After venturing into Siberia for a spell, then hiding out in the holt (forest) with Buccmaster of Holland, I have set off onto yet another frontier — perhaps the widest and wildest frontier of them all.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the maritime frontier of North and Central America and across the sea to Africa was the most important frontier in the world. Battle for control of trade routes and the lucrative produce of sugar islands and the Spanish gold and silver mines of Mexico and South America drove the great power rivalry of the era and led directly to the rise of Great Britain as the dominant naval power of the world.
Perhaps the best guide to this frontier is one Benerson Little: Navy SEAL; adept swordsman; historian. Little wrote several seminal non-fiction works on piracy, the two most important being “The Sea Rover’s Practice,” and “The Buccaneer’s Realm.” The first is an examination of the tactics and techniques of the sweet trade, with the perspective of a man who has expertise in modern naval special operations warfare. Outstanding. I was particularly taken with his focus on the primary weapon of the buccaneer/privateer/pirate. No, it was not the cutlass — it was the long musket.
The sea rovers were early skilled marksmen, as frontier partisans must be. This is in part because some of them had backgrounds as boucaniers — hunters of wild cattle and pigs — on Hispaniola. And the buccaneer musket was an effective weapon in small-boat attacks and raids ashore.
“The Buccaneer’s Realm” is a broader cultural study of the plunderers of the great arc of the Spanish Main. It is as fine a study of a frontier culture as “The Hunters of Kentucky” or “Give Your Heart To The Hawks.”
Now Benerson Little has turned his hand to fiction. I just downloaded “Fortune’s Whelp,” which is promised as the first of a series. I shall be deeply occupied this evening…
Privateer, Swordsman and Rake:
Set in the 17th century during the heyday of privateering and the decline of buccaneering, Fortune’s Whelp is a brash, swords-out sea-going adventure. Scotsman Edward MacNaughton, a former privateer captain, twice accused and acquitted of piracy and currently seeking a commission, is ensnared in the intrigue associated with the attempt to assassinate King William III in 1696. Who plots to kill the king, who will rise in rebellion—and which of three women in his life, the dangerous smuggler, the wealthy widow with a dark past, or the former lover seeking independence — might kill to further political ends? Variously wooing and defying Fortune, Captain MacNaughton approaches life in the same way he wields a sword or commands a fighting ship: with the heart of a lion and the craft of a fox.
I exchanged e-mails with Mr. Little and he tells us this:
Fortune’s Whelp will have at least two or three sequels, and assuming there’s still interest, I’ll go back to circa 1680 and recount his earlier
I see in Little a simpatico soul. We must confront honestly the sordid brutality and nastiness of the world we explore — no romantic gloss. Yet still we love it. Be it scalphunters in the borderlands or pyrates on the Main… they be bad, but they be fascinating. His work is an inspiration for my own effort to make accurate, unflinching myth-busting, non-fiction as readable and exciting as any legend.
Little also serves as a historical consultant for STARZ “Black Sails,” which really hit its stride in its second season. (And it has an outstanding soundtrack; see below). The story is a purported sequel to “Treasure Island,” but it ain’t for kids. No. No. No. It be a treasure trove of sex and violence a la “Game of Thrones.” (But better. Seriously.) I binge watched Season 2 a couple of months ago and loved it.
Little is featured in this clip discussing Edward “Blackbeard” Teach’s arrival on the scene…
So, me hearties! I ship out tonight on dark waters. I shall return bearing tales…
Craig Rullman says
This skill in sea born musketry also portends the advent and necessity of Marines in the foretops. I can tell you from personal experience that shooting accurately from boat to boat is extremely difficult, particularly in smaller craft, or toward smaller craft. Of course, precision shooting is one thing, and I suspect much of the pirate version was massed fires and deck-raking. But this is a fabulous trail you are tracking..
More art than science, I bet. Let’s see, forward movement; movement up and down — not predictable. Target moving same…. Sheesh.
Always thought the SEALs cutting the string on three Somali pirates simultaneously to save Capt. Phillips of the Maersk Alabama was an extraordinary piece of work. Close range, but still… multiple challenges and zero margin for error. And the target wasn’t really head-and-shoulders at 100 feet, since the shots had to be instantly fatal. Just… wow.
Gene Wolfe’s novel Pirate Freedom deals with the transition of the buccaneers from hunters to pirates. It’s probably the most realistic portrayal of piracy that I’ve read. That’s despite the fact the plot involves time-travel.
I’ve heard good things about Wolfe…
Wolfe’s a good if not Great writer. His work is not always accessible. Similar to that book written in “shadow language,” his four book series The Book of the New Sun uses a lot of rare words to describe the future world. They are real words (barring one he accidentally misspelled), but you’d need an expansive dictionary to find half of them.
