Anarchy and the Golden Age of Piracy

Here is another excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Anarchist Current, a history of anarchist ideas.

Anarchy and the Golden Age of Piracy

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Madagascar was a haven for pirates. One story about them is that they established a utopian community on Madagascar called Libertalia. The story is told in The History of the Pyrates, Volume II (1728), by “Captain Charles Johnson,” thought by some to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe. Others have attributed the book to Nathaniel Mist (died 1737), who had spent some time as a sailor in the Caribbean, where piracy was then rampant. [A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the most notorious Pirates, Vols. I & II, ed J. Franzén (Independently published, 2017)] Whoever Captain Johnson really was, his two volume history of the pirates was very popular and widely read.

The History of the Pyrates, Volume II, has a chapter on Captain James Misson (Chapter XX), a French pirate whose name is not found in any other historical records. Purportedly active in the 1690s, Misson begins his seafaring adventures in the French navy, and then to develop an anarchist sensibility. While on shore leave in Rome, Misson observes the “licentious Lives of the Clergy” and the “Luxury of the Papal Court.” [page 3] He comes to realize that religion is used to fleece the people, with “the wiser Sort”  being well aware of this. [page 3] Those higher up in the Church hierarchy use religious beliefs to exploit the people and to further their own interests. In this regard they are no different from the aristocracy.

A dissident Catholic priest named Caraccioli joins Misson in his adventures, and convinces Misson and his crew that “all Religion was no other than human Policy.” [page 8] As for government, the priest argues that “every Man was born free, and has as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired.” [page 10] Government arises from patriarchal authority, with the stronger patriarchs enslaving the weaker, laying the “first Foundation of Monarchy.” [page 11] The priest persuades Misson and his crew to become pirates, living “a Life of Liberty,” rather than  remaining under the command of the French monarchy. [page 13]

The crew confirm Misson as their captain, and choose “their subaltern Officers,” who are always to act in “the common Interest.” [page 14] The priest suggests that while obedience to a government that acts “for the common Good of all” is justified, the French government under whose flag they had been sailing was tyrannical, treating the people like slaves, and providing them with “nothing but Oppression, Poverty, and all the Miseries of Life.” [page 15] Nevertheless, the priest argues against adopting the black flag of the “Pyrates, who are Men of dissolute Lives and no Principles,” but to instead fly a white flag, with the motto, “for God and Liberty,” inscribed upon it, for theirs was “the Cause of Liberty,” not self-aggrandizement. [page 16]

The crew’s booty is kept in a chest to which every crew member has a key, with “Misson telling them, all should be in common.” [page 16] Misson advises the crew to treat each other as equals, with no one acting as a tyrant of another, and to remain united as brothers. They are free to quit the ship whenever they choose, at which time they will be given their share of the takings. [page 25] When it comes to determining where their ship should go next, the crew decides by a democratic vote. [page 27]

Misson instructs his crew to treat all prisoners humanely and generously. [page 18] They do not remain prisoners for long, either being set free or given the option of joining the crew to live a life of liberty on the high seas, an option often taken by sailors serving (often involuntarily) under a European national flag, subject to harsh conditions and discipline. Misson and his crew offer freedom to French Huguenots, members of a persecuted religious minority, and to African slaves found among the cargo of the vessels which they have captured. [pp. 25 & 28]

Misson tells his crew that “he had not exempted his Neck from the galling Yoak of Slavery, and asserted his own Liberty, to enslave others.” [page 28] He denounces racism, asserting that black Africans are equal to white Europeans, despite having different coloured skin, “Customs, or religious Rites,” and therefore should “be treated like Freemen.” [pp. 28 – 29] He argues that no one should have the “Power of Liberty of another,” and denounces religious justifications of slavery. [page 28] The crew heartily agree, and the Africans, freed of their chains, become equal members of the crew.

Whoever wrote the History of the Pyrates, whether it was Captain Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Nathaniel Mist, or someone else, appears to have been a Protestant of some kind, hence the white flag with “God and Liberty” inscribed on it. [page 16] It is institutionalized religion, particularly the Catholic Church, not religious belief, that Captain Misson is reported to have denounced.

This leads to a scene where Captain Misson threatens a Dutch crew with being “whipped and pickled” for using the Lord’s name in vain, and for drinking, because of the negative effects on Misson’s crew. [page 30] While many English pirates were nominally Protestant, and often anti-Catholic (providing a justification for plundering Spanish ships), it is doubtful any would have tried to ban swearing, and even more unlikely that any pirates would have sailed without alcohol (although one pirate captain reportedly shot a crew member for being “inattentive during mass” and for responding “to a rebuke with a blasphemy”). [Gabriel Kuhn, Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on Golden Age Piracy (Oakland: PM Press, 2010), pp. 61 – 63.]

