All this talk about piracy means it’s a good time to remind readers of three books I strongly recommend on the subject. The first two are by Ben Little, a former SEAL, and the third is by Francis Stark. First, Ben’s books.
The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630-1730 is book to dive into. Ben gets into the details of sea rovers, the blanket name for privateers, pirates, buccaneers, and filibusters, labels that were based on tactics, target, and geography. Focusing on a hundred year period beginning in 1630, the former Navy SEAL draws on contemporary diaries and books to describe everything from the background, motivation, tactics, equipment, and even an appendix on what they really drank. The sea rover’s tactics are in stark contrast to the image of the Hollywood pirate. The reality were crews and officers operating under very democratic rules and performing complex operations seeking to maximize effort (return on investment).
Appropriate to the modern era of small wars? Little generally leaves it to the reading to connect to the present (absent a rare couple of modern analogies in the book), except for one paragraph at the end:
Whatever their vices, weaknesses, and moral ambiguities, these buccaneers have in common with most sea rovers several tactical virtues, including innovation, loyalty, perseverance, adaptability, and courage. Collectively, they prove that a loose, uncentralized, and informal network can conduct significant, complex military operations. They show the effect that an irregular force can have on the resources of a powerful state, causing great economic damage and tying down significant forces. And, most importantly, they demonstrate that elements of broadly divergent and disparate cultures, races, nationalities, classes, professions, and personalities can act as one with a common goal.
My brief comments here don’t do the book justice. The amount of detail Little puts in this book is sometimes mind boggling, not to say amazing. This is not a book that only looks at the past but has a surprising applicability to modernity. I have found it particularly useful in supporting various arguments about privatization of force as well as insurgent warfare.
The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674-1688, also by Ben Little, is a deep dive into a fourteen year slice of time. The detail is amazing and well worth reading.
The third book will help inform today’s debate on why we don’t just arm merchant marines to the teeth. Written in 1897, The Abolition of Privateering and the Declaration of Paris is a superb resource when looking at the use of non-state forces by the state. Put simply, this provides period knowledge and perspective not available in later publications.
More important is the information on the broad use, impact, and deep understanding of privatization by the nascent American government during the Revolution and the War of 1812, for example. During the Revolution, many towns came to depend on income from their privateers, such as Salem, Massachusetts. Their roving tactics that took them along the European and British coasts produced public diplomacy backlashes as they “came to be liked as little as their brethren of England.”
In 1812, when both political and financial capital were in short supply and with a navy outnumbered by almost 10 to 1, Congress granted the President the authority to “issue to private armed vessels of the United States commissions or letters of marquee and general reprisal, in such form as he shall think proper, and under the seal of the United States.” Congress, in granting the President this authority, gave specific instructions on compensation and, more importantly, monitoring the privateers as they were keenly aware of the impact on public diplomacy and foreign policy these raiders have.
In both cases, Congress made it clear that it would not and did not cede responsibility for war when they authorized the President to hire private vessels, and compensate them as privateers, but placed clear parameters on pay and, more importantly, monitoring.
This book is a hidden gem and is a font information on how privatization then is different than now. Further, it contributes to an understanding of why privatization went by the wayside.