Book Review: ‘The Pirate Next Door: The Untold Story of Eighteenth Century Pirates’ Wives, Families and Communities’

Book Review by James H Thomas on Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos, The Pirate Next Door: The Untold Story of Eighteenth Century Pirates’ Wives, Families and Communities (Carolina Academic Press: Durham, North Carolina, 2017), 147pp. £11-12 (Kindle and Paperback).

This is a slim volume which promises much, delving ‘into the inner lives of pirates, focusing on their faiths, communal ties and great loves’. Or so it says on the book’s back cover. And it does so to a considerable extent, using a novel approach, via a focus on the lives of four pirate captains – Samuel Bellamy (d. 1717) of Cape Cod, goldsmith turned maritime outlaw Paulsgrave Williams (1676-1719?) of Block Island, 13 miles off Rhode Island, William Kidd (1645?-1701) of whom much has been written, and Samuel Burgess (d. 1716?) of New York.

Herein lies the work’s novelty. That stated, however, the great opportunity that this approach offered was not always carried through to its intended objective. Only two of the chapters – those on Williams and Kidd – are strong, doubtless explained by the plethora of available source materials and extensive historiography, particularly on the latter. In some respects, however, the book’s material is treated rather superficially. Thus the treatment of attitudes towards piracy (pp. 4-5) fails to make any mention of the link between piracy’s growth and the lack of a British naval presence in New World waters until 1685 as a possible contributory explanation.

In a similar fashion, the distinctions between the piratical captain and his quartermaster, while teased out to a certain extent, could have been taken a little further. By the same token, the use of language and inferential speculation needed a little more attention in places. Thus statements that ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy’s lady, Maria Hallett, who had lost their baby, been imprisoned and then subjected to a cruel, dangerous, public stoning had left her ‘unmoored and without hope’ almost amounted to an admission of not knowing what had actually taken place. Indeed, the chapter has a focus on Bellamy, the wreck of the Whydah and much in the way of evidence that is either circumstantial or of near-folklore proportions. Errors of fact are also present. Lawrence Prince, commander of the Whydah in 1717, was not ‘a veteran seaman with thirty years of experience’, having been commissioned as a naval lieutenant in 1671.

The book certainly reveals more about the dynamics and significance of pirate communities, most notably Block Island and Madagascar, plus the intriguing use of a piratical ‘post office’ on lonely and remote Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. Similarly, it teases out new and useful information about Kidd’s wife, Sarah Oort, the twice-widowed and very wealthy 21-year-old, to whom he was married for a decade and a week. While their relationship was explored at some length, little was made of two elements in Kidd’s life. Thus more could perhaps have been made of the dynamics of the powerful consortium backing him and of the importance of the Quedah Merchant, the 400-ton vessel leased to Indian government officials. What the author fails to bring out was that East India Company directors, fearful of Emperor Aurangzeb’s incandescent rage and the likelihood of his moving against them, necessitated face-saving policies on their part. Hence their launching of a global manhunt for Kidd, his eventual capture and show trial.

There are three areas in the study where newly discovered material could have been analysed and delivered with more rigour and vigour, and one that was never raised by the author at all. In the Introduction the reader’s attention is drawn to the discovery of a 1709 petition to Queen Anne.  Signed by four dozen wives and relations of ‘Pirates and Buccaneers of Madagascar and elsewhere in the East and West Indies’, the petition asked that the men be spared from the gallows and that they, the petitioners, be allowed to keep their loot. Commenting on the document’s broader social and economic significance, the author states, quite rightly, that it gives the lie to the idea that all pirates were inveterate social isolates. While that is certainly true, nothing further is vouchsafed as to the petitioners’ identities, potential links, significance and so on. Secondly, as the book relates in part to piratical community connections, it would have been useful and informative to learn more about the seemingly ironic foundation of Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island, by Thomas Paine and six other pirates named on a plaque outside the edifice. Presumably, they had all transformed themselves into model citizens and embraced strong religious principles?

The third point of development is chapter 4, dealing with Samuel Burgess. Subtitled ‘Window into the Private Lives of Pirates’, the chapter is built around letters and other documents found in Burgess’s sea-chest when his vessel, the Margaret, was seized by Captain Mathew Lowth aboard the Indiaman Loyal Merchant at the Cape of Good Hope in December 1699. While the crew, 114 slaves, 28 homeward-bound pirates and over £11,000 in bullion and coins were considered a coup, the prize item, from the author’s point of view, was the chest and its documents. But these documents are not really contextualised or analysed fully and thoroughly. The chapter really needed an over-arching argument and a section of much closer analysis. Only then would the full significance of the letters have become apparent. One issue never raised in the volume was that of marriage. Were the pirates’ wives legally bound to their menfolk, or was it all an arrangement of convenience in the fashion of Shadwell and Wapping? It would have been informative and rewarding to have argued and explored this particular question.

On balance the author is to be congratulated on a brave attempt at accepting a difficult and ground-breaking challenge. To move the perceived mental image of the pirate away from that of the hard-drinking, hedonistic and sadistic social isolate is no mean undertaking or achievement. The author has managed, if only in part, to do so. Drawing back the veil from the world of pirates and revealing them as gregarious, caring, family men, husbands and fathers deserves congratulation. Quite clearly, however, there is much more work to be done. It is to be hoped that the author will maintain her efforts, perhaps inspired by the words of David Everitt (1770-1813):

Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow.

 

To read Daphne’s article showcasing her research, Click Here

 

 

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