Buccaneers of the Caribbean

Simon Smith on an account of the sea raiders who plundered the Spanish colonies of the New World in the 17th century

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Reviewed by: Simon Smith
Author: Jon Latimer
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price (RRP): £20

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The book Buccaneers of the Caribbean: How Piracy Forged an Empire, 1607–1697 depicts the forging of the British empire as a series of smash and grab raids. Its author, Jon Latimer, was a gifted writer and an authority on battlefield research who gained a glowing reputation in the field of military history before his career was tragically cut short.

Latimer’s last book displays a genuine empathy for maritime communities and seafarers, befitting an expert on oceanography who loved to sail and who served as a lifeboat volunteer. At the heart of the action lies the destructive force of the schooner and sloop: agile craft, large enough to carry a battery of cannon and a well-armed crew. Guided by captains with impressive navigational skills, the marauders sought out easy targets among colonial settlements. Spanish predators, milking the New World of its gold and silver, formed their favoured prey.

The pivot on which Buccaneers turns is Oliver Cromwell’s ill-fated Western Design of 1654–5 (the protector’s operation against the Spanish in the Caribbean). Latimer sees continuity between this act of state-sponsored aggression and the exploits of earlier and later raiders. He emphasises their shared features (religious zeal, populism, opportunism) and success factors (preparedness, leadership, luck).

Ultimately, however, the book exaggerates the significance of piratical activities. Despite some spectacular pay-days, including Henry Morgan’s 1668 raid on Portobelo, average hauls from raiding may not have greatly exceeded costs, while yields from predation declined over time.

Spanish settlements certainly suffered damage at the hands of plunderers and the treasure fleets required constant and expensive protection. But piracy also diverted valuable resources from British colonisation and commerce. De-industrialisation, brought about by peaceful trade and silver inflation, weakened Spain far more than buccaneering.

Returns from raiding likewise appear paltry compared with land grabs from the native inhabitants and the forced transportation of African slaves. Pirate bands, it is true, helped safeguard Jamaica – but only while the island remained a sparsely populated colony of little value.

Financial innovation during the later 17th century enabled the British state to build up and sustain a strong naval presence in the Americas, bankrupting imperial rivals attempting to follow suit. The capability to despatch disciplined armed forces quickly to areas where they were most needed provided colonies with vital protection from external attack and slave revolt. It also called time on the pirates, whose surviving members moved on to try their luck in the Far East.

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This aside, Buccaneers of the Caribbean offers a valuable fresh perspective on freebooting. Its best moments capture the sense of dread and anticipation accompanying amphibious assaults, while paying tribute to pirate leaders’ guile. The splendid example of Henry Morgan, who disguised his flagship as a fire vessel during the daring raid on Maracaibo, evokes Latimer’s fine 2001 study Deception in War.