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Buccaneers 1620-1700 by Angus Konstam

Buccaneers 1620-1700 (2000)

by Angus Konstam

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Angus Konstam

Buccaneers 1620-1670

Osprey, Paperback, [2000].

4to. 64 pp. Elite 69. Illustrated by Angus McBride.

First published, 2000.


The Buccaneers and Their Victims
- The Spanish Main During the Buccaneer Era
- The Rise of the Buccaneers
- The Brethren of the Coast
- Composition of Buccaneer Bands
- Buccaneer Dress
- Organisation and Allegiance
The Buccaneering Art of War
- Buccaneer Weapons
- Tactics
- Battles
- Fighting at Sea
Buccaneer Commanders
- Christopher Myngs (1620-1666)
- Henry Morgan (c. 1635-88)
- Jean David Nau 'L'Olonnais' (c. 1635-68)
- Michel de Grammont 'Le Chevalier' (c. 1650-88)
- Laurens Cornelis Boudewijn de Graaf (c. 1651-1702)
The World of the Buccaneers
- Buccaneer Ports
- Buccaneer Plunder
- Buccaneering Ships
- The End of the Buccaneer Era
The Plates


For better or for worse, I am an unabashed fan of Osprey Publishing. For those of us unfortunate enough to be deeply fascinated by history, but daunted by its scope and complexity, the Osprey books are just about the finest place to start. Since their forte is military history - it's a little disturbing to browse Osprey's stupendous catalogue and realise how much of human history consists of wars! - one should make allowances for detailed descriptions of weaponry, uniforms and battle tactics. None of these, however, is at the expense of fine historical background, vivid portraits of the most important personalities or the wider causes/consequences that history is really all about.

Two things about this book should be made clear in the beginning; and they are true for Osprey's Elite series in general. First, as one might expect from a slim volume of only 64 pages, this is by no means a comprehensive historical study. It is intended to be nothing more than a brief introduction to the subject, therefore any accusations of incompleteness are beside the point. Second, despite its limited size and scope, this book is no fiction. It attempts to be as scholarly as possible, a difficult enough task when dealing with a historical period rife with myths and legends. There are no footnotes, of course, but those who doubt the integrity of the author may consult the sources from the Bibliography.

The text of Mr Konstam is excellent. My only qualms are certain dryness now and then or several rather awkward repetitions between neighbouring sentences. No matter. The important thing is that the text is perfectly organised, highly informative and written with a rare degree of clarity. I am often amazed how much with how few words Mr Konstam manages to say. The captions to the numerous illustrations and to the ten plates by Angus McBride (to be discussed in detail later) are also exemplary. They contain fairly few repetitions with the main text and many additional nuances that make the big picture fuller. I can do Mr Konstam justice, or at least try, only by outlining the major moments of his discussion of this deeply fascinating historical phenomenon: the 17th century buccaneers. The book's a treasure trove of non-fiction that reads better than many adventure novels.

To begin with, Mr Konstam is quite open about his sources and he never misses to add his favourite adverb, "reputedly", when something is more likely to be fiction. The bible of all scientists studying this branch of piratology is De Americaesche Zee-Rovers, first published in Amsterdam in 1678, and six years later translated into English as Buccaneers of America. The author of this remarkable work was the Dutch surgeon Alexandre Exquemeling who lived for 12 years among the French buccaneers on Tortuga, the small island off the North-West coast of Hispaniola that was one of the most famous buccaneer dens in the mid-17th century and has become legendary in the literature ever since. Of course Mr Exquemeling's facts should be taken with a pinch of salt and, when possible, compared with other contemporary accounts such as official printed documents. This, as much as possible, Mr Konstam does meticulously.

The etymology of the word "buccaneer" has been subject of a great argument among piratologists. Mr Konstam agrees with what is probably the truest version: "boucan", in the local Arawak dialect, meant the smoking platform used by the early hunters; hence first "boucanniers" and later "buccaneers". For in the beginning of the 17th century they were indeed hunters that populated many Caribbean islands abandoned by the Spanish who were too busy colonising the mainland. Another famous term which Mr Konstam discusses critically is "Brethren from the Coast", a rather romantic name for rather violent people. Incidentally, the phrase was never used by contemporary writers, Exquemeling included, and was probably a later invention. Likewise, "The Golden Age of Piracy", which ironically does not refer to the buccaneers but to the first few decades of the 18th century, was coined by later writers who had never lived through these times and could regard them with sweet nostalgia.

