Real Adventure On the High Seas

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The New York Sun

The History Channel has often demonstrated a shrewd ability to capitalize on pop cultural phenomena and news to draw in an audience. And fans of Johnny Depp’s vamping performance in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” soon to be reprised in theaters worldwide, may well tune in Sunday night at 8 p.m. for the History Channel’s two-hour special on the “golden age” of pirating.

But unlike Jack Sparrow, the Depp character reportedly modeled on the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, the real pirates were short on laughs and long on violence. If the assorted historians and enthusiasts interviewed on this show can be believed, the real pirates were poster children for the evil consequences of seafaring crime.

As the narrator notes, the great era of piracy extended from the period not long after Columbus landed in the Bahamas until the early 18th century.The impetus was the treasure in gold and silver being transported on Spanish galleons to the Old World from the Old. Unlike the old swashbuckling movies with Errol Flynn, however, the History Channel takes no sides and makes no effort to whitewash the thievery of English brigands, who comprise the majority of pirates profiled here.

The cable channel’s standard formula for shows of this kind might be described as eclectic middlebrow, and “True Caribbean Pirates” fits right in. Legends are debunked; it’s pretty clear, for example, that pirates never buried treasure anywhere. Instead they divided the spoils as quickly as possible. Semi-provocative insights are advanced: It turns out that most pirate crews were remarkably democratic and voted their captains in and out of authority with regularity and dispatch — this at a time when elections were a rarity on land.Context is usually adequate, albeit sketchy enough to keep returning to the action: Piracy in the Caribbean began as licensed privateering encouraged by England, France, and the Netherlands as a way to get a piece of the Spanish action in New World treasure. It was only the peace that followed Queen Anne’s War in 1713 that got governments to end privateering, thus throwing people out of work and into the illegal, dark side of the bounding main.

The storytelling on these shows is usually a fluid combination of narration, interview, and plentiful — if occasionally cheesy — re-enactment. In the latter category, rape, pillage, torture, and massive amounts of drinking and wenching are on tap, with the actors shivering their timbers in every direction. Some of this material is surprisingly frank, regarding the nature of the torture especially, which frequently involved the genitals. It is unclear if this is an effort to be true to the facts or simply voyeuristic. In either case, it’s pretty gruesome. But it was a short and brutish life for all concerned; in one sequence, the pirates scatter sand on the deck to keep from slipping in the blood that will surely flow in an ensuing battle.

By highlighting the careers of several prominent pirates, the filmmakers have narrowed their focus in a helpful way and kept the narrative moving. At least one of the pirates,Blackbeard,is a familiar household name. He was a big, scary guy who made himself more scary by burning lengths of rope under his hat to create a cloud of smoke that observers swore made him look like the devil. But the most successful by far, Black Bart Roberts, is less well-known and much more interesting. He disdained alcohol (unheard of in his circles),insisted on religious services on board his ships, and managed to shock even his most ruthless confederates by his unprovoked hanging of an island governor from the yardarm of his own ship.Black Bart sank or captured 400 ships during a relatively short career of three years, compared to a mere 20 for Blackbeard.

In an apparent bid to redress the lack of opportunity for women in piracy, the program also provides a look at the doings of Anne Bonny, who apparently did her share of killing and stealing as a consort to the pirate dandy, Calico Jack Rackham. It’s all very colorful, especially when Calico Jack finds Anne in bed with Mark Reed, who is really Mary Reed. Before you can say “Twelfth Night,” bodices are ripping and a good time is had by all. The History Channel obviously likes its history lively.

The golden age of pirates effectively ends when all the Great Powers begin hunting them down in 1720, and the final gasp comes with the death of the abstemious Black Bart, who suffers a fatal wound from the Royal Navy’s grapeshot while his drunken sailors are carousing below deck.

Despite some occasional silliness, “True Caribbean Pirates” is niche television that is both entertaining and informative. The History Channel, meanwhile, has established a franchise that works well with an impressive variety of topics and themes.

The New York Sun

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