The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down
If you're the sort of salty dog or lusty wench who keeps track of such things, you already know that Sept. 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. If you're not, you may want to start hitting the internets for choice bits of pirate slang to throw around. And in either case, you might like to take the opportunity to edify yourself a bit on the subject of those romantic seafaring characters--and there's hardly a better place to start than Colin Woodard's brilliant history The Republic of Pirates.
Meticulously researched and thrillingly told, Woodard's book tells the tale of a loose but powerful confederation of pirates active in the early part of the 18th century, operating out of the then-ungoverned Bahamas. He follows the trajectory of a handful of true superstars of the pirate world--namely Edward "Blackbeard" Thatch (sometimes Teach), "Black Sam" Bellamy, and the especially roguish Charles Vane, interweaving their stories with that of Woodes Rogers, a former privateer sworn to destroy the budding pirate nation at all costs. While Rogers was ultimately successful, those costs were dear indeed: Never fairly compensated for his efforts--even as a privateer, he suffered a face and ankle mangled by Spanish muskets and limped home with little to show for his injuries--he died victorious but sickly in the Nassau he made free of "pyrate vermin."
Talking the pirate talk is one thing, but it's unlikely that anyone alive today would care to walk the walk. The gangsters of their day, pirates were often lionized by nonpirate sailors and even by land-dwelling folk (though not generally by the respectable sort), but a life at sea is a deathly difficult thing, Woodard makes clear. Scurvy, bloody flux, starvation, injury--crewmen were carried off this mortal coil at the rate of about 40 percent per voyage. However, the relative democracy of a pirate ship made it a far more attractive prospect than serving on a Navy or merchant ship at the time--Woodard's descriptions of the conditions and treatment of the men and boys aboard such vessels is riveting and utterly horrifying. The situation in places like London at the time wasn't much better for the poor and indigent--Woodard tells of a vile and dangerous city, teeming with rats, disease, starvation, cold, and hopelessness--and given such circumstances, you can see why the pirate's life held some appeal.
But even as he disabuses the reader that things were all a drunken yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum type of lark, Woodard invests his story with a sense of high adventure and sympathy for pirate and pirate chaser alike. Admirers of Johnny Depp's turn as Jack Sparrow will delight in meeting Blackbeard, whose facial hair was as braided and beribboned as his fictional counterpart's but who went the extra step of tying lit fuses under his hat so that his already imposing face would be surrounded by a halo of smoke and fire. Fans of the lady pirate will be introduced to Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who fought for their ship while the men hid below (Read, upon failing to coax the men out of their hiding place, fired into it in disgust). Woodard brings this slice of outlaw history gloriously to life, realizing a worthy tome for anyone who's so much as muttered a tiny "arrrr."