Home » The History of Piracy
Category Archives: The History of Piracy
Pirate Ships, Pirate Prey, & Pirate Hunters: Eyewitness Illustrations & Accompanying Stories
Modern histories of so-called Golden Age pirates — those circa 1655 to 1730 — are often filled with images of pirate ships, many of which are implied to be accurate representations. In fact, there are few eyewitness images of actual buccaneer and pirate ships of this era — perhaps no more than five!
Most period images of buccaneer and pirate ships, not mention of pirate prey and pirate hunters, were drawn not by eyewitnesses in the Caribbean or in other places pirates roved but in England and Europe by the professional illustrators of various editions of books on buccaneers and pirates. These artists never saw the vessels they drew, probably had little if any input from eyewitnesses who had seen them, and were often clearly inept when it came to accurate representation (Hollywood also has always often had this problem and still does).
Even when the illustrator had a good description, the result often hit far from the mark, as we’ll see below. There were no professional artists such as the Willem van de Velde father and son, or Pierre Puget, or any of a number of maritime painters of the era to paint the Caribbean and its people, landscapes, and vessels. This is history’s loss.
Modern scholarly reconstructions in the form of illustration or model — Whydah, Queen Anne’s Revenge, &c — are based on limited eyewitness accounts and scarce records of the actual ships, with reference to hopefully similar ships found in period maritime paintings, drawings, and construction records. At best they are intelligently conjectural. But conjectural they are, even if they are the best we might ever do.
Nonetheless, there exist eyewitness illustrations of at least five Golden Age sea roving vessels we can for the most part put names, captains, and adventures to. In other words, they are illustrations of real buccaneer or pirate vessels made by illustrators and painters who actually saw them or were provided a high degree of detail by eyewitnesses. Additionally, there is an illustration of two others that is almost certainly based on eyewitness descriptions taken firsthand by the illustrator.
The first two are Spanish-built pirate/privateer half-galleys, one for certain, the other almost certain. The third and fourth are of a captured Spanish merchantman soon to be converted by flibustiers to piracy, and its captor. The fifth is a pirate which had recently plundered on the Guinea coast. The sixth and seventh are pirates, one English, one French, one of whom was destroyed by a pair of English men-of-war.
Further, we have illustrations of the two most famous Spanish pirate hunting ships — even if unsuccessful more often than successful — along with an excellent, highly detailed, quite accurate drawing of the HMS Drake, a sixth rate used for pirate hunting in the 1680s Caribbean, and the HMS Bonetta, which was dispatched against a pirate but did not engage it — plus a reasonable image each of the pirate hunters HMS Drake and HMS Falcon. At another time we’ll look at a painting of what may be the most famous of all pirate prey of the era; I’ve more research to do before I commit my argument to print.
We’ll take a look at all nine, with accompanying swashbuckling history in depth. As with the eyewitness images of buccaneers and boucaniers I found in the French National Library, I found several, but not all, of these eyewitness images of vessels likewise largely unnoted and unnoticed.
A Spanish Half-Galley (Galeota) Commanded by Cuban-Italian Corsario Mateo Guarín, 1685
Commissioned by the governor of Cuba, Fernández de Córdoba, in 1683 to make reprisals against English and French pirates and smugglers. In January 1684, Guarín led a raid on Siguatey (Cigateo, aka Eleuthera) and New Providence in the Bahamas.
Mateo Guarín (sometimes Marín) was an Italian privateer — a corsario — from Venetia (the surrounding region of Venice, Italy) in Spanish service. In Italian his name was Matteo Guarino. It was not unusual to find Italian adventurers in Spanish service in the Caribbean; another will be discussed in another post soon.
An English account of the raid: “At the beginning of January about two hundred of their choicest men were fitted out from Havana, well armed, in two barco-luengos, the one of forty, the other of thirty oars. They went to a-small uninhabited island called St. Andrews, where they took an English sloop which was there for cutting timber. They made the three men in her their pilots, and came to the back of Providence on 18th January and waited through the night. At daybreak they landed 120 of their men at the town, while fifty assailed the shipping—six vessels—in the harbour. The people in the town being surprised fled from it to the woods, those in the ships also deserted them and fled on board a New England vessel of ten guns. This and one more ship stood out to sea; the rest were all pillaged and three men murdered.
“The Spaniards killed no one in the town, but kept it till four o’clock in the afternoon, in which time they took away all the wrought and unwrought plate that they could find, a quantity of English dry-goods, and such provisions as they wanted, and loaded their booty, valued by the English at 14.000l., in a pink that they took in the harbour. While the Spaniards were in possession of the town, fourteen Englishmen got together and drove all the Spaniards before them. They would have driven them from the town and retaken the plunder if they had had powder and ball enough, and if the inhabitants had known of a rallying point, and had found but fifty firearms they might have saved all. All might also have been saved by the ship of ten guns if she had but stayed. But three men were killed, but many were carried off prisoners by the Spaniards, as suspected of being pirates.” There was a much more brutal raid against New Providence later in 1684; it is unknown if Guarín participated.
In 1684 Guarín was surprised by that famous Dutch flibustier-in-French-service, Laurens de Graff, at the large Isle of Pines (Isla de Pinos, today Isla de Juventud) off the southern coast of Cuba, but escaped the more heavily-armed and -manned buccaneer.
De Graff was the greatest of buccaneers in the 1680s. In fact, certain aspects of Rafael Sabatini’s famous character Captain Blood are based on him. Caribbean Spaniards had great enmity toward the Dutch buccaneer not only because he was so successful, but because he had deserted Spanish service as a gunner of the Armada de Barlovento and later co-led the brutal sacks of Veracruz and Campeche. De Graff had long ranged and raided along the Cuban coast, and gathered intelligence there as well, in particular from a source named [Juan?] Montiel who provided detailed information on ship movements from Havana, doubtless in return for trade goods or money.
This desperate desire for vengeance against buccaneers and against de Graff in particular ranged across the Spanish Main, but would usually turn out poorly for all the Spanish pirate hunters sent against de Graff, including Capitán Guarín who made the bold personal decision to become de Graff’s principal nemesis.
In October 1684 Guarín attacked the HMS Bonneta (Bonito in colonial records; see the section on Bannister below for an image and more information) of no more than four guns along the south coast of Cuba as it was sailing to Santiago de Trinidad, Cuba to demand the return of captured English seamen from a sloop belonging to Derick Cornelison. The small English man-of-war (see also Bannister below) had sent a boat ashore for water, per treaty. Guarín captured the boat and its eight-man crew, stole the English jack it had flown for protection, and hoisted it aboard a pirate-hunting piragua.
In Captain Stanley’s words: “I at once got up sail, but had no sooner done so than I saw the galley and a periago coming under sail and oars, the galley flying the Spanish flag with a red ensign and the periago the King’s jack, which he had taken in my boat. I fired at the galley when she came within range, and she at me, and we were engaged from nine to eleven, when they got into the creek where there was not water for me to follow them.” The English captain slipped away before more galleys and piraguas might arrive: there were two of the former and seven of the latter in Santiago de Trinidad. Afterward he provided protection to nearby English turtling sloops nearby, and soon afterward rescued four English turtling sloops from the French flibustier Captain Bréha who was robbing them of provisions.
In early 1685, commanding a half-galley, known in Spanish as a galeota, Guarín raided Nipe on the island of Hispaniola, not far from the flibustier haven of Petit Goave. The corsario and his crew flew the white flag of France for deception, but also flew it and therefore fought under it — a violation of the laws of war, in addition to any charges of piracy. Guarín and his crew carried away forty slaves, soon declared in Baracoa and Puerto Principe, Cuba, as good plunder worth approximately 8,800 pesos de ocho reals (pieces-of-eight). The corsarios probably carried away little other plunder, given the small agricultural nature of the settlement.
An official French account notes that two demi-galères (half-galleys, galeotas) attacked Nipe for a second time later that year, but that their original intended target was the plantation belonging to Governor de Pouançay via an extortion attempt at ransom. The attackers changed their minds when their threat was rebuffed. The second attack on Nipe failed due to the town becoming alarmed before the raid began. It is unknown whether this second attack was led by Guarín.
By good fortune, French engineer Pierre de Cornuau had been sent to French Hispaniola to survey and draw charts of French ports. His chart of Nipe, drawn the same year as Guarín’s raid, shows the Spanish half-galley (see the image above). It is quite typical of the form (more on this below), and Cornuau, who probably did not see the half-galley himself, certainly had it described to him by eyewitnesses.
As will be seen in the next section, Cornuau’s simple drawing is a very accurate rendering of these vessels as used by the Spanish in the Caribbean. It has a single carriage gun (cannon) mounted at the bow, a pair of gallows for sweeps (oars) amidships, two masts and two furled lateen sails, and a flagstaff at the stern for the ensign. Missing in the drawing, but probably mounted on the actual vessel, are a handful of swivel guns (small cannon mounted on yokes), probably of the chamber-loaded sort known as patereroes in English. “The galleys are what are called half-galleys in the straits, and carry eighty to a hundred and twenty men; the periagos carry from fifty to seventy,” wrote Lieutenant-Governor Hender Molesworth. One account of Guarín’s half-galley arms it with “sixty-five men, one “Cushee-piece” and six patararoes,” another with eight patararoes (breech-loading swivel cannon mounted on the rails).
Soon afterward, in company with corsario Alexandro Thomás de Léon, Guarín captured the small flibustier frigate Coronet, commanded by Jean Baptiste. Interrogated at Trinidad, Cuba, the French captain gave up exceptional detail regarding the plantation of Laurens de Graff on Saint-Domingue, and also on that of Michel, sieur de Grammont, another of the greatest buccaneers of the 1680s. He also learned that at his plantation de Graff had a mulatta wife or mistress he had “seized” from Veracruz, named Olaya de Escurre, with whom he had a son. (De Graff had only two lawfully married wives as far as we know: he divorced Petronilla de Guzman of the Canary Islands to marry the wealthy widow Anne Dieu-le-Veut on Saint-Domingue after he became a French officer.) It is possible that de Escurre was his mistress from his years when he lived in Veracruz in the service of the Armada de Barlovento as a gunner, or that he in fact enslaved her, or otherwise carried her away as human plunder, during the sack of Veracruz.
Guarín, commanding two piraguas, or quite probably galeotas (piragua and pirogue are often used mistakenly for half-galley/galeota), built for the purpose in Havana, possibly including the one shown above, captured the guardhouse then sacked the plantation, taking numerous slaves as plunder and liberating a number of formerly free mulatta women who had been carried away as slaves from Veracruz. Among the prisoners was the young son of de Graff and de Escurre, whose capture the governor of Cuba hoped might force de Graff into negotiations and thereby reduce raids on Spanish ships and towns. De Graff was not present when his plantation was raided.
In February 1686, commanding two piraguas (according to Spanish records) or two “galleys” (according to English records, thus we will assume one was the half-galley shown above), Guarín attacked two English smugglers: the Swallow pink (a flute) of 22 guns commanded by Edward Goffe, and the Ann sloop of 6 guns commanded by [William?] Peartree, off the Tayabacoa River, Cuba, near Trinidad. (Spanish records Hispanicize the names as “Gafi y Peltre.”) The English captains claimed to be seeking to wood and water, as was permitted by treaty, a common, usually false, claim made by smugglers. Rebuffed at Trinidad, they sailed SE ten leagues to the small cays off the Tayabacoa.
The Spaniards soon arrived and attacked; the battle was brutal and bloody. According to Goffe, “the Governor of Trinidad sent two galleys out, one of forty and one of eighty-five men, the latter of which, as the master confesses, was present at the sack of New Providence. Both galleys came up to my ship’s side, and without hailing poured in a volley, which killed two men and wounded five or six, and then making fast to my ship’s side tried to board her. Having the sloop’s crew on board we defended ourselves, and after about half an hour’s engagement, there were about sixty Spanish pirates killed and thirty-eight wounded. The smaller galley managed to clear herself, but the larger we captured and brought into Jamaica.”
Guarín’s account is similar, but with ugly accusations of murder. He states that he lost 24 men killed in the battle, with 50 more abused and murdered after the battle, including his lieutenant hanged by the English victors, and 30 more of his men put ashore. He himself was severely wounded, and, along with his surgeon, carpenter (a Maltese), and a mulatto from Havana named Juan Cristián, was carried into Jamaica.
Guarín and his comrades were tried for piracy; he and Juan Cristián were sentenced to hang. Although Guarín’s commission was sufficient to protect him from prosecution for piracy for his attack on the Swallow and the Ann, it could not protect him from prosecution for his attack on New Providence and for seizing the boat and eight crewmen of the HMS Bonetta. Even so, by good fortune both men were reprieved when the Spanish Assiento (slave trade) representative in Jamaica, Don Santiago del Castillo, contacted the Spanish ambassador in London, Don Pedro de Ronquillo, who petitioned King James II to release the convicted pirates.
In fact, Lieutenant-Governor Molesworth had already reprieved him pending the recommendation of King James II: “The Spanish captain referred to in my last has been found guilty of piracy, for robbing a sloop from Nevis and stealing Capt. Stanley’s boat. For reasons relating to our Spanish trade, and understanding that he had treated those under his power well and had apologised to Captain Stanley, soon after committing the fact, for not knowing his to be a King’s ship, I have granted his reprieve. I am since glad that I did so, for I find that the Spanish Governors will be very much concerned for him, and particularly those who have obliged me most by granting restitution of prisoners. Lately I have received a letter from the Governor of Santiago, in Cuba, demanding him in the same manner as I have demanded prisoners, and making such excuses for him that I conceive, if he had been executed, it would have passed current among Spanish Governors that he had suffered only for carrying out the Spanish King’s Commission. This would have raised a great clamour against us and would have endangered all our traders who are or may in future fall into their power. I have therefore reprieved him till the King’s pleasure be known.”
By October, 1686, Guarín and his comrades were free men again but his adventures afterward were tame by comparison. With a new vessel provided by investors, possibly another half-galley, he transported the governor of Florida to St. Augustine, patrolled the Cuban coast, and sought but did not find the notorious Dutch flibustier-in-French-service Jan Willems aka Captain Yanky. He soon found himself imprisoned again, but this time not by his English or French enemies, but by his compatriot cubanos in Havana. His vessel was seized after he was accused by some local hidalgos of having sold slaves captured at the Bahamas and Saint-Domingue that actually had belonged to them before being plundered by English and French buccaneers. One scholar suggests this was a false accusation to protect the governor against accusations of engaging in contraband.
According to Spanish law, as a Capitán de Mar y de Guerra, a title accorded him by his privateering commission (patente de corso), he should have been immune to such accusations. Even so, Guarín spent a year and a half in jail, and the last we hear of him is that his case was pending at the Council of the Indies. There is no record of this bold corsario taking to sea again.
For more information on this and other Cuban corsarios, see El Corso en Cuba Siglo XVII by César García del Pino (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2001), and La Defensa de la Isla de Cuba en la Segunda Mitad del Siglo XVII by Francisco Castillo Meléndez (Seville: Diputación Provincial, Sevilla, 1986). The English eyewitness account and associated correspondence can be found in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, 1685-1688.
A Captured Spanish Half-Galley Commanded by Nicolás Brigaut in 1686
By the mid-1680s most major Spanish ports had at least one galeota used for intercepting smugglers, pirate hunting, and raids of reprisal, and also as an advice (dispatch) vessel. Of shallow draft, with the ability to maneuver under both sail and oar, the vessels were ideal for their purpose. They could attack from and escape over shallow waters, attack in calms at the bow or stern of smugglers and pirates and thereby avoid their broadsides, and could travel close inshore and up-river for raids on French and English settlements.
Most had two masts with a single lateen sail on each, approximately thirty oars or sweeps, a long thrusting prow or beakhead, one or two carriage guns in the bow, and often four or more patereroes (swivel cannon) on the rails at the bow and stern. Sweeps were stowed on gallows amidships when not in use. Recognizing their utility, both the French and English began using them, either constructing them themselves or using captured Spanish ones. In English the vessel was typically referred to as a half-galley, in French as a demi-galère or sometimes, confusingly, a pirogue, and in Spanish as a galeota or occasionally, again confusingly, a piragua.
Michel, sieur de Grammont, the “general” of the buccaneers at the sack of Campeche (Laurens de Graff was the buccaneer “admiral”), brought away a half-galley with him after the town and surrounding region were attacked at length and then abandoned in 1685. In April of the following year Grammont’ set about to attack St. Augustine, Florida via the southern passage at Matanzas.
With Grammont’s flotilla was the half-galley captured at Campeche, armed with two carriage guns (remember, at sea a cannon is called a gun, back then and even today) at the bow and now commanded by Capitaine Nicolás Brigaut. His job was to collect intelligence, secure provisions, capture Native American interpreters, and prevent a warning from getting to St. Augustine while doing so. He easily captured a few soldiers from the watchtower—they rowed out to find out who he was and thereby discovered to their dismay who he was. The buccaneers tortured at least two of them for information regarding the defenses of St. Augustine.
It wasn’t long before word got to St. Augustine in spite of Brigaut’s precautions, and a small force commanded by José Begambre was sent against Brigaut and his marooned flibustiers. According to one account, the pirate captain sent two boatloads of men ashore, and according to another they fought from the half-galley. In any case, after a four hour battle the small Spanish force withdrew with casualties.
First point to Brigaut and his men! But plans seldom work as well in reality as in theory. Fortune turned against the pirates in the form of accident or ignorance of the local waters, and the half-galley wrecked on Matanzas Bar.
Worse, two more forces under the commands of Capitán Antonio de Argüelles, who had successfully ambushed attacking pirates in 1683, and Sargento Mayor (in other words, “Major”) Pedro de Aranda y Avellaneda, the former with nine soldiers and the latter with forty, arrived the following morning. The pirates had come ashore and, according to one account, made simple trenches from which to defend against a counterattack. After a second firefight, the Spanish again withdrew with casualties. The pirates had lost the element of surprise and feared more reinforcements. Brigaut sent several men in a ship’s boat to warn Grammont with instructions to pick the stranded pirates up at Mosquito Bar, the location today of New Smyrna Beach. The pirates headed south during the night.
Five leagues shy of their destination the gallant Brigaut and his gallant crew — or so we suppose they were gallant, at least in battle — were set upon by fifty or sixty Native Americans intent upon freeing the pirates’ prisoners. Again Brigaut’s flibusters put their attackers to flight. Unfortunately, one of Brigaut’s prisoners, Juan López, escaped and brought word to St. Augustine. Almost immediately gallant Capitán Francisco de Fuentes and fifty gallant men — again, we suppose they were gallant — headed south in two pirogues to attack Brigaut and his men at Mosquito Bar. Meanwhile, news spread fast in St. Augustine that as many as seven pirate ships had been seen, and that Grammont and his sloop were preparing to make a landing to the north now that the southern approach had been thwarted. Clearly the attack was not yet defeated.
And at Mosquito Bar the substance was of life and death, of raw survival, and, unfortunately for the buccaneers, luck was on the side of the Spanish by means of the timely accident that Brigaut’s men were separated into two parties. Luck, or Fortune if you will, often has poor timing, almost as if on purpose. The Spaniards slaughtered the nineteen pirates in the smaller group, then attacked the larger and massacred all but three, their desperate courage notwithstanding. Those they spared were not, by the way, any of the four remaining Spanish prisoners held by the pirates, which strongly suggests either that nearly everyone was slaughtered in an orgy of violent fear and rage that refused to distinguish between friend and foe, or that the Spanish believed the prisoners had deserted to the pirates, which Spaniards sometimes did, and so they put them to the sword as well.
Only here, in this description of slaughter, does our Hollywood image of Hollywood actors acting in Hollywood style — our cultural interpretation, in other words — begin to fail us as we — rather, if we — imagine soldiers and pirates sweating profusely in the combination of heat, humidity, rage, and fear, their hands and faces blackened with spent gunpowder, their burning eyes squinting from salt and the sea glare; as we imagine the sand sticking to the blood of those killing and of those dying or dead, most of whom probably called upon God both to kill and to save; as we imagine the flies swarming over and upon the dark purple that now stained, however briefly, the windswept battlefield dotted with the living and the dead among the coastal scrub.
We don’t know for sure if the Spaniards simply refused to grant quarter and slaughtered the pirates and prisoners in battle, or massacred them immediately after they surrendered, and it’s even possible that the pirates killed their prisoners themselves. Pirates liked to hold hostages, and French pirates sometimes decapitated their terror-stricken hostages — well, most were probably terror-stricken, but there may have been a few stubbornly courageous hold-outs who were merely afraid but not terror-stricken — when their demands weren’t met. Of course, hostage- and head-taking is something we find deplorable today, at least in “the real world,” but we generally condone in film and on television, at least if the hostage takers are the good guys and they don’t decapitate except in a fair fight. Terrorists and drug cartels behead the innocent — but surely our beloved swashbucklers don’t.
Even so, the pirates probably shouted something on the order of “Matamos los rehenes!” in Spanish at their attackers, which means “We are going to kill the hostages!” although the Spanish is actually in the present indicative tense, not the future simple, which is a more common usage in Spanish than in English when threatening future action. Just so you know.
A fair number of pirates could speak Spanish as a second language because it was useful for interrogating and torturing and tactical pretending and such. And some pirates were Spanish, siding with the English buccaneers and French flibustiers and against their own for profit, and probably a few for revenge — conversos and “crypto-Jews,” for example, although the Spanish interrogations of Spanish-born pirates I’ve seen are silent on the issue. Still, it’s likely some were.
At any rate, “Matadlos, no nos importa!” the Spaniards probably shouted back at the pirates, which means, more or less, “Go ahead and kill them, we don’t care!” although the phrase was more likely something on the order of “Go ahead and kill them you murdering French dogs, you pirates, thieves, and cutthroats, you sons of whores and cuckolds, you mostly Lutheran [which is what Spaniards called all Protestants] therefore un-Christian except in name French cowards who torture the innocent and rape virgins and bugger each other, and bugger your ugly French-pox’d mothers too!” Or likely something along these lines. Such language is common among soldiers and sailors of all eras.
As for the battle itself, likely the truth lies betwixt, as often it does: most of the pirates probably died in battle, and the rest, given that there was some quarter given, were summarily put to the sword in a violent assault right after they surrendered, which seems a reasonable if uncivilized thing to do to the pirates who had sacked Veracruz and Campeche, raping and murdering and torturing as they did. There is speculation that the Spaniards may have given no quarter due to the mistaken belief, carried by escaped prisoner Juan López to St. Augustine, that the Spanish renegade Alonso de Avesilla, who had guided the pirates during the 1683 attack on the city, was in command of the half-galley.
However, Avesilla (possibly the same Spanish corsario known as Augustino Alvares who commanded a barco luengo in 1683) reportedly had died at the flibustier home port Petit Goave two years before; his name may have been given out by the pirates as a joke. The three spared pirates were the white French captain Brigaut and a black pirate named Diego, a “native” of St. Christopher’s (therefore his real name might have been James or Jacques), until they could be interrogated, and a boy on account of his age. Diego, by the way, given that he was spared with Brigaut, may even have been Brigaut’s quartermaster, that is, his second-in-command, making him the highest ranking black — of full African origin, in other words — pirate officer of the so-called “golden age” discovered to date.
Brigaut confessed and was put to death — “Confess and be hanged!” has a long history in literature as well as in murderous hypocrisy of both the religious and political sort — at St. Augustine alongside Diego the Black Pirate who probably thought that piracy was a far better way of life than slavery (assuming he had been a slave), or at least until it came time to be hanged or garroted. Long before this Grammont had abandoned his attack on St. Augustine.
The official French account of the incident at Matanzas, sent from Governor de Cussy of Tortuga and Saint-Domingue to his superior in France, the Marquis de Seigneley, only barely resembled reality. Brigaut wasn’t a pirate, he was merely seeking provisions. The law permitted this seeking of provisions, water, and shelter in extremis. In fact, Brigaut wasn’t even mentioned by name, although his commander, the sieur de Grammont, briefly was.
Most of the few lines describing the incident were devoted to the sad story of a young Parisian of good family, the sieur de Chauvelin, who was reportedly given quarter, taken before the governor of St. Augustine, then put to death in spite of his quality as a gentleman. Further, during the battle itself it was twenty, or maybe seventy, pirates — or rather, twenty or seventy innocent French privateers attacked while innocently seeking provisions per international agreement — standing valiantly against three hundred Spaniards, who prevailed only after reinforcements arrived.
Governor de Cussy heard this story from a flibustier captain named du Marc, who had recently escaped from Spanish imprisonment and who probably had the story second hand, or even third or fourth hand. In any event, according to the French version, the beastly Spaniards weren’t hanging pirates who had come to sack St. Augustine, to plunder, murder, and rape. Rather, they were murdering young Parisian gentlemen who were only seeking provisions. Or murdering at least one young Parisian gentleman, and if one, then probably others, naturally. All we really know from du Marc’s version of this story is that a young man named Chauvelin, of adventurous spirit, joined a band of flibustiers and probably died on or near a pretty Florida beach.
So, was the half-galley depicted above the one commanded by Brigaut? Probably, or more than probably, for my research strongly suggests that there were only two half-galleys at French Hispaniola in the late 1680s: Nicolás Brigaut’s, captured at Campeche in 1685 by the sieur de Grammont, then home-ported at Petit Goave, and lost in 1686 at Matanzas, Florida; and one built by the French and apparently home-ported at Cap François, the French capital of Saint-Domingue. The latter was sent in 1686 to look for remnants the pirate Banister’s crew at Samana after a pair of English men-of-war destroyed his ship, the Golden Fleece. A third, Spanish, which I originally believed to have been captured in 1687 at Petit Goave, in fact escaped to Cuba.
Brigaut’s half-galley would have been home-ported at Petit Goave, and the illustration is part of a 1688 chart of Petit Goave. Paul Cornuau, who drew the chart, had been at Hispaniola since at least 1684 and would have been familiar with the vessel. In fact, it is entirely possible that the two flibustiers standing in the foreground might be members of its crew, perhaps even Brigaut and Diego, but unfortunately we’ll never know.
I’ve used numerous sources for this account, more than I’m inclined to list here. However, interested readers can start with “Grammont’s Landing at Little Matanza’s Inlet, 1686,” by Luis R. Arana and Eugenia B. Arana in El Escribano: The St. Augustine Journal of History, 9, no. 3 (1972); “The Testimony of Thomás de la Torre, a Spanish Slave” by Alejandra Dubcovsky in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 3 (July 2013); and The Struggle for the Georgia Coast by John E. Worth (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007).
The 14-gun Saint-Roze & a 6-gun Bark Commanded by Laurens de Graff & Jean Charpin
It is no accident that Laurens de Graff looms large in these histories of eyewitness images of piratical vessels: he was the greatest of buccaneers in the 1680s, a period also in which French engineers were drafting charts of French Caribbean ports and illustrating them with local ships and buccaneers.
In the year 1687 de Graff was still cruising as a buccaneer in French service, but had been offered and accepted a commission as a regular military officer in the service of the French king. However, before he could take up said commission, he must first receive his pardon for the death of Captain Nicolas Van Horn in a duel at Campeche in 1685, his letters of naturalization as a French citizen, and his commission as an officer.
So while he waiting he did what he knew best: he cruised for Spanish plunder. Late in the previous year he lost his famous Neptune, with which he had fought the two greatest ships of the Armada de Barlovento, forcing them to withdraw. While chasing a Spanish bark near Cartagena de Indias, he ran aground on an unknown rock or reef. The crew of the Spanish bark ran their vessel aground and set it afire, but Laurens quickly set out in a canoe, boarded it, put the fire out, and put his crew aboard
This small six-gun bark, which may be seen on the right side of the image above, replaced his grounded and foundered Neptune. In March 1687 Laurens and his one hundred fifty men — imagine them all crammed into the small bark! — raided the coast of Costa Rica and ascended the Matina Valley. In August thirty of his crew abandoned the cruise and returned to Petit Goave, and in October Laurens and the rest of his crew returned, having first captured the Santa Rosa of seventy-six tons (probably toneladas de mercante, roughly equal to ninety de guerra, close to English tonnage) and fourteen guns near Cartagena. The small Assiento ship was en routed to Curacao to buy slaves, and therefore had approximately 75,000 pieces-of-eight aboard — and each man’s share would come to roughly 500 pieces-of-eight, quite a profitable cruise in the end!
At Petit Goave Laurens received his pardon, naturalization, and commission as an officer, and also orders from Governor de Cussy to occupy Île-à-Vache. Everyone knew war was coming, and preparations had begun in earnest. Unfortunately, in spite of his now official status as a French major responsible for helping defend Saint-Domingue, de Graff had almost immediately set sail again as a buccaneer, with the Saint-Roze as his flagship and the small Spanish bark, the latter almost certainly commanded by his lieutenant Jean Charpin.
Receiving word of this, Governor de Cussy set sail in the French man-of-war Le Marin and intercepted de Graff and Charpin and ordered them to abandon their plans to cruise against the Spanish, and return to Petit Goave. The incident, illustrated by Parthenay, is shown below.
To pacify the restive buccaneers, de Cussy granted land at Cul de Sac to one hundred fifty of them. The remainder sailed with de Graff and Charpin sailed to Île-à-Vache to follow de Cussy’s orders and occupy the often disputed island.
Well, sort of.
Whether instigated by de Graff who would profit from the voyage, or by French buccaneers who had no intention of sitting on their butts occupying an island when they could be cruising against the Spanish, seventy or eighty of them signed articles, with Jean Charpin as their captain and Mathurin Desmarestz as their quartermaster, and set sail aboard the Saint-Roze with de Graff’s blessing — after all, as owner of the ship, he would profit handsomely from a successful cruise.
The articles are notable because they are one of the few original sets that exist; most sets of known articles are described accurately in other sources, for example, in Alexandre Exquemelin’s works. However, although their articles are described in such sources, they are not recorded as written in individual sets of articles. For this reason I’ve included those of the Saint-Roze here, in their original French and in translation. The translation is mine, and any errors in it are therefore mine. I’ve annotated the English translation. (Additional extensive details on buccaneer articles can be found in The Buccaneer’s Realm.)
Copie de la charte-partie faite entre
M. Charpin, commandant la Sainte-Rose, et son équipage qui sont convenus entre eux de lui donner dix lots pour lui, que pour son commandement et pour son navire.
Tous les bâtiments pris en mer ou à l’ancre portant huniers qui ne se donneront point voyage; les bâtiments seront brûlés et les agrès seront pour le bâtiment de guerre.
Item. Tous les bâtiments pris, le capitaine aura le choix; et le non-choix demeurera à l’équipage sans que le capitaine y puisse rien prétendre.
Item. Le capitaine se réserve ses chaudières et son canot de guerre; et les chaudières qui seront prises seront pour l’équipage.
Item. Tous bâtiments pris hors de la portée du canon avec les canots de guerre seront pillage. Tous ballots entamés entre deux ponts ou au fond de cale, pillage.
Item. Or, argent, perle, diamant, musc, ambre, civette et toutes sortes de pierreries, pillage.
Item. Celui qui aura la vue des bâtiments aura 100 pièces de 8 si la prise est de valeur ou double pillage.
Item. Tout homme estropié au service du bâtiment aura 600 pièces de 8 ou 6 nègres a choix s’il s’en prend.
Item. Tout homme convaincu de lâcheté perdra son voyage.
Item. Tout homme faisant faux serment et convaincu de vol perdra son voyage et sera dégradé sur la première caye.
Item. Tout canot de guerre qui sortira en course qui prendra au-dessus de 500 pièces sera pour l’équipage dudit canot.
Item. Tous nègres et autres esclaves qui seront pris par le canot reviendront au pied du mât.
Item. Pour les Espagnols qui ne seront point guéris, étant arrivé en lieu, l’équipage s’oblige de donner une pièce de 8 pour lesdits malades pour le chirurgien par jour l’espace de 3 mois étant arrivé à terre.
Item. M. de La Borderie et M. Jocom se sont obligés de servir l’équipage de tout ce qui leur sera nécessaire pendant le voyage; et l’équipage s’oblige de leur donner 180 pièces de 8 pour leur coffre; et ceux des chirurgiens qui seront pris avec les instruments qui ne seront point garnis d’argent seront pour le chirurgien.
Ladite charte ne pourra se casser ni annuler que nous n’ayons fait voyage tous ensemble.
Fait à l’île à Vache, ancré et affourché le 18 de février 1688.
Ainsi signé : Jean Charpin et Mathurin Desmarestz, quartier-maître de l’équipage.
Copy of the charter-party made between
Mr. Charpin, commander of the Sainte-Rose, and his crew who agreed among themselves to give him ten shares for himself, for his command and for his ship. [Captains were typically given extra shares as “owners” of their vessels; this is how they could get rich. Charpin’s ten shares would include two for his service as captain, as compared to the common buccaneer’s single share. This leaves eight shares for the vessel; such determination was based on the size and state of the vessel, and its armament, as judged by the crew. Such determination often worked out to roughly one share per ten tons or per gun (a general rule of thumb is one gun per ten tons for determining a vessels’s armament), although it was just as often less than this, as it is here.]
All vessels taken at sea or at anchor carrying topsails which will not give themselves a voyage [i.e. be kept as prizes]; the vessels will be burned and the rigging will be [used] for the man-of-war [the Saint-Roze].
Item. All vessels taken, the captain will have a choice; and those he does not choose will remain with the crew without the captain being able to claim anything from it. [Typically this means that the captain could swap his ship for another, if better.]
Item. The captain reserves his cauldrons and his war canoe [canoes and pirogues were often used in the Caribbean instead of common ship’s boats]; and the cauldrons that will be taken will be for the crew. [Cauldrons, whether for cooking or for boiling cane juice were valuable and were common plunder. Here, the captain is probably claiming ownership over the ship’s cookroom cauldrons and the ship’s main boat or canoe.]
Item. Any vessels taken out of cannon range with war canoes [armed canoes or boats] will be plundered. All bales [already] started [opened] between two decks or in the hold, pillage. [There was a distinction between plunder and pillage; the former was shared among the entire crew, owners, and government, the latter was usually shared only among the crew. The article indicates that bales found already open ‘tween decks or in the hold are pillage, not plunder. Of course, it would be hard to prove how many were already “started”…]
Item. Gold, silver, pearl, diamond, musk, amber, civet and all kinds of precious stones, pillage. [This is a significant article, indicating that much valuable plunder will remain in the crew’s hands, not the owner’s or government’s. However, coin/specie is almost certainly excluded by custom from the definitions of gold and silver.]
Item. Whoever has the [first] sighting of the [captured] vessels will have 100 pieces-of-8 if the catch is valuable or double plunder [double share, if it is not valuable].
Item. Any man crippled [maimed] in the service of the vessel [cruise] will have 600 pieces-of-8 or 6 blacks [slaves] according to his choice. [See also the article on surgeon payment below.]
Item. Any man convicted of cowardice will lose his voyage [his shares and other profit will be confiscated and divided among the rest of the crew].
Item. Any man falsely sworn and convicted of theft will lose his voyage [see article above] and be degraded [stripped of the name and quality of a flibustier and marooned without food or clothes, according to a 1697 source] on the first key [the first island encountered].
Item. Any war canoe that goes out cruising that takes [captures] over 500 pieces [-of-eight] [it] will be for [divided among] the crew of said boat.
Item. All blacks and other slaves [Native Americans, mulattos, and mestizos were often taken as slaves] who will be taken by the canoe will return to the foot of the mast [i.e. will be considered as pillage; pillage was typically divided at the foot of the mainmast, as were other division of spoils].
Item. For the Spaniards [wounded Spanish prisoners] who will not [cannot] be cured, having arrived in place [to put them ashore?], the crew undertakes to give a piece of 8 for the said patients for the surgeon per day for the space of 3 months having arrived on land. [This appears to be payment to the ship’s surgeon for having treated wounded Spaniards. It probably also applies to any wounded, as an eyewitness description suggests: a piece-of-eight a day per patient to the surgeon for up to forty days, and the same to each wounded flibuster.]
Item. M. de La Borderie and M. Jocom are obliged to supply the crew with everything they will need during the voyage; and the crew undertakes to give them 180 pieces of 8 for their chest; and those of the [Spanish] surgeons who will be captured with the instruments which will not be lined with silver will be for the [ship’s] surgeon. [This article applies to the two surgeons: they must supply all instruments and medicines for the voyage, for which they are to be paid 180 pieces-of-eight for their surgeon’s chests. Any captured surgeon’s chests belong to the ship’s surgeons unless the instruments &c are of silver, in which case they are pillage.]
