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“Born to be Hanged: The Epic Story of the Gentlemen Pirates Who Raided the South Seas, Rescued a Princess, and Stole a Fortune” By: Keith Thomson


“Born to be Hanged: The Epic Story of the Gentlemen Pirates Who Raided the South Seas, Rescued a Princess, and Stole a Fortune”

Author: Keith Thomson

Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.

New York, 2022

Pages: 384

Price: $ 32.00 (Hardcover)

Keith Thomson of Birmingham knows pirates, and after reading this nonfiction historical account of a major pirate expedition in Central America in the seventeenth century, you will, too.

In the city of Panama, on the west coast of Central America, there was treasure.

From there, galleons of the Spanish fleet loaded up with gold and silver and took it home.

Pirates, who are mostly English—England was usually at war with Spain—sailed around the Caribbean, mainly. But one pirate gang concocted a daring plan. To gain some legitimacy as privateers, they agreed to help rescue an Indian princess who had been captured by the Spanish and, with Indian guides, crossed the Isthmus by canoe and on foot.

It is fantastical, dangerous and unpleasant beyond description.

There are biting insects and botflies that lay eggs under your skin, various pit vipers, scorpions, caimans 8 feet long, poisonous frogs, tarantulas and 1000-pound anacondas up to 40 feet long.

There are trees with poisonous fruit and one tree with bark sap so toxic if it falls on you, say while you are sheltering under the tree during rain, it can kill you.

And some of the time they travelled by canoe on wild rivers and risked drowning. None of these pirates had been to summer camp and most could not swim a stroke, but they followed a pirate precept: If you were born to be hanged, you would not die by drowning. Lots of them died by drowning.

Thomson dispels some myths. Pirates did not wear high boots. That was invented by Hollywood. They did not say “Aaaargh.” They might, however, when flush with booty, keep a parrot or a monkey on their shoulder.

And booty, as well as adventure, was the whole point of all this. A Spanish treasury or galleon might contain 50,000 or 100,000 pieces of eight, a silver coin. A pirate whose share was, say, 247 pieces of eight could buy a farm and 12 cows in England.

They often scored huge prizes but, alas, they then went to port and gambled and drank with breathtaking excess, sometimes spending or losing two or three thousand in a night.

(At sea, the pirates drank a gallon of beer or a pint of rum a day.)

Pirates, we learned, were truly a band of brothers—their lives depended on it. They were also amazingly democratic, voting on whether to attack or not, and a mutiny, to replace the captain, was actually a vote of no confidence.

Voting on when to go home because they had enough booty, however, was problematical, since the pirates who had squandered their share in port wanted to continue and the more prudent wanted to go home and buy a farm.

In battle pirates were fine marksmen and ferocious hand-to-hand fighters but many were killed and wounded.

But they had this organized too.

The loss of an eye or finger was worth 100 pieces of eight, left leg, 400, right leg 500, same with arms.

Thomson tells this story with verve, a sardonic and playful wit. It is really fun.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.