A Libertarian Paradise in the Golden Age of Piracy

By the 1720s, the Americas’ radicals existed adrift at sea; stateless people who turned their very existence into an act of rebellion.

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In 1716, pirates regularly declared war on all nation-states, they tested the extreme limits of life and death, and quite literally challenged God to dare pass judgment over an angry pirate. If the Lord knew what was good for him, he would mind his own damned business and move along. A true pirate had no home but Hell.

 

Further Readings/References:

“The Legend of Libertalia” on Libertarianism.org

Captain Charles John, A General History of the Pirates, Volume One and Volume Two

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press. 2004.

Anthony Comegna: In 1726 pirate William Fly tied his own noose. He was after all much better at tying knots than his hangman and though Fly did not fear death it is reasonable to suppose he’d rather have it quick. Four years earlier the Royal Navy and the Royal African company coordinated to defeat Black Bart Roberts. They hanged 52 pirates at Cape Coast Castle in West Africa. In December 1718 [00:00:30] Bahamas governor and admiralty judge Woods Rogers executed a mass of pirates in the ironically named city of New Providence. By the 1720s the America’s most radical antinomians were rogues like these, adrift at sea. Stateless people who turned their very existence into an act of rebellion. Against all landed hierarchies. Against law and order. They positively declared war on death and finally God Himself.
[00:01:00] This is Liberty Chronicles a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
The new antinomian pirates organized themselves into anarchistic hydroarchies. Revolutionary autonomous seafaring communities and for the decade 1716 to 1726 about 4,000 pirates posed the world’s most dangerous threat to the great European empires. [00:01:30] Early modern state crafters built their worldwide domains primarily with working people, sweat and blood. The corporate capitalist provided the capital and skilled work. The monarchs provided military support and legitimacy. And sailors, slaves and indentured servants provided the forced labor. Mixed together these productive elements provided an explosion of wealth and power for those at the top of the chain. And misery for those at the bottom. In the steady stream of servile rebellions, [00:02:00] domestic disturbances, Indian revolts and even the lone regicidal revolution, common people around the ocean basin asserted their own rights to life and liberty.
Early modern statecraft was in many ways at least, a diverse set of conspiracies to extract labor and wealth from some to funnel it toward others. The European nation states and empires were vast stealing machines. The first global dealers in death and terrorism. [00:02:30] Kings, queens and their corporate creatures scooped up huge numbers of poor Europeans to sail the ships moving global trade with their labors. Those not forced onto the ship had to be enticed but once aboard they were at the mercy of the captain. A lucrative trade encouraged vicious war and for centuries on end Europeans were almost always at war with one another.
But the days when emperors and kings did much of their own fighting was long gone. To staff their armies kings uprooted [00:03:00] concord populations and shifted them around the globe to occupy alien peoples. To staff their navies they impressed the poor and powerless from port cities around the ocean. In the English civil war, the nearly half impressed new model army made it’s radical opposition to state terrorism known and officially heard at the 1647 Putney debates. Leadership betrayed the army’s democratic impulse but aristocrats now knew they could not safely ignore it.
[00:03:30] At sea captains enforced a wartime regime of terror and torture to ensure obedience among their crew. Life aboard included the most dangerous work of the era offering almost nothing in return. In wartime people flocked to the ships for work. Either on their own or impressed into service. But in peacetime demobilization posed a serious threat. Now that the empires were done extracting labor and wealth from all these sailors where are they going to go? What are they likely [00:04:00] to do with their advanced knowledge of seafaring and combat?
To reduce the number of pirates preying on peacetime waters monarchs sometimes offered amnesty especially if pirates would recommit themselves to military service against the crown’s enemies. The first great generation of pirates included mostly English protestant privateers or maritime mercenaries demobilized after the civil wars. Now lacking patents to steal from the English, captains turned pirate often [00:04:30] turned on English merchants out of desperation.
The next generation of ex-privateer pirates shifted their theater of operations to the east African coast in the Indian Ocean. In Madagascar amid some of the world’s most beautiful and productive natural settings many of these sailors finally found the liberty and peace denied them at home during the golden age of Atlantic piracy.
James Misson was one of these men. Born in Provence France, his father was an undisclosed [00:05:00] man of some wealth but a great many children. Though Misson received a substantial education his father expected James to become one of the king’s musketeers. Young James was the roving type fascinated by adventure literature. He joined the Victoire, a Mediterranean trading vessel. On leave in Naples Misson visited nearby Rome where he was disgusted to see the church surrounded in luxury and corruption. While there he met a most unusual priest named Caraccioli who shared [00:05:30] the rover’s sympathies and more. Caraccioli explained that church government was no different than any other form of aristocratic government. Those with power do what they will while the twin forces of law and shame compel orderly behavior from the masses.
Seignior Caraccioli that day converted Misson to deism and doubt. The two returned to the Victoire as a pair of radicals now attached forever by the bonds of fraternity and class identity. The radical duo [00:06:00] dutifully converted the crew in politics and religion. When a privateering mission against the English ship Winchelsea went awry the Victoire’s first five officers all died. The Winchelsea itself soon exploded leaving Misson and his converts unexpectedly in charge of themselves for a change.
In Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pirates, one of the first and the most important books of its kind, readers can see into nomian idealism put into practice on the high seas. [00:06:30] The men chose Misson to lead them. They scrapped their privateering mission and the new captain addressed his crew. Upon encountering a slave ship, Misson’s men freed the lot and doubled their own numbers.
Speaker 2: A General History of the Pirates from their first rise and settlement to the island of Providence to the present time. Volume two, 1728 by Charles Johnson of Captain Misson and his crew.
Misson [00:07:00] from the barricades spoke to the following purpose, that since they had unanimously resolved to seize upon and defend their liberty which ambitious men had usurped, he was under an obligation to recommend to them on brotherly love to each other, the banishment of all private peaks and grudges and a swift agreement in harmony among themselves. That in throwing off the yoke of tyranny of which the action spoke in abhorrence, he hoped none would follow the example of tyrants and turn his back upon justice for when equity [00:07:30] was trodden under foot misery, confusion and mutual distrust naturally followed.
He also advised them that he was satisfied men who were born and bred in slavery by which their spirits were broke and were incapable of so generous a way of thinking, who ignorant of their birthright and the sweets of liberty danced to the music of their chains which was indeed the greater part of the inhabitants of the globe would brand this generous crew with the insidious name of pirates [00:08:00] and think it meritorious to be instrumental in their destruction. Self-preservation therefore and not a cruel disposition obliged him to declare war against all such as should refuse him the entry of their ports and against all who should not immediately surrender and give up with their necessities required but in a more particular manner against all European ships and vessels as concluded in placable enemies.
And I do now said he, declare such [00:08:30] war. After affairs were thus settled they shaped their course for the coast of Guinea in which voyage nothing remarkable happened. The pirates seized the Nieuwstadt which had some gold dust on board to value of about 2,000 sterling. And a few slaves to the number 17 for she had but begun to trade. The slaves were a strengthening of their hands for the captain ordered them to be clothed out of Dutch mariners’ chests and told his men that the trading of those of our own [00:09:00] species could never be agreeable to the eyes of divine justice. That no man had power over the liberty of another and while those who professed a more enlightened knowledge of the deity sold men like beasts, they prove that their religion was no more than grimace and that they differed from the barbarians in name only since their practice was in nothing more humane for his part and he hoped he spoke the sentiments of all his brave companions. He had not exempted his neck from the galling yoke [00:09:30] of slavery and asserted his own liberty to enslave others.
That however, these men were distinguished from the Europeans by their color, customs or religious rights. They were the work of the same omnipotent being and induced with equal reason. Wherefore he desired they might be treated like free men for he would banish even the name of slavery from among them and divided into messes among them. To the end they might the sooner learn their language, be sensible of the obligation [00:10:00] they had to them and more capable and zealous to defend that liberty they owed to their justice and humanity.
This speech of Misson’s was received with general applause and the ship rang with, “Long live Captain Misson.” The Negroes were divided among the French, one to a mess. Who by their gesticulations showed they were gratefully sensible of their being delivered from their chains.
Anthony Comegna: True to their abolitionist lifestyle and piratical practice the crew [00:10:30] chose a revolutionary flag. While the black flag of King Death the Jolly Roger was meant to inspire terror, Misson’s white flag symbolized liberty and peace. Democratic debate set their course and after a few conquests more they landed on the island of Johanna between mainland east Africa and Madagascar. These waters were rich and popular pirate haunts in the mid golden age and Misson’s crew saw an opportunity to establish themselves here on a permanent basis [00:11:00] as a free state.
But Misson succumbed to Caraccioli who suggested they would be best situated by allying with the queen regent of Johanna against her rival the nearby island king of Mohilla. By driving a wedge between these two local powers the liberated crew could establish themselves as power brokers. Life was good. They rested for a time in secure and comfortable alliance with the queen. Until the blow back struck.
Costly war with Mohilla and [00:11:30] bloody battles with Europeans at sea convinced Misson that his people’s future demanded non-interference with nation states.
Speaker 2: They were supplied by the queen with all necessaries of life. And Misson married her sister as Caraccioli did the daughter of her brother whose armory which consisted before of no more than two rusty firelocks and three pistols he furnished with 30 fusils, as many pair of pistols and gave him two barrels of powder and four ball.
[00:12:00] Several of his men took wives and some requited their share of the prizes which was justly given them. They designing to settle in this island but the number of these did to exceed 10 which loss was repaired by 30 of the crew they had saved from perishing coming in to him. While they passed their time in all manner of diversions the place would afford them as hunting, feasting and visiting the island, the king of Mohilla made a descent and alarmed the whole country.
