Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Pirate Queen by Susan Ronald #review

Title: The Pirate Queen Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire
Author: Susan Ronald
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007

I've needed a book detailing the kind of socio-political-economic environment that would support piracy, and The Pirate Queen gave me exactly the kind of background I needed for my research. As background reading to inform my own writing, this volume provides a rough history of Elizabethan times written in such a way that one isn't too overwhelmed with an info-dump of names, places and famous battles. In other words, it's perfect for someone like me who needed a basic introduction to European history *other* than having watched a handful of historical movies.

Obviously Elizabeth I is the focus of this novel, and she's revealed as both shrewd ruler and a woman who's prone to the flattery of her gentleman adventurers. The dynamics at court, in a traditionally patriarchal society must have had quite a shake-up when she steadfastly refused to marry and give up her sovereignty as ruler. But oh, what a queen she was. Yes, she had her good and bad sides, and the situation with Ireland was definitely a bad side, but honours go to her for strengthening a nation in the face of the massive adversity thanks to Spain.

Up until now, the name Francis Drake meant very little to me, something about voyages around the globe, but Susan Ronald hammers home the conditions in which these gentleman explorers like him had to work in order to succeed in their monumental voyages. Their ships were fragile, wooden things, often at the mercy of the elements. Sickness and privation were spectres that loomed constantly, and if not that mutiny among the crew posed yet more threats.

We take our maps and GPS for granted nowadays. Back then these brave and hardy souls navigated unknown and often hostile territory. Not all the natives they encountered were friendly, and often Spanish colonists were less than welcoming. Ronald touches on the slave trade as well, and how folks like John Hawkins had a hand in this terrible aspect of life during this era. The conditions aboard the slavers must have been hellish, and the fates of those poor souls terrible once they arrived in the New World.

All in all, The Pirate Queen offers a rough sketch illustrating how early plunderers, merchant and pirates gave rise to British maritime strength and set the stage for the British Empire that was to follow. I came away with a better understanding of the murky politics in the English court and how Elizabeth I's reign shaped European history. Overall, I feel like I've had a great starting point for further reading.

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