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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Why Pirates?

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How I Turned my PhD Dissertation into a Book

Hi!

In case you didn’t know, my first book Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever will be published on November 24 in paperback, ebook, and audiobook! I’m publishing it with the independent press Mango Publishing.

My book is intended for a “popular audience,” which means it’s accessible to masses rather than just the academic world. It is pretty much a redo of my PhD thesis, which was no easy feat. So I thought I’d tell you all how I managed to do it.

  1. I decided I wanted to discuss how and why pirates became such popular figures throughout history up until today. I decided to use the pirate Captain Kidd as my case study because his manhunt was the first one to be live-documented in newspapers around the Atlantic world.
  2. I printed out each chapter of my PhD one at a time and went through it with a pen section by section, line by line. I made notes about what areas were the most important, fit in thematically, and had excellent primary source material.
  3. Once I finished doing this, I took note of all the major themes and decided to base my chapters on those and created relevant titles. From here I was able to outline the chapters so I knew what to include and what to expand upon.
  4. The first thing I did in each chapter was rewrite relevant chunks of my dissertation into a more accessible tone. This meant taking away any secondary analysis and rewriting sentences until I could read them aloud easily.
  5. This took me a few months to do and once that was finished, I had half of my book draft done. Now it was time to expand the relevant information. This meant more research. I was a bit strapped for research since I didn’t have access to every database I had in London, but I had LOADS of primary research saved and ready to go. I combed through everything and expanded each area that needed and wanted more details.
  6. Once I had a whole draft written, I printed out each chapter one at a time and once against attacked them with a pen. Here I reorganized paragraphs, struck out sentences, changed words around, and made notes of areas that were repetitive or needed more information. I also checked for spelling and grammatical errors.
  7. Once I’d done that with each chapter, I went about and did all of the edits.
  8. Two close friends agreed to be “beta” readers of sorts. One was really good at being nitpicky with mechanics while the other was more interested to see how readable it was. They both gave me excellent feedback and suggestions, which I applied generously to my book draft.
  9. Once that was done it was time to send the draft off to my editors.
  10. Over the next few months, they sent me back drafts with edits for me to approve and do. By July it was done and all that was left for me to do was to go over the final proofs. Yay!

I did all this in a pretty short turnaround time – about 8 months. August – April. So how did I do it?

The first half of my draft was finished by that December. Then the harder part started. I was working full-time as a private school teacher and I just started teaching a couple of night classes at the local community college. Not to mention I was in a choir and had rehearsal one evening a week! This meant I had LOADS of late nights.

To complete the draft, I had to get to a certain word count and leave myself ample time to edit and rewrite. I set myself a goal to have the whole draft written by the end of February and gave myself a very strict daily word count goal that I noted in a notebook every night. There were any nights where I was up until at least 2 AM and then had to be up at 6 for work. But I did it. I made the word count goals.

Then the pandemic hit and everything shut down. No more choir rehearsals. No more night classes. No more going into work. All teaching was done online and this left me time to focus on editing. The first draft was written and now I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands to do the edits and submit the draft to my editor by the April 30 deadline.

And there you have it! That’s how I managed to turn my PhD into a book. It was NOT easy but overall I’m very pleased with how it turned out. I hope you enjoy reading it!

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Pre-Order My Book!

My book, Why We Love Pirates, is now available for pre-order, coming November 17! Here’s a link and the description.

Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever, Mango Books, forthcoming November 17, 2020. PRE-ORDER NOW!

For Fans of True-Life Pirate Stories

How the global manhunt for Captain Kidd turned pirates into the romantic antiheroes we love today.

Crime and punishment. During his life and even after his death, Captain William Kidd’s name was known around England and the American colonies. He was infamous for the very crime for which he was hanged, piracy. This book by Rebecca Simon dives into the details of the two-year manhunt for Captain Kidd and the events that ensued afterward. Captain Kidd was hanged in 1701, and from that sprung a massive hunt for all pirates led by the British during a period known as the Golden Age of Piracy. Ironically, public executions only led to pirates’ growth in popularity and interest. In addition, because the American colonies relied on pirates for smuggled goods such as spices, wines, and silks, they sought to protect pirates from being captured.

