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Our Flag Means Skeletons

Hello everyone, and welcome to LukeLore. A quick deep dive into a folklore topic, where I share some of the stories from around the world that have piqued my interest. I’ve decided to reluctantly embrace Summer a little, just as it’s on its way out to be replaced with the much superior Spooky Season, with a pirate based episode. Some myths, some legends, and some ghosts from history’s enduring nautical outlaws. They get to nominally be Summer themed with the sea, sand, and sunny Caribbean that was a frequent stomping ground. It was a hard, frequently tough life that was a less worse alternative for freedom lovers along with assorted scallywags that has a lot its own folklore. A lot of it is touched upon in pop culture, pirates being pretty fascinating to people around the world, but just because you heard it mentioned on Spongebob Squarepants doesn’t necessarily mean you know the full story. Most people who lived and died by the sea were superstitious. You want cosmic horror? The endless sky above you, the fathomless depths below you that even to this day we know next to nothing about beyond that they are vast and they are occupied. You will be out of sight of any land, any idea of stability, at the whims of the changeable weather. Good luck getting the food you need in those days, the fully funded navies struggled with scurvy! You’re a small band of unwashed criminals on a tiny sloop. Surviving pirates heard and saw strange things, all with the knowledge that they are the lucky few compared to the fast numbers of non-surviving pirates. That led to quite the collection of oral traditions to explore, plus it relates to one of my favourite topics on the show: Telling everyone to stay out of the ocean because it’s a terrifying corpse soup! SECTION BREAK – What Lies Beneath Pirates come with a lot of unusual dialect and phrases, which I have the bad news to inform you is mostly fake. A lot of what we envision when we think of pirates today comes from the 1950s and actor Robert Newton, who gave us the pirate accent pretty much everyone could give a go when pressed. The majority of phrases that spring to mind will be from Newton’s rendition of Long John Silver. No timbres were shivered historically, nor were much of any planks walked (although that apparently did get picked up as a tradition towards the end of the age of piracy – potentially because tales spread of it sounded like a fun time). There are however some genuine pieces of pirate lexicon that endured across the centuries, one of which is Davy Jones’s Locker. The modern face of Davy Jones is that of Bill Nighy in CGI squidface, but the figure and his titular locker turn up a lot in tales about pirates. At its simplest, Davy Jones himself isn’t what you need to worry about, nor the etymology of the phrase. It’s what, specifically, is being referred to. To find yourself in Davy Jones’s Locker, is to be lost at the bottom of the sea. Down where the light doesn’t reach, and nothing will EVER be recovered. Even modern deep sea divers don’t have much luck exploring the bottom of the ocean. As it stands at present, we have managed to explore approximately 5% of the ocean. That’s with submarines and cutting edge Atmospheric Diving Suits, any talk of treasure hunting goes on in relatively shallow areas. The majority of the ocean, that covers a little over 70% of the surface of the Earth, is completely out of our reach at this time. This is what a pirate meant when they hid their fears behind dismissing something as lost to Davy Jones’s Locker. If it isn’t floating, it is GONE. To threaten someone with it is a bone chilling reality that only weighs heavier the more you can comprehend just how lost you are if you do go down past a planetwide point of no return. You’re only ever a bundle of chains away from no one ever knowing what happened to you. The locker is The Locker. Terrifying enough to contemplate. The who and the what of Davy Jones is a bit of a broader topic. To get the whole thing down into a nut shell, or episode theme appropriate sea shell, Davy Jones is the Devil for sailors. An interchangeable phrase that’s basically a bit of cultural dialect, like saying Old Scratch in parts of Britain. For some this was likely a way to say the Devil without attracting the attention of them. For others, it was just the nautical term for the theocratic adversary. For others still, Davy Jones was a separate distinct devil just for the seas. There are a variety of proposed origins, it being a recent enough tradition to be relatively well documented. Not that this means there’s anything in the way of one true answer, it’s just interesting that we get to see the strands of folklore coalesce in this case. The simplest answer, is that Davy is a riff on Devil and Jones just got chucked in there because it sounded good. It could easily be that simple, and this then is the true origin that every other theory spun off of. This could also be too reductionist though, so let’s look at what else could be the origin. Some possible roots are Christian religious ones. Not too surprising given that’s the predominant culture of the time and place, and this is a reference to The Devil which is a biblical lens for an evil force. Davy could be a