COLIN WOODARD. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. New York: Harcourt, 2007. Pp. 383. $27.00.
The Republic of Pirates is the third nonfiction book by the American journalist and writer Colin Woodard. The book “tells the story of the Golden Age of Piracy,” here dated as 1715 to 1725, “through the lives of four of its leading figures.” The first three of these figures are the Black Flag pirates Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, and Charles Vane; and the last figure is the first, crown-appointed Governor of the Bahamas and the former privateer and circumnavigator of the globe, Woodes Rogers. The Republic of Pirates is properly categorized as a “popular history” or a “narrative nonfiction” book; it synthesizes secondary and archival research into a chronological, novelistic account of the rise and fall of English piracy in the early eighteenth century. Woodard seeks to mix fact and fiction in both his style and his content. By discussing the legends of the pirate Henry Avery, he demonstrates that “the romantic myth of piracy didn’t follow the Golden Age, it helped create it.” However, while Woodard’s prose is captivating, fluid, and a sincere joy to read, The Republic of Pirates is neither analytical, original, nor well documented enough to be revered among historians. Its greatest application is as a winsome and nuanced translation of Black Flag piracy for a lay or nonprofessional audience.
It is important to preface this review by stating that The Republic of Pirates is a work intended as a narrative for general audiences. Woodard is a journalist by trade, not an historian. He received his graduate degree in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 1996, and he has worked mostly as a foreign correspondent for publications like The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The study of piracy and/or the Atlantic world is not Woodard’s lifetime, scholastic pursuit. Instead, he writes regularly about the environmental and cultural history of the coast of Maine, where he lives, as well as on topics of international concern. In this sense, The Republic of Pirates is a history of piracy in the sense that The Devil in the White City is a history of Chicago. It is the product of archival research, but it synthesized, conceived, and arranged for the primary purpose of mass consumption and entertainment. Perhaps this explains why it is one of the only factual books on piracy sold in the gift shop of The Pirate Museum at Nassau.
For primary sources, The Republic of Pirates relies heavily upon Woodard’s archival sleuthing of Colonial Office and Admiralty records at the British National Archives in Kew. Woodard used a stack of captain’s logs from Royal Navy ships-of-the-line that were stationed in the New World during the period in question. Woodard also consulted colonial shipping returns, miscellaneous letters and correspondence, ship’s bay and port books, and various Vice Admiralty trial records, particularly for the crews of Sam Bellamy, Stede Bonnet, and Jack Rackam in Boston and Jamaica. Woodard relied heavily upon the primary-source reader series, entitled Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, edited in the early twentieth century by the British scholars John Fortescue and Cecil Headlman. Like other pirate historians, he liberally cites The General History by Captain Charles Johnson, and he also recapitulates the controversy surroundings its authorship. Those documents written in a language other than English—such as Spanish accounts of the 1715 treasure fleet and French accounts of the capture of La Concorde—have been translated by other scholars. Finally, Woodard has relied upon microfilms of a few contemporary newspapers, particularly the Jamaican Courant and the Boston News-Letter, founded in 1704 by John Campbell.
For secondary sources, Woodard relies upon the works of Marcus Rediker, who “built the foundation for the study of pirates from their own perspective, rather than from that of their adversaries.” He also uses Kenneth Kinkor of the Expedition Whydah Museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for his expertise on Bellamy; Joel Baer of Macalaster College for his expertise on Avery; and David Moore of the North Carolina Maritime Museum for his expertise on Blackbeard. Lastly, Woodard cites both Robert Ritchie’s Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (1986) and Robert E. Lee’s Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times (1974) as influential precursors, and he states that Bryan Little’s Crusoe’s Captain (1960) “is still the finest biography of Woodes Rogers.” All in all, Woodard deserves commendation for the collaborative nature of his research. From his knowledge of Arne Bialuschewski’s recent theory regarding the authorship of The General History, to his use of Jane Humphries’s scholarship on the enclosure of the commons in England, it is clear that Woodard is a journalist who has done his homework. In this regard, his efforts far exceed that of many of his contemporaries.
