Colin Woodard: The Republic of Pirates

This review by Kage Baker was originally published at Green Man Review.

I collect and study books on the subject of piracy, as practiced by 17th and 18th-century persons in the general vicinity of the Caribbean. For years this was a pointless hobby and sheer indulgence, until I began to write historical fiction. Then I could justify it on grounds of being useful for research. Now, to my delight, the subject has become fashionable. Pirates are the new Vampires, to quote a bumper sticker I saw the other day.

Any new pirate book crossing my desk has some mighty predecessors against which it must be measured: David Cordingly’s encyclopedic Under the Black Flag, for example, or Dudley Pope’s Harry Morgan’s Way, with its firsthand sailor’s knowledge of the Caribbean and its refreshing use of primary documents from the British archives. Michael Pawson and David Buisseret produced an impressive survey of the ultimate pirate city in their Port Royal, Jamaica, which is unlikely to be bettered unless undersea archaeology develops new technologies for exploration.

Here, now, is The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard. How does it stack up against these benchmarks? Really very well.

To begin with, it’s written in a brisk accessible style. Woodard is a journalist, and excels at putting the dry historical facts in context, so that the full-color legend behind the facts comes into sharp focus. Facts, after all, are a pretty cheap commodity: the History, Discovery or Learning channels can present them in abundance, with dramatic re-enactments in bad costumes and endless stock footage of the Lady Washington standing in for the Golden Hind, the Queen Anne’s Revenge or the Victory.

What Woodard gives us is an understanding of the historical facts, by presenting salient details generally left out.

Here’s one example: Blackbeard’s last stand at Okracoke Inlet has generally been depicted as an act of suicidal folly, very much out of keeping with the shrewd businessman he actually was.

Usually we are told that Blackbeard dispersed his pirate fleet and retreated to Okracoke with one vessel, spending his last two days in a drunken orgy before looking up to notice the inlet blocked by two Royal Navy ships. He then sailed out and challenged them to battle, fought like a madman, and was overwhelmed and killed. Was he aware that the golden days of piracy were ending, and so took stupid risks that led to his death? Was he depressed about his health? Was he simply still too drunk to exercise good judgment?

Woodard reports that, in fact, Blackbeard was busily recruiting the governor of North Carolina as an ally, and was not unduly disturbed by the presence of the Royal Navy, consisting as it did not of warships but of two little sloops without a single cannon between them. Both ships ran themselves aground, and Blackbeard was preparing to sail past them to freedom on the open sea when a chance musket ball from one of the sloops cut his vessel’s jib halyard. This was the line that held up the foresails, and so Blackbeard’s ship was slowed long enough for one of the sloops to free herself and come after him. He leveled her deck with a blast of shot and killed two-thirds of her crew. It must have looked as though he’d finished them off; it must have seemed safe to board her, with her decks covered with dead men.

It was only when her remaining armed crewmen emerged from hiding that Blackbeard found himself outnumbered. Even so, he fought viciously and energetically before being killed. Woodard adds a bit of information not generally reported: the governor of North Carolina sued the Governor of Virginia over the legality of the whole attack, since at the time of his death Blackbeard had never been formally charged with any crime.

So much for the suicide interpretation: one lucky chance shot was all it took to make history. Similar insights abound throughout the book, such as the real reason so many colonial governors encouraged large forces of armed cutthroats to roam the seas: they were anti-Hanoverians, and hoped the Stuarts would raise a rebel navy in the West Indies, for which the Brethren would come in handy.

To my great delight, Woodard has included not only the usual maps and illustrations but a list of early 18th-century prices and wages. The average sailor made between 11 and 15 pounds in a year; a farm laborer made 18; a sugar planter with a hundred acres made 540. Cheap fare from England to America was between 5 and 6 pounds. An attic room in Oxford cost 3 pounds a year to rent, exactly the same cost as a musket. And Daniel Defoe earned an advance of 50 pounds for Robinson Crusoe. !!!!!!!

This list alone would ensure The Republic of Pirates a place on my reference shelf, but it’s also a real page-turner in its depiction of the several human dramas played out over the thirty-year golden age of piracy: Henry Avery’s fortune, Sam Bellamy’s unwise choices, the truth of the relationships between Anne Bonney, Jack Rackham and Mary Reed, pathetic Stede Bonnet, and the appallingly underappreciated Woodes Rogers, who earned no thanks from his government for finally bringing law to the Caribbean.

Good entertainment, solid scholarship. This one rates ten skulls and crossbones out of ten.

(Harcourt, 2007)

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