A Lucky Coincidence Between Research and Exhibition


A good brief history book is a gloss, covering a topic and referring to larger works. It’s excellent for getting you started and pointing you down further roads if you wish to take them. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly is such a book.

Cordingly pinpoints a singular era in the vast history of piracy, focusing almost exclusively on the Golden Age, when the New World was sending gold back to the Old by the shipload in exchange for slaves from Africa. He draws on the texts that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson and Daniel Defoe while also drawing extensively on naval records.

Where the book comes alive are the areas where Cordingly analyzes a pirate’s fictional depiction, such as in Treasure Island or Peter Pan, and compares it to the historical record. Cordingly navigates the differences between the two and notes how right fiction has often gotten it. He delves into the appeal of piracy, revealing why so many would gladly take to it. He also does not shy away from discussing piracy’s darker side: torture, the impacts of slavery, racial tensions, class, and economic motivations while dispelling a few myths about the romantic gentleman pirate along the way.

One wreck Cordingly references more than once is the Whydah, a slave ship captured by a North American pirate named Sam Bellamy and converted for his use. Its artifacts and history are beautifully assembled in the Real Pirates exhibition currently at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The combination of reading Cordingly’s book and touring the Whydah exhibition truly brought the research to life. There are many references to ships and places in the exhibition which Cordingly explores, and the exhibition provides a close up on the Whydah which Cordingly did not.

The exhibition is probably the best I’ve seen. The collection is assembled in such a way that you follow the history of various crew members through their careers and deaths, moving through set pieces that would make your local Renaissance Fair cry. I was impressed by the actors drifting through the exhibition. They provided a nice bit of unconsidered perspective, such as those of the wives left behind.

The ship’s own history is discussed, as are the modifications necessary to convert her from slaver to pirate vessel. The exhibition also helped by clarifying terms Cordingly used without definition. I can tell a pink from a sloop now, should the need ever arise. While the exhibition does not polish over the role of the slave trade in piracy, it perhaps takes the democracy of pirate crews to a bit of an idealized place.

It’s not often that I’m lucky enough to see a tactile display at the same time I’m reading a good book on a historical topic. If you can catch the exhibition when it comes to your area I recommend it, and I recommend Cordingly’s book even more highly.

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