The horrible truth about pirates

Scott Milbrandt

Photo By Larry Dalton

First of all, Living History is not a costume shop. Rather, it bills itself as a historical re-enactment supply house and museum, and it sells handmade clothing, weaponry and other gear that is painstakingly researched for historical accuracy. Most of Living History’s customers are organizations dedicated to historical re-enactments, from the big Renaissance fairs to national groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism—which holds tournaments for would-be knights to duke it out in full battle armor.

Living History’s craftsmen hand-make many of their items—whether it’s a shirt of medieval chain mail, or a smart black holster and gun belt from the Old West period—right there in the shop (7518 Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights).

We talked with the crew of Living History: owners Thea and Christopher Lee (center), blacksmith Dirken DeSilva (far right; he makes the chain mail) and leather smith Scott Milbrandt (far left). For space reasons, we’ve only included a portion of our conversation here with Capt. Scott. Mostly, we wanted to talk about pirates. But if you stop by, you’ll get an earful about your own favorite period of history. Some of what you hear might surprise you. Call (916) 725-8119 for hours and location.

So, why did you guys open this shop?

I ran for 14 years as a merchant at [Renaissance] fairs and the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) events. Chris [Lee] and I got together and figured there’s nobody in Northern California who does historical re-enactments, at least as far as a store goes. So, here we do everything from feast gear to jewelry to weaponry. Well, actually, we don’t sell weapons; we sell theatrical props.

Right now, the populace has to either order through a magazine—but they don’t want to buy through the catalog because they want to touch and feel, and even chew on it. That’s why a lot of people go to Ren. fairs. Unfortunately, they are paying a lot more for it that way.

So, we carry authentic things that would have been used during the time period. We try to be as historically correct as possible and to produce quality items at affordable prices.

Are pirates pretty misunderstood?

Everyone believes that pirates should sound like [Treasure Island actor] Robert Newton. If we walk into a restaurant in our garb, there’s always at least one guy going, “Aargh, matey.” We look at them and say [affecting a classy British accent], “The only pirates who sound like that have throat injuries.”

And our school textbooks are corrupt, because they only give one side of it. With piracy, you had freedom; you could depart from your crew whenever you wanted. Go ashore and open a tavern. Hollywood portrays pirates as, you know, “rape, pillage and plunder.” I’m sorry; those were Norsemen. What they were doing was called Viking. Yeah, you had your pirates out there that did the rape, pillage, plunder and burn. But Hollywood has given us only one view of piracy.

I’ve always wondered about the flags.

Everybody had a different flag. Jack Rackham was the first to fly the skull and crossed sabers. Originally, pirates’ flags were either black or red. Most ships carried one of each. A black flag meant “Hey, we’re here. We’re going to take you. Give up peacefully, and you might survive.” The red flag meant “No quarter given.” They just killed everybody.

Capt. Sprague was the first one to fly the Jolly Roger. Now, the term Jolly Roger came from the French. A lot of the flags were dipped in pigs’ blood. And the French saw it and said jolie rouge, meaning pretty red. Eventually, it was turned into Jolly Roger.

So, why did pirates go into the business?

They were mercenaries. Also, in the British navy, most of their captains were tyrants. They had strict discipline. Floggings were a normal occurrence. If you stole a piece of bread, you’d get 40 lashes with a cat-o'-nine-tails that had the steel barbs in it. If you survived that, the surgeon would then rub raw salt in your wounds to cauterize it and clean them. If your captain wasn’t too tyrannical, you got about four hours off to recuperate. A lot of people who were pressed into service didn’t like that. And they found that through piracy, there weren’t floggings. In fact, piracy was one of the first democracies on the face of the Earth. The captains were voted into office.

Really! Is that true?

Voted by a majority. If they saw sails on the horizon, they would have a vote: “Are we going to go get it, or not?” If the majority voted to go get it, you went and got it. Everybody had a voice. Captains could be deposed, too. They could be voted out of office if they showed cowardice or if they got to be too full of themselves.

Surely, some pirates really were really bad guys.

Now, Blackbeard was brutal. The normal pirate captain, you could walk in and cuss out the captain, drink his booze and walk out. But you didn’t do that to people like Blackbeard.