Richard Sanders' IF A PIRATE I MUST BE follows in the wake of two other very readable histories of pirating in and around the 18th century: Stephan Talty's EMPIRE OF BLUE WATER and Colin Woodward's THE REPUBLIC OF PIRATES. All three draw on similar historical sources, and their bibliographies overlap somewhat. However, this is not to say that the books are duplicative, for each focuses on a different aspect of the topic or concentrates on a different time frame of the era. The authors also give different emphases to their primary sources, Sanders drawing heavily on Charles Johnson's A GENERAL HISTORY OF THE ROBBERIES AND MURDERS OF THE MOST NOTORIOUS PIRATES, published in 1724, while Talty frequently cites BUCCANEERS OF AMERICA by John Esquemeling, published in 1684. The three books are complementary rather than redundant, and, while any of them can be read independently of the others, taken together, they paint quite a detailed picture of piracy on the high seas from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries.
Sanders' book concentrates on the rise and fall of a single member of these "gentlemen of fortune," (otherwise known as criminals, thieves, miscreants, and deserters), Roberts, whose original name may have been John and who later seems to have signed it Bartholomew, although "Black Bart" seems to been a posthumous sobriquet. By following the brief, three year, career of Roberts, we learn a great deal about mariners' practices of the era, including the fact that it was scarcely unusual for a person to move from service on a king's ship to that of a pirate. In truth, the act of involuntarily joining a ship's crew seems to have been more or less the same regardless of whether one was in government service or to have had a pirate for a captain. The British government used "press gangs" to draft sailors for its ships, while pirates "forced" sailors from captured ships into service on their own. Whether one was "pressed" or "forced" depended solely on the legal status of the ship commanding ones service.
Of course, not every new member of a pirate crew had to be "forced" since both merchant and military commanders could exercise extremely harsh discipline aboard their ships and since the chance for acquiring a bit of wealth could actually be greater in a pirate crew than in either merchant or government service. Pirate crews also tended to be relatively democratic, electing or deposing their captains, a privilege not allowed on "legal" ships. Sanders' book goes a long way in instructing the reader in such historical realities, and it does so in a most entertaining narrative. This book, and the other two I've mentioned, are excellent histories, not only because of the historically factual accounts they contain but also because of their authors' skills at relating those histories in a fascinating and captivating manner.
In short, IF A PIRATE I MUST BE reads like a novel with an intriguing plot but has the added value of being historical, or "true" if one prefers that word. I highly recommend it, as well as EMPIRE OF BLUE WATER and THE REPUBLIC OF PIRATES, to any reader who is interested in 18th century maritime history. And by the way, does Sanders' book give us the source for the "Dread Pirate Roberts" of whom we read in S. Morgenstern's "fractured fairy tale" THE PRINCESS BRIDE?