“He fell upon Government, and shew’d, that every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
One of the most important primary sources of any kind for the history of piracy in the Atlantic world is Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates (1724) and its subsequent editions. While throughout most of the twentieth century, historians believed “Charles Johnson” was simply a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe, most scholars no longer agree and believe instead that Johnson must be considered an original and independent source of information on piracy. Though the vast majority of Johnson’s work on pirates was based upon trial transcripts and personal accounts, it is widely assumed that one chapter in Johnson’s History is entirely fictional. Through his fictional account of the ideas and exploits of Captain Misson and the founding of “Libertalia,” Johnson explored his society’s yearning for liberty in an historical age when power visibly expanded its reach wherever one might look.
In our first selection, Johnson describes Misson as a reasonably well‐educated, respectable youth possessed by ambitions to travel the world, exploring new cultures and ideas. Misson joins a merchantman and sails the Mediterranean, learning invaluable skills while at sea. From Naples, Misson travels to Rome and meets a highly unusual and irreligious priest, one Signior Caraccioli. Caraccioli explains to Misson that religion, no less than politics, is simply a mechanism by which the powerful control and exploit the weak. Reason alone, Carraccioli argues, should guide men’s actions, and reason demanded peace, harmony, and cooperation between individuals. Misson was deeply affected by the priests’ radical ideas, which the two busily spread amongst the ships’ crew. When the crews’ captain and first officer are killed in an engagement with an English ship, Misson and his radical converts seized the opportunity to withdraw from their privateering mission. The crew peacefully reassembled itself, elected Misson its leader, and democratically determined their course. Though they were aware that the world would likely condemn them as pirates, the crew resolved to forever live as free men, in charge of their own lives and destinies, holding each other to strict standards of social morality through the bonds of ideology and fraternity. The “pirates” declared themselves permanently for liberty, and at permanent war with all earthly power. Part II will follow Misson and his crew to Madagascar, where they establish a new republican bulwark against the creeping power of the global empires: the legendary “Libertalia.”
London: T. Warner (1728)
A General History of the Pyrates, from Their first Rise and Settlement in the Island of Providence, to the present Time, Volume II, Excerpts
By Charles Johnson
Of Captain Misson and His Crew
He was born in Provence, of an ancient Family; his Father, whose true Name he conceals, was Master of a plentiful Fortune; but having a great Number of Children, our Rover had but little Hopes of other Fortune than what he could carve out for himself with his Sword. His Parents took Care to give him an Education equal to his Birth. After he had passed his Humanity and Logick, and was a tolerable Mathematician, at the Age of Fifteen he was sent to Angiers, where he was a Year learning His Exercises. His Father, at his Return home, would have put him into the Musketeers; but as he was of a roving Temper, and much affected with the Accounts he had read in Books of Travels, he chose the Sea as a Life which abounds with more Variety, and would afford him an Opportunity to gratify his Curiosity, by the Change of Countries. Having made this Choice, his Father, with Letters of Recommendation, and every Thing fitting for him, sent him Voluntier on board the Victoire…Nothing could be more agreeable to the Inclinations of our Voluntier than this Cruize, which made him acquainted with the most noted Ports of the Mediterranean, and gave him a great Insight into the practical Part of Navigation. He grew fond of this Life, and was resolved to be a compleat Sailor…His Discourse was turn’d on no other Subject…The Ship being at Naples, he obtained Leave of his Captain to go to Rome, which he had a great Desire to visit. Hence we may date his Misfortunes; for, remarking the licentious Lives of the Clergy…the Luxury of the Papal Court, and that nothing but Hulls of Religion was to be found in the Metropolis of the Christian Church, he began to figure to himself that all Religion was no more than a Curb upon the Minds of the Weaker, which the wiser Sort yielded to, in Appearance only. These Sentiments, so disadvantageous to Religion and himself, were strongly riveted by accidentally becoming acquainted with a lewd Priest, who was, at his Arrival (by meer Chance) his Confessor, and after that his Procurer and Companion, for he kept him Company to his Death. One Day, having an Opportunity, he told Misson, a Religious was a very good Life, where a Man had a subtle enterprising Genius, and some Friends; for such a one wou’d, in a short Time, rise to such Dignities in the Church…That the ecclesiastical State was govern’d with the same Policy as were secular Principalities and Kingdoms; that what was beneficial, not what was meritorious and virtuous, would be alone regarded…For its a Maxim, that Religion and Politicks can never set up in one House. As to our Statesmen, don’t imagine that the Purple makes ‘em less Courtiers than are those of other Nations…they know and pursue [self-interest]…with as much Cunning and as little Conscience as any Secular; and are as artful where Art is required, and as barefaced and impudent when their Power is great enough to support ‘em, in the oppressing the People, and aggrandizing their Families…
I shall only observe, that Signior Caraccioli, who was as ambitious as he was irreligious, had, by this Time, made a perfect Deist of Misson, and thereby convinc’d him, that all Religion was no other than human Policy, and shew’d him that the Law of Moses was no more than what were necessary, as well for the Preservation as the Governing of the People; for Instance, said he, the African Negroes never heard of the Institution of Circumcision, which is said to be the Sign of the Covenant made between God and this People, and yet they circumcise their Children; doubtless for the same Reason the Jews and other Nations do, who inhabit the Southern Climes, the Prepuce consolidating the perspired Matter, which is of a fatal Consequence. In short, he ran through all the Ceremonies of the Jewish, Christian and Mahometan Religion, and convinced him these were, as might be observed by the Absurdity of many, far from being Indications of Men inspired; and that Moses, in his Account of the Creation, was guilty of known Blunders; and the Miracles, both in the New and Old Testament, inconsistent with Reason. That God had given us this Blessing, to make Use of for our present and future Happiness, and whatever was contrary to it, notwithstanding their School Distinctions of contrary and above Reason, must be false. This Reason teaches us, that there is a first Cause of all Things…which we call God, and our Reason will also suggest, that he must be eternal, and, as the Author of every Thing perfect, he must be infinitely perfect.
