The fencing salle, or school or club, if you will, is a hall of mirrors to the soul, and if not to the soul, then at least to fundamental character. It is a magical place whose special sights and insights are enriched by a special language accented with the unmistakable sounds of blade on blade.
Perhaps Rafael Sabatini put it best 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.”
And with the fencing salle come a few rules for honorable deportment, as suitable today as they were in the past. And, as the lessons of fencing are apt for the world beyond, so too are the core of its courtesies and other appropriate behaviors.
Many have been recently eroded, at least to a greater degree than in the past, among modern or “Olympic” fencers, largely due to the Federation Internationale d’Escrime’s rather abject submission to the International Olympic Committee’s desire to have Olympic sports present [melo]dramatic “spectacles” designed solely to increase viewership and therefore income from advertising. National fencing bodies typically willing to go along with almost anything as long as it means that fencing will remain an Olympic sport, no matter in what form, play a significant role as well.
Even so, all styles of swordplay are seeing rules of fencing etiquette debased by the competing egos of many fencing masters, teachers, coaches, and fencers themselves, in addition to the general degeneration of civility, including the practices of honor and humility, these days.
N.B. I am by definition a “modern” fencer, although I also practice classical and historical fencing. Any criticisms therefore are not those of an outsider attempting to disparage modern fencing or other forms of swordplay.
Here therefore are a few rules and guidelines of recommended behavior in the salle, from recent years to past centuries, with some of my own thrown in near the end of the post. I am intentionally avoiding excessively in-depth commentary on the behavior of many fencers today, for it would probably quickly turn into a near-rant. Thankfully, the majority of fencers today, in all forms of legitimate swordplay, still behave with excellent deportment on the strip–but it doesn’t take too many bad apples to spoil the reputation of a sport or other organized skill.
I’ll make two important points up front. First, the best way to teach good behavior in the fencing salle, and everywhere, is by example. Younger fencers are far more likely to behave with courtesy and dignity if they have the good examples and associated expectations of their fencing teachers, veteran fencers, and experienced peers. It starts at the top. Unfortunately, some of the most egregious violations are often found here.
Second, I don’t want this to turn into an “Olympic” or sport fencers versus classical and historical fencers. I’m ecumenical when it comes to fencing. I’ve practiced many forms of swordplay over the past forty or so years, and I’ve seen plenty of poor behavior in the form of various violations of the following rules and guidelines among members of all three groups, and among others as well. But to repeat, most fencers, no matter their preferred form of swordplay, still manage to behave well on the strip.
Muriel Witte in American Fencing magazine, 1966
Regarding number 6, some fencers past fencers would ask for or accept odds, and some today do so as well, either by having the weaker fencer’s touches count for more, or by setting a goal the weaker fencer much reach in a five, ten, or fifteen touch bout. For example, the weaker fencer wins if he gets to five touches before the stronger gets to ten. This was never a practice in the salles where I learned to fence, and I have never engaged in it. The odds are rarely well-balanced, usually favoring one or the other of the fencers.
A better practice is to avoid setting odds or a handicap, and instead set a goal of touches against your opponent, averaging them over time and working to score above this level if you’re the weaker fencer, or to improve the distance if you’re the stronger (and if you’re significantly stronger, just fence and don’t worry about the distance between scores). Too often the more experienced fencer suggests odds that will push him or her, but such odds often don’t push the weaker fencer enough. For example, a balance of 15 to 5 strong to weak may be good for the stronger fencer, but a better balance might be 15 to 8 in order to push the weaker fencer more. Further, the setting of odds by the stronger fencer can often come across as patronizing, even arrogant, at times.
Number 7 dates to the days of gyms which made much use of natural light through high windows, and which some poor sports among fencers would take the side of the strip with better light (although in bouts for touches with dry weapons, fencers swapped sides after one fencer scored three touches or half the time expired). In fact, an old dueling tactic was to place your adversary on disadvantageous ground, for example with the sun or wind in his (or at times her) face. Dueling practice in the late 19th and 20th centuries tried to minimize any advantage one adversary might have over the other by way of terrain or weather.
Outdoor fencing is not done often enough these days, although some of us still enjoy it. Unfortunately, it’s no longer permitted as a format for earning ratings in epee by the USFA. (Or as it’s now called, USA Fencing, and prior to that US Fencing. It’s hard to keep up with the name changes. In fact, it was the AFLA–the Amateur Fencers League of America when I started fencing more than forty years ago.) And with the addition of relatively new ratings (D’s and E’s) plus a direct elimination format that vastly increases the likelihood of earning a rating as compared to the old pool system (which unfortunately produced a large percentage of under-rated fencers), we find a flood of rated fencers these days. As such, modern fencing has unfortunately become for many fencers “all about the rating,” with the result that there are far fewer “fun” tournaments than in the past. Nonetheless, there’s no reason not to hold outdoor epee tournaments on occasion, ideally set in picturesque or historic venues. I have fond memories of an outdoor epee event held on the grounds of a Florida beach hotel, for example.
“Decalogo Dello Schermidore” by Aldo Cerchiari and Edoardo Mangiarotti
From their book La Vera Scherma (Milan: Longanesi & Co, 1966). The commandments are also posted on the website of the famous Milanese Mangiarotti Fencing School. Edoardo Mangiarotti was easily one of the few truly great epeeists of the past century. All fencers should strictly abide by these precepts of fencing honor and fair play:
1. Remember that you are the representative of the noblest of all sports. It unites fencers from around the world in the same ideal.
2. Practice your sport unselfishly and with absolute loyalty.
3. Be a gentleman or lady on the strip and off, from sport to social events.
4. Do not discuss fencing if you have not learned fencing and its rules.
5. Learn how to lose with dignity and win with honor.
6. Respect your opponent at all times, whoever he or she is, but try to overcome him or her in combat with all of your energy.
7. Remember that until the last thrust your opponent has not yet won.
8. Serenely accept a defeat rather than take advantage of a victory obtained by deception.
9. Do not step onto the fencing strip with defective weapons or with the white uniform in disarray.
10. Honor, respect and defend your name, the prestige of your master, the colors of your club, the flag of your country.
“No boast, threat, trick, or stratagem, which may wound the feelings, or lessen the equality of the combatants, should ever enter into the contemplation of a gentleman.”
—Joseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829
“Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!”
—Lajos Csiszar, quoted by student Roger Jones, former member of the US 1955 and 1957 epee teams, alternate to the 1956 US Olympic epee team, member of both the AFLA (i.e. USA Fencing) and FIE rules committees, in an article dating to 2000, and in later conversation with me. The quote itself dates to the 1950s, and probably earlier. Csiszar was one of Italo Santelli’s three protégés (assistant fencing masters).
Roger himself best describes how Csiszar came to tell him this:
“The first time I fenced in Europe, I learned that cheating was part of the sport, unlike in the U.S. It was common for countrymen to throw bouts to the favorite during the early rounds, in order to improve his seeding for subsequent rounds. Csiszar hated this, as did I. He told me, “Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!” In the 1957 World Championships, an Austrian approached me just before our bout, which was the last one in the round. He pointed out that I would be eliminated even if I won, but that if he won, he would go on into the next round. He asked me to lose, saying “You speak German, therefore, we must stick together.” I refused, and then defeated him 5-2. Afterwards, I told Maestro about the incident, and he hugged me, saying “I knew you would always fight for your honor.” He made me feel so proud.”
—Roger Jones, “Fencing Generations,” manuscript, November 2000. Roger was an outstanding swordsman, business executive, writer, former naval officer, and gentleman who deplored the notion of gamesmanship and cheating in fencing. He passed away a few years ago.
“Your complete swordsman must be one who can place his hits with a gallant good grace, but one also who will not allow a clumsy opponent to prevail himself on any hap-hazard thrust.”
—Egerton Castle, “Swordsmanship Considered Historically and as a Sport,” 1903
“Gallant good grace” is too often forgotten today.
“Don’t flatter yourself in your Lessons, and still less in Assaults.”
“Be not angry at receiving a Thrust, but take care to avoid it.”
“Be not vain at the Thrusts you give, nor shew Contempt when you receive them.”
—Jean de Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes, 1692, as translate by Andrew Mahon, 1730
Labat has lots of good advice still relevant today.
“‘I have never,’ says M. [Ernest] Legouvé, ‘met a single fencer who would not–say once a year–deny that he had been touched when the hit was palpable. It is so easy to say ‘I did not feel it,’ and a hit not recognised does not count.'”
—H. Sutherland Edwards, “Fencing Schools,” Old & New Paris, vol. 2, 1894.
To summarize the quote above: You should always declare all touches against you when are fencing ‘dry’ in the salle!
That said, some masters will suggest that in the case of a competitive bout you leave it to the director and jury. I in turn leave this to your discretion and sense of honor. Personally, I would declare an obviously good touch unremarked by the judges.
Of course, not all touches are always obvious to giver or receiver, and allowance must be made for the possibility that the adversary did not feel a particular touch. In epee it is common for many of us to let our practice partner know that he or she hit, but that the touch was either late or flat.
There remains a vestige of the practice of declaring touches, or not declaring them, today in modern electrical epee fencing. In competitions on non-electric strips, I believe a fencer should declare a solid obvious touch on his foot in the case where the referee or floor judges have no opinion or state that no such touch was made. If, however, the fencer is unsure whether the touch was valid—when it might be just a scrape along the floor, a light touch, and so on—he or she should not declare it and leave the determination to the referee (who may overrule the floor judges). Even so, many coaches direct their fencers to never admit to a foot touch, or to any possible error that may favor the adversary, often justifying this on the premise that “It all evens out in the end.” I will always inform my adversary if, for example, I think his or her weapon is not working, and so forth. No victory in art or sport is worth anything if it is obtained through active or passive chicanery.
It is also a too-common practice, this not declaring of touches on occasion, among some classical and historical fencers today, and would be among modern fencers as well were it not for the electrical scoring apparatus. Certainly it was in the past when both saber practice and competitions were dry, and foil practice was typically conducted dry in order to suppress the “pig sticking” tendency induced by the electrical scoring apparatus. Over the past forty-two years I’ve met a number of fencers who were notorious for not declaring valid hits, over and above the possibility that they simply didn’t feel them. Of course, in saber there was a remedy: slowly escalate your hits, making them harder and harder until your adversary has choice but to declare them, if only by rubbing his arm… This was, and is, also the solution to saber fencers who consistently hit too hard.
And More Variety
“It is a polite custom to salute your opponent with your blade before the bout, and to offer him your hand at the end.”
“Once the fencer has taken the guard position, he must be considerate of his opponent. Neither fencer must talk during the bout. Fencing requires the greatest possible attention, and this may not be diverted in any way or for any reason except by fencing tactics.”
“In fencing against an opponent who acknowledges your superiority, sportsmanship demands that you do not make the most of your advantages; rather should you assist his swordplay as much as possible, and avoid placing him in a painful or ridiculous position by over-emphasizing your superiority.”
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Foil, 1932
Regarding Barbasetti’s third statement, it’s unfortunately far less common today to see fencers practicing this: many are unwilling, often solely for the sake of ego, to forgo even a few touches in the name of good sportsmanship. Another practice less often seen today is that of subtly “throwing” your opponent a touch to make up for a touch awarded against him or her due to a bad call by the director (known today as the “referee” in a bid to make fencing more “audience friendly”—I kid you not). Technically an illegal practice, its honorable intentions more than compensate for the breaking of the rule that the fencer must always fence to win.
Barbasetti’s first statement is now written into the rules due to the unsportsmanlike behavior in the past of a few fencers. See also Félix Gravé below.
“No Scholar nor Spectator without a licence from the Master, should offer to direct or give advice to any of the Scholars, who are either taking a Lesson or Assaulting… First, because without permission they take upon them to play the Master; And secondly, because they reprove oft-times their Commerads for the same very fault they themselves are most guilty of, although perhaps not sensible of, which when By-standers perceive, they smile at them (and with just reason) as being both ignorant and impertinent; therefore it would be a great deal more commendable in them, to be more careful in rectifying their own faults, and less strict in censuring others.”
—Sir William Hope, The Fencing Master’s Advice to His Scholar, 1692
More proof that not much has changed over the centuries.
“If you aren’t modest but show off your swordsmanship, you’ll be hated by people and be embarrassed.”
—Yagyu Muneyoshi, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato.
“Though there are People of bad Taste in every Art or Science, there are more in that of Fencing than in others…”
—Jean de Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes, 1692, as translated by Andrew Mahon, 1730.
