By Stewie Sutherland
Over the winter holidays, I sat down with a few days off to read the latest book from HarperCollins Publishers, Pirate Latitudes by the late (and truly great) Michael Crichton. The tale revolves around a crew of privateers stealing a sizable treasure from under the noses of the Spanish guarding it. Do not, whatever you do, expect a story of banter and booze, parrying swords or armies of floating corsairs. Pirate Latitudes, written by Crichton before his death in 2008, is a story of blood, mud and sacrifice, and relentless storms waiting to crush those who sail the ocean unprepared.
Expect a story of theft, murder, revenge, betrayal and justice in the eyes of the men and woman who call themselves privateers, who believe in their laws and follow their code in life and to death. The New World in the 1600’s is described in such a rich, grimy way that it is more exciting and infinitely more real than anything that has come before it.
Pirate Latitudes takes readers to Port Royal, the strongest English-established colony in Jamaica. Any flagging township people might envision from that is swiftly dashed: Crichton paints the town and its surrounding waters very realistically. Port Royal is a collection of alleys, with mud and manure on the ground and very few streets with cobblestones. Casks of water are delivered in the morning at the same time that a local patrol collects wandering drunks and the bodies of men who have died throughout the night. It’s a town of docks, pubs, whore houses and hotels, where the law of England is pushed aside in favour of the laws of privateers.
Thanks to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, many people think that pirates, buccaneers, swashbucklers and corsairs would sail the seas, dig for treasure, drink grog by the barrel-full and celebrate long into the night. For the first time in a long time, Pirate Latitudes shows the more life-like existence of the rogues: a life lived only for the fight and the capture.
Days pass only to take a crowded ship to its target, and the code of conduct on board is absolute. The crew works hard to live on the deck, knowing that at any time any number of things could kill any of them. A bloody and brutal sea battle later on in the book shows this side in stunning detail, as men are cut down by splintered decks or crushed under dislodged cargo.
Here, the life of a pirate is maddeningly short, with unbelievable risks and the only comfort is a chance of glorious riches. Jack Sparrow may lead an entertaining life, but the book’s crew follow the standards of the true-to-life privateers, and it’s infinitely more exciting.
The story centres on Captain Charles Hunter, a privateer of great renown in Port Royal. With news of a Spanish galleon lying damaged in a harbour, her cargo hold rumoured to be full of treasure to be taken back to Spain, Hunter is excited for the first time in a long time. However, whatever the galleon lacks in defence, it more than makes up for in sheer difficult to reach: its harbour is considered impregnable.
“You mean this man is a common privateer?” demanded Hacklett.
“Not common in the least,” Almont said, chuckling. “Captain Hunter?”
“Not common, I would say.”
Pirate Latitudes, Crichton – P39
The island of Matanceros is a perfect defence: sheer, wind-whipped cliffs on one side, while the other holds its port, with a terrible fortress built around it. Several heavy bronze guns aim toward the sea, ready to sink and destroy any crew foolish enough to attempt to sail inside uninvited. At its heart is Cazalla, a Spanish Captain who lives to kill and torture. A bull of a man, his reputation for murdering is preceded only by his thirst to kill his enemies, and any English pirates in Spanish waters are fodder for his cannons.
But taking such a grand treasure from the Spanish is too good an opportunity for Hunter to pass up, even if it is inside the most defended Spanish outpost in the New World’s waters. Hunter leaves port in his sloop, the Cassandra, with a crew of memorable and interesting buccaneers, such as Enders, a master helmsman and Doctor, or Sanson, a French marksman, fighter, and expert of the crossbow.
Between their home port and their target, days of travel inside enemy seas (where Cazalla and his warship roam) ensue. Their destination, Matanceros, has never been successfully attacked. In her harbour, the defenceless galleon El Trinidad. If the pirate’s luck, skill and wit survive with them to secure the prize, then they still have to return home to Port Royal and certain glory. I cannot go into further detail without spoiling the story, and I want to keep it a mystery; for our readers and fans of the pirate trend Alternative Magazine Online has followed over the past few months; they will want to read and discover the story themselves.
“Englishman,” Cazalla said, laughing. “I will feed the pieces of your body to my dogs.”
Hunter did not reply. He balanced the sword in his hand, feeling the unfamiliar weight, testing the whip of the blade.
Pirate Latitudes, Crichton – P160
Found completed among his files after his death in ’08, Pirate Latitudes is Michael Crichton at his best. To any who have read Jurassic Park, they should well know the old saying “the book is better” often rings true. Truly, the story is utterly addicting, and when it draws a person in (and it will, quickly, with the pull of any hurricane) it becomes nigh impossible to put it down.
8 OUT OF 10