Born to Be Hanged

The Epic Story of the Gentlemen Pirates Who Raided the South Seas, Rescued a Princess, and Stole a Fortune


By Keith Thomson

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Discover the “fascinating and outrageously readable” account of the roguish acts of the first pirates to raid the Pacific in a crusade that ended in a sensational trial back in England—perfect for readers of Nathaniel Philbrick and David McCullough (Douglas Preston, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lost City of the Monkey God)

The year is 1680, in the heart of the Golden Age of Piracy, and more than three hundred daring, hardened pirates—a potent mix of low-life scallywags and a rare breed of gentlemen buccaneers—gather on a remote Caribbean island. The plan: to wreak havoc on the Pacific coastline, raiding cities, mines, and merchant ships. The booty: the bright gleam of Spanish gold and the chance to become legends. So begins one of the greatest piratical adventures of the era—a story not given its full due until now.

Inspired by the intrepid forays of pirate turned Jamaican governor Captain Henry Morgan—yes, that Captain Morgan—the company crosses Panama on foot, slashing its way through the Darien Isthmus, one of the thickest jungles on the planet, and liberating a native princess along the way. After reaching the South Sea, the buccaneers, primarily Englishmen, plunder the Spanish Main in a series of historic assaults, often prevailing against staggering odds and superior firepower. A collective shudder racks the western coastline of South America as the English pirates, waging a kind of proxy war against the Spaniards, gleefully undertake a brief reign over Pacific waters, marauding up and down the continent.

With novelistic prose and a rip-roaring sense of adventure, Keith Thomson guides us through the pirates’ legendary two-year odyssey. We witness the buccaneers evading Indigenous tribes, Spanish conquistadors, and sometimes even their own English countrymen, all with the ever-present threat of the gallows for anyone captured. By fusing contemporaneous accounts with intensive research and previously unknown primary sources, Born to Be Hanged offers a rollicking account of one of the most astonishing pirate expeditions of all time.


Part I

The Sacred Hunger of Gold


The Princess

HER NAME IS lost to time. What is known is that she was one of the Indigenous Kuna people in Panama’s Darien province. A description of her can be culled from the journals of European soldiers and adventurers who met her and her sisters and straightaway proposed marriage: “lively and sparkling” gray eyes, “long, black, lank, coarse, strong hair,” and dark, “copper-colour’d” skin streaked with red paint in the Kuna fashion. She wore a thick golden nose ring and, sometimes, multicolored beads roped around her lean, “well-featured” body. Her father was a regional Kuna chieftain, her grandfather the de facto king of the Kuna, and, in the spring of 1680, she was a sex slave, having been snatched from her father’s palace by Spanish soldiers and taken to their garrison.

The circumstances of her subjugation were not unusual. The Spaniards, who controlled most of the New World at the time, took the position that enslaving the Indigenous peoples was a beneficent act. As an official Spanish historian explained in a sixteenth-century essay, the “naturally inferior” Native populations benefited from Spanish tutelage as well as from conversion to Christianity, objectives that were easier to achieve if the would-be converts were first enslaved.

The Spaniards’ self-professed altruism was called into question, though, by their treatment of the enslaved Natives, a typical example being a woman in the colony of Hispaniola who, one morning, told her Spanish overseer that she needed time off from the mine to care for her newborn, whereupon the overseer took the baby in his arms, smashed its skull apart against a rock, and declared the problem solved. The issue was not merely that the conquistadors placed a higher value on gold than on human life, but, as the Incan leader Manco Inca put it, “Even if the snows of the Andes turned to gold, still they would not be satisfied.”

In 1501, when the Spaniards discovered Panama (insofar as land already inhabited for millennia by Indigenous peoples can be discovered), the Natives might have appeared relatively fortunate, because the Spanish effort was led by Rodrigo de Bastidas, regarded as the kindest and most humane of the conquistadors. In a seminal history of the Spanish conquest, Bastidas was described as a “gentleman” with “the unique distinction of acting like a human being in his dealings with the natives of America.” Yet just a year after his arrival in Panama, when two of his ships were sinking, Bastidas and his men rescued their gold and pearls while leaving their chained-up Kuna slaves to drown.

