RogerBW's Blog

The Sea Rover's Practice, Benerson Little 24 June 2022

2005 non-fiction. Using mostly primary sources, the author attempts to determine just what pirates, privateers, and other ne'er-do-wells of the sea got up to in the Golden Age of Piracy.

Like any historian, the author also has a view. As an ex-SEAL (which he mentions several times), he clearly feels some sympathy with these men who made a living by violence on and from the sea, and while he does a fair job of demolishing romantic myths he also has a fair stab at replacing them. The successful pirate band is seen as an irregular force of the sea, living and dying by intelligence and clever tactics against superior opposition, and the whole theft, rape and murder thing gets largely dismissed as just part of the tough times.

There is good material here – particularly the way that many rovers' reliance on accurate musket fire (with lots of training so that the shooters could reach the limits of accuracy imposed by the weapons) rather than big guns constrained their tactics but made them highly effective if used correctly. But, alas, there are two major problems. The first is that the writing style is dreary; this should be exciting subject matter, but having extracted a number of relevant passages on a subject Little goes on to explain what they'll say, then quote them, then go on to the next matter, with no real sense of pace or progress. Sometimes enthusiasms show: Little talks much more about muskets than about pistols, for example. There's some effort to build up tension by spending the first chapter on setting up Watling's attack on Arica in 1690, then waiting until the last chapter to describe what happened in the fight, but this feels at best artificial (and if we've been paying attention to the intervening chapters we'll have a pretty good idea of how this fight is going to go).

The other problem is the level of trivial errors. If whatever editorial process this book went through allowed "picaresque" for "picturesque", "principle" for "principal", "Corteś" for "Cortés", "free reign" for "free rein"… how can I trust any of the research that went into the book to be represented correctly? If those errors weren't noticed, who might have spotted transposed numbers or words? Why would anyone let through a pair of sentences like this:

Under small arms fire from loopholes in the steerage bulkhead, the boarders found a cannon still loaded and turned it against the steerage, just as boarders on the quarterdeck above the steerage fired their pistols into the powder chests arrayed on deck, piercing them so that they would have little effect if fired. If fired, the powder chests would explode, spraying the boarders with shrapnel.

rather than unravelling the latter part to say something like "powder chests were arrayed on deck, to be ignited by the defenders so that they would explode and spray the boarders with shrapnel; but on this occasion the boarders on the quarterdeck shot the chests first, to pierce them and reduce their explosive force"? I mean, it's 2005; we have word processors; we can rearrange clumsy phrasing easily rather than having to rewrite whole paragraphs in longhand.

As source material for historical games, which may not necessarily be entirely accurate but must absolutely be consistent, it's not bad; but it's a dull read that's surprisingly hard work. (One might indeed do better to skip much of the prose and jump straight to the appendices, with a handy lexicon and details of things like effective musket range and the weight of a barrel of beef.) There are substantial gaps; for example there's little sense of interface with the larger economy, of where the loot would go after pirates had sold it at Port Royal or Tortuga and how it could ultimately be converted into legitimate coin to flow back the other way. Perhaps that's not considered part of the brief; if you want to know what pirates did, then if you can trust the book this is a decent source for it, but it reminds me of school history, treating exciting things so flatly that they turned into a source of boredom.

(Thanks to dp for putting me on to this – I'll never read it again, but I may well use it as a reference.)

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