Lost history

I’m having a bachelor weekend, as my girlfriend’s away, which means I watch war movies and shout at the History Channel and eat strange things and sing along with Robbie Williams really loudly and write until late at night. (Not all at once.)
But my shouting at the History Channel this afternoon has been on the topic of Lost History. A BBC (of all people!) documentary called White Slaves, Pirate Gold focused on the discovery of a 17th century ship hoard off the Devon coast, including gold Moroccan coins, Delftware plates, and cannon.
“Renegade pirate attack,” I shout, as if I’m a contestant on Mastermind. Specialist topic: pirates.
But oh no. This is Lost History, I’m told. This is clearly an astonishing revelation that only the perceptive people in the documentary research team will ever be able to unravel, and not until the end of the program.
Never mind that every maritime historian interviewed no doubt knows every date of every known corsair attack on the British coast and the name of every commanding captain. This is Lost History. Its unveiling is to take place before our eyes, like those Lost Mummies in Lost Pyramids or the Lost Mammoth and the Lost Ice Age Man. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the find. It’s the story-telling that annoys me.
Because apparently none of us has ever heard of the white slave trade. Nobody has ever heard the term “renegade”. Nobody knew, Until This Amazing Discovery, that Barbary corsairs had attacked Europe. This is Untold History.
I know that I’m not your normal viewer. I’ve just written three books about pirates including a renegade. But really. Any history of piracy will tell you all about it -even the kids’ books, like DK’s Pirate. Good old Rafael Sabatini’s original swashbuckler, The Sea Hawk, is one of the most famous pirate novels ever written – all about a renegade, taken in a raid on the Cornish coast.
This isn’t Untold History. It’s been Told over and bloody over. You just weren’t listening, mate.
“Just look up Murad Reis in your stupid encyclopedia,” I yell at the screen.
It happens all the time. I’m not sure which is more frustrating: the idea that unless History is Lost History, it’s not interesting, which to me only indicates an inadequacy in the script; or the implication that viewers are stupid. Even the experts, whose interviews are edited so that it seems they are only just reaching their conclusions at the same time as the viewer, are made to look as if they are working in the darkness of Lost History.
But fear not. All mysteries can be solved by a documentary team. It’s patronising, it negates all other research on the topic, and it doesn’t necessarily make for a good documentary – or book.
There are lots of Lost History books about at present. One of the most offensive, and in the same vein, is White Gold, by Giles Milton of Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed The Course Of History fame. That was another fearless expose of Lost History – hey, guess what? The spice trade made people rich! Who’d have thunk it?
Milton also wrote Big Chief Elizabeth: How England’s Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World, about Raleigh’s failed New World ventures, since of course none of us had ever heard of Elizabeth or Raleigh either, and somehow managed to make two of the most fascinating people in history boring as batshit.
But I digress. White Gold is offensive, in a throw-the-book-across-the-room kind of way, rather than just a shouting way, because its fearless expose of Lost History is also about the white slave trade in Morocco and he indicates absolutely no interest whatsoever in the fate of all the millions of slaves of other races and cultures who were also kidnapped, beaten, starved, and basically destroyed by the trade at that time. It’s as if nobody else exists. He bangs on and on about people being white, especially British, as if enslaving them is somehow more horrifying than if people are African, or perhaps even Maltese or Greek.
I could have sworn I was reading some Victorian melodrama.
Of course, it isn’t just called White Gold. Oh no. This is Lost History. So it’s called White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves.
When these books started appearing, my brother and I used to laugh at our own brilliant ideas for the most ridiculous topics. Brooms: The Invention That Swept The World. Knife: The Cutting Edge of History. But anything we dreamed up has long been surpassed by Dust: A History Of The Small & The Invisible, Flea, Salt, and, for all I know, Sewage: The Pipeline of Humanity (actually, Dust was one of our ideas – I should sue).
I quite liked Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. And anything that gets people reading history is a wonderful thing. But they can be just as easily put off history if they think it’s only worthwhile if it’s Lost. Surely, if Mark Kurlansky and Simon Winchester can take the reader on an entertaining and informative historical journey, then it ought to be possible for other writers to focus on the history, and tell a good story, instead of just going for the easy, flabby Lost History angle.
And don’t even start me on The Da Vinci Code.
Aren’t you glad you aren’t sitting on the couch with me? I’m about to watch Crusaders: The Crescent and the Cross. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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