Eric Jay Dolin is the author of the new book Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates. His other books include Brilliant Beacons and Leviathan. He lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Q: Why did you choose pirates as the subject of your new book, and what do you think accounts for the ongoing fascination with them?
A: This book’s origin story begins with my kids. After I finished Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, I began searching for a new book topic. I asked Lily and Harry, who were then in their teens, what I should write about.
When I raised the possibility of pirates, their eyes lit up, both of them saying, “That’s it, you have to write about pirates.” Lily even threw out two possible titles for the book: “Swords, Sails, and Swashbucklers;” and “Argh”—or, perhaps more emphatically, “Arrrgh”—which, I had to tell Lily, much to her chagrin, is a word that probably was never uttered by a Golden Age pirate, and is more likely a creation of movies in which pirates dispense arghs with relish.
My children’s strong support is, of course, not the only reason I wrote this book. But the fact that they were early adopters of the pirate idea, was encouraging. Great credit is also due to my editor and the sales director at Liveright (part of W. W. Norton), who loved the idea, and picked it from a list of eight book ideas I had generated.
The many fictional representations of pirates, both in print, in plays, and on the silver screen has probably had the greatest impact in getting the general public interested in pirates, even though the perception of pirates created by these various sources is often quite different from what actual pirates were like.
Pirates have long been among the most colorful and memorable celebrities in popular culture. Much of this has to do with the impact of books and movies that use pirates as a motif, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and the 1935 film Captain Blood, which launched Hollywood idol Errol Flynn’s career.
More recently, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise, starring the flamboyant, sassy, and charismatic Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, has generated a new pirate-mania, further cementing the hold that pirates have on the human psyche. No wonder, then, that pirate costumes are among the most popular donned on Halloween night, and International Talk Like a Pirate Day is observed by legions of devoted fans every September 19.
Many people view pirates in a romantic light, but there was absolutely nothing romantic about them, other than the legends woven about their exploits after they were gone.
That is not to say that pirates were boring. Far from it. While the pirates in the pages that follow can’t compete with the magnetic charms and witty repartee of Captain Jack Sparrow, they are compelling characters nonetheless. And the real story of America’s pirates is even more astonishing and fascinating than any fictional pirate adventure ever written or cast on the silver screen.
It is largely because of dramatic fictional representations that pirates have grabbed hold of our collective imagination. Many have daydreamed about leaving traditional society behind, boarding a ship, and throwing in their lot with hearty men— and women—intent on taking what they want and getting rich while enjoying the luxurious freedom of sailing the world’s oceans with a hold full of rum, going where the wind will take them.
Mark Twain captured this longing in his memoir, Life on the Mississippi (1883), when he admitted that even though he and his friends had one “permanent ambition,” to be steamboatmen, “now and then we had a hope that, if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”
Historians can certainly poke holes in the fictional representations of pirates, especially those that depict them as unusually attractive, rakish yet good-natured rapscallions, having a grand old time looking for love, adventure, and treasure on the waves.
Although it is true that greed and lucre is the main motivation for both fictional and real pirates, the supposed romance and glamour of piracy is imaginary.
The reality of piracy is nothing like the breathless musings of a New York Times reporter in 1892, who complained: “It cannot but be a source of regret to every true lover of the picturesque that pirates are no more and piracy has lost its popularity. What tremendous fellows they must have been! What heroes, dandies, wits, were to be found among them! They were immensely superior to land brigands, . . . [who] are mere milk compared with Blackbeard and Capt. Kidd.”
While real pirates were incredibly intriguing and compelling characters, they were most definitely not “tremendous fellows”; instead, they were sea-borne criminals who were neither endearing nor heroic.
But I also think that good non-fictional accounts, which contribute to setting the record straight and actually informing people about what pirates were really like, have created compelling portraits of many pirates, and increased interest in piracy in general.
Finally, there is a reason why people love books, shows, and movies about horrible people, such as murderers, thieves, con artists, and various unethical people – I am not sure what that reason is, perhaps the ghoulish thrill of seeing physical and mental violence depicted or safely witnessing circumstances you hope you never experience. But, whatever the reasons, people seem to not be able to get their fill of the bad boys and girls of history.
Q: You begin the book with an incident in April 1726. Why did you choose to start here?
A: I started with a story about the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, and hence the endpoint of my book, for two reasons.
First, it created a dramatic, gripping, and relatively quick and complete opening for the book, which will hopefully draw the reader in, and make them want to read more.
Second, by beginning at the end, so to speak, I thought it would be an effective way to give the reader a very direct sense of the bounds of the book, and of the Golden Age. And, then at the end of the book, by mentioning the 1726 incident again, I give the book closure. I certainly could have begun the book in many different ways, but for reasons both clear to me, as well as for those that are more mysterious and harder to articulate, I chose the story of the pirate William Fly to open the book.
Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about pirates?
A: Pirates are often portrayed as bloodthirsty brutes who left a trail of corpses in their wakes. In truth, most pirates got what they wanted through intimidation and the threat of violence, rather than actual violence.