This was just the prelude. Over the following two centuries, Panama’s Indigenous peoples were devastated by enslavement, genocide, and European diseases. At its most harmonious, the Spanish-Kuna relationship was that of cats and mice. Many of the Kuna fled into the farthest reaches of the Darien province, five thousand square miles of mountainous jungle on Panama’s eastern border. Others left Panama altogether, settling in the San Blas Islands, an archipelago just off the country’s Atlantic coast.

On April 3, 1680, on Golden Island, a tiny slab of coral, sand, and palm trees at the eastern end of that archipelago, the princess’s grandfather devised a plan to rescue her. His Spanish name, Andreas, was a relic of his own time as a Spanish slave. Since his escape from the Spaniards, he had become the leader of the Kuna community in the San Blas Islands as well as a regional chief paramount, what the Europeans thought of as a king, his dominion extending well into the Darien. At his disposal was an army of warriors, many of whom may have been among the finest archers in the world. One English visitor told of eight-year-old Kuna boys able not merely to hit canes standing on end twenty paces away but, unfailingly, to split them in two.

Were Andreas to send his men to the Spanish garrison to rescue his granddaughter, however, they would be quickly torn apart by Spanish gunfire, against which they had no defense. But he saw a way to enlist a supplemental force whose firepower was as good as, if not better than, the Spaniards’: pirates.

His scouts had brought word that a company of 366 buccaneers—Caribbean-based pirates who preyed on Spanish ships and towns—had just landed at the Isle of Pines, a few miles north of Golden Island.

An English pirate

Mostly Englishmen, the buccaneers had banded together in Jamaica in December of 1679 to raid the Spanish port city of Portobelo, on Panama’s northern coast. The raid netted them a good deal of silver, but the most valuable prize would prove to be mail that merchants in Spain had intended for Spanish colonists. Again and again in their letters, the merchants lamented the vulnerability of Spanish settlements on the South Sea, as the southern Pacific Ocean was then known. The near impossibility of circumnavigating South America meant that English pirates rarely, if ever, sailed into the region. But the narrow Darien Isthmus (between Panama’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts), the merchants warned, could “open a door into the South Seas.”

Accordingly, the buccaneers circulated a new expedition plan through Caribbean taverns, brothels, and other pirate haunts. All comers were to rendezvous on the Isle of Pines, where they would leave their ships and then go by canoe to the Darien Isthmus, cross the isthmus on foot, and raid Panama City (then known simply as Panama), the repository for much of the gold, silver, and gems the Spaniards were extracting from Central and South America.

But before they could advance to the isthmus, the buccaneers needed a Native guide. Without one, they knew, they had little chance of surviving in the Darien, much less of finding Panama. The last company of buccaneers to raid Panama—1,200 men under the command of the legendary Captain Henry Morgan, nearly a decade earlier—had grown so hungry during the crossing that they’d eaten their leather sacks after first fighting one another over portions.

Andreas canoed from Golden Island to the Isle of Pines in hope that the buccaneers would choose him as their guide. His pitch was documented by first-time buccaneer Basil Ringrose, a gifted mathematician and navigator, fluent in Latin and French as well as his native English. Unlike his shipmates, mostly ne’er-do-wells and scoundrels whose curricula vitae made them sought after only by hangmen, Ringrose had had his pick of employment opportunities in the West Indies. But only piracy offered the twenty-seven-year-old an escape from the poverty and drudgery that had dogged him for most of his life.

Hoping to trade fruit and venison for axes and hatchets, a number of Kuna men and women had preceded Andreas to the Isle of Pines, canoeing up to the seven buccaneer ships anchored in the crescent bay and astounding Ringrose: “The men here go naked as having only a sharp or hollow tip, made either of gold or silver, or bark, into which they thrust their privy members; the which tip they fasten with a string about their middle,” he wrote in his journal in a loose, frilly cursive that contrasted starkly with the maps he often drew beneath the entries—rigid technical renderings shaded with precise crosshatching. The handwriting offered a hint of the romantic spirit that had lured the staid, ruler-straight Englishman into his current company. “They wear an ornament in their noses,” he added, “a golden or silver plate, in shape like unto a half-moon; which when they drink, they hold up with one hand, meanwhile they lift the cup with the other.”

