SEPTEMBER 20, 2018, MARBLEHEAD – When Eric Jay Dolin realized that he wanted to be a full-time writer, he had his doubts.
“I realized that the one thing I liked the most in all the jobs I’ve ever had is writing,” said Dolin, who at the time was working as a program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington. “I read some books about it, and I got depressed because it’s a horrible career.”
Thankfully, Dolin’s wife Jenn knew that it could be done. Her grandfather Harry Kemelman, the Marblehead-based writer of the popular mystery series about Rabbi David Small, managed to become a successful writer when he was 59 years old.
“He was an overnight success … after 50 years,” Dolin noted.
With his wife’s support and encouragement, Dolin managed to become a success, but it took him 20 years. He woke up at 3 a.m. nearly every day to write before going to work as a writer and analyst for various marine and environmental organizations.
Now, he is the successful author of 13 books on topics as diverse as whaling (his 2007 book “Leviathan,” a historical account of the whaling trade in America, remains one of his best-known books), the fur trade, the price of tea in China, and most recently, pirates. On Sept. 18, Dolin released his newest book, “Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates,” a history of the Golden Age of Piracy in the late 1600s through the early 1700s.
At first, Dolin didn’t expect to write about pirates because he felt the market was already too crowded. To his surprise, his two children and his publisher believed he could add something new to the genre.
“I fully expected [my publishers to pick the one] about the South Pacific and a bunch of murders, and they picked the pirate book,” said Dolin, recalling a list of eight possible topics he submitted. “They said, ‘Well, there’s never been an Eric Jay Dolin book on pirates.’”
This newest Dolin book tells the story of the how the narrative surrounding piracy changed over the course of a century. Before 1700, American colonists liked pirates for a few reasons. First, the pirates were often colonists themselves. Second, the pirates did not raid ships near the Colonies. Rather, piracy mostly occurred either in the Caribbean, where Spanish ships were raided, or in the Indian Ocean, where they raided ships from the Mughal Empire, which at the time ruled most of what is now India.
The colonists valued the much-needed treasure the pirates stole from their longtime enemy (the Spanish) or from “infidels” (the Muslim Mughal Empire).
However, eventually pirates began to attack American ships. By this point, pirates had grown more violent, and the American economy had improved, so pirates were both scarier and less valuable than they’d once been to the colonists.
“Whereas before [pirates] were looked at as commercial angels … in the era of Blackbeard [1716-1718], they were viewed as both physical and economic threats to the colonial economy,” said Dolin. “It depends on whose ox is being gored.”
From 1713 to 1726, both the British and the colonies launched a successful war on pirates that put an end to their terrorizing the seas.
Dolin, a member of Marblehead’s Temple Sinai and the son-in-law of George and Ruth Rooks of Swampscott, noted there were indeed Jewish pirates. The book “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” by Edward Kritzler tells the story of Jews who fled Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition on boats with names like the “Prophet Samuel,” “Queen Esther,” and “Shield of Abraham.” From these ships, they attacked and plundered Spanish ships, and formed alliances with rival powers to ensure the safety of Jews in hiding.
Some of Dolin’s other works reference Jews. In “Leviathan,” he mentions the Jewish merchants from Newport, R.I., who were involved in the trade and manufacturing of high-end spermaceti candles, which were made from the oil in the heads of sperm whales and were enjoyed by the likes of Benjamin Franklin. In “Political Waters,” his book on the cleanup of Boston Harbor from 1995 to 2001, he discusses Paul Levy, a Jew who once headed the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
“I love the outdoors,” said Dolin. “I love natural history, and I love the basic history of human nature.”