Pirate Democracy

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates

by David Cordingly
Random House, 296 pp., $25.00


The first books about pirates appeared surprisingly soon after the piracy they described. The most successful of all the early pirates, Henry Morgan, who sacked the Spanish colonial city of Panama in 1671, was portrayed as a monster of depravity and cruelty in Alexander Exquemelin’s best-selling Buccaneers of America, first published in Dutch in 1678, and in English in 1684. Morgan brought suit for defamation of character. He strongly objected to a passage which said that he had first gone to the West Indies as an indentured servant and argued that, because the governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford, authorized his raids against the Spanish possessions, he was not a pirate. The matter was settled out of court and Morgan received substantial damages.

Recalled to London in order to placate the Spaniards, Morgan was soon knighted by Charles II and later returned to Jamaica as lieutenant governor, where he acquired landed estates and over a hundred slaves. He died a rich man. It was his gargantuan drinking bouts that did him in. “Falling after into his old course of life and not taking any advice to the contrary, his belly swelled so as not to be contained in his coat,” Hans Sloane, who attended him, reported. Whereupon Morgan turned to an African shaman who plastered him with mud and made him drink urine. “But he languished and, his cough augmenting, died soon after.”

The governor of Jamaica ordered a state funeral for Sir Harry. A solemn service took place at Saint Peter’s Church, of which Morgan was a benefactor. When the warships in the harbor honored the old villain with a twenty-one gun salute, the cannons of the merchant vessels answered with their own disorderly but thunderous barrage. But in all this Henry Morgan was an exception. Most of his fellow pirates had short careers, met early and nasty ends, and died penniless, having lost their spoils in the taverns and brothels of Port Royal, Jamaica’s capital, and one of the Caribbean’s great buccaneer havens until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692—a suitable punishment for its past crimes and misdemeanors, some argued at the time.

One thing, however, seems certain. Books about pirates tend to make more money than did most pirates. The London Maritime Museum’s 1992 exhibition “Pirates: Fact and Fiction,” a show planned to last four months, remained open for three years by popular demand. So it was not surprising that a New York literary agent encouraged David Cordingly, one of the curators, to take up the theme of the exhibition in a book contrasting the fictional image of pirates with historical reality.

Cordingly concentrates principally on the great age of piracy between the last half of the seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, essentially the 1650s through 1725. For the “real world” of the pirates, he examined contemporary English language sources, principally the logbooks of the Royal Navy vessels sent out against the pirates, reports from colonial governors, and the depositions of captured…

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