Harcourt, 2007

When Real Pirates Ruled the Caribbean

Need a change of pace from the steady news of self-serving politicians, global violence justified by religious hatred, and alliances on the cheap with our enemy’s enemy that have only made things worse? How about an escape to a fast paced, fact filled story filled with characters from childhood, placed on sunny beaches with palm trees and spiced with sailing lore and an unquenchable thirst for rum? Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates takes us back to “the Golden Age of Piracy” in the Bahamas and Caribbean in the early 18th century. The real Israel Hands fights alongside Blackbeard, before jumping to the pages of Treasure Island to terrify young Jim Hawkins. Anne Bonny fights next to her lover, Calico Jack Rackham, and remains on deck to fight it out with the authorities while Calico Jack and the other pirates run below deck. You have to enjoy a book that quotes Anne Bonny saying to her lover just before he was hanged, “I’m sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man, you need not have hanged like a dog.”

Woodard (a regular contributor to Working Waterfront) quickly and effectively summarizes the early history of Caribbean piracy before moving on to the main story of how these polyglot crews set up their own freewheeling principality based in the Bahamas around 1720 and roamed from Jamaica to Madagascar to Maine’s Damarascove Island. Into the late 1600s, the Spanish throne controlled nearly all the Americas from Florida south, and their Popish allies, the French, controlled central Canada and the Mississippi waterway down to New Orleans, surrounding fragile Protestant British colonies precariously scattered on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. From the Elizabethan Sir Francis Drake onward, French, British and Dutch privateers preyed on the shipping of each country’s enemy empire, while the Spanish squeezed every drop of treasure from its native subjects. Woodard explains how Golden Age privateers turned pirate, put national loyalty aside, and “went on the account,” working for themselves. Without allegiance to any empire hierarchy, sailors jumped from the brutal discipline on board every nation’s navy ships to the free life of a pirate; French and English were crew mates, crew members elected their captains into and out of office and voted on when and how to conduct their campaigns; free blacks brought from Africa as sugar plantation slaves joined crews as equals. Woodard also emphasizes the inevitable contradictions, quoting journals where these mixed-race crews treated captured slaves in the hold of a plundered ship as no different from bags of flour, hardwood logs, or pickled beef.

On shore, pirates needed ways to fence their goods and places to rest and carouse. Woodard explains how easy it was to find colonial governors from Jamaica to North Carolina eager to run a nice business on the side for a share of the take, either “not realizing” pirates were in their midst, certifying a looted ship as a legal privateering “prize,” or helping hide the loot in their own buildings. Several government officials shared a further bond with pirates, dreaming they would further the cause of Jacobites at home who imagined an uprising to restore an independent Catholic monarchy in Scotland. Woodard conveys how the Jacobite cause gave many golden age pirates a sense of duty and purpose, so long at the rum held out.

An earlier age’s clash of empires, self dealing politicians, thirst for natural resources, religious struggles, experiments in `democracy,’ and world spanning terror have been turned into safe bedtime stories by Long John Silver, Captain Hook, and N. C. Wyeth’s illustrations. Woodard’s tale gives hope that, with enough time, the principal actors in today’s clashes will become storybook characters whose names merely bring the sheets up a little higher under the chin of an eight-year-old in bed. q

Peter Quesada reads about pirates in South Freeport.