Book Review: The Sea Rover's Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630-1730


by Benerson Little

Washington: Potomac Books, 2005. . xiii, 302. Illus, index, biblio, notes, appendices. . $27.50 hardcover. ISBN:1574889117

Books about Caribbean piracy are often very taken with the romance of piracy, and sometimes focus on the biographies of famous pirates.  There isn't anything wrong with this, men such as Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, and Bart Roberts were fascinating and larger than life.  But Benerson Little has taken a different approach.  A former Navy SEAL officer who teaches fencing, Mr Little was struck by similarities between the sea rovers of old and the SEAL teams with which he served.  The Sea Rover's practice is an in depth look at piracy as a military operation. Mr Little details the tactics and methods the pirates employed. The result is fascinating, and reads at times like a tactical manual for aspiring buccaneers.  

Little, who read Treasure Island as a child, says of the similarities between the pirates and a modern SEAL team, that both involved "Raiding on or from the sea, boarding ships by stealth, landing silently on beaches at night, moving through jungles...Leaders led from the front, not the rear."  Little takes a systematic look at every aspect of a pirating expedition, with sections on recruiting, leaders, planning, and intelligence gathering, as well as searching for and taking prey.  There are also chapters on raiding towns, the tactics of pursuit and boarding, and stratagems for taking an enemy by surprise, either at sea or at anchor.  

Mr Little has clearly done a vast amount of research.  Even those who have a read a great deal of fact and fiction about sailing ships in general, or pirates in particular, are likely to discover something new about the period.  In his discussion of boarding tactics, Little diagrams a number of positions from which a pirate crew could board a prize, and accompanies this with diagrams of each.  Little discusses the relative merits of boarding amidships, boarding alongside, boarding athwart the hawse, boarding at the stern, and others besides.  Little's discussions of pirate weaponry are excellent.  He has practical experience with black powder weapons, and as a fencing instructor he has a thorough understanding of edged weapons and close combat.

Besides covering the tactical side of piracy in great detail, Little manages to get in a lot of fascinating trivia about the men, the ships, and the times.  Little covers such matters as naval architecture, dueling customs, food , and gambling.  Little knows about such details as the difference between English and French gun carriages, and some of the lesser known medical effects of a diet that included sea turtle meat and fat.  At times, the reader may feel that he is listening to some grizzled old sea dog talk about how he and his mates used to conduct business on the Spanish Main.

This book will appeal strongly to wargamers, role play gamers, and reenactors.  It may also become a reference work for aspiring novelists seeking to make their stories as authentic as possible.  In one of the appendices, Little gives a list of sea rovers who kept journals, and some he wishes had done so.  Reading over this list (a long list, including many you probably haven't heard of), and reading Little's comments about them, one realizes that Little had a lot of fun learning all of this.

Of course, piracy never entirely went away.  Today's pirates are very different from the sea rovers of the 17th and 18th centuries, but reading this book makes one appreciate that sea roving in any age requires a good deal of skill, planning, capable leadership, and a certain amount of luck.  It would be interesting to hear Benerson Little's views on the Somali pirates.  Navy SEALs like Mr. Little may be an important part of whatever solution we eventually arrive at to the piracy problem we face today.  Readers will be fascinated by the unique perspective this former SEAL brings to the buccaneers, filibusters, and privateers who pillaged the Caribbean long ago.


Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   

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