The Republic of Pirates begins with a short prologue that establishes the author’s unique interpretation of piracy in the early-modern era as well as his specific motivation for writing. Woodard claims that the book was inspired by a strong desire to reveal “who the pirates really were,” aside from a “jumble of pop culture references” and romantic “clichés” established through such modern phenomena as television shows, pirate books, and Hollywood “movies and merchandising.” In this regard, Woodard’s motivations are not that different from most scholars who decide to tackle the historical question of piracy. Like others, Woodard chooses to introduce his book with a personal anecdote about the perspicuous moment when he first realized that the modern image of the pirate was far from the historical reality. As far as he view on the Black Flag pirates, the prologue suggests that it parallels that of Rediker: the pirates were a democratic, egalitarian, and multicultural group who formed their own communities of “rough justice” apart from the violence of mainstream society. Unfortunately, the narrative in the rest of the book does not closely adhere to this confident interpretation.
In the first chapter, Woodard sets the watery stage for the group that he consistently calls the “Bahamian pirates” (read: the Black Flag pirates or the Flying Gang) by including a section on the “the King of the Pirates,” or “The [most] Successful Pirate,” Henry Avery. Here Woodard reveals the importance of the generational gap between the pirates of the 1690s and the pirates of the 1710s. It has long been known that, while the Bahamian pirates were generally portrayed as monsters by both American and English capitalists (e.g. “ship and plantation owners”), they were often regarded as “folk heroes” or social bandits by members of the lower classes in both the colonies and the continent. However, it has often been overlooked that the “Bahamian pirates” were literally raised on the legends of Henry Avery and Captain Kidd. Thomas Barrow and Vane claimed that they would make New Providence a “new” or “second” Madagascar,” and Walter Kennedy fondly recalled hearing about “Captain Avery’s more modern exploits at Madagascar.” In doing so, these pirates were directly referencing their social role models.
As a side note, Woodard claims to make this close harmony between legend and fact a central theme of his work, but he drops it after the first chapter on Avery. As a result, he misses many great opportunities in his narrative to fully explore its connections. For example, he makes almost nothing of the fact that English sailors on board the Protestant Caesar agree to fight the Spaniards to the death but blatantly refuse to resist English pirates. This would also have been an apt moment to complicate the egalitarian nature of the largely English pirates with a discussion of relations between Spanish-Catholics and English-protestants. If English sailors bought into the mythology of the pirate as folklore hero, did they also buy into the Black Legend mythology of the Spaniard as villain and “other”? Also, how did the popular notion of the pirate as the Jacobean outlaw square with the worldview of individuals—like Nicholas Trott, Alexander Spotswood, Walter Hamilton, and Woodes Rogers—who both accepted and benefited from Gregorian rule? In other words, how did the dynastic changes after the War of Spanish Succession altar the social and political meanings of the pirate legend?
The second chapter is called “Going to Sea.” It details the reasons that pirates went “on the account” broadly, as well as the specific motivations of the book’s four main characters. The third chapter covers The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), particularly tracing Rogers’s activities as a English privateer in the Pacific Ocean, then called the South Sea or the Spanish Lake. Throughout the first half of the book, Woodard devotes time discussing the evolution of Rogers as a pirate hunter, from his merchant connections with the Whetstone family in Bristol to his blocked idea for pacifying Madagascar. But Woodard never gets around to directly relating this work to his analysis of the pirates, and it seems like narrative filler. The third chapter also discusses the Bahamian pirates who began their careers as Jamaican privateers during the war; however, since very little is known about their activities, Woodard is forced to rely mostly upon deductive inference and imagination.
The fourth chapter covers the first years of peace following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713-1715). During this relatively short period, the main characters of the Flying Gang begin to take shape in the historical record. The Jamaican privateers who were commissioned by the Jacobite sympathizer, Lord Archibald Hamilton, moved northward from Jamaica, the “gem of the British empire,” to the remote, poor, and ungoverned islands of the Bahamas. Here we see the main privateering leaders—Benajamin Hornigold and Henry Jennings—prey upon Spanish shipping near the Gulf Stream, the Old Bahaman Channel, and the coasts of Cuba. Woodard covers their ascent gradually, demonstrating that the Bahaman islands had a reputation as a pirate haven since at least the 1680s, but that this reputation was renewed immediately after the war. Hornigold and Jennings continued their commissions, which were now illegal, by taking Spanish vessels with pirogues, or sailing canoes, in the summer of 1713. Although these captains had an allegiance to nationalism, and wanted to take only non-English vessels, they were simultaneously serving as mentors for an emerging group of more audacious rogues, like Vane and Blackbeard, who would become hostis humani generis, the “enemies of all mankind.”
