Society for the History of Discoveries

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations, Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. 240 pp. Notes and Index, ISBN 0807050245. Cloth, $24.00 US

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of piracy as a key force in the evolution of capitalism and the early nation-state. None has been more important in articulating this complex relationship than Marcus Rediker.  His most recent work is the culmination of two decades of research1 into the social world of pirates during their “golden age,” from 1716-1726. 

Those familiar with Rediker’s previous work will find little new here other than a a penetrating analysis of  piracy and gender. Otherwise, much of the book recapitulates, albeit with additional information and elaboration upon, arguments and points presented in his earlier work.  Nonetheless, this is an excellent book for the uninitiated as well as for those well versed in the subject. 

In the opening chapter, the reader is introduced to a courtroom drama involving one William Fly, on trial for piracy, and the most feared minister in New England, Cotton Mather. The defiance of authority—both religious and political—characterizing Fly’s actions, illustrates the relationship between pirates and the “legitimate” world on which they preyed. Rediker skillfully uses this mini-drama to guide his exploration of socio-cultural history of early-eighteenth-century pirates. Aptly titled “A Tale of Two Terrors,” this chapter establishes a major theme for the book: the terror of piracy rose in direct response to the terror of the nation-state. The remainder of the book seeks to answer a series of questions  regarding this dynamic:

“How did this dialectic of violence between pirates and the nation-state develop? What were is causes: How did piracy itself erupt in 1716? And how did it decline after 1726? Why did pirates express such rage—and seek such vengeance—against ship captains and royal naval officials? And why did they  ‘cry up a Pyrate’s Life to be the only Life for a Man of any Spirit’?” (p. 16)2

Chapter Two, “The Political Arithmetic of Piracy,” presents the maritime world of the early-eighteenth century through the eyes of the sailors. Rediker is at his best in this sketch, entertaining as well as informing the reader through a series of statements about “what the sailor knew.” Readers are provided a wealth of information on the rise of international commerce and control of shipping channels, the terrible conditions aboard vessels of the merchant and Royal Navy, the growing power of the nation-state and the relationship between geography and piracy .

The following three chapters, “Who will go a Pyrating?”, “The New Government of the Ship,” and “To do justice to a Sailor,” takes us into the pirates’ social world. We learn of pirate demography in terms of race, social and economic backgrounds, and national origins. Most were introduced to piracy in one of two ways: sailors mutinied, seizing their ship or they were recruited from the ranks of merchant crews whose ships had been attacked by pirates. Readers are reminded of a recurring theme among pirates: the hatred of captains who “misused” their crews and how this micro-level struggle reflected a larger rebellion against the heavy-handed power wielded by the state. The fundamental nature of pirate life is revealed as democratic, egalitarian, economically socialistic and yet rebellious, anarchical and predatory. In Rediker’s view, pirates were anachronistic class warriors: “It is astonishing to think that in devising their shipboard social order pirates anticipated a modern idea that many consider one of the most humane of our times: creating their own social security system.” (p. 73).3  Excellent interweaving of lively vignettes with documentary evidence makes for continued good reading that is also highly instructive.

The women pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read are the topic of Chapter Six.. Rediker, however, goes beyond simple portrayal of these two classic female pirates, delving into the lives of other women who embraced piracy.  He explores the political, economic and symbolic dimensions of gender not only among pirates, but in the early Atlantic world.  A fascinating section of this chapter is an analysis of a picture that appeared on the Dutch version of Captain Johnson’s History. The reader is treated to an intriguing analysis of the symbolism of death, anarchy, anti-authoritarianism and gender in the context of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century global politics.

Chapters Seven and Eight present “golden age” piracy as an early example of class warfare, pitting pirates against the emerging the nation-state and the rise of capitalism. Curiously, there is no mention of, let alone credit given to, Robert Ritchie.4 The influence of powerful merchant companies on state politics becomes evident as Rediker explains how pirates had to be declared hostis humani generis (the common enemies of mankind).  Piracy, he reminds us, was above all, a crime against property (specifically vessels of large merchant companies) and, therefore, against all property owners and law abiding citizens. Pirates were evil monsters, not heroes, as the Reverend Mather informed his parishioners, and any who sympathized with them were, themselves, sinners.

The only flaws with the book are not unique to this work alone. Redker ignores two fundamentally important issues. First, while he gives some small attention to earlier pirates (i.e. privateers and buccaneers), like most historians, he places the origin and nature of pirate culture squarely within the context of early-eighteenth century maritime experience, the War of Spanish Succession and the social and economic conditions of the time. While these factors were undoubtedly important, they fail to explain how such a culturally, nationally and racially diverse population gave rise to a unified community of brethren with a common culture within such a short period. It is important to search back into the seventeenth and even the sixteenth century to understand the origins and evolution of pirate culture. The second error lays in perpetuating the view that early-eighteenth century pirates were unique and separate from earlier forms of piracy. This pedantic view is more than simply one of nomenclature; it obscures the continuity of a long evolving tradition that resulted from combination of interacting forces including likely influences from other marginal populations of the Caribbean basin. To be fair, Rediker provides an historic model5 in which he presents privateers and buccaneers as part of an evolutionary scheme in which ownership and control of the pirate ship and its resources transfers from shareholding companies (privateers) to merchants and island governors (buccaneers) and finally to pirates themselves.  While this model is helpful, it neglects any exploration of cultural encounters and exchange that undoubtedly occurred between common European mariners, native and maroon societies.6 Moreover, it fails to grasp the interconnections between pirates, capitalist merchants and state officials, (both land-locked and maritime captains of the merchant vessels and Royal Navy) and their mutual influence. Piracy played a critical role in the growth of both capitalist enterprise and the consolidation of state power.

These flaws do not substantially detract from the book’s value. Scholarship on pirates continues to evolve and no one has contributed more to its development than Marcus Rediker.  Villains of All Nations is a must read for anyone interested in pirates, early modern history, the evolution of the nation-state and globalization.

 Tim Sullivan
Cedar Valley College, Dallas, Texas

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