Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates by Eric Jay Dolin, Liveright Publishing Corporation, US $29.95, Pp 380, September 2018, ISBN 978-1631492105
The Golden Age of America’s piracy spanned from the late 1600s through the early 1700s when the lawless pirates ruled the coastal water of North America and beyond. American colonists at first supported these outrageous pirates to show solidarity against the Crown but later violently opposed them. In Black Flags, Blue Waters, Eric Jay Dolin tells the story of the Golden Age of pirates in American history with amazing stories of vicious mutineers, imperial riches and conspiracies at high seas. He talks about the star pirates of the time as he paints the roguish brutality. They include towering Blackbeard, ill-fated Captain Kidd, and sadistic Edward Low, who delighted in torturing his prey. He also gives detailed accounts of pirates’ enemies, such as colonial governor John Winthrop, evangelist Cotton Mather, and young Benjamin Franklin.
Unlike other books on pirates, Eric Jay Dolin says that Black Flags, Blue Waters is an addition to that lineage, “but with a twist.” Black Flags, Blue Waters zeroes in on the history of the pirates who either operated out of America’s English colonies or plundered ships along the American coast. From the early 1680s to 1926 — the year notorious pirate Fly was executed, — these pirates had an exceedingly close, often tempestuous, and frequently deadly relationship with the colonies. While this arrangement began with a warm and financially lucrative embrace, it eventually ended in a bloody war against pirates punctuated by scores of hangings from Boston to Charleston. Black Flags, Blue Waters discusses the origin and nature of this relationship, and in so doing reveals one of the most gripping stories of American history.
For as long as people have taken to the sea, there have been pirates. Every culture and country whose ships have dipped a paddle or oar into the salty brine, or raised a sail to harness the wind, has contended with what the Greek poet Homer called “sea-wolves raided at will, who risk their lives to plunder other men.” Dolin, however, adds that America’s connection to piracy did not end abruptly end in 1726 with the execution of Fly. Most notably, in the early to mid1800s the United States vanquished both the Barbary pirates who harassed American ships off the coast of North Africa and Spanish pirates who waylaid American shipping throughout the Caribbean and off the East and Gulf Coasts of North America.
Black Flags, Blue Waters also discusses intimidation and extreme brutality. Pirates were almost always able to rely on the threat of force to get their victims to submit without violence, but when that approach failed, pirates were almost always able to rely on the threat of force to get their victims to submit without violence, but when that approach failed, pirates were willing to fight for what they coveted. The bloodiest encounters, however, were generally not between pirates and the forces sent to destroy them.
In the late 1600s, many colonists heartily encouraged and supposed pirates, though such activities flouted English law. Dolin says that those colonists viewed pirates not as dangerous raiders, but as commercial angels, and as friends and family, who enabled the colonies to obtain the goods and money they so desperately desired despite the onerous trade restrictions put in place by the mother country. Some colonial governors went so far as to accept bribes and issue privateering licenses to pirates to give them the veneer of official respectability, even though the governors knew full well that the pirates had no intention of going after England’s enemies, but instead were heading to the Indian Ocean to loot ships carrying the riches of the Muslim world, and bring that wealth back home.
Dolin says that piracy experienced resurgence and the number of pirates exploded in the mid-1710s. More than ever before, they focused their depredations on British ships traveling along the coast of the American colonies. Once viewed by many colonists and their representatives in a favorable light, pirates were now increasingly viewed as mortal enemies who posed a threat to trade. Through a combination of legal, political, and military means, pirates were virtually eliminated by the middle of the 1720s, when Fly and his compatriots swung from the gallows.
With his unmatchable academic credentials and a keen eye for detail, Eric Jay Dolin takes us among the pirates on the high seas in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. It is an authentic account of outlaws and strong men in colonial America. Dolin gives us new perspectives on colonial America’s geopolitics as well as social and class structure during America’s colonial period. This brilliantly written book betrays Dolin’s gift for writing. He has the gift of making history entertaining with real rogues and politicians from history. Over one hundred illustrations and eight pages of color illustrations make it an absolute must-read entertaining history book.