Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I suppose the last time I read anything read anything about pirates, I must have been about ten. A lot has happened to pirates since then: they've been trapped and caged by the professoriate; they've been turned inside out and scrutinized so as to understand their place in social theory. Most of this inquiry has been carried on without my knowledge or consent but I begin to get the flavor as I read Colin Woodard's entertaining The Republic of Pirates (2007).

Woodard himself is refreshingly free of ambitious academic pretensions. What we have here is straight narrative, mostly about the Caribbean, chiefly about the period from 1716-20, sometimes loosely described as the locus of "the pirate republic" in and around Nassau in the Bahamas. In context, the label seems extravagant but not quite wrong: there does seem to have been a little window in time, and a little corner of the world, in which pirates could pretty much do what and go where they pleased.

Funny how when we think of pirates it is almost always the Caribbean we remember, letting slip the insight that pirates have been visiting their predations upon "legitimate society" for just about as long as there was anything to predate upon. Pompey cleaned them out of the sea lanes of the Roman Empire; Thomas Jefferson confronted them on the Barbary Coast, and Barack Obama may be the first president in some 200 years to preside over any pirate killing.

But it's Blackbeard and his 18th Century companions who catch most of our attention, and with good reason: aside from the hooks and the parrots, it does seem that around 1720 the planets were in alignment for piracy to a degree only rarely equaled at any other time. You had, first of all, great wealth in the Caribbean, including the scandalous but just barely legal traffic in African slaves. You had weak local government. You persistent instability in the wake of the "War of the Spanish Succession," which pitted English and French against each other in conflict over Spanish interest. You had a history of "privateering"--really piracy under government sanction.

And you had what might have been most important--a bunch of underemployed ex-combatants looking to make a few pence. Which invites attention to one often overlooked fact about piracy: it's a skilled trade. Even the lowliest deckhand had to know a halyard from a bowsprit, and the captaincy of a pirate ship required great management skill. Considering how good the pirates were at what they did, it's a wonder that they weren't even more successful. Indeed while I'm not sure I can put numbers on it, my guess after reading Woodard is that the defeat of the pirates may have had more to do with hostile weather than it did with sovereign power.

I did find my mind wandering to other perhaps comparable gaps in sovereignty. The cowboy era: again just a moment in time, much more transitory than you would guess from its prominence in the movies (I suppose there are all kinds of good reasons why cowboys and pirates make such popular movie themes). The cowboys didn't have the pirate's targets of opportunity to prey upon, but we witness some of the same improvisational state-building in each case.

Another, perhaps more trivial, example, is the shoot-em-up bad boys of the 1930s--John Dillinger, Baby-Face Nelson, that lot. They never reached anything like the pirates' complexity of organization. But they probably do represent a gap in the social fabric--a brief moment of dislocation during which the bad guys had more resources than the good.

And how, exactly, shall I classify the Mongols or the armies of Islam who appeared out of nowhere and came close to putting western sovereignty completely out of business?

Present-day comparisons are seductively easy. I see that some guy at George Mason (surprise!) has written a book arguing that pirates are just capitalist entrepreneurs in bright colored bandanas. Pirates as bankers? Next thing you know, somebody will be telling us that bankers are pirates. Oh wait.

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