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

Written by Keith Thomson
Review by Susan Lowell

Can pirates be boring? Probably never, but certainly not when Keith Thomson describes them. His rollicking new book seems too good to be true—except that it is. A work of nonfiction as enthralling as a good novel, it entertains the happy reader from title to index (alcohol, amputation, booty, death, gambling, gold mines, “Merry Blades,” mutiny, Pearl Islands, sea monsters, women), and some excellent maps and illustrations also enliven the pages.

Can pirates be gentlemen? Maybe. There are a few among the 17th-century rascals whose tragicomical escapades Thomson recounts here. These self-described buccaneers—Thomson defines them as “Caribbean-based pirates who preyed on Spanish ships and towns”—did, amazingly, include seven diarists and memoir writers, and their recollections, mostly published with great success in their own era. These inspired Thomson to produce this solidly researched and well-documented work. It’s a great addition to the bibliography of pirate studies, which is (no surprise) already extensive.

But Thomson, an accomplished historian and spy novelist, makes reality fun. He excels at chapter titles (“Snake-Haired Sisters,” “Surprizal”) and cliffhanging endings: “A third of the buccaneers…wound up as either prisoners or corpses.” He deftly portrays characters, including Lionel Wafer, buccaneer surgeon and barber; Basil Ringrose, “a gifted mathematician and navigator, fluent in Latin and French as well as his native English”; and William Dampier, “a pirate of exquisite mind” whose accounts of American plants and animals influenced Darwin. Action abounds in many exciting, bloody battles as well as a life-or-death trial for piracy.

…Which brings us back to the title. Facing a watery grave, one buccaneer stays calm by recalling that it’s “a certain truth that those who are born to be hang’d shall never be drown’d.”