If so, he can be subject to no Passions, and neither loves nor hates; he must be ever the same, and cannot rashly do to Day what he shall repent to Morrow. He must be perfectly happy, consequently nothing can add to an eternal State of Tranquillity, and though it becomes us to adore him, yet can our Adorations neither augment, nor our Sins take from this Happiness.
But his Arguments on this Head are too long, and too dangerous to translate; and as they are work’d up with great Subtlety, they may be pernicious to weak Men, who cannot discover their Fallacy; or, who finding ‘em agreeable to their Inclinations, and would be glad to shake off the Yoke of the Christian Religion, which galls and curbs their Passions, would not give themselves the Trouble to examine them to the Bottom, but give into what pleases, glad of finding some Excuse to their Consciences…
As he had privately held these Discourses among the Crew, he had gained a Number of Proselytes, who look’d upon him as a new Prophet risen up to reform the Abuses in Religion; and a great Number being Rochellers, and, as yet, tainted with Calvinism, his Doctrine was the more readily embrac’d. When he had experienced the Effects of his religious Arguments, he fell upon Government, and shew’d, that every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired. A contrary Way of arguing would be accusing the Deity with Cruelty and Injustice, for he brought into the World no Man to pass a Life of Penury, and to miserably want a necessary Support; that the vast Difference between Man and Man, the one wallowing in Luxury, and the other in the most pinching Necessity, was owing only to Avarice and Ambition on the one Hand, and a pusillanimous Subjection on the other; that at first no other than a Natural was known, a paternal Government, every Father was the Head, the Prince and Monarch of his Family, and Obedience to such was both just and easy, for a Father had a compassionate Tenderness for his Children; but Ambition creeping in by Degrees, the stronger Family set upon and enslaved the Weaker; and this additional Strength over‐run a third, by every Conquest gathering Force to make others, and this was the first Foundation of Monarchy. Pride encreasing with Power, Man usurped the Prerogative of God, over his Creatures, that of depriving them of Life, which was a Privilege no one had over his own; for as he did not come into the World by his own Election, he ought to stay the determined Time of his Creator: That indeed, Death given in War, was by the Law of Nature allowable, because it is for the Preservation of our own Lives; but no Crime ought to be thus punished, nor indeed any War undertaken, but in Defence of our natural Right, which is such a Share of Earth as is necessary for our Support…
These Topicks he often declaimed on, and very often advised with Misson about the setting up for themselves; he was as ambitious as the other, and as resolute…Caraccioli had founded a great many of the Men on this Subject, and found them very inclineable to listen to him. An Accident happen’d which gave Caraccioli a fair Opportunity to put his Designs in Execution, and he laid Hold of it; they went off Martinico on a Cruize, and met with the Winchelsea, an English Man of War of 40 Guns, commanded by Captain Jones; they made for each other, and a very smart Engagement followed, the first Broadside killed the Captain, second Captain, and the three Lieutenants, on Board the Victoire and left only the Master, who would have struck, but Misson took up the Sword, order’d Caraccioli to act as Lieutenant…when by some Accident, the Winchelsea blew up…After this Engagement, Caraccioli came to Misson and saluted him Captain, and desired to know if he would chuse a momentary or a lasting Command…That he might with the Ship he had under Foot, and the brave Fellows under Command, bid Defiance to the Power of Europe, enjoy every Thing he wish’d, reign Sovereign of the Southern Seas, and lawfully make War on all the World, since it would deprive him of that Liberty to which he had a Right by the Laws of Nature: That he might in Time, become as great as Alexander was to the Persians; and by encreasing his Forces by his Captures, he would every Day strengthen the Justice of his Cause, for who has Power is always in the Right…
In a Word he said so much that Misson resolved to follow his Advice, and calling up all Hands, he told them, ‘That a great Number of them had resolved with him upon a Life of Liberty, and had done him the Honour to create him Chief: That he designed to force no Man, and be guilty of that Injustice he blamed in others; therefore, if any were averse to the following his Fortune, which he promised should be the same to all, he desired they would declare themselves, and he would set them ashore, whence they might return with Conveniency;’ having made an End, they one and all cryed…God bless Capt. Misson and his learned Lieutenant Caraccioli. Misson thanked them for the Honour they conferr’d upon him, and promised he would use the Power they gave for the publick Good only, and hoped, as they had the Bravery to assert their Liberty, they would be as unanimous in the preserving it, and stand by him in what should be found expedient for the Good of all; that he was their Friend and Companion, and should never exert his Power, or think himself other than their Comrade, but when the Necessity of Affairs should oblige him…
