“There was a single blue line of crayon drawn across every wall in the house. ‘What does it mean’, I asked. ‘A pirate needs the sight of the sea’, he said.” (Brian Andreas, Story People)
“When I was about five, I think, I desperately wanted to be a pirate and have the hat and all’”. (Keira Knightly)
“The songs of our ancestors are also the songs of our children”. (Philip Carr-Gomm, Arch Druid of Sussex)
Over the years of presenting systemically oriented ,family constellation work, participants often ask how this work could be of value when they have either no or very little information about their family system. In response I often offer a linear option of contacting organizations that exist in order to document and explore genealogical information and many of their skilled librarians can be very helpful, even with minimal information. Another, non-linear option, well known to shamans and indigenous medicine people, lies in a willingness to contact the Greater Informational Field, which is also interactive. The challenge then is, with an appropriate level of humility, to set an intention, formulate respectful questions, and remain open-minded and receptive and then wait.
In my experience, this timeless Field has many ways of communicating important and timely information, including dreams, coincidences, synchronicity, a freak accident, or perhaps a mysterious and persistent symptom. Information from this non-linear and timeless source often arrives in non-linear sequences. There are also times when we may have some information, but something of which are unaware, may need to make itself known; and The Field can find ways to communicate this information, as well.
While I have been researching my family history for decades now, hidden information has been revealed in several interesting ways…sometimes like a treasure hunt…one clue at a time. One summer when my daughter was about eight she received an invitation to a birthday party designed as a pirate’s treasure map. This pirate theme party was going to be only for girls and guests were requested to attend in costume. While I thought that this was an unusual theme for a little girl’s party, my daughter was enthusiastic and we set about putting together her costume…which soon developed into an unexpected obsession. She was quite suddenly very clear about exactly how this costume should come together, hat, boots, cummerbund sash; together with just the right authentic looking plastic sword, and we may have found some sort of rubber dagger, just in case. And this process went on and on until I realized that something else was happening…past life maybe or perhaps some unknown systemic entanglement.
After she was safely asleep, I telephoned my Cornish mother who had always told us about our virtuous, hardworking Cornish ancestors who had lived in and around the village of St. Just for centuries. These kindly, hardworking souls were miners and devotedly religious churchgoers and some were even clergy. Being that they were solid Methodists this also meant that there was no smoking, drinking, card playing or dancing either. And so I asked her once again about our Cornish relations, and again came the familiar stories about their virtues…and then prompted by this pirate party invite, I said something like… “Yes, but you didn’t tell us about the pirates”. Silence. And then “Oh well yes, and the smugglers; and our women were in on it, as well! People were poor, you understand, and those looted ships carried silk and lace, as well as tea, brandy and tobacco”.
Now our family was becoming much more interesting. I shared this information with my daughter, who had no idea about these colorful people in her past; she enjoyed her party and the treasure hunt, which had something to do with a hidden stash of chocolate and I didn’t give much more thought to this incident. In my mind, at that time, this information came through my only daughter, rather than one of my sons, due to the women’s involvement with the silks and lace, since some of these relations were milliners. The Field, however, had another surprise waiting for me in Germany.
Several years later, I was in Munich offering a seminar on second generation war trauma on the 50th anniversary of the Allied Invasion in Normandy. Interestingly, six of us present had fathers in the later Italian Battle of Anzio which was quite a synchronicity in itself. And yet, there was more, given that one of our participants was British and in knowing my last name, had brought along a Cornish newspaper describing the anniversary celebrations in St. Just. Afterward, as I took some time to read through this edition, I was startled by a lengthy article about lady pirates. Cornish lady pirates! My daughter was excited with this news and eager to tell her friends and I knew that I now had some serious research to do. As it turns out, female pirates have existed throughout history are not all that rare and there even exists a Pirate Queens Coloring Book.
Given that there is ample literature on this subject I was able to narrow my attention to lady pirates in Cornwall, specifically in the St. Just, Penwith District , to see what I could find out about them in the context of Cornish culture; and what that may have to do with any hidden dynamics within my family system. I have been to the Duchy of Cornwall, located near Land’s End; (the first, last and most westerly area in the U.K. mainland), and St. Just in particular, many times since my first visit at age 21. After college, I travelled there to visit my Great Aunt, Lucy Angwin, who was our last family member to reside in the ancient stone cottage on Victoria Row.
Ours was a gentle time of long, quiet walks on narrow paths, along nearby and familiar cliffs overlooking the sea; followed by a tea with freshly baked scones lathered with thick, yellowish Cornish cream, topped with freshly gathered wild blackberries, found along our way. Evenings were passed by a warm coal fire, while pouring over a number of very old family photographs. One foggy morning, we travelled by way of a rickety old rural bus toward Penzance, to a bookstore where she gifted me with several classic novels involving Cornish history, Daphne du Maurier novels and so forth….and then we enjoyed more tea and scones in a nearby café. Sadly, I was much too young to fully appreciate her generosity, especially now that I am more than a decade older than my “elderly” relation was then.