In his treatment of these early chapter topics, Woodard ranks among the best of the pirate scholars in harmonizing the historical contingencies that gave rise to the Bahaman islands as an undisputed pirate haven in the New World. He is able to analyze the creation of “the Pirate Republic” from economic, political, and social standpoints. Speaking generally, he considers the cruel conditions for common sailors on land, as well as aboard the merchant marine, the slaving crews, and the naval vessels. In true Rediker style, he briefly discusses the struggle for sailors to survive and make ends meet in the context of emergent, Atlantic capitalism. More specifically, Woodard considers such factors as the sacking of Nassau by Spanish and French forces in 1703, the abandoning of the Bahamas colonial project by Edward Birch in 1704, the demobilization of the English naval fleet in 1714, the ongoing Jacobite resistance to George I in both the continent and the colonies after 1714, the wreck of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1715, and the exile of the English logwood cutters in Campeche in 1716. Woodard juggles all of these ideas and more, showing that perhaps the greatest contribution of his book is in its ability to corral the manifold conditions that make for a “perfect storm” of piracy.
Woodard balances many contexts in order to paint a nuanced portrait for his lay audience. In this regard, he must also be singled out for one in particular: demonstrating how the illicit smuggling operations out of nearby Harbour Island worked in tandem with the pirate operations of New Providence. Very few historians have looked closely at this mutual relationship; instead, most scholars use New Providence island during this period as a synecdoche for the Bahamas itself. On the contrary, Woodard shows how several merchant elites, like Richard Thompson and Nicholas Woodall, adapted in hopes of reaping the financial rewards of piracy; their relatives went in and out of the pirating business when it was convenient to do so, and they made lucrative profits by serving as fences for pirated goods. In this regard, both of these groups had reasons to resist the efforts of the self-proclaimed governor Thomas Walker, who failed to persecute the pirates in the years before the arrival of Rogers.
Chapter five is called “Pirates Gather.” This details the events following the last contest in 1716 between Walker and the pirates who seize the Bahamas as their official republic. Walker had surprised both the pirates and their accomplices on Harbour Island. He had arrested Daniel Stillwell, Zacheus Darvell, Matthew Low, and several of their colleagues, and brought them back to the capital at Nassau for trial. However, Hornigold freed the pirates, threatened Walker with death, and declared New Providence island as a pirate colony. Fearing for his life, Walker and his family fled to Carolina and then Abaco Island, where they remained until Rogers arrived two years later. After this precise moment, the Bahamas became an uncontested pirate stronghold for two years. Pirates then living in New England, like Sam Bellamy, came south to join the former privateers and their piratical underlings. Plantation owners in the Caribbean, like Stede Bonnet, came north to enlist with the rogues, and black and Indian slaves who worked on the waterfronts of port towns shipped themselves to the islands. Most importantly, a new group of pirates began to pillage ships regardless of national origin. In the context of Jacobean efforts to re-install James III and the Stuart dynasty, these men even saw English ships as potential enemies.
The sixth chapter, “Brethren of the Coast,” continues to narrate the evolution of the Black Flag pirates during the years 1716 and 1717. The subsequent two chapters focus individually on Sam Bellamy and Blackbeard in the year 1717. The chapter on Bellamy ends with his death off Eastham—on the “outermost reaches of Cape Cod,” Massachusetts—as a result of a violent storm. The ninth chapter is called “Begging Pardon,” and it focuses on the arrival of Rogers at Nassau in 1718. This is one of Woodard’s best chapters because it provides a unique opportunity for him to recognize an often overlooked distinction between the Bahamian pirates. Whether as a result of his lack of confidence or his preference for nuance, Woodard neither romanticizes the lifestyle of the pirates nor universalizes their group to the extreme that Rediker does. Rather than being one homogenized unit, there is a very distinct split between the original privateer leaders of Jamaica (men like Jennings, Cockram, Burgess, Hornigold) and their emerging pupils (men like Bellamy, Vane, and Blackbeard).
