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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

The Sea Rover's Practice          The Buccaneer's Realm          Pirate Hunting

How History's Greatest Pirates Pillaged, Plundered, and Got Away With It

The Golden Age of Piracy (reviewed by Cindy Vallar)          The Golden Age of Piracy (reviewed by Irwin Bryan)

Cover Art: Sea Rover's Practice
The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630-1730
By Benerson Little
Potomac Books, 2005, $27.50, ISBN 1-57488-910-9 (hardback)
Potomac Books, 2007, $17.95, ISBN 978-1-57488-911-6 (paperback)


During the seventeenth century and the first third of the eighteenth, sea rovers -- pirates, privateers*, and buccaneers -- preyed on ships.  Fictional accounts of this time period tend to romanticize the era.  Nonfiction books often examine the period as a whole and what it was like to be a pirate.  Neither, however, spends much time on how sea rovers accomplished their seizure of ships and raiding of towns.  The Sea Rover’s Practice corrects this oversight, and does so in such a way that anyone -- general reader or scholar -- can learn the methods these marauders employed.  Benerson Little uses quotes from primary documents to illustrate these practices, allowing readers to witness firsthand what and how sea rovers accomplished their deeds.

Twenty-three chapters cover such information as the perils and rewards of garnering wealth by force, the various types of sea rovers who roamed the seas, how they recruited and organized their brethren, the types of vessels and armament they used, life at sea and in port, and how they spied their prey, gave chase, and acquired their prizes at sea and on land.  Aside from the illustrations that accompany the text, the reader will also find seven appendices filled with additional treasures: comparative actions of sea rovers; lexicons pertaining to sea rovers, ships, and mariners; those sea rovers who kept journals of their exploits; culinary history and recipes; and information on ranges, distances, weights, and measures from the time period.  The text is footnoted throughout so readers can verify where quotes and details can be found.  A detailed bibliography and index round out the book.

No self-respecting sea rover should be without this manual!  Re-enactors and writers will find The Sea Rover’s Practice invaluable, but anyone who wishes a more in-depth look into the tactics of pirates and privateers will not be disappointed.

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* Throughout the book, Mr. Little uses “letter of mart” rather than “letter of marque” when discussing privateers.  I wondered about this, since the reader is more likely to encounter the latter, so I asked him about it.  He found “letter of mart” used in many journals of the period.  Among the examples he cited were:

  • Nathaniel Uring’s The Voyages and Travels of Captain Nathaniel Uring from 1726 (Reprint: London: Cassell and Company, 1928).
    • ...and having obtained a Letter of Mart from the Governour, I had orders to make Prize of such Vessels of the Enemies...

Book Review Copyright ©2006 Cindy Vallar

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          Art: The Buccaneer's Realm
The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674-1688
By Benerson Little
Potomac Books, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59797-101-0, $29.95

Divided into twenty-two chapters, The Buccaneer’s Realm explores these particular pirates and their way of life in the Caribbean. But it is not just an examination of the buccaneers; it also touches on the region and those who lived there whether they interacted with these rogues or not. Of particular importance is the differentiation between buccaneers and the pirates who came later. The topics covered are the Spanish empire in the New World; the hunters who became pirates; places where they sought safe havens; their connections with Virginia, Africa, and New England; religion and superstition; wrecks and wreckers; language; sea battles; health and medicine; sex; raids on land; swords and duels; careening; marooning; and more. The book also contains eight appendices that talk about the chasse-partie, organization, captains and ships, published accounts, barbecue, places attacked, exports and plunder, weights and measures, and nautical jargon. Notes, a bibliography, and an index complete the package.

“Cornucopia” is the word that best describes The Buccaneer’s Realm, for there are so many facts and examples crammed into 267 pages that it’s impossible to grasp the treasures found within the book in one reading. Interspersed throughout are quotes from those who were or knew the real buccaneers, which serve to enrich this journey back in time. Anyone wishing to learn more about the buccaneers and the Caribbean of the latter 17th century should make this book a must read.

