Review of Villains of All Nations by Marcus Rediker

MARCUS REDIKER. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004. Pp. 240. $20.00.

Villains of All Nations is the third book written by Marcus Rediker, a prize-winning American historian of the early-modern era and the Atlantic world and a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. In Villains, Rediker explores the social, political, and cultural history of the nearly 4000 pirates who sailed on roughly 80 pirate ships and captured approximately 2,400 vessels during the late period of the Golden Age of Piracy, from 1716-1726. Organized in conceptual chapters with engaging historical anecdotes, Villains answers the essential questions about piracy in the early eighteenth century: who pirates were, where they came from, what they stood for, why they became pirates, how they were organized, how they treated others, how they were portrayed by outsiders, and, ultimately, how they were destroyed by an international campaign of imperial terror. Despite tending towards the romantic, and lacking contextualization at certain moments, Villains is by far the most comprehensive and thoughtful historical overview of piracy in the late Golden Age.

Rediker divides the Golden Age of Piracy into three distinct stages from 1650 to 1726. The first stage (from 1650 to 1680) was defined by buccaneers and “protestant seadogs” like Henry Morgan who preyed upon the shipping of Catholic Spain and Portugal. The second stage (during the 1690s) featured pirates like William Kid and Henry Avery who are known as “rovers” because they operated around Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The third phase (from 1716-1726) featured swashbuckling, former-privateers like Edward Teach, who plundered ships of all nations. These pirates originally established their home base, at 800 strong, on the ungoverned Bahaman Island of New Providence, but, after the installment of royal authority in 1718, they spread across the Caribbean, the western coast of Africa, and the Indian Ocean. This late period of piracy peaked between 1717 and 1722, at which time Atlantic nations ramped up their resistance with naval forces and “high public displays of terror” [gibbets, chains, and gallows], and pirates began a desperate fight for survival that lasted until their collapse in 1726.

For sources, Rediker mines Anglo-American archives from the High Court of Admiralty (HCA), the Public Record Office (PRO), the Admiralty and Secretarial Papers (ADM), the Colonial Office Papers (CO), and the Calendars of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and the West Indies, 1574-1739. He combines these with trial records, execution sermons, royal proclamations, plays, novels, paintings, contemporary books, and, in one rare instance, an extant letter from the unrivaled pirate Bartholomew Roberts. The letters of crown-appointed, colonial governors like Alexander Spotswood, Woodes Rogers, and Nicholas Lawes are featured heavily, as are the writings of the reverend Cotton Mather. For newspapers, Rediker relies upon the American Weekly Mercury, the Boston Gazette, and the Boston News-Letter. He also emphasizes narratives from several captains and ship owners, like Philip Ashton and William Snelgrave, who survived capture by pirates. Lastly, Rediker draws upon a contemporary genre of criminal biography that includes the works of Captain Charles Johnson and Arthur Lawrence Hayward.

Rediker draws much of his inspiration from a radical tradition that includes historians like E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Jessie Lemisch, and Christopher Hill. Those familiar with either the book that Rediker co-wrote with the American historian Peter Linebaugh in 2000, called The Many-Headed Hydra, or some of Rediker’s earlier articles on piracy, will already be accustomed to his Marxist interpretation. Most importantly, they will be acquainted with his method of filtering bottom-up history through the “rhetoric of demonization,” or “the idiom of monstrosity,” articulated in writings from the higher social orders. Members of these orders include attorneys, investors, printers, governors, merchants, captains, propertied men, ministers, planters, and writers. These groups organized an international military and penal “campaign of terror to eradicate piracy.” In total, Rediker estimates that 627 pirates had been hanged from gallows by the year 1726. As a group, they were killed by the “African slave trading capital,” content on tapping the maximum potential of its recently-won Asiento contract, a monopolistic agreement to supply at least 4,800 slaves per annum to the Spanish colonies of the New World; in this way, the dominance of the English slave trade was contingent upon the demise of piracy.

Who were pirates during the Golden Age? As Rediker demonstrates, they were a “motley crew” of multi-ethnic, multi-national, and proletarian seafarers who organized themselves according to egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, collectivist, and democratic principles. They were mostly male, poor, childless, uneducated, unmarried, adventurous, and in their late 20s and early 30s; many of them hailed from port cities, and most of them had prior maritime experience; in fact, negative experiences onboard naval and merchant vessels generally fueled their piratical ambitions. Also, pirates “layed rough” (destroyed cabin divisions and slept wherever they wanted), and they employed four times the number of tars that were typically required to operate at 250 ton, merchant vessel. Rediker also demonstrates with a brilliant diagram that “about 90 percent of all pirates active between 1716 and 1726 fitted into two main lines of genealogical descent.” In other words, pirates were extremely fraternal; although some spawned sui generis from mutinies, most broke away existing bands that overextended their crews. In this manner, pirate customs were passed down throughout the late Golden Age.

