- Pirates: A History
Numerous books on piracy have been published in recent years. Historians working in this field are hardly able to keep up with the surge of publications. This book provides a broad survey from the ancient Mediterranean to modern Somali pirates, from the seventeenth-century Caribbean to the Malacca Straits. Unlike most other recent publications on the subject, this book is written by a professional historian, so it is worth considering his perspective in some detail.
To begin with the most important point: readers who expect new insights or interpretations of one of the most romanticized chapters in history will be disappointed. Tim Travers provides a narrative designed for a wide readership. Most topics are addressed in very general terms, based largely on the reading of secondary literature rather than original research. The use of primary sources is restricted to a few manuscripts exclusively from London depositories.
The structure of this book is rather unconventional. Instead of an introduction, the reader finds a chapter on "The Pirate World," which deals with some features of the social and cultural history of piracy. Only in the conclusion does the author try to answer the question: what is a pirate? Piracy is generally defined as the arbitrary and indiscriminate seizure of goods, persons, and vessels at sea. Vikings, many Elizabethan sea rovers, and most buccaneers were not pirates, even though their exploits are described in Travers's book. The organization certainly has its merits, as it enables Travers to insert a broad spectrum of related topics, yet the title of the book is misleading.
Travers's expertise in pirate history derives from having taught courses on the subject matter at the University of Calgary for more than a decade. This enables him to avoid the various traps into which too many authors fall. For example, Travers is correct to raise serious doubts as to whether Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard, really was the violent and ruthless roving villain portrayed in the literature. As well, the passage concerning the only two known female pirates of the early eighteenth century, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, is also more realistic than in most other recent publications. To be sure, this book still contains a number of errors; for instance, Dirk Chivers's real [End Page 272] name was Richard Sievers (p. 164), and Bartholomew Roberts did not kill the governor of Martinique, as asserted on page 195. Nevertheless, in comparison with other popular books on this subject matter, the author has done a good job sorting fact from fiction.
In sum, this book provides a useful introduction to a topic that has drawn considerable public and scholarly attention in recent years. Travers's work places maritime depredations into the larger context of international rivalries and conflicts. One hopes that this book will find an eager and interested readership.