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Dolin speaks of piracy’s ‘golden age’

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By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

Thursday night at the Wellesley Library, Marblehead author Eric Jay Dolin spoke to a crowded room about his new book, “Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates.” Dolin has authored over a dozen books about such historical topics as whaling in America, lighthouses, and the American fur trade, but this book likely holds a special place in his heart for a unique reason: it’s the first book any of his kids have read.

Yes, the source of inspiration for Dolin to write about pirates came didn’t come from a lifelong fascination, but from him running a few ideas by his teenage children and watching their eyes light up at the mention of pirates.

But while his daughter has read, made art for, and loved the book so much that she thought about writing her own based off two female pirates Dolin mentioned, his son has only promised he’ll read it before he turns fifty.

While Dolin noted how much interest the public has in piracy and the swashbuckling adventures of these legendary men, he was quick to dispel the myths that surrounded them. For example, Dolin shot down the idea of widespread execution via walking the plank by telling the story of one of the few times it was ever done. Apparently, a Chinese pirate was made to walk the plank, then shot when he immediately tried to swim back onto the boat. Later, he spoke of how “arrrr,” “shiver me timbers” and “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” were all invented by writers or actors - although it is true that pirates loved rum.

Dolin shot down so many pirate myths that he told the crowd an interviewer once angrily scolded him: “can’t you let us keep any of the myths?”

Dolin talks about the treasure found off of Cape Cod belonging to ‘The Whydah.’  Photos by James Kinneen

Dolin talks about the treasure found off of Cape Cod belonging to ‘The Whydah.’ Photos by James Kinneen

Dolin’s reason for dispelling piracy myths comes from a place of great importance, not of being a killjoy. Many times, he spoke of how these men were vicious criminals, not the endearing cartoon characters they have come to be known. To demonstrate this, he told the story of a gang of pirates that targeted Muslims travelling to Mecca, stole their goods, and raped their women.

Dolin noted that this barbary and gruesomeness is morbidly fascinating. He explains that “who is your favorite pirate?” is the question media members most often ask him, and that he’s quick to tell them: “I don’t really have a favorite, because they’re all miserable people.”

With that said, though, he had to admit he was most drawn to the cruelty of Edward Lowe.

Dolin said that Lowe “would cut off the noses and lips of his enemies, roast them, and force them to eat them.” When the crowd groaned in disgust, he smirked and deadpanned, “I understand we’re having cookies after this.”

Dolin’s humor was evident throughout and helped to lighten the mood of dealing with such dark topics. After explaining that hangings were botched so often that family and friends would pull on the legs of the executed to get them to strangle quicker, Dolin flashed to one of many New Yorker cartoons that played with the pirate mythology.

After telling the story of “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet, one of the few pirates ever that came from wealth, Dolin discussed the many claimed motivations behind his deciding to become a pirate.

“Some say it was because of a bad marriage” he informed the crowd. “If that’s true, he must have had a really bad marriage.”

For years, sensationalized pirate myths have sold video games, movies, books and tee shirts, so it would only make sense that the truth would be a bit disappointing.

Luckily, Eric Jay Dolin’s humor and wit were sharp enough to make dispelling the myths more exciting than propagating them.

After watching his presentation on Thursday, two things became abundantly clear. Firstly, with the right storyteller, the truth of the “golden age” of piracy can be just as interesting as the fiction. Secondly, Dolin’s son - the one so reticent to read his father’s book - doesn’t know what he’s missing.

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