Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

by Marcus Rediker


After the runaway success of Pirates of the Caribbean, you’d think the craze for all things piratical would have waned a bit. But pirates are still hot. You can buy pirate gear at the McSweeney’s-run store at 826 Valencia in San Francisco, you can generate your pirate name on the Internet, and the third annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day is just around the corner. Meanwhile contemporary pirates armed with Uzis roam the South China Sea in speedboats, doing pretty well for themselves in terms of booty but utterly failing to capture the Western imagination, a discrepancy due no doubt to their lack of resemblance to Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp.

The image of the pirate as romantic outlaw and rebel has had a hold on our hearts since the 17th century. But historians’ views on pirates have been more nuanced, seesawing between portrayals of pirates as rebels or radicals and pirates as brutal men no different from, if better dressed than, common thieves. In Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates (1996), British historian David Cordingly expressly set out to contrast the popular image of pirates with what he saw as the decidedly less attractive reality. He aimed to debunk the myths that, as he points out, have been reinforced over the centuries mostly through children’s entertainments such as Peter Pan and Treasure Island–a medium not known for its accuracy. No less a Royal Navy partisan than Patrick O’Brian, author of Master and Commander, endorsed Cordingly’s work, saluting him for finally telling the truth about “these awful men.”

In Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, the most recent recontextualization of pirate facts, Marcus Rediker takes a sympathetic approach even as he focuses on some of the less sexy aspects of piracy, like the systems of government aboard pirate ships and the extent to which pirates disrupted the 18th-century slave trade. Essentially an academic monograph, the book is neither a dry history nor a romantic account–or rather, any romance it contains is of the Marxist variety. A professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a self-described activist and people’s historian, Rediker specializes in maritime history. He makes the case that the pirates of the short-lived Golden Age (1716-’26, when piracy flourished before being crushed by the authorities) were true radicals rather than mere rebels. In Rediker’s view these men (and a few women) sought to create an alternative seafaring society organized around norms explicitly counter to those of the dominant maritime culture. Pirates may have adopted a devil-may-care attitude–“a short life and a merry one” was their motto–but they were organized, with all the notions of collectivity and militancy that word implies. Contrary to the fantasy that’s at the heart of their enduring appeal, at the individual level each pirate did not simply do just as he or she pleased.

Reading Rediker and Cordingly is an object lesson in how different perspectives–some might say biases–yield different histories. Both books are highly credible and thoroughly referenced, but the writers tend to see only what they want to see, marshaling their evidence selectively. Rediker limits himself to the ten-year Golden Age. Cordingly devotes more time to the role of pirates in popular culture and his history covers a broader scope, starting with the 16th-century buccaneers and privateers, the latter basically just pirates licensed by national governments to attack the ships of their rivals during times of war and international friction.

Rediker emphasizes the democratic and collective aspects of pirate culture. Pirates elected their captains, who commanded only during attacks. In an early version of governmental checks and balances, they also elected a quartermaster who supervised such crucial matters as distribution of food, drink, and booty, selection of boarding parties for raids, and enforcement of ship discipline. Both positions were subject to the will of the “common council,” a voting body comprising all pirates aboard a given ship. Captains and quartermasters who abused their men or otherwise exercised poor leadership could be and were voted out of office.

By contrast, on commercial and naval ships of the period the authority of the captain was absolute, food and drink were scarce, and discipline was arbitrary, severe, and often sadistic. Most pirates whose biographies we know came from seafaring backgrounds: they were familiar with the misery of the dominant order. Rediker suggests, but doesn’t say straight out, that for many seamen of the day throwing their lot in with the pirates was a rational response to oppressive circumstances.

Cordingly, on the other hand, duly notes the pirates’ systems of governance, but devotes as much time to suggestions by hostile contemporaries that “pirate democracy” mainly meant a lot of time wasted quarreling over the division of loot. He notes the presence of Africans aboard pirate ships, sometimes in significant numbers, but suggests that these men were treated as just so much booty after being captured in raids of slave ships. In Rediker’s view both Africans and African-Americans, liberated slaves and freemen alike, were pirates along with men of French, Spanish, Dutch, English, Irish, Welsh, Native American, and Caribbean origin, often all on the same ship, owing allegiance to no nation. The pirates felt a kinship with the escaped slaves who had formed maroon communities in the Caribbean: they too called themselves marooners, with at least one ship, that of Captain Thomas Cocklyn, bearing the name Maroon.