The first group mentioned above formed a robust, pro-pardon faction. These pirates were slow to raid English shipping in the first years after the war, and they were quick to accept the Act of Grace in 1718 and abandon their lifestyle. Many of them go into the merchant service and even turned on their brethren to become pirate hunters. The second group mentioned above are fully committed pirates. They are the anarchistic, unrepentant, and vengeful pirates who form the subject of Rediker’s historical work. Regardless of one’s personal feelings about these people—whether they are admired, despised, or interpreted somewhere in between—the two groups must be analyzed together. The pro-pardon group not only reveals the extent of the imperial project to dismantle piracy, but it also reveals the true risk that those who remained in piracy accepted. As their former brothers took certificates of pardon and hunkered down to new lives in the colonies, the Black Flag pirates strengthened their resolve, despite their dwindling prospects.
The tenth chapter, “Brinkmanship,” continues the chronological narrative. It foreshadows the bloody confrontation that Blackbeard will have with Lieutenant Robert Maynard at Ocracoke Inlet; it describes Rogers awkward effort to “civilize” the island of New Providence; and it details Vane’s standoff against the new occupants of Nassau, first Captain Vincent Pearse and then Commodore Peter Chamberlaine and Rogers himself. The eleventh chapter, “Hunted,” details the hanging of Bonnet and the demise of Blackbeard and Vane, who had been hiding out at Green Turtle Cay in Abaco, waiting for his chance to retake New Providence. The last chapter, “Piracy’s End,” wraps up by briefly describing the lives of several pirates who fall outside the book’s scope. It closes the loop on Rogers and the discredited governor of Jamaica, Archibald Hamilton, with his failed plan to profit from a trans-Atlantic Jacobite revolution. On page 328, the narrative ends abruptly, with only a line or two to suffice as a conclusion.
The Republic of Pirates is a riveting narrative from start to finish; however, by chapter six, the historian may begin to feel the drawbacks of Woodard’s biographical approach. While he intended to restrict his study of pirates to Bellamy, Vane, and Blackbeard, Woodard struggles with the fact that the Black Flag pirates were a very incestuous bunch. As Rediker demonstrates in Villains of All Nations, they had an extraordinary amount of crossover. Most of them knew each other, had served together, and had even betrayed each other at one time or another. As a result, Woodard finds himself unable to resist detailing the lives and exploits of Stede Bonnet, Leigh Ashworth, Paulsgrave Williams, John Cockram, Calico Jack Rackam, La Buse, Jean Bondavais, John Wills, Charles Yeats, Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and many more. In the process, the reader gets the suspicion that the biographical approach is only a narrative convenience—a reflection of the author’s limitations rather than the most effective way of addressing the historical context of piracy.
Journalists, like Buddy Levy and Erik Larson, tend to prefer the biographical approach for narrative nonfiction because it creates a sense of progress that mirrors the natural arch of a person’s life. This narrative progress grounds the story and makes it more accessible to a public audience, who will likely feel comforted when they recognize consistent personages throughout. Historians, on the other hand, tend to eschew the biographical approach because they feel that it often lends too much agency to individual people and obscures the degree to which they were byproducts of greater historical change. By focusing on an individual and making his personal motivations the subject of inquiry, scholars can too easily excuse themselves from analyzing the larger institutions of which that person was only a small part, often beyond their own knowledge. In the case of the rise and fall of the Bahamian pirates, we are talking about some big questions. We are not only talking about the birthing pains of trans-Atlantic empire, but we are talking about the fleeting experiment of an alternative model of civilization, contemporarily known as “the government of the ship,” that was violently eradicated. If our interest in piracy does not get us closer to understanding these greater topics, then the pirates are allowed to become nothing more than adventure yarns, retold for our own amusement and only “based on a true story.”
