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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Books for Adults - Fiction

Cover Art: Pirates -- Masterwork of Adventure
Stevenson, Robert Louis, Rafael Sabatini, Emilio Salgari, Jeffrey Farnol, and Robert E. Howard
ROH Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1-987886-20-7, US $2.99 / CAN $4.18 / AUS $4.22
(Kindle e-book)


Part of the Masterworks of Adventure series, this volume brings together seven swashbuckling pirate stories. This anthology opens with brief biographies of the authors and tidbits about each book, as well as other recommended works by these writers.

Jim Hawkins is a young lad, whose parents own the Admiral Benbow Inn in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. An old seafaring captain comes to stay with them, and he warns Jim to beware a sailor with one leg. One day a pale man with two fingers missing on his left hand comes bearing a special message for the captain – the black spot. As events unfold, Jim discovers the captain is none other than Billy Bones, who served as first mate to the bloodthirsty Captain Flint. Among Bones’ possessions is a map showing the location of Flint’s buried treasure, which Jim acquires. Together with Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey, they sail aboard the Hispaniola to seek those riches. To Jim’s chagrin, he discovers some crewmembers are really pirates, and they will do whatever they must to acquire Flint’s treasure.

One dark and foggy night, two pirates come aboard a ship to deliver tragic news to her captain in The Black Corsair by Emilio Salgari. Already responsible for the deaths of two of the Black Corsair’s brothers, the Governor of Maracaibo has hanged a third. The Black Corsair vows to hunt down and slay not only his nemesis, but also all who bear his name. After a daring raid to recover his brother’s body, the Black Corsair and his men come upon a Spanish ship. His second in command, a young man named Henry Morgan (destined to become the greatest of the Buccaneers) leads the boarding party and finds a beautiful woman named Honorata Willerman, who captures the Black Corsair’s heart. But she harbors her own secret, which may lead to the Black Corsair’s demise as he sets out to exact his revenge on his arch-enemy.
At the start of Rafael Sabatini’s The Sea-Hawk, Sir Oliver Tressilian is a happy man with much hope for a wonderful future now that Rosamund Godolphin has agreed to be his wife. The one stumbling block is her brother Peter, who refuses to set aside the feud between his family and Oliver’s. No matter how much Peter antagonizes Oliver, he merely turns the other cheek. Not so his younger brother Lionel. While visiting an upscale brothel, Lionel and Peter quarrel, and later Lionel slays him in a duel. On learning of this, Oliver sets about to protect his brother, but he overlooks a prime clue – the trail of blood leading to their doorstep – and when the authorities come, it is Oliver who is accused of murder. He has proof that he did not, but as days past Lionel begins to fear that Oliver will divulge the truth. To protect himself, he has Oliver kidnapped and sold into slavery manning the oars of a galleon that is later captured by Barbary pirates. When Rosamund learns that Oliver has fled, she believes him guilty and it is Lionel to whom she turns for solace. When Oliver learns the truth of his betrayal, he seeks his revenge.

Jeffrey Farnol’s Black Bartlemy’s Treasure is the first of two tales about Martin Conisby, a man who falls victim to a family feud. Sold as a galley slave, he has neither liberty nor hope of living, but after five years of anguish, he escapes when an English ship attacks the galley. He returns to England with nothing but the clothes on his back and a deep-seated thirst for revenge against the man who destroyed Martin’s father and confiscated the Conisby property. But some humanity remains buried deep within him, for when he happens upon a young lady about to be ravished by three mariners, Martin rescues Lady Joan. Doing so is both a blessing and a curse, for she is the daughter of his enemy, Sir Richard Brandon. Getting his one true desire proves more challenging than Martin expects, for Sir Richard disappeared in the Caribbean two years ago. He has but one chance to seek out his enemy, but doing so means stowing aboard a ship – with the knowledge of Captain Adam Penfeather – that plans to recover a buried pirate treasure and rescue Lady Joan’s father. But someone aboard is determined to kill Martin, and when that fails, he makes it look as if Martin is a murderer. This man also incites the crew to mutiny. Fearing for both his new friend and Lady Joan, Penfeather sets the two adrift with plans to rendezvous with them at the island where the treasure is hidden once the mutineers are put down. But trouble follows Martin; the directions to the island are lost and a vicious storm shipwrecks them on a deserted beach.

Although three years of solitude have passed when Farnol’s second tale, Martin Conisby’s Vengeance, opens, Martin still dreams of Lady Joan and the life they might have shared. He wouldn’t mind some company, but not the infamous pirate who lands on the island. Captain Jo is actually a woman who became a pirate to kill her sworn enemy, the governor of Nombre de Dios. Her mercurial nature soon puts Martin at his wit’s ends, for one moment she loves him and the next she threatens to kill him. Martin wants no part of her or her plans, but she’s used to getting what and whom she wants, even if she must use trickery and deceit to accomplish the deed. When a wounded Spaniard washes ashore, Martin is the one to care for him. But then Captain Jo discovers the stranger’s identity and pirates arrive to rescue her. Since Martin continues to spurn her, she makes him her slave before she and her friends set sail for Nombre de Dios. Martin is eager to go, for he might finally have the chance to seek retribution against Sir Richard Brandon, who is a prisoner of the Inquisition there, but first he must save his new friend from the pirates.