reference to Saint David, in which case it would be rooted in slang from Welsh sailors who would make appeals to the Saint of their homeland when things were going wrong. Jones could be a reference to Jonah, who was a prophet that was thrown to sea. Jonah’s Locker, should that have been the original phrase, would be a cheeky reference to where the prophet Jonah is kept: The Sea. This feels all a bit neat and tidy, also pretty wholesome for Christians, and doesn’t really fit with something sailors would be swearing about in a panic. Looking at sources of assorted 19th Century scholars musing about how this must be the answer, because Bible and suchlike, gives me the distinct impression of out of touch academics sniffing their own farts instead of doing some actual work. There’s an assortment of historical figures who may well be to blame for the name. There are accounts of at least one real life pirate called David Jones, but none of them seemed too infamous to be worth eternal lambasting as the Devil. There was, however, a Duffer Jones who was widely reviled. His service on a ship generally ended with other crew members throwing him overboard, after which he would swim back to a port with an even worse attitude for the next time around. In some places there’s a tale of a British pub landlord called Davey Jones who would throw drunken patrons into a locker he would then sell on to service in pirate crews, only to eventually fall afoul of his own misdeed and going on to serve in pirate crews himself. This evil publican one feels heavily mythologised, I wouldn’t be surprised if it sprang up long after the general usage of the phrase Davy Jones’s Locker and it just kind of got a story tagged on the end that served as a warning about drinking too much leading to being pressganged. Every real figure has the advantage that David Jones is hardly going to be a rare name. Davy Jones as a figure of myth is pretty much his own thing, however. One story happily giving the description of saucer eyes, three rows of teeth, horns, a tail, and breathing blue smoke embracing the devilish nature of the figure, who would perch on the masts of ships about to be hit with storms, but this is from ‘The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle’. As such, I expect a certain amount of literary license was applied here. Of all the potential theories behind the origin, I expect none of them are true yet all of them are a contributing factor. Davy Jones is the name sailors and pirates give the Devil, and Davy Jones’s Locker is a simple expression to describe the all devouring abyss that lay beneath them day in and day out on the high seas. Something conceptually small and convenient, to pack a whole lot of unspoken terror into. SECTION BREAK – A Whole Bunch of Spooks Let’s dip into my usual paranormal wheelhouse, and have some ghost pirates! Quite an alarming amount of them, actually. Should you ever have cause to visit Charleston, South Carolina there is a beautiful public park to enjoy called White Point Garden. 5.7 acres of parkland filled with military memorials to explore right on the terminus of the peninsula. By all accounts it looks like a beautiful and fascinating place! Only I would recommend exploring it in the day time, as there are a fair few accounts it can get a little strange at night… People have reported seeing faces staring out at them from among the plants of the gardens. In some extreme cases, people will be among trees when they realise to their horror there is more than hanging branches right next to them, legs will be dangling down at head height only for the horrified bystander to look up and see a hanging corpse. Any panic these incidents raise, whether a watcher among the bushes or the dead hung from a tree, any investigation will turn up nothing. As White Point Garden has quite the collection of angry pirate ghosts. What happened was that in the early 1700s Colonel William Rhett had been on a pirate catching spree around North Carolina’s Cape Fear River. This was to be the end of Stede Bonnet, otherwise known as the Gentleman Pirate, and his whole crew in addition to another good dozen or so pirates South Carolina had lying about in jail cells. So, spoilers for Our Flag Means Death, I guess. The Battle of Cape Fear River seems quite incredible. It began comedically when Bonnet mistook the naval forces dispatched to end him for merchant vessels, and he sent out some canoes to go board them. Luckily for the canoe crews, the flagship Henry had run aground in the river mouth. The pirates quietly returned back uninjured with news of the heavily armed force before the tides freed the flagship after sunset. Bonnet had the night to plan. He brought his whole crew of 46 on to the Royal James to prepare, before getting all three of his sloops ready to charge the Navy at day break fighting their way out from the river to sea, but for the single messenger he sent out with a letter threatening the local governor with burning every ship in Charles Time Harbour in the hopes the navy would be recalled. Chaos unfolded when dawn broke on the 27th of September 1718. Rhett sent his two sloops to bracket the Royal James, causing Bonnet to head towards the West bank of the river where he would promptly run aground. The naval sloops then also ran aground