The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates
As a well known lover of pirates, this book had been on my TBR for quite some time. When Nonfiction Book Club was disappointed by the lack of pirateyness in The Last Pirate of New York, I suggested we read this real pirate book!
From the publisher marketing:
Set against the backdrop of the Age of Exploration, Black Flags, Blue Waters reveals the surprising history of American piracy’s “Golden Age” – spanning the late 1600s through the early 1700s – when lawless pirates plied the coastal waters of North America and beyond. “Deftly blending scholarship and drama” (Richard Zacks), best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin illustrates how American colonists at first supported these outrageous pirates in an early display of solidarity against the Crown, and then violently opposed them. Through engrossing episodes of roguish glamour and extreme brutality, Dolin depicts the star pirates of this period, among them the towering Blackbeard, the ill-fated Captain Kidd, and sadistic Edward Low, who delighted in torturing his prey. Upending popular misconceptions and cartoonish stereotypes, Black Flags, Blue Waters is a “tour de force history” (Michael Pierce, Midwestern Rewind) of the seafaring outlaws whose raids reflect the precarious nature of American colonial life.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in previous pirate book reviews, one of my favorite things I’ve ever put together was a pirate treasure hunt through the virtual/classroom Bahamas for my sixth grade world geography students. (I also impressively remembered the url off the top of my head 9 years later). As they hunted for Blackbeard’s infamous treasure, they learned a bit about the history and culture of the Bahamas. What I found most intriguing, though, was that they didn’t need any help from me to get excited about the history of piracy in the Caribbean and the States – the interest was already there, I just fanned the flame.
Black Flags, Blue Waters focuses exclusively on the pirates who had an economic impact on the 13 colonies during the Golden Age of Piracy (the late 1600s to the early 1700s). For me, this was the perfect marriage of two of my favorite things – early American history, which I have studied in great depth, and pirates. While I’ve written theses on the American rebels, the Brits, the Revolution, and the effects of colonialism, I hadn’t put much thought into how sea faring effected the development of the American Colonies beyond the Columbian Exchange*.
Some of the pirates Eric includes are well-known throughout pirate research, such as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and their comrades. What most pirate and maritime historians focus on, however, tends to be the pirate hub of Port Royal in the Bahamas and less so on the economic impact of their activities not only for the burgeoning colonies, but also on the economic balance of the world.
Essentially, pirates are merchants. They want to make money, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to partake in legal, or illegal, activity to procure goods to sell to make a profit. Interestingly, many passed on the opportunity to traffic humans from African to the Americas and did not engage in the slave trade. There were certainly exceptions, but the lack of pirates in the slave trade intrigued us in book club.
In service to the merchant goal, the pirates of the Atlantic were first encouraged and supported by the colonists who were excited to receive goods that were otherwise restricted by trade agreements**. The pirates would raid Spanish and other ships for goods and then sell them to the colonists at better prices than they were paying to the British importers. Not only were the colonists happy to have the pirates docking in their harbors, but the government officials, even the crown appointed officials, were pleased to have an influx of pirate-obtained goods coming in.
Eventually, however, the British cracked down on the illegal goods coming in and, as expected, went after the pirates in question, resulting in a number of hangings up and down the east coast. The officials who had previously been quick to support the pirates, now found their own hands tied and necks heading for the noose if they didn’t enforce the crown’s orders.
While Eric does seek to dispel some of the romanticized myths about pirates, ultimately, my fascination with them remains unchanged. Our book club discussion was lively, but I think it was mostly because we all have a fascination with pirates and so we were all very into reading Black Flags, Blue Waters, especially since it was a real pirate book in most of our minds, as opposed to The Last Pirate of New York. Ultimately, our conversation was more of a “can you believe” kind of chat versus a more robust and in depth discussion of the subject matter.
Eric’s next book, Rebels at Sea, an informal sequel of sorts to Black Flags, Blue Waters, will be released on May 31, 2022 and covers the freelance sailors who fought for the USA in the Revolutionary War.
*The Columbian Exchange was the term used for the exchange of diseases, goods, and human life that was trafficked in a vaguely triangular pattern around the Atlantic after Columbus’s journey to America. Slaves were brought from Africa to the Colonies, raw goods were sent from the Colonies back to Europe, finished goods were then transported back. The merchant vessels also carried diseases concealed amongst their cargo.
**As British colonies, the thirteen colonies were dependent upon Britain for most of their goods.
Rating: 7 out of 10