Every age seems to have it’s iconic figures, those who end up defining that age, symbolizing it, from the knights of the medieval period to the gunslingers of the wild west. We romanticize these figures, overlooking their shortcomings and glorifying them to the point that they are barely recognizable from the real thing.
And so it is with pirates, those symbols of the Age of Discovery and Exploration, when the West was newly “discovered” by Europeans. Pirates operated all over the world, from the Indian Ocean to China. But, it is those that sailed the Caribbean and the American coast that really capture our modern-day imagination. And they are the focus of David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. Cordingly describes the pirate life as it really was: nasty, brutal and usually short, even for the most successful pirates. These were ruthless men who attacked merchant vessels, fishing boats, and even coastal towns in search of plunder. They tortured crew members in order to find out where treasure was stashed, often in some very graphic ways. They spent their money on drink, gambling, and women, often within weeks or months of winning it. The authorities that hunted them down were equally vicious, making examples of captured pirates by executing them and displaying their bodies in chains.
Cordingly does a wonderful job of both describing the life of the pirates, their motivation, their modus operandi, and the effort to eradicate them. His goal is two-fold: to give us a realistic picture of the real pirates as well as determine how we’ve come to romanticize such a vile group of men. He discusses the pirate in literature and film and how those media led to our modern day romantic pirate. Most of what we now associate with pirates — walking the plank, buried treasure, the educated man turned pirate — are more fiction than reality.
He also goes into a number of smaller details, such as the existence of women pirates and the size of a typical pirate haul. All of these details give a very nice overview of what pirates really were, who they really were, and what they really did.
There are a couple of things I wish he had included. He discusses the different types of ships that both pirates and the authorities used and for someone like me who knows nothing about ships, it would have been nice to have some illustrations showing the size and shape of these ships. Also, while he does touch on a number of the most notorious pirates, including Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and Calico Jack, these are scattered throughout the book and no really coherent picture emerges of most of these men. A chapter devoted to brief bios of the major pirates would have been an appreciated addition.
Overall, however, this is a very entertaining book that gives a lot of real information about a very interesting subject. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the reality behind the fictions of the pirates.