“Misson designed his Settlement[,] Libertalia, [naming his people] Liberi…desiring [that it might drown the] Names of French, English, Dutch, Africans, &c.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In the second of our two‐part investigation of the “Legend of Libertalia,” we return to Captain Misson and his crew of freemen and followers as the men determine their new course in a new life. Spontaneous, largely democratic order reigned aboard Misson’s Victoire, and all shared in the common stocks of provisions and wealth. The Victoire acted as an antislavery force, freeing all slaves they encountered while seizing European vessels in the Atlantic. Misson clearly prides himself on treating captives humanely and fairly, even granting captured captains new vessels to ensure their safe return home. After some time at sea and the accumulation of great wealth, Misson’s crew sails for Madagascar, where they are welcomed in friendship by the Queen of Johanna. The crew intermarried with the Johannans, in the process joining the Queen in her war against the neighboring state of Mohila. Misson is careful, however, to not become too involved in the domestic affairs of indigenous Madagascar governments. His focus remained establishing a permanent colony in which he and his likeminded fellows could live freely and without interference from abroad. After a disastrous and nearly devastating encounter with the English, Misson determines to finally found his colony at the northernmost tip of Madagascar, near what is today called Diego‐Suarez or Antsiranana. By virtue of his treaty with the Queen of Johanna, Misson and several hundred of his followers and Johannans began construction of the settlement its residents named “Libertalia.” Calling themselves the “Liberi,” the settlers built their new world in direct opposition to the Old, flouting the all‐pervasive nationalist‐imperialist socio‐political order. Though author Captain Charles Johnson’s chapter detailing the ‘Legend of Libertalia’ is almost certainly a work of fiction, it nonetheless reflects the hope of dispossessed, marginalized, and exploited people from virtually all societies and ages: That out there somewhere, in some forgotten corner of a planet crowded with courts, armies, and imperial agents, the individual may still carve space for the exercise of freedom.
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
After Affairs were thus settled, they shaped their Course…
[At one point in their travels, Misson] called all Hands up, and declar’d, that if any Man repented him of the Course of Life he had chosen, his just Dividend should be counted to him, and he would set him on Shoar, either near the Havanna, or some other convenient Place; but not one accepted the Offer, and the fourteen Prisoners unanimously resolved to join in with ‘em; to which Resolution, no doubt, the Hopes of a good Booty from the St. Joseph, and this Offer of Liberty greatly contributed…
An Account of the Provisions were taken, and finding they had Provisions for four Months. Captain Misson called all Hands upon Deck, and told them, as the Council differed in the Course they should steer, he thought it reasonable to have it put to the Vote of the whole Company…He then gave the Sentiments of those who were against him, and their Reasons, and begg’d that every one would give his Opinion and Vote according as he thought most conducive to the Good of all. That he should be far from taking it ill if they should reject what he had proposed, since he had no private Views to serve. The Majority of Votes fell on the Captain’s Side, and they accordingly shaped their Course for the Coast of Guiney, in which Voyage nothing remarkable happened…
[The pirates seize the Nieuwstadt, which] had some Gold‐Dust on Board, to the Value of about 2000 l. Sterling, and a few Slaves to the Number of Seventeen, for she had but begun to Trade; the Slaves were a strengthening of their Hands, for the Captain order’d them to be cloathed out of Dutch Mariners Chests, and told his Men, ‘That the Trading for those of our own Species, cou’d never be agreeable to the Eyes of divine Justice: That no Man had Power or the Liberty of another; and while those who profess’d a more enlightened Knowledge of the Deity, sold Men like Beasts; they prov’d that their Religion was no more than Grimace, and that they differ’d from the Barbarians in Name only, since their Practice was in nothing more humane: For his Part, and he hop’d, he spoke the Sentiments of all his brave Companions, he had not exempted his Neck from the galling Yoak of Slavery, and asserted his own Liberty, to enslave others. That however, these Men were distinguish’d from the Europeans by their Colour, Customs, or religious Rites, they were the Work of the same omnipotent Being, and endued with equal Reason: Wherefore, he desired they might be treated like Freemen (for he wou’d 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 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 Capt. Misson.—The Negroes were divided among the French, one to a Mess, who, by their Gesticulations, shew’d they were gratefully sensible of their being delivered from their Chains…
Upon the Coast of Angola, they met with a second Dutch Ship, the Cargo of which consisted of Silk and Woolen Stuffs, Cloath, Lace, Wine, Brandy, Oyl, Spice, and hard Ware; the Prize gave Chase and engaged her, but upon the coming up of the Victoire she struck. This Ship opportunely came in their Way, and gave full Employ to the Taylors, who were on Board, for the whole Crew began to be out at Elbows: They plundered her of what was of Use to their own Ship, and then sunk her.