The start of a story. The more pirates were hunted and executed, the more people became supportive of them. They felt for the “Robin Hoods of the Sea”―both because they saw the British’s treatment of them as an injustice and because they treasured the goods that pirates brought to them. These historical events were pivotal in creating the portrayal of pirates as we know them today. They grew into romantic antiheroes―which ultimately led to characters like the mischievous but lovable Captain Jack Sparrow. Simon has presented her research on the history of pirates around the world and now she’s bringing the spectacular story of Captain Kidd to her readers.

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How to Teach Piracy to Middle Schoolers

I was lucky enough to teach the history of Atlantic piracy at my independent school. In fact, that’s actually why I was hired. The department chair thought the subject would be a great thing to bring to the middle school humanities curriculum.

At first I wondered how I’d fit it in and make it a “serious” subject rather than simply a “yay easy fun times!” unit. But it turned out to be really easy. I taught 7th grade at my school and our subject was Global Studies. My co-teacher and I rebuilt the curriculum to make the essential question about revolution and bottom-up social changes. Early modern Atlantic piracy was our choice to finish out the year because it would be a natural bridge to 8th grade, which is American studies.

So what did we do? We took the social route and used pirates as an example of how and why people might reject their societies and create their own (as they did on their ships). Our unit text was a great book called Pirates! by Celia Rees, which is about two young women – the daughter of a plantation owner named Nancy and an enslaved girl named Minerva – who are on the run after killing an overseer who assaulted Minerva. They are welcomed onto a pirate ship and create new lives.

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The history portion of the unit was all about research, especially primary research. Students engaged with early modern maps of the Atlantic world and primary sources from the time period. I introduced short snippets of newspapers, last dying speeches, and pieces from A General History of the Pyrates.

 I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it was hard enough to get used to the 18th century style of writing and spelling. Imagine how it would be for 13-year-olds!

Good People! The Multitude and Noise is so great; that I am afraid I shall be heard but by a few of you…I freely Confess I have abundantly and beyond measure or expression offend the Laws of my God, and in Too many Cases the Laws of my Country: ‘Tis well known to many, I suppose some present, that I served His Majesty Faithfully in the Late and Former Dutch Wars, and I am heartily sorry for my Crimes…

The Last Dying Speech of George Cusack, 1675

We broke things down line by line and focused on details such as the year it was written, the subject, and what places were mentioned. After a little bit of time they were able to transcribe the sources and deepen their understanding of how pirates lived and how they were perceived.

Media proved to be a really valuable tool. One of the first things we did was watch the opening scene from Master and Commander so we could have a discussion about how sailors on a ship cooperated when faced with a sudden attack. Then we watched a scene from the film Captain Phillips when the Somali pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama. It made for a great compare/contrast.

The final project was an opportunity for students to get into the perspective of piracy. They had a creative writing project in which they could write a newspaper article, a last-dying speech, a fictional pirate biography, and a short story. The purpose of this project was to deepen their research skills so we provided them with some sources and then students were instructed to find more of their own. Their writing had to be as historically accurate as possible.

They all rose to the occasion with gusto and it ended up being our most successful project. Pirates hold so much public interest but piracy is an excellent subject to pursue the revolutionary idea of new societies.

And, of course, we finished the year by watching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, because how could we not?

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Could Pirates Read and/or Write?

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It’s getting close to back to school time here so I thought I’d do an exploration on pirates and literacy. Several people have asked me over the years if pirates were literate. Written materials by pirates are so far between that you could argue they’re non-existent, while other ships had full surviving accounts. Therefore, the answer is the same for them as other sailors: yes and no.

