After the European discovery of the Americas, Castile and Portugal ratified the Treaty of Tordesillas (in 1494) dividing that territory between them. The treaty, brokered by the Pope, made the Castilians feel the Caribbean and Central America was legally theirs, but naturally every other power in Europe, particularly those that were not Catholic, saw it differently, and there were many raids on Spanish shipping and settlements over the following decades. In 1606, the Spanish government ordered all its colonists on the island of Hispaniola to congregate around the southern coastal town of Santo Domingo to avoid interaction with pirates, but this left the rest of the abandoned island for others to inhabit, and many did. One group in particular were French pig hunters, who cured their meat using a wooden frame called a boucan, causing them to be called boucaniers which in English became buccaneer. During the 1620’s, Spanish efforts to oust these foreigners caused many to take to piracy, which had started out as something of a side-line. Such men were of many nationalities, but only attacked Spanish targets during our period, and the major contingents came from France, the Netherlands and England. 1660 saw such men approach the peak of their power, and they would continue to flourish for much of the rest of the century, so this set from Mars covers only the first half of their story.
Living as hunters and occasional traders in the untamed wilderness of Hispaniola, far from civilisation, it comes as no surprise that the early buccaneers wore extremely basic and functional clothing. The typical look would be breeches ending at the knee and a very loose shirt, sometimes very long, which might be tucked into a belt or the breeches if about to go into a fight. On board such men would be barefoot, and often when on land too, but in the pitiless Caribbean sun some form of head covering would be essential - a brimmed hat perhaps, or just a cap or scarf, particularly again if going into action. The majority of the poses in this set match this description well, and look suitably scruffy and unconcerned about their appearance. Three of the poses wear a proper coat, however, along with stockings and shoes, while a fourth has a shorter tunic as well as footwear, so these have the look of buccaneers towards the end of the advertised period (1620 to 1660), when paid-off soldiers from England and soldiers looking for employment and adventure after the end of the Thirty Years War joined the buccaneers in their fight against the Spanish, bringing their former uniforms and smarter appearance with them.
As hunters of game, the early buccaneers were famously expert with the musket, and naturally continued to use the weapon when they turned to piracy. A good many of these figures have such a weapon, which is good, although the poor detail makes it hard to be sure whether they are matchlocks or flintlocks. The second man in the top row holds a blunderbuss, an excellent weapon when fighting in a confined space with no need for long range, so a favourite for fighting on ship. Buccaneers also used very long-barrelled muskets for sniping at long range, but there do not seem to be any of those here. We do have a couple of figures with pistols - again convenient weapons for the confined spaces of a ship - but we were surprised that only one other figure has one tucked into his belt, as they were probably more commonly carried than this. There are a couple of swords, which varied greatly in style (not just the cutlass by any means), and several of these poses carry one. One man also holds an axe, which is an obvious and readily-available weapon in an essentially wooden world. One of our favourites is the man about to throw a grenade (second row, last figure). This is yet another weapon that works well at short range in a confined area, and particularly terrifying when on board a wooden ship, so was widely used at the time. Although we would have liked a few more pistols tucked into belts, and more knives would have been good too, the choice of weapons for these men is excellent.
Some recent Mars sets have had rather better sculpting than their earlier output, but unfortunately this set is a throwback to the really awful early days. The figures are just horrible, with some horrific faces and very basic, clumsy detail. Even though this is hardly a set that demands fine detail, these are still very unattractive figures, and the weapons are a particularly poor effort. If the faces are disturbing then the hands are often just a mess, with no discernible fingers, so even painting will do little to rescue these men. Flash is variable but generally pretty good, and although there are no separate pieces to assemble there is little excess plastic.
The poses are reasonably good, with some life and nothing particularly unlikely. The man holding his sword behind his head (bottom row) looks daft, but everything else is well thought out. Given the subject we would have liked to have seen more animated figures engaged in close-quarters fighting - muskets are fine but are not close-quarter weapons, when there is no time to go through the complicated process of reloading, and pistols too were usually one-shot weapons. Although nothing particularly exciting, the poses do not seem especially flat, so on the whole have been well thought out.
During the four decades covered by this set the buccaneers changed from outlawed pig-hunters to professional pirates and sea-soldiers, and the range of costume reflects this broad assortment quite well, while the chosen weapons, with some small reservations, are a good mix too. The years after 1660 were to see more land campaigns and the rise of such famous leaders as Henry Morgan, but for the period covered by this set, which mostly involved raiding and sea-borne fights, everything is accurate and quite well designed. The big let-down is of course the very ugly sculpting, from which there is no escape, so despite the good points this is a set that offends the eye and, like so many other sets from Mars, is going to be very hard to love.