Most of the Kuna had dark copper skin and black hair, but there were a few who stood out, appearing, in the words of Ringrose, “fairer than the fairest of Europe, with hair as white as the finest flax.” Lionel Wafer, a buccaneer surgeon with whom Ringrose would become fast friends, noted that these albino “Indians” (the buccaneers’ term for almost all the Indigenous peoples in the New World) had skin “much like that of a white horse” and “their bodies are beset all over, more or less, with a fine short milk-white down, which adds to the whiteness of their skins.” Indeed albinism was—and still is—150 times more common among the Kuna than the rest of the world’s population, and the tribe considered it fortuitous based on a pair of unusual beliefs: first, that lunar eclipses were caused by a celestial dragon trying to eat the moon; second, that albinos possessed superior night vision. Therefore, given the Kuna people’s renown as archers, their albinos aiming arrows at the night sky was enough to scare the dragon off.

Including Ringrose and Wafer, seven of the buccaneers assembled on the Isle of Pines were either keeping journals or would later write about their experiences. Those combined accounts paint an impressive portrait of Andreas in his mantle of pure gold, with a gravitas in keeping with his advanced age—“No less than an hundred years of age,” wrote one of the buccaneer captains, Bartholomew Sharp. In all likelihood, Andreas was closer to sixty. (On a perhaps not unrelated note, seamen at the time often consumed more than a gallon of beer or a pint of rum per day, and Sharp, as will be seen, did a good deal to perpetuate the popular image of pirates with a bottle of rum in hand at all times.)

In Spanish, which the buccaneers’ interpreter spoke fluently, Andreas offered to guide them first to Santa Maria (today, El Real de Santa María, in the Darien’s Pinogana District), where his granddaughter was being held, and then, if they were unsatisfied with the plunder there, on to Panama. But Santa Maria might be more than satisfactory. In addition to exclusive access to the richest gold mines in Central America, the settlement boasted a massive gold-panning and sluicing works. During each December-to-April dry season, Natives enslaved by the Spaniards panned gold dust that had washed down from the mountains during the rainy season, collecting a reported eighteen to twenty thousand pounds. Andreas would let the buccaneers keep it all if they rescued his granddaughter.

The buccaneers discussed his proposal before putting it to a vote: pirate crews were democracies ahead of their time, with egalitarian practices born both of their disdain for classism and their prior experiences at sea with whip-happy captains on exceedingly hierarchical European naval and merchant ships. Andreas more than met their criteria for a guide. Not only did he know the Darien, he was also Kuna: over the previous decade and a half, a shared hatred of the Spaniards had fostered an unofficial alliance between the Kuna and the largely mercenary population of buccaneers. Even better, as a monarch enlisting them to battle the Spaniards, Andreas elevated the buccaneers, arguably, to the status of “privateers”—a shortened term for private men-of-war, namely, the captains and crews of private ships who were given legitimate government-issued licenses to plunder vessels of other sovereign nations. (The term buccaneer originated in the second half of the seventeenth century, when English and French colonial governors began issuing such licenses—also known as commissions, or letters of marque—to the boar and bull hunters on Hispaniola and Tortuga known as boucaniers. The name is derived by most accounts from boucan, a French term—in turn adapted from Brazil’s Indigenous Tupi people—for the wooden grill the hunters favored for cooking meat, though other sources trace buccaneer to the French verb boucaner, meaning “to hang around with lowlives” as well as “to imitate a foul tempered billy goat.”)