While my mother was born in the USA, she grew up along Victoria Row and went to school there in St. Just. Early on, I realized that my American Mother was “homesick” with longing for someplace else. Later on, I learned that this was even more the case with her mother, who crossed the Atlantic many times, and finally, at the end, my Grandfather took her ashes “home”. During my last visit “home” I had an opportunity to spend some time with Mother’s childhood friends, then in their late eighties and early nineties. “There are Cornish”, Mother used to say, “who will tell you that they have never been to England”. As strange as this may seem, the Cornish consider themselves no more English than the Irish, Welsh or Scots and they maintain an ongoing tribal antipathy toward Londoners and other outsiders, tax-collectors and the EU.
It could be that a deeply-rooted Cornish sense of non-English separateness, has some geographic basis in the fact that their rocky peninsula is surrounded on three sides by the sea, with the fourth boundaried by the River Tamar that divides this West Country duchy, (nearly sea to sea), from England.
Cornwall’s mostly agreeable climate is made possible by a proximity to the Gulf Stream which provides ample moisture, by way of frequent “mizzles” (mists+ drizzle), and mild temperatures that usually warm at least two months ahead of the rest of Britain. The Cornish language, closely related to Welsh, and ancient Breton dialects, is enjoying a revival and is reflected throughout the landscape, in place names and many words, similar to Welsh, with an abundance of barely pronounceable consonants and a scarcity of vowels.
The monochrome simplicity of the Cornish flag; white cross on a black field , looks to me, at least, like a smoothed out abstraction of that grinning “Jolly Roger” skull and cross bones flag flown aboard pirate vessels. This familiar image brings a sly smile of recognition now that I have come to understand the historical importance, and perhaps necessity for piracy and smuggling for the survival needs of an impoverished population of Celtic tribal folk. Cornwall remains the poorest county in Britain, still populated by those who have long felt themselves to be over-taxed and otherwise oppressed by the corrupt minions of the British Empire.
While the Cornish economy depended upon fishing, hard scrabble farming and mining, these resources were undependable for many reasons, including sudden sea and weather changes. When ore veins ran out, as they often did, local tin and copper mines abruptly closed, leaving workers with few other resources. Some immigrated, as did my grandfather, others starved or turned to “alternative economies”, which included poaching, smuggling, piracy and other survival-related disciplines. These often desperate situations have been recently dramatized in a marvelous remake of the Poldark mini series, based on the epic Cornish novels of Winston Graham.
The dire circumstances of the Cornish economy were such that, piracy and smuggling operations became integral to their insular culture to the degree that even clergy were involved. Contraband could be hidden in church crypts, bell towers, pulpits and tombs. (cornishlinks.co.uk). Almost all coastal towns had some connection to smuggling, and still this was dangerous business, and penalties were harsh. Since these contraband operations were sometimes carried out quite openly, town folk took to a studied practice of “watching the wall”. Kipling wrote about this in his Smuggler’s Song:
“Them that ask no questions, isn’t told a lie
Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by”.
Therefore, if smugglers were arrested, villagers could truthfully testify that they had seen nothing, for hearing was not considered evidence. As result, there developed a culture within which “everyone knows and no one says”, and information is necessarily withheld from any and all outsiders.
Smugglers also contrived and promoted ghost-stories and other scary tall tales in order to keep any curious away from places important to their clandestine activities. This was not difficult given the territory’s otherworldly landscape and the long-standing traditions having to do with the mysterious and paranormal. This region abounds with moorlands of heather and gorse and is said to be riddled with dangerous peat bogs and “piskies”, small mischievous sprites, who are given to confuse the unwary wanderer, who soon becomes “lost”. Ugly troll-like spriggans are believed to inhabit old ruins, guarding buried treasure (or contraband) and also acting as fairy guards. While Browney’s are generally considered to be helpful household spirits; if not appeased they could turn spiteful and things begin to disappear. Miners believed in noisy “Knockers”, heard from the eerie depths of underground tunnels, that warn of impending danger, and these underground spirits also needed to be appeased, or else.
Cornwall’s ancient landscape also abounds with tall standing stones and circles, and holy wells sacred since pagan times. These small, rural springs are associated with the ability to grant wishes and heal. Visitors attach small strips of cloth or “clouthies” to branches of nearby trees to represent their plea. Coastal regions that travel-agents extoll as the Cornish Riviera, are as treacherous as they are beautiful, given the often ferocious winds, monstrous waves, changeable cross-currents and tides; as well as sharp cliffs and jagged rocks hidden by rolling sheets of sea fog. For the impoverished locals, this perilous configuration offered opportunity as well as danger. As my Mother explained, desperation was conducive to plunder and shipwrecks along the Cornish coast were not uncommon. Whatever washed up along these treacherous shores was considered to be common property.
According to British law, it was illegal to plunder any wrecked ship as long as there were any survivors aboard. This technicality has led to stories of unfortunate survivors having drowned just as rescue boats arrived from a nearby shore. We have even darker tales of “wreckers”, made famous in Daphne Du Maurier’s West Country gothic novel, Jamaica Inn. These clandestine gangs travelled by night and used false light-signals in order to deliberately lure ships onto hidden rocks and then help themselves to the spoils. Nowadays, these stories of professional wreckers are considered to be mostly fiction.
