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Richard Zacks Interview

Richard Zacks
Interviewed by Andrew Duncan





Richard Zacks is the author of History Laid Bare and An Underground Education. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the Columbia Journalism School, he has also written articles for the Atlantic, Time, the Village Voice, and many other publications. How did you first get interested in pirates?

Richard Zacks: It wasn't Disney that first got me hooked, but rather Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, which I found on my parents' bookshelf, tucked among far weightier tomes. I loved the illustrations of rogues and ne'er-do-wells, and after that, Treasure Island won me over.

I also plead guilty to dressing up as a pirate for half a dozen Halloweens; the most recent was 1997. (I wound up barefoot at the New York Athletic Club, but that's a different story.) Being a mostly law-abiding citizen, I have always been attracted to criminal types; to those among us who have the nerve/gall/stupidity to break the law, and grab whatever they want, whether it's money, women, or sporty transportation devices.

Why Captain Kidd in particular? What was it that intrigued you to write a book about him?

While doing research for An Underground Education (1997) -- a group of wise-guy, contrarian essays about history and other topics -- I stumbled on the "true" story of Captain Kidd, as written by one Sir Cornelius Dalton back in 1911. I was stunned to discover that Kidd was no pirate, but rather a married war hero living in New York City in the 1690s who was hired to chase pirates. I was especially attracted to the fact that he was betrayed by extremely powerful men. Call it my martyr complex, my why-is-my-book-never-in-the-front-window complex. (Z-named authors, like Zacks, are often shelved by the floor, and Zs are always last in line. The Pirate Hunter's reception seems to be curing me.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of Kidd's final voyage and eventual fate is what seems like his relentless bad luck. Do you think Kidd caused a lot of these problems himself, or was he more a victim of circumstance?

That's a very tough question. In The Pirate Hunter, I let the reader decide. But as for my own personal reading of the events, I think many of Kidd's qualities (some of them admirable) got him into trouble. For instance, his overwhelming self-confidence (and a couple of rums) gave him the nerve to defy a commodore and refuse to hand over 30 sailors who would be forced to serve in the Royal Navy. That defiance led to rumors being spread about Kidd turning pirate. A meeker man would have given over the sailors. In the same vein, at the start of the voyage, Kidd wanted to sign on the finest, toughest sailors available and his cockiness allowed him to sign up former pirates. A meeker man would have sailed with a smaller, more manageable crew.

On the other hand, I think it was sheer bad luck that Kidd traveled to pirate havens and popular shipping lanes in the Indies, and, for more than a year, never found a pirate ship.

Kidd was vilified and attacked in the English judicial system right up until his death. Even with his reputation, his treatment seems out of the ordinary. Why do you think he was treated so cruelly? Was he being used as an example?

As one powerful English politician put it: "Some Jonah or other must be thrown overboard if storm [is to be avoided]." Captain Kidd had failed to serve the interests of five of the most powerful men in England. Not only had he NOT returned with pirate treasure, but he was accused of being hired by these four Lords and the king to act as their own personal pirate. Scandal-mongers called the affair "A Corporation of Pirates." Since piracy was the single biggest threat to a mercantile empire, this was a glaring faux pas.

The English lords and their cohorts were brilliant at what we would today call "spin control." It was much easier to crush Kidd (and distance themselves from him) than to explore the murky facts of his case and defend him. And these lords probably did hope that by destroying Kidd, other would-be pirates would be deterred.

The inclusion of Robert Culliford's story is fascinating. Considering he was more of a pirate than Kidd ever was, why do you think Culliford is not as well known?

I agonized over whether to give Robert Culliford almost a third of Captain Kidd's biography and I am sooooo glad that I did. Kidd was a bounty hunter, a man trying to succeed inside the English Establishment. Robert Culliford was an outsider, a pirate, and I was thrilled to have the chance to explore his life. The careers of the two of them dovetailed in dramatic ways that would make a novelist jealous. The idea that the men would confront each other in the Indies a half a decade after Culliford stole Kidd's ship in the Caribbean is mind-boggling.

Culliford isn't well known mostly because author Captain Charles Johnson -- who, with his famous book A General History of Pirates provided the springboard for our most famous pirates -- didn't include him. Why? Maybe they were drinking buddies. Actually the biggest reason was that Culliford was never brought to trial, so finding the documentary evidence on him is very hard.

In any case, fame is very fickle. Captain Avery was the most notorious British pirate during Kidd's lifetime, and he is pretty much forgotten today.

To me, one of the big points of your book is that what is famously known about pirates is based more in myth than actual fact. During your research, were you ever completely surprised at what you uncovered?