This is a sentiment I’ve heard more than once from much-experienced fencers over the last four or so decades, often expressed more narrowly: “There are more charlatans among fencing teachers than among any other sort of teachers.” Again, it’s more proof that not much has changed. The answer is simple: be of good taste, of good behavior, and of good knowledge, and let your behavior in the salle demonstrate this, whether you’re teaching or fencing. Or whatever, whenever.
“Don’t show any sign of bad temper if you are the loser.”
“Don’t get conceited, or be haughty, if you are the winner.”
“Don’t forget always to be modest and courteous.”
“If your adversary should prove far superior to you, do not show discontent or bad temper; do not be disheartened, keep up your style and do your best, no matter how badly you may be beaten. Take your defeat in the right spirit, it will help to improve you; take it as a lesson you needed. Remain always the “correct gentleman.”
“The use of the unarmed hand to parry an attack would be an incorrect movement; the use of the unarmed hand to make signs or attract the adversary’s attention would also be incorrect, whilst talking or conversing during the fight would be unruly.”
“[R]efuting a decision or arguing about the verdict of the judges would be considered bad form and ill-mannered.”
“Not shaking hands with an adversary after a match or a rencontre is a great lack of courtesy, and should be reprimanded. Saluting an adversary previously to the beginning of a bout should be done before placing the mask on the head.”
—Félix Gravé, Fencing Comprehensive, 1934
You may, of course, politely challenge the referee on the misapplication of a rule or the failure to apply a rule. Both occur far more often than they should, by the way, perhaps due in part to the modern “guild of referees” that values simple examination (and testing fees!) over experience in the practice and spirit of swordplay (and hasn’t improved refereeing at all). So know the rules, follow them, and be prepared to see them properly applied.
Even so, the best solution to bad refereeing/directing/judging is often the classic one: become good enough that the referee’s incompetence, bias, or, rarely, cheating, is irrelevant. In foil the old electrical scoring solution, and still a valid one today in foil and now saber too, was to make single-light touches, stripping the referee of the act of determining right-of-way.
As for shaking hands and saluting, the requirement has been written into the FIE and USFA rules due to repeated violations by a small number of fencers.
A Few of My Own
These aren’t quite as eloquent or pithy as those above, but to quote Horace from his Ars Poetica in my defense, when I’m brief I’m often misunderstood.
1. My more modern take on Sir William Hope above: Do not give unsolicited fencing advice unless you’re an instructor giving it to one of your students, in which case it is by definition solicited. The principal exception is that of an experienced fencer politely suggesting a correction to an egregious error committed by a beginner. The fact that fencers often appear to accept such advice can be deceiving: it may simply be politeness or mere uncertainly as to whether the novice should tell the advanced fencer to please just be quiet and fence.
2. Given that many beginners are avidly seeking fencing knowledge, and can thus be easily misled, it is incumbent upon fencers giving advice to ensure that such advice is not only solicited and correct, but useful and appropriate to the recipient. Provide only what you know for certain from experience, never what you think you know. Importantly, make sure your advice is suitable the fencer you’re giving it to. Too often, fencers assume that what is good for them is good everyone. Further, many fencers have not yet reached the level at which all good advice may be of use. In other words, don’t provide advice that’s over the fencer’s head or inaccessible due to the level of technique required. And if you’re giving advice to show off: Don’t! In sum, don’t be a know-it-all. (See also Cerchiari & Mangiarotti #4 above).
3. For a stronger fencer to constantly shout “I missed!” when fencing a weaker fencer, or any fencer for that matter, is not only rude and patronizing, but ignores the fact that his or her adversary is probably missing often too.
At the very least it can be an annoying distraction.
“I missed!” is often shouted by some advanced fencers when hit by weaker fencers, as if to excuse the touch as an accident. In fact, advanced fencers often rely on the fact that weaker fencers often do miss–thus making an advanced fencer who shouts “I missed!” a double hypocrite.
Is it OK to occasionally shout “I missed!” when in spite of setting almost everything up perfectly you miss, perhaps because your point control was sloppy? Sure, but don’t overdo it. Is it OK do do so when fencing a friend who understands your frustration? Of course. But it’s never OK to do so in order to [arrogantly] dismiss a weaker’s fencer’s touch.
The fact is, if you get hit, you did something wrong and the other fencer something right.
More simply and more broadly: keep quiet when fencing so your adversary can concentrate.
4. Related to number 3: Don’t be the fencer who is insufferable both in victory and defeat. Or in either. Or ever.
5. Avoid “showboating” and “grandstanding.” A particularly egregious example is that of a more experienced fencer moving close and opening the line widely, as if to say, “I’m wide open and even then you probably can’t hit me!” It’s an insulting practice, one that indicates insecurity on the part of the fencer doing it, and one the experienced fencer would never attempt with another fencer of the same or greater ability. It’s OK to move closer to a weaker fencer and open the line a bit more in order to work on developing one’s speed while simultaneously giving the weaker fencer the opportunity to score more in practice. It’s not acceptable to do so in a grandstanding or patronizing manner.
6. If you’re waiting alone on the only empty strip for someone to fence and a pair of fencers comes up to use the strip, you must turn it over to them. Most fencers waiting alone on a strip for someone to fence understand this and will automatically yield the strip to a pair of fencers who need it. Occasionally though, there are strip hogs. Fencers new to the sport are often uncomfortable asking a solitary fencer, waiting for no one in particular, to yield the strip. If you notice this, invite them both onto the strip immediately. And don’t be afraid to ask, even politely demand, a strip hog to yield the strip!
7. For coaches and parents, and especially, fencers: No cheating!
In particular, neither give nor, for fencers on strip, accept advice during a competition bout except during the one minute breaks in direct elimination. Strictly speaking, these breaks are the only time coaching or other tactical assistance is permitted during a bout. All other tactical aid during a bout is in fact cheating, including hand signs, “secret language,” and so on, not mention overt coaching. Don’t tolerate it! If you do, you have a personality flaw, plain and simple.
N. B. Before I continue, I must note that the USFA, or as it now terms itself, “USA Fencing” (marketing, marketing), permits coaching from the side of the strip by coaches or spectators as long as it doesn’t interfere with the bout. This is a US rule: try it in many places internationally and you’ll still get in trouble, as you should. Of course, the USFA now complains that such coaching is getting out of hand (surprise, surprise) and is now at work on a coaches code of conduct. In other words, the USFA is complaining about a problem it created, but won’t take up the appropriate solution, that of eliminating strip-coaching (and won’t admit it caused the problem, either).
So, to continue, and operating under the assumption that strip-coaching is and should be illegal…
Over the past two decades I’ve seen a new practice by a certain type of fencer in competition: the “whiplash,” that is, the head snapping around to look at the coach whenever the fencer is unsure about a touch or the progress of the bout, even in epee. Some fencers do this after each touch awarded to their adversaries. Should I challenge the call? Should I change my tactics? Should I do this again?
Sorry, but your coach is not permitted to respond in any way, notwithstanding that some coaches have trained their fencers to seek such advice during a bout. The sad fact is that many competitive fencers today are uncomfortable, some even to the point of near panic, if their coaches are not at the piste during their bouts.
A fair number of fencing coaches will “test the waters” during a competition by coaching during an early bout to see if the referee or bout committee will put a stop to it. If not, they’ll continue. Others will only try this during a challenging bout (that is, one in which one of their students is losing) during the direct elimination.
One of the most egregious violators I’ve seen was a coach who constantly decried the “cheating” by other coaches and clubs, including the giving of advice from the side of the strip during a bout, yet he was one of the most active practitioners I’ve ever seen, both as a coach on the sidelines and as a referee, although he “wisely”—if a cheater can be said to be acting wisely—limited it to critical bouts if experienced fencers and referees were present. However, he engaged in it nearly always if only inexperienced or easily intimidated fencers and referees were present—at least until someone showed up who would call him out on it.
And, on a related issue: No, the modern era of gamesmanship and cheating in fencing was not started by the Soviet Union’s entry into competitive fencing, some commentators notwithstanding, nor did this begin the general debasement in deportment on the strip. I’ll save this conversation for another day, but will note two things now: (1) there are plenty of early examples of these bad behaviors long prior to the Soviet Union entering sport fencing, and (2) it was notable how quickly nations other than France and Italy began regularly winning medals in epee and foil after the introduction of the electrical scoring apparatus–French and Italian judges could no longer pretend not to see touches.
In sum, if your child’s coach or teacher engages in any of these behaviors, tell him or her it’s unacceptable and that you’ll remove your child from the club if it continues. Many, perhaps most fencing coaches these days unfortunately follow a business model, which inevitably requires an emphasis on youth fencing: they’ll change their attitudes if a significant number of parents quit writing checks.
I’m a bit cynical about progress in this area, though, having watched for decades how often many parents, living a vicarious second lives via their children, will accept or turn a blind eye to all sorts of egregious, even outrageous, behavior from coaches and teachers in sports and performing arts on the remote chance that their child will win nothing more than a local title or become a briefly notable local performer. And when greater rewards are at stake, far too many parents will turn a blind eye to almost anything.
Put plainly, a fencing bout should be a contest between two fencers and no one else.
Fencing’s best lesson is independent decision-making under stress.
Fencing & Wine
Or, how fencing shows character and why this matters. Again I quote from H. Sutherland Edwards (1894) who is quoting dramatic author, not mention fencer and promoter of women’s rights and child education (and whose name was given to a perhaps phantasmagoric reef in the South Sea), Ernest Legouvé:
“Fencing has, moreover, its utilitarian value. It teaches you to judge men. With the foil in hand no dissimulation is possible. After five minutes of foil-play the false varnish of mundane hypocrisy falls and trickles away with the perspiration: instead of the polished man of the world, with yellow gloves and conventional phrases, you have before you the actual man, a calculator or a blunderer, weak or firm, wily or ingenious, sincere or treacherous… One day I derived a great advantage. I was crossing foils with a large broker in brandies, rums, and champagnes. Before the passage of arms he had offered me his services in regard to a supply of liquors, and I had almost accepted… The fencing at an end, I went to the proprietor [of the fencing salle] and said: ‘I shall buy no champagne of that man.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘His wine must be adulterated–he denies every hit.'”
Yes, character matters, then and now. And fencing reveals it better than anything other than the dire life-threatening circumstances of man and nature. A person who cannot be trusted on the strip should not be trusted off the strip.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018-2020. First posted July 20, 2018, last updated March 28, 2020.
A brief place-holder blog post (and at the bottom a not quite shameless plug for Blood & Plunder by Firelock Games) while I finish several more challenging posts in the queue.
Before the advent of CGI, many swashbuckler films used models of ship and shore, along with full-size ships built on sound stages, to both recreate environments no longer available and also to save money. To some degree the early miniatures may seem quaint today, as compared to CGI, although in my opinion bad CGI is worse–more jarring to the eye–by far than an obvious model.
These old sets and scenes evoke nostalgia for the entire spectacle of old Hollywood swashbucklers: the cinemas with their great screens and clicking film projectors, the lasting impressions left by thundering broadsides and clashing swords, and above all the image of pirate ships in tropical waters.
For fun, here are a few.
Above, the Albatross, commanded by Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) arrives in a secluded cove on the Isthmus of Panama in order to raid the silver trains. The film scenes set in the Old World are in black and white, while those in the Americas are in sepia.
Only the film title is actually based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, which tells the story of an English gentleman who turns Barbary corsair in an act of revenge. The 1940 film is a not even thinly-veiled wartime propaganda piece, albeit an enjoyable one. English sea dogs are renamed in the scrip as patriotic sea hawks suppressed by treasonous machinations until the doughty hero (Errol Flynn) reveals the treachery and England arms the sea hawks against
Nazi Germany Imperial Spain. For more information try The Sea Hawk, edited by Rudy Behlmer. It’s a fun read for anyone interested in the script and the film’s history.
Next, we have the models of Port Royal and the French flagship used in the finale. This image is not of an actual scene from the 1935 Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone, but of the set prior to shooting.
Of course, the real Port Royal looked nothing like this. It was actually crammed with English-style brick buildings of two and even three floors, unlike this Southern California Spanish colonial revival-influenced town. But it’s sets like these in Hollywood swashbucklers that have influenced our notions of what the seventeenth century Caribbean looked like. In fact, the region at the time had a wide variety or environments and architectures.
Above we have the battle in Port Royal harbor during the finale of Captain Blood: the Arabella on the left versus the French flagship on the right. N. B. Royal sails (the smallest on the ship on the right, the fourth sail from the bottom) were not used in this era. Their use here is an anachronism. In fact, only exceedingly rarely was the topgallant sail (the third sail from the bottom, used on “tall ships” on the fore and main masts) seen on the mizzenmast or sprit-mast on the bowsprit. I know of only two seventeenth century instances, each noted as being highly unusual. One was Kidd’s Adventure Galley in the very late seventeenth century, the other was a Spanish ship in 1673.