Like their predecessors (most of whom were English, French, or Dutch), the buccaneers gathered on the Isle of Pines sought to be part of their nations’ sides in proxy wars with Spain waged by privateers. Following a spate of peace treaties negotiated among the European powers in the 1670s, however, legitimate privateering commissions had largely ceased. Still, any sort of commission, no matter how flimsy, would be useful to the buccaneers in case they wound up in court, where, lacking a legal raison d’être, they would be judged to be simply pirates, the meaning of which hadn’t changed since peiratēs in ancient Greek (and pirata in Latin): sea robbers who plundered indiscriminately. As pirates—rather than privateers—they would hang.

At the moment, the only credential in their possession was a license they’d purchased in Petit-Goâve (part of French Hispaniola) that permitted them to cut logwood trees in certain parts of the Spanish Main, the New World territory controlled by Spain. Although the license was expired, they believed the doctored expiration date would survive scrutiny in court. But whereas logwood might have explained their presence in Portobelo, on the Caribbean coast, they would require the world’s most sympathetic jury to buy the defense that they had trekked sixty miles across the Darien Isthmus to Santa Maria to cut it—only to find themselves under attack from a Spanish garrison and forced to return fire in self-defense. An actual letter of marque—or just about anything official that Andreas could give them—would be much sturdier.

But even lacking a commission—or a princess to rescue—the buccaneers would have been enticed by the eighteen to twenty thousand pounds of gold. At the going rate per ounce of fifteen Spanish pesos de ocho reales—the silver eight-real coins known as “pieces of eight”—such a haul would net the group a total of more than four million pieces of eight, or nearly twelve thousand pieces of eight per man, at a time when a plantation worker or a sailor earned just a hundred pieces of eight in a year. That would be enough for each buccaneer to buy his own plantation or to commission a new high-end two-hundred-ton Dutch ship and still have four thousand pieces of eight left in his sea chest (or, in fact, two chests, thanks to the size of the coins, which measured an inch and a half in diameter, about the size of a casino poker chip).

The biggest obstacle was the Spanish garrison in Santa Maria, which was manned, according to Andreas, by four hundred soldiers. Those soldiers would be firing a hail of musket balls at the buccaneers as they advanced—or, more likely, as they limped out of the jungle following nine or ten days of arduous trekking through swampland and mountainous, dense-to-the-point-of-impenetrable jungle. (On account of the same obstacles, the isthmus today constitutes the “Darien Gap,” the lone break in the 19,000-mile Pan-American Highway stretching from Alaska to Argentina.) Although Kuna archers could provide cover for the buccaneers’ advance, upon reaching the garrison the attackers would still need to climb the tall barricades while taking fire from directly overhead. And even if they somehow made it over the walls, how could they possibly get the better of an entrenched, larger, and better-rested Spanish complement? The plan was madness.

Nevertheless, the buccaneers put it to a vote. The result—and an analysis thereof—comes from another of the company’s diarists, the jocular New Englander John Cox:

That which often spurs men on to the undertaking of the most difficult adventures, is the sacred hunger of gold; and ’twas gold was the bait that tempted a pack of merry boys of us… being all souldiers of fortune… to list ourselves in the service of one of the rich West Indian monarchs, the emperour of Darien.


The Golden Swordsman

BASIL RINGROSE NOW had three choices. First, he could join the Santa Maria expedition. Second, he could opt out in favor of a saner venture; it would be only a matter of time before he caught on with another of the buccaneer crews that routinely stopped in the San Blas Islands for provisions and ship maintenance. Third was the sensible option, the one that took into account his nascent awareness of this band of buccaneers’ utter disregard for risk—perhaps even a pathological affinity for danger: he could write off his brief involvement with them and return home to London. Although he frequently committed hundreds of words at a time to his journal, he wrote nothing about his decision. That was also typical of him: he was his own least favorite topic. Among the most intimate personal revelations in his journal were that he had been to Calais once, that he could speak Latin, and that he liked strawberries.

Historical records, however, may shed light on his thoughts that day on the Isle of Pines. Prior to March of 1680, when the buccaneers came together in the San Blas Islands and he first took quill to journal, the lone evidence of Basil Ringrose’s existence is a parish registry record of the christening of “Basill Ringrose” on January 28, 1653, in London’s Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Neither his name nor any permutation thereof appears in the rolls of English academic institutions whose curriculum included either Latin or advanced arithmetic.

