Thursday, 15 January 2015

Pirates: They weren't all that bad (comparatively speaking!).

Recently a fellow author of Historical Fiction criticised my affection for pirates. They said they were sick of the romantic image of pirates, said they were nothing more than evil miscreants, and then went on to list the many misdeeds and wickedness that pirates committed. It seemed as though the author was sick of the image of the glorious pirate built up by Hollywood and swashbuckling novels. If you've ever read anything from my BUCCANEER series, you'll know that is not what I do. I have always hoped to maintain the gritty realism of the era. After all, anti-heroes are far more interesting characters than traditional heroes.

We all know - don't we - that pirates were not nice. We all know robbing from the rich (and the not so rich) and giving to yourself is a bad thing. We know that sinking a vessel with all hands aboard is no joke. That sacking Spanish towns and raping their inhabitants-- Well... you get the drift. Pirates were bad. Yes we know.

The point of this post is to show you that comparatively speaking, they weren't all that bad. Certainly pirates were no worse than the organised armies of Europe at the time, and actually, in some cases, they were a hell of a lot better. To understand why, I'll very briefly summarise piracy in the Caribbean:

Throughout the 17th century, Spain still had a complete stranglehold over the West Indies. The few English, Dutch, and French settlements on the smaller isles were attacked aggressively in times of peace and were blocked with trade stipulations. Non-Spanish merchants attempting trade with the Spanish of the New World were deemed smugglers, and if caught by the Costa Garda were either sent to the mines for life, or garrotted.  For the Spanish there was but one rule: In war or not, there was no peace beyond the line of the Cape Verde islands.

Adventuring in the Caribbean became a way out of a life of poverty, with many a man and woman starting their new life as indentured servants on English sugar or tobacco plantations.

Many of these labourers were mistreated, beaten, forced into greater debt, and their indentured sentences increased. Runaways bonded with shipwrecked sailors, those fleeing religious persecution, and sailors jumping ship. Communities of free men (and to a lesser extent, women) sprang up around the Caribbean, with work parties of mainly English and French daring to venture into Spanish territory in search of furs, meat, redwoods and other precious timbers.

The Spanish weren't happy with this. Conflict ensued. The buccaneers began to raid their enemy's ships en masse, and to sack and loot their cities.

Even in peacetime, did England object to their own displaced subjects robbing a rival of wealth? Not at all. In fact they encouraged it. In an attempt to undermine Spain's economy, English Naval officers such as Christopher Myngs were sent to the area. He rallied the disgruntled buccaneers to his cause, not by some notion of love to a monarch they didn't know, or an act of loyalty to their motherland. Their payment was uninhibited plunder of Spanish settlements.

Charles II of England was quick to condemn the attacks and recall any Naval officers advising the buccaneers, but the governors of Jamaica and other English colonies still encouraged it. And why wouldn't they? All the pilfered gold and goods passed by their hands first - and many a rich man became richer by aiding and encouraging the buccaneers.

L'Olonais was a naughty pirate. He made people eat hearts.

Roll forward to the early 1700s. War was all over Europe and beyond, as Britain, the United Dutch Provinces, and their allies tried desperately to halt a young French nobleman inheriting the Spanish throne, and therefore creating a European super power like no other. This was the War of the Spanish Succession.

It was in this conflict the Duke of Marlborough won the Battle of Blenheim, that Gibraltar became part of British possession, and France became bankrupt (interestingly forcing the lower classes of French society into a deep poverty that would manifest itself later as the French Revolution). It was also in this war that many of the most famous of British pirates - Blackbeard, Jennings, Rackham - learnt their trade as ship-takers, both in the Royal Navy, and as independent roving privateers sanctioned by the state.

When the conflict was over however, many of these privateers simply carried on what they were doing, and despite the peace in Europe, many were still granted Letters of Marque by British island governors - legalising and encouraging their activities! These pirates were presumably still somewhat loyal to the British crown, and we have records of pirates flying the Union Jack from the fore mast and the Jolly Roger from their mizzen.

All right, I don't suppose so far I've defended them very well. I've told you they sacked cities, stole ships, and murdered people. But this was by no means unusual, and most of it was completely state-sanctioned and encouraged! The armies of Europe were no stranger to such misdeeds of violence either. You only have to look at the slaughter of the Native Americans, or the aftermath of any great siege from around Europe at the time to realise that rape, theft, and murder were the norm. Do we condemn and hate soldiers from history? Or do we glorify their victories and celebrate the success of our generals?

So at the very least, pirates were on par with everyone else at the time, but what made them better?

Whilst the rich of Europe were profiting upon indentured servants and the slave trade, pirates of the era seemed to stick two fingers up at the establishment (that's a British insult by the way). We all know how Africans were treated upon the plantations, and how they were sold and bartered for like a domestic breed of cattle; but did you know that pirates as a majority seemed to hold few ideas of racism? Contemporary sources estimate a generous twenty-five to forty per cent of pirates were either black African or mixed race. If you could fight, sail, and work hard, it seemed you were welcome regardless of skin colour. There are plenty examples out there, and I'm sure you can find some if you deign to look.

