Pyrates and Emeralds

Family –

Seamen stand in ranks of generations behind me on both the paternal and maternal sides. My father’s maritime ancestors were all merchant mariners. But, growing up, nothing was said about my mother’s family, and the one time she slipped a reference to them, she rapidly put a cover on it and denied having ever told me that story. The story, said to me at about age five, was that an ancestor had hung for piracy. Kids of five don’t forget these things when they get raised on whole rafts of sea stories and pirate movies. But, my mother firmly stomped on any inquiry about her family, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I dared to ask about it again. In the intervening years, her attitude had only hardened: “That never happened, and you stop poking around!”


My mother’s preferred family mythology was that she was an heiress to rich emerald mines in Colombia. As soon as the lawyers sorted things out, we’d all be wealthy beyond belief. This bit of fabulism regularly got trotted out at holidays and family gatherings. 

My father, the romantic pragmatist, knew the whole actual history of his father’s heart condition, the loss of wealth during the depression, and his first jobs as a longshoreman, and then as a merchant mariner. My father either didn’t know, didn’t care, or more likely was cowed by my mother into accepting the blank slate offered regarding her family. He tolerated the popular mythology of the emerald mines.

She had been orphaned at eight and brought to this country by her brother/ stepfather ( another merchant mariner). He rapidly stepped out of her life, leaving her with a string of non-relatives. The experience of being a poor orphan boarding with a strict landlady had not been pleasant. That was not the narrative mother wanted to discuss – End of discussion, let’s talk about the emeralds!

History –

That was where my mother’s story stood up until about ten years ago. Ten years ago, I got nosy. You know, the internet. The internet did not have much on the little speck of rock in the Caribbean that she was from. Just enough. ” You stop that!” I persisted.

Eventually, I found that there were two origin myths on the island regarding her family. Both have bits of tantalizingly historical detail. In the first, I found the original male progenitor had been a mate on one of Henry Morgan’s ships. Morgan left to give Panama a thorough sorting out, but his mate either stayed or returned to it later. He left a long line of descendants. 

OK, Morgan was a privateer on a technicality, but still a pyrate

In the second story, the stem ancestor descended from a Napoleonic War Privateer named Berelski. He deserted from Napoleon’s efforts to control the Caribbean. Knowing that someone named Berelski would stand out, he took an English name. Berelski was a technically a privateer, probably a Pyrate.

Mother’s reaction to this? “You stop this, now.”

So, for the time being, I have stopped. All my shipmates and classmates from school now have ample opportunity to say: ” Yup, the Dread Pyrate Wesley.”

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