I was often amazed at authentic details about the pirates, like when Culliford ordered the crew to throw china plates into the cannons to try to shred an adversary's sails. Also, forget about the Jolly Roger...pirates flew whatever national flag would lure the other ship to come closer. And the curses, very harsh, but more like: "The devil rot ye" or "The pox take ye." I like the nicknames: Hugh Parrot really was talkative.

My best research break came when I found the diary of a prisoner held 11 months aboard Captain Culliford's pirate ship. Biggest surprise there? After the pirates had captured a dozen women from Siam and forced them into having sex with them, keeping them for weeks in an out-of-the-way harbor, Captain Culliford ordered those women to be carried to another port and set free on shore because the pirates "had made use of their bodies." Another surprise was when Captain Culliford went to great lengths to send a sizeable treasure home to Long Island to the widow of a dead comrade. Honor among thieves, perhaps.

The Pirate Hunter uses lots of quotes from primary sources. How did you accomplish researching all the letters, court papers, etc.? How did you even find them?

The handwriting could be quite difficult to decipher (see the Pirate Hunter website for examples). Luckily, about half of the 1,000 or so documents [I examined] were recopied by clerks for the record, so they are quite legible. After a while, you get used to the syntax and the wildly inconsistent spellings. I found "pirates" spelled three different ways in one single sentence: pyratts, pyrates, and pyrattes.

I did most of my research in the Public Record Office outside London. I am so glad that the Brits don't throw anything away; they just file it away. Some of the documents that I requested hadn't been looked at for three centuries. To find documents, basically, you read the best scholarly works on a given subject and check the footnotes, which give you exact references. You request those documents and then you start nosing around in documents filed nearby, such as the dispatches back from East Indies to the Board of Trade (in a section called "Plantations General"), which is where I found the pirate prisoner diary. A lot of research is hit or miss, and it takes great willpower (or else a mortgage) to leave the table and go home.

Captain Kidd is one of a handful of pirates known by the general populace. Why do you think he still has a hold on the popular imagination?

The treasure! Captain Kidd's treasure is one of those cultural landmarks. Once the rumor mill started talking about how he was captured with about one-hundredth of the treasure expected, people have been wondering where he hid the rest. The truth is that the English government got almost all of it and the rest was embezzled -- not buried.

At Kidd's death by hanging, a clever songwriter wrote a ballad that was very popular. That also boosted his fame. Add in Robert Louis Stevenson mentioning "Kidd's Anchorage" in Treasure Island, and Poe putting the treasure in "The Gold Bug," and that sweet little monosyllable of a last name he was born with and you have a formula for notoriety.

Are you currently working on any new projects?

I'm under contract to do a book on the United States war against the Barbary Pirates back in 1805. This was the fledgling U.S. standing up to Moslem terrorists from North Africa back when superpowers England and France paid tribute. The story packs the birth of the U.S. Navy, and more especially the birth of the Marines. Harems, white slaves, national honor, a daring march across the desert -- I'm excited to go to work in the mornings.

What are you reading these days?

I just finished Larry McMurtry's Sin Killer (loved it) and Gallileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel. Both fine books. Earlier in the summer, I got around to reading John Adams, which really is historical non-fiction at its best, deeply rooted in original documents but crafted with an eye for drama and emotion.

If you worked in a bookstore, what would be on your staff picks shelf?

All three of the books listed above, plus:

  • some C.S. Forester (Horatio Hornblower)
  • some Dudley Pope (The Black Ship)
  • my books
  • Perfume by Patrick Suskind
  • Outlines of History by H.G. Wells
  • The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez and Malcolm McConnell
  • lots of Evan Connell
  • some of the Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser
  • Sir Richard Burton travelogues
  • lesser known Mark Twain like Innocents Abroad
  • early Truman Capote

Do you have a favorite bookstore?

I love Politics and Prose[1] in D.C. and Powell's[2] in Portland; a new favorite is Bookhampton[3] in East Hampton. For used books, I like Down in Denver[4], in Stephentown, N.Y.

The Pirate Hunter is a 2002 September/October Book Sense 76 Pick!

"This reads like a work of fiction, and I felt as if I was in New York, or on the ship with William Kidd in 1695. A well-researched, perception-changing book, especially for fans of such books as The Map That Changed the World." - Scott Yanke, Scott's Books, Delano, MN

1. Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Avenue, N.W. Washington, DC (202) 364-1919

2. Powell's, 1005 W Burnside Portland, OR (866) 201-7601
3. Bookhampton, 20 Main Street, East Hampton, NY (631) 324-4939
4. Down In Denver, 874 Route 43, Stephentown, NY (518) 733-6856