A pirate ship under full sail in action against ships at anchor and shore targets during the finale of The Black Swan starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara. The film is based on the somewhat similar novel by Rafael Sabatini.
A pirate ship sailing into Cartagena de Indias under the guns of a castle in The Spanish Main starring Maureen O’Hara and Paul Henreid.
Over-large pirate ship and treasure ship of the “Great Mogul” in Against All Flags. The ships are engaged under full sail, a practice generally not seen in reality except in the case of a running fight, but quite common in Hollywood because it looks good. Here, both ships would have stripped to “fighting sail” for a variety of reasons, including simplified ship-handling in action. The film stars Errol Flynn, as Brian Hawke, in one of his last swashbucklers (followed finally by The Master of Ballantrae in 1953 and Crossed Swords in 1954). It also stars Maureen O’Hara wielding a sword as Prudence ‘Spitfire’ Stevens, something I always enjoy.
And now, a not quite shameless plug for Firelock Games’s Blood & Plunder tabletop war game of piracy and much, much more–one need not take the side of pirates to play. A full spectrum of peoples and forces are available.
Full disclosure: I’m the game’s historical consultant, and I thought it would be fun to compare the Blood & Plunder models to the film models above.
So, above and coming soon: a small Spanish galleon. Historically accurate, the model also evokes the best of old Hollywood swashbucklers.
A small Spanish frigate engaged with a French brigantine.
Spanish and French brigantines engaged near shore. Which is the pirate? (Answer: either could be!)
A small fluyt (in English a pink, in French a flibot, in Spanish an urqueta, on the left; a galleon at center; a brigantine on the right.
Close up action!
Brigantine crewed by, I believe, French flibustiers.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First posted April 16, 2018.
A brief post on Hungarian Hussar swordplay on horseback, in honor of my Hungarian fencing masters: Dr. Francis Zold (1904 – 2004) and Dr. Eugene Hamori, both part of the extraordinary tradition and fame of the Hungarian fencing epoch of the past century and longer. Theirs was an era in which perhaps no more than three dozen fencers ruled saber fencing for half a century. It was a world in which swordplay and its associated honor were still entwined with world events. It was a time in which dueling was still practiced or had only recently seen its end. Many of these men were familiar with swordplay in both the duel and in sport. To learn fencing from my two masters and to hear the stories they told was like stepping into a novel by Rafael Sabatini or Alexandre Dumas.
Before I begin the discussion of hussar swordplay, here are two abridged biographies, given that this post is in honor of my fencing masters. One day I’ll post full biographies of these two fascinating men.
Dr. Zold, long a minor Hungarian celebrity and well-known fixture in Hungarian fencing, was easily recognized by the green glasses he always wore (Zold means green in Hungarian), as well as by the shout of “Hé, là! Pamela!” when a student did something well during a lesson. He was the 1948 Hungarian Olympic team captain, reportedly fought a duel (I have this from a very knowledgeable source), and was a student of the famous Italo Santelli. By the great master’s own admission, Dr. Zold was one of his four greatest students: “[Jeno] Fuchs the tactician, [Endres] Kabos the attacker, [Attila] Petschauer the jumper, and [Ferenc] Zold the fighter.” (From “Francis Zold’s Death” by Ko Andras, February 24, 2005.)
Regarding two of the Santelli’s fencers mentioned with Dr. Zold, Petschauer was an Olympian with two gold saber medals and also a high school classmate of Dr. Zold. He was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp at the instigation of a Hungarian officer who was also a former equestrian Olympian. Kabos was an Olympian with four gold saber medals, and was serving as forced labor in Budapest at the time of his death, when Margit (Margaret) Bridge (to Margit-sziget, or Margaret Island) blew up accidentally as the Nazis were rigging it with explosives to destroy in advance of the Soviet army. Dr. Zold had spoken with Kabos just moments before.
Dr. Zold also assisted Raoul Wallenberg in helping Jews escape from Hungary after Nazi Germany annexed the country and began shipping Jews to concentration camps, and was one of the last to see Wallenberg alive outside of Soviet custody. (Wallenberg appears to have been murdered by the Soviet secret police after being held for two years.)
I attended the party in honor of Dr. Zold’s 95th birthday (I was one of three there who did not speak Hungarian), and corresponded with him until his death, long after I had my last lesson from him in 1978. I always enjoyed his stories, as I still do Dr. Hamori’s. From Dr. Zold, for example, I learned how the Hungarian fencers were invited by swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks to his famous home, Pickfair, after Piller won the saber gold in 1932. Fairbanks, an active supporter of the Los Angeles Games, and his entourage came to watch the saber finals.
I studied fencing afterward under Dr. Eugene Hamori in New Orleans. He was a member of the gold medal Olympic saber team in 1956, defecting to the US soon after; the Soviet military had ruthlessly crushed the brief Hungarian uprising that occurred that summer. He studied fencing under Alfred Tusnady-Tschurl, graduate of the famous Austrio-Hungarian fencing academy at Wiener-Neustadt; László Szabó, one of Santelli’s three proteges, author of Fencing and the Master, and a very close friend of Francis Zold; Gyorgi Piller, student of Laszlo Borsodi (one of the creators of modern Hungarian saber technique), 1932 Olympic saber gold medalist, later the Hungarian head coach; Lajos Csiszar, also one of Santelli’s three proteges; and not too long ago he even had some lessons from László Szepesi, famous as the Hungarian master who led France to international saber golds. No matter how good you are at fencing or at teaching fencing, you’re never too old or too experienced to profit from fencing lessons.
An accredited fencing master among his many accomplishments, Dr. Hamori remains a close friend and is my mentor in all issues regarding the teaching of swordplay. Dr. Zold gave me my classical foundation, but it was Dr. Hamori who really put everything together for me, even though even today he gives Dr. Zold the credit. We have corresponded for years and visit whenever we can. My wife Mary and I even attended a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Hamlet, suitably sub-titled (or super-titled, in that the sub-titles were above rather than below?) in Hungarian on electronic boards, on Margit Island with him a few years ago, and afterward discussed both the difficulty for even a native English speaker to grasp Shakespearean dialogue, and, as expected, the swordplay as well. (We thought the final phrase d’armes was a bit too quick and lacked enough dramatic emphasis, for what it’s worth.)
Both of my fencing masters helped encourage my sense of literacy and broad learning (whose foundations were first encouraged by my parents and, perhaps not surprisingly to those who’ve read them, later by the novels of Rafael Sabatini). Fencing is simply one part of a broad education, not to mention a means of safely engaging in the martial competition natural to humans.
At Hamlet we also ran into outstanding HEMA longsword and modern saber fencer Krisztina Nagy. Not long before, she had escorted us around the famous Semmelweis University high school fencing salle, whose current fencing master is László Szepesi. The salle’s master from 1948 TO 1955 was Dr. László Emlékére Duronelli, the third of Italo Santelli’s proteges.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from both fencing masters is that mistakes are OK, that you learn from them, and that, as a fencing teacher, or any teacher, you don’t have to know everything, and more importantly, you must never pretend to. Neither of my fencing masters ever pretended to me that he knew everything about fencing. Dr. Zold often referred to sources, both books and people, who knew more about a given subject in swordplay than he did, in spite of his vast experience. Dr. Hamori, in one of many examples, often demurs on giving me his answer to an epee question. A few years back he would instead consult his close friend, famous fencer and fencing master József Sákovics. Since Sákovics’s passing, he has given me the recommendations of Hungarian head coach Gábor Udvarhelyi.
Too many “experts” today, or so it appears to me, would almost rather die than be seen as not having all the answers, even though it is impossible to have them all in any subject. A fulsome minority of fencing teachers (and similarly of certain personalities with PhDs, I must add) include some of the worst offenders in my experience, at times inventing empty answers and even pretending to experience they don’t have. Often this is the result of the cult of personality–excessive or insecure ego, or both, seeking adulation–far too many “experts” engage in. My own fencing masters entirely avoided this. Frankly, the honest, humble practice of the pointing out the truth wherever it may lie, with the obvious benefits of doing so, is too little seen today–all the more reason I have to thank my own fencing masters, my parents, and others like them for the lessons they’ve imparted to me.
And Now, Hussar Swordplay on Horseback!
Please note that this is just a brief introduction to Hussars and their swordplay as described in a small number of English sources, Andrew Lonergan for the most part (citation below), with a few minor observations of my own. There are some historical fencing organizations, Hungarian in particular, who are working admirably to restore Hussar saber technique both mounted and afoot in detail.
When it comes to recreating historical fencing technique, success, particularly as defined by historical accuracy, varies. In the case of the smallsword, for example, it’s relatively easy to obtain a likely high degree of historical accuracy, given the large number of available texts and its fundamental similarity to “modern classical” foil and epee, both of which are ultimately descended from it. On the other hand, some historical technique is poorly documented, Highland broadsword for example, and requires greater sifting through clues and the use of intelligent practical speculation. (There’s quite a bit of unintelligent practical speculation going on, unfortunately, in historical discussions, including those on the subject of the use of arms.)
So, who were the Hungarian Hussars? They were some of the best irregular light cavalry in the world, known for their flamboyant courage in battle and their use of the saber, a curved sword descended ultimately from the cutting swords of the Mongol invaders. The hussars were extreme swashbucklers, in other words. (My own Little ancestors were Border reivers from the Scottish West March, another famous group of light cavalry, not to mention cattle thieves.)
To give you a better idea of who the hussars were, I’ll quote from The Sea Rover’s Practice, itself quoting from the journal of naval officer Pattee Byng: “Sicilian partisans in 1719 sniped at German and Hungarian soldiers, and Hungarian Hussars ‘with their usual custom and dexterity, struck off their heads with their sabers.'” (Pattee Byng’s Journal, edited by J. L. Cranmer-Byng. Greenwich: Navy Records Society, 1950. Italics mine.)
The illustration above is sufficient corroboration.
In 1693 a regiment of Hungarian hussars was incorporated into the French army, although Hungarian cavalry had served Louis XIV prior to this. In the eighteenth century there were French-manned units modeled on them in place, and also other natively-manned units in other European armies as well. Hungarian hussars were in service past World War One.
According to a seventeenth century English dictionary, the word hussar was said to derive from the Hungarian light horsemen’s battle cry of “Husa!” However, both Dr. Hamori and a now former honorary Hungarian consul in New Orleans told me that this is not what they were taught in school in Hungary. Further, some modern etymologies, Merriam-Webster for example, suggest the word has its origins in the Serbian and Croatian word for pirate. The Hungarian word is huszár. (For a period definition and etymology, see New World of English Words, 2nd ed., edited by E. Phillips [London: E. Tyler for Nath. Brooke, 1662], s.v. “Husares.”)
Andrew Lonnergan’s practical book on swordplay, short-titled The Fencer’s Guide (London: for the Author, 1771) is one of those rare fencing texts discussion practical swordplay beyond the salle and the duel: for the battlefield, in other words.
Section VIII of his book, “Is a Lesson for and against a Party of Hussars, or Light Horse.”
He refers to Hussars as “scampering troops, who like not to attack in a body, nor to attack a body [a troop, company, or other ‘body’ of horse].”
Importantly regarding technique, he notes that they “may annoy you, in wheeling together, either by fire or sword, though even if ou were a grand division, wheeling upon its center; for they endeavour to attack all other troops behind, or sideways, as they run by them, with a Sawing-cut, and then turn to the rest of them again, that they may repeat this cut with their swords so arched, that when but an inch of the edge, near the point, catches a man’s neck, the middle, or belly of the blade, will sever a joint, and often leave the head hanging by a sinew, or a piece of skin.”
The ‘sawing-cut’ is a cut pushed or carried forward, as opposed to the more common ‘drawing-cut’ pulled or drawn backwards toward the swordsman’s body. The strong curve of the Hussar saber makes thrusting with the point difficult (it must be hooked). But as described by Lonnergan, the thrust is effective because it is made with the first inch or so with the edge which cuts through soft tissue. This is probably best effected on horseback at speed. I have tested this cut afoot via simple extension as well as via a powerful lunge, and found that it does not appear to be as effective as Lonnergan describes. (I used a Cold Steel scimitar on a variety of test subject materials, ranging from a large beef brisket to bound straw to large banana trees being cut back for the winter.) However, the kinetic energy of a rider attacking at the hand-gallop would almost certainly make the sawing cut as effective as Lonnergan describes, cutting through clothing and flesh.
This is different from what Hollywood and swashbuckling novels have accustomed us to see: that is, large sweeping head- and limb-lopping cuts. A sawing cut, if less flashy, was probably more effective and, importantly, more difficult to recognize and defeat.
