Pirates: proletarian outlaws seeking liberty

March 2, 2005

Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age
By Marcus Rediker
Verso, 2004
240 pages, $54(hb)


Were they loveable rogues or bloodthirsty villains? The judge who sentenced Bartholomew Roberts ("Black Bart") and his pirates to hang in 1722 had no doubt they were "common Robbers, Opposers, and Violators of all Laws human and divine". But the men who took to pirating in the Atlantic Ocean in the early 18th century did not see themselves as violent thieves, but as honest sailors forced into piracy by the "bad usage" they received from navy and merchant ship captains, and, once free from the tyranny of the lash, establishing their own alternative social order.

The "good ship Popular Imagination" has agreed with the pirates, writes Marcus Rediker in his engaging history of the golden age (1718-22) of the pirates. Rediker provides scholarly support for the view that the pirates dared to imagine, and dared to live, a different life founded on democracy and egalitarianism, and that their example of a "world turned upside down" has been popular with labouring people ever since, fuelling society's "immense cultural appetite" for books and films about pirates.

The pirate population explosion was driven by a growth spurt in global capitalist trade (which piled wealth onto deep-sea ships in thinly policed oceans), a maritime labour surplus (after naval demobilisation following the end of the latest of England's many wars) and fierce competition between the commercial traders of England, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, who became ever more abusive of labour in the race to accumulate more profit than their rivals. For the seamen working the West Indies, North American and west African trade routes, the result was "cramped quarters, poor victuals, brutal discipline, low wages, devastating diseases, disabling accidents and premature death".

Mutiny was often the response and 4000 seamen and sailors took to piracy in this period. The main aim of these "proletarian outlaws" was not booty but liberty. Not only were they escaping rotten food, thirst, lashings, forced impressment and hard and disabling work, they were escaping to "something new and alluring" — a new social system. Shipboard insurrection, says Rediker, was a "revolution in miniature".

The pirate rebels established a "new government of the ship" drawing up a constitution, or "articles", to embody the principles and rules of their community. Their society was based on a "rough, improvised, but effective egalitarianism that placed authority in the collective hands of the crew". The captain was elected, was "governed by the majority", had few privileges and, if despotic or incompetent, could be deposed. Dual executive power was an added democratic protection, a quartermaster being elected, able to countermand a captain's order. But the highest power was the "council of all pirates". In open meetings with lively debate, all pirates (the average pirate crew numbered around eighty) would meet to elect (or recall) their leaders, decide what to attack and otherwise determine their collective affairs.

With political democracy came economic levelling. The wage relation was abolished and the distribution of booty was equalised with vastly reduced disparities for different skills and duties. Karl Marx was over a century away but the pirates attempted socialism in one ship when they "seized the means of maritime production and declared it the common property of those who did the work".

Pirate ships established a social security system well before capitalism reluctantly got around to it. A percentage of all booty went to a common fund to support their disabled comrades. The patched eye, peg-leg and hooked hand of pirate iconography were testament to the maiming nature of sea work and battle and only the pirates, not their detractors in government or business, looked after those damaged on the job.

Social discipline was maintained in ways much less draconian than on navy or merchant ships. In the hyper-masculine sailing world, pirate discipline could be severe (involving execution or the lash if an act knowingly endangered the whole company). It was usually moderate, involving eviction for infringements such as stealing, desertion or malingering during battle. It allowed much that was not tolerated in the disciplinarian hells of the ships the pirates had escaped from. Crucially, justice was governed by the democratic will — every case was "tried by the whole company".

The "solidarity and collectivist ethos" of the pirate world expressed itself in other ways. Pirates never attacked other pirates, the gangland wars of the true criminal class were quite alien to the pirates' social order. Pirates also transcended the divide of nationality and race. All pirate ships were multinational and multiracial. Africans, mostly escaped slaves or slaves freed by pirates, were numerous and active. Sixty of Blackbeard's 100 crew were black.

Pirates were fearsome and they robbed ships, but violence and greed were not the pirates' motivations. They went out of their way to avoid fighting, relying on the pirates' symbolic flag (the black "Jolly Roger" of skull and crossbones) to intimidate their intended target captain into submission without resorting to cutlass or cannon. They fenced their booty to supply their food, clothing and health needs, not to indulge in the conspicuous consumption that was the lifestyle of the capitalist ship-owner they had expropriated.

A few women found liberation through piracy. From economic necessity or a love of adventure, young, single, proletarian women like Anne Bonny and Mary Read, of "fierce and courageous temper", captured ships, headlines and the creative pen of popular balladeers. Feminists then and since have used the female pirates' feats to challenge the "bourgeois ideology of femininity and domesticity" that confined women to dependency and the home.

In an otherwise novel and egalitarian social order, however, women were not always welcome on the pirate ship. Most male pirates shared the view that the extremely heavy manual labour of ship work was not for women and that their presence was a source of sexual distraction, an "instrument of division and quarrel" in the words of one pirate captain. Although rape of captured women was expressly forbidden, this was less out of respect for women than a matter of discipline.

Pirates presented a subversive social and political challenge, and a serious economic threat to mercantile capitalism. They captured around 2400 ships and caused a crisis in English trade. There was zero growth in English shipping during the pirates' peak years. The ruling classes of the day, once happy to commission pirates as auxiliary "privateers" to attack the ships of rival nations in wartime Europe, now turned emphatically against the independent pirates. Lurid and dehumanising propaganda presented pirates as mad, debauched, godless, violent and cruel. Black pirates were accused of eating the hearts of captured white men. Like dangerous wild beasts, they had to be destroyed.

Whilst preacher, judge and editor, with a backing chorus of merchants, provided the rhetoric of defending civilised values and preserving "God, country and crown", the hangman restored the property relations of capitalism via the noose. More than 400 pirates were hanged, their carcasses displayed to terrorise would-be rebels amongst seamen sailing into port cities — "in a prominent place dangle a gibbeted corpse of one who had sailed under the black flag, crows picking at the rotting flesh and bleaching bones". The executions were, in the words of Jamaica's "men of power", a "public example to terrify others". Unlike the pirates, the ruling class sought violence in the cause of greed.

Like other "proletarian outlaws", says Rediker, pirates could not survive without the rest of their class rising in revolt. Nor could pirates "resolve the contradictions of the age" and their lapses into rum-fuelled fights and brawls and the "gratuitous ferocity of angry men beyond control" spoils the sometimes misty-eyed romanticism of cinema and children's literature. Yet, says Rediker, we love the pirates because they were rebels, "humble men with high ideals" daring to rise up against their class masters and to rise above the divides of race and nation. Humble men and women of all nations remain, in their imaginations and struggles, the willing captives of the pirates.

From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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