'Black Ceasar the Pirate' source and artist unknown.

Now what else? Oh yes... The vote. The history of electoral reform in Britain is a long one. In 1832 (over a century past the Golden Age of Piracy) less than three per cent of Britain's population were eligible to vote. The change was a gradual movement starting from the mid-1800s lasting until the early 1900s. Pirates on the other hand, all had the vote! Every person signing the articles, regardless of sex, colour, religion, was welcome to vote on decisions that affected the vessel. A dream of equality of all it seems. And you must remember that this is a time when people were still being burnt for witchcraft and heresy for selling herbal remedies AND NOT GOING TO CHURCH! Pregnant women, baby and all, tossed into the fire to cleanse their wicked ways.

The persecution of 'witches' is a massive subject, as are the various religious purges from the world at the time. Search for them if you doubt me. Pirate crews consisted of Native Americans, Africans, and others following their own religions, of persecuted catholics from protestant countries (and vice versa), and even early atheists, all together in one wooden tub.

So how else can I defend my subject matter? Well there's the Republic of Pirates. Seventy years before the American colonies dreamed of becoming independent (seemed like a good idea at the time...) from the 'yoke of European tyranny' the pirates had established their own republic with its own code of conduct and loose ruling council, free from Europe's corrupt rich. A place where you earned respect and power; not born with both.

Oh, and there is also the controversial - and convincing - argument that pirates were open and tolerant of homosexuality too! (Which makes them more tolerant and modern than Algeria, Iran, Afghanistan, and Texas) 


So to conclude. Yes the Hollywood image of the pirate is a false one, but then again Hollywood never seems to get many stereotypes correct; that doesn't mean pirates were all evil though. Certainly there were some bad eggs in the bunch, and they definitely did some terrible things, but their modern outlook and sentiments shouldn't be overlooked by our twenty-first century judgemental eyes.

Hats off to you pirates! Huzzah!

There's also the issue of their Accident at Work Policy, built right into their Pirate Code. I wrote about it here.


If gritty historical fiction is your thing, you could do far worse than look for my published nautical tales ROGUES' NESTGENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE, and SMUGGLER'S HILL...

I dedicate this post to that fellow author who criticised my misguided affection of the 'despicable pirate'. Incidentally, they write about the noble knights of the Crusades - you know, that time when Christians clad in steel committed the most despicable hate and war crimes against Jews and Muslims.  :)

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Authentic and Unauthentic of BLACK SAILS

Roam the internet in search of the historical accuracies of BLACK SAILS, and you'll find all sorts of contradicting posts - including one of my very own where I compared the plots and authenticity of BLACK SAILS to CROSSBONES. Daily, it remains the most visited page on this blog.

BLACK SAILS series one (not Season, I'm British after all, and not referring to Autumn or Winter), despite many reviewers hailing the historical accuracies of the show, were mostly wrong. The weaponry used spanned from the 1500s to the mid-1800s, the dress ranged from pretty good to Victorian era, and the social attitudes of the characters were rather modern. But you know what? I don't really care. I fucking loved it all.

BLACK SAILS takes place in 1715 on a pretty epic scale, and in the very real pirate haven of Nassau. In reality, Nassau was technically under British rule, but pretty much left to its own devices. It eventually became a lawless town where the likes of Blackbeard, Hornigold, Charles Vane, Calico Jack and Anne Bonney operated from. The last four feature as pretty prominent characters throughout BLACK SAILS. Nassau is colourfully portrayed with markets of pilfered goods, grounded pirates without credit, wenches aplenty, and taverns brimmed with pipe-smoking, rum-swilling blaggards.

BLACK SAILS is sort of a prequel to R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. We meet familiar characters like Long John Silver, Captain Flint and Billy Bones. Their story lines are entwined with the very real pirates of Nassau mentioned above. The characters' goal is to keep Nassau as a pirate republic, for which they require a lot of booty. The whole of series one was about trying to find the Spanish treasure galleon the Urca de Lima.

The actual wreck of the Urca de Lima : Florida Division of Natural Resources
In history, the Urca de Lima was a real galleon. It was wrecked off the East coast of Florida in 1715. The Spanish salvage operation was discovered by Nassau pirates Charles Vane and Henry Jennings - and some of the gold must have gone to improve Nassau.

There are many colourful characters and side plots in BLACK SAILS. Flint's relationship with a once-rich Lady on New Providence is intriguing, as is his difficulty at abating his crews ferocity, and managing to stay voted in as captain despite capturing few vessels. That is pretty inline with actual pirates, who had a democratic process for choosing officers (see this post for information on the Pirate Code).

Toby Stephens as the complex "Captain Flint" : STARZ
There's also the unofficial boss of Nassau - Miss Guthrie. She controls all the trade of the pirate haven, and sells on the pilfered goods to the Americas. As a character she's likeable enough. She has an abusive relationship with Charles Vane, and a less abusive relationship with a local whore (lots of nudity - can't have a historical TV show without it these days).

