Margarette Lincoln. British Pirates and Society, 1680-1730. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014. 294 pp. $118.70 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4724-2994-0.
Reviewed by Michael F. Dove (Western University)
Published on H-Albion (December, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth
Piracy is said to be the world’s second-oldest profession, its ancient roots dating well before Homer, Thucydides, and Cicero proclaimed sea roving to be a scourge on the world. From antiquity to the modern era, when piracy lives on for most of those in the Western world through feel-good Disney films and Krispy Kreme “Talk Like a Pirate Day” promotions, as well as the significantly grittier yet heavily fictionalized television series Black Sails, those involved in conducting and enabling robbery at sea continue to fascinate. At the source of this fascination lies a duality of perspective, as society conceives of piracy as both threat and entertainment.
The trajectories of public and state attitudes towards pirates have wavered back and forth over time. This was perhaps most evident during the so-called golden age of piracy, when pirates were increasingly vilified, hunted, executed, and then later romanticized as their threat became ever more remote for the majority of ordinary people. The process of changing attitudes towards piracy during a massively transformative period within the history of the British Empire is the subject of Margarette Lincoln’s first-rate study, British Pirates and Society, 1680-1730.
The meaning of piracy then, as now, remained fluid for people, depending on who they were, where they were, and how directly they were affected by it. Lincoln begins her examination of piracy by usefully defining it as being historically constructed, and reveals over the next eight, thematically structured chapters how rhetoric and reality around piracy is indicative of important social developments taking place during the period. This is where the author is clearly at home. The director of research and collections at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, Lincoln applies her extensive knowledge of British maritime social history to probe the contesting views of piracy at play in British society. The chapters “A Growing Evil: Pirates and Commerce” and “The Taste of the Town: Pirates and ‘Polite’ Society” are particularly enlightening and convincing. Here she addresses the erratic record of the state in enforcing antipiracy laws, for often the actions of pirates proved complementary to the needs of the state. Another area of strength for Lincoln is in her exploration of piracy in terms of personal and family relationships. Here she adds to her previous contributions to understanding the land-based lives of seafarers, examined in her Naval Wives and Mistresses, 1750-1815 (2007), by extending that scholarship backward from the long eighteenth century to this golden age. We are reminded that though there were some women who turned pirate and physically worked and fought alongside their male counterparts at sea, those larger-than-life figures, including Anne Bonny and Mary Read, were certainly atypical. As Lincoln ably demonstrates, the vast majority of women were connected to piracy through their roles as wives, lovers, and enablers.
Readers may be surprised to find very little consideration of the Barbary States and their continued menace to British shipping into the nineteenth century. To her credit, Lincoln fully discloses the light treatment within the first few pages, and reasons that corsairing was different from Western-style piracy as it was sanctioned by religion and state rulers and was not carried out by “renegade individuals principally for their own gain” (p. 4). The Jacobean period of course witnessed several English pirates operating off the Barbary Coast, many of whom were welcomed by these states as well as England, for they shared a common enemy in Spain. Lincoln quite rightly touches (p. 116) on the legacy of those such as Peter Easton and Henry Mainwaring, for both received pardons from the Crown, became wealthy and famous, and therefore muddied the waters when it came to society’s sanctioning of such activity. Their exploits remained well known to future generations of British sailors, merchants, and statesmen, as did the continued activities of the corsairs. Indeed, the intensification of corsair attacks on English vessels within the Mediterranean and eventually beyond it into the North Atlantic by the 1680s, prompted British merchant vessels such as those operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company to carry Mediterranean passes in the event of capture by Moorish pirates for the remainder of the period under this book’s examination. Greater attention by Lincoln to the Barbary corsairs is wished for, for their movements and operations carried very direct repercussions for British society and its perception of and response to piracy.
In terms of research, Lincoln employs a fairly comprehensive strategy, encompassing a variety of excellent sources including newspaper accounts, trial reports, parliamentary debates, and ballads as well as most of the leading scholarly works on the topic of British piracy. The bibliography contains ample primary and secondary source materials to point scholars and students in the right direction. That said, there are several significant omissions, including numerous important works to appear in the past twenty-five years, including David Starkey’s British Privateering Enterprise in the Eighteenth Century (1990); Ulrike Klausman’s Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger (1997); Kris Lane’s Pillaging the Empire (1998); C. R. Pennell’s Bandits at Sea (2001); Eric Graham’s Seawolves: Pirates and the Scots (2005); David Cordingly’s Seafaring Women (2002) and Under the Black Flag (rev. 2006); and Benerson Little’s Pirate Hunting (2010), all of which should figure prominently on the researcher’s map.
Well-chosen illustrations, with an assortment of black-and-white figures and color plates taken mainly from the rich collection of the National Maritime Museum, enhance the readability of this book. Sound scholarship, engagingly expressed, such as produced here by Lincoln, should find its mark among educators, researchers, and nonscholars alike. As audiences worldwide prepare to welcome next spring’s fifth installment of the enormously popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, some will undoubtedly be mindful of the changing trajectories in opinion surrounding pirates and piracy since its golden age.
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Michael F. Dove. Review of Lincoln, Margarette, British Pirates and Society, 1680-1730.
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