Piracy has long been a topic of great interest to both scholars and the general public. Thanks in no small part to popular culture and a recent renaissance of the swashbuckling genre in literature and film, people often mistake piracy as a romantic and even heroic undertaking, forgetting the often cruel and bloody nature of real pirates. Joseph Gibbs’ On the Account: Piracy in the Americas, 1766-1835 reminds readers that pirates were criminals, driven by no more honorable motives than money and mayhem. Gibbs, like other maritime historians, seeks to dispel the myths that have arisen over centuries of embellished accounts of piratical acts. He does this by presenting primary sources, drawn from court transcripts, first-hand accounts of battles with pirates, and surviving victims of piracy. These sources are free from long periods of storytelling, thereby eliminating the gradual degeneration of the facts.
Two aspects of this book immediately stand out that set it apart from other scholarship pertaining to piracy. First, Gibbs does not provide much in the way of analysis, allowing the information to come from the sources themselves. Thus, there is little that sheds new light on pirates or their actions. Indeed, in his introduction, Gibbs does not claim to offer analytical scholarship, stating that his primary aim is to present original evidence to modern readers. He has, on the other hand, guided readers through the documents with helpful footnotes that explain some of the references of the past that might otherwise not be clear. In fact, the footnotes provided in the text are the greatest strength of the book, presented in such a way that will certainly ease the research process for the academic or simply make the documents less confusing for the general reader.
The other characteristic that makes Gibbs’ book different from others is that readers will not find material pertaining to the most famous names in piracy. As the title of the book suggests, the primary source documents come from the latter years of the Age of Sail, from 1766 to 1835, and not from piracy’s Golden Age of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Aside from the fact that few of the pirates mentioned in the book are well-known to readers, few of them are readily identified as pirates in the classic definition. The majority of the sources deal with mutineers and privateers (including Jean Laffite, arguably the most famous of the characters identified in the book). While mutiny was a criminal act, it did not always lead to piracy, and privateering, while essentially piratical, was legal. Even the Barbary Pirates, to whom one chapter is dedicated, were agents of the North African nations out of which they operated. Nevertheless, Gibbs’ decision to focus on these other forms of piracy does not take away from the value of the book, and it is to his credit that he chooses to break out of the comfortable realm of popular history.
If the book has a weakness, it is Gibbs’ decision to edit the documents, altering some of the original texts in the interest of clarity. For instance, he replaced the archaic “long s” (ſ) with a standard lowercase “s.” Another example is the word “goal,” which Gibbs changed to “g[ao]l” in order for readers to recognize the old spelling for “jail.” In some cases, such changes disrupt the flow of the text and are largely unnecessary, but they are not enough to diminish the quality of the work.
Overall, this book is quite engaging. It presents evidence of piracy in an age where other topics have long taken precedence, and it does so without resorting to exaggeration. On the Account is a must-read for anyone desiring a complete understanding of piracy in the Americas during the Age of Sail.
- Eastbourne; Portland, Oregon; and Vaughan, Ontario: Sussex Academic Press, 2012
- 6-3/4” x 9-3/4”, softcover, xii + 249 pages. $49.95
- Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index.
- ISBN: 9781845194765
- Distributed in the United States by International Specialized Book Services, Portland, Oregon
Reviewed by James R. Wils, Winterville, North Carolina