Said charter cannot be broken or canceled until we have cruised together.
Done at Ile à Vache, at anchor and in harbor, 18 February 1688.
Thus signed: Jean Charpin and Mathurin Desmarestz, quartermaster of the crew.
Captain Jean Charpin, known among Caribbean Spaniards as Juanillo, was of mixed race, probably white and Native American. A native of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Spain, his father French, his mother Spanish, he was, like his former captain Laurens de Graff, a renegade who had deserted Spanish service. He had served at de Graff’s side since at least 1683.
The Saint-Roze set a course for the ile of Roatan in the Gulf of Honduras and careened there. The island was a well-known rendezvous of buccaneers, and soon the crew of the Saint-Roze was increased by the addition of a group of buccaneers — or more correctly, pirates — who according to French and Spanish records had returned overland from the South Sea (here, the Pacific coast of the Spanish Main) via the Coco River on the borders of Nicaragua and Honduras. Without doubt they were part of Pierre Picard’s expedition (as was buccaneer-author Raveneau de Lussan). Some scholars suggest instead that they many have recently left service under Jan Willems aka Yankey after he attacked the bodegas on the Rio Dulce and the Honduras urca at Puerto Caballos.
In any case, the new arrivals were commanded by a Huguenot named Jean Fantin who had previously served under the mutineer captain Pierre Pain aboard the French man-of-war La Trompeuse as quartermaster, and then under the Dutch flibustier-in-French-service (there were a lot of them) Captain Yankey aboard the Hardy. Having careened, the buccaneers set sail and plundered Trujillo and Olancho in Honduras, gaining only small plunder, six thousand pieces-of-eight of which were acquired via the ransom of local officials. From Honduras the buccaneers sailed to Cuba, cruised off Havana to no profit, went ashore to shoot pigs and cattle for provisions, and slipped away from an armadilla sent after them.
From Cuba the buccaneers sailed to New Castle in Pennsylvania (modern Delaware), capturing en route a Dutch merchantman of 120 tons and fourteen guns. They also captured an English sloop trading from Barbados to the Bermudas. After plundering the sloop and taking it as a prize the buccaneers gave the merchant crew the Saint-Roze which was becoming unseaworthy, and was certainly unfit for a voyage to the far side of the world. The merchant seamen sailed the Saint-Roze to Barbados where it was eventually sold for scrap, having been determined to be unfit for sea anymore and unrepairable — buccaneers had a deserved reputation as lazy seamen, often failing to do necessary maintenance and repairs. Charpin’s rovers soon released the merchant captain too, and returned his sloop to him as well.
The buccaneers sold the cargo of the Dutch prize, now named the Dauphin, in New Castle, “Pennsylvania” (the region, including New England, was always a haven for pirates) for provisions. The buccaneers sailed to Boa Vista in the Cape Verdes, originally intending to plunder the Guinea Coast. Here they debated their next course: Guinea, the Red Sea, or the South Sea. Conflict set in: Jean Fantin was elected captain and claimed the Dutch prize as his own, contrary to the articles of the Saint-Roze. While there, a flotilla under the command of Jean du Casse arrived, en route to raid Surinam. Charpin appealed to du Casse regarding the Dutch prize, but was rebuffed. Du Casse also turned a blind eye to the buccaneers’ capture of a richly-laden sixteen-gun Spanish merchantman, commanded by Francisco Dias de Padilla, from Havana, other than to attach it as a fireship to his squadron, and persuade, by threat of force, the buccaneers to join his expedition.
After du Casse’s desultory and generally unprofitable raid on Surinam, Charpin returned to Petit Goave in command of the Dauphin and, at least until 1695 and probably until King William’s War ended in 1697, served as a French flibustier corsaire (a buccaneer-privateer), operating largely in the Caribbean although at one point, in concert with Captain Picard and other flibustiers, he cruised far north to raid Rhode Island.
His quartermaster Mathurin Desmarestz (a nomme de guerre, his real name was Isaac Veyret) upon his return took a commission as captain of a French privateer flute, the Machine, of three hundred tons and eight guns out of Martinique. In 1690, in consort with a barque commanded by the sieur de Montauban, he captured a rich Spanish galleon, the Jesús Nazarena y Nuestra Señora del Carmen, nicknamed the Ballestera and commanded by Pedro Fernandez de Valenzuela. Desmarestz and the Ballestera cruised the Caribbean for another year, then, having armed the ship with thirty-two guns and manned it with three hundred men, set sail for the Red Sea, to include encounters with Henry Every… But that’s another story!
But as or more interesting perhaps is the tale of the Spanish prize captured at the Cape Verdes, now commanded by Jean Fantin. The Huguenot captain and his crew returned to Martinique where they were commissioned as corsaires. Joining du Casse’s flotilla again, they sailed to St. Christopher where approximately one hundred ten of the crew assisted du Casse in mounting a six-gun battery ashore to dislodge the English defenders. As they did so, the remaining eight English aboard mutinied, “overcame” the dozen remaining French buccaneers, and set sail for Antigua where they were commissioned as an English privateer and recruited another seventy to eighty buccaneers for their crew.
Why does this matter? Because among these eight mutineer Englishmen were William Kidd and Robert Culliford (also Colliver), both of whom would meet again on the far side of the world, one as a failed pirate hunter, the other as a Red Sea pirate. In fact, both may have been with Fantin in the South Sea under Picard or with Yankey when he raided Honduras, or even were with Charpin aboard the Saint-Roze at Île-à-Vache. Kidd was made captain of the former French privateer, now named the Blessed William — and his crew would soon run away with the ship while Kidd was ashore, and turn pirate. The rest is history.
And to add a curious footnote: the Santa Rosa is almost certainly the same Spanish Assiento slave ship owned by the company of Don Juan Coymans that in January 1686 was intended to carry 600 slaves to Portobello from Jamaica. In December 1684 it had sailed from Jamaica to Portobello with 304 slaves aboard. In March 1686 Lieutenant-Governor Hender Molesworth of Jamaica, having lost the service of the HMS Ruby, ordered the ship impressed and fitted out to hunt the pirate Bannister (see below), in company with the HMS Bonneta. However, the expedition does not appear to have actually sailed; the arrival of the HMS Falcon and HMS Drake precluded any need to impress the Spanish ship.
For more details on Charpin, Fantin, and Veyret, see the Dictionnaire des Flibustiers des Caraïbes by Jacques Gasser (Les Sables d’Olonne, France: Editions Beaupre, 2017). Details on the Coymans Assiento can be found in numerous scholarly studies.
A Pirate Ship Captured at Baradaires, Saint-Domingue in 1687 by Flibustier Jean de Bernanos
In October 1687, upon hearing word that a pirate — described in French as a forbin, that is, a true pirate, not a flibustier — was on the coast, after having plundered the Guinea Coast of Africa and probably attempting to sell a cargo of slaves illicitly — Governor de Cussy dispatched the sieur de Franquesney aboard the man-of-war Le Marin to seize the pirate. No fool when it came to dealing with pirates, Franquesney recruited veteran buccaneer Jean de Bernanos, who recruited fifteen flibustiers to augment the naval seamen in case push came to shove.
At Baradieres the French man-of-war trapped the pirate who, hoping to ingratiate its crew with the warship’s captain and crew, fired a twelve-gun salute, but to no avail. Bernanos and his men boarded and seized the small frigate and its cargo. For his service, Bernanos was awarded the ship, although almost certainly not its cargo which would have been seized by the local government as piratical goods. To date, I have found no records indicating who the captain and crew of the pirate ship were, nor even their nationality.
Little is known of Jean de Bernanos, aka Captain La Sound or Lessone, prior to his becoming a flibustier except that he had formerly been a captain of cavalry, in France as far as we know. One author reports his birth place and year as Metz, France, 1645, while others suggest his birth date and place are unknown. He is found first in written records as having crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1679 with eighty-five buccaneers under his command and two hundred Native American allies. Forewarned of his coming by the leader of rival tribe, Spanish forces from Panama intercepted Bernanos at Cheapo and forced the buccaneers to retreat.
In 1680 Bernanos and his flibustiers aboard their ninety-ton, six-gun frigate joined John Coxon and company in the sack of Portobello, but declined to join the English buccaneers on their journey across the Isthmus of Darien and into the South Sea, a voyage made famous by the adventures of escapades primarily under the command of the famous rogue Bartholomew Sharp. Bernanos and his buccaneers turned back after the attack on the Spanish gold mines.
Bernanos next appears in command of a five-vessel flotilla: his Schitié of eight guns and eighty men; Grogniet’s Saint-Joseph of six guns and seventy men; Blot’s Guagone (or Quagone) of eight guns and ninety men; Vigneron’s barque Louise of four guns and thirty men; and Petit’s “bateau” Rusé of four guns and forty men. In May 1684 Bernanos’s buccaneers and their Native American allies ascended the Orinoco River and attacked Santo Tome de Guyana, capturing the local fort after a six-hour battle. Little plunder was found. Bernanos and his buccaneers burned the small town and carried away several important prisoners whom they ransomed at Port of Spain, Trinidad, for ten thousand pieces-of-eight and various goods and supplies. One scholar suggests the expedition up the Orinoco was in search of fabled treasure that did not exist.
Bernanos appears to have afterward retired to his plantation on Tortuga until brought back into service against the pirate at Baradieres. King William’s War broke out effectively in 1688, and in 1689 we find Bernanos in command of a twenty-gun, one-hundred fifty-man privateer, quite possibly the captured pirate vessel in the image above.
In May 1690 he attacked a flotilla of English turtle fishing vessels, but all escaped except for one bark, the Calapatch (a calapatch is the top shell of a turtle), who valiantly attacked the privateer, permitting the escape of its companions.
Soon afterward Bernanos captured a considerable Spanish prize but the prize crew mutinied, sold the cargo at the pirate haven of St. Thomas — a Danish colony — where they recruited more men and turned pirate “against all flags” but reportedly perished in the end.
In 1692 Bernanos was commissioned as a major in the French army and was given command of the fortification at Port-de-Paix, Saint-Domingue. Described as a “brave man…, captain of cavalry, who had been a privateer…,” he died defending Port-de-Paix against a combined English and Spanish attack in 1695.
For more information on Bernanos, see the Dictionnaire des Flibustiers des Caraïbes by Jacques Gasser (Les Sables d’Olonne, France: Editions Beaupre, 2017).
The Golden Fleece of Joseph Banister and the Saint-Nicolas aka Le Favori aka La Chavale of Michel Andresson and soon François Rolle, 1686
The image above shows two ships, the Golden Fleece, a pirate, commanded by Joseph Bannister, and La Chavale, a flibustier but soon to be pirate, commanded by Michel Andresson. Drawn by ship’s clerk John Taylor, it was one of many that illustrated his manuscript of his life at Port Royal, Jamaica in 1687. However, although Taylor did sail aboard the HMS Falcon for a few months, he was not present during the attack on Bannister’s ship, described below, in 1686, although he pretends he was; the details were described to him by officers and crew of the HMS Falcon.
If you’ve read Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, you’re familiar with the escape of Peter Blood and the Arabella from Port Royal, Jamaica, a scene Sabatini may have been influenced to write by the escape from Port Royal in early 1685 under the guns of Charles Fort by Captain Joseph Bannister (or Banister), commanding the 30-, 36-, or 40-gun, 400 ton merchantman Golden Fleece. The ship had been trading from London to Port Royal under his command at least as early as 1680, when she sank in nine fathoms while at anchor in the harbor. The Golden Fleece discharged her entire lading but, due to a lack of local goods, had loaded little in its place. The ship was top-heavy and when her crew went to one side to scrape the hull, the Golden Fleece overset, drowning several of her crew. With the help of several divers the ship was refloated and refitted, but at a loss of £1,000 to her owners, one of whom was surely Bannister.
In early May 1684, Bannister, heavily in debt probably due to losses from the 1680 accident, put to sea from Port Royal, claiming to be bound to New England for trade but intending piracy instead. He recruited one hundred men from local sloops and probably the French buccaneer haven at Petit Goave, and petitioned the French for a privateering commission, which was denied, although he apparently received some backing from the famous buccaneer Michel, sieur de Grammont. In July Bannister, his ship, and crew were captured by the English pirate hunting guardships HMS Ruby, HMS Bonetta, and a half-galley while he was catching and salting turtle for provisions in the Cayman Islands. Wisely, the pirates did not put up a fight. Bannister had “115 men on board, most the veriest rogues in these Indies,” according to Sir Thomas Lynch.
Bannister and his crew were held for piracy, having captured a Spanish canoe with two men aboard and kept the men as prisoners. But Bannister was able to communicate with allies in Jamaica, who provided him with money to pay the Spaniards for their canoe and cargo, and even to pay them wages while they had been in his custody. The Spaniards would not testify against Bannister, and so the grand jury, with a vote of nine opposed and four in favor, refused to find a true bill. Bannister, not believed likely to run due to security (a bond) provided by friends, was ordered held for a second attempt at trial for piracy. Meanwhile, he dispatched the Golden Fleece to London and back under another captain, but the voyage failed to bring him any profit. He therefore made his plans and preparations to once more attempt piracy.
As Lieutenant-Governor Hender Molesworth (1638 – 1689) of Jamaica described it, “About ten days since Captain Bannister one dark night sailed in a desperate manner passed the fort. He had, it is said, fifty men ready in the hold with plugs to stop shot-holes. But the sentries being careless, the night dark, and the wind fresh, he was abreast of the fort before Major Beckford, the commander, was warned, and had passed fourteen of the guns. Beckford did all that he could, but could only place three shot in him. He at once sent me word of the occurrence, which was a great surprise to me, for I thought that Bannister’s want of credit would prevent him from ever getting the ship to sea again.” Bannister had slipped his cables; John Taylor claimed he had 160 men aboard.
The sloop HMS Bonetta (or Boneta, 4 guns, 57 tons; Bonito in colonial records), commanded by Edward Stanley, sailed after Bannister and ordered him to return but the renegade declined, giving assurances he had no intention of turning pirate, which he soon did. For the next year Bannister mixed first with French buccaneers then set out on his own, capturing Spanish vessels. A demand by the HMS Ruby that de Grammont, in whose flotilla he consorted for a while, turn him over for sailing under a foreign commission was rebuffed, ostensibly because the French claimed Bannister had no commission from them. The English captain did not insist, given the size and number of the French ships, which included those of de Grammont, Laurens de Graff, and Jan Willems aka Yankey — the three most powerful and famous of the 1680s. Bannister is believed to have remained with the French buccaneers, and was probably with them at the sack of Campeche soon afterward. But if so, it was to little profit.
Meanwhile, in late 1685 two hired sloops manned with English naval seamen searched for two months but failed to find him. In January he was reported at the French buccaneer haven at Petit Goave, and in March Lieutenant-Governor Hender Molesworth ordered the impressment of the Spanish Assiento slave ship Sancta Rosa (see above!) to be used in the search for Bannister, given that the HMS Ruby was undergoing repairs. However, the arrival of two new men-of-war precluded this. In May 1686 Bannister was reported careening at Samana Bay on Hispaniola. Immediately the newly arrived HMS Falcon and HMS Drake were dispatched. The two men-of-war spent nearly all their powder pummeling the Golden Fleece as it lay on its side careened. Bannister’s men had built gun emplacements and returned fire (a detail that would inspire part of the plot of The Black Swan by Sabatini), killing and wounding some of the English naval seamen. The Golden Fleece was damaged so badly that the pirates burned it in the end. Taylor’s drawing, a rather crude one, shows a large ship with raised forecastle and quarterdeck, but no poop deck (or a very short one).
Occasionally a rabid pirate fan (typically on Wikipedia, often the encyclopedia of misinformation) will argue that this cannonading of a careened pirate ship was a pirate victory against the English navy, but it’s hard to claim victory when you lost your forty-gun pirate man-of-war while your enemies are still afloat and need only re-arm, and now you must cruise in a small sloop, and will end up as shortly to be described. For the English men-of-war, the fight was half-victory, half failure but — not defeat. The pirate ship was destroyed but the pirates remained at large.
Nearby, but not attacked, was a small captured urqueta (a flibot or small fluyt) manned by French buccaneers who took the marooned pirates aboard. The English buccaneers soon departed in a small Spanish bark or sloop captured by the French. Bannister, now sailing under a false name, and his men cruised the Mosquito Coast until captured by the HMS Drake after gaining intelligence of him from some of his former crewmen, all of whom had abandoned Bannister and six others, and ran away with the bark, abandoning him among the Mosquito Indians.
Bannister was captured “in disguise a-roasting a plantain, in a pore Indian wigwam.” One of his men fired a musket at the English seamen, for which he was killed in return. The other three of Bannister’s crew were captured as well. The pirate captain and the three of his crew were hanged in January 1687 aboard the pirate hunter as it sailed within view of Port Royal. It was “a spectacle of great satisfaction to all good people and of terror to the favourers of pirates, the manner of his punishment being that which will most discourage others,” according to the Governor of Jamaica. After the Drake anchored with the hanged pirates as an example, the bodies were cut down and tossed into the sea near Gun Key. Two boys who had sailed with him were pardoned and turned loose in Port Royal, but both were hoisted aloft by “their armholes, at the mizonpeek” while the four pirates were hanged. One of the boys, according to Charles Johnson, grew up to be the possibly fictional pirate captain William Lewis.
The French flibustiers at anchor near Bannister careening at Samana Bay were commanded at the time by Michel Andresson, often known as Captain Michel. Another of the famous French buccaneers of the 1680s, he succeeded to command of Laurens de Graff’s Le Tigre in 1682, and in 1683 commanded the company of buccaneers that stormed the southern bastion at Vera Cruz. In 1684 he was with de Graff and others off Cartagena when they were attacked by three Spanish slave ships converted to men-of-war; the buccaneers captured or destroyed the ships sent after them. De Graff took command of the thirty-four gun San Francisco Javier y San Lucas Evangelista and renamed it Le Neptune, and Andresson took command of La Paz (probably a nickname for the San Joseph) and renamed it La Mutine.
In company with Captain Brouage, Andresson captured two Dutch ships trading at Cuba, and carried the plunder to Boston for sale — New England Puritans were well-known for their hypocritical avarice (see link noted above). After some minor unprofitable adventures, most of Andresson’s crew deserted him in 1685 to cross the Isthmus of Darien into the South Sea (see buccaneer-author Raveneau de Lussan for details!). He soon joined an old comrade-in-arms, François LeSage and was given command of his Dutch prize, the Saint-Nicolas, renamed Le Favori, a 100-ton, fourteen-gun flute originally intended to trade illicitly along the Spanish Main. Its crew of flibustiers were described as some of the most seditious and mutinous in the Caribbean.
The small ship, called La Chavale by John Taylor, who would have had it described to him by English naval officers and crew who had destroyed Bannister’s ship, is clearly a small flute, known as an urqueta by the Spanish, a pink by the English, and a flibot by the French, as is described in other sources. If Taylor is correct about the name, it reflects a name-change under Andresson’s command.
After a failed attempt to sail into the South Sea via the Strait of Magellan, Andresson, now separated from Le Sage, headed to the Caribbean to repair, careen, and provision for a second attempt into the South Sea. At Samana he met Joseph Bannister; the English attack had been focused only the English pirate, and the French escaped harm. After the departure of the English pirates whom they rescued, the French sailed to the Guinea Coast, first being nearly destroyed by an English merchantman, the Baudan, where they deposed Andresson and elected their quartermaster, François Rolle, a Dutchman (real name Frantz Rools) as captain. The buccaneers sailed into the South Sea, where they remained until 1693.
The voyage is noteworthy because a complete manuscript written by one of the crew exists, and also because during their attack on Acaponeta, Mexico in 1688, the buccaneers carried a red flag of no quarter — the pavillon sans quartier — with a skull and crossed bones beneath. It is the only known instance of buccaneers flying the skull and bones, although likely it was flown at other times. As for Captain Rolle, he went ashore at Cayenne at the end of his voyage in 1693. He married a Dutchwoman there, purchased a large plantation, and remained there until his death in 1722 at the approximate age of eighty.
The Bannister text above was taken largely from a draft appendix for the forthcoming Annotated Edition of Captain Blood: His Odyssey, ed. Benerson Little. Details on both Bannister and the Andresson/Rolle voyage can be found in the author’s book, The Golden Age of Piracy. The Calendar of State Papers, America and West Indies, 1685 – 1688 has numerous details regarding Bannister (search both Banister and Bannister). For more information on the French buccaneers described above, see the Dictionnaire des Flibustiers des Caraïbes by Jacques Gasser (Les Sables d’Olonne, France: Editions Beaupre, 2017). The original journal of the French voyage can be found digitized in the French National Library, and also in the Bulletin of the Société des Sciences et Arts de Bayonne (Bayonne: Lamaignère, 1894), edited by Edward Ducéré, and in The Last Buccaneers in the South Sea 1686 – 1695, edited by Peter T. Bradley (both with one problematic transcription error — Panama for Samana — although the original manuscript clearly shows the latter).
The Capitana and Almirante of the Armada de Barlovento, 1685: The Santo Cristo de Burgos and the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción
In 1685 Laurens de Graff commanded Le Neptune, as noted previously, now mounted with forty-eight or fifty guns (many were probably swivels) and carrying a crew of three hundred, at the equally brutal sack of Campeche, Mexico. He was one of the few buccaneers, flibustiers, or outright pirates of the age of sail ever to command a great, heavily-armed ship.
After the sack—rape is surely a better word—of Campeche, the raiders scattered at the sight of the Armada de Barlovento, although the pirate hunting armada picked off a few of them. Three days later, off the north Yucatán coast of Mexico, near Alacrán (Scorpion) reef, de Graff’s lookout sighted two ships. The larger was the Nuestra Señora de Jonjón, an urca or frigate of roughly 335 tons and twenty to thirty guns.
The smaller vessel was the eight-gun Jesús, María y José, a patache or small escort ship of unknown rig, formerly known as the Sevillana. Both were part of the pirate hunting Armada de Barlovento. The Jesús, María y José immediately set all sail and a course away from the pirates, desperate to inform the famous, now elderly Admiral Andrés de Ochoa y Zárate that the greatest of pirates was nearby. The Jonhón wisely kept her distance. Soon enough, the captain of the patache informed the admiral of the opportunity to destroy the man who so successfully scourged the Spanish Main.
Within a day the main force of the Armada de Barlovento came in sight of de Graff, and a powerful squadron it was. The Spanish Capitana or flagship was the Dutch-built Santo Cristo de Burgos, of 650 tons and fifty-six guns, her stern with an image of Christ crucified, wearing a skirt that fell to beneath the knees. Aboard her was the Armada’s commander-in-chief, Andrés de Ochoa, ill to the point of physical incapacitation but who would refuse to leave his quarterdeck. The Almirante or vice-admiral was the Dutch-built Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, of fifty-two guns, probably 550 tons, and commanded by Antonio de Astina.
The two great ships were typically Dutch, although both appear, unusually, to have the semi-open stern gallery seen on some Spanish ships at this time. Both of the large pirate hunters were more lightly armed than we might expect—in fact, over-gunning is an historical error often made in novels and films, especially those depicting ships of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Based on the armament of similar ships of the Armada de Barlovento circa 1700, the Burgos was probably armed with twelve pounders on the gundeck, perhaps a few sixteen or eighteen pounders (culverins) as well, with demi-culverins shooting eight pound shot on the deck above, and four pounders on the “castillos,” that is, on the forecastle and quarterdeck, and possibly the poop.
The Concepción was likely armed with twelve pounders, or even ten pounders if twelves were unavailable, on the gundeck, sakers of five or six pound shot on the upper, with smaller guns on the quarterdeck and, possibly, the poop. Accompanying these two great ships was the recently captured pirate ship Reglita, itself originally a Spanish prize, of twenty-two guns, probably of six or four pound shot, commanded by présador or prize-master Pedro de Iriarte.
And it was by these three ships that De Graff found himself trapped to leeward in his Neptune of as many as fifty guns, though we must doubt that these were all great guns, given the tonnage of his ship. His ship probably had ports for no more than thirty-five to forty great guns of probably no more than eight and four pound shot; the rest were almost certainly various swivel cannon. Put plainly, he was heavily out-gunned.
Unable to gain the weather gage so necessary to give him a fighting chance against two large men-of-war—or to escape them—de Graff ordered the Neptune to lie by and prepare for battle. In the language of the day, he had “catch’d a Tartar.” The Armada was not idle either. During the night, the two powerful Spanish men-of-war brought flibustier prisoners aboard to help man the guns against their flibustier brethren—or die.
The battle began early the next morning. De Graff could surely have fought off, perhaps even captured, one of these great men-of-war, but two at once? Still, de Graff knew his business and just how serious the situation was. Before battle began he spoke boldly to his crew, as recounted by buccaneer-surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin:
“You are too experienced to not understand the peril we are running, and too brave to fear it,” he said. “It is necessary here to be cautious of all yet to risk all, to defend and attack at the same time. Valor, deception, fear, and even despair must all be put to use on this occasion; where, if we fall into the hands of our enemies, nothing awaits us but all sorts of infamies, from the most cruel of torments to, finally, the end of life. We must therefore escape their barbarity; and to escape, we must fight.”
The great ships of the Armada sailed bravely down upon the waiting Neptune and her cornered pirate crew. Coming into range, the Burgos fired a warning shot from a bow chaser. The Neptune made no response. Onward sailed the Burgos, the Concepción not far behind. And here the Armada made its first tactical mistake, sailing on each side of the Neptune. In this position, the Spaniards could not fire on the enemy without also firing into each other. Only in Hollywood can two ships sail closely one on each side of another ship and destroy it, as in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. In reality, it could be suicide or nearly so. Of course, Rafael Sabatini, doubtless inspired by Exquemelin’s description of the battle, got the tactic right in Captain Blood, with his hero emulating de Graff by sailing between the Spanish men-of-war Milagrosa and Hidalga.
De Graff shouted orders to fire starboard and larboard. First one side, then the other of the Neptune blazed iron into the pair of pirate hunters. Immediately de Graff topped the broadsides off with an enormous discharge of musketry. Buccaneer surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin claimed that the musketry alone killed or wounded fifty Spaniards, and this might be true: filibusters and buccaneers were known for their ability with their long-barreled muskets. The Burgos, ready to fight, let loose its own powerful broadside in return.
Spanish records, however, give a slightly different account of this first phrase d’armes, perhaps truthfully, perhaps to cover up a grave error. Admiral Andrés de Ochoa y Zárate, the records suggest, believed de Graff would speak to him, surely to discuss terms, and so approached the pirate. After all, de Graff was out-numbered, out-gunned, and out-manned. But when the admiral’s ship came into close range, de Graff let his great guns do the talking.
For the next twelve hours de Graff maneuvered his ship defensively such that his enemy could seldom or never bring two broadsides to bear on him at once. Never did de Graff gain the weather gage, yet in spite of this the Armada ships never boarded him. In fact, they feared to do so. De Graff had a large crew that was clearly proving its prowess in open sea battle. If the Spaniards were to board, they first had to outmaneuver him, and both ships must board him, one first, then the other alongside the first. Once one had boarded, the other must cease firing, but the pirate had no such restriction. Perhaps most threatening, they knew too well de Graff’s prowess as a gunner. He might slaughter far too many of their men as they came near to board, for boarders, if there are many of them, must be massed on deck just before they board, and thus are vulnerable.
And de Graff made sure the Armada captains and crews understood how dangerous it would be to try to board. At one point, De Graff ordered his helmsmen to close with the Burgos and his gun crews to aim a broadside at close range at the mainmast. In this age broadsides were not fired as in Hollywood films, all guns firing at once or almost so, with each gun captain simultaneously touching his match to his gun. Rather, these great guns were often fired by a few gunners, gunner’s mates, or officers who went from one gun to the next and then the next, or they were aimed and fired by individually by each gun’s captain, all in order to ensure good aim.
In either case, a real broadside in this era was a ragged slow-motion series of ear-cracking explosions of fire and smoke that ripped from iron into wood and flesh. Buccaneer-surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin claims that de Graff himself aimed the gun that dismasted the Burgos. And it’s likely de Graff did aim several or more of his guns in this broadside, but the mainmast of the Burgos, although damaged, did not fall. Even so, the broadside was so effective that the Spaniards abandoned any thought of boarding the Neptune.
Surely emulating the famous previous fight of de Graff’s Le Tigre against the situado (payroll) ship La Francesa, the larger, less maneuverable Neptune twisted and turned as the fight continued, engaging first one ship, then the other, but taking no unnecessary risks. De Graff wanted to batter his enemies down, one then the other, however long it took. The Concepción, valiantly bearing the brunt of the fight, fired at least sixty full broadsides at the Neptune, and Burgos at least fourteen. The Spanish officers would later claim their powder was bad, and maybe it was. Yet it was powerful enough to kill five Spanish gunners when their great gun exploded.
But de Graff’s powder was not bad, and moreover, his crew knew how to load, aim, and fire accurately. Smoke covered the water between the ships as they blazed away. Men bled and died on each side, including de Graff himself, wounded in the leg. He was carried below and his crew lost heart. But as soon as de Graff heard his guns slacking, he rose, climbed back to his quarterdeck, and, sword in one hand, pistol in the other, and rallied his filibuster crew.
The battle continued until nightfall, when all three ships stood off from each other to tend to their wounded, knot their shattered rigging, repair the leaks in their hulls, and pump the water from their holds. The Neptune was in terrible condition. Although only nine of her crew had been killed and but ten or twelve wounded, the Neptune herself had taken a beating, for the Spanish broadsides had not been ineffective. Her foretopmast was shattered. Far worse, she had been hulled at the waterline by so many round shot that she was listing severely due to the water that continued to flood her hold in spite of the plugs pounded into the hull by his carpenter and mates. Through the night de Graff’s crew worked to lighten Neptune, to right her and prepare her for battle on the morn.
At dawn the next morning the Neptune had finally gained the weather gage—and the Burgos and Concepción were in no mood to engage her again. Their crews were battered and almost beaten, with dozens killed and wounded. They had expended most of their powder and shot, and the upper works of the Burgos were shattered. During the night the elderly admiral had been given his last rites in expectation of his death: he would live but two more days. With a single exception, the Armada officers believed that calling off the fight was the best course. Only Pedro de Iriarte wanted to chase the pirate and renew the fight, more for the sense of honor and reputation than for tactical wisdom. Surely every one of them felt shamed by their failure to capture, at odds of two to one of ships and guns in favor, this notorious pirate who had once been one of them.
This account is an edited, abbreviated version that appears in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. Citations can be found in the endnotes of the book (I’m frankly too lazy to add them here. 🙂 ).
Copyright Benerson Little 2023. First posted 26 January 2023. Last updated 23 February 2023.
“The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow” by Howard Pyle
And indeed he was a picturesque — and picaresque! — fellow, the buccaneer! Howard Pyle’s painting of this romantic sea rover has influenced the imaginations of half a dozen generations of readers, writers, illustrators, costume designers, film-makers, and game designers. Currently on view at the Delaware Art Museum, the painting was one of four created for an article, “The Fate of a Treasure Town,” also by Pyle, published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, December 1905.
In fact, the paintings accompanying the article are some of Pyle’s most famous buccaneer and pirate images. In addition to the picturesque buccaneer, there is “An Attack on a Galleon,” “Extorting Tribute from the Citizens” (used as the cover of The Buccaneer’s Realm, for what it’s worth), and “So the Treasure Was Divided.” Of the most famous paintings of his buccaneer, as opposed to pirate, series, only “Which Shall be Captain?” for “The Buccaneers” by Don C. Seitz, in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, January 1911, and “How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas,” Harper’s Weekly, December 16, 1899, are missing. (High resolution images are available on Wikimedia Commons.)
Pyle’s article opens with romantic tropical buccaneering scene-setting, then shifts in detail to the sack of Cartagena de Indias in 1697, a privately-funded French privateering expedition that was composed of hired ships and troops of the French navy and army, with a large body of French buccaneers and Caribbean militia in support. The Baron de Pointis, commander of the expedition, swindled the buccaneers out of their agreed share, so they returned and extored more treasure from the citizenry. Pyle’s painting, “Extorting Tribute from the Citizens,” shows buccaneers actively engaged in this pursuit. (On a side note, the painting was used for the dust jacket of The Buccaneer’s Realm, my second book.)
But few people have actually the read the article or even know about the sack of Cartagena de Indias, and it’s the images themselves that have caught our imagination. In particular, film-makers, illustrators, and Disney have borrowed heavily from the paintings: from The Black Pirate of Douglas Fairbanks and the Captain Blood of Michael Curtiz, to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and films, to the sea rover art of Don Maitz, Pyle’s influence is impossible to deny.
From a historical standpoint, the paintings are far more evocative than accurate, although clearly Pyle attempted to get historical details correct. But this wasn’t easy. He had to interpret written descriptions and also — the bane of truth-seeking historians and researchers everywhere! — appeal to popular tropes as well. For popular works, some degree to catering to popular expectations is considered mandatory, or so I’ve been advised (and immediately resisted, bound by nature to do my best to keep within the limits of fact and fact-finding, at least as much as possible).
For Pyle, it was not the buccaneer or pirate’s sea roving escapades that made him appealing: “It is not because of his life adventures and daring that I admire this one of my favorite heroes; nor is it because of blowing winds nor blue ocean nor palmy islands which he knew so well; nor is it because of gold he spent nor treasure he hid. He was a man who knew his own mind and what he wanted.”
He conveyed this well with his picaresque — sorry, picturesque — buccaneer even if it appears that the young man evokes a purely romantic image of a sea roving adventurer rather than a real one.
Let’s take a quick look at his arms, accoutrements, and clothing and compare them to the historical. We’ll begin with his hat. Spotting the red ball tassels, we assume the hat is intended to evoke Spain — it’s the somewhat tropish hat of a Spanish flamenco dancer or mounted matador. Perhaps the buccaneer captured it, or, I think more likely, the buccaneer is in fact a Spaniard, a mestizo perhaps. We know that there were Spanish renegados among the buccaneers. Let’s keep this in mind as we look at the rest of him.
He’s wearing two gold earrings — small simple hoops. Most European-derived buccaneers did not wear earrings, with the occasional exceptions of the Dutch (single pearl, single ear), fops (single pearl, single ear). However, all too often our impression of pirates is influenced by our ethnocentrism: some Africans, Native Americans, mulattos, and mestizos in the Americas did in fact wear earrings. Pyle probably added earrings as part of the expected pirate cliché, but to my mind, the earrings, considered historically, are more evidence that this buccaneer is a Spanish mestizo renegade, as is the perhaps fanciful bracelet on his wrist. His dark hair and olive skin — also “Spanish” clichés — are to me more evidence of his Hispano-American origin.
He has a red cloak over his shoulders, but would a buccaneer wear one? Probably not in the daytime, given the highs in the upper 80s and lows in the upper 70s year-round in Cartagena de Indias, although in some areas of the Caribbean cloaks, jackets, blankets, “ruggs,” &c were worn or used, typically at night. That said, a 1680s image, if not eyewitness then at least based on eyewitness descriptions does show a Spanish pirate or privateer with a cloak! More on this below.
Further, French priest and eyewitness Jean-Baptiste Labat described the admiral of the Armada de Barlovento in the Caribbean as wearing a cloak, but he was an old man and perhaps needed the cloak to keep his old bones warm at sea. And Spaniards wearing them are depicted in period images of New Spain, see the last image below for example. Perhaps, as with the Spaniard’s ruff which was often added historically as a satirical symbol — Spaniards no longer wore ruffs –, Pyle added the buccaneer’s cloak as a mere symbol of dress to indicate that the man is a Spaniard. This isn’t the first time Pyle put a cloak on a buccaneer: he also did so in his painting, “How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas,” Harper’s Weekly, December 16, 1899.
His “musket” is a bit of an anachronism: it is a Jaeger or Jaeger-type hunting rifle. Developed in the late 17th century in the region later to become known as Germany, there is no indication they were ever used by buccaneers. These Caribbean sea rovers used the long fusil boucanier, especially among the French, and various other muskets at times. However, there are instances of carbines (Sp. carabinas) in use on occasion at sea and ashore, and we will assume this is what Pyle meant to represent. His pistol could represent any number of sea pistols in use at the time, and is close to their common size. Its lock is indeterminate, but it hints of a Spanish Miquelet style.
