RUSSEL K. SHOWRONEK and CHARLES R. EWEN (ed). X Marks the Spot: the archaeology of piracy. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006. Pp xxvi, 339. Cloth $59.95.
X Marks the Spot is a compilation of thirteen essays, all written by American or European scholars, on the historical archaeology of piracy in the early-modern world. The volume is coedited by Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Santa Clara University, Russel K. Showronek, and Professor of Anthropology at East Caroline University, Charles R. Ewan. As far as the historian is concerned, the work is genuinely valuable in at least two regards: supplying language, context, and imagery to the material record of piracy, and demonstrating the value of collaboration between scientific and historical methodologies. Unfortunately, the work suffers from a range of problems, both conceptual and factual. Most notable among these issues is a general lack of cohesion between the individual chapters and a sense of inconsistent interest and agreement in the topic of piracy among the contributors. Both of these problems stem from an undefined and loosely enforced vision on the part of the editors, who seem more interested in discussing popular imagery and conceptions of piracy in the twentieth century than in reading and contextualizing the main themes of the individual contributions. Nonetheless, since X Marks the Spot is the only existing book-length project to address the material record of piracy, it still holds a great deal of merit for the scholar of the early-modern era.
Broken into three distinct parts, X Marks the Spot is prefaced by a short essay discussing the cultural legacy of piracy in the modern imagination, a topic which is revisited in the final (and by far the shortest) part of the book. This part, entitled “Pirates in Fact and Fiction,” is reminiscent of David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag. The other two parts of the book are respectively called “Pirate Lairs” and “Pirate Ships and Their Prey.” The first of these parts includes case studies on Port Royal, Jamaica; Grand Terre, in Barataria Bay; Roatan and the Bay Islands, off Honduras; and the Barcadares, in Belize. The second of these parts includes chapters on several reputed pirate wrecks: the Speaker off Mauritius, the Fiery Dragon off Madagascar, and the Queen Anne’s Revenge off North Carolina. It also includes a chapter on Sam Bellamy’s ship the Whydah, which, as a result of an inscribed bronze bell that was salvaged from the wreck, has the distinction of being the only confirmed pirate wreck from the early-modern era. Finally, this section is rounded out by two odd-fitting and largely unnecessary chapters, one on supposed river pirates in the Ohio Valley and one on the victims of piracy in the Caribbean.
Each chapter from X Marks the Spot begins with a brief historical overview of the pirate ship or pirate location under discussion. These overview are often followed by sections on the methodology and process of surveying the given archaeological site. The better chapters, like “The Pirate Ship Queen Anne’s Revenge” by Wilde-Ramsing, include an analysis about how the finds from the site enhance our historical understanding of who pirates might have been and how they operated in the maritime world. The more regrettable chapters, like “Christopher Condent’s Fiery Dragon” by John de Bry, get bogged down in scientific jargon and processes, ultimately forgetting to foreground connections of greater historical value. Overall, there is a general sense that the contributors are not on the same page, and that they are not writing for the same audience. Most pirate enthusiasts will not care to learn that a particular archaeological survey was conducted “with a Geometric 881 Cesium Vapor magnetometer and a Trimble GPS receiver.” They will care, however, to learn that a pirate ship might be discerned from a merchant or military vessel through an unusually high presence of recovered cannons, hailing from various provenances and still loaded with unorthodox types of shot.
Overall, the editors of X Marks the Spot do not seem to have put a great deal of thought into the conception and execution of the larger work. For example, although it presumes to examine “the Golden Age of Piracy,” dated in one place as 1650 to 1750, some of the featured case studies focus on much earlier or later time periods. Admittedly, the work ignores “pirates in antiquity, the Barbary pirates, and piracy in the Pacific,” but includes an awkward and mostly speculative chapter on flatboat river pirates in the Ohio valley between 1785 and 1830. These sorts of additions suggest that, despite their best intentions, the editors were compelled to accept whatever contributions they could get. In other cases, X Marks the Spot is guilty of embarrassing factual inaccuracies. In just the first fourteen pages, Sir Francis Drake is erroneously categorized as a buccaneer of the 1650s, and Henry Morgan’s famous raid on Portobello is cited as occurring twenty years later than it actually did. Back-to-back chapters on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, designed to give opposing viewpoints on the identification of the ship as a pirate vessel, variously state that the ship was used for privateering in the year 1710 and that “nothing is known of the vessel until” the year 1713. How can this be?
While some of the authors are generally interested in adding to the historical conversation about piracy, others use the sensational topic of piracy as a pretext to talk about research that truly interests them. After admitting that archaeological surveys of supposed land-based pirate haunts can reveal little or “no attributes associated with the defining activities of pirate life,” J. David McBride spends his chapter talking about British military sites from the 1740s and 1780s that were directly unrelated to pirates. Similarly, when Joan Exnicios admits that no substantive excavation of Grand Terre island has been undertaken, the reader is left wondering why her chapter on Jean Lafitte has been included in the book. In another example, the chapter on flatboat river pirates is premised on the shipwreck America, which the author readily admits had nothing to do with piracy. In an ironic sense, the idea that pirate vessels could be used as a pretext to publish archaeological research parallels a question that the book is allegedly trying to address: the often conflicting yet collaborative relationship between commercial salvagers and scholars in regards to potential pirate sites. Unfortunately, the editors do not appear to have pushed their individual contributors to follow up on this theme, and so the ethical tensions of this relationship are never discussed in the detail that they truly deserve.
