“The history of one Pirate is nearly the history of all.” –Lucretia Parker
In 1951, a respectable newspaperman from Wichita passed away and sold his collection of books to the Wichita Public Library for the sum of $10,000. His name was Charles B. Driscoll, and he was a popular Midwestern columnist, who later corresponded from New York, in the expansively syndicated column “New York By Day”. Driscoll’s contribution to the library in Wichita was one of the more impressive libraries on the subject of pirates ever amassed.
In addition to his work as a journalist and collector, Driscoll also wrote books about pirates. Driscoll’s Book of Pirates (1934) is a charming graphic novel illustrated by Amory Monfort, telling the story of the famous pirate Blackbeard. In the foreword, Driscoll admits to not knowing enough about the subject, and that his research is meager at best. Much like today, the mid-twentieth century conception of pirates was muddled with romance.
Pirates never actually used maps with “X” that marks the spot. These men were not rakishly handsome swordfighters; they were ruthless, calculating killers, and sometimes harbingers of atrocity. We forget some of the more horrifying stories such as the pirate Henry Avery, whose crew in 1695 captured a fleet of the Great Mogul’s Indian pilgrim ships and proceeded to murder, rape, and torture innocent men and women for several days with the fleet floating calmly in the Arabian Sea.
Despite the very real violent horrors of piratical vigilantism, popular culture still chooses to celebrate a group of men that were effectively rapists and murderers. Research today, such as that of renowned pirate historian Marcus Rediker, has given us a better glimpse into the structure of pirate society, and the lives and motivations of real pirates. Rediker was the first to suggest that the democratic nature of their ships, in which men had some say in their collective piratical actions, contributed to the climate leading up to the Age of Revolution. Pirates were one of the most cohesive early societies that broke free of any responsibility to Absolute Monarchy.
The collection at the University of Miami has many crucial examples that contribute to western society’s formative notions of pirates. One of the most important texts in early pirate studies is Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America (1678). The library’s copy is one of the earliest and rare English translations from 1685 (in two volumes), and at the time of publication would have been an armchair peek into seafaring rogue warfare of the 17th century for Britain and America. At the time of its publication, piracy was still in full swing, particularly in the West Indies, which was a hotbed of piratical entrepreneurship until the Royal Navy overran the outlaws around 1726. Though some of Exquemelin’s facts are disputed, he did sail as a pirate himself with Sir Henry Morgan, the notorious pirate turned privateer. His text is considered essential, inspiring countless other histories and Romantic re-interpretations
One of those was the Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). The library’s edition is an extraordinary 1735 printing of a seminal pirate text originally thought to be the work of Daniel Defoe. Detailing the lives of the more famous Pirates of the day, it’s generally accepted that Johnson, whoever he may have been, most likely got his information second or third hand from Pirates themselves. And while they cannot always be trusted as exacting narrators, they are quite reliable in the telling of tall tales of self-glorification.
According to Rediker, the Golden Age of Piracy ended in 1726, but readers’ fascination with the enigmatic characters of pirate yore was just getting ignited. Throughout the 19th century, a great deal of literature painted a Romantic ideal of pirates and their ways, despite what we know today of their horrifying practices.
The Corsair, a gloomy epic poem about a pirate captain risking his life to save a slave, sold all 10,000 copies in the first day of publication in 1814. Written by Lord Byron, the poem was reproduced countless times, and the library’s copy is the second printing, from the same year and same month, includes the “Ode to Napoleon”. Again we find that Byron’s pirate captain, Conrad, is an epic hero of sorts, still inherently good despite all of his dark actions.
One of the rarer and more locally relevant examples from the library is a 24-page pamphlet from 1823 titled Florida Pirate. It tells the tale of a destitute white surgeon who joins a pirate schooner Esparanza. Though he never takes to their vagabond ways, he forms a friendship with the captain, an escaped American slave Manuel, who violently revolted against his oppressors and turned to the seas of the Florida Isles and Cuba. Manuel’s tale is told throughout the story, encapsulating every piratical cliché imaginable: anarchy, secrecy, intrigue, love, betrayal, defiance, mutiny, torture, revenge, violence, battle, compassion, death. Manuel perishes at the hands of the American Navy, but not before his chivalry and honor is firmly established. This attitude serves to justify, albeit passively, horrific actions. Our cursory understanding of pirates is formed through a misplaced moralizing weakened by the lure of adventure.
On the inside cover of Florida Pirate is a bookplate from the Wichita City Library denoting its provenance from the Driscoll Piracy Collection. In 2001, Christie’s auctioned off the collection and its 1800 items netting the library approximately $350,000. It was a bittersweet moment for Wichita, as many fought to keep it, but the small library couldn’t afford maintenance and needed an infusion of cash for matching grant funds.
And so, the Driscoll Piracy Collection, and more specifically, the journey it took, typifies the Romantic ideal of piracy. Raised on a farm in landlocked America, Driscoll dreamed of pirates and their adventures in the open sea. The collection is broken up now, and only a few of the pieces made their way to the University of Miami, like Florida Pirate. But the books once contributed to that far-off fantasy of Driscoll’s collecting, much aligned with society’s own view of pirates. It could be the buccaneer’s pioneering spirit reflected in breaking the shackles of oppression from Absolute power, but we cannot ignore that tales as compelling as those told in these rare books must have contributed to our centuries long fascination with the swashbuckling villains of the high seas.