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Under the Black Flag
David Cordingly
Harvest/Harcourt Brace Books, 320 pages

Under the Black Flag
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David Cordingly was for many years curator and head of exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, England. Universally acknowledged as the foremost expert on pirates, he has written several books on the subject. He lives by the sea in Sussex, England.

Under the Black Flag: Life Among the Pirates at The Mariners' Museum - Newport News, Virginia
Books for Buccaneers
North Carolina Pirates: A Bibliography
Pirates at the City Art Centre
Pirate Fiction

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Neil Walsh

First of all, I'd like to point out that this is a work of non-fiction. So why is it being reviewed on the SF Site? Because it's about pirates. Isn't that enough? Everyone loves pirates, right? Well stories about pirates, anyhow. We don't actually like pirates, do we? No, of course not. Well not really. Not that much.

OK, hell yes, we love pirates! And this is a book that takes a look at why that is. The subtitle of Under the Black Flag is "The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates." After all, that's what our love of pirates boils down to: the mixture of the romance and the reality.

In his introduction, Cordingly reminds us of the ugly truth:

"Pirates have acquired a romantic aura which they never had in the seventeenth century and which they certainly never deserved. Pirates were not maritime versions of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Piracy, like rape, depended on the use of force or the threat of force, and pirate attacks were frequently accompanied by extreme violence, torture, and death."
But despite this brutal reminder, we can't help cheering for them now and again. At least, for some of the less despicable among them. And, as Cordingly himself concedes, despite the appeal of the romanticized version, "the fact remains that the lives of some of the real pirates and the men who hunted them down are as fascinating and as full of drama as any of the works of fiction."

Cordingly is the man who should know, having been the organizer of the world-acclaimed exhibition, Pirates, Fact and Fiction, with the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England. As might be expected of such an individual, his book is extremely well documented, with detailed notes, bibliography, glossary of nautical terms, and a few appendices with some fascinating facts and figures about pirate attacks, trials and executions.

But this is no dry and dusty scholar's thesis. It's an enjoyable, easy read. The 16 pages of black and white glossy plates in the centre of the book, and the several maps scattered throughout, add to the appeal of this edition. And the cover is much more dramatic than that of the hard cover Random House American edition which was released a couple of years ago.

Under the Black Flag is not just an historical analysis of piracy in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; it's a foray into the world of history and fiction as they coalesce into myth within our own minds. As promised, Cordingly looks at the romance, as well as the reality. He discusses the pirates we know and love in fiction, film and legend.

If you'll permit me just one more quotation from this book:

"The fact is that we want to believe in the world of the pirates as it has been portrayed in the adventure stories, the plays, and the films over the years. We want the myths, the treasure maps, the buried treasure... We prefer to forget the barbaric tortures and the hangings, and the desperate plight of men shipwrecked on hostile coasts."
And in Under the Black Flag, Cordingly give us all -- the barbarous reality alongside the romantic mythology.

So really, now. Why did this book get reviewed on the SF Site? Partly because there is a fantastical element to our notion of pirates that Cordingly addresses, and partly, well, there's no denying that most of us love a good mutiny. But this mutiny is over. You can have your science fiction and fantasy back now.

Copyright © 1997 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.

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