His rapier, or possibly broadsword, is a shell-hilt, of what could be a Spanish-style doble concha, although the true cup-hilt (taza) was far more common. All or nearly all English, French, and Dutch buccaneers carried cutlasses, although there are documented indications of a few exceptions for smallswords and broadswords. However, the rapier — espada ropera — was still in common use in Spain, Portugal, and Spanish-governed parts of Italy at the time, not only among gentlemen (and most Spaniards considered themselves gentlemen!), but also among soldiers and almost surely among some seamen and artilleros. In fact, the eyewitness, or nearly so, image below of a Spanish privateer or pirate from the 1680s shows him wearing a Spanish rapier. Curved quillons were uncommon on Spanish swords of the era, although they did begin to show up on some at the end of the 17th century. Again, although for Pyle the rapier may have been a necessary trope, historically it would point the buccaneer being a Spaniard, Portuguese, Italian, or Corsican.
His sash is a bit wide, at least from what eyewitness images suggest, but his belt is correctly worn over it. The pouch or box on his right may be a cartouche box worn on a strap in a rather un-buccaneer style. His breeches, buttoned at the sides, are quite typical of those shown worn by Spaniards in the era, although Pyle may have depicted this style to evoke the swashbuckler or pirate as he did in other paintings, “I Had Met My Equal” for example.
And last, his sandals: most buccaneers, according to eyewitness descriptions and images, wore conventional shoes, or boucanier shoes made from skin pulled from the hocks of hogs (see here for details), or went barefoot, at least among the poorest sort. However, as noted not all buccaneers were English, French, or Dutch. Some were Spanish renegades, including Spanish Native Americans and mestizos, and we know that some of both groups wore sandals at the time.
The image below was drawn by a French engineer in the 1680s, almost certainly based on local eyewitness accounts of French pirates or privateers who attacked Nipe on Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti). There is no chance Pyle ever saw this image, yet his picturesque buccaneer evokes it well! The Spaniard is even wearing a cloak! Many Spanish pirates and privateers — most, some eyewitnesses noted — were men of color: Native Americans, mestizos, Africans, and mulattos. Is this what Pyle intended, a Spanish or mestizo renegade buccaneer? I can’t be entirely certain, but the evidence and my gut assure it is.
Bookends, Bookcovers, & More…
The painting has inspired a variety of objects and art, ranging from bookends to bookcovers to game miniatures. The bronze-clad bookend below, “Pirate’s Den” by Peter Manfredi (1930) for the Pompeian Bronze Co., is a three dimensional copy of Pyle’s painting. This example is one of two variants; the other has part of the background removed.
The Pompeian statuette bookend below, “Buccaneer” by Peter Manfredi (1930), was clearly inspired by Pyle’s painting. On the left is “Miss Pirate” by the same sculptor and year for Pompeian Bronze Co., Brooklyn.
In The Black Swan (20th Century-Fox, 1942), only loosely based on Rafael Sabatini’s novel of the same name, Tyrone Power’s costume is clearly based on, and probably an homage to, Pyle’s famous painting. The hat with tassels hanging from it, the cape, the sash, the rapier, are all clearly intended to evoke Pyle’s picturesque buccaneer.
The image has been used often on the covers of trade paper editions of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini. The one below is published by the Naval Institute Press. Pyle’s painting doesn’t evoke the urbane and sedulous Captain Peter Blood, but it does evoke the buccaneers he led. In fact, part of the novel takes place during the sack of Cartagena de Indias, although Sabatini moves the attack on the beautiful city up in time.
The painting inspired the cover of a mass market edition of Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck, a fictional, and quite literary, account of famed buccaneer Henry Morgan.
CrossGen published a series of six comic books 2003-2004 by Chuck Dixon, Steve Epting, and Frank D’Armata featuring a Spanish female pirate hunting captain, Donessa Cinzia Elena Marie Esperanza Diego-Luis Hidalgo (seriously!). Captured by buccaneers in 1687, she turns them into pirate hunters to seek out and destroy their pirate lord in return for the location of a great treasure. Commanding El Cazador, she is known by her English and French crew as Lady Sin and Captain Sin. She appears on the cover of Issue 5 (March 2004) in an homage to Pyle’s Picturesque Buccaneer. My many thanks to Antón Viejo Alonso for reminding me of this comic book cover!
The Naxos re-release of these film music classics by the Brandenburg Philharmonic Orchestra uses the picturesque buccaneer on the “album” cover, albeit reversed. Good music too!
Firelock Games created a special edition figure as an homage to Howard Pyle for its popular (and quite historically accurate) Blood & Plunder tabletop wargame. (Full disclosure: I’ve done quite a bit of consulting for Firelock Games.)
Even produce growers, or at least one of them, have appropriated the swashbuckling image…
Perhaps the most significant homage to Pyle’s painting came from another great illustrator: Norman Rockwell. But Rockwell’s buccaneer is no longer the youthful adventurer with a touch of arrogance, but a tired grizzled veteran with torn cloak and shirt, a sash of a different color, a hat that has long lost its tassels, and a leg lost to a broadside, yet who keeps sailing the Main with his buccaneer brethren even as he begins to long for home. There are a few anachronisms, as there always are in such paintings: his pistol is of a later era, as is the cutlass that has replaced his rapier, and his boots are entirely fanciful and unhistorical — pirates didn’t wear any such footwear. But I find no real fault with such details. As I said, these are evocative, not historical images.
But I do find fault with the home Rockwell has the buccaneer dream of, for it evokes Olde England as N. C. Wyeth might have painted it — perhaps even the Admiral Benbow Inn! — and not Spanish America. I imagine our Spanish renegade buccaneer, young and old, longing instead for a place along the Spanish Main: Campeche or Veracruz, Havana or Matanzas, Puerto Bello or Maracaibo. Or perhaps he’s even from Spain! But no matter: he has chosen to sail with the hated buccaneers, and might never see his home or family again. But let us remember that these are only paintings, only part of the story: we might fill and finish the buccaneer’s tale as we please.
Copyright Benerson Little 2022. First posted August 17, 2022. Last modified March 6, 2023.
Creating that Ship-at-Sea Sensation While Armchair Adventuring: Some Progressively Tongue-in-Cheek Suggestions
A practical, yet certainly tongue-in-cheek, post about creating a buccaneering sensory environment while reading Captain Blood in your armchair, playing Blood & Plunder or Oak & Iron or a buccaneer board game with your friends, watching The Sea Hawk or any other classic sea roving swashbuckler, playing a piratical video game (Monkey Island, AC Black Flag, and Sea of Thieves come to mind, or Skull & Bones when it’s released), or finally finishing that 1:48 scale model of a 17th century Spanish pirate hunting frigate (perhaps even the Cinco Llagas!) you started a quarter century ago…
Pine Tar & Cordage!
If there’s any single smell that evokes seaman’s “heart thrice walled with oak and brass”* during the golden age of sail, it’s pine tar. It was one of the principal naval stores, critical in the age of wooden ships. Unlike turpentine which was drained from pine tree trunks by notching them serially and collecting the sap, both in liquid form and as hard rosin (pine resin), then boiling it, pine tar was derived by stacking sap-rich pine wood from old growth trees in great heaps, burning it, and collecting the tar as it drained from the bottom. Pitch is simply pine tar further distilled to make it thicker. Pitch was used to seal the seams between planking after paying them with oakum, &c.
Pine tar was thinned with turpentine to preserve running rigging; in thicker consistency for marline; and even thicker for standing rigging. It was also used, often heavily thinned with turpentine and mixed with linseed oil or tallow, or both, for treating the planking on ships’ sides.
Its smell is, to those like me who love it, entrancing. Nothing evokes the old wooden ships like it does! But to those who hate it, those for whom organic smells cause them to recoil in nasal horror, it is akin to the combined smell of rotting road kill and hot roofing tar.
There are several excellent methods for bringing these scents about:
1. The simplest by far is to buy a tin of real pine tar–you can order it online–and open it, or better yet, pour a little bit into a small container and leave it uncovered. It doesn’t take much to fill a room with the smell. Sniff deeply from the container every quarter hour. Or dip your fingers in it and sniff them every so often–then wipe well unless you want your book or miniatures to smell like pine tar too.
2. Learn sail-making by making a ditty bag. You’ll need tarred marline, its smell will linger for months. Keep the bag nearby. When the marline eventually dries out, refresh it with a mixture of pine tar and turpentine.
3. Buy a ball of tarred marline, keep it in a plastic container so it doesn’t dry out over time, open it up as required for the salty tar smell. You’ll need it anyway for suggestion #2 above.
4. Bathe with pine tar soap. There are several on the market, Grandpa’s is highly recommended by many a tall ship sailor. Or just sniff the soap bar occasionally.
5. Treat your shoes with Huberd’s Shoe Grease, it’s made of pine tar and beeswax. Or just open a tin and sniff it periodically. And it really does work well waterproofing shoes, boots, gloves, and also cartouche boxes (for those of you who need to keep your powder dry).
6. Brew and drink Lapsang souchong tea–it smells, and even tastes (pleasantly, actually) of pine tar. Really, it’s much better than you might think, even if it’s anachronistic. It’s easy to find.
7. Hang a coil of marine grade Manila nearby, or better yet, several, or even better, hemp cordage if you can find it. Wet it for best effect. Or, the next time you’re by the seaside, soak it for a couple of days in the ocean, let dry, then hang and sniff as desired.
8. If you want to add more authentic smokiness, light a wood fire to augment the pine tar smell with that of the fire-hearth in the cook-room (NOT galley, that’s a later term). Place a pot of cornmeal (ideally coarse stone-ground cornmeal, but polenta, yellow grits, &c are close enough) and water on the fire to boil, add bacon fat or, better yet, unrefined manteca (pork lard), to season. Serve with boiled boucan (you’ll have to smoke your own boucan first, you can’t buy it at the market). Or, boil cornmeal dumplings, serve with unrefined manteca. When either or both are ready, dine like a buccaneer.
Be advised that, like most of these scents (or odors, depending on your sense of smell and olfactory triggers in your memory), your spouse or other significant other, unless a sailor or fisherperson, might not like them at all. You may hear about this, in fact. Nod with empathy, promise to keep the door closed.
Pour a glass. Sniff. Drink. Repeat carefully. Don’t drive, neither ashore nor at sea, and don’t play with ANY firearms (a potentially fatal combination!) even unloaded, or sharp swords (you’ll stab your eye out for real, especially with a cutlass, or stick your foot to the floor/deck with a smallsword or rapier, the latter incident I’ve some experience with) while imbibing, nor afterward until the effects have passed!
I recommend dark molasses-ey rums: Pusser’s Gunpowder or just plain Pusser’s, Gosling’s, most any Navy rum, &c, or any amber or dark Jamaican or Bajan rum. I’m also partial to the Colombian Ron Viejo de Caldas with a pipe and tobacco (especially in a snow storm with thunder and electric blue lightning, of which there aren’t any in the Caribbean), and Smith & Cross, an authentic 18th to 19th century shipped-from-Jamaica-to-London style is also excellent. If you like a strong molasses taste, try Cruzan Blackstrap.
Lately I’ve become enamored of Privateer Navy Yard, a colonial New England style rum, and, for making punch, Plantation O.F.T.D and Ministry of Rum’s Hamilton 114. Also check out some of the strong pot-stilled, unfiltered, uncolored, “funky” white (often yellow, really) rums. We’re spoiled these days with the number of “funky” aka “hogo” rums these days, including white or yellow rums similar to 17th and 18th century rums, most of which were white or pale yellow and drunk very young. I highly recommend Hampden Estate Rum Fire Overproof. (“Hogo” derives from “Haut goût” or “high taste” and denotes a strong molasses and other raw taste; in meat it indicates gaminess.)
If you’re a modern Cuban-American pirate, it’s going to be the original Cuban Havana Club (not the Puerto Rican stuff although I’ve nothing against it per se) and real Cuban cigars, or so I’ve been told by a modern Cuban-American corsario who introduced me to the combination. That said, it was the wife of a Hungarian who first introduced me to Cuban cigars, she’d smuggled (i.e. forgotten to declare, or so she said, to US Customs) them out of Hungary back in the days of the Iron Curtain.
You might also try a 17th-18th century rum punch. The classic modern recipe is one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak, with a bit of grated nutmeg (or even allspice). Translated to the 17th century, this means one part key lime juice (preferred, although you may substitute orange or even pineapple juice), two parts muscovado sugar, three parts rum, and four parts water. Nutmeg was also commonly used in the 17th century. (See the foot of this page for notes on acquiring muscovado and key limes.)
Foremost, don’t smoke. And if you do, let it be only an occasional pipe or tobacco. And smoke outside — if you own your residence it will have better resale value, and your spouse or significant other might not murder you.
If you choose to smoke a pipe, try a high quality clay replica (a churchwarden is an excellent choice for you gentleman and lady buccaneers, but shorter pipes were more common shipboard), fill it with bosun’s rum twist (often called sweet rum twist), Sweet Virginia (Sutliff makes one), or Navy flake, and puff away. That said, I’ve been reliably informed that the early Oronoko (Verina, Sacerdotes, &c) and related Virginia tobaccos of the era were probably more like modern mild burleys.
Add an authentic replica of a seventeenth century pipe tamper if you like — a dolphin (aka dolphin fish, classical dolphin, mahi-mahi) or something bawdy, both of which were common along with other designs. (See Bucklecastings online for some.)
Or, smoke a cigar. Yes, cigars were popular in the 17th century Caribbean. Pretty much everyone smoked them to some degree, although pipes were more popular among the English, French, and Dutch. Cigars far outnumbered pipes among the Spanish, Portuguese, Africans, and, at least in the Caribbean and environs, Native Americans, and were smoked by women as well (as were pipes, by the way, among other nationalities). Check this out: Of Buccaneer Christmas, Dog as Dinner, & Cigar Smoking Women.
WARNING! Keep your pipe or cigar away from various flammable mixtures of pine tar, turpentine, beeswax, and linseed oil! Especially if you’ve been drinking rum!
WARNING! Keep your pipe or cigar away from your blackpowder, if any (see below), too! Blackpowder isn’t quite as sensitive to candle or common match flame as Hollywood depicts it, but a tobacco ember might still set it off. Put another way, it might take a dozen common wooden matches to ignite a blackpowder train — or it might take only one! And the flame from even a small amount of blackpowder can burn you to the bone! (Blackpowder, by the way, doesn’t explode, it deflagrates, if you want to get technical. It doesn’t burn as fast as true explosives.)
You can add a pipe bowl cover to your pipe for authenticity and, as was the case even three centuries ago aboard ship, for safety. It’s useful also when stalking wild cattle or feral swine on tinderbox arid coasts and desert islands.
While smoking your pipe, take a break, tend your geraniums, and randomly shout, ideally from a window at passersby, “Quo, quo, scelesti, ruitis?” If you don’t get the allusion, shame on you! Go back to your armchair and do some more reading. 🙂
I’ve had my doubts about including this suggestion, given the large number of fools with firearms in the US these days. However, given that in my experience there are far fewer fools with blackpowder arms, I’ll go ahead.
WARNING! NOT NOT NOT FOR NOVICES OR AMATEURS! THIS IS NO JOKE! UNLESS YOU REALLY KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING, DON’T!!!
TRIPLE-CHECK that the barrel of your flintlock musket or pistol is UNLOADED. Prime (but do NOT load), point in a SAFE direction, bring to full cock, and squeeze the trigger — and thereby, assuming your flint is sharp and tight in the cock, fill the room you’re in with just enough smoke to bring your spouse or significant other down upon your ears after any nearby smoke alarms go off. Or maybe do this outside instead and hope your neighbors don’t call the police on you, which they probably will (and probably should, just in case) for discharging a firearm within city limits. Remember what I said about fools and firearms…
Breathe deeply of this broadsides and boarding actions smell. As an archaeologist at the Middelaldercentret in Nykøbing Falster, Denmark put it to me (we were testing firepots and an iron breech-loading swivel gun for a TV show), “There’s no one who doesn’t like the smell of blackpowder!”
If you like, afterward clash a couple of swords together afterward to suggest a boarding action. Prefer fencing swords rather than real cutlasses or functional replicas in order to avoid nicking sharp blades unnecessarily. If you’re going to nick edges, let it be in a real boarding action of which there really aren’t any of the age of sail sort anymore. Cue Jimmy Buffett…
WARNING! Don’t mix with rum drinking! Or any drinking! Or any other substance that impairs your judgment!
Put on music or videos of surf, preferably with seagulls in the background.
Or listen to a video (YouTube surely has some) of tall ship sounds–the sea, creaking rigging, seagulls.
Ignore this if you live by the sea or on a boat or ship (lubbers take note: a boat and a ship are not the same thing). If you live near a dump you might hear seagulls. Ignore the smell or pretend it’s the ship’s bilge.
You can always put on a CD of sea shanties, the bawdier the better in most cases, but accept the fact none are 17th or 18th century, but 19th & 20th century and therefore anachronistic. Or, put on a CD of John Playford’s popular 17th century tunes, there are at least two good compilations available. (Or stream them, I know, we’re well into the 21st century…)
If it’s Spanish pirating you want to evoke, try La Bamba: Sones Jarochos from Veracruz sung by José Gutiérrez & Los Hermanos Ochoa (a Smithsonian release). La Bamba was reportedly composed in the aftermath of the sack of Veracruz in 1683, lampooning the bombast of defenders who did nothing to stop the pirates — but claimed they would. Or, if it’s gentlemanly Spanish pirating you want to evoke, try Fantasía para un Gentilhombre by Joaquín Rodrigo, it has elements of Gaspar Sanz’s 17th century guitar compositions; or just sample some of Sanz’s music instead. Navigating Foreign Waters: Spanish Baroque Music & Mexican Folk Music is also an excellent choice.
But if it’s Hollywood pirating you want to evoke, put on Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for Captain Blood or The Sea Hawk, Alfred Newman’s for The Black Swan, Franz Waxman’s for Anne of the Indies, Max Steiner’s for The Adventures of Don Juan (I know, Don Juan isn’t a pirate film or even a seafaring one but the score was used in The Goonies aboard the pirate galleon), John Debney’s for Cutthroat Island, or, one of my favorites, the Chieftains’ score for the best version of Treasure Island ever filmed.
Hang a ship’s bell nearby, ring it loudly occasionally, ideally with the correct number on the half hour, remembering to ring in pairs: ding-ding, ding-ding, ding, &c. Unless you’re a complete fool, avoid doing so if your spouse or significant other has a migraine.
Note that sound effects are unnecessary if you’re just watching a movie…
That Salty Sea Smell!
It’s almost impossible to imitate, so go live by the sea if you can. Upside: the smell and sound of the sea. Downside: everything rusts, including your car. Failing this, keep a bottle of seawater handy, open it occasionally, and sniff. If that doesn’t work, attempt to reproduce that special salty sea smell with water, salt, and a few dead guppies.
Pitching, Sending, Rolling, & Yawing…
There’s really not much you can do to emulate the feel of a ship underfoot except to go to sea or get drunk or carsick. Best substitute: a hammock. Try not to fall asleep in it after drinking two rum punches. If you plan on inviting your significant other aboard the hammock, whether to recreate life aboard a man-o’-war in harbor or on a desert isle à la Robinson Crusoe, make sure it will hold both of you up! In other words, if you hang your hammock on an isle or cay, make sure your weight won’t pull one or both small trees over onto you. Experientia docet…
The Ship’s Head, Chamber Pots, Pissdales, & the Bilge!
Pretend you’re a buccaneer quartermaster or captain and use a bucket or chamber pot to relieve yourself because you’ve got too much status to use the ship’s head or one of the pissdales (if even there are any along the gun’l), or you’re too lazy to piss in the bilge where you shouldn’t anyway (the ammonia stench from this could actually choke seamen out at times). Pretend your spouse is your personal servant (yes, some buccaneers had indentured servants as their personal servants, and even naval officers often went to sea with servants, mustering many as seamen and taking part of their pay, a common practice of dubious legality) and ask her or him to empty said relief. Stand by for a break-up. Or simply for the contents to be emptied on your head. Personally I recommend passing on this simulation, but to each his, her, or their own…
More Effects of Sight and Sound: Parrots!
Get a parrot, name it Pol (it’s where the name Polly comes from, you can thank Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe), teach it to shout “Pieces-of-Eight! Pieces-of-Eight!” over and over (but this’s from Stevenson’s Treasure Island). Don’t listen to anyone who tells you parrots are just a fictional pirate trope — some pirate tropes actually have a great deal of legitimacy, particularly this one. Don’t believe me? Check this out: Of Pirates & Parrots (& Monkeys, Too).
However, be prepared for to spend big bucks to acquire and maintain a parrot, and also for guilt trips when the parrot won’t shut the hell up and you stuff it in the closet for a couple hours for some relief. Also, the damn bird will probably outlive you, so make sure to include it in your last will and testament. Leave it to someone who’ll take good care of it. Extra points if giving it to this person will also satisfy your need for petty personal revenge. Warning: acquiring a parrot is a serious undertaking! Best substitute? House-sit for a few days, parrot included.
And Still More: Monkeys!
Get a capuchin (monkey, not monk), put it in a diaper, name it “Captain,” and let it roam free and destroy your home. Or maybe not: primates shouldn’t be kept as pets, although some members of Homo sapiens — a primate species — inexplicably, even unconscionably, thrive on it (both keeping monkeys or other primates, including humans figuratively, as pets, and being kept as pets, that is).
Drawback: monkeys, not to mention many politicians and Internet windbags these days, often fling their turds at humans and can be quite obstreperous when it comes time to correct or prevent their bad behavior. (I’ll forgive monkeys but not politicians, pundits, or “influencers” aka product shills.) For what it’s worth, monkeys are another pirate trope with a great deal of maritime legitimacy. See the link above.
And If You’re Really Bold…
Just stuff the book you’re reading or the game you’re playing into your sea bag or sea chest, find a tall ship in the offing, and join her (its) crew!
Notes on Muscovado and Key Limes
Key limes are available in many groceries these days, including Walmart’s produce sections. Often the limes are listed as Mexican, given their usual origin, and they’re also known as West Indian limes. You’ll know them by their size, a third that of conventional limes.
For muscovado sugar, I recommend buying it in bulk from Amazon, it’s by far the best value, ten one-pound boxes, Billington’s Natural Dark Brown Molasses Sugar, or for a lighter taste, Billington’s Light Muscovado. (Colonial sugar plantations produced both dark muscovado and a lighter “clayed” sugar — in fact, sugar production was responsible for the majority of African slavery in the New World.) Much smaller quantities cost almost as much as ten pounds in bulk. Billington’s also makes a Dark Muscovado but it’s hard to find in bulk in the US and is quite pricey in smaller quantities and in any case I can’t tell much difference between it and their dark brown molasses sugar — the latter tastes, looks, and cooks like muscovado, except that it has more molasses than the average muscovado, and has less of a floral flavor; most “experts” regard the dark molasses sugar as a form of muscovado. India Tree also makes a muscovado sugar, but prices vary widely; some groceries sell it for around six or seven dollars a pound.
Use dark or light also for baking cookies, frying plantains with butter, making hot buttered rum (use Cruzan’s Blackstrap!), on oatmeal, &c, and for any other brown sugar need. This is the real stuff! You can also use panela, piloncillo, and similar “brick” or “cone” cane sugars to substitute for muscovado, they’re quite similar to 17th century sugars — in fact, they’re produced in much the same way and are generally considered as forms of muscovado. Dark muscovado is marketed in some areas of the world as Barbados sugar, although most today comes from Mauritius and the Philippines.
* Robert Herrick in “A Country-Life: To His Brother Mr. Tho. Herrick” (Hesperides, 1648) quoting Horace, Odes I.3 in translation.
Copyright Benerson Little 2022. First posted July 6, 2022. Last updated February 19, 2023.
Captain Blood, Not Jack Sparrow: The Real Origin of Disney’s Wicked Wench Pirate Ship
It’s an epic image, one that anyone who’s ever cruised through the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at one of the Disney theme parks is familiar with: a pirate ship cannonading — “firing its guns at” or “engaging” in sea parlance — a Spanish fort.
But the image-in-motion long predates the Disney attraction. In fact, as I’ll demonstrate shortly, the entire scene was lifted directly from Rafael Sabatini’s famous novel, Captain Blood: His Odyssey and especially from the 1935 film version starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone. And the Wicked Wench pirate ship of the attraction was more than simply inspired by the Cinco Llagas / Arabella, as the ship in the novel and film was named: it was copied from it!
Originally the attraction depicted buccaneers in the second half of the 17th century attacking and sacking a Spanish town on the Main. “IN THE CROSS FIRE of cannonades between pirate ship and Caribbean port,” begins the caption of the 1968 Disney publicity still of the Wicked Wench shown above. It continues with “this crew of Disneyland adventurers sail through Pirates of the Caribbean as grape shot and cannonballs land around them. The pirate captain on his bridge gives the signal for an eight gun salute. The scene of one of ten action-packed segments in the thoroughly realistic re-creation of buccaneer days.” For now I’ll pass on correcting Disney’s descriptive language, as some readers might misconstrue such revisions as nautical pedantry.
However, in spite of the obvious historical basis for the ride’s inspiration, according to Disney’s modern Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise “canon” the Wicked Wench was instead the ship that would become the Black Pearl commanded by Jack Sparrow et al, more or less, post-buccaneer era. Not a buccaneer ship, in other words, but a later ship turned to pirate ship as would fly the Jolly Roger. This, of course, is nothing more than mere revisionism for the sake of marketing the ride on the coattails of the film series, and any “canon” (as in nearly all franchises) is nothing more than the result of a series of screenwriters trying to write popular scripts, and fans subsequently trying to make rabid sense of their details and many loose ends.
Myself, I much prefer the original orientation of the attraction, liberties taken with real buccaneer history notwithstanding. That said, comic ride though it may be (and one that I thoroughly enjoy), it does get some things right, including torture, pillage, and burning, not to mention the original implication of some scenes now altered from their original. We have, in fact, two versions of piracy in our culture: factual history and popular myth, the latter often overwhelming the former.
And now for the evidence that the Wicked Wench is really the Cinco Llagas / Arabella!
The Scene of Ship Attacking Fort Was Inspired by & Lifted Largely From the 1935 Film
One need only to watch the 1935 Captain Blood to confirm this. The only difference between the two is that the roles are reversed: rather than a Spanish pirate attacking the principal town of an English colony in the late 17th century as in the Rafael Sabatini novel and the film based on it, buccaneers in the attraction attack a Spanish town, as they often successfully did — and far, far more often than Spanish pirates did against English, French, and Dutch colonies.
In fact, in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl there is an homage to the pirate attack in the 1935 film version of Captain Blood: some of the shots of locals running for cover are quite similar to those in Captain Blood.
For more details on the ship-versus-Spanish fort trope, see “The Iconic “Spanish” Fort: Only a Spanish Galleon Says “Pirates” Better!“
The Wicked Wench is Red Like the Cinco Llagas / Arabella of the Novel
According to Rafael Sabatini, who clearly emphasized the sanguinary nature of buccaneering via the hero’s name and other thematic elements, the color of Peter Blood’s pirate ship was red. However, red was not an exceptionally common color of ships at the time. Red paint was typically used for the bulwarks (the inner “walls”), gun carriages, and often some fittings of men-of-war, and some other ships as well, at the time, and the upper works (the upper outside of the hull) and sterns of some ships were occasionally painted red — but never the entire hull. However, the application of pine tar, tallow, and linseed oil could lend a reddish hue to hull planking (particularly to those ships built of various “mahoganies” in the Americas), but this would not cause a ship to be referred to as red. (Far more details on the possible appearance of the Cinco Llagas / Arabella are forthcoming in Treasure Light Press’s annotated Captain Blood.)
And the Wicked Wench? A red ship, of course!
The Profiles of the Wicked Wench and the Cinco Llagas / Arabella are Too Similar to be Coincidental
Indeed! The similarity is obvious when comparing the images below. Even the scrollwork on the stern upper works is almost identical (see the image above and also at the end of this section). Disney did make some alterations to suit the attraction, including reducing the ship from two decks to one, and, of course, making it small enough to fit in the attraction.
And Then There’s the Names of the Ships…
After its capture by a handful of renegade rebels-convict led by Dr. Peter Blood, the Cinco Llagas was renamed the Arabella after the woman Blood loved but thought he could never have. Arabella Bishop, although independent, strong-willed, and anything but swooning (or languishingly voluptuous!), was still a lady in manners and mores, unlikely to (sadly!) run away to sea in men’s clothes with Peter Blood. One can easily see a tongue-in-cheek homage to Arabella and the Arabella in the renaming of the Spanish frigate as the Wicked Wench, and even in the “Woman in Red” in the old Bride Auction scene on the attraction.
Likewise the captain of the Wicked Wench as an inverted homage: no clean-shaven gentleman buccaneer he, unlike Captain Peter Blood, but bearded and beribboned like Blackbeard the Pirate and bellowing in G-rated curses like Robert Newton or Peter Ustinov in their piratical film roles. That is, before Hector Barbossa took his place to align with the film franchise. (N.B. Blackbeard was not a buccaneer but a later black flag pirate, and although most buccaneers appeared to have been clean-shaven, some French boucaniers, and therefore buccaneers, did wear beards.)
For more details on “The Woman in Red,” now “Redd the Pirate,” (and in any case, an anthropomorphism of the ship by both), see “The Women in Red: The Evolution of a Pirate Trope.” For more details on the black flag — the so-called Rackham flag with skull and crossed cutlasses — flown by the Wicked Wench, see “The Fanciful, Mythical “Calico Jack Rackham” Pirate Flag.”
So, Was the Wicked Wench Really the Arabella?
Only Disney knows — and only Disney can answer how the Arabella, sunk among the cays just off Port Royal, Jamaica in 1689 while defending the town from French attack, came to be raised, refitted, and ended up again in buccaneer, then pirate, hands… 🙂
And the Black Pearl?
If you’re looking for the real original inspiration for the Black Pearl, discard any notion of it having been the Wicked Wench — this is probably just “canon after the fact.” Convenient revisionism for the sake of marketing, in other words. Sparrow’s famous ship is more likely inspired ultimately by Tom Leach’s 40-gun Black Swan, from Sabatini’s novel of the same title. Or at the very least it corresponds closely to Sabatini’s description of the ship, including its black hull. Even the un-authorized plastic model of Sparrow’s Black Pearl is sold under the name of the Black Swan. Are there similarities between the Wicked Wench and the Black Pearl? Of course there are. Clearly the set designers took a look at the Wicked Wench, but it is much closer to the Arabella. (By the way, the duel in The Black Swan is described here.)
And for you budding “nautical pedants” out there, here’s the correction to the Disney text quoted above: “this crew of Disneyland adventurers [an acceptable term: French buccaneers aka flibustiers were often referred to as adventurers] sail through Pirates of the Caribbean as grape shot [this form of small shot was in its early development and generally not known by this name at this time] and cannonballs [more correctly, round shot] land [splash] around them. The pirate captain on his bridge [quarterdeck, not bridge] gives the signal for an eight gun salute [a correct humorous euphemism for a broadside]. The scene of one of ten action-packed segments in the thoroughly [and humorously] realistic re-creation of buccaneer days [a statement more correct than it might appear at first]…”
Copyright Benerson Little 2022. First posted June 22, 2022. Last updated August 15, 2022.
The Duel on the Beach, Part IV: Flynn versus Rathbone in Captain Blood!
Classic film buffs, fencers, armchair adventurers, real swashbucklers, and romantics of many other stripes may debate over which film duel is the “best.” But no matter the standard, the duel between Errol Flynn as the hero Peter Blood and Basil Rathbone as the villain Levasseur in Captain Blood (1935) always makes the top few, often at number one. For me, there is no contest. There are a few far more historically accurate film duels (in fact, there are only a few historically accurate film duels at all), and there are a few film duels that are more technically proficient (for example, in The Mark of Zorro), but none in my opinion exceed this one in sheer excitement, drama, swashbuckling swordplay, and watching pleasure.
Of the duel, George MacDonald Fraser (The Pyrates, the Flashman series, &c, plus novelist, screenwriter, historian, swordsman, journalist, soldier, and more) had this to say in The Hollywood History of the World: “the most famous of screen duels…” and “Flynn v. Rathbone (Captain Blood) belongs in some swordsmen’s Valhalla of its own…” I cannot agree more.
The 1935 release, a remake of the silent 1924 film, was hotly anticipated. Newspapers and film magazines ate up the rumors, often created by Warner Bros. studio as part of its publicity campaign, regarding who would star in the film. At one point Robert Donat and Jean Muir were rumored in the LA Times to star, and later Bette Davis in Muir’s place. Many others were considered as well. But it was Irish-Australian newcomer Errol Flynn who landed the lead and after some reshoots fell naturally into the role.
Costing a reported $1,000,000, the film was directed by Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, and also starred nineteen-year-old Olivia de Havilland fresh from stage and film performances in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Basil Rathbone and an array of established character actors filled out the cast, supplemented by a number of real life adventurers among the ship crews and extras. Casey Robinson adapted the novel to the screenplay, simplifying it greatly but keeping the essentials. Released at Christmas, the swashbuckling romance was an immediate blockbuster and launched Flynn and de Havilland to stardom.
This post is a bit long and detailed, and occasionally technical when it comes to buccaneer history, fencing, and swords. Feel free therefore to jump around if you prefer, or just scroll through and check out the images. The major sections are marked. Reading the previous three “Duel on the Beach” posts is recommended but not required: In Fiction, in The Black Swan, and In Film. Some of the in-depth historical details below have been drawn from the annotations Treasure Light Press is writing for its forthcoming edition of Captain Blood.
The Novel Versus Film Duel
The 1935 duel was composed entirely from scratch, for the novel by Rafael Sabatini provides no significant detail. The author does include plenty of dramatic tension leading up to the swordfight, but for the assault itself we have only dialogue and minor notes.
[Spoiler Alert! Skip to the next header if you haven’t read the novel — or if you have and don’t need the refresher!].
In the novel, Peter Blood and the crew of his ship the Arabella, believed by their consort Captain Levasseur and his crew of La Foudre to be well on their way back to Tortuga after the capture of a Spanish ship, have in fact been driven to the island of “Virgin Magra” (see below) where they discover Levasseur about to torture the son of the Governor d’Ogeron of Tortuga.
Levasseur has kidnapped the young man and his sister, murdering a Dutch captain and seizing his brig in the process. The cruel pirate, modeled on the infamous l’Ollonois and described as having served under him, is in lust with Madeleine d’Ogeron, and she believed she was in love with him until his murderous brutality was revealed. Now Levasseur intends to hold both for ransom, with the threat of “not marrying” Madeleine first if his demands are not met. It’s a classic set up of romantic adventure, with nuance as only Sabatini can add.
But just in time, Peter Blood and a handful of his officers and crew arrive as the marplot. After distracting Levasseur’s crew with an offer to pay the anticipated ransom for the woman and her brother up front, and casting their portion of the ransom in the form of pearls before swine, Peter Blood intends to remove Madeleine and her brother to his forty-gun Arabella, but Levasseur will have none of it.
From the novel:
“Levasseur, his hand on his sword, his face a white mask of rage, was confronting Captain Blood to hinder his departure.
“You do not take her while I live!” he cried.
“Then I’ll take her when you’re dead,” said Captain Blood, and his own blade flashed in the sunlight. “The articles provide that any man of whatever rank concealing any part of a prize, be it of the value of no more than a peso, shall be hanged at the yardarm. It’s what I intended for you in the end. But since ye prefer it this way, ye muckrake, faith, I’ll be humouring you.”
He waved away the men who would have interfered, and the blades rang together.”
There is really no more description of the duel except the following lines:
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill. When, with both lungs transfixed, he lay prone on the white sand, coughing out his rascally life, Captain Blood looked calmly at Cahusac across the body.”
A decade later Sabatini made up for the lack of detail by writing “The Duel on the Beach” (1931) and the novel based on it, The Black Swan (1932), in which a Peter Blood-like hero, Charles de Bernis, fights a duel with a Levasseur-like villain, Tom Leach. I’ve discussed the duel in detail here. In fact, this fictional duel probably inspired elements of the Captain Blood film duel.
