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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: British Pirates and Society, 1680-1730
British Pirates and Society, 1680-1730
By Margarette Lincoln

Ashgate, 2014, ISBN 978-1-4724-2993-3, £70.00 / $124.95
Also available in e-book formats

Dr. Lincoln is Deputy Director and Director of Research and Collections at the National Maritime Museum in London. In her latest study of the early eighteenth century, she examines how contemporaries of pirates viewed them. The period resources from which she draws this wealth of information encompass literature, official papers, ballads, newspapers, periodicals, and manuscripts. She does stress that “this is not first and foremost an attempt to distinguish fact from fiction, but rather an investigation of how the phenomenon of piracy illuminates aspects of contemporary culture.” (3) The one omission from piracy of this period concerns the Barbary corsairs, because their piracy differed from western piracy and was often state-sanctioned on religious grounds.

The first chapter serves as the introduction, focusing on the pirates’ lifestyles, which both appealed and appalled various segments of society. She clearly delineates the parameters of the study, as well as explaining the difference between privateering and piracy and why some people chose the latter rather than adhering to more legal pursuits. An interesting point that she makes here is that just like today, people didn’t agree on the legal definition of piracy, which made it difficult to define who was a pirate and who was not. This chapter also includes how pirates were seen and/or depicted in print and art during this period, which eventually led to the “myth of the swashbuckling pirate”. (11)

“Punishing Miscreants: Pirates and the Metropolis” examines the impact trials of pirates had on society and how such events were portrayed in chapbooks, broadsides, ballads, newspapers, and court proceedings. This is a particularly absorbing account of the judicial system, especially the prisons and life within them.

In the third chapter, Lincoln looks at pirates and the law. One case pertains to Captain Thomas Green and two of his crew, who were hanged in Scotland for piracy, robbery, and murder, even though they were innocent of the charges.

Chapter 4, “A Growing Evil,” discusses the changing attitudes of merchants (and others involved in commerce) toward piracy, as well as the dangers seamen faced at sea. The steps the British government and others, especially the East India Company, took to protect trade are also covered.

The following chapter focuses on how people of the middle and upper classes viewed pirates, because those who wrote and read about pirates came from these sectors of society. An interesting point that Lincoln makes in this chapter concerns the difference in dress between male pirates (not lower class) and females (lower class dress).

For pirates who preyed on shipping in the Indian Ocean and for Caribbean pirates who needed a second venue when things became too hot for them in that region, Madagascar was a favorite haunt. “A Nest of Vermin,” chapter six, examines how people of the 1700s viewed and portrayed this exotic island.

While most contemporary narratives make short shrift or don’t even mention pirates’ wives, children, parents, and friends, these people did exist, and this is the focus of the seventh chapter. Lincoln also looks at how pirates were used to debate gender perspectives about marriage and their portrayal in romance literature of this period. While she is usually careful in how she phrases information that may or may not be historically accurate, this isn’t true when she discusses Anne Bonny after her stay of execution because of her pregnancy. Here, Lincoln states, “Anne’s father secured her release, and after eight more children by a respectable husband, she died in South Carolina, aged 84.” (188) This theory is one possible explanation of what became of Anne, but it has never been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

In the final chapter, “Stand and Deliver,” the author explores the heritage of these pirates and how their depredations differ from those of modern-day piracy.

Black-and-white illustrations and a center set of color plates accompany the narrative. Footnotes are found in all chapters, while an extensive bibliography and detailed index are included at the end of the book.

Rather than focusing on a particular aspect of the society, Lincoln describes perspectives from a variety of classes, those who associated with the pirates in some fashion and others that wished them eradicated. Her choice of covering the most prolific period in pirate history deftly demonstrates how popular opinions and attitudes concerning these rogues changed with the passing of time. This compelling and significant study also allows readers to view contemporary perspectives from many arenas, rather than simply focusing on the legal or commercial aspects. Highly recommended.

Read the introduction

Review Copyrighted ©2015 Cindy Vallar
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