The interjection of the author’s personal moral views regarding the use of profanity and alcohol is inconsistent with the general portrait of Captain Misson as a freedom loving anti-authoritarian, illustrating the author’s own limitations in character development and tendency toward didacticism. Otherwise, the depiction of Captain Misson and his crew is of a kind of floating anarchist utopia, where all important decisions are made by consensus or democratic vote, everything is held in common, slaves are set free, and no one is master over another. Lacking the fantastical elements found in de Foigny’s imaginary Australia, the portrait of Misson and his crew retains sufficient plausibility to persuade readers that an anarchist society, at least on the scale of a ship, just may be possible.

The depiction of Libertalia, the pirate “utopia” founded by Misson and his crew on Madagascar, initially retains many of the libertarian aspects of the life led by Misson and his crew on board their ship. They are called the Liberi to emphasize everyone’s equal status regardless of their race or national origin. [page 47] Although they build a fort, much like any colonial power would when seeking to occupy an area already inhabited by others, they make an effort to establish a peaceful relationship with the local inhabitants, so that the primary purpose of the fort becomes defending Libertalia from external attack. [pp. 47 – 48 & 81 – 82]

Misson and his crew maintain their opposition to slavery. When the nearby villagers offer 45 men and woman, taken prisoner during some local conflict, as slaves to the Liberi, they accept the gift but immediately set the prisoners free, making them to “understand that they [the Liberi] were Enemies to Slavery.” [page 91] When in need of more ships, Misson gets another pirate captain, Tew, to capture a slave ship. All the slaves on board are set free, and then join the settlement at Libertalia, where they learn how to be sailors. [pp. 91 – 93] Soon they become equal members of the crews capturing ships in the Indian Ocean. [pp. 93 – 94]

After seizing a Portuguese treasure ship, with significant casualties among Misson’s crew, he persuades the Liberi to set the Portuguese crew free, despite the danger that they will report the location of Libertalia to the Portuguese authorities, opening it to attack. Misson assures the Portuguese prisoners that “he did not make War with the Oppressed, but the Oppressors.” [page 90] Misson has the released prisoners take an oath never to attack Libertalia, but later a small fleet of Portuguese war ships attempts an assault on the settlement.

After the Libertalians sink two of the war ships and capture a third, they find two of the released Portuguese prisoners among the crew. This is considered a terrible betrayal. This time, the Portuguese prisoners are put on trial before an assembly of the Liberi for violating their oaths. The former priest, Caraccioli, and Misson argue against the death penalty, for outside of battle, only God should have “Power over the Life of another.” [page 98] But Captain Tew convinces the assembly that if the prisoners “were again restored to that Liberty which they had already abused,” they would soon be back again to attack Libertalia. [page 98] The assembly then decides in favour of hanging the two prisoners, and they are put to death.

Another departure from the approaches advocated by Misson occurs when the Liberi capture a ship with pilgrims on board on their way to Mecca. Misson is unable to convince the crew to set all the prisoners free, with the crew insisting that they keep one hundred 12 – 18 year old unmarried females to bring back to Libertalia. [page 94] Both stories emphasize that ultimately the crews make the important decisions, but also that they are not as humane or as enlightened as Misson. Misson may be their Captain, but he does not exercise coercive authority over them.

Drawing on the work of the radical anthropologist, Pierre Clastres (Anarchism,Volume Two, Selection 64), Gabriel Kuhn has argued that pirate captains were similar to “chiefs” in stateless societies, and this appears particularly true in the case of Captain Misson. Clastres’ anthropological studies of stateless Amerindian societies led him to conclude that “the most notable characteristic of the [Amer-]Indian chief consists of his almost complete lack of authority.” [Pierre Clastres, as quoted in Kuhn, page 30] Misson, just like a chief in an Amerindian stateless society: 1. “is elected and replaceable. 2. His power rests on merit only. 3. His power is controlled by the community. 4. He is a peacemaker. 5. He is generous with his possessions” (in the case of Misson, to the point of implementing a form of communism among his crew, instead of claiming a greater share of the treasure, as was done by most pirate captains). “6. He is a good orator. 7. He is an able leader in war.” [Kuhn, page 30]

Up until the introduction of the character of Captain Tew (based on a real pirate active in the Indian Ocean in the 1690s), the portrait of Captain Misson and his crew is an idealized depiction of the pirate as a kind of “anti-pirate” – morally scrupulous, honourable, humane, pious, libertarian, egalitarian, anti-authoritarian and anti-slavery, with the white flag of “God and Liberty” instead of the black Jolly Roger. Under the moral, not coercive, authority of Captain Misson, assisted by the former priest, Caraccioli, the crew act as anarchist marauders liberating not only the treasures but the human cargo of the rich and powerful, regardless of the national flag under which the plundered ships may be sailing.

