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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

          Art: Pirates: Fact & Fiction
Pirates: Fact & Fiction
By David Cordingly & John Falconer
Royal Maritime Museum Greenwich, 2021, ISBN 978190636770, UK £20.00 / US $30.00

“Pirate” is a word that conjures up romantic images of sea robbers, yet our imaginings are far different from the real pirates who have prowled the seas during the past 500 years. Even some of the activities we associate with these marauders are merely fictional devices used to tantalize and intrigue. Although piracy has been around from time immemorial, this historical overview begins in the 1400s and goes through modern times. It also separates reality from fantasy.

The introduction defines who and what piracy is, as well as showing that one country’s pirates might be another’s privateers. The journey begins with early pirates of the Spanish Main, such as Jean Florin and his capture of three treasure ships laden with spoils taken by Hernan Cortes in his conquest of the Aztecs. The authors define “Spanish Main,” describe the different ships, and explain Spain’s flota system. Among the marauders of this period are Francis Drake, François le Clerk, Christopher Myngs, Henry Morgan, Alexandre Exquemelin, Montbars of Languedoc, and William Dampier. Political changes, tactics, collaborators, and pirate havens are also discussed.

The next stop is the Barbary Coast and the Mediterranean, where raiding between Muslim and Christian pirates spanned four centuries. Aside from comparing the differences between these two factions, the authors also talk about slavery and how corsairing in North Africa changed with the influx of European renegades. Some of the men found here are the Barbarossa brothers, Henry Mainwaring, John Ward, Simon Danziger, and Murad Rais.

As trade expanded and colonial empires spread, the East Indies drew not only commercial ventures but also European pirates to the Indian Ocean, who used Madagascar as their base of operations. The third chapter looks at indigenous pirates, including the so-called Angrian pirates, as well as Adam Baldridge, Thomas Tew, Henry Avery, and William Kidd.

The greatest influx of pirates came with the cessation of hostilities during the War of the Spanish Succession. Piracy returned to the Caribbean and New Providence became the go-to haven for people like Benjamin Hornigold, Samuel Bellamy, Charles Vane, Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Mary Read, and Anne Bonny. The Golden Age ebbed once Woodes Rogers became the governor of the Bahamas and began to suppress the pirates.

From there, the authors take readers east to Asian waters. Initially sea robberies were conducted by indigenous people, like Ching-Chi-Ling and his son Koxinga, Ching Yih and his wife, and Kwo Po Tai, as well as Balaninis, Ilanuns, Bugis, and Dayaks. Into this mix came Europeans, some who were pirates and some who became captives, such as Thomas Cavendish, John Turner, and Richard Glasspoole. Others, like James Brooke, strove to curb piracy. This chapter also looks at the uptick in piracy during the 1980s and 1990s, and the problems encountered in trying to define sea marauding in this region.

The sixth chapter steps away from historical pirates to examine fictional ones and how their portrayals have changed over the years. Pirate tropes are discussed, as is the introduction of piracy into children’s books. Among the writers found here are Miguel de Cervantes, Alexandre Exquemelin, Captain Johnson, Lord Byron, and Daniel Defoe. Hollywood’s depictions from The Black Pirate to the Pirates of the Caribbean series are also covered.

The final chapter examines modern piracy. It compares and contrasts pirates of today and their tactics with those of the past. How nations combat piracy and the various hot spots are also discussed.

The book concludes with A Pirate’s Who’s Who, a list of other books to read that is divided into general and subject specific volumes, and an index. The narrative is enhanced throughout with beautiful artwork from each period, much of it in color.

Originally published as a companion to a 1992 exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, this new edition has been revised and expanded. The material is better interwoven for a smoother flow, rather than being interrupted with boxed highlights or scattered throughout as it was in the original edition. Period quotes and historical background orient the readers, giving them a sound framework in which to understand why piracy developed in specific places at specific times. The authors, both of whom worked on the original exhibition, have written an excellent overview of piracy through the years, and the changes made make this new volume even better than the first.

For any reader seeking an excellent introduction to pirates and their history, Pirates: Fact & Fiction is an awesome starting point. The illustrations are superb and do a wonderful job tantalizing us with artifacts and stirring our imaginations. Even if you own the original edition, you will want to add this new one to your collection.

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Review Copyrighted ©2021 Cindy Vallar

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