Even the most rigorously accurate history of the buccaneers, so far as can be gathered, reads like an adventure novel on par with Treasure Island - but with the great advantage that it consists of (mostly) non-fiction. As already mentioned, early buccaneers were hunters of various animals (pigs, cattle), left by the Spanish and turned wild, whose meat they smoked and then traded with passing ships. By the 1630s, however, most buccaneers switched to a much more lucrative profession - piracy - and by the 1650s the term "buccaneer" was used to describe exclusively the pirates that operated in the Caribbean, even though there were still many hunters scattered in the woods. For several decades the buccaneers made an astonishing progress in their warfare: in the 1630s they attacked mostly solitary Spanish ships that were passing by, using small light boats called "piraguas"; by the 1660s the heyday of the buccaneer era had begun and for the next few decades most buccaneer raids were massive amphibious operations against some of the biggest (and richest) Spanish cities in the Caribbean.

Two things united all buccaneers: large booty and hate for Spain and everything Spanish. It is probably safe to say that the Spaniards are the greatest land pirates in human history. Thanks exclusively to them the so called "discovery" of America turned out to be its nearly complete devastation. In Europe, the Spanish Main, as Spain's overseas dominions were known, was regarded as a constant source of precious metals; in the mines of Mexico and Peru, those natives who had escaped the genocide were converted into slaves who worked themselves to death underground. Nor did the Spanish show any mercy towards European "interlopers" - French, British or Dutch - who dared desecrate the American continent with their settlements. The massacre of a French colony in Florida by the Spanish in 1565 has remained in history due to its unimaginable cruelty. Among the early buccaneers there must have been a fair number of planters who turned to piracy merely because the Spanish had burned everything they possessed.

Meanwhile the exploitation of the mainland was in full swing. Spanish galleons laden with treasures gathered together in Havana and then, as a well-protected convoy, sailed for Spain. These "treasure fleets", or simply flotas as they were known, always remained too strong even for the buccaneers. But the ports were the major weakness of the Spanish Main. Even those who did have formidable fortifications were badly neglected, with small and ill-trained garrisons. Spain was too much involved in European wars to pay much attention to her colonies, and the buccaneers used this neglect to the full. Only Havana, like the flotas, remained always too big, but many other cities in which silver and gold were gathered in huge amounts - Porto Bello, Panama, Maracaibo, Campeche, Vera Cruz - did suffer devastating buccaneer raids. A simple comparison may suggest the deadly impact on the Spanish economy that the pirates must have had. One of de Graaf's greatest successes brought him some 120 000 "pieces of eight". Compare this with the monthly wage of a Spanish naval captain at the time: 24 of the same coins!

By the middle of the 17th century even the Spanish couldn't manage a whole new continent, and a large one, so official European colonies appeared in the Caribbean. First were the French on Hispaniola and Tortuga, then the British captured Jamaica (1655) and its capital, Port Royal, became one of the most notorious buccaneer ports during the 1660s. The historical background of the era is rather complicated but Mr Konstam, again, has done a fine job summarising the most important points. Most buccaneers actually acted almost exclusively as privateers, namely pirates under contract to a crown. Colonial governors were usually eager to issue the so called "letters or marque", also known as "letters of reprisal", which guaranteed some dubious protection for the buccaneers if their raid were unsuccessful. Far more important than these letters was the fact that French and British governors provided buccaneers with secure ports where plunder could be sold and provisions could be bought. Thus hiring buccaneers was at the time a powerful way to disturb the enemy's, and support your own, economy. Since there was almost always a war between Spain and Britain or France, obtaining letters of marque was never a problem. The crown, of course, received a considerable share of the booty.

Finally, however, changes on the political map of Europe put an end to the buccaneer era. The Treaty of Madrid (1670) made Port Royal inconvenient for buccaneers; the laws against piracy that were introduced there in 1681 made it forbidden land. For the next few decades the French had the upper hand and several ambitious attacks were organised, but the Treaty of Riswijk (1697) ended this buccaneer hegemony as well; the same year was the sacking of Cartagena, the last of the great raids. Without letters of marque, the buccaneers became ordinary pirates who had little chance of surviving. Nobody really hunted them down, but there were no secure ports where to mend their ships or sell their plunder, either. Moreover, the same political changes in Europe had disturbed the usual "everybody against Spain" attitude. More and more buccaneers became privateers for their own countries against everybody else. Charismatic commanders, large fleets and amphibious raids remained in the past forever.

This, in a very perfunctory fashion, is the history of the buccaneers from the 17th century, most of whom - with the exception of Henry Morgan - are hardly remembered today. The text of the book, despite its very limited space, gives a great deal more detailed and compelling account of what I merely sketched above. Most important of all, it also gives vivid descriptions of the most important characters.

Mr Konstam's short biographical sketches of the most famous buccaneer captains are tremendously fascinating. In a way, there is no better illustration of the essence of the buccaneer era than the activities of its major figures. The only one to acquire vast popularity is Henry Morgan, a most remarkable Welshman who was not just knighted for his terrorizing the Spanish colonies even in peace - his sacking of Panama came after the Treaty of Madrid, and both he and the Governor of Jamaica who supported him knew that - but towards the end of his life he gave up buccaneering and became vice-governor of Jamaica. There he died peacefully in his bed, after years of monstrous over-drinking and over-eating. It is no coincidence that there is a rum brand "Captain Morgan" (mix 1:3 with Coca-Cola and two slices of lemon for the best Cuba Libre), nor were some of the most notorious stories about him untrue. Probably the most horrible one is his using a human shield of monks and nuns while attacking one of Porto Bello's forts. Though some Spanish commanders were not at all squeamish, and decimated the lines of their own God's servants, the trademark audacity of the buccaneers won the battle. When the story appeared in English in 1684, as part of Exquemeling's book, Henry immediately sued the Dutchman. He won the case but the chances are that the story is a non-fictional one.

The sacking of Panama (1670-71), despite its fairly meager financial reward, has entered the history as one of the most successful buccaneer operations. The real battle, the one before the city walls in which Morgan and 1200 buccaneers met a Spanish force of similar size, but strengthened with cavalry, could not pass for mere skirmish even by the European standards of the time. One of Mr Konstam's many perceptive touches is his mentioning that in the buccaneer lines there were many ex-soldiers from whose skills the ex-pirates greatly profited. Exquemeling describes Morgan's people advancing with drums and flags, much more like a regular army, rather than like a bunch of pirates. As a general rule, those buccaneer armies didn't have the rigorous discipline of the regular ones, but their tactical astuteness and excellent marksmanship were far superior than anything the Spaniards could offer. Indeed, the battle of Panama has entered history also due to the Spanish commander's excessively stupid plan to disorganize the buccaneers by a large herd of frightened cattle. Given the fact that many of Morgan's people had once been hunters of wild animals, and no less fine marksmen than any soldier, it is no surprise that the "secret plan" failed completely.

Despite his general fame as a cruel beast, Henry must have been also a man not without considerable intelligence and personal charisma. The fact that he led some of the greatest armies of buccaneers ever gathered is a telling demonstration of the latter; and his being elected for a vice-governor clearly suggests that he was well versed into political intrigue as well. The prestige of the buccaneer commander was the decisive factor when a new operation was prepared. There were wretched captains followed by bad luck who could barely sign a few dozen people, but the most famous ones had no trouble recruiting several hundred fierce fellows for their next attack. Surprisingly or not, the buccaneer codes were very democratic. The plunder was shared by carefully outlined in advance rules, including the share of the crown that had issued the letter of marque. Those who were crippled or in any other way incapacitated during the operation received generous pensions. Like their far less bold descendants, the pirates of the "golden age" (c. 1700-30), buccaneers pioneered "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" long before the French Revolution.

Much less known is Michel de Grammont, but he really was the French equivalent of Henry Morgan. He led the greatest attacks on Spanish ports during the 1680s, such as those on Vera Cruz (1683) and Campeche (1685). Brilliant use of military tactics was the most shining characteristic of Le Chevallier, and here he surpassed even Morgan, no mean tactician himself. The use of cavalry and the employment of ship cannons on shore as siege artillery were things that the Spaniards weren't prepared for. Who knows what Grammont could have achieved had he not vanished without a trace after one great hurricane. It's worth mentioning that in some of his greatest successes he was accompanied by "The Flying Dutchman", de Graaf, one of the very few buccaneers - the only one among the famous figures indeed - who was able to retire after long (19 years!) and distinguished career. The last thing that is known about him is that he was part of an expedition to set a colony in Louisiana in 1699.

Much has been written about the cruelty of the buccaneers, and they have often been presented as cold-blooded murderers on a large-scale. Though necessarily semi-fictional, such descriptions seem to have a solid historical foundations. Typical example is L'Olonnais, the man from Olonne, who had exactly one notable success - in Maracaibo, a city that can enter the Guinness Book as the most unfortunate one in history: for a decade or so it was plundered and ravaged by three of the most famous buccaneer captains (Morgan, Grammont, L'Olonnais). The last of these never repeated the achievement elsewhere, though, and he is supposed to have ended his life as a roast eaten by cannibals; his posthumous fame is mainly due to his passionate hate for the Spanish. Much as all buccaneers were united by anti-Spanish sentiments - most of these dated from the times when buccaneers were hunters of game, but were also hunted by Spanish patrols who regularly invaded the forests, not to mention a great deal of religious hate as most buccaneers were Protestants and thus heretics in the eyes of fanatical Catholics such as the Spaniards - the hate of L'Olonnais for everything Spanish was out of any proportion. Whether he really ate the heart of one killed Spaniard is doubtful, but there are many testimonies that he tortured wealthy citizens, not just to tell where they had hidden their valuables as was usual for the pirates, but even without any reason, for the mere sadistic pleasure of it.

So much for the text by Angus Konstam. It alone is worth the not-so-low price of the book several times over. But Osprey have always, not without good reason, taken pride in the lavish illustration of their books.

The black-and-white illustrations are a little disappointing. Most of them are contemporary paintings and engravings, which are superbly evocative, but many are unfortunately reproduced in too large a size. As a consequence, there are many fuzzy images and it is not always easy to say what they are supposed to depict. One of my chief disappointments is the only map in the book, showing the Spanish Main c. 1670 with its main ports, islands and straits. Sadly, the printing is very inferior and many of the names are barely legible - which is unforgivable since these names are mentioned many times in the text and it's vital know exactly what they refer to. Fortunately, the text usually explains with impeccable clarity where, for example, the Windward Passage is to be found.

In a stark contrast, the plates by Angus McBride are on the usual outstanding level. There are ten of them (A-J), all reproduced on full page and in stunning full colour, depicting some of the most important events described in the book. The texts that accompanies them - "The Plates" - give enough background to be self-contained and draw attention to many subtle details, especially dress and weaponry. Take a look, for instance, at Roc Braziliano who graces the front cover. It is also notable that sometimes there are wonderfully atmospheric sketches in prose here. One plate which shows a pretty wild party in a Port Royal tavern is accompanied with a magnificent description of Jamaica's capital at the time. It was the Wild West of the Caribbean. Tortured and dirty streets were full of nasty taverns and filthy brothels, all full of folk ready to relieve the buccaneers of their latest plunder. Quarrels must have been common, especially as rum was drank in industrial quantities, and it was probably not a very unusual experience to stumble in a dark alley on a corpse with a knife in his chest.

In short, Buccaneers 1620-1700 is an obligatory reading for everybody seriously interested in the history of piracy but who is not yet familiar with the subject in detail. Advanced readers, of course, should skip the volume. Brilliantly written, well illustrated and superbly bound, providing a solid background about one of the most fascinating periods of maritime history, this Osprey volume is well-worth having brand new at full price. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Mar 14, 2012 |
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