Betraying the more liberal sentiments of the author of the History of the Pyrates, this floating anarchist utopia begins to break down after the pirates establish Libertalia, and Captain Tew arrives with his own crew loyal to him. To maintain Libertalia as a permanent settlement, Misson’s crew decide to keep the captured young Muslim women as their wives. When dealing with the recaptured Portuguese prisoners whom Misson had previously persuaded his crew to set free, Captain Tew convinces his and Misson’s combined crews to implement capital punishment, against the objections of Misson and Caraccioli, showing that they are no longer able to maintain a general consensus among the Liberi regarding important issues.

Soon Captain Tew’s crew is quarrelling with Misson’s crew, with Tew advocating that the quarrel be settled “by the Sword.” [page 99] Caraccioli asks Tew to use “the Authority he had over his Crew” to instead resolve the conflict by “an amicable Agreement,” and then argues that to avoid future conflict, a formal system of government should be established. [page 99] Arguments common at the time in support of legal government are put forward, including that without “coercive laws, the weakest would always be the Sufferers,” and that disputes needed to be resolved by “calm and disinterested Persons” in accordance with “Reason and Equity,” rather than by the impassioned and partial disputants themselves. [pp. 99 – 100]

The assembled pirates choose a form of representative democracy as “the most agreeable” form of government, “where the People [are] themselves the Makers and Judges of their own Laws.” [page 100] They are divided into groups of ten, with each group electing a representative to join with the other representatives “in making wholesome Laws for the Good of the whole.” [page 100] But the representatives are to meet only once per year, with executive power being exercised by a “Conservator” (with Misson being the first) elected for a three year term, and a cabinet or executive council chosen by him.

In addition to abandoning their previous informal collective forms of decision-making, Misson and his crew, in formally uniting with Captain Tew and his men, give up the communist distribution of wealth that they had followed on their ship in favour of a system of private property. While the treasure and cattle that they had accumulated were to be “equally divided,” any land that any of them staked out was to “be deem’d his Property,” which could only be “alienated by a Sale.” [page 100]

The process by which Misson and his crew come to adopt a formal system of government, with coercive laws and an executive authority, together with a system of private property, mirrors the hypothetical accounts of the social contract theorists, most notably John Locke (1632-1704), of the transition from a “state of nature” to civil society. Locke published his Two Treatises of Government in 1689, just a few years before Captain Misson and his crew were allegedly active.

Locke’s description of the “state of nature” that precedes the creation of the state could also have been a description of life on board Misson’s ship prior to the creation of Libertalia. In Locke’s “state of nature,” everyone is free and equal and property is initially held in common. However, as people begin to claim ownership over land and other things, such as the goods that they produce, based on the labour that they have contributed to it, and to exchange things of economic value by means of contracts, it becomes necessary to establish a system of coercive laws to enforce contracts, to resolve conflicts, and to protect life, liberty and property. And this is what is depicted by the author of the History of the Pyrates regarding Misson and his crew.

While sailing their ship, Misson and his crew are in a “state of nature,” without a formal system of laws or political institutions, and everything is held in common. Once they go on shore and found Libertalia, they establish a regime of private property and enact “a great many wholesome Laws.” They entrust the running of their affairs to their elected representatives, who sit but once a year, and to the new executive power, led by Misson, transforming the anarchistic organization that they adopted while at sea into a kind of pirate “state” after they settle on land. [page 101]

It may be that the author of the History of the Pyrates thought that an egalitarian anarchistic society was possible on a small scale, like a ship, but that it was impractical with respect to larger groups or settlements on land, where everyone would not share the same purposes or interests, like those shared by a crew of pirates united in a common endeavour on board a ship where everyone had to do their part in order for the ship to function. Although the representative democracy that the Liberi adopt is much more radical than anything existing in Europe, and more radical even than the parliamentary democracy advocated by the Levellers in the English Revolution, it is not an anarchist form of social organization, coming closer to a liberal conception of politics.

The History of the Pyrates depicts another pirate settlement on Madagascar founded by a break away group from Captain Tew’s crew. At first they appear to be even more libertarian than the Liberi.  They regard themselves as being “free and independent of all the World,” and have no desire “to subject themselves to any Government.” One of them is elected “Governor” for three months at a time, but only to resolve “Matters of small Difference which might arise.” The incumbent Governor cannot run for re-election, so that every member of the group will have a turn in that position. [page 103] Up until this part of the story, their form of self-government is more radical than the representative democracy adopted at Libertalia, and comes closer to the kinds of self-organization advocated by some anarchists.

