Under the Black Ensign Glossary
Stories from the Golden Age reflect the words and expressions used in the 1930s and 1940s, adding unique flavor and authenticity to the tales. While a character’s speech may often reflect regional origins, it also can convey attitudes common in the day. So that readers can better grasp such cultural and historical terms, uncommon words or expressions of the era, the following glossary has been provided.
abeam: at right angles to the keel of a ship.
account, signing on the: signing the pirate’s code and declaring membership with a group of pirates.
Anegada Passage: channel connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Caribbean Sea. It is forty miles wide and separates the British Virgin Islands from the Caribbean Islands to the south.
astern: in a position behind a specified vessel.
avast: listen; pay attention.
bagnios: slave prisons of Barbary, a region in North Africa extending from west of Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean.
Barbary: Barbary Coast; the term used by Europeans, from the sixteenth until the nineteenth century, to refer to the coastal regions in North Africa that are now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The name is derived from the Berber people of North Africa. In the West, the name commonly refers to the pirates and slave traders based there.
bark: a sailing ship with three to five masts.
belaying pin: a large wooden or metal pin that fits into a hole in a rail on a ship or boat, and to which a rope can be fastened.
blackbirder: a person or ship engaged in the slave trade, especially in the Pacific.
Black Ensign: pirates’ flag; the flag traditionally flown by a pirate ship, depicting a white skull and crossbones against a black background. Also known as the Jolly Roger.
blackguard: a man who behaves in a dishonorable or contemptible way.
bondmen: in debt bondage, those who are held in servitude by another, without wages or pay, in order to pay off a debt.
bone in her teeth: said of a ship speeding along throwing up spray or foam under the bow.
boucan: smoked beef.
bow chasers: a pair of long guns mounted forward in the bow of a sailing warship to fire directly ahead; used when chasing an enemy to shoot away her sails and rigging.
bowsprit: a spar projecting from the upper end of the bow of a sailing vessel, for holding and supporting a sail.
broadside: all the guns that can be fired from one side of a warship or their simultaneous fire in naval warfare.
buccaneer: from the French word boucanier. Boucaniers originally were French hunters in the Caribbean who were poaching cattle and pigs and would smoke the meat on wooden frames called boucans so that it could be saved for a later time. Conflict with Spanish forces drove them off the islands and forced them into piracy against the Spanish. The term buccaneer was adapted by English settlers, meaning rebel pirates sailing in the Caribbean ports and seas.
bucko: young fellow; chap; young companion.
bulwark: a solid wall enclosing the perimeter of a weather or main deck for the protection of persons or objects on deck.
bumboats: boats used in peddling provisions and small wares among vessels lying in port or offshore.
bunting: flags, especially a vessel’s flags collectively.
cable length: a maritime unit of length measuring 720 feet (220 meters) in the US and 608 feet (185 meters) in England.
Castile and León: the territory of the ancient kingdom of León and the northern half of the old kingdom of Castile. Known formally as the Autonomous Community of Castile and León, it is one of the seventeen autonomous communities of Spain, and the largest. Castile and León is divided into nine provinces.
castle: forecastle; the upper deck of a sailing ship, forward of the foremast.
Catherine of Braganza: (1638–1705) born in Portugal, Catherine was the daughter of John IV, the Duke of Braganza (later the King of Portugal). Braganza was the name of a royal dynasty that ruled Portugal from 1640–1910. Catherine was seen as useful in contracting an alliance between Portugal and England, and so the marriage between her and Charles II was arranged. She came to England in 1662.
cat-o’-nine: cat-o’-nine-tails; a whip, usually having nine knotted lines or cords fastened to a handle, used for flogging.
Charlotte Amalie: a Danish colony established in 1672 and named for the Danish queen. It is the largest city in what is now the Virgin Islands.
crosstrees: a pair of horizontal rods attached to a sailing ship’s mast to spread the rigging, especially at the head of a topmast.
cutlasses: short, heavy, slightly curved swords with a single cutting edge, formerly used by sailors.
Davy Jones’ locker: the ocean’s bottom, especially when regarded as the grave of all who perish at sea.
ensign: a naval flag used to indicate nationality.
