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

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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Pirate Killers                Pirate Hunter        The Pirate King

Cover Art: Pirate Killers
Pirate Killers: The Royal Navy and the African Pirates
By Graham A. Thomas
Pen & Sword, 2011, ISBN 978-1-84884-240-3, £19.99 / US $26.37 / CAN $23.86


Too often books on maritime piracy focus on the pirates, rather than the men who combat them. Thomas’ latest book does just that as he relates the history of the British Royal Navy’s (RN) fight to curb these villains. From the seventeenth century to today, he examines how the RN was instrumental in going after these rogues regardless of whether they frequented the north, east, or west coasts of Africa. Primary coverage is given to Madagascar, Bartholomew Roberts’ crew, the Algerian corsairs, and the Reef (Riff) pirates of Morocco. He introduces readers to men like Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Allin, Sir Edward Spragge, Sir John Narbrough, Admiral Arthur Herbert, Captain Challoner Ogle, Admiral Sir Charles Napier, Admiral Lord Exmouth (Sir Thomas Pellew), and the men who served under these officers.
Six appendices supplement the narrative: Survey of the Reef Coast; Reef Pirate Activity and the Navy’s Response; Conversation between British Consul at Tangier and Reefian Pirates; Letter from Seaman John Foster; Pirates Executed at Cape Coast Castle by Admiralty Court; and Chronology Leading up to the Battle of Algiers. The book also contains chapter notes, a recommended reading list, and an index.
Pirate Killers is an enlightening account of piracy around a single continent and how the men and officers of the British Royal Navy played a vital role in curbing these sea robbers of the past, as well as how they continue to risk their lives to protect seamen and ships off Somalia today. Much of the material will be new to readers interested in piracy; those books that have covered some of these topics rarely go into the depth as Thomas does. This isn’t an academic study, but one lay readers interested in piracy around Africa will find fascinating.

Review Copyrighted ©2011 Cindy Vallar

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Cover Art: Pirate Hunter
Pirate Hunter: The Life of Captain Woodes Rogers
By Graham A. Thomas

Pen & Sword, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84415-808-9, £19.99

While most books on Caribbean piracy focus attention on pirates, Pirate Hunter is like a breath of fresh air. It focuses not on the villains, but on a hero – a man who defeated the pirates. During the fifty plus years that he lived, Woodes Rogers circumnavigated the seas, captured a treasure galleon, became Governor of the Bahamas, and turned the pirate haven of New Providence into a place where the sea rogues weren’t welcome. He believed so much in what he did that he ended up in a debtor’s prison because he used his own funds to make the Bahamas a place where honest citizens were welcome when royal funds failed to materialize.
The book opens with a look at the Rogers family and what little is known about this privateer’s personal life before he sets out on his voyage around the world. Half of the chapters explore this trip in greater detail and include episodes such as the rescue of Alexander Selkirk (whose marooning became the basis for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe), the sacking of Guayaquil, and the capture of one of the Manila galleons laden with treasure. Among the personages who appear here are Dr. Thomas Dover and William Dampier. The second half of the book focuses on Rogers’ two stints as governor and how he managed to wrest New Providence from the pirates.
Three appendices accompany the book: an account of William Whaling’s trial, one of Rogers’ letters to the king, and a short piece about navigational aids. The book concludes with notes, a list of books to read, and an index. Black-and-white photographs are also included.
This man’s amazing story unfolds through Thomas’ deftly worded narrative and Rogers’ own journals and letters. This is an absorbing and compelling account of a man often mentioned, but rarely examined in any detail. No study on the Golden Age of Piracy is complete without this title.

Review Copyrighted ©2009 Cindy Vallar

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Cover Art: The Pirate King
The Pirate King: The Incredible Story of the Real Captain Morgan
By Graham A. Thomas
ISBN 9781632205124, Skyhorse Publishing, 2015, $24.99
This book was originally published as The Buccaneer King in 2014 in the United Kingdom. It tells the story of the man who led several incredible buccaneer raids against Spanish cities in the New World during the late 1600s. Thomas is not the first person to write about Henry Morgan and his exploits. This book is specifically intended to examine “the man himself and the times in which he lived.” (x) Morgan was “a brilliant tactician and strategist,” (3) the author states, whose “closest rival to the deeds of Morgan” was Admiral Horatio Nelson himself! (3)

Overall, Thomas attempts to resolve how Morgan could be a “ruthless man capable of bringing so much misery and misfortune to his enemies with the man who was devoted to his wife and family and who was given one of the highest offices in the thriving colony of Jamaica.” (7) By looking at his actions, at the times, and official sources and correspondences, Thomas attempts to resolve this dilemma.