However, in the film two of the principal characters have been changed due to the streamlining of the novel for the script: Madeleine d’Ogeron has been replaced by Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland) and her brother by diplomat Lord Willoughby (Henry Stephenson).
The Dueling Terrain in the Novel: The Dunes and Beach of Virgin Magra
In the novel, the duel takes place on Virgin Magra (the Meager — Skinny, that is — Virgin), which is nothing more than Sabatini’s joke on Virgin Gorda (the Fat Virgin) in the British Virgin Islands. Virgin Gorda is arguably, depending on one’s eye, rather skinny than fat, and meager as compared to other islands in produce.
Even so, it is one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. Mangrove, cactus including prickly pear, various scrub, and short deciduous trees (20 to 40 feet high) including allspice and quite a few others, made up most of the flora in the 17th century.
Coconut trees grow in small numbers on the island today but were probably not present in the 17th century. In fact, in the 17th century most Caribbean coconut palms, an introduced species, were on the Main, not the islands. Some small shrub palms up to fifteen feet tall probably did grow on the island, however. Species of Royal Palms grow on the island today but have been cultivated, and probably did not exist on there in the 17th century.
Sabatini is correct when he describes salt ponds on the island: in past centuries there were several bordered by mangrove swamps. Among the animals the visiting buccaneers might have encountered are sea turtles, iguanas, and large flocks of flamingos and ducks.
The Spanish and Dutch attempted small settlements in the mid-17th century on Virgin Gorda without success. In the second half of the 17th century Virgin Gorda was visited by loggers for boat- and shipbuilding timber, but these visitors established no permanent settlements. The island was probably also visited occasionally by salt-rakers.
In 1680 the English established small settlements on Virgin Gorda and nearby Tortola, the latter predominant, but the islands were soon raided by Spanish privateers or pirates, depending on one’s point of view. In the summer of 1687 the island was still apparently largely depopulated thanks to the Spanish raids.
A few families had probably been reinstalled at a small settlement at St. Thomas Bay, which would one day become known as Spanish Fort. Some authorities, based on period records, note fourteen free white males, a few free white females, and three slaves on the island at roughly this time. Very likely they hid from the buccaneer visitors, or at least from Levasseur and his French, were we to combine fact with fiction.
Given that Levasseur anchored his small eighteen-gun frigate La Foudre in the north lagoon, known as Gorda Sound and North Sound today, for repairs, the duel would have to be fought on one of the lagoon’s beaches. Although today there is only a significant dune presence at Savanna Bay, or as it was known in the 17th century, West Bay, there were other dune systems in the past, almost certainly some of them at the lagoon.
Hills — and a lazy lookout — would have screened the Arabella anchored to the southwest from view. Of course, Levasseur would have been advised to keep a good lookout (we know Peter Blood would have). Even so, Spanish pirates would surely have thought twice about attacking one or two stout buccaneer frigates.
Virgin Gorda in the 17th century has everything we imagine necessary for a duel on the beach between pirate captains — except coconut palms.
The Terrain in the Film: Three Arch Bay at Laguna Beach
The duel in the film was shot not on Catalina Island, as many fans often assume, but at Three Arch Bay at Laguna Beach. It is a classic Southern California vista: a sunny sandy shore amidst grand, craggy, evocative rocks. We will assume that the palm trees in the background were put there by the set designers and their crews, notwithstanding that Southern California (I lived in San Diego for twenty years and in LA for five) is known for its various palm trees, although the coconut is not one of them. The romantic vista adds to the scene, almost as a third character. The shot below is but one of many the beach was perfectly suited for, even demanded.
In fact, the location was chosen specifically to make the duel more exciting. From the original script by Casey Robinson: “The nature of our location will help a good deal here, for the fight not to be on the flat, but will range over the rocks and cliff edges of the rough country.”
Coincidentally, there is one location on Virgin Gorda that does look similar: “The Baths,” where sandy shore meets rock formations. It’s too far south, though, to answer the novel’s description of action and location, but following a novel closely has never stood in the way of Hollywood.
The Hero: Peter Blood
If you’ve read the novel or seen the 1935 film, you already know Peter Blood’s history: a physician (with surgical skill) accused of treason for treating a wounded rebel during the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion, he was convicted and sentenced to ten years transportation as an indentured servant at Barbados. During a Spanish raid of reprisal he and a number of his fellow rebels-convict board the Spanish frigate at anchor while the crew is indulging in pillage and rapine ashore, capture it, and destroy the Spaniards in their boats the following morning. The rebels-convict escape to Tortuga, an island just off the north coast of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti), and become buccaneers.
Given Peter Blood’s martial experience and Spanish imprisonment previous to setting down as a physician and eventually turning buccaneer, he would certainly be quite familiar with the French, Dutch, and Spanish schools of fence with thrusting weapons — the smallsword and the Spanish rapier — and also the cutlass given his Dutch naval experience, and would surely be able to handle a sword well-enough to defend himself in a variety of circumstances.
Importantly, the novel is a swashbuckling romance, with associated noble notions of duty, honor, and “right as might” rather than the opposite. These virtues set the stage for the duel in which Peter Blood rescues a swooning heroine in danger of sexual assault, a theme Sabatini often returns to in his novels and which often defines his heroes. Although swooning damsels are thankfully less popular today, the virtue of standing up for and defending the oppressed, whatever their sex and circumstances, will hopefully never go out of fashion — and likewise that Levasseurs everywhere will sooner or later get their just desserts via sword or otherwise.
A much more detailed history &c will be provided in Captain Blood: His Odyssey, the 100th Anniversary Annotated Edition later this year!
The part is played by Errol Flynn in the 1935 film. Although a bit young for the role at twenty-six — Sabatini’s hero was in his early thirties — Flynn didn’t depart too far from the character as described by the author. His dress is not quite as sartorial as Sabatini described, and Hal Wallis of Warner Bros. Studio was often incensed that Flynn even wore a lace cravat, much less anything that might be regarded as “feminine.” Wallis was reportedly furious with historical consultant for the film Dwight Franklin, and with director Curtiz for taking his advice, something I can relate to from personal experience: inevitably there’s someone in the mix, even if not the director or writers, who doesn’t like the historical consultant’s advice — an art director, for example. But Franklin was right, even though he had never seen eyewitness images of buccaneers drawn in the 1680s: some of them are wearing lace cravats!
The Fictional & Historical Villain: Captain Levasseur
The character of Levasseur, played with panache and an exaggerated French accent by Basil Rathbone, is based on two historical characters. Sabatini appropriated the name and some of the character from the real Captain François Levasseur, a Huguenot soldier of fortune, military engineer, and de facto governor of Tortuga from roughly 1640 to 1652. During his tenure he heroically repelled a major Spanish attack and despicably persecuted local Catholics in the name of Calvinism, among other crimes.
Neither the character of Levasseur nor the name was based, as a page or two on Wikipedia (far more often than not a terribly inaccurate resource on pirates and piracy, not to mention many other subjects) have stated, on the early 18th century French pirate, Olivier Levasseur aka La Buse (a nickname which might mean the “Buzzard” — the swift but proverbial stupid European bird of prey, not the American carrion eater — or “Mouth” or “Cow Dung” depending on spelling).
By his own admission, not to mention obviously, one of Sabatini’s his principal sources was Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America, whose English and French editions were first published in the 1680s. The polylingual Sabatini read both. Each covers material the other doesn’t, and he found plenty of detail on Levasseur in the French. The real Levasseur (or Le Vasseur) was murdered by two of his closest associates — captains and companions in fortune hunting, practically family to him, according to Exquemelin — reportedly because he had raped the beautiful mistress, possibly also a slave, possibly a prostitute according to 17th century Caribbean historian Jean-Baptiste du Tertre, of one of them named Tibaut (or Thibaut). They intended to put an end to his tyranny.
Appropriate to his namesake fictional character, Levasseur was killed on the shore of Basse Terre, Tortuga at one of his warehouses by his two confreres and several of their associates: the eventual coup de grace was one or more thrusts with daggers. Perhaps his compadres killed him in part to protect Tibaut’s mistress — or perhaps just so Tibaut could keep her for himself. Reportedly just before he died Levasseur begged for a priest because he wanted to die a Catholic. Or at least du Tertre says he so pleaded.
More likely, du Tertre, a priest in anti-Reformation mode as all were, invented this to curry favor with his largely Catholic audience, not to mention keep his priestly credentials in good standing. Sabatini carried Levasseur’s unconscionable behavior over to his fictional French buccaneer who kidnaps the besotted daughter of the governor of Tortuga — his inamorata — and clearly intends to rape her if she resists his advances.
Sabatini also based the character on François l’Ollonois (or L’Ollonais as Sabatini spells it according the edition he studied), aka Jean-David Nau, &c — a vicious French buccaneer noted not only for his successes against the Spanish, but for his murder and torture of Spanish prisoners beyond that of most of his brutal brethren, few of whom would have cut the heart from a living prisoner and taken a bite from it, for example. That said, he was not the only French buccaneer to decapitate prisoners on occasion, and the torture of prisoners by buccaneers was common, horrid, and often at its worst in the search for plunder. Sabatini notes that the fictional Levasseur had learned his trade as the lieutenant of l’Ollonois.
A former indentured servant to a boucanier, l’Ollonois became a buccaneer circa 1660, rose quickly to command, and so served until his brutal and well-deserved torture and death at the hands of Native Americans on the Isthmus of Darien in 1669. His executioners burned and scattered his remains. Sabatini has clearly based the character of his Levasseur on both the original Levasseur and l’Ollonois.
The l’Ollonois lieutenant who would have been the fictional Levasseur’s historical counterpart was one of the following, or even all of them: Michel le Basque (Michel de Maristegui according to some scholars, the sieur d’Artigny according to du Tertre), a retired buccaneer and French officer who had captured a considerable Spanish prize not long before he commanded the ground force at Maracaibo in 1666, and commanded le Dauphin, l’Ollonois’s former ship, in 1668 (by now l’Ollonois commanded the Saint-Jean of 26 guns); the literate Moise Vauclin who commanded the buccaneer vice-admiral at Maracaibo, of 10 guns and 90 men; or Pierre le Picard who commanded a brigantin of 40 men at Maracaibo in 1666, separated from L’Ollonois in 1668, and guided Henry Morgan to Maracaibo in 1669. The fictional Levasseur’s previous experience at Maracaibo as L’Ollonois’ quartermaster or lieutenant would, of course, well-serve the plot of Captain Blood: His Odyssey.
One or more of these men probably also have served as the inspiration for Cahusec, the fictional Levasseur’s quartermaster (second-in-command, or lieutenant as Sabatini his it), whose name Sabatini almost certainly took from François de Rotondy, sieur de Cahuzac, who attacked the English under Edward Warner at St. Kitts (Saint-Christophe) Island in 1629 at the Battle of l’Anse-aux-Papillons.
Now that our brief exposition of history is complete, on to the actors, choreographers, and the film duel itself!
Actors as Adversaries: Errol Flynn as a Swordsman
It is common for Hollywood publicity machines to endow their stars with qualities and skills they don’t actually have, or to grossly exaggerate them, and fencing skill of swashbuckling stars, with some notable exceptions, was treated no differently.
Errol Flynn has long had a reputation as a swordsman — Olivia de Havilland (Benham, 1937) said that he could fence, among his many other athletic accomplishments — but according to the film’s choreographer and fencing master Fred Cavens, not to mention Flynn himself, the swashbuckling actor was not much of a fencer, Hollywood promotional media notwithstanding. Cavens stated in 1941 that Flynn “fences execrably.” (Brady, 1941.) In fact, Cavens doubled for Flynn more than studios were willing to admit publicly. It is doubtful that Flynn knew anything about fencing prior to meeting Cavens on the set of Captain Blood.
Film historian Rudy Behlmer was more nuanced: “Flynn, on the other hand, did not have the discipline for constant practice. Fortunately, he was a quick study and a natural athlete, and this, together with his form and flair, made his duelling look good on the screen.” (Behlmer, 1965.) An accurate assessment, in my opinion.
Basil Rathbone, who played Levasseur and was in fact a skilled fencer, said that “Mr. Flynn and Mr. [Tyrone] Power were fine actors, we all know that, but they did not know swords… The only actor I actually fought with on screen was Flynn, and that’s the only time I was really scared. I wasn’t scared because he was careless, but because he didn’t know how to protect himself. I knew how to protect myself, but it’s like a professional fighter in boxing — fighting someone who doesn’t know how to fight. But sometimes the fellow doesn’t know how to fight will do something outrageous and you’ll find yourself injured. I stayed away from Flynn as much as I could, and, as he was eventually going to ‘kill’ me, it didn’t look bad on the screen.” (Jones, 1972.)
Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography ‘Tis Her wrote of her work with Flynn on Against All Flags (1952), “As you might expect, Flynn was an excellent fencer.” Even so, she also wrote, “I was flattered when critics said that I had outfenced Errol Flynn!” And so she had, being far more diligent at learning to fence from Cavens, and, as a woman actor in Hollywood, having far to prove to sexist producers and directors.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr., a swashbuckler in both film and life, also commented on Flynn’s swordplay: “‘Errol Flynn was good at staging a scene, especially in close ups, but I think he was better at other kinds of fencing,’ he added, pleased with his joke.” (Page, 1968.)
Flynn had little to say in his autobiography My Wicked Wicked Ways about his swordsmanship, perhaps because he was trying to avoid the stereotype that dogged him for so long. Even so, he admitted his lack of fencing skill:
“I don’t know much about fencing, but I know how to make it look good. You only have to stand still and look forward, your head proud, and let the sword point straight out, you and the sword both unmoving, and it is dramatic. Let the sword point dip two inches, and the gesture can look very clever and dangerous.” In fact, this is an excellent en garde with the epee de combat, or late 19th and early 20th century dueling sword, and for that matter, with rapier and smallsword as well.
In fairness to Flynn, Hollywood fencing master Ralph Faulkner (more on him below) stated that Flynn “could memorize every movement in a sword script and remember them six weeks later.” (Folkart, 1987.)
None of this lack of fencing ability stopped the Warner Bros. or other studio publicity machines from claiming otherwise. In fact, Warner Bros. in its press package claimed that Flynn was trained for Captain Blood by “Professor Guiseppe Valcori, Italian fencing expert,” whose existence no amount of research can confirm — because he’s an invention of Warner Bros. In fact, Flynn was trained for the film by Fred Cavens.
Actors as Adversaries: Basil Rathbone as a Swordsman
Basil Rathbone, on the other hand, was a skilled, albeit non-competitive fencer — a “good club fencer” in the parlance of the day, and there is no shame in this by any standard. In his autobiography In and Out of Character he notes that he studied in London under famous masters Léon Bertrand and Félix Gravé, both of them gentlemen of the traditional French school. Reading their books and articles, it is easy to see how Rathbone came by his noble, elegant form. Later he studied, for five years according to Rudy Behlmer, under Fred Cavens, in Rathbone’s words “the greatest swordsman of them all,” with additional preparation by Cavens for various films.
Occasionally one runs across a Hollywood history describing the Captain Blood duel as between two actors ignorant of fencing, but this is arrant ignorant nonsense compounded by a lack of research: by all accounts, including eyewitness and other firsthand, Rathbone was a competent fencer, if not a competitor. There is no shame in being a club fencer; many of us who were once serious competitors tire of competition and become club fencers for reasons of recreation and study — for sheer pleasure, in other words.
According to his autobiography, Rathbone took up fencing “because in the early days, when I was training for to be an actor, you went for a job on the understanding that the producer knew you could fence, that you could sing and that you could dance.” He further noted, “I enjoyed swordsmanship more than anything because is was beautiful. I thought it was a wonderful exercise, a great sport. But I would not put it under the category of sport; I would put it under the category of the arts. I think it’s tremendously skillful and very beautiful.” (Jones, 1972.) “It’s the finest exercise I’ve discovered yet, requiring speed, timing, endurance.” (Whitaker, 1936.)
Rathbone had a deserved reputation as a good fencer among the Hollywood crowd. Cavens noted that in swashbuckling films the “villains, especially Basil Rathbone, are splendid fencers, but the heroes…are ineffectual.” He further said that Rathbone was able to handle himself throughout with ease [i.e. not doubled in The Mark of Zorro].” (Brady, 1941.) Even so, he also noted that, “He has excellent form and is the most colorful of all the people I have taught. I doubt that he would do well in competition, but for picture purposes he is better than the best fencer in the world.” (Behlmer, 1965.)
Fencing master Ralph Faulker described Rathbone as an accomplished swordsman (Folkart, 1987), and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stated that “Basil Rathbone was very good” (Page, 1968).
Long, Lean, and Lithe
One visual aspect of the duel that immediately stands out is that of two long, lean, lithe swordsmen — literally almost living swords themselves — engaged in mortal combat. Fred Cavens noted that “the ideal duelist is tall, lithe, quick on his feet, and with a nice swift coordination of of eye and muscle.” (Whitaker, 1936.) Both Flynn and Rathbone easily met this ideal.
Agesilao Greco, in his great book La Spada e la sua Disciplina d’Arte (1912), described the dueling sword — the spada or épée de combat — in terms that could apply not only to long sharp thrusting swords themselves, but to those who, with similar physical characteristics, wielded them, perfectly imagining the idealized adversaries in Captain Blood as played by Flynn and Rathbone:
“La spada è acuta, pungente, affilata, forbita, fatale, formidabile, lucida, nuda, fina, forte, ben temprata, nobile, perfetta.“
“The epee is pointed, biting, sharp, forbidding, fatal, formidable, shiny, naked, fine, strong, well-tempered, noble, perfect.” (Author’s translation.)
That said, there are outstanding fencers who are not only not long, lean, and lithe, but who appear awkward, lacking any sense of classical form. But it’s those built like Flynn and Rathbone who arguably look best in screen duels.
Fred Cavens put it best: “Film fencers should have perfect grace and form, qualities which are not necessary in competition… I have seen Olympic champions who had such atrocious form they couldn’t appear in pictures because audiences would laugh at them. But they would be extremely dangerous in a real duel.” (Behlmer, 1965.)
Flynn, and probably Rathbone as well to some degree, are also responsible for popularizing “6′ 2″ and 180 pounds” as the masculine ideal in height and weight. Fan pages and unauthorized biographies often list the height of both men as 6′ 2″ inches, although in fact both men appear to have been around 6′ 1″ tall. Flynn probably did weigh around 180 pounds. Rathbone in his autobiography gives his own weight as consistently 172 pounds (and it’s not improbable that he claimed a couple of pounds he didn’t have).
But it was Flynn who really set the ideal, thanks to a 1936 article in the Los Angeles Times: “but he [Flynn] also started a vogue for handsome young six-foot-and-over-super-huskies as leading men which hasn’t been equaled before in screen history…it began to be realized how six feet two inches and 180 pounds of 26-year-old virility could knock ’em over at the box office.” (Wolfenden, 1936.)
And so it went from there. I still recall in the 70s and 80s men trying to impress women, and even other men in locker rooms, by their purported “6′ 2″ and 180 pounds.” The fact that half of them stood an inch or two shorter than me, who’s a hair over 6′ 1″, seemed to matter not at all to them.
So engrained was this ideal that George MacDonald Fraser in his comic, occasionally satirical, novel The Pyrates (1984) made his Boy Scout-ish naval hero, Capt. Benjamin Avery, “everything that a hero of historical romance should be; he was all of Mr Sabatini’s supermen rolled into one, and he knew it… For the record, this wonder boy was six feet two, with shoulders like a navvy and the waist of a ballerina…”
Fraser didn’t forget Rathbone: “gentlemen-adventurers proud and lithe and austere and indistinguishable from Basil Rathbone…” Further, the character of “Bilbo is Basil Rathbone playing a raffish Captain Hook.” The novel is an homage to the Golden Age of piratical swashbuckling books and films of the 20s, 30s, and 40s.
Historically, if thrusting swords were used in a late 17th century duel among the English and Europeans other than the Spanish, Portuguese, and some Italians, they would usually have been smallswords with double-edged flat or hexagonal (or similar) rapier-like blades in form but shorter, or three-cornered blades, including Colichemarde blades quite broad at the forte. We can’t rule out an occasional “transitional rapier” (a modern term) with perhaps longer blades and possibly larger hilts. At least one was recovered from the Sedgemoor battlefield in 1685 (which battle plays a great role in the novel and film), probably dating 1640 to 1660.
Sabatini describes long rapiers as being used, and probably intended Spanish cup-hilts or transitional rapiers. However, the term was also used as slang for smallsword in the late 17th century, given that both swords were used for thrusting, so it could still be correct to say that “rapiers” were used. Historically, however, cutlasses would have most often been used (more on this in part five).
In the film, both swords are theatrical “rapiers” mounted with sport epee blades, known in the past as “hollow,” three-cornered, or triangular blades. They are stiffer by comparison to foil and saber blades, and show up well on screen. The hilts of both swords used in the film duel are a bit fanciful, neither corresponding exactly to historical swords. Flynn’s appears to something of a reduced Pappenheimer hilt (for example, a Norman type 67 but with no side rings), with two solid shells, a pair of curved quillons, and a knuckle guard, perhaps also resembling a shallow Spanish bilbo-hilt (Norman type 82) with smaller shells.
Rathbone’s rapier hilt appears to be nothing more than a common smallsword hilt (Norman type 112) but with enlarged shells, rings, and quillons. One might argue it is instead a small-hilted Spanish “dueling rapier” or “Spanish smallsword” (as some call it) — an espadín — of a sort that was introduced 1680 to 1700 and became even more common after a Bourbon began sitting on the Spanish throne. Most of these have large (as compared to French smallswords) rounded shells, or smaller, shallow cup-hilts, or smaller “bilbo” hilts, but occasionally one with large mostly flat shells, as with Rathbone’s, is seen. Perhaps a bretteur or spadassin (a thug with a sword), as Levasseur clearly was, preferred the longer blade of the transitional rapier or espadín to that of French smallsword in order to gain an advantage. That said, the heavier transitional rapier and Spanish smallswords would be at a disadvantage in speed as compared to the true smallsword.
The sword designer — Fred Cavens, perhaps, or more likely pirate historian and costume designer Dwight Franklin — was probably thinking of swords that would evoke “Cavalier” or “Musketeer” rapiers of some sort.
The enlarged hilts of the theatrical rapiers used provided a better film image, or so the thinking probably went, than the smaller, but more legitimate, authentic smallsword hilts. Plus, viewers have been conditioned by fiction and film to expect rapiers no matter the era, no matter how anachronistic. For filming, the larger rubber buttons or points d’arrêt were removed — more on this below!
Choreographer & Choreography
The duel was choreographed by famous swordfight director Fred Cavens. He began fencing at twelve years old circa 1899, was teaching other boys how to fence at fourteen, and graduated at eighteen from the famous L’École Normale de Gymnastique et d’Escrime Militaires de Belgique in Brussels, a school modeled on the famous French military school at Joinville-le-Pont near Paris. At twenty-one he was a full-fledged fencing master in the Belgian army.
After his service in the Belgian Army, Cavens emigrated to the US in 1919, soon after both his marriage to a Belgian dancer in an opera company and the end of World War One. He was invited by some American sportsmen, fencers we assume, to open a salle in Santa Barbara, California, leading to an introduction to various film studios, whose swordplay on camera to date, other than that choreographed by fellow Belgian master Henry J. Uyttenhove, was often little more than knife-sharpening actions, often in long shots, or was entirely doubled (which generally demanded long shots in order to carry out the deception). (Anon., 1936.)
Cavens got his start in Hollywood choreographing the swordplay for the 1922 short film The Three Must-Get-Theres, a parody of Douglas Fairbanks’s 1921 The Three Musketeers. The comic film is quite funny, even brilliant at times, and is possibly the best send-up of swordplay and musketeers I’ve seen. Although there are moments of common “blade sharpening” fake swordplay, most of the fencing is of outstanding caliber. In fact, director and star Max Linder was an accomplished fencer who had competed in epee, if not also in foil and saber. The film, by the way, is available on YouTube in a couple of versions, and also on a Grapevine DVD. The latter is by far the better version.
Fairbanks loved the swordplay in the comic film and first met Cavens on the set of Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, a production starring Fairbanks’s wife Mary Pickford. Fairbanks quickly hired him for Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925) and then for his genre-establishing 1926 swashbuckler The Black Pirate the following year. Cavens also choreographed the swordplay in Fairbanks’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1929). (Behlmer, 1965.)
Caven’s had a theory of romantic realism — a bit more romance, a bit less realism, with authentic if at times theatrical fencing — for filming swordplay on the screen, a theory that worked quite well in practice from the audience’s perspective.
“For the screen, in order to be well photographed and also grasped by the audience, all swordplay should be so telegraphed with emphases that the audience will see what’s coming.” (Behlmer, 1965.) This, of course, is a form of false tempo, discussed here, that would likely get a fencer killed in a duel. But it works well for the audience — and that’s the goal.
Behlmer further quoted Cavens: “All movements — instead of being as small as possible, as in competitive fencing — must be large, but nevertheless correct. Magnified, is the word. The routine — there must be a routine, and so well learned the actor executes it subconsciously — should contain the most spectacular attacks and parries it is possible to execute while remaining logical to the situation. In other words, the duel should be a fight and not a fencing exhibition, and should disregard at times classically correct guards and lunges. The attitudes arising naturally out of fighting instinct should predominate. When this occurs the whole performance will leave an impression of strength, skill and manly grace.”
Cavens prepared actors, ranging from Flynn and Rathbone to Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, Jean Peters, and many others, thoroughly, teaching them not only the scripted swordplay itself, but also fencing in general. Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography described her preparation for At Sword’s Point (1952): “I trained rigorously for six weeks with Fred Cavens and his son to perfect my stunts for the picture. Fred Cavens was an outstanding Belgian military fencing master and had trained all the great swashbucklers in Hollywood. He taught me intricate attacks and parries, envelopments, disengagements, and coupes. Physically, I’ve never worked harder for a role.” For The Corsican Brothers (1941), Cavens coached Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for a month prior to filming. (Brady, 1941.)
His process was described by Thomas Brady: “Cavens’s greatest value to a producer is his ability to prepare a fight with the precision of a choreographer. No impromptu bout, he says, looks truly exciting to the camera. His technique with a picture follows a regular pattern. First, with the director and the camera man, he examines the sets to be used for fights and learns in general what the action must be and how much time it shall take. Then, in the esoteric language of the swordsman he writes down every move the attacking fencer will make. For a three-minute fight in Fox’s “The Mark of Zorro,” Cavens’s “score” ran to 750 words. Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone had to memorize it… Even when Cavens and his own son fight a duel on the screen, as in “The Corsican Brothers,” they memorize a “ballet” routine beforehand.” (Brady, 1941.)
The Duel Master Scene in the shooting script by Casey Robinson includes the following notes, which depart from Sabatini for whom Levasseur was a mere thug and bully in both his life and his swordsmanship:
“The details of this duel must naturally, be worked out by an expert in this line. We wish to emphasize here the general nature that this fight must have. Usually duels in pictures are contests between some agile, brilliant, hero and a slow and dull witted, even though powerful villain. Such is not the case here. Here we must have a great fight between two truly great swordsmen, equally matched in quickness, brilliance, and skill. It is not a fight to the first advantage or the first spilling of blood, but a fight to the death. It is a vicious, terrific battle in which both men take a great deal of punishment before the final conclusion. In other words, the fight would be routined not after the order of duels that have been shown in pictures, but rather after the order of some of the great rough and tumble encounters that have made their pictures famous notably, the fight in “The Spoilers”. Thus, before the battle is finished, part of Blood’s clothes have been cut away and he is very much marked up by Levasseur’s sword.”
Note that dueling was still in vogue in France, Italy, and Hungary at the time of filming (although WWI had diminished the practice significantly, WWII would almost entirely put a stop to it), thus the comments on first advantage and first blood have more than purely Hollywood relevance. In fact, my first fencing master, an active swordsman during the 1930s and trained by the famous Italo Santelli, had fought at least one duel in Budapest in the 1930s. Fred Cavens had acted as directeur de combat for several duels and had fought as many more. (Anon., 1934.)
[Quick aside: until a couple or so decades ago, referees in modern fencing in the US were referred to as directors, from directeur de combat, the person who supervised a formal duel. Today, the term “referee” is used, the powers-that-be rather incredulously arguing that the name change would make fencing more accessible to the still largely imaginary audience. “One fool makes many,” according to the proverb.]
According to the LA Times, Cavens also trained “one hundred fifty men…in the art of being pirates at the Warner Studio” for Captain Blood. “They go to school every day for eight hours to fence under the tutelage of Fred Cavens… He is also teaching them how to climb riggings and other tricks of the trade.” (Kendall, 1935.) Certainly Cavens would have trained the pirates in cutlass-play, but as for teaching “pirates” to climb aloft, although Cavens would certainly know how this was done given his experience on Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate (1926), we imagine Sailor Vincent (see below) or some other salty seafarer was actually responsible for this aspect of training.
Filming the Duel
Shooting a duel could take days, and one author (Matzen, 2010) notes that shooting this one was hindered by “bad weather, milky gray skies, [and] audio challenges brought on by the pounding surf,” and two actors who could not fence — in fact, it was only Flynn who could not fence.
“These scenes take, Lord knows, how many set-ups. For instance, they will not take a long shot alone; they’ll take a master shot, then a medium shot and then take some close-ups. Any fight that lasts five minutes on the screen could easily take two days to shoot,” said Basil Rathbone. (Jones, 1972.)
According to Rudy Behlmer (1965), “When the duel is shown to the director, he, and perhaps the cinematographer, may alter the set, props and lighting. After which, the duel routine is broken up into master shots, close-ups, special angles, etc., and photographed with either principals or doubles, depending upon the actors’ capabilities and the specific shot.
There is a myth that the director Michael Curtiz engaged in swordplay himself during the filming: “Curtiz, who is quite the swordsman himself, having been a member of the Hungarian Olympic team in 1912, would fight with each of them first, to show how he wanted it done.” (Whitaker, 1936.)
This of course, is nonsense, at least regarding the Olympic Games, and probably in its entirety as well. Curtiz, although apparently fond of claiming he was on the 1912 Hungarian team, does not appear to been an Olympian. I have not found his Hungarian names (Manó Kertész Kaminer and Kertész Mihály) or anything similar among the fully detailed records of the foil, epee, and saber events from first pools to final of the 1912 Games. Even so, numerous biographies repeat the myth as fact, although occasionally the word “allegedly” is used. For good reason did Cavens, not Curtiz, choreograph the duel.
Doubling of the sword-fighting actors was common at the time, including in Captain Blood. “The villains, especially Basil Rathbone, are splendid fencers, but the heroes, according to Mr. Cavens, are ineffectual fellows when it comes to cold steel… And when the script demands that he [Errol Flynn] resort to the sword to defend his honor, Warner Brothers resorts to Mr. Cavens.” (Brady, 1941.)
However, Fred Cavens, as proved by the photo below, as well as others farther down, doubled Rathbone, not Flynn, when necessary during the duel. In fact, Hal Wallis complained of the dailies of the duel, noting that the wigs and costumes of the doubles were terrible as compared to those of the actors. The photos below show he had good reason. Thankfully, the doubles were used only in the longshots, as far as I can tell, in the final cut.
Flynn was doubled as necessary by Caven’s assistant, Ralph Faulkner, soon to become one of Cavens’s principal Hollywood heirs. Faulkner had been a member of the US Olympic saber team at the 1932 Games: “One of the mysteries in the competition between Poland and the United States was the removal of Ralph Faulkner, the only Southern Californian on the team, from the American line-up. Faulkner had been entered in the contest with Hungary and had succeeded in taking two of the three bouts for America in her score against that country.” (Durbin, 1932.)
A mystery indeed! [And a brief digression!] The Hungarians ruled saber for fifty years; their national saber championship was tougher than the Games themselves, so deep were the Hungarians in elite sabreurs. That Faulkner could win two of three bouts against the Hungarian team that would win gold is amazing — no other fencer at the 1932 Games won more than one bout against them (in fact, for fifty years a total of slightly more than 30 Hungarian sabreurs won nearly every elite competition in the world) — and should have guaranteed his inclusion in the bronze medal bout against Poland. However, the elitist East Coast prejudice against his Southern California roots is not out of the question, and this probably cost the US a medal: the US lost to Poland by a single touch.
One of the methods of excluding “outsiders” was via cheating by side judges and bout directors during championships: the director had one and a half votes, and each of the two side judges watching a single fencer had one vote each and could therefore overrule even an honest director. The other method, common in the first half of the 20th century, was exclusion by the committee “choosing the best fencers” or even by a team captain during events. I’m speculating, of course, but these latter two means were probably the way Faulkner, an outsider, was excluded from the bronze medal match — and entirely from the individual events in the 1928 and 1932 Games.
[Warning: further fascinating digression ahead!] In fact, until the 1950s team selection in US saber fencing was reportedly largely ruled by the “New York saber Mafia,” as many non-New York fencers called the narrow-minded, cliquish US saber fencing establishment, and a number of deserving fencers failed to make the US team due to prejudice against them, including at times race and religion. (The brilliant Herb Spector, described by one of my masters as the best saber fencer in the world in a two-touch bout, springs immediately to mind, among others.)
Faulkner himself confirmed this as the reason he was only permitted to compete as part of the US Olympic saber team in both 1928 and 1932, and not in the individual saber events: the controlling Eastern Establishment “didn’t feel a savage from out West could be superior.” (Folkart, 1987.)
The “Mafia’s” spine, at least in regard to the Olympic Games, was broken when Hungarian gold medalist saber fencers, including one of my own masters, Dr. Eugene Hamori, emigrated to the US after the Soviet Union brutally crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 during the Olympic Games. The Hungarians’ technique was so superior and clean that any cheating against them would have been far too obvious.
And if this clear superiority didn’t stop the mischief, I’ve seen how some of these Hungarians dealt with cheating directors and side judges clearly in cahoots with the opposing fencer: they would drop the opponent to the strip with a welting chest cut, making the hit overtly clear even to the most willfully blind. (I’ve also seen the technique used once by a Hungarian Olympic medalist frustrated with the director, a friend of his — and the fencer he dropped to the ground was also a friend. Temper, temper…)
However, even as late as the 1970s the “Mafia’s” influence was still apparent to some degree, at least in the Junior Olympics, according to several fencers I knew. As a friend of mine noted at the time, he could beat any of his fellow elite junior New York competitors anywhere in the US and world — except in New York City. A bout director there even shrugged in apology to him once, after the two side judges were repeatedly, and clearly deliberately, blind to his clean touches made with undisputed priority.
Faulkner was still teaching fencing at his salle, Falcon Studios, aka the Faulkner School of Fencing, in Hollywood, when I first started learning in 1977. By then he gave lessons seated and was nearly blind, or so I was told, but his lessons were still extraordinarily instructive in blade-work. I was advised to take a lesson just to say I had, if nothing more, but never managed to do so in part because I was well-satisfied with my own swashbuckling master, Dr. Francis Zold. (I was also a college student in LA without a car.) Many Hollywood and stage fencing choreographers — Anthony De Longis comes quickly to mind — studied under Faulkner and by their own admissions owe much to him. Maestro Faulkner died in 1985 at the age of ninety-five.
But back to the filming of the duel! Flynn was noted in the production of later films as having a drinking problem on set, which in the case of swordplay would be quite dangerous.
Whether Flynn drank during the filming of the duel in Captain Blood is not noted anywhere I can find. According to Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography, “I enjoyed working with Errol because he was a pro. He always came to work prepared. He rehearsed hard and practiced his fencing sequences very meticulously with Fred Cavens… He also knew his lines, something I greatly respect in an actor. Of course, there was one glaring inconsistency with his professionalism. Errol also drank on the set, something I greatly disliked. You couldn’t stop him; Errol did whatever he liked. If the director prohibited alcohol on the set, then Errol would inject oranges with booze and eat them during breaks. We worked around his drinking. Everything good that we got on film was shot early in the day. He started gulping his “water” early in the morning and by four P.M. was in no shape to continue filming.”
