Swedin on Skowronek and Ewen, 'X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy'

Author: 
Russell K. Skowronek, Charles R. Ewen, eds.
Reviewer: 
Eric G. Swedin

Russell K. Skowronek, Charles R. Ewen, eds. X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. xxvi + 339 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-2875-0.

Reviewed by Eric G. Swedin (Department of Information Systems and Technologies, Weber State University) Published on H-Maritime (October, 2006)

A Pirate's Life for Me?

Why are we so fascinated by pirates? After all, they are really just ship-based thugs. Novels and movies like Peter Pan, Treasure Island, and the recent Pirates of the Caribbean, have glamorized pirates, making them out as heroes, while slyly showing that the fascinating rogues were really dangerous men. Modern viewers and readers are intrigued by the freedom of pirate lives and the way that they flouted social and moral rules; this fascination is decidedly different from the way contemporaries viewed these individuals. In fact, Charles Ewen points out that these fables obscure the terror that pirates inspired. This terror led to instant death sentences as the most common punishment for piracy; perhaps the best modern parallel, then, is not the pirate as "Robin Hood of the Deep," but the pirate as "terrorist" (p. 4). Moreover, while we are also fascinated by tales of pirate treasure there is little reason to suppose that pirates went around burying their ill-gotten gains.

This volume of essays is the latest from the University Press of Florida in their New Perspectives on Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology series, a wide-ranging publishing effort that maritime historians and afficionados should support. Unfortunately, the high list price shows that this book will mostly find a place in libraries rather than personal collections. The essays are mostly written in the form of reader-friendly site reports with plentiful diagrams and tables. Pirate lairs such as Port Royal in Jamaica, Grande Terre Island in southern Louisiana, and the obscure pirate havens in the Bay of Honduras are described. Other essays report on particular sunken pirate ships from around the world, including the Speaker, sunk on Mauritius in 1702; the Fiery Dragon, also sunk in the Indian Ocean in 1721; the Whydah, sunk off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1717; and Blackbeard's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, sunk off Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina the following year. There are two essays on the Queen Anne's Revenge which illustrate that not everyone agrees with the vessel's identification with Blackbeard. While no artifact has been recovered that positively identifies the ship with the brigand--all that has been found is consistent with a 1718 wreck--there is a continued association between the pirate and the site, despite only tangential evidence to link the two.

One important contribution in this volume is the focus on pirates beyond those found in Atlantic waters. Where other volumes focus almost exclusively on the Atlantic or Indian Ocean basins, this book pays attention to lesser known maritime criminals. For example, pirates flourished on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. One essay examines the remains of a flatboat found along the Ohio River in 2001. While the authors believe that it was a vessel that ran aground and sank, the local population prefers the more glamorous story that it was sunk by pirates. The bottom of the flatboat showed no evidence of burning and the position of the boat is more consistent with a story of sinking and partial salvage. Still, when presented with alternate theories about the ship, local tourism offices were keen to stick to the story of piracy in their waters. The best evidence of Mississippi River piracy comes from historical records on the notorious Samuel Mason, whose criminal career apparently included more robberies and murders on land than on river flatboats. Escaping from Spanish custody in 1803, Mason was decapitated by two of his gang members to collect the reward for his head. The two gang members were recognized as river pirates and were hanged.

Historical archaeologists have often avoided pirate sites on land and underwater because of the distasteful association with treasure hunters. Besides this professional difficulty, identifying the artifacts and context at a given site as pirate in origin is exceedingly difficult unless historical documents already point to such an identification. What is more, the sea floor can also be a mixture of wrecks: Beaufort Inlet alone has eight known eighteenth-century shipwrecks, and silver real coins from the Whydah, that have been cemented together with .50-caliber World War II rounds, have been recovered off Cape Cod. All of these problems with accessing and identifying pirate wrecks are adequately spelled out in this book.

While piracy has always existed and still exists, as evidenced by recent attacks on ships off Somalia, piracy in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of piracy before 1730 significantly affected local commerce and the location of settlements (to make them more defendable), and provided an alternate way to exchange goods. One can think of piracy as an adjunct to normal trade relations, a way to redistribute the wealth, and certainly some of the popular imagery of the pirates lends itself to the idea of pirates as Robin Hoods of the high seas.

Alas, in this book we find no treasure maps, no trunks of doubloons and jewelry, and no ghosts, but we do have a wealth of wonderful maritime archaeology. The evidence may not support local claims to association with piracy, but that has not stopped the rush to share in the notoriety that accompanies the relationship with the most unsavory of characters.

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Citation: Eric G. Swedin. Review of Skowronek, Russell K.; Ewen, Charles R., eds., X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. H-Maritime, H-Net Reviews. October, 2006. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=12356

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