Book Review: Empire of Blue Water – by Stephan Talty

All I knew about pirates came from movies and from Disneyland. Pirates are colorfully dressed, drunk, missing eyes, legs and arms, and sailing the Caribbean oceans, pillaging and raping and robbing. The black flag with skull and crossbones came to mind.

All told, I knew very little about pirates.

Then I read “Empire of Blue Water.” This book tells the story of piracy in the Caribbean between 1660 and 1690. It reads like a great novel. It is entertaining, colorful, informative and inspiring. I now need to read a few fiction books about pirates. One that comes to mind is “Treasure Island” which is on the list of the 100 best novels.

In the 1500 and the first half of the 1600 century, the Spanish Empire was the dominant world power. They owned the New World, mostly centered around the Caribbean, the northern borders of today’s South America, Central America and Mexico. The Spanish hauled immense amounts of gold, silver and other treasures out of the Americas by the shipload to finance their imperial ambitions and feed the corrupt and fading bureaucracy.

The English had no foothold and had to watch as bystanders as the Spanish scored the big payday. So they commissioned “privateers,” which are vessels full of men allowed and tasked to attack the enemy, whether it be ships, towns and other settlements or interests. These privateers were not paid. They simply got to keep all the booty they made in their attacks.

Their foothold was Jamaica, with the capital of Port Royal. It was the only enclave of English people surrounded by the Spanish on all sides in all directions.

And this is the environment that spurned pirates. The English supported them and wanted them. That’s why pirates were mostly English and English speaking. Anyone, the scum of the earth in England, could get hired on a pirate ship.

Pirates were uniquely democratic and organized in a motivational system that many organizations today could learn something from. The missions were voted on. The captain was only in charge while at sea or in battle.  Every man’s share, including that of the captain, the cook, the carpenter, the surgeon, and every common pirate was agreed upon before the mission, so there was no question how the booty got divided up. Men losing eyes, arms and legs were reimbursed handsomely from the pot before the rest got divided up. Talk about an excellent health plan.

The result was that pirates were fiercely motivated. They bought the best weapons, their pistols and muskets, and they cleaned and maintained them with passion. Nothing could stop a horde of pirates, because they had so much to gain.

Now compare this to Spanish soldiers. Often they had not been paid in years. They had nothing to gain from battle. The forts and ships were often outfitted dismally, with inadequate weapons and insufficient ammunition. So the soldiers ran. The Spanish had no chance against the pirates.

After reading Empire of Blue Water, I am infinitely more informed about piracy at the end of the Spanish Empire and the beginning of the English one.

I highly recommend this book. It is a riveting read.

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