Pirate Enlightenment: Some Treasures, Some Toils
By Carly Jackson
- Book Review of Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia by David Graeber.1
In the Preface of Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia by David Graeber, he states that he hopes to provide a fun read that illustrates that the pirate society of Madagascar (1690-1750) lives up to the story of a pirate utopia called Libertalia which reflected many Enlightenment principles. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t have enough fun. Perhaps that’s because Graeber didn’t get the chance to finish it properly as it was published posthumously. But we can learn about some of the ingredients that might comprise an Enlightenment utopia.
Graeber’s first influential book was Debt: The First 5000 Years which explored the history of debt and credit in human civilization. He was influential in the Occupy Wall Street movement which he described as the “revolt of the caring classes”—i.e., people who wanted to do meaningful work but found themselves underpaid and in debt. He helped come up with the slogan, “We are the 99%.”
Graeber was a professor of anthropology at Yale and the London School of Economics and participated in anarchist activism. He received a Fulbright to study in Madagascar which resulted in his 2007 book, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar.
Graeber describes the Enlightenment as an “intellectual movement uniquely tied to conversational forms,” and those conversations revolved around liberty, authority, sovereignty, and “the people” as opposed to “the elite.” In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and his co-author, David Wengrow, identify the catalyst for the Enlightenment as the flood of new ideas coming from Europeans who were traveling and colonizing the globe. Exposure to nations with different forms of governance inspired intellectual criticism of long-standing governance structures at home.
The pirate kings of Madagascar and the Malagasy didn’t have any particular interest in pursuing knowledge or exploring the nature of liberty in intellectual discussions. In the conclusion to the book, Graeber mentions that debate and good conversation were an important part of Malagasy culture, but that point is disconnected from the rest of the history. It’s not clear that Malagasy culture had any conscientious adherence to Enlightenment conversation. Any similarities between Malagasy-pirate culture and an ideal Enlightenment society (Libertalia) were a result of regular people finding a way to survive outside the influence of strong centralized governments and religions. Their culture informed Enlightenment thinkers on what would be possible if older institutions were deprived of power. Before the formation of the Betsimisaraka Confederation, the clans of Madagascar consisted of many warring clans. No particular clan leader was able to gain too much power, because he would be raided by other clans if he started to accumulate too much wealth. In these raids, clans would steal each other’s cattle and enslave each other. Women were traded like property to form alliances.
The pirate kings were attracted to Madagascar because their self-interest led them there. The practice of cultural norms that supported liberty and other Enlightenment principles emerged from the self-interested dealings between people of different cultures, not because of an intellectual impulse to put philosophical ideals into practice. It seems that toleration was part of the culture because they had so many different travelers coming to trade. Three cultural eras are described in the book: the period of the Zafy Ibrahim, the period of the Malagasy women with pirate husbands and the period of the Betsimisaraka Confederation. Throughout all three periods, the Malagasy were governed by clan leaders. The clans prevented each other from gaining too much dominance.
The Zafy Ibrahim were religious and patriarchal. They, along with their Malagasy neighbors, traded women as property. When pirates started arriving with their riches, Malagasy women seized the opportunity to gain some autonomy by managing their pirate husbands’ wealth. Graeber posits that the clans who formed the Betsimisaraka Confederation were partially motivated to reduce the power of the pirate wives and their mixed-race children.
Graeber imagines that the pirate kingdoms were a topic of discussion in the European salons, in which case, European observation of the spontaneous order that occurred in Madagascar influenced the Enlightenment, but the pirates themselves were not great revolutionaries.
While many people are personally interested in pirate stories, I have a professional interest in pirate stories and histories. I work with seasteaders. Seasteaders want to create floating communities (called seasteads) in international waters that are, importantly, outside territory claimed by any existing government. Pirates are of particular interest to seasteaders because pirate settlements were the place for radical social experiments, which is a goal for seasteading. How the open ocean creates an environment for innovation, free from land-based institutions is a fascinating question. The Golden Age of piracy only lasted 40-50 years and we still love stories about it. The potential for seasteading to have an impact on society is even greater than these long-gone pirates. A small group of people can capture the imagination of society as a whole and inspire reform, inspiring a second Enlightenment period.
We can create an environment for innovation by identifying why places like Madagascar thrived. There are four things in particular I would like to highlight: autonomous women, wealth and markets, no ties to another government, and good stories.
Enterprising and Autonomous Women
Graeber describes the Enlightenment as the first historically known intellectual movement organized largely by women. He doesn’t offer any support for that claim. He does share a few stories about how the Malagasy women were integral to the pirates’ success. Although Graeber doesn’t explicitly say it, I am making the leap to connect his stories about Malagasy women to his claim that the Enlightenment was led by women. One example involves the Zafy Ibrahim, an immigrant community that dominated the Malagasy economy before the pirate trade disrupted them. Zafy Ibrahim had strict sexual mores. The Malagasy were much more open about sex and were not as violently protective of their women.
Graeber makes the case that the Malagasy women saw the opportunity in partnering with pirates because they could avoid dealing with the Zafy Ibrahim who had misogynistic practices. Essentially, pirates coming presented an opportunity for women and they took it. Pirates didn’t bring a lot of cultural baggage with them, because they were criminals in their home countries.
