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I chose to set Pirates! in the 1720s, at the end of the golden age of piracy. The Frenchman in Sorceress is a buccaneer, and belongs to an earlier era. I wanted this book to happen at the time of legendary pirates like Black Beard, Captain Kidd, Black Bart Roberts and when the female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, sailed the seas under the captaincy of ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham.

These pirates operated in a world of expanding empire led by overseas trade. The discovery and colonisation of the New World had led to a demand for new products: tobacco, sugar and cotton, grown on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. Plantations needed slaves to work them and a triangular slave trade had developed. Merchants like Nancy’s father, in ports like Bristol and Liverpool, were making vast profits from the sale of sugar and tobacco from the Americas and slaves from Africa.

The expansion of trade to the Far East and India meant that there were rich pickings to be made there, too, not just for European merchants but for the pirates who preyed on their ships. Colonial expansion had also resulted in periods of open warfare between competing European nations. In time of war, a privateer, or buccaneer as they were often called, could apply for a letter of marque which allowed him to attack enemy shipping. When peacetime came many of these privateering crews saw no reason to stop their profitable activities and began taking ships of any nation, becoming pirates.

Many of them saw piracy was an attractive alternative to serving on a Naval or Merchant vessel. Life on board ship was tough: discipline harsh, food often rotten, water foul, financial reward small, and sometimes sailors were not paid at all. The work was dangerous, injuries frequent and the likelihood of any recompense small. Pirate ships were different.

Pirate ships were run as democracies, every man on board signing to Articles (the Pirate Code) and agreeing to be ruled by a ships’ council. The men themselves made the decisions about who would be captain, as well as on matters of discipline, compensation, distribution of food, water and plunder. There was huge wealth to be made, more than any individual could possibly expect in a lifetime’s service on a regular ship. Few merchant ships even bothered to put up a fight when attacked by pirates and captains, navigators, first officers, doctors, as well as ordinary seamen took up the chance when offered to ‘go on the account’. Pirate ships did not discriminate. Their crews were made up from different nations and often included people of colour: runaway slaves and free men from the West Indies, America and Africa. Black sailors made up nearly a third of Bartholomew Roberts’ crew.

The golden age of piracy lasted from around 1700 to 1730. At one time there were an estimated 2000 pirates operating in the Caribbean alone, but their activities ranged along the eastern seaboard of America, across to West Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The pirates were becoming almost as numerous and powerful as the Royal Navy, and the threat and interference to trade could no longer be tolerated. They were ousted from the havens they had set up for themselves, in the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and Madagascar. Some took amnesties offered by the crown, the rest were hunted down, tried and hung, their bodies left to rot in gibbets as a warning to others. Their time was over, leaving international commerce free for the merchants who were, in the words Daniel Defoe attributes to Captain Avery, ‘as good Pyrates at Land as he was at Sea.’

No doubt many pirates were cruel and some were wicked, but so were the times in which they lived. Nevertheless, I found much to admire in their spirit of rebellion, their desire for freedom. I decided that my heroine, Nancy Kington, would shares this with them. She is ‘A Merchant of Bristol’s Daughter’, and therefore right at the centre of the power, money and privilege generated by the trade in sugar and slaves. She is beautiful, she is wealthy, but as she grows towards womanhood, she finds that she is just as much a commodity as any of the products her family buy and sell. She is sent to Jamaica to fulfil the destiny planned for her. Here she meets Minerva Sharpe, a slave, born on the Kington’s Jamaican plantation. On the surface, the two girls couldn’t appear more different, but neither can tolerate the position that society has forced upon them, so they rebel together.

‘Youth and Freedom’ was one of the toasts that the pirates used when drinking together, and that I guess is what the book is about.

The most useful book I found was Daniel Defoe’s, A General History of the Pyrates. First published in 1724 under the pen name of Captain Johnson, Defoe collected his information from the pirates themselves and those involved in hunting them, using his powers as a novelist to transform what they told him into powerful, vivid prose, shot through with his own pungent asides and observations - I particularly loved his description of turtle as tasting like ‘toad in a shell’. A General History of the Pyrates is wonderfully entertaining and contains pretty much all that one could possibly want to know, about pirates anyway, but research is part of the fun of writing this kind of novel so I read other books as well. Here’s a list of some of them.

Behn, Aphra - Oroonoko, The Rover, and other works
Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer
Defoe, Daniel, A General History of the Pyrates
Defoe, Daniel, Robinson Crusoe
Defoe, Daniel - Moll Flanders
Druett, Joan, She Captains
Equiano, Olaudah – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, the African
Exquemelin, A - The Buccaneers of America
Hakluyt, Richard - Voyages
Ed: Dresser, Madge and Giles, Sue - Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery
Ed: Ferguson, Moira - The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave Related by Herself
Konstam, Angus - The History of the Pirates
Konstam, Angus & McBride Angus - Pirates 1660 – 1730
Rediker, Mark & Lindbaugh, Peter, The Many Headed Hydra
Rediker, Mark - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Ed: Stanley, Jo - Bold in Her Breeches
Thomas, Hugh - The Slave Trade
Wheelwright, Julie - Amazons and Military Maids