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21 Feb 23

It is said that you can’t judge a book by its cover; nonetheless I would not have chosen to read this book if I had seen it on the shelf in a bookshop. The jacket pastel illustration is of two ships, and shows what appears to be a Tudor warship under full sail going away with the wind on her starboard quarter passing on an opposed course a flush decked ship with the wind astern and wearing a pre-1703 Union flag at the main truck. Surely someone who can draw a reasonable representation of a ship, even if anachronistic, knows that the wind doesn’t come from opposite directions at the same time?

Despite the off-putting cover, it is an authoritative and interesting book. While the taking of the Morning Star and subsequent events are central, it is a history of piracy in the Atlantic in the first part of the 19th century, when the slave trade was still extant. There were also wars between various South American nations, particularly the Cisplatine war, and consequently privateers, effectively licensed pirates, with letters of marque from the warring nations were also operating. Piracy was surprisingly common; a map showing incidents over a six-month period from November 1827 reported in the British press (hardly an exhaustive database) shows 25 episodes, including that forming the title of the book, the Morning Star was taken by the Defensor de Pedro captained by Benito de Soto. Some crew were abducted, some crew and passengers killed and injured, cargo and personal possessions of crew and passengers removed, the women on board were probably raped and the ship was then left in a sinking condition, the pirates having made numerous holes below the waterline and cut all the rigging. She was saved by a passing ship and eventually made it to England when her taking became a major story for the newspapers. As a result of the taking, her owners, who were Quakers, decided to arm their ships for self-defence, and were excluded by their church as a result.

Benito de Soto had become captain by murdering his predecessor and he ran the ship by fear, killing anyone who crossed him, as well as, almost routinely, the crew and passengers of ships taken. However, the problem he had was what to do with his booty? In the heyday of piracy, pirates operated from what amounted to sanctuaries which provided not only a base of operations but also ready buyers. By the time of this book, such sanctuaries were hard to come by, so much so that Benito de Soto had to try his luck in his home town in Spain, Pontevedra. Having sold his ill-gotten gains at a considerable discount he and his crew attempted to disappear, but ended up on the gallows, in his case Gibraltar, the fate of many of his crew. He was not the last Atlantic pirate, but the breed was dying out. Better communications, better relations between states and above all the advent of the steam ship which could out run sailing pirate ships and which were beyond their pocket to equal.

This book is extremely well referenced; the ‘select’ bibliography runs to 17 pages, and there are copious footnotes. Despite this, the author admits that it must be an incomplete history, records have been lost and not surprisingly the pirates themselves did not keep records, and as she states the pirates she has written about are “only the ones who fell afoul of the law. Far more roamed, raided, murdered and died with no witnesses or survivors…”