Execution Dock: located on the Thames River in London, it was a gallows used by the Admiralty (the authority in the UK responsible for the command of the Royal Navy) for over 400 years to hang pirates who had been convicted by its courts and sentenced to die.
filibusteros: (Spanish) filibusters; this term derived from the Spanish filibustero for “pirate,” “buccaneer” or “freebooter,” individuals who attack foreign lands or interests for financial gain without authority from their own government. It first applied to persons raiding Spanish colonies and ships in the West Indies.
flintlock musket: a type of gun fired by a spark from a flint (rock used with steel to produce an igniting spark). A musket is a light gun with a long barrel, fired from the shoulder.
florins: gold or silver coins, especially Dutch coins.
forecastle: the upper deck of a sailing ship, forward of the foremast.
foretop: a platform around the top of a ship’s foremast, the mast nearest the front or bow of a vessel with two or more masts.
gaff: a pole rising aft from a mast to support the top of a sail.
galleys: low, flat ships with one or more sails and up to three banks of oars, chiefly used for warfare or piracy and often manned by slaves or criminals.
gentleman-in-waiting: someone who attends a lord or king in some personal matters, or provides personal assistance to lesser members of the family. The gentleman-in-waiting is a subordinate position, however potentially an influential one.
give way: begin to row.
grape or grapeshot: a cluster of small cast-iron balls formerly used as a charge for a cannon.
gun captain: a petty officer in command of a gun crew on a ship.
ha’penny: halfpenny; the British halfpenny coin, no longer used. It took 480 halfpennies to make up a pound sterling.
HMS: His Majesty’s Ship.
Isthmus: Isthmus of Panama; a narrow strip of land that lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, linking North and South America.
Jacob’s ladder: a hanging ladder having ropes or chains supporting wooden or metal rungs or steps.
jibe: to change the course of a ship so that the sails shift from one side of a vessel to the other; said of the sail when the vessel is steered off the wind until the sail fills on the opposite side.
jolly boat: a light boat carried at the stern of a sailing vessel.
keel: a lengthwise structure along the base of a ship, and in some vessels extended downwards as a ridge to increase stability.
King’s Letter Boys: midshipmen; a sea officer corps formed by King Charles II of England, as a process of entry and training of new officers. Under this system, young gentlemen of about eleven or twelve years of age were sent to sea with a letter of introduction from the king to learn the ways of the Navy and to grow up in it as a preparation for command. They were known as the “King’s Letter Boys” and it gave encouragement to those willing to apply themselves to the learning of navigation and fitting themselves for the service of the sea. This was the channel by which most of the first generation of gentlemen officers first went to sea.
lady-in-waiting: a lady who is in attendance upon a queen or princess.
larboard: port side; the left-hand side of a vessel, facing forward.
lighters: large open flat-bottomed barges, used in loading and unloading ships offshore or in transporting goods for short distances in shallow waters.
longboat: the longest boat carried by a sailing ship.
luffed: having brought the head of a sailing ship closer to or directly into the wind, with sails shaking.
maintop: a platform at the head of the lower mainmast.
man-o’-war: any armed ship of a national navy, usually carrying between 20 and 120 guns.
marlinespike: a tool made from wood or metal, and used in rope work for tasks such as untwisting rope for splicing or untying knots that tighten up under tension. It is basically a polished cone tapered to a rounded point, usually six to twelve inches long, although sometimes it is longer.
Martinico: Martinique; island in the Caribbean.
matchlock dag: a large pistol with a gunlock (a mechanism to facilitate firing), making it possible to have both hands free to keep a firm grip on the weapon and both eyes on the target.
midshipman: a student naval officer educated principally at sea.
mizzenmast: the third mast from forward in a vessel having three or more masts.
mizzentop: top on the mizzenmast. The top is a semicircular platform that rests upon the crosstrees at the head of a lower mast. It serves to spread the topmast shrouds, so as to form a greater angle to the mast and support it better.
Moors: members of a northwest African Muslim people of mixed descent.
morning colors: 8:00 AM when the ensign is hoisted aboard a ship.
Nevis: one of a group of islands extending from Puerto Rico to Martinique in the Caribbean.
¡No me mate! ¡El buque es el suyo!: (Spanish) Don’t kill me! The ship is yours!
Nubians: natives or inhabitants of an area of southern Egypt and northern Sudan corresponding to the ancient region of Nubia.
’Od’s wounds: by God’s wounds; used as an exclamation.
painter: a rope, usually at the bow, for fastening a boat to a ship, stake, etc.
pannikin: a small pan or metal cup.
