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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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Cover Art: Pirates - Truth and Tales
Pirates: Truth and Tales
By Helen Hollick
Amberley, 2017, ISBN 978-1-4456-5215-3, £20 / $29.95 (US edition available 1 May)
e-book ISBN 978-1-4456-5216-0, £15.60 / $20.02

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One might ask why we need another book that focuses on the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy – you know the one that takes place mostly in the Caribbean between 1713 and 1730 – but Hollick’s examination is far more than simply about those swashbuckling scoundrels. She sets the stage in her foreword, summarizing several key points:
a. real pirates versus their fictional counterparts;
b. society’s changing attitudes toward them, as well as its fascination with them;
c. definitions for all the various terms that denote pirates;
d. piracy through the ages; and
e. reality vs romanticism.
To emphasize these points her first chapter discusses “What We Think We Know about Pirates,” while the second focuses on “What We Ought to Know” and includes the caveat “(Skip This Chapter If You Don’t Want To Be Disillusioned).”

Within the 328 pages, she introduces us to a wide array of pirates, including some who rarely show up in other history books. Aside from the usual suspects (in no particular order) – Henry Jennings, Charles Vane, Samuel Bellamy, William Dampier, Bartholomew Roberts, Blackbeard, Jack Rackham, and William Kidd to name only a few – we also meet Daniel Montbars, Jan Baert, and Ignatius Pell (only a sampling). In addition, you’ll find a handful of governors, including Thomas Modyford, Alexander Spotswood, and Woodes Rogers. There are chapters on the 1715 wreck of the Spanish treasure fleet, medicine, ships, weaponry, clothing, and safe havens, not to mention interesting tidbits like the pirate plunder that funded a college.

Don’t fear though! Women get a fair shake, too. In addition to Anne Bonny and Mary Read, you’ll learn about Jeanne de Clisson, Elise Eskilsdotter, Ladies Mary and Elizabeth Killigrew, Jacquotte Delahaye, Anne Dieu-le-Veut, Jeanne Baret, Rachel Wall, and Grace O’Malley. What you might not expect are the other women who went to sea, such as Jeanne Baret, Hannah Snell, and Mary Lacy. Or the fact that a number of sea-songs concern females who donned male attire, joined the Royal Navy, and then were unmasked.

Nor is piracy the only topic explored within this book, although these are all related in some way. Since many pirates began life either as naval personnel or merchant marines, and because they rarely left behind detailed notes on the mundane details of their daily lives, Hollick discusses the tobacco and slave trades, indenture, fidelity, tattooing, shipboard life and navigation, and superstitions.

But wait! If you think that’s all, there’s still more. After all, the subtitle of this book is “Truth and Tales.” Not only does Hollick examine fictional pirates in print and film, she talks about writing from her own perspective as the author of the Sea Witch adventures, which star Captain Jesamiah Acorne, and she treats us to excerpts from some of his piratical adventures, as well as from Celia Reese’s Pirates! and James L. Nelson’s The Only Life That Mattered. Among the pirates of fiction you’ll find Captains Hook and Sparrow, Long John Silver, and Black Sails. As for Pirates of the Caribbean, she also shares the impact this series of movies has had on people’s lives. While she shares what books and movies get right and wrong, she also makes a great observation:
The limitless realm of the imagination when telling stories or writing fiction gives us leave to plunder reality as blatantly as those rascal scallywags plundered treasure. (29)
In addition to all this information, the book also includes a timeline that begins in 1492 with Columbus’s “discovery” of the Caribbean and Americas, and ends with the death of Governor Spotswood in 1740. There are a Glossary of Terms – more varied than often seen in nautical books – and Nautical Measurements, which come before the bibliography. There is no index, but scattered throughout the book are color photographs with interesting captions.

Another item that Hollick addresses pertains to an often-asked question: What about a pirate named so-and-so? To reinforce the fact that the majority of pirates are simply unknown or merely names in a document, she lists the crews of Stede Bonnet, Blackbeard, Edward Lowe, George Lowther, and Charles Vane. Most simply provide the person’s name and the trial’s outcome – all that is known about them. Only a few include additional information.

The book consists of fifty-three chapters, each two to thirteen pages long with the majority falling somewhere in between. Her explanation of the War of the Spanish Succession is concise and easy to understand, one of the best I’ve encountered. Much of the information on sea shanties and tattooing, which predominantly covers the time period after the Golden Age, pertains to sailors in general. The same is true about prisons and punishments, but all four subjects are enlightening. On occasion it’s difficult to distinguish what’s more myth than fact – good examples being Blackbeard’s many wives and pirate flags – since there are no footnotes or endnotes and myths are one topic she doesn’t cover.

The statement that the skill of smuggling led to the Revolutionary War and American Independence is an oversimplification. Gory details are explicit, but the book is geared toward adults and mature readers, just like her Jesamiah Acorne stories. There are enough misspelled words – not including the differences in spelling between British and American English – and missing words that readers will notice. But there is far more to recommend this book than these minor problems.

There are also two chapters that deserve special mention. The first is highly helpful for those who wish to mimic the way pirates spoke on Talk Like a Pirate Day. Hollick lives in the West Country, the region where many seamen and pirates hailed from in the past, so she offers her expertise so you can learn some Devonish and speak it with a West Country accent.

At least for me, the most intriguing chapter concerns the real identity of Captain Charles Johnson, the mysterious author who wrote A General History of the Pyrates. She talks about the two current likely candidates – Nathaniel Mist and Daniel Defoe – and provides plausible reasons why neither choice is convincing. She puts forth her own contender– and no, I cannot even be tortured into sharing who that person is – which makes perfect sense, even if there’s no hard evidence to support this possibility. Even the reason for using the pseudonym of Charles Johnson works.

Don’t be fooled. This pirate book is unlike any other one. It resembles a scavenger hunt, and you’re never quite certain where the trail will lead next. Yet Pirates is entertaining and enlightening, with a good mix of facts and fiction. At times tongue-in-cheek, Hollick’s narrative holds your interest and keeps the pages turning. The inclusion of details outside the narrower scope of piracy provides a global perspective, rather than simply viewing the Golden Age marauders in isolation. Two additional strengths are the inclusion of lesser-known facts and general information that can’t be found in other piratical volumes. The questions she poses make you think and question what you’ve read in other books on piracy.

But this book may not be for everyone. Those who seek serious pirate history will probably want to look elsewhere. Pirates is geared toward readers seeking general information spiced with an entertaining cornucopia of fact and fiction that makes the book a tremendous resource for a pirate trivia game.

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Review Copyrighted ©2017 Cindy Vallar

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