Monday, November 23, 2009

Thinking about Pirates

Pirates of the Caribbean: not Johnny Depp although I did hear somewhere (Armed Forces Radio, our English-language radio news source) that he is the sexiest man on the planet this week.
If I had the technology, I'd add a sound track, Elvis, 'Hunk of Burning Love' maybe.

No, I'm thinking of the mostly nameless and faceless bucaneers whose image he embellishes. We're on the Spanish Main now, aarrgh, mateys, where pirates lurked, like spiders waiting for a tasty fly to come by, in the form of gold and silver aboard a Spanish galleon.

We were in a nearly landlocked harbor on the mainland coast, Diamante Lagoon, where the hills are alive with palm trees and orange, avocado and other fruit trees that were reputedly planted by these pirates on their days off. A cell tower twinkled in the distance, but otherwise there was no one around save the occasional small local fishing boat. Their crews had little camps tucked into the mangroves, which I'm sure they were glad to disappear to on such a squally evening.

I myself had a self-indulgent evening, a glass of wine, a good Thai-style soup with coconut milk, an engrossing book. I even smoothed the bedsheets, and got out a cover for the first time in months, secure in the knowledge that nothing was likely to disturb my slumbers here.

According to one pirate captain, life was good, or at least lively, for his men too:
In an honest Service, there is thin Commons, low Wages, and hard Labour; in this, Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power; and who would not balance Creditor on this Side, when all the Hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sower Look or two at choaking. No, a merry Life and a short one shall be my Motto ”

—Pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts

I tried to imagine crews of yore, hanging out in Diamante between lootings, swatting mosquitoes certainly, planting trees? Were they happy to be so securely anchored, or were they happier about other things? And how did they get some of those ships through the narrow entrance and into the lagoon which even then probably had no more than ten feet of water anywhere? Did they have time for mascara?

We also went to Omoa, near the Guatemalan border, to look at its fort, the Fortaleza San Fernando de Omoa. Reputedly the largest colonial fort in Central America, it was built by the Spanish to protect their shipping interests.It took about twenty years to build and was completed about 1776. It's a nice enough fort - along the lines of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas tho slightly smaller, and today has a museum with a fair display (spanish and english) and the usual anchors, bits of pottery, cannons etc.

I was even thinking it would make an interesting hotel. However it was, like so many forts, later used as a prison, so the vibe can't be good.

But you've got to wonder. The cannons couldn't possibly have shot with any effect from their location to where the waterfront is now - that's a whole lot of silting going on! Imagine the labor expended to build such a thing! Lime for mortar was transported in small boats 40 miles from the Sapodilla Keys (the boats kept sinking and a nearer source was found). And lime was the least of it, material-wise. The population was small, both of slaves and the men to keep them working. And the cost/benefit ratio? The place was abandoned within a few years, and twenty years after that, Spain completely lost its grip in Central America.

Omoa was also the main port of Honduras at that time. But every time I go someplace like this I'm also amazed, or maybe incredulous would be better, at how the ungainly vessels of the day could even use, much less 'develop' such terrible harbors. The anchors in the museums don't begin to look appropriate for the slab-sided ships. Omoa, although sheltered from the supposedly prevailing trade winds, is wide open to the west and north, to the cold fronts that are beginning to trail down off North America now, and to anything squally or tempestuous. So, to a lesser extent, is Puerto Cortes, which replaced Omoa. Places that look snug, like Escondido, can turn nasty when the wind goes west and builds, and there would be no tacking out.

It's all just unimaginable. But I'm trying! If a time machine comes along before I depart, I'd want to sign up.

The sea now is actually a couple hundred yards away, and the fort is next door to a natural gas offshore loading place.

Nothing to do with pirates, but this is pretty much all the action in Omoa these days. Your imagination might also conjure up the ghost of the Fantome, the Windjammer ship so famously lost at sea during Hurricane Mitch, which picked up its passengers here, I've read.

PS apologies to anyone who got emailed with a post from back in July. No, we're not going into reruns. I don't know what happened. Let's just say we had a mouse going rogue.

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