Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pyrate, pyrate, burning bright

Is it any wonder some memories are a bit hazy?

During the summer, we attended a party at the house of my good friends who are generally known as the Weasels, for reasons too tedious to go into here.1 Parties at their house invariably involve fire, mediaeval weaponry, and a muchness of alcohol. During the evening, someone (I can’t for the life of me remember whom) strongly recommended that I read the Tim Powers book On Stranger Tides, upon which the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie had been loosely (very loosely!) based.

The next day, when the hangover had dissipated, the burns soothed, and the photos of Mr Weasel with his beard aflame duly uploaded and laughed at, I vaguely remembered this book’s title and downloaded the sample to my Kindle. Later that summer, sitting on a dhow in the Mozambique Channel, I began reading.

Now, it may be that there are better places to read a book about pirates and voodoo than on tropical beaches and boat-decks above coral reefs whilst drinking copious quantities of rum, but personally I can’t come up with a better one. Certainly, I consider this to be the best book I read in 2011, and have since re-read it in dreary old Blighty, and still hold this opinion. It has all the good bits of the POTC films without any of the naff bits. Or mermaids. There’s a wonderful blending of the natural with the supernatural, and the fact with the fiction. Many of the characters genuinely existed, and, on searching Wikipedia at a later date like the sad little nerd I am, I realised that several of the events referenced in the novel actually happened (although probably without the supernatural voodoo explanation offered by the author).

Whilst doing my internetty-research, I kept finding reference to A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, so eventually I tracked down an electronic copy here. It is very clear that Mr Powers used it heavily as his source material for the above novel, and it’s fascinating reading. Admittedly, the veracity is dubious – the author’s true identity unknown and writing for a public who loved sensation more than truth, but there are certainly many facts in there. What I found most intriguing was that Madagascar was on the Pirate Round, and that many of Captain Every/Avery's associates had settled there and still have descendants alive on the island today. Even those pirates who didn't settle would frequently visit the island in order to replenish stocks and careen their vessels.

Having learnt this, I resolved to read Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe is popularly thought to have been the author of A General History of the Pyrates, although nothing has ever been proven), and The Diary of Robert Drury - an account (also believed to have been written by Defoe) of a shipwrecked sailor who washed up on the shores of Madagascar, and was kept as a slave for ten years, before finally escaping and returning to England. The latter was long thought to be a complete fiction, based on the fantastical nature of the tale, until recently the wreck of the ship was discovered and archaeological evidence shown to prove that there was indeed a Malagasy settlement exactly as described in the tale.

Then I accidentally discovered the Game of Thrones novels and have become distracted by trashy Swords-and-Sorcery. But mostly swords. But I’ll let you know how the pirates got on when I get back to my educational and improving reading. 

1 I often think that there ought to be a less patriarchal collective noun for their household, since the “Weasel” derives from Iain’s nickname, and might be thought to exclude Bryony who is a person in her own right and not at all a possession of Iain’s. But nicknames are an organic thing, and “Weasels” seems to have stuck.

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