The extent to which pirates defied the racial hierarchies of their time is up for debate, but there’s no quarrel over the serious disruption they caused to the slave trade, which was a huge part of international commerce in the 18th century. One commentator of the time estimated that the pirates did more damage to British shipping than French and Spanish military forces had during the earlier War of the Spanish Succession–and Rediker points out that before turning pirate, a substantial minority of seamen had worked on slave ships, where their conditions were generally not much better than that of the Africans. For some of these men, piracy provided only a brief period of freedom. When the crew of the famous Welsh pirate Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts were captured in 1722 off the coast of West Africa, they were imprisoned in the same dungeons used for captured Africans and branded with the mark of the Duke of York. More than 50 were executed; the others were sentenced to slavery on ships and in African gold mines.

Rediker argues that pirates threatened the established social order simply by taking their destinies into their own hands. The antipirate rhetoric of 18th-century authorities–naval officers, British officials, governors of Caribbean islands and the American colonies, and even Cotton Mather–bears this out. When Black Bart’s crew was sentenced, the judge chided them for their “insolent Resistance against the King’s Ship, without any Pretence of Authority more than that of your own private depraved Wills.”

The flamboyant image of lusty men breaking free of their masters and pursuing the whims of their own will is authentic, both Rediker and Cordingly agree. Pirates’ reputation for fun is merited, though it should be seen in the context of low life expectancy and a high incidence of serious injuries, which resulted in the peg legs and hook hands of lore. Their irreverence was often quite literally gallows humor: Rediker has unearthed records of pirates playacting their own trials before being captured. Pirates’ love of food and drink was well known in their own time, and they really did have a rich sense of drama. Black Bart decked himself out in red damask silk, gold, and diamonds; Blackbeard cultivated an image of himself as Satan, tying his hair and beard in pigtails and inserting sparklers around his face when capturing vessels. The skull and crossbones flag was designed to intimidate other ships and advertise the fact that pirates were not afraid to die. The flag’s nickname, the Jolly Roger, is sometimes thought to derive from the French jolie rouge, referring to the red flag of the renegade Templars who acted as pirates in the Mediterranean. Rediker suggests an etymology more closely connected to the use of “roger” as slang for penis.

Rediker doesn’t sugarcoat pirates’ less appealing activities: torture, murder, sheer destructiveness. Some pirates were regarded even by their fellows as sadistic or mentally unstable–aristocrat Stede Bonnet being the most prominent example. But again, historians’ sympathies and biases lead them to sharply different conclusions regarding just how bloodthirsty pirates really were. Cordingly emphasizes accounts of torture and murder, even those that other historians consider unreliable or exaggerated, while playing down acts of mercy. Rediker focuses on episodes in which merchant captains who had earned reputations for good treatment of their men found that the pirates treated them gently in turn.

When historical analyses are persuasive, it’s sometimes because they say what we want to hear. Without denying that pirates were bad, Rediker argues that they were rarely as savage as the authorities would have the people believe. And don’t we all want to think the best of pirates, to believe that they just seem bad? Apparently we do: romantic notions about pirates are not exclusively the product of time and distance. Particularly in the Caribbean and the American South, pirates had sympathizers and collaborators on land. The authorities needed to convince people that the pirates were “enemies of all mankind,” not worthy of sympathy or support. In this context uncritical acceptance of “official” record and opinion on pirates can seem a bit naive. Perhaps the solution to the historians’ maze of biases is to go straight to the sources, when they’re available. Both Rediker and Cordingly refer extensively to the 18th-century book A General History of the Pyrates, by someone calling himself Captain Charles Johnson (the real author is thought to be Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe). Colorful, entertaining, and with the advantage of being close to the action, “Johnson” is drawn on selectively by all historians of pirates to bolster their sometimes contradictory claims.

Under the Black Flag argues its case with intelligence, wit, and charm. But Villains seems to better grasp, in an almost intuitive manner, the experience of individual freedom that lies at the heart of the pirates’ enduring appeal. It also conveys that freedom’s extremely limited and short-lived nature. Unlike in the movies, real pirates, almost by definition, had happy moments but very few happy endings.