He also tends to imply things rather than outright say them. Sometimes on a first reading the story will make no sense. On the second, you will pick up hints that will suddenly make the story clear.
Pirate Freedom is one his most accessible and certainly the most “Frontier Partisan.” It might not be as good as Sabatini’s Captain Blood, but it certainly is one of the best pirate books I’ve read.
cool — I’ll check it out.
Actually, I do think Wolfe is a great writer. I read the “New Sun” series when I was 16 and loved it. Yes, it wasn’t like reading a Lin Carter or Cussler novel, but any unfamiliar words made themselves clear (as they should by any good writer) just as when I’m reading a book with some Spanish or German terms thrown in there.
Wolfe admires Proust, JRRT (whom he corresponded with), Borges and Chesterton and it shows. He’s also loved Robert E. Howard, Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs his whole life and that definitely shows as well. Wolfe has said his goal as a writer is to craft stories that can be read with pleasure and then reread with more pleasure. I reread the “New Sun” and “Long Sun” books and learned that all over again.
Wolfe is a veteran of the Korean War who served at the front. He knows what the sharp end looks like. He also has a deep and obvious love of traditional Western Civilization, which is possibly one reason he’s never won a Hugo despite being nominated numerous times. I have a feeling that he would love Kingsnorth’s book.
Here is a great essay by Wolfe where he talks about JRRT, REH and what we’re losing in the West. I think Kingsnorth would appreciate it as well.
Thx for that, amigo — looking forward to reading the essay.
Well, you might as well check out this quickie:
Wolfe references REH twice. He also talks about boxing, Musashi and Wild Bill Hickock.
M Rogers says
I believe pre-17th Century (at least English) pirates also used longbows.
Believe you are correct.
Keith West says
Aargh! More books to read.
Eccentric Cowboy says
Blast it Jim! I’m trying to save money and then you have to bring this sort of brilliance to my attention! I already have a pile of work I’ve already spent money on that I have to read, but I am culturally and impulsively obligated to read this stuff now. I hope you’re happy with yourself. 😉
In all seriousness, this stuff is actually quite a revelation to me. I’ve always been aware that men of the seas used firearms, but I thought these were mostly blunderbusses for repelling boarders. The idea that they could be hunters as well honestly never entered my head, and I am now fascinated beyond measure.
I suppose that I never figured on muskets being used in combat much good what with the shifting of the deck beneath your feet. At least not at any distance. It must have been a devil of a time keeping powder dry on those decks!
Most privateering and pirate vessels were small and carried few guns (cannon) and those they did were light. Musketry was their most effective way of projecting force. Also, especially in the buccaneering days with Henry Morgan, etc., there was a fair amount of campaigning on land.
lane batot says
Oh aye, matey–who can resist a good pirates’ tale? Landlubber that I am, I prefer to do my looting and pillaging(ONLY to those so deserving, I will state….) in a more terrestrial fashion, but I sure enjoy WATCHING a good pirate flick! And music! Whenever I’m up to some mischief, I LOVE to listen to my “Pirates Of the Carribean” soundtrack to get me in the right mood! I’ve had my eye on this awhile–waiting for cheaper used copies–but yeah, an eventual MUST for moi! And you know one of old Blackbeard’s favorite hideouts and ambush spots was off the coast of my own N. C.!(though I’m more of an inland Cherokee mountain boy, or piedmont Cheraw/Keyauwee, myself…..)
You’d like Black Sails, I think. First season is good, but pretty landbound and full of political maneuvering. Season 2 hits its stride, travels more; more action at sea, and the political machinations of Season 1 start to bear fruit in action. Season 3 I’m not watching yet, but from what I hear it’s outstanding as well. Plus, there’s wenches.
Thanks for the heads up on Little. Sounds like good readin’. If you want a great travelogue and a fine insight on British pirates (especially in Madagascar), then I recommend Rushby’s Searching for Pirate Heaven.
BTW (since you mentioned the East), here’s one to keep in mind for that far future time when you wanna get back to the Orient:
Bedford-Jones was one of the great pulp writers.
@ Lane: Hey, my forefather was born not far from the NC coast. He rambled on to TN, knifed a man, grabbed a Cherokee-Melungeon gal and headed for MO. We two are probably related. Like I didn’t have enough problems. 😛
Oh, you two are related alright…
lane batot says
I BET that feller NEEDED knifin’! Most folks don’t even know whut-tha-heck a Melungeon is! I lived back-and-forth on the Tennessee/North Carolina border for decades, so I well know about them-thar Melungeons! A fascinating group, that……..And–good to hear from ye CUZ! Any Murdocks er Grogans in yer bloodlines? That’s me Maw’s side, from North Georgia–stereo-type Scotch-Irish-Cherokees to the core!
