Gail Selinger is an author and pirate historian, or “Piratologist”, born and raised in Rockaway Beach. Rockaway Rises spoke with her about our beloved neighborhood, and some of histories’ infamous cutthroats. You should also check out her website which has more about pirates, as well as info about the many books that she has authored. http://www.gailselinger.com/
1. What inspired you to become a pirate historian? I like to say that my older sister Carol Sue is to blame. I watched movies with her and she watched pirate adventure movies. When I was around nine years old she mentioned that one of the pirate characters was a real person. That fascinated me. Living two blocks from the Atlantic I would watch ships and boats go by and wonder why men became pirates. When I got older I began researching the subject for myself. I went up the Eastern seaboard, to England, and the Caribbean. I have always been a writer from a very young age. I am fortunate that my curiosity that turned into my hobby helped my vocation.
2. You grew up in the Rockaways. Do you attribute your interest in pirates to living near the water? Absolutely. Between ships and boats on the ocean and on the bay. Also my parents use to take us on the Staten Island Ferry. Carol Sue and I would pretend it was our pirate ship. We would take turns being the captain.
3. Do you have any special childhood memories of Rockaway Beach? Not just childhood memories. I left Rockaway when I was 24 years old because I had a stalker. Not because I wanted to leave.
My grandparents, Izzie and Gussie Shipper lived on the big corner house on 132nd street and Newport. They were very involved in the community, as were my parents, Laurence and Esther Selinger. One of my favorite memories is going to the beach every Wednesday night at 8:00 pm from Labor Day to Memorial Day and watching the fireworks from Rockaway Playland. I went to Far Rockaway High School and am still in touch with old classmates as well as family friends who still live in Rockaway. I “go home” every chance I can get. We still get The Wave newspaper delivered to us every week. My sister and I are devastated at the damage from Hurricane Sandy.
4. Did pirates ever roam the waters near Rockaway? Or elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard? Yes. The eastern seaboard cities were not just places to plunder. Many pirates had established unwritten contracts with Governors to provide supplies and services when England levied huge taxes and blockades on the American colonies. For example, the pirate Thomas Tew and the Governor of New York. Pirates sailed from New Foundland to Florida and down to South America.
5. In your opinion, who was the most infamous pirate in history? Not who most people would say. I’d choose Francis L’Ollonais who entered piracy in the 1660’s. While his captives were still alive, he’d cut out their beating hearts, and make them eat it until their dying breath. He also tortured women and children to find hidden treasure. Your average person would say Blackbeard. He was no angel either but…
6. Has there ever been a female pirate? Yes quite a few dating as far back as 230 B.C.E. with Queen Teuta. To name a few there was Grace O’Malley in the time of Elizabeth I, Ann Bonny and Mary Read in the 1720’s. There was Cheng I Sao a female pirate in Asian waters.
7. Pirates have become so popular lately in fiction, both in movies, books and tv shows. Do these modern interpretations ever get it right? They get bits correct. There is always a grain of historical truth in every Pirates of the Caribbean movie put out by Disney. Same for many other movies, books and TV shows. The movie Cutthroat Island the weaponry, clothes, and ships are quite accurate. Even some of the “documentaries” on the History Channel and Discovery Channel have inaccurate information. Drives those of us who read well-researched books on pirates or have read first hand accounts a bit crazy. The new shows coming to TV, not that sure about accuracy. I’ll have to see what they get correct. For the promo “Black Sails” I believe one pirate says “he is now King.” Well, pirate ship crews, believe it or not, were really the first true democracy among men. The captains (except a few like Blackbeard) were not the real authority aboard a pirate ship. Men followed a captain who led them to treasure. If he didn’t, the crew would vote him off as captain. Now with someone like Blackbeard, if a crewman didn’t like where they were sailing, the crewman would go onto another ship. A pirate would never dare call himself “a King” It’s really involved with politics etc. of the time.
8. What was life like for the average pirate? With regards to food and drink, feast or famine. Pirates couldn’t dock in just any port for supplies. Water went bad in wooden barrels quickly, so liquor was actually the safer bet. In those days, life on land or at sea was brutal so many chose to take their chances as pirates to try for wealth and slip away. In 1720 legitimate ships sighted over 1,000 pirate ships, yet no pirate ship was captured by authorities. Life was like average sailors, though a pirate crew could choose not to care for their ship like in the navy and than have to seize another ship to use. Long days at sea trying to find a ship they could capture could take weeks or months. They could be lucky or not.
9. Is the fashion in any way accurate? Yes, though the fancy clothes were generally saved for “going to town” like we dress up to go out on a Saturday night. The captured fancy clothes were not made for the ability to be active in them, so fighting or sailing in them wasn’t practical. Also most pirates went barefooted or owned very thin leather shoes. Climbing ratlines isn’t easy in boots…take my word for it I tried. Pirates mostly wore whatever clothes they owned when they turned to piracy. If they captured a ship with trunks of clothes, that could be part of a pirates “share of treasure”.
10. Believe it or not, the questions my readers most overwhelmingly wanted me to ask was “Where’s the buried treasure?” It’s been all dug up except for perhaps one. Generally pirates didn’t bury their treasure, they spent it in towns. Crews wouldn’t let their captain take all the treasure to bury, so it had to be an individual’s private stash. Treasure maps are from the vivid imagination of Robert Lewis Stevenson. No one would write down where they buried their gold. There are two known instances of buried treasure. We know of Rock Brasilliano in the late 1660’s who bragged about his treasure when drunk. The Spanish captured him at the town of Campeche. The Inquisition tortured him until he told them where he hid his gold. It was on the Isle of Pines off Cuba. The second was Captain William Kidd, who buried his on Gardiner Island near Long Island before he sailed into New York proper. His mistake was he told John Gardiner were he buried the treasure. Supposedly there is treasure (we don’t know if it is pirate treasure but many like to say it is Blackbeard’s. No evidence that is so) on Oak Island in Nova Scotia. However, the pit has proven impossible to conquer and treasure hunters have been trying for over 200 years to get to it. That is an interesting story and worth reading about.
The Golden Age of Piracy is considered 1690 to 1730. That is when the largest number of pirates sailed the world’s oceans. Piracy never ended. It just became concentrated into smaller areas around the world. Most American’s wouldn’t know about modern piracy if the Somalian pirates hadn’t attacked an American cargo ship in 2009. Piracy began in history the moment man first lashed wood together and sailed on the water. I believe it will always be around while there is poverty, lawlessness, and the desire for wealth.
Many thanks to Gail Selinger!