“pieces of seven”: cannons or other types of mounted guns with a bore diameter of seven inches.
pipe down for mess: on sailing ships, a pipe (whistlelike device) was used to communicate orders via different arrangements of notes. “Pipe down for mess” was the signal used to announce meals.
pirogues: canoes made by hollowing out tree trunks; dugouts.
points: a point is 11.25 degrees on a compass. Sailing within two points of a breeze refers to sailing within 22.50 degrees of the direction of the wind.
powder monkeys: boys employed on warships to carry gunpowder from the magazine to the guns.
press gang: a body of persons under the command of an officer, formerly employed to impress others for service, especially in the navy or army.
press ganging: forcing (a person) into military or naval service.
put in: to enter a port or harbor, especially for shelter, repairs or provisions.
quarters, sound: call or summon the ship’s crew to their assigned stations or posts.
¿Quién es?: (Spanish) Who is that?
rag: a sail or any piece of canvas.
rapier: a small sword, especially of the eighteenth century, having a narrow blade and used for thrusting.
reef: to reduce the area of a sail by gathering part of it in.
Saint George, cross of: red cross on a white field used on the flag of Great Britain.
scuppers: openings in the side of a ship at deck level that allow water to run off.
scurvy: a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, characterized by bleeding gums and the opening of previously healed wounds.
sea artist: a ship’s navigator.
Sennar: a Muslim kingdom that extended over most of the eastern part of the present Sudan, a country in northeast Africa.
serpentines: cannons of various bore sizes, used from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century.
ship-rigged: describes a sailing ship with three, four or five masts and square sails set at right angles to the hull.
shrouds: supporting ropes or wires that extend down from the top of a mast.
signal ratchet: a device used to restrict motion in one direction. Ratchets work by having a form of gearwheel with the teeth set off at an angle, and a protrusion that rests against the gearwheel. When the gearwheel is rotated in one direction, the protrusion raises and clicks back in place, keeping it from making a backward motion. Continuous motion in the one direction makes a clicking sound. A signal ratchet is used to raise a signal flag.
sirrah: a term of address used to inferiors or children to express impatience, contempt, etc.
slaver: a slave ship; a ship for transporting slaves from their native homes to places of bondage.
spar: a thick, strong pole, especially one used as a mast to hold the sails on a ship.
sprit: a small pole running diagonally from the foot of a mast up to the top corner of a fore-and-aft sail, to support and stretch it.
spritsails: sails that are extended by being mounted on a sprit.
stand on and off: to keep at a safe distance; to sail alternately toward and away from shore so as to keep a point in sight.
stay: any of various strong ropes or wires for steadying masts.
stepped: placed in its step (the block in which the heel of the mast is fixed).
sterncastle: raised deck at the stern serving as the ship’s command center during most actions. The pilot guides the ship from a large wheel there, while the captain looks over and directs the crew working above deck.
stern chaser: a cannon mounted at or near the stern of a sailing ship, facing aft.
struck colors: “striking the colors”; the universally recognized indication of surrender. The colors, a national flag or a battle ensign, are hauled down as a token of submission.
sweeps: long, heavy oars.
tacking: changing course by turning a boat’s head into and through the wind; making a series of such changes of course while sailing.
taffrail: a rail above the stern of a ship.
thwarts: seats across a boat, especially those used by rowers.
Toledo: Toledo, Spain; a city renowned for making swords of finely tempered steel.
touchholes: the vents in the breeches of early firearms or cannons through which the charge was ignited.
trade wind: a nearly constant easterly wind that dominates most of the tropics and subtropics throughout the world, blowing mainly from the northeast in the Northern Hemisphere, and from the southeast in the Southern Hemisphere.
truck: a piece of wood fixed at the top of a mast, usually having holes through which ropes can be passed to raise or lower sails.
Tunisia: a country situated on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa.
’tween decks: between decks; spaces between two continuous decks in the hull of a vessel.
under weigh: in motion; underway.
Valhalla: (Norse mythology) the great hall where the souls of heroes killed in battle spend eternity.
waist: the central part of a ship.
weigh anchor: take up the anchor when ready to sail.
whelp: a youth, especially an impudent or despised one.
yardarm: either end of a long, slender beam or pole that supports a square sail.