Wealth, Rogues and Natural Disasters


The subtitle of this book is “Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe that Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign.” Author Stephan Talty skillfully combines these three themes in this informative, entertaining book. We are introduced to the pirate world of the Caribbean, which produced men like Henry Morgan and Blackbeard. They were typical of 17th century Englishmen who sought a new life after the turmoil of their country’s civil wars.

The object of their quest was the wealth Spain was extracting from the Americas. Talty describes the treasure of the New World as acting like a “steroid on the Spanish Empire, expanding it beyond its natural dimensions.” The result was a struggle between Spain and England as they fought for “supremacy in faraway lands.” In mid-century, Spain was still the dominant power and England the upstart under Oliver Cromwell.

Although the book focuses on Henry Morgan’s career, the reader is provided with a good description of the Caribbean buccaneer’s life. We learn that pirates were surprisingly democratic, a fact the author ascribes to the “leveler” tradition in Cromwell’s army. A captain was in charge of his ship only when it was in combat; otherwise he got no more respect, or better quarters, than his peers.

Under the circumstances Morgan’s leadership was remarkable. As Talty points out, he possessed exceptional navigational skills. At a time when there were no reliable charts of the Caribbean, Morgan undertook voyages covering thousands of miles. Yet each time he brought most of his men back safely and considerably wealthier.

Caribbean pirates had three primary enemies. Talty writes that disease killed more men than enemy bullets. Naturally the Spanish were a major threat and finally there was the weather. “A storm in the age of sail was a terrifying event. The wind tore the sails and rigging to shreds.” One of the reasons Morgan’s voyages were so successful was that for most of his career he managed to avoid a “great tempest.”

Superstition was particularly rife in the minds of 17th-century sailors. Women on shipboard were regarded as bad luck and were blamed for everything from waterspouts to windless days. (Remember this was the age of the Salem witch trials). As late as 1808 an English admiral wrote, “I never knew a woman brought to sea that some mischief did not befall the vessel”.

The “Catastrophe that Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign” is vividly described in the final chapter entitled “Apocalypse.” The reference is to the tsunami/earthquake that hit the epicenter of pirate life, the Jamaican town of Port Royal, in 1692. Port Royal, a Caribbean version of Sodom and Gomorrah, disappeared in six minutes. Talty tells us that 90 percent of Port Royal’s buildings were destroyed and 70 percent of her population died (talk about retribution!).

Henry Morgan died in 1688 at age 53, following a life of excess. It is said he grew so large his tailor couldn’t design a coat big enough to cover his stomach. Sometime during the 1692 tsunami/earthquake his coffin was “spewed out into the churning waters of Port Royal Harbor.”  It was never found.

Empire of Blue Water is a story well told. Talty clearly enjoys his subject and his colorful, jaunty style does justice to the rogues he is describing.