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Book Review, NRJ 64.2

May 15, 2019 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates

Eric Jay Dolin

As Eric Jay Dolin notes, both in his introduction and in his acknowledgements, there is far from a shortage of books about pirates, let alone about those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although publishers probably are little concerned about adding to this number (the public’s fascination with the topic practically guarantees good sales), any new work faces a challenge if it is to be seen as more a positive contribution to our knowledge of the subject rather than just a money-making project.

Dolin’s “twist” (as he terms it) is to focus his attention on those pirates “who either operated out of America’s English colonies or plundered ships along the American coast.” This concentration succeeds admirably in bringing a distinctive coherence to the author’s presentation; it enables him to tie together what otherwise could well be disjointed tales of individual pirates and their actions.

An even more important outcome of the author’s “twist” is the ease with which it allows him to contextualize these disparate pirate biographies. The single most significant lesson that emerges fromBlack Flags, Blue Watersis that piracy did not occur in a vacuum. Pirates functioned within a larger society. On a practical level, they needed bases from which to draw resources and operate, safe havens in which to refit and recuperate, and markets for their loot. More broadly, even these outlaws needed at least tacit acceptance into American colonial society at large. Dolin succeeds admirably in correlating the rise and fall of piracy in this era with the degree to which the colonies embraced or rejected the pirates.

Readers paying attention to Dolin’s avowed geographical focus may wonder why so many of his subjects’ home bases, such as Jamaica and the Bahamas, seem to be outside the limits of this area. One can infer that the author, like contemporary English administrators, viewed England’s American colonies as components of a unitary system, his deliberate decision to focus on the colonial perspective inhibits the ability of many United States readers to comprehend this reality because it is only implied and never explicitly explained. Readers swept along by the narrative pace probably will not notice, but it is an irritant nevertheless.

Although Dolin makes some use of primary sources, the bulk of his references are to secondary material, and some of those he considers “impressive” themselves are based very heavily on other secondary sources. The decision to offer only a select bibliography makes life more difficult for those interested in following up on the author’s notes. A substantial number of his sources do not appear in the bibliography so, quite often, finding a specific source can require working back through the notes to the first time it appears. Oddly enough, after discussing the authorship of A General History of the Pyratesand concluding it was not Daniel Defoe, the book itself is listed in both the notes and bibliography under Defoe.

Overall, Black Flags, Blue Watersis a first-rate synthesis of writings on its subject told in a compelling voice, and its distinctive emphasis on the American colonial perspective on the topic certainly is fresh and thought-provoking.

  •  New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xxix + 379 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95
  • ISBN: 9781631492105

Reviewed by Caroline Mackenzie, University of Tennessee

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