Thursday, July 03, 2014

Aargh! A Book about Pirates!

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

Marcus Rediker's Villains of All Nations is a cultural and social history of pirates on the Atlantic. By all accounts, the book distills Rediker's previously published writings about pirates, which first began to appear in 1981.

The author identifies the years 1650-1730 as piracy's "golden age." He says those 80 years break down into three distinct periods, each one connected to a particular group: (1) the buccaneers: European "sea dogs" who attacked the ships of Catholic Spain, 1650-80, (2) pirates who worked the Indian Ocean, with their base on Madagascar, during the 1690s, and (3) the subjects of this book, the largest, most successful of the three groups: pirates who terrorized the Atlantic just after the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714)—which had established the perfect conditions for the rapid growth of piracy—until 1726, by which time the war against pirates was won.

This book focuses on those few thousand outlaws at sea who were active from 1716 to 1726, the decade described by the author as the heyday of piracy. Rediker highlights that, even when standing on the gallows, pirates routinely and defiantly announced that their short lives of crime were at least happy lives. Compared to serving on the crew of an abusive, tyrannical captain, their lives of piracy had been downright “merry.” Essentially, condemned pirates claimed that they had been driven to live as outlaws. Taking their claims seriously, Rediker argues that, in spite of the common image of pirates as greedy treasure seekers, the subjects of his book started out as abused, impoverished working seamen. Upon becoming pirates, they organized themselves in ways that were highly democratic, and they spoke of themselves as "honest" men (and a very few women) who were not seeking loot so much as justice for the common sailor.

As the foregoing suggests, Rediker works with what appears to be a wide array of sources, and seems to have had the primary data under a microscope for a long time.

To see and hear Rediker himself, check out this presentation he made about pirates back in 2007.

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