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Hoist the jolly roger, buckle your swash, let’s jump right into the unexpected part two on pirates and the age of sail.  My names…


Putting aside injuries and the utter lack of hygiene on a ship at sea in the Xth century, which is a lot to ignore, I realize, what was the greatest threat to any sailor’s health on a long voyage?  If you said scurvy, you’re dead on.  Grab an orange and I’ll tell you all about it.


Between Columbus’s transatlantic voyage and the adoption of steam engines, scurvy killed more than two million sailors.  For a sense of scale, the plague of man upon the earth didn’t hit 1 billion until 1804.  Shipowners and military leaders would plan to lose 50% of the men they set out with on any major voyage, purely to scurvy.  Scurvy, as you probably know, is caused by a lack of vitamin C.  Hardly rare in our lives, vitamin C is in everything from citrus fruit, its most common association, leafy greens, and peppers, to the livers of arctic animals.  This fact that, had they known it, would have really saved the bacon of arctic explorers like Shackleford, whose last expedition is thought to have been crippled by scurvy.  


That ubiquity is practically wasted though, since most animals can produce their own vitamin C internally and don’t need to to get it from their diets.  Only guinea pigs, fruit bats, some of the great apes, and the greatest ape of all, according to us, us, are unable to make vitamin C in house.  The main reason this is bad news bears is that vitamin C is needed to produce and maintain collagen.  Collagen is to our bodies what hot glue and gaffer tape are to most of my projects – it’s what holds our bodies together.  Without it, prepare to have no strength or energy, you bruise and bleed easily, with wounds that refuse to heal, your gums in particular bleed and your teeth will fall out, plus you’re treated to terrible joint pain.  But the most metal symptom of all – without collagen, old wounds reopen, and when I say old wounds, I mean scars you’ve had for years.  Look at a scar.  We’ve all got them; they’re like tattoos with better stories attached.  Now imagine if something brushed across it and it reopened.


That’s what happened to the young doctor who proved the causative link between vitamin C and scurvy in 1940.  Hold up, you say, 1940?  People have known about citrus fruit preventing scurvy since boat-y times, even if they didn’t know why.  True in both parts there.  They didn’t know why – vitamin C didn’t even have a name until the 1930’s, when Albert Szent-Györgyi discovered the chemical ascorbic acid, a foundational discovery for modern nutrition.  Pretty well everyone accepted that citrus prevented scurvy, but what good is knowing something if you don’t have duplicable science to prove it?  James Lind, a Scottish doctor with the British royal navy, performed what is widely considered the first randomized controlled clinical trial in 1747, and discovered that you could prevent scurvy with lemons.  So the navy gave their men lemons, which they sourced from Sicily, until they switched over the limes from the West Indies, because ‘empire.’  That’s how British sailors and later Brits as a lump picked up the sobriquet Limeys.  Limes have markedly less vitamin C, but they didn’t know that and wouldn’t really need to, as it turns out.   


By the by, if you’ve ever pondered how you would have solved the need for perishable fruits and vegs to tackle scurvy and your solution was something like lemon drop candy or some damn good marmalade, which were my thoughts on the matter, I’m afraid it wouldn’t work.  Both of those require high heat to make –marmalade and jams and things could technically be considered candy– and that heat destroys the vitamin C.


Just because neither the disease process nor the cure were understood didn’t portend tragedy for sailors.  While vitamin C, being water soluble, leaves your system quite quickly, you might not see a symptom of scurvy for three months.  You can go about your business for a fiscal quarter before the tiredness and other business set in.  This was born out in modern times by a guy I know’s guy I know, who wanted to save as much money as possible over summer break in college that he ate nothing but ramen, like literally nothing but.  Before the fall semester rolled around, guess who’s at the doctor’s, being diagnosed with scurvy.  According to the doctor, mixing in a fast food ketchup packet now and then would have been enough to keep him from his legathgic, bloody state.    