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Anne Bonny and Mary Read: Pride Month Edition

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In honor of Pride Month, it is time to celebrate the relationship between the two most famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

First, a caveat. There has been debate about whether same-sex relations occurred on pirate ships. This is in part due to the fact that homosexual acts were against the law during the seventeenth and eighteenth century (not to mention up to today in many parts of the world) and because there is little to no written evidence about LGBT pirate relationships. Theories exist amongst historians about situational homosexuality, in which same-sex ships pushed sailors to develop relationships with each other due to the closeness of their work relationships and being away from women for long periods of time.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read are two of the most famous pirates to ever come out of the Golden Age of Piracy. The first reason is obvious: they were women. And not just that; they were known to be just as violent, if not more, than their male counterpoints and cursed and swore better than the rest of them. Before they got captured by Captain Barnet in 1719, the two of them fought against his forces without the aid of any of their fellow crewman because they were too hungover and frightened to fight. Their bravery and unconventional behavior shocked and fascinated the Atlantic World.

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Anne Bonny never hid her sex on board the ship, but Mary Read had cultivated an entire male identity. Before she became a pirate, she was a soldier in the British Army disguised as a man named Mark Read. She kept her male identity until she boarded Jack Rackham’s ship as a pirate. Her skills impressed Anne so much that Anne followed “Mark” into a supply room and tried to seduce him. Mark then revealed that he was actually a woman named Mary. Anne kept Mary’s secret and a deep friendship began.

This bond became a source of wonder. Anne and Mary became so close that many people on board began to speculate about their relationship with each other. This was further complicated by the fact that Anne was married to Captain Jack Rackham. Jack Rackham became so suspicious of the two of them that one night he woke up Mary by pressing a knife to her throat threatening to kill her for seducing his wife. Naturally, he was dumbfounded when he found out Mary’s true gender. This quelled his suspicions because how could two women made him a cuckhold? In fact, he saw the crude advantages of the situation. He coerced Mary to join his and Anne’s relationship, thus making them a threesome. What happened in their relationship after that is pretty much unknown, except for the fact that they were both pregnant when they were sentenced to death for crimes of piracy. Their pregnancy stayed their executions. Tragically, Mary died of childbed fever. Anne lived and likely spend the rest of her life in the Carolinas.

Were Anne Bonny and Mary Read lovers? It is not easy to say because of the lack of details about their relationship, especially after Rackham made them a threesome. However, the women’s closeness suggests that they had more than just a deep friendship. At the very least, they are a proud example of the important and intimate relationships that women enjoy together.

References:

Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pirates.

BR Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth Century.

Chuck Stewart, Proud Heritage: People, Issues, and Documents of the LGBT Experience.

Hans Turley, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity.

 

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Advice: Starting a PhD in a Foreign Country

It’s over halfway through March and over the next several weeks American universities will start mailing out acceptances and offers into postgraduate programs. But what if you decide to move abroad for graduate school? I chose to do that and spent 2012 – 2017 living in London to research my PhD about pirates. This is more practical advice than a personal story and I’m not touching on PhD advice. That’s for another day. Continue reading

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Who Were Pirates?

Over the past several months I’ve been taking a writing class about the novel at a local university. Naturally, I’m working on a project about piracy. Recently my chapter was workshopped and one of the comments I received was, “The person seems too ambiguous to be a pirate. They’re supposed to be these pillaging swashbucklers looking for treasure.” This comment stuck with me until I was finally allowed to speak.

“I deliberately left it ambiguous,” I said. “Many pirates did not consider themselves to be pirates and lots of those people were not that violent. And buried treasure is more of a myth.”

My goal: To upend the Hollywood trope of the antiheroic pirate off to search for buried treasure.

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Sorry, Jack, but no.

Well, despite this image and caption I will allow myself a Jack Sparrow quote: “Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate.”

But I digress. I’ve written about my thoughts on buried treasure and how it became part of the pirates’ narrative before so I won’t spend time going into that here.

The vast majority of pirates were skilled sailors who wanted to make more money than they would working on a merchant ship or in the Navy. They had families to support and important roles in their communities.

Were some pirates violent? Definitely. Did they attack ships and kill for the sole purpose of stealing goods and supplies? Absolutely. After all, the definition of a pirate is one who robs and murders on a body of water.

Yes, there were many pirates who signed up for this life indefinitely but the majority only intended to work as a pirate for a year or two before retiring back home to lead a simple life.

To be a pirate, one just had to be a skilled sailor…with some moral ambiguity of course. The Navigation Acts blocked trade outside Britain into their colonies so the purpose of many pirates was to also act as smugglers in the American colonies. While this meant they mostly attacked foreign ships, they were not above stealing from their own countrymen with the intention of selling goods illicitly.

