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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: Pirates
Pirates: A New History, From Vikings to Somali Raiders
By Peter Lehr

Yale University, 2019, ISBN 978-0-300-18074-9, US $30.00 / UK £20.00


In 1998, pirates boarded the MV Cheung Son. They blindfolded the twenty-three crew members, injured or killed them, and tossed them overboard. This wasn’t an isolated event, but few people knew of these incidents of piracy until November 2005 when Somali pirates tried to take a cruise ship carrying more than 300 passengers and crew. Since then, incidents of piracy have risen and more and more people outside the maritime world have taken notice. With this “sudden” return of pirates comes a commensurate number of studies on piracy and pirate history, so why do we need still another one? For the most part, previous titles focus on a particular time period and/or a specific region. Such studies leave a series of unanswered questions, which Lehr attempts to answer:
  • Is what motivates certain individuals to become pirates today the same as in the past?
  • How do the activities of modern pirates compare to those of earlier epochs?
  • Are there any lessons that could be learned from historical attempts to curb piracy which could help us end it today?
  • If naval power is greater today than ever before, why have we not yet been able to put an end to piracy once and for all?
  • Why does piracy persist, seemingly against all odds? (7)
He separates the book into three periods of history and within each of these he examines three maritime regions. The latter is comprised of the Mediterranean, Northern seas, and Eastern seas. The former consists of 700-1500, 1500-1914, and 1914-today. Why these particular divisions? The first is a time when the geographical regions are separate and distinct and each area is isolated from the others. The second time period witnesses the rise of Western nations and the spread of their sphere of influence over the powerhouses of the previous period (the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and Qing China). By the start of the next time frame, Europe controls 84% of land in the world, and from 1914 onward the interconnections between nations become global. Throughout these chronological divisions, Lehr examines piratical commonalities and differences between the diverse pirate cultures.

The narrative is both enlightening and enthralling. The further one reads, the more one discovers that there are distinct similarities between the regions throughout time, even though the pirates of one region had no contact with pirates of another. Regardless of the time period, two factors motivate people to pursue piracy: greed or grievances. As Lehr shows, other components enhance or detract from these since nothing is as simple or black-and-white as it first seems. Religion and politics also play roles, for without corruption there would be no safe havens for pirates. Not only does he explore various aspects of becoming a pirate and being a pirate, he also discusses attempts to thwart or end piracy.

Regional maps introduce each of the time periods. Illustrations of vessels are scattered through the book, which also contains color and black-and-white plates in the center. As the narrative progresses, Lehr includes page references to events discussed earlier in greater detail. A glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index are also included.

Most readers will be familiar with some of the pirates mentioned – Stede Bonnet, Bartholomew Roberts, Zheng Yi Sao, and John Ward, for example – while others are less well known, such as Don Pero Niño, Martin Wintergerst, and Iranun and Malay pirates. Louis Le Golif is cited several times, although no mention is made that there is some question as to whether or not he actually existed. According to Lehr, Bartholomew Roberts died in a shipwreck; his actual demise occurred when he was fatally wounded in battle with the Royal Navy.

If there is a weakness in this book, it comes in the third part of the book. Although there are a few examples of piracy in the early years of the twentieth century, the main focus is on Somali and Nigerian piracy. This leaves a gap in the historical comparison.

Regardless of whether readers are well-versed in pirate history or are novices when it comes to pirates, Pirates is a thought-provoking and insightful examination of piracy throughout history and around the world. Everyone who ventures to delve into this analysis will learn something new and will come away with a much better understanding about who the pirates were/are, why they turned to piracy, and why they are so difficult to completely eradicate.
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Review Copyrighted ©2019 Cindy Vallar

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