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2015 George Story Lecture: The Pirate Who Never Was? Eric Cobham and Invention in History

Olaf Janzen

Those who ventured into the Newfoundland fishery and trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were confronted by many risks – hazards of navigation, uncertain conditions in the fishery, unpredictable markets. The frequent wars of the period could bring attacks on shipping and shore stations by hostile warships and privateers, while piracy could become a problem in peacetime. Unfortunately, piracy is one of those topics which generates a truly enormous volume of poor (if not outrightly bad) history. Too much of the literature is driven by sensational and fanciful, even outrageously erroneous, works which pander to readers whose understanding of piracy is governed by works of entertainment. This is as true for piracy in Newfoundland waters as it is for piracy in the Caribbean and elsewhere. I will explore this theme by examining one particular period in Newfoundland history – the twenty or so years immediately following the conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 – when piracy did flare up in Newfoundland waters, yet I shall also argue that one of the more notorious pirates of the period – Eric Cobham – probably never existed. In short, while piracy was real, the same cannot be said of all pirates.

OLAF JANZEN (PhD, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON) is Professor of History at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University in Corner Brook. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and member of several organizations, including the Navy Records Society, the International Maritime Economic History Association, the Canadian Nautical Research Society, the Society for Nautical Research, and the Newfoundland Historical Society. Dr. Janzen’s research specialization is the trade, society and defence of eighteenth-century Newfoundland, and he has published frequently on those themes in peer-reviewed journals, including Newfoundland & Labrador Studies. He contributed the chapter on the eighteenth century to A Short History of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John’s, 2008). In 2013, a collection of many of his previously published articles was released by the International Maritime Economic History Association under the title War and Trade in Eighteenth-Century Newfoundland as No. 52 in the Association’s series, “Research in Maritime History.” He is the author of A Reader’s Guide to the History of Newfoundland and Labrador to 1869.

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