A lecture given by Marcus Rediker at Emmanuel College in Boston on October 9, 2003 and recorded by Roger Leisner of Radio Free Maine (to order, see below).
Reviewed by Nikos Raptis
Historically the elite of any society have been able to force upon the ordinary people of that society a worldview which they (the elite) had constructed. The elite of western societies are very adept in constructing such a system of views. This they accomplish by hammering these views in the heads of ordinary people since childhood.
The general opinion of people about pirates has been built on the idea that they were amoral, violent men who attacked innocent people (noblemen, government officials, naval officers, merchants, etc) to rob or kill them. Hollywood, using the time-tested formula of the “good” guys (the noblemen, etc) versus the “bad” guys (the pirates) has enforced this view significantly.
So, it is a great surprise for most of us to be presented with evidence that this is not so. That the pirates really were the “workers of the world” of their time. This evidence is based on the research work of 25 years by Marcus Rediker (Professor at the University of Pittsburgh).
Rediker’s research is deep and the presentation of his conclusions is systematic and lucid. The span of time that he examines is a ten year period from about 1716 to 1726. He starts by asking who were these pirates. They were “a multiethnic, multinational, and multiracial group of people” who “in essence” were in “a struggle for life against socially organized death” and “they were also poor”. Mostly “poor working sailors”.
Then Rediker tries to answer why these people “chose to become pirates?”. The answer is: The barbarity of the ruling classes. The unbelievably cruel conditions of life on naval and on merchant ships, the brutality of the officers, the ever present accidents that turned people into cripples, the low wages, the poor quality of food, etc pushed these men to their limits. As a matter of fact Rediker states that the rather “humorous” image of the pirate with a patch over his eye, a hook for a hand, and a peg leg “is a real situation for the 18th century sailor”. The beggars that were found in the great cities of the Atlantic at the time were made up mostly of these crippled sailors.
(Note: I think that a 1911 painting, by N.C. Wyeth, of a blind pirate “tapping up and down the road in a frenzy, and groping…for his comrades” is an extremely vivid presentation of Rediker’s description of the reality of the crippled sailors.)
So, “piracy was an effort to escape a death trap”, according to Rediker. He quotes a pirate in court who says to the judge: “What I did was to keep me from perishing”. And, although the life of a pirate was short he preferred it because it was a life of freedom, of dignity, and of merriment! A life based on democratic principles. The pirates elected their captain, who was revocable and was punished if he abused his authority. Any punishment was based on collective democratic decisions. They even created a “miniature welfare state”, according to Rediker, by giving a certain “amount of booty” to those that were unable to work because of health, injuries, etc.
To better show the rational, democratic, and just foundation of the society of pirates (and the lack of these qualities in the correct mainstream society) Rediker uses the dialogue from a theatrical play (!) of 1722 performed by the pirates. Here are some parts of this dialogue:
The scene is in a court trying a pirate. The parts are played by pirates. The judge is on a tree wearing a mop on his head for a wig.
Judge: “Are you guilty or not guilty?” Accused: “Not guilty”. J: “Not guilty? Say so again sir and I will have you hanged without any trial”. A: “Pray my Lord I hope your Lordship will consider…” J: “Consider? How dare you talk of considering. I never considered in all my life…” A: “But, but, but I hope your Lordship would hear some reason…” J: “Do you hear how the scoundrel prates! What have we to do with reason? You know rascal that we sit here not to hear reason. We go according to law. Is our dinner ready?”
Then the judge offers three reasons for which the accused must be hanged. The third reason is interesting: J: “Third, you must be hanged because I am hungry”.
[Note: What follows was confided to me by a fellow-civil engineer shortly before his death a couple of decades ago. From 1945 to 1950 the Greek Government, a puppet of first the British and then the U.S., tried tens of thousands of Greeks for belonging to the Left. To accomplish that "feat" the Government hired "educated" people with the correct (fascist) worldview to serve as judges. One of those judges, a civil engineer, in later years confessed to his friends that there were days that the load of cases was so heavy that around midnight, as they were "hungry and sleepy", all they did was to write "Condemned to death" by the remaining names on the list of the accused and then have supper and go to bed, without ever having seen the faces of the defendants. Thousands of people had been executed in this manner. The "supervisor" of these Christian acts on the part of the U.S. was General James VanFleet.]
So it was not through “poetic license” that the pirates of the Caribbean depicted the “hungry judge”. They knew what they were talking about, as they had already experienced the law of the powerful. It is not farfetched to surmise that today the U.S. is doing similar things in Afghanistan and in Iraq in relation to the thousands of people detained in prisons in these countries.)
I think that Rediker should be praised for having unearthed, through his research, such a gem from what is wrongly considered the detritus of human history.
Similarly, Rediker’s analysis of the symbolism of the social attitudes of the pirates through their flag, the “Jolly Roger”, is superb. Especially his thesis for a second level of symbolism (the first being that of death and a short life), that has twisted the symbols (of skull and bones, etc) “rooted in Christian culture”. That second level of symbolism was used to declare their ultimate message towards the powerful, based on the use of the (early 18th century) verb “to roger”, which meant “to copulate with a woman”. This message to the powerful being in essence: “Fuck you!”
According to Rediker two key elements characterized these “proletarian outlaws”: rage and humor. Burning rage against the powerful and the humor and merriment of men that have chosen to be free.
Finally, it is to the credit of Rediker that he admits that his involvement as an activist in the Mumia Abu Jamal case (of the former Black Panther on death row for the last 21 years) “had a tremendous impact on (his) ability to see in the materials that (he) was studying the ways in which terror had been used in times past by governmental authority… Because of him, because of the campaign (he) could see things in the historical record that (he) would not have seen otherwise..”
The eye-opening conclusions of Rediker’s research tempts one to think if it is not so utopian to propose that a new course could be added to the curriculum of the last grade in high school. The course could be named: “Critical Thinking”, or “Critical Reading of History”, or whatever. The list of subjects dealt with in the course could be:
- Pirates (according to Rediker) – Mark Twain’s repressed work – The Nuremberg Tribunal – The Tokyo Tribunal – The Bertrand Russell Tribunal – George Orwell (in 1936 Spain) – History (according to Zinn) – The Worldview (according to Chomsky) – And so on
Is this extremely utopian? I think that starting with Rediker’s pirates will not be that difficult.
PS: Professor Rediker’s previous work includes an earlier book on pirates, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”, and, with Peter Linebaugh, “The Many-Headed Hydra”, Beacon Press, Boston, 2000. His forthcoming book, on which the above lecture was based, is: “Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age”.
Radio Free Maine presents Marcus Rediker speaking on LIFE AND DEATH AMONG THE PIRATES The Real Story of the Pirates of the Caribbean
Recorded by Roger Leisner on October 9, 2003 at Emmanuel College in Boston
VHS video has 20 minutes of a beautiful sunset at Pemaquid Point lighthouse and rocks in mid-coast Maine on October 14, 2003.
Available on audio for $11.00 and VHS video for $20.00 Please make your check payable to Roger Leisner and mail to Radio Free Maine P.O. Box 2705 Augusta, Maine 04338
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