Captain John Swallow is standing outside of Pirate’s Alley Cafe.
We’ve already been chatting for an hour and I haven’t yet touched my camera. Captain John is regaling me with the history of NOLA Pyrate Week, how a group of pyrates (yes, spelled p-y-r-a-t-e) came down to New Orleans post-Katrina with the intention of helping to rebuild this beautiful city and shine a spotlight on the good work local organizations were doing.
Those first years the pyrates rebuilt houses in the Lower Ninth Ward. Just this afternoon, the start of the 7th annual NOLA Pyrate Week, they’ve come from Villalobos Rescue center where they’ve been volunteering to walk dogs. Their motto, “Take what ye can, give something back,” holds true today.
THERE’S MORE TO PYRATE LIFE THAN MOST THINK.
Before the phenomena of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, there was a group of men and women who spent their lives on the water, developing reputations for great ferocity and reckless abandon.
Captain John admits that behind any glamor the movies may show, there was an often violent and distasteful history. But, there was also an ethic of community and equality that persisted in a time of great inequality, and this is what Captain John lives by today.
He dispels a few pyrate myths for me.
THERE WAS NO PLANK WALKING.
If you were a pirate who acted up, it was better to punish you and keep you on board than punish you and lose the help on the ship.
Plank walking is a quick way to lose crew, so most punishment involved injury, but not necessarily death.
THE PYRATE SHIPS YOU SEE IN THE MOVIES ARE THE WRONG BOATS.
Most pyrate ships you see in the movies are large Spanish galleons. They are heavy, canon laden, and most of all, slow.
Captain John informs me that pyrates were more likely to use sloops, a lighter and faster alternative for their prey, the previously described Spanish galleons.
Also, Captain John tells me that the great cannon battles we watch in the movies are a lie. Two boats blowing cannonballs into each other in the middle of the sea is a quick way to drown both parties.
Rather, pyrates were more likely to use small cannons and specialized shot to tear sails, topple masts, and target specific hands on the deck in order to immobilize the target.
During water battles, pyrates on deck would need resupply from beneath deck. Notable of pyrate ships is their lack of electricity, so below deck was a rather obscured place.
An eyepatch is a great way to keep one of your eyes acclimated to dark, so in the heat of battle one is able to dive below for resupplies without having to wait for his pupils to dilate. He can simply flip up the patch and reveal the dark-ready eye.
A letter of marque is a legal document issued by a government that, when held by a ship (a pyrate ship in this case), gives them the legal protection to attack ships not of the issuing government’s flag.
It was in this way that pyrates were, in some sense, legally pyrating goods, and would not consider themselves pyrates the way we might now think of them as looters