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Included on the 1612 listing of sanctioned plays known as the English Stationers Register, there is a work by Robert Daborne with the evocative title of A Christian Turn’d Turk. The protagonist is Captain Jack Ward—a rogue, criminal, pirate—who terrorizes English ships and grows rich off their stolen treasure. For London audiences, Ward was an evocative anti-hero, a working-class Englishman punishing spoiled aristocrats, an embodiment of the promise that the world shall be turned upside down. In the play, Ward intones, “So that I rise, let the world sink, and heaven fall.”

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As with contemporary anti-heroes, audiences may have received a vicarious thrill watching Ward. Pirates, explain the anthropologists Shannon Lee Dawdy and Joe Bonni in Anthropological Quarterly, have been “characterized as predators, parasites, criminals, outlaws, rebels, heroes, heroines, evildoers, buffoons, opportunists, armed robbers, raiders, plunderers, bandits, brigands, liberators, rogues, robin hoods, rapscallions, and bloodthirsty killers.” For seventeenth-century audiences, smarting at their own oppressions, Ward may have fit a few of those descriptions, some of them contradictory.

Daborne had the actual Jack Ward to draw inspiration from: a former privateer who’d gone rogue, having supposedly speechified in a Plymouth tavern that ours is a “scurvy world, as scurvily we live in’t, we feed here upon the water, on the King’s salt beef, without ere a pence to buy us a Bissell when we come ashore,” according to Andrew Barker, author of a pamphlet about the pirate.

In 1605, Ward sailed to the Mediterranean, eventually establishing Tunis as his base while harassing Dutch, Venetian, and English ships. A popular ballad of the time celebrates the corsair’s victories:

“Go home, go home,” says Captain Ward,
“And tell your king from me,
If he reigns king on all the land,
Ward will reign on the sea!”

The English professor Laurie Ellinghausen explains in her book Pirates, Traitors, and Apostates that such pamphlets and plays, broadsheets and ballads imagined “Ward as a figure of masculine bravado, even a hero.” Of course, as the title, A Christian Turn’d Turk, indicates, Ward’s tremendous wealth was made possible by a willing conversion to Islam a few years before the staging of Daborne’s play, when he took the name Yusuf Raïs.

Any audience awkwardness of rooting for a Muslim was placated when Daborne had Ward violently die in the last act, though the real pirate celebrated in pamphlet and ballad was still alive. Indeed, he’d live for another decade after the play’s staging, not violently upon the sea, but rather “in a most princely and magnificent state,” wearing “curious and costly clothing,” within his Tunisian pleasure palace, surrounded by riches and women—still an Englishman, still a Muslim, and still very much a pirate.

Since the seventeenth-century, even while the Barbary Coast pirates terrorized Europeans with the threat of enslavement, piracy has still offered an idealized version of prosperity and freedom. Like the imagined cowboy and Indian, or the gypsy and bohemian, pirates have long been configured as living in thrall to their own code, free of magistrate and minister, privy only to the demands of the high sea.

Piracy itself has a history that goes back to whenever the first group of sea-faring bandits absconded with goods that weren’t properly theirs; a millennium-and-a-half before Christ, and both Greek and Phoenician sailors were known to work as brigands. But the prevalent image of the pirate—the wooden-legged buccaneer, the eye-patch-wearing corsair, the swashbuckling privateer, the rum-drinking, pipe-smoking, parrot-petting renegado—finds its origins during the “Golden Age of Piracy,” running from roughly 1650 to 1730. Such men and women were floating subversives, “castaways and runaways (from slavery, military service, impressment, and/or forced immigration) living on the colonial fringe,” as Dawdy and Bonni write.

924 fantasy pictorial map - Pirate Island
A 1924 fantasy pictorial map of Pirate Island via Wikimedia Commons

Sailing in the warm waters of the Caribbean and off the coast of chilly New England, past the white sands of Tortuga and the rocky shoals of Newport, pirates like William “Captain” Kidd, “Calico” Jack Rackham, Thomas Tew, and female captains like Anne Bonney and Mary Reade were simultaneously celebrated and condemned. Then, of course, there was Edward Thatch, or “Blackbeard,” the most infamous pirate of all, known for the impressive follicular appendage from which his nickname was derived. Lit fuses hung from his tresses, the black and red flag of his skeletal standard flew from the mast of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. All of these features were ingredients in his fearsome, iconic, legendary reputation.

The Golden Age of Piracy was concurrent with burgeoning colonialism and nascent capitalism, while being a projection and subversion of both. Dawdy and Bonni note that pirates embodied “contradictory economic fantasies—as the ideal rational choice individualist… or as a profit sharing, Utopian socialist.” Blackbeard is the libertarian par excellence, indebted to nobody but the shareholders who are his crew, but there are other examples of pirates who are anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and countercultural.

The pseudonymous 1726 General History of the Pyrates, attributed to the nom-de-plume of Captain Charles Johnson, details an apocryphal Captain James Mission. According to Johnson, Mission was a sailor from Provence, who upon pilgrimage to Rome lost his faith, after which his confessor, the “lewd priest” Caraccioli, and he decided to journey to Madagascar, where they would assemble a piratical utopia of “[m]en who were resolved to assert that Liberty which God and Nature gave them, and own no Subjection to any, farther than was for the common Good of all.” In a manner not dissimilar to Ward, Mission rejected the Christianity of his childhood, converting to enlightened Deism (sometimes compared to Islam). And also as with Ward, Mission’s piracy acted as a means of “defiance to the Power of Europe,” but to very different ends. In language that echoes John Locke and prefigures Thomas Jefferson, but far more radical than either, Mission dreamt of a sea-faring polity based on a “brotherly Love of each other” where “none would follow the Example of Tyrants, and turn his Back upon Justice; for when Equity was trodden under Foot, Misery, Confusion, and mutual Distrust naturally follow.”

