CHARLOTTE, N.C., April 22, 2015 – Today’s excursion into all things trivial takes us on a journey into the world of pirates.
1 – The Legends of Blackbeard and Bluebeard: Just who were these notorious demons of the seas and did they really exist? It is not uncommon for the two men to be confused, partly because they were contemporaries and partly because St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands has a castle named after each person.
Edward Teach, or Blackbeard, terrorized the Caribbean region in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Oddly enough, it is said that most men of the time were clean-shaven, which made the two bearded villains appear even more ominous.
Teach’s beard was especially large and thick, growing all over his face to make him a menacing presence. He was even known to light slow-burning fuse cords under his hat so his beard would appear to be burning as the smoke rose from it.
Most historians agree that Blackbeard had 14 wives who were treated with extreme cruelty. Bluebeard or “Bluebeards,” on the other hand, refer to groups of men who were infamous as serial killers.
One such person was H.H. Holmes, who was convicted of killing 27 people. Several other sinister characters were also mass murderers, which gave them the generic name of “Bluebeards.”
The legend of Bluebeard arose from the fact that, though he was a wealthy aristocrat, he was shunned by society because of his ugly blue beard. The story goes that he had multiple wives whom, over the years, he killed using a variety of gruesome methods.
Travelers to St. Thomas can visit Blackbeard’s Castle, now a U.S. National Historic Landmark, or stay at Bluebeard’s Castle, a resort at the opposite end of the island.
2 – Why Pirates wear eye-patches: Because of their lawless age, it is usually assumed that eye-patches were the result of losing an eye during battle.
Apparently there was a more practical reason, which had little to do with an actual wound and more to do with preventing one.
Anyone who has gone into a dark theater after being outside in bright sunshine knows it takes several minutes for one’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. According to one expert, it may be as long as 25 minutes to become fully acclimated.
Pirates going from outdoor light to below decks aboard ships or from the docks into bleak candlelit interiors often did not have the luxury of waiting for their eyes to adapt. They could easily have had their throats cut in the interim.
By wearing a patch, sailors always had one eye that was “dark-adapted” so that when they went from outside into a new murky environment, all that was necessary was to move the patch over the outdoor eye to have ready-made vision for the darkened room.
Naturally, the patch was hardly effective if someone happened to stab the pirate in the back.
3 – The Story of the Jolly Roger: Most of us think of the symbol of a pirate ship as being the skull and crossbones flags that were raised at sea. Actually, it was not until the middle of the 18th century that the skull and crossbones became the familiar pirate symbol we know today.
Until that time, the pirate flag was completely red to suggest that it had been soaked in blood. If the enemy did not surrender, the red flag indicated the fate of those under attack.
Some historians believe the term “Jolly Roger” is derived from French seamen who described the banners as the joli rouge, which loosely translated to mean “pretty red” flag. Later the English corrupted the pronunciation and the term supposedly changed to “Jolly Roger.”
Another explanation comes from the 17th century, when captains of ships in eastern waters were called Ali Raja, or “king of the sea.” Once again legend has it that the English changed the pronunciation to “Jolly Roger.”
There is also speculation that the term comes from “Old Roger,” which then was a reference to the devil.
A fourth interpretation comes from the belief that the word “roger” was frequently used in that era to define a vagabond. “Vagabonds” were, for the most part, “rogues” by nature, hence the term “roger” evolved.
The actual term “Jolly Roger” did not become common until the early 18th century, and the first recorded use of a black flag dates to 1700, when the French pirate Emanuel Wynne flew it during an engagement in Santiago.
One early description of the flag was that it looked like “a sable ensign with crossbones, a death’s head, and an hourglass.” The hourglass supposedly symbolized the brief period available to deliberate one’s fate.
The actual skull-and-bones was initially an old symbol of death unrelated to piracy and used by European armies as early as the 16th century.
Thus endeth our “bare-bones” lesson on Piracy 101.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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