In view of this recently discovered information about a cultural interdependence of pirates, smugglers and complicit clergy and town folk; it seems that the career of Cornwall’s most notorious lady pirates involved all three of these elements. In times of war and other hardship, occupations previously held by men were taken over, by necessity, by women. These were also times when women had to dress as men in order to seek employment. However, these were apparently neither the situations nor motivation underlying the stories of Cornwall’s most notable, 16th century female pirates; both members of the Killigrew family.
Elizabeth Trewinnard, (1530–1570) also known as Lady Mary Killigrew, was an unconventional aristocrat, daughter of a Suffolk pirate, whose husband was a former pirate, made Vice Admiral by Elizabeth I and tasked with suppressing piracy. It seems that her ladyship enjoyed sailing adventures; and when her husband was away at sea, Lady Mary engaged in piracy, using her staff at Arwenack Manor, located in an area which is now Falmouth. Lady Mary Killigrew is rumored to have served as inspiration for the dominant character in the novel: The Grove of Eagles by Winston Graham, there described as a woman who “knew all she wanted and wanted all she knew”. She was reportedly arrested for piracy, receiving stolen goods, and sentenced to death until pardoned by the Queen who may have realized that this Killigrew family could well serve as her privateers in times of war. (Anne Wallace Sharp, Daring Pirate Women, 2002)
Lady Mary Killigrew’s story is often confused or at least conflated with that of Lady Elizabeth Killigrew (1570s-1582) whose piracy related operations were based at Pendennis Castle in Falmouth Harbor. Lady Elizabeth is also said to have been arrested and then pardoned for similar reasons as Lady Mary. Given the Cornish penchant for tall tales and secrecy, it is difficult to clearly sort out exactly who was involved and what actually went on. While I have no information as to any direct connection to those highly adventurous Killigrew’s, Cornwall was and is sparsely populated, and my ancestors were there in the region from the 12th century onward.
In modern times, Mother’s family still maintains a very keen sense of when they feel that it is maybe sometimes best to “ look to the wall”, and the tradition of “everyone knows what is not being said” continues. At a recent family gathering with four generations of Cornish cousins, for example, our dinner conversation was ostensibly about the quality of the local seafood. Being Cornish, we were of course communicating about something else entirely, in this instance, the fact that family members having babies “out of wedlock” is nothing new in our system and therefore should not be a topic of undue concern. In the absence of dissent, we were able to move along to dessert without incident.
This long tradition of secrecy and distrust of outsiders, apparently rooted in the Cornish pirate and smuggling culture, persisted well into my Mother’s generation. One of our family’s strictly enforced rules was that no one was ever to discuss anything relating to the family outside of the house, ever. Mother is the youngest of six and her parent’s families and their parent’s families were even larger. Our family events involved many relatives, several generations and a multitude of cousins, second cousins and cousins “once or twice removed”, and just maybe a few “wood pile relations”, as well. While their status was never really defined, it was somehow understood that these people belonged with us…”somehow”.
Growing up, I didn’t think to find it strange, that while we often had visitors, never was there anyone who was not a relative; and rarely an overnight guest. While my Mother and her husband socialized at church and civic events, all holidays and vacation times were spent only with our relations at their various guest cottages along the New Jersey Shore. As a teenager I was allowed to have friends over to our house, but never to stay overnight. While my step-father remained distant, Mother was always gracious and still visibly “uncomfortable” until my friends left. Absolutely no one was welcome to arrive without due notice and even relatives knew not to ever, ever, “just drop by”.
As a retired marriage and family therapist, I have since learned that insular, secretive families such as our ancient Celtic clan, that have “secrets” dating far back into historical times, are now viewed with suspicion. While I do not disagree, as to the import of family secrets, not all are necessarily destructive nor pathological, and many have served as a vital resource in overall survival strategies. Moreover, much of such apparently insular and seemingly secretive behaviors have ancestral roots, deserving of respect.
This Cornish insularity was balanced by my father’s family, who are French, and very social, ”artsy”, fond of travel, interesting company, and loving of intrigue and good gossip. While mother’s clan was patriarchal, Father’s was and is a matriarchal system and I feel that I have deeply benefited from the contrast. I was reminded of my Cornish genes recently as one of my translators explained why my English writing style is so difficult to translate in any kind of direct literal sense. “Your true meaning”, she offered, “is often implied, somewhere in between the lines”, and this is likely true. And yes, there is still this restlessness and longing for the Old World; the UK and Cornwall, especially.
And so, at this point, it seems that this ancestral treasure hunt for clues has revealed nothing all that dramatic as directly relates to either my daughter’s or my life, so far, and still we now have a deeper understanding of certain aspects of our complex heritage. If in fact, there is something else of importance that we really need to know, The Field will likely come up with another clue; and meanwhile, I will just have to wait.