Black Flags, Blue Waters

By Sue Cornell
For Points East

Author Eric Jay Dolin

The title of Eric Jay Dolin’s new book, to be released Sept. 18, fairly reeks of the colorful and terrifying Golden Age of piracy off American shores between the late 1600s through the early 1700s. Advanced reviews suggest that the text will follow suit.

“This true story of the pirates who infested the shores of America during piracy’s Golden Age is a fascinating look at who and what these criminals and their accomplices ashore truly were,” offered Lewiston, Maine’s James L. Nelson, author of “Benedict Arnold’s Navy.”

Dolin, 57, grew up near the waters of New York and Connecticut and earned degrees at Brown University, Yale University and MIT. He and his family live in Marblehead, Mass. We caught up with him last year, at a lecture near our home in Connecticut, and we were armed with a hold full of questions to help you discern where Dolin, author of a baker’s dozen best-selling books, is coming from, and what drives him.

Cornell: When did you get hooked on history, and how did you become an author?

Dolin: I have always loved stories about the past, especially early sea voyages and the travels of explorers. However, my main interest throughout school, and for most of my career, was marine biology and the environment.

From an early age I was fascinated by the natural world, especially the ocean. I spent many days wandering the beaches on the edge of Long Island Sound and the Atlantic, collecting seashells and exploring tidepools. When I left for college, I wanted to become a marine biologist . . . but I quickly realized that although I loved learning about science, I wasn’t cut out for a career in science . . . .”

Throughout my educational and professional career, one thing remained constant: I enjoyed writing and telling stories, and I was always writing articles on the side. While working on my dissertation in the early 1990s, I realized I had the most fun researching and writing [for my dissertation] about the long history of the degradation and cleanup of Boston Harbor. At about the same time, I started thinking that I would like to write books, and the stories that I was most interested in telling revolved around history. So, I started writing books that focused on history, while at the same time working full-time. In 2007, I quit my day job and became a full-time writer of history books . . . .”

Cornell: How did you do the research? How long did it take to research and write “Black Flags, Blue Waters?”

Dolin: It took about 18 months to research and write the book, to the point of having a complete first draft that was in good shape. After that, the manuscript went through a few revisions before it was submitted to my publisher. The actual publishing process takes a long time. From the moment I handed in my manuscript, it took a year to publication. During that time, the book was edited, copyedited, and line-edited, and all of the design, formatting, and pre-pub publicity work was done.

Most of my research for the book happened in my home office. Via the internet, especially a number of academic/archive sites, I was able to get direct access to hundreds, if not thousands, of primary documents on pirates and pirate history. I also purchased more than 50 books on pirate history or related topics, which lined a bookcase near my desk, where it served as a ready reference library. Finally, I visited numerous libraries, mainly in Massachusetts, and I spent a week in London, at Britain’s National Archives doing research.

Cornell: Do you have a favorite pirate?

Dolin: They are not very loveable fellows, to be sure, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be Blackbeard, not only because of the larger-than-life mythology that has grown up around his exploits, but also because he had one of the most interesting piratical careers. And his life ended in a bloody battle, with his head being hung from the bowsprit of his own sloop.

Cornell: Is there one you despise?

Dolin: Edward Low, a sadistic, most likely psychopathic, pirate who relished torturing or killing many of his victims. His signature move, other than running people through with a sword or shooting them, was slicing off ears and slitting nostrils.

Cornell: Which was the most flamboyant?

Dolin: Probably Thomas Tew, who was described as cutting a dashing figure during one of his visits to New York City in 1694. Small in stature, and around 40 years old, he sported a blue cap encircled by a silver ribbon, and a blue-velvet jacket festooned with gold lace and oversized pearl buttons that shimmered with iridescence as the light played on their surface. Linen pants and ornately embroidered stockings added to his sartorial ensemble, which was topped off with finely wrought chain of Arabian gold hanging about his neck, and a gleaming dagger, its hilt set with the rarest of gems.

But . . . most pirates were not fashion plates, but rather wore the typical garb that sailors of the time would wear . . . .

Cornell: Which one would you most fear?

Dolin: I would have to elect Edward Low again. While most pirates got what they wanted through intimidation, Low was quite content to maim and kill many people along the way. Wouldn’t want to be near such a mercurial and sadistic person.

Cornell: What role did pirates play in geopolitics?

Dolin: They contributed significantly to the colonial economy in the late 17th century, providing it with much of the silver coins that helped grease transactions within the colonies, and between the colonies and the mother country. As a result of their depredations in the Indian Ocean, pirates gravely damaged relations between England and the Mughal Empire, forcing the English to take a number of dramatic actions designed to clamp down on piracy and protect England’s commercial interests. And, between 1716 and 1726, pirates were a major threat to British shipping.

Cornell: Why are we so fascinated with pirates, and why are there so many pirate books, movies, theme-park rides and costumes?

Dolin: We are most fascinated by the mythology and imagery of pirates. It is largely because of dramatic fictional representations that pirates have grabbed hold of our collective imagination. Many have daydreamed about leaving traditional society behind, boarding a ship, and throwing in their lot with hearty men – and women – intent on taking what they want and getting rich while enjoying the luxurious freedom of sailing the world’s oceans with a hold full of rum, going where the wind will take them.

