Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Under the Black Flag - David Cordingly

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the PiratesUnder the Black Flag came to my attention because the boyfriend and I decided we wanted to go the Renaissance Faire in Annapolis this year, specifically for Pirate Weekend. Clearly, I needed to bone up on my pirate knowledge for this big event, so I started Googling for pirate books. Under the Black Flag had pretty good ratings and the library had it, so off I went!

In this book, Cordingly deals with pirate history as well as how popular works including or focusing on pirates have affected the public's perception of them. It's divided into topical chapters, such as female pirates, hunting down pirates, etc. Within each chapter, Cordingly covers a variety of mini-topics that span several centuries, up until about the mid 1700s, which means the book jumps around in time a bit. That didn't bother me, but what did bother me was that the transitions between the mini-topics weren't very smooth. They jumped from one thing to another, leaving me sometimes going, "Wait, what?" Cordingly also focuses on the pirates of the Atlantic and Caribbean, though he briefly mentions a few instances of piracy in Asia. This was too bad, because those few instances he mentioned really made me want to know more about Asian piracy. (Does anyone know any good books on this topic?)

Pirate history can be kind of hard to cover, because pirates didn't exactly keep good journals of what their actions. Most records come from court trials and the logs of naval captains or privateers who faced or hunted down pirates. This is precisely why one of my thesis classmates ended up not writing about pirates--a dearth of primary sources for the specific topic he wanted to cover--and probably why Cordingly ends up needing to draw on a few examples to make the majority of his points. Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, and Captain Kidd serve as the big "people" in this book, because they were so notorious and so more can be found about them. As for ships, the Whydah ends up being Cordingly's prime example because it's the only pirate ship that has been found and positively identified. Snippets of other things and people are included, but these are the big focal points.

Cordingly also talks about pirates in pop culture, and this is the place that I found the book to be most lacking...but it's not really Cordingly's fault. The thing is, Under the Black Flag was published in 1995. I'm a total millenial, which means that the pirate portrayals that have affected me most are not, in fact, Treasure Island (unless you're counting the awesome Disney adaptation Treasure Planet) or Errol Flynn movies (never seen one), but rather the more fantastical portrayals of pirates that have emerged in my lifetime, from Jack Sparrow--sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow--and his Pirates of the Caribbean, to Stardust's (both book and movie version) Captain Shakespeare, to the Disney-fied Captain Killian Hook of Once Upon a Time. I think it would be very interesting to see an updated version of this which factors in the recent resurgence of pirates in pop culture, rather than relying so heavily on old, 18th- and 19th-century portrayals of pirates that most people in our current time haven't heard of--Treasure Island excluded. Most of the poems and books published back then aren't really of interest to people now, but these current portrayals clearly are. It was just strange to read about how these things had supposedly affected modern folks' mental image of pirates, when there are so clearly more modern portrayals that have had a larger impact.

Overall, this was a good book, and I enjoyed it. But I think the transitions needed some work, being very choppy, and I'm not sure that I bought some of the arguments Cordingly made about pirate portrayals, and I definitely think he relied on a few instances too heavily, going back to them again and again until I felt he'd hammered the point straight into the ground.

3.5 stars out of 5.

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