Probably his family could not afford to send him to such places. Two years after Basil’s birth, his father, Richard Ringrose, was listed as “poore” in the local rate book, a record of property valuations for the purposes of taxation. The same source listed Richard in arrears in 1656–57, after which he and his young family left High Street, Westminster. Probate court records reveal that Richard was a “sword cutler”—he made swords—as well as the proprietor of the Golden Sword, a small shop nestled on Charing Cross Road alongside two taverns, a vintner, and stables. Although just two hundred square feet, the shop was “very plentifully furnished and provided with all manner and sorts of swords, daggers and rapiers.” It is no stretch to imagine Basil there as a small boy, regarding the pristine blades on display, all aglow in the reflection of the forge’s molten bronze, and picturing himself someday slashing and clanging his way to wealth and glory.

As an adolescent, when it came time for him to apprentice for his father, Basil seems to have weighed wielding a sword by profession against barely eking out a living making swords and selling them to bolder men. In 1672, Richard took on as apprentice a boy who was not his son, and Basil went to sea, finding work as a supercargo, the heroic overtone of which is misleading. Derived from the Spanish word for “purser,” sobrecargo, a supercargo is the person on board a merchant vessel who oversees the sale of the cargo and keeps the accounts. Rather than a sword, Ringrose wielded an abacus. According to the probate court records, he undertook several voyages “to parts beyond the seas” in that capacity. It paid decently, but far less in the best year than buccaneers spent in a single night in the rum houses of Port Royal, Jamaica.

While back in London at some point between 1672 and 1677, Ringrose married a woman about whom nothing is known except her first name, Goodith, and that she was from the countryside. In 1677, the couple had a son, Jonathan, who was baptized in the same Westminster chapel where Basil himself had been christened twenty-five years earlier. Basil’s journal contains no mention of either Goodith or Jonathan, which, in combination with another christening record, raises the possibility that the marriage was troubled: on March 11, 1681, an infant named Basil Ringrose was baptized. But the man listed as the father, the senior Basil Ringrose, had been out of the country for at least thirteen months. Since children were typically baptized within eight days of their births, if Basil senior was indeed Basil junior’s father, Goodith’s pregnancy would qualify as the longest in history.

Ringrose’s turn to piracy may also have been influenced by a book he read, The History of the Bucaniers of America, which offered a survey of piracy in the New World through surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin’s account of his own sea-roving experiences, including his participation in the 1671 sack of Panama. Never before had readers been privy to a first-person account of piracy, which stands to reason: After all, what criminal publishes a record of his crimes? The book was an instant sensation in several languages; printers were unable to keep up with demand. Single-handedly, Exquemelin ignited Europe’s fascination with pirates. In the process, he blazed a path to adventure for educated young men such as Ringrose and Wafer, who, at just twenty years old, had established himself as a surgeon in Port Royal at a tremendously opportune time, given the wealth of the residents, their propensity for drinking rum as if it were water, and the near certainty that each new arrival from Europe would contract at least one tropical malady. Wafer’s life was laid out before him like a golden path. But to a born adventurer, the predictability of such a path makes it a dead end.

One other Exquemelin disciple on the Isle of Pines was twenty-eight-year-old William Dampier, a world-class naturalist with an especially anomalous background for a pirate: a member of the gentry, he was married and owned an English country estate, in Dorset. Like Wafer, Dampier had signed on for the Portobelo expedition, which netted the fleet a good deal of adventure—including a harrowing four-day jungle march and a dramatic raid yielding one hundred pieces of eight per man.