But then it turns out that they would like to be recognized as an English colony, willing to submit themselves “to any who shall come with a Commission from a lawful Government.” As with other real pirates, they wanted to rejoin civil society, and to have wiped “away the odious Appellation of Pyrates” to avoid punishment for their crimes. [page 103] Their current “Governor,” Tew’s former quarter master, presents Tew with a detailed proposal for the colony, which like any other colony will exploit the natural resources found on Madagascar, using cheap labour, including slaves, who are supposed to be much less expensive than the slaves used in the Caribbean. [page 104] The former quarter master even goes so far as to extoll the proposed colony as providing an effective “Curb on Pyrates”! [page 105]

While also likely fictitious, this other pirate settlement more accurately reflects the reality of Anglo-American piracy during its so-called “Golden Age” (roughly the 1690s to 1730). Unlike Captain Misson and his crew, when real pirates seized a ship containing slaves as part of the cargo, they would often be resold to slave traders, or used as slaves on board the pirates’ ship. [Kuhn, pp. 66 & 70 – 71]

The pirates operating out of Madagascar were actively involved in the slave trade, competing with the Royal Africa Company, which had been granted a monopoly by the English Crown over the slave trade along the west coast of Africa. By the 1690s, although the Dutch and French were most active in exporting slaves from Madagascar, the English and their North American merchant colonists were establishing a foothold, using pirates “as cultural brokers in the slave trade.” [McDonald, “ ‘A Man of Courage and Activity’: Thomas Tew and Pirate Settlements of the Indo-Atlantic Trade World, 1645-1730,” pp. 12 – 13] One of the actual pirate settlements on Madagascar was a trading post run by Adam Baldridge, who “served both pirates and slave traders.” [Kuhn, page 143] Establishing a slave trading post appears to have been one of the primary purposes of the settlement. [McDonald, pp. 13 – 14] Baldridge was run off Madagascar by the local indigenous people in 1697 after he had captured some of them to sell into slavery. [Kuhn, page 66]

Captain Misson and his crew, and their settlement, Libertalia, are utopian then not just in the sense of being an imaginary ideal, but in the more popular negative sense of the word as being unrealistic. Nevertheless, the story about Captain Misson, his crew, and Libertalia, may have suggested to some readers that another world is possible, a world in which people can live in freedom, without enslaving or exploiting others, adopting their own libertarian forms of self-organization.

It is noteworthy that Libertalia is not depicted as eventually collapsing due to internal conflict, which implies that the author thought it had a viable form of organization. Instead, Libertalia is destroyed by a surprise attack by the indigenous people, which appears inexplicable, as unlike Adam Baldridge, the Liberi never tried to enslave the local people. [History of the Pyrates, Vol. II, pp. 106 – 107] Misson and most of his surviving crew set off on a sloop, possibly to return to Europe, but they are all lost in a storm. [page 108]

This unhappy ending serves a number of purposes common in utopian stories – it explains why the utopian society/place no longer exists and why it is difficult to confirm the accuracy of the tale. Readers can then more readily accept that the story may be true, so that the story can serve as a source of inspiration to them. The ending also incidentally betrays the author’s own colonialist mentality, portraying the indigenous people’s attack on Libertalia as entirely unprovoked, in contrast to the reality of the situation, where the attack on Baldridge’s trading post was provoked by his attempt to enslave them. Nevertheless, some credit must be given to the author of Misson’s story for his eloquently articulated opposition to slavery, in contrast to the real pirates operating out of Madagascar.

A comparison between the likely fictitious Captain Misson and the real Captain Tew and his crew emphasizes the gulf between the idealized portrait of Misson as the good pirate, and the reality of piracy during its Golden Age. It is most improbable that Tew would have freed any slaves from a slave ship, on his own accord or at the direction of anyone else. When Tew went to Madagascar in the fall of 1693, his port of call was not the fictional Libertalia but Baldridge’s slave trading post. [McDonald, page 10]

While it does not appear that any of Tew’s men established their own settlement on Madagascar, “several dozen” of them stayed on at Baldridge’s trading post when Tew sailed back to Rhode Island and New York, where the merchants were in the process of establishing a cheaper supply of slaves from Madagascar. [McDonald, page 18] Fourteen of those who stayed behind, feeling strapped for cash, “divided themselves into two groups of seven to fight to the death on the beach, winner take all. The two survivors of the death match split the booty.” [McDonald, page 18] The reality of pirate life on Madagascar was neither edifying nor inspirational.

Published in: on November 12, 2021 at 9:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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