When the pirates brought their stolen wealth to Madagascar, the women found an equal role in partnership with the pirates, helping them sell items in the marketplace. The women were not expected to be monogamous. They had the autonomy to find new partners and their pirate husbands needed them to sell their stolen goods in the marketplace.
Wealth and Markets
Graeber was critical of market economics. Nevertheless, it’s clear from his book that markets and trade were major influences on the shifting cultures of Madagascar. One of the first pirate settlements, Sainte-Marie, was managed by a pirate wanted for murder in Jamaica who was funded by a New York-based slave trader. In this era, the pirates benefitted from sowing discord among Malagasy natives because they could capture the enemies of their allies and send them on slave ships. Eventually, the demand for Malagasy slaves drove the pirate manager to betray his allies by sending them on the slave ships. The Malagasy retaliated by attacking Sainte-Marie and slaughtering most of the pirates there. The slave market did not last much longer in Madagascar.
Pirates in other parts of Madagascar found it more profitable to raid slave ships which incentivized them to have peaceable relationships with the Malagasy. Madagascar was between areas controlled by the British Royal African Company and the East India Company, making it a good location for pirates to avoid scrutiny as they traded their stolen gold and jewels for food and land. Once again, the pirates found themselves in a better position by honoring Enlightenment principles like liberty and sovereignty, but they did not choose the path against slavery for ideological reasons.
Avoiding existing governments
In the Preface, Graeber states that the European Enlightenment came about because world travel exposed Europeans to new ideas from interacting with new cultures and the new social experiments could not happen in the established cities. Social experiments could only happen on the margins of society. Pirates were on the fringe of society; naturally they would be able to participate in social experiments because they had nothing to lose. They were considered criminals in their home countries. With no status to preserve, pirates formed democratic governance on their ships. When those pirates married Malagasy women, they formed a new social order that was more egalitarian.
On the margins of society is where radical ideas flourish.
I was interested to see how pirate societies could have an effect on the worldwide culture and economy because that is our goal with seasteading. The idea that people from different cultures coming together on the fringes of society will form freer forms of governance is very attractive to seasteaders. Graeber describes many groups of immigrants who tried to settle in Madagascar, but they brought their governments with them. One astonishing story occurs when the French settlers had formed alliances with the Malagasy by marrying Malagasy women. The French government, with the goal of improving their foothold, sent French women to marry the settlers, invalidating their marriages to the local women. The Malagasy attacked the French settlement. Hundreds of French men and women were slaughtered. The pirates didn’t have home governments telling them their marriages to the Malagasy were invalid, so their business and personal partnerships thrived. It’s the partnership between pirates and the Malagasy that created Libertalia.
In Malagasy history, there is no centralization of power. Before the pirates arrived with their textiles and other booty, most wealth was accumulated in cattle. Clans could form alliances in big meetings called kabary. During the kabary, clan leaders would swear oaths to each other. Graeber equates the kabary that formed the Betsimisaraka Confederation with creating a social contract. Although the Betsimisaraka Confederation established Ratsimilaho as their war leader, Graeber says it was a voluntary agreement between peers rather than a conqueror taking control over his neighbors.
Pirates were good storytellers. The Malagasy also placed great value on their myths and stories. Possibly, telling a compelling story about a utopia is enough to encourage people to build the utopia in real life. Libertalia was described as an egalitarian republic, in which slavery had been abolished and all things were shared in common and administered democratically.
Pirates experimented with new forms of governance and property arrangements. Graeber claims that even if Libertalia wasn’t a real society, the existence of the story shows that people were telling stories incorporating these ideals.
It was a matter of necessity that the pirates had to form an egalitarian relationship with the Malagasy – not a pursuit of utopia. They lived by natural law because they couldn’t claim racial superiority and survive. This history falls short of Graeber’s claim since he described the Enlightenment as an intellectual movement.
It’s not clear that the pirates had any attachment to Enlightenment ideals. They were looking for the good life and found it in Madagascar. They could have wives to sell their stolen loot and pretend to be kings without the stress of actually ruling over people. It’s a case of self-interest creating mutually beneficial agreements.
The writing in Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia is a confusing mix of dates, tangents, and references to unverified sources. The stories and arguments get lost in the miasma.
If you happen to find a copy of Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia in a bookstore or library, the Preface is worth reading. Some of the stories that Graeber tells are fascinating but they are hidden in a circuitous, overly cited, confusing set up. While the book shares many fascinating stories about pirates and the evolving Malagasy culture, it doesn’t clearly make Graeber’s arguments. Graeber doesn’t take the time to explicitly frame the connections between Malagasy-Pirate culture and Enlightenment culture.
My takeaway from this book is that pirates were a unique ingredient because they were criminals in their home countries and therefore didn’t represent any national interests. Because of their freedom from national interests, they couldn’t colonize Madagascar. Instead, they had to find their own individual way to provide value to the Malagasy society and integrate with the local culture. As a result, they found a way to bring the real Libertalia to life.
* Carly Jackson is the Development Director for The Seasteading Institute. She joined the Seasteading community after meeting a group of seasteaders at the Startup Societies Conference in August 2017. She has dreamed of living on a seastead ever since. She served on the board for The Center for Natural Living, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating autonomous and sustainable communities. She has worked and volunteered for a number of nonprofit organizations and political organizations, building communities and training activists.