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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 ~ History: Piracy

The Pirates' Code                    Why We Love Pirates

Cover Art: The Pirates' Code
The Pirates’ Code: Laws and Life Aboard Ship
by Rebecca Simon
Reaktion, 2023, ISBN 978-1-78914-711-7, US $22.50 / UK £15.99

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Many people may think of pirates as being somewhat chaotic and in favor of anarchy. The opposite is true, as Dr. Simon adeptly demonstrates in her latest book, The Pirates’ Code. Each crew of pirates devised their own set of rules under which they would sail, and these articles of agreement dictated what would happen to anyone who failed to adhere to them. Such codes also indicated how much each pirate received from plunder and how much compensation injured pirates were entitled to. The pirates and their codes under discussion here sailed during the most prolific period of piracy, 1650 to 1730. The earliest mention of such an agreement comes from Alexandre Exquemelin, a buccaneer and the author of The Buccaneers of America. Four other articles of agreement have come down to us. The first, which appeared in a colonial newspaper and an account of thirty-six men tried for piracy, belonged to pirates who sailed with the infamous Edward Low. The other three codes (published in Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates) were from the crews of Bartholomew Roberts, George Lowther, and John Phillips.

After introducing readers to the Golden Age of Piracy and articles of agreement, Dr. Simon divides the rules into individual chapters in which she explores the purpose of each and how it impacts a pirate’s life. The first focuses on work and wages on a pirate ship, providing some comparisons to life in the merchant marine and navy. The second examines punishments; these pertain to both those the pirates suffer when in violation of the rules and what they inflict on captives. Chapter three concerns health and safety, while the fourth explores intimate relationships among pirates (male and/or female). Weaponry, fighting tactics, and safety are covered in chapter five. The subjects of food, drink, and vices are discussed in the sixth and seventh chapters. Entertainment and culture are explored in the final one. She concludes her study of the articles and pirate life with a look at how the pirates bring about their own downfall by the end of the era. Black-and-white illustrations are scattered throughout the book, which also has a center section of color pictures. There are a select list of pirates that includes tidbits about each and a glossary. References, a bibliography, and an index round out the volume.

There are many books that focus on pirates and their lives at sea, but Dr. Simon brings a fresh perspective to this topic by examining them from the lens of their articles of agreement. She provides snippets from contemporary documents and eyewitnesses, be they pirates or victims, to showcase how aspects of the rules impacted what pirates did and how they lived. Specific pirates, some well-known and others who are not, are showcased to validate what is discussed under each rule.  Throughout the book she emphasizes that these codes served specific purposes: to safeguard their environment, to minimize conflict among themselves, to maintain loyalty within each crew, and to provide protection from the hazards of working at sea. In other words, the goals of these articles were to gain wealth and stay alive.

The Pirates’ Code is informative, refreshing, and remarkable. It shines a light on a much-discussed topic while also bringing forth new material not found in previous books. Regardless of your level of knowledge of pirate lore, this volume is a treasure for any collection.

Review Copyright ©2023 Cindy Vallar

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Cover Art: Why
                        We Love Pirates
Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever
By Rebecca Simon
Mango, 2020, ISBN 978-1-64250-337-1, US $18.95

Have you ever read a book that holds your attention from beginning to end, but from time to time a statement strikes you as odd or wrong or leaves you wanting more clarification? Think about this while I introduce this recent addition to pirate lore.

Buried treasure. Eye patches. Peg legs. Walking the plank. These are but a few of the tropes we associate with pirates. Particularly those of the golden age of piracy. For the most part, these piratical associations are fictional and stem from a late 19th-century book – Treasure Island. So who were the real sea bandits and what did people think of them when they were most prevalent? How do they differ from their pop culture image? Is there one pirate, above all the rest, who most influenced those who came after him?

Dr. Simon believes Captain William Kidd “is responsible for pirates’ eternal fame in popular culture.” (20) He was ruthless, especially toward his own men, going so far as to kill one of them for defying him. He was a snappy dresser. He considered himself an honest man who got a bum rap. His actions, the worldwide manhunt he instigated, and the plethora of publications and rumors of buried treasure that he inspired serve as the intertwining thread of Why We Love Pirates. Simon’s goals are to investigate “piracy through the lens of Captain Kidd’s pirate life . . . discover exactly who pirates were and why people chose this profession . . . uncover the true story of Captain Kidd, and of how and why the British government sought to exterminate pirates at all costs . . . unbury how exploding print industry influenced public opinion about pirates and how cultural and social norms of the era made us love pirates so much. And . . . how their deaths gave them permanent infamy.” (21-22)

She begins by showing the complexity of one question: Who Were Pirates? This topic is not as simple as black and white. It depends on who was asked and what interaction they had, if any, with these marauders, as well as the historical events occurring at a specific time and place. From there, she delves into Captain Kidd, who he was, what he did, how he “became a martyr for the pirate community,” and the myths and legends that his exploits inspired. (57) Chapter three discusses government attempts to suppress piracy, as well as who the pirates were who came after Kidd. Subsequent chapters cover pirate codes, relationships, executions, alcohol, fake news and twisting facts to suit a purpose, execution sermons and last words, and portrayals in literature, film, and other media. The book also includes a Timeline of the Golden Age of Piracy, Cast of Characters, maps, illustrations, bibliography, and endnotes, but no index.

If you seek an introduction to the buccaneers and the pirates who followed them, this is an entertaining and engaging pirate history with contemporary quotes to illustrate the narrative. If you want to stimulate a lively discussion, Why People Love Pirates provides food for thought.

So why my opening question? There are several reasons. Some of Simon’s statements come across as facts when, in reality, they are assumptions that cannot be proven one way or the other. One example: she asserts that Anne Bonny and Mary Read were gay. There’s no historical proof of this. It’s a hypothesis that some historians believe and others do not. A few other sentences left me scratching my head. For example, she writes that Stede Bonnet “suffered a leg injury during his first battle alongside Blackbeard and was lame for the rest of his life.” (109) No other resource I’ve read over the past twenty years mentions this fact, and Simon doesn’t provide her source for this information.

Another reason for my reservations pertains to inaccurate statements, especially those pertaining to Captain Kidd, the underlying theme for this book. Most readers won’t pick up on these, but those familiar with pirate history will. Captain Kidd did not work for the British East India Company, although his commission to hunt pirates included those who preyed on their ships and one of his financial backers was the director of the New East India Company. After Kidd attacked the Quedagh Merchant, the book says that “as a compromise [the crew] let some of the hostage crew leave on the Adventure Galley. The ship immediately set sail to England to deliver the news.” (68) Kidd and his men sailed Adventure Galley back to Madagascar, where she was beached and burned because she was no longer seaworthy. Nor was he immediately arrested when he arrived in Boston in1699. He got there on 1 July, heard the Reverend Cotton Mather’s sermon on 2 July, met with Lord Bellomont on 3 July, and was finally taken prisoner on 6 July. His commission did not allow him to attack Dutch ships as stated on page 73; at the time, England’s king was Dutch and the two countries were allies. The commission gave Kidd the authority to attack French ships, which is why the passes he confiscated from the Quedagh Merchant were so important for his defense. Robert Culliford did not hang “for being associated with Kidd.” (150) Culliford got off scot-free after testifying against another pirate and disappeared from the historical record. Kidd was executed with one of his men and two French pirates.

Still, Simon achieves the goals outlined in her introduction. You may not agree with all her conclusions, but she is persuasive and spurs you to delve deeper into the real history of pirates.

Review Copyright ©2021 Cindy Vallar

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