Across time, there *have been those who thought it was simply being away from land for too long that caused seamen to go all Incredible Melting Man all over the decks.  Captain Thomas Melville brought coffin-sized crates of earth on voyages.  When men in his command started showing signs of scurvy, he would earth them.  They’d be partially buried in a box of soil until they were cured.  And it worked!  Because sailors getting the earthing treatment were also fed extra vegetables compared to their mates.


That long onset was one of the things that confused and slowed down the realization of what was going on and why.  When sails gave way to steam, you’d be much less likely to be out on the water, not stopping for groceries, for months on end.  Now it didn’t matter so much that the British navy had switched to less effective limes – the lads wouldn’t be gone long enough for it to matter.  Looking into the particulars wasn’t a priority for many.  Enter, John Crandon, Harvard surgeon.  In 1939. he decided to set the question to rest for good.  Using himself as the test subject, for a variety of reasons, he eliminated all vitamin C from his diet, living on eggs, cheese, bread, butter, chocolate and coffee, a diet I am officially signing up for.


After about four and a half months, Crandon developed hyperkeratotic papules on his butt and at month five, he began bleeding from the hair follicles on his legs.  He had so little energy, because vitamin C is also key to helping your body process carbs, fats, and proteins, that he could only walk 50 meters before becoming exhausted.  At six months, colleagues assisting him made an incision to see how it would heal – spoiler; it didn’t.  Said colleagues bailed on the plan and staged an intervention after Crandon’s[sic] 15 year old appendectomy scar opened up.  They started giving him intravenous vitamin C and, as one author put it, he “was restored to life almost at once.”  Interestingly, and thank god for small miracles, for whatever reason, Crandon was spared that most cliche of scurvy symptoms, bleeding gums and shedding teeth.


Every single thing on earth is interesting if you take the time to look at it.  That’s the philosophy I didn’t even realize I had before I started this podcast four years and 195 episodes ago, and I hope I’ve proved it to be true, doing episodes on things like mud just to challenge myself.  Sure enough, every time I do one of those, I find more interesting facts than I can possibly include.  So here’s a little mini one of those, a subject whose very name evokes listless and inescapable boredom – the doldrums.


Within 5 degrees of the equator on either side, the doldrums are a bit of ocean with little to no wind.  The bright tropical sun on the open ocean causes the air to warm and rise straight up rather than blow horizontally.  These days, that’s not a big deal, but before the industrial revolution, what were you gonna do, hang off the back of the boat and kick your feet?  It’s actually two big winds that cause little or no wind to happen.  The doldrums, or to give them their proper name, the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, also called the Intertropical Front, is where two sets of trade winds meet.  Okay, but what’s a trade wind?  Trade winds are consistent currents of air blowing east to west near the equator.  Think of it like little jet streams down near the water.  Sailors would plan their voyage to take advantage of them and since most ships on the ocean carried cargo for business purposes, boom, “trade winds.” But if trade winds collide under the oppressive sun, they can cancel each out and instead of two winds, now you have no wind at all.  It would be like running out of gas on the side of a lonely highway in west Texas. 


Being forsaken by the wind wasn’t merely an inconvenience on your shipping schedule.  The windlessness can last for weeks at a time.  If your ship is already low on supplies and you come to a dead stop…well, let’s say that may have been both a poor and apt choice of words.  Scurvy, dehydration, delirium, starvation and cabin fever wait in the wings like extras who finally got a speaking part.  There will be no fun musical numbers like in Muppet Treasure Island.  


Because having one major problem is never enough, the wind can come back, in force and with friends.  One minute, you’re wondering if your sails will ever billow again, which sounds like an artful euphemism for something, though I know not what, the next, you’re being battered by a violent, lightning-filled storm.  Can’t win for losing.  


