________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 16. . . .December 18, 2009


A Thousand Years of Pirates.

William Gilkerson.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2009.
96 pp., hardcover, $35.99.
ISBN 978-0-88776-924-5.

Subject Headings:
Pirates-History-Juvenile literature.
Piracy-History-Juvenile literature.

Grades 5-9 / Age 10-14.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

*** /4



There were a lot of opportunities, particularly at sea, where the French boucaniers attacked Spanish shipping, as did the English buccaneers, and the Dutch and Flemish “sea beggars.” All had armed vessels, and most had “letters of marque,” privateers’ commissions from at least one colonial governor authorizing the capture of Spanish vessels. In exchange for this privilege, a governor’s privateers gave him his best defense force against any attack on his island, as well as a share of their booty. From that, the governor was expected to enrich first his home government, then himself and his local administration, while expanding trade. There was good money to be made all around.

Despite the title, this illustrated history of pirates and piracy focuses on European piracy that emerged in the early 16th century in conjunction with the establishment of colonial empires in the Caribbean and the Americas, and it ends in the early 19th century when strong national naval forces together with a period of international peace put most of Europe’s privateers out of business. The excerpt above is taken from the chapter “The Brotherhood of the Coast” that focuses upon the buccaneers of the West Indies, with special attention paid to Sir Henry Morgan whose raid on the Spanish settlement of Panama in the 17th century was the largest expedition of its kind.

internal art      In the “Further reading” section, the reader learns that this volume is a picture sequel to Gilkerson’s Governor-General’s literary award winning novel, Pirate’s Passage. Based on the review of the novel published in CM, it is evident that many of the pirates and seafarers described in the novel appear again in this volume: Francis Drake, Granuaile (Grace O’Malley), the castaway Alexander Selkirk, “Blackbeard”, William Kidd and others. A Thousand Years of Pirates demonstrates Gilkerson’s storytelling skills with both word and paintbrush as more than half of the volume is devoted to his skilfully executed watercolour paintings depicting his subjects at rest, in battle, in daylight and even moonlight. A few historical illustrations are also reproduced, along with some line drawings presumably executed by Gilkerson. Many of the paintings were originally commissioned for an exhibit, Under the Black Flag, that travelled to three naval museums in the United States, and others previously appeared in Gilkerson’s illustrated history, The Ships of John Paul Jones.  The artwork may make this book a crossover appealing to young readers interested in adventure tales and to mature readers interested in naval history and especially the great age of sail. The publisher’s press release markets this as “a gift book for everyone.” This explains the fine black cloth binding with silver lettering and the sparkling silver edges on all three edges of the pages—and the hefty retail price.

     Gilkerson’s masterful knowledge of his subject matter is both a strength and weakness. His contextualization of the close association between the development of various forms of piracy and international relations, the role of wealthy investors, and local economic forces provides valuable historical information while his brief biographical accounts of specific individuals usually makes for engaging reading. The writing is generally suited to strong middle school readers, but Gilkerson’s emphasis on precise nautical terminology, particularly as applied to types of sailing vessels, may elude many: Arabian dhows, lateen-rigged Moorish corsair, gaff-rigged cutter, clipper-built brigantine and so on. Before any reprinting, the publisher should correct the last sentence on p. 72.

     Given the prominent news coverage of current day piracy off the coast of Somalia, it is surprising that the author makes no attempt to include recent developments in piracy. The annotated guide to further reading is useful, as is the index. Also included are three appropriate maps executed by Gilkerson in watercolour: The North Sea & English Channel & Adjacent Waters, The Caribbean Sea & Spanish Main & Adjacent Waters 1690, and on the end papers, The Seas & Oceans of the World Commonwealth of Pirates.

Recommended with reservations.

Val Ken Lem is the Collections Evaluation and Donations Librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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