring Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, Émilie Dequenne, Monica Bellucci, and Vincent Cassel. Canal+, 2001.

Copyright Benerson Little, 2020. First published October 15, 2020.

The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan

“The Duel on the Beach” by N. C. Wyeth. The painting was used for the 1931 magazine illustration of the same name, for the dust jacket of the 1932 US edition, and also the frontispiece of some editions as well. Christie’s.

Perhaps the only swashbuckling novel whose narrative arc rests entirely upon the near-certainty of a duel at the climax, Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan epitomizes the duel on the beach: a desert isle and a ship careened; a pair of expert swordsmen who hate each other; a damsel’s safety, even her life, depending upon the outcome; an audience of pirates as Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth painted at their finest; and, above all, at atmosphere of tropical romance amidst danger.

Famed novelist George MacDonald Fraser, in his introduction to Captain Blood: His Odyssey (Akadine, 1998), referred to The Black Swan as “an almost domestic story of the buccaneers.” The only other novel to come close to such “domesticity” is Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier–but it has no climactic duel.

Let me note right now that (1) this blog post is not a review–I thoroughly enjoy the novel, it’s one of my favorite “summer” reads, especially at the beach–but more of an abridged annotation. Further (2), this post is divided in two sections: background and annotations, so to speak, regarding the novel itself, followed by a detailed dissection of a singular technique employed in the duel itself.

N. C. Wyeth magazine illustration for “The Duel on the Beach” in Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1931. Author’s collection.

The first section has some spoilers, but not so many as might ruin the first-time reading of the novel. Even so, if you haven’t read the book, you might still to choose to read it now and then return here. And then re-read the novel, it’s certainly enjoyable enough to deserve a second time around.

However, if you haven’t yet read the novel, PLEASE DON’T READ THE SECOND PART ON THE DUEL ITSELF! Read the novel, then return. I’ll place a second warning just prior, just in case. Reading Part One of this Duel on the Beach series is also helpful but not required.

Background & Annotations

The Black Swan was based on a short story, likely written simultaneous ly with the novel itself, by Rafael Sabatini, called “The Duel on the Beach,” published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1931. Sabatini’s short stories, excerpts, and “pre-novels” were published widely in both “men’s” and “women’s” magazines. “The Brethren of the Main,” upon which Captain Blood: His Odyssey was based, was serialized in Adventure magazine, for example, for a largely male audience.

Opening paragraphs of “The Duel on the Beach” in Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1931. Whether due to haste, various revision and summarizing, or merely the condition of an early draft, the story lacks some of the eloquence of the novel. Author’s collection.

The Famous Wyeth Painting

The novel is often closely associated with N. C. Wyeth’s famous painting, shown above and below, used on its US dust jacket. Secondarily, and unfortunately, it is often also associated with the 1942 film of the same name, which takes such extraordinary liberties with the novel as to be the same story almost in name only. The film deserves little if any further discussion here.

Wyeth’s painting evokes the action of the climactic duel, if not entirely accurately. The close parrying of hero Charles de Bernis and the animal-like aggressiveness of villain Tom Leach are graphically represented, but the actual technique of both depicted fencers leaves something to be desired for expert swordsmen. It’s more representative or symbolic than accurate, although–as I will be the first to point out–one could argue that the swordsman on the left may have just made a close, shortened parry as he stepped forward into an attack. But no matter, at least not for now.

More importantly, a couple of principal characters, whom we would expect to be in the painting, Major Sands in particular, are missing. Further, it is difficult to tell the color of the clothing of de Bernis on the left–is it the “violet taffetas with its deep cuffs reversed in black and the buttonholes richly laced with silver” (and apparently with claret breeches) which Sabatini early on confuses with a suit of pale blue taffetas worn by this “tall, slim, vigorous figure of a man”? De Bernis, for what it’s worth, wore the violet at the duel.

The dust jacket of the first US edition. Author’s collection.

Still, the woman in the painting might be Priscilla Harradine, the love interest, wearing “lettuce” green as she does at all times, duel included, in The Black Swan other than in the opening scene, although the bright orange doesn’t fit. Further, the woman in the painting has the correct “golden” hair, and pirate Tom Leach, on the right, wears the scarlet breeches of his faded scarlet suit, as in the novel, including at the time of the duel.

Still, it’s not as accurate a representation of the novel’s duel as we would expect from a commissioned painting, even though most dust jacket and frontispiece art is often inaccurate.

And there’s a reason for this: the painting was commissioned neither for the 1931 story nor the 1932 novel. Rather, it was commissioned in the mid-1920s by Carl Fisher, a wealthy American entrepreneur. N. C. Wyeth completed the painting in 1926. Two of Fisher’s friends are depicted as pirates watching the duel, one of whom is John Oliver La Gorce of The National Geographic Society (more details here) and into whose hands the painting passed, and from his eventually to the Society.

Some suggestions have been made that Sabatini may have written the duel scene to somewhat correspond to the painting. This is entirely possible, but I don’t think it is necessarily so except in broad strokes, as we’ll see momentarily, and also later in the discussion of the duel itself. The trope of pirate duels on the beach leads all of them to look much alike, in other words, thanks in large part to Howard Pyle. (See Part One for other examples.)

“The Duel on the Beach” by N. C. Wyeth for Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924).The five-minute duel (a long duel, in fact) between William Cary and Don Guzman Maria Magdalena Sotomayor de Soto takes place on the bank of the River Torridge near Bideford, England, probably where the river widens into an estuary. Credit: Menconi+Schoelkopf, New York (the painting is apparently for sale).

The positions of the swordsmen in the “Duel on the Beach” painting are almost identical to those in an earlier N. C. Wyeth work shown immediately above, also named, or at least captioned, “The Duel on the Beach.” Wyeth painted it for Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), a swashbuckling romance of Elizabethan privateering.

Howard Pyle, “The Duel Between John Blumer and Cazaio,” from part one of “In the Second April,” Harper’s Monthly, April 1907. This painting by N. C. Wyeth’s teacher shows a similar position between swordsmen–one attacking via a lunge, the other parrying in the high outside line–although how much influence this paining may have had on Wyeth’s works is unknown. This arrangement of attacker and defender is common in illustrations and sculptures of fencers.

