Black Flags, Blue Waters

“Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates,” Eric Jay Dolin, 2018.

BI have always thought it interesting that the very first warning in the book of Proverbs concerns casting your lot with thieves. In the modern age, fathers, when advising their sons (as the first nine chapters of Proverbs are written) do not lead off by warning them to stay away from marauding bands.

“My son, if sinful men entice you,

do not give in to them.

If they say, ‘come along with us;

let’s lie in wait for innocent blood,

(…)

we will get all sorts of valuable things

and fill our houses with plunder;

cast lots with us;

we will all share the loot’”

I always wondered, “who says that?” The answer is pirates. Pirates say exactly that.

“Black Flags, Blue Waters” is a fun book that is simultaneously informative and aimed at popular consumption. The topic of piracy is wide and covers most of human history. Some narrowing is required. So Eric Jay Dolin has narrowed the scope of “Black Flags” to the history of pirates operating in the golden age of piracy (1650s to 1720s) in and around America. As such, major figures like John Rackham go unmentioned as he operated exclusively in the Bahamas.

While pirates, or at least, the mythologized and highly sanitized people that pass for pirates in modern entertainment, cut romantic figures, I had always assumed that people who lived in their period saw them for the rotten brigands they really were. I was wrong.

Interestingly, early American colonists were quite cozy with pirates for a time, if for practical reasons instead of romantic ones. Pirates in the late 1690s to early 1710s robbed primarily from Muslims in the Indian Ocean and spent large quantities of money in the colonies on return. Piracy was seen by many as an honest profession and a necessary one. The colonies were perpetually experiencing coin shortages and the pirates brought them not only money, but goods at considerably lower prices than the British monopolies sold them for.

As such, early efforts to quell piracy were met with fierce resistance not only from colonists who depended on them financially, but also corrupt politicians who sold them protection and privateering charters.

Also of interest was the allure of piracy. Many pirates came out of the ranks of privateers, who were officially sanctioned pirates chartered to disrupt enemy shipping in times of war. Reluctant to give up their job after war, many stayed on and became pirates.

Others were recruited from attacked ships. These men often served under tyrannical sea captains who made liberal use of corporal punishment. Where their old job offered no freedom and tons of work for low wages, piracy offered high freedom and less work for a sliding earning scale. A successful year of pirating could earn a seaman more than a merchant ship laborer would in their whole working career.

Dolin’s book, though, focuses not primarily on behind the scenes academic knowledge, but on stories. The history of piracy is told through the lens of the lives of some of America’s most notable pirates from Avery to Kidd to Blackbeard and then some.

As these tales of adventure are told, the facts of pirate life and the story of the surrounding communities are woven in. After all, pirates can get all the treasure they want, but if they don’t have willing buyers, their venture was for naught. And if they don’t have motivated antagonists, their story is a dull “raided this vessel, got loot, raided that vessel, got loot.”

Even the men themselves cover a wide range of personalities from the maniacal Edward Low to the gentlemanly and naive Stede Bonnet. These personalities are the focus of the stories and though much attention is given to the areas and circumstances surrounding them, the focus always comes back to the pirates themselves.

I greatly enjoyed this book and the way that it combined entertaining stories with factual content.

The relationship between pirates and our early colonists was surprising, to say the least, as were some of the other myths Dolin dispels, though if you want to know what those are, I guess you’ll have to read it.

Recommended for you