In Search of a Pirate

In Search of a Pirate

Posted on August 21 by Victor Suthren in Non-fiction, Recent Releases
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As a youngster I was thrilled by the adventures of Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but never gave too much attention to the real nature and history of pirates, even as I went on with my education and eventually became a museum director. The sea, however, has always been a fascination for me, and I answered that interest by being commissioned in the Naval Reserve and doing a fair amount of sailing as a crew member on “tall ships” on the Great Lakes, the Caribbean, and even across the Pacific to Hawaii. My love of history, particularly in the colonial era, led me naturally into writing. I left the museum to write full-time about the lives of men whose achievements stand out as navigators and explorers, writing biographies of Captain James Cook and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.

 

After writing about the lives of these two admirable men, I realized that there was far more to the picture of adventure at sea, and that the “dark side” of it all, in the form of pirates, was something I had not addressed to any degree. I'd written seven adventure novels of the sea set in the early 18th Century, in which pirates figured often, but I never had tried an in-depth look at their lives, or of a particular character. That happened when I became drawn to a man as unlike Cook and Bougainville as it was possible to be, and yet had the same qualities of leadership and daring: the pirate Bartholomew Roberts.

 

With writing a biography of Roberts, Black Flag of the North, I realized I had written a trilogy about that Age of Sail leadership, but Roberts remained a greater mystery to me rather than the relatively clear and positive images of Cook and Bougainville. There were questions I was unable to answer fully: why he would never drink anything stronger than tea while his pirate crews drank paralytic amounts of rum; why he never seemed to form close relationships; why he was kind and solicitous to women for the most part, but was capable of ruthless violence in captures of ships at sea; how he managed to exert leadership over a band of unruly, desperate men of little restraint enough to make them an efficient fighting force that, for a while, dominated the West Indies trade routes and left Royal Navy ships unwilling to face him in open combat. This dark, enigmatic man took over 400 ships in a tumultuous four-year career before dying in a hail of Royal Navy gunfire off the coast of Africa, and in many respects rightly earned the unofficial title of “King of the Atlantic pirates”.

 

Roberts’ brief piratical career, from 1718 to 1722, marked the high-water point of what became known as the Golden Age of Piracy, before a more efficient and determined effort by the Royal Navy brought an end to pirate depredations. But the figure of the pirate has remained in our society, evolving from a simple criminal at sea into an almost romantic figure of dashing adventure and forgivable roguery. In their time, pirates formed strangely democratic societies in their ships in an age when fairness and equality were largely unknown in European society. Most people led harsh, limited lives in a world structured to benefit the few wealthy people at the top of a vastly unfair social pyramid. The pirate, in his brief, incandescent career, signified an escape from all that, and to this day remains an icon of personal freedom and adventure worthy of writing about.

Victor Suthren

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014

Victor Suthren

Victor Suthren is a writer and historian with a special interest in maritime history. A former director general of the Canadian War Museum, he lives in Merrickville, Ontario.