Regarding defense in Hussar swordplay, Lonnergan writes that, “If you strike at them as you meet them, they will avoid your blow, by stooping forward, leaning backward, or even by throwing themselves to the opposite sides of their horses, and will recover their saddles again.” Mounted esquive!
Lonnergan recommends cutting at Hussar sword arms because “it is naturally in a St. George [modern saber quinte, more or less]to save their heads.
To thrust at a Hussar, he recommends “a Segonde [seconde] darted forwarsds, for so the height of your horses, superior to theirs, will have it, and afford you greater power over them in a close attack, which they must avoid as much as possible.”
When fencing on horseback Hussar-to-Hussar, Lonnergan notes that “their best method is to parry any cut made at them with a Quarte, Tierce, or Prime, and repost with a Sawing-Cut, and thrust, and recover with a Drawing-cut.”
Most notably, he writes that the “bent [curve] of their swords will afford them an unavoidable Quarte-over-the-arm, or a Cavè [sic: the accent grave is used incorrectly on cavé in the original text].”
In other words, the Hussar saber with its curved blade has a natural cavé or angulation against quart, tierce, or prime parries (or any other parries, in fact). I’ve heard some historical fencers note that this is an advantage the curved saber has, but I must note here that Lonnergan is referring to actions on horseback with horses moving at speed! The rider, executing the natural angulation with the saber, can escape the riposte as he rides by, while simultaneously cutting or thrusting with cavé (the thrust described is actually a cut). This is not the case afoot: fencer A attacks with an inside cut, fencer B parries quarte and ripostes covered, fencer A makes a cavé around the quarte riposte–and receives his adversary’s riposte cut, having failed to protect himself against it. In other words, use this cavé afoot at your own peril. Fencing, after all, is supposed to be about hitting and not getting hit.
A cut not mentioned by Lonergan, and in fact one in which I’ve only ever seen in Hollywood films, is the low sweeping cut forward on horseback. Often in movies you see knights and so forth lopping off heads this way. However, we probably don’t see it in fencing texts or descriptions of mounted combat for a reason: it would be easily parried by an enemy on foot if were armed with sword, pike, halberd, or musket, and the parry might even dismount the attacking rider.
It would be similarly dangerous against a mounted adversary, leaving the attacker exposed in the high lines unless protected by head and body armor of some sort. Further, the cut might easily be stopped by the enemy’s mount, again with the possibility of disarmament. Hollywood typically does things for show, for drama, not necessarily for historical authenticity.
The closest I’ve seen in reality to this Hollywood low cut is a low thrust made with a straight sword (broad or back) against a mounted adversary, the hand held at the level of the rider’s hip and the point aimed at the enemy’s lower abdomen. The mounted attacker typically has breast and back, and probably a skull cap under his hat, and the thrust is intended for the lower abdomen just under the enemy’s armor.
Lonnergan’s advice for light horsemen being pursued by larger numbers of horsemen is swashbuckling at its best: “Otherwise you may, like the Prussian or Hungarian Hussars, fire under your arm backward, or over our shoulder, and kill at random when flying and closely pursued.”
Firing pistols over one’s shoulder or under one’s arm while fleeing at the gallop? Swashbucking indeed! And it’s clearly a technique clearly used long before the Hollywood cowboys I grew up watching did so on television and in film, inspired perhaps by a famous Frederic Remington painting.
Although this has been an incomplete description of Hussar swordplay, hopefully it has dashed a few Hollywood myths, and also demonstrated that the study of swordplay–inevitably lifelong if you really intend to grasp it–is as fascinating as any other subject, if not more so.
Coming soon: knife-fighting Dutch seamen, the fusil boucanier, rules of fencing etiquette (or at least what they should be), model ships and towns from Hollywood swashbucklers, a technical post on the arm extension in the fencing lunge past and present, and more. And eventually: the duel on the shore!
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published April 13, 2018. Last updated May 8, 2018.
A quick post on women and epee fencing, inspired by the photograph of Frances Drake above. She was a Hollywood actress (or actor, if you prefer more modern usage) from the 1930s. The photograph dates to 1934, although I’ve been unable so far to identify the film for which this and similar publicity stills were made. I’d like to, for the the photograph is unusual in that it shows her with epees, not foils.
Until the 1980s, women were not permitted to fence epee in competition due to a patronizing chauvinism (I suppose all chauvinism is patronizing, though) that decreed that women were (1) too weak to fence epee, or saber for that matter, and (2) shouldn’t be fencing epee or saber which were originally dueling arms, therefore “man’s weapons.”
The attitude persisted well into the 1980s and even beyond with some male fencers and fencing masters. Around 1980 I had some lessons from a famous epee master, and as I walked on the strip epee-in-hand for his first epee lesson of the day, and my first with him ever, he smiled and said, “Ah, finally a man’s weapon!” In part he meant it as a compliment in that I was fencing epee, not foil, and therefore as a bit of a dig at foil as well. Still, the comment is instructive and indicative of the attitude at the time. In his defense, most fencing masters would not teach epee or saber to women at the time, even if they believed them suitable to the weapons, for there were no competitions in them available to women, certainly not at the national level.
Of course, more than three decades of women fencing epee and saber have disproved any such absurd notions that women can’t manage these weapons. Just fence my wife sometime if you don’t believe me.
Recently, I obtained a copy of Fencing Comprehensive by Félix Gravé, published in 1934. In it he makes reference to women epee fencers, in particular to how they should dress when fencing epee, clearly indicating that some women did indeed fence epee in the 1930s, and not just Ms. Drake in a Hollywood photo shoot. The fact that there were women epeeists in the 1930s pleases me inordinately.
As for the epees Ms. Drake is holding, they’re probably Castello epees. The guards appear to be aluminum with steel reinforcements. In the 1930s, epee guards were usually made either of rolled steel or of aluminum, with either flat steel reinforcements, as with hers, or angled washers made of either steel or aluminum, as in the image above. The pommels are two-piece, of aluminum and brass, again as in the same image.
Drake’s fencing jacket is quilted, a type difficult to find anymore although once common. The last I saw for sale from major vendors was in the early 1990s. The glove is decorated and might not actually be a fencing glove–epee gloves at this time had leather palms and fingers with “sailcloth” backs and cuffs.
As for women epeeists today, of the five epeeists I consider to have been the greatest in the past century, two of them are women: Timea Nagy of Hungary and Laura Flessel-Colovic of France. Frankly, I prefer women’s epee, for it balances technique with tactics, with speed and strength in support. Too many male epeeists try to reverse this, putting technique and tactics as subordinate to speed and strength. Usually they would fence better if they’d follow the practice of most women epeeists.
In sum: long live women epeeists!
Copyright Benerson Little, 2018. First published February 16, 2018. Updated July 3, 2018.
Jack Sparrow, Perhaps? The Origin of an Early “Hollywood” Pirate, Plus the Authentic Image of a Real Buccaneer
The illustration above was created in late 1926 or early 1927, and published in April of the latter year. Among its several pirate clichés (skull and bones on the hat, tattoos, curved dagger, long threatening mustache) is one I had thought was entirely modern: a pirate hair braid with coins attached.
Quite possibly, this coin braid is the artist’s idea of a pirate “love lock.” The love lock was popular among some young English and French gentlemen in the first half of the seventeenth century. Usually worn on the left side, it was typically tied with a ribbon, a “silken twist” as one author called it. Occasionally two were worn, one on each side as in the image below.
This “pirate love lock” is a noteworthy characteristic of the very Hollywood, very fantasy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, and I wonder if this image did not inspire much of his look. Historically-speaking, though, there is no historical basis for it among pirates of the “Golden Age” (circa 1655 to 1725), although it’s possible there may have been a gentleman rover or two who wore one during the first half of the seventeenth century–but not a braid or lock with coins.
Of course, much of The Mentor pirate image above was clearly inspired by famous illustrator and author Howard Pyle, as shown below.
There’s a hint of N. C. Wyeth too, not surprising given that he was a student of Howard Pyle. However, Captain Peter Blood was a gentleman pirate, and the pirate on The Mentor cover is clearly not.
And Wyeth’s Captain Blood cover is clearly influenced by this 1921 cover he painted for Life magazine. In fact, less the goatee, the two buccaneers might be one and the same:
The Pyle influence continued through the twentieth century in film, illustration, and mass market paperbacks about pirates…
The Mentor illustration is also clearly influenced by Douglas Fairbanks’s 1926 film The Black Pirate, which was, according to Fairbanks himself, heavily influenced by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates and to a fair degree by Peter Pan.
Seriously, check out Fairbanks’s costume in the film, it’s obviously that of Peter Pan grown up. I have a soft spot for Douglas Fairbanks: my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, described him as a gentleman and a swordsman, and described how Fairbanks invited the Hungarian fencers to his mansion Picfair (named after Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford) after György Jekelfalussy-Piller won the gold saber medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
And here, finally, we have Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in the flesh, braids and such dangling from his hair, again for which there is no historical precedent among Golden Age pirates that we know of. It’s hard to see how Depp’s costume, in particular his hair, might not have been influenced by the illustration at the top of the page. If it weren’t, it’s quite a coincidence.
As noted, it’s entirely possible that the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl costume designers never saw the image at the top of the page. They may have imagined it themselves, or been influenced by something else. A very likely possibility is Donald O’Connor in the 1951 film Double Crossbones, a campy pirate comedy that makes fun of nearly all pirate clichés.
Although this may seem to be little more than coincidence, there are other similarities between the two films, strongly suggesting the writers and costume designers were familiar with it. In particular, O’Connor plays a shy, somewhat bumbling shopkeeper’s apprentice in love with the governor’s beautiful ward, and she with him. Due to difference in social class he’s unwilling to express his love openly until by accident he becomes a pirate. Sound familiar? Even the costumes of the governor’s ward (Lady Sylvia Copeland, played by Helena Carter) are similar (homage-fashion?) to those of Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley. If not the Pirates of the Caribbean costume designer, then perhaps the Double Crossbones costume designer was familiar with the image at the top of the page.
Of course, all this so far is “Hollywood,” for lack of a better term. There are a number of serious groups of reenactors, scholars, and others trying to correct the false historical image, all with varying degrees of accuracy, agreement and disagreement, and success.
Hollywood has yet to get aboard, no matter whether in pirate films and television series, or often any film or television set prior to the nineteenth century for that matter, probably because it’s easier to play to audience expectations (and, unfortunately, much of the audience doesn’t really care), not to mention that there’s a tendency or even a fad among costume designers to do something that “evokes” the image or era rather than depict it accurately, not to mention the time and other expense of researching, designing, and creating costumes from scratch when there are costumes “close enough,” so to speak, already in film wardrobes.
Here’s a hint, Hollywood: you can start by getting rid of the “pirate boots.” They didn’t exist. They’re actually based on riding boots, and a pirate would only be in riding boots if he were on a horse–and horses aren’t often ridden aboard ship. Further, you can get rid of the baldrics in most cases, exceptions being primarily for gentlemen pirates wearing smallswords into the 1680s, no later. (You can have some Spanish pirates with rapiers wear baldrics after this, though.) And for that matter, you can get rid of wide belts and large belt buckles too. But if nothing else, please, please get rid of the boots, which, if I recall correctly, a UK journalist once correctly described as nothing more than fetish-wear.
Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails, a great show with a great cast and crew, but I had nothing to do with the costuming, much of which is considered as near-blasphemy by advocates of historical accuracy in material culture in television and film. That said, the show is a fictional prequel to a work of fiction that variously created or expanded some of our biggest myths about pirates–buried treasure, the black spot, and so on. Looked at this way, if you can accept the story you can probably tolerate the costuming.
I’ve discussed what real pirates and buccaneers looked like several times, not without some occasional minor quibbling by other authorities. The Golden Age of Piracy has some details, as do two or three of my other books, but several of my blog posts also discuss some of the more egregious clichés, with more posts on the subject to come.
At any rate, here’s an image of a real buccaneer, a French flibustier in fact, from the 1680s. It’s an eyewitness image, one of only a handful of authentic eyewitness images of “Golden Age” sea rovers. It and the others prove that an image may evoke swashbuckling pirates while still being entirely accurate.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 23, 2018. Last updated April 4, 2018.
Following close upon the heels of my last post, here’s an excuse to riff a bit more on the use of click-bait, plus correct some recent misunderstandings about pirates and the books they might or might not have read, plus speculate on what they might have done with them, and why–and also learn a little bit about breech-loading swivel guns.
