I can’t stand Johnny Depp. Thoroughly disliked the part of Pirates of the Caribbean film I saw and found no inclination to watch any more. I grew up with numerous pirate films on tv in the background, Errol Flynn prancing around with his skinny sword flailing in another “swashbuckling” adventure, enough to get bored with what Hollywood told us “pirates” were.
Now, though, now I find myself browsing for more information on pirates, particularly on one pirate – Joseph Bannister, captain of the Golden Fleece.
Why? Because I just read Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson – the story of two men’s fight to find just that ship and it’s told with such a contagious delight and reverence for the period that it’s impossible not to be caught up in the thrill of the hunt and the enthusiasm. Pirates, real Pirates, have, like so many, been done a massive disservice by technicolor.
Let’s rewind, a little, to the late seventeenth century – the Golden Age of Piracy. Pirates operating out of Port Royal in Jamaica are in their prime – silver pieces of eight are bank rolling a city that would give Sodom and Gomarrah a run for their money. A time populated by those pirates whose names now echo down through the years. Enter into this one of history’s all-but forgotten Pirate greats – Joseph Bannister.
During an age where Pirates such as Henry Morgan, William Kidd and “Black Sam” Bellamy and even Blackbeard himself roved the seas, plundering the English and Spanish galleons for all their worth, you’d have to do something pretty balls-out brave and audacious to stand out. How about stealing the very-well-armed merchant ship you’d captained for years, recruiting a crew of pirates and embarking on a new career of piracy? How about robbing Spanish ships, getting caught, convincing the jury (made up of locals that benefited profusely from the local Pirates) to find you not-guilty and, while awaiting re-trail, get your ship re-sailed and sneak it out of Port Royal under the noses and huge gun batteries of the governor and go straight back into piracy? How about then being cornered by two massive Royal Navy frigates tasked with destroying you and, instead of surrendering, careen your ship, mount your guns on the land and engage them in a massive two-day battle that leaves them with many dead, out of ammunition and, in an event never-heard of, force the Royal Navy to slink away in retreat?
Well that’s what Bannister did. All that an more. While Bannister survived the encounter and made his getaway The Golden Fleece was essentially destroyed in the battle and sunk, never to be found.
Never, that is, until a pair of modern-day treasure hunters John Chatterton and John Mattera took on the task of locating the wreck and, in so doing, discover only the second pirate ship ever found and positively identified.
Robert Kurson’s Pirate Hunters is the story of that quest. It’s a story of two men consumed by one goal, pretty much at the cost (financial and otherwise) of all else.
I’d given little thought to such adventures. Never watched any Discovery Channel-style documentary on it, never really realised just how much was involved – how much dedication, expertise and strength both physical and mental was needed to prise relics from their resting places. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think you’d pull up a 17th Century ship by paddling off the beach with a scuba mask on, but the events portrayed in Pirate Hunters are intense. Along with what must be mind-numbing and frustrating days of combing the depths with a sonar and diving on every blip, there’s painstaking research in Spanish historical vaults, consultations with legendary modern-day treasure hunters and risking it all on hunches and gut-feelings. At one point Mattera finds himself ambushed by opportunistic robbers while driving down the wrong dirt-road and, later, both he and Chatterton are pursued by yet-another would-be-robber on a motorbike. There’s also the competition from other treasure hunters looking to get in first, fraying personal relationships and a ticking clock as political changes threaten to scupper Chatterton and Mattera’s pursuit for the wreck.
Kurson relays the events that lead to the discovery of The Golden Fleece as though they’re that of a thriller novel – there’s no reason the quote on the cover comes from Lee Child. The pace maintains a driving momentum and avoids lingering on the slower elements of the chase. It doesn’t hurt that Johns Chatterton and Mattera are practically the stuff of legend in their own rights – both of whose biographies would provide a gripping read – and Joseph Bannister and his history provide a thrilling back story. There’s a whopping of amount of insight into the world of pirates and discoveries of more than just shipwrecks – the motivation behind Bannister turning Pirate is a revelation into a world that Hollywood has practically rendered dull.
In Pirate Hunters, Kurson not only injects excitement and enthusiasm into the pursuit of The Golden Fleece but re-injects a sense of passion and true adventure into a period of history so easily nullified by over-exposure. As is so often the case, reality can be so much more interesting than fiction and no amount of Hollywood script writers can do justice to the era in such a way as Kurson has done in just a few hundred pages. As an account of a search for sunken wonder, Pirate Hunters is both compelling and factual – a well balanced mix of fact and gripping narrative. As a taster, an introduction to the fascinations of the Golden Age of Piracy… it’s even better.
Oh, and a big thanks to Elliott and Thompson for sending this my way to read.