Idealistic Pirates

A missing link in the historical chain of libertarian communism.

Idealistic Pirates My suggestion is that the English parliament's enforced transportation of religio-political agitators during the Commonwealth period (1649-60) had a significant effect upon the Golden Age of Piracy, and provides a missing link in the historical chain of libertarian communism.

During the English Civil War, radical non-conformist Protestant sects proved very useful to the New Model Army leader, Oliver Cromwell. They were formidable fighters because they seemed not to fear death, so strong were their religious convictions. However, once the Puritans had won the war, executed King Charles I and established the republican Commonwealth, these idealistic sects became an intense irritation to Cromwell, who had now taken power as Lord Protector.

Among them were:
the Levellers, whose ultimate ideal was the equality of all, hence their name;
the Diggers, who were even more radical and called themselves the "True Levellers";
the Baptists, who eventually compromised with the state and went on to prosper;
the very communitarian Anabaptists, who believed in no state control whatsoever (they led an armed uprising in London which provided Cromwell with an excuse to impose state legislation aimed at suppressing all non-conformist sects);
the rather interesting Ranters, who believed that free love, drinking, smoking and swearing were viable routes towards spiritual salvation;
and the Quakers, who rejected all church ceremony and refused to take public oaths, pay taxes, or doff their hats to people in authority. (Quakers did not renounce the use of violence until 1661.)

In 1656 the prominent and troublesome Quaker leader James Nayler rode an ass, Christ-like, into the city of Bristol, attended by women strewing palms before him. Ostensibly for this "blasphemy" he was arrested. One Samuel Highland raised his case in Cromwell's parliament, pleading with the Lord Protector not to sentence Nayler to transportation, "lest he infect other settlers".

Cromwell's chosen place of transportation for convicted heretics at the time was the West Indies, and Highland's petition shows that there was already concern that the radicals were "infecting" the locals with their ideas. Only one year previously Cromwell, with the indispensable aid of the local Buccaneer fleet (known as "England's Second Navy", it even having an admiral), had won Jamaica from the Spanish, after which the island had become an unofficially protected haven for Buccaneers.

Two years after Nayler's transportation there, the documentarist Alexander Esquemelin arrived in the West Indies and spent some time in company with the Buccaneers. In 1678 he published an account of the Buccaneers' Articles---their code of conduct. These were extremely egalitarian and, most interestingly, conferred no authority whatsoever upon the ship's captain, who could be voted out in a crew's council and replaced at any time, which would be called mutiny in any other navy. This is a key principle of libertarian communism, known as "immediate recall", that survived centuries later in radical left-wing movements such as the anarchist army of Nestor Makhno (Ukraine, 1916-21), the anarcho-syndicalist CNT, who were a major force during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and are still a strong trade union in Spain, and persists in the worldwide, syndicalist-inspired shop steward movement. Its appearance in the Articles of 17th Century Buccaneers is hard to explain, unless we detect in this the "infection" of the transported communitarians that had frightened Samuel Highland enough to bring it up in Cromwell's parliament.

By 1697 the changing political scene in Europe meant that none of the governmental powers in the West Indies had any more need of Buccaneers. The major three (Spain, England and France) all declared them to be mere Pirates. Some turned semi-respectable Privateer and eventually rose to positions of power (as did Cpt Henry Morgan, one-time Buccaneer, later Governor of Jamaica).

But for those who wished to continue plying "the sweet trade", Madagascar now became the ideal centre of operations. It had an abundance of inlets, coves and offshore islands, which had been the topography of choice for sea-raiders since the time of the Vikings, and most importantly was not being squabbled over by the superpowers of the day, leaving them relatively unmolested. Numerous European Pirate settlements of that period have been identified there.

So, does Madagascar bear any evidence to corroborate my suggestion that the idealistic non-conformism of the English Civil War had an influence upon the Golden Age of Piracy? Well, to this day Madagascar has a place named after that war's communitarian Protestant sect of promiscuous, blasphemous, bibulous tobacco-smokers mentioned above. It's called Ranter's Bay.

It is a reasonable hypothesis that the black flame of libertarian communism, which flared into life during the English Civil War was, between then and the American and French Revolutions more than a century later, kept alight at sea, by Pirates.

FURTHER RESEARCH

- Cpt Mission's disputed Pirate "Utopia" of Libertatia in Madagascar.
- The dollar-sign's origin as the Pirates' "piece of 8", and the persistence of that coin, or divided "bits" of it, as legal tender in the USA until well into the 19th Century (hence "2 bits" still meaning 25 cents).
- The participation of Privateers out of Charleston, South Carolina, in the French Revolution of 1789 and subsequent years.
- The origins of the Black Flags of both piracy and anarchism.

(c) Dorien Thomas 2011

Posted By

Dorien Thomas
Aug 19 2011 12:37

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arminius
Aug 19 2011 20:33

After I posted this piece on the World in Common discussion list, we got this link in a reply: http://www.cindyvallar.com/havens3.html

batswill
Aug 19 2011 21:56

The world in this era had no transcontinental restrictions, one could travel the world without passports or ID, only landbased policing was the dynamic. Only the fact that the imperialistic colonial powers required merchant shipping to enable their commerce did the possibility of 'piraticism' become realized. The gunships of that era are no different from those today in their purpose. There is no real romanticism involved, such as idealism, it is solely a practical adventure to be a pirate and seek booty and generally live a destitute and dysfunctional existence, a 'casino mentality' running with a gale force wind into oblivion,,,it has a nihilistic intent me thinks. Sure, there are those that have revolutionary desires, but criminality and revolution are 2 different intentions.