If a Pirate I Must Be...: The True Story of "Black Bart," King of the Caribbean Pirates Paperback – Jun 2009
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Top Customer Reviews
Sanders is a great writer; I thoroughly enjoyed his style and found that it was an easy read without being simplistic or dry. He describes the various characters vividly and incorporates a quick pace to make it through much of what could be 'dry' history without becoming boring. I read through the book in two easy days and it was an amazingly engaging read.
If you are interested in pirates (and who doesn't have a LITTLE curiosity about them) and want to learn something about historic pirates (as opposed to read something fictional), this book is a great springboard into the rich and flamboyant history of the golden age of piracy. It's thorough enough for anyone who is doing historic research and entertaining enough for a casual reader who's only satisfying curiosity. Highly recommended!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This is not a novelization, but a historical account of Bartholomew Roberts, the most successful pirate in history. Don't expect some dry history book here, this is fascinating! Sanders includes excerpts of actual accounts, stories and letters from the era.
He paints the full picture of why men turned to piracy - the ship captains' authority was total, and many were very cruel, but none so much as the slave ship captains. These men treated people with such brutality that human life was worthless to them, and they treated their sailors almost as poorly as the slaves. There are accounts of sailors begging food from the slaves - when food and water ran short, the sailors were deprived before the slaves. After all, the captains made no money on the sailors.
It's no wonder when a pirate ship showed up and the captain said, "who wants to be a pirate?" that men eagerly joined the crew.
What struck me as most amazing was the democracy of piracy. The captain and all the officers were elected. The crew voted on destinations. The quartermaster balanced the captain's power.
This book is excellent, a must read for anyone who is not only interested in pirates, but the history of colonies in the Caribbean in that era.
Sanders's "If a Pirate I Must Be ..." is a vividly written account of Roberts and, through his story, the larger world of piracy in the early eighteenth century, a story shorn of romance and for that reason all the more gripping.
In truth his career only spanned three years, but it is a story that is far richer than those mere three years. This book is a short history of so many things, from sickness in Britain's slave-colonies of Africa, to Devil's island, to the emergence of white settlement in the Caribbean. Many astounding stories and mini-histories can be found in this volume, from stories of utopias among brigands, to the vanishing Caribs of the Caribbean, the use of slaves aboard Pirate vessels, and the rampant homosexuality and promiscuity among men and pirates in the period. One small oversight is the lack of a map.
A brilliantly told story, if most history were written like this than it would all rival fiction in the stories that would be told.
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?
I had only a small idea what to expect when I picked up If a Pirate I Must Be: The True Story of Black Bart, "King of the Caribbean Pirates" by Richard Sanders. A selection for my book club (known as the Manly Book Club by its members, but more on that another time), it had been described as containing some surprising insights into pirates that weren't commonly known. And this was true: I learned a lot about the men who sailed the seas of the early 18th century.
What's more, I found If a Pirate I Must Be an entertaining, page-turning, and well-written history. Sanders' history of Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts feels authentic, well-researched, and accurate. He relies on histories and accounts written at the time, including the journals of victims of the pirates, letters between colonial authorities writing to their masters in England beseeching them for relief from the marauders, and other documents of the period, including court testimony of pirates captured and tried.
Black Bart himself did not start out as a pirate, but his story mirrors that of many of the time. An aging sailor on a slaver ship, he was pressed into service when his slave ship was captured by pirates off of the coast of West Africa. Because of his experience as a seaman, he was a prize that an enterprising pirate crew could not pass up--and yet, his story is not unique. Pirates would frequently capture ships and force some number of the captured crew into their own, though often it was unnecessary. Slavers treated their own sailors more poorly than the slaves, because the slaves were worth more. Meanwhile, pirates would appear from over the horizon, capture and board the ship dressed in better clothing, and promise an equal share of gold and rum to any who joined their number. Their government was democratic, and even the captain was elected from among their number, losing his spot at just the vote of the men if they felt he was not guiding them to victory.
And yet, Bart did not go willingly. It would take some time before he would adopt his new place among the pirates, but not long before he was at their head. He would go on to rob the Portuguese treasure fleet off the shores of Brazil, lose all of it to deserters back in the Caribbean (where he would be near-marooned by his crew), and rebuild it all again to become one of the most prolific and successful of pirates of the era.
A few observations, then:
- Piracy, and pirates, looks a lot more like the depictions of Disney and Johnny Depp's "Pirates of the Caribbean" than I would have expected, even down to pirates' sexual ambiguity. Indeed, Sanders history depicts Black Bart as being almost chaste compared to the rest of his crew, though he appears to have developed an extremely close relationship with one of the sailors/passengers of a ship that he captured, the only thing that appears to reflect a romantic relationship that he formed during his reign.
- No one lived long. Whether they died from disease, malnutrition, battle, or any of the myriad of other causes, people were dying fast. Sanders mentions the especially high mortality rate in West Africa, noting that an English doctor had moved his family to a fort to serve a British slaving company there and within just a few months the entire family of six was dead from disease. This appears to be a common scenario of the time.
- In addition to democracy, pirates were incredibly egalitarian and rule based. They drafted and signed articles for each crew to govern their enterprise. Rules included not bringing women on board, each member receiving an equal share of loot (the captain getting a double and the quartermaster and surgeon a share and half), and, on Black Bart's ships, no gambling.
- Punch. These men drank as much, or more, as you've seen depicted in the movies. In fact, [SPOILER ALERT] Bart's fall finally came when he split his crew to pursue what they thought they were pursuing a ship carrying sugar, necessary for making rum.
- The golden age of piracy, extending from about 1715 to 1725, was brief and seems to have been largely due to economic forces around the end of the Spanish - British War that ended directly before. At the end of hostilities, large numbers of men were released from service in the British Navy, and with nowhere else to go, and, no other training or experience, many turned to piracy.
- A lot of the piracy seems to be as much "wink wink nod nod" with merchants working in cahoots with pirates as it was pirates capturing unsuspecting ships. In fact, few appeared to actually have fought back against the pirates. Rather, most seemed to roll over as soon as Black Bart flew out the skull and cross-bones (and yes, they did fly some version of this...several versions, actually).
<em><a href="http://amzn.to/1JtPsO7">If a Pirate I Must Be: The True Story of Black Bart, "King of the Caribbean Pirates"</a></em> is a fun, fascinating, and interesting story. It's an age lost to history, full of pirates distinctly different from those who capture tankers off the coast of East Africa today, probably built out of the economic and historic factors of the age. Sanders has caught the flavor of the era with a history that is enjoyable and gripping to the very end of Black Bart's ignoble end.