Pirate-relic–hunter Clifford (Expedition Whydah, 1999, etc.) narrates a slice of the Golden Age of Piracy along the Spanish Main in this elucidating study of the buccaneer's life.
The majority of the French Caribbean fleet fell for a Spanish ruse and was shipwrecked off the coast of Venezuela in 1678. Thus, explains the author, commenced a half-century of pirate ascendancy in the region, a sort of OPEC of buccaneers in which disparate but like-minded forces became a powerful alliance holding control over a critical resource—the high seas—though they unraveled as “filibusters tended to come together when it suited them and to go their separate ways when they chose.” Clifford provides snapshot biographies of the principals—Thomas Paine, Chevalier de Grammont, and the runaway slave Laurens de Graffe, perhaps the epitome of dashing, humane pirate—as he describes their activities along the Central and South American coasts for the last quarter of the 17th century (as well as bleeding into the story his own, less beguiling search for pirate remains). What gives Clifford's story its greatest value is the eye-opening information he imparts on the nature of freebooting. A far cry from the Hollywood image, “filibusters,” as pirates were often known, were a prototypical democratic society, fully a third of them were of African descent, having first started out as the equivalent of mountain men, roving about the islands of the Caribbean before the Spanish destroyed their livelihoods and they turned to other quarry. Most of their raiding took place on land rather than sea and, importantly, they often operated with both official and unofficial sanction as agents of various governments. Clifford doesn't suggest they were angels, but instead were a mix of heroes and villains, with as much compromise as havoc in their arsenal.
One of Clifford's best: he keeps chest-thumping to a minimum as he creates a surprising picture of what it was like to be a high-seas rogue before the turn of the 18th century. (Photographs and illustrations throughout)