Then there's Long John Silver - the anti-hero / sometimes antagonist of Treasure Island. He attempts to be all charming and cheeky, trying to find his way in the world of pirates, where he doesn't particularly want to be, but he ends up looking like some UK boy band member.

The whole show is filled with backstabbings, under-handed activity, and people clamouring over each other for power, gold, and girls. The many characters of BLACK SAILS are pretty good all in all, even if it was some pale imitation of the court intrigue we have come to love from GAME OF THRONES. The mostly British cast are excellent, and the dialogue both natural and amusing. The first series did suffer from being a little slow at times, but the well drawn characters of Nassau had me hooked regardless. I genuinely cared enough about them to see through the boredom.

Nassau, by the way, remained a pirate haven until 1718 when Woodes Rogers turned up, replanted the British flag, offered clemency to all pirates, hanged some more, and stayed there as governor. In the same year, Blackbeard was finally hunted down, shot, stabbed and decapitated.

Oh, and if you haven't seen series one yet, I must warn you of spoilers ahead.

Plot and characters aside, I really loved the spirit of the show. It was gritty and gory in a way that didn't normalise or desensitise us to violence (unlike SPARTACUS). When a fight scene happened, the mortality of the characters involved was edge of the seat viewing. Two of the most haunting conflicts of the show are Flint's murder of his first mate, and his bloody duel with a pirate vying for the captaincy.

The major sea battle of the series is when the pirate vessels the Ranger and Walrus face off the Spanish Galleon the Urca de Lima. With its superior firepower the Urca reduced both smaller craft to kindling in an horrific limb-tearing, oak shattering action sequence. No Hollywood explosions here, no fire spreading through the hold, just the reality of large pound guns obliterating planks. It is this gritty historical realism that I loved above all else, and what really made the series for me. 

In series one we met the real pirates of Benjamin Hornigold, Anne Bonney, Charles Vane, 'Calico' Jack Rackam. All of these characters are set to reappear in series two, along with other real pirates like Edward Low. I wonder if we'll meet Blackbeard too? The man played an important role in the history of Nassau, and the period is correct for his appearance to be unsurprising. It will be interesting to see where the story goes over the next two series.

Here's a sneaky look at the new trailer:

* * * 

If you enjoyed watching BLACK SAILS for the character development, plot twists, and bloody action, you could do far worse than read my authentic swashbuckling pirate novels: ROGUES' NESTGENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE, and SMUGGLER'S HILL...

Friday, 26 December 2014

The Buccaneers' Christmas - Part Four

Did you miss:

Part Four:

Molly picked the last of the dirt from her shortened stubs of nails. They were red raw from scrubbing the cloisters, and she winced at the peeling skin. “God does not like filth!” Sister Francis had said, “And neither do I… especially not on our Lord’s day of birth!” She had looked down her nose at Molly and the other orphan holding the bucket of almost freezing water. Molly was unsure what disgusted the sister more – the dirt on the flagged floor, or having to waste the abbey’s scarce food supply on her and the other girls.
They were finished now, and had been allowed to clean up with more cold water from the well. When the sisters hadn't been looking she'd dropped a large stone from a collapsed cornice to shatter the ice. The top of the well had been frozen that morning, just like it had for the last month.
The low afternoon sun hung just above the horizon, its cool rays glinting off the seemingly permanent frost of the hibernating gardens. She looked around with a half smile. It was a peaceful little place, and she wondered if she’d ever see it again… for it wouldn’t be long now…
The other girl stood nearby, shivering in her thin robes. “Are you finished Agnes?” Molly asked of her.
Agnes dipped her head, placing her fingers beneath her armpits in an effort to keep warm. She didn’t talk much, and hadn’t since the death of their friend Theresa… which it was forbidden to talk of.
“She’s in the arms of the angels now,” Sister Francis had said. Which was a good thing, Molly reckoned, because in life she’d been in the arms of the devil.
In the cellar, her body lifeless, Molly had seen the black blood from Theresa’s torn anus, seen the misshapen swellings of her broken face, and she knew exactly who had put her there… But it was nearly time to end all of this…
“Will we go to Hell?” Agnes asked meekly.
Molly looked the younger girl over. It was the first thing she’d said all day. “You think it could be worse than here?”
“You could have left at any time…”
That was true. The abbey was hardly a prison. Over the walls and away. She’d lived on the streets before. She’d known hunger and cruelty without the sisters creating more of it. So what was keeping her?
Sister Francis was always telling them how lucky they were to have been given a second chance in the abbey, as if it was the orphans’ wicked sins that had led to their parents’ deaths. In summer she’d sort of believed it. Her belly full of rich broth, working the gardens, singing out loud in a tongue she didn’t know. She had almost felt like she belonged…
But now it was winter. Food was hard to come by, the weather was cold, and after the murder of their fellow, Molly didn’t quite feel so lucky. Staring at Theresa’s abused body had strengthened her resolve though. She couldn’t let those responsible repeat the evil act…
The bells began to ring, summoning them to evening prayer. They both attended with the other orphans and sisters. Their guest, Bishop Micheal, led the Christmas service, with the Abbess beside him in attendance.
Molly didn’t hear his words, she only saw him standing on the steps above them, thinking he was the master of them all – thinking that he was their god!
A few times she thought she saw his wide eyes looking over the orphans hungrily. Had the same eyes feasted on Theresa’s flesh before he’d committed those unspeakable deeds?
After was the Christmas feast. As usual the orphans sat at the crooked table furthest away from the small warmth of a peat fire in the open hearth. Their little wooden bowls held the thin gravy it usually did – they’d be lucky to have any morsels of meat. It was not as though the sisters fared much better, not in these times, but at least they had barley bread and cups of ale.
Half a boiled cockerel – their best food – stood proudly in Bishop Micheal’s bowl, but the man still picked at it ungratefully, wiping his greasy fingers on his robes between tearing the stringy flesh apart.
“He makes me sick,” Veronica scowled, “how long now Molly?”
“Shush,” Molly glared in her direction, and aimed a kick for her fellow orphan’s shin, “we aren’t talking about it. Look away and don’t draw attention to anything.”
As the small barrel of ale was tapped at the high table, Molly tried really hard not to watch. It had been given by one of the pilgrims– a potent herbal brew for Christmas, aged for several years.
Molly had sampled some earlier that week after carefully removing the shive. Despite the aging it still had the sour twang of a young ale. She detected the familiar notes of yarrow, mugwort, and other brewing herbs in its smell and flavour – all strong enough to mask an addition of her own choosing…
“They are drinking—” Veronica started.
“Shush!” Molly growled again.
But it was true, they were drinking the dark liquid. Bishop Micheal had already downed his first cup and was asking one of the orphans on serving duty for more.
Usually serving the tables was an honour that allowed the subtle snatching of a gulp of wine or something stronger, or a broken crust of bread to be stashed away on their person. Molly had ensured that all of the orphans knew not to drink the ale though… She hoped they would keep their mouths shut a lot firmer than Veronica apparently could.
How long now, Veronica had asked, but truthfully Molly didn’t know. She supposed it would depend on the concentration, on the amount taken, and perhaps the size of the person. She looked up at the Bishop. He was a large man.
He caught her looking, pausing with the cup halfway to his grease-dripping lips. He winked.
With a disgusted shiver she turned back to her bowl of thin gravy.
It seemed to take an age before their poor Christmas feast finished, and the orphan girls were allowed to take the used crockery to begin the evening tasks of cleaning, and making the refectory ready for the morning breaking of fast. As of yet, no one had clutched their stomach, no one had coughed up blood, and no one had fallen dead. She could see the nervousness in the other orphans’ eyes. Perhaps they doubted her. Perhaps she doubted herself…
If there was one thing her mother had known, it had been plants. Molly liked to think she had listened well. She had recognised the dropwort growing by the stream – one foot always in water – just like her mother had said. The leaves could be used in moderation to ease pain in childbirth, but just a few spoons of the juice from the stem was enough to kill someone. For a month she had carefully collected it at night, pressing the stems between smooth stones, and filling a stone jar with the slick liquid.
“Margaret!” Sister Francis called into the kitchens.
Molly jumped, at first thinking she had been found out. Had one of the orphans said about the ale?
“Margaret!” Sister Francis repeated, pushing Agnes out of the way. “Follow me girl!”
Molly did as she was told, following the sister through the cloisters. Had she missed a patch of dirt perhaps?
Sister Francis stopped abruptly, and thrust her hand onto Molly’s chin. “Let’s have a look at you!” She twisted Molly’s head sharply side to side, scrutinising her features. She spat onto her sleeve, and scrubbed viciously at a spot on her left cheek. “Hmm… you’ll do.”
Do for what? Molly wanted to say, but she knew better than to ask questions of Sister Francis.
“The bishop has requested your attendance, to pray with him. Isn’t that wonderful? He even has charity for a wretched girl like you on our saviour’s day of birth. His Lordship is truly a pious man…”
