Graeber, David. 2023. Pirate Enlightenment, Or the real Libertalia. London: Allen Lane.
In this entertaining book, the world of early eighteenth century Madagascar piracy, and the women they liaised with, turns out to have been the font of “a great historical achievement” in that “public assemblies”, with “a decentralized and participatory system of self-governance” (91), were brought into the pirate settlements and the subsequent Betsimisaraka “confederation”. This utopian scenario involves a fabled egalitarian, talkative (endless meetings – “The Great Kabary” 104), enlightened society beyond the reach of the Royal Navy and the East India Company – a “confederation” (87), that others call a kingdom, or, as Graeber calls it at one point, “nation” (100). This is where, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, as many as a thousand pirates settled, intermarrying with sexually “adventurous” local women keen on trade (52), holding shared views of “hostility to the slave trade” (96) and with aspirations for sending their offspring for education in England (98), and much else besides.
This is a rattling good yarn, hedged often enough with noting that the sources are thin, that the main text, A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson – we are told three times – may or may not have been written by Daniel Defoe (xxiv, 12, 23) and in many ways is “intentionally provocative” (88). Graeber’s text is provocative, that is, and the provocations are many: that the relationships, and indeed the lives pirates were able to live on the islands, were effectively managed by local women, and with the arrival of the pirates, these women had been “liberated from earlier sexual restrictions” (54) – they were largely “sequestered” by Muslim or Jewish immigrants (52). As well, the salons in which such ideas were discussed in Europe were run by women we have also now forgotten (xii, 148, perhaps the books on Lady Blessington that clutter some shelves might counteract this). Provocations are to be welcomed of course – though how welcome the pirates were in Madagascar, at one point facing an uprising which saw most murdered in 1697, is not clear. There might be other reasons to wonder at the motivations.
Madagascar is massively interesting though, and there is much in this book on magic charms, myth, even some psychoanalysis, so it is a rewarding read. Yet, as Graeber mentions Defoe, as noted, several times, it’s a bit of a worry that he ignores the part of Robinson Crusoe that takes place on Madagascar – a rape and a massacre by Crusoe’s crewmates (see a forthcoming article in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing). Graeber stresses the ways the import of pirate democracy was brought into the settlements (this story is fodder for TV series like Black Sails, Crossbones, unmentioned here), and on this, his ethnographic work of some decades past, and wide reading of relevant texts, is harnessed to offer a great speculative discussion that must complicate any simplistic idea of piratical politics. Unfortunately, much of the existing scholarship on the history of Madagascar seems to suffer – we are told – from the dreaded “strain” of Marxist analysis (the “high water mark” 88) and an obsession with elites and the encroachment of the “system of trade” (88). These are problems that “corresponded to a period when Madagascar, like so many postcolonial societies, was itself experimenting with state socialism” (88). While it is hard to credit that only the work that departs from this focus is “superb” (88-89) it is nevertheless a very good point to stress that “political elite … primarily in the business of accumulating wealth and power” do tend to erase variety with the “intellectual currents” of “popular movements”. That however was the point of the initial critique of postcoloniality, used by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1993), for example, to refer to refer to the betrayal of the anti-colonial struggles by new elites claiming the mantle of decolonization in a “hoax” that reintroduced neo-colonial ways. Alas, this use of the term postcoloniality has also been erased by those who take it as a temporal historical noun rather than presenting a diagnosis of disappointment in what might have been.
Which is generally how this book ends up – a sense of disappointment that doubles as an imaginative rewriting of the script for a reboot of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, now set in the Indian Ocean, with Occupy Wall Street stylings. Indeed, although this is provocation, the echoes of Occupy explicitly ring the closing bell of the book, as we discover “99 percent of all this has been lost to us” (141). Graeber means the conversations of the general assemblies of the Madagascar revolution “have, of course, been entirely lost to us” (146), but an imaginative ethnographic reconstruction of “pirate utopias discussed in the salons of Paris under Louis XV” (149) should be a welcome idea – indeed, “its hard to imagine they weren’t [discussed], since at that time, they were being discussed virtually every-place else” (149).
Pirate-affiliated “Besimisarka women dominating markets, and forming commercial alliances with wealthy men to act as their commercial agents” so that these men – pirates remember, unsavoury scurvy lot – with “substantial amounts of tradable commodities” (68) could unload their plunder, should indeed provoke us to think of the origins of the global trade system. It might be worth sampling some more of the “scholarship” on Defoe/Johnson. Graeber ignores any engagement with this, but Defoe had at one point endorsed the idea that England should trade directly with the pirates and that the notorious Captain Avery should be offered a deal. Was Defoe involved in conversations ahead of his times or not? – he had apparently “suggested the possibility of offering” Avery “a pardon in exchange for a portion of his wealth in the Review of 18 October 1707” (Novak 2003: 581). Novak also notes that in a South Sea Company pamphlet (before it spectacularly failed in 1722), Defoe had written in favour of trade with the pirates settled in Madagascar (2003, 569). This should not surprise us at all, Defoe was an advocate, as Alan Downie notes, of colonial expansion “through trade, not through force of arms” (Downie 1983, 74). Yet he disapproves of pirates and illicit trade too (Downie 1983, 82n). He “is not the prophet of progress he is so often painted” and was “primarily concerned with the preservation of England’s present advantages” (Downie 1983, 78). Downie warns against distorting Defoe’s message (Downie 1983, 83). Underneath the piratical posturing in Johnson/Defoe, there is ultimately a commitment to business-as-usual that we might today register as neo-colonial today – we should ask about how anyone gets involved in this – women, pirates, their children, the intellectuals in the salons…
Defoe is against war and for trade. A trade underpinned by violence that wins for England 300 years of EIC and imperial dominance starting, more or less, with Drake and Raleigh writing their accounts as benign memoirs (Hakluyt  1962). Siraj Ahmed makes the case in his book The Stillbirth of Capital, that “commerce between English pirates and the East India Company […] occurred at the very origins of the British Empire” and via a deft allusion, finds that “Defoe had a much more critical understanding of ‘capitalism’ than we have attributed to him” (Ahmed 2012, 56).
It may be a “strain”, but the erasure of the antecedents of capitalism are found lying at the heart of capital to this day, as set out already by Marx as “the old dodge of every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has robbed them of” ( 1990, 507). Plunder laundered through trade domesticates theft, making it difficult to conceive of the lost conversation here as being more than capital’s delusion about the propriety of its actions. Th pirates were not wrong to resist the British Navy, the opportunism of trade as a way out of a tight spot makes sense, the context is complicated, magic plays its part – yet, what it leaves us with today is continued duplicity and double-dealing. Seems to me that the “confederation” is alive and well, and we do well to be provoked to rethink who was involved.
Ahmed, Siraj. 2012. The Stillbirth of Capital: Enlightenment Writing and Colonial India. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Downie, J. Alan. 1983. “Defoe, Imperialism, and the Travel Books Reconsidered.” The Yearbook of English Studies, Colonial and Imperial Themes 13:66-83.
Fanon, Frantz. (1961) 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press
Hakluyt, Richard. (1589)1962. Voyages (8 Volumes) Edited by John Masefield. London: Dent.
Marx, Karl. (1867) 1990. Capital: Critique of Political Economy. MEGA II(9). Hamburg: Dietz.
Novak, Maximillian E. 2003. Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions: His Life and Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1993. “Situations of Value (Interview with Pheng Cheah).” Australian Feminist Studies, 17:141-162.