Nonfiction pirate novel excels in excitement but lacks in good structure

By: Chloë Williams, Columnist 

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.  

“Under the Black Flag” is a nonfiction novel by David Cordingly, detailing the romance and reality of golden era pirates. The book is separated by chapters that each detail a different piece of pirate life or lore. Most entertaining among these are Cordingly’s chapters on Henry Morgan, “Women Pirates,” “Pirates’ Women,” “Captain Kidd” and “Buried Treasure.” 

Each of these paints a lively tale about the lives of specific pirates from their origins to their deaths. The book as a whole is well-researched and cites from a wide variety of sources, including historical records. However, while the book may be highly informative, it can often become repetitive and lacking in excitement.

This book is really successful in its uncovering of lesser known pirates and aspects of pirate life. For example, Cordingly explains the life of the pirates’ musician; a person who joins the crew, but is not made to be a pirate. They must perform whatever the crew requests six days a week, but are required to rest on the seventh. The book also includes the tale of Chinese pirate Ching Shih, who dominated the South China Sea for years and was a greatly respected and feared leader. In these detailed descriptions, the reader is easily swept away into the fantastical history. For those more interested in the nitty gritty, there is an amplitude of facts regarding the maintenance of the ship and the trials of pirates by the British government of the time. 

One such section of detail was the chapter on Storms, Shipwrecks and Life at Sea, which included variations on the Pirates Code. There were many laws that one might expect from a pirate crew, such as to be ready to fight at all times and to never abandon the crew. 

But the pirates had a surprisingly democratic stance to life at sea, which Cordingly extrapolates on very well. He includes rules that almost seem silly, such as designated bedtimes, gambling and the presence of women on board. In this portion of the book, a reader could find themselves easily immersed.

One is certainly engulfed in the world of the 16th to 18th century within the pages of “Under the Black Flag.” But where this book begins to falter is in its language. This is a book about pirates sailing the seven seas in the height of their existence but yet the author opposes the pirates.  

Cordingly’s critique that pirates were nothing but thieves, crooks, criminals, and murders is entirely founded. The book lacks excitement. Of course the pirates are not the heroes, but the very conception of this book shoves them into the spotlight- they’re the villains, the anti-heroes. 

The pirates do not need to be painted in a positive light, but rather they need passion in the presentation of their stories. Instead of a blunt assertion that pirates were bad, the writing needed a more aggressive standpoint that offered energy and emotion into the retelling of history. Often this book presented itself as a collection of facts rather than “the romance and the reality of life among the pirates” that the tagline promises.

Another pitfall of “Under the Black Flag” is its tendency to repeat itself. There is so much history surrounding pirates but the reader often finds themselves being told the same information from chapter to chapter. Perhaps this is a structuring issue and could be fixed by trying to organize the novel in a way that it builds on itself with each new chapter rather than jumping from idea to idea. This is not a huge issue but it is noticeable. 

The book has a tendency to reference literature like  JM Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and other variations of the Peter Pan story. While  this is not a big distraction, it is odd for a nonfiction recounting of pirate life to continue referencing literary depictions of pirates. I found these portions of the book to be a bit tangential, and thought they would be better suited to a book devoted entirely to pirates and literature.

Overall, this was a very informative read, crafted by someone who is obviously dedicated to the subject matter. Certain sections, especially regarding the life stories of specific people, were very gripping. Though it could do with a good splash of enthusiasm, it’s a solid read and entertaining. There are passages that will make you cringe in horror at the gory pirate violence and sections on pirate raids to make you lean into your chair. I would consider this a great seasonal read for Halloween and includes a lot of tales for all the history buffs out there. 


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