Welcome!

Hello and welcome to my site!

I use this blog to write about historical film and the media along with observations and advice about postgraduate work. I’m a teacher and a freelance writer and I am available to write for you and to consult for television/film in any area of history. I have written for History Today and appeared on the BBC to discuss pirates and their public executions. You can find more information about my research, publications, and media experience through the different tabs on this site.

I am a historian of early America and the Atlantic world with a PhD recently completed at King’s College London. My expertise is in legal history, piracy, state power, violence, print culture, and polite society. For more information about my academic work and interests, check out the “About” tab on this site.

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My review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

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Last night I saw the latest installment of the Disney franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I won’t go into huge details about the plot but beware of spoilers below.

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Campus Interview Experience, Part 2

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about my experience of making it to the interview stage for a tenure-track job at a small university in the American South. Today I’ve written about the actual campus visit. It took place over a period of 3 days at the beginning of April. A week ago I found out I was not selected for the position, but I gained a whole bunch of experience and insight, which I hope will be helpful to those entering the academic job market. I welcome any thoughts and insights from others! A fair warning, this post is long. In my last entry I left off where I had to get ready to fly across the country for my interview. I’ll start this entry from the moment I landed.

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Campus Interview Experience, Part 1

Recently, I was lucky enough to make to the campus interview stage for a full-time, tenure-track academic job at a small university in the south-eastern region of the United States. The two days I spent at the university was a fantastic learning experience and I cannot thank the university enough for making it as pleasant, friendly, and useful as they possibly could. I ultimately did not get the job, but I hope my insight can be helpful for others.

This post is geared toward those who are seeking an academic job in the USA and although my background is humanities/social sciences, I imagine some of this could be relevant for those in other parts of the world and/or the sciences. There are other excellent blogs and articles on this subject. Inside Higher Education has some great advice about how to prep for an interview and UC Berkeley wrote a really informative article about the hiring process from the “other side“, which will give you some great insight. The Chronicle also wrote a great article about the campus interview process in a step-by-step format. I suggest you check them out before you head into the academic job season or find yourself lucky enough to make it to the campus interview. The amazing website, The Professor Is In has a whole series of blog posts about the campus visit, which I read several times before mine.

Here’s my experience from my application to the campus interview. Again, this is my experience alone and this will differ greatly at every institution. This entry will be about the lead-up to my campus interview and in my next post I’ll talk about the campus interview itself.

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Historical Context for Pirates 5

I’m a little behind the times at the moment. I’ve just returned to the LA area after over three weeks of travel, which included a great visit to London to see friends and present at a conference and also Tel Aviv to visit family. As a result, I did not see the trailer for the 5th film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (Dead Men Tell No Tales) until last night when I saw the live-action Beauty and the Beast (it’s awesome, go see it).

You can check out the trailer here on YouTube.

Based on the trailer, the film is up to its usual swashbuckling high jinks. Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), prolific pirate hunter [a few minutes on Google and Google Books has convinced me he didn’t exist] has returned from the dead to seek revenge upon Jack Sparrow. There are throwbacks to the whole franchise. Barbarossa is back, played by the amazing Geoffrey Rush. Like the previous film, we have warnings that those who die not necessarily stay dead. I’ll even wager a guess that the young sailor might be the son of William Turner and Elizabeth Swan (seemingly absent from this film?).

2 minutes, 35 seconds does not provide much to contextualize the movie, but there was one bit that made me sit up in my seat and pay attention 56 seconds into the trailer:

Barbarossa: I have heard stories of a Spanish captain who has hunted and killed thousands of men.

Salazar: No, no, no, no – men? No, no, no, pirates!

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Captain Salazar…afflicted with greyscale?

Captain Salazar’s career as a pirate hunter combined with his posthumous rage and revenge has caused him to completely dehumanize pirates. This is not out of step with the pirate extermination campaign that took place during the early eighteenth century when the British sought to eliminate Atlantic pirates altogether.

