Book Review: If a Pirate I must be … by Richard Saunders (Four Stars)

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Book Review: If a Pirate I must be …: The True Story of Black Bart, the King of the Caribbean Pirates by Richard Saunders

Four Stars

“If a pirate I must be, ‘tis better being a commander than a common man.” John Roberts (AKA Black Bart)

A well-written modern attempt to find the facts behind the fiction of the most successful, if not the most famous of the Caribbean pirates: Black Bart, whose real name was John Roberts. Saunders relates both the popular stories and the realities behind them as well as providing a primer on seventeenth century trade, of which slaves and sugar were among the foremost commodities. That freed African slaves made up as much as a third of successful pirate crews is part of the untold tale.

“Common men showed little enthusiasm for defending their masters’ property.”

With many official and contemporary sources unreliable as officialdom covered their incompetence, and occasionally complicity, dealing with Bart. John Atkin, a ship’s surgeon impressed recorder the courts martial of Joseph’s crew, uniquely and dispassionately recorded the more likely truth. The author’s principal source (with the caveat mentioned) was Charles Johnson’s 1724 A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. Johnson is responsible for today’s swashbuckling pirate stereotype.

“The love of drink and a lazy life (were) stronger motives to him (the typical pirate) than gold.” Joseph Mansfield

The eighteenth century Triangle Trade (Africa, to North America and the Caribbean, to Europe and back) on which the pirates preyed—and which killed over half of the slaves, merchant and slavers crews (they were often the same), navy personnel and pirates each year was originally driven by the demand for sugar in Europe. (Much as contemporary North American consumption of South America drugs drives the drug trade through Central America.)

“The promise of unlimited alcohol may have held little appeal [to Roberts] but power did.”

Pirates drank prodigious qualities of punch, the recipe for which included fresh limes., before James Lind’s 1747 discovery that citrus fruit prevented scurvy. Another reason pirates were healthier, if not longer lived, than many of their civilian and military counterparts.

“A merry life and a short one.” John Roberts (AKA Black Bart)