preparing to teach a class exploring world history through pirates

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I haven’t been blogging much recently, because my free time has gone into preparing the course I’ll be teaching in January for the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum. Today I want to write a bit about what that preparation looks like.

The main thing I’m doing is reading, reading, and yet more reading. I’m reading books that are directly about pirates, but I’m also reading books that are just about the history of the time. Some of the books are popular nonfiction, some are academic. With each book I’m taking detailed notes, and combining the notes together. Today I had the fun of going back through my notes on early 15th century France, my notes on Spain and England, and my notes on the Barbary corsairs of the same time period. Little connections fit together. For example:

  • In one book I read about French princes being held hostage by Spain and their servants all taken as slaves, captured by pirates and then released by the Spanish king when he attacked Tunis. A different book provides descriptions of the types of pirates that probably captured them, plus the Spanish king’s attack on Tunis.
  • John Hawkin’s first journey to Spanish ports in the Caribbean took place at a time when England had lost her trade with Spanish Netherlands by assisting the French protestants in their civil war, and London merchants were looking to expand trade elsewhere. Years later, when after a disastrous encounter with the Spanish treasure fleet Hawkins had to abandon 100 of his men on the Spanish main, a group of the men hiked north around the gulf of Mexico heading to a French protestant colony, only to discover that the colony had been destroyed three years previously.
  • Francis Drake’s raid on the mule trains on the Spanish main came within a year of the St. Bartholomew massacre and a French pirate brought him word of it and then joined the raid on the mule train.

Bit by bit things fit together. Pictures emerge. Many history books deal with individuals countries as though they were relatively independent. It is easy to miss the connections between things, so I’m enjoying this chance to focus on connections.

The second thing I’m doing is practicing retelling the stories. I booked a room at our local library and offered a three week session with local homeschoolers where I could practice telling pirate stories and leading discussions about the stories, but the main people I’ve been practicing on are my own children. They have been very patient as I run my stories past them. A few days ago at supper I practiced telling about Oruch Barbarossa, who was captured by the Knights of St. John and then escaped. He sailed as a pirate in the Mediterranean, using his stolen wealth to connect with the Sultan of the Ottoman empire, and then used soldiers sent by the Sultan to start to capture his own kingdom on the north coast of Africa. I’ll use the story of Barbarossa to introduce the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and probably to talk about Charles’ parents and grandparents. Pirate raids on the Spanish coastline was so common that when Charles arrived by ship at a village in his own country that had not expected him all the people fled into the hillside fearing his ships were pirate ships.

With every story I read about and retell, there are some interesting issues that rise to the surface. With the story of Barbarossa I’ll have to talk a bit about how Barbarossa understood himself to be part of a Holy War against the Christians. I’ll have to explain how Muslims were persecuted in Spain and how the Spanish kings believed themselves to be fighting a Holy War against heretics. I could also talk about the idea that the Ottoman empire had a standing army that required them to continue going to war. One book describes it this way: “The standing army was a tiger every successive sultan had to learn to ride; harnessing it required victories and the accompanying reward of booty and land.” (Roger Crowley in Empires of The Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521 – 1580, pg 201). The dilemma of how to deal with a standing army that one both gains power because of and could lose power to is not all that different than the question of becoming a Captain on a pirate ship, where the Captain requires support of the crew but could lose his position too, except that in the case of a pirate ship a deposed leader could probably remain alive, whereas I doubt a deposed sultan could. I suspect the book Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants will also help my explanation, so I’m eager to read it as soon as my newly-ordered copy comes in. I find myself thinking through several different possibilities for discussing any of the more complicated issues.exploring history through pirates. Thanks to Susanne of GHF for the wonderful logo.

I have an outline written for the class. Students will also be expected to complete two assignments. The first assignment is to do a 3 – 5 minute presentation about one of the recommended books and respond to questions about the book. Presentations will be scheduled for mid-March. The second assignment is to choose an essay topic from a list that will be provided. In place of an essay, students may opt to do some other form of creative expression (video presentation, creation of a picture book, etc) exploring one of the topics available. I will book one twenty minute session with each student outside of class time in order to discuss how his or her final assignment is progressing. Students will be of different ages and abilities. They won’t be compared against each other but just encouraged to do what they can.

Book List

The links here are links to the Gifted Homeschooling Forum’s Amazon store.

Students will be asked to have a copy of A Thousand Years of Piracy by William Gilkerson. Short chapters from this book will be assigned for different weeks during the course. I may provide other short readings or short optional video to watch between classes.

I’ll also provide suggestions for pages to read from the The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and DK Visual History Encyclopedia. I know some homeschoolers use one or other of these books as a spine for their history studies. Both books use one or two pages about a topic and then move onto a different topic, and neither fits perfectly with this course but having one or other could provide a good way of getting some of the extra background history. Part of the goal of my course is to help show how the topics featured on different pages of those books fit together. Of course the course will cover only a small time frame and only certain places within it, while both of those books are attempts at covering all of world history.

Students are asked to read and present about one of the following books.

The Alchemist’s Dream by John Wilson.
In this novel a young boy determined to make it out to sea becomes the apprentice of the great John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s magician. Dee teaches him navigation and sends him out in search of magical elements, first with John Davis and then with Henry Hudson. Pirates feature only mildly in the story, but it provides an interesting look at the time period.

Dead Reckoning: A Pirate Voyage with Captain Drake by Laurie Lawlor
A journey on a pirate ship – particularly a long drawn out journey in which the majority of the crew is lost – would definitely change a person. This novel looks at how the different events of Captain Drake’s journey might have changed a young crew member.

Sail to the Caribee by Michael Hagen
This story is set during the war of Spanish Succession, telling the story of a 13 year old joining a privateering crew. The book is available from Royal Fireworks Press.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
Not actually a pirate story, this novel deals with a mutiny on board a merchant ship in 1832.

Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado by Marc Aronson
This is a nonfiction option for those who prefer not to read novels. The most frustrating thing about this book is the decision to spell Raleigh’s name without an “i” throughout the book.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
This classic pirate story has influenced the way pirates have been viewed ever since. Royal Firework Press has a nice copy of it (click here) that includes footnotes introducing the more obscure words as well as notes that explain how Stevenson’s choices in words, sentence structure, etc, helps to deepen the story.

Pirate Queen of Ireland: The Adventures of Grace O’Malley by Anne Chambers.

Pirate’s Passage by William Gilkerson
Set in 1952 this story is about a twelve year old boy, the inn his mother is struggling to hold onto, and a strange sea Captain who spends the winter with them. Stories of Sir Francis Drake, Grace O’Malley, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard and other pirates are woven into the book.

Sign up here for the class today. Check out this link for the other GHF courses. Thanks to Susanne of GHF for the wonderful class logo.

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2 thoughts on “preparing to teach a class exploring world history through pirates

  1. I have a nonfiction book & EBOOK on my Amazon Author website titled PACIFIC COAST PIRATES & SPANISH GALLEONS, you would enjoy!!!!

    I’d love a Amazon Book review? I am a retired Nat’l Park ranger/Interpreter who writes nonfiction books? I am new to this publishing world?

    FEB. 16th (2015) You can get a Free EBOOK on Beaver Trapper JOHN Day & a MS. Dorian Indian Guide adventures crossing The USA as part of the Astor Overland Trapping Party back 1810-1812. MS. Dorian lost a child enroute????

    I could use an honest book Review?

    • Your books do look interesting. I would be willing to review the pirate one at least, though I’ll try to remember to snag the ebook of the other when it is on sale.

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