Rayner Thrower,
The Pirate Picture
(Phillimore & Co., 1980;
Barnes & Noble, 1993)

Stories about pirates, be they fact or fiction, are supposed to be exciting.

Someone forgot to tell Rayner Thrower that, however; his The Pirate Picture is a tedious text giving some facts but little flair about the colorful history of high-seas thievery.

Thrower seems to go out of his way to avoid providing excitement in this book. For instance, he refers to "one of the more disgraceful events in Roman history ... (concerning) a successful pirate attack c. 70 B.C. on a Roman fleet off Sicily." However, he never bothers to tell his readers what that disgraceful event was. Elsewhere in the book, he notes that, "due to a feature in their design, certain Spanish ships were easy prey for a determined boarding party." Does he tell us what that design feature was? Of course not. In many cases, just when it seems like he's about to fill us in on an interesting tidbit, he instead footnotes the item so we can, if interested, look the story up in someone else's book.

Sometimes, he blatantly ignores the facts. When he tells us that "the very word 'pirate' is derived from the ancient Greek word peirates," he doesn't mention what peirates means, or in what context it might have been used in ancient Greece.

In other cases, his statements sometimes fail to make much sense. For example, when describing the punishments affected on most 18th century merchantmen, he states that "the usual penalty was stoppage of pay, an effective punishment for any man when, unlike today, money was hard to come by." What, I find myself wondering, has led Thrower to believe that money is easy to come by in the 20th century??

Written from a British perspective, the book would have us believe that most British pirates had noble reasons for their piracy, while pirates from lesser countries like France and Spain were simple thieves.

In what I presume is a failing specifically of the Barnes & Noble edition, the text sometimes refers to passages on other page numbers -- but the page numbers are incorrect. There are also several references to illustrative plates which don't appear in the book.

There are facts to be found in The Pirate Picture, and occasionally Thrower manages to make them sound interesting. For the most part, however, this is a book to be avoided. There are better resources on this (usually fascinating) topic on the market, such as Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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