As former seamen, pirates sought vengeance against the “violent disciplinary regime of the eighteenth-century deep-sea sailing ship.” They had experienced rotten food and poor victuals, payment fraud and low wages, cramped quarters, ill-ventilated conditions, untreated disease, high mortality rates, crippling accidents, impressment, and arbitrary abuse from naval captains and merchant ship owners. When these injustices are contextualized with several key historical factors—namely the English commercial revolution, the massive demobilization of armies and navies, the expiration of privateering contracts after the War of Spanish Succession, the dispossession of smallholders during the enclosure movement, and the development of colonial markets that were both far-flung and loosely defended—then the tremendous boom in piracy becomes clear. It also becomes clear why pirates earmarked “ready money” for food, drink, and healthcare, practiced equal distribution of resources, plunder, and discipline, engaged in democratic elections and common councils, signed articles of agreement, named their ships Revenge, and preferred to accept only voluntary recruits.

As always, Rediker is clear to sort out fact from fiction. Real pirates did not make their enemies walk the plank (their chosen method of punishment was shooting a captain tied up to the mainmast), they did not bury treasure, and, although they had the means to depose leaders, they did not use the “Black Spot” from Treasure Island. Real pirates saw fighting as a last resort; they preferred to pass time by “making merry:” singing, dancing, cursing, drinking, eating, “whoring,” and performing plays, sometimes of their own mock trials. While some pirates were skilled workers, like carpenters, coopers, cooks, and surgeons, others were slavers, felons, servants, fishermen, turtlers, bargemen, logmen (“Baymen”), and common laborers. Many hailed from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, but others came from Holland, France, Portugal, Denmark, Belguim, Sweden, and West Africa, particularly Calabar, Whydah and Sierra Leone. In addition, there have been at least four confirmed female pirates and six confirmed Native American pirates during the late Golden Age. Finally, there is evidence to suggest that pirates engaged in homosexual activity and close male relationships [matelotage].

Pirates viewed both the oceans and the ship as common property during a time when both were rapidly becoming appropriated by commercial empires. Each pirate crew sailed under its own version of the Jolly Roger flag, “the banner of King Death.” Among other traditions, this common ensign signaled an “advanced state of group identification.” Pirates also had other eccentricities: they drank “black strap,” a concoction of rum, molasses, chowder, and beer, and they embraced an “ethos of apocalypse,” the symbolism of limited time, and an “omnipresence of death.” Many of them vowed to ignite their powder kegs, and blow up their vessels, rather than die like dogs on the gallows. Others carried red, “bloody” flags that they would rig in order to signal their intention to fight to the death. Among these, pirates also carried a full stock of national flags, in case they should need to deceive an enemy vessel.

Unlike the buccaneers, privateers, and freebooters of the seventeenth century, pirates of the late Golden Age did not prey singularly upon merchant ships from Catholic Spain and Portugal. These pirates were “enemies of all mankind” [hostes humani generes], who stalked Dutch, French, and English vessels as well. Upon capturing a prize, they either burned, sunk, commandeered, or restored the ship. Their choice of action often depended upon the quality of the ship captain, whether he was “an honest fellow,” whether he treated his hands well, and whether he did not mete out physical abuse with a cat-o-nine tails. Upon boarding a prize, it was the responsibility of the pirate quartermaster to go about the “Distribution of Justice,” inquiring amongst sailors about how their captain treated them. Poor captains, like Captain Skinner, were punished, while good captains, like James Macrae, were rewarded.

At base, Rediker argues that pirates were not irrelevant oddities or marginal historical actors during the early-eighteenth century. On the contrary, their seafaring activities halted English shipping, frightened commercial and government officials, and “created something approaching a crisis in trade.” As he states, “commodities were the lifeblood of the capitalist economy,” and pirates stole them, redistributed them, squandered them, and destroyed them en masse. Even more, they became social bandits who fought against the capitalist economy; their moral admonishments in goals and gallows had profound implications for liberty, and their actions emboldened sailors, who often refused to resist and even joined their crews, and landlubbers, who periodically staged revolts in the wake of their executions.

