Richard Zacks’s previous book, The Pirate Hunter, was an unlikely hit built around a persuasive case that the infamous Captain Kidd was not actually a pirate at all. His follow-up, The Pirate Coast, unearths the extraordinary tale of America’s first overseas covert operation, an 1805 mission in which a group of eight Marines shipped out to rescue 307 American sailors enslaved in Tripoli.
He spoke with Wesley Yang.
Pirates are sort of a boyish thing to
be writing about, aren’t they?
Sure. When you’re a kid, you admire how free and romantic these guys’ lives were. That’s before you’re old enough to realize how incredibly evil they were. I guess I was just immature enough to stay that way.
Do you wish for a more adventurous life?
If I had it all to do over again, I would be a criminal. I’ve been such a good boy, I can’t take it anymore. Think about it: I walk into a bar, I’m a pirate. I see some beautiful woman, I walk up to her, I grab her by the waist and kiss her. She pushes me away. I kiss her again . . . In real life I have to think up some dopey line, or hold my book with the spine out. That’s no fun.
But the world of that time was extremely brutal.
Today we complain if we’re not getting coffee brought to our airplane seats. Back then, if you were traveling on ships, you could end up a slave. My first chapter is about how seven Barbary pirate ships swept up more than 1,000 Italian villagers and sold them into slavery. And the highest price was for a 12-year-old girl!
Why such a premium?
The sexual component. They sold these women with a certificate of virginity. There were rules—if she was a Muslim, she couldn’t be a slave. But foreigners were fair game.
You do depict some unsavory practices specific to Muslims. Did you worry about that?
I have no politically correct agenda. I don’t even know if I’m crossing a line. I exist in a kind of parallel universe to all that. If I went too far, I guess I’m going to find out.
carved out a nice niche with these historical narratives.
Maybe this sounds a little self-serving, but I can’t make it through a lot of biographies. I skim them for interesting tidbits. There are so many fantastic stories out there—I wish more people were doing what I do.