Book review: Pirate Hunters
Robert Kurson’s compelling account of research above and search below the waves
I can imagine being a bestselling author must be both a blessing and a curse: the triumph of one book casts a shadow over your next.
In the case of Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson, it’s a very big shadow indeed – Shadow Divers was his runaway best-seller about two divers who discovered and identified a U-boat off the New Jersey coast. It was a rollicking good read, containing the right mix of search and discovery, research and intuition, heroes and villains, close calls and even death. It sent Kurson up the NYT bestseller list and put technical divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler firmly on the scuba diving community map.
the search for remnants of a wreck that could be almost anywhere with little to go on
This time around, the author follows John Chatterton and his new dive partner, John Mattera as they attempt to locate a pirate shipwreck from the 17th century. So whereas Shadow Divers involved identifying a substantial (and fairly modern) wreck, Pirate Hunters is about looking for remnants of one that could be almost anywhere with little to go on. In short, a very different proposition.
The ship in question is the Golden Fleece and belonged, if that’s the right word, to an English pirate called Joseph Bannister. He had a formidable reputation and his crew gave two Royal Navy warships a bloody nose before they could kill or capture him. History records that the Golden Fleece was found ‘careening’ (ie beached) in shallow waters off the coast of the Dominican Republic, even after the Royal Navy returned to finish the job – although left half-burnt and wrecked afterwards.
The book is about the duo’s attempts to locate the wreck and positively identify it as Bannister’s. More importantly, they plan to write themselves into the history books in the process – Kurson explains that only one other pirate ship from the ‘golden age’ (about 1650-1690) had ever been positively identified.
Chatterton is already familiar to us from Shadow Divers, although we’re given a recap and update to explain his motivations – namely, advancing age. Newcomer Mattera feels slightly uncomfortable to root for, given his fondness for guns and friendship with New York mobsters. Both men come across as the highly driven and skilled technicians they undoubtedly are, but I’d be lying if I said I warmed to either. There are various hissy-fits and shouting matches, tied together with some slighty clunky dialogue that feels rather Hollywood. Although this bodes well for Kurson when the inevitable film producers come knocking.
Unlike Shadow Divers which involved a lot of diving, Pirate Hunters involves a lot of jetting around to libraries to trawl through ancient texts. This is a different kind of storytelling, with no bell to salvage to settle the argument at the end. The author sensibly breaks up the book with accounts of other treasure hunters (who seem like a fascinating bunch in their own right), as well as a history of Caribbean piracy, and speculation about the wreck’s location. Meanwhile there are many false trails that Kurson cleverly weaves into the book to keep the reader guessing.
The wider issue of treasure hunting and salvage rights in the late 2000s is a recurring theme, and Chatterton and Mattera may be the last of a small number of people with the opportunity and nouse to hunt down a valuable piece of ancient history in this fashion. For that reason alone, the book is definitely worth a read.
Pirate Hunters is available now from Elliott and Thompson books, RRP £8.99 ISBN: 9781783962198
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