Peter Wayner writes: "One of the greatest mysteries of today is whether a pirate is good or bad. On one hand, Disney campaigns against digital piracy while making a movie ( "Pirates of the Caribbean") pushing a theme park ride that celebrates life under the Jolly Roger. On one hand, we celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day, while on the other hand this fine, upstanding investment company was fined $19.7m for copyright infringement and no one used the word 'Pirate.' This is the world that greets the paperback edition of Pirate Hunter, Richard Zacks's excellent history of the late so-called pirate, Captain William Kidd." Read on for the rest of Peter's review.
While Kidd's name may be synonymous with piracy in our culture's muddled collective memory, the book establishes that the sailor was nothing of the sort. If anything, he was framed by powerful forces trying to maintain a struggling business model. Why does that sound familiar?
This book is a wonderful example of what a talented writer and a relentless researcher can do with records that date from the 17th century. Kidd was born in Scotland in 1654, lived to see the 18th century, and recorded some of his daily life in log books that were sometimes sketchy and sometimes voluminous. By synthesizing the information from Kidd's papers, various British archives, ships logs, correspondence and other ephemera, Zacks was able to build a detailed narrative around Kidd's last major voyage. Did you know that in 1699, the going price for fine silks and other exotic fabrics was about 3 yards per piece of eight? Or perhaps that Cotton Mather preached to Kidd on January 21, 1700 on Jeremiah 17:11? I shudder to think what someone will be able to do with the Wayback machine.
By 1696 when the book begins, Kidd was one of the wealthiest landowners in the United States living in a river front mansion near Wall Street. His block and tackle helped build Trinity Church where his family sat in the fourth row each Sunday. Kidd married well and his wife gave him a child. Kidd was, according to his marriage certificate, a gentleman. Still, as Richard Grasso found out, this wasn't enough to stop the political winds from turning an seemingly honest dollar into ill-gotten plunder.
The pirate world, on the other hand, was a different place from the tip of Manhattan. The men on a true pirate ship sailed hard, tortured the weak ships they could find, and then spent their earnings on rum and women in sketchy ports of call that asked no questions. It was, according to the dreaded pirate Bartholomew Roberts , "A merry life and a short one."
Still, despite the disrespect for the rules of property, the pirate life offered many other socially advanced customs that outdistanced the civilized world where the Kings and Queens proclaimed they ruled by divine right. Zacks points out that pirate ships were run as strict democracies and the captains could be deposed at any time by a recall election known as a parlay. "All food and liquor was to be shared equally, a mind-boggling concept for sailors long used to watching officers dine and guzzle for hours on end," he notes.
So why did Kidd leave his comfortable New York home and head to sea again? Zacks establishes that Kidd was given a commission by four lords in the British admirality. Kidd received a new ship, a crew, and the instructions to capture any of the pirates who were plaguing the British East India companies. Kidd was to be a pirate hunter, a fighter for good, not evil, who would conveniently split his takings with his four backers. Some details of the commission were kept secret because the backers were going to keep the treasure and avoid giving the goods back to the rightful owners who lost the treasure to the pirates in the first place. This was a cousin to the doctrine proclaiming that two wrongs make a right.
The book sails through Kidd's voyage in exquisite detail. It's a pirate story that sometimes wilder and sometimes slower than any fiction writer could offer. Somewhere along the trip, the rumors begin to circulate that Kidd had turned pirate. Zacks suggests the whispers began as an act of treachery by one of his old partners who did dabble in piracy. The partners could cover their own tracks by blaming Kidd. The rumors fed into the Royal Navy's faulty intelligence network which dutifully hyped the size of the pirate world in order to serve its own ends.
Along the way, it becomes clear that piracy was as much a different political system as a violent crime against property. When the laws and strictures of society grow too binding, men might slip them off and sail into the sunset. Piracy was a decision to forgo the social contract that most had never signed in the first place, in most cases because the social contract offered by the official government was not particular gracious. Zacks compares life on a pirate ship to life under the British flag when the opportunity presents itself.
Who received a greater share of the wealth? Which class structure was more rigid? Who was responsible for more privation and inhumanity? It's impossible to do the calculus, but Zacks makes it clear that the pirates understood something of what Bob Dylan's theorem that you must be honest to live outside the law. At one bitterly ironic point, the black so-called pirates on Kidd's ship are treated with much more respect than the white ones, but only because the captors know that the black ones will fetch a nice price at the slave market in London.
In Kidd's case, the question of his piracy oscillates in a mechanism of a war between political factions. Zacks suggests that the English East India company, which was sort of the Microsoft of the day when sea trade was high tech, fanned the rumors of Kidd's departure from fair society to ingratiate itself before the Grand Moghul in India. Kidd's commission to take so-called pirate ships put him at odds with the work of the trading company which launched merchant ships skirting their own set of rules.
So the book evolves on two levels. The men fight with guns and ships that are all just extensions of lawyers and corporations. Kidd's struggle to gain a fortune, repay his backers, and return to his wife in New York gets caught in the middle of the greater evolution of English law, American rebellion, French imperialism, and old fashioned greed, . Was he a pirate or gentleman? Does he plunder enough pirates to repay his backers? Does he survive to clear his name? It would be a shame to ruin this fine story by revealing the ending of the book. Of course, the deeper questions of the true nature of piracy and its hold on our imagination, continue to resonate today.
Peter Wayner is the author of Policing Online Games , a book about pirate hunting of a sort, and Java RAMBO Manifesto , an exploration of how to live without a database. You can purchase Pirate Hunter from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.