The Captain having about ninety Prisoners on Board, proposed the giving them the Prize, with what was necessary for their Voyage, and sending them away; which being agreed to, they shifted her Ammunition on Board the Victoire, and giving them Provision to carry them to the Settlements the Dutch have on the Coast, Misson called them up, told them what was his Design, and ask’d if any of them was willing to share his Fortune: Eleven Dutch came into him, two of which were Sail‐makers, one an Armourer, and one a Carpenter, necessary Hands; the rest he let go, not a little surprised at the Regularity, Tranquillity, and Humanity, which they found among these new fashioned Pyrates.
[The pirates encounter and capture an English ship.] They found on Board the Prize some Bales of English Broad‐Cloath, and about 60000 l. in English Crown Pieces, and Spanish Pieces of Eight. The English Captain was killed in the Engagement, and 14 of his Men: The French lost 12, which was no small Mortification, but did not, however provoke them to use their Prisoners harshly. Captain Misson was sorry for the Death of the Commander, whom he buried on the Shoar, and one of his Men being a Stone‐Cutter, he raised a Stone over his Grave with these Words…Here lies a gallant English Man; when he was buried he made a tripple Discharge of 50 small Arms, and fired Minute Guns.
The English, knowing whose Hands they were fallen into, charm’d with Misson’s Humanity, 30 of them, in 3 Days Space, desired to take on with him. He accepted ‘em, but at the same Time gave ‘em to understand, that in taking on with him they were not to expect they should be indulged in a dissolute and immoral Life. He now divided his Company between the two Ships, and made Caraccioli Captain of the Prize, giving him Officers chosen by the publick Suffrage. The 17 Negroes began to understand a little French, and to be useful Hands, and in less than a Month all the English Prisoners came over to him, except their Officers.
He had two Ships well mann’d with resolute Fellows; they now doubled the Cape, and made the South End of Madagascar, and one of the English Men telling Captain Misson, that the European Ships bound for Surat commonly touch’d at the Island of Johanna, he sent for Captain Caraccioli on Board, and it was agreed to cruise off that Island. They accordingly sailed on the West‐Side of Madagascar and off the Bay de Diego…
They arrived at Johanna, and were kindly received by the Queen‐Regent and her Brother, on account of the English on the one Hand, and of their Strength on the other, which the Queen’s Brother, who had the Administration of Affairs, was not able to make Head against, and hoped they might assist him against the King of Mohila, who threaten’d him with a Visit.
This is an Island which is contiguous, in a manner, to Johanna, and lies about N. W. and by N. from it. Caraccioli told Misson he might make his Advantage in widening the Breach between these two little Monarchies, and, by offering his Assistance to that of Johanna, in a manner rule both, For these would count him as their Protector, and those come to any Terms to buy his Friendship, by which Means he would hold the Ballance of Power between them. He followed this Advice, and offered his Friendship and Assistance to the Queen, who very readily embraced it.
I must advise the Reader, that many of this Island speak English, and that the English Men who were of Misson’s Crew, and his Interpreters, told them, their Captain, though not an Englishman, was their Friend and Ally, and a Friend and Brother to the Johanna Men, for they esteem the English beyond all other Nations.
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 Fire‐Locks, and three Pistols, he furnish’d with thirty Fuzils, as many Pair of Pistols, and gave him two Barrels of Powder, and four of Ball.
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 not exceed ten, which Loss was repaired by thirty of the Crew (they had saved from perishing) coming in to him.