I strongly suspect Wyeth’s later “generic pirate sword-fight on the beach” painting that become the cover of The Black Swan was originally intended, at least in part, to suggest the duel in Captain Blood: His Odyssey. The clothing of the figure on the left might even be the “black with silver lace” of Captain Peter Blood.

Wyeth’s dust jacket and frontispiece for Captain Blood: His Odyssey, shown below, bolster my argument, as do the two single lines describing the duel in it [SPOILER ALERT]:

“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill.”

N. C. Wyeth’s illustration for Captain Blood: His Odyssey (1922). Author’s collection.

Even so, again there are details lacking that we would expect: the buccaneers are not divided into two groups representing the two crews (Blood’s and Levasseur’s); Cahusac and the pearls-before-swine do not figure prominently among the spectators; Governor d’Ogeron’s son is missing; two ships rather than one show up in the background (the Arabella was anchored out of sight); and most importantly, Mademoiselle d’Ogeron and her lustrous black hair is missing–as already noted, the woman in the painting has blond hair.

Even more to the point (pun half-intended), perhaps Sabatini re-clothed his hero from sky blue to violet to match the painting–and then he and his editor forgot to correct all instances. It wouldn’t be the first time harried writers and editors have let errors go uncorrected.

Thus, at best, in spite of my best hopes and desires, the painting may have merely been inspired to suggest the duel in Captain Blood. The original “Duel on the Beach” painting, by the way, an oil on canvas 48 by 60 inches, was sold at auction by Christie’s in 2012 for $1,082,500.

The Duelists: Charles de Bernis & Tom Leach

Dust jacket for the 1932 Hutchinson UK edition of The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. Sadly, the cover artist is not listed anywhere in the text that I could find. Major Sands, in the rust-colored coat at the left, is incorrectly depicted with a black, rather than golden, periwig. Note the eye patch, a pirate trope with some basis in reality (but not for improving eyesight!) Author’s collection.

The novel’s hero is Charles de Bernis, former buccaneer and close companion of Henry Morgan. Sabatini biographer Ruth Heredia, author of Romantic Prince: Seeking Sabatini and Romantic Prince: Reading Sabatini, considers the character to be ultimately an iteration of Captain Peter Blood, probably Sabatini’s favorite of all those he created.

De Bernis is more or less a French gentleman, if a bit of a fortune hunter or adventurer originally, which all flibustiers by definition were. And indeed a fair number of flibustier leaders were gentlemen, most notably Michel, sieur de Grammont, who played so commanding a role in many of the great French buccaneering actions of the 1680s.

Barring the boots Sabatini and so many authors of his era dress buccaneers in–a trope or myth, there were no horses to ride aboard ship, thus no need for boots of “fine black Cordovan leather,” nor any evidence that seamen, including buccaneers, wore them–Charles de Bernis in real life would have otherwise dressed much as the author described him.

“Habit de Cavallier” by Jean Dieu de Saint-Jean, ca. 1675 to 1683. French National Library.

It image above is a near-perfect fit for Charles de Bernis. Please note that the cavalier is wearing “stirrup hose,” not boots. Stirrup hose was variously popular from the 1650s in the Netherlands to as late as the 1680s in parts of Spanish America. In France, it seemed largely, if not entirely, out-of-style circa 1680, and de Bernis likely no longer wore it.

Sword-belts were also common by this time, although many gentlemen did still wear baldrics as Sabatini’s hero does, of purple leather stiff with silver bullion. That said, eyewitness images of 1680s buccaneers (they do exist, I discuss them here) shows sword-belts, not baldrics. But this is a mere quibble.

So perfect is this illustration that I suggested it to Firelock Games (likely with the fictional Charles de Bernis in the back of my mind), and Miami artist Peter Diesen Hosfeld then used it as the basis for the French flibustier commander for its tabletop war game Blood & Plunder.

French flibustier commander for Blood & Plunder by Firelock Games. From the rule book. Drawing by Peter Diesen Hosfeld.

Popular illustrations and covers for the novel are rarely accurate, although this one for the 1976 Ballantine Books mass market paperback (the first I read, in fact), comes closer than most, and could have taken its inspiration from the author’s description along with images such as the one above:

Ballantine Books mass market paperback cover, March 1976. The artist is not listed.

As for red-suited Tom Leach, the villain, there are two likely 1680s candidates for his real inspiration, both of whom Sabatini, an avid researcher, was probably aware of, given that their exploits are well-documented in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies.

The first candidate is Joseph Banister, an indebted English sea captain turned pirate who slipped away at night with his 36-gun Golden Fleece, a former merchantman, under the cannon of the forts at Port Royal, Jamaica, escaping with little damage due to his surprise escape. But his piratical adventure would be relatively short-lived.

In June 1686 while careening his ship at Samana Bay, Hispaniola he was discovered by the pirate hunters HMS Falcon and HMS Drake. The men-of-war expended nearly all of their powder pounding the pirate ship to pieces. Banister’s temporary shore batteries (which [SPOILER ALERT] Tom Leach should have erected at the Albuquerque Keys) returned fire but failed to stop the men-of-war.

1680s French illustration of an English merchantman similar to the Golden Fleece. It might mount as many as 30-odd guns, probably between 300 and 400 tons. From the chart, “Plan geometrique du fort à faire à la Pointe de sable de Caps-terre de l’isle de St. Christophle” by Marc Payen, 1682. French National Library.

His ship lost, Banister and a few of his crew set sail with the French flibustier crew of a nearby flibot (the French term for a small flute) of one hundred tons and six guns. Parting soon afterward aboard a captured sloop, Banister was soon run to ground by the Royal Navy and hanged from the yardarm of the HMS Drake in sight of Port Royal, Jamaica in 1687.

As a noteworthy aside, the flibustiers Banister briefly consorted with soon set sail for the South Sea (the Pacific coast of South America), plundering until 1693 and leaving behind a journal of their escapades. In 1688, while attacking Acaponeta, Mexico, these French pirates unfurled a red flag of no quarter–the pavillon rouge, the pavillon sans quartier–of special interest: the red flag bore a white skill with crossbones beneath, the only instance of the skull and bones being flown by late seventeenth century buccaneers or flibustiers. It is possible, even likely, though, that it was flown at other times as well.

Red flag of no quarter with skull and crossbones, designed by Firelock Games for Blood & Plunder.

