This book is a recounting of the epic clash in the Caribbean in the latter half of the Seventeenth Century between the powerful but rigid and inflexible Spanish Empire, and the British adventurers who had seized the island of Jamaica in 1655, after an unsuccessful attempt to take Hispaniola, and begin a religious challenge to the Spanish Empire. Stephan Talty explores the cultural collision between the Spanish, seeking honor and glory believing themselves God’s chosen ones, and the pirates, individualists who prized daring and risk and sought only riches. By happenstance, the English had taken over the island best positioned to cause havoc with the gold shipments which were the lifeblood of the Spanish Empire.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, Spain was a worldwide Empire, all the land from Mexico through Central and South America and the islands of the Caribbean belonged personally to the Monarch of Spain, taken as legal birthright. The legal justification for this, the Requerimiento, was read in Spanish to the first natives encountered, and the lands then became part of the Empire. The staggering floods of gold and silver which poured through “the Golden Doorway” in Seville, created the first truly global economy. As the Empire expanded, the cost of administering it absorbed the contents of the galleon fleets and more, distorted by the search for treasure, the Empire comprised small towns spread over a vast continent and was difficult to defend and sustain. Spain was financially dependent on the treasure of the West Indies and even Spain’s European armies waited on the successful arrival of the gold-laden galleons. Non-Spaniards were excluded from the Spanish colonies, and legal trade with foreigners was not allowed because the authorities saw trade as only a tool to achieve a world wide divine kingdom and the heretical English were considered especially dangerous.
The religious purpose of the English expedition of 1655, was a creation of the time, Cromwell and the Commonwealth ruled in London,. When the Hispaniola venture failed, in disease and miscalculation, the expedition seized Jamaica which was far smaller. Once they had chased out the Spanish, some of the soldiers turned to farming in the rich soil, the real money, however, was soon being made in privateering. The privateers were basically licensed marauders of the seas who ranged from simple pirates seeking the thin cover of a letter of marque from his sovereign to patriots who saw themselves as citizen soldiers at the service of their country. The restored Stuarts lacked the money to build and man a navy for the defense of an outpost like Jamaica, and did the job by licensing and taking a share of the privateer’s haul.
In essence, this is the history of the real Pirates of the Caribbean, who were at once, less glamorous than their current Disneyesque screen presentation, but far more significant in the history of both Europe and the Americas. Talty describes the epic contest between the rigidly controlled bureaucracy which ran the Spanish Empire and the Brethren of the Coast, as the pirates and privateers called themselves. The name is apt, rugged individualists, they were motivated by the search for riches, writing their own rules at the beginning of every expedition, with the destination and shares in the eventual prize set by vote.
The most compelling figure, both at the time, and in this book, is Henry Morgan. Child of a noble Welch family, divided during the Civil Wars which raged throughout his childhood, curtailing his education, he was twenty when the expedition to take Hispaniola sailed from Portsmouth. Beginning in 1663, Morgan led his own increasingly successful expeditions to locations on the Spanish Main, and Cuba, eventually sacking the city of Panama after crossing the isthmus jungle by canoes and on foot. Morgan is the pirate chief who fueled all the legends which endure today. His career of piracy lasted less than a decade, and ended when the political climate in Europe made peace between England and Spain a necessity. A daring and wily commander on land, he was not a particularly good sailor, but he managed with luck and guile to bring his men and vast sums of gold and silver back to what quickly became “the wickedest city on earth”, Port Royal the capitol of Jamaica.
Talty does take liberties with the method of writing conventional history, most obviously in his creation from many diaries and tales of a composite pirate who he names Roderick. The purpose is to show the career arc of the average pirate who completely rejected the life he had known and became a member of “The Brethren”. These men gave Port Royal its reputation for flagrant sin, spreading money through the taverns and bordellos of the city after each successful voyage. They built nothing that lasted, and were uninterested in anything more than the life of the moment. Finally, it is the end of Port Royal, itself, in a cataclysmic earthquake in 1692, four years after Morgan’s death, which brings both the legend and this book to a close.
This is popular history, it is a very entertaining look at something we think we know from pop culture. It is the background that makes the basic pirate story far more interesting and significant, setting it into the context of European seventeenth century politics. The “what its” for the political organization of the Americas are also a factor, without the pirates, and the threat they represented to the Spanish control of the Caribbean, the history of the southern United States could have been quite different. This not a deep work of scholarship, but readers will enjoy it, and it should find a large and happy audience.
Mary K. Spore-Alhadef