The Requiem Shark by Nicholas Griffin, first of all, is a novel entirely written about PIRATES. Yes, pirates. Now, as this is the first time I’ve read any literature of this field I didn’t really know what to expect. Let me tell you, this novel is worth every fibre of its pages. It’s one of the most historically in-depth and action-packed works I’ve read since The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova or The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I think it’s safe to say that I’m impressed.
The Requiem Shark is set in the early 18th century and begins on a ship named the Fortune. Her captain, Bartholomew Roberts, is not only the most feared pirate on the seas at the time, but is a man most fortunate to have at his disposal a fiddler by the name of William Williams who can also write. Such a talent was much sought after during the 18th century, especially at sea, where chronicles and logs of the ship’s journeys could be kept, records could be falsified, and more than this the writer could act as biographer for a person if it were so wished. And that was exactly how Roberts employed his newest crewmember. Williams was asked by Roberts to act as the ship’s journal-keeper, and in so doing preserve the adventures of the Fortune and Roberts’ crew as they sailed the seas and caused mayhem wherever they went.
I do not use the term ‘mayhem’ lightly, either. Throughout the work, Roberts continually tells his crew tales of a booty-laden ship called the Juliette, only ever seen in fleeting moments or in battle, devastating her opponents and sailing from coast to coast to ply her trades. The crew become so obsessed with the wealth, majesty and power of the elusive Juliette that they will stop at nothing to find, loot and conquer her. It is this obsessive drive which eventually ends their tale on dry land at the hands of the law, but I won’t give you any spoilers dear readers. That would be a tad unfair.
Roberts and his crew, and his faithful musician, are constantly finding themselves amongst enemies. And though their three masted sloops and corvettes are built for speed rather than firepower, they always seem to outwit their foes somehow and either escape unharmed, destroy the other vessel, loot the other vessel and then take it for their own, or just take the vessel and any willing crew. Roberts’ reputation speaks for itself here. Little remains in history’s notebooks to tell of Roberts’ adventures on the Fortune or of any other ship along with his crew, save a few addendums in public records offices. In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Griffin states:
Bartholomew Roberts (born 1682, died 1722) was the most successful captain in the history of piracy, capturing over four hundred ships in less than four years. The Requiem Shark, for obvious reasons, does not attempt to catalogue each incident. While many of the characters, including Roberts, Williams and Scudamore, sailed on the Fortune, there is no record of a surviving manuscript of their voyage. Similar documents, such as Lionel Wafer’s account of Henry Morgan’s exploits, do exist. An account of the trial of the Fortunes can be found at the Public Record Office at Kew, including the remark by a naval surgeon that a certain William Williams was ‘speechless at execution’.
Throughout the entire book, a small part of my reader’s mind continually refused to believe that what I was reading was an actual, true account of history on Earth. In this day and age, as we sit comfortably at home with our books and tea and warm blankets, and whatever technology you happen to be reading this blog on, it is understandable if the idea of pirates and piracy on the high seas is somewhat fantastical. We like to think of it as a daydream, of a thing that didn’t really happen and is the stuff of dreams and children’s stories. But the fact of the matter is that piracy on this scale was, once upon a time, a real and very dangerous thing. Don’t get me wrong, piracy still exists. It happens more than we’d like to think, and more than our news bulletins actually tell us. It’s just changed its format.
The Requiem Shark not only gives readers a good glimpse into what life was like aboard a pirate ship – unpredictable, wanton, wilful, rash and very, very dangerous – but it also gives us a look into what life was like for those who plied their trade to the pirates on stopover islands, those who suffered at the hands and guns of said pirates, and those who tried to chase them down and bring them to justice. It’s even said in the book that the only ship that pirates openly fear is a man’o’war, a ship boasting large numbers of cannons that with one broadside could entirely demolish the common sloop or corvette. These were the ships of the line, the ones often used by the King’s Navy when chasing down the pirates. The smaller islands, however, had no such defense. They were often left open slather for the pirates, and where trade did not occur then slaughter, pillage, torching the town and any number of detrimental actions would occur. Even where trade did occur, there was the unseen and not asked for trade in the form of venereal diseases and infections that would fester in the crew and pass to the townsfolk, or be picked up through prostitutes and passed on. Along with the rough seas and the constant battles on the sea and land, this would lead to many of the crew often falling dead, dead, dead or being so severely maimed that they were of no further use to anyone.
At the end of the day though, and going back to the book, despite all of the horrific actions of the pirates I found myself slowly growing accustomed to their habits and way of speech. Like Williams, who leads the book in third person narrative and was crimped into service (unwillingly taken into service), I found myself becoming almost a part of the crew and sharing in their trials and tribulations. Every success was a cause for happiness, and every moment of foul play or every defeat was for me a saddening event. The underdogs became the heroes, and the State became the villains in this tale. It’s a good role reversal that was carried out with the utmost precision and aptitude, and certainly kept me hooked throughout the whole novel.
If you thought the Pirates of the Caribbean was what real piracy was like, then let me tell you it’s only scratching the surface of the wrong pond. If you’ve got a taste for adventure, and a sturdy pair of sea-legs, then I’d highly suggest you give The Requiem Shark a fighting chance.
So unfurl those sails and someone man the wheel, this ship’s ready to sail!
Never stop reading, and stay tuned for my next review of Tai-Pan by James Clavell.