Robert Kurson, “Pirate Hunters”

Shiver me timbers, another terrific non-fiction book about a grueling, exhausting search for a piece of history. Last time it was Douglas Preston’s The Lost City of The Monkey God, uncovering a hidden archaeological gem in Honduras. This time, it’s a search underwater for the Golden Fleece, a ship that belonged to the infamous pirate Joseph Bannister.

Bottom line: Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for A Legendary Pirate Ship is fascinating.

Okay, that ‘shiver me timbers’ thing? Pirates never said it. They also never said ‘Arrgh.’

Pirate prisoners did not walk the plank. “They found it easier to kill a man by hacking him with a sword or shooting him—and then throwing him overboard, no theatrics required,” writes Robert Kurson.

They never buried treasure or made maps leading to it. They spent their money—and spent it fast. Parrots? Yes. They taught their parrots to talk. They kept them as pets. Hook arms and wooden legs? Yes and yes. Both were used as prosthetics. Eye patches, too, to cover empty sockets.

But these are breezy asides in a tale of a dogged search led by John Chatterton and John Mattera. The search requires analysis on the water, in the water, and good old-fashioned puzzle-solving. It also requires creative thinking, the ability to see island landscapes and imagine how a pirate might have viewed the spot as place to hide or to careen a ship (the process of using tides to beach a ship so the hull can be cleaned or repaired). It also required a ton of patience and a ton of money, as Kurson makes clear.

If you think such requirements for a search attract normal, even-keeled (ha) searchers, you’d be wrong. Chatterton and Mattera are out-sized personalities and Kurson devotes a chapter to each of their larger-than-life personalities and life stories. Chatterton’s background, particularly with his connections to Sept. 11, 2001, is compelling stuff. (Chatterton saw the second plane hit.)

As others have pointed out, Kurson’s Shadow Divers was excellent. Pirate Hunters doesn’t quite have the same level of drama or tension. (Nor does it have the death toll associated with that search, which also featured Chatterton.) But Kurson keeps Pirate Hunters in a swift current. We know the search around Samaná Bay (Dominican Republic) will find its target. The question is how. And what proof will clinch the deal?

Pirate Joseph Bannister is the other major character in this account and Kurson brings him to life. Bannister began his career as a well-respected English merchant sea captain on the profitable trade route between London and Jamaica.  The Golden Fleece was his ship and he was making the trek back and forth perhaps twice a year. The owners of the ship “must have had great faith in Bannister—every cargo was worth a fortunate, the Golden Fleece many times more.”

The Golden Fleece was “impressively large,” nearing 100 feet long and carrying as many as 28 cannons, “roughly equal in size and power to a small Royal Navy warship. A pirate who chose to attack her did so at his peril.”

In 1684, however, Bannister turned pirate. He stole the Golden Fleece. His career lasted, the first time, for six weeks.  He was captured and put on trial in the rough-and-tumble world of Port Royal. No spoilers here on this subplot; Bannister’s pickle and the legal machinations and the ensuing chase would make Jack Sparrow smile.

Fun book. I learned a lot about pirates—and what kind of mettle (and money) it takes for wreck divers to find famous ships buried under the sea. Arrgh.


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