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Television: France's Pirate Past Volume 57 Number 5, September/October 2004
by Andrew Curry

[image] A diver examines artifacts recovered from the wrecks of two privateer ships excavated off the coast of France near the port city of St. Malo. (Gamma Press) [LARGER IMAGE]

For centuries, the French port of St. Malo was known to English merchants as the "Hornet's Nest." Sharp rocks and treacherous approaches made the coastal town a haven for France's fleets of privateers, opportunistic ships that were licensed by the crown to engage in piracy during the many wars that raged in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Today, their exploits are legendary, but until recently there was little physical evidence of their existence.

That changed in 1995, when two local spearfishers came across a half-buried cannon under 30 feet of water. As they explored further, more evidence of a shipwreck emerged. "The Corsairs of St. Malo," a one-hour documentary about the find and its history on the Science Channel's Science of the Deep series (episode airs September 24), guides the viewer through the trials of a marine archaeology dig and the painstaking research required back on shore to identify the wreck.

An international team of archaeologists from France, Holland, Britain, and Canada undertake a complex underwater excavation over three years. (The investigation is ongoing.) Visibility is about nine feet at best, and any artifacts brought to the surface have to be protected from drying out. As the dig goes on, it turns out that there are two ships on the bottom that sank decades apart. Their hulls had collapsed on top of each other, forming a stack of timber and metal five feet thick that had to be meticulously mapped and reconstructed. They also discover monkey bones, iron bars, and wooden shovels used to pack cod in salt, which help identify the ships and their voyages.

It's a slow process, and the documentary does its best to make it exciting. Footage of the archaeologists at work is interspersed with the history of privateers, who often spent half of the year fishing off the coast of Newfoundland before returning to menace merchants. Because a French team led the work, most of the documentary is dubbed, and not very well, which is distracting. To its credit, "Corsairs" shows archaeology as it often is--slow and frustrating, but with enough tantalizing leads to drive the research forward. By the end, the team pins down the identity of the St. Malo corsairs, giving the city its first concrete link to a notorious privateer past.

Andrew Curry is a general editor of Smithsonian.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America