However, no matter his piracies, Banister was nowhere near the villain that Tom Leach is. Leach murdered captured crews, but not so Banister. But there was a 1680s pirate villain who was a closer match to Leach in villainy: Jean Hamlin.

In desperate need of extra time for numerous projects, I’ll cheat and quote, with some paraphrase and revision, from the original draft of The Buccaneer’s Realm (Potomac Books, 2009):

In 1683 Hamlin, a Frenchman commanding two sloops, captured the merchantman La Trompeuse (The Deceiver) from a French Huguenot, conman, and thief named Paine, and embarked on a piratical rampage. He next captured an English ship, informed the crew he was a pirate–not, mind you, a buccaneer or flibustier–, tortured some of the crew, impressed some, plundered the ship, and let her go. He soon captured several other English vessels, then sailed to the Guinea Coast and captured eleven slavers and three boats, plundering them all.

At Cape St. John the pirates divided the spoil, and, quarreling, separated into two companies, part remaining with Hamlin, part choosing to serve under an Englishman named Morgan (no relation to Sir Henry and probably a false name). Hamlin’s usual tactic was to fly an English Jack and commission pendant as if he were an English man-of-war, come alongside as if seeking a salute, and fire a broadside. Indeed, Hamlin’s strategy and tactics were identical to those of the early eighteenth century Anglo-American pirates who flew the black flag: attack weaker merchantmen, preferably by ruse. Most significantly, Hamlin and his crew referred to themselves openly as pirates, not buccaneers, filibusters, or “privateers.”

The 1680s Cadiz Merchant, one of the ships Edward Barlow, whose seafaring journal is a principal source of information on 17th century life at sea. The Centaur, plundered by fictional pirate Tom Leach with Charles de Bernis aboard, would be similar. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Hamlin was noted for torturing prisoners and otherwise brutalizing them, and for cutting men down “left and right” when he boarded ships. The violence often seemed in retaliation for any resistance.

Throughout his piracies he was protected by the corrupt Danish governor of St. Thomas, although after one return to St. Thomas, the HMS Francis entered the harbor and burned his ship in spite of being fired upon by the Danish fort. Some of Hamlin’s ship-less crew volunteered to serve Captain Le Sage, others Captain Yanky (Jan Willems). Soon enough, the governor of St. Thomas sold Hamlin a sloop with which he captured a Dutch frigate of thirty-six guns, renamed her La Nouvelle Trompeuse (the New Deceiver), manned it with sixty of his old crew and sixty new men, and continued his depredations.

Reportedly, the ship was outfitted in New England, a colony well-noted for its Protestant piety and hypocritical support of piracy. Hamlin captured a Portuguese ship and carried her into St. Thomas where he forced some of her Dutch crew to serve with him, even as the governor of St. Thomas forced some of the captured crew to draw lots and hanged the losers. Hamlin, who can rightly be called the first of the true pirates of the Golden Age–only the black flag was missing–, was never captured.

Make Hamlin an Englishman, and we almost have Tom Leach.

The Swords: The “Rapier” aka The Smallsword

In the novel, the duel is fought with rapiers. This is mildly problematic, as by this time the true rapier was still carried only Iberians–Spaniards and Portuguese–and by some Italians in areas under Spanish rule. The smallsword, with its shorter, lighter blade and smaller hilt, was the common dueling sword among gentlemen and those so pretending.

French-hilted smallsword, 1680s, with a hollow (three sided) Colichemarde blade. The verdigris color on the shells is mere reflection, not the actual color which is silver. Author’s photograph.
A close-up of the hilt. This form, with two quillons but no knuckle guard, was very common in the 1670s and 1680s, and was still seen for some decades afterward, although the smallsword with knuckle guard would soon become far more common. The rings of the hilt are still large enough to put a forefinger through, although the practice was frowned upon by many masters of the French school. On the other hand, it was a characteristic of the Spanish and Italian schools, and given the number of admonitions against in the French, it was probably often seen in it as well.

However, word usage comes to our rescue: Sabatini’s “rapier” remained in use in the British Isles as a word for smallsword. In fact, the English tended to refer to the Spanish rapier as a “spado,” from espada.

Although the cutlass was the common sword of late 17th century mariners, there are a few accounts of those who carried smallswords. Given that Charles de Bernis is something of a gentleman, and Tom Leach prides himself on his swordplay, we can imagine the duel, historically and realistically, as Sabatini described it.

Italian-made Spanish cup-hilted or taza-hilted rapier and parrying dagger with chiseled steel hilts, 1650 to 1675. This form of hilt showed up circa 1625 and remained in use well into the eighteenth century in Iberia, although a Spanish variant of the smallsword began to show up in the late 17th century and became common in the 18th with the succession of a Bourbon king. Swords like this are commonly what Hollywood has inaccurately placed in the hands of film pirates, often with modern epee fencing blades instead of rapier blades. The hilt is larger and therefore shows up better on screen, and further, the audience has to some degree come to expect it (and frankly, costume designers often don’t seem know the difference). The impression is only correct for Spaniards, Portuguese, and some Italians. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[BRIEF SPOILER ALERT!] Charles de Bernis prepares for the duel by secretly practicing with the pompous Major Sands. In the book, the men use their real swords for practice, each with a pear-shaped wooden tip added to blunt the weapons. This is historically inaccurate, and almost certainly Sabatini, with his experience of fencing, knew this, but went with a simple plot device instead to keep the narrative clean and simple.

Seventeenth century fencing foils with crown guard composed of narrow iron bars. From Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670.

Read sword blades were never intended for practice with blade or target contact. They are tempered differently than practice blades, the latter of which are designed to flex many times before breaking, as well as to flex in order to take up some of the energy when hitting.

Real blades are usually much stiffer in order to maximize penetration–a too flexible blade might not penetrate thick clothing, cartilage, or otherwise deeply enough to cause a serious wound. Further, the use of real sword blades for practice will severely nick the sharp edges (if sharpened–not all smallsword blades were, but the nicks will still eventually damage the integrity of the blade) and significantly increase the risk of breaking a blade. In other words, such practice will ruin a fighting sword blade.

Another style of foil with smallsword-like shells instead of a crown, a form, along with similar foils with a crossbar, common to the “German” smallsword schools. From The Art of Fencing Represented in Proper Figures Exhibiting the Several Passes, Encloses, Disarms, &c. by Marcellus Laroon, various editions suggested to date from the 1680s to circa 1700.

