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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Choosing a villain

Blackbeard's last moments.

In choosing a character for a historical novel, I do what I do best and research the time and its people. Pirate history is very colorful and there are no end of books. A careful look at their bibliographies shows there really are a handful of sources, notably Captain Charles Johnson (who is generally conceded to really be Daniel Defoe) and the earlier Alexander Oliver Exquemelin. Of the two sources, Exquemelin actually served as a surgeon aboard a pirate vessel. There is a vocal faction who believe that Captain Johnson was a real pirate, but that has never been proven. And too, the content of the Defoe/Johnson book is now regarded as part fiction.

Twentieth century researchers like Jan Rogozinski Dictionary of Pirates (1997) helped to organize what we do know about the major and many minor pirates. Still, there are gaping holes in our knowledge of piracy in the early 1700s. English, French, and Dutch pirates are generally known, but other nationalities are glossed over, perhaps because there is not much to tell other than a line or two that would resemble today's police blotters.

I became intrigued by a "real-life" pirate Nick Catania, whose fleet according to the Kingston, Jamaica entry in Wikipedia, was responsible for the 1703 fire that gutted Port Royal, Jamaica. But try as I might, I could not find a single mention of Catania, even by the governor of Jamaica in his official report to the Crown, days after the fire. There is another explanation for the Port Royal fire that does not include a pirate fleet or any kind of fleet, which I hope to include in an upcoming posting.

I've come to suspect that the 'historical' pirate Nick Catania is either a very minor pirate not worthy of much mention, an online hoax, or the Jamaican equivalent of Mrs. O'Leary's cow of the Chicago fire fame. The only source for the pirate Catania appears to be Wikipedia. Other web sites are merely quoting what they've found there. Looking for other sources, I tried to contact regional experts. Inquiries to Jamaican historians and even the Daily Gleaner have never been answered.

I loved the sound of the name 'Nick Catania' and there were pirates from the Mediterranean operating in the Atlantic during the 1700-1703 time frame, which are key years for my pirate stories. Additionally the Sicilian province of Catania has a pirate or two associated with it, notably the late 15th century Paolo de Campo, who along with his arch-rival Black Hassan preyed on Venetian merchantmen. For the dark aspects of these stories, the province of Catania also has a history of witchcraft and heresy, not to mention the active volcano Mount Etna, that fit in well with my character's charming yet evil and volatile personality.

For Nick Catania's physical description and emotional makeup, I drew from descriptions of Edward Thatch (Teach) AKA Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts, of which we do know a good deal.

I am pleased with the resulting character of my fictional Nick Catania. I hope when you get the opportunity to read Black Flag, Black Ship that you agree.

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