UTRGV professor co-edits book that takes philosophical look at pirates

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Russell K. Skowronek. (Courtesy Photo)

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Professor of History and Anthropology Russell Skowronek has co-edited his third book in a series on pirates, a tome that promises to be a timber-shivering good time.

Dead Man’s Chest: Exploring the Archaeology of Piracy,” which was released this month, gathers together works by over a dozen historians and archaeologists.

Those chapters delve into perhaps what would be expected: material artifacts and things in the historical record, like recent finds from Blackbeard’s frigate, the influence of piracy on New England fisheries and piracy in a variety of locales and cultures.

The book, however, is largely framed around philosophical concerns, especially how pirates are remembered and how that stacks up against the historical record.

Skowronek points out that pirates are often remembered romantically — in everything from Disney World franchises to Hidalgo ISD’s mascot — despite the fact that they were basically terrorists on boats.

“They were, essentially, killers and thieves,” he said.

The book devotes an entire chapter to the legacy of pirates in video games.

“So celebrating murder and mayhem can’t be a good thing,” co-editor Charles R. Ewen writes at the beginning of the book. “Fortunately, archaeology gives us a legitimate opportunity to satisfy our guilty pleasure. Criminals, especially high-profile thieves, hold a fascination for many. Perhaps it is because they lead a life that most of us would not contemplate. We can vicariously follow their lives without actually hurting anyone.”

Serious ethical enquiry doesn’t mean the book isn’t fun.

Skowronek, who teaches a class called “Shipwrecks, Pirates and the Sea,” is practically a walking talking encyclopedia of pirate lore and legend. He can talk at length about the differences between pirates and privateers and buccaneers, about peg-legs and eye-patches and hooks instead of hands.

He’s not so much a myth-dispeller as a myth-explainer.

“Parrots were associated with gold,” Skowronek says, referencing the stereotypical pirate pet. “Where you saw parrots, the thought was, there would be treasure.”

He jokes about seeing parrots flying around McAllen and wondering where all that gold must be buried.

That passion for a niche subsection of archaeology and historiography underlies the book. Skowronek explains that the history of piracy is often ambiguous, difficult to study and plagued by misunderstanding; embarking on their first book, he says, he and Ewen risked being seen as unserious — or worse, academic treasure hunters.

Skowronek writes, closing the book, that the chapters contained within show pirate scholarship does rest on firm foundations and has a place in academia.

“Dead Man’s Chest” is available online through the University Press of Florida.

“It is meant to be enjoyed by the academic, along with the informed casual reader,” Skowronek said.