Thursday, August 27, 2015

Notes on the Florida Keys - Part 1

Last year, while in Key West, I picked up a couple of locally written history books by John Viele on the Florida Keys. There were three volumes, but I skipped the first one on Pioneers of the keys and grabbed "True Stories of the Perilous Straits" and "The Wreckers". I've wanted to do a thing about shipwrecks for a long time, and I thought those two volumes would be much more relevant to my interests.

Over the next few days I'm going to post my notes from each chapter. Mostly all are just quick quotes of names, item lists, gameable or interesting concepts, and potential conflict drivers. My commentary is in brackets.

Normally I'd plan to do a single big distillation post of the whole book, and then get overwhelmed and never finish it. So this time, you'll get a chapter by chapter note dump. But first, a few of the really interesting concepts that I picked up from reading the book:

  1. Captains ordering the crew to damage the ship. I never think of this and can't really think of it being depicted in any recent movies/shows/books, but it's a very important tool. In a bad storm, chop down the mast. If you've got more mutinous prisoners than you can handle, cut holes in the deck and chain their legs from below. If you need to get into a wreck just cut a hole! Or burn the boat to the waterline.
  2. At this moment I'm thinking that all the "romance" associated with the age of sail should be associated with Privateers and not Pirates. Pirates really are just awful awful criminal thugs. Raping and killing and crucifying people on the masts. The Privateers are the held in check slightly by a code and have more of the roguish swagger and clever flair. I'd associate privateers with a god of mischief (potentially bloody mischief) where as pirates would stick with a god of death.
  3. It's ALL about trade. It's all about the cargo. When pirates took a ship, cargo was the first priority. THEN they'd roll around and rob and kill their prisoners.
  4. Ships hauling other ships. Convoys. Groups. I always think of ships from the perspective of Pequod. A solo hunter in the empty ocean. That may be where the adventurers are, but the rest of the world is busy with flotillas and privateers hauling captured prize sloops back to their port.
  5. Hire the natives. They're better at diving for treasure than you. They make excellent guides. They know where the fresh water is! And if you convert them to your religion, then they may save your dudes when they wreck.
  6. Stove wood. This should have been obvious, but once again I never think about it. It's kinda boring, but it's such an excellent resource need to drive potential conflict. "Shit, we need fresh water and more stove wood". "We have to stop or the guys are going to start getting sick 'cause they're getting cold, but this island looks dangerous..." I may just be really lame, but I like to start adventures off with the common, mundane, "normal" and then ramp up the weird and fantastic.
Ivan Aivazovsky - The Lifting Storm

Notes from Chapter 1: Seagoing Natives

The rich cargoes of this traffic soon attracted pirates and privateers , and, as ships piled up on the reef in ever increasing numbers, salvage hunters (or, as they came to be known, wreckers).

native treasure divers [a table of treasure divers]

hollowed out canoes ranging in length from ten to forty or more feet [how convenient]

natives routinely made coastal voyages of several hundred miles in their dugouts

The friar urged the King to authorize missions to the Indians, arguing that their conversion to Christianity would help save the lives of cast away seamen.

"harvest of souls"

Key of Bones

the chief of the Key of Bones

The captain... anchored well off shore because of his fear of these Indians.

building a combined house and church for themselves

When the friars attempted to invade the Indians' temple in order to destroy their idols, the Indians drove the friars away with blows and threats to kill them.

provisions, clothing, religious items and other supplies

jugs of honey, wine and sugar

four or five sacks of maize, one sack of biscuit, and a little box of religious books




Instead of going directly to Key Carlos, Romero, apparently more interested in fishing than in delivering messages, went to the Keys.

On December 29, four weeks after they left Key Carlos, the friars and Esteva were rescued. On his return from the Mouths, Romero sailed to the Matecumbe Keys and sighted the friars on the beach searching for shellfish. Friar Lopez and one of the other friars paddled slowly out to the sloop in a dugout. Their undershirts were so worn and torn that their skin showed through. They were badly sunburned and very weak. When the sailors gave them a little biscut soaked in wine and a bit of chocolate, they promptly threw it up. The friar's ordeal was not completely finished. The sailors gave them clothes from their meager stores and shared their food with them, but for almost two more months, the friars were forced to live in the cramped quarters of the sloop while Romero and his crew continued fishing. [lol captain Romero!]