at a different point from chasing the Royal James. Rhett ordered the Henry to attack so he could personally end this, also running the flagship aground on the river bank. The other two pirate sloops then engaged, promptly running aground themselves. All six immobilised ships then stayed locked in stationary combat, no one really being in the position to either end the conflict or else get away. At first Bonnet had the advantage, his ship the Royal James was stuck leaning at an angle that gave them cover while the Henry was leaning in a way that exposed its decks to musketfire if the crew weren’t careful. This led to a six hour stalemate that wasn’t uneventful. The pirates were recorded as enthusiastically challenging the navy to come board them and have a real fight, tying knots in their flags as mock symbols to come aboard and provide aid. Bonnet lost twelve of his crew, while in return killing ten and wounding another fourteen of the navy. His luck went on to run out, however, as the tide eventually freed the navy but left the Royal James stranded. Bonnet was eventually freed too, but the navy had free reign to repair their rigging and bring their numerical advantage to bear, outnumbering the pirates three to one as well as having the advantage of freed ships. Bonnet ordered his gunner George Ross to detonate the munition stores, but the rest of the crew intervened and a surrender became inevitable. This wasn’t quite the end of Bonnets story. He escaped and was recaptured at one point, then went through quite a lot of theatrics in court defending himself. He even continued to try and talk his way out of execution after the sentence was passed, apparently being quite the figure of interest for Carolina’s high society women, and while he managed to get his execution delayed seven times eventually himself, his crew, and some random extra pirates the local authorities were sick of feeding got rounded up for a mass hanging at White Point Garden. 49 in total were executed, at least 30 of which were Bonnet and his crew. They were unlikely to have been afforded a respectful burial after this point, and could well have ended up in Davey Jones’s locker as an apt cost saving measure. Ever since, the strange sightings have been reported by guests at night. So, if you’ve become a fan of the Gentleman Pirate thanks to the show, there’s a chance his ghost is haunting the place he was executed along with nearly 50 other angry restless dead pirates. Tourist trip, anyone? SECTION BREAK – The Best Know Ghost Ship Let’s talk the Flying Dutchman. Not actually connected to Davy Jones, that was only in recent Hollywood movies, so now all three sections have in some way spoiled something about pirates in pop culture. We have an overarching episode theme! The Flying Dutchman is interesting in that it appears to be the apparition of a lost ship. As ghost ships go, this classic is full on a ship that’s a ghost. Its origins seem a little sketchy, in that they are a collection of literary references that point towards folklore outside of the stories they are presented in. So it was either a total literary fabrication that caught on, or else it was a well-known tale at the time that got used in fictional publications. There are some extra spicy origin stories about a Dutch sailor who made a deal with the devil, a captain Bernard Fokke who was well known for how fast he could make his routes and as such every other captain hated him for it, chalking it up to devilry. What I find to be a more compelling common origin seems to be that of a tragedy. The Flying Dutchman was a ship that got unlucky, in the worst possible way. It was a Dutch Man-of-war, in circumstances that any unfortunate enough sailors could have found themselves in. There was an overwhelming storm that threatened to destroy anyone out in it, only safe harbour was in sight. Pouring rain be damned the Flying Dutchman could see Cape of Good Hope, so they pressed as best they could to get into harbour. Hell, even being run aground beat being definitely lost. Davy Jones’s Locker is in play again, no one wants that to be their final port. Only the storm was offering no quarter, wind and wave kept throwing the ship back out to open sea no matter how hard they tried. Eventually the ship was just… Gone. No sign was found of it the next day, it had truly vanished without a trace. But it did not stay gone. The next time a tempest struck the Cape, the crew of a ship that did fortunately make it to safety swear that another ship nearly ran head on into them. Somehow there was no damage from what threatened to be a direct collision, and no sign of any other ship the next day. The Flying Dutchman had begun its tireless journey, having failed to make land it had become fated to continue ever onwards never finding safe harbour again. Never being able to stop, or to find rest. That it’s a pirate ship may be a later addition, but it’s also likely that any given vessel of the times was up to something a little illicit. Given that the lawmakers of the time were all slavers, screw ‘em if there was a little smuggling and tax evasion afoot. Whatever the origin was, whether tragedy or Satan powered sailing, the sightings across the years have been pretty interesting. Throughout the 19th and 20th century there were plenty of