The inspiration for this post is, again, an exaggerated article title, in this case from the Associated Press via The Washington Post, but the material has been published in quite a few various media. The article itself is pretty straight forward. It’s the misconceptions the click-bait-ish title creates that I have some disagreement with, particularly when combined with superficial reading or analysis:
In short, archaeologists investigating the likely wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, commanded by Edward Teach or Thatch, aka Blackbeard, discovered pages from a book, identified as A Voyage to the South Seas, and Round the World, Peform’d in the years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711 by Captain Edward Cooke, stuffed in the chamber from a breech-loading swivel gun. From this some possible conclusions have been drawn, and I’ve drawn a few in addition.
It will help to understand how a breech-loading swivel worked. Generally referred to as a paterero (with variant spellings), from the Spanish pedrero, or rock-shooting swivel gun (formerly they were often loaded with stone shot or bags of flint shards), it was occasionally also referred to as a chamber, given that it was loaded via removable chambers rather than have charges rammed down the barrel from the muzzle.
Patereros were often of wrought iron, as in the photographs farther down, but could also be of “brass” (actually bronze, see the photo just below), which was much more expensive. Typically there were two chambers per gun (one in the gun, one to swap it with when fired), but this could vary. Given that the chamber volume was often larger than the required charge of powder, a wad or a wooden tompion of sorts, or both, was stuffed over the powder charge in order to keep it place, effectively tamping it down so that the burning powder (technically gunpowder deflagrates, it doesn’t burn fast enough to explode) had maximum effect, not to mention didn’t spill out.
The gunner first placed his shot, usually with an oakum wad in front and behind, into the barrel from the breech, then placed the chamber into the breech and hammered an iron or brass wedge in place behind it to keep the chamber in place and especially to prevent it from blowing back when the charge was fired. Patereros are noted in period writings, and also observed in modern practice (see image below), as having a lot of blow-back of embers and smoke into the gunner’s face, given the poor seal between the chamber and the gun itself.
A legible book fragment found in a swivel gun breech is in fact a fascinating find, like finding a bit of true pirate treasure, and full credit and congratulations go to the archaeologists who made and researched the discovery.
However, it’s important to note the following about the facts in this instance of pirates, books, and Blackbeard’s ship:
1. While the wreck is most likely that of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, this has not yet been proven beyond all doubt. Associated scholars and researchers have accepted it as the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship based on its characteristics and the fact that it probably could be no other. However, nothing recovered from the ship proves it belonged to Blackbeard and his crew. Notably, pronouncing it as Blackbeard’s ship gives it a cachet useful in fundraising and attracting tourists. In other words, it’s possible that the fragment had nothing to do with pirates. However, I think it likely that the ship was Blackbeard’s and thus the fragment therefore probably did have something to do with pirates.
2. Still, even if it is Blackbeard’s ship, we have no way of knowing who stuffed the chamber with pages from a book. Possibly it could have been the French gunner or one of his mates who did so before Blackbeard and his crew captured the ship, having no use for a book in English. Or the chamber could have been captured from another vessel and brought aboard just as it was eventually found at the bottom of the sea.
However, I think these are lesser possibilities. Chances are, even a lazy pirate gunner would probably have cleaned and inspected a captured swivel gun and its chambers at some point. Although it’s commonly believed that pirates captured most merchantmen after a fight, this was not the reality: nearly all merchantmen in the early eighteenth century surrendered to pirates without a fight. And that’s what pirates wanted.
So, while it’s possible, even very much so, that the swivel gun chamber was never fired in anger by a pirate, I think it still likely that a pirate gunner at least inspected and maintained it, lazy though the early eighteenth century pirates typically were, except in the case of maintaining their personal arms (which was, I suspect, probably as much of a fetish behavior as a practical one, given how seldom they actually used them in action).
3. If it were Blackbeard’s gunner or one of the gunner’s mates (note that aboard ships a cannon is called a gun) who stuffed the chamber with pages torn from a book, what does this tell us about pirate reading habits in general?
A bit of background. Some seamen, therefore some pirates, were illiterate. But the various officers responsible for navigation, gunnery, and so forth were all readers and to a fairly substantial degree, mathematically-inclined. They had to be. And any seamen hoping to advance from mate to master had to know how to read. Books were common aboard ships, and published accounts of voyages were common in seagoing libraries for the simple reason that they provided “intelligence” about places that might be visited. Remember, there was no Internet, there was no easy access to accurate (and just as often today, inaccurate) information.
In fact, some late seventeenth century buccaneers were published writers, describing their travels and adventures, often quite factually, occasionally with some apparent exaggeration: for example, Alexandre Exquemelin, William Dampier, Bartholomew Sharp, Basil Ringrose, William Dick, and Lionel Wafer.
What the pages of a book–and we’re assuming the book was not used because it had been damaged beyond all use, but was in readable condition–used in a swivel gun (technically, a paterero) chamber might tell us about pirate reading habits is that…
SOME PIRATES HAD NO RESPECT FOR BOOKS.
But we already know this. Often, when ransacking a captured vessel, early eighteenth century pirates would trash everything aboard, randomly and ruthlessly. At times this included books.
In the words of Captain William Snelgrave, master of a slaver captured by pirates on the Guinea Coast in 1719: “Moreover two large Chests that had Books in them were empty; and I was afterwards informed, they had been all thrown overboard; for one of the Pirates, upon opening them, swore, “there was Jaw-work enough (as he called it) to serve a Nation, and proposed they might be cast into the Sea; for he feared, there might be some Books amongst them, that might breed Mischief enough; and prevent some of their Comrades from going on in their Voyage to Hell, whither they were all bound. Upon which the Books were all flung out of the Cabin-windows into the River.” (William Snelgrave, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea [London: James, John, and Paul Knapton, 1734].)
Piratical Fahrenheit 451 by any other name! The destruction of books for social or political purpose!
And the same with the pages in the swivel chamber, burned to hell, so to speak, when the gun would have eventually been fired.
And why wouldn’t these pirates want their brethren to read? In part, because many had been physically or psychologically abused into joining the crew. Unlike the late seventeenth century buccaneers, who never forced men to join (slaves and the occasional Spanish pilot excepted) and who let men leave the crew when the pleased (as long as they paid for their victuals), the early eighteenth century pirates operated more like gangs, intimidating seamen into joining and forcing them to stay for the duration. Other pirates, including some of those who had joined without coercion, may have been souring on the idea of piracy and were likely candidates for desertion. Reading material might have reminded them of what they had left behind, or of consequences, or both.
Chances are, the book used in the chamber was taken from a prize, as with Snelgrave’s library above. It’s possible that it may have been damaged during plundering then put to use as trash paper in a chamber. Or, it may first have been read by a pirate or by a few. Or, I think more likely, by none at all. But we have no way of knowing.
However, there is another intriguing possibility. Following the example Snelgrave gave of pirates and books, it’s quite possible that Blackbeard’s crew, if indeed the gun belonged to them, might not have cared much for the book from which the fragment came. It was written by the captain of the Duchess privateer, whose consort, the Duke, was commanded by Woodes Rogers, who would later go on to become Governor of New Providence–and chase pirates, Blackbeard included, from the island.
In sum, the point of all this is that the article title is a little bit misleading. And unfortunately, many readers these days seem to me to read the title, glance at the first paragraph, and that’s it. And this isn’t enough! Especially when too many readers don’t even read much past the title before “sharing” it. It’s vital that titles reflect the text as accurately as possible, and that the text avoid playing to expectations rather than serving the truth.
Even if we read the entire article, at best the facts about the book fragment can tell us nothing more than what we already knew: that published voyage journals were common reading, for a reason, among seafarers, and that some pirates had no respect for books. Anything beyond this, however intelligent, is speculation.
This is not to put a damper on the excitement of finding readable text from pages stuffed in a swivel chamber that has sat under the sea for three centuries. But we need to stick as much as possible to facts, not fancy, particularly in this age of misinformation amplified by modern technology. Even is a subject as colorful, popular, and full of misconceptions as piracy. Or rather, especially so.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 18, 2018.
Just for fun: Samurai underwater combat! Imagined underwater fighting, both via surface supplied air (“deep sea diving”) and free swimming descents, during the very real Battle of Yalu River in 1894. Japanese forces defeated a Chinese fleet in a very close battle during the First Sino-Japanese War. The underwater imagery is, of course, quite imaginary but also quite cool.
A few quick notes on the use of the word pirate when the term privateer is appropriate.
It’s a minor issue, I know, this particular instance of the practice known today as “click-bait.” The practice has been around a long time, not only in political rhetoric but in marketing as well. But it has grown much worse over the past decade, and, given the state of affairs today in regard to the truth, in which outright lies often pass with too little outcry, and, almost as bad, in which mere unfounded opinion is often given equal time with solid expertise, any egregious usurpation of fact or meaning should be shunned–even in such a trivial-seeming matter of pirate versus privateer.
I am not entirely innocent of the charge myself, but in my defense it’s not been an egregious offense, and one generally committed by my publishers primarily because the word pirate is so marketable, not to mention that publishers invariably retain the right to change or even outright reject the author’s title.
For example, The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques is actually about the tactics of pirates, privateers, and commerce-raiding men-of-war. But pirate is the word used in the subtitle, a decision made by my publisher. Likewise The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main 1674-1688: buccaneers were often pirates, but also often legitimate privateers as well as what might best be termed “quasi-privateers” or “quasi-pirates” operating without a legitimate commission but with a “wink and a nod” from their respective governments. Pirate Hunting: The Fight Against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders From Antiquity to the Present also discusses privateers, commerce raiders, and even early submarines. The Golden Age of Piracy is the most accurate, but, as noted already, even buccaneers were often privateers.
Strictly speaking, piracy is armed robbery on the open seas. In the past, it was armed robbery pretty much anywhere there was ocean or land touching the ocean, at least if the thieves came by sea. Not just a crime, but a hanging crime, in other words.
Privateering, however, derives from private man-of-war, a vessel commissioned by a legitimate state to attack enemy shipping and profit from it. Lawful plundering, in other words, an entirely legal practice. A privateer might be imprisoned by the enemy if captured, but he wouldn’t be tried and hanged for piracy.
I’ve made plain in print many times that there is plenty of overlap among the various sorts of sea rover, that is, among pirates, privateers, and commerce-raiding men-of-war. That said, in most cases during the Golden Age of Piracy (circa 1655 to 1725) and afterward, the overlapping is much less common. In particular, the distinction is readily apparent everywhere except in the case of Caribbean buccaneers during the Golden Age (and strictly speaking, the only period in which true buccaneers existed).
In other words, in the majority of cases the distinction between pirate and privateer is obvious. Privateers in no ways considered themselves to be pirates, nor did anyone else except in a figurative sense by some of their their victims. Only if a privateer had overstepped his lawful authority and entered the realm of piracy might he be considered a pirate. Privateers did not claim to be pirates. Rather, they rejected the term outright. You’d get into a fight if you called a privateer a pirate, quite possibly a fatal one in the form of a duel.
So how does the use of the word pirate in the title of my books, and in similar books, differ from books and articles in which pirate is used as a term for privateer? Because my books and others like them are largely about piracy. Were they largely about privateering, the word privateering, not piracy, would appear in the titles.
Pirate and piracy have become romantic words, so it’s easy to see why they’re used whenever possible, however tenuous the connection to the subject. They’re therefore commonly used as umbrella terms for anything resembling plundering at sea, lawful or not. And they’re used in spite of the reality of piracy being anything but romantic to the usually entirely innocent victims: common seamen, coastal inhabitants, free people of color taken and sold as slaves by pirates, not to mention slaves captured by pirates and sold elsewhere, often away from their families.
In fact, it should be privateering and pirate hunting that convey the most romance, with piracy conveying revulsion, as it did in the past.
But it’s the caricature that matters: the word pirate conveys the image that draws the eye, and the description the ear.
Part of the problem with the lure of the word is that piracy has been re-interpreted as a form of rebellion against injustice. Pirates, we are told by too many scholars both amateur and professional, were rebels against empire, against unfair corporate practices, even–falsely–rebels against slavery. They are mostly the “good guys.” We are told that they may even have helped inspire the American Revolution and that they even threatened the existence of the English and other empires. Although there are occasional fragments of related truth in these claims, none of them are profoundly true or even slightly more than less true. They are not even as true as the suggestion that privateers were a form of pirates.
The fact is, we’re attracted to pirates so we sanitize them, we invent reasons, and let others invent reasons, why they weren’t as bad as they were. We make them palatable.
But to reemphasize, pirates were sea criminals, and in no way did their victims view them as heroes. Simply reading through a list of pirate cruelties and other depredations should be enough to correct the false image–but seldom does it. Privateers, although some did break the law at times, were by comparison Boy Scouts.
