There is no organizing principle behind the books I choose to read other than whim, as will be readily apparent from the books that will appear on this site. For those Readers who have kindly chosen to “follow” this site via e-mail, this site’s value will lie exclusively in my good taste in selecting a book to read, or rather, in the coincidence of the Reader’s good taste with my own. Hopefully, the occasions of such coincidence will predominate to our collective profit.
As this site was commenced about a month into the new year, I have some catching up to do. Today, I review a book I picked up on my Kindle for a sail through the British Virgin Islands at the top of the year.
Completed: January 1, 2012 (#1)
Piracy now being something I associate more with Somalia than the Spanish Main, I came to this book knowing only one “fact” about the pirates of the Caribbean, gleaned from a picture book I ran across in my childhood: Blackbeard would light his own beard on fire before boarding his victim’s ship for mayhem and swashbuckling.
Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things:
It was around this time that Thatch began calling himself Blackbeard. In his years of piracy, he had let his beard grow wild, making a fearsome appearance. “This beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant length,” an early eighteenth-century historian wrote. “As to breadth, it came up to his eyes” and “like a frightful meteor, covered his whole face, and frightened America more than any Comet that has appeared in a long time.” He twisted it into many little braids, each tied off with a small ribbon, some of which he tucked behind his ears. This unusual arrangement struck observers at the time as resembling the plaits that trailed down from the British infantryman’s powdered Remellies wig; some late twentieth-century historians think it might be an indication that Blackbeard was himself a light-skinned mulatto, with kinky hair inherited from his African ancestors. (Thatch, the late historian Hugo Prosper Leaming argued, was a slang term for bushy hair.) Either way, it was Thatch’s “fierce and wild” eyes, not his beard, that commanded the respect of his men and struck fear into the hearts of his opponents.
Not quite what my boyish imagination had conjured, yet some pages later, avast!, the Flaming Hirsute Captain reappears:
On September 29, as they closed on her at the Capes of Virginia, Blackbeard donned his new, terrifying battle attire. He wore a silk sling over his shoulders, to which were attached “three brace of pistols, hanging in holsters like bandaliers.” Under his hat, he tied on lit fuses, allowing some of them to dangle down on each side of his face, surrounding it with a halo of smoke and fire. So adorned, a contemporary biographer reported, “his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, [that he] made altogether such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from Hell to look more frightful.” The crews of merchant ships would take one look at this apparition, surrounded by an army of wild men bearing muskets, cutlasses, and primitive hand grenades, and would invariably surrender without firing a shot. That was exactly what Blackbeard intended.
Mr. Woodard’s tale is adequately researched and recounted (and moreover useful for associating historical personages with their respective brands of rum), but lacks something of a great raconteur’s vim and vigor. A moderate recommendation.