Saturday, February 21, 2009

Book Review: Pirate Hunter

Another book read recently was Pirate Hunter by Graham Thomas. Not to be confused with Richard Zacks's The Pirate Hunter (which is worth a read and suggests that Captain Kidd was a misunderstood victim - honest!) this has the sub-title "The life of Captain Woodes Rogers".

Woodes Rogers came from a Dorset and Bristol based family with strong nautical traditions who led the successful round the world raiding expedition in 1708 - 1711 that captured a Spanish Galleon and later went on to become the Governor of the Bahamas.

One of my reasons for picking up this book was that the pilot of the circumnavigation was none other than the sailor, pirate, buccaneer, explorer, naturalist, writer, meteorologist etc, William Dampier who I've read and written about previously. It was the Woodes Rogers expedition that picked up Selkirk from what is now known as Robinson Crusoe Island.

Its an interesting and readable book which I enjoyed. It is basically in two parts - the journey around the world and the time in the Bahamas. One of the main reasons for this is also one of its limitations - it is heavily based upon just a handful of other books.

Firstly there is "A cruising voyage round the world" which sounds like it is something Liza Copeland would have written but was actually written by Woodes Rogers himself to describe his expedition and was the basis of the first half of the book.

Then there is Captain Charles Johnson's "A General History of the robberies & murders of the most notorious Pirates" (cracking title that one, note this book is sometimes attributed to Daniel Defoe) which describes how Woodes Rogers brought some of the Caribbean pirates to justice in the second half of the book.

If you want detail and authentic first hand accounts then it would be better to read these originals. However Woodes Rogers is not a natural writer and he tends to write long paragraphs like some early 18th Century stream of consciousness which is not easy to follow. If you just want an overview of his life this book is a good place to start.

It was an interesting period, when the wild buccaneers were giving way to govenors and merchants that would found colonies and create an empire from the Indies to the Americas. As Woodes Rogers was one of family of Woodes Rogers the author identifies him as "our hero" which begs the question was he?

He certainly did much to rid the seas of pirates and liberally spent his own money to build up the Bahamas to such an extent that at one point he was declared bankrupt. He successfully defended his colony not just against pirates but also against an attack from the Spanish in nearby Cuba. He introduced the rule of law and saw the first of many pirates to hang.

But what was most remarkable to me is he wasn't that remarkable, in the sense that at this time there were many English like Woodes Rogers heading out into the wilds to bring order out of chaos. There was much that was glossed over - like the slave trade - but it was a time of change of fortunes in Atlantic.

Woodes Rogers actions in the Pacific would no doubt allow the Spanish to accuse him of being a pirate himself. But this buccaneer turned pirate hunter helped clean up the Caribbean and end the so-called golden age of piracy.

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