Book Review: Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly

Posted January 17, 2022 by Amber in Reviews / 0 Comments

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Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates

by David Cordingly

Publisher: Random House on August 20, 1996
Genre: History, Non-Fiction
Target Age Group: Adult
Content Warnings: Alcohol, Colonization, Death, Gun Violence, Injury, Kidnapping, Murder, Racial Slurs, Rape, Slavery, Torture, Violence

Rating: ★★★★

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Pirates are so much a part of legend that it is easy to forget they actually existed. UNDER THE BLACK FLAG tells their story in a rollicking account of the golden age of piracy that is packed with history, anecdote, and above all adventure. Here are the true stories of such bloodthirsty legends as Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, Anne Bonny, and the fearsome Mary Read. And here are rousing descriptions of what ships pirates sailed, what punishments they exacted, what they really wore, and how they flourished--or perished. From the smoky havoc of shipboard battle to the loneliness of a fugitive's life at sea, this spellbinding narrative vividly brings the brutal world of pirates to life.


This is the second non-fiction book in my entire life that I’ve reread. And, like Rebecca’s Revival, I enjoyed it just as much the second time!

Pirates are a fascinating topic for me – the highwaymen of the seas, they were cruel and barbarous in reality but have been romanticized in fiction. When I first read Under the Black Flag, it was during the running of Black Sails (which I maintain is a completely excellent series and worth watching even now, five years after cancellation). I’ve always been fascinated with pirates and generally any nautical fiction, so finding a solid non-fiction book about pirates served as equally entertaining and educational for me. There aren’t a lot of non-fiction books about pirates out there, so if you are curious to learn more about the real vagabonds of the seas, David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag is about the best you’re going to get.

I don’t say that out of resignation. This book has an easy flow, memorable characters, and just enough high seas adventure to make the reader forget at times that it’s a non-fiction narrative. The research references are woven in carefully as to not interrupt the flow. It’s full of fascinating information while also comparing fictional pirates to real men. And, not once, does Cordingly romanticism pirates. In fact, there’s a section at the end where he reminds the reader piracy is not a thing of the past and is a desperate, gruesome, violent act. You get the impression that Cordingly is trying to ground his readers – there are far more Bluebeards than Jack Sparrows. Also worth noting: Under the Black Flag was published before Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie series, so there are no references or comparisons to that.

Cordingly pays attention to both male and female pirates, but his demographics lean heavily toward Caribbean pirates and those around the African continent than he does the ones in the Mediterranean. Under the Black Flag is a short book – 244 pages before you reach the extensive appendices – so it’s possible he wished to focus on the more known pirates. Although the subheading speaks of nonfiction vs. fiction pirates, there’s much more information about Captain Kidd and Jack Rackham than Captain Hook and Long John Silver. Personally, I prefer this, but some readers may be disappointed.

Otherwise, my only criticism is the heavy reliance on Captain Johnson’s A General History of Pyrates – this nonfiction early work is referenced frequently. It’s always ideal to go back to primary sources and while Cordingly does this as well, Captain Johnson’s collection features heavily. That said, it also appears there’s a very limited amount of firsthand information available, save the handful of testimonies of crew members and (prejudiced) seamen hunting the pirates and the odd ship’s log, journal, or such. Like ancient Greek history, it’s challenging to know the exactitude of events when you’re relying on the perspective of one man, and so it seems Captain Johnson is our Homer of pirate history.

With all that said, I genuinely, truly enjoy this book. Both times I read it, I’ve come out retaining so much more historical information. I really, really want to write a book about Anne Bonny or Grace O’Malley. And I still find the individual pirates utterly fascinating, to see what drove them to take up piracy in the first place. Under the Black Flag gives you so many stories and so much history in a very accessible format. Even though I’ve read it twice, I’m quite certain I’ll be digging into this book again to review pirate history.

Topic

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Delivery

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pacing

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Cohesiveness

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Research

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Personal Enjoyment

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Under the Black Flag Stays on the Shelf

I enjoy this book, the historian, and the topic. I will probably read it again at some point, but even if I wasn’t planning on it, I’d keep the book to reference the history when I write.

send me your thoughts

What are your opinions on pirates?

Do you enjoy them as antiheroes? Or are they purely villains?

Share with me in the comments!

stay magical amber

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