Mark Twain captured this longing in his memoir, “Life on the Mississippi,” when he admitted that, even though he and his friends had one “permanent ambition,” to be steamboatmen, “now and then we had a hope that, if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”

Although it is true that greed and lucre is the main motivation for both fictional and real pirates, the supposed romance and glamour of piracy is imaginary. The reality of piracy is nothing like the breathless musings of a “New York Times” reporter in 1892, who complained: “It cannot but be a source of regret to every true lover of the picturesque that pirates are no more and piracy has lost its popularity. What tremendous fellows they must have been! What heroes, dandies, wits, were to be found among them! They were immensely superior to land brigands, . . . [who] are mere milk compared with Blackbeard and Capt. Kidd.” While real pirates were incredibly intriguing and compelling characters, they were most definitely not “tremendous fellows”; instead, they were sea-borne criminals who were neither endearing nor heroic.

Many people view pirates in a romantic light, but there was absolutely nothing romantic about them, other than the legends woven about their exploits after they were gone. That is not to say that pirates were boring. Far from it . . . and the real story of America’s pirates is even more astonishing and fascinating than any fictional pirate adventure ever written or cast on the silver screen.

Cornell: What sets “Black Flags, Blue Waters” apart from other pirate books?

Dolin: It is the first popular narrative history of the pirates of America – the pirates who either operated out of America’s English colonies or plundered ships along the American coast during the late 1600s and early 1700s. As such, it gives you a front row seat to, and understanding of, one of the most dramatic stories of the American experience. Not only are the dastardly and sometimes bloody deeds of pirates explored, but also the reader is given a fascinating window into the life and the tempestuous times of the American colonies.

Cornell: What are some misconceptions we have about pirates?

Dolin: Pirates are often portrayed as bloodthirsty brutes who left a trail of corpses in their wakes. In truth, most pirates got what they wanted through intimidation and the threat of violence, rather than actual violence.

For many years, in the late 1600s, pirates were not considered misanthropic loners and criminals with anger issues, but rather they were upstanding members of their communities who were welcomed by citizens, merchants, and politicians alike for all the wealth they brought back to the colonies.

Although a few pirates became rich, and were able to enjoy their profits, most failed to achieve great financial success, and had brief careers that often ended in violent death.

Much has been made of the pirates’ use of democratic decision-making . . . . For example, the entire crew comprised an informal body, called the common council, which selected the captain by a majority vote. In the same manner it determined when and where they would go to search for prizes, which ships they would attack, and how they would resolve particularly thorny issues not covered by the pirate articles. Nevertheless, pirates adopted such democratic principles not because of any political theory, but rather because a pirate ship was, in effect, a floating society, and pirates simply set up practical, sensible, and easily enforced rules to ensure that their society functioned as smoothly as possible.

Cornell: Have you always loved pirates?

Dolin: I have long loved pirate movies, including many, though not all, of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. But I wouldn’t say I loved them before writing this book. In fact, for almost every book I write, I pick a topic that I know little about, and that was certainly the case for this book. That way, I am constantly learning new things, and I can stay engaged and excited for the years it will take to research and write the book. Now that I have spent years of my life studying pirates, I definitely love them, in the sense that I loved learning about them and sharing what I learned.

Cornell: Where did you get the idea for “Black Flags, Blue Waters?”

Dolin: This book’s origin story begins with my kids. After I finished “Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse” [see Sue’s review of this book in the September 2016 issue], I began searching for a new book topic. I asked Lily and Harry, who were then in their teens, what I should write about. When I raised the possibility of pirates, their eyes lit up, both of them saying, “That’s it, you have to write about pirates.” Lily even threw out two possible titles for the book: “Swords, Sails and Swashbucklers;” and “Argh” which, I had to tell Lily, much to her chagrin, is a word that probably was never uttered by a Golden Age pirate, and is more likely a creation of movies in which pirates dispense arghs with relish.

Great credit is also due to Bob Weil, the editor-in-chief and publishing director at Liveright, and Bill Rusin, the former sales director at W. W. Norton. When I was searching for a topic, I submitted a number of potential options for their consideration. I had a few ideas I thought were very good, and which were unlike any other book that had come out in recent years. I also included the pirate book as a possibility, because I knew I would greatly enjoy writing it, but I downplayed it, saying that there had been so many pirate books as of late, I wasn’t sure there was room for another.

So, I was very surprised when they said they liked the pirate idea the best. I reiterated my concern, and they said, “Well, there has never been an Eric Jay Dolin book about pirates.”

Cornell: What are you currently working on?

Dolin: A book on the history of American hurricanes.

Cornell: Is it a coincidence, or did you opt to release the book the day before International Talk Like a Pirate Day, Sept. 19?

Dolin: It was not planned that way from the beginning, but ended up being a good hook . . . . When I proposed the book, I did not have any thought about having it publish on or before Talk Like a Pirate Day. But, since the book was going to drop in September, late in the process my publisher decided to move up the publication date to have it coincide with Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Early Praise for Black Flags, Blue Waters:

Stephan Talty, author of “Empire of Blue Water,” concluded: “A vivid and surprising book, ‘Black Flags’ weaves old names and fresh themes in unanticipated ways, giving us a deep history of American piracy that reads like a blood-drenched thriller.”

Added author James L. Nelson: “Once again, Eric Jay Dolin has taken a massive subject and focused it into a single volume that is both well-researched and highly readable. It’s the perfect antidote for the Johnny Depp-ism that has infected this part of our nation’s history.”

A resident of Killingworth, Conn., regular contributor Susan Cornell is an independently contracted writer, photographer, and marketing and public relations consultant. During the summer, she and her husband Bob sail Halcyon, their Nonsuch 30C, out of Westbrook, Conn.