For many years, in the late 1600s, pirates were not considered misanthropic loners and criminals with anger issues, but rather they were upstanding members of their communities who were welcomed by citizens, merchants, and politicians alike for all the wealth they brought back to the colonies.
Although a few pirates became rich, and were able to enjoy their profits, most failed to achieve great financial success, and had brief careers that often ended in violent death.
Much has been made of the pirates’ use of democratic decision making, especially since democracy was hardly in vogue in the society at large, this being many decades before the American and French Revolutions ushered in broadly, though certainly not completely, democratic forms of government in the United States and France.
For example, the entire crew comprised an informal body, called the common council, which selected the captain by a majority vote. In the same manner it determined when and where they would go to search for prizes, which ships they would attack, and how they would resolve particularly thorny issues not covered by the pirate articles.
Nevertheless, pirates adopted such democratic principles not because of any political theory, but rather because a pirate ship was, in effect, a floating society, and pirates simply set up practical, sensible, and easily enforced rules to ensure that their society functioned as smoothly as possible.
Pirates are often portrayed as heavy drinkers, and that is absolutely true! Whenever they got a cargo of rum or wine, they went on epic benders.
Pirates are also often portrayed as wearing flamboyant clothes, and that too is true in some cases. Typically, sailors were attired like other sailors of the day, with “loose ‘slop trousers’ or breeches to the knee, a standard work shirt made out of canvas or calico, a belt, from which a knife could be hung, a neckerchief or bandana draped around the neck or head, a waistcoat or short blue jacket, wool stockings, and a Monmouth cap knitted from wool or a tricorn hat [one that has the brim turned up on three sides, giving it a triangular shape with three points].”
However, if plundered vessels happened to be transporting passengers of the upper crust of society, or merely carrying cargo for that class, pirates would eagerly help themselves to the finest garments and jewelry for their own use, either by looting the cargo, or literally stealing the shirts off their wealthy victims’ backs. Pirates of this period were happy to dress in a way that signified their success, and as a means of disrespecting the class-based norms of the society of which they were no longer a part.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you find several of the pirates you write about particularly fascinating?
A: All of my books are on topics I initially know little about, so research is critical to becoming expert enough to write an authoritative and interesting book. I typically spend about nine months to a year doing research, and delve deeply into both primary and secondary sources.
My outline is my book proposal, which lays out the chapters. Then, I create multiple computer files for each chapter, loading them with information I have gathered. These files grow quite voluminous, and they essentially contain much of the raw material – the facts, the stories, the quotes – that I use to construct the book.
Once I complete most of the research, I start writing from the beginning to the end. I do additional research while writing to fill in holes. Once I have a complete draft, then I spend a month or so editing, filling in any remaining holes, and trying to make the narrative fun, fast-paced, and informative. The entire process, from research to finished book takes from eighteen months to two years.
The farthest from my house that I ventured for research was to London, where I tapped the vast holdings of the British National Archives and the National Maritime Museum. I also made good use of libraries in Boston and near my house in Marblehead, with much of my time being spent at Harvard’s Widener Library and Houghton Library. But most of my research was done in my home office.
I bought about fifty books on pirates to create my own mini library. I also was able to find an unbelievable number of primary and secondary materials on line. With a few keystrokes, I could bring up digitized images of primary documents hundred of years old, as well as any number of secondary materials, especially books on piracy written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The difficulty wasn’t finding enough information; it was deciding what I wanted to use to write the book, out of the vast avalanche of information available to me. I could have easily spent five years researching and writing this book, but that wouldn’t serve my purposes or those of my publisher, so I had to make dozens of decisions a day about what to leave in and what to leave out—what to read, and what to leave alone.
Historical researchers and authors today have an embarrassment of riches, which is very nice, but it also means that you have to be very selective—that is if you want to finish your book in a reasonable amount of time.
Pirates are not very loveable fellows, to be sure, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be Blackbeard, not only because of the larger-than-life mythology that has grown up around his exploits, but also because he had one of the most interesting piratical careers, and his life ended in a bloody battle with his head being hung from the bowsprit of his own sloop.
Edward Low was another fascinating character. He was a sadistic, most likely psychopathic, pirate who relished torturing or killing many of his victims. His signature move, other than running people through with a sword or shooting them, was slicing off ears and slitting nostrils.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am writing a narrative history of hurricanes in America.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: This might sound a bit self-serving coming from a writer, but I would ask readers, and their friends, to buy more books. In an era where many seem to believe that information should be free, and reading often loses out to TV, movies, videos, and social media, many authors are finding it more difficult to earn a living, or even a semblance of a living.
While it is true that overall books sales are holding steady, and are even improving in some sectors, a significant number of sales are attributed to a relatively small number of “celebrity” or major bestselling authors. If you like the work of an author who doesn’t fall into this category, help them produce more books you might like by buying one or more of their recent offerings. They will greatly appreciate that, and you will get a good read.
One final thing. I use my professional Facebook page (@ericjaydolin) to post interesting stories about history and natural history, and, of course, about my books. If people want to see what I post, and follow my travels, I would encourage them to like or follow my page. Thanks for reading!
Editor’s Note: Eric Jay Dolin drew from the text of his book in answering these questions.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Eric Jay Dolin.