While they past their Time in all manner of Diversions the Place would afford them, as hunting, feasting, and visiting the Island, the King of Mohila made a Descent, and alarm’d the whole Country…The Party which went by Land, fell in with, and beat the Mohilians 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 that 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 her Guests, Friends, and Allies. This Feast lasted four Days, at the 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 Mohilians; but this was not the Design of Misson, who had Thoughts of fixing a Retreat on the North West Side of Madagascar, and look’d 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; for while the Variance was kept up, and their Forces pretty much upon a Level, it was evident their Interest would make both Sides caress him; he therefore answer’d, that they ought to deliberate on the Consequences, for they might be deceived in their Hopes, and find the Conquest less easy than they imagined…The Queen gave intirely into Misson’s Sentiments…
After the Council had concluded, they were again call’d upon, and the Queen told them, that by the Advice of her good Friends, the Europeans, and those of her Council, she agreed to make a Peace, which she wish’d might banish all Memory of former Injuries That they must own the War was begun by them, and that she was far from being the Agressor; she only defended her self in her own Kingdom, which they had often invaded, though, till within few Days, she had never molested their Coasts. If then they really desired to live amicably with her, they must resolve to send two of the King’s Children, and ten of the first Nobility, as Hostages, that they might, when they pleased, return, for that was the only Terms on which she would desist prosecuting the Advantages she now had, with the utmost Vigour.
[The Mohilians orchestrate a ruse and assassinate several European‐Johannian ambassadors.]
The Crew were resolved to revenge the Blood of their Officers and Comrades the next Day, and were accordingly on the Point of Landing…but Misson was for no such violent Measures, he was averse to every Thing that bore the Face of Cruelty and thought a bloody Revenge, if Necessity did not enforce it, spoke a groveling and timid Soul…
After their Recovery, Misson proposes a Cruize, on the Coast of Zangueber [Zanzibar], which being agreed to, he and Caraccioli took Leave of the Queen and her Brother, and would have left their Wives on the Island, but they could by no Means be induced to the Separation…
In a Word they were obliged to yield to them, but told them, if the Wives of their Men should insist as strongly on following their Example, their Tenderness, would be their Ruin, and make them a Prey to their Enemies; they answer’d the Queen should prevent that, by ordering no Woman should go on board, and if any were in the Ships, they should return on Shore: This Order was accordingly made, and they set Sail for the River of Mozembique. In about ten Days Cruize after they had left Johanna, and about 15 Leagues to the Eastward of this River, they fell in with a stout Portuguese Ship of 60 Guns, which engaged them from Break of Day till Two in the Afternoon, when the Captain being killed, and a great Number of Men lost, she struck: This proved a very rich Prize, for she had the Value of 250000 L. Sterling on Board, in Gold‐Dust. The two Women never quitted the Decks all the Time of the Engagement, neither gave they the least Mark of Fear, except for their Husbands: This Engagement cost them thirty Men, and Caraccioli lost his right Leg; the Slaughter fell mostly on the English, for of the above Number, twenty were of that Nation: The Portuguese lost double the Number. Caraccioli’s Wound made them resolve to make the best of their Way for Johanna where the greatest Care was taken of their wounded, not one of whom died, tho’ their Number amounted to Twenty seven.
Caraccioli kept his Bed two Months, but Misson seeing him in a fair way of Recovery, took what Hands could be spar’d…He stretched over to Madagascar, and coasted along this Island to the Northward, as far as the most northerly Point, when turning back, he enter’d a Bay to the northward of Diego Suares. He run ten Leagues up this Bay, and on the larboard Side found it afforded a large, and safe, Harbour, 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 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 render’d them incapable of Hardship, where they might enjoy the Fruits of their Labour, and go to their Graves in Peace. That he would not, however, set about this, till he had the Approbation of the whole Company; and were he sure they would all approve this Design, which he hoped, it being evidently for the general Good, he should not think it adviseable to begin any Works, lest the Natives should, in his Absence, destroy them; but however, as they had nothing upon their Hands, if they were of his Opinion, they might begin to fall and square Timber, ready for the raising a wooden Fort, when they return’d with their Companions.
The Captain’s Motion was universally applauded, and in ten Days they fell’d and rough hew’d a hundred and fifty large Trees, without any Interruption from, or seeing any of, the Inhabitants. They fell’d their Timber at the Waters Edge, so that they had not the Trouble of hawling them any way, which would have employ’d 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, which they one and all came into.
Captain Misson then told the Queen, as he had been serviceable to her in her War with the Island of Mohila, and might continue to be of 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, on Condition he should send them back in four Moons, make an Alliance with them, and War against Mohila; this being agreed to, they staid till Caraccioli was thoroughly recovered, then putting the Johannians on board 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 drown’d the distingush’d Names of French, English, Dutch, Africans, &c.