David Cordingly was a curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for twelve years and was responsible for their 1992 exhibition Pirates: Fact and Fiction, which proved to be so popular that (rather than the planned run of four months) it stayed open for three years. As the public appetite for pirates was evidently so strong, he was invited to write a book on the back of the exhibition. Life Among The Pirates is lively and easy to read, and sets out to explore the gulf between the popular perception of pirates and the harsh reality, stretching from the Elizabethan privateers in the Spanish Main to the nineteenth-century Chinese pirates under the command of the savvy former courtesan Mrs Cheng. It’s a great introduction to the subject and has left me burning to finally read Treasure Island.
The book starts with the popular image of the pirate, and proceeds to examine how far we can trust the cliches. Cordingly’s love of the subject is infectious and he cheerfully romps through the pirate’s life in popular culture, to see how it holds up against reality. It turns out that treasure maps where X marks the spot are entirely the invention of Robert Louis Stevenson, although treasure was occasionally buried for future retrieval. I was glad, however, to learn that wooden legs and parrots were actually something of a feature for real pirates. There is short shrift for the idea of the pirate captain as a romantic aristocrat forced into piracy as a route to revenge (which seems to have derived largely from Sabatini – dear God, I must read Captain Blood). Pieces of eight and doubloons were very much a feature of real pirate life, as these were the denominations of coins which were sent back to Europe from the Spanish-owned mines in the New World. But walking the plank, sadly, seems to be almost entirely a later invention (J.M. Barrie seems to be to blame for that).
By anchoring his study of real pirates in the cliches and children’s stories that we all know, Cordingly manages to give his story a sense of fun and energy that is rare in history books. And yet it’s impossible for the modern reader to get away from the sense that the book is quite dated – for it omits to mention the fictional pirate who has become such a major part of popular culture in the last few years. For Cordingly, writing back in 1995, the most famous literary pirates were those we meet in childhood: Captain Hook and Long John Silver, and cinematic pirates were played by Douglas Fairbanks Senior and Errol Flynn. That is no longer the case, of course; and I couldn’t help feeling that the book was crying out for a new edition, so that Cordingly could weave Captain Jack Sparrow into the equation.
However, Cordingly is a historian rather than simply a fan, and between his excursions into pirate fiction, he delves very deeply into every aspect of what it meant to sail the high seas. For a start, he makes the point that we need to distinguish ‘pirates’ from ‘privateers’. The latter were given letters of marque from their king or queen to go forth and attack the ships of enemy nations; Francis Drake is perhaps the most famous of the English privateers. Of course, one country’s privateer is another country’s pirate; and some privateers did go rogue when they discovered easy prey during their missions. Cordingly also notes the difference between ‘corsair’ and ‘buccaneer’. Generally speaking, the pirates we know and love are more likely to be buccaneers: a term originally used for the rough men based on Hispaniola, which later became used for any pirates active in the 17th and 18th centuries in the Caribbean. By contrast, the Mediterranean sea was home to the corsairs (most famously those from Barbary) who used oar-driven galleys rather than the sailing ships most of us will think of instinctively. He very briefly mentioned Tortuga, which got me very excited, but I think that this may be another example of Pirates of the Caribbean making history sound a lot more fun than it actually was.
Something that really did surprise me was how young most pirates were: the average age for a pirate in the 18th century was only twenty-seven. That stands to reason, I suppose, when you consider that most pirates were unmarried men, trying to make their fortune, and that a career in piracy wasn’t the best route to dying at an advanced age in your bed, surrounded by grieving grandchildren. You were much more likely to end your days on the Execution Dock at Wapping, or swinging in chains on Deadman’s Cay near Port Royal in Jamaica.
We have the chance to meet the great pirates of history, although I think I would get a better sense of them from the popular legends and ballads than from this more academic assessment. I wonder whether it might have been more engaging to have entire chapters devoted to pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, looking specifically at their personal myths and the documented reality, rather than having references spread across the book. As it was, I never felt quite engaged by them. However, there is a very colourful supporting cast, from the experienced navigator, naturalist and sometime pirate William Dampier (whose biography is on my to-be-read pile), to the prison chaplains who had the tough job of trying to save the pirates’ souls prior to execution, to the famous women pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny.
Cordingly mentioned other female pirates whom I’d never heard of before: one was the 5th-century Alwilda, who sailed off with a crew of her friends in order to avoid an arranged marriage, became the terror of the Baltic and eventually ended up as Queen of Denmark (she should, I suspect, be technically classed as a Viking rather than a pirate, but I’m perfectly happy to accept her as both). And then there was Mrs Cheng, whom I mentioned above, and who seems – like Alwilda – to have been considerably more successful in the long term than her male counterparts. To my utter delight, I’ve just discovered that Borges wrote a novella about her, called The Widow Ching – Pirate, which I am obviously going to have to read.
Cordingly notes at one point that Hollywood’s pirate films merely ‘provided an opportunity for buccaneering heroes to rescue beautiful women from picturesque villains in exotic locations‘, but you can’t help feeling that he has a soft spot for the swashbuckling in the rigging and the associated glamour of the fictional pirate. His ambition is simply to show us what lies behind these cliches that we all love so much, and to invite us to marvel at the energy, ambition and determination of the real pirates and those brave men who set out to capture them. In the end, however, he accepts that, no matter how much of the truth we know, we will always be seduced by the myth: the skull-and-crossbones, the parley, the rum and the buried chests full of pieces of eight, marked with an X on some mouldering map:
The fact is that we want to believe in the world of the pirates as it has been portrayed in the adventure stories, the plays and the films over the years. We want the myths, the treasure maps, the buried treasure, the walking the plank, the resolute pirate captains with their cutlasses and earrings, and the seamen with their wooden legs and parrots. We prefer to forget the barbaric tortures and the hangings, and the desperate plight of men shipwrecked on hostile coasts. For most of us the pirates will always be romantic outlaws living far from civilisation on some distant sunny shore.