The Boatswain then asked what Colours they should fight under, and advised Black as most terrifying; but Caraccioli objected, that they were no Pyrates, but Men who were resolved to assert that Liberty which God and Nature gave them, and own no Subjection to any, farther than was for the common Good of all: That indeed, Obedience to Governors was necessary, when they knew and acted up to the Duty of their Function; were vigilant Guardians of the Peoples Rights and Liberties; saw that Justice was equally distributed; were Barriers against the Rich and Powerful, when they attempted to oppress the Weaker; when they suffered none of the one Hand to grow immensely rich, either by his own or his Ancestors Encroachments; nor on the other, any to be wretchedly miserable, either by falling into the Hands of Villains, unmerciful Creditors, or other Misfortunes. While he had Eyes impartial, and allowed nothing but Merit to distinguish between Man and Man; and instead of being a Burthen to the People by his luxurious life, he was by his Care for, and Protection of them, a real Father, and in every Thing acted with the equal and impartial Justice of a Parent: But when a Governor, who is the Minister of the People, thinks himself rais’d to this Dignity, that he may spend his Days in Pomp and Luxury, looking upon his Subjects as so many Slaves, created for his Use and Pleasure, and therefore leaves them and their Affairs to the immeasurable Avarice and Tyranny of some one whom he has chosen for his Favourite, when nothing but Oppression, Poverty, and all the Miseries of Life flow from such an Administration; that he lavishes away the Lives and Fortunes of the People, either to gratify his Ambition, or to support the Cause of some neighbouring Prince, that he may in Return, strengthen his Hands should his People exert themselves in Defence of their native Rights; or should he run into unnecessary Wars, by the rash and thoughtless Councils of his Favourite, and not able to make Head against the Enemy he has rashly or wantonly brought upon his Hands, and buy a Peace (which is the present Case of France, as every one knows, by supporting King James, and afterwards proclaiming his Son) and drain the Subject; should the Peoples Trade be wilfully neglected, for private Interests, and while their Ships of War lie idle in their Harbours, suffer their Vessels to be taken; and the Enemy not only intercepts all Commerce, but insults their Coasts: It speaks a generous and great Soul to shake off the Yoak; and if we cannot redress our Wrongs, withdraw from sharing the Miseries which meaner Spirits submit to, and scorn to yield to the Tyranny. Such Men are we, and, if the World, as Experience may convince us it will, makes War upon us, the Law of Nature empowers us not only to be on the defensive, but also on the offensive Part. As we then do not proceed upon the same Ground with Pyrates, who are Men of dissolute Lives and no Principles, let us scorn to take their Colours: Ours is a brave, a just, an innocent, and a noble Cause; the Cause of Liberty. I therefore advise a white Ensign, with Liberty painted in the Fly, and if you like the Motto…for God and Liberty, as an Emblem of our Uprightness and Resolution.
The Cabbin Door was left open, and the Bulk Head which was of Canvas rowled up, the Steerage being full of Men, who lent an attentive Ear, they cried, Liberty, Liberty; we are free Men: Vive the brave Captain Misson and the noble Lieutenant Caraccioli. This short Council breaking up, every Thing belonging to the deceased Captain, and the other Officers, and Men lost in the Engagement, was brought upon Deck and over‐hawled; the Money ordered to be put into a Chest, and the Carpenter to clap on a Padlock for, and give a Key to, every one of the Council: Misson telling them, all should be in common, and the particular Avarice of no one should defraud the Publick…
Misson from the Baracade, 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 a brotherly Love to each other; the Banishment of all private Piques and Grudges, and a swift Agreement and Harmony among themselves: That in throwing off the Yoak of Tyranny of which the Action spoke an Abhorrence, he hoped none would follow the Example of Tyrants, and turn his Back upon Justice; for when Equity 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 Birth‐Right, and the Sweets of Liberty, dance to the Musick 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 Pyrates, 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 what their Necessities required; but in a more particular Manner against all European Ships and Vessels, as concluded implacable Enemies. And I do now, said he, declare such War.