Book Review – Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship by Robert Kurson

pirate hunters - book coverMy fascination with all things oceanic began at a very young age and pirates have captivated me along with millions of others. I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately and the college course I took on piracy in the Atlantic is one of those classes I’ve been thinking of revisiting so it only made sense to add Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship to my reading list.

John Chatterton and John Mattera are two men who had vast experience with diving and exploring shipwrecks that many didn’t dare attempt. They had been planning on searching for and salvaging a significant Spanish galleon in pursuit of claiming the fortune that sank with her and had already invested large portions of their time and money in the project when they got a call and an offer from one of the most respected and well known treasure hunters around––Tracy Bowden. Bowden had been on the trail of a pirate ship, the Golden Fleece stolen and captained by Joseph Bannister during the Golden Age of piracy in the Atlantic. Certain he knew where it was and being in possession of the salvage lease to that area of the Dominican Republic, he sought to bring Chatterton and Mattera in to definitively locate and claim the wreck. When Chatterton and Mattera go looking where Bowden proposes the wreck to be, they find nothing and must search more than just the waters off the coast of Cayo Levantado to piece together the story of Captain Bannister and the fight with the British Royal Navy that sunk the Golden Fleece.

The book turned out to include far more of the politics behind the search for the wreck than I expected, though the epilogue provides insights into the more recent state of affairs between Bowden and Chatterton and Mattera that could be tied to why there’s so much emphasis on Bowden’s obstinacy when it came to Chatterton and Mattera’s theories that the Golden Fleece sank somewhere other than Cayo Levantado. There was a lot of biographical information on not just Chatterton and Mattera but on a number of the divers they consulted along the way as the obstacles they found forced them down different avenues—surprising that there was so much about some of these men whom we spend only a few pages with while there was so little concerning the rest of their core crew (other than all the times members of the crew nearly quit the project). Again, the current state of affairs laid out in the book’s epilogue shed light on the whys behind some of the more heavy-handed characterization of the narrative’s central figures—a few confrontations with island locals that involve exchanges of gunfire or threats of violence don’t really have much to do with the search for the Golden Fleece directly but certainly serve to paint their circumstances as dangerous and the pair of them as tough enough to handle it—perhaps to further align them with the pirate whose ship they were hunting.

It is in the presentation of Bannister and laying out the account of his fight with the British Royal Navy (and winning) that I found Pirate Hunters most compelling. I’m not that interested in Chatterton and Mattera’s repetitive frustrations—especially their repeated threats to quit in the face of Bowden’s stubborn insistence that they had missed something in their initial search of Cayo Levantado. I would much rather focus on the wreck itself and the research methods they used. Mattera’s time in the archives of Seville was beautifully explained and demonstrates the depth of research as well as the difficulties (translating centuries old Spanish, a time when spellings and punctuation weren’t very uniform even amongst those of the highest education) of tracing a line of inquiry. The means by which they are finally able to convince Bowden to search the area where they believe the Golden Fleece actually sank and how they arrived at that opinion—examining the geography as it exists and getting into the mindset of Bannister as opposed to relying solely on second and third hand historic accounts (which may or may not be biased)—were remarkably ingenious. I wish there had been more of the actual salvage process but it is largely glossed over in the epilogue.

While the story of Bannister and his battle with the British Royal Navy is thrilling and the logistical trail of searching, conducting new research, and approaching the problem of locating the wreck from a different angle are all engaging, Pirate Hunters often feels like it’s main purpose is to attempt to turn Chatterton and Mattera into action movie heroes, which was not an angle I felt was necessary and the illumination from the epilogue makes its nature even less palatable.

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