Flynn himself describes in his autobiography how when filming a boarding scene during the production of Captain Blood he fell to the ground with an attack of malaria or blackwater fever. He cured the shaking, shivering weakness of the attack with a bottle of Cognac suggested, he says, by the crew. He was called on the carpet by Jack Warner the following day as the result of this drinking: “The script girl tipped me off. They had rushes of the scene I finished after the bottle of cognac. In the film I was waving the sword about like a Cossack, shouting lines that weren’t in the script, and had almost fallen off the boat. A bit of real drunken acting.”
The filming of the duel was publicized in small ways in advance of the movie’s release. The press package claimed, for example, that “Actor Breaks Three Rapiers in Duel,” which is probably true in reference to blades. Hilts might break, but are generally much sturdier. It would be surprising if spare rapiers and blades were not on set during filming. Even so, according to a press clipping, a “rush order for additional rapiers was sent out when Errol Flynn…broke three of them during the filming of scenes in which he has a duel with a rival pirate…”
Also according to the Warner Bros. publicity package for the film and often repeated as fact, Flynn “received two small wounds during his battle with Basil Rathbone.” A separate publicity clip for newspaper release noted four: the “most serious wound was on the actor’s head, slightly above the left temple. He also was cut by his opponent, Basil Rathbone, near the right eye, on the neck and on the right forearm.”
And according to one reporter, “they really drew blood too, so that Flynn had some actual wounds to be doctored after that exciting buccaneering day.” (Whitaker, 1936.)
Although injuries do occur on occasion in well-prepared, well-choreographed swordfights, those listed here are probably pure invention for the sake of publicity: Rathbone in his autobiography states that he never hurt anyone when filming any fencing scene, nor was hurt by anyone. The photograph of Flynn below shows the “wounds” — and they appear to be nothing more than those created by a make-up artist for the scene. If Flynn were wounded during the filming of the duel, it would have therefore been by Fred Cavens, and surely due to Flynn’s own error. I think it also possible but highly unlikely that Cavens would have deliberately hit Flynn as a reminder to be careful — or not to do anything too stupid or too dangerous that might hurt his film adversary. (This can, however, be an effective teaching method with a blunt tip used during an egregious error made by a student without a jacket, although not all students are suitable to this practice.)
At one point, again according to the press package, Flynn fell off a cliff at Three Arch Bay during filming:
“Flynn was doing a scene depicting a duel with rapiers between himself as Pirate Blood and Basil Rathbone, who portrays the role of Levasseur, French buccaneer and Blood’s rival. In order to give the scene added drama, Director Michael Curtiz had Flynn drive Rathbone at swordspoint onto a small ledge on the side of a cliff overlooking the bay. The cliff was not quite perpendicular, however, sloping off gently so that the ledge was about ten or twelve feet shoreward and forty feet above the water line.
“With the cameras grinding, Flynn backed Rathbone onto the ledge according to instructions. For several minutes the rapiers of the duelists flashed. Then, suddenly, a shout of dismay rose.
“Flynn had tripped on a small rock and toppled outward from the ledge. Slowly at first, he strove to regain his footing, but in vain. When he finally realized there was no chance of saving himself, he put all his power into an outward leap. He soared out from the ledge, cut cleanly into the water, missing the base of the cliff a mere matter of inches. He swam to the beach unaided.
“A less powerful man than Flynn could not possibly have put the force behind his leap to clear the base of the cliff… [He] suffered nothing worse than a slightly lacerated knee which scraped a submerged rock.” Although it’s entirely possible that the incident did take place, Hollywood clearly does love hyperbole, not only for the sake of publicity, but for its own sake. Flynn even reportedly “rescued” Olivia de Havilland after a wave swept her into the ocean (Amburn, 2018). Separating fact from fiction is Hollywood is difficult, and fans often prefer the fantasy.
The shooting of the duel wrapped up near dusk on the final day. Rathbone tells an anecdote (Jones, 1972) about how “Sailor Vincent,” the nominal head of the pirate extras and, according to the press package, an “all-Navy welterweight boxing champion,” asked Flynn and Rathbone near the end of a day’s shooting if they were going to wrap it up that day or give the extras another day to get paid. “Our reputations as swordsmen were at stake,” Rathbone said, and so they decided to finish the shooting that day. They were probably quite ready to get past the exhausting shooting of the duel almost certainly.
“Now what we had to do was this:” Rathbone said, “a man stood with a stopwatch, and he timed the waves coming in. There was a short routine in which Flynn had to get me, kill me, and I had to fall exactly as a wave was coming in. If I fell exactly as a wave was coming it, it would cover me with water and as it went back out again, there I would be lying on the ground with my eyes wide open. You try lying with your eyes wide open, and sea water in them without blinking. Well, we did it! Exactly to the second, we timed the swordplay which took fifteen seconds. At the end of fifteen seconds I had to fall and the wave had to come in and I had to fall into the wave. This happened exactly to the second.
“The thing that Flynn and I expected was that Sailor Vincent would come across and say, “Well, thanks for nothing!” Instead of that, all the extras applauded loudly. They were so thrilled at the sheer skill of it because this required beautiful timing and Flynn and I worked very hard on the sequence.”
After a few more shots, and with the sun soon too low at 4:30 to shoot, filming of the duel finished and everyone went home. Rathbone noted that had they failed to get the final scene correct, they would have had to shoot again the next day because he would have had to wait for a new, dry costume.
The Myth of “Sharp Tips” Used in the Film Duel
There has long been a myth that director Michael Curtiz demanded that the tips be removed from the rapiers so they wouldn’t show up on film, and therefore the actors fought their duel with sharp points. This myth, among other issues, demonstrates a lack of understanding of how practice fencing swords are constructed and used.
The rapiers used in the duel were mounted with “dry” (i.e. non-electrical — electrical scoring was introduced the following year at the Olympic Games) epee blades, which might be considered a reasonable facsimile of the “three cornered” blades of many smallswords of the 1680s. Unlike modern epee blades, which are wider at the forte (the third nearest the hilt) and thicker at the foible (the third nearest the point), epee blades for most of the 20th century tended be narrower at both forte and foible.
Practice dry epee blades were not, and are not, sharp, but instead are forged with a flat tack-like tip, often only slightly larger in diameter than the distal end of the blade. For “dry” practice in the 1930s (which was nearly all practice back then) either a hard rubber “button” was placed over the flat tip, or a point d’arrêt with three small sharp points was lashed to it with linen thread, dental floss, or very narrow (1/16″) cloth tape. There was no sharp point beneath. See the image below.
For shooting a duel scene in any film of the era, the rubber buttons or other points d’arrêt were typically removed, leaving the flat tips which made for better visuals. The flat tips are not as obvious on film but still could be dangerous, to eyes in particular, and required well-rehearsed actors for safety. The flat tips could also scratch or even make shallow cuts in the worst cases, but were not a significant threat to life or limb except, as just noted, to eyes. Typically only a wound from a broken blade might be life threatening.
However, according to some sources citing cameraman Hal Mohr (Davis, 1971, for example), the tips of the blades were broken off at Curtiz’s demand, leaving sharp points. This not only strains belief but is easily disproven. Breaking a fencing blade is relatively easy. Breaking it immediately behind the flat tip is not. It would usually require a strong cutting tool or a hacksaw blade to cut the blade just behind the tip, and would indeed leave a much more dangerous point, something no fencing master would permit in the hands of even a talented amateur such as Rathbone, much less an unskilled fencer like Flynn.
I once choreographed and engaged in some fencing with sharp, pointed scimitars for a documentary. For safety it was necessary that both of us were highly skilled with pointed and edged weapons, we rehearsed and memorized the routine thoroughly beforehand, and during actual filming we worked at about half the speed we were capable of. Anything else with sharp or pointed swords could easily have led to serious injury or fatality.
Notably, of the many original still photographs of the Flynn-Rathbone duel in my collection, at least of those in which the points are in focus, none show sharp or broken points, but instead, as expected, the typical flat points of practice epee blades. See below, for example. The photographs of the duel were taken at various stages of the its filming. The flat tips can even be seen in some of the scenes on film when watched frame-by-frame. Further, it is hard to believe that if Rathbone and Flynn had fenced with sharp points, Rathbone would not have mentioned such a dangerous undertaking in interviews or his autobiography. Again, we have a myth promoted by the Warner Bros. publicity machine and accepted at face value by much of the public.
The Musical Accompaniment
The film score was composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who largely created the practice of classical composition for film music. Korngold reportedly had only three weeks to compose it, and was assisted by orchestrator Hugo Friedhofer. Nearly all of the film’s music is original, with one major exception and a few minor associated additions. In addition, two minor pieces — songs sung by Spanish soldiers and seamen — were composed by Milan Roder.
The major exception, of course, was the score for the duel on the beach. Reportedly, the film’s preview had been moved up and the score had to be completed within twenty-four hours. Out of time, Korngold adapted Frans Liszt’s symphonic poem Prometheus to the duel, a circumstance that apparently offended his sense of artistry and professionalism. It also led him to refuse to have the credits list him as composer, and instead as musical arranger, in spite of his having composed the majority of the film score. For this reason the score was not nominated for an Academy Award, sadly. Korngold’s original film compositions — “opera without words” and “symphonic poems” — and method of scoring changed Hollywood film music forever.
According to Brendan G. Carroll, Korngold gave Friedhofer the Liszt score along with a new introduction and coda at 8:30 PM the day before it was required. Friedhofer spent the night arranging the adaptation. At 7:00 AM a messenger picked up the orchestration for copying. It was recorded that afternoon. That said, elements of the Liszt’s Prometheus also appear in the tracks “Peter is Bound — Pirates!” and “A Timely Interruption,” the latter of which is really a continuation of the former.
The 2001 Tsunami Captain Blood soundtrack (TSU 0141) above is the only one I’m aware of with the entire film score, including the duel. The thirty-one tracks provide an hour’s worth of neo-romantic swashbuckling listening pleasure. Out-of-print and now often listed at high prices by vendors hoping to make a quick extra buck, if you’re patient you can usually find a reasonably-priced copy. It’s my favorite of all the vinyl and CD Captain Blood soundtracks, and probably my favorite of all the full swashbuckler scores available on CD (or whatever else soundtracks are published via these days — I’ve never stopped listening to and collecting vinyl and CDs even as I’ve added other media to our collection, although I did long ago abandon cassette tapes).
Liszt’s Prometheus is also excellent listening. It’s often included on collections with Liszt’s Preludes, in which case you can also enjoy the overture to the old Flash Gordon film serial, a “space opera” — which was by definition a Western set in outer space. Our most popular modern version, arguably of both space operas and Westerns, is Star Wars and its many serializations. Star Wars has also taken over most of the old classic swashbuckling genres, to my dismay.
And now the duel itself. The best way to enjoy it — in fact, the only way — is to watch it. For those with an interest in the actual fencing details of the choreography, I’ve included a few annotations below. Fencing enthusiasts, feel free to disagree with my observations and assessments!
The fight really was between two true adventurers. Flynn was an Irish-Australian born and raised in Tasmania. In his autobiography describes himself in his youth as a “devil in boy’s clothing,” and after numerous misadventures leading to his eighteenth year he entered several years of seafaring adventure and fortune hunting — tobacco planting, gold mining, and various sea trades — associated with Papua New Guinea. An athlete but never a fencer, he does fondly describe playing with a sword an ancestor had taken from Captain William Bligh during the infamous mutiny, and he denounces his father for giving it away to the Naval and Military Club at Hobart.
Rathbone was the Patrols Officer of the Second Battalion of the Liverpool Scottish during WWI, and was awarded the Military Cross for heroism for his intelligence collection patrols, in particular one in which he led a small party across “No Man’s Land” into the German trenches for intelligence during daylight. At one point Baron von Richtofen, better known as the Red Baron, and his Flying Circus, which included future Nazi leader and convicted war criminal Hermann Goerring, flew a mere one hundred feet overhead, strafing the British line. In the enemy trenches, Rathbone, using his service revolver, shot and killed a German soldier. Documents taken from the soldier’s pockets indicated that a retreat was imminent. Rathbone led his men out safely under heavy machinegun fire. (Rathbone, 1962.)
The duel could not have been easy to film and fight in the sand, a surface which presents its own special difficulties. The rear foot tends to slip on the lunge. Turning the foot onto its inner edge is helpful, as is pushing more outward than directly behind on the lunge with the rear foot, as is maneuvering the fight onto the area of wet compacted beach between the soft dry sand above and the wet saturated sand below, or onto an area of vegetation. But at least the implausible “pirate boots” — buccaneers and pirates didn’t wear them unless on horseback — would keep sand out!
The duel begins with Flynn wearing what at first appears to be a waistcoat but is in fact a coat with different-colored sleeves, with a baldric worn over a sash, apparently sewn or otherwise un-historically attached to the sash to keep the former from bouncing around. Rathbone is in his shirtsleeves, but likewise with a baldric worn over a sash. Eyewitness images of buccaneers in the 1680s — the only eyewitness images of any European-derived sea rovers during the Golden Age of Piracy — do show sashes on French buccaneers, but not baldrics. Sword-belts were worn instead, given their convenience, and they’re also not as hot. If a baldric were worn, it would typically have been worn beneath a sash to prevent it from bouncing around. (Why baldrics over sashes rather than under them as more practical? So they baldrics could be removed while leaving the romantic sashes in place.) I’ll discuss this further in part five of this series.
And now, for fun, a brief look at some of the swordplay itself. One of these days I may annotate the entire duel, but I’ve lost my old notes and haven’t the time at the moment to review it in its entirely again. A few instances will suffice for now.
The duel begins as several of Peter Blood’s officers begin escorting Arabella Bishop to a small bluff en route to their ship. Cahusec tries to restrain Levasseur but he’ll have none of it. “You do not take her while I live!” he shouts and draws his sword. “Then I’ll take her when you’re dead!” Blood replies, drawing his own sword, tossing his hat, and beginning to remove his baldric and waistcoat. Cahusec tries one more time to dissuade his captain, but fails.
Levasseur runs at Blood and thrusts in tierce. Blood parries tierce and shifts aside for additional protection against the the attack. The men move to open ground where Levasseur makes a half lunge, thrusting in quarte. Returning to his guard, Levasseur makes several change beats from quarte to tierce and back, followed by a few disengages in the same line against Blood’s en garde in quarte.
Levasseur feints outside (tierce), then inside (quarte), and finishes with a thrust without lunging in the low line, which is parried quinte (low quarte) by Blood, who ripostes with a quick extension but no lunge. Both men are clearly engaging in reconnaissance.
Now, in a wide shot, Blood traverses to his left. Levasseur attempts a wide, too obvious head feint, saber-like (this is theatrical swordplay, after all), to the inside, then cuts to the outside. Flynn makes a half-quarte parry, followed by a tierce which parries the attack, and ripostes low in seconde. Flynn parries another attack in tierce, again ripostes seconde, then attempts a head cut which is parried by Levasseur who ripostes inside, which is parried by Flynn in prime. Flynn makes a quick attack in seconde which is parried, and — very nicely and correctly — recovers quickly with a circular parry in the high line to protect himself just in case.
Flynn traverses to the left again, then attempts a flashy, and very “telegraphed,” head attack that would evolve in later films to a “triple moulinet,” which would become his signature move in his film swordplay. And every time I see it, I shout “Time him! Time him! Time him!” in my head to his adversary. Flashy, yes. And just asking to receive a time thrust in the throat!
And so it goes, all very swashbuckling and theatrical.
For the sake of time, for now at least, I’m skipping over most of the following swordplay. As the duel progresses toward the rocks upon which Levasseur will meet his end, there are a couple of long shots which clearly show Rathbone and Flynn doubled by Cavens and Faulkner. Certainly, the publicity still below proves that Cavens doubled Rathbone in one of these shots, and in the same shot on film it is easy to recognize Cavens briefly. Faulkner is almost certainly doubling Flynn in the same shot. The studio was concerned about these obvious doubles — yet in fairness, the film used a great deal of old sea battle shots in the finale, and this is quite obvious.
I do want to mention my three favorite phrases (a phrase is a complete exchange, from start to finish, in fencing, for example: attack, parry, riposte, counter-riposte, counter-attack, &c, until there is a hit or the fencers break distance). All three take place in the final moments of the duel.
First is a croisé in sixte by Levasseur, which is beautifully parried by Blood with a prime, followed immediately by the classic, and very flashy, bind-thrust riposte in tierce (or sixte) to the head, the blade arcing from low to high, almost as a moulinet, although the hit doesn’t quite land. In the right circumstances the technique can disarm the adversary. But nicely done, still!
This is soon followed by Levasseur binding Blood’s blade from sixte to septime, with Blood countering with a yielding parry in tierce as he falls. Again, nicely done!
A quick side note: previous to this Levasseur falls, and Blood gallantly permits him to get up. But when Blood falls, Levasseur does his best to take advantage of the situation, showing the difference in their charaters.
And now the two men are face-to-face at “handy grips!” Here we have the obligatory close-up, hilt-to-hilt, deadly fury in each man’s eyes!
The adversaries quickly get to their feet, surprisingly without punching or pommeling each other, for the final engagement in which, moments after another quick, beautiful croisé in sixte parried in prime, Blood kills Levasseur by lunging off the line — an esquive or, arguably in the language of the day, a volt — and “pinking” him, to use a 17th century term, from side to side. I strongly suspect the finish was inspired by the one in the duel in Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan, published three years before.
The film duel from start to finish is just under three minutes, yet time stands still for that short time, so exciting is the swordplay and acting. A timeless scene of piratical yet noble swashbuckling indeed!
Next in the series: The Duel on the Beach in Reality!
Ellis Amburn. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.
Anon. “Frederic Cavens, 79, Taught Stars Fencing.” New York Times, May 2, 1962.
Anon. “Sealing Wax, Cabbages and Kings.” New York Times, September 30, 1934.
Rudy Behlmer. “Swordplay on the Screen: The Best of it Has Been Due to Belgian Fencing Masters.” Films in Review, June-July 1965.
Laura Benham, “Nothing Short of a Miracle.” Picture Play Magazine, March, 1937.
Thomas Brady. “Meet Hollywood’s Fencing Master.” New York Times, October 5, 1941.
Brendan G. Carroll. The Last Prodigy: a Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Hong Kong: Amadeus Press, 1997.
Richard Cohen. By the Sword. New York: Random House, 2002.
John Davis. “Captain Blood.” The Velvet Light Trap, No. 1, June 1971.
Edith Durbin. “Rolph and Doug Watch Hungary Win at Sabers.” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1932.
Jean-Baptiste Dutertre. Histoire generale des Antilles habitées par les François. Paris: Thomas Jolly, 1667.
Alexandre Exquemelin. [John Esquemeling]. The Buccaneers of America. London: Crooke, 1684.
——. [Alexander Olivier Exquemelin]. Histoire des Avanturiers Flibustiers qui se sont Signalez dans les Indes. 2 vols. Paris: Jacques Le Febvre, 1699.
Errol Flynn. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.
Burt A. Folkart. “Ralph B. Faulkner, 95, Film Swordsman, Dies.” Los Angeles Times, January 31, 1987.
Russ Jones. “Rathbone.” Flashback magazine, June 1972.
Read Kendall. “Out and About in Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1935.
Benerson Little. The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674 – 1688. Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007.
——. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse, 2016.
Robert Matzen: Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood. Pittsburg: Golden Knight Books, 2010.
Maureen O’Hara. ‘Tis Her. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Don Page. “Another Fairbanks Roams Sherwood Forest.” Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1968.
Basil Rathbone. In and Out of Character. New York: Doubleday, 1962.
Casey Robinson. Captain Blood Shooting Script. Warner Bros., 1935.
Rafael Sabatini. Captain Blood: His Odyssey. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.
——. The Black Swan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1932.
Warner Bros. Captain Blood Press and Publicity Package, 1935.
Alma Whitaker. “Stars Who’ve Learned Fencing for Films Make It Latest Indoor Sport.” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1936.
John R. Woolfenden. “Flock of Handsome Brutes Spring Up as Leading Men.” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1936.
Copyright Benerson Little 2022. First posted 29 March 2022. Last updated 7 February 2023.
How a Mystery Pirate Captain Gave Us Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood & the Films of Errol Flynn
With the advent of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, not to mention our forthcoming thoroughly annotated anniversary edition, a look into the largely unknown, and until now unpublished, history behind the novel is timely: of real buccaneers and mystery pirates, of an incognito pirate captain whose identity we hope to reveal for the first time, and how without them there would be no famous novel Captain Blood nor any films of Errol Flynn, at least as we know them!
One of Sabatini’s major influences was the published journal of Monmouth rebel-convict Henry Pitman who, sentenced to indentured servitude on Barbados, escaped by sea, found himself marooned on Saltudos Island, and was eventually rescued by a crew of unnamed buccaneers. His story alone is worth the telling, and frankly no one does it better than he does. But before we get to Pitman’s odyssey and how it ultimately gave birth to the novel and the film version starring Errol Flynn, and thereby made him a star, we must first slip back to 1683, to Veracruz, Mexico as most of its inhabitants slept, in spite of obvious warning signs, as buccaneers set foot ashore not far away…
English Pirates Incognito & the Sack of La Vera Cruz
In the bodegas and aduana of the city lay not only two years’ worth of the plundered wealth of New Spain, but also valuable goods from the Far East, the latter having arrived after a long voyage across the Pacific to Acapulco aboard the Manila galleons, and from there across the arid Mexican countryside via mule trains known as recuas.
Pieces-of-eight and silver bars! Jewels and gold doblóns! Gold and silver church icons! Cochineal, indigo, logwood, and cacao! Rich silks and glazed china!
It was a lure the eight hundred buccaneers could not resist—and the city was wide open. Sand dunes piled high against the cheaply-built city walls, the pirate hunting Armada de Barlovento was not in port, the governor refused to believe the two ships seen earlier were pirates, and even the three-man mounted guard who spotted the buccaneers ashore were too frightened to ride ahead and give warning.
So here we have it, fact proving that fiction and film are not too far separated from it: historical buccaneers preparing to sack a sleepy Spanish town just as depicted in The Black Swan (1940) starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, or in the Disney theme park attraction, at least before it became tied to the fantasy Pirates of the Caribbean films. Surely a lovesick suitor, guitar-in-hand, is serenading his inamorata on the balcony above as buccaneers slink to the city walls and prepare to unleash a violent but, in terms of entertainment, socially acceptable assault.
But not really: Disneyland and Hollywood are fun but they’re not reality. The assault on the city was quick and brutal—and successful. The buccaneers packed the residents into the great Iglesia de San Lorenzo del Convento de la Merced, searched and found plunder everywhere, tortured residents to reveal hidden treasure, and in buccaneer fashion raped and pillaged.
First they ransacked the casas reales, or government buildings, including the governor’s palace, the customs house, and various storehouses and magazines; then the richest private homes and the city’s six churches and convents—Jesuit, Augustinian, Franciscan, and Inquisitional Dominican among them—and surely also the two church-hospitals, and likewise the two chapels outside the walls; and last, the homes and businesses likely to be of less value.
Most of the attackers were French, with a smaller number of Dutch and English buccaneers in their company. And it is with the two English captains we are concerned, even if the two most notable Dutch commanders—Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Van Horn—will be remembered in part for their brief duel on Sacrificios Island.
English buccaneer captain George Spurre discovered the Spanish governor hiding in a stable and protected him from French buccaneers who had formerly been imprisoned in the city and now sought revenge. Eventually the buccaneers set sail while the Spanish defenders and the newly-arrived treasure fleet debated, boasted of revenge, and waited on reinforcements. This bombastic do-nothingness inspired a song composed soon afterward, “La Bamba,” made famous almost three centuries later as a Top 40 Hit by 1950s pop star Ritchie Valens.
The plunderers of Veracruz sailed away with riches in their holds, divided buccaneer-fashion: two to six shares to the captain, one and a half to the quartermaster, one to most everyone else, with one vital additional spoil: a captain would typically receive anywhere from a few shares to thirty or more for the maintenance of the vessel he commanded. Any shares unused for this went into the captain’s pocket—most of them, that is. This is a fact often overlooked or even unknown to scholars and enthusiasts who over-hype the egalitarian nature of buccaneers: Successful buccaneer captains could get very rich.
George Spurre, a well-known buccaneer who commanded a sloop and sixty men, returned to Jamaica where he lived and where his plunder of broken gold, silver coin and plate, jewels, cacao, two hundredweight of cochineal dye, African or other slaves of color, and more was variously seized and embezzled by the governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Lynch, using the excuse of illegal pirate goods. Soon enough, Spurre died, leaving his wife to sue Lynch for the return of his new estate.
But it is Spurre’s compatriot, Jacob Hall, a far more fortunate pirate, who is most important to our story. He had put it about that he was from Bermuda, without doubt to cover his true origin, for he was a Carolinian from Charlestown, a place known facetiously by some as Puerto Franco thanks to the large number of French buccaneers who routinely sold their plunder and refitted there. Trading with pirates was an easy way to get cash, after all. No questions would be asked in Charlestown because everyone already knew the answers. They also knew to deny everything piratical to outsiders.
Hall was rich now, the likely five to ten extra shares awarded him from the ownership of his small vessel—a small frigate, brigantine, or barque-longue—making him so. With them he bought a house in the city and a plantation in the country, and was well on his way to becoming the notable Carolinian gentleman he would one day be. Paraphrasing Mel Brooks in The History of the World: Part I, it was good to be the captain of a profitable buccaneer voyage!
The Lure & Allure of St. Augustine
As with many who took up sea roving, Jacob Hall would not or could not put the trade aside. Just as hope inevitably sprang eternal among buccaneers after any cruise—the next one must be more profitable!—so did success breed new attempts. James Fennimore Cooper aptly put it in The Sea Lions, a novel in part of pirates and buried treasure: “Men become adventurous by oft-repeated success…” They take greater and greater risks, in other words. And this addiction to sea thieving would one day become so incurable that it would lead to a generation of outright pirates who sailed “against all flags” under their own black ones.
St. Augustine, an outpost town established to protect the Florida Strait through which the Spanish treasure fleets passed, had long been an inviting target. The most famous of seventeenth century attacks was its sack by buccaneers under Robert Searle in 1668. Today, buccaneer re-enactors and pirate pretenders flock annually to the city to reenact the piratical slaughter of 1668 via choreographed mayhem of musket and sword, albeit in a much more civilized manner, which includes neither spillage of blood nor theft, or at least none significant, nor vandalism, burning, torture, or pillage. I did once see Tea Partiers amusingly mistaken for pirates in St. Augustine by tourists, then quickly dismissed once it became clear they were common zealots rather than trope-ish buccaneers.
At least three attacks on the city had been seriously considered or attempted in the early 1680s. The first was abandoned even before a planned rendezvous took place on Anclote in the Florida Keys in 1681. The second, from late 1681 into 1682, devolved into little more than the sacking the poor-in-everything presidio of San Marcos de Apalache and the rich-in-cattle Hacienda de la Chua in Florida, plus the capture of several vessels ranging from tiny sloops to a pair of small frigates, plus the murder by the famous buccaneer John Coxon of ten Native Americans at Matanzas—doubtless his excuse for murdering them was that they resisted—and the enslavement of fifteen more. St. Augustine was left untouched.
The third, in 1683, actually landed a force composed of buccaneers, several of whose captains hailed from English colonies in North America. Disappointed at “fishing for silver” on the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas, they turned their attention to what they hoped was easier plunder. Within a mile and a half of St. Augustine they marched, only to be driven off by valiant Capitán Antonio de Argüelles and his troops.
Although it is common to reflect from present to past and imagine pirates then as they have been portrayed in modern films, rarely is Spanish courage and martial skill on display in them, although The Black Pirate starring Douglas Fairbanks is an exception.
Digression aside, in 1684 Jacob Hall—whom we imagine Hollywood might have cast Errol Flynn to play—set sail in command of a small frigate, brigantine, or barque-longue, perhaps the same he had commanded at Veracruz, part of an English buccaneer flotilla soon joined to a French one to sack St. Augustine, Florida. The French contingent was commanded by the sieur de Grammont, the third major commander of Veracruz fame—whom we imagine Hollywood might have cast Oliver Reed to play—and the English by Thomas Jingle. Alas for the raiders, a storm dispersed the eleven vessels. Some of the plunder-seekers went on to other adventures, while a few plundered poor Spanish missions along the Georgia coast.
After the planned attack on St. Augustine was thwarted, de Grammont sailed north and plundered an English merchant ketch of provisions, forcing its crew to seek food at the San Buenaventura de Guadalquini mission on what is today St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, where the local military officer seized the ketch for any or all of several reasons, ranging from it being a dastardly pirate to a mere interloper on Spanish territory. One of the ketch’s crew was a Flemish seaman whose name, Jan Klare perhaps, was Hispanicized as Juan Clar. To the Fleming’s rescue came an English captain who followed in Grammont’s wake and recaptured the ketch.
Clar, who had the good or bad fortune to later fall into Spanish hands again, testified in St. Augustine that the pirate captain who rescued him was named “Chacopal,” which has misled some historians into thinking he was the pirate Jacob Evertson because it sounds like Jacob, which in fact it does (but wait a moment). The Spanish mangled a lot of English, French, and Dutch names, and vice versa: Bartholomew Sharp became Batharpe and Batcharpe, [Richard] Sawkins became Hawkins, [John] Watling became Bothing, and Jan Willems aka Yankey became Jan Zanques, for example. Occasionally, historians mangle the mangling in their attempts to reverse engineer the Hispanicization, hoping thereby to prove what they want to see.
In fact, Chacopal is merely the Spanish phonetic equivalent of Jacob Hall. Sound it out, if you like. From Clar that we learn that Hall owned a house and “hacienda” purchased with plunder from Veracruz. Yet there are no records of any Jacob Hall owning property in Charlestown or in the countryside. Further, Clar noted that Thomas Jingle also had a house there but there are no records of his property either. Notably, town records from the era are very complete, making an omission for one or both of these two captains highly unlikely.
At least one scholar has suggested that Jingle’s name was the Spanish pronunciation of a famous buccaneer captain nicknamed Yankey, noted above, probably an affectionate diminutive of Jan. The same diminutive is probably the origin of Yankee as in “Yankee Doodle” and “damn Yankees.” Jingle—“Hin-glay”—does sound a little bit like it, in fact.
But, alas, no cigar, although as I’ve noted elsewhere (“Of Buccaneer Christmas, Dog as Dinner, & Cigar Smoking Women”) the Spanish did smoke them at the time: six to seven inches long, about a half inch in diameter, even Spanish women smoked them, as did Native Americans, many African slaves, and quite a few Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Dutchmen as well, therefore some buccaneers and pirates too, experts residing on social media and claiming otherwise notwithstanding.
Why no cigar? Because Yankey was nowhere near St. Augustine at the time.
Thomas Jingle, “privateer,” reportedly had a privateering commission from Robert Clarke, “Governor and Captain-General of the Bahamas of New Providence,” which may have been true for the governor of the tiny pirate-and-beachcomber’s-island had a habit of issuing them without any real authority to do so other than his quite correct perception that the commissions would help line his pockets. The practice also earned him a warrant for his arrest and by 1683 the loss of his post. Jingle was from New England, some said, but his name is noted in the annals of piracy only in regard to this aborted attack on St. Augustine, and for good reason: it was not his real name.
In fact, Jingle is phonetic Spanish for Hinkley.
And Thomas Hinkley was the governor of New England.
And our pirate captain Jacob Hall? The real Jacob Hall was a famous rope dancer — tightrope walker — in London. So famous was he that Nell Gynn, mistress of King Charles II, had a silver bed made that included the figure of Hall dancing on a wire. Reportedly, Barbara Villiers (Countess of Castlemain, Duchess of Cleveland), one of Charles’s former mistresses, had an affair with Hall in revenge.
In other words, “Jacob Hall” and “Thomas Jingle” were jokes at the expense of Spaniards, not to mention potential English pirate hunters, akin to signing your name as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, or Ronald Reagan. Or, if you want to balance the scales of insignificant political satire, Bill Clinton.
How to reconcile this?
Jacob Hall and Thomas Jingle were mystery pirate gentlemen sailing under false names, although doubtless everyone in Charlestown knew exactly who they were and supported them in their piratical escapades.
One of them, as we shall soon see, may have set Errol Flynn’s career in motion.
Of Pirates, Rebels, Odd Connections, & the Want of a Nail
If there is a single decade or two that may lay legitimate claim as the ultimate origin of the greatest of pirate fiction and film, it would surely be the 1680s. Counterintuitively, it is not the previous two decades, in which Henry Morgan, François l’Ollonois, and their bloody ilk reigned and whose escapades made sea roving popular in the public mind thanks to popular written accounts, nor the second and third of the next century when the pirates who sailed under the black flag reigned and centuries later became proud symbols, with little basis in fact, of social rebellion and freedom.
The 1680s gave us three series of events critical to all things piratical today, the first two of which are vital here: the Duke of Monmouth, whose brief rebellion in England and Scotland ended at the Battle of Sedgemoor on July 6, 1685; the suppression of Caribbean buccaneering which forced the rovers into the South Sea and beyond, and which would thirty years later help lead to the rise of pirates who sailed under the black flag; and the publication of popular editions in English and French of buccaneer-surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America.
The Monmouth rebels are necessary to understanding one of the most common piracy tropes in fiction and film, one actually quite rare, if not entirely non-existent, in reality: that of the falsely accused who is thereby compelled by circumstance to turn pirate, excluding, of course, a few buccaneers who had become sea rovers due to Spanish confiscation of their lawful cargos. Or perhaps we should just say cargos, lawful often being in the mind of the beholder in the Caribbean at the time. And in any case these men were likely to have become buccaneers no matter their circumstances.
One of these rebels was sea surgeon Mr.—not Dr., for only physicians used the latter title—Henry Pitman. Although never in arms against his king, as he says, he was nonetheless committing treason and he knew it when he joined Monmouth’s rebel army as a surgeon after dropping by with his brother to view the Duke and his rebel army. In his defense he notes that he treated wounded rebels and Royalists alike, and claimed that he was caught up in the rebellion by misadventure when a troop of Royalist horse blocked his way home. Soon afterward he lost his mount, and, prevailed upon to assist the surgeons who had their hands full with the battle-wounded, he joined the rebels, bidden by his conscience to do his sacred medical duty.
The rebellion was crushed at the Battle of Sedgemoor, and hundreds of prisoners were hastily tried and convicted en masse in a series of trials that soon came to be known as the Bloody Assizes. Sentenced to ten years of indentured servitude in Barbados—still a far better punishment than to be hanged, disemboweled, quartered and dismembered (all members!) and hung in parts from gibbets, as happened to many rebels, and still better than to be an African slave on a New World plantation, the counter-argument of some modern racists notwithstanding—Pitman soon tired of his treatment at the hands of the owner of his indenture, Colonel Robert Bishop. The details need not concern us at the moment. In fact, you should read them for yourself later. I’ll say it over and over: the original accounts are often far better reading than any modern secondary accounts.
Suffice it that Pitman led several of his companion rebels-convict and two debtors in an escape in a ship’s boat by night. Almost immediately the rebels-convict discovered that their boat was extremely leaky and, fearing they might be overheard by an English frigate or one of the forts in Carlisle Bay, they let seawater fill the boat almost to the gunwales before they started bailing. Afterward they were forced to bail constantly, made more difficult when one of the rebels-convict accidentally threw the bailing bowl overboard.
Almost as bad, their candles had melted into a single lump, making them useless, and their tinder and matches were now wet due to the leaking boat, thus they could not steer in the darkness by their compass, having no light. And soon everyone but Pitman, the only seafarer among them, was terribly seasick.
Here we’ll take a page from fiction and film—leaving the reader or viewer in suspense, that is—and depart from Pitman and his rebels-convict confederates as they make their way toward the Dutch islands by sea, while we look at two curiously associated piratical voyages.
The South Sea and, Once Again, St. Augustine
First we return to Puerto Franco, or Charlestown if you like, where local investors and adventurers had outfitted three armed sloops crewed with roughly equal numbers of local Englishmen and visiting French buccaneers. Their plan: sail to the Caribbean, seize a Spanish ship—or Dutch, if trading with the Spanish, for a Dutch merchantman with Spanish goods was practically Spanish anyway—and sail through the Strait of Magellan into the South Sea to plunder the Pacific Spanish Main, as many English and French buccaneers were doing at the moment. The date they set sail is uncertain: it may have been late 1686 to early 1687, or even early 1686.