Practice swords called foils were used instead of real thrusting swords, and there were several styles in use at the time. The French “crowned” style was prominent in many schools. Pierre, the servant of Charles de Bernis, could easily have hidden the foils beforehand, making the scene more historically accurate. Hopefully the island was large enough, or the pirates busy enough, not to hear the clash of steel on steel–it travels far and there is no other sound quite like it.

De Bernis practicing with Major Sands. The images in this series have been reproduced in numerous Spanish language editions. Here I’ve scanned it from the 1947 Buenos Aires edition published by Editorial Molino Argentina. The artist is not named.

The Dueling Ground: Maldita Key

The duel and much of the rising conflict leading to it takes place on the northernmost of the two Cayos de Albuquerque while Tom Leach’s pirate ship the Black Swan is being careened there. The islands do exist, although their geography doesn’t entirely match that described in the novel, which for reasons of plot must take certain liberties. It might also have been quite difficult for the author to get accurate details of these small out-of-the-way keys.

There is, however, plenty of beach for dueling on the real island.

Located off the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua and Belize south of Santa Catalina (Providencia, Old Providence) and San Andres Islands (roughly twenty-five miles SSW of the latter), the two small principal Albuquerque keys are actually part of Colombia (with a small military presence on the north key). The keys are ringed with reefs: technically, the islands are part of an atoll with a large lagoon at its center. Some old English charts list them as the S.S.W. Keys. The keys are roughly 250 to 300 yards apart, and Cayo de Norte is perhaps 200 yards across. Passage to its anchorages is difficult. Both keys are covered in coconut palms.

The Cayos de Albuqueque shown on a Spanish chart, “Carta Particular de la Costa de Mosquitos,” 1764. Spanish National Library.
Satellite image of the Cayos de Albuquerque. The two principal keys are clearly seen on the eastern side of the lagoon. The image clearly shows the dangerous coral reefs fringing the keys.

Cayo del Norte, where the action takes place, is named Maldita Key in the novel, meaning cursed or damned, probably a name of Sabatini’s creation given that I’ve not found the name referenced anywhere else. This isn’t the only time he invents or changes a place name. Similarly, Sabatini has imagined the island as larger, with higher elevations in places than the roughly 7 feet maximum elevation of the real island, and with a hidden pool of fresh water large enough to swim in.

Having once lived on Old Providence Island until the Spanish sacked it and forced the interloping settlers from it, buccaneer Charles de Bernis would have been familiar with the keys to the south.

Cayo del Norte in the Cayos de Albuquerques. The beach at the upper left appears to be the only possible careenage on the island. Photo credit: Expedición Seaflower.

The Duel Itself

LAST WARNING! SPOILER ALERTS! If you haven’t yet read the novel, you should stop, read The Black Swan, and then return.

The duel as described by Sabatini is about as well-written as a sword duel can be: exciting, well-paced, and largely rooted in reality. As such, I’m not going to comment further except to discuss and dissect the singular unconventional technique used by Charles de Bernis to kill his adversary.

Several years ago in a long-running conversation with Sabatini biographer Ruth Heredia as she prepared her second volume, Romantic Prince: Reading Sabatini, we had numerous discussions about swordplay in his novels. One point of discussion was what the de Bernis technique might actually have been.

Illustration by Lyle Justis for “The Duel on the Beach” by Rafael Sabatini. Pirates are boarding the Centaur.

I was never satisfied with the answer, discussed below, I gave her. Then one recent evening, while rereading the duel as part of some research into my annotations for Captain Blood, the answer struck me. I realized I had been mistaken in every analysis I’ve done on the duel, and knew immediately what de Bernis had done—and where Sabatini almost certainly found his inspiration. It was right under my nose all along, a purloined technique lying literally in plain sight for two decades or more, but my mind had categorized it such that I had not yet made the connection. Please excuse my excitement and fencing vanity as I make my argument.

For what it’s worth, this separate blog on The Black Swan was inspired by a recent long e-letter to Ruth Heredia on the subject.

Illustration by Lyle Justis for “The Duel on the Beach” by Rafael Sabatini. The aftermath of the duel.

The pertinent details: at the end of the duel, Leach makes a sudden and sneaky (sudden and sneaky are expected in swordplay) long low lunge in the “Italian” style, snake-like, with one hand supporting him, to slip under the guard of de Bernis. This was in fact both a French and Italian technique in the late 17th century, although by Rafael Sabatini’s era it was largely confined to the Italian and was generally considered as such. Sabatini notes in the novel that no “direct” parry could deflect this attack once fully launched. While this may not be entirely true (see below and also the note at the end of this blog), a very low attack like this is quite difficult to parry, making an esquive (see also the discussion below) of some sort highly useful in defending against it.

Further, an attack made with the body and hand so low can only have as its torso target the lower abdomen or the groin, making it a ruthless, dishonorable attack when this is the intended, as opposed to accidental target–an attack suitable to Tom Leach’s venomous character.

As Leach lunges, de Bernis disappears from the line of attack. “Pivoting slightly to the left, he averted his body by making in his turn a lunging movement outward upon the left knee.” It was a “queer, unacademic movement” that “had placed him low upon his opponent’s flank.” De Bernis then passed his sword through Leach.

We require six conditions for the answer:

  1. A pivoting movement that averts the body.
  2. It must outward upon the LEFT knee (we assume almost assuredly that de Bernis is a right-hander).
  3. It must be a “queer, unacademic movment.”
  4. It must place him low upon his opponent’s flank.
  5. It must put de Bernis in position to pass his blade “side to side” through Leach.
  6. It must require TWO tempos, one for the pivoting movement, and one for the thrust into Leach’s flank.

As already noted, I was never satisfied with any conclusion I’ve come to. Of course, it could be that Sabatini left his description somewhat vague on purpose, and I’ve considered this as a possibility. However, my best guess was some form of intagliata, a term used by some nineteenth century Italian masters for an “inside” lunge off the line. In other words, if you’re a right-hander, you lunge toward the left, or inside, removing your body from the direct line of attack or riposte and placing yourself upon your adversary’s flank.

The intagliata as illustrated in Trattato Elementare Teorico-Pratico di Scherma: Opera Riginale
by Cesare Enrichetti, 1871. the fencer on the right has lunged off the line to the left in order to avoid his adversary’s blade.
The intagliata in action. Rarely is technique in action as perfectly formed as it is in posed photographs or line drawings. From Fencing by R. A. Lidstone, 1952.

