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The “golden age of piracy”

May 12, 2017 Leave a comment

I guess most people watching Black Sails probably follow it for the boobs, blood and scowling. There’s plenty of each – Rackham’s charmingly incompetent, Silver’s charmingly hapless, Flint manages to get progressively less charming – slowly at first, then all at once. As character-driven drama it’s pretty much par for this “golden age of TV” – you can see that by turns it wants to be Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire but it’s just a bit too self-conscious about its basic trashiness.

But I’m sitting there thinking “I can’t take it any more, I need to know what year it is!” And so I finally look it up. And of course it’s 1715 – the obvious choice, to within 5 years either way. The moment we all know pirates from, due largely to Captain Charles Johnson’s popular trawl of the Newgate broadsheets* and, less directly but more fundamentally, to Henry Everie, Aurangzeb and the East India Company. You can read all about it in Robert Ritchie’s Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates, which is very good at tying all the various kinds of extortion together.

It’s the time when most of our favourite characters come together (Blackbeard, Roberts, Low, England, Rackham and his titillating 3-way with Anne Bonney and Mary Read – and we know them all because of Johnson). It’s also the elegiac last gasp for “golden age” piracy, so we can place a reassuring capstone on it. Interesting times.

And I was vaguely disappointed because I was hoping somebody would’ve thought of setting things outside this critical decade – at some point when buccaneers were first abandoning their shoreline barbecues and getting up in Johnny Spaniard’s fries. Because goddammit Flint might want to copy Henry Avery and settle one big score, but his long game is pure Captain Morgan… or more exactly a royalist alternative American Revolution. And I was assisted in this misapprehension by Flint’s ship,
which could easily date from 1660, looking exactly like a warship of the Second Anglo-Dutch War:

(Flint’s Walrus, left, Isings’s war council before the 4 days’ battle, 1666, right.
BTW you can click on the pictures for full size. I finally figured out where wordpress hid that in their new interface).

And this misapprehension is actually quite lovely, because it is entirely plausible to have an elderly trader/warship kicking around the colonial service and getting swiped by some pirate – even 60 years later, as the show’s timeline demands, bravo!

But then it’s been refitted with a wheel instead of a whipstaff, and that’s frankly a bit too up-to-date in 1715. I’ll let it go – wheels are familiar to the audience and the steering gear of wheels even makes an important plot point… fine.

But. The Ranger.

I don’t want to say The Ranger is quite out of period… I’d have to do some more research, but she looks an awful lot like a second-half-of-the-18th-century English East Indiaman or warship. Look how flush that deck is, the low sterncastle, the rounded counter. If she’s not simply anachronistic she must’ve come off the stocks at Deptford 6 months ago and somehow wound up in Charles Vane’s possession. Maybe he posed as a Royal Navy post-captain and heisted her right out of the Medway. That’s a series I’d like to watch (albeit with a different actor for Vane).

What am I looking at? Well, flatness of the deck for one thing (we know that pirates often cut off all the fore and sterncastles to make a big fighting surface, but this is clearly a factory-done job). And restraint in ornamentation. And again, the Walrus is lovely:

Look at the carved woodwork on that transom – pure 17th century flair – and it even looks like someone’s nicked all the gold leaf off it, which is perfect. But the Ranger is just painted beading, like Nelson’s Victory (1765) or the Belvidera (1809):

…of course this is nit-picking, especially since all the ships are wildly over-sized for our pirate brethren, whose historical models preferred small, nimble sloops for which it’s easy to find spare parts.
amitytt
It’s funny to see businesswoman Eleanor Guthrie talking to the captains seriously about their running costs when they’re all sailing around in ships that strain colonial governments’ budgets – the squadron in Nassau bay could probably give the Royal Navy at Kingston a serious worrying.

Anyway as of episode 8 it’s a lot of tense, swashbuckling fun. Even if it’s weird that the pirates are so bad at sailing in moderately bad weather.

 

*Funnily enough in 1724, the year of Johnson’s publication, the biggest draw at Tyburn execution grounds was not a pirate but serial escape artist Jack Shepherd, who deserves his own place in your game.

Bonus links: Digital Domain did a bunch of the fx for Black Sails. The way they construct scenes is fascinating.
The inestimable Dirk Puehl retells Long Ben Every’s capture of the Ganj-i-Sawai here.
The Spanish Galleon that later becomes the Revenge is probably based on the Nuestra Senhora de la Concepcion y de las Animas (1690).
Cindy Villar‘s Pirates and Privateers pages are pretty great.

It is characteristic of the show that somebody makes a passing joke about a missing character that he’s probably gone to Port Royal to meet up with Avery – both are missing in 1715, Avery is presumed either to have disappeared into a respectable life god knows where or to have been killed by some murderhobo or to have been bilked out of his fortune by Devomnshire merchants (which would be typical of Devonshire merchants but there’s the problem of where the money would’ve gone from there). Port Royal sank into the sea like Sodom, Atlantis or Irem of the Pillars in the earthquake of 1692. And nobody comments or explains the joke.

Want some real history? Don’t value your eyesight too much? Have some ship plans

November 9, 2012 Leave a comment

model of a 1938 liner cabin for all your death on the Nile needs. Click on the picture for pretty much the same size image here on the Dystopian Pokeverse or click on the text link right there in the previous sentence to go to the original database. Then you can click on the picture on the db page to get (sigh) the same size image again. BUT THEN you click “groter” under that image to get (sometimes, somewhat) higher res. I would do all that for you and publish the results, hexed up and cleaned up and high contrast, but I’m busy until at least February, sorry.

Here’s a section through a late 18th century warship of 64 guns for all your American revolution/French and Indian War type stowaway needs. And below, a nice, clear section, deck plan and cabin plan of an 1806 frigate for all your Napoleonic Dutch Aubrey/Maturan-manque needs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the same multi-view treatment for a French 24 gun corvette of 1832 for all your Belgian revolt/alt-history “rescue Marx from the time-travelers” needs.

All courtesy of the Rotterdam Maritime Museum, via their amazing treasure trove database of all things maritime, maritiemdigitaal. Which is totally searchable and useful if you play with it for a couple of weeks and also happen to speak Dutch. You might find it more searchable by doing a google image search on it though, using a search term like “ship model” and restricting your search to site:maritiemdigitaal.nl

Montreal, your random table is ready. Also, strange ships for your saltbox.

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The Canadian Center for Architecture asks: How would you build an underwater chicken farm? Or a flying beauty salon?

And then invites you to answer by building miniatures.

Zak, I think this just might be the parent-and-child workshop activity for you. I sense they have some kind of simple sentence constructor at work there for generating projects.

Meanwhile, eaglespeak suggests a wargamey saltbox campaign: you play would-be pirates, outfitted with some cheap and unreliable skiffs and jetskis, hoping to make your first big score. Arrayed against you are flying drones, occasional naval patrols, blockades, shoreline surveillance and speedy coastguard cutters. Can you run literally under their radar and heist your way up to name level?

…sorry for the lazy post: been busy here the past few months. More substance when I can. In the meantime, what capers could you pull with the world’s biggest ship-carrying ship? It doesn’t even look like a ship – especially when semi-submerged – more like a loose collection of small tower blocks, at sea. Apparently it will be able to do 14 knots – fast enough to waterski off the back – but the PCs should probably handle it cautiously: its 4 predecessors in the “world’s biggest semi-submersible” category all turned over and sank.

Are semi-submersibles too modern for your campaign? Are you sure? The Dutch had them in 1690, and no doubt the Chinese had them one to two thousand years before that (since that always seems to be the case with anything you thought was “modern”).

Another map for the Sea of Osr

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment

It may not have the frondy coastline charm of Kerguelen but kinda-adjacent* Heard Island has dramatic mountains, a highly active volcano, and a set of place names that really deserve their own supplement. Right-click the map here to zoom and scroll and marvel at Magnet Point, Frank Rock (not to be confused with Dissembling and Equivocal Rocks, which I would put either side of it), Mount Separation, Desperation Gulley (I’m not making this up), Mechanics Bay (for all you steampunkers out there) and the delightfully unreliable Erratic Point.

Much as I love me some Mountains of Madness Antarctic exploration I’d probably put this somewhere more temperate, where its occasionally smoky and ashy volcanic valleys could support a Borneo-like profusion of hill tribes and smugglers’ hideouts. If you like your volcano smuggler dens more classical, though, you can’t do better than Santorini, from which I’ve recently returned. Because apart from a massive caldera and spooky little caves-doors and dangerously unstable cliffs it also has the best town-dungeon I’ve ever set foot in, a tangle of winding staircases (not paths, for the most part) where every turn is as likely to drop you onto someone’s balcony or into a plunge pool as it is to get you to a street. Article on semi-public space coming soon. And I for one wouldn’t have heard about it if it weren’t for M. C. Escher.

* adjacent only because Kerguelen’s the closest other land mass, 440km away. No, not really adjacent, I guess.

worlds in miniature, Dutch flood defences

March 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Madurodam is twee, but has acres of flat polder.

Truro’s New County Hall in miniature, at St. Agnes (why’d I never see this? Note how it’s marooned in a level plane, a mid-space object. The ship, too, is an archteypal mid-space object)

the rest are all under bldgblog’s quick links 9 (worth it for comments, too)
Eleusis 3D Archaeological Recording and Visualization Project

“a modular, self-assembling floating platform delivered by cargo ships could provide a cheaper naval base for military forces” in their battle against piracy. Making BLDGBLOG’s long-stated comparisons between Archigram and DARPA seemingly explicit, the “Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform (TEMP),” as it’s known, “would turn the standard ISO containers carried by cargo ships into modules that each serve a specific purpose, such as living quarters, command cells, comm shacks, or weapons stations. Once deployed by cargo ship, the self-propelling modules would use low-level computer brains to assemble themselves into a larger structure.” Mobile, modular, military instant cities at sea. Read a bit more at The Register. (picture also good: harriers on a container ship).

Atlas of the New Dutch Water Defense Line.