It is clear that Woodard picked Vane, Bellamy, and Blackbeard because he wanted to get at a range of pirate behavior in the early-eighteenth century. As he states, Vane was “hotheaded and violence prone.” Like Martel and Yeats, there is evidence that he both enslaved blacks and traded in black people as cargo. On the other side of the spectrum, there are his intimate pirate friends Blackbeard and Bellamy. Both are known to have intimately integrated people of African descent among theirs crews. Bellamy even had an Mosquito Indian named John Julian aboard his vessel. There is also a theory that Blackbeard’s name “Thatch” suggests partial African ancestry. Woodard includes all of this information to appreciate the range of the Bahamian pirates, who he states used non-white people for divers, intimidating crewmembers, menial labor, and chattel slavery. Sadly, as he does in almost all other cases, Woodard refrains from moving beyond a superficial recounting of what is obvious in the documentary record. He includes only a few paragraphs about non-white pirates, and he refuses to venture a guess as to what their experience might tell us about the meanings of piracy as a lifestyle.
In contrast to the sadistic and quick tempered Vane, Woodard claims that in Blackbeard’s and Bellamy’s “voluminous attacks on shipping—300 vessels in all—there is not one recorded instance of them killing a captive.” This statistic is meant to suggest that the most successful of the Black Flag pirates had a fundamental respect for human life. Strangely, Woodard undermines this idyllic statement from his prologue several times throughout the narrative. In one instance, he states that Blackbeard beat the unsuspecting merchant William Bell “with the flat end of his sword until it broke.” On the whole, Woodard must be applauded for his desire to provide nuance to the lives of the Black Flag pirates; but it is also clear that his nuance obscures a strong feeling of indecision about who the pirates actually were and what they actually mean to history. While his prologue reads like a chapter lifted straight from a text by Rediker, the rest of the work severely lacks both confidence and analytical focus. Woodard does not seem to know how he feels about the Bahamian pirates; and his attempt to colorfully narrate their lives only distracts him from fully confronting that question.
As a final critique, it should be stated that historians will not be satisfied with the citation methods of The Republic of Pirates. Woodard has used a style of endnote citation that is standard in the field of journalism. The few footnotes that he uses are discursive, there is no bibliography, and the few images (such as those on pages 34 and 54) are completely uncited. Moreover, there are no corresponding set of page numbers at the top of each page in the notes section, making it difficult to cross check the sources. Also, the endnotes themselves are done in AP (Associated Press) style, allowing Woodard to cite only what he wants to cite in each respective paragraph. For example, an endnote may be titled with the bolded, first words of one particular quote in its associated paragraph; but it may leave out another two or three other facts that are also in that paragraph. While I am not suggesting that there is any intentionally false information cited in The Republic of Pirates, there were several points where I simply could not tell where certain information was coming from. Finally, while Woodard was careful to use passive language when he was taking artistic license and extrapolating from his imagination for the purposes of narrative filler, he could have included a personal reflection on the use of imagination in the historical process. Such a reflection would have gone a long way toward protecting his work from critique.
The Republic of Pirates is an engaging, well-researched, and chronological account of the rise and fall of the Black Flag pirates of the Bahaman islands in the early-eighteenth century. Lay readers who pick up this book will receive a nuanced and novelistic portrayal of the Flying Gang. In some ways, this approach is much better than the one-dimensional analysis of Rediker. Readers will hear about white pirates who traded in captured Igbo slaves and also held intimate friendships with their black, creole counterparts. They will hear about pirates who brutalized the captains they attacked, as well as pirates who made a point not to harm those they robbed. They will hear about pirates who desperately wanted pardons and refused to attack English ships; and they will also hear about pirates who attacked absolutely anyone, and vowed to buck mainstream society until their death, or until the social order was upturned. However, for the historian of piracy, much of The Republic of Pirates is superficial and repetitious storytelling. At its heart, the story lacks a thesis because its author lacks both a passion and a fully-formed understanding of the pirate’s historical relevance. What is the point of this story, and why does it matter? For answers to these questions, I will choose an historian like Rediker any day.