The intagliata is a member of a group of techniques known in French as esquives, or in English, dodgings or body displacements for lack of a more elegant word. The two principal esquives are the inquartata and the passata soto, both of which are primarily used as counter-attacks in a single tempo, designed to avoid the adversary’s attack while simultaneously thrusting, preferably in opposition (closing the line to prevent the adversary from hitting) or with bind (pressure on the adversary’s blade to prevent it from hitting) and removing the body from the line of attack.

They may also be used in two tempos, parrying and displacing in the first tempo, and riposting in the second. Single tempo counter-attacks without esquive often result in double hits, even when opposition is attempted, for the fencer often fails to predict the correct line or uses inadequate opposition. Body displacement increases the protection. It’s a backup, in other words.

Other esquives include the cartoccio or forward lunge while lowering the upper body; the rassemblement or very old school “slipping” as it was called; the “pass” or crossover forward bringing the rear foot forward in front of the lead foot; the simple backward lean; the various leaps or voltes to the side noted by some late 17th and early 18th century masters (seldom used now due to the narrowness of the fencing strip); and the lunge to the outside (to the right for a right-hander) off the line.

Illustrations of the duel in The Black Swan are never accurate, at least of those I’ve seen. From the 1947 Buenos Aires edition published by Editorial Molino Argentina. The artist is not named.

I considered and even tested all of these. None entirely met the conditions. In particular, none were considered then as un-academic, although it could be argued that the leaps to the side are considered so today and likewise in Sabatini’s era. But the leaps met few of the other conditions. Compounding the problem was Sabatini’s use of the word “outward” which I, with nearly 45 years fencing and studying swordplay past and present, and 25 teaching both, took at first to mean “outside,” which in fencing terms means, for a right-hander, to the right. In fact, Sabatini appears to have meant the word conventionally–outward rather than inward. One problem solved!

Yet the major problem still remained. In the 1935 film version of Captain Blood there is one option depicted, probably drawn from an interpretation of The Black Swan is my guess—a volt to the left with the leading right foot, followed by the rear—but this too is actually an academic movement, a form of intagliata, again really nothing more than “lunging off the line.”

I remained distracted by the question: what other possible, conceivable two tempo movement—a pivot and lunging movement outward upon the left knee, followed by a thrust, probably via a lunge—would fit? What esquive could it be if not an intagliata? What might work yet be unorthodox? Importantly, what might be documented—not imaginary—in this category? In other words, how did Sabatini develop this scene, what was his inspiration?

I think almost certainly right here:

“Duel tussen twee mannen met degens,” from “Diverses figures” by Louis François du Bouchet. Rijksmuseum.

On the right a swordsman has made a very long low lunge. His hand is not on the ground as it commonly was, but this is immaterial. On the left is a swordsman slightly off the line, bending inward slightly, WITH HIS LEFT (REAR) LEG BENT IN A SOMEWHAT LUNGING MANNER.

This left fencer’s position appears bothersome to fencers not well-versed in fencing history (most aren’t, in fact). What does it depict? It might well be just a lean backward onto the rear leg to avoid a sudden low attack, or a failed retreat—the 17th century French school advocated keeping most weight on the rear foot, forcing most retreats to be made by crossing over, front foot moving first to the rear, passing the rear foot en route. Or, it might be something more conventional, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

What’s important is what Rafael Sabatini might have thought it was!

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it depicts a fencer who has just pivoted off the line slightly in a lunging fashion in order to avoid a long low attack, as described by Sabatini. If so, to execute this, de Bernis need, as described, only pivot slightly to the left on the right or lead foot as he simultaneously leans back into a lunge on the left leg. This places him out of the direct line of attack and also out of range—and he has a tempo to do this as the low attack is made.

Detail from the image above, showing an attempt to parry with the foible or middle against the forte of of the attacking blade.

In fact, the parry shown in the detail above is a natural one against a long low attack, and would help protect de Bernis as he made his next movement, by providing some opposition–but it would almost certainly not have stopped the attack, or at least such conclusion might be drawn from the image. The exceptionally low attack might easily “force” most parries.

In other words, parrying with the hand held at the usual height of the en garde position makes it difficult to apply forte (the strong third of the blade nearest the hilt) against the middle or, preferably, foible (weak third of the blade at the tip end), so necessary for an effective parry. In the detail above, the foible or middle of the parrying blade has been applied against the forte of the attacking blade, rendering the parry largely useless. It is likely that Sabatini’s statement to the effect that there is no direct parry that can stop such an attack once fully launched was inspired in part by this image. (See the technical note at the end of this blog for more detail, including on at least one unconventional parry that can deflect such an attack.)

But let us return to the unusual esquive. Because Leach is now subsequently off-balance—for a full second, fortunately—de Bernis has a second tempo in which to run him through, almost certainly with a conventional lunge. In fact, such long low lunges have a distinct disadvantage: they’re slow to recover from conventionally, that is, to the rear, leaving the fencer in danger. Likewise, if the fencer recovers forward, he (or she) may be at dangerously close distance. As well, poor balance is typical of this long lunge although there are some rare fencers who can manage it well, at least on hard floors.

The ultra-long low lunge, albeit with a thrust made in the high rather than low line. This lunge would eventually come to be considered an Italian technique. In this image the lunge is actually made to the rear as a counter-attack (the Italian passata soto). From Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670.

Importantly, does the technique of Charles de Bernis work?

I’ve tested it–and it does! It is also historical, it is also unorthodox—and its imagination by Sabatini from the drawing, brilliant. It would only require that the fencer using be familiar with lunging with his left leg—having experience fencing left-handed, in other words, would help. And a fair number of fencers, although probably not a majority, did practice at times with the off-hand.

In fact, if the technique were deliberate, it would fall into the category of “secret thrusts,” which were nothing more than legitimate, if unorthodox, technique that was known to but a few fencers and was useful only in rare circumstances. And once it’s found useful, the unorthodox becomes the orthodox, in everything, not only in fencing.