Pirates’ actions brought in wealth and revenue into the American colonies as the British worked to establish their empire. Despite their crimes, they played just as important a role in the establishment of the colonies as colonial officials. (Although the moral debates of these actions are a much larger subject…)

 

SOURCES

Mark Hanna, Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570 – 1740, UNC Press, 2015

This American Life, “I Am Not A Pirate,” May 5, 2017.

Ben Franklin’s World, “Mark Hanna, Pirates & Pirates Nests in the British Atlantic World.”

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Why Do People Like Pirates?

It’s time to revive this site so I thought I’d go back to the basics and discuss why people have liked pirates since the 18th century.

Pirates in today’s popular culture mostly take on caricature forms as these exciting, swashbuckling antiheroes out to find treasure and glory. Their enemy? Often the Royal Navy because who doesn’t want to stick it to The Man? The answer: everyone.

If one wants to look at the best source of how people reacted to pirates, the best subject to examine are their public executions. These events drew out hundreds of people because they guaranteed an entertaining spectacle. The unfortunate person sentenced to hang provided the audience with a speech atoning for their sins before they were sent to their Maker.

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A pirate at Execution Dock.

Pirates had a similar ritual but theirs was more extravagant. For one, they were led to Execution Dock on the bank of the Thames in Wapping in a procession headed by the silver oar of the Admiralty.

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Pirates then gave their speeches and off they went back from whence they came.

Their speeches were then published verbatim for eager readers (or listeners if they could not read for these were often read aloud in public houses). Not only that, the Observations of the Ordinary of Newgate and the pirates’ trials were published as well because they turned a huge profit.

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By 1724, publications about piracy were so eagerly sought after that the book A General History of the Pyrates was published by Captain Charles Johnson (often attributed to Daniel Defoe). This book is still in print to this day.

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So why were pirates such a popular commodity and from where did their legendary originate?

During the 17th and 18th century, social status was (for the most part) fixed. If one was born to aristocracy, then they and their subsequent generations would retain their status. If one was born in some form of business, most likely they would retain their moderate success. If one was born into the working, laboring, or poorer classes, they would stay there.

Pirates, however, subverted these social norms. They declared themselves to be of no nation and made their ship egalitarian societies. They stole goods to sell and commanded an equal distribution of wages. As a result, they could end up wealthier than if they stayed on shore. These were people who were able to cast off their social class and become richer, independent of government, and (polite) social norms. Yes, they committed murder and robbery and left coastal cities ransacked or in fear of their livelihood. At the same time, however, many people could not help but be intrigued by these rogue sailors and the way they were able to rise above and become their own people.

Over time as piracy dwindled, fact transitioned into myth. Eventually the writer Robert Louis Stevenson took inspiration from A General History of the Pyrates and penned a serial called “The Sea Cook,” which eventually became collated into a wildly successful novel named Treasure Island. While well-researched, the author took many liberties to create a fun, adventurous story. Then in the 1950s, the actor Robert Newton gave the character Long John Silver his own interpretation. 

The result? The pirate we know today. Centuries of fear and fascination transformed into exciting fiction forever changed the view of who pirates actually were.

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Sorry, Jack, but no.

 

Further Reading:

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates of the Golden Age, Beacon Press, 2004.

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, Random House, 2006.

Margarette Lincoln, British Pirates and Society, 1680 – 1730, Routledge, 2014.

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How I transitioned from the PhD into secondary education.

A few months ago I announced on Twitter that I had accepted a full-time permanent position as a humanities teacher in West Los Angeles. I know there are many PhD students and ECRs out there who might be contemplating a professional move either outside of academia or to something “academic adjacent” as I put it. For those of you interested in teaching, here is how I did it.

NOTE: This is 100% based on my experience to teach at a school in the United States, specifically California. I was fortunate to have a strong teaching resume, personal and professional resources, and teaching experience. However, there were still some challenges and I hope this could be helpful to those interested in a teaching job. This is a LONG post, but I think it’s worth it if it helps you.

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