By: Michael Taube
February 20, 2019
rr, matey! Give no quarter to these landlubbers! They want to steal our pieces o’ eight and buried treasure! Batten down the hatches, and send ‘em straight to Davy Jones’ Locker!
The pirate’s life has long intrigued people of all ages. The tales of Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Amaro Parso and William Kidd have earned their rightful place in the history books. Lord Byron’s The Corsair (1814), Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate (1821-22) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) captured the imagination of curious readers. Film versions, including Long John Silver, Captain Blood, the comedic Yellowbeard and Peter Pan’s great adversary, Captain Hook, continue to amaze us. It’s also impossible to forget the occasional young pirate who comes waltzing to your door at Halloween looking for sugary treasures.
Which brings us to Eric Jay Dolin’s new book, Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates. The historian and author acknowledges that “many people view pirates in a romantic light,” but he emphatically states “there was absolutely nothing romantic about them, other than the legends woven about their exploits after they were gone.” While America’s pirates can’t necessarily “compete with the magnetic charms and witty repartee of Captain Jack Sparrow,” among others, he believes their stories are “even more astonishing and fascinating than any fictional pirate adventure ever written or cast on the silver screen.”
The U.S. had a long history with the pirating clan. “Virginia can lay claim to being the first American colony with a connection…albeit a tangential one,” wrote Dolin, but the first sightings took place in the seventeenth century. This involved Dixie Bull, who was involved with the beaver pelt trade and had his wares stolen by a small band of Frenchman. He and fifteen men (armed, of course) wanted to exact revenge, were unsuccessful and “resorted to piracy when he ransacked two English vessels.” This adventure continued for undisclosed reasons, and they continued yo-ho-ho’ing from the Pemaquid River and through Massachusetts. John Winthrop, the governor of the colony, set out to bring down the “pirate Bull”—but he never did, and the latter’s whereabouts remain a mystery.
America’s earliest pirates spent their money on food, alcohol and, naturally, the world’s oldest profession. In return, they brought over goods such as cloth and sugar, as well as slaves from Africa. Some of them would go on to “put down roots” in the colonies and attempt to lead somewhat normal lives. One interesting example was Captain Thomas Paine (no, not the great philosopher who wrote Common Sense), who earned a privateer’s commission from Jamaica’s governor, Sir Thomas Lynch, to help “bring in or destroy” his fellow pirates. He would eventually settle in Newport, Rhode Island, married a judge’s daughter (who would later become a colonial governor), and actually ended up “an upstanding member of the community.”
England, in particular, was rather unnerved by the budding relationship between pirates and the American colonies. While it was considered a serious crime by the former, the “antipiracy laws adopted by many of the colonies were filled with so many loopholes that they were virtually meaningless.” There were piracy trials in the U.S., as the author pointed out, but would be regarded as closer to shams. Based on the fact that pirates provided “a chronically scare resource,” which was money, and helped “keep this river from running dry,” many of the governors were more than willing to look the other way.
It goes without saying that the personalities and exploits often produce the most compelling stories in Black Flags, Blue Waters. Each pirate and crew had a different story, motivation and reason for sailing the open seas and plundering others. Yet, there seem to be several common themes in their respective journeys, including a sense of invincibility, the thrill of the chase and, more often than not, a means of survival.
An entire chapter is unsurprisingly devoted to the aforementioned Blackbeard. Born Edward Thatch, he a character of mythology and fantasy who “did, indeed, sport a black beard, and…was a strong leader who inspired confidence in his men during his relatively short piratical career.” According to Dolin, he “evinced a particular hatred for New Englanders,” was furious at the imprisonment of fellow pirates and “felt a sense of comradeship” with the sea dogs who shared his profession (of sorts). He captained four vessels, including the Adventure and Revenge, and built a pirate armada that was the envy of many. Even in death, he intrigued a young Benjamin Franklin, who wrote a song about him (a verified copy has never been located, save for the final stanza) which the Founding Father later described as “wretched stuff, in the Grub-street-ballad style."
Captain William Kidd, the Scottish-born son of a mariner who went from hunting pirates to become “arguably the world’s most famous pirate,” is also examined. His exploits on the Adventure Gallery, and later the Quedagh Merchant, produced legendary accounts and made him a wanted man. He was eventually captured, tried and hanged in 1701. Dolin wonders if he would have met this fate, however, due to the fact his controversial, long-standing relationship with Richard Coote, 1st Earl of Bellomont enabled the latter to acquire a larger stake of these riches if Kidd was found guilty of pirating.
During the period between 1719-1726, the number of pirates in the colonies “would plummet to an insignificant level.” This was largely due to the colonies’ change of heart when it came to tolerating piracy and a massive shift to defeating and jailing them. Britain also heightened its war against the pirate mob by using techniques such as stricter laws, executions and the “eradication of the private stronghold at New Providence” to accomplish its end goal. With the hanging of William Fly, virtually no pirates were left in the Atlantic—and the so-called golden age was permanently docked.
Dolin has created an engaging and exciting book about this villainous profession that led many a young child to dream flights of fancy about a pirate’s life. It’s almost enough to make you crack open a bottle of rum, grow a beard and find some buried treasure on a deserted island—or, more likely, to look for it in the comfort of your own backyard.