I’m not sure I ever went through the “Pirate Phase” as a kid. I was much more caught up in sci-fi of Star Wars and the future of space. However, I have seen all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and recently played one of my favorite video game franchises that centered around the world of pirates. So picking up a book to read on vacation about pirates wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities, but it was definitely wasn’t what you would normally guess I’d be reading while on the beach for a week.
To be honest, I was surprised by The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started reading it, and I had stumbled upon the author, Colin Woodard, via an article he had written online based on a more recent book of his (which is also on my reading list), American Nations.
Woodard went through much painstaking research to track down and compile all the primary sources for this work. He looked through everything from ship log books to newspaper clippings to personal journals and the wildly popular A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. Woodard masterfully weaves together stories from history into a full picture of what was going on in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy (1715-1725). He focuses on a handful of well-known pirates (Sam Bellamy, Benjamin Hornigold, Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, and Charles Vane) and the one man who was initially responsible for disbanding this band of outlaws (Woodes Rogers).
The stories cover everything from pirating adventures up and down the East Coast during the early 1700s to the establishment of Nassau as the headquarters for pirate activity in the Caribbean to the socioeconomic reasons why many men chose to be pirates. I was surprised to learn that many pirates were not outlaws from the beginning but were privateers turned pirates because of peace. Many also defended piracy with political convictions as well. Pirates were complex case studies in how greed and revenge vied for dominance in an ecosystem built on freedom and democracy.
However, this book reads less like a novel and more like a history. It can be difficult to follow in some places based on geographic location or naval descriptions, but overall, it is a captivating read. Hollywood has grossly over-romanticized the idea of pirates today and perpetuated the legends of many of its heroes but not without good reason. The story Woodard tells does show that some of these pirates were larger than life characters during their lifetimes terrorizing merchant and navies alike but does not shy away from the atrocities they committed as well. A well-balanced look at the piracy of the times and eventually how they were brought to their knees.
Overall, The Republic of Pirates was an entertaining beach read especially with my view staring off into the waters of the Atlantic imagining The Queen Anne’s Revenge sailing past on the horizon.