Book Review: Pirate Hunters

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Pirate Hunters, by Robert Kurson, is the true story of two modern day adventurers and their quest to find the remains of a sunken pirate ship off the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic. It weaves the stories of contemporary treasure seekers into those of seventeenth century buccaneers and, in so doing, provides insight into why anyone in either era would choose such a life. It is a fascinating read.

In 1686 a pirate named Joseph Bannister battled with the British Royal Navy in Samaná Bay, a battle which resulted in the sinking of his ship, the Golden Fleece. In 2008 two American treasure hunters, John Chatterton and John Mattera, were contacted by a third such man, Tracy Bowden, who wished them to join forces in a quest to find the remains of Bannister’s sunken vessel. Pirate ships are rare and difficult to positively identify as it made no sense for their crew to flaunt their identification. The men saw this mission as not just a personal challenge with the potential for a lucrative outcome, but as a chance for fame.

All three had a long and successful history in deep sea discovery and recovery of artifacts. It is an expensive business but staggeringly rewarding when treasure is found. It is also being outlawed as countries seek to control this type of search and conservation. The shift in regulation was regarded as troublesome by the private treasure hunters who seemed to view their efforts as superior to those of academia or government, an attitude which spoke to me of their self aggrandizing views.

[of academics] “they didn’t care anything about Bannister, a man who’d never have wanted to be found by men like them.”

The modern day treasure seekers had much in common with the pirates of old. Within their trade they adhered to a strict code of conduct but their treatment of others was boorish. Each had chosen to prioritise their adventures over family, regarding life as something to be grasped for the moment whatever the consequences.

This is not, however, a tale of relationships but of derring-do, a boys own tale of adventure. The background to the men showed that they were experienced in violence and death, either in war or on the street. They had been financially successful but sought more, a buzz from some live action and homage from their peers.

At the time in which this story is set Chatterton and Mattera were reaching the end of their active careers due to age. They did not relish the prospect of retirement speaking with contempt to those who suggested it.

“Retire? And do what, take a bus tour of Europe? Get an early-bird price on a meal?”

They had a high opinion of their abilities and appeared to relish the scraps they got into along the way. They also acknowledged that treasure can change a man.

“gold and silver performed alchemies of their own. By mixing with human instinct, they could turn even the pious base.”

The author had access to all of the key players and their immediate circle of family, friends and colleagues for the two years it took him to research and write this book. The hunt for the vessel is meticulously detailed along with the difficulties encountered along the way. What brought the story to life though was the way in which it is told: the people, the place, the experiences which went some way to explain why choices were made.

The tension throughout is palpable, the history enthralling. This is proof that, given a skilled narrator, some of the best tales can be true.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliot and Thompson.

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