David Cordingly,
Under the Black Flag
(Harcourt Brace, 1995)

The modern perspective on piracy has been set in stone by works of film and fiction that have followed in the footsteps of early literary characters like Long John Silver of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Captain Hook of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Masterworks though these novels may be, they didn't paint an exact portrait of piracy -- and yet it is the image that has captured and thrilled many modern audiences with its unquestionable swashbuckling glory.

David Cordingly tries to set the record straight in Under the Black Flag: The Romance & the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. To a large degree, he succeeds.

Under the Black Flag is an immensely readable book that delves equally into the facts and folklore of piracy throughout the ages. Packed to the gills with names, dates and places, the text never reads like a schoolbook. Overflowing with stories of wild adventure, it still never wanders into the realm of fantasy.

Many of the facts will surprise you. Peglegs? True -- losing a limb was a common hazard of piracy. Parrots and eye patches? Quite often, yes. Cunning maps where "X" marks the hiding place of vast treasures? Not even once. Walking the plank? A rare occurrence at best. Ruthless pirate captains who ruled their ships through force and fear? Rarely -- surprisingly, most pirate ships were working democracies where captains were elected and unpopular captains were replaced.

Cutthroat raids and terror on the high seas? Yes, very much so.

And Cordingly provides the narrative in great detail, often citing reports by survivors, witnesses and the media of the day. He recounts the incidents of pirate attacks by land and sea, sea battles, captures, trials and executions. He describes the differences between pirates, buccaneers and privateers, explores their primary areas of operation upon the Caribbean, Mediterranean and North American coast, and notes how their methods changed over the centuries -- up to and including modern times. Readers will also learn how to tell a sloop from a ship, a brig from a merchantman.

Of course, there are numerous passages about the more famous pirates, such as pirates Edward "Blackbeard" Teach and Captain William Kidd, and privateers Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins. Also, there's plenty on the men who hunted, captured or killed them -- Lt. Robert Maynard, who beat Blackbeard at his own game, and Capt. Chaloner Ogle, who bested Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts.

There's even a section on the pirates of books and movies, and how their image has changed to satisfy an avid audience.

Cordingly is occasionally repetitive in his presentation of the facts, and the book certainly would benefit from a few more pictures, but Under the Black Flag is still the best book on pirates I've read yet.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.




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