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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

The Pirates' Pact                The Politics of Piracy

Cover Art: The Pirates'
The Pirates’ Pact
The Secret Alliances between History’s Most Notorious Buccaneers and Colonial America
 Douglas R. Burgess, Jr.
McGraw Hill, 2009, ISBN 978-0-07-147476-4, US $26.95 / £ 13.99


This book examines an often glossed over aspect of piracy – those who assist pirates in some way, whether be it as a grantor of letters of marque, as a buyer for plunder, or as some other facilitator for pirates. Colonial governors often ignored crown law to protect their colonies and/or to provide their citizenry with goods not available through legal channels. Using period correspondence between governors, the Board of Trade, and others aware of this alliance either as casual observers or governmental employees, Burgess reveals the truth of how pirates might be deemed “enemies of all mankind”, but at the same time played an important role in how the colonies survived.

In delving into this aspect of history, Burgess also focuses on the legal ramifications of these alliances. England passed certain laws dealing with pirates, and colonial governors were expected to enforce those laws. The problem was the officials in England were far removed from the realities the governors faced. Thus men like Sir Francis Drake, Sir Henry Morgan, Governor Thomas Modyford, Governor Benjamin Fletcher, Adam Baldridge, Thomas Tew, Lord Bellomont, William Kidd, Henry Every, Governor William Markham, Edward Randolph, John Quelch, and Woodes Rogers played vital roles in shaping the colonies and their futures. Also, this account clearly shows how attitudes toward pirates changed over time.

In an earlier article, I wrote about the friends and enemies of pirates because these sea robbers didn’t act in a void. Without the assistance of others, they wouldn’t have menaced shipping to the extent that they did. Through the use of primary documentation The Pirates’ Pact provides an in-depth and riveting examination of this assistance and its impact on England’s right to govern its colonies from afar. Burgess deftly demonstrates how “legitimate trade, aggressive mercantilism, and outright piracy commingled and coalesced,” and in doing so, introduces readers to new insights about names long associated with piracy. (22)

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Book Review Copyright ©2009 Cindy Vallar

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              Art: The Politics of Piracy
The Politics of Piracy: Crime and Civil Disobedience in Colonial America
By Douglas R. Burgess, Jr.
ForeEdge, 2014, ISBN 978-1-61168-527-5, $35.00
Ebook ISBN 978-1-61168-698-2, $34.99


In the final years of the seventeenth century, the English Crown sought to bring Henry Every and his fellow pirates to justice after they attacked, plundered, and stole a ship belonging to the Great Mughal of India. Failure to do so would have grave consequences for English trade. This is where The Politics of Piracy begins, and the particular place in question is Pennsylvania where the customs agent, Robert Snead, believed that Governor William Markham was turning a blind eye to the fact that some of Every’s men resided in the commonwealth. But Markham was only one of several governors whose conduct where pirates were concerned demanded explanation.

This particular period in piratical history occurs on the cusp where societal attitudes toward privateers changed. Before this time, they were deemed essential to protecting the colonies because the State could not. Now they became “enemies of all mankind” because piracy threatened trade and diplomatic alliances. As Burgess points out, previous studies examine the legal aspects of this time period from the British perspective or the colonial one, rather than looking at both sides of the equation. What is often missing from these examinations is the role piracy and illegal trade played in the evolution of criminal law in the colonies. Burgess also discusses the role politics played in relationships between the Crown and her American colonies and how they foreshadowed the separation of these into two distinct entities.

The Politics of Piracy is divided into four sections as shown below.
Introduction: The Sorrowful Tale of Robert Snead

Part I. Beginnings
1. London Fog: A Brief, Confusing History of English Piracy Law

2. The Phantom Fleet of Porto Principe: Jamaican Privateering under Charles II

3. “A Spot upon Our Garment”: The Red Sea Fever in Colonial New York, 1691-1698
Part II. An Empire in Crisis
4. Voyage of the Fancy, 1696

5. A Tale of Two Trials

6. The Ballad of Henry Every: Criminality and Print Culture in the Public Sphere
Part III. Pirate Nests
7. “Ignorance of Their Duty”: A New Jersey Warning, 1697

8. A Society of Friends: Quakers and Illicit Trade in Colonial Pennsylvania

9. “A Bloody Crew of Privateers”: Resistance and Right in Rhode Island
Part IV. Rope’s End
10. The Bonds of Slavery: Law, Letters, and the Resumption Bill of 1701-1702

11. From Community to Periphery: Trial and Execution in the American Colonies, 1705-1730
Conclusion: Forgotten Revolutions
The inclusion of end notes, a bibliography, and an index make it easy for readers to access the plethora of information found in this volume. Excerpts from primary documents enhance the reading experience and provide concrete examples to illustrate whatever points the author makes.

“Captivating” isn’t a term often applied to non-fiction books, but it aptly describes this account of politics, piracy, and law. It reads more like a novel than non-fiction. What I particularly liked was that Burgess examines colonies and people who rarely get more than a few mentions in other histories of piracy. And he provides an outstanding summary of piracy law that is easy to read and comprehend. Also fascinating is how opinions shifted over time until eventually both sides of the Atlantic viewed piracy as an evil that needed to be eradicated. He points out the problems with governing from afar and how laws and edicts enacted in England were a far cry from the realities of life and survival in the colonies. He deftly shows the intricate web connecting pirates and smugglers to merchants and colonial officials, while illuminating the differing perceptions about piracy that developed between Whitehall in London and the colonial governors. Equally compelling and consummately shown is how Every’s single attack on the Gang-i-Sawai had a profound impact on how the Crown and society viewed pirates.

Review Copyrighted ©2016 Cindy Vallar

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