Joining the Santa Maria expedition now offered Ringrose his own once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for adventure. An augury of its success was the commitment of so many illustrious buccaneers, including Bartholomew Sharp, who, at thirty, had already been pirating for fourteen years, developing a sixth sense for prizes and a reputation as an even better navigator and battle tactician than he was a drinker. Captain Richard Sawkins, too, was famous in buccaneer circles, as much for his plunder of the Spanish as for his narrow escapes from the English. In fact, to join the expedition, Sawkins had escaped from an English jail in Port Royal, then overpowered the lieutenant at the helm of his old brigantine and reclaimed her from navy custody. Such daring and gumption had won the twentysomething Sawkins admirers among buccaneers twice his age. Finally, there were the veterans, Captain Peter Harris and the fleet’s admiral, John Coxon (not to be confused with the aforementioned crewman John Cox), partners in the famous 1677 surprise attack on the Spanish city of Santa Marta, in modern-day Colombia.

Of course, buccaneer luminaries tended to flame out, or get snuffed out, either dying in action or being captured and executed. Not for nothing was the unofficial pirate motto “A merry life and a short one.” It was this idea of a merry life that seems ultimately to have compelled Ringrose to join the expedition to Santa Maria. Given the respect for risk that set him apart from his fellow buccaneers, however, he had reason to hope that his life would not be short.


The Gap

THE EXPEDITION COMMENCED at sunrise on April 5, 1680, as Andreas, five other Kuna, and 331 buccaneers shoved off from Golden Island in dugout canoes, leaving behind two English buccaneer captains—Alleston and Mackett—and thirty-three other men to guard the ships. Three-quarters of a mile ahead, the Darien Isthmus loomed like a low-lying thunderhead. As the canoes drew closer to it, the scene sharpened into pale sand and a forest so densely contoured that it more closely resembled a giant reptile than any sort of verdure, an effect augmented by the sweaty jungle air.

Once the buccaneers had landed and hauled their canoes onto the beach, the rumble of the surf gave way to an incessant scream that was the fusion of humming insects, high-pitched chirping of birds, and bloodcurdling shrieks of some sort of animal. It was as though the jungle were warning the buccaneers away. They were told by their guides to avoid “adders,” i.e., snakes. Of particular concern was the fer-de-lance (head of the lance), a highly venomous pit viper named for its manner of attack. The fer-de-lance could be identified by its brownish-gray scales, dark streaks, and triangles, all of which blended in with the forest floor. The woods similarly camouflaged the blue-black jungle scorpions and the bark-colored tarantulas known as Panama Blondes. Fortunately, the most lethal of all the Darien’s creatures, the dart frog, was easy to spot. But if a buccaneer touched one of the tiny strawberry-red amphibians, he could expect respiratory paralysis within seconds and then, just as quickly, death. For this reason, Native peoples dipped their arrowheads and dart tips in the frog’s poison, hence its name.

In spite of Andreas’s stewardship, another potential problem on a long march was men straying and getting lost. Consequently, the buccaneers divided into seven units, each bearing its commander’s colors. Sharp, Sawkins, and Captain Edmond Cooke each led a division, and Harris and Coxon led two apiece. Coxon’s companies each carried the unadorned blood-red pennant widely used at the time to signify to the crewmen of an enemy vessel that no quarter would be given—which is to say that they would not be taken prisoner and afforded room and board but rather killed. The infamous Jolly Roger, the black flag emblazoned with a white skull and crossbones, would not debut until early in the eighteenth century, but one of its early pictorial forebears distinguished Cooke’s company: a muscular arm brandishing a cutlass, rendered against a backdrop of horizontal red and yellow stripes.

Andreas led the way through a jungle consisting mainly of mangroves, tall and cylindrical Panama trees, and Manicaria palms, whose fronds stretch upward, giving the plants an unmistakable resemblance to feather dusters. The buccaneers were preoccupied with dodging the low-hanging branches and vines, some as thick as arms, all the while hacking shrubs, ferns, and undergrowth out of the way. Their bodies were protected only by coarse shirts, baggy linen or canvas breeches that hung to the knees, and, on their heads, either kerchiefs or hats with brims cut longer in the front, like modern baseball caps. In addition to providing shade, the head coverings held the men’s long hair in place. To keep their hair from falling into their eyes—and from catching in the rigging while at sea—some of them gathered it into ponytails, while others resorted to smearing in a bit of tar.


