BOOK REVIEW: How History’s Greatest Pirates Pillaged, Plundered, and Got Away with It – The Stories, Techniques, and Tactics of the Most Feared Sea Rovers from 1500-1800

By Benerson Little, Fair Winds Press, Beverly, MA (2011).

Reviewed by Capt. Roger F. Jones, USN (Ret.)

From the cover, one might be forgiven for thinking that Little’s book could be an “ode to piracy,” but after reading a few pages, it is clear that the author has something very different in mind.  He has effectively created a “who’s who” among those who were the most successful in the “golden age” of pirates, but he also shows that they were nothing like the romantic or chivalrous characters in such Hollywood epics as “Captain Blood” or the comedic types in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  Little sets out to paint a picture of those buccaneers who were at the top of the pyramid of their kind during the three centuries he covers, primarily using plunder and reputation as a yardstick – but he also shows that they were each incredibly avaricious, treacherous, brutal, and sadistic.  “Walking the plank” might well have been one of their more humane forms of execution.

The author describes the strategy and tactics used by pirates to capture, ransack, and loot towns and vessels, although sometimes they were willing to settle for the payment of tribute or ransom.  Often, the sailors of captured ships were compelled to join the pirate band or be killed.  During this period of history, it was possible for a successful pirate captain to become the ruler of a small region, or even an admiral of a nation’s fleet.  However, when the age of sail was overtaken by the age of steam, states and principalities could defend themselves far more effectively, and piracy began to fade as an occupation.  Piracy is hardly dead, however; as the author notes, Somalian pirates operate today in the waters off northeastern Africa (as do buccaneers in the Straits of Malacca).

Little has assembled a large and impressive body of references on piratical activities in the historical era covered in this book, and he analyzes their reliability.  A large number of excellent, detailed historical maps and drawings are included, many in full color.  He begins with the most successful of the Barbary corsairs, Kheir-ed-Din Barbarossa (1470s-1546), who conquered Algiers and “became the government who authorized the pirate.”  Next is Grace O’Malley (1530s-1603), who terrorized the coasts of Ireland, in the Celtic tradition of female warriors.  Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, Jean LaFitte and others – a veritable “Who’s Who” – of the Spanish Main’s buccaneers are described, as well as famous pirates of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.  Tactics and weapons are described in detail – in this, Little is able to make good use of his expertise as a fencer and a former Navy SEAL.

Overall, I found this to be an interesting and very readable book.  His writing skills and command of language are top-notch.  Little clearly knows his subject well and makes a compelling case for his choice of who were the most successful pirates of the past and what made them so.

Captain Jones served 3 years on active duty and 30 in the active reserve as a cryptologist. He also served many years as a paper reviewer in the American Chemical Society and the Society of Plastics Engineers and contributes reviews to Amazon.com.

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