Molly felt the blood drain from her face. How long would the poison take? Should she turn and run now?
“Now Margaret. I suggest you do everything his Lordship asks of you… we don’t want another unfortunate accident like Theresa do we?”
Molly gave the sister a dark look. The mention of her dead friend strengthened her resolve. She would see this through to the end. She would watch them die, and then she’d be on the road.
The door to Bishop Micheal’s rooms was opened. A figure in the flickering candlelight turned towards them. “Put her there sister,” Bishop Micheal clicked, “and leave us alone.”
Sister Francis shoved her forcefully from the lower back. Molly couldn’t help but feel like an animal sacrifice from the Old Testament. Before she could protest, or turn and run, the door was closed.
From the looming shadows the fat man closed on her. “I saw you looking at me at dinner girl… but it’s only natural, a poor little thing like you… and a powerful man like me.”
Molly said nothing. Soon his large greasy fingers were stroking at the loose strands of miscoloured hair she had been born with.
She could feel his breath on her face, and through the ale and chicken she thought she detected the faintest whiff of bitter dropwort.
“That feast was bloody dismal… don’t you think girl? Come… share a cup with me, have some real meat.”
His hand lay on her shoulder, and he directed her through to his sleeping chamber. Between two guttering candles was a plate of dried sausage, a thin knife poking through its flesh, and a large pitcher of ale… her ale. “Sit down girl.”
It wasn’t like she had much choice, he forced her onto the bed. She watched as he sliced a wedge of sausage, stuffed it into his mouth, and washed it down with a glug of ale. He refilled the cup, pressing it into her hands. “Drink. You are my guest.”
“No-no thank you Lord.”
“Nonsense!” The bishop’s face turned almost animalistic, “I said drink, so you’ll damn well drink!”
She hesitantly raised the cup to her lips and pretended to sip.
“More,” Bishop Micheal said, looking her over hungrily.
She repeated the motion, but he remained unconvinced. With a lunge he opened her mouth, tipping the cup down her gullet.
“No!” She spluttered, coughing some down her chin, but she felt far too much of the sour ale flow down her throat.
The bishop laughed at her protest, and when she struggled more, he slapped her about the face. The heavy gold rings on his fingers struck her high cheekbone, and she was sure her flesh split open.
He grabbed hold of her face again, bearing down upon her. “Listen carefully. When an important godly man decides to offer you something, you take it. Do you understand?”
Despite his clutch, she managed to mumble a yes. She couldn’t help but wonder if he had treated Theresa the same… Her poor body had been broken so…
“Now, let’s try again shall we? Christmas is about being pious… So on your knees girl.”
Once more she had no option, his fat hands dragged her from the bed, crashing her knees painfully upon the straw-covered flagged floor. She winced at the sting, regretting that she hadn’t decided to run. What had possessed her to think she could resist the evils of this beast before her?
He was fumbling with his robes now, holding her head back. “You little sinning whore, open up for God’s mercy!”
She would take it… she would take it all, she would be pliant and let him use her, and after, she would walk away free, and he would no doubt be dead.
One last evil she would take from the abbey, one last test before the end…
Bishop Micheal reeled forward suddenly, and no longer fumbling for his robes, he reached for his stomach instead. His face screwed up in sudden pain. “That’s the bloody cockerel… God awful food.” His eyes flashed at Molly, “You, you little whore, wait right there!” He stumbled around the chamber for his bedpan.
At last… it had started. “Are you well your Lordship?” She asked with all the innocence she could muster.
“Well enough to give you a good—” He paused, retching several times into the bedpan. “Holy Mary,” he spat, wiping vomit on his long sleeve. He clutched for his belly again, writhing on the spot. “Girl, pass the ale!”
She stood slowly, filling the cup from the pitcher.
With three steps she was offering him his wish. He snatched it from her hands, downing it in one.
She smiled.
“What?” He looked confused for a moment, but then he stood to his full height, towering over her. “I’ll wipe that from your face.”
He came closer, and still smiling, she held out her hand to intercept him. The thin knife that had been next to the sausage pierced his ecclesiastical robes, puncturing his gut.
“Fuck!” He cried, stumbling backwards, clutching for his belly again.
With barely a pause she struck again – two, three, four times – each in different parts of his body. He collapsed, squealing like a hog about to be slaughtered.
She stopped, watching as he tried to stand, tried to ward her off, but fell pathetically to the stone floor instead. “Fuck…” he kept mumbling, just as dark blood began to bubble from his mouth.
“I wonder what will kill you first,” she said coldly, “the stabbings, or the poison. It will be interesting to find out, don’t you agree?”
“Fucking little devil’s whore!” He cried, spitting more blood.
She watched curiously. There was no fight left in the man. She had expected him to lash out more, to try inflicting some pain, but he just curled up into a ball, holding his wounds, his face twisted in agony, and he started to cry.
The bells were ringing now too. No doubt the others had started to die, or show the early symptoms of sickness.
“Please!” he said between his cries.
“Did Theresa ask you please as well your Lordship? Did she beg you to stop?”
At her words he started to pray instead.
“Oh no, there’ll be no last rites for you.” She strode forward, and with a swift cut, slashed at his already bloody mouth.
His prayer turned into a pitiful scream.
It was time to leave.
Firstly she induced her own vomiting to lessen the effects of the poison. She hoped it would be enough, and then she hauled the door open to the rest of the abbey.
Agnes was waiting for her in the very cloisters they’d scrubbed that morning. “They are dying! They are all dying!”
Molly nodded her head. “Are you ready?”
“I am,” Agnes said, handing her a satchel of their few belongings, “but the sisters – they are all grinning too.”
“They do that, just before they die… it’s the poison. Are the others ready?”
“Most have gone, or are sat watching Sister Francis cough up blood. Do you want to watch with them?”
“No,” Molly frowned. She had never killed anyone before, but now she was the murderer of a whole abbey and a high-ranking bishop. There would be survivors no doubt, and when the truth was found out, she planned to be far away. “It’s time to leave Agnes, it’s time to leave right now.”
Agnes seemed to hesitate before nodding in agreement. Molly took her by the hand, and together they crossed the frozen gardens to the gap in the wall. They paused once, looking back at the stone abbey, listening to the screams of pain from the various chambers, and finally to the small graveyard nearby where their friend Theresa was buried.
Someone had once said Christmas was about giving, and she liked to think she’d given Theresa the best gift she could.


