Richard Zacks

"The Pirate Hunter:
The True Story of Captain Kidd"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran JUN 26, 2002)

Recently I was discussing my latest review, The Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks, with a friend. "Oooh," she giggled contemptuously, "Is that one of those bodice-rippers?" Fortunately or unfortunately, based on your taste, it is not. It is the true story of Captain Kidd written by a former journalist turned maritime historian. Before you check your browser, you are still at www.mostlyfiction.com. The Pirate Hunter is non-fiction although Zacks does his best to spice things up. Those of you who regard non-fiction as the Brussels sprouts of the literary menu might still like this one.

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Before I read this book, you could probably fit all I knew about pirates into a shot glass of rum. Besides yo ho ho, parrots, and some dirty jokes left over from the Clarence Thomas hearings, how much more could there be? Silly landlubbers. According to Richard Zacks, there is much much more. About 400 pages more. He starts off by showing that many of our assumptions about pirates are misguided or just plain wrong. Skull and crossbones? Nope, at least not in Kidd's time, the late 17th century. Buried treasure? No way, as Zacks says, "they drank it up or spent it on whores." No walking the plank either, "major decisions, 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 a world that still mostly honored the Divine Right of Kings." This facet of pirate life does come back to haunt Captain Kidd. Pirates did drink, rape, pillage, fight, drink, gamble, drink, and oh, did I mention drink?

Zacks sets out to clear up the reputation of Captain William Kidd, who most of us know as a bloodthirsty pirate, although that assessment couldn't be farther from the truth. The main thesis of The Pirate Hunter is that Kidd, who called colonial New York home, was first and foremost a businessman, commanding various merchant vessels and occasionally operating as a privateer, a legal pirate backed by a European government. That is until 1698 when Kidd accepts the proposal of four wealthy lords who want him to hunt down pirates and enemies of England, and bring any stolen booty back to them. Not, mind you, to be distributed back to the rightful owners, but instead to return to the silk-lined pockets of the lords. Zacks describes it as if Kidd had been hired by several businessmen to stand out of Tiffany's waiting for a robbery to take place, then apprehend the thief, and return the jewels to the businessmen, not to Tiffany's. Kidd, a skilled mariner, has problems finding pirates and after several years at sea finally locates some merchant ships traveling under what seems to be French protection. He seizes the ships although most of his crew eventually deserts, voting to turn pirate.

Zacks also tells the tale of Richard Culliford, a true pirate and one very bad dude. Culliford's life parallels that of Kidd, although Culliford fares much better in the end. The passages starring Culliford tend to drag a bit; in fact the entire second half of the book is a bit draggy. Kidd brings his rag tag crew into Boston and shock of shocks, finds himself branded a pirate. The former lords turned against him due to scurrilous gossip and those dubious French papers. Kidd lands in a Boston jail. This all transpires by page 200 and the reader spends the remaining 200 pages with Kidd stagnating in legal purgatory. When Kidd is at sea, Zacks uses terse, taut sentences to convey the drama of naval battles, which were surprisingly slow-moving. When Kidd is in jail, the prose degenerates into "On October 21 . . ." "On October 22 . . ." Zacks does a good job conveying the hellish confines of London's Newgate prison where prisoners must pay for their own meals or exist solely on stale bread and beer.

Zacks is obviously a skilled and dedicated researcher who threw every bit of pirate lore into this book. A former history teacher, I longed for my red pen, wanting to write, "How is this relevant to Captain Kidd?" in the margins. I also have a few squabbles with the lack of textual source citations. He lists a great number of sources in an appendix but it is impossible to discern where he used them. In parts, it seems he has included actual transcripts from various court proceedings, but it is difficult to say for sure. Maybe in the wake of the Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose plagiarism flaps, it is safer not to cite anything rather than risk being branded a copier. While The Pirate Hunter is probably not the most scholarly of works, neither is it a bodice ripper. It is an enjoyable, if slightly long read.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 96 reviews


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About the Author:

Richard ZacksRichard Zacks born in 1955, is a graduate of University of Michigan and Columbia Journalism School. Zacks is the author of two previous books of unusual research: bestselling History Laid Bare and perennial book club favorite An Underground Education and and has written articles for the Atlantic, Time, Village Voice, and many other publications. He spent more than three years researching The Pirate Hunter, including months at the public Record Office in London (where he found a pirate prisoner's long-lost diary).

Zacks lives in Pelham, N.Y., with his wife and two children, and every so often when he finds the neighborhood just too smug and comfortable, he flies the Jolly Roger from the flagpole off his son's bedroom.

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