...the south Florida natives traded fish, ambergris, tree bark, fruit and hides for rum, tobacco, sugar, knives and other European items. An unusual and highly profitable trade good was the cardinal. Spanish seamen prized these birds and pets and paid high prices for them.

The usual image of wreckers salvaging in the Keys is one of fast sloops and schooners, manned by daring Bahamian and American seamen, racing through towering seas and gale winds to an unfortunate ship pounding to pieces on the reef. But in face, Keys natives, paddling out to the reef in dugout canoes, were plundering wrecks three hundred years before the Bahamians and Americans arrived on the scene.

gold, silver and jewels

wine and rum

hatchets and knives

...the Indians of Guarugumbe... were "rich, but... from the sea not from the land."

In 1592, English privateers under Christopher Newport stopped in the Keys to look for fresh water. The natives told the sailors where they could find water and traded gold and silver they had taken from wrecks for rusty hatchets and knives.

Salvage Divers

Two of the worst disasters to Spanish treasure fleets took place in the Florida Keys, the first in 1622 and the second in 1733. Native divers from the Keys were employed by the Spanish salvage expeditions in both instances. [Table: Who's been sent to look for this wreck and how far away are they? Empire treasure ship sinks. Empire hires locals to assist with recovery.]

convoy [why have I just been thinking solo ships?!?!?!]

The Rosario went ashore in the Dry Tortugas but did not sink. Her passengers and crew were saved and her treasure salvaged. The atocha and Santa Margarita sank in the Quicksands area to the west of the Marquesas Keys. Only five men from the Atocha and just sixty-eight from the Santa Margarita. In all, 550 lives were lost....

The first expedition reached the Marquesas Keys just ten days after the disaster only to find that the Keys natives had already recovered some items from the wrecks. The Spanish were forced to bargain with the natives to get them back.

... he employed nine Keys native divers along with some pearl divers....

...they recovered thirty-seven silver ingots and a large quantity of coin. Before they could bring up more, the Spaniard's enemies, the Dutch, arrived on the scene and forced the salvage party to flee for safety.

gifts of liquor, hatchets, knives, cloth and beads

three divers, two canoes and a fisherman to help feed them

six more divers and a native fisherman

In just three and a half days, the divers recovered 2,975 pounds of silver. They also recovered many pieces of silverware, such as plates and basins, as well as hundreds of coins. Melgar discovered that the natives were concealing coins in their breeches but was reluctant to make an issue of it for fear they would stop work. [How much will your hired divers steal?]

...some native divers decided they would rather hunt turtles than treasure.

a 22 ship convoy returning to Spain was struck by a hurricane. Fifteen ships were driven ashore or sunk.... Most of the passengers and crewmen made it to shore by paddling boats or rafts or by swimming, but three large ships sank with the loss of several hundred lives.

Spanish established fortified salvage camps....

When a ship could not be refloated, the salvors burned it to the waterline in order to allow the divers easier access to the cargo hold.


  1. That's actually not true about privateers. Privateers were essentially pirates who were sanctioned by their home governments to enact piracy, and this sanctioning sometimes meant that privateers were way worse than pirates because they had permission to rape and pillage their enemies and they could sail home and never be punished. Pirates, on the other hand, tended to live by a code simply because they needed to in order to survive.
    Compare Sir Henry Morgan, a British privateer, with Blackbeard, the most notorious pirate who ever lived. Morgan is famous for torturing his prisoners, using human priests as shields, and being one of the most wantonly cruel pirates - from Spain's perspective. He's lauded as a heroic Captain in Britain because he operated as a privateer for the Queen against her Spanish interests. Blackbeard held no allegiance and plundered both French and British ships, there is no recorded instance of Blackbeard's crew having killed anyone, every opposing ship Captain that Blackbeard captured was eventually released unharmed, and Blackbeard was an instrumental force for a group of pirates who attempted to create their own independent colony free from the taxation and laws of their European forebears - in other words, he was bad for business.
    Which of those two men had a reputation enshrined to their cruelty after they died? The "pirate."

    1. That's supposed to say "using priests as human shields"
      I think my gamer brain kinda took over there.