We are told that Mission and Caraccioli established a pirate’s constitution, based upon the complete equality of all humans, so that the “distinguished Names of French, English, Dutch, Africans” were to be “drowned” in the forging of a new society. From henceforth, Johnson would have us believe, Mission’s followers would be subjects of no prince, potentate, or pope, but rather citizens of this new republic of Libertatia.

Mission’s ambitions were realized when he and Caraccioli built fortifications on a small island north of Madagascar, defended by forty cannons and blessed with fecund soil and welcoming Malagasy. Here, on the warm shores of the Indian Ocean, in a land buffeted by Asia and Africa, Libertatia would be a herald unto the world, a piratical city on a hill. In Libertatia, all pirate ships are governed by elected council; in Libertatia, all humans are equal regardless of “Colour, Customs, or religious rites;” in Libertalia, leadership is open to all “without Distinction of Nation or Colour.”

Long before Philadelphia in 1776 or Paris in 1789, and a pirate named James Mission conceived and established a far more egalitarian republic than either the United States or France. Writing in The Eighteenth Century, the English professor Lincoln Faller describes Libertatia as an “integrated, harmonious, multiracial, and anti-imperialist society,” a flourishing democracy. Funded from the booty captured off of Spanish galleons, Portuguese Men-of-War, French brigantines, and English schooners, Libertatia was committed to political and economic justice. Defiant against human bondage at the height of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Libertatians attacked slave ships and liberated those therein, many of whom chose to become citizens.

Upon disembarking, those liberated people would discover that in Libertatia “an equal Division was made of their Treasure and Cattle” so that private property was administered under a “Democratical form, where the People were themselves the Makers and Judges” so that the earth was shared as common treasury. A democracy before America, a republic before France, socialist before the Soviet Union, Libertatia was more revolutionary than all of them, her radical promises a counter-melody to colonialism and capitalism. Eventually, Libertatia collapsed because of Portuguese assault.

Two pirates
via Wikimedia Commons

The real impediment, however, for this democratic, anarchistic, socialistic utopia is that it probably never actually existed. Libertatia and Mission’s existence can’t be corroborated in earlier sources, even though most of Johnson’s book is an accurate account. For most of the twentieth-century, it was believed that Johnson was the English novelist Daniel Defoe, though consensus on that has wavered over the past generation. Certainly A General History of the Pyrates reads like Defoe, not just in its obvious maritime concerns, but in cheeky profaneness as well.

But as with ambiguity concerning authorship, there is ambiguity about its accuracy. Some historians, notably Marcus Rediker, argue that, even if Mission was invented, the legend still reflects the direct governance of pirate ships. The historian G.V. Scammell notes in Modern Asian Studies that pirates rejected the “ordained social hierarchy and proposed to conduct themselves according to their own radical convictions,” including the election of captains and chief officers, something “unthinkable in merchant vessels or men-of war.”

This aspect of piratical democracy led to widespread “official suspicions that pirates would eventually set up somewhere an ‘alternative (and seditious) order,’” as Scammell writes. Concrete evidence also indicates that there were a “number of communities on Madagascar” operated by pirates living communally, as the historian Kevin P. McDonald writes in Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves. These were commonwealths which existed “until about 1730, when they seem to have disappeared, died off, or been subsumed.”

Much of the Libertatia narrative conforms to our expectations of the utopian genre, already more than two centuries old by the time A General History of the Pyrates was published. The literary scholar Jason H. Pearl explains in Utopian Geographies and the Early English Novel that the form is an “imaginative projection undergirded by actual… spatial coordinates,” so that examples “almost always adopted the conceit of a distant voyager returning to tell of strange new lands.”

From Thomas More’s 1516 treatise, where the concept was introduced, to texts like Tommaso Campanella’s 1602 The City of the Sun, Francis Bacon’s 1627 The New Atlantis, and Henry Neville’s 1668 The Isle of Pines, utopias are almost always imagined as islands, the better to explain the isolation in which a perfect society endures. Libertatia certainly shares many attributes with those previous utopias, yet its program is far more prescient—and certainly more radical—than anything dreamt of by More.

“What to make of this strange, fantastic story?” asks Faller, before conjecturing that it represented “an underground survival of the radical populism of the Interregnum, and an anticipation of views expressed during the French Revolution.” Dawdy and Bonni concur, claiming that the Libertatia myth “was a warm up to the Age of Revolution.”

What’s so surprising, if not shocking, about Libertatia is it represents an idea of freedom novel in its own day, and still aspirational in our own. Piracy (of all things) made imagining a far more radical utopianism possible. By gesturing towards rights and revolution, that forgotten book almost willed them into being—or at least acted as a weathervane indicating which way the wind was blowing. Whether or not Libertatia was built of stone and iron on a Madagascar beach, or if it was only dreamt of by Johnson, or Defoe, or whoever wrote A General History of the Pyrates, what’s incontrovertible is that somebody in 1726 envisioned a radical program that included abolitionism, egalitarianism, and political and economic democracy. Before any of those ideas could gain wider currency, they were first dreamt of in a swashbuckling book of adventure. In such fictions, there was the potential for a better world, one that still reads as utopian today.

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Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Summer 2012), pp. 673-699
The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research
The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 43, No. 1 (SPRING 2002), pp. 1-17
University of Pennsylvania Press
Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. 641-661
Cambridge University Press