Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mariners in Review: The Pirate Queen

Someone once said that a language is just a dialect with a navy. English became the world's most widely-spoken language on the decks of the ships of the British Navy. Susan Ronald’s The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire chronicles the early days of England’s maritime power, when Elizabeth I enlisted merchant sea captains in her decades-long struggle to defend her throne and the Protestant faith against her enemies, foremost her one-time brother-in-law King Phillip II of Spain.

While Phillip and the pope tried to crush Elizabeth in various ways, the queen fought back by trying to cut off Phillip’s funding at the source, the treasure of the New World. Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, John Hawkins and others were the Blackwaters of their day, acting on the Queen’s wishes (and often with heavy financial backing by her and her ministers) while allowing her to maintain plausible deniability. These “pirates” were what we would call “privateers” today, although that term had not yet been coined and Ronald avoids using it. What starts out as irritating raids on a few ships grows over the years into a full-scale confrontation and the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

There’s enough swashbuckling and derring-do to keep the general reader turning the pages, while providing the nautically inclined with a good feel for shipboard life in the late 16th century. The Patrick O’Brien crowd will enjoy the detailed look at the weapons, supplies, and even loot of the era. And Elizabethiana enthusiasts will find a whole new side of their favorite queen: Walsingham, Cecil, Robert Dudley, Mary Queen of Scots and all the usual suspects from any book about Elizabeth are here, but it’s the gentlemen adventurers of the era and their crews and ships that get top billing.

For more on The Pirate Queen see Susan Ronald’s website

For further reading, an excellent book on the history and development of the British Navy is To Rule The Waves: How The British Navy Shaped The Modern World by Arthur Herman. Find more at

Filed from M/V Spirit of Yorktown in Juneau, Alaska

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