encounters, some of which being pretty high profile. One avowed witness being King George V back when he was Prince George of Wales. Sightings can come in a lot of forms. They’re generally held as a portent of doom, which seems fair really. If nothing else, the ship is proof of their own doom. The Flying Dutchman can have several tells that it’s clearly a phantom, typically being a green or red glow engulfing the ship – something that goes against the mirage explanation for such phenomenon (unless cosmic irony has intervened and gone on to create a mirage of the ghost ship itself). There are tales of being able to interact with the ship should you pull up alongside it, which seems like it may be a bad idea. Any ghostly crew will ask for news centuries out of date, and sometimes pass on messages for people who turn out to be long dead. The cursed crew trapped in time, as well as endlessly at sea. The royal encounter I mentioned before included a hint at disaster befalling those who encounter it, while thirteen people in total saw the spectre the sailor who first reported it fell from the masts the next morning being smashed to pieces on the deck below. There are for sure a variety of interesting illusions and mirages out at sea. The Flying Dutchman seems to assert itself as having no natural explanation by being a terrifying paranormal encounter filled with death and confusion at night, as opposed to the occasional fun trick of the light during the day. Mirages don’t generally ask you to pass on messages to the dead on land, for one. SECTION BREAK – Don’t Lose Your Head We’ve got time for one last quick tale, as I thought this was a pretty fun one. This is a revenant of some description that haunts the paranormally overcharged Deer Island of Mississippi. You’ll see in a moment why I use “revenant” instead of “ghost”. So the story goes that back when pirates were active in the area a captain and his crew sailed to Deer Island with a ship full of ill-gotten gains. The captain gets his crew to bury the treasure, then asks for volunteers to help guard it. Now, for this section’s spoiling of pirate myths, I must tell you that burying treasure was very unlikely to happen. There are one or two historically verified cases of it, but generally what would happen is a pirate crew would take their treasure to a friendly port to blow it all on booze and debauchery. At the end of the bender, the hungover crew would need to sail forth once more in search of more plunder, in a vicious cycle of partying too hard and needing to pay for the next party after it. So what this diversion to bury treasure on Deer Island was, was a test of the crew. One poor inexperienced kid did not realise this, however, and eagerly volunteered – leading to one of the lieutenants assuming he wanted to steal the treasure and so decapitated the naïve recruit on the spot. From here, the pirates left with the treasure to do as pirates do, and corpse was left to rot and ruin until only the skeleton remained. A pretty angry skeleton by all accounts, as what followed next was tales of a headless skeleton roaming the island forever more! I’m not quite sure how the original story meshed with reports the restless remains, but there have been sightings over the years following from the poor young pirate’s tale. In the 19th Century two fishermen camped out on Deer Island, about to find out why it’s such a peaceful spot no one else uses. They were sat by a campfire at night when they began to hear rustling from behind them. Something disturbing the undergrowth. They ignore it, assuming it was just some wildlife and hoping it will go away on its own. The noise does eventually stop, but they get an unsettling feeling that this was not the same thing as their visitor having left them alone. Starting to be overcome with dread, the two turn to face where the noises had suspiciously fallen silent, and they see that a skull-less skeleton was stood midcreep from the woods towards their turned backs. There was a brief pause: the Skeleton had frozen, as had the stunned fishermen. With a mutual scream the two men got up and began fleeing back to their boat, with the raging revenant in hot pursuit. While the dead may no longer have to worry about tiring, the living have the advantage of adrenaline! The fisherman luckily put enough distance between themselves and their morbid menace that they were able to get back to their boat and cast off before it could reach them. The skeleton apparently could not swim. Either cursed to be stuck on the island, or else lacking in flotational meaty bits. I had to end on this story, skeletons ARE awesome after all. SECTION BREAK That’s all for this episode. You got me Summer 2023, I grudgingly acknowledged you. Now feel free to get out of the way for Spooky Season, the superior time of year. I hope you all enjoyed hijinks on the high seas, there’s got to be plenty more pirate folklore out there so expect a return some time. At the very least I need to cover Blackbeard’s ghost, and there are definitely some tales of cursed treasure to be had. Drop me a line if you have hot tips on any cool paranormal pirate stories. LukeLore is a Ghost Story Guys production.

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Goodbye for now.


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