One key point in this examination is that Morgan always had a commission from the government to defend Jamaica and do harm to their enemies, the Spanish. In his eyes, and according to English laws, he was a privateer. The English and French who raided Spanish ships and territories were all considered “buccaneers” historically, even though some carried commissions as privateers and others were actually pirates. In truth, many were both at one time or another. But Morgan always raided under the veil of legality. Indeed, the title of this edition was probably changed to The Pirate King due to Americans’ fascination with pirates.

In 1654 Morgan left Britain as part of a force led by General Robert Venables to take Cuba and Hispaniola from the Spanish. Failing to accomplish this and with one-third of his troops dead from sickness, Venables next attacked and overwhelmed the Spanish on Jamaica. Although in control, there was continued fighting against Spanish forces and guerillas that remained on the island. Morgan continued to hone his skills at land warfare and also became a privateer under Commodore Christopher Myngs. As a captain he distinguished himself by taking three ships on a single raid. Morgan became friends with those who became captains of these captured ships and was the most popular and daring privateer of them all.

Without any naval forces, the governor of Jamaica needed the presence and loyalty of the privateers to protect against Spanish aggressions. Sometimes this was against the will and orders of the king and politicians in Britain. Nonetheless, commissions to attack nearby Spanish possessions were often awarded.

Near the end of 1663, Morgan and three of his fellow captains and 200 men sailed from Jamaica with valid commissions and great secrecy. It was two years before they returned to Port Royal with holds stuffed with treasure taken in three successful raids.

Morgan gathered intelligence from Spanish prisoners, formed alliances with Indians, navigated inland waterways, and attacked with complete surprise by making wide detours to avoid detection. After plundering Villahermosa, Mexico, forty miles inland, they returned to the mouth of the river only to find the Spaniards had taken their ships and were ready to attack. Thanks to their superior weapons and having their backs to the wall, the buccaneers defeated the Spanish, but were left without their ships.

Where others might have gone to hide in the countryside, Morgan and his men used four canoes and two barques to continue their raiding. They crossed the Bay of Honduras, took the town of Truxillo and a vessel that was there, and travelled by canoe thirty-seven miles up the Nicaragua River to attack Grenada.

Even then, Grenada was not a town, but a great city with seven churches, a cathedral, colleges, and six companies of Spanish troops! Within hours the town was captured and plundered.

Almost all of those who left with Morgan returned twenty-two months later as rich men. Morgan’s success led to owning a plantation and getting married. He became close with Governor Thomas Modyford and the leading men of Jamaica.

After he was named Admiral of the Brethren of the Coast, as the buccaneers were called, Morgan announced a rendezvous away from Jamaica and prying ears.

One of the men who joined Morgan at this time, and a chief source of information, was Alexander Esquemeling, also known as John Esquemeling. While he is suspected to have embellished his work at times, another Morgan biographer, Stephen Talty, claims Esquemeling’s account is verified by Spanish documents and Morgan’s reports.

Thomas tells of Morgan’s raids on Puerto del Principe, Portobello, and Panama. He asserts Morgan’s charisma and oratory skills enabled him to lead men who had no particular loyalty to himself, Jamaica, or Britain. As in his earlier raids, he gathers intelligence and uses local Indians to try surprising the places he raids. When this fails, the buccaneers are able to avoid or overcome Spanish forces, but the inhabitants flee with most of their valuables, reducing the amount of plunder obtained and increasing the time a city must be held while the buccaneers search the countryside for more loot.

In later years Morgan acquired more land and, when possible, pushed for the strengthening of the island’s defenses. He also worked to suppress the continued piracy and privateering because he knew the encouragement of trade was the best way for Jamaica to flourish.

In relating the stories of these raids, Thomas questions decisions Morgan made. He wonders why Morgan didn’t lead the advance party sent to overcome the fort at Chagres before the attack on Panama and uses hindsight in chastising him for not bringing more provisions on the long journey to Panama.

In other instances he skips over the detailed ways Morgan improvised and deceived the Spaniards. The brilliant things he did to fool and overcome the Spanish fleet that blocked the buccaneers at Lake Maracaibo, and how the buccaneers later sailed past the fort there without being destroyed by the many cannons covering the exit, were amazing and show Morgan at the pinnacle of his tactical genius.

Too much attention is paid to Morgan’s involvement in politics and the way he was received in London as a hero instead of a prisoner. Certainly it takes an amazing man to have arrived as a prisoner and then leave with a knighthood and appointment as Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica. But too much coverage is given to conflicts with future governors and those same governors’ disagreements with the island’s council.

In evaluating the author’s efforts and the book itself, I must admit direct quotes from Dudley Pope’s Harry Morgan’s Way and Stephen Talty’s Empire of Blue Water were used so often I found myself wondering why Thomas decided to write his own biography of Morgan. Even in his final summation he uses a direct quote by Talty to define the man.

The skirmishes and battles Morgan engaged in were summarized and very matter-of-fact. The only new information brought to light in this tome was the politics.

Review Copyrighted ©2016 by Irwin Bryan

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