The inspiring drawing is by Louis François du Bouchet, marquis de Sourches (1645 – 1716), circa 1670. The small collection of his drawings is well-known to historians of seventeenth century France. More importantly, there are some thirteen volumes of his memoirs, dating from 1681 to 1712, first published in the late 19th century: Mémoires du marquis de Sourches sur le règne de Louis XIV, publiés par le comte de Cosnac et Arthur Bertrand (Paris: Hachette, 1882-1893). Sabatini would doubtless have run across these volumes of memoirs of the French court in his researches, and from them his drawings, if not otherwise. I’ve found copies of the swordplay image in both the British Museum and Rijksmusem.

So, there we have it! Or do we? I think almost certainly this is Sabatini’s inspiration. But does the drawing actually represent what the author described?

The duel in the film version, between George Sanders on the left and Tyrone Power on the right–on the deck of a ship. An island romance was clearly not dramatic enough. Warner Bros., 1942. Author’s collection.

Almost certainly not.

The two images below are from Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670. The first shows the long lunge in use, or at least promoted (it requires great flexibility), at the time, although not as long as the extreme lunges above, along with the en garde. The second also shows the common French en garde of the 1660s and 1670s, with most of the weight on the rear leg and the lead leg almost straight.

Vestiges of this en garde remain in some of the French schools today. A few years ago, although Olympic gold medalist Dr. Eugene Hamori had been mentoring me as a fencing teacher for two decades, he had not given me a fencing lesson since 1981. As I came en garde very upright, almost leaning back, a position I’d picked up from years of giving fencing lessons, he immediately said, “That’s a beautiful French guard, Ben. Now lean forward a little bit, like a Hungarian.”

We find this unbalanced French en garde not only in de la Touche’s work, but in other images as well, as shown below. The guard does have the advantage of keeping the body well back and even permitting one to lean back even farther–the first commandment of swordplay is (or should be) to hit and, especially, to not get hit. But the guard has the disadvantage of limiting mobility, including a slower attack (but then, that’s not what the French school was most noted for anyway at the time).

Most French schools would soon place less extreme emphasis on this heavy rear foot position, although it would remain in use to a lesser degree for another century.

“Parallelle lijnen trekken door een gegeven punt met onderaan schermende mannen.” From Pratique de la géometrie, sur le papier et sur le terrain. Avec un nouvel ordre et une méthode particulière by Sébastien Leclerc. Paris: Thomas Jolly, 1669. Rijksmuseum.

So there’s an end on it, yes? Sabatini’s inspiration and its reality?

Or is there more?

In my experience there always is. Below, from Alfieri, here’s a swordsman leaning backward, weight on his rear leg, to avoid a thrust while thrusting in turn. It doesn’t take much to imagine the addition of a small lunging movement off the line with the rear leg. In this case, though, the fencer on the right has made a single tempo movement, thrusting as he simultaneously evades an adversary who has rashly ventured too close, or has been tricked into doing so. Tom Leach provides no such opportunity. 🙂

From L’Arte di Ben Maneggiare la Spada by Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri, 1653.

Still, I think we have Sabatini’s original source above in the du Bouchet drawing, and therefore the “queer, un-academic” technique of Charles de Bernis as well.

However, the most useful lesson, at least fencing-wise, from the novel may be the admonition derived from the following lines:

“…and that, too confident of himself, he had neglected to preserve his speed in the only way in which a swordsman may preserve it.”

In this time of pandemic, fencers may improve their footwork, increase their flexibility and strength, study strategy and tactics, and so forth. But it takes free fencing–practice with an adversary–to maintain the most important components of fencing speed: the sense of tempo and the ability to react without hesitation. Without these, raw speed is worth next to nothing sword-in-hand.

Next up in the series: the duel on the beach in film!

Technical End Note on Parrying Leach’s Low Attack: Arguably there are five parries that might possibly deflect Leach’s blade: septime, octave, seconde, quinte (low quarte), all by different names in the 1680s and some not really even in much use at all; and a largely unfamiliar vertical parry made straight down, noted in some of the old Italian schools, and in particular by Alfred Hutton in his famous fencing text, Cold Steel. He describes the parry as being effective against an upward vertical cut toward the “fork” aka the groin.

Such vertical and other below the waist cuts are the reason, by the way, that the modern saber target is limited to the body from the waist up. This is due to the Italians who made the rules more than a century ago, intending by them to protect their manhood. Yet the myth of the saber target “being limited to above the waist due to the saber being a cavalry weapon, and you wouldn’t want to hurt the horse,” persists in spite of being arrant nonsense. In fact, the modern “Olympic” saber derives from the light dueling saber of the nineteenth century, and it was used in duels afoot. As for not hitting the horse or below the waist? Such blows were commonly permitted in duels among many various schools and peoples, and always in warfare.

Below the waist attacks, especially to the knee, have long been common with cutting weapons, but somewhat less so with thrusting weapons, at least when the legs are target (the area below the ribs is in fact an excellent target with real thrusting weapons), due to the fact that a thrust to the legs is rarely incapacitating, unlike a cut, and leaves the attacker’s head and torso wide open for a possibly fatal counter thrust. Thrusts to the groin, besides generally being considered dishonorable when intentional, may easily miss and slip between the legs, leaving the attacker open as just noted. In my experience, fencers hit in the groin by thrusting weapons are usually at fault, having parried late or insufficiently, or used a yielding parry incorrectly, and in both cases thereby carrying the attacking blade to the groin.

This vertical downward hard beat-parry is used unknowingly by some epee fencers today, at least among those who know how to use beats and beat parries (many these days can’t use them effectively), who if asked would probably define it as an incomplete seconde. I use it and find it highly effective against hard-driven low attacks.

In order for any of the first four of these parries to be effective against a low thrust, the parrying hand must be lowered significantly in order to bring forte to foible, making for a slow parry. If the parry is begun after the attack has developed, instead of at its initiation, often by anticipating it, it will likely prove ineffective.

However the last parry described, if correctly timed and made with a powerful beat with the middle of the blade on the attacker’s foible or middle, can be highly effective against such attacks, capable of being forced only with great difficulty. Even so, Sabatini is correct when he writes that such a low powerful attack is not easily parried, at least not conventionally.

Hutton notes that septime is also effective against low vertical upward cuts. I have not found this to be the case with low thrusts made by lighyer weapons such as the foil, epee, and smallsword, but he is surely correct in the case of cuts with the cavalry saber, or even the nineteenth century dueling saber, with their heavier blades.