There are periods in history in which some groups of commissioned privateers behaved piratically: Spanish Caribbean privateers in the Golden Age, French and English buccaneers in the Golden Age, Colombian privateers during the South American wars of revolution (and likewise Spanish men-of-war fighting Colombian privateers), for example. But they are in the minority as compared to the enormous number of commissioned privateers, and when privateers did commit piratical acts, they were considered to be pirates. However, the majority of privateers behaved lawfully or largely lawfully, restricting their attacks to enemy shipping as permitted by law. The majority of privateers should never be referred to as pirates, nor should the term pirate be a catch-all for any sea rover, legitimate or other.
The inspiration for this post–not that it hasn’t always been on my mind in a small, usually resigned, way–was a recent NPR “All Things Considered” segment: How Pirates Of The Caribbean Hijacked America’s Metric System. The segment does note that:
“And you know who was lurking in Caribbean waters in the late 1700s? Pirates. ‘These pirates were British privateers, to be exact,’ says Martin. ‘They were basically water-borne criminals tacitly supported by the British government, and they were tasked with harassing enemy shipping.'”
But the privateers were not tacitly supported by the British government, that is, with implied consent. Rather, they were officially supported, they had explicit consent. They were not pirates, notwithstanding some critics who considered that privateering was in some ways piracy legitimized.
Bad history and click-bait are a common combination these days, although the example above is not by far one of the many egregious examples. Still, it is hard to imagine that the word pirate was used for any reason other than to draw the reader or listener in. Worse, the phrase used in the title is “Pirates of the Caribbean,” conjuring up images of romantic buccaneers, not to mention fantasy pirates like Jack Sparrow.
The correct title of the NPR segment should have been “How Privateers Hijacked America’s Metric System.” But this has much less cachet, and is far less likely to get someone to click on the published article and read it, or tune in later to listen. The title is actually a bit doubly misleading: did the capture of a metric weight really keep the new US from considering the metric system? Or was it, as the segment does note it might have been, just a missed opportunity?
I emailed All Things Considered on this minor matter several days ago. I haven’t heard back, even though I noted my several works on the subject of piracy and privateering. Perhaps the editors found the word click-bait offensive, or the fact that I pointed out that pretty much the same article ran in The Washington Post this past September on Talk Like a Pirate Day.
I’m not singling out NPR, this is just the most recent example I have at hand. I like NPR and have been a listener off and on for decades (mostly depending on how often I’m in my Jeep). But facts are facts, and when they’re imposters it doesn’t matter who the offender is–the offense needs to be pointed out.
The difference might be a non-issue with an educated audience, one that understands the difference between pirate and privateer. But today too many people are getting their education, such as it is, from click-bait articles on social media–articles that are ultimately misleading.
While this may seem to be nothing more than quibbling, it remains vital for the sake of truth to get facts straight. And this includes word definitions because they’re the primary means of conveying factual meaning, aka facts. We’re overwhelmed today not only with obvious liars and subtle liars, but with a large segment of society who excuse loose meaning and interpretation as a means of getting attention. It’s not only ideologues and Mammon’s imps who play fast and loose with the truth anymore, but every know-nothing and know-a-little know-it-all considers his or her wrong-headed opinion to be equal to that of the knowledgeable, facts be damned. And the disease is spreading to mainstream educated society: the Internet is making everyone lazy. How to stop this? By using facts to point out errors, misconceptions, and outright falsehoods.
For the privateer, definitions and facts made all the difference: it’s what kept him from being hanged as a pirate.
Copyright Benerson Little, January, 2018. First posted January 2, 2018.
Wishing everyone Happy Holidays, however you celebrate them! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Solstice, Happy New Year (Western and Chinese)–all and more as you wish and please. It’s a secular Christmas here: Santa Claus, reindeer and sleigh, Douglas fir tree (except this year due to the nation-wide shortage, we cut a Virginia pine locally instead), stockings hung by the chimney with care, homemade cookies, fire in the fireplace, books read to children (and to nearby listening adults), much gift giving, plus Basil Rathbone, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, George C. Scott, Mister Magoo (aka Jim Backus of Gilligan’s Island fame), Reginald Owen, and Seymour Hicks as Scrooge, plus occasional swords and sword adventure with musketeers and pirates (and dark rum left for Santa as he makes his rounds), along with the usual excellent food, drink, family, and good cheer.
That said, this is a blog and therefore a suitable place to give praise to the four swashbucklers in the image above, from the 1952 RKO film, At Sword’s Point, also released as The Sons of the Musketeers. The movie is not considered to be the best of its genre, yet is still better than most and worth watching just to see Maureen O’Hara wield a sword–and there’s more to see than just O’Hara’s swordplay and independence, although as noted she alone makes the film worthwhile.
So, from left to right…
Alan Hale Jr. as Porthos Jr.
Alan Hale Jr., a solid more-than-character actor appeared in many films but is by far best known for his role as Jonas Grumby aka “the Skipper” in Gilligan’s Island.
Hale Jr. also starred as Porthos Sr. in a 1970s version of The Man in the Iron Mask entitled The Fifth Musketeer, a film that rounded up a variety of aging actors who had starred in swashbuckling and adventure stage, film, or television, and tossed them in with luminaries such as Rex Harrison and Olivia de Havilland, with up and comers such as Beau Bridges and Ian McShane, and with the addition of Ursula Andress and Sylvia Kristel, the latter best-known for the erotic Emmanuelle films. But not even this sterling cast could hold the film together, even coming as it did on the heels of the recent Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers films.
If Alan Hale Jr. looks familiar to fans of older films, he should, for as Porthos Jr. and Porthos Sr., Hale makes an homage to his father, Alan Hale Sr., who appeared in a fair number of swashbucklers, most famously The Sea Hawk, Robin Hood, and The Adventures of Don Juan, all starring his close friend Errol Flynn. In Robin Hood he reprised his role as Little John, having first played the character in the extravagant silent version by swashbuckling film star, producer, and director Douglas Fairbanks. He took up the role again in 1950 in Rogues of Sherwood Forest. Hale, born Rufus Edward MacKahan, co-starred in several other Flynn films as well: Dodge City, Virginia City, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and several others for a total of thirteen films.
Maureen O’Hara as Claire, Daughter of Athos
I’ll doubtless devote an entire post one day to Maureen O’Hara and her swordplay in swashbucklers. Alas, as often as she wielded a sword in a swashbuckler, she did not in another. In The Spanish Main and The Black Swan, the most successful of her swashbucklers, she had no sword-in-hand (although Binnie Barnes took up the blade admirably in the former). So, until I post a full article on O’Hara, here are a few images of the strong-willed, independent, red-headed, Dublin-born and raised actress (or actor, if you prefer):
Cornel Wilde as d’Artagnan Jr.
Born to Czech-Hungarian parents in Manhattan, Cornel Wilde often traveled with his father to Europe where he picked up several languages and, reportedly, skill at fencing. An avid and outstanding fencer, Wilde turned down membership on the US saber team for the 1936 Olympic Games in order to accept a theatrical position–a decision few fencers would ever consider making. It’s one thing to give up a potential or possible eventual position on an Olympic fencing team, quite another to give up an offered one. That said, the several actors I know with fencing experience might very choose an opportunity in the form of a middling role in film or theater over fencing in the Olympic Games, although I’m sure the decision wouldn’t be an easy one.
An accomplished actor, Wilde’s looks, swordplay, and athleticism led him to starring roles in numerous swashbucklers.
Wilde furthered his fencing study in the US under famous Hungarian-born fencing master Joseph Vince who had a studio and fencing supplier company first in New York City, later in Beverly Hills. Wilde even illustrated Vince’s book on fencing.
If I have a favorite of Wilde’s films, it is almost certainly The Naked Prey. Relegated to cult film status by many today, it is best considered as an action art film, if such a category exist. In any case, it is a minor classic (Criterion has released it), notwithstanding mixed reviews. Wilde was fifty-two when he produced, directed, and starred in the film, a physically demanding starring role for anyone, not to mention that he was ill most of the time–demands that most men even half his age probably could not have handled.
Dan O’Herlihy as Aramis Jr.
An accomplished actor who should be better known today, O’Herlihy played a variety or roles during his long career, ranging from several swashbucklers to serious contemporary roles to character pieces such as “The Old Man” in the RoboCop films.
O’Herlihy was nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in Robinson Crusoe, directed by famous-auteur-to-be Luis Buñuel.
Ever the distinguished-voiced actor’s friend: audio books.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017-2018. First posted December 20, 2017, last updated January 7, 2018.
For your perusal, a list of a handful of swashbuckling historical novels–pirates, musketeers, various spadassins and bretteurs–with engaging swordplay, even if not always entirely accurate in its depiction. If you’re reading any of my blog posts, chances are you have friends who might enjoy reading some of these books, thus my suggestion as Christmas, Hanukkah, or other gifts this holiday season.
Three caveats are in order: all of the following are favorites of mine, all are set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and all are not “all” in the sense that the list, even narrowed strictly to my favorites, is quite incomplete. Without doubt I’ll add to it every holiday season. And maybe one day a list of swashbuckling films, another of table and board games, maybe even of video games too…
Upon reflection, perhaps a fourth caveat is in order as well: simply enjoy the stories and their swordplay for what they are. Don’t be too critical, especially of the latter. Except for the case of the reader who is an experienced fencer with a strong understanding of period fencing terms and technique (far more rare than you might think), complex historical fencing scenes cannot be written simply and just as simply understood. Nor can technique and actions in general be explained sufficiently for the neophyte to understand, at least not if the writer wishes to keep the action flowing. The writer must strike a middle ground, one that won’t lose the tempo and thus the reader. This is not so easily done.
It’s possible the Moby Dick technique would work–explain and teach prior to the event–but it’s just as likely that many readers would shun this, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, Moby Dick is by far my favorite novel and I consider it the greatest ever written. It is not, however, a book for readers who cannot step momentarily away from the narrative. As I’ve discovered after the publication of two of my books in which narrative history is interspersed with analysis and explanation, there are quite a few such readers, some of whom become plaintively irate and simultaneously–and often amusingly–confessional of more than a degree of ignorance when the narrative is interrupted for any reason. To sample this sort of reader’s mindset, just read a few of the negative reviews of Moby Dick on Amazon–not those by obvious trolls but those by apparently sincere reviewers. Put plainly, using Moby Dick as a template for swordplay scenes would probably be distracting in most swashbuckling novels.
In regard to acquiring any of these enjoyable titles, note that some are out of print except perhaps as overly-priced modern print-on-demand editions. Even for those still in print, I highly recommend purchasing earlier copies from used or antiquarian dealers–there are plenty of highly affordable copies, just look around for them. Abebooks is a great place to start, but only if you have no local independent used or antiquarian bookstores available to try first. And these days, alas, there might not be any…
Why an older edition? Because the scent of an old book helps set the period atmosphere. Add a comfortable chair, a sword or two on the wall, a fireplace in a reading room or a fire pit on the beach nearby, and, if you’re of age to drink, perhaps some rum, Madeira, or sherry-sack on a side table, and you’re ready to go. Or Scotch, especially a peaty single malt distilled near the seaside, it will evoke the atmosphere of Sir Walter Scot’s The Pirate. Scotch always works.
So just sit back and let the writer carry you along. Don’t forget to imagine the ring of steel on steel and the sharp smell of ozone after an exceptionally sharp beat or parry. And if you really enjoy scenes with swordplay, there’s no reason you can’t further your education by taking up fencing, whatever your age or physical ability. If you’d rather begin first by reading about swordplay, you can start here with Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen. And if you’re interested in how swashbuckling novels come to be–romance, swordplay, and all–read Ruth Heredia’s outstanding two volume Romantic Prince, details below.
Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Better known by its short title, Captain Blood, I list this first even though there’s really no significant description of swordplay, not even during the duel that is one of the best parts, of many, in the 1935 film version starring Errol Flynn. You must imagine the sword combat, yet in no way does it detract from this great swashbuckling romance that has inspired readers and writers worldwide, not to mention two major film versions (1924 and 1935). It is truly a modern classic. If you really want to judge the quality of the prose, read a few passages out loud: they’re wonderfully lyrical and evocative.
Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini
If it’s a description of swordplay in a tale of Captain Blood, you’ll have to settle for the “Love Story of Jeremy Pitt” in Captain Blood Returns, also known in UK editions as the Chronicles of Captain Blood. Great Captain Blood fare, follow up it with The Fortunes of Captain Blood.
The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini
One of the greatest of swashbucklers whose plot leads, line after line, to a dueling climax. The 1942 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, doesn’t do the book justice, not to mention takes great liberties with both plot and character.
Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini
An embittered former Cromwellian officer reassessing his life during the early days of the Restoration–and proper use of the unarmed hand in a sword fight too!
Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini
A novel evoking many of the elements of my Hungarian fencing masters’ own history: spies, duels, intrigue, war, revolution, narrow escapes, and above all, courage. Plus Venice!
“With delicate precision he calculated the moment at which to turn and face them. He chose to do it standing on the lowest step of the bridge, a position which would give him a slight command of them when they charged. As he spun round, he drew his sword with one hand whilst with the other he swept the cloak from his shoulders. He knew exactly what he was going to do. They should find that a gentleman who had been through all the hazards that had lain for him between Quiberon and Savenay did not fall an easy prey to a couple of bully swordsmen…”
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Add a sword and you have Scaramouche.
To my mind, a tie with The Black Swan in regard to a novel built around swordplay, and far superior in its scope. Easily has the best–most evocative, that is–description of a fencing salle, hands down.
To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston
Listed here primarily as representative of the genre at the time (the late nineteenth century) and because it influenced Rafael Sabatini, the novel has most of the classic clichés of the genre, including the duel for command of a pirate ship, something that never actually happened. A gentleman swordsman, pirates, Native Americans, a damsel incognita in distress… The duel takes place, as best as I can tell, on Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia.
Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer by Jeffery Farnol
The prequel to the following two novels, you may either love or hate the style in which it’s and the rest are written, the dialogue in particular. Even if you don’t much care for the style–I don’t much–the series are worth reading anyway for the adventure and swordplay, often including sword-armed women in disguise. Farnol will never come close to replacing Sabatini to me, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying Farnol’s swashbucklers. And at least Farnol’s dialogue doesn’t sound like, to paraphrase a friend of mine, suburbanites chatting inanely at a PTA meeting–a problem with much dialogue in modern historical fiction and television drama.
As for swordplay, Farnol often takes the evocative approach, providing broad strokes to give a sense of the action without providing detail which might confuse non-fencers:
“Once more the swords rang together and, joined thus, whirled in flashing arcs, parted to clash in slithering flurry, their flickering points darting, now in the high line, now in the low, until Adam’s blade seemed to waver from this line, flashing wide, but in that same instant he stepped nimbly aside, and as Sir Benjamin passed in the expected lunge Adam smote him lightly across broad back with the flat of his blade.”
Non-fencing authors take note of the critical vocabulary for swordplay scenes: rang, flashing, slithering, flickering, darting, flashing…
Black Bartlemy’s Treasure by Jeffery Farnol
Great swashbuckling fare, the first part of a two novel series.
Martin Conisby’s Vengeance by Jeffery Farnol
This quote alone sells this sequel to Black Bartlemy’s Treasure: “So-ho, fool!” cried she, brandishing her weapon. “You have a sword, I mind—go fetch it and I will teach ye punto riverso, the stoccato, the imbrocato, and let you some o’ your sluggish, English blood. Go fetch the sword, I bid ye.”
The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser
Enjoyable parody of swashbuckling pirate novels and films, much influenced by the works of Rafael Sabatini and Jeffery Farnol. Fraser, an author himself of wonderful swashbuckling adventure, was a great fan of Sabatini.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Requires no description. The swordplay, like that in The Pirates above, is affectionate parody, and much more detailed than in the film.
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Excellent if mostly, if not entirely, historically inaccurate tale of Rob Roy MacGregor told through the eyes of a visiting Englishman. It has a couple of excellent descriptions of swordplay, ranging from a duel with smallswords to action with Highland broadswords.
Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu by Paul Féval père
I’m going to pass on Alexandre Dumas for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ll eventually devote an entire blog to him. If, however, you feel he should be represented here, The Three Musketeers series is where to begin, but you must read the entire series of novels. Be aware that many such series are actually abridged. For a slightly different Dumas take on the swashbuckler, try Georges (an exception to the seventeenth and eighteenth century rule, an almost autobiographical novel in its focus on race and prejudice) or The Women’s War (or The War of Women, in French La Guerre des Femmes). Both are favorites of mine.
Instead, I’ll suggest a great swashbuckler by one of Dumas’ contemporaries. Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu is a true roman de cape et d’épée (swashbuckling novel) of revenge from the which the line, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” (“If you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!”), has passed into French proverb. The novel has been made into film at least nine times, plus into a couple of television versions as well as several stage versions. Unfortunately, I’m aware of only one English translation, and it is excessively–an understatement–abridged. Alexandre Dumas, Paul Féval, Rafael Sabatini are the trinity who truly established the swashbuckler as a significant literary genre.
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Not a novel, but mandatory reading nonetheless, with one of the two greatest stage duels ever written, the other being that in Hamlet. Wonderful drama, philosophy in action, and sword adventure, including a duel fought to impromptu verse. Like Captain Blood, it is one of the truly inspirational swashbucklers. To be read at least every few years, and seen on stage whenever available. There are several excellent film versions as well.
The Years Between &c by Paul Féval fils & “M. Lassez”
Two series of novels of the imagined adventures of the d’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas and the Cyrano of Edmond Rostand, filling the twenty years between The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After in the first, and immediately following Twenty Years After in the second. The books are filled with the expected enjoyable affrays and other adventures of the genre, including the usual improbable circumstances and coincidences. The first series consists of The Mysterious Cavalier, Martyr to the Queen, The Secret of the Bastille, and The Heir of Buckingham, published in English in four volumes. The second includes State Secret, The Escape of the Man in the Iron Mask, and The Wedding of Cyrano, published in English in two volumes as Comrades at Arms and Salute to Cyrano.
The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr
Fully enjoyable read about a modern history professor who travels to the seventeenth century via a bargain with the devil. The professor discovers that his modern swordplay is superior to that of the seventeenth century–a wonderful idea for a novel but otherwise flawed in reality. At best, if the professor were a “modern” epee fencer, there might be parity. But who cares? After all, who can travel back in time anyway except in the imagination? If you’re a fencer well-versed in historical fencing versus modern (again, not as many as you might think, including some who believe they are), suspend your disbelief. And if you’re not, just enjoy the novel for what it is.
Most Secret by John Dickson Carr
Pure genre by the famous mystery writer, this time entirely set in the seventeenth century. Cavaliers, spies, and a damsel in distress!
The Alatriste Novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Leaping forward almost two hundred years, the Alatriste novels are a highly recommended recent series by one of Spain’s great novelists, although some critics note that the books are a bit dark. I’d call them realistic. Unfortunately, the latest of the series, El Puente de los Asesinos (The Bridge of the Assassins or The Assassin’s Bridge) has not been translated into English and doesn’t appear likely to be anytime soon, if at all, an apparent casualty of insufficient sales of the previous volumes and a reflection upon the state of the genre at the moment. That the genre should not have a larger readership given the times we live in is curious, but perhaps the audience awaits a few real-life swashbuckling heroes to reappear first. I have read The Assassin’s Bridge, but in French, and enjoyed it. My Spanish is simply not up to the task. The first six volumes are available in English translation. I also suggest The Fencing Master (El Maestro de Escrima) by the same author.
Romantic Prince by Ruth Heredia
For readers seeking to understand how written romances come to be, you can do no better than to read Ruth Heredia’s two Romantic Prince volumes: Seeking Sabatini and Reading Sabatini. The first is a biography of Rafael Sabatini, the second a guide to reading his many works, including some discussion of swordplay. Ruth Heredia is the preeminent expert on all things Rafael Sabatini. Long an officer and significant contributor to the Rafael Sabatini Society, she is a gifted writer in her right, and, in my own experience, an eloquent voice for sanity, empathy, and justice in a mad world. Originally published in now hard-to-find soft cover, her two volumes are now available in revised editions for free for personal use by requesting them from the author. You can find details at attica-ruth.
Fortune’s Whelp by Benerson Little
Last, a blatant effort at self-promotion, although I honestly did enjoy writing the swordplay scenes (not to mention working them out sword-in-hand), and I do enjoy re-reading the associated passages, or at least as much as I’m able to enjoy my own writing (the urge to revise and improve, even after publication, is quite distracting). A sequel, Fortune’s Favorite, is forthcoming, and at least another after it. Then, if all goes well, a series of prequels.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First published December 14, 2017. Last updated April 14, 2020.
“[B]y which Means we were in hopes to have out-sailed the Privateers, but one them still came up with us; which we were preparing to engage, when the Seamen came to me in a Body, and told me they would not fight, by Reason they said they did not understand there was any Provision made for them, in case they were wounded; that if they lost a Leg or an Arm, they must be Beggars all their Life after.”
So wrote Capt. Nathaniel Uring, commanding the “Packet-Boat” Prince George (a swift frigate used for mail, passengers, and light cargo), of his crew’s response when called upon to prepare to defend against two French privateers near Scilly in December 1707. Without disability compensation, the great danger of losing a limb in battle was not worth the risk to them, even though while in the Caribbean they had fought against a single, smaller privateer at long range. From A History of the Voyages and Travels of Capt. Nathaniel Uring, 2nd ed. (London: John Clarke, 1727).
So associated with sea battles were timber legs, that even song lyrics mentioned them:
Now, Boys, who wins a Golden Chain?
Ne’er fear a Wooden Leg.
–Anon., “The Sea-Fight, A Song,” 17th century
And indeed, between round shot, large splinters (size-wise, think various lengths of 2x4s, see damage images below), and small shot, it was not uncommon for more than one crewman to lose a leg, arm, or digits after a protracted combat, either immediately due to bone and tissue damage, or later due to gangrene:
“When [wee] came to see what damage [wee] had sustained found our Cheife Mate, Mr Smith, wounded in the legg, close by the knee, with a splinter or piece of chaine, which cannot well be told, our Barber had two of his fingers shott off as was spunging one of our gunns, the Gunner’s boy had his legg shott off in the waste[,] John Amos, Quartermaster, had his leg shott off at the helme[,] the Boatswaine’s boy (a lad of 13 years old) was shott in the thigh, which went through and splintered his bone, the Armorer Jos Osbourne in the round house wounded by a splinter just in the temple[,] the Captain’s boy on the Quarter Deck a small shott raised his scull through his cap and was the first person wounded and att the first onsett. Wm Reynold’s boy had the brim of his hatt 1/2 shott off and his forefinger splintered very sorely. John Blake turner, the flesh of his legg and calfe a great part shott away.” From the letter by eyewitnesses Solomon Lloyd and William Reynolds to Sir John Gayer describing the battle between the ship Dorrill and the pirate ship Mocha in 1697.
The most famous English surgeon of the 17th century, Richard Wiseman, wrote in his famous text on surgery that “In our Sea-fights oftentimes a Buttock, the Brawn of the Thigh, the Calf of the Leg, are torn off by Chain-shot and Splinters.”
Worse, some surgeons were too quick to amputate. Again, Richard Wiseman: “Amongst the Cruisers in private Fregats from Dunkerk, it was complained, that their Chirurgeons were too active in amputating those fractured Members [arms and legs]. As in truth there are such silly Brothers, who will brag of the many they have dismembered, and think that way to lie themselves into credit. But they that truly understand Amputation and their Trade, well know how villanous a thing it is to glory in such a work.”
Much of the origin of the idea that wooden legs were common among pirates may be due to buccaneer articles of the second half of the seventeenth century:
“Lastly, they stipulate in writing what recompense or reward each one ought to have that is either wounded or maimed or maimed in his body, suffering the loss of any limb, by that voyage. thus they order for the loss of a right arm 600 pieces-of-eight, or 6 slaves; for the loss of a left arm 500 pieces-of-eight, or 5 slaves; for the right leg 500 pieces-of-eight, or 5 slaves; for the left leg 400 pieces-of-eight, or 4 slaves; for an eye 100 pieces-of-eight, or one slave; for a finger of hand the same reward as for the eye.” (Alexandre Exquemelin [John Esquemeling], The Buccaneers of America. London: Crooke, 1684.)
A copy of flibustier articles dating to 1688–“Copie de la charte-partie faite entre M. Charpin, commandant la Sainte-Rose“–includes the following article: “Item. Tout homme estropié au service du bâtiment aura 600 pièces de 8 ou 6 nègres a choix s’il s’en prend.” The injured, whether he lost an arm or leg, had the choice of six hundred pieces-of-eight or six slaves.
Similarly, writing of the year 1694, Caribbean chronicler Father Jean-Baptiste Labat noted that among French flibustiers, “Ceux qui sont estropiez du’un bras ou d’une jambe emporteé, ou rendu inútiles, ont six cens écus pour chaque membre…” That is, six hundred pieces-of-eight for the physical loss of an arm or leg, or of the use of it. The original buccaneer and flibustier articles were still in use even though true English buccaneering had disappeared and French buccaneering–la flibuste–would not last much longer. (Jean-Baptiste Labat, Voyage aux Isles, 1722, vol. 1:22.)