The Franco-Carolinian buccaneers were successful at the beginning of their voyage, capturing a “Dutch ship of force,” but were turned back at the Strait of Magellan, unable to pass through due to severe weather. They sailed back north, to the remarkably beautiful Ilha de Fernando de Noronha more than three hundred miles off the coast of Brazil. Like Juan Fernandez Island in the South Sea, it was isolated enough that a sea roving ship could water and refit after a passage around Cape Horn or through the Strait of Magellan. Here they held council and by a vote of the crew decided to turn pirate. By this they meant they would capture ships other than Spanish, or Dutch trading with the Spanish, in this case a Portuguese merchantman if they espyed one.
However, eight of the crew, all English, abandoned the enterprise, preferring not to engage in outright piracy: buccaneering against the Spanish held no qualms for them, for only occasionally were its practitioners actually hanged. But their brethren had no boat to spare, so, taking their sea chests and plunder ashore, and with the donation of some stores, tools, rigging, and a cask of dry peas, they fashioned a four-ton boat out of mangrove—a good wood for boatbuilding, actually—in six weeks. The peas they kept for sea provision, and while on the island they ate wild figs, Brown Boobies (Sula leucogaster), and Booby eggs.
Their buccaneer brethren, meanwhile, had set sail, and soon descried a large Portuguese merchantman laden with wine, linen, at least a few slaves, and other goods along the coast of Brazil. In tonnage, crew, and probably guns it was a greater ship of force than that of the pirates, yet they captured it with little resistance. The pirates told Pitman the ship was named the Grand Gustaphus, or more correctly, the Grande Gustav if this is actually the ship’s name and not one given it by the buccaneers. I found no such named ship in Portuguese or Brazilian records, but this is no surprise: records of merchant ships at the time are notoriously incomplete.
The buccaneers returned to Fernando de Noronha, put their prisoners ashore (causing the eight former crew to keep well on their guard after the buccaneers departed again), and shared the plunder. The crew divided in two, of French and English respectively, the former keeping one ship by agreement and heading home to Petit Goâve on Hispaniola, the latter keeping the other and sailing north, anchoring at “Blanco”—probably Punta de los Blanquizales, Trinidad—most likely for repairs to their now leaky ship before returning home. But first the pirates needed to know how matters stood between the English governments and pirates. Was there, for example, an amnesty available?
Now—suspensefully again—we leave these pirates for the moment as they prepare to sail into the Caribbean, and turn to another pirate voyage. Once more we head to St. Augustine, the outpost so coveted by pirates in the 1680s. In late April, 1686, the grand old buccaneer Michel, sieur de Grammont set his eye again on the Florida outpost. Once more, it was his intention to attack via the southern passage at Matanzas. Yes, this is a pattern: pirates were not going to commit suicide by sailing into the mouths of the guns of the Castillo de San Marcos. Everyone intended to attack from Matanzas instead.
Here, Capitaine Nicolás Brigaut, commanding a half-galley armed with two guns (at sea a cannon is called a gun, back then and even today) at the bow, probably a few swivels on the gunwales, and captured the year before during the sack of Campeche, Mexico (again by de Graff and de Grammont), was tasked with securing Native Americans to serve as “intelligencers” and guides, and to prevent the sentinels at the Matanzas watchtower from warning St. Augustine. He and his buccaneers easily captured the soldiers on watch: some of them rowed out to discoverer what the vessel was. The buccaneers tortured at least two for information regarding the defenses of St. Augustine.
And then everything went to hell. A Spanish force from St. Augustine counter-attacked but was beaten back. Even so, all good so far, in spite of the loss of surprise. Then the half-galley wrecked on Matanzas Bar, changing the situation entirely. Brigaut—whom we imagine might have been played by Basil Rathbone, pity about the French accent though—sent several men in a ship’s boat to warn de Grammont and tell him they would retreat to Mosquito Bar, the location today of New Smyrna Beach, where it would be easier to rescue them. The buccaneers set out on the five league march and twice more fought off attackers, including forty or fifty Native Americans. Finally, they faced Capitán Francisco de Fuentes—who might have been played by Pedro de Cordoba or perhaps by Ricardo Montalbán channeling Khan Noonien Singe—and fifty Spanish soldiers.
The buccaneers faced a naked truth: they were trapped on the beach. We imagine soldiers and pirates sweating profusely in the combination of heat, humidity, rage, and fear, their hands and faces blackened with spent gunpowder, their burning eyes squinting from salt and the sea glare. We imagine the sand sticking to the blood of those killing and of those dying or dead, most of whom probably called upon God both to kill and to save. We imagine the flies swarming over and upon the dark purple that now stained, however briefly, the windswept battlefield dotted with the living and the dead among the coastal scrub.
Here was life and death laid plain in the form of raw survival. Unfortunately for the buccaneers, luck was on the side of the Spanish by means of the timely accident that Brigaut’s men were separated into two parties. Luck, or Fortune if you will, often has poor timing, almost as if on purpose. The Spaniards slaughtered the nineteen pirates in the smaller group, then attacked the larger and massacred all but three, their desperate courage notwithstanding.
The official French account of the incident at Matanzas, sent from Governor de Cussy of Tortuga and Saint-Domingue to his superior in France, the Marquis de Seigneley, only barely resembled reality. Brigaut wasn’t a pirate, he was merely seeking provisions. The law permitted this seeking of provisions, water, and shelter in extremis. In fact, Brigaut wasn’t even mentioned, although his commander, the sieur de Grammont, briefly was.
Most of the few lines describing the incident were devoted to the sad story of a young Parisian of good family, the sieur de Chauvelin, who was reportedly given quarter, taken before the governor of St. Augustine, then put to death in spite of his quality as a gentleman. Further, during the battle itself it was twenty, or maybe seventy, pirates—or rather, twenty or seventy innocent French privateers attacked while innocently seeking provisions per international agreement—standing valiantly against three hundred Spaniards, who prevailed only after reinforcements arrived. All we really know—maybe—from this version of the story is that a young man named Chauvelin, of adventurous spirit, joined a band of flibustiers and probably died on or near a pretty Florida beach.
The most notable takeaway from the failed attack is that one of the survivors, quartermaster Diego the Black Pirate (a quartermaster was second-in-command among buccaneers and pirates), is the highest ranking Black man of full African blood noted among the predominantly white buccaneer or pirate crews. He, along with Captain Brigaut, were soon hanged or garroted at St. Augustine.
Grammont blockaded St. Augustine for two weeks, doubtless hoping for the arrival of the situado or payroll ship from Veracruz, and perhaps hoping to starve the city into negotiations. St. Augustine was not self-sufficient, so a ship had been sent to Havana for corn, or maize as it was better known then—corn was wheat, after all. Afterward de Grammont set sail to Charlestown, South Carolina where he almost certainly refreshed, refitted, and recruited as he had done before. Edward Randolph, the king’s special representative to New England, claimed that the Carolina governor had turned the pirate away. He was surely mistaken.
But 1686 was not yet finished with pirates lusting after the Florida outpost. Near the year’s end, and inspired by de Grammont’s unfortunate recent failure, Dutch pirates Jan Willems, aka Captain Yankey, and Jacob Everson—it really is them this time—along with their largely English crews from Jamaica, with some French and Dutch as well, along with a pack of Carolinians who determined that piracy might be a better way of life than farming or trading for deer skins and Native American slaves, were recruited by the governor of Carolina to attack St. Augustine in reprisal for recent Spanish reprisals on the Carolina coast.
One recent attack had just destroyed the Scottish colony at Stuarts Town in Carolina, plundered English plantations, and even threatened Charlestown itself, at least until a hurricane ended the retaliatory effort. Ironically, Brigaut’s half-galley had been refitted for Spanish use and sent on the raid. The Spanish attacks were reprisals for Carolinian-instigated reprisals by Native Americans (not that they did not have good reason without English instigation) on Spanish properties and subjects, and doubtless as general reprisals for Carolinian support for pirates. Alas, or happily perhaps, delays left many of the pirates dispirited, and added to this a new governor arrived and ordered a stop to the attack.
But thankfully for our tale, a few of the pirates Yankey had sent to steal canoes from Native Americans in the Gulf of Florida (known today as the Strait of Florida) to use in the attack via the Matanzas River were attacked by Native Americans when they went ashore to “turn turtle” for provisions. Two pirates died in the attack, and two more afterward, including the quartermaster, from cyanide poisoning caused by eating improperly-prepared cassava root.
These incidents caused these buccaneers to miss their rendezvous with Captain Yankey and their shipmates, leaving them to sail back to the Caribbean where they imagined the pickings were better. A few months later, by dint of unknown circumstances, they ended up on tiny Isla Tortuga—Saltatudos or “Salt Tortuga” as the English called it, not the Tortuga of buccaneering fame on the Hispaniola coast—near Isla Margarita along the Venezuelan coast, the latter island once a center of Spanish pearl diving until its beds were destroyed by rapacious overharvesting. Saltudos was a desert isle most of the year, except for a few months when ships, often English, dropped by to “rake salt,” and Spanish guardas-costas dropped by looking for them.
Apparently abandoned by their comrades again, or lost, a handful of Yankey’s turtle-turning buccaneers found themselves marooned, their canoe unfit for anything but shoreline voyages or a quick attack on a small Spanish merchantman that might anchor at the island.
But a new arrival would soon change this!
On May 16, after several days of trials and mistrials at sea, the rebels-convict, whose destination was Curacao, sighted Saltatudos Island. As they approached they saw a canoe paddling toward them. Quickly they loaded their muskets and blunderbuss with broken glass—in their haste they had left their bag of musket balls behind on the wharf—and prepared for a fight, fearing the two men in the canoe were Native Americans, given that they paddled rather than rowed as most Europeans did, even in canoes.
In fact, the men were not merely “Englishmen in distress, &c.,” as they claimed at first, but some of Yankey’s long lost buccaneers. The rebels-convicts and buccaneers went ashore together and brought each other up-to-date on world and local affairs, such as they had heard. The buccaneers, nodding with approval at learning that the new arrivals were Monmouth’s men, said, “That if the Duke of Monmouth had had One Thousand of them [buccaneers], they would soon have to put to flight the King’s Army.” Quite a boast, but then buccaneers were prone to such fanfaronades.
Almost immediately the marooned buccaneers were interested in Pitman’s boat. Leaky as it was, it was no use for sea roving, at least not as a water craft. The buccaneers’ canoe had low sides, but the lowly dugout canoe was otherwise a great craft for small piracies. It was swift, could be hidden easily among mangrove while buccaneers lay in wait for passing Spanish vessels, and required little maintenance. However, to be truly seaworthy for open water voyages, rather than coastal cruising (clearly the buccaneers had become separated from a larger vessel), it required raised sides to keep out the sea. This required boards, which they had, and nails, which they did not.
Pitman’s boat had a purpose after all: the buccaneers wanted to burn it for the ironwork, which was the easiest way to get at its nails and spikes, but Pitman and his companions refused. The buccaneers, being buccaneers, burned it anyway. As soon as they had raised the sides of the canoe they put out to sea, on May 25 in fact, leaving Pitman and his companions to live a marooner’s life for three months, the sort that would soon inspire Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Pitman and his companions built rude huts of scrap wood and sea grass, gathered sea turtle eggs, “turned turtle” and cooked “calipash and calipee” in the sand or dried the flesh in the sun, and for a change gathered and ate “whelks,” probably conchs. A Native American, purchased by Pitman from the buccaneers for thirty pieces-of-eight, fished for his owner with bow and arrow. The rebels-convict roasted the catch on the beach. Their clothes soon wore out, and their shoes too, but by walking so much on rocks, the “Bottoms of our Feet was hardened into such a callous substance, that there was scarce any Rocks so hard but we could boldly trample them under our feet.”
Pitman, trying to be prepared for any and every eventually, even concocted a plan of escape should they be captured by an enemy: he dissolved “a sufficient quantity of Opium in a Bottle of rich Cordial Water” and planned to give it to “those Persons that should take us,” and put them to sleep.
In the meantime, the now once more sea roving buccaneers sailed across the course of the English buccaneers who had captured the Portuguese ship and informed its captain and crew of Pitman and his companions. The buccaneer ship sailed to the island, brought Pitman aboard, and at the captain’s suggestion but via vote of the crew—buccaneers were democratic, remember—graciously took him aboard, probably because he was a surgeon, but left his companions behind. The captain sadly pointed out that he had only two votes and two shares, and could not overrule his crew. Even so, they gave the remaining marooners some provisions and promised to send a ship after them when they could.
Importantly, Pitman was extremely circumspect when it came to this pirate captain, for he never identifies him by name although he surely knew it. Without doubt, the captain did not want it put about, much less published. The names of most buccaneer captains are well-recorded, but some had good reason for remaining incognito, as we have already seen.
Learning from the Saltatudos buccaneers that New Providence Island was again inhabited, the buccaneers laid a course to the island haven of outcasts and all sorts piratical. There they unladed their ship, including its guns, and burned it. All went their separate ways, some to remain on the island, others to return to Carolina.
A few built a fort on nearby Eleuthera Island and armed it with eight of the ship’s guns, only to lose it later in the year when privately commissioned pirate hunter George Lenham in the sloop Ruby raided it, arrested the pirates, confiscated their “spoil…of little value,” and got testimony from the five Portuguese Black slaves—four men and a boy—in their possession. The pirates claimed they were preparing to sail to New England to accept a pirate amnesty. Lenham and his superior consort Captain Thomas Spragge of the HMS Drake were also accused by the residents of nearby New Providence of plundering their homes. The pirate hunters admitted to this, noting that their accusers were in fact pirates.
Pitman took passage from New Providence aboard an English ketch. He might have gone ashore at Charlestown, but for the ketch captain’s fear of arrest for having been dealing at New Providence with “privateers”—with pirates, that is. He probably had nothing to fear. Pitman remained aboard and went ashore at New York instead, yet another colony known for looking the other way when the subject was piracy. Not long after, Pitman returned to England in disguise.
In 1689 he published his short memoir, A Relation of the Great Sufferings and Strange Adventures of Henry Pitman. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 ultimately gave freedom back to the rebels-convict two to three years later, although those in Barbados were required to remain on the island due to a shortage of white men for the militia and trades due to disease. In 1691 Pitman voluntarily returned to Barbados, where he died two years later.
Behold Captain Blood: His Odyssey and Errol Flynn! And Just Who Was that Unknown Pirate Captain?
So why is all of this important?
Because this is why we have Captain Blood: His Odyssey, and therefore the 1935 film which made Errol Flynn a star, and more.
Because “for want of a nail,” or of a few, there would be no canoe full of pirates to sail across the path of an incognito pirate captain who would, via their timely information, rescue a marooned rebel-convict surgeon.
Because without this captain and his crew Pitman might very likely have died on a mostly desert isle, in which case he would never have written the story of his adventures, most importantly of those with pirates. At the very least he would probably not have been rescued by pirates. And if Pitman’s odyssey were never published, Rafael Sabatini would never have read it and there would be no inspiration for Captain Blood as we know it.
And if there were no Captain Blood then there might be no films with Errol Flynn, therefore no famous Disney pirates ride as we know it—the ship versus fort scene is straight out of the novel—and therefore perhaps no famous Disney pirate films, and therefore we might have a very different modern pirate culture for everyone from scholars to writers of bodice-ripping romances to misapprehend.
Still, three questions remain unanswered: who were Jacob Hall and Thomas Jingle, the mystery pirate captains of Charlestown, South Carolina? Likewise the mystery pirate captain who rescued Henry Pitman, without whom we might have no great pirate film to make Errol Flynn a star? And might Hall or Jingle have been Pitman’s mystery captain?
To find the answer we turn first to the South Carolinian raid on St. Augustine in 1702. Led by Governor James Moore, the attacking forces moved by land and sea, sacking missions and outposts on route, and besieged the Spanish outpost but failed to capture the Castillo de San Marcos—a grand Spanish Main fortress and icon of American history, still standing and straight out of both Hollywood and reality, well worth a visit, as is the much smaller mid-18th century Fuerte Matanzas not far away—and the fifteen hundred souls packed inside.
The land forces were commanded by Colonel Robert Daniell (or Daniel), a noted Carolinian gentleman who had emigrated from Barbados. He had first purchased land in Carolina in 1677, owned a house in the city, a plantation in the countryside, and had long served in various military and naval capacities, including briefly assisting the soon-to-be famous Commodore Charles Wager during King William’s War. Daniell would one day become Lieutenant-Governor of North Carolina.
He was also, according to Don Josef de Zúñiga y Zerda, Gobernador de Florida, “one of the Jamaica pirates” (he actually he calls them as corsarios, which may refer to pirates or privateers), and “a renowned and experienced pirate, one of those who sacked Vera Cruz.”
Put plainly, Jacob Hall could be none other than Robert Daniell, who deserves not only the appellation of noteworthy early Carolina citizen and politician, but also of its most famous pirate. His list of piratical depredations includes the sack of Veracruz in 1683 and the attempted sack of St. Augustine in 1684. His is the classic exception that proves the rule, in this case of the gentleman pirate in disguise, another classic Hollywood trope that was quite rare in reality.
And Thomas Jingle? He may well have been Daniell’s occasional comrade-in-arms, James Risby, a buccaneering, pirateering, quasi-gentleman with a list of borderline skullduggeries as long as his arm. He had begun his career cutting logwood—a highly desirable dyewood—in Spanish territory circa 1669, a practice the Spanish considered highly illegal but the English government and merchant traders encouraged. In 1677 he was captured by a Spanish guardacosta and later released, but the Spaniards confiscated his vessel and cargo, perhaps provoking a career as a buccaneer in retaliation as was the case with a number of merchant captains who would turn to sea roving.
In 1683 he was sent on a mission by the governor of Jamaica to Petit Goâve, the French buccaneer haven on Hispaniola (Tortuga was largely abandoned by now, novelists and Hollywood notwithstanding), to demand the return of plunder taken by buccaneer George Spurre at Veracruz and by the notorious pirate Jean Hamlin at sea, and to forbid French buccaneers from English ports—which also means he had not accompanied Hall-Daniell at the sack of Veracruz.
Assuming his nom de guerre was Thomas Jingle, or rather, Hinkley, he commanded a vessel at the attempted sack of St. Augustine in 1684 under the sieur de Grammont. In 1696, under his real name and during a long association with the quasi-piratical sorts at New Providence Island, he ferried twenty-six fugitive crewmen of the notorious Red Sea pirate Henry Every, who had captured the Great Mughal’s treasure ship, not to mention whose crew had raped the many women aboard, from New Providence to Carolina and then across to Galloway, Ireland, where they landed discreetly and dispersed, for which he would have been paid handsomely.
In 1698 he was dubiously commissioned by the governor of New Providence as a pirate hunter along with three others including Colonel Read Elding, a mulatto sea captain of the same island and who would two years later become the de facto, if unlawfully commissioned, wife-swapping adventurer-governor of the piratical island. The pirate hunters failed to capture a real pirate, but did plunder an innocent merchant sloop for which they were accused of piracy. In 1702 Risby commanded the small naval force in the attack on St. Augustine.
In 1706, now Colonel Risby, he played an active role defending Charlestown against a Franco-Spanish attack. So famous and respected was he that “several gentlemen and others who were willing to share in the danger and honour” were adamant about serving at his side aboard a separate Dutch privateer sloop during the attack French fleet, rather than aboard the Seaflower commanded by famous slave trader, merchant trader, pirate hunter, and private naval seaman Colonel William Rhett who would later gain fame as the captor of gentleman pirate and general fool Stede Bonnet.
Which brings us to the question of the identity of the captain incognito who rescued Henry Pitman.
We assume he was almost certainly a Carolinian, given the voyage’s origin, although it’s entirely possible he might not have been. If he were, Daniell and Risby are therefore by far the two most likely candidates, being the two predominant buccaneer captains operating out of South Carolina at the time—in fact, they are the only known such English sea roving captains ported there, although others clearly touched there. My romantic inclination, never a good path on a factual quest except for inspiration, is on Daniell.
He fits the character of Pitman’s captain exactly as Governor William Markham of Pennsylvania described Daniell in 1697: “an easy good-natured man.” Likewise his vital need to remain incognito. Certainly his buccaneer experience and contacts lend him to the position, and nearly every buccaneer in the mid-1680s had his eye set on the South Sea. The Caribbean was becoming too dangerous, especially for English sea rovers.
Unfortunately, if Pitman’s statement is correct, that the pirates had been at sea roughly eighteen months, Daniell could not have been the captain because his signature is on a South Carolina document dated October 15, 1686. Of course, eighteen months, although a short cruise for buccaneers sailing into the South Sea, might be a bit long for those who failed to round Cape Horn. Eight months is more reasonable, and perhaps the longer period is a transcription or hearsay error, leaving open the window in which Daniell could very well have commanded the expedition.
Is this even partial proof? Of course not. It’s merely strong conjecture, with questions that must first be answered—and we may never have answers to some. Even so, this will not prevent the hypothesis from being posted to Wikipedia or other online pages as “fact.” There might even be other known candidates, including not only Risby, whom my objective analysis points to as the most likely, assuming the captain was a Carolinian.
There is, for example, “marriner of Charles Towne” John Williamson who when he died in 1688 had £192 in silver and gold in coin and plate (the equivalent of roughly 855 pieces-of-eight), an enormous cash sum to have on hand for any seaman, even a merchant captain! That is, unless the seaman were a successful buccaneer, or at least a frugal successful one, unlike the majority who typically spent their booty in debauchery. In fact, we have already seen that eight hundred pieces-of-eight was each common buccaneer’s share of plunder at Veracruz, suggesting Williamson may have at least been one of the crewmen of Jacob Hall aka Robert Daniell.
Another possibility for the captain of the English buccaneers is argued for by scholar Raynald Laprise. You can read about it in the pdf paper located here: Henry Pitman, ou les rendez-vous de Salt Tortuga. (I’ll also note that M. Laprise argues Thomas Handley aka Henley was Thomas Jingle, a suspect I placed on the back burner given that I could find no record of a Handley owning property in Carolina. The rest of M. Laprise’s excellent, extensive research is also well worth reading.)
Still, in my heart I stand, at least until I’m overwhelmed with evidence otherwise (which may be sooner than later) with Colonel Daniell as Pitman’s captain and therefore the secret progenitor of Rafael Sabatini’s famous Captain Peter Blood. For better and, too often, for worse, this is how the process works: heart over head. In other words, my desire-based reasoning, even if ultimately incorrect (Risby’s ghost, or that of whoever the captain really was, is surely furious and may haunt me for this), helps satisfy my need to reconcile fact with fiction, if only temporarily: in this case the romance versus reality of a gentleman pirate from Barbados one day becoming governor of Jamaica, a fiction we now know might very well have had its origin in a mystery gentleman pirate of South Carolina who one day became Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina.
Or, how the combination of mystery pirates, an obscure account of a marooned rebels and pirates, and the want of a few nails can inspire famous popular fiction and strongly influence culture three centuries later.
This tenuous adventure-romance of connections little-known and well-known, of tales rightly- and wrongly-known, this odyssey of seeking fact, creating fiction, and balancing both, is much of what the manuscript this has been excerpted and edited from is about: how fact becomes fiction, fiction fact, and how we do—and, more importantly, how we should—regard both.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted November 23, 2021. Last revised August 17, 2022.
The Duel on the Beach, Part III: In Film!
Each media–the written word, the illustration, the motion picture–has a unique ability to convey action. A novel can not only describe but explain swordplay in action; an illustration can bring a moment in time to life and make an entire action timeless; a motion picture can show action as it unfolds and as we might see it were it real.
Of all three, by turning the written description or static illustration into moving action, film may have left us with our most indelible memories and tropes of the duel on the beach. Or so I argue tenuously, for several written descriptions and illustrations come to mind that likewise bring forth indelible memories.
With fiction we must imagine the duel, even when when well-described (but almost always imperfectly nonetheless) and accompanied by the paintings of Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth. Written descriptions may suggest extraordinary action, yet even if it’s described accurately and in detail it’s likely that only those who’ve studied swordplay can picture it well in their mind’s eye. Written explanations almost always slow the action down, providing a false tempo and, in the worst cases, a distraction.
Accompanying illustrations can only suggest action. But don’t get me wrong! Often a written description or a painting is far more evocative than a poorly choreographed film duel.
But in film we get to see the duelists move before our eyes. They lunge, parry, and riposte. They plot and execute, they snarl and rejoice. They are living swords actively arrayed in combat before us. And they are often even more dangerously and joyfully inspiring than their descriptions in fiction or accompanying paintings!
This is part three of a five-part series on the duel on the beach in fiction and film. Part one discusses the duel on the beach in fiction, part two the duel in The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini, and part four the duel in the 1935 film version of Captain Blood. It’s worth reading the first two before this post, but this isn’t absolutely necessary. In this post we’ll take a look at an overview of the duel on the beach in film, with some commentary as well on film duel choreography and especially on one vital aspect of it and all swordplay: tempo.
Actors as Fencers
The actual filming of a duel can take days, and the preparation is typically extensive, beginning with a detailed written play followed by, usually, exhaustive rehearsal. I’ll provide more details on this process in the Golden Age of Film in part four, and look at actors as fencers and at tempo here instead.
Only rarely are actors actually also skilled fencers. From the Golden Age of Film just two come to mind: Cornell Wilde, a Hungarian-born US national saber champion and Olympic qualifier who just prior to the Olympic Games gave up competitive fencing for the theater and soon film, and Basil Rathbone, a studious British amateur who enjoyed swordplay and studied for five years under famous film fencing master Ralph Cavens, after having studied under famous fencing masters Félix Gravé and Léon Bertrand in the UK.
Others have managed to look the part well, with actual skill ranging from none to a little, including Danny Kaye in The Court Jester and Gene Kelly in The Three Musketeers. It surely helped that both were dancers, although for real swordplay, as opposed to choreographed, re-enacted, or fake, it helps even more to be able to sense tempo or rhythm and then break it, by which means one may steal distance and time on one’s adversary, setting him or her up to be hit at the precise moment he or she is least prepared.
I’ve had students who were both excellent dancers and excellent fencers, but also those who were excellent dancers but awful fencers, entirely unable to do anything but follow their adversary’s rhythm or a simple rhythm of their own, to their great peril. A number of them could only imitate, not tactically improvise. And to be fair, I’ve had some students who were excellent fencers but awful dancers, unable to keep to a rhythm for more than a few beats–they had long been taught not to. (I’ve even been accused of this.) They could easily sense the rhythm but only with effort could they maintain it, for by training, even instinct, they wanted to break it.
Errol Flynn, famous alongside Douglas Fairbanks as the most swashbuckling of film swashbucklers, admitted in his autobiography My Wicked Wicked Ways that he was no swordsman:
“I don’t know much about fencing, but I know how to make it look good. You only have to stand still and look forward, your head proud, and let the sword point straight out, you and the sword both unmoving, and it is dramatic. Let the sword point dip two inches, and the gesture can look very clever and dangerous.”
Our five-year-old has already, quite naturally, mastered this en garde. An old school epeeist, close friend of mine, retired (and notable) Byzantine iconographer, and portrait artist at present, Elias Katsaros,* still uses this en garde, often with the point dropped a couple inches as Flynn described; it’s highly effective for him and although approaching eighty years old, he can still give elite fencers fits with his old school dueling style of epee fencing. Flynn’s comment reflects the following description by William Higford in his book Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658:
“The bravest gentlemen of arms, which I have seen, were Sir Charles Candis, and the now Marquis of Newcastle, his son, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Sir Lewis Dives, whom I have seen compose their whole bodies in such a posture, that they seemed to be a fort impregnable.”
At the opposite extreme is the admonition of Dr. Eugene Hamori, my fencing master of many decades: in the en garde one should appear as if always in motion, always attacking, at all times. It goes without saying that one can appear simultaneously as both a fort impregnable and constantly on the attack. But I digress.
The reality is that, then and now, most actors were not fencers but imitators who followed a carefully choreographed routine. This is vital not only for the logistics of filming but for safety too.
Fencing Tempo: Reality Versus Cinema
If there’s one aspect of cinematic duels that often drives me crazy, it’s the obvious overuse of what might best be termed the “false tempo of choreography” in film swordplay. Some background first, so please bear with me. If you find this too technical or tedious, you can just skip straight to the films themselves.
Classical tempo, or, more accurately, true tempo, sometimes called timing, is the most vital of all aspects of swordplay. Every fencing master has his or her own definition, but basically it can be defined as the most opportune time to make a fencing action, usually an offensive one–that is, the moment when my opponent is for a brief moment helpless–without my also getting hit. False tempo or false time is any other tempo. Not getting hit means exactly that: not getting hit at all. Hits excluded by the rules of fencing or by the timing of a scoring machine would still be hits if the swords were real.
Fencing tempo may be divided into physical and psychological tempo, the latter consisting of moments of inattention, over-attention, or distraction, either by the adversary’s own action, or induced–“putting the opponent to sleep” for example–in him or her. Closely associated with tempo is cadence or rhythm.
Zoltan Beke and Jozsef Polgar’s definition of fencing tempo in The Methodology of Sabre Fencing (Budapest: Corvina, 1963) is one of the best I’ve read and is what I was taught, far more often unconsciously through lessons than consciously through lecture, by both of my Hungarian masters:
“In fencing, under the concept of tempo we include that suitable moment, at which the opponent is helpless against our fencing action. It is not enough just to recognize the moment which favours the surprising of our opponent, it must be felt. Seeing in itself is not enough, because by the time we perceive it and make our decision to act, the actual moment may have passed or the position of the opponent may have changed to our disadvantage. // In practice, we also interpret tempo as a unit of time [one cadence, or one unit of fencing time]… // In the instruction of tempo attention should be devoted to both these interpretations.”
Physical tempo is often divided into hand tempo and foot tempo, particularly in the early stages of instruction. For example, a very simple instance of hand tempo: my adversary moves hand and sword laterally from the sixte position outside to the quart position inside. Anticipating this, I attack with a disengage into the opening sixte line at the moment the hand and sword begin to move, so that my point lands as my opponent’s hand and sword arrive in the quarte position. If I wait until my adversary’s hand and sword are in the quarte position to attack, he or she has the tempo–a full cadence–in which to defend against my attack. Or, I make a simple attack as my opponent starts to lower their hand, opening the line. Again, I don’t wait until the line is entirely open.
Similarly foot tempo. The Hungarians, for example, define three major forms: the attack on preparation (attacking as the adversary advances in preparation), the accelerating attack (attacking as the adversary fails to retreat or retreats too slowly), and the “taken over” attack (attacking on the adversary’s recovery from a failed attack). In the first, I attack when my adversary begins his or her advance, because for a moment there is nowhere to go while the foot is in the air. The opponent is temporarily helpless to escape. Further, if my adversary is preparing an attack, they may be over-focused on it, providing me with psychological tempo in addition. They’re distracted, in other words, by their preparation. Or I can attack with an accelerating movement (usually an advance-lunge) if my adversary fails to retreat as I advance, or retreats too slowly. Again, for a brief moment my opponent is helpless to escape. Or, I can attack during my adversary’s recovery from an attack, for here psychological tempo also plays a significant role–the recovering adversary is not only typically slower than the attacker, but they tend to believe they are safer during the recovery than at the exact moment the attack has failed, and tend to let their guard down, particularly if their opponent has not previously attacked during recovery.
In practice, hand and foot tempo go–forgive me–hand-in-hand. One must time them both, although often one or the other predominates. For example, I may have superior blade-work against a particular adversary, leaving me to concentrate largely on finding the foot tempo with which to make the attack, and vice versa.
In sum, I want to attack in anticipation of my adversary’s movements, keeping a full cadence ahead, resulting in his or her inability to defend in time. Again, vitally, this tempo must also aid in protecting me so I don’t also get hit, and leave me in position to recover quickly or secure my adversary’s sword so I’m not hit immediately afterward (Sir Wm. Hope called such “double” hits exchanged hits).
True fencing tempo is not the tempo of a game of tag!
But there are other forms of tempo, the rules of each weapon creating them. Although classical or true tempo still applies to a degree, modern foil and saber are also governed by an artificial or false tempo of convention, also known as “right of way” rules, in theory derived from reality and true tempo but in practice suicidal, given that (1) they permit the attacker to disregard counter-attacks into the first tempo, and (2) they now permit attacks in invitation (with the sword in a non-threatening position, that is), bot of which with a real sword would often result in impalement.
In modern epee, the timing of the scoring machine creates a false tempo that often takes priority over true tempo, turning it into a game of “hit at least a 20th to 25th of a second before getting hit,” rather than “hit and not get hit.” Often the majority of epee touches would be double hits were the weapons real. In electrical epee’s defense, the early rules of epee tempo, when judged by the eye, not the machine, were found to be difficult to maintain, and so judging was simplified: a hit arriving noticeably before the other was counted. The electrical apparatus simply made this easier to judge. (Note that the timing of the box — touches within a 20th to a 25th of a second of each other are counted as a double, and a touch that lands later than this after another is not counted — replicates the smallest difference in time in which most people’s perception can distinguish between two touches, although having a small range, a 20th to a 25th of a second in this case, is actually necessary for the apparatus to operate correctly.)
Again, although true tempo still plays an important role in all three weapons, it is often, unfortunately, overshadowed or even superseded by the tempos created by the rules governing the weapon.
This has long been a problem even in the days in which swords were worn and duels were fought: “…because whoever will be but at the Trouble to visit the Fencing-schools, shall scarcely see one Assault of ten, made either by Artists against Artists, or Artists against Ignorants, but what is so Composed and made up of Contre-temps [double touches resulting from an attack into an attack, or from simultaneous attacks], that one would think the greatest Art they learn, and aime at, is to strive who shall Contre-temps oftnest…” (Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694.) Even three centuries ago, fencers in schools tended toward tag rather than true tempo. If you want to experience Hope’s frustration today, watch any competitive bout in modern fencing, classical fencing, or HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts). The natural tendency to turn all forms of fencing into a game of “hit first” tag is difficult to suppress.
There is also the false tempo of the fencing master whose goal is to get hit, unlike the fencer whose goal ideally is to not get hit. The fencing master, in other words, provides opportunities for the student to hit: he or she uses false tempo–often via exaggeration, hesitation, other error, or all of these–to train true tempo. (But he or she also uses true tempo when necessary, for example to surprise a student making a repeated error.) As an old friend, an outstanding foilist in his youth, an outstanding epeeist later, now also a retired French army colonel, put it when he first met me: “I love to fence fencing masters and teachers, they always fence like they’re giving a lesson: they hesitate and I hit them!” He was quite correct. Even so, he never won more than half his bouts against me, in spite of my teaching handicap, for the tendency to hesitate can, with practice, be suppressed, not to mention that friendly competitive Gallic arrogance can motivate an opponent. I fenced some of my favorite bouts against him.
Last, we have the false tempo of film fencing choreography, best described by famed film fencing master Fred Cavens:
“For the screen, in order to be well photographed and also grasped by the audience, all swordplay should be so telegraphed with emphases that the audience will see what’s coming.” (Fred Cavens quoted in “Swordplay on the Screen” by film historian and film swordplay commentator Rudy Behlmer in Films in Review, June-July 1965.)
But if the audience can see it coming, so in reality can the adversary, and far more easily!
At its best, with great action and editing, this false tempo of choreography is less noticeable. At other times it is awful and drives fencers like me crazy as we spot numerous opportunities in which we would have attacked or defended had we been in the duel ourselves. Worse, the clearly weaker fencer often wins per the script (watch The Spanish Main, for example). In such choreography’s defense, much of this has to do with safety, the lack of skill of many actors (although the unskilled were often doubled as much as possible), and as Cavens noted, to help the audience understand what’s going on.
Even so, film swordplay can be exciting without resorting to this false tempo–but this takes skilled actors, skilled fight choreographers, and skilled editors, not to mention willing directors. In most cases these days, in spite of a fair number of capable fight directors, film swordplay is of the “hack and slash, make it look rock and roll” variety. Trite and lazy, in other words, if exciting at times to the uninitiated.
Or, as one well-experienced Hollywood stuntman, swordsman, and film swordplay choreographer put it, “You do what the director wants, however ridiculous, or you get fired.” Fred Cavens once walked off the set after a director insisted on filming a swordfight with one of the actors standing on a table: in reality, the swordsman would be unable to defend himself adequately from adversaries cutting and thrusting at his feet and legs. Sometimes even Hollywood antics are too much.
