The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard

For those fans who become interested in historical pirate history because of Black Sails, The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard is generally agreed to be the best place to start your research.  It’s an excellent work of non-fiction on its own: chaptered in roughly year-long periods within which we focus on the stories of four or so men, its very readable and easy to follow.  But for fans of Black Sails, this is a treasure trove of “Oh my gosh, that was REAL?”

The Republic of Pirates focuses primarily upon pirates Bellamy, Hornigold, Blackbeard, and pirate hunter Woodes Rogers.  We also get a substantial amount of Charles Vane, and the tiniest, but delightfulest, of tastes of Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny.  Of these, Bellamy is the only historical pirate that does not make an appearance in Black Sails, although his Robin Hood-esque anti-England mentality lives on in our main man, James Flint.

Although the timelines shift and the events are obviously not exact, I was impressed by how much the show’s characters mirror reality.  For example, Hornigold really was an old-school pirate who was one of the first to accept an English pardon, and he did in fact become a pirate hunter as a result.  Blackbeard is larger than life both in history and in Black Sails, even down to his famous bandolier of pistols.  I was just as distraught by his death in this book as I was in the show, and though the manner in which it happens was not the same, it is equally as epic.  Woodes Rogers is almost entirely the man we know from the show, a privateer governor (though historically he was also a slave trader, boooo) who scrambles to establish his authority and is eventually bankrupted by his efforts.

Charles Vane is just as much of a “proper pirate” in history as in the show, refusing to accept a pardon and taking down former brothers who abandon the cause.  He’s also presented as the most ruthless of the pirates (most of the pirates killed very few men on captured ships), which brought to mind Eleanor’s comment about the crew of the Ranger being animals.  Although they are not in the book very long, I loved the historical story of Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny.  When they ask governmental permission for Anne to annul her marriage so that she can marry Jack, Woodes Rogers refuses, saying that if they move forward with this, he will jail Anne and force Jack to whip her.  In answer, they renege on their pardons and turn pirate again!

I was also delighted to learn that the Urca de Lima was a real Spanish ship that was wrecked, along with her massive defense ships, littering beaches with gold for the taking.  It is not quite the story presented in Black Sails, but the same desperate scramble for gold  is there.

All of this is excellent, but by far my favorite part of this book was the descriptions in the beginning of what life in England was like during the early 1700s, especially for sailors.  The gross pay disparities, the forced work, the violent punishments for small infractions – it really made me understand why piracy was so appealing to so many “normal” men.  It wasn’t a desire for hedonism so much as an escape from tyrannical rule.  My empathy grew even greater once I understood the historical context for their actions.

The one downside to this book is the appalling lack of women, which I suppose isn’t surprising given that history largely ignored the roles women played.  One more reason that Black Sails is excellent for intentionally giving women a place and a voice!

I highly recommend lovers of pirates or Black Sails read The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard.  Enjoy!

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