Monday, March 1, 2010

Books: "Being A Ruthless Bastard"

Your humble hostess has never been shy about her disdain for Henry Morgan. He always struck me as more General than Admiral and he never came across as much of a sailor. Then, Brethren, the First Mate presented me with Stephan Talty's deliriously well written book Empire of Blue Water and all my sordid notions about the man who became the legend went right out the window. Morgan, dead more than 300 years, has conquered me as surely as he did Portobelo or Panama. Damn.

Talty, who is a journalist and writer, is an impeccable historian as well. His research on every issue that touched the great Morgan - from society to fashion to ships at sea - is irreproachable. The book is not, however, weighted down by these facts. Quite the contrary. It sings vibrantly of both Morgan's colorful life and the city and island he made famous, Port Royal and Jamaica.

We meet Morgan as he boards a ship for Hispanola, one of thousands of men sent by Cromwell to conquer the Spanish island. The mission almost naturally fails and the British take Jamaica as a consolation prize. We follow him as he learns the ropes at sea with Christopher Myngs, his star rising rapidly under the tutelage of the Puritan privateer. Talty does not tip-toe - as Morgan himself did - around the buccaneer's landed gentry lineage. He is also very forthcoming about the Welshman's foibles but there is a place where the author turns apologist.

An entire chapter in the book - The Art of Cruelty - is devoted to my favorite boucanier Francois L'Olonnais. Of course, I'm always happy to read about the man who was probably the most successful leader out of Tortuga but that's not the issue. Talty supposes that Morgan never really did all those horrible things Exquemelin said he did. All that torture and such, racking and woolding, it's just hype according to Talty. And if Morgan really did put those Spaniards to the sword well, he learned everything he knew from the dark heart of L'Olonnais the sociopath. To quote Talty directly: "...the craziest often rose to the top of the trade." Morgan would be on top no matter what.

Obviously I'm skeptical of this interpretation but I'm hardly going to split hairs. Becoming an apologist is almost par for the course when you get as close to a subject as Talty had to in order to produce such a fine book. It's no different than the piratical types who worship Edward Teach while overlooking his blacker exploits. Or the Laffite fans who refuse to note that Jean in particular was a template for every mob boss to come. Time softens the edges, but maybe it shouldn't.

Talty also includes a worthwhile conceit in the form of a fictional every-buccaneer named Roderick. Roderick is with Morgan at all the big scores, Portobelo, Maracaibo and Panama and we see through his eyes just how grueling the life was for an average member of the Brethren. The chapter on the march across the isthmus of Panama will make you itchy, hungry and prostrate with exhaustion. Very well done.

Later in the book, really in the last two chapters, Talty quits pulling his punches. It is here that he starts to show us Morgan in every light - not just golden. As an example he notes quite accurately that "Morgan treated ships like disposable objects, to be wrecked, sunk, rammed or turned into blazing weapons whenever necessary..." The truth of that statement still sets my teeth on edge. He gets closer to Morgan than he has in previous chapters, making him more human.

The point that made me laugh out loud is in this chapter. Morgan, now deputy Governor of the island of Jamaica, has turned pirate hunter. He invites a group of suspected brigands to leave their ship and come ashore for a lavish dinner hosted by the great buccaneer himself. The pirates are in awe, of course and once the rum really starts flowing they fess up and call themselves what they are. Morgan laughs and sends them off to bed only to wake them in the morning and put them on trial, personally sentencing them to hang. As Talty puts it:

It is moments like this that make one wish Morgan had written his memoirs; the sheer enjoyment he got out of being a ruthless bastard could have made him one of the great seventeenth-century characters.

But all is not lost as Stephan Talty has virtually done it for him. Huzzah for Henry Morgan then, the man the myth and the legend.

Empire of Blue Water will set you back around $12.00 and is worth every penny. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up. You'll be more than glad you did.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I'm glad you liked the book. It sounds like a good one. And at least I know that I don't need to ask if you've got a little Captain in you after reading it since you already had a whole lot of Captain in you beforehand, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Very good book indeed. I cannot recommend it enough.