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UNDER THE BLACK FLAG by David Cordingly


The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates

by David Cordingly

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-42560-8
Publisher: Random House

 Cordingly, a former head of exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, presents a no-frills picture of the early 18th century buccaneer, revealing the basis of our romantic conceptions of pirates. While piracy in that era was not a prescription for longevity, it brought lasting fame to its practitioners, their images are mythically enshrined in the works of Defoe, Robinson, Stevenson, and later in Hollywood epics. The origin of pirate careers was often rather prosaic: Many of the buccaneers of the Caribbean were poor laborers or out-of-work sailors from European navies; most got their start on merchant vessels. They preferred small, quick vessels to the three-masted ships portrayed in films, because smaller vessels could take refuge in narrow inlets or escape over shallow sandbars. Pirates were often a democratic lot; crews voted on their destinations and captains; they even had a primitive brand of medical insurance. While their reputation for cruelty can be documented, Cordingly asserts that often pirates killed only if merchantmen resisted and fought back. Not surprisingly, many ships were taken without a struggle. Cordingly also describes some of the fierce women buccaneers; the debauched and free-spending life at the great pirate ports, such as Port Royal, Jamaica; and the truly daring exploits of Frances Drake, Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and other luminaries. There's much interesting arcana, ranging from the design of pirate flags (the Jolly Roger was just one design among many) to the pets kept aboard ship (parrots and monkeys were popular). The golden age of piracy ended in the 1720s, when the European navies, for once not occupied in fighting each other, turned their attention to eliminating the sea marauders. Readers who do not mind a somewhat plodding pace will find a great deal that is surprising about the lives of these legendary men (and women). (16 pages b&w photos and maps, not seen) (Author tour)