BookBrowse Reviews Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson

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Pirate Hunters

Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship

by Robert Kurson

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson X
Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2015, 304 pages
    Mar 2016, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick
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About this Book



This nonfiction narrative recounts the breathless search for a lost pirate ship over sea and land.

There are few subjects that come as ready-made for storytellers as pirates. Even before the adventure is begun, the reader likely has in mind all the requisite notions to bring the narrative to vivid life: the look (eye-patched and hook-handed buccaneers brandishing gleaming cutlasses), the sounds ("Arrgh, Matey…walk the plank!"), even the smells (the salt air, gunpowder, the wafting scent of Jamaican rum). The world of the pirate, though historically removed and exotic, has ironically become a modern commonplace.

Although one still hears of piracy on the high seas, the image most people have of a pirate likely derives from the so-called "Golden Age" of piracy, roughly 1650-1730, a timeframe that serves as one of the chronological bookends in Robert Kurson's Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship. While the nonfiction narrative recounts this high water-mark of piracy, the majority of the book takes place between 2008 and 2012 as a pair of indefatigable treasure hunters (John Chatterton and John Mattera) attempts to locate Golden Fleece, a once-fearsome pirate ship. Captained by an infamous pirate named Joseph Bannister, Golden Fleece was sunk off the shore of Hispaniola (the island now home to The Dominican Republic and Haiti) by the British navy in 1686. The vessel is known to have menaced and plundered countless treasure-laden ships sailing between England and the New World. Historical records suggest the crew was particularly vicious, and its reputation for barbarity quickly spread among merchant seamen.

Pirate Hunters often reads like a first-rate thriller as it follows the day-to-day quest to outrace rival scavengers, placate impatient government bureaucrats, mollify the mercurial financier of the search, and prevail over more than three centuries of nature's work in covering up the vessel's remains. The search takes place as much on land as at sea, with the pirate-hunting duo often jetting around the world to consult with a colorful, iconoclastic corps of underwater salvage experts, or churning through reams of brittle diary entries, faded maps, and barely legible ship manifests in archives and historical societies throughout Europe.

Kurson, who made a literary splash ten years ago with Shadow Divers, another true-life underwater adventure (about a sunken German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey), has done extensive reporting to flesh out the highly dramatic search for Golden Fleece. However, as with Shadow Divers, there's a bit of reportorial sleight-of-hand at play here. Kurson's work reads like traditional narrative nonfiction, with lots of scenes and dialogue unfolding dramatically before the reader's eyes. He is so skillful in the detailed relating of events that it's easy to forget that the adventures Kurson's writing about happened years before he even became aware of them, and that almost none of them were witnessed first-hand by the author. His reconstruction of the events – from an early scene of a weathered fisherman at dawn watching the maiden voyage of the search team, to poignant, wine-soaked late night conversations in pizzerias – was based on accounts told to him by the two "pirate hunters" of the title. While there's no reason to doubt the veracity of the events Kurson recounts, some of the scenes seem just a bit too ready-made, as in this excerpt, where the two pirate hunters are being menaced on the back roads of the Dominican Republic by a gun-wielding, motorcycle-riding drug smuggler:

Driving only fast enough to keep the bike upright, the man now waved his pistol over his left shoulder, toward the truck. People crowded the street to take in the spectacle. Mattera cracked open his passenger door and wedged his foot in the space, then pointed his Glock at the biker's torso.
"Stay behind him. I've got him framed."
"Give the word and I run him over," Chatterton said.
Women screamed, children ran, barking dogs descended as the motorcycle inched forward at just two or three miles per hour, the white truck just ten yards behind, guns drawn on both sides, the biker and Mattera screaming at each other in Spanish, a thousand obscenities as the men continued their crawl...
"Drop the gun now!" Chatterton yelled, but the man kept waving his weapon and screaming.
Mattera's finger flexed alongside the trigger guard.

Nonfiction purists might bristle at such scenes that seem so conveniently dramatic (complete with the hero's finger flexing on the trigger guard!). It's entirely possible that events unfolded exactly as Kurson relates them, but for some readers the fact that he is so often dependent on the version of events provided by the book's protagonist-heroes might raise the occasional eyebrow. (As Kurson states in his Note on Sources: "Many of the events in the book were recounted to me by the participants from their memories. If there was doubt about the order of things, I used my best efforts.")

Questions of exactness aside, Pirate Hunters is fascinating and suspenseful, a breathless story of shadowy figures and global intrigue, set against the backdrop of hostile oceans and an even more hostile rogues' gallery of ruthless, bloodthirsty pirates. I'd be surprised if the book doesn't strike a chord with most readers – and even more surprised if someone somewhere wasn't already at work turning it into a screenplay. As a potential cinematic blockbuster, Pirate Hunters seems like found treasure.

Reviewed by James Broderick

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2015, and has been updated for the March 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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