It is important to point out that buccaneers were not the originators of this compensation. It was often part of merchant seamen agreements, and usual among navies as well. For example, in 1685 in the English navy, the “Chatham Chest” for pensioners would pay an annual stipend of 6 pounds, 13 shillings, and 4 pence for the loss of an arm or leg, and twice that for the loss of two legs. For the loss of two arms, 15 pounds per annum, for the loss of the use of an arm (but not the loss of the arm itself), 5 pounds, and for the loss of an eye, four pounds. (From A Descriptive Catalogue of the Naval Manuscripts in the Pepysian Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, vol. 1.)
But back to pirates! Charles Johnson (a pseudonym), famous chronicler of pirates in the early eighteenth century, describes one of the pirates of Captain Edward England: “a Fellow with a terrible pair of Whiskers, and a wooden Leg, being stuck round with Pistols, like the Man in the Almanack with Darts, comes swearing and vapouring upon the Quarter-Deck, and asks, in a damning Manner, which was Captain Mackra…” From A General History of the Pyrates (London: T. Warner, 1724).
So here is at least one “Golden Age” pirate with a wooden leg. Doubtless there were at least a few common seamen and mates, perhaps some of them pirates as well, who remained at sea in spite of disability. Naturally, such service was easier for officers, the most famous one being Cornelis Corneliszoon Jol, aka “Pie de Palo.” A privateer captain, later admiral, in the service of the Dutch West India Company in the first half of the seventeenth century, one of his subordinate captains was the famous Diego the Mulatto. Another famous wooden-legged admiral was Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta who successfully defended Cartagena de Indias from English attack in 1741. Early in his sea-going career he lost an eye, a leg, and the use of an arm from wounds received in battle.
The reality, though, is that the loss of a leg ended the career of most common seamen, including sea rovers. In most cases a common seaman who had lost a lower limb or was otherwise lamed could no longer climb aloft, and if he could it was only with great difficulty. A seaman needed to be able to move quickly on deck and aloft aboard a platform that was constantly pitching, sending, rolling, and yawing. Boarding actions would be precluded, as would a number of other combat actions, although certainly there were some that a wooden leg would not entirely restrict.
The naval, or more generally, maritime profession most suited to disabled seaman was doubtless the ship’s cook, and there are a number of period illustrations showing sea cooks with one legs, although “greasy” is probably the most commonly applied adjective.
However, the most famous of these one-legged sea cooks never existed. Created by Robert Louis Stevenson for Treasure Island, Long John Silver, also known as Barbecue, epitomizes the modern idea of the iconic one-legged–but not wooden-legged–pirate, although he was probably inspired by Captain England’s wooden-legged pirate crewman described above. In fact, Stevenson’s original title was “The Sea Cook”–a subtly accurate title but one entirely lacking in romance and adventure.
Early in the book Billy Bones, the old rum-soaked pirate inspired, according to Stevenson himself, by the old buccaneer in “Tales from a Traveller” by Washington Irving, asks Jim Hawkins to keep his “weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg.”
Stevenson imagines accurately how he might move about at sea. “Aboard ship he carried his crutch by a lanyard round his neck, to have both hands as free as possible. It was something to see him wedge the foot of the crutch against a bulkhead, and propped against it, yielding to every movement of the ship, get on with his cooking like someone safe ashore. Still more strange was it to see him in the heaviest of weather cross the deck. He had a line or two rigged up to help him across the widest spaces—Long John’s earrings, they were called; and he would hand himself from one place to another, now using the crutch, now trailing it alongside by the lanyard, as quickly as another man could walk. Yet some of the men who had sailed with him before expressed their pity to see him so reduced.”
But Long John Silver is not the only iconic fictional seafarer. There’s an unfortunate natural inclination to believe that anything maritime must therefore be pirate, and worse, must be predominately pirate. Ahab’s “wooden” leg–actually whale bone–at least subconsciously reinforces the notion that pirates often had wooden legs. Ahab, of course, was the ship’s captain, and therefore special arrangements could be made for his disability, unlike in the case of common seamen.
And what did prosthetics and crutches look like in this era? The following images show the variety, based on the extent of permanent injury. The fact that the majority of wooden legs in period images begin just below the knee is due to surgical practice at the time. As “Serjeant-Chirurgeon” Richard Wiseman explains it in Several Chirurgicall Treatises (London: E. Flesher and J. Macock, 1676):
[Speaking of bullet wounds here], “If the Ancle be thus maimed, you shall then cut off the Leg within three or four Fingers Breadth under the Knee, in regard so long a Stump would be troublesome. But if the Leg be shattered off by the Calf, do not put your Patient to the Pain of new Amputation, for the shortening it a Hand’s Breadth, or a little more. Save what you can of a fluttered Hand. And if the Toes, with Part of the Foot, were shot off, cut off the lacerated Parts smooth, but with Care to save as much of the Foot, with the Heel, as you can; it being much better than a Wooden Leg. But if the Arm or Leg be not so shattered, tho’ the Wound be large on one side, and hang gaping down with great Fracture of Bones, yet be not discouraged, the Largeness of the Wound will make for your better pulling out those extraneous Bodies, Shivers, Splinters, Rags, or ought else, and for the easier Discharge of Matter. Dress it as a Wound by a Splinter.”
Similarly, Dr. Benjamin Bell in A System of Surgery, 5th ed., vol. 4 (Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1791), writes that “In amputating the thigh we observed, that as much of the limb should be saved as can be done with propriety; for the longer the stump the more utility is derived from it: But in the amputation of the leg, it has hitherto been almost a general rule to take it off a little below the knee, even where the disease for . which it is advised is seated on or near the ancle, and where accordingly the operation might be performed much lower. The reason given for this is, that a few inches of the leg being saved, answers as a sufficient rest to the body in walking when the limb is inserted into the box of a wooden leg; and when much more of it is left, that it proves troublesome both in walking and fitting, without being attended with any particular advantage.”
However, times were changing and with them surgical and prosthetic practice. Bell goes on to note that, “Were we to conclude, that the common practice of bending the joint of the knee and resting upon the anterior part of the leg was necessary, this method of operating a little below the knee would be admitted as the best: But as we have now had many instances of patients walking equally well with machines so contrived as to admit of the use of the knee-joint; as these machines, by resembling the human leg, are much more pleasing to the eye than the wooden ones in common use; and as the operation may be done with much more ease and safety to the patient a little above the ancle, I am of opinion that it should always be advised to be done here whenever it is practicable, instead of the ordinary place a little below the knee.”
Below are a few images of what leg prostheses looked like in the era. Not that many of the men in these images are depicted as beggars, for, as Capt. Uring’s men noted, without some sort of pension they would likely become so if they lost a limb.
I’ll close with a few images of Hollywood wooden-leg or one-leg pirates, thanks (Thanks, Antón!) to a suggestion by Antón Viejo.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017-2019. Created 4 December 2017. Last updated March 6, 2019.
“The tame Parrots we found here were the largest and fairest Birds of their Kind that I ever saw in the West-Indies. Their colour was yellow and red, very coarsely mixt; and they would prate very prettily; and there was scarce a Man but what sent aboard one or two of them. So that with Provision, Chests, Hen-Coops, and Parrot Cages, our Ships were full of Lumber…”
–William Dampier, Voyages and Discoveries, 1729
The opening quotation is in reference to a small buccaneering raid on Alvarado on the Mexican coast in 1676. So, clearly at least some pirates did have parrots, although most of these birds were probably intended as plunder to be sold in Port Royal, Jamaica.
The ultimate origin, though, of pirates and parrots is the common one: the lure of exotic animals, the seaman’s access to them during his travels, and the market for them in Europe and the American colonies. It was therefore not at all unusual to find exotic birds and primates (other than humans, of course) aboard ships headed back to Europe, nor was it unusual for people in the American colonies to keep them as pets, as did many Native Americans. Seamen were the best-placed Europeans to acquire them.
The description below is but one of many typical merchant voyages, in this case described by the Italian Capuchin monk Denis de Carli during his 1667 voyage from Bahia de Todos os Santo, Brazil, to Lisbon, Portugal.
“The ship was like Noah’s ark, for there were aboard it so many several sorts of beasts, that what with the noise, and the talk of so many people as were aboard, we could not hear one another speak. The loading was a thousand chests of sugar, three thousand rolls of tobacco, abundance of rich wood for dying, and making of cabinets, elephants teeth; besides the provision of wood, coals, water, wine, brandy, sheep, hogs, and turkeys: besides all this, abundance of monkeys of several sorts, apes, baboons, parrots, and some of those birds of Brasil, which they call arracas [the urraca, or plush-crested jay].
Exotic birds, parrots in particular, along with monkeys have long been associated with the tropical Americas and are often depicted in representative or allegorical images of the peoples, fruits, and animals from this part of the world.
Parrots as Pets in the Old World
In Shakespeare we see just how common parrots had become in England, and for that matter, in Europe in general: “That ever this fellow should have fewer words than a parrot, and yet the son of a woman!” exclaims Henry, Prince of Wales, in The First Part of Henry the Fourth. Below are a few images from the late seventeenth century of people posing with parrots, a quite common practice–at least for those who could afford portraits.
But it’s pirates and parrots we’re really concerned with for the moment, and the modern association of parrot with pirate, as opposed to parrot with common seaman, is almost entirely due to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, specifically to Long John Silver and his parrot Cap’n Flint, who would often scream, “Pieces of eight! pieces of eight! pieces of eight!”
But because of the modern cliché of the pirate and parrot, no matter how accurate, some pirate television dramas, reenactor groups, and video games may choose to avoid it altogether. Black Sails did, for example (full disclosure, I was the historical consultant for the show for all four seasons). That said, this can be a bit confusing: Black Sails was set as a prequel to Treasure Island, the book that did much to create the pirate and parrot image. It comes down to a question of balance between accuracy and audience perception. I remain convinced that it is possible to quash cliché with historical accuracy without losing the audience.
So, how prevalent was the pirate with parrot in reality? Probably as common as that of the seaman his parrot, as least among pirates who visited regions where parrots were native, or captured ships with them aboard.
(And Monkeys, Too?)
So back to the beginning with another version of the image at the top of the page. But it’s the monkey we’re interested in now, and clearly monkeys were associated with seamen for the same reason parrots were.
So, did pirates have pet monkeys? Probably some did, given the mariner’s access and the popularity of monkeys. Certainly, at least one sea rover is confirmed as having a monkey aboard: a young Barbary macaque was aboard the French privateer Dauphine when it wrecked in Saint-Malo in 1704, as marine archaeology has demonstrated.
Pet Monkeys in the Old World
Monkeys were popular pets in Europe, thus the maritime trade in them. They were often fitted with a belt around the waist in order to keep them on a tether or leash as necessary. This may have been done shipboard as well–it would save waiting until the monkey to get hungry before it came down from aloft, as it doubtless would sooner or later.
Monkeys in Pirate Films and Other Media
Monkeys, being active, cute in an impish way, and generally in trouble, not to mention with a historical basis at sea, not to mention part of the crew, so to speak, of at least one privateer crew and probably of a fair number, are perfect for Hollywood piratical swashbucklers. That said, they haven’t been much used in them, but then it doesn’t take much for an association to get started and soon enough a cliché to develop. The most noted, of course, are King Charles in Cutthroat Island (if nothing else, Geena Davis looked swashbucklingly effective in the role of Captain Morgan Adams, and the soundtrack is excellent), and, far more well-known, Jack in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Pirate monkey memes are common, the Monkey Island games riff on pirate monkeys although without much emphasizing them, and even Firelock Games has, purely for fun and originally introduced as an April Fool’s joke, added a “Blunder Monkey” figure as a stretch goal for the Blood & Plunder’s “No Peace Beyond the Line” Kickstarter, albeit an historically accurate one. (Again in the interest of full disclosure, I’m the historical consultant for Firelock’s Blood & Plunder.)
A Scots Highlander, a Sword, and a Parrot…
I’ll end with a humorous anecdote, which may be apocryphal, regarding a Scotsman and a parrot in London. I can date it no earlier than 1749 and cannot say whence came the abusive bird originally, but it does illustrate the general prevalence of the birds everywhere:
“An honest Highlander, walking along Holborn, heard a voice cry, Rogue Scot, Rogue Scot; his northern blood fired at the insult, drew his broad sword, looking round him on every side to discover the object of his indignation; at last he found that it came from a parrot, perched in a balcony within his reach; but the generous Scot disdaining to stain his trusty blade with such ignoble blood, put up his sword again, with a sour smile, saying, “Gin ye were a man, as ye’re a green geuse, I would split your weem.”
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First posted September 10, 2017. Last updated 24 October 2019.