Society needs pirates

In Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740 (published by University of North Carolina Press in 2015), American historian Mark G. Hanna questions the popular image of the pirate of the 16-18th centuries as a rebel against society and as a social bandit. Hanna shows how in the Anglophone world of England and its North American and Caribbean colonies piracy was a possible and not unusual career move of seamen. In the course of the 17th century merchants and sea captains in many English colonies, especially those that were ruled by charters (for example Rhode Island) were heavily involved in piracy. This was moreover an economic necessity for these colonies, since it was the only way to ensure import of bullion and goods such as textiles. Piracy was necessary for the rise of the British Empire, so Hanna claims. It took until the early 18th century for a decisive change: trade became more important than plunder as a source of income for the colonies, powerful players such as the East India Company resented the adverse effects on global trade of raids on ships from India, and the state and colonial governments turned piracy into an activity of outlaws.

Hanna gives an interesting and detailed description and analysis of these developments. In doing so, he clearly relishes the idea of turning over our image of the pirate as rebel. He also questions the democratic character of the Golden Age pirates, the ones who did become outlaws. For instance, the articles of agreement that these pirates signed, usually seen as evidence of democracy, were according to Hanna meant by the captains to ensure that crewmembers could not go back to the world of legality. After all, their signatures were written evidence that made the pirates run the risk of hanging. Hanna also questions whether the presentation in the famous chapter on Captain Misson in Johnson’s General History … of The Most Notorious Pirates, of a democratic and egalitarian pirate society on Madagascar, was meant as an utopian fantasy; rather, he sees this description as dystopian, since it confirmed all the fears and prejudices of contemporaries.

However, proving that piracy was an integral part of colonial expansion and society up until the early 1700s is not the same as disproving that piracy could be an act of social rebellion. It all depends I presume on one’s views on what (social) politics is. I have argued in The Devil’s Anarchy that the social rebellion of pirates took place on the level of the rhythms of everyday life, rather than on the level of consciously creating a new society. Even when outlawed, pirates needed connections to the legal economy, if only to sell their booty, to rest, and to re-outfit. This was true for early 17th-century pirates in European waters such as Simon the Dancer and Claes Compaen, for the buccaneers and flibustiers of the Brotherhood of the Coast, as well as for the Golden Age classical pirates. That increased importance of regular trade (that had to be safe-guarded from pirates) went hand in hand with a process of state building and the ‘extraterritorialization of violence’, turning pirates into outlaws (a process already described by Janice Thomson in her 1994 volume Mercenaries, pirates, and sovereigns) did not change this fact of everyday pirate life.

Pirates and other criminals needed and need middlemen, financiers, and buyers in the legal world. Hanna makes a significant contribution in detailing how in the 16th-18th centuries this also worked the other way around: the legal economies needed the illegal to survive and to embark on a process of ‘piratical colonization’. Only when expansion of trade and empire building did no longer need the pirates did the sea rovers turn into the ‘enemies of all mankind’.

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