Other authors go in a completely different direction. Far from just having no interest in discussing pirates, Donny Hamilton seems to have an actual grudge against the idea that pirates were central to the city of Port Royal, Jamaica. His main argument is that pirates were not nearly as important to the history of the port as merchant elites, though he refuses to account for the obvious crossovers between the two groups. Finally, another chapter worth mentioning for its inadequacies is the piece composed in tandem by the editors, entitled “Identifying the Victims of Piracy in the Caribbean.” After some selective historical overview on the economic structure of the overseas Spanish empire, the editors make the dubious argument that artifact assemblages from Spanish castillos and presidios suggest the absence of contraband trade with non-Hispanic pirates in the late sixteenth century. The problem here is that Elizabethan pirates like John Hawkins engaged mostly in the illicit trade of stolen Spanish goods or items that were organic and perishable, and, hence, would not have or survived or stood out in the material record.
Another small yet perhaps telling issue is that none of the contributors seem to be aware of the ongoing controversy surrounding the famous work of Captain Charles Johnson, who is still cited everywhere as Daniel Defoe. Also, for unknown reasons, Kris Lane’s fantastic survey of early-modern piracy, Pillaging the Empire, is not cited. The editors have opted instead to use The History of Piracy by the Scottish maritime historian Angus Konstam as their shepherding work. Konstam’s books are excellent for providing popular overviews of pirate history, and texts like The Pirate Ship 1660-1730 are great for detailing the specific anatomy of pirate vessels. But, in general, his works do not have the analytical weight of a Marcus Rediker book. This results in a defining problem of the work, where Daniel Finamore’s chapter on the transient logmen of Barcadares, the first British Bay Settlement of the Belize River, is the only real chapter to attempt to make direct connections between its material findings and the social interpretations of pirate history. This chapter is by far the best contribution to X Marks the Spot.
Finamore uses interdisciplinary evidence to articulate the complex social milieu of the early-modern loggers. Most interestingly, he found hand-painted Chinese porcelain fragments, likely stolen from the Spanish treasure galleons en route from the Philippines, being used as common objects and not ornate decorations. Their usage was evidenced by the lack of common ceramic and pewter tableware at the same archaeological site. Partly from this he surmised that the loggers rejected “an authoritarian system of economic oppression” that was prevalent in the naval and merchant sailing industries, and yet “did not reject the accumulation [and display] of [elite] wealth obtained through a combination of hard work and illegal pursuits.” Moreover, Finamore is so well versed in the scholarship of piracy that he is able to connect this evidence to the way that Black Flag pirates rebelled against the sumptuary laws by flaunting the naval uniforms that they were forbidden by colonial law to possess.
Rather than introducing and concluding X Marks the Spot with semi-indulgent reflections on the modern connotations of piracy—derived from movies, novels, interviews, and childhood toys—Showronek and Ewan might have focused more closely on the central question of their work: can pirate sites be identified in the archaeological record? If so, how? A beginning chapter that summarizes the specific difficulties associated with discerning pirates sites from non-pirates sites would have gone a long way in setting the tone for the rest of the work. For example, readers should know that, contrary to popular notions, pirates often dealt in highly perishable materials and beings, like cocoa, sugar, molasses, tobacco, and slaves; they also sojourned in abodes that were made of organic materials, like thatched palm, logwood, and Ozenbrig cloth. Defining pieces of their modern image, like iron hooks, cloth eye-patches and bandanas, and wooden legs, would not have survived underwater conditions except in the most unusual circumstances. Other items, like cutlasses, grappling hooks, grenades, and cannons, may survive but can be explained as having been onboard a merchant or naval vessel.
It seems essential that readers understand the difference between “discontinuous” and “continuous” shipwrecks, and that the distinction is used consistently by the contributors. All alleged pirates vessels seem to fall within the former category, which describes ships that have broken apart beneath the sea; and, thus, none of their structural elements above the bilge (or water line) remain to be salvaged. In most cases, the only remains are wooden futtocks from the hull, deadeyes, ballast, or cannons, all items that make a positive identification of a pirate ship very difficult. While historians can often discern the provenance of a cannon—through maker’s marks, particular designs, or inscribed dates—or the wood or design of a hull, these facts do not help answer the question of whether the ship was a pirating or a non-pirating vessel. Lastly, there is the problem of making the assumption that the artifact assemblage discovered in a shipwreck actually represented what was on board at the time of its sinking. The most valuable items were often salvaged, while many others became scattered and buried in the seabed.
Notwithstanding its many problems and missed opportunities, X Marks the Spot is still valuable for its ability to provide an unrivaled cache of vocabulary about the material record of early-modern piracy. X Marks the Spot catalogues such items as “olive-green bottle glass,” “tin-glazed earthenware,” a “lead pump sieve with three flanges,” “cast-iron grenades,” “shell-edged pearlware,” “Staffordshire slipware posset pots,” and, what is perhaps the most evocative item, a “French-made pewter urethral syringe.” Contemporary phrases like these make X Marks the Spot extremely valuable. Historians can mine the text in the hopes of giving their writing authenticity, color, and depth. As a concluding note, X Marks the Spot should give historians a great sense of pride in remembering just how valuable their methodologies are for identifying potential sites of piracy. From the Barcadares logging camp, which were described in the journals of William Dampier and Nathanial Uring, to the Beaufort Inlet wreck, which was chronicled in the depositions of Henry Bostock and David Herriot, the pirate sites about which experts are the most confident today are those with strong corresponding documentary evidence. In other words, the unique challenges of detecting piracy in the material record, whether on land or underwater, have reaffirmed the indisputable value of the the literary record.