Turn the Page Thursday: Historical Swashbucklers

Republic of Pirates cover
Cover design by Vaughn Andrews. Cover image by Bettman/Corbis

The Republic of Pirates, by Colin Woodard

The Republic of Pirates is one of the best “Diet History”* books currently on the market. Journalist Colin Woodard’s storytelling talents breathe new life into the history of the Caribbean pirates and their pursuers, animating the past in a compelling account of robbery and rebellion.

This fast-paced examination of pirates begins by clarifying a few important misconceptions, such as the difference between “pirate” and “privateer” and the fictional portrayal of pirates versus how they actually were. Having handled the historical technicalities, Woodard launches into the history of pirates during the late 1600s, specifically focusing on the legendary Henry Avery and his influence on the later pirates of the 1700s. The latter quickly become the focus of the book as Woodard describes their swashbuckling lives more accurately and interestingly than Hollywood ever has.

Woodard’s ability to make history entertaining for casual readers is, without a doubt, his greatest success with this book. It perfectly exemplifies how history can be both informative and enjoyable: a story of people, not a boring series of names and dates. Woodard relates every person’s story from start to finish, and, impressively, all get wrapped up by the book’s conclusion. The lives of pirates Sam Bellamy, Edward Thatch (Blackbeard), and Charles Vane all end, and it feels like the end of an era. It’s educational, but it also feels more riveting and dramatic than that, clearly a well-executed narrative.

As Woodard explains the history, he also dispels the myths that have surrounded the pirates’ culture for centuries. Historical pirates didn’t fool around with mouthy parrots or forcing captives to “walk the plank.” Often, there were no “ship-killer” cannon on pirate vessels because it was more profitable to steal a ship than it was to sink it. Woodard paints a vivid, more realistic picture of life aboard a ship in the Caribbean. It’s dirty, unhealthy, incredibly dangerous, and (at times) visceral and violent. Still, it doesn’t feel like he diminishes the allure of pirate legends by de-romanticizing them; instead, the history becomes more interesting, more tangible, and less campy than the fictional portrayals.

Even halfway-honest attempts to write history separate fact from pop culture fiction, but only the best history books tackle longstanding controversy over the facts. Woodard joins the ranks of the best as he eagerly challenges the potential inaccuracies of past historians, especially the errors surrounding some of Blackbeard’s activities. He further succeeds by handling the errors quickly, allowing him to keep the reader’s interest without slowing the narrative.

While The Republic of Pirates presents a strong look at history, it’s not without its share of flaws. Issues with a few of the sources are the most concerning, with Woodard occasionally depending on dubious materials. Unfortunately, Wikipedia makes a handful of appearances (usually for providing general information) in the endnotes. The question there is, “Why?” The other sources show the book was well-researched with scores of reliable documents. Since Woodard worked that hard to make sure everything else came from a solid source, it’s hard to understand why he opted not to use something more dependable than the Internet’s most manipulated communal encyclopedia.**

The handling of another source, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, also becomes a problem. Woodard remarks that the book includes inaccuracies and falsehoods, but he later uses it as a source anyway. Most of the time, it’s for small details that “spice up” the narrative, which isn’t a huge issue; however, there are other times where it’s cited, unsupported by other sources, for more important bits of information. The possibility exists, however, that Woodard couldn’t find a more specific source for those facts, so the use of A General History is easier to excuse.

The citation and incorporation of sources create some minor issues, as well. There are times where he makes a semi-debatable claim, but there is nothing in the endnotes that shows where or how he came to that conclusion. At other times, he includes quotes from historical documents, but the source is absent in the endnotes or so hidden in another endnote that finding it is extremely difficult. Neither of these happens frequently enough to undermine the book’s reliability, but it would have been nice to see Woodard present a slightly more organized case.

Although the research could be stronger at times, The Republic of Pirates is fantastic all-around. Colin Woodard seamlessly ties his argument and the story together, convincing readers of his perspective by the book’s conclusion. Readers with an interest in pirates or the Caribbean will be entertained by this book, and they’re certain to learn the true legend behind some of the world’s most famous nautical outlaws. Thanks to Woodard’s efforts, the history of pirates remains more adventurous and entertaining than ever.

*History written for popular consumption rather than an academic setting.

**I realize I’m being a tremendous snob here, but source material is important. Wikipedia is great for background information in a casual setting, but not for something as substantial as a history book. The issue here is that Woodard accessed archives and libraries from across the globe to write this book, so it would have been possible for him to find something more reliable.

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down

By Colin Woodard

400 pp. Mariner Books, reprinted 2008. $16.95

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