As Molly’s story came to an end, Jacob felt a flush of adoration for her. What she had done in her youth scared him, but she’d been through such a lot, how could he blame her? And how could he even begin to compare the love of his mother, her wonderful cooking, their little cottage on the Campbell’s estate, to Molly’s displaced world of being a desperate orphan? No wonder she’d fallen so easily into this life of piracy.
He wanted nothing more than to reach out for her, to touch her creamy Irish flesh… They shared a soft look, and he was about to say something. Anything meaningful.
“And that is why you can’t trust a woman to do the cooking!” Roy declared, placing the plantain and spiced fish onto a large palm leaf. “Now come on, eat up – it’s Christmas!”
They each laughed at the poor joke from their one-legged cook. They ate the meal he’d prepared, and carried on passing the rum around until it was empty. No one spoke much; probably they were all contemplating each other’s words.
It was night now. The Caribbean sun had long ago melted below the horizon, and the bright lights of a thousand stars glittered in the sky.
When they finished, Roy suggested Molly help him go for a walk. She eagerly agreed, linking arms, and promising him a Christmas gift to remember.
It wasn’t long before Jacob could hear her squeals of lovemaking just beyond their firelight, much to the amusement and cheering to some of the other buccaneers from one of the other fires nearby.
“Go on Molly!” A buccaneer cried out, having recognised her cries of pleasure.
Jacob felt a pang of longing for Molly himself, and a jealous frown must have covered his face.
“You and bloody women,” his cousin Bart gave a rare smile.
“I don’t know what you are on about matey,” Jacob forced a grin to his face.
“Aye, if you say so…”
They were quiet for a while, listening to the crackling of the fire, and the more excited noises from Molly and Roy.
Jacob lay back on the sands, staring at the stars above. Some were streaking across the sky, leaving a fiery trail of orange and white.
Christmas. What was Christmas about but sharing stories around the warmth of the fire, about good company, and good food?
Roy, Bart, and Molly he trusted with his life, and Roy could always be counted upon to knock up a feast despite the scarcity of good ingredients.
Somewhere nearby a few buccaneers began a chorus of the Three Ships carol, which was aptly chosen given their three pirate sloops in the gentle coral bay below.
It was an unusual Christmas, but in many ways, it was a Christmas like any other… And even though he was jealous of Molly’s activities, he couldn’t help but grin genuinely to the sky above. He couldn’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be… “Bart?”
“Jacob?” His cousin stirred from the other side of the fire.
“Merry Christmas Bart.”
“Merry Christmas Jacob.”