In a conceptual chapter on female pirates, Rediker buries the greatest and most-novel sub-argument of the whole book. In a comparative analysis of two images—the frontispiece from the Dutch-language edition of Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates from 1725 and a painting called Liberté Guidant le people by Eugéne Delacroix from 1830—Rediker shows that the “image of piracy preceded the image of liberty by more than a century.” He also demonstrates that the brand of liberty espoused by female pirates was appropriated for nationalistic intentions. As he states, the liberty that women found beneath the Jolly Roger “took a strange, crooked path from the rough, rolling deck of a ship in the Caribbean to the polished, steady floor of an art salon in Paris.” However, by far the most impressive aspect of this argument is the way that Rediker uses historical methodologies to prove that Delacroix was inspired by specific writings about pirates as well as the Dutch frontispiece during the creation of his artwork.

Unfortunately, readers must lament the fact that Rediker does not devote a special chapter to pirates of African descent. Although he acknowledges that black pirates were “most fully hidden by the record keeping,” and “for some reason, record keepers simply did not pay much attention to pirates from foreign lands,” Rediker cannot use source difficulties as an excuse. Nearly as little has been written about female pirates, yet Rediker manages to produce an entire chapter about them. To his credit, Rediker does mention the special role that people of African descent had in relation to Atlantic piracy. First, piracy was attractive to black individuals because pirates “did not operate according to the black codes enacted and enforced in Atlantic slave societies.” Although many pirates were former slave traders, and pirates often sold slaves to Atlantic colonies for profit, they were also known to free, empower, and incorporate slaves.

Like white pirates who resented the hierarchies of deep-sea merchant sailing, black pirates “fit the bill for piracy” because they resented the conditions of slave society. Black pirates were often chosen for boarding crews because they struck a particular fear into the hearts of merchants who dealt in black commodification. Finally, black pirates were treated uniquely by colonial authorities, who “refused to give black pirates a trial, [generally] preferring to profit by selling them into slavery rather than hanging them.” Often times, white pirates would sojourn on the west coast of Africa, “visiting” with African women or attacking European slave forts; other times small communities of pirates integrated themselves with maritime West African communities, as they did with the Kru on the Windward coast in the 1720s.

Despite its unequaled value as an introductory guide to piracy in the late Golden Age, Villains of All Nations has some very particular flaws. First, Rediker wrongly dates the beginning of New Providence as a pirate haven to the year 1716. In fact, New Providence became a pirate haven at least the year prior, when Jamaican privateers like Henry Jennings came in pursuit of the wreckage from the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet. In attempting to return to their home islands, these individuals were expelled and forced to relocate to the Bahamas. In this regard, Rediker makes the mistake of beginning the late Golden Age of Piracy at least one year too late. Although the War of Spanish Succession ended in 1714, readers hear almost nothing about those first two years. Henry Jennings, so crucial to the establishment of the Bahamas, is never discussed.

Second, there are times when Rediker takes the mysterious yet un-ignorable author Captain Charles Johnson too readily, which is confusing because Rediker indicates his familiarity with the controversies surrounding Johnson in his endnotes. As historians of piracy know, Captain Charles Johnson is considered to be a pseudonym; the real identity of the author has been postulated as the novelist Daniel Defoe, the publisher Charles Rivington, and the journalist Nathanial Mist, but it is nonetheless still unknown. Regardless, Rediker seems to pick and choose in his quotes whether to use Johnson at face value or to qualify his claims. These instances are often where Rediker borders on the romantic. In one example, he relies entirely upon Johnson for his description of Blackbeard, “consciously cultivating an image of” Satan. Given what Rediker believes about the “idiom of monstrosity,” readers would expect this manner of speech to be questioned more closely.

Finally, as he does in The Many-Headed Hydra, Rediker glibly equates pirates with maroon societies. He states, “Pirate ships themselves might be considered multiracial maroon communities,” and he takes as evidence the fact that pirates appropriated the idiom of marooning in their conversations and ship names. Unfortunately, all this evidence proves is that pirates thought of themselves as related to maroon communities. It does not prove an actual likeness. It seems more logical that, although maroon societies and pirates were both byproducts of Atlantic empire, they were nonetheless predicated on fundamentally different philosophies. The latter wanted to emancipate themselves completely from commercial society, while the former wanted to frustrate commercial society through their periodic engagement.

Despite these minor critiques, Villains of All Nations is a superb and thrilling monograph that demonstrates how pirates in the late Golden Age “challenged conventions of race, class, gender, and nation.” Its signal achievement is demonstrating how, as the struggle between outlaws and empire progressed, pirates found themselves entangled in a “dialectic of violence” with the nation state. They strove to create a new, utopian social order that would reflect the unjust hypocrisies of Atlantic empire, but “they could not resolve the contradictions of their time,” and so they were compelled to resort to terror and violence themselves. Most importantly, Rediker reminds us that pirates were rebels, and that is why they have continued to fascinate our culture. “As long as there are powerful people and oppressive circumstances to be resisted,” he argues, the history of pirates is worth remembering.

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.


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