Most directors these days don’t seem to care about exciting, accurate swordplay. Even so, we can hope and dream, and enjoy those few films that do still occasionally elevate swordplay to the degree those of us who follow the sword desire.
Now to the film duels on the beach!
To Have and to Hold, 1922
Based on the novel by Mary Johnston, a writer who had significant influence on Rafael Sabatini, this 1922 Paramount version is lost as is the 1916 Paramount version. Remakes were as common then as now–why not beat a dead horse if it’s profitable? We have no cinematic details on the duel on the beach in either version to my knowledge.
This fictional duel is perhaps best-known today for Howard Pyle’s painting of the duel for command in the novel, between gentleman hero and the last of three pirate villains he fights one after the other, on what is known today as Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia. Clearly, the duel was filmed somewhere on the California coast rather than upon a flat Virginia islet. Santa Catalina Island is often considered the likely suspect location, but such scenes were more often filmed on the California coast itself or even on studio sets. See The Duel on the Beach, Part I for more general details, including paintings by Howard Pyle and Frank Schoonover.
Captain Blood, 1924
Several years prior to 1924, Douglas Fairbanks–actor, director, writer, producer (auteur in other words)–had already established the swashbuckling film genre as we know it today (and usually poorly imitated now) in The Three Musketeers and The Mark of Zorro. Film permitted him to carry swashbuckling adventure beyond the constraints of reality. His swashbuckling heroes could fight and defeat a half dozen or more enemies at once, climb buildings and do stunts like Jackie Chan before Mr. Chan was born, and swing from every chandelier in sight.
But he had yet to make a pirate film. In 1924, Vitagraph produced Captain Blood based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, a mere two years after the book’s publication, and beating Fairbanks by two years to his own pirate film. The movie was intended to be, and was, everything we’ve come expect of a blockbuster even if it’s star, J. Warren Kerrigan, had once said the following to a Denver Times reporter in 1917:
“I am not going to war. I will go, of course, if my country needs me, but I think that first they should take the great mass of men who aren’t good for anything else, or are only good for the lower grades of work. Actors, musicians, great writers, artists of every kind—isn’t it a pity when people are sacrificed who are capable of such things—of adding to the beauty of the world.”
No real Captain Blood he, clearly, nor anything resembling an honorable person, but then, actors, with some notable exceptions, are for the most part actors imitating heroes, not heroes playing heroes. Still, we expect more even from actors.
Unfortunately, only thirty minutes of the original film survive, and the duel footage is not found among them. In the image above, note the Howard Pyle-inspired arrangement of duelists and spectating pirates. Beyond this, we’re left now to our imaginations.
Historically-speaking, such duelists may have stripped off coats, sword-belts or baldrics, and, in the case of Peter Blood, periwig if he were still wearing one (he appears to have switched to his own hair by now), for which we have historical evidence, although not all swordsmen stripped down. Whether they did or did not depended largely on the circumstances of the fight and personal inclination. In the novel, there is no indication but that the two men fought as they were dressed, given the hasty development of the rencontre and drawn swords.
In fact, lighter dress was the norm in the tropical climate: a scarf instead of a periwig and a waistcoat but no coat over it, except on the most formal of occasions. And no boots, except on horseback, even if Rafael Sabatini permitted them on sandy, dune-ridden dueling shores. 🙂
In the novel, the duel was fought on Virgin Magra, Sabatini’s joke on Virgin Gorda–the island isn’t actually fat but more or less skinny, depending I suppose on your perspective. There are one or two possible beaches on Virgin Gorda where the duel, as described in the novel, could have been fought, but more on this in part four when I discuss the 1935 film version in detail in part four.
Clothes Make the Pirate, 1925
A comic film starring Leon Errol and Dorothy Gish, based on the comic pirate novel by Holman Day of the same name, the duel is merely a pretend one between two tailors masquerading as pirates, one of them named Tidd who is pretending to be the famous pirate Dixie Bull. The film no longer exists, unfortunately, and there are no stills of the duel, at least not that I’m aware of. The image above is from the photoplay edition, and depicts the final confrontation between the fake Bull and the real, with the fake triumphing, of course. After all, it’s a comic novel.
The Black Pirate, 1926
Released in 1926, The Black Pirate starring Douglas Fairbanks set the parameters and even more importantly, the expectations, for one of the three major forms of the swashbuckling pirate genre for the next century: the semi-historical pirate romance-adventure in traditional form, of which Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk are the finest examples; the semi-historical or “sort of historical” pirate adventure, any of the versions of Treasure Island for example, and the television series The Buccaneer and Black Sails (full disclosure: I was the historical consultant on Black Sails); and the purely pirate fantasy, usually with a bit of romance on the side, filled with pirate myth and trope, of which The Black Pirate is the original, and still the finest, example, although honorable mention goes to The Crimson Pirate and perhaps–and only perhaps–the first of the Disney pirate films.
The Disney pirate films carry the pirate fantasy to extreme with occult and mythological nonsense, if entertaining at times. Many pirate films, particularly the generally inferior B versions, straddle the genres between romance-adventure and pirate trope and caricature, generally leaning more on the latter. Except for some of the pirate historical romance adventures such as Captain Blood, all have been more or less, usually unsuccessfully, based on the genre formulated by The Black Pirate. Even the Disney pirate films owe not only their origin but their Peter Pan fantasy and tongue-in-cheek atmosphere to this Douglas Fairbanks film.
By his own admission Fairbanks was inspired as much by Peter Pan (thus Fairbanks’s costume) and Howard Pyle’s paintings as by Alexander Exquemelin’s buccaneers, making The Black Pirate is a straightforward pirate fantasy adventure marked by the swashbuckling derring-do of Fairbanks himself. And it’s entirely enjoyable because it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
The swordplay is the film reflects the genre Fairbanks was creating, or rather, reflected the style of swordplay Fairbanks had already designed and set in motion in The Three Musketeers:
“For here, plainly, is a D’Artagnan that not even Dumas ever dreamed of. He is the personification of all the dashing and slashing men of Gascony that ever fought their way through French novels, all for the smile of a lady. He never fences one man if there are six to fence instead, he never leaves a room by the door if there is a window or a roof handy, he never walks around any object (including human beings) if he can jump over them; he scales walls at a bound, carries prostrate damsels over roofs, hurls men one upon another, rides no horse save at a gallop, responds to the call gallantry at the drop of a hat, and general makes himself an incomparable D’Artagnan.” (New York Times review of The Three Musketeers, August 29, 1921.)
The duel on the beach between the pirate captain (Anders Randolf) and the shipwrecked Duke of Arnoldo (Fairbanks), bent on avenging the death of his father was choreographed by Fred Cavens rather than Fairbanks’s usual Belgian master H.J. Utterhore (Henri Joseph Uyttenhove). Cavens ultimately choreographed the swordplay in more than fifty films by my count; Thomas Brady in “Meet Hollywood’s Fencing Master” (New York Times, October 5, 1941) noted seventy-five as of the date of his article.
Fairbanks’s character is a revenge-seeking, pirate-hunting Spaniard who comes to be known as the Black Pirate, so cup-hilt rapier and parrying dagger are appropriate arms. However, it’s unlikely the real pirate captain would himself have carried these weapons. But no matter–it’s fantasy entertainment after all.
The duel setup is a classic one derived from pirate myth, particularly as depicted in To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston, a novel illustrated by Howard Pyle and influential in the writing of Rafael Sabatini: a man wishing to join a pirate crew proves himself by fighting a duel with the best swordsman (or swordsmen, in the case of Johnston’s novel), and it seems that the pirate captain is always the best or one of the best. Pyle’s illustration (see part one) clearly influenced the film duel’s arrangement.
The 25 cent oversized film program–$3.64 in present dollars which was quite a good deal actually, given that most similar programs typically cost $10 to $20 today, the modern practice of gouging fans being what it is–was written, illustrated, and published in the style of a Howard Pyle, Charles Johnson, or Alexandre Exquemelin sea roving journal (or all three!). At one point it describes the duel with lines by its pretended pirate-author “Sandy MacTavish” (actually screenwriter Lotta Woods who wrote several screenplays for Douglas Fairbanks but not The Black Pirate), of which the following are examples:
“Another step backward and the Captain was in the lagoon, while the stranger, with punctilious ceremony, waited for his recovery. The Captain was like to burst a blood-vessel. He scrambled to the bank and made a powerful thrust that backed the stranger toward the line of our men.”
However, in spite of the Black Pirate’s “punctilious ceremony,” he ends the duel by causing the pirate captain to trip and fall backwards onto the point of a parrying dagger the Black Pirate had placed there beforehand just for the purpose and somehow entirely unnoticed by the entire pirate crew.
According to Tracey Goessel writing for the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress, Anders Randolph’s rapier cut Fairbanks’s arm during filming, causing the swashbuckling star to curse. She also notes that he was injured again, this time when fencing with Fred Cavens who was standing in for Randolph. A cut close to the eye was a result, but guests were present, so Fairbanks smiled and said, “Pirates always were a bloody lot.”
The duel is magnificently choreographed, easily one of the most exciting of any Hollywood film and one that certainly ties with 1935 Captain Blood duel (also choreographed by Cavens) as the best of any pirate movie. Although there are numerous Hollywood flourishes, the swordfight comes across as realistic. Given the speed of the actions and the technique involved, it’s easy to see how Fairbanks was injured.
Of course, the less-than-honorable and probably impractical-except-in-film trick of fence is arguably entirely permissible when a pirate is the adversary, not to mention when the adversary is the man who murdered your father long before (in cinematic years) Inigo Montoya sought similar revenge:
“As if a man that lies at the mercy of common Pirates [praedonibus: of the robbers or plunderers], should promise them a certain Sum of Money for the saving of his Life: ‘Tis no deceit to recede from it, tho’ he had given his Oath for the performance: for we are not to look upon Pirates [pirata] as Open and Lawful Enemies: but as the Common Adversaries of Mankind [communis hostis omnium]. For they are a sort of men with whom we ought to have neither Faith, nor Oath in common.” (Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis 3:29.107, in 44 BC. Translated by R. l’Estrange, 1720.)
Although the story is entirely fictional, we can do a little sleuthing and intelligently imagine where the duel might have taken place. Given that the tale in set in the “Southern Seas,” we know that this is the South Sea, aka the Pacific coast of the Spanish Main, and probably takes place in the 1680s when most of the great South Sea buccaneer expeditions took place.
Looking at the map in the film program, there is only one area that orients this way: the Isthmus of Darien. Therefore Panama, and therefore Isla Chepillo would be the prime candidate. It’s even shaped a bit like the island on the pirate chart! It’s not a perfect fit, but no matter: Panama and Chepillo will serve, and there are plenty of “pirate coves” to the west.
Chepillo, however, was not entirely a desert isle, making buried treasure a bit more difficult. That said, given that buried pirate treasure is a myth, we can just as easily fantasize that the island was uninhabited, or that the inhabitants were unlikely to find the treasure.
In fact, true desert isles were hard to find even in the seventeenth century. Most islands, even small ones, had inhabitants, and the rest, if they had any resources at all, were visited from time to time. In 1681, English buccaneers landed on Chepillo and took aboard good fresh water, plantains, two fat hogs–and fourteen black and mulatto prisoners. Whether free or enslaved, the buccaneers would doubtless have kept them as slaves.
Captain Blood, 1935
Not only my favorite of all film duels, and not just of those on the beach or in pirate films, but also one of the best to watch and enjoy. So notable and influential is it to the film swordplay that followed that I’m not going to discuss it here, but in this blog post! My apologies to anyone (temporarily) disappointed; just follow the link after you finish this post!
The Queen of the Pirates (La Venere dei Pirati), 1960
An Italian pirate film dubbed into English, starring Gianna Maria Canale, queen of Italian costume films, as Sandra, who with her father flees to sea to escape a false accusation and, naturally, become pirates. The film has plenty of pirate tropes, and two years later Canale would reprise her role as a pirate queen in The Tiger of the Seven Seas. She wields a rapier quite well and quite aggressively, if Hollywood-style, in both films, including in a tavern duel in the latter. Coming from a family of circus performers, she has an obvious athletic grace.
In fact, I am impressed with her swordplay, having previously only seen Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, and Jean Peters of this era swashbuckle well sword-in-hand. Canale compares well with these three film swordswomen and might be fiercer than all three, including even Peters.
In the film, Sandra and another pirate captain agree to settle their differences “con la punta de la spada,” which happens to be represented by cup-hilt rapiers. Assuming the pirates are intended to be Italian as described in the film’s description, the swords are then for once appropriate: cup-hilt rapiers were common in Spanish-held regions of Italy in the 17th century. I’m unsure what century the film is actually set in, though: the film advertising pretends the 16th, but the pirates look quite 17th century Hollywood Caribbean.
What follows is, if too short, a respectable if theatrical film duel with single rapiers that ends in Sandra disarming the other pirate captain with a disarm that actually can work in real fencing, at which point they laugh and make friends again. Canale displays some tight technique, including quick disengages against attempted beats and binds. Unfortunately, given the duel’s short length, there isn’t much opportunity for movement across a wide setting. The movie was filmed on location on the shores of Tuscany, although the sea settings were intended to represent the Adriatic on the eastern coast of Italy. The film’s “master of arms” was fencing master, actor, and stunt performer Franco Fantasia. See also Rage of the Buccaneers below.
Morgan the Pirate, 1961
Starring pre-Schwarzenegger muscleman Steve Reeves as Henry Morgan, and a largely Italian cast dubbed into English (there are several “Spaghetti pirate” films in fact), the film is reasonably watchable if you’re a kid with nothing else to do on a Saturday afternoon. It has most of the usual tropes: escaped servant-slaves, sea fights, shore fights, forts, evil Spaniards, Conquistador armor, cup-hilt rapiers, “exotic” women, &c. The color is lavish and the settings beautifully tropical.
And the duel? The usual Hollywood hack-and-slash filmed on an Italian beach (Procida Island off Naples, I believe) standing in for Basse Terre, Tortuga, with backgrounds clearly influenced by the paintings of Howard Pyle: ships at anchor, pirates watching in rapt attention, and palm trees.
The swordfight, Henry Morgan versus François l’Olonnais, begins in a tavern (another film duel trope possibly due a blog post), fought in triplicate over a desire to join the buccaneers, a need for supplies, and the protection of women. At first, l’Olonnais intends it to be a fight with daggers, clearly inspired by the famous Howard Pyle painting. However, upon seeing Morgan’s muscles, he chooses swords–cup-hilt rapiers, of course, even if historically incorrect–instead. Still, Reeves’s bulk was a lot of target for a knife, and l’Olonnais might have used Butch Cassidy’s technique in addition. But no matter, swords it is because by now the duel on the beach with rapiers is a trope.
The duel continues outside in Captain Blood versus Levasseur (1935, of course) style up and down the shore and dunes. But it’s nowhere near as well-choreographed or filmed as the famous 1935 film fight, even if it has a moment or two.
Mostly, it seems a set piece intended primarily to showcase Reeves’s muscles. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place in a beach party film of the era, at least as a fantasy dream scene, if a bit serious. What swordplay Reeve’s seems to know appears to have been picked up while rehearsing fights in some of the “Sword and Sandal” films he starred in. The duel ends when Reeve, clearly the underdog in swordplay, throws away his rapier, grapples with l’Olonnais, and disarms him.
The swordplay was choreographed by famous Italian fencing master Enzo Musumeci Greco, of the even more famous Aurelio and Agesilao Greco family of fencers dating to the mid-19th century. The two just-mentioned Greco brothers highly influenced the Italian form of epee fencing for both dueling and sport. Time to train students and student aptitude limit even the best of masters (not to mention being limited by a film director’s “vision”) so I certainly don’t blame Maestro Greco for the inauthentic nature of the swordplay in Morgan the Pirate.
Greco also worked with Errol Flynn in Crossed Swords, with much better swordplay, and Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate, which really didn’t have much in the way of swordplay although the fencing-with-fish bit is enjoyable. The Greco Academy of Arms in Rome still exists and still trains world class fencers. It also has a nationally-recognized fencing museum, the Casa Museo Accademia d’Armi Musumeci Greco that I’ve been told is well worth visiting.
To my knowledge, the soundtrack by Franco Mannino, including the track accompanying the duel, has never been released.
Rage of the Buccaneers (Gordon, il Pirata Nero), 1961
Also released as Gordon, the Black Pirate; The Black Buccaneer; The Black Pirate; Gordon, the Knight of the Seas; Pirate Warrior; and possibly other names if I’m not mistaken, the film stars Ricardo Montalbán as former slave and now pirate captain Gordon, and Vincent Price as Romero, a wealthy slave trader. It’s another “Spaghetti pirate” movie with a largely Italian cast dubbed for UK and American release, and it missed an opportunity to have these two notable actors fight a duel on the beach! Instead, Gordon fights the eye-patched Captain Tortuga who prefers not to fight fair, throwing sand in his adversary’s eyes, and engaging in other disreputable acts–perhaps because judging distance is difficult when fencing with eye (true, in fact). Gordon fights him again at the finale.
The backdrop of the duel is Howard Pyle-inspired, but lacks the sense of romantic adventure. Andrea and Franco Fantasia (see The Queen of Pirates above) are credited as fencing masters. The duel is largely Hollywood hack-and-slash, with large movements, cuts and slashes especially, quite untypical of rapier play, although there are a couple of tighter movements. The swords are cup-hilts, as usual and similarly anachronistic, assuming these aren’t Spanish pirates, which they might be, their names notwithstanding. Montalbán makes a fair attempt at a Flynn-like smirking composure, but is no fencer, often making the bent-arm stabs or pokes common to those who’ve never been taught to fence.
The movie is trope-filled, as the genre seems to require. Gordon is out to stop Romero from trading slaves, something no Caribbean pirates ever did or would have, unless to steal the slaves to sell themselves. In fact, the film opens with the duel on the beach. Captain Tortuga, it turns out, has been slave trading, something in reality pirates did quite regularly, capturing them at sea and on shore and selling them afterward.
The movie was filmed on the shores of Tuscany, probably in the same locations Queen of the Pirates was. The films were both directed by Mario Costa.
The Son of Captain Blood, 1962
Sean Flynn on the right in a classical en garde in a sword-fighting scene early in the film. It’s not truly a duel, nor on the beach. Rather, it’s a bit of a semi-comical sword brawl on the sandy shore of, ostensibly, Kingston, Jamaica. The film was an Italian-Spanish-US production featuring the son of Errol Flynn playing the son of Captain Peter Blood. Like his father, the younger Flynn looked the part of a swordsman even if his actual ability was far more theatrical than practical. A later swordfight in the film has been described by a friend of mine, himself an accomplished swordsman and swordplay teacher and choreographer, as probably the worst display of film sword combat ever filmed. I’ve been unable to discover who the film’s fight arranger was. Sean Flynn went to Vietnam in 1968 as a war correspondent. He, along with correspondent Dana Stone, were captured by Viet Cong guerillas in Cambodia in 1970 and were never heard from again. They are generally believed to have been murdered either by the Viet Cong or the Khmer Rouge.
Starring Robert Shaw as Captain Ned Lynch, more or less reprising his former role as Dan Tempest in the television series The Buccaneers, and Genevieve Bujold as gentlewoman Jane Barnet, the film’s duel on the beach is as much or more titillation than plot development. One need only watch it or view the images below to recognize this immediately. Arguably, it does put the duelists’ personalities on display, but this we already have from other scenes. Still, who doesn’t enjoy watching swordplay on a tropical beach? And it is an important trope for the genre! The Swashbuckler duel was filmed on a beach near Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, to represent one somewhere on Jamaica.
The film indulges in numerous pirate tropes caricatures, including the myth of siding with a rebellious populace against an unjust government, and is filled with as many anachronisms as a Disney pirate film, ranging from “pirate boots” to the Blarney Cock (the replica Golden Hinde I once visited in San Diego), a tall ship almost a century out of place–but at least it was a real ship and not a studio set! Even so, the film does (as my friend Antón Viejo Alonso reminded me) showcase Black actors–James Earl Jones as Nick Debrett and Jeffrey Holder as Cudjo–in prominent positions, including the role of Jones as what is essentially the ship’s quartermaster, or second-in-command, aboard pirate ships of the era. No other pirate films have done this so well, not even Black Sails. (The latter series did, however, do an admirable job showcasing African slaves in rebellion and allied with pirates, even if the latter is a myth. Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant for the show.)
Accepting the film for what it is–a 1970s update on The Black Pirate and The Crimson Pirate (in the UK it was released as The Scarlet Buccaneer) and a bit of an improvement on the old B-movies of the 1950s–it’s entirely enjoyable, or mostly so. All three leading actors–Shaw, Bujold, and Jones–take their roles seriously in spite of the occasional campiness and strange diversions (seriously, bath torture fetishism?) of the script.
The duel is fought with historically inaccurate swords as is common in Hollywood: Ned Lynch is armed with a cup-hilt rapier (with the classic Hollywood-issue modern epee blade instead of rapier blade), which commonly was used only by Iberians and some Italians at the time (1718) and almost out of style, and Jane Barnet with, for whatever imponderable, silly reason, a late 19th to early 20th century Radaelli fencing saber. The swordplay was choreographed with input from the film’s fencing consultant Tom Greene, a fencing student of Ralph Faulkner and a Hollywood writer and producer.
There are two other notable, if inauthentic, fencing scenes. In the first, the evil governor (played by Peter Boyle) and preening fetishist fences and defeats three Black fencing masters, killing one of them after he wounds the governor. If these Black fencers were of the standard of some of those on Barbados, I doubt the governor would have survived the encounters.
As Richard Ligon wrote in the 17th century, “I have seen some of these Portugal Negroes, at Collonel James Draxes, play at Rapier and Dagger very skilfully, with their Stookados, their Imbrocados, and their Passes: And at single Rapier too, after the manner of Charanza, with such comeliness…they were skilful too, which I perceived by their binding with their points, and nimble and subtle avoidings with their bodies. For, in this Science, I had been so well vers’d in my youth, as I was now able to be a competent judge.”
The final fencing scene is of the obligatory duel between Shaw and the governor.
Although as Hollywood goes the fencing in the duel isn’t entirely awful (it’s of the common standard, in other words, with lots of moulinets and the tierce-seconde, tierce-seconde action that’s simple to do and looks good on screen), and although there is little realism, Shaw does an excellent job giving a patronizing, chauvinistic air, and Bujold in return the rage at being outclassed and patronized. Both give spirited performances sword-in-hand. In fact, their relationship as revealed during their swordplay is more believable than during their romantic encounters although doubtless some readers will point out that adversarial engagements often stimulate romance. Or sometimes just lust.
The expanded original motion picture soundtrack (Quartet Records, 2 CDs, 2020), composed and conducted by John Addison, includes the duel track, “Fencing Lesson” (a mere 1:28 long).
Muppet Treasure Island 1996
Kermit showed off his best Hollywood swordplay, aerial antics included, engaged against Captain Flint as played by Tim Curry. If not strictly a duel, rather a rencontre on the beach during an attack on pirates, the swordplay is an enjoyable homage to film swashbucklers.
By no means is the depicted duel a conventional one. Rather, it is deadly game (in this comedy) forced upon Spanish prisoners by their pirate captors, Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red, played by Walter Matthau, in particular. Two Spanish officers are forced to fight to the death on the shoulders of two other Spaniards, one of them a priest: “Dead Man’s Nag” is the name of the game according to Captain Red. The victor will be spared.
The scene is almost certainly inspired by an illustration in The Pirates Own Book by Charles Elms (1837) in which pirates ride on the shoulders of priests as a means of abusing them. The book panders to pirate tropes: its accuracy, however, leaves much to be desired. The swordplay in the “mounted” duel is actually not bad, even if as much cutting as thrusting. The fencing master is uncredited.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2007
I hesitate to include this film because the scene is not a duel but a comical affray with swords on the beach, and soon gets even sillier. I won’t even mention but in passing the duel on the waterwheel scene. Yes, the scene is amusingly choreographed, and yes, it’s a fantasy film with pirates in it, not a pirate movie per se. Even so, the swordplay, such as there is, is the least memorable imagery of the entire scene. In fact, the comic reactions of Elizabeth Swann (played as everyone knows by Keira Knightley) are the most entertaining aspect of this romp with swords and treasure chest. Looking at the film credits, I’m unsure who choreographed the swordplay. As far as I know, the scene was filmed on St. Vincent in the Caribbean. I’ll say no more but to censure the screenwriter and director for not letting Miss Swann in her pirate garb get in on the action. It would have been quite something to have watched her swordfight-and-swashbuckle successfully against all three with her refined panache. Her swordplay on the beach is unfortunately limited to cutlass-play against several of living-dead crewmen of the Flying Dutchman.
I skipped a few films that qualify, or might. The Princess Bride’s duel above the beach probably deserves its own post. There is a Russian version of Captain Blood, but the quality of available video is terrible and, if I recall correctly, the duel on the beach looks rather bland. I’ve also skipped a number of generic pirate sword battles on the beach. Well, with one mystery exception below of an affray or beach brawl, not a duel. 🙂
Next up, this series at least, a post devoted entirely and in depth to the famous duel in Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone!
*You can find portraits painted by Elias Katsaros on his Facebook page.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted 24 August 2021. Last updated 23 April 2023.
The Fanciful, Mythical “Calico Jack Rackham” Pirate Flag
This is not a post I’d ever intended to write, believing–clearly foolishly–that publishing a book on pirate myths would once and for all send the the myth of Rackham’s pretended “skull and crossed swords” flag to perdition where it belongs. Or mostly so. How naive! It’s not just hope that springs eternal–so does myth flying in the face of contrary fact.
Although it’s well-documented that the “Rackham” flag–quite probably the most-depicted pirate flag in film–is a fanciful 20th century invention, Wikipedia via trolls and the ignorant continues to spew nonsense regarding both Rackham and this flag, the latest of which I learned, via a historical forum on Facebook, is that the two crossed swords might represent Anne Bonny & Mary Read. (For the record, all either of them did with a sword–quite possibly a machete, in fact, based on a witness statement–as pirates as far as we know is wave them at frightened merchant seamen who had already surrendered.) I’ll get to the ridiculous notion that the swords represent the women pirates in a moment.
Trying to correct Wikipedia is like playing Whack-a-Mole; it’s never-ending. Wikipedia is a prime resource for the lazy and the gullible, and trolls and others attempting to distort facts are well-aware of this. It’s one of the best places today to replace fact with nonsense, or worse. Don’t get me wrong: there are excellent articles on Wikipedia, including some on pirates and piracy. But to the uninitiated it can be hard to tell the difference between these and those that are little more than nonsense or outright propaganda. And even the best ones are often soon rewritten–and their important facts often disappear with the revision.
A few facts about Rackham & Co. before I describe the 20th century origin of the flag:
There is no record of any pirate flag John “Calico Jack” Rackham ever flew, if he even flew one. The only record of any flag he flew is of a white one, probably as a French flag for deception. This doesn’t mean he never flew a black flag, but if he did we have no idea what it looked like. None of the witnesses at his trial mention a black flag.
Again, as noted above, the black flag attributed to him, with skull (“death’s head”) and crossed cutlasses (or hangers or falchions) is a 20th century invention. More on this in a moment.
Rackham was a smalltime pirate who whose piracies prior to late 1720, if any (although likely; “Charles Johnson” claims he was once Charles Vane’s quartermaster), cannot be corroborated, and he would doubtless be entirely forgotten today were it not for two women who briefly sailed with him, Anne Bonny & Mary Read, and a publisher/editor, apparently Nathaniel Mist, who greatly “sexed up” their petty sea thieving. For most of his time in command, Rackham’s crew numbered only ten, including the two women and himself; he had added nine more drunk volunteers earlier the same day he was captured at sea. His piratical cruise lasted less than two months. It’s entirely likely that even his nickname, “Calico Jack,” is an invention: the moniker does not show up anywhere in the historical record except in Johnson’s book (and he invented many details in his book), unlike, for example, that of Edward Teach/Thache aka Blackbeard, which does show up regularly in the historical record.
At the time Rackham sailed with these women in his crew, he commanded a tiny 12-ton sloop named William he stole at anchor at New Providence (Johnson reimagined it as a swift 40 ton sloop), and was robbing small largely defenseless fishing and trading vessels in the waters off New Providence, Hispaniola, and Jamaica: seven small fishing boats, three merchant trading sloops, one small merchant schooner, and one small canoe. Most if not all of them were local “Mom & Pop” coastal seafarers, in other words. Hardly epic escapades. None of the vessels Rackham captured put up a fight.
Bonny & Read wore women’s clothing aboard, and dressed as men only the very few times they robbed small merchant traders and fishermen. In fact, there is only one confirmed attack in which they dressed as men, although it is probable they also did when capturing other vessels.
There was only one battle in which the two women pirates might actually have fought side by side–the battle in which they and Rackham were captured–and it was over in a moment, literally. There wasn’t much of a fight other than a single “great gun”–apparently in this case a swivel gun, not a carriage-mounted gun–and possibly a pistol fired by the pirates, and neither did any damage. There is no record of any other resistance by the two women pirates or any of the men. The pirates surrendered immediately after Jonathan Barnet’s sloop fired a broadside and volley of small arms. No pirates are recorded as having been wounded or killed in the brief action.
Further, most of what “Charles Johnson” wrote about Bonny & Read cannot be corroborated in spite of extensive research by numerous scholars and other researchers. Although much of what “Johnson” wrote about pirates in general is clearly factual and has been corroborated (pistols hanging from silk slings is an example of what might be invention proved to be a fact by the Whydah wreck, for example), he also embellished–lied–often, almost certainly to improve sales potential. His depiction of Bonny and Read as the only pirates willing to fight while the rest were drunk below deck, and Bonny’s scornful upbraiding of Rackham as having failed to fight like a man, were surely invented or grossly exaggerated by the author.
As for the modern origin of the flag, I’ll quote from the draft manuscript of The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths (I’m too lazy to pull up the published final):
“Many…pirate flags depicted today, such as those purportedly of Stede Bonnet, Calico Jack Rackam, and Blackbeard, are modern inventions without historical basis. The pirate flag we know incorrectly as Calico Jack’s, with crossed cutlasses under a skull, may well have been inspired by the flag used in the 1935 film version of Captain Blood, that of a pair of cutlass-holding arms crossed beneath a skull. And this film flag may have been inspired by the early flag of Bartholomew Roberts, that of a death’s head and an arm holding a cutlass, or by the Dutch red battle ensign with an arm holding a cutlass, or by the seventeenth century flag of Algiers (a notorious have of Barbary corsairs), or even by a Barbary corsair flag of no quarter.
“We simply do not know what the pirate flags of these three pirate captains really looked like…except that Blackbeard’s was a black flag with a “death’s head,” and not the commonly attributed black flag with horned skeleton [apparently a very early 20th century invention]. Similarly, the purported pirate flags of Christopher Moody and John Quelch are misattributions: Moody’s is actually the Barbary corsair flag of no quarter described later in this chapter, and Quelch never flew a pirate flag…
“The origin of our modern popular but fanciful renditions is a series of several books whose illustrations were passed from one to the next, with few or any changes. The earliest publication of this series discovered to date—and probably the origin [except for the fanciful Blackbeard horned devil flag which was published previously in The Mariner’s Mirror]—is Basil Lubbock’s The Blackwall Frigates, published in 1922. The book includes a plate of eight pirate flags (even though the Blackwall frigates only came into being a century after the Golden Age of Piracy expired, but pirate flags sell books), three of which are misattributions, although otherwise mostly accurate, and one is a fanciful flag taken from an illustration in Charles Johnson’s pirate chronicle. [Rackham’s purported flag is not among them.]
“Most of these flags, with names now added, were reproduced in Charles Grey’s Pirates of the Eastern Seas. Patrick Pringle’s Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy, published two decades later, includes nine pirate flags, all reproduced exactly from Grey’s book. In 1959, Hans Leip’s Bordbuch des Satans (Log of the Satans) includes some very similar flags clearly inspired by Lubbock, Grey, and Pringle, although two have been miscaptioned. Leip also adds three new flags, all imaginary: those of Calico Jack Rackam, Stede Bonnet, and Henry Every [“Long Ben”]. [Every’s flag includes a skull with a bandana and earring, a clear giveaway that it’s an invention.]
“Most of Leip’s pirate flags were reproduced exactly in 1961 in Pirates of the Spanish Main, part of the American Heritage Junior Library, with credit to Leip’s book. Pirates of the Spanish Main became a classic source of historical pirate lore—and mythical pirate flags—to literally thousands of young readers who imagined themselves pirates, not to mention to publishers of subsequent books on piracy. Similarly identified flags, some accurate, some, like those in the other books, not, were published in 1978 in Pirates, a title in the popular Time-Life “The Seafarers” series [including the “Calico Jack” flag with crossed swords]. It is no surprise that inaccurate images of pirate flags would appear in pirate books: for many publishers, the main purpose of images in a book is to get readers to buy it. The image of the “Jolly Roger,” whether accurate or not, is the perfect lure.”
The two most similar written descriptions of historical black pirate flags circa 1715 to 1730 to Rackam’s purported flag are “this flag was a black cloth in the middle of which was depicted a cadaver [skeleton] and scattered bones and crossed sabers” (I’ve translated this from French), and “The Ship hoisted a Black Flagg at the Main-Top-Mast-Head, with Deaths Head and a Cutlass in it…” Neither were hoisted by Rackham. The former is the only reference I’ve found to crossed swords among the many eyewitness descriptions of pirate flags.
If there were an early 18th century origin to the Rackham flag, we can blame Daniel Defoe’s Captain Singleton, a pirate novel published in 1720: Captain Bob [Singleton] flew “a black flag, with two cross daggers in it.” We cannot be certain this is the ultimate origin, for the idea of crossed swords is quite common throughout history.
Soon after I posted this blog, my friend Antón Viejo Alonso mentioned to me that conquistador, traitor, sociopath, and murderer Lope de Aguirre is said to have had three identical flags made in 1561, each with a black field with red crossed swords, the colors representing the blood he shed and the “lamentations and mourning” he caused. Whether this may have influenced Leip’s illustrator is unknown. Many flag designs appear to be parallel developments independent of previous or current similar flags, and not descendant, although clearly many also fall into the latter category. Black flags, and mortuary symbols on flags, have been around since antiquity, and have been used on land as well as sea. Aguirre’s flags were described by Friar Pedro Simón (1574 – circa 1628). The English translation of his work is entitled The Expedition of Pedro de Ursúa & Lope de Aguirre in Search of El Dorado and Omagua in 1560-1 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1861). A modern reprint is also available.
The modern “Calico Jack” flag of skull and crossed swords is a popular one in pirate films and among pirate fans. I myself own versions in both black and red, but I don’t represent them to be authentic. It’s an easy flag to imagine, substituting crossbones for crossed swords. I can even imagine myself creating it today or three centuries ago, or even today, given my interest in piracy and swordplay.
The “Calico Jack” flag has been used in several films, and a possible, even likely inspiration for its use in pirate movies, including the Disney franchise, is the flag flown aboard the pirate ship Wicked Wench in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at the Disneyland theme park. In fact, the design is also used early on in the ride in the form of a talking skull, with crossed cutlasses beneath it, providing safety and other information to visitors.
Very likely, the ride’s designers selected the design from the book The Pirates of the Spanish Main (1961) discussed above, although it is possible the Captain Blood film flag was also part of the inspiration. In fact, the entire ship-attacking-fort scene in the attraction was copied from the similar scene in the film. Notably, the attacking Spanish ship in the novel the film was based upon is described as red-sided, just as is the Wicked Wench in the attraction. (Carrying the hypothesis further, is the name Wicked Wench a bit of a joke on the Arabella–the name of Captain Blood’s ship–and the very proper English lady whose name it was? This would be in keeping with the piratical sense of humor of the attraction’s designers.)
All of this suggests that the Wicked Wench was the first fictional, and for that matter, non-fictional as well, ship to fly the “Calico Jack” Jolly Roger–although arguably the Arabella of the film Captain Blood did so in its original form. It’s entirely possible therefore that all subsequent film pirate ships flying the flag may have been inspired in part by the flag flown by the Wicked Wench, which was in turn inspired by the book The Pirates of the Spanish Main, and ultimately by the film.