Who were pirates? The majority of Atlantic pirates were from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.[1] For the most part, pirates were ex-privateers (legally-sanctioned to rob enemy ships and paid in booty) who continued to rob ships during peacetime. Others were former merchants, sailors, or members of the Navy who did not want to work under strict laws. Some were sailors who only engaged in piracy for a brief period of time to quickly gain wealth. The number of pirates who specifically chose to engage in piracy for the purpose of robbing and committing murder on the high seas was surprisingly small.

However, the greatest insult of piracy was the willful attack against their sovereign nation. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century laws against piracy referred to a term commonly attributed to Cicero: hostis humanis generis. During the age of the Roman Republic, Cicero wrote that pirates were ‘enemies of all’. Over time, new interpretations of this phrase changed its definition to ‘enemies of mankind’.[2] This is because pirates cast off their allegiance to their home countries and declared themselves of no nation and as a result, their capture meant certain death.

The goal of the Admiralty was to totally eradicate piracy from the waters and they were largely successful thanks to the expansion of Admiralty courts into the American colonies and because of an increased naval presence throughout the Atlantic. Whether this new Pirates film goes into detail about this or not remains to be seen, but I’m looking forward to the shenanigans of the new film and I’m curious to see how the idea of hostis humanis generis plays out. To that effect, stay tuned for when I eventually review the movie.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales comes out 26 May 2017.

 

Further reading:

Amadeo Policante, The Pirate Myth: Geneologies of an Imperial Concept (London, 2015)

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, 2004)

[1] Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates During the Golden Age (Boston, 2004), 51

[2] Amedeo Policante, The Pirate Myth: Genealogies of an Imperial Concept (London, 2015), 11 – 12.

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International Women’s Day: Madame Cheng

In honor of International Women’s Day, I wanted to write about a female pirate who left her own legacy in history. Much has been written about the notorious female pirates who sailed throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic, so I decided to write about another woman who became known as a pirate queen: Madame Cheng of the South China Seas.

(I should note that I am writing this in Los Angeles International Airport and I only get 45 minutes of free Wi-Fi, so I hope you’ll forgive me for an obviously hastily-written post!)

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Madame Cheng was active during the first quarter of the nineteenth century and is said to be one of the most powerful pirates in history. At the height of her power, she commanded over 300 ships and anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 pirates.

Little is known about her early life but it is believed that she was born in 1775 in Guangdong. She worked as a Cantonese prostitute until a group of pirates kidnapped her. It is unknown what happened to her after her capture until she emerged in 1801 as the wife of Cheng I, who was a powerful pirate captain. Cheng I belonged to a family of pirates with origins that traced back to the middle of the seventeenth century.

Together Cheng and his wife managed to create a large allied fleet of Cantonese pirates that became known as the Red Flag Fleet. Madame Cheng’s rise as a pirate co-commander was not unusual. There was a long tradition in China of women who rose to power through marriage. It is also likely that Madame Cheng would have been skilled in the ways of the sea: entire communities lived and worked on boats in ports and rivers throughout Southern China and women played an active role in sailing.

By 1804, under the command of Cheng I and his wife, the Red Flag Fleet was the most powerful pirate fleet in all of China. At this point, the fleet could be better described as a confederation of 400 junks and 70,000 men that sailed under 7 flag. They even operated under a constitution signed by 7 pirate leaders in the South China Seas. However, this would change three years later when Cheng I died off the coast of Vietnam.

Madame Cheng swiftly moved to take over the entire command of the Red Flag Fleet. She married a captured fisherman who had respect amongst the pirates and together they carried out strict code of conduct not unlike the pirates who operated in the West Indies. What makes Madame Cheng particularly noteworthy is her treatment of female prisoners. Women had to be treated with civility and rape was strictly forbidden and punishable by death. Even for consensual sexual relations, sailors had to receive written permission by Madame Cheng lest be they be thrown overboard.

