Reviewed by Chris Bolton
Let me get this out of the way upfront: I hate pirate jokes; Talk Like a Pirate Day lost its novelty for me a couple of years ago; and after suffering through the second Pirates of the Caribbean film, I would have to be kidnapped by buccaneers, tied to the mast of their ship, and forced at gunpoint to watch the third film.
Nonetheless, The Republic of Pirates, Colin Woodard's examination of the real-life pirates who scoured the Bahamas in the early 1700s, won me over faster than a commandeered Ship-of-the-Line closing in on a Spanish Galleon.
Don't expect an N. C. Wyeth portrait of heroic scoundrels battling scurvy villains, or a romantic Johnny Depp swashbuckler. Woodard's up-close portrait of such legendary figures as Blackbeard, Black Sam Bellamy, and the "pirate king" Henry Avery is grounded in harrowing details that offer ample reason for sailors to have abandoned a Royal Navy or merchant ship for a pirate's often-dreary, exceedingly dangerous life.
With a wealth of historical detail, Woodard does an excellent job of depicting his larger-than-life characters in compelling shades of gray. Just when you think you're on the side of a privateer who overcame horrendous beginnings, along comes an unsavory tidbit about how he treated prisoners or dealt in the slave trade to sway your loyalty.
Don't look for heroes anywhere in this book. The Royal Navy offered an unspeakably hard life, with sailors suffering illness and death for low wages that were often withheld anyway. And those were the lucky ones.
On a journey from Charleston to Bristol, Captain John Jeane took a dislike to his cabin boy, whom he had whipped "several times in a very cruel manner" and increased the pain by pouring pickle brine into the wounds. Jeane strung the child up to the mast for nine days and nights with his arms and legs fully extended.
Jeane was just warming up, but I'll spare you the even grislier details.
For every horrific account like this one, Woodard offers a riveting anecdote of thievery and seafaring adventure. There are times when the pirates' exploits have the charm and cathartic thrill of a great heist pulled off with aplomb. And there's no shortage of big action scenes, written in a fittingly breathless style:
Swords drawn and muskets at the ready, over 100 pirates crouched behind the Fancy's rails, waiting for the ships to come together. When they did, lines snapping, sails tearing, their wooden hulls moaning and creaking with the stress, Avery and company rushed over the side and onto the decks of the crippled vessel.
Like any good work of nonfiction, The Republic of Pirates is fascinating simply in the breadth of its research. I can't, of course, vouch for the book's historical accuracy, but Woodard has done an impressive job of sifting through conflicting, often apocryphal accounts and countless myths and legends to offer an engrossing depiction that is every bit as gritty, suspenseful, and electrifying as any fiction.
And I promise, reading the book is far shorter, and infinitely more rewarding, than sitting through the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
Books mentioned in this post