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Read a chapter, see the table of contents, and peruse the notes and errata

Review copyrighted © 2008 Cindy Vallar

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            Art: Pirate Hunting
Pirate Hunting: The Fight against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders from Antiquity to the Present
By Benerson Little
Potomac Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1-59797-291-8, US $29.95

One aspect of maritime piracy often overlooked or merely touched upon involves hunting pirates. Little’s book aims to correct this oversight. In fifteen chapters (listed below), he discusses strategies, techniques, weapons, and ships used over the centuries in various regions of the world to hunt down and eradicate pirates.
  1. Of Black Flags and Bloody Banners – The Pursuit of Pirates and Privateers
  2. Heroes of the Fantastic – Pirate Hunting in the Age of the Iliad
  3. In the Age of Ancient Empires – Pirate Hunting in the Mediterranean, 1450-700 BC
  4. Of Laurel Leaves and Pirate Princes – Pirate Hunting in the Mediterranean, 700 BC – AD 476
  5. The Scourge of the North – Standing against the Norsemen, 780-1066
  6. A Sea Roving Free-for-All – Pirate Hunting in the North Seas, 1066-1492
  7. Of Faith, Galleys, and Greed – Defeating the Mediterranean Corsairs, 476-1492
  8. Spanish Galleons and Portuguese Carracks – Plunderers Fighting Plunderers, 1492 – 1654
  9. Of Blind Eyes and Opportunity – A Introduction to the “Golden Age,” 1655-1725
  10. The Real Pirates of the Caribbean – Pirate Hunting in the “Golden Age,” 1655-1725
  11. From the Mediterranean to the North Sea – The War against Pirates and Corsairs, 1493-1830
  12. Of Frigates and Cruisers – In Pursuit of the Commerce Raiders, 1688-1865
  13. Pirates, Rebels, and Warriors – Pirate Hunting in the East, 694 BC – AD 1896
  14. Death from Beneath the Waves – Combating the Submarine Menace, 1914-1945
  15. Ships, SEALs, and Satellites – The Return of the Pirate Hunters
But Pirate Hunting isn’t just about searching for and destroying pirates. Such concentration would examine the topic within a void, rather than incorporating the parameters that necessitated the hunt in the first place. The author discusses sea roving history, the weaponry and ships both pirates and their suppressors used, and the technological changes that occurred over time.
Maps, illustrations, notes, an extensive bibliography, and a detailed index accompany the text. A few chapters incorporate a broad time span, but this is because of the lack of resources or because those resources examine piracy from a western perspective, rather than the perspective of the region and cultures where it occurs. One example of this is the chapter on eastern piracy, which extends from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea to Asian waters. Little attempts to present a fairer picture in these cases.
He states in chapter one “[the] destruction of these sea rovers is the subject of this book”, rather than the actual pirate hunters (although a few are mentioned). This is one drawback to the book. With a few exceptions, these men have little written about them, other than their names and who they captured. It would be nice to know more of their personal histories and how they actually succeeded in their endeavors. The title, too, is a bit of a misnomer, for while the majority of the book does deal with the hunt for pirates, Little strays from just that focus. Since one country’s pirate is another country’s hero, he prefers to call these sea villains “sea rovers,” which also allows him to incorporate others who fall outside the narrower parameters of piracy. An example of this is found in the fourteenth chapter that covers submarine attacks during the first and second World Wars.
In the preface, Little writes, “It is from the point of view of those who sought to stop or prevent sea rovers of all sorts that this book is written, and in a way, it is an homage to all past and present who have fought to defend life, liberty, and, yes, even property from the rover.” He wants the book to be of use not just to general readers, but also to those finding ways to handle the problem of maritime piracy. He succeeds in both endeavors, and does so in a manner that makes the text interesting and compelling to read.

Visit the author's website

Review Copyrighted ©2010 Cindy Vallar

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Cover Art: How
          History's Greatest Pirates...
How History's Greatest Pirates Pillaged, Plundered, and Got Away With It

By Benerson Little
Fair Winds Press, 2011, ISBN 978-1-59233-443-8, US $19.99 / £14.99 / CAN $21.99