Okay, but once people knew where the doldrums were, why not just avoid them, arrange your business to keep you out of there?  Because they move.  The actual location of the ITCZ gradually varies with the seasons based on subtle changes in conditions.  Sometimes, a double doldrum forms, with one located north and another south of the Equator.  Neither is steering wide a safe bet because the doldrums have some nasty neighbors, the Horse Latitudes.  The accepted history of the name comes from Spanish ships transporting horses to their colonies in the New World.  They would run out of wind for so long that they would run out of water for their cargo of horses, leading to man of them dying and, let’s call it, being buried at sea.  And to think, doldrums is what my mom called us being bored on rainy days during summer vacation.  Maybe that’s why my family had cable.


There were a lot of reasons a person might visit the piracy booth at career day.  Some wanted fame and glory, sure, since a lot of people on land saw pirates as anti-hero Robin Hood rock star type figures.  Many were sailors who’d been press-ganged into their nation’s navy or onto a private ship and of course there were many who escaped bondage to find a home among outlaws.  Outlaw, by the way, doesn’t mean that you’re in a criminal, but that you have been stripped of the protection of the law.  For one aspiring buccaneer however, his foray into piracy seems, for all intents and purposes, to have been a midlife crisis.


If you haven’t already watched the series Our Flag Means Death (first off: do, immediately), allow me to introduce you to the Gentleman Pirate, Stede Bonnet.  It sounds like Steve, but with a Delta instead of a Victor.  Bonnet had been born into a life of privileged luxury on a thriving sugar plantation on Barbados.  So yes, he was a slave owner, and I’m not sure what to do with that information other than acknowledge it.  There is a contingent of people mad at the show for aggrandizing a man who participated in and benefited from human bondage, and I understand their compuncture.  But at the same time, OFMD is as historically accurate as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, so it’s not really even about the actual man Stede Bonnet.  And the real Bonnet would probably have a dim view of episode 9, I’ll tell you that for nothing.  He married well, fathered four children, and was a respected member of Barbadian high society, becoming a major in the militia and a justice of the peace.


But all that failed to hold his interest.  Maybe he had the wanderlust, maybe he was uncomfortable in a married state, who knows.  What we do know is that in 1717, he set off to be a pirate on a ship he’d commissioned (rather than stole like a real, proper pirate) called The Revenge, a dead common name for a pirate ship.  The ship had typical pirate paraphernalia like a dozen cannons, but also included many comforts from his old life, like a full library in his quarters.  Equally unusual was the way he paid his crew.  Rather than getting a cut of any spoils, his crew got a salary, which was exceedingly rare.  This was a clever move on Bonnet’s part, though I don’t know if it was deliberate cleverness or accidental.  Stede Bonnet knew nothing about sailing or captaining, let alone piracy –he’s been on a boat before as a passenger, that was about it– and things went about as well as you’d expect with a hobbyist dandy at the helm.  Had his crew been on the usual even-split arrangement, a lot like being a commission-only salesperson, they’d have mutinied within a month.  It was the skill and experience of the crew that did see them take some vessels successfully.  Ships sailing out of Barbados were put to the torch, so they couldn’t carry word of Bonnet back home, even though he was sailing under the name Captain Edwards.


Bonnet was also one of the few pirates to have actually made people walk the plank, a pirate cliche about as historically accurate as peg legs and everyone having a west country accent; see last episode for more on that.  You can count on one hand the number of verifiable instances of “walking the plank” as a means of punishment or execution.  The first documented use of the phrase itself dates back to 1769, when a seaman named George Wood confessed to a chaplain that he had made several men “walk the plank.”  There is evidence of him making the confession, but no evidence of the actual plank-walking.  Authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Ellms got ahold of the phrase and cemented it into the zeitgeist and left us all thinking it was de reguerre. 


Speaking of Edwards, as I did a paragraph ago, one of Bonnet’s claims to fame, and likely the reason he’s remembered as much as he is, was the time he spent with Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard.  When they met, Blackbeard was still establishing himself, freshly emerged out from under the command of his mentor, Cpt Hornigold, and was not yet a legend in his own time.  Let’s dispel some myths and see if we can sort the sardines from the pilchards.  