The party which went by land [00:12:30] fell in with and beat the Mohillians with great ease who were in the greatest consternation to find their retreat cut off by Misson’s boats. The party of Europeans and Johannians then marched to their metropolis without resistance which they reduced to ashes and the Johannians cut down all the cocoa walks they could for the time for towards evening they returned to their ships and stood off to sea. At their return to Johanna, the queen made a festival and magnified the bravery and service of their guests, [00:13:00] friends and allies.
This feast lasted four days at expiration of which time the queen’s brother proposed to Captain Misson the making another descent in which he would go in person and did not doubt subjecting the Mohillians. But this was not the design of Misson who had thoughts of fixing a retreat on the northwest side of Madagascar and looked upon the feuds between these two islands advantageous to his views and therefore no way his interest to suffer the one to overcome the other. [00:13:30] The queen agreed to make a peace which she wished might banish all memory of former injuries.
Anthony Comegna: With the queen of Johanna’s support, Misson explored Madagascar for a sufficient settlement zone. He found it near modern day Diego Suarez or Antsiranana at the island’s northern tip. With several Johannans Misson’s crew constructed the first homes, defenses and fields in the new free nation of Libertalia. [00:14:00] Stocked by a new sort of social man enlightened and awakened to the common humanity of all the people called themselves the Liberi. Old national ties dissolved completely.
Speaker 2: He stretched over to Madagascar and coasted along this island to the northward as far as the most northerly point. When turning back he entered a bay to the northward of Diego Suarez, he run 10 leagues up this bay and on the larboard side founded [00:14:30] it afforded a large and safe harbor with plenty of fresh water. He came here to an anchor, went ashore and examined into the nature of the soil which he found rich, the air wholesome and the country level. He told his men that this was an excellent place for an asylum and that he determined here to fortify and to raise a small town and make docks for shipping that they might have some place to call their own and a receptacle when age or wounds had rendered them incapable or hardship where they might enjoy [00:15:00] the fruits of their labor and go to their graves in peace.
The captain’s motion was universally applauded and in 10 days they felled and roughhewed a 150 large trees without any interruption from or seeing any of the inhabitants. They fell their timber at the water’s edge so that they had not the trouble of hauling them anyway which would have employed a great deal more time. They returned again and acquainted their companions with what they had seen and done and with the captain’s resolution [00:15:30] which they one and all came into. Captain Misson then told the queen as he had been serviceable to her in the war with the island of Mohilla and might continue to be a farther use. He did not question her lending him assistance in the settling himself on the coast of Madagascar and to that end furnish him with 300 men to help in his buildings.
After a long debate in which every inconvenience and advantage was maturely considered it was agreed to send with him the number of men he required [00:16:00] on condition he should send them back in four moons, make an alliance with them and war against Mohilla. This being agreed to they stayed til Caraccioli was thoroughly recovered then putting the Johannians onboard the Portuguese ship with 40 French and English and 15 Portuguese to work her and setting sail, they arrived at the place where Misson designed his settlement which he called Libertalia and gave the name of Liberi to his people. Desiring in that might be drowned [00:16:30] the distinguished names of French, English, Dutch, Africans and company.
Anthony Comegna: Once again though there is a problem here. Author Captain Charles Johnson made it all up. The legend of Libertalia was just that. It was an amalgamation of the dreams and ideals from across the Atlantic world from ship to ship the sailors knew common culture beaten into shape by state terrorism found its most romantic [00:17:00] expression in the legendary Liberi. The story and its characters were all fictional but its message resonated with every common seafaring person in the early 18th century Atlantic.
Throughout the golden age the English fought the Dutch. The Dutch fought the Portuguese. All three of them fought the Spanish and almost everyone fought the French. Through it all [00:17:30] from war to war, port to port, from one tyrannical captain to the next, sailors found comfort in the camaraderie established below decks and in the heat of battle. Their shared life experiences, circumstances and working conditions gelled into a common Anglo-Atlantic seafaring culture increasingly tilted toward anti-nationalism, anti-statism and a violently rebellious antinomianism from below.
In unending generational [00:18:00] cycles states used organized terrorism to advance commerce, extract wealth from the far corners of the earth, uproot and forcibly migrate millions of laborers and after the sailors had done all this work for them, there went the commissions and in came new waves of military terror against those who resisted the new order.
Pirates in the late golden age had seen authorities execute those given clemency, they’d seen comrades murdered and mutilated, [00:18:30] their bones hanging as a warning at ports all over the globe. But the last generation of Atlantic pirates would have no more of it. They knew there was no real Libertalia if it could ever exist they would have to create it and maintain it with blood.
Casting aside any remaining loyalties to nationality, respectability, even religion, pirates from 1716 on regularly declared war on all nation states. They tested the extreme [00:19:00] limits of life and death and quite literally challenged God to dare pass judgment over an angry pirate. If the Lord knew what was good for Him, He would mind his own damn business and move along. A true pirate had no home but hell.
Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism. [00:19:30] org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.