The subtitle for this book – “The Stories, Techniques, and Tactics of the Most Feared Sea Rovers from 1500-1800” – explains what Little focuses on as he explores the piratical careers of Kheir-Ed-Din (Barbarossa), Grace O’Malley, Francis Drake, Diego the Mulatto, Henry Morgan, Juan Corso, Bartholomew Sharp, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, Bartholomew Roberts, Edward “Ned” Low, Kanhoji Angria, Cheng I Sao, and Jean Laffite. Aside from the many illustrations, the book also includes end notes, a selected bibliography, and an index.
The author’s background as a former navy SEAL, his study of black-powder weaponry, his experience as a fencing instructor, and his study of primary evidence make him eminently qualified to write this book and provide it with greater realism than someone unfamiliar with ships, their armament, and the ways of pirates.
Little’s intent here is to demonstrate the “romantic realism” of pirates – showing them as they were, not as we think they were. Since he focuses on how they pirated, readers clearly see the similarities in the techniques and tactics pirates used during this three hundred-year span of time. It’s interesting to learn that some practices date back further than we might think.
What I particularly like about this book is the variety of chosen subjects. They are a combination of the most infamous and least-known pirates; they include men and women, as well as rogues from various parts of the world, rather than just those of the Caribbean or the Golden Age of Piracy. This book is a highly entertaining and informative look at pirates and how they plundered throughout history.
Visit the author's website
Review Copyrighted ©2011 Cindy Vallar

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Cover Art: The
          Golden Age of Piracy
The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth behind Pirate Myths
By Benerson Little
Skyhorse, 2016, ISBN 978-1-5107-1302-4, $27.99

Gold starGold starGold starGold starGold star
A pirate with an eye patch, and perhaps a wooden leg, wearing tall boots and an earring, with a parrot on his shoulder, and armed with cutlass and pistols. He, or she, drinks rum, might sport a tattoo, and curses up a storm when he’s not saying, “Arr!” This is the quintessential swashbuckling buccaneer of yore . . . or is it?

Most people recognize at least some of this description isn’t true. It’s Hollywood’s version or how writers portray pirates in their novels. Within the pages of this fascinating book, Benerson Little explores the myths associated with piracy and then delves into primary accounts to distinguish between fact and myth. He also explores how these myths may have originated, as well as why real pirates didn’t act as they do on screen and in print.

The book is divided into two parts. Six chapters address myths dealing with pirate violence in “For Some Body Must Be Beaten.” The remaining six chapters focus on pirate society in “The Custom of the Coast.” This study concerns the pirates who lived and preyed between 1655 and 1725. The topics covered are pirate flags and symbols on them; “false optics” and two famous pirates – Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts – who employed these techniques; pirate ships and those upon which they prey; techniques and torture used to gain information from prisoners; sea fights and attacks; duels and weapons; pirates and slaves; women pirates and pirates of color; pirates as revolutionaries and rebels; pirate democracy and utopias; and treasure.

Each chapter opens with a summary narrative that explores an episode from history related to the topic being discussed. The endnotes include the sources used in these condensations. Three examples of such events are Blackbeard’s blockade of Charlestown, the buccaneers crossing the Isthmus of Darien, and the capture of Calico Jack Rackham and his crew. Next Little discusses the myths pertaining to each episode before examining how they became myths and what facts led to this false picture of Golden Age pirates.

Unfamiliar terms are explained in context, and Little clearly identifies whether his conclusions are drawn from known facts or are educated hypotheses based on what period documentation shows. The source material listed in the extensive bibliography reveals not only the depth of his research, but also the numerous archival material and primary documents he consulted. The book includes a center section of illustrations, endnotes, and an index.

While a few other volumes discuss pirate myths, The Golden Age of Piracy goes far beyond these. Little sifts through the popular mythology and purposeful ideological speculation to introduce readers to the real pirates without turning a blind eye to their cruelty and crimes. That he does so in language that any reader will understand makes this a valuable resource and worthwhile addition to any pirate aficionado’s or historian’s library.

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Review Copyrighted ©2016 Cindy Vallar

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Cover Art: The Golden Age of
The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth behind Pirate Myths
By Benerson Little
Skyhorse, 2016 ISBN 978-1-5107-1302-4, $27.99

Once again Benerson Little has produced a well-researched and in-depth look at an aspect of piracy. Other books of his have examined the tactics pirates used and the life of a pirate. This edition examines the myths that color our perceptions of how pirates looked or acted and what we may think about their motivations and beliefs.

With each myth examined, the probable creation of the myth is shown as well as how it may have been perpetuated over the years. Several historical examples of actual pirates are presented to demonstrate the “truths” of these myths.

