- John Gaines
The Age of Pirates has been so thoroughly romanticized in the popular imagination that many people do not know about the real lives of pirates. Films ranging from Captain Blood to the Pirates of the Caribbean series create the idea of piracy as freedom from the boring drudgery and stress of life on land. But how much did pirates’ real lives resemble those of the fantastic swashbucklers of the silver screen? Terrance Zepke’s book, Pirates of the Carolinas, is a series of short biographies of some of the best-known pirates who operated out of North Carolina. Although not as in-depth as some other accounts, such as Daniel Defoe’s A General History of the Pirates, the book provides concise, factually accurate information on some of the most notorious figures in American history.
The pirate that gets the lengthiest single chapter is the Blackbeard, one of the last major captains of the Golden Age of Piracy. A wealth of information is provided on Blackbeard--from his mysterious origin and early days as “Edward Teach” to his ascent to captain and tumultuous love life and finally his violent end. Despite being the origin of many of the later romanticized piratical stereotypes, the true Blackbeard comes across as a violent, impulsive and none-too-bright man whose only real asset in life was his ability to inspire terror in his crew to motivate them. This chapter goes into intricate detail describing the means by which he kept up his demonic façade, from putting smoking fuses under his beard to create “brimstone” to shooting a crewman in the leg for the sole purpose of demonstrating that he could kill anyone he wanted with impunity. Blackbeard’s dealings with the corrupt governor of North Carolina also provide a fascinating study of the developing differences between the regions of North America, even in the early days when they were still British colonies.
Other famed pirates receive chapters of varying length and educational value. The chapter on Captain Kidd, the controversial would-be “privateer” who turned to piracy, is a detailed synopsis of how Kidd became bored with his civilian life and how his quest to be a privateer for the English crown led him to become a pirate and outlaw. The chapters on Anne Bonny and Mary Read are interesting for detailing how social options for women in the colonies were extremely limited and suggest why some women would see piracy as a more exciting, open life.
Perhaps most intriguing is the chapter on Henry Avery, a pirate whose successful attack on the Great Mogul of India’s pilgrimage ship caused major international distrust between India and the British East India Company. However, other pirates are given far less detail. Calico Jack Rackham, the captain of the ship on which Bonny and Read were crewmates, receives little analysis and tends to only be characterized in terms of how he reacted to Bonny and Read. Benjamin Hornigold, the man who gave Blackbeard his start, receives only a couple of paragraphs of description and does not even get his own chapter!
Besides the biographical information on pirates, the book contains a short section at the end on “Pirate Lore and Resources.” This section provides a useful dictionary of common terminology English-speaking pirates used, a lengthy list of films about pirates, and a quiz on pirates featuring information from the book. These additions make the book even more useful as an educational resource and make it a good starting place for information on some particularly notorious pirates. For a more in-depth analysis of pirates in the Americas, I recommend not using this book alone, but rather in conjunction with Defoe’s A General History of the Pirates.