Michael E. A. Ford, Hunting the Last Great Pirate (Pen & Sword, 2020)
By 1827, the heyday of the pirates was long over, but piracy continued, and this new breed were every bit as dangerous as their predecessors. Enter Benito de Soto, a career pirate who attacked the British ship, the Morning Star, off the coast of Africa, killed some of its crew and took its treasure. The British hunted him down, capturing de Soto in Gibraltar, before trying and executing him. In Hunting the Last Great Pirate, Michael Ford narrates this fascinating story.
Benito de Soto was a particularly vicious pirate even for that profession. An advocate of the dead-men-tell-no-tales approach to piracy, his cruelty was limited only by opportunity. In 1827, he encountered the sluggish British merchant ship, Morning Star, near Ascension Island. After plundering it, he thought he had sunk the ship with all hands, but he was wrong. The Morning Star limped back to London, setting off a howl of protests over piracy and lack of naval protection. A convoluted series of events led to De Soto being arrested at Gibraltar in July 1828. His trial proved problematic, however, because there was little available evidence of his piracy. He therefore languished in prison until a trial could be rigged against him by the British government. De Soto was executed in January 1830. In his epilogue, Ford reveals that evidence uncovered many years after the events determined de Soto’s guilt beyond doubt, but that Spanish cooperation at the time could have made the prosecution case far safer without the need for government machinations.
That basic outline underplays Ford’s skilful weaving of a compelling multifaceted story, involving not just the base piracy at its heart, but corruption and complicity running through the British and Spanish governments. Ford deploys multiple sources gleaned from careful research to bolster his well-written account. Moreover, his novelistic approach heightens the tension in the story and avoids becoming bogged down in some of the drier aspects of the wider context. Ford’s book is a useful addition to the history of piracy and will appeal to students of early 19th century international relations and historical criminology. It is also a very good read.