(Historical note: buccaneer ships, one of which the Wicked Wench was originally depicted as, rather than as the pirate ship which would become the Black Pearl, did not fly black flags with skull and bones–only those of later pirates did.)
In Swashbuckler (1976), a version of the flag with ensanguined cutlasses is shown flying at the masthead of the Blarney Cock in the film, and flying in a odd arrangement at its stern in the movie poster and other marketing materials. The film stars Robert Shaw, Genevieve Bujold, James Earl Jones, Peter Boyle, Beau Bridges, Geoffrey Holder, Avery Schreiber, and, in an early role, Angelica Huston:
Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red (Walter Matthau) flew a version in Pirates! (1986) aboard the captured Spanish galleon Neptune:
Morgan Adams flew it aboard the Morning Star in Cutthroat Island (1995); “Hoist the colors!” she orders at the beginning of the battle with Dog Brown’s Reaper. The flag flown from the Morning Star was slightly modified from the original 20th century illustration, although the popular “original” was used on posters and other promotional materials. The film, although it bombed at the box office (odd that a blockbuster is a film that makes lots of money, yet a blockbuster is also a very large bomb…), has a great soundtrack, plenty of comic book pirate action, and Geena Davis did a better job portraying a pirate captain than many men have in films.
It was flown aboard the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) at the beginning of the film when Elizabeth Swann imagines she sees the ship in the distance as she holds up a cursed Aztec coin, probably because this was the flag originally flown aboard the Wicked Wench, which was via a certain revisionism converted from a buccaneer ship to the former name of the Black Pearl.
It was flown again aboard the Black Pearl it in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) during the “Hoist the colors!” scene–again, a badass female pirate gives the order–and in the engagement following:
The “Calico Jack” skull and crossed swords also appears in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) on the main-topsail of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, now commanded by Capt. Barbossa. The sails are of wine red or burgundy velvet with yellow-gold tassels, probably an homage to or inspired by the reputed sails of some the wealthiest Cilician pirates in antiquity. Some even captured Julius Caesar, who, after ransoming himself, had the pirates captured and put to death.
That said, author George MacDonald Fraser in his comic novel The Pyrates (1984 US edition) described the sails of the Grenouille Frénétique (the Frantic Frog), commanded by Happy Dan Pew, as having “velvet sails…fringed with silk tassels in frightful taste…” In fact, Barbossa’s “bon vivant and gourmet” image in Dead Men Tell No Tales might well have been inspired by Fraser’s description of Happy Dan Pew.
The iconic flag was also used in Peter Pan (2003) as both a traditional Jolly Roger and as a sail decoration, notwithstanding that sail decoration, with the exception of an occasional Spanish fishing vessel and similar, had for more than half a century been abandoned by the late 17th and early 18th centuries which provided the piratical source material for Mr. Barrie and Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy if you prefer).
The “Calico Jack” flag is depicted also in the Starz Black Sails series at the very end of the final season. I was the historical consultant for all four seasons, and for reasons of both history and legal liability I traced the origin of the purported Calico Jack flag for the producers. The writers wanted to use the flag because it was already popularly attributed to Rackham, the set designers wanted something that looked authentic, and the lawyers wanted to be sure there was no copyright or trademark infringement.
A version was used in Lego Scooby-Doo! Blowout Beach Bash (Warner Bros., 2017). Scooby-Doo has always been fond of pirates, or at least ghost pirates and fake pirates…
Such an icon is the flag that it shows up in modified but immediately recognizable form, here in the BBC’s Doctor Who episode, “Legend of the Sea Devils” (2022):
Navy SEALs sometimes wear a “Calico Jack” flag patch on their field uniforms. Often the flag’s skull has an eye patch, a variant based most probably on choice of vendor. If my memory is correct–for the record, I’m a former Navy SEAL–its use began in the very late 80s when “real world” VBSS operations (board and search operations) were put to use. I might be mistaken, however. Pirate flag patches weren’t yet a fad in the Teams I served in (ST-3, SDVT-1) in the 80s. Certainly the “Calico Jack” patch remains in use today by Navy SEALs. Luminox, maker of a watch used by Navy SEALs, even has, or had, a special limited edition (375 watches only, I think) Navy SEAL watch with a Rackam skull and crossed swords on its face, although notably not the most common design of the flag, at least on one version. (See below, I couldn’t get captions to work on the tiled images.) Other military special operations units have been spotted wearing the flag patch, or one similar, too.
[Self-Promotion Alert!] The “Calico Jack” flag is also on the cover of The Golden Age of Piracy. Again for the record, the publisher chose the cover. I had no real input, although I’ve no problem with it. It certainly stands out and gets attention, and that’s what dust jackets are supposed to do. It slipped my mind when I first drafted this blog post that the Polish edition also uses the “Calico Jack” flag. (Sorry, Maciej Studencki, for missing this the first time around!)
If you’re looking for more details on pirate flags–accurate details, that is–you can read the book above or Ed Fox’s Jolly Rogers, the True History of Pirate Flags (author given as E. T. Fox). Or better yet, both. 🙂
If you’re looking to fly the flag, try eBay, lots of vendors carry it. It’s also available in red, and in design variations as well. There’s also a “weathered” version in red, but I’ve only seen it available so far at one ebay vendor and a few non-eBay vendors. Plus there are patches, stickers, T-shirts, rings, cufflinks, and more. If you want to fly the flag regularly, plan to pay a little more for sturdier nylon and construction; in particular, look for fabric that’s fade-resistant (all flags fade eventually). If you want to make your own authentically, you’ll need wool bunting or, in a pinch, silk.
When buying, remember, black means “good quarter if you surrender now,” which in practice means “surrender now and we might not murder, torture, or abuse you much,” and red means “no quarter, we’re going to kill you all.” Perhaps the best description of the meaning of the red flag of no quarter comes not from my books, or any other book on piracy, but from Les Aventures de Tintin: Le Secret de la Licorne (Casterman, 1946; reprints in many languages; in English, The Secret of the Unicorn). Enjoy! Don’t read French? “Tonnerre de tonnerre de Brest!” It’s never too late to start learning another language! Or, buy the English version. It’s a fun read, and there’s a sequel too.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021-2022. First posted June 18, 2021. Last updated February 5, 2023.
Pirate Pulp Fiction Paperback Cover Art!
I’m not going to pretend to write a pretentious analysis of pop cover art and imagined social implications, nor any other nonsense. I’m neither an art historian nor inclined to see things that aren’t really there. Suffice it to say that these covers are intended to be eye-catching, often titillating, and always bordering on near-lurid, entirely to lure potential readers to buy the book. The accompanying cover copy, the blurb especially, is almost as over the top as the art. This isn’t a criticism, for similar art and copy is often found on the covers of far more notable works.
As for the text inside? Suffice it to say that it’s not comparable, in spite of the cover copy claims, to that of Rafael Sabatini or any other notable writer of romantic adventure. Pirate pulps are almost always extremely light on literary substance and historical accuracy, and quite heavy on cliché. Trope writing in other words. Sheer fantasy in the sense of “never happened.” Pure swashbuckling pirate genre in the form of the twentieth century version of dime novels. Enjoy!
Copyright Benerson Little, 2021 – 2022. First posted May 20, 2021. Last updated May 9, 2023.
The Romance of Swordplay: Some Favorite Images
Originally I’d intended to write a post entitled, “Whither Modern Fencing?” and illustrate it with some of my favorite inspirational fencing images. However, the likelihood of the subject turning into a lengthy near-rant was too strong, particularly if the draft of the first few paragraphs was any indication, so in the end I’ve decided to let the images speak for themselves. The accompanying commentary may be read or ignored according the reader’s inclination. Enjoy.
1. Untitled by Aaron Siskend, from “The Most Crowded Block”
Quite possibly my favorite swordplay image other than personal ones of friends and family fencing, and if not my most favorite, then surely one of my top three. The swashbuckling adventure of youth, exactly what swordplay should always be at any age!
The lure of fencing is to fight with swords, not to participate in mere sport, at least not for most of us drawn to fencing. We want to fight one-on-one for honor, for romance, for the clash of steel-on-steel. We want to sword-fight for fun, for adventure, and, importantly, for the “All for one and one for all!” camaraderie fencing in the right circumstances can bring. These days, the purely sport mentality of too many fencing coaches, administrators, and parents often misses this fundamental truth. To paraphrase my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, “Fencing is not sport: fencing is swordplay!”*
At the end of a lecture I gave in 2020, or perhaps the year before–has it been that long?–on the history and practice of modern Western swordplay for a local continuing education program whose students were mostly retired persons, several came up afterward and, pointing to the photograph above which was still showing on the projection screen, excitedly and animatedly agreed that it conveyed exactly how they felt about fencing, even to depicting how they themselves had played at “sword-fighting” in their childhoods.
For what it’s worth, during the two-hour practical sessions on the following two weekends, these retirees proved to be some of the most apt pupils I’ve ever had, learning far more quickly and easily than much younger students. Many had wanted to learn to fence since they were kids but had never had the opportunity. Life can make dreams difficult to come true, but this is no reason to stop dreaming, much less stop trying to make them come true.
And if you can do nothing else, improvise some swords and let your inner swashbuckler take over, no matter your age!
2. Douglas Fairbanks Fencing With Kids on the Set of The Three Musketeers
Evocative not only of the silent film era swashbuckler, but also of children’s fascination with swashbuckling heroes, then and now. Who of these children would not today still tell the story of he once fenced with Fairbanks as d’Artagnan! Fairbanks created the modern swashbuckler film genre, with its over-the-top tongue-in-cheek antics, best described–other than by viewing!–in the following New York Times review of The Three Musketeers, August 29, 1921:
“For here, plainly, is a D’Artagnan that not even Dumas ever dreamed of. He is the personification of all the dashing and slashing men of Gascony that ever fought their way through French novels, all for the smile of a lady. He never fences one man if there are six to fence instead, he never leaves a room by the door if there is a window or a roof handy, he never walks around any object (including human beings) if he can jump over them; he scales walls at a bound, carries prostrate damsels over roofs, hurls men one upon another, rides no horse save at a gallop, responds to the call gallantry at the drop of a hat, and general makes himself an incomparable D’Artagnan.”
A perfect description of our four-year-old, almost five now, son, too. 🙂
I still recall my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, telling me how Fairbanks and his entourage came to watch the Hungarians in the final round of the saber fencing at the 1932 Olympic Games, and saw Gyorgi Piller (one of my fencing “grandfathers,” in fact) win the gold. A few days before the Hungarians had been invited to Picfair, the famous eighteen acre estate he shared with his wife, Mary Pickford, for a large Olympic Games dinner party which featured two hundred invited guests including Charlie Chaplan, Clark Gable, and Constance Bennett.
3. The Duel Between Peter Blood & the Villain Levasseur in Captain Blood, 1935
What a difficult choice from among the wonderful publicity stills of this duel! It remains my favorite film swordfight by far: it’s from the best film version of my favorite novel of youth (and still one of my favorite books, so much so that we’re publishing an annotated edition): it’s a pirate duel on the beach; it’s for the hand of one’s beloved (although not so in the novel); the villain, Basil Rathbone, deserved to be run through for his gaudy French accent (nothing personal, Rathbone, you’re one of my favorite villains and Sherlocks, and you actually could fence well); the duel is wonderfully choreographed; and even the accompanying music is great, although Erich Wolfgang Korngold was upset that he didn’t have time to compose it himself, and was forced to use Liszt’s Prometheus at the last minute. Last, Three Arch Bay near Laguna Beach, California, here made up to look like a Caribbean island, reminds me fondly of my many days spent on Southern California beaches in my youth and as a young Navy SEAL officer.
It is films like these, and novels like those written by Rafael Sabatini and his like (Sabatini wrote Captain Blood: His Odyssey) that inspired many of us to become fencers. They also inspired a number of true swashbuckling swordsmen and swordswomen of real-life adventure, the majority of whom from the early to mid-twentieth century have already passed away, and there are sadly far too few replacements.
Just as sad, the number of true swashbuckling fencer-writers is severely diminished. Even so, I’m happy to see a few today who are following in their adventurous footsteps. “Books are good enough in their own way but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life,” as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his excellent essay of advice on life, “An Apology for Idlers.” Likewise with movies and television too. Why not “take a walk on the wild side” and pick up both pen and sword as you head out the door for real adventure?
I’ve even written four of a planned five (or six or even seven?) blog posts on The Duel on the Beach, greatly inspired by this duel and the one in Rafael Sabatini’s novel, The Black Swan. Here’s the first of the series: “The Duel on the Beach, Part I: In Fiction.” Links to the rest can be found here as well.
4. “Dreams of Glory: Captain Blood” by William Steig.
This comic came to my attention only recently, and by accident. It captures entirely not only my youthful (and not so youthful) dreams of glory, and that of many others I know. By William Steig, best-known as the author and illustrator of Shrek, it is part of a series of “Dreams of Glory” comics published in upscale magazines some seventy years ago. What dreams we had — and many of us still have!
5. Famed Fencing Master Fred Cavens Training Binnie Barnes for The Spanish Main
One of the last great pirate swashbucklers before the genre descended into B-movie purgatory (arguably almost elevated again to A-level status by the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, although the overweening element of fantasy disqualifies the films in my opinion), The Spanish Main’s best swordplay was not that of the star, Paul Henreid as Capt. Laurent Van Horn (combining the names of two real Dutch buccaneers, Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Vanhorn who actually fought a duel on Isla Sacrificios), but of his adversary Paul Emery as Capt. Mario du Billar, and equally that of Binnie Barnes as the anachronistic Anne Bonney. To this day I recall the first time I saw a passata soto: Binnie Barnes executed one in this film.
Fencing master Fred Cavens and his contemporaries, along with those who followed, gave us the film swordfights that have imprinted themselves indelibly on our swashbuckling psyches. Although swordswomen were in the minority, and still are, in swashbuckling films (actual history itself unfortunately tends to preclude sword-armed women except in rare circumstances), their were several worthy ones in this era, and often their swordplay was as good, or better than, the best of the male actors: Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, and Jean Peters all did superbly creditable fencing scenes. Reportedly, Bebe Daniels was a masterful swordswoman in Senorita (1927) playing a Zorro-like character, but only two prints of the film exist and apparently neither has been digitally transferred. Not surprisingly, Cavens trained all four of these women actor-fencers and choreographed their swordfights.
And Fred, or formally, Frédéric Adolphe, Cavens? He set the standard for sword choreography in film, largely unmatched these days although through the first decade of the 21st century his descendants followed worthily in his footsteps (or rather, footwork?). And for a fact there are sword choreographers and fight directors today who can arrange exciting swordfights that evoke a sense of the reality of swordplay–if only their directors would let them.
6. The Climactic Duel in The Spanish Main
I honestly can’t claim that this image from The Spanish Main (see image and notes above) is one of my absolute favorites, but it perfectly illustrates more than one swashbuckling trope, and, more important to me, I recall complaining excitedly to one of my fencing masters, Dr. Eugene Hamori, when I was nineteen years old that John Emery on the left above (though doubtless I didn’t recall his name at the time) was a much better swordsman than Paul Henreid on the right–but he had to lose! It bothered me as a fencer that a skilled swordsman must ignore so many tempo opportunities with which to skewer–to pink, to use the 17th century expression–his adversary. But scripts are scripts for a reason and far more “winners” of Hollywood duels were inferior fencers as compared to their adversaries. I’ve been unable to find anything out about where Emery learned to fence, unfortunately.
The tropes? There’s the swooning or near-swooning heroine watching two men duel to the death, although not always over her; the swordfight in the dungeon (similar tropes are the duel on the beach already noted in this post, and the swordfight in the tavern); and, above all, the duel to the death between hero and villain, often but not always at the climax.
Readers will notice one thing in common with many of these images: the fencers are often in an en garde position with swords crossed, or more correctly, with blades engaged. Inaccurately, fencers are often in a modern sixte guard rather than the much more historically accurate tierce, a reflection of their modern training. Notably, John Emery is en garde in tierce, not the usual modern sixte as his adversary is, although Emery’s tierce is probably that of saber, not historical smallsword. But no matter, it’s surprisingly correct for a genre swashbuckler.
7. Maureen O’Hara Engaging the Cardinal’s Guards in At Sword’s Point
Yet again, a difficult choice among a number of swashbuckling film stills of Maureen O’Hara, one of classic Hollywood’s greats. Here she comes en garde against several of the Cardinal’s Guards. She does a credible job taking a fencing lesson early in the film, and holds her own with the male lead, Hungarian-born Cornel Wilde who was not only a US National Champion in saber fencing, but also was selected to the US Olympic Fencing Team–until he chose to take a stage role instead!
Here O’Hara fences in riding boots, that costume accessory–“fetishwear,” a UK journalist described it–so alluring to painters, writers, and costume designers of swashbuckling flare. Here at least it’s historically accurate, for she had been riding. But if her boots are as stiff as those of the cavalry, she won’t be able to move well. In fact, cavalrymen dismounted in action would often abandon their boots in order to make their escape afoot, for the boots hindered running to an extreme degree.
O’Hara also thrusts and parries in the 1952 film with Errol Flynn, Against All Flags, really a B-level pirate flick but still fun and still better than most of the B pirate genre. Women running around with swords, women as pirate captains, women as erstwhile musketeers is nothing new in fiction or film, although some would have us believe this today. If anything, the older films–Against All Flags, The Spanish Main, At Sword’s Point, Anne of the Indies, among others–have more redoubtable women sword-adventurers than many films do these days (although some video games have rectified this in that medium). Admittedly, though, there is an unfortunate tendency for the sword-bearing female lead to either give it all up for love, and by implication, marriage, or to die unrequited so that the male protagonist can marry his true love, naturally non-sword-wielding and often demure and largely obedient to her husband-lord-and-master. I prefer independent sword-wielding women myself. I married one, after all.
8. Jean Peters in Anne of the Indies, 1951
One of a pair of well-posed publicity stills showcasing Jean Peters engaged against Blackbeard the Pirate. It’s a favorite of mine, one of three common poses in images like this: blades crossed, or one adversary attacking while one parries, or one adversary running the other through. I’m torn between the two, the other showing Peters running Blackbeard through. But this one shows her spirit better, I think.
Jean Peters, known not only for her films but, in popular star worship and gossip, for her marriage to Howard Hughes, for which she left her short but notable acting career behind, plays Anne Providence, really Anne Bonny, or at least Anne Bonny as imagined in the popular mind. I remain both astounded and bored senseless with the mindlessness with which novelists, playwriters, and filmmakers continue to elevate Anne Bonny over Mary Read, assuming anything Charles Johnson wrote about them is actually true, for most of what he wrote about the two women cannot be verified. But even if partly true, why runaway girlfriend Anne Bonny over the martial Mary Read? Anne Bonny as described by Charles Johnson’s account makes her a dilettante along for a brief piratical joyride. But, if the account has any merit, Mary Read had been a soldier and fighting seaman in disguise as a man. Yet it’s Bonny who gets all the attention, which says much about what readers and viewers are interested in. A few more details on the subject can be found in The Women in Red: The Evolution of a Pirate Trope.
The film, in spite of its many pirate clichés and bad Hollywood history, is still quite enjoyable and often more serious than the usual pirate film. But it’s the swordplay I enjoy most, brief as it is, or perhaps second most–the fierce female pirate captain remains a favorite. Peters is as good as any of her male contemporaries when fencing Blackbeard with sharps in a tavern duel, more or less, a common trope albeit probably not one in reality. Brawling in taverns, sure, even murder in taverns, but dueling was typically conducted outdoors and out of sight.
Her duel is one of the better film affrays with swords, even if Blackbeard is stoutly barrel-chested rather than tall and lean as he was in reality, and even if both adversaries are wearing those damn Hollywood boots. Peters carries off her swordplay with élan and well-focused cold-blooded anger, which can actually be quite useful for a fencer. Hot blooded anger often has poor results, but cold blooded fury can lead to victory.
As an aside regarding Howard Hughes, Disney’s film The Rocketeer portrays a Howard Hughes-like character, along with a swashbuckling actor-swordsman based on Errol Flynn and unfounded rumors that he was a Nazi sympathizer.
9. D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers in the Eponymous Film, 1974
Yes, I know it’s not an image of swordplay per se, but it perfectly captures not only the camaraderie of fencers but also the moment these musketeers bond immediately prior to their fictionally famous combat against the Cardinal’s Guards. This 1973-74 film ranks high among the best, in my opinion, of The Three Musketeers and related films. It and its second part, The Four Musketeers, both starring Michael York, Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, et al, rank among the finest and is hands-down my favorite. I saw them when they first arrived in theaters in Los Angeles, well, Northridge to be precise, in a twin theater in the local mall. And nothing excited me more than at the end of the first to see a teaser for the continuation! (It’s not a true sequel, the film was cut into two parts due to length, for which the actors rightfully sought and got more money.)
York was perfect at the young swashbuckler d’Artagnan. Reed was probably playing himself as Athos, a perfect fit. Chamberlain was, I believe, starring in a Shakespeare play (Richard III?) I saw in the sixth grade in Seattle a half century ago, although it might have been his understudy. (“It’s Dr. Kildare!” the girls, and probably a teacher or two, gushed as we stood in line.) Decades later I saw him starring in Spamalot. (“Run away! Run away!” I still joke from the film to beginning fencers when teaching them that the retreat is their first line of defense after a good en garde.) Frank Finlay as Porthos was far too short (the character, based on Dumas’s father, was a giant) but certainly had the right attitude, and Raquel Welch was surprisingly good as Constance. Faye Dunaway was perfectly alluring, cold, and frightening as Milady de Winter. And the Cardinal? Like Reed, I imagine Charlton Heston was playing a bit of himself in the role, and flawlessly. Last, the swordplay, if often inauthentic (novelist and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser admitted this to me in a letter) was well-choreographed by William Hobbs and perfectly suited the mood of the film. Yes, Hobbs was perfectly capable of historically accurate choreography, just watch The Duellists, it’s the gold standard.
The 1935 version of The Three Musketeers, starring Walter Abel and Paul Lucas, is also quite creditable. The aforenoted notable Fred Cavens choreographed the swordplay, with a young Ralph Faulkner doubling some scenes. Faulkner would go on to become one of Hollywood’s leading fencing choreographers, largely succeeding the retiring Cavens. Faulkner was still teaching in Los Angeles in the late 70s when I first learned to fence: in his 90s, I believe, his legs and eyesight failing, he taught admirable lessons from a chair, and was the inspiration and early master of at least one Hollywood fencer-choreographer gentleman I’m acquainted with. Sadly, I never was able to get away to get a lesson from Faulkner, if only to say I’d had one.
The 1939 comedy-drama version of The Three Musketeers with Don Ameche, Binnie Barnes (previously noted in The Spanish Main), and the Ritz Brothers is quite good as well, the Ritz faction providing laughs even while staying true to the core of the story. There were laughs in the 1973-1974 version by director Richard Lester and novelist-screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser as well, although these two films cannot be classified as comedies. I have great fondness for Douglas Fairbanks’s 1921 version (see photo above), given its role in helping create the modern Musketeer genre, and similarly for the 1948 overwhelmingly much too bright Technicolor with almost gaudy stage costumes version starring Gene Kelly, mostly because it was played at the Pacific Coast NCAA fencing banquet in Los Angeles in 1978, in old school fashion with a 16mm projector set up in the room.
I still to this day can’t bring myself to watch most, perhaps all, of the modern film and TV versions, spoiled as most are by a juvenile brat pack mentality or by hyper-exaggerated melodrama, not to mention their steampunk- and video game-inspired costumes. (Will swashbuckling costume designers ever return to historical accuracy, not that it’s often been a priority anyway?) And, frankly, the swordplay is usually terrible as well, both in authenticity and, worse perhaps, basic choreography.
While on the subject, I should add the two most notable film versions of Cyrano de Bergerac, given that Cyrano is a cadet in a guards company, much akin to the musketeers of the King and Cardinal (in fact, there are even a series of novels by Paul Feval fils placing Cyrano and d’Artagnan together): the 1950 version starring Jose Ferrer (in English) and the 1990 version, which I first saw in a small theater in La Jolla, California, starring Gerard Depardieu (in French). Both are outstanding versions of the play, each with its own style. I might prefer the French version just a touch more than English, but it’s a difficult choice to make.
One day I want to watch the play from a box, as Cyrano does in the play. And like Cyrano, I’ll be sorely tempted to call down to the stage if the acting is bad, although this was in fact just a pretext for the large-nosed swordsman. A duel on the stage and grounds immediately afterward would complete the daydream. For fans of the play or films based on it, try Cyrano, My Love (Cyrano, Mon Amour), its a comedy in the vein of Shakespeare in Love (that is, not historically accurate but enjoyable to watch) about Edmond Rostand writing his famous play. As of the original date of this post, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime. Also check out Roxanne starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah: the swordplay, of tennis racquet versus golf club, in well-choreographed and enjoyable.
10. Obi-Wan Kenobi Versus Darth Vader in Star Wars, 1977
I first saw this film in the summer I graduated from high school. I’d seen the full page color ads in the Sunday LA Times entertainment section, and was already well-enticed. A substitute teacher saw it the week it was out and his description, something to effect of “Entertaining if lightweight, generally pretty cool” only increased my desire to see it. And it did not disappoint, at least not to a seventeen-soon to be eighteen-year-old romantic adventurer in the making.
I don’t recall where I saw it the first time, either in San Diego, California or Huntsville, Alabama. I saw it once or twice again that fall of 1977 at the long-since demolished Plitt Twin Theaters in Century City, LA, with its, for the time, state of the art sound system: you could hear the sounds of Vader’s ship above as it docked, just as the defending soldiers look up in the film. Already fans in the theater had lightsabers that lit up slowly from hilt to tip as in the film, which gives some idea of the effect on pop culture the film was already having. I was entranced with the film! It was, and remains, escapism at its best.
All this said, as enjoyable as the film was and is (and to hell with Lucas for not releasing the original version on Blu-ray, but instead the updated version with awful added special effects), I’ve never regarded it as anything more than what it really is: a space opera, which is nothing more than a Western set in outer space. It’s the updated version of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials–Westerns in space–from the 1930s I watched as TV reruns when I was around eleven years old. The science of Star Wars is bad, the tactics are ludicrous (suicidal on all sides), the dialogue in any other setting often silly or even cringeworthy. Didn’t Harrison Ford tell Lucas something to the effect of, “You can write this sh*t but you can’t say it!”? Still, I suppose it’s better than the modern dull suburban party conversation, as a journalist acquaintance put it, that passes for dialogue in costume TV and film these days (and in too many historical novels too).
So, not for me arguments over canon, which is in any case nonsense given how popular films and sequels are written (on the fly, to maximize profit, and to some degree to satisfy or gratify egos), or whether which sequels are great and which terrible, or misogynistic whining about any of the versions celebrating women. I’m a fan of strong women, therefore of the last three of the series, not to mention that our five-year-old sees his mother as the sword-fighting Rey. I could add a rant here about sexism in action films and their audiences, but there are plenty of writers who’ve already done it better.
I could also rant at length about the idea of the “hero’s journey” given that I find it unrealistic: the ideal Joseph Campbell gives us, and which influenced Star Wars, or so I hear, gives us villains as well as true heroes. Further, in my experience this is not how heroes and heroism are made. The hero’s journey is a device of fiction, not fact. It may make for good storytelling, but it also helps prop up autocrats of all sorts, including the worst of them. After all, to their supporters they’re heroes whose hero’s journey validates their autocracy and other misdeeds.
But back to swordplay! In the film it’s pure well-choreographed Hollywood, but no matter: the swords and swordplay are flawed fantasy that match the film well. And the idea of the old master facing his student is something of a trope too, but it’s done well in this film, if not quite so in the sequels, even given the mystical silliness of the Force. For me, I was soon introduced to someone who might be a real Jedi master, in the form of my first fencing master whose adventures and escapades could rival those of Obi-Wan Kenobi–and Dr. Zold’s were real. Likewise those of my second fencing master, Dr. Hamori. Mysticism and magic swords are always appealing but it’s long study, practical ability, and character, plus a good dose of good Fortune, that really make the difference in swordplay, and for that matter, life.
Today, modern “Olympic” fencing in the US and France, and probably other places, have showcased “lightsaber” fencing to some degree, primarily as a recruiting lure. Modern fencing, as noted above, has forgotten why most fencers want to fence. Star Wars and its fans have not. Modern fencing needs a strong return to its swashbuckling roots, although I’m cynical about the prospect. I don’t like the term “Olympic fencing” but it’s apt, for the FIE (the international governing body), not to mention USA Fencing, will do almost anything to keep fencing in the Olympic Games, even if it means turning fencing into little more than a game of audience-friendly tag. If fencing or any sport can’t draw an audience–pay the bills–it’s out. And the governing bodies are unwilling at any cost to lose the cachet–and money–that being an Olympic sport brings, sadly.
The best that can be said of the swordplay of the Star Wars franchise is that it’s exciting to watch and, importantly, inspires swashbucklers as once the old costume historical swashbucklers did (and still do for those who watch them). For this alone it can be forgiven its flaws.
11. The Duel on the Cliffs in The Princess Bride
There’s no need to describe this image, nor even the accompanying dialogue, so well is this film known among romantics and swordplay enthusiasts. I doubt any of the hundreds of beginning fencers I’ve taught in more than twenty years have not recognized any reference I’ve made to the film. (And for that matter, to Monty Python and the Hold Grail, too.)
No, the dialogue references to fencing masters don’t actually reflect the swordplay of the moment, and yes, it’s all entirely Hollywood fencing. But it’s beautiful Hollywood cinematic swordplay! Perfect for a fantasy film. I’m still hopeful to see–even influence or have control over–historically accurate swordplay in remakes of some of my favorite films, but such accuracy is not required for all films.
As for fencing left-handed? (If you’re reading this blog and haven’t seen the film you’re probably an unlikely exception, but to help you out, the dialogue associated with the film above refers to left-handed fencing. “I’m not left-handed either…”) There are a number of reasons to learn to fence with the off or non-dominant hand. Foremost, it helps keep the body balanced. Fencing is a notoriously one-sided sport, with obvious imbalances in strength and flexibility that develop within a year or two. Spending a third to half of one’s time fencing opposite-handed will prevent this, for the most part. Second, it helps “rewire” your nervous system, creating new pathways. A more balanced body and mind, in other words. Third, if your dominant hand or arm is injured, you can easily switch to the other side while healing, short-term or long-term. Last, if you ever become a fencing teacher, it will enable you to give lessons with either hand to the benefit of your students. The downside? It limits your practice with your dominant hand, with which most fencers prefer. And it may take a few years before you become near-equally proficient with your non-dominant hand/side.
Most importantly, you can join the ranks–indeed, the trope–of ambidextrous fencers! I’ve only known one truly ambidextrous fencer (Dr. Ted Cotton of Loyola University in New Orleans, he’d wear two gloves and choose which hand to fence with based on which might prove stronger against his adversary at the time), and only a few who could fence nearly as well with the offhand as with the dominant.
12. Swordplay in Le Bourgeois Gentilehomme
There’s probably far more choreographed swordplay in the theater than in film, simply due to volume, but we seldom recall theatrical swordplay the way we do film swordplay, no matter how well done–and often it’s quite excellent. Like the theater itself, theatrical swordplay tends to be highly stylized, with larger, slower actions the audience can follow.
A few years ago when my wife and I visited my old master, Dr. Eugene Hamori, in Budapest, he took us to an outdoor performance of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company on Margit Island. Subtitles–or rather, overtitles?–were in Hungarian, although most Hungarians in the audience probably spoke English. That said, Shakespeare is difficult for most native speakers, and usually frustratingly obscure to English as a second language (or third or fourth) speakers. Only Americans seem to hold the arrogant position that one need ever know only one language. We were a bit disappointed in the duel in the final act, for it was over far too quickly. Perhaps as fencers we expected more, perhaps we were conditioned by the Laurence Olivier film version to expect more. Still, it was an enjoyable evening. By chance we also ran into Kristina Nagy, a noted HEMA longsword and modern saber fencer, during intermission. Only a day or so before she had shown us around the famous fencing salle at Semmelweis University.
The image above, illustrating the fencing scene (Act III, scene 3) between M. Jourdain and Nicole the maid in a nineteenth century production of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilehomme (1670) is a favorite of mine not because it illustrates stage swordplay, but because it captures Molière’s satire on swordplay (and of course, the bourgeoisie) in general. A few lessons do not a fencer make, much less a combat swordsman or swordswoman capable of effective swordplay in duel or battle. Further, arrogance can lead to defeat, can even be fatal were the swords sharp. Here, M. Jourdain is easily hit by Nicole. I’ve seen a lot of fencers fall victim to the “magic sword” fallacy: a few small victories and they forget that fencing requires patience and focus always. You can’t just walk out and wave your sword around and expect it alone to hit your adversary or achieve your victories just because you believe you’re more skilled. “But I’m better than he is!” is one plaintive excuse I’ve often heard from losers, along with, “But I take so many lessons a week from so and so!” (FYI, you don’t need that many lessons.)
In fencing as in warfare arrogance can be fatal. A single mistake is enough. An old SEAL Master Chief I worked with at SEAL Team THREE used to say that, “Even a toothless old man sitting in an outhouse and armed only with an old muzzleloader can still kill you if you’re not careful.” And that “ignorant” with a sword? Beware, for he or she is likely to ignore all the conventions you’ve been taught to expect–and hit you in spite of all your lessons, skill, and previous successes.
Francisco de Quevedo has a similar hilarious scene in his picaresque novel Historia de la Vida del Buscón, Llamado Don Pablos, in which a student of La Verdadera Destreza (The True Art: Baroque swordplay insufferably infused with geometric circles and other esoterica unnecessary to the teaching of swordplay but much beloved by those seeking “secret knowledge”), with his angles and arcs, is comically defeated by a soldier lacking in the true art. Quevedo himself, one of Spain’s greatest literary icons and treasures, was a proponent of the Destreza Común, or common swordplay. Quevedo once humiliated Don Luis Pacheco y Narvaez, the leading master at the time of the school of La Verdadera Destreza, in a duel: with his rapier he removed Narvaez’s hat.
An end note on the play: many years ago I would disparage the patronizing use of “Bourgeois” by social elites, including in the play which is nonetheless quite funny. I found the attitude offensive: I don’t believe in social castes, including the nobility de facto or merely perceived. Today, after decades of dealing with certain elements of the middle and upper middle class–many of whose members are socially elitist, the American bourgeois, so to speak–, I’m much less sympathetic, equal now to my antipathy toward all social elites and social climbers. That you’re the “Director of Pomposity at Such and Such Corporation” has no bearing on how I’ll regard your behavior or your teenager as a fencing student, nor will it make your teenager a better fencer–or you a better person. There is a positive side to such bourgeois behavior, however: the comic relief is never-ending. Or, put another way, a wonderful font of material for a writer.
13, 14, 15, & 15a. Three by Howard Pyle
Here I simply couldn’t choose only one of Howard Pyle’s famous paintings of swordplay, so well do they depict swordplay not only in the popular mind, but often in the my mind of fencers themselves. For those of us who grew up on swashbucklers, they evoke how we see ourselves. Pyle’s influence on swashbuckling film, including pirate films, is enormous. His iconic images are imitated even today.
The scenes are similar: one adversary lunging, the other parrying, easily the most evocative of fencing actions, and easily posed, even if fencers seldom look so good. Spectators are inevitably in the background, although many duels were fought without witnesses in the late 17th century. We imagine the Dominican friar kept largely quiet during the duel in the first image (in fact, he tried to stab John Blumer in the back after the duel), likewise the gentlemen in the second which has a rather unusual arrangement for the era, more typical of duels in the late 19th century in Pyle’s era. Would pirates have kept silent during a duel? We don’t know, in spite of all my research into the subject of piracy. The only similar duel was between the aforementioned Dutchmen and was over so quickly that it’s unlikely anyone had to time to say much of anything. We do know that in the late 17th and early 18th century some public duels, particularly among soldiers, had noisy spectators: some chided Donald McBane for retreating so much. His retort was to imagine what they’d do in his place.
Until recently, anything more than polite applause from spectators, and silence from fencing masters or coaches, was mandatory in fencing. Today it’s often noisily noisome. Spect