  • “Thomson does a fine job mining the historical record for all this swash and buckle… it reads, quite literally, like a pirate novel.”—Tina Jordan, New York Times Book Review
  • “Unleashes an epic history of a band of ‘gentlemen pirates.’”—Ron Charles, Washington Post
  • “It’s hard to believe that serious maritime history could be quite so fascinating and outrageously readable. Born to Be Hanged is one of those books you simply can’t put down, a true history of a band of buccaneers who embark on a two-year rampage along the Pacific coasts of Central and South America, undertaking a series of daring, insane, and bloody raids that are at times so improbable as to defy belief. This is a truly marvelous read and I highly recommend it.”—Douglas Preston, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lost City of the Monkey God
  • “This swashbuckling history recounts a two-yearlong pirate raid in the 17th century along the Pacific coastline, with over 300 dastardly buccaneers in search of Spanish gold.”—Barbara VanDenburgh, USA Today
  • “Thomson is an engaging and enthusiastic writer.”—The Economist
  • “A rollicking historical account… Every action-packed page is certain to thrill connoisseurs of piracy and seafaring history… Thomson fleshes out each audacious attack and narrow escape with wit and insight… By focusing on the individuals who kept accounts of the adventure, Thomson humanizes the ‘Brethren of the Coast,’ shedding light on their motivations, histories, and relationships.”—Sara Shreve, Library Journal (starred review)
  • “A brisk and entertaining adventure story… Thomson unravels the complex relationship between piracy and colonial governments in the Americas, where England and Spain struggled for primacy, and describes local tribes and flora and fauna in meticulous detail.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “Thomson eloquently proves Mark Twain’s oft-cited adage, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’ Thanks to lively writing and thorough research, Thomson’s pirates burst from the pages as vividly and compellingly as those in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series... The entertaining suspense and high energy continue to the very end.”—John Rowen, Booklist
  • “What a rollicking ride! Born to Be Hanged is serious narrative history delivered as gripping entertainment, with all the panache of an adventure novel. Keith Thomson unspools the excesses and escapades of the high seas in what we come to see is truly the Golden Age of Piracy. From the signing of the buccaneers’ initial charter to their life-or-death trial back in England two years later, I followed every battle, chase, and standoff with rapt attention. Thomson not only brings the seventeenth century to life in vivid detail; he weaves his humor and keen observations into the character studies of the pirates themselves. This book is a riveting historical delight not to be missed.”

    Keith O’Brien, author of the New York Times bestseller Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History
  • Born to Be Hanged is swashbuckling narrative nonfiction at its best. Thomson skillfully weaves in the history and geopolitics of the period even as he puts the reader in the middle of an action-packed thriller that does not let up. By the end of this myth-busting, stranger-than-fiction tale, I wanted to raise a tankard of rum and toast the death-defying adventures of the greatest buccaneers of the seventeenth-century.”—James L. Swanson, author of the New York Times bestseller Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer
  • Born to Be Hanged is a thrilling tale of piracy in the South Seas, replete with pitched and bloody battles, treasure hoards, a daring rescue, violent storms, shifting allegiances, mutiny, and a dubious trial. It is full of so many fascinating details and surprising twists and turns that you will not want to put it down until the very end. A wonderful contribution to the history of piracy, and a welcome addition to every pirate lover's library.”—Eric Jay Dolin, bestselling author of Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates
  • Born to Be Hanged tells the dazzling true story of one of the brashest, riskiest, and all-out swashbucklingest pirating adventures ever attempted—a mission that takes an outmanned band of English buccaneers across one deadly jungle, over two oceans, through the heart of the Spanish Main, and into endless trouble. Along the way, they come upon plenty of treasure—and readers will, too.”—Miles Harvey, author of The King of Confidence

On Sale
May 10, 2022
Page Count
384 pages

Keith Thomson

About the Author

Keith Thomson is the author of the nonfiction book Born to Be Hanged, as well as several novels, including Pirates of Pensacola and the New York Times bestseller Once a Spy. The former Columbia history major also writes nonfiction for the New York Times, Garden & Gun, and the Huffington Post on a range of topics, including national security and piracy. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

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