Copyright Benerson Little, 2020. First published 10 September 2020. Last revised 30 September 2020.

The Women in Red: The Evolution of a Pirate Trope

Disney’s newest pirate (2018) in its Pirates of the Caribbean attraction: Redd the Pirate. (From the Orange County Register, photo by Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort).

With news that Disney is planning a new standalone pirate film starring a female pirate, it’s time review what has become a pirate trope: the woman in red, specifically, or at least often, a redhead. Why this trope in regard to a new Disney film? Because speculation has it that the film will be tied to Redd the Pirate above.

While we do this, we’ll also take a quick look at some of the myths and realities of female pirates during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy in the Americas from roughly 1655 to 1730.

Getty Image from the BBC article on Margot Robbie and a new Disney pirate film.

The seemingly obvious origin of the woman in red (a “scarlet woman”?), at least in terms of pirate fiction and film, is the Redhead in line in the bride auction–“Take a Wench for a Bride”–in the original version of the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in which drunken pirates shouted, “We wants the redhead!” Forced marriage, in other words.

The bride auction at Walt Disney World when it first opened. Walt Disney Productions publicity still.

Notably, text on the back of the publicity still describes the scene as an auction: “Gold-hungry pirate captain puts the town’s fair maidens–and the ones not so fair–on the auction block for his rowdy crewmen.” Thankfully, things have somewhat changed since then, tongue-in-cheek humor or not.

Early concept art. Walt Disney Productions.
Concept art. Walt Disney Productions.
The original animatronic Redhead from the Disney attraction, now on display at the Walt Disney archives. Disney photograph. The Redhead is far more akin to a stereotypical 19th century Western “saloon girl” than a 17th century Spanish woman.

The Disney auction scene may have been inspired by scenes in The Black Swan (1942), Anne of the Indies (1951), and Against All Flags (1952), in which captured women are portrayed as captives to be sold or given away as plunder. Both Against All Flags and Anne of the Indies have auction scenes of female captives.

When it first opened in 1967, the Disney attraction was intended–and in fact was–as a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted, swashbuckling film-based version of buccaneers sacking a hapless Spanish town in the Caribbean. Marketing text associated with early publicity stills noted that the ride was a “thoroughly realistic re-creation of buccaneer days.”

The Wicked Wench engaged with the Spanish fort, one of the most famous and enjoyable scenes in the attraction. The ship here is commanded by a red-coated buccaneer captain rather than by his modern film-inspired replacement, Captain Barbossa. 1968 Walt Disney Productions publicity still.

To enjoy it–which I did and still do–required viewing it as a fantasy rather than a depiction of reality, for the reality of buccaneer attacks in the seventeenth century was anything but romantic to the victims: torture, rape, murder, and the enslavement of free men, women, and children were common. Documentary evidence of what today would likely be defined as resulting PTSD, among both victim and perpetrator, exists.

Like most of our fictional and cinematic adventure, we tend to sanitize or ignore facts in order to help create a fantasy more amenable to entertainment. Humans have done this for millennia. And there’s often nothing wrong with this unless we confuse the fantasy with the reality, which unfortunately happens all too often.

The Marc Davis painting of a redheaded pirate which hangs in the captain’s bar in the early part of the Disney attraction. A hint that the auctioned redhead might become a pirate? The portrait is entitled, “A Portrait of Things to Come,” after all. She bears several common pirate tropes too, as might be expected: eye patch, skull and bones on her hat, bandana, and tattoos aka gunpowder spots. Disney image.

Today, the ride has been modified somewhat to both fit with the Disney pirate films, which are only loosely inspired by the attraction, and to bring the attraction up-to-date with current social mores. And this has generally been a good thing, I think, even if the changes are not historical. The attraction is a swashbuckling fantasy, after all, not an accurate animatronic documentary.

The most significant of these changes was the conversion of the pirates-chasing-women scene into one of pirates-chasing-food, and the conversion in 2018 of the bride auction scene into one of conquered residents bearing possessions, perhaps as ransom, and of the famous red-dressed redhead showing a leg into a red-dressed redheaded female pirate standing guard (and still, after a fashion, showing a leg).

The new scene. Disney photograph.

Personally, I much prefer the new scene and new redhead, ancient passing pre-adolescent fantasies notwithstanding.

In general, as in the original trope-setting (and great fun to watch) pirate swashbuckler, The Black Pirate (1926), leading women in pirate films are usually depicted as the “tavern wench” or “exotic wench,” or other saucy secondary love interest; the “swooning heroine;” or the “pirate woman.”

The “pirate woman” is usually by far the most interesting, although too often she, Hollywood-style, gives up piracy at the end of the film in exchange for true love. Or she dies in battle, her true love unrequited, her true love interest running off with the “good girl”–often the swooning heroine.

Sometimes the tropes are combined: Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl goes from a nod at the literally swooning–via an over-tightened corset–heroine to pirate woman.

She also wears a red dress in the first film of the series, in scenes which combine multiple tropes: woman in peril, woman tied-up, woman with (airbrushed, reportedly) cleavage. The dress is a likely homage to the Disney attraction.

Kieira Knightly as Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, just before being forced to walk the plank (another pirate trope).
Elizabeth Swann as a pirate.
Scarlett, a “Tortuga wench,” on the right in a mostly red dress. Disney publicity still.

The red dress shows up in other pirate films as well, and as apparent copies or homages in Halloween costumes and video games.

Geena Davis as Morgan Adams in Cutthroat Island.

Geena Davis stars in Cutthroat Island (1995, Carolco), and in one scene swashbuckles her way tolerably well in a red dress borrowed from a prostitute. The dress is clearly a nod, perhaps more than a bit humorous, at the Disney ride. In fact, Cutthroat Island often seems like one long string of pirate tropes, homages, and stolen scenes. Great soundtrack, though, and Davis does well as a pirate captain.

Now is a good time to briefly point out the reality of women pirates during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy 1655 to 1730. Strictly speaking, we know of only two who can be truly said to be pirates of the Caribbean: Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the former of whom gets all the cinematic glory while the latter was the real swashbuckling bad-ass of the twain.

