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The Pirate Hunter

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The Pirate Hunter
The True Story of Captain Kidd. By Richard Zacks. (Hyperion: 2003. Pg. 432.) ISBN: 0786884517

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - June 16, 2003

The Scottish born Captain William Kidd was a respected New York sea captain who has been portrayed through history as a rouge and a pirate. Which is the truth? Was Captain Kidd a really a respected sea captain or was he the pirate that history has made him out to be? In Pirate Hunter, Richard Zacks presents the results of his painstaking research into the life of Captain Kidd, and the mythology that surrounds his name. The result is The True Story of Captain Kidd.

Told in a narrative style, this biography / history of Captain Kidd is mesmerizing. The story is so well told, and Kidd's adventures so amazing, that this could easily be mistaken as a work of fiction. It is however, a scholarly work based on a plethora of primary and secondary source documents, which are noted at the end of the book.

In this monumental work, Zacks tells the Captain Kidd story, and how he came to be saddled with the moniker of pirate. In 1696, Kidd started on his road to being labeled a pirate when he accepted a commission from the Crown, in the form of King William III of England to track down and capture pirates and their ships. He was financed on this venture by a group of wealthy politicians and merchants who fully expected to make a profit from their share of the wealth that Kidd 'recovered' from the pirates. In other words, Kidd was a legitimate privateer had a Letter of Marque from the King to go after any pirate ship as well as any vessel belonging to a country with which England happened to be at war. The line between being a legitimate privateer and an illegal pirate can be sometimes blurred, and it is here that Kidd ran into trouble. Rumor, jealousies, greed, and political scandals all played a part in declaring Kidd as a pirate. In this book, Zacks separates the facts from the fiction clearly illustrates how Kidd strove to remain an honorable and respected sea captain, and how his enemies prevailed against him.

In the process of telling Kidd's story, Zacks also offers a compelling glimpse at what pirate life was really like, and how fiction writers and Hollywood have corrupted the historic facts. By way of example...
The captains of pirate ships were not autocrats but commanded with the voted permission of their crew, and pirate captains, in any case, commanded only during chase and battle. All other major decision, such as where to sail to look for prey or what punishments should be meted out, were voted on. The pirate ship circa 1700 ranked among the most democratic institutions in the world... (Pg. 95.)
In his exploration of pirate life, Zacks details how pirates came into possession of their ships and how they recruited new members. He also examines how difficult life was on ships in the Royal Navy and those belonging to merchant fleets such as that of the English East India Company and why becoming a pirate was seen as a step up for many sailors. Zacks also investigates the truth about pirates clothing, as well as their reputation for being heavy drinkers and consummate fornicators. (Yes. They did indeed dress in flamboyant fashions.) He also explores the common misconceptions that people have about pirates including the use of a flag bearing a scull and cross bones, the notion of walking the plank, and the proverbial treasure map with an X marking the site of the buried pirate treasure.

Additionally, Zacks juxtaposes Captain Kidd's story with that of Captain Robert Culliford, who was a bonafide pirate. Culliford and Kidd were to come into contact numerous times during Kidd's career and Culliford bested Kidd on more than one occasion. On one of these occasions, the majority of Kidd's crew abandoned Kidd and joined up with Culliford. By juxtaposing the careers of these two men, Zacks is able to illustrate just what a thin line that Kidd had to walk between remaining a legal privateer or becoming a pirate. In the end, both Kidd and Culliford ended up in Newgate prison, facing charges of piracy. The privateer Kidd was fated to hang, while the avowed pirate Culliford was allowed to walk out of prison, and out of the history books.

The Pirate Hunter: The True story of Captain Kidd is a fascinating book to read. Even if you don't have the slightest interest in pirates, you'll find this book spellbinding. The book will interest readers of all ages, including pirate fans, and those with an interest in life in Colonial America, sailing ships, or English history. As you might expect, this text does contain some sexual references and some depictions of violence. Zacks also graphically describes what a public hanging was like, and how the bodies of the hanged were often mutilated. Consequently, this book may not be suitable for younger readers. That said, I highly recommend this book both for its historic authenticity and for Zacks marvelous story telling.

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