The Providence Sea Beggars
The Saga of the Sea Beggar
We are the Sea Beggars.
But what, you might ask, is a Sea Beggar?
Well, the short answer is that a Sea Beggar is a Dutch Calvinist pirate. But a longer explanation is probably due, and is a whole lot more interesting as well.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Calvinists of the various provinces of the Netherlands joined to fight for their independence from their Spanish Catholic overlords. Spain had a particularly formidable navy at the time—the Spanish Armada. Despite the strength of the Spanish navy, intrepid Dutch mariners took to the seas and engaged in pirate activity against the Spanish fleet. They harried the Spanish, capturing a number of silver galleons (often celebrated in Dutch folks songs) and winning several important sea battles that contributed to the independence of the Dutch Republic (perhaps most famously, the liberation of the port city of Brill).
In Dutch, these valiant (and often violent) privateers were known as the Watergeuzen. (This is not a great college nickname—it’s too difficult to pronounce for those of us who don’t speak Dutch). In English, that term translates to “Sea Beggars.”
Many of Providence’s founders are Calvinists of Dutch extraction, as are many of our students, and so it seems appropriate that our nickname would reflect something of our Dutch Calvinist heritage. And like the Sea Beggars of history, Providence’s students are brave, willing to work against the odds for something they believe in. Not lost on us, either, is the wonderful theological connotation of our nickname. Martin Luther’s last recorded words were Wir sind bettler. Hoc est verum. “We are beggars; this is true.”
And so, for all of these reasons—and also because we like the idea of having a nickname that is our very own—we are the Sea Beggars.
One of the Sea Beggars fighting for Dutch independence against Spain was the naval officer Piet Hein (November 25, 1577 – June 18, 1629). This folk hero, along with Beggars such as William II de la Marck, is one of the inspirations behind the image of the Providence mascot. Hein was a sea captain’s son, and a life long sailor with a rocky career. When he was young, his ship was captured by the Spanish armada, and he served several years in a galley before being released. After several other adventures, he joined the Dutch West India Company as a vice-admiral, leading attacks on Portuguese and Spanish ports in South America and the Caribbean. His greatest success was capturing a Spanish treasure fleet full of gold and silver, though he readily admitted that due to the circumstances there was very little risk. He died as the de facto supreme commander of the Dutch naval forces after being struck by a cannonball during a tremendous sea battle.
The Dutch people memorialized Piet Hein in verse:
Piet Hein, Piet Hein,
Your name will always shine
In your little ships so neat.
You beat the silver fleet,
The mighty silver fleet from Spain.
On College Nicknames
Some might wonder about the rationale behind choosing a college nickname. Here are some of the principles that guided us in our decision.
The best college nicknames share two characteristics. First, they are linked to the institution’s history or heritage. Consider the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, certainly one of the better-known college sports nicknames. They are the Fighting Irish because the university historically drew many of its students (and athletes) from Irish Catholic communities. Or how about the North Carolina Tar Heels? Legend has it that North Carolinians are known as Tar Heels because of the tenacity demonstrated by troops from North Carolina during the Civil War.
In both these cases, the nickname has a special stickiness because it arises from the institution’s heritage. And both these cases illustrate well the second characteristic of the best college nicknames: they are unique. When you hear someone say “the Fighting Irish,” you know they are talking about Notre Dame. How many other colleges have that nickname? When you hear people say “the Tar Heels,” you know they are talking about North Carolina. The same goes for Cornhuskers, or Buckeyes (or Banana Slugs or Anteaters, for those of you who follow California college sports). When you hear someone say “the Tigers,” or “the Wildcats,” you know they are talking about … well, I think you get the point.
The best college sports nicknames are both tied to an institution’s heritage and unique.
Unique and perhaps even unusual nicknames are particularly appropriate to small institutions. Think about minor league baseball teams: the Carolina Mudcats, the Montgomery Biscuits, the Toledo Mud Hens, the Lansing Lugnuts. The unusual nicknames of these teams add to their charm and appeal. (And it has to be acknowledged that some major league baseball teams have nicknames that would sound pretty unusual were they not so well known–Dodgers, Red Sox, etc..) Likewise, some small colleges have distinctive athletic nicknames that help them stand out. Pomona College is the Sagehens. Whittier College is the Poets. Trinity Christian College is the Trolls. (For ESPN’s top ten list of the best college nicknames, see this article: Off to College: What Name’s Got Game?)
One of our favorites, Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, is the Blue Hose. Here is a nickname that meets all of the criteria of greatness. It is tied to the college’s history: Presbyterian was established by Presbyterians in the mill town of Clinton. Blue, the color of the Scottish flag, is associated with Presbyterianism, a distinctively Scottish brand of Protestant Christianity. Clinton, the mill town, used to excel in producing hosiery. And Presbyterian College’s early athletic teams often wore blue socks. Hence, the Presbyterian College Blue Hose (which, by the way, scores uniqueness points for having started out as “Stockings” but becoming “Hose” as opposed to “Sox”).
At Providence, we too have a nickname that bears all of the marks of greatness. It is tied to our heritage. It is unique. And hence it is particularly appropriate to us as a small college.
We are the Sea Beggars. This is true.