Peter Earle has written a superb and concise history of pirates, ranging from England in the late-Tudor period through to the Greek War of Independence. Although a slim volume, it covers a wide expanse of time and an even wider expanse of ocean in telling the familiar and not so familiar stories of the age of piracy.
Having grown up in the West Country, I've always had a keen interest in pirates, and I can still vividly recall the term we 'studied' them at primary school when I was 7 or 8. Ever since, I have absorbed all sorts of legends, tales and stereotypes that are forever linked with pirates in popular culture, and my greatest delight in reading this book has been discovering and/or remembering that virtually all of them are rooted in real life.
That's not to say it hasn't been an educational experience too. I never previously appreciated quite how global the threat of piracy was, how widely the pirates roamed, and how inextricably linked to naval war and privateering piracy really was. Indeed, I hadn't ever realised how instrumental to the expansion of international trade and colonial security the pirates were.
Fascinating trivia abounds throughout the book: walking the plank was invented in the 19th century by Cuban pirates; seventeenth-century pirates were routinely pardoned by small states to act as instant navies; the word buccaneer derives from the way French exiles made beef jerky. Pirates were sometimes compensated for injuries sustained in action, and wooden legs and hooks for hands were treated 'as if they were his original limbs' in this respect.
The book isn't perfect and in places the writing style is a bit wooden. The chronology suffers occasionally as a result of Earle's deliberate attempt to structure the book into thematic chapters, and his habit of very neatly summarising each chapter in the final paragraph is reminiscent of a school textbook, but overall these minor quibbles can be overlooked as the book is a real pleasure to read.