A dead man’s chest

Bartholomew Roberts, known as Barti Ddu or Black Bart

Welsh Pirates and Privateers
by Terry Breverton.
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2018.

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum…

Who does not thrill to very mention of pirates? I do, for sure, and for all the usual reasons — the smell of open sea, the ship in full sail, the thrill of the chase, the bustle of action as other ships are sighted. I’m less enamoured of the usual clichés though — the pirate talk, the romantic notion of the sea thief with a heart of gold beneath their bluff exterior, the stereotyped clothing — though I blame that on an early addiction to documented history.

So you can imagine my delight in spotting this pocket-sized volume: over fifty named Welsh pirates, a profusely illustrated text on quality paper, a discussion on how Welsh seamen were a key element in the history of piracy and privateering, all by a writer who had already authored seven books on the subject, with this volume a revised and updated version of his 2003 title The Book of Welsh Pirates and Buccaneers.

But I was to discover there were two sides to my reaction to this acquisition: genuine delight mixed with some frustration.

The good bits first.

Physical map of Hispaniola (‘Little Spain’), now Haiti and the Dominican Republic

What’s not always recognised is the role that Welshmen played in the history of piracy, along with the more famous examples from the West Country whose regional accent, thanks mainly to Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island, will forever be associated with ‘talk like a pirate’ occasions. Pirates however have been figures in the popular imagination for centuries, from the pirates who capture the Prince of Denmark in Hamlet down to Peter Pan, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, and onwards. Robert Louis Stevenson was aware of the Welsh contribution, mentioning a crewman under the Pembrokeshire-born pirate Bartholomew Roberts and even featuring the fictional Blind Pew; the latter’s surname derives from Pugh, a rendering of ap Hugh or ap Huw meaning ‘son of Hugh’.

Breverton therefore argues fiercely for the primacy of Welsh privateers and pirates, citing Black Bart Roberts, Henry Morgan, Howell Davis and John Callice as being more successful in their trade than, say, Captain Kidd or Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach from Bristol. One might wish Breverton’s partisanship was less fiercely expressed but there is no doubting that he highlights a record that needs righting.

Recorded Welsh piracy dates back to at least the 13th century, but really took off from the 16th century after the discovery of the New World. Breverton lists his pirates in chronological order so that what we get is a timeline accumulating swashbuckler after swashbuckler (this term, by the way, literally meaning a shield-striker, or someone acting belligerently). Some are just names with two or three hard facts along with rough dates, others get a few pages of detailed biography, such as in the case of the four mentioned above.

The author clearly knows his stuff, researching widely from primary sources — contemporary documents, printed accounts, gravestones and the like. He elucidate obscure facts to pepper his biographies — for example he tells us in the 17th century the marine slang for a Spaniard was Juan-Carlos, which Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America explains as the origin of the term ‘wanker’. He points to official corruption as a stimulus to coastal piracy after Henry VIII’s death, and the defeat of the Armada as a stimulus for pirates and privateers (officially sanctioned pirates allowed to prey on the merchant ships of countries with which Britain was at war) to operate further afield, leading to the kind of môr-ladron (Welsh for ‘sea thieves’) we imagine whenever the word pirates is mentioned.

Now for a few negative reactions. I really wanted to like this volume: it is beautifully illustrated with contemporary maps, paintings, engravings and photographs; it quotes extensively (sometimes too entensively, so as to be almost indigestible) from documentation of the period; and it gives pride of place to Welsh captains and seamen in all their range, from angels to devils, their generosity and murderousness, from the justly famous to the much neglected. And that’s as it should be.

But I remained uncomfortable. Who is the intended audience? If the general public then the mass of detailed information is a barrier; if academics (as the author himself is) then the absence of scholarly apparatus — lists of primary and secondary sources, acknowledgements, index, conclusion, and so on — is unsettling. Is it intended for browsing or consulting? is it a book with pretty pictures for dipping into or a reference tool? Don’t get me wrong — I am pleased to have this volume, and to return to it on a regular basis — but there are times when I almost want to fling it away in disgust.

But I don’t. And I won’t, because there’s gold in these pages, and food for thought.


Read for Dewithon, the Welsh Readathon, hosted by Paula at Book Jotter.

8 thoughts on “A dead man’s chest

  1. It seems Breverton may have missed the mark slightly with this one, though as you say, it’s a fascinating subject and just the thing for Dewithon. Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed your review, Chris. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 🏴‍☠️🦜

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    1. Croeso, Paula! As for this book, I have further thoughts about why I prevaricate over it. Kudos to Carreg Gwalch for publishing this — it’s a handsome book (which is partly why I picked it up) and a bargain at £6.95 — but I think the format has done it no favours.

      Its compact size of roughly six inches square doesn’t work for me with a subject like this, and despite the text being broken up by well-chosen illustrations it’s quite dense to navigate (if you forgive the marine metaphor).

      It also finishes quite abruptly, just when I was expecting a conclusion of some sort and a select bibliography at the very least. I’m almost led to believe that these might’ve been sacrificed in the interests of brevity and not, um, Breverton.

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  2. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2021 – Book Jotter

  3. Interesting. Sometimes I lean towards the idea of writing something scholarly but trying to make it less intimidating for the general reader, and I wonder if this author was leaning that way and whether his publisher said “well, just get rid of the apparatus” thinking that would do the job.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I rather think you’re right, Jeanne. Also, it’s a real skill to pitch specialist stuff at the general reader without losing your audience through either boredom or mystification; I’m not sure Breverton steers the right course between this subject’s Scylla and Charybdis, even for anyone with a fair grasp of historical context.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. How fascinating! I hadn’t thought of Welsh pirates before, so the subject has much potential. But I get what you say – sometimes a book can’t quite work out what it is and to have a pretty volume which then attempts to be scholarly but doesn’t get there is just confusing for the reader…

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    1. When we lived in Pembrokeshire we often drove through Casnewydd Bach, Little Newcastle in English, on the way to St Davids in the west, and so from early on I knew that Black Bart Roberts had been its most famous inhabitant. Also stuff from popular culture — like Captain Morgan rum, named after the Welsh privateer — had always brought home to me the importance of the Principality for seafaring, given that three sides of the country face the sea. I think I may grow to like this as a resource but at the moment it just feels like a well-illustrated catalogue in alphabetical order.

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