The Golden Age of piracy

‘Black Flags, Blue Waters,’ a new book by Eric Jay Dolin.


Eric Jay Dolin titled his new book “Black Flag, Blue Waters” with the tagline: “The epic history of America’s most notorious pirates,” which couldn’t be more apt. It is indeed “epic,” but don’t hesitate for a moment to dive into what, in fact, is a page turner and full of intriguing history, insights, and tidbits, whether you have a life-long passion for pirates or not.  

Overall, Dolin sets out his book in a narrative and chronological arc, following the three distinct stages of America’s pirates in the Golden Age, from the late 1600s to 1726. The first phase of piracy and colonial America was tied to the Caribbean and was a win-win proposition financially: Dolin writes, “Colonial merchants sent numerous ships to the Caribbean, where they traded with pirates, and in turn, many pirates brought their treasure to the northern colonies, spending it on food, drink, prostitutes, and provisions for their next voyage.”

England was not pleased that the colonists were consorting with pirates, and circumventing the onerous navigation laws by obtaining goods — duty free — from these outlaws of the sea, but it was even more severely affected in the next phase of the Golden Age. Pirates turned to the east to terrorize the poorly defended Mughal ships sailing “for the Indian Ocean from American ports, with the enthusiastic support of colonial officials. And together, they inaugurated the most lucrative period of piracy in American history.” But England, which had been advantageously trading with the Mughal Empire through the East India Company, suffered the mighty ire of the Mughals when pirates plundered their goods and tortured passengers for confessions of where any treasure was hidden.

Dolin exemplifies England’s reactive crackdown on these piratical escapades in the vivid telling of “the ill-fated voyage of Captain William Kidd…[whose] story is full of many twists and turns and a cast of hundreds, if not thousands.” Eventually, the engrossingly convoluted tale concludes with Kidd’s hanging in London for murder and piracy. Dolin spares us no details. Kidd comes to gallows drunk and heaps vitriolic blame on everyone but himself. At the first attempt of hanging him, the rope breaks and Kidd hits the ground, but the second time did the trick. Dolin then dishes out a bit of gruesome, titillating details:

This time the rope held. Kidd’s limp body remained in place long enough for three tides to wash over him, a symbolic ablution to take away his sins. Afterward, the body was taken…twenty-five miles downriver…Slathered in tar and encased in an iron cage so as to prolong the display of the body, Kidd was dangled from a gibbet. There he remained, a ghoulish specter, slowly disintegrating for many years as a silent warning to all mariners passing by.

Likewise, there was a reversal in the relationship between pirates and the Colonies from one of mutual benefit to that of animosity on the part of the Colonies, because by 1715 pirates were terrorizing colonial ships down the east coast and colonial powers were fighting back at sea and in the judicial courts.

There is much more to “Black Flags, Blue Waters.” For instance, Dolin deftly debunks the mythology, misconceptions, and false romance about piracy. A perfect example is that pirates, unlike popular belief, rather than being completely bloodthirsty adventurers, often used intimidation to quell resistance. For instance:

The black flag was intended to strike fear into the hearts of sailors who spied it fluttering atop the pirate ship’s mast by sending the unmistakable message — surrender immediately, or else we’ll attack. Being risk averse, pirates always hoped for surrender. They never wanted to fight if they could avoid it, because there was no upside to battle.

Granted, once the plundering of the surrendered ship began, pirates were far from adverse to torturing passengers and crew alike if necessary, to find their desired prize of money and valuable goods.

Although Martha’s Vineyard only comes up a few times in Dolin’s book, he is no stranger to the Island. He has spoken here twice about one of his earlier books, “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.” But Dolin experienced the Vineyard more intimately when he came “once, just after getting married, and once when I was in college. The latter was fairly eventful.”

I encourage you to ask him about it at his talk on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2 to 3 pm at the Oak Bluffs library.

“Black Flags, Blue Waters: The epic history of America’s most notorious pirates,” by Eric Jay Dolin. Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation. 379 pages. Available at Bunch of Grapes for $29.95, online, or as a signed copy at Dolin’s book talk.