Monday, July 31, 2017

Why Are They Called the "Horse" Latitudes? Storytelling and horse legends at their best

Horses below decks on board a sailing ship; they were valuable cargo but sometimes only half the horses made it to their destination. What happened to some horses out in the middle of the ocean is the stuff of legends.  Illustration by John Charlton, as seen in The Graphic in November 1878.

Whenever horsepeople get together, the stories begin. And some of us are very good at telling them. Farriers are among the best storytellers on the planet, and I’ve traveled enough to bear witness that their ability to hold people spellbound--and deliver a great punchline--crosses all latitudes and longitudes--even the "horse latitudes".

In the age of sail, the horse latitudes were treacherous seas, and not for the typical reason of storms and waves. In two latitudinal zones, one about 30 degrees North and one about 30 degrees South, wind can be scarce and, even today, a sailing ship can find itself floating in still water, waiting for a breeze that may be weeks away. There's one big difference between now and then: today's boats have engines to keep a boat moving when the wind dies.

Sitting on a calm sea gives plenty of time for storytelling, and there's one tale that has been told for hundreds of years whenever the sea goes calm and glassy. It still gives people a chill, and may bring tears. Invest a few minutes and have a listen to this lost classic tale:

Back in the 1980s, actor Geoffrey Lewis added a new layer to the unforgettable legends surrounding going to sea with horses during the age of sail.

• • • • •

Horses no longer travel by ship, for the most part, but that doesn't mean they've been forgotten out on the water, either. Perhaps some superstitious memory of the horse latitudes legend inspires so many sailboat owners to make sure that a horseshoe is bolted to the mast, and some shipbuilders still include a time-honored horseshoe nailing ritual in the laying of the keel.

The story behind these unpredictable geographic zones is a pretty gruesome one, but back in the 1970s, a famous storytelling “band” turned the legend into performance art with some embellishment of the story from well-known character actor Geoffrey Lewis. He spun the gruesome legend of the horse latitudes into one of the world’s most memorable horse stories.

Just as the name stuck hundreds of years ago, so did the new-age, enhanced story behind the name, thanks to Lewis's convincing delivery. Admittedly, there’s not much to see on this video, and the quality isn’t great; the audio track is the key.

I hope this story--and the storyteller--inspire you to perfect and record your own favorite stories, and that you will share them with me some night, on the deck of a boat or around a campfire or down at the end of the bar.

Did it really happen? You can believe it or not, as you wish.

Legends of the horse latitudes were revived in the 1960s when a band called The Doors recorded a gruesome spoken-word ode to lost horses at sea called "Horse Latitudes", written by their leader, Jim Morrison. It would be 25 years until Geoffrey Lewis and Celestial Navigations broached the tragic subject again.

Now, 25 years later, it might be time to look again at the legends surrounding the horse latitudes.

Spoiler alert, if you haven't watched the video: Geoffrey Lewis's story builds on centuries of speculation and legends about how the horse latitudes earned their name. On the factual side, naval lore tells us that some ships were becalmed for so long that horses being transported from Europe to the New World either died because their fodder ran out, or they were jettisoned by the crew because fresh water was at a premium and a horse requires so much fresh water every day.

Old records of Portuguese ships transporting horses to Brazil do document how many horses were lost during the journey, but suggest that the horses died during the journey rather than being sacrificed for the greater good of the ship's progress. In the annals of maritime voyages, the losses were attributed to poor planning to accommodate horses below decks or "pilot error" in navigating what came to be called the horse latitudes.

Other sources say that shrinking water supplies had nothing to do with it; horses were dispensed with because the sailors sought to lighten the ship so it would float higher in the water where lighter air might push it along on its course.

Whatever the reason, the zone may not have earned its name from the act of dispensing with horses, but rather from the effect on approaching mariners who saw a sea ahead of them dotted with the bodies of disposed horses. In the age of pre-GPS navigation or even reliable charts, it was an ominous sign.

Another interesting aspect of shipping horses to the Americas and other places in colonial times is that there weren't any docks or cranes or even ramps to offload them when they finally arrived. The horses were often pushed overboard and made to swim to shore. Think about a horse having spent weeks in a stall without any exercise suddenly being forced to swim for its life.

Given the high value of horses, and the colonists' intense desire to establish horse breeding in the colonies, it's hard to believe they wouldn't have planned in advance what to do when and if the ship hit a calm zone in the horse latitudes. It remains a mystery, the stuff of legends, and--if nothing else- a really good story, when it's your turn to tell one some night when the power's off, the campfire is burning low, or you still have that last 200 miles to drive.

--Fran Jurga

Note: Geoffrey Lewis refers to the "doldrums" rather than the horse latitudes. Technically, the doldrums are an area about 5 degrees of latitude north or south of the Equator, where a ship may be trapped without wind. That zone's official name is the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Many people refer to the horse latitudes when they mean the doldrums, and vice versa. Also, "doldrums" is a generic word used for a calm area or time, typically found in either the horse latitudes or the doldrums themselves.

Learn more:

NOAA explanation of the horse latitudes

For good source material in English about early Spanish and Portuguese shipping of horses:

Johnson, J. (1943). The Introduction of the Horse into the Western Hemisphere. The Hispanic American Historical Review, 23(4), 587-610. doi:10.2307/2507859. Alternate free to read version at this link.

To view the script of the story, for those wishing to retell the story or develop it for performance, here's author RavenStorm's transcript of "The Horses".

And to see more videos of Geoffrey Lewis telling great stories:
Celestial Navigations tribute Facebook page
or search YouTube.

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