Pearl Duncan: Ancestors-Pirates Had Bloodthirsty Treasure Adventures

Roundup: Talking About History

[ The writer is completing a nonfiction book about using genealogy and DNA to find and confirm specific ancestors in the American Colonies, medieval Europe and medieval Africa. She is also finishing a novel about ancestors in the Indies.]

We are fascinated by narratives that aid in understanding who we are. From literary works such as Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” inspired by his ancestor who walked home from the Civil War, to popular genres and entertainments by such as Ann Rice’s and other writers’ fascination -- obsession -- with criminals, myths, vampires, adventures, we wonder how writers choose characters and subjects for their stories. More writers are writing fiction, inspired by their family’s genealogy.

Recently, a pirates-treasure-revenge-adventure novel, “Pirate Latitudes” was published posthumously by Michael Crichton. Reviewers asked why this author of landmark futuristic, apocalyptic sci-fi thrillers, “Andromedia Strain” and “Prey”; prehistoric techno thrillers, “Jurassic Park” and “Sphere”; historical quest adventures, “The Great Train Robbery” and “Congo,” chose a pirate adventure story, so many times told. Writers write stories for very personal motives.

Whatever Crichton’s motive, we lost a talented, prolific writer too soon. (He died of cancer in 2008.) He may have been motivated by his own genealogical research; the characters are Scots who settled the Indies in the Americas. He may have faced an untreatable health problem; the characters suffer ailments, gout, dropsy, plague, that were frightening and incurable in colonial times. Treatments were often worse than the ailments. He may have seen the need for another Hollywood thriller. In any event, the novel, said to be well-researched and written with historical accuracy, re-invigorates a genre for writers like me who found ancestors who were pirates and seafarers, but we tell the story differently. The author’s love for the sea and appreciation for early sea-going technology make this a dramatic sea adventure. I know, because I used to write about ocean yacht races for Sailing Magazine.

“Pirate Latitudes” is a story about pirates, privateers and "felon women." Why are the women convicts and the blacks "sickly," invisible, in a place and time, the Jamaica Colony in 1665, where the ratio of black to white population was six to one? The population ratio may have been greater, because according to the Colonial Office papers, the ratio of blacks to whites in the Barbados Colony was ten to one in 1667, and eighteen to one in 1698. Writers draw characters and dramatic details, depending on how they want to tell a story.

Reviewers say the novel has lots of action, but it’s the same hackneyed tale of pirates and a treasure quest. If that's the case, this is great news for writers who tell the story differently, writers who have a different connection with that time and place. Crichton’s protagonist, Charles Hunter, interested me, because having traced my ancestors to colonial nobles, rebellious slaves and "privateers," I was fascinated by the name. My maternal great-grandmother, Elizabeth Hunter, wife of Joseph Smellie, is one of the blacks on the family tree of Robert Hunter, who was Governor-General of the Jamaican Colony from 1727 to 1734. He was a Lieutenant Governor of the Virginia Colony and Governor of New York and New Jersey, before he settled as Governor-General for the English Crown in the Jamaican Colony. The Hunters and Smellies were related nobles in Scotland.

Michael Crichton's protagonist, Charles Hunter, is a Harvard grad from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Hunter on my family tree was born in Scotland, the son of a lawyer, grandson of a noble. He was a military leader who spoke English, Spanish, French and Latin. He battled the Maroons, some of his own relatives, my slave ancestors who rebelled, escaped, and ran with pirates to fight skilled military battles against colonial leaders.

I was curious about how Michael Crichton’s novel handles my African ancestors in the Indies colony. When the English, including his protagonist and other renegade characters invaded the Indies in the Americas to challenge the Spanish, capture the gold the Spanish stole from the Americas, and resettle the lands they occupied, the Spanish captains freed and armed their African slaves. As I read the novel, I expected to meet skilled African fighters, including the "mulatto" children of the Spanish and English privateers. When the English attempted to re-enslave the Maroons who fought, the Africans said, Hell no. They fought Maroon Wars.

“Pirate Latitudes” was unlocked in Michael Crichton’s computer after his death. He may have held on to this novel to round out the characters with the truer history. Naw. I doubt it. That was not his style: He gave the European characters names; one of them is Sir James Almont, but he couldn't come up with names for the characters he calls, "Jew" and "Moor," although there are lots of names in the history of the time and place. And on our family trees.

When I tell stories, I give names to the Africans. The women are not “convicts” as they are in this novel. I await Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks film based on “Pirate Latitudes,” because Stacey Snider, DreamWorks’ co-chair and CEO, said, "It's a mission movie, and we see it through the prism of what it might have been like to live on the island during that time." I had ancestors on the island at that time; therefore, my prism is different from Michael Crichton’s.

The protagonist is a “second son,” which foreshadows much about him; firstborn sons remained as rulers and policymakers in Europe, while second, third and fourth sons dirtied their hands and broke moral codes in the Americas. In 1660, King Charles II funded one of the biggest privateers of the era, Sir Gabriel Roberts. Roberts, a firstborn son, formed the Royal African Company, from the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa. He appointed his brother, Sir William Roberts, a second son, as an agent in the Jamaican Colony. My ancestor was Ann Roberts, Sir William's mixed black and white child, who grew to be a fascinating woman, so the records indicate.

The hints in the foreshadowing: Charles Hunter does not flinch when a fellow privateer calls him an illegitimate son, a murderer, a scoundrel, a whoremonger, but when he is called a common pirate, it’s duel time. Privateers who were pirate agents in the service of the Crown, fashioned themselves gentlemen, not commoners. They attacked and raided treasures to build nations. The other pirates raided, ransacked and divided the booty among their fellows.

Because I have the records and DNA, I write nonfiction and fiction about black pirates and privateers, empire-builders, Maroon slaves and their ladies who certainly were not wanton wenches. These two privateers are only two minor characters on my ancestral tree. The other privateers are my direct ancestors whose family crest was a three-masted galley under sail.

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