Thursday, May 10, 2007

Book Review: "Empire of Blue Water"

Journalist Stephan Talty's Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe that Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign (2007, Crown), aside from having a fairly self-explanatory subtitle, is one among many books on pirates being published this spring to take full advantage of the upcoming release of the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" film (I'm trying to decide if I want to read all of them that I've got in sequence or spread them out over the next couple months).

Captain Henry Morgan - the man himself - was a Welshman transplanted to Jamaica who found himself through a combination of hard work and pure unadultered good luck one of the most successful pirates the world has ever known. The leader of four profitable raids on Spanish cities in central and South America, Morgan became a useful proxy in the wars between European powers for control of the Caribbean, as well as a feared leader of men. Hauled under arrest to England after peace is made with Spain, Morgan works his way into the good graces of Charles II and ends up returning to Jamaica as a knight with a commission as the lieutenant governor, charged - ironically - with stamping out Caribbean piracy. And then of course he drinks himself to death.

Morgan's story is, for the most part, well told by Talty. He has captured the man and the times nicely, and his descriptions of the glory days of Port Royal (and of its destruction by a massive earthquake soon after Morgan's death) are vivid.

There are some important style points, however, on which I must give Talty lower marks. I did not think necessary his introduction of a "prototypical pirate" (named Roderick) whose trajectory we follow along with Morgan's through the battles and their aftermath. Talty ought to have relied on archival sources and real people where possible. Also, some of the comparisons Talty drew seemed both awkward and silly: for example, his likening the piratical custom of making improvements to captured ships to better suit their own purposes to "grease monkeys cackling as they dropped a supercharged V-12 into their father's vintage Olds" (p. 53) left me shaking my head.

More fundamentally, Talty's treatment of the pirates' system of 'profit-sharing' was overly simplistic. "Pirates were democrats," he declares at one point (p. 52). While it's true that there were communitarian and quasi-democratic elements at play in pirate culture, it's significantly more complicated than Talty's bold generalizations indicate. The hierarchy of pirate command structures were often in danger of collapse at any moment, it's true, but this does not mean democracy; a better descriptor might be 'barely controlled anarchy.' And egalitarian socialism certainly wasn't the rule - as Talty's own discussion of incentive-based-pay (p. 203) makes clear, taking risk in battle was rewarded with extra loot; it doesn't get much more capitalist than that.

The narrative is accompanied by useful maps, a semi-comprehensive bibliography, and notes (unindicated in the text) which leave something to be desired.

It's hard to separate myth from reality when it comes to telling pirate tales. In Empire of Blue Water, Stephan Talty's done an admirable - if not a perfect - job. Recommended.