Thanks for reading the final part of a free online exclusive piratical tale written just for Christmas. I hope you've enjoyed it, because I really enjoyed writing it.

Did you miss:

-Part One
-Part Two
-Part Three

This work was written primarily as a result of the fantastic Google+ group SaturdayScenes. Look for the work of new and exciting authors every weekend under that hashtag.

If gritty historical fiction is your thing, you could do far worse than look for my published nautical tales ROGUES' NESTGENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE, and SMUGGLER'S HILL...

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Buccaneers' Christmas - Part Three

Part Three:

“Bartholemew!” Their grandfather barked. “You will watch Harm like a hawk, you understand?”
“I said I will, so I will,” Bart gave a petulant scowl, and was rewarded with a slap around his ear by the old grizzled naval officer.
“And less of your cheek young man! You watch your little brother out there, or do I have to send the servants with you?”
“No sir,” Bart winced at the throbbing pain, and frowned at Harm waiting eagerly by the large door.
“Very well,” their grandfather gave a curt nod. “Be back for the evening meal, we’ll be holding the vigil as a family; and don’t you dare stray from the main waters!”
“Yes sir.”
Their grandfather patted him forcefully on the shoulder, then returned to his study.
“Are we ready?” Harm smiled, swinging his new skating boots excitedly.
Bart didn’t even bother to reply. He strode past his younger brother, past the waiting servant in the hall, and stepped out onto the frozen streets of Old Haarlem.
The snap of cold stalled his breathing, and he immediately drew his thick woollen coat closer.
“Stay warm young masters!” The servant called after them, closing the door.
Eager Harm was behind him, and within moments was trying to make patterns with his billowing clouds of breath.
“Can I have a sweet pastry when we get there?”
“No,” Bart said with a tut.
“Why not?”
“I don’t have money to spend on pastry.”
“You have money – I’ve seen it.”
Bart ignored him, concentrating instead on the freshly laid snow atop the icy cobles, and picking his way carefully to the large waterways. Haarlem was already busy with workers adapting to the white landscape: Sleds were pulled through the streets instead of carts, hauled by sure-footed animals; men and women were dressed in thick wool and furs, and others on the smaller waterways wore the skating boots like the boys carried in their hands.
The cake-like smell of steeped barley from one of the many breweries wafted on the frozen air – all was normal in the Dutch hub of trade – save for the colossal sheet of ice that covered the whole city like a slick oil. Icicles hung from the eaves, the trees were white and feathery with crystals of both frost and snow, and the hungry crows skittered on the frozen earth, desperate for some morsel of charity.
“Here?” Harm pointed to the closest canal – a steep sided ravine between red brick homes and warehouses.
“No… you’ll break your neck. Come on.”
They passed a sled of firewood hauled by dogs that yapped noisily, and through a winding alley between hot workshops where men beat iron with hammers. Bart wondered if they were making blades for the ice boots.
Finally, beside one of the older churches in the district, they came to a gentle slope that led onto the waterways. In the summer it was green grass occupied by courting couples, now it was as frozen as everything else.
Harm skipped ahead of him, already pulling his skating boots on. Bart rolled his dark eyes at his little brother’s enthusiasm, before leaning against the frosted trunk of an ancient lime, and tried awkwardly to put on his own boots. Their grandfather had bought them in a rare show of kindness. He was doubly angry with the old man, for making him look after Harm, and for hitting him around the ear.
He looked onto the busy waterways. It was packed with couples skating together, laughing with glee; with groups of youths playing with kolf sticks, and families being shuttled around on sleds. Everyone seemed to be having fun…
He cursed his brother under his breath. All he wanted was to be alone. Well… not alone exactly… just alone enough so he could tell Cornelia at the wine stall how beautiful she was.
“Come on!” Harm stepped onto the ice, sliding away.
“Not that way!” Bart called, slipping ungracefully down the frozen hill, and stumbling onto the thick ice.
Harm was already showing off, weaving between a group of thatchers on their way to repair some snow-damaged roof.
Bart skated after him, almost tripping over a richly dressed merchant.
“Watch out you fool!”
“Harm, come back!” Bart shouted, but his little brother only laughed at the chase, twisting on one foot, and looping around in a wide arc. “Will you stop?”
Harm did as he was told – about fifteen feet away, his annoying grin spreading from ear to ear.
Bart frowned at him. “You are going the wrong way.”
“You want to see your girlfriend?” Harm pretended to blow a kiss, and performed a quick pirouette.
“She’s not my girlfriend!”
“I don’t blame her, who would want to be the girlfriend of grumpy face Bartholemew Bloed?”
Bart frowned. He wanted nothing more than to push his little brother arse first upon the hard ice, and watch him cry. That would wipe the smirk from his face. Fortunately for Harm, he was just out of reach. Instead, Bart pointed up the waterway to where many market stalls stood on the edge of the ice. “I’m going that way.”
“We can go that way…” Harm said slowly, “so long as you buy me a pastry.”
“I’ll buy you a mug of hot wine, if you’re lucky.”
Harm seemed to ponder the offer for a moment, dipped his head in agreement, and took off towards the market.
Bart had trouble keeping up, and despite the cold he was soon hot with the exercise, and the muscles in his thighs and calves began to ache.
The closer they came to the stalls, the more rutted the ice became, and the busier it was too, and the more difficult it was to pick between them. He nearly slipped over a few times, and it wasn’t long before he saw another man crunch painfully onto his face, much to the hilarity of his unhelpful friends.
People were already drinking beer, spirits, and wine from the various portable bars that had sprung up, and others stuffed their faces with pastries or freshly roasted nuts.
He had lost sight of Harm in the thickening crowd, but he knew where he was going. They’d skated through the stalls nearly every day since the ice had been thick enough, and stopped at the wine merchant on each occasion. They hadn’t been out on their skates since last Wednesday. The weather had been bad for two days, and yesterday they’d been made to study arithmetic and letter writing.
As they neared their destination Bart couldn’t help but feel nervous. The churning in his stomach had started, just like the first time he’d set eyes upon Cornelia.
He had been thinking what to say to her since their last meeting, where he had clumsily offered her the gift of a small poetry book.
He pushed through the crowd of drinkers on the ice, hastily looking for her beautiful pale face by the steaming pan of wine. She was by the woodpile, and so was Harm. He had just said something, and she was giggling.
If Harm had told her anything rude, he would give him a thick ear—
“Bart!” Cornelia turned at his approach, her full lips parting into the warmest of smiles.
“He-hello,” he fumbled, the butterflies still deep in his belly.
She stepped towards him and took hold of his cold hands. Even with the blades of his skates, she was still taller. “It’s good to see you both, I worried you wouldn’t come back!”
“Huh,” Harm said with a grin, “little chance of that. You are all he talks about! Cornelia this, Cornelia that.”
Bart scowled in his brother’s direction, and felt his face reddening in a combination of anger and embarrassment.
Cornelia squeezed his fingers with her gentle hands, giggling again. It was a lovely sound – like the trilling of a spring marsh bird. “Is that so? Well… I think that’s very sweet of you.”
Bart was too shy to reply properly, but he did feel his anger soften at her words.
“Oh – I have a surprise for you two actually. Wait here…” She let go of his hands, disappearing into one of the tents behind the busy temporary bar.
Harm was looking between him and the tent, a quizzical look upon his face.
A few minutes passed before she re-emerged, sliding on the ice.
She had her own pair of skates!
“Come on!” She laughed, pushing between them both, and back through the crowd of drinkers.
The whole time they had known her she hadn’t had skating boots of her own. They had taken her out sometimes on a wooden crate, punting her along as she trilled with her wonderful giggle. The time before last, a dog had joined in, chasing them across the ice, skittering on all fours.
“Where did you get them?” Bart chased after her.
“Been saving up haven’t I?” She looked back with a sweet smile, “Oh, and I sold a nonsense book of poetry some gentleman’s son gave me.”
His face must have changed, because she giggled again, “Oh Bart! I jest! I’ve read that book every single evening before bed!”
He relaxed, allowing her to take him by the hand and drag him away from the crowds. Hand in hand, just like all the other couples, they skated together. She was slightly unsteady, and they nearly fell a few times, or collided with players from a rowdy game of ball and stick. He laughed with her, and all the nervousness he had felt at their meeting disappeared.
When they were away from the market, and out onto the wide flats, she brought them to a sudden stop. “Well?” She asked.
“Well what?” He looked back, seeing Harm moving effortlessly in wide figures of eight. He felt her cold fingers touch his cheek, and she pulled him back towards him. She was so close he could smell the spiced wine on her breath.
“Well aren’t you going to kiss me?”
“Kiss?” His heart quickened; the churning in his stomach returned.
She pressed against him, their skates clashing together first, and then their chests met in the embrace. Lastly it was their lips, softly and sweetly…
He had never felt the touch of a girl before, but she seemed to know what she was doing. She parted his lips with her own, and they kissed—
“Oh that’s disgusting!” Harm called.
But it didn’t matter what his annoying little brother thought. He was lost in the moment, and wanted it to never end…
A while later, and the kiss did end. Cornelia squeezed his hands and stuck her tongue out at Harm. “I say we carry on down the canal…  I hear the ice is better down by the harbour.”
“We can’t go to the harbour,” Harm said, still skating around them in circles, “we have to go home for the vigil.”
“Oh come on,” Cornelia smiled, “it’s Christmas! What’s the worst that could happen?”
The worst? Well… their grandfather would beat him blue. Harm would get away with it though, as per usual…
“Well Bart?”
He looked at the beautiful girl before him, and couldn’t help but break out into a grin. “We’ll come to the harbour.”
“But—” Harm started.
“We are going – together. And I’ll buy you a sweet pastry on the way!”


