Empire of Blue Water
One of the channels I follow on YouTube is The History Guy, and his videos highlight lesser known historic events he feels should be remembered. Sometimes the videos will reference pirates, and he’ll ask, “Because, don’t all good stories involve pirates?” It’s a bit of a catchphrase. After I bought the audiobook for Lindsey Stirling’s The Only Pirate at the Party, Audible must have assumed I wanted to listen to every audiobook about pirates, because they recommended several. Because all good stories involve pirates, I used a few credits to buy some of their recommendations, including Empire of Blue Water.
The first surprise in the audiobook is that Captain Morgan was a real person and an actual pirate. I always assumed Captain Morgan was a fictional character along the lines of Betty Crocker, but with the intent of selling spiced rum rather than baking mixes. It turns out he was an actual person, and the spiced rum from Diageo is named after him. While the audiobook talks a lot about the life of Captain Henry Morgan, it doesn’t focus on him exclusively.
Since Captain Morgan was a captain, his life was fairly privileged compared to those that served under him, so the author developed a composite character named Roderick. He was not meant to represent any particular pirate, but was meant to give the reader or listener an idea about what life was like for an average pirate serving in the fleet. How they started, how they worked, how they played, how they survived, and so on. Roderick is meant to be a contrast to Morgan. As captain, Morgan gets more of the booty because he plans and leads, while Roderick gets a smaller share because he isn’t involved in planning, has no special skills like carpentry or medicine, and is mainly there for brute force. Roderick’s goals for each voyage are to get enough money to spend on liquor and women in Port Royal, whereas Captain Morgan’s goals are to get enough money to support the lands he owns and to eventually have enough money to retire.
Although Empire of Blue Water spends a lot of time talking about Roderick and Captain Morgan, it also provides a larger view of pirates and piracy in the Atlantic in the 17th century. The book discusses a bit about pirates from other nations, such as France and the Netherlands. Sometimes they were rivals to the English, but in other times they were partners. The most frequent targets of pirates from any nation were the Spanish settlements in the Americas.
The Spanish settlements basically existed to plunder gold, silver, and other valuables from the continent for the benefit of the Spanish monarchy, and they justified it to themselves as their literal God-given right. Sort of like an early version of Manifest Destiny. Pirates looked at it a bit differently. The Spanish ships, bulging with valuable cargoes and often poorly defended, were ripe for the capture and looting by pirates, but they were mostly targets of opportunity.
One of the other surprises I found out while listening to Empire of Blue Water was that pirates were often poor sailors. They were more comfortable fighting on land than they were at sea, and since the settlements often had vast amounts of treasure held in warehouses, they were more tempting targets for the pirates than sailing a vast empty ocean in hopes of finding a ship bound for Spain. Even though they were tempting targets, many of the settlements also had formidable defenses and large numbers of soldiers. Before planning a raid, the pirates would gather and decide where they should go next. Sometimes they relied on rumors of what riches a settlement might have, while other times they relied on the word of people they captured. They weighed the risks, like soldiers and defensive fortifications, against the plunder they were supposed to hold.
Overall, Empire of Blue Water was an enjoyable audiobook to listen to during my commutes to and from work. The text was written by Stephan Talty and was read by John H. Mayer, whose voice is rich and a bit grizzled, giving the impressions he’s talking about events he personally witnessed. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys stories abut pirates, because all good stories involve pirates.