A brief but intriguing history of piracy’s heyday.
The word “pirate” evokes numerous symbols and legends, but what were the pirates of yore actually like? Focusing on American waters during piracy’s “Golden Age” of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Dolin (Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, 2016, etc.) explains that pirates thrived in times of war, when privateering commissions provided a cover for more illicit activities. For a time, North American colonists welcomed these brigands, who simultaneously spent their ill-gotten gains in Colonial ports and provided an effective counter to unpopular English trade laws. Inevitably, however, they wore out their welcome, and a multipronged response by Colonial and English authorities in the aftermath of Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) virtually eliminated them. The author helpfully dismisses some of the more potent pirate myths. For example, there is little evidence that Cpt. William Kidd buried treasure on Gardiner’s Island, New York; pirates tended to spend their treasure right away, not inter it. Moreover, no documentation exists of any “Golden Age” pirate forcing someone to walk the plank. But Dolin is at his best when he offers generalizations of pirates and their trade. The majority of pirates were white men in their 20s, but a significant number were black slaves taken from captured ships who “became valued crewmembers who fought alongside their white pirate brethren and shared in the spoils.” Despite their reputation for violence, most pirates “never wanted to fight if they could avoid it,” as confrontation only put their lives, ships, and potential cargo in jeopardy. Finally, a pirate ship was a highly democratic and regulated place, as buccaneers selected their captains by majority vote and abided by a written code that “governed their behavior, the distribution of treasure, and the compensation provided in case of injury.”
A general lack of records compromises Dolin’s efforts, leaving one wanting to know more about notorious pirates such as Blackbeard and Edward Low. Nonetheless, the author offers an informative and often entertaining blend of narrative history and analysis that should appeal to a general audience.