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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: Black Flags, Blue
Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates
By Eric Jay Dolin
Liveright, 2018, ISBN 978-1-63149-210-5, US $29.95 / CAN $39.95


For five decades encompassing the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, pirates played an integral role in colonial history and life. Initially, they were welcomed, but as the years passed, what was once profitable coexistence became a dogged determination to eradicate these sea marauders.

Black Flags, Blue Waters presents the “celebrities” of this “golden age” of piracy with a narrowly focused lens. Most comparable volumes look at this historical period in a broad manner that encompasses the whole breadth of who, where, what, why, when, and how. Dolin examines one facet – those pirates with intimate connections to the American colonies – to showcase how world events and shifting attitudes led to them being seen as the “enemies of all mankind.” In doing so, he demonstrates how these criminals also became more legendary with the passage of time. This approach also permits him to showcase rarely mentioned pirates, as well as names familiar to many people today.

The narrative unfolds in chronological order. The first chapter, Small Beginnings, sets the stage, providing necessary background information to orient readers. The next two chapters – Welcomed with Open Arms and “Where the Money Was as Plenty as Stones and Sands” – explores the financial connection between pirates and the colonists, as well as the danger this interaction posed to England, and the transitions that shifted piracy from the Caribbean and Atlantic seaboard to the Indian Ocean and Madagascar and back again. Crackdown, the fourth chapter, concerns the mysterious Henry Avery. While he has no tangible connection to America, his capture and plundering of a single ship made the pirates wealthy and severely impacted how governments, the media, and people viewed pirates.

Like intermission at a theater, chapters five and six provide key information readers need to know to fully understand this historical time period. War’s Reprieve discusses the War of the Spanish Succession, when pirates all but disappeared from the world stage. In the war’s aftermath came the greatest upsurge in sea marauders that history has ever witnessed. It also gave rise to a different class of pirates than those who came before. Interlude, or a Pirate Classification covers the reasons for this and investigates who these people were and how they operated.

The subsequent chapters – Treasure and the Tempest, The Gentleman Pirate and Blackbeard, and Fading Away – introduce pirates, such as Samuel Bellamy, Stede Bonnet, Edward Thatch, and Edward Low – whose personalities and exploits commanded the attention of the public and the authorities alike during their lifetimes. Also discussed are the pirate hunters and the laws and punishments enacted to end the marauding.

Dolin concludes his narrative with his epilogue, “Yo-ho-ho, and a Bottle of Rum!” Here he explores the public’s fascination, both then and now, with pirates, including the discoveries of actual pirate shipwrecks.

Maps and illustrations pepper the pages throughout Black Flags, Blue Waters. The majority appear in black and white, but a vibrant collection of color plates is also present. (One curious note concerning one caption is the identification of Low’s Jolly Roger. The contemporary accounts I’ve read describe his flag as a red skeleton on a black background, rather than a white skeleton with an hourglass and three drops of blood.) Unfamiliar words and brief historical tidbits are noted at the bottom of the pages where they occur, while source citations and longer explanations can be found in the end notes. Dolin also provides readers with a select bibliography and an index.

The predominant personages readers meet are pirates, men such William Kidd, Henry Morgan, Dixie Bull, Thomas Tew, Francis Drake, John Quelch, and John Rose Archer. (Technically, Drake falls outside the time parameters of this history, but he did raid the American coast. Morgan, however, is a questionable inclusion. He may have been the greatest of the buccaneers, but his raids always centered in the Caribbean and Spanish Main.) But history and people never occur within a void. There are always others involved, and Dolan introduces these too. Among those who aided and abetted the pirates are Adam Baldridge and Governor Benjamin Fletcher. Victims who suffered at the hands of pirates include Philip Ashton and John Fillmore. Then there are those who helped to bring about their demise, such as Governor Alexander Spotswood, Lieutenant Robert Maynard, and Captain Peter Solgard.

Entertaining and compelling, Black Flags, Blue Waters is a swift-flowing, all-inclusive account of the history and evolution of piracy from 1680 through 1730. Dolin transports readers back in time so they better understand the time and places where intimidation, pillaging, cruelty, political intrigue, collusion, and punishment eventually led to the downfall of these “enemies of all mankind.” A worthy and must-read addition to any reputable pirate collection.
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Review Copyrighted ©2018 Cindy Vallar

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