The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard
From Captain Hook to Captain Jack Sparrow, pirates have always enthralled with their swashbuckling antics and charm offensive. So much so that romantic notions of heroic rascals at the helm of great ships, swinging from the rigs with sword in mouth and parrot at shoulder, have flooded our childhood and adult lives. But what do we know about the real scoundrels of the seas who took the oceans by storm in the 18th century?
Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates provides a close-up exposé of the lives and visions of legendary pirates Blackbeard, Black Sam Bellamy, Charles Vane and notorious “pirate king” Henry Avery in harrowing detail that any quixotic minutiae buried in your consciousness will evaporate as quickly as they were implanted. What drove these men to convert to an outlawed life? Why choose to abandon a well-respected career in the Royal Navy or a merchant ship for the dangerous, outlandish life of piracy?
Drawing on a wealth of historical data, Woodard depicts how the great pirate captains of the 18th century came to join forces in creating the infamous “Flying Gang”: a republic of pirates, no more than a group of hard-hitting men following the same ideal of self-government, who came out to revolt against the squalid and oppressive conditions in the merchant fleet, navy, cities and farmsteads of the Old and New Worlds. And just when you find yourself siding with the Blackbeards of the era, Woodard will in vivid detail describe the incomprehensibly inhumane treatment of their prisoners and slaves, illustrating the sheer cruelty and vulgarity of some of the punishments inflicted. The most harrowing is the treatment of a young child by Captain John Jeane, whom he had whipped “several times in a very cruel manner” and increased the pain by pouring brine into the wounds. Unfortunately, there was worse to come for this poor mite and if you want to know what befell him, you will have to read the book yourself.
Although some of the stories are disturbing, it will make you appreciate how far human rights have developed over the last 300 years by the collective hands of small and great campaigners alike. And for every grisly report, Woodard will counterbalance with anecdotes of seafaring adventure, describing with cathartic thrill the great heists of their buccaneer exploits.
The Republic of Pirates is a fascinating book, outstandingly written, brimming with beautiful literary descriptions amid an immeasurable breadth of research that will astound from beginning to end. Woodard does well to bridge the gap between entertaining and informative literature by cutting through vines of myths and legends that have creeped over genuine stories to produce a captivating representation of the golden age of piracy that is every bit as mesmerising and exhilarating as any work of fiction. This is definitely one for the bedside table.
The Republic of Pirates is published by Pan Macmillan at the paperback price of £8.99. For further information visit here.