Madame Cheng is unique in that she is one of the few pirates in history that chose to retire and was successful in doing so. In 1810, the Chinese government promised amnesty and pardon to all Chinese pirates. At this point she amassed so much wealth that she decided the time was right to end her career as a pirate queen. She took the government’s offer and kept her loot. She used her wealth to open a gambling house, which she operated until death in 1844 at the age of 69.

 

Further Reading:

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates (New York, 1996)

Joan Druett, She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea (New York, 2000)

Dian Murray, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790 – 1810 (Palo Alto, 1987)

CR Pennell, Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader (New York, 2001)

 

 

 

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Captain Kidd and the Myth of Buried Treasure

Pirates have had a lot of visibility throughout 20th and 21st-century popular culture. When people think of pirates, they often think of eye patches, wooden legs, and or some incarnation of Jack Sparrow. This imagery largely stems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island, who’s Long John Silver embodied this very image. However, the one aspect about piracy that has dominated their popular image above all else is the idea of “buried treasure.”

This may come as a surprise, but pirates generally did not leave hoards of riches and jewels hidden throughout the world. Gold and jewels are heavy and ships had to sail long distances at high speeds. When pirates robbed ships, they were interested in commodities such as spices, silks, alcohol, medicine, and food.[1] They used these items to trade and sell on-shore and this is how they gained their wealth.

If that is the case, then where did the idea of buried treasure come from? The origin of this myth stems from a real pirate named Captain William Kidd, who was executed for his crimes in May 1701.

Captain William Kidd was not always a pirate and he never considered himself to be one. He worked as a privateer for the East India Company. While sailing in the East Indies, he robbed a ship called the Quedah Merchant, which reportedly had a vast amount of gold, cash, and jewels. Ever since the English became involved in trade in the East Indies, piracy had increased and the Mughals were angry about the loss of their goods. The stolen Quedah Merchant was the last straw and the Mughals told the English that if they did not capture Kidd, they would cease all trade and consider his crime to be an act of war. The English could not afford to lose this trade route so they began the first manhunt for a pirate in history.[2]

Kidd was unaware of this and continued to sail as directed. As a privateer for the East India Company, he had letter of marque that allowed him to capture ships should they benefit the Crown. However, Kidd was a polarizing leader and he and his crew disagreed on almost every aspect of their job. This led to a fight between him and his first mate. The fight ended with Kidd striking the first mate across the head with an iron bucket, killing him almost instantly. Now Kidd faced mutiny and a murder charge. He needed help and refuge so he sent word to his friend in New York, the Earl of Bellomont, who offered him safety. Unfortunately for Kidd, Bellomont had already agreed to turn him over to the English because he did not want to be known as an associate to a pirate.[3]

Bellomont had heard from an acquaintance who claimed that Kidd’s prizes totalled over £10,000 worth of gold and goods. However, upon Kidd’s capture, evidence of this treasure’s existence could never be found.[4] Rumours grew and they were helped by letters written to the Lords Justices in England from the East India Company that claimed that Kidd had sailed to America “with a great Treasure of Gold, Silver, Jewells, and other Merchandize being the Produce of his Piracies.”[5] However, Bellomont later denied the existence of any pieces of treasure despite a newspaper report dated September 1699 that claimed Kidd had sent Bellomont’s wife several thousand pounds worth of jewels.[6]

This story circulated throughout the American colonies and when it became known that many members of Kidd’s crew were on shore in Philadelphia, the governor of Pennsylvania (William Penn) that he had never seen “one piece of silver” and that the gold taken from his ship only measured 3 ounces – hardly close to the amount in which it was claimed.[7]

Many investigations between 1699 and 1700 yielded nothing. There was no treasure to be found. However, by the time of Kidd’s death in 1701, news had circulated about a rumoured buried treasure for over three years. The idea that there could be a hoard of wealth somewhere in the world available for the taking spurred a great interest in piracy in England the American colonies.

