It’s been a while since I did a book review and I must say, this one is going to be a real humdinger! First, let’s just get it out there and acknowledge that for most of us, the concept of Pirates is either influenced by the Disney films, or the swashbuckling films of the 1940s and 1950s (or both is you like pirate films in general). And no matter how much I LOVE Muppet Treasure Island (and I do), it’s really not an accurate portrayal of Piracy (though anything with Tim Curry can be forgiven for accuracy because it’s Tim Curry).
I never knew, though long expected, that there was a history of piracy linked to the US and not just the Caribbean/Virgin Island regions. After all, we have long been acclimated to the concept that pirates must exist in tropical climates and must be weird and wacky characters. While they can still be weird and wacky, they don’t necessarily live in tropical weather. Historically, piracy has usually been equally encouraged and equally condemned by any reigning government. Queen Elizabeth I allowed her Naval Armada to commit acts of piracy against Spain all in the name of Patriotism, but condemned any who were committing the same acts against their own countrymen. Jut remember, smuggling and piracy are very much the same thing, just different names (though I tend to think of smugglers as being the land gents while pirates did all the leg work). But this book ha very little to do with Queen Elizabeth I (though England is still involved in this narrative). This book, which I might say unabashedly is a pure delight and a work of superb genius, really opens up the Chesapeake Bay area for those of us who love history.
It should come to no surprise to hose of us who love Early American History that piracy is a legacy that helped shape our nation from the rag-tag collection of colonies to the 13 States up to and after the Civil War. After all, pirates performed a variety of functions that was key to the survival of many of the early Americans. Pirates, when America was still under British Rule, helped supply luxury items and goods that were normally heavily taxed. Pirates helped supply British Goods after America declared its right to Independence. Thy also supplied French goods to American and parts of Europe during the French Revolution (particularly silk, lace, and wine/alcohol). Pirates helped win the war against the British Navy by blockades and providing a small, but strong, presence along the coastlines. Of course, we called these pirates “Patriots” and the British hailed them as Pirates, but they really ere one and the same. This particular presence was vital in the Chesapeake Bay area.
Unless you don’t live around the Great Lakes region, most people in the US don’t understand how important the Great Lakes is to this day. Or course, most people in the US cannot locate Italy on a map nor understand that Africa is a Continent, not a country (Geography is important). The Great Lakes are the biggest source of fresh water in North America and are still used to transport items from the Atlantic to the Mid-Western US and Canada via canals and waterways. One of the main waterways leading to the Great Lakes is through the Chesapeake Bay area, so I immediately knew that any book detailing Piracy in this area would play into trade. And it does. But in a way that I never thought about. I take it for granted that goods are easily available to me, living here in close proximity to Lake Michigan. But then, most of us do as we have grown up in a time when delivery of goods has been fine tuned that we get upset if something that is promised within 30 minutes shows up 1 minute late. But I am getting a wee bit off topic. The Chesapeake Bay area straddles a wide expanse of Eastern US coastline, so it makes sense that the Colonists would want to protect this area, and the passageway to the interior, from the British.
This doesn’t mean that ALL pirates were on the good side. There was a lot of money to be made capturing ships and getting hold of goods that could be sold. And piracy existed on both sides and there are examples of American’s committing acts of piracy against other Americans (looking at you William Claiborne). And many pirate tales that I clearly remember hearing or reading about as a child are linked to this area of the US. For example, Captain Kidd is tied to this region of the US. He lived in this area, got married in this region, and was executed as well. People still roam Virginia and Maryland’s coastlines looking for Kidd’s lost treasure (which, I am sure, never really existed but it’s a great example of an early American Myth that lingers). There’s also Blackbeard, who I have to state, was a goddamn dandy. Ribbons in his beard, matches lit and arranged in his hair and hat. If this guy could enter a room with doves and glitter, he totally would. The BEST example would be David Bowie’s entrance as Jareth in Labyrinth. I fully expect any and all future appearances of Blackbeard to have the same theatrical aesthetic or why even bother. I also humbly submit that Idris Elba play Blackbeard because if anyone could look threatening, but pull this aesthetic off it would be Hemidall (I mean, Idris).
Plus, oysters. I never knew people fought over oysters. We had people committing acts of piracy over oysters until 1960! Personally, oysters look like small pieces of snot and from my research into them (because, AUSTEN), oysters were the food of the poor, the working class, sailors,and fishermen. And the oysters in this region were plentiful, which is great for the population who live round there. Now, today we associate oysters with wealthy and indulgence. I’ve even seen some historical films show oysters being eaten by the nobility & upper classes PRIOR to the 1820s, which is, of course, incredible wrong. Oysters were considered “common fare”, people would fed oysters to their cats and dogs. That’s right, pets prior to the 1860s ate better than most people do now. But what is interesting, is that sometime in the 1830s & 1840s, oysters started getting that reputation of being food for the upper class (possibly due to the industrial revolution and the burgeoning middle class that was exploding in the US and in the UK). Now, to be completely honest, I haven’t looked into WHEN oysters started being eaten as food for the rich, but I have done a wee bit of research and know that during the 1820s and 1830s, it was still seen as street food, so not necessarily food for the poor, but starting to migrate into the echelons of the middle class, which then leads to the rich. But by the 1860s, oysters, and those who harvested them, could make some serious money.
For a quick refresh literary wise, Darcy and his aunt would NEVER have eaten oysters (1800-1812). Mr. Rochester may have eaten them for a party (1840s). Mr. Thorne’s mother would have never eaten them as a youth, but may be obliged to serve them for her daughter’s wedding (1840s-1850s). Miss Havishim would have never eaten them, but her adopted daughter may (1820s). Lady Bracknell would definitely eat them (1895). Gatsby would be chugging them down like there was no tomorrow (1925).
Professor Goodall does note that oyster ships could make $2000 a year when the average salary was $500 a year. So, yes, oysters were big business and still are. But what I mostly took away from the Oyster Wars is how over fishing, and the acts of piracy, harmed this industry and the ecological impact is something that region still deals with to this day.
Now, this book came to my attention because Professor Goodall wrote a piece about pirates and the imagery of pirates because of the Super Bowl (also, FUCK Tom Brady). I couldn’t believe the backlash she received for writing a very well written, and well research look at the brief history of buccaneers. But, we know people are very easily bestirred and don’t like to be reminded that maybe, just maybe, the image they hold near and dear is not always a good image to be fond of. But, it led me to this wonderful book and I gladly followed Goodall on Twitter (@L_Historienne) where I recently voted to learn about a pirate called Sadie the GOAT. While she may or may not have existed, if I ever get a chance to name a Goat, it’s gotta be Sadie.
So, this is what I think. If you like to learn more about Early American History, this is the book for you. If you are curious about the Oyster Wars, definitely read this book. If you want to read about some of the interesting pirates that called America home, then you should defiantly get this book. And if you just want to read a fun book about Pirates that is well written, can easily fit into a purse (or satchel) and makes you look devastatingly cool while waiting for your Boyfriend at the local coffee shop, the you MUST get this book. If you want to support a female historian in a filed dominated by men, then you MUST get this book. And if you cannot afford it, then please ask that your local library purchases it to add to their collection, Because this book may inspire another future historian and knowledge IS power.