Peter Blood, a peaceable surgeon who takes no part in the rebellion against the English king, is tending his geraniums when he is summoned to tend a wounded rebel. For aiding the enemy, he is deemed a traitor and convicted of treason. Rather than face execution, he and other true rebels are transported to Jamaica, where they become slaves on Colonel Bishop’s sugar plantation. Blood’s skill, however, saves him from that work, because he can soothe the governor’s gout. A Spanish raid interrupts his plans for escape, but ever resourceful, Blood and his friends turn the tide on this new enemy by rescuing the town and acquiring a fine ship on which they embark on a new life in which Peter becomes a legendary buccaneer in Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. A partnership with another equally infamous pirate turns to deception and death. Peter rescues a damsel in distress – Arabella, Colonel Bishop’s niece and the woman who purchased him at the slave mart. Once she thought she was falling in love with him, but now that Peter’s a pirate, she wants no part of him.

Robert E. Howard’s Black Vulmea’s Vengeance is the last and shortest tale in this collection. Black Terence Vulmea finds himself a prisoner of the English after his men are too drunk to defend their ship against the Royal Navy. Captain John Wentyard would prefer to hang him right now, but Vulmea spins a tale of an ancient jewel called the Fangs of Satan that is hidden in an abandoned jungle temple not far from where the English ship is moored. It is Vulmea’s one desperate chance to escape . . . if English greed is as strong as Vulmea suspects. Wentyard agrees to delay Vulmea’s hanging until they reach Jamaica if Vulmea leads them to the treasure. But trusting a pirate has dangers of its own and there’s no guarantee that either man will survive the arduous journey.

These seven works are classic tales that feature treasure beyond imagination, epic duels, old-fashioned romance, and heart-stopping adventure. All contain the basic elements of true swashbucklers: dishonor, vengeance, daring escapes, noble causes, dashing heroes, and dastardly villains. A few titles are well-known to readers, but others may only be familiar to die-hard swashbuckling fans. Pirates is not necessarily a volume to be read day after day until the last page (number 1,985) is turned, for these are seven full novels and each deserves to be savored for the rich pirate lore and profound wisdoms the authors wove into their tales. The works are presented as they were published, although these have “been meticulously edited to give you the best reading experience possible.” (9) ROH Press has included all the original maps and drawings in this edition.

Unlike many fans of pirate fiction, I did not become interested in pirates after reading Treasure Island as a young girl. In fact, I couldn’t get past the first few pages of the book I received one Christmas. Of course, that was many decades ago, and when I sat down to read and review this book, I discovered I truly enjoyed and liked this tale about Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. For me, Captain Blood was the book that first drew me into the world of pirates and I was delighted to find it included here.

I first encountered a snippet from Black Bartlemy’s Treasure in Lawrence Ellsworth’s The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, so it was wonderful to finally read the book in its entirety. Two cautionary notes about this tale: The language in the beginning of the story, especially during the period in which Martin meets a variety of characters, many of whom will play more important roles later on, takes some getting used to. Once readers become accustomed to the style, the story becomes easier to follow and more enjoyable. Secondly, Martin Conisby’s single-mindedness may become tiresome at times, but there is far more to this character than first appears and his self-sacrifice is what makes him a multi-dimensional character. In the sequel, Martin’s endurance of Captain Jo is so vibrantly told that the reader experiences his exasperation, his heartache, and his despair so much that we ride the same rollercoaster he does.

Nico Lorenzutti does a superb and seamless job translating Salgari’s The Black Corsair from the original Italian. He is the one who first introduced me to this swashbuckling writer, and I’ve enjoyed each tale I’ve read. There is a sequel to this tale, too, but unfortunately The Queen of the Caribbean is not included here.

My two favorite tales in this collection are The Sea-Hawk and Black Vulmea’s Vengeance. I first read the former while in college, but didn’t really remember it. This may stem from the film version starring Errol Flynn, which I didn’t care for, and about the only thing the two have in common is the galley slave part. Sabatini’s tale is far richer, more believable, and a better portrayal of the historical aspects of the tale. Having studied and written about the Barbary corsairs and renegadoes, I could easily imagine the scenes in Algeria and was captivated by the tale of treacherous betrayal, unusual friendships, and profound love. The depiction of the slave market is vividly portrayed. While the ending seems a bit abrupt, the poignancy of the final scene between brothers will affect even the strongest of readers.

Black Vulmea’s Vengeance is totally new to me and Howard’s writing barely allows you to catch your breath once the journey begins. Enemies make strange bedfellows indeed, but this short tale is one that gets your heart pounding and your eyes looking back over your shoulder to make certain you’re alone. Of all the tales it is the one that touched my heart the most.

Pirates is a wonderful collection that resurrects the traditions of a genre we rarely see today. Each journey will take you on a voyage you won’t soon forget.

Review Copyrighted ©2016 Cindy Vallar

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