I Offer a New World: A Review of Empire of Blue Water, by Stephan Talty

It is a historical truth that pirates sailed in the waters of the Caribbean during the seventeenth century.  A historical truth which has spawned fantastical legends and a fascination with all things piratical.  These were the early buccaneers, the French corsairs, the English privateers.  Men and women who believed in freedom and taking what they wanted, when they wanted.  At the height of their power, the privateers of the Caribbean assembled armies, razed cities, and waged war on one of the most powerful empires known to man.  Documents and legends show they practiced direct democracy, the entire crew voting for their captain, and a form of socialism mostly free of corruption, where spoils were divided equally among the crew with bonuses granted in certain circumstances.  These are not the pirates of today, or even the pirates of fiction.  These were the scourge of the new world.

Stephan Talty is both a journalist and an fiction author.  He wrote A Captain’s Duty, the book which would later be adapted by Paul Greengrass into the film Captain Phillips.  He wrote Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture and Escape from the Land of Snows: The Young Dalai Lama’s Harrowing Flight to Freedom and the Making of a Spiritual Hero.  As one can immediately notice, he is no stranger to long book titles.  Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaw’s Bloody Reign concerns the life and raids of Henry Morgan, one of history’s most well-known pirates, though Morgan himself made sure everyone knew he was a privateer, to the point of even winning a libel lawsuit.  Empire does not read like other history books.  It’s full of daring raids, political lessons and intrigue, and an honest look at the mindset of the time.  Talty wrote about the seventeenth century, and makes it easy to see events through the eyes of one who lived in that world.

Before anything can be learned about Captain Henry Morgan, Talty takes readers through the historical tension that led to the creation of such a powerful privateer.  Spain dominated the New World.  The Inter Caetera papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 divided the newly “discovered” Americas between Spain, Portugal, and Holland, with the majority of territory taken by Spain.  The gold, silver, and jewels they discovered and ripped from the corpses of the native population allowed the empire to grow to astronomical proportions.  They established their dominance but were constantly weighed down by indecision and ineptitude.  In order for an action to be taken, the necessary paperwork needed to be drafted, councils established, endless meetings scheduled.  At a certain point, the rest of Europe realized they could take advantage if they moved quickly enough.  France took part of Hispaniola, modern day Haiti, while England stole Jamaica from Spain’s grasp.  This is the world Morgan sailed into.

Morgan was always a royalist at heart so, when Oliver Cromwell was replaced by King Charles II, the young pirate jumped at his chance to serve the crown’s interests in Jamaica.  In Empire of Blue Water, Talty takes us through what is known about his early life which, admittedly, is not much.  He simply appears on Jamaica one day.  What is known is that Morgan made a name for himself as a leader of men.  As conditions worsened with Spain, the empire always plotting to take back the English colony, the governor of Jamaica issued a Letter of Marque to the young Morgan.  The newly christened privateer raised an army of pirates, corsairs, cutthroats, and other degenerates and attacked the Spanish towns of Puerto Principe and Porto Bello.  This level of engagement was unheard of the time, and Talty drives the impressive home further by showing each step of the journey.  This was not just a single ship, it was a regular land army which defeated the Spanish forces handedly.  As Talty makes clear, awe in his words, this was unprecedented.

Between describing raids, Talty takes us through what life may have looked like for the pirates and privateers when they were not raiding and killing.  He paints a vivid picture of men who, unused to and scornful of wealth, would easily make an entire year’s salary in a day, and spend it just as quickly on sex and rum.  These were not men who planned for the future.  Not long after a successful raid, and the spending spree which immediately followed, the privateers of Jamaica would grow restless, demanding another raid.  Morgan and Jamaica, always eager to kill and steal from the Spaniards, obliged.  The middle section of Empire of Blue Water then takes reader through a series of events more exciting or imaginative than any Hollywood pirate movie.  Morgan’s army attacked Maracaibo and Gibraltar, both in modern day Panama, sacking and robbing both.  On their way out, Morgan easily outwitted and destroyed the armada sent by Spain with the very purpose of eliminating piracy in the Caribbean.  More than anything, this was a war between Old Spain and the New World.

Morgan’s last raid is the singular event which cemented his as a name to be remembered.  He is arguably one of the most famous pirates, alongside the likes of Blackbeard.  His name is everywhere, though most people do not realize it.  Captain Morgan rum is one such example.  The nature of the pirates Morgan commanded was not one of peace.  Every raid needed to be bigger than the last, more daring, more treasure, more everything.  Talty hypothesizes that Morgan himself was not completely motivated by monetary gain, though it surely played a large role in pushing him forward.  Instead, he fought for King and country using the very refuse that country had thrown out.  In his last mission as privateer, Morgan assembled one of the largest armies the Caribbean has ever seen and sacked Panama City.  His army crossed hundreds of miles, defeated the Spanish at every turn and, in the end, Panama City was burnt to the ground by the Spanish in fear.  The modern-day city sits six miles away from the ruins of the original.  This adventure is a focal point of Empire of Blue Water, and everything Talty shows us leads to that moment in Morgan’s life.

There is more to Morgan’s life, as is always the case.  Rarely do the great figures in history end with their most glorious performance.  In a work of fiction, this would be called the falling action.  The climax has already happened, but the story still needs to wrap up.  Any other author might have lost interest at this point, but Talty remains engaged with his chosen subject.  He makes it feel like the last few years of Morgan’s life were anything but boring.  After years of raiding, Morgan became a somewhat honest, if still violent, man.  He owned land, got married, and helped govern the island which he spent so many years protecting from the Spanish.  In the end, he died young, but he will never be forgotten.

Empire of Blue Water may be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 13 days

Next on the List: Pines, by Blake Crouch

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