By: Benerson Little
Reviewed by: David Wyman
Potomac Books, 2007
Sixteen men on a dead man’s chest:
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
—Song not sung by any real pirate I’ve ever read about.
It is rare for a critic to run across a regionally-written popular history so overall perfect in its scholarship and lively prose as The Buccaneer’s Realm by Huntsville’s Benerson Little, a follow-up of sorts to his 2006 book The Sea Rover’s Practice. If you want the scoop on the real Pirates of the Caribbean, this is the book for you.
Never, anywhere, will you find a more interesting, readable, historically accurate account of Europe’s black-market naval activities in the New World. The last quarter of the seventeenth century was the exciting, volatile era of proto-piracy, a time in which all the essential elements of the trade—from battle tactics to hide-outs and refitting stations—were developed and perfected. During these years, Europe engaged private ships and crews (privateers) to carry its internal warfare to the Western Hemisphere. It was the last time these marauders enjoyed a hint of respectability; by the dawn of the eighteenth century Europe had renounced the strategy (supposedly), and the privateers became outcasts, men without a country—pirates, with all the tools and terminology we hear about in the movies.
Do most of us know the difference between “corsairs,” “buccaneers,” “rovers,” and “pirates"? Do you know the difference between a “rapier” and a “cutlass”? Does anybody know where “The Spanish Main” actually was? Benerson Little knows: ships and weaponry, routes and maps, journals and correspondence.
What else does Little know? Ten (count ’em, ten!) appendices on everything from pirate loot (“pieces of eight”) to pirate barbeque.
Little’s narrative passages at the beginning of many chapters put the reader directly into the action: “A visitor approaching Petit Goave, a small, rough town on the northern coast of the southwestern peninsula of Hispanola (sic), is first met off shore by the entrancing scent of orange and lime blossoms….”
The book’s graphics are excellent in every way. The explanatory line drawings of ships and weapons by David J. Meagher are clean and easy to scan—a perfect accompaniment to the word-pictures painted by the text. Special praise must go to the maps and charts, prepared by the author and Bree and Courtney Little; these reveal the eye and skills of a trained marine cartographer. It should not surprise readers that Little, a former Navy SEAL, has given them a shining work of classic naval history, about a most unclassic—and delightfully obscure—period in the long, long tale of The Sea.
The Buccaneer’s Realm is flawed in only one respect: the print is too small. This wonderful book is rendered in 8.5 Pica type; the standard is twelve-point, with ten-point Pica reserved for footnotes and block quotations.
This type is the result of the book’s six-by-nine inch hardcover format. The current standard for popular history is slightly larger by 5/8 to one inch in quality paperbound format. The shortcomings of this hardcover release may also explain the keenly felt lack of historical-source illustrations—woodcuts, engravings, and contemporaneous paintings.
Formatting aside, The Buccaneer’s Realm is worth your time and attention. Get a pair of reader specs and set sail for the Spanish Main. Yo-ho, me hearties!
David Wyman is an author, actor, and historian in Shelby County.