“That was beautiful!” Molly sighed, “I’ve never skated on the ice before.” She had sneaked back to their fire just as Bart had started his tale.
“We were lucky,” Bart nodded in agreement. “It is a wonderful pastime, but these past few years I hear it hasn’t frozen as well as it did in my youth.”
Jacob smiled at the tale. He felt a pang of jealousy of his cousin’s childhood. Bart had known the love of a brother, and had grown up with their grandfather. He’d even been surrounded by servants in their city townhouse. Like Molly, he had never skated on the ice. He guessed they had one thing in common.
“What happened with Cornelia?”
“What happened? We met nearly every day… We kissed. We laughed. We cuddled… And then spring came, and the ice was gone.” Bart gave Molly a sad smile.
“Pah,” Roy spat, rolling the flaked fish into patties. “Sounds like a rich man’s folly.”
“On the contrary, in Haarlem it was everyone on the ice – from the humblest labourer to the richest of merchants, and beneath the fur and wool you couldn’t tell who was who. All drank together in the tents, and all ate together from the same fires. Not too dissimilar from what we have here…” Bart waved to the various fires of the buccaneers.
His cousin was right. Colour, religion, politics… none of it mattered to the pirates. If you could work well, shoot a musket, and swing a blade, you were welcome to share the plunder. He looked over at Molly. Even a whore was welcome… well, she was exceptionally welcome at times, and no doubt she’d find a paying bed for the night once she’d filled her belly with Roy’s cooking.
“How long until we eat?” She asked of the one-legged man.
“Done when it’s done Miss O’Failin.”
“In that case I’ll have a sup of that rum. Jacob?” She was smiling in what looked like an attempt to be nice, but he could still see her anger hidden beneath her Irish eyes.
He took a large swig and handed it over with a bow of his head. “So Molly, no doubt you have a festive tale for us?”
“Of Christmas?” She half-snatched the bottle, sitting a little closer to the spitting flames. “You all think Christmas is about feasting and giving and being together? Well you are all wrong.” She sipped from the bottle, and her eyes seemed to flash darkly. “When my mother died I grew up with nuns, and with the Holy Catholics you soon learn Christmas is about being pious, and the best way to be pious is to accept your beatings graciously… But one day, I didn’t…”


Thanks for reading the third part of a free online exclusive piratical tale written just for Christmas. I hope you've enjoyed it!

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This work was written primarily as a result of the fantastic Google+ group SaturdayScenes. Look for the work of new and exciting authors every weekend under that hashtag.

If gritty historical fiction is your thing, you could do far worse than look for my published nautical tales ROGUES' NESTGENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE, and SMUGGLER'S HILL...