Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Code of the Brethren

Does anyone remember that phrase from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: "The Code of the Brethren, set down by Morgan and Bartholomew?" The book I've just finished, Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty, is about the real-life career of the "Morgan" of that phrase: Captain Henry Morgan 1635-1688.

One beautiful thing about my Colonial Reading Thing is that it's helped me to see the broader connections. When they referenced trouble between the English and the Dutch heating up, I know of the trouble they're talking about. When Morgan came to the Caribbean, the English were about 9 years away from taking New Amsterdam. You can also see many of the trends and currents swirling about the story of the pirates in the Caribbean: how the old-world thinking, mired in religion, tradition and superstition, was about to be exploded by a more humanistic, individualistic worldview.

In this book, the old worldview was quite literally, exploded, over and over again by the democratic scallywag army Morgan raised, "made up of trash tossed out of a half a dozen European countries". In my beloved Pirates movie franchise, the pirates are depicted as mercenaries and enemies of all. In Empire, Talty shows how the British crown used them as a weapon: there was a razor-thin distinction between "pirates" and "privateers." The latter (of which Morgan was the best-known) had official commissions from the Crown to pillage and plunder strategic Spanish locations. The Spanish, in contrast, were mired in their old ways. Talty talks of ships that crossed the Atlantic bearing nothing but pages and pages of records and orders. It took a very long time for anything to happen in Spain, and the Spanish were terribly overextended. They did not have a counterpart to the privateer system; in fact, it would've been anathema to their whole way of thinking, in which God was at the center of everything, not the individual.

There are many delectable characters in this book. There's the melancholy King Phillip IV of Spain, who, overwhelmed by problems he couldn't solve, spent hours staring into his own tomb. Mary Carleton, the notorious whore who had impersonated a German princess down on her luck back in England, and her cohorts, with the delectable names of No-Conscience Nan, Buttock-de-Clink Jenny and Salt-Beef Peg. The terrifying, bloodthirsty psychopathic French pirate L'Ollonais. And Morgan himself, the cunning, brave Welshman who proved to be a natural leader and considered himself not an outlaw but a British patriot.

I will confess again: I am a huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I love Jack Sparrow, and would marry him if he were real, even though I know he wouldn't make a very good husband. I also like the ride, too, and was interested to see historical correlations to several details in both: the mayor in the well (when towns had advance notice of pirate raids, wells were popular hiding places for valuables); the pirate wallowing with the pigs (livestock and provisions were as highly prized as swag); Elizabeth's reluctance to reveal herself as the governor's daughter in the first film (pirates often kidnapped citizens and held them for ransom, as a way to get valuables that had been hidden). There were real Gallows Points to warn pirates of what they were in for, just like the one Captain Jack Sparrow saluted as his boat was sinking on the way to Port Royale. Tortuga was not only a real place, but it seems as though it was accurately depicted in the first film. Pirates really did have a superstition that banned women from their ships, although the real-life pirates made a few notable exceptions, too.

The book was relatively entertaining, and although I have few doubts of its historic accuracy, it's clear from the bibliography that it's not presenting anything new, unlike Shorto's book. Talty seems to have leaned mostly on secondary sources, some going all the way back to the early 20th century. He lists only ten primary sources, and all of those are previously published documents. He also used a device that further separates this book from more scholarly works: he creates a fictional character. His fictional character is a "typical" pirate that would have sailed with Morgan. Initially, I thought his invention (named Roderick) was just an example, but Roderick is with is throughout the entire book, past the death of the Captain. Anyone reading this book should be aware, then, that it's more history-as-entertainment than scholarly work. That's not necessarily a bad thing: given the upsurge in interest in pirates, it's an enjoyable, easily digestible way to start, but it is just a starting place. If you already have some knowledge of Morgan's career or the pirates in the Caribbean, this book is not likely to add much, though.

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