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Recent attacks off the Horn of Africa have revived interest in piracy. There is a rich literature on the subject focusing primarily on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today's piracy problems share enough characteristics with their historical precursors to make an understanding of the earlier experiences useful as well as fun.
This is the ur-text for piracy studies -- the one that started it all. As Charles Johnson's introduction notes, his work, which went through several editions, consists of profiles "of these desperadoes, who were the terror of the trading part of the world." A General History was originally published in London in 1724, just three years after the death of Bartholomew Roberts (Black Bart), one of its most notorious subjects. No one knows who the author was. It was once assumed that Captain Johnson was a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe; now there is speculation that the author was a pirate himself, or at least an experienced seaman who met a number of pirates. In any case, he was well informed, and although some of his claims are fanciful (there was no such place as Libertalia, a supposed pirate haven), most have stood the test of subsequent historical research. Some of his most famous passages concern Captain Teach, who "assumed the cognomen of Blackbeard from that large quantity of hair which, like a frightful meteor, covered his whole face and frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there a long time."
Captain Blood. By Rafael Sabatini. Penguin Classics, 2003.
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Captain Blood. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Warner Brothers, 1935.
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The influence of Johnson's A General History can be seen in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, both of which helped lock in place popular images of pirates. Another student of Johnson's was Rafael Sabatini, an Anglo-Italian historical novelist whose most famous books were The Sea-Hawk (1915), Scaramouche (1921), and Captain Blood (1922). The last remains one of the greatest historical swashbucklers, in a class with The Three Musketeers, The Prisoner of Zenda, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Sabatini's hero, Peter Blood -- loosely based on the privateer Sir Henry Morgan -- is a surgeon accidentally caught up in the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion against King James II of England. He is convicted of treason and sent to work as a plantation slave in Barbados. When Spanish privateers suddenly attack the town where he is toiling, Blood escapes, seizes the privateers' ship, and becomes a successful pirate himself. Needless to say, his reputation is redeemed in the end, his "odyssey" (the book's original subtitle) resulting in social and legal vindication for this hero forced by circumstances to operate outside the law. To get all the twists and turns along the way, read the book -- or watch the 1935 movie version, which introduced American audiences to a pair of talented young newcomers named Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
If there were a chair of piratology at an eminent university, Charles Cordingly would be a good candidate to fill it. A former curator at the National Maritime Museum, in Greenwich, England, he has written several books on the subject, of which Under the Black Flag serves as the best introduction. Not a comprehensive history, it is instead a thematic study of the most famous pirates of all time -- the ones who haunted the Spanish Main from roughly 1650 to 1725. Cordingly discusses both popular culture and the historical reality behind it. If you wonder whether pirates really had peg legs and made treasure maps, he will provide the answers (yes and no, respectively). This is the place to go to learn the distinctions among pirates, privateers, and corsairs, how pirate societies organized themselves, and whether there were female pirates.
A former professor at the London School of Economics, Peter Earle is another leading contemporary expert on the history of piracy. In this book, he provides an invaluable overview of the various pirate communities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and how they were eradicated. Although there is a good deal here on the Caribbean pirates, Earle also addresses the Barbary pirates (more properly, the Barbary privateers) and the "Red Sea men," who preyed on Indian Ocean shipping belonging to European and Asian merchants. (The only major groups missing are the East Asian pirates, who operated around the Malay Archipelago and southern China.) Earle's account is clear and easy to follow, and he incorporates the latest academic studies, in particular the valuable work of the University of Pittsburgh historian Marcus Rediker, author of several more specialized books and articles on the subject (such as Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age). What was the secret to defeating pirates? Different strategies were employed in different areas and at different times, but there is no escaping the brutality of anti-pirate measures. As Earle notes, between 1716 and 1726 alone, English authorities hanged at least 400 pirates, "a colossal number even in an age notorious for its love of the gallows."
In recent years, there has been a proliferation of books about the United States' wars on Muslim "pirates" (really privateers), waged against Tripoli from 1801 to 1805 and against Algiers in 1815. New narratives have come out from such authors as Gregory Fremont-Barnes, Frank Lambert, Frederick Leiner, Joshua E. London, Ian Toll, Joseph Wheelan, and Richard Zacks. Nevertheless, these two accounts, published more than a century ago and available for free on Google Books, remain classics worth reading. Stanley Lane-Poole presents the general background of the Barbary States and their sea-raiding, focusing in particular on the Barbarossa brothers, who became known as the scourges of Christian Europe in the sixteenth century. Gardner Allen devotes his attention to the wars fought against the Barbary States by the early American Republic. One of the highlights is the story of how young Stephen Decatur led a small crew of Americans into Tripoli harbor in 1804 to destroy the captured USS Philadelphia beneath the guns of the enemy. It reads like something out of a Patrick O'Brian novel, but it really happened.
There aren't a lot of books on modern piracy. John Burnett's volume is already a bit dated but is probably the best primer on the subject. A former reporter and congressional staffer, Burnett is a veteran sailor whose own sloop was briefly seized by pirates in 1992 off the coast of Indonesia. The hijackers took a pair of binoculars and a carton of Marlboros before leaving. The incident sparked Burnett's interest in the subject, so he traveled aboard a pair of oil tankers transiting the pirate-infested Malacca Strait and spent time with the Royal Malaysian Marine Police, observing its attempts to nab pirates. Somalian pirates were not a big threat when he was writing, so the book does not cover them. But Burnett's reporting shows why cargo vessels were and remain vulnerable: the automation of vessels has reduced crew levels dramatically, civilian ships have no significant defenses, and owners instruct crews not to resist attacks. Local naval forces that are supposed to protect shipping, meanwhile, either lack the resources to cover vast stretches of ocean or, as in the case of Somalia, simply do not exist. No wonder piracy remains a flourishing business.