Rumours about Kidd’s buried treasure continued into the nineteenth century when newspapers claimed that Kidd’s inventory lists had emerged, which contained gold dust, gold bars, gold and silver coins, and precious stones.[8] These rumours came to a head in 1849 when a set of maps, known as the Kidd-Palmer Charts, was “discovered”. These maps pinpointed the precise location of Kidd’s buried treasure in the China Seas compete with an X on the spot.[9] Despite the fact that Kidd had never sailed anywhere near the China Seas, people leapt at this information. Expeditions were funded in attempts to find this treasure as recently as 1951 until the British Museum proved these maps to be a hoax.[10]

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TNA MEPO 2/9166 (photo taken by the author)

These long-standing rumours were a direct inspiration for the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who used historical accounts of pirates as direct inspirations for Treasure Island. It is likely that the rumours of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure directly influenced his novel and thus carried on our image of pirates’ gold and treasure maps where “x marked the spot.”

Neither Captain Kidd nor any other pirates ever buried a hoard of treasure and they were not even that interested in gold. However, thanks to rumours about Kidd’s treasure dating back to the end of the 1600s and the popularity of Treasure Island, we now associate pirates with gold and jewels.

 

Further readings about Captain Kidd, buried treasure, and the influence of Treasure Island:

  • Graham Harris, Treasure and Intrigue: The Legacy of Captain Kidd (Toronto, 2002).
  • Neil Rennie, Treasure Neverland: Real and Imaginary Pirates (Oxford, 2013).
  • Robert C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Cambridge, 1986).

 

 

[1] Liz Covart, “Episode 099: Mark Hanna, Pirates & Pirate Nests in the British Atlantic World,” Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History. http://www.benfranklinsworld.com/episode-099-mark-hanna-pirates-pirate-nests-british-atlantic-world/

[2] For a full summary of Kidd’s life, see Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates, ed. Manuel Schonhorn (New York: 1999), 440 – 452.

[3] Robert C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Cambridge, 1986), 194.

[4] “Governor Lord Bellomont to the Council of Trade and Plantations,” Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series 17:621 (July 8, 1699).

[5] “To Their Excellencies the Lords Justices of England The humble Petition of the Governour & Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies,” BL, IOR/H/36 (September 21, 1699).

[6] The Post Boy, September 7 – 9, 1699.

[7] “William Penn to Mr. Secretary Vernon,” Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series 18:156 (February 27, 1700).

[8] “Captain Kidd, the Pirate,” The Charter, June 30, 1839.

[9] “From the Springfield Republican,” The Semi-Weekly Eagle, February 15, 1849.

[10] “Attempts to raise money to finance expeditions to search for Captain Kidd’s Treasure in the China Seas,” TNA, MEPO 2/9166.

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Piracy and The Princess Bride

Last month I wrote a blog for the great website, Raiders of the Lost Archives, about how the image of the pirate in the film The Princess Bride proves that piracy will never go out of style. You can check it out here. This blog is part one of a two-part article I will write about the image of piracy in popular film.

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My 5 Must-Reads

Recently I wrote a blog for my history department at King’s College London describing five texts that have inspired my interest in Atlantic and pirate history and also how these books have shaped my research. I also have to give a shout-out to the history department at California State University Northridge, which sparked my interest in early modern Atlantic history in 2008.

I’m going to get back to blogging on here soon and I even have a few in the pipeline! The radio-silence has been because I’ve had my head down as I’ve slogged through the writing-up process of my PhD. It’s not done yet, but I’ve glanced up to grab some air and hopefully can get back to some proper communication soon.

In the meantime, here’s a link to my blog article about my five must-reads for research about early modern Atlantic history and piracy. Hope you like it!

 

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The Many Deaths of Captain Kidd

I’ve written a short article about the legend of the pirate, Captain Kidd for the History Matters section in the magazine, History Today. If you don’t have a copy of the magazine, you can read it online here for free. I wrote the article in response to the finding of his lost treasure off the coast of Madagascar on 7 May 2015.

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