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Reviewed by:
  • Seawolves: Pirates and the Scots
  • Steve Murdoch
Seawolves: Pirates and the Scots. By Eric J. Graham. Pp. 223. ISBN: 1 84158 388X. Edinburgh: Birlinn. 2005. £16.99.

Piracy is one of those very peculiar aspects of maritime history. Robbery on the open sea has been a feature of the nautical world since the time man first took to the seas in boats. Yet for all that it remains a subject which is difficult for the scholar to address, not least due to the romantic notions and erroneous assumptions which attach themselves to the subject. Academics who teach this [End Page 341] subject brace themselves at the start of each new class in anticipation of the students and the variety of expectations they bring to the course. This is not helped by articles, seldom scholarly, which even try to place certain pirates of the Golden Age at the epicentre of communities striving for equality and justice across race, creed and gender. The truth is that most pirates were far from egalitarian and while many crews were multi-racial, even with the occasional woman among them, the fate of slaves and women captives easily dispels these myths. Pirates were and are criminals regardless of their social background and David Cordingly’s Life among the Pirates has been one of the few volumes to date to really hammer home this point.

In this present volume, with the exception of the last chapter, Eric Graham seeks to both explore the history of piracy in the Golden Age (1690s–1720s), and to do so through a Scottish lens. He claims that ‘the Celts (Welsh, Irish and Scots) contributed a disproportionately high number of villains, relative to the size of their seafaring populations’ (p. 102). However, in reviewing the Scottish contribution in particular, even those given in this book, the numbers were really rather low. The main cases reviewed by Graham are drawn largely, but by no means exclusively, from one principal source: Daniel Defoe’s (aka Captain Charles Johnson’s) A General History of the Pyrates. Graham has done an excellent job in extracting the Scottish data from this complex work, and in weaving a narrative that links the information together beautifully. His timing was excellent with the much publicised launch of the film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) coinciding (coincidentally no doubt) with the appearance of Seawolves on the shelves. Adding to the quirk was the appearance of another work on the same theme Skull and Saltire: Stories of Scottish Piracy – Ancient and Modern by Jim Hewitson which was also published in 2005. Both authors have plucked many of the same tales from Defoe, and both have chapters dealing with the non-pirate Captain Green of Worcester fame, and John Gow the Orcadian (possibly the most inept Golden Age pirate of them all). Of the two works, Graham’s is, for this reader, the more scholarly and better produced book. His greater experience with Scottish maritime archives is apparent, though as it stands the final chapter on the case of Gautier & Heaman perhaps should have been left out to keep the focus squarely on the Golden Age. It presently sits as an awkward addition which begs the question as to why include this episode and not that of earlier and later piracy? There are certainly other Scottish pirates worthy of mention in both the pre- and post-Golden Age period. Further, chapter five ‘The Scottish Slavers & the Pirates’ stretches the pirate connection too far, particularly the Hanover episode. Though an extremely interesting episode, it should probably have served as the basis for a stand-alone article on Scottish slaving and commercial mismanagement rather than a core section of a chapter in this book.

Among the other minor niggles are the mis-transcription of some data from Defoe. Graham tells us both Peter Lesley (sic) and Israel Hynd were Aberdonians (p. 107), when Defoe’s list clearly mentions Peter Lesly’s home town as Exeter. It would have been nice if the author had insisted on the provision of references as their complete absence does leave one inquisitive as to the origin of the information, albeit the bibliography allows...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-0222
Print ISSN
0036-9241
Pages
pp. 341-343
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-11
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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