Ahoy, mateys! September 19 be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, so hoist the mainsail and shiver me timbers! Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum! Arrrr!
A little of that sort of thing can go a long way, which is probably why it’s Talk Like a Pirate Day and not Talk Like a Pirate Week. But it does give us the opportunity to take a brief look at piracy, and some of the pirate-related books in our collection.
Piracy is an attack on one ship by another, usually for the purposes of robbery, and it’s been with us nearly as long as ships themselves. The earliest recorded instances of piracy date back to the 14th century BCE, in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, and at that time, piracy seems to have been considered a perfectly respectable way to make a living. That tolerant attitude had disappeared by the Classical Greek era, roughly a millennium later.
Medieval Europe’s most feared pirates were the Vikings, who flourished in Scandinavia from the 8th to the 12th century. They not only attacked ships but raided coastal villages as well. They traveled as far south as the northern coast of Africa, and as far inland via river as the Black Sea. While neither book is focused specifically on the piracy of the Vikings, Neil Oliver’s The Vikings and Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm are thorough histories of the Viking era.
Our pop culture images of pirates—all of the “ahoy, matey” stuff—mostly come from the peak era of piracy in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, roughly the 16th through the 18th centuries. This era is covered by Benerson Little in The Golden Age of Piracy and by Marcus Rediker in Villains of All Nations. David Cordingly writes about what it was like to serve on a pirate ship in Under the Black Flag.
Among the most successful Atlantic pirates of the era was Henry Every, the subject of Steven Johnson’s Enemy of All Mankind. He was believed to be the wealthiest pirate of the era, capturing in one raid money and jewels worth more than 90 million dollars in today’s money. He was, Johnson says, the subject of the world’s first global manhunt, but was never captured.
Many pirates working in the Atlantic Ocean were based on the northern coast of Africa, known as the Barbary Coast. From Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and other ports, they sailed into the Mediterranean, along the Atlantic western coast of Africa, and as far as northern Europe. These pirates were predominantly Muslim, and in addition to robbery, they often took prisoners who were sold into slavery.
Adrian Tinniswood writes about the Pirates of Barbary at the height of their power, in the 17th century Mediterranean. By the early 18th century, the largest European countries had enough power that their ships were largely safe from the Barbary pirates, but smaller countries weren’t so fortunate. Ships traveling to Europe from the young United States, for instance, were frequent targets. The American response, and the Barbary Wars that followed, are the subject of Richard Zacks’s The Pirate Coast and Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates.
There was some irony in the United States having to fight against piracy, because privateers—essentially, government-sponsored pirates—had helped to support the American Revolution. Robert H. Patton writes about the role privateers played against the British in Patriot Pirates.
The peak of piracy in the Caribbean was a bit later than in the Atlantic. Caribbean piracy was at its worst from the mid-17th to the early 18th century and lingered into the early 19th. History has left us with better records about the lives and careers of individual pirates in the Caribbean, and there are biographies of several of the major figures. Stephen Tally’s Empire of Blue Water is the story of Henry Morgan, who was based in Jamaica, and whose name survives in the name of Captain Morgan rum. Robert E. Lee relates the life of Blackbeard the Pirate; and in If a Pirate I Must Be, Richard Sanders tells the story of Bartholomew Roberts, who captured more than 400 ships during his career. William C. Davis reports on The Pirates Laffite, brothers Jean and Pierre, who sailed the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century.
A few titles from miscellaneous corners of the world of piracy: Colin Woodard writes about a democratic community of pirates in the Bahamas in The Republic of Pirates; and Lee Sandlin covers 19th century river piracy on the Mississippi in Wicked River. Female pirates were relatively rare—it was considered bad luck on many pirate ships to have a woman aboard—but they existed, and Laura Sook Duncombe tells some of their stories in Pirate Women. And Peter T. Leeson looks at the economics of piracy in The Invisible Hook.
Also This Week
September 14, 1879
Margaret Sanger was born. In 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which was one of the organizations that eventually became today’s Planned Parenthood. Woman of Valor is Ellen Chesler’s biography of Sanger.
September 19, 1920
Roger Angell was born. Angell is an essayist who has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker for more than 70 years. He writes on a variety of topics, but is particularly known for his writing about baseball. The Summer Game is the first of several collections of Angell’s baseball essays; This Old Man collects a wider range of topics.
September 18, 1940
Frankie Avalon was born. Avalon was a teen idol of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He started as a singer, scoring a pair of #1 hits in 1959 with “Venus” and “Why.” That led to a movie career that included several “beach party” movies in which he co-starred with Annette Funicello. 25 All Time Greatest Hits collects the highlights of his recording career; Beach Blanket Bingo is a good example of the beach movies.
September 17, 1945
Phil Jackson was born. Jackson played in the NBA for twelve seasons before becoming the most successful coach in the league’s history. Between 1991 and 2010, Jackson’s teams won eleven NBA championships—six with the Chicago Bulls and five with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson looks back at his life and career in Eleven Rings.