Well, Samuel Richardson shanked that ol’ boy over a woman, so make your call on that. Yeah, my ancestress, Mary Jane Bunch was part Melungeon.
I don’t think I’ve got either of the clans you named in my bloodline (on this side of the Pond). Samuel’s dad, James, settled in NC after the Revolution. He was straight off the boat from Ulster. Samuel was in Missouri before he had kids. So, we could both be descended from James. That’s how it would have to work, though a few other of my later Richardson ancestresses were from Southern families. There is that.
Growing up where you did, Lane, you probably weren’t far from REH scholar, Rusty Burke, at some point. He’s from around there (TN side).
There are worse reasons. And we got you out of the deal, so…
john maddox roberts says
One problem here is that most people, because of popular entertainment, think that the terms pirate, buccaneer, privateer and corsair mean the same thing,when they are quite separate. Another thing most people miss is that they think way to fight piracy is to attack their ships on the high seas. Nothing of the sort. Since the time of Pompey the Great it has been known that the way to destroy pirates is to attack and destroy their land bases. Ask Woodes Rogers. The Somali pirates would be easy to defeat if someone was hardass enough to do the necessary: Hit their ports with a few thousand tons of napalm. But current sensibilities will not allow it so the problem goes on and on.
True on all counts. I was rather impressed that the U.S. took out 150 al-Shabab recently.
“The Shore’s of Tripoli” from the Marine Corp Hymn was because during The First Barbary War we attacked the Barbary Corsairs on their own ground.
Saddle Tramp says
” What is the difference between a pirate and an emperor apart from the scale of action? Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor. ”
— St. Augustine
City of God
By the way the recent National Geographic featured an article on Pirates dispeling some common myths. It was on the magazine rack and I stole a free read ( just last week ). Also highlighted some female pirates as well. I say myth can be more jmportant than facts at times. We need ’em to inspire us to the truth to whatever degree that may be possible.
Jim, hoping BORDERLAND NOIR has hit my P.O. Box when I get back to Cali. Nice write-up on the nights event. Here’s a companion quote that ties in with the Land Pirate on horseback:
” Oh, I have no family of my own,” she told the El Paso Times in 1977, “but I have many families.”
— Señora Doña María Luz Corral de Villa
Laid over for the night at the Triple T in Tucson,
Saddle Tramp says
National Geographic March / April 2016:
Fletcher Vredenburgh says
Damn, more for the TBR. This looks really good.
I’m particularly proud of my collection of books on the history of New World freebooting and piracy. Brutal and bloody as it was, I’m still held in thrall by tales of the period. Morgan’s raid on Panama, Roberts off Africa and Teach off the US. Wild stuff. It’s difficult to imagine the amount of treasure stolen over the centuries and blood spilled in the doing.
Howard Andrew Jones and I read and discussed all the Captain Blood stories over at Black Gate some time back. Good fun.
Saddle Tramp says
Irish Pirate Queens and sad news…
Bad news at my doorstep […]
Ranch & Reata Magazine just arrived yesterday.
A letter from the publisher Bill Reynolds was attached. Bill announced that R&R Magazine is hanging up the spurs. The end of the trail after 5 years. He said it could no longer financially sustain itself in their subscription only efforts of putting out a high quality magazine. Sad indeed.
This Issue 6.1 will be the last. They held to their high standard up to the last. A high bar indeed. Back issues are still currently available. Tom Russell recently alluded to a book of his R&R essays that may be published. I hope so. I hope in hardback as well as they are worthy of it.
Here’s an excerpt from Tom’s final essay in R&R:
” One of my far distant aunts was an Irish Pirate Queen, Grace O’ Malley, born 1530, who owned a thousand head of horses. My father’s father was a Sheriff and Iowa horse trader. Some of the ancestral progeny, myself included ended up employed or recreating in the New World sallons like the Gulf Club – where many things fall between the cup and the lip. ”
Tom’s fine essay was on, shall we say the finer aspects of dining and drinking.
Here’s a toast to R&R that held onto their standards to the end…
Oh, that’s a bummer. I feel bad that I never got a sub. Gotta support the good stuff.
Saddle Tramp says
That would be ” saloons ” …
Would not want to misrepresent Tom’s quote thinking it might be ” salon ” or something.
Sorry Jim. Using this phone most times. Way too small and screen small and condensed and I must be half blind at first review…
Moving too fast these days!
I am a thick-fingered galoot myself.