As I began reading, my expectation was to get some form of “true” or “false” answer with everything presented. Instead, it seemed like there was some truth to everything. Or, maybe the topic was true of the early buccaneers rather than the pirates of the 1700s and vice-versa. This was especially so with the chapter on pirates flying a skull and crossbones flag. An all red or all black flag was similarly shown to serve the same purpose. So many examples in this chapter had ships with flags, reported to have flags, or not having flags that the book’s subtitle should have been called “The Truths Behind Pirate Myths.”

Little provides a very thorough and entertaining dissection of the image we have of pirates. Why each detail of that image is false is also explained. The paragraph about pirates not wearing bandanas or scarves on their heads was a surprise to me. Certainly this was true of sailors serving the guns during the Napoleonic War!

The examination of the types of vessels actually used by pirates may have some aspiring pirate writers making hurried changes to their manuscripts and leaving the rest of us just disappointed. Who says the truth doesn’t hurt?!

Within this same chapter, Little states “the musket was the principal weapon of the pirate.”(64) This may be another case of this being truer for the buccaneers who fought mostly on land, rather than the shipboard pirates of the eighteenth century.

Another subject he looks at is how pirates treated their victims. L’Ollonois is one of the most brutal pirates, stories of his brutality are carefully backed up with the true sources for each action. Surprisingly, the story of his death after torture has no source. (78) Is this a wishful myth of its own?

Two of the most famous pirates, Blackbeard and Black Bart Roberts, have chapters of their own dealing with all of the myths about each of them. Roberts “is considered by many to be . . . ‘the greatest pirate of them all’.” (88) Some readers may find it hard to tell that Little is being sarcastic here, even though he provides valid reasons why Roberts certainly was not the greatest pirate.

In the summation to this chapter – prefaced by saying “the facts, however, say otherwise” (100) – Little refutes that Roberts had any noble motivations; states Blackbeard engaged in piracy even after being pardoned; Kidd really committed pirate acts; and Henry Every and his crew captured one rich ship and raped all the women before going back to England where he died in poverty. Ironically, none of these statements are supported here by any endnote sources, although readers who wish to hunt for such sources will find some of them elsewhere in the book.

In the chapter dealing with combat at sea, Little writes “In the early eighteenth century, pirates used the various black flags with depictions of skull and crossed bones or full skeletons to great effect.” (108) So why is there a whole earlier chapter mostly denying this? Perhaps this book should have included a table or timeline showing when myths are myths and when they are true. Perhaps it would have helped if he quantified how often or what percentage of the time each myth held true as opposed to his saying no, no, yes, yes as is sometimes the case.

Another individual dealt with at some length is Laurens de Graff. Twice he is said to have served on Dutch ships with no explanation of how or when. He is also said to have been a Spanish gunner assigned to the treasure ships, but specific details on how or when he earned this experience and reputation is not mentioned. Although he may have been “an extraordinarily talented fighting seaman,” regardless of whether he sailed for the Dutch or the Spanish, scant evidence is provided to show that his ship was ever attacked or boarded. (117) Prior to when he became a pirate, de Graff may have just been well-trained, rather than experienced.

A chapter dealing mostly with why sailors became pirates includes the issue of what they did with their ill-gotten gains. Little mentions “most pirates squandered their shares of plunder on rum, prostitutes, and related extravagant, debauched celebration.”(143) I thought this statement could have also been a myth and deserved more coverage than it was given.

One thing that I had hoped to read about was whether the saying “Dead men tell no tales” originated with the pirates or was also just a myth. Without any survivors this practice might have been hard to document unless a pirate made a heartfelt confession in an attempt to save his soul. Could it have been examined by looking at all the ships that vanished without a trace each year on the Spanish Main? Would it show an increase in the yearly totals when the pirates were most active? Unfortunately, it wasn’t discussed and so I am left to wonder.

Some facts that were presented had only one source and were not readily accepted by me. This was especially so when I read “Pirates of the early eighteenth century often flew into a panic at the sight of a man-of-war or other vessel capable of making a stout fight.”(178) If they generally had swift vessels that could also sail closer to the direction of the wind, escaping a warship should have been relatively easy and no cause for panic.

One of the most bothersome things in this book is the use of a story from Greek Mythology as an example of a possible fact. If a real myth can be a fact, how can the same person use facts to disprove myths? It is questions such as this that make me doubt some things said in this book. I encourage you to read this new publication for plenty of enjoyment and the knowledge to be gained, and to use your own judgment about what is presented herein.
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Book review Copyrighted ©2017 by Irwin Bryan

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