Book: Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty

Fascinating story told only pretty well

Stephan Talty
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
Three Rivers Press, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-307-23661-6
305 pages (main text)

Empire of Blue Water is about the exploits of the Welshman Henry Morgan, the most famous pirate to sail the Caribbean. It's really also the story of all the early English and Welsh pirates of the Caribbean. And that story is as fascinating as you might imagine it is.

The story really begins with Oliver Cromwell. In the middle of the seventeenth century, England wasn't much of a naval power. Spain was the great European power of the day and its colonies in the Americas sent home fabulous riches. Cromwell, the Puritan dictator (technically Lord Protector) of England, had no fondness for Catholic Spain and was thoroughly unimpressed with the fact that the Pope had decided that Spain should own most of the Americas. Thomas Gage, a clergyman who had traveled there, persuaded Cromwell to outfit a military settlement expedition to the Caribbean as a sort of Protestant crusade.

On Christmas day of 1654, 3000 men, including Thomas Gage and Henry Morgan, set off in 38 ships from Portsmouth, England, headed for the island of Hispaniola. They collected reinforcements along the way and arrived off the city of Santo Domingo with a huge force. Nevertheless, the Spanish easily repulsed their attack, with considerable loss of life on the English side. Rather than go home empty-handed, the fleet took Jamaica as a sort of consolation prize.

At that time, the European powers were perpetually short of money with which to conduct their wars. To wage war on the cheap, they invented the "letter of marque". A ship carrying such a letter became a private warship (or privateer) for the issuing government and was paid only in what it captured. Of course, some ships sailed against Spain's possessions without first going to the trouble of getting a letter of marque. Privateers were often brutal, but the governments of the day were also, pretty often.

Spain's military resources in the Americas were very thinly stretched and privateers, with no wish to settle or fortify the places they attacked, were highly mobile. And, in the crew of a privateer, enterprise was likely to be rewarded. That wasn't true in the Spanish civil service. With the island for a base and license to plunder Spanish ships and colonies, the stage was set for some fascinating history.

So the story is a splendid one. Alas, Mr Talty's writing does not quite rise the same level. His prose is generally serviceable, but his metaphors and narrative devices are often inelegant. Take, for example, the beginning of a description of present-day Port Royal:

    The city feels like a place from which time departed
    centuries ago, if it even touched down at all; you get
    the feeling that it hurried across the bay to Kingston
    or skipped across the famous blue waters north to
    Miami. (p. 4)

I'm not sure what it means for time to be an airplane (which departs and touches down) and I certainly don't know what it means for it to subsequently turn into a person (who hurries) and then a stone (which skips across water). And then there's the difficulty of figuring out how time could have left a long time ago.

In a misguided effort on a somewhat larger scale, Mr Talty doesn't observe what a typical crewman on a privateer might have done or thought. Instead, he invents a typical crewman, gives him the name Roderick, and tells us from time to time what Roderick thinks or does.

The book is still very much worth reading, but it could have been great.

There are a couple of minor mistakes in the book. It is not certain that "dead reckoning" came from "ded. reckoning", an abbreviation of "deduced reckoning" (p. 60). And the Gibraltar in the Mediterranean is not an island (p. 153). Also, the type that the book is set in has a jarring italic that is needlessly difficult to read.

Posted: Wed - December 31, 2008 at 06:43 PM   Main   Category: