JOLLY ROGER: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy, by Patrick Pringle (Museum Press, I8s.).
By Grace Conway
IN between hands of Canasta, conversation turned on children and the books they read.
One of the players, mother of a 12-year-old son, when she was seeing him off to school after the Christmas holidays, saw him unwrap a book he had bought the day before with one of his Christmas book-tokens. It was The White Rabbit-an inocuous enough title and the train was well on its way out of the station before she realised that this was no animal story but an uninhibited account of tortures in a Nazi prison camp-the story of YeoThomas by Bruce Marshall. "I am now," she said, "waiting for a rocket from his headmaster for allowing him to take it to school." Another player described finding her eight-year-old daughter with her nose buried in lbsen's Doll's House, puzzled but persevering until it was restored to the bookcase. I would probably have forgotten all about this digression in a card game if it were not for this book which, with its title and spectacular book jacket depicting a pirate chief waving his cutlass hard by his own jolly roger, would lure the booktoken from any schoolboy's jacket pocket. And yet it is decidedly not fare for children, Mr. Pringle's first chapter alone is full of horrid deeds that night would indeed gape to look upon and hot blood is drunk-quite literally.
JOLLY ROGER is a sober, career fully-documented enquiry into the history of piracy as it was waged first by the English and later by the Americans. The period covered is about 150 years, beginning with the "Father of Modern Piracy," Sir Francis Drake, and fizzling out about the time of Blackbeard, who used to go round with his beard tied up in pink ribbons and finished up with his head hoisted to the bowsprit. Pirates, Mr. Pringle tells us, were not all that bloodthirsty. They have been maligned by the fiction writers; they have been misjudged by commentators and especially the moralising Victorian ones. Most important of all, they have been looked at out of their context. They have been interpreted in terms of later and more civilised times and Hollywood films in our own time are archoffenders. And so, to set the scene, as it were, we have that gory first chapter just to show that comparatively speaking,
the pirates were gentle creatures who only wanted to be allowed to live peacefully on their loot in between campaigns. Spain was, of course, the most plunderable nation and many an English arch-pirate had, if not a royal commission in his pocket, the unofficial blessing of his liege, who made sure of his rake-off when the ship got home.
ILIKE this story of Queen Eliza" LIKE 1. When Drake got home with L1,500,000 worth of plunder from the Cacafuego-although we were not at war with Spain-the Queen had to decide whether to punish Drake, and so appease Spain. or to take the loot-and the consequences of Spain's anger.
"Elizabeth weighed it up and finally decided in favour of Drake (and the loot). The decision taken, there was nothing half-hearted about the way she carried it out. She went aboard the Golden Hind to give Drake his knighthood; and the Spanish Ambassador, after warning her that this might lead to war, was told 'quietly, in her most natural voice, as if she were telling a common story, that if I used threats of that kind she would fling me into a dungeon.'" All the great names are hereHenry Morgan, Captain Kidd, Christopher Myngs and the Great Pirate Roberts. Not one of these pirate chiefs, Mr. Pringle assures us, was either a tyrant or a butcher, for the simple reason that a pirate ship was a democracy. The captain was elected and could be deposed if he went against the wishes of his crew, His job was to command the ship and lead it to its quarry. Pirates rarely killed their prisoners. But they made no secret that if they were offered resistance, they would kill without mercy. With a reputation like this, they had no difficulty in capturing far bigger and betterequipped ships than their own.
Scholars too DIRACY was by no means re
stricted to rough illiterates. There were scholars and more than a few writers among them, which accounts for the considerable contemporary bibliography on the subject. There were plenty of chic's taking notes. What Mr. Pringle has done is to sift the wheat from the chaff and give us an illuminating and often surprising treatise on a subject that up to now has had centuries of barnacles sticking to it. If he occasionally uses his book as a platform for his arguments against capital and corporal punishment, he does it calmly and judicially. But I can't forgive him for not giving us one single map.