If Charles Johnson’s early eighteenth century account is true, Read had been thrice a soldier in disguise, then a pirate, and even a privateer, in disguise, and reportedly fought at least one duel against a male crew member. But it’s redheaded Anne Bonny–or at least she’s assumed to be redheaded because she was Irish and reportedly had a hot temper–who gets all the glory, even though she may have been merely the girlfriend along for a joyride with her bad boy pirate boyfriend. Or not. We simply don’t know enough about her. It’s also entirely possible that she was as bold as Charles Johnson described her.

Jean Peters in Anne of the Indies (1951, 20th Century Fox), perhaps the best depiction to date of a female pirate captain. Notwithstanding her name, she’s really playing Mary Read. Publicity still.

Bonny, though gets all the attention, thanks largely to her relationship with “Calico” Jack Rackham. Writers are often lazy, and it’s easier to combine Read’s martial prowess with Bonny’s reported temperament and relationship with Rackham. (However, not all writers who fictionalize the female pirate pair are as lazy. Some, including Erica Jong, have balanced their accounts of the two women.)

But it’s Read, in my opinion, who deserves a movie.

Eva Gabor as the upper class “slave girl spy” in a red dress in Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl, although the same dress appears in other colors in other lobby cards and posters. The slave girl is white, not black. The term slave in these films usually indicates a Caucasian female, notwithstanding its historical inaccuracy. The term slave is also often used inaccurately for indentured servants. United Artists, 1954.
Sonia Sorel (credited as Sonia Sorrell) playing Anne Bonny in Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl. Naturally she has to give up her life, for apparently only “a lady” deserves the hero.

Perhaps Anne Bonny, the assumed redhead, has also given us the redheaded part of the redhead in the red dress trope.

There are no other known women pirates of the Golden Age but for two who were technically pirates under the law, each having participated in utterly inept attempts at petty piracy, one of them comically so. Notably, two of the most commonly cited women pirates of the era were not pirates at all (please please please ignore Wikipedia!): Jacquotte de la Haye is entirely fictional, and Anne Dieu-le-Veult, a wealthy widow, married the famous Laurens de Graff after his buccaneering days. She was never a member of his crew, nor is there any evidence that she was a member of any other crews.

Redheaded Maureen O’Hara in Against All Flags playing Prudence ‘Spitfire’ Stevens based on Anne Bonny in part, but still far more Mary Read in character. Publicity still.

Likely though, there were real buccaneer and pirate women we’ll never know about because they remained in disguise. The common sexism of the day prevented women from becoming obvious members of a pirate crew. In fact, it’s probable that Anne Bonny and Mary Read (in Read’s case, after she revealed her sex) were part of John “Calico Jack” Rackham’s crew only because it was very small, no more than a dozen or so aboard a twelve-ton (that’s very small) sloop.

Pirates by majority vote could override their captains anytime but in action, and a larger crew would doubtless never have permitted women aboard as equals. In general, women were forbidden among early eighteenth century pirates except as prisoners, and even then pirates preferred to keep them away out of fear of indiscipline among the crew.

The Princess Bride starring Robin Wright and Cary Elwes. Some swooning involved. Publicity still.

Red dresses pop up in other pirate or pirate-associated films as well, but it’s hard to tell if they qualify as tropes. Red is a popular dress color, after all.

Tara Fitzgerald in the 1998 television version of Frenchman’s Creek, in which she briefly sails as a privateer commanded by the man with whom she is having an affair. In the novel and original film version (1944, starring Joan Fontaine), Lady Dona St. Columb sails briefly as a pirate. The lady does not swoon.

Nonetheless, there is a possible origin for the redhead in red dress trope prior to the Disney attraction–in fact, its inspiration perhaps, or part of it.

In 1952 Columbia Pictures released The Golden Hawk, a pirate film, albeit one technically about French and Spanish privateers in the Caribbean in the late seventeenth century.

The male lead was Sterling Hayden playing Captain Kit Gerardo. His acting appears a bit wooden by Hollywood pirate captain standards until you read his biography: a true tall ship captain in his youth, later a Silver Star recipient and US Marine Corps officer assigned to the OSS (the precursor to the CIA covert operations department) behind enemy lines in World War Two. In other words, he was playing himself as a privateer captain. Even so, Variety magazine wrote that Hayden was “out of his element as the gallant French privateer…” Hollywood goes for (melo)drama, but most real captains are far more quiet and self-assured. They have to be. But I digress.

Movie poster, The Golden Hawk, 1952, a banner year for middle-of-the-road pirate films.

The female lead was red-haired Rhonda Fleming, one of the “queens of technicolor,” the most famous of whom was Maureen O’Hara who starred in several swashbucklers and whom some critics suggested would have been better in the role–and better for its box office.

Fleming’s character in the film is “fiery,” to be expected of the popular genre, including the Frank Yerby novel on which the film was based. In one scene–SPOILER ALERT!–she shoots Kit Gerardo when he makes “romantic overtures” to her, then leaps out a stern window and swims ashore. No swooning heroine she, thankfully, nor one to put up with harassment.

In a few scenes, Fleming, whose character’s real name is Lady Jane Golfin, wears a luxurious green dress. But in most lobby cards, tinted publicity stills, and movie posters, it’s red.

Rhonda Fleming in a publicity still for The Golden Hawk (Columbia Pictures, 1952).
Sterling Hayden and Rhonda Fleming in a tinted (hand-colored) publicity still for The Golden Hawk (Columbia Pictures, 1952). Ms. Fleming recently passed away on October 15, 2020 in Santa Monica, California at the age of 97.

More importantly, Rhonda Fleming plays a buccaneer, Captain Rouge (that is, Captain Red)–she was also a pirate!

Hand-colored publicity still for The Golden Hawk. Note that the background remains in B&W.
Rhonda Fleming in a publicity still for The Golden Hawk (Columbia Pictures, 1952).

We may have simultaneously moved forward while also coming full circle. 🙂

Postscript July 22, 2020: This bears repeating: Please, please, please do not use the Wikipedia entry on women pirates for research! At least not if you’re looking for facts. 🙂 Wikipedia has a number of flaws in many of its articles on piracy (and in many other areas as well), including factual errors, incomplete information, trolling (intentional factual misrepresentation to trigger a reaction or otherwise for fun), severe ideological slants leading to inaccuracy (i.e. deliberate “scholarly” misrepresentation, often in support of social or political ideologies that run counter to historical fact), and fairly constant regressive, incorrect changes to accurate information.

Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First posted July 8, 2020. Last updated October 17, 2020.