Blackbeard may stand today as the most famous pirate in history, but he wasn’t the most successful.  He wasn’t even the most successful of his time.  He did alright for himself, but was nothing compared to Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts who captured hundreds of vessels and operated a large fleet of pirate ships.  Neither was he flawlessly skilled at the trade – he once ran the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground on a sandbar off the NC coast, damaging her so badly she was no longer seaworthy.  What kind of idiot runs his ship aground?  That was in mid-1718 and Blackbeard tried taking it as a sign to retire, but that didn’t last long.  


Much of Edward Teach’s early life and background has been lost to history.  He was one of many poor lads born in Bristol.  We do know that around 1717, Teach captured a French merchant vessel that he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge and began adding ships to his fleet, established a formidable reputation, and formed an alliance between other pirates.  Within the span of year or so, he went from a nothing, a nobody, to lord of the sea.  Although Blackbeard had built a reputation for being a ruthless monster, there’s no evidence that he himself ever killed anyone.  Even when he took prisoners, he treated them well.   


The rumors about Blackbeard were better than reality could ever be.  He was 7 ft tall, with a head made of black smoke and glowing, floating red eyes.  That would be so cool.  The smoke thing was real, albeit exaggerated.  Blackbeard would put cannon fuses into his black beard and light them on fire.  This gave him a fearsome, demonic, pantaloon-soiling appearance.  Remember, branding was a big deal with pirates, striking fear into the hearts of your victims and enemies so they give up with as little fight as possible.  


Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet’s meet-cute included Bonnet recovering from a wound he received when he ordered his men to attack what he thought was a merchant vessel that turned out to belong to the Spanish navy, because he was so bad a pirating that he couldn’t tell the difference.  Blackbeard took a liking to Bonnet, possibly because Bonnet was a novelty, walking around his ship in a silk dressing gown, and a rank amateur who had no business being a pirate.  Blackbeard tricked, cajoled, or sweet-talked Bonnet into being his guest aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, in exchange for control of Bonnet’s ship Revenge for a few weeks.  


The two sailed together for a while, as Blackbeard built his fleet up to five ships.  That fall, King George declared that any pirate who wanted to stop attacking every ship they saw and just attack the Spanish, England’s principle antagonist at the time, would get a full pardon under what was called his Act of Grace.  Blackbeard announced he wanted to take up the offer and took his fleet to NC.  Not one to let his new bestie run off without him, Bonnet decided he’d take up the offer as well –two Acts of Grace, please– and went ashore to sign the paperwork.  When he went back to The Revenge, though, he found it stripped of everything of value, save a bit of water and ship’s biscuits, as well as his crew of 25, who had been marooned on a small island.  Blackbeard hadn’t signed the Act of Grace, either.


Ever had a supposedly close friend suddenly turn into a gaping asshole without warning and for no good reason?  For most of us, that happens while we’re still in school, not when we have men and cannons at our disposal.  This betrayal flipped a switch in Bonnet and he had a new goal in his five-year plan – hunt down Blackbeard.  The Gentleman Pirate not only immediately resumed gentlemanly pirating, which did not sit well with the Crown, but did so with shocking brutality, abusing his crew, killing prisoners, you know, the ujhs.  


In August of 1718, Bonnet was cornered by ships sent after him by the governor of SC at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and though he swore he’d blow himself and the ship up rather than surrender, his men overruled him and gave themselves up as prisoners.  Once in custody, Bonnet pled for mercy and blamed everything on Blackbeard.  It didn’t work.  Stede Bonnet was hanged on December 10, 1718, after less than two years of adventure on the high seas.  As for Blackbeard, he’d met his own bloody end in battle with the British Royal Navy a month earlier.  His head was cut off to collect the bounty –much easier to carry a 10lb head around than a 180lb body– and his corpse tossed overboard.  This gave rise to my favorite legend about Blackbeard, that his decapitated body, sporting three bullet wounds and two dozen lacerations, that bit’s true, swam three times around the ship, before either sinking or swimming away, depending on who was telling the story.  As quickly as Bonnet and Blackbeard’s pirating careers had come and gone, so too did the sun set on the golden age of piracy after only a few short years.  



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