Really nice article by Gavin Mueller over at the Jacobin – a magazine of culture and polemic -asking if piracy has been a ‘radical force.’
Once the heroes of nations, pirates went from being state-sponsored champions to tolerated annoyances to the basest sort of criminals. Henry Morgan was knighted after plundering Panama in 1674; fifty years later hundreds of pirates were dangling from the gibbet at remote trading posts along Africa’s Gold Coast.
The change wasn’t so much what pirates did as the context in which they found themselves: a global market economy with England at its head. England went from a plucky backwater to a capitalist empire in a century, and as its fortunes changed – or more specifically, as the way it made its fortunes changed – so, too, did the way the state treated piracy.
It was one thing when looted Spanish gold filled the Queen’s meager treasury; it was quite another when pirates threatened to disrupt the increasingly disciplined circulatory system of the Atlantic Ocean, which had become the center of the British economy. Sugar, tobacco, slaves – these commodities needed to move and be exchanged as smoothly as possible. Pirates represented a dual threat to the Atlantic Ocean factory of early capitalism. They were not only thieves; they were also free.
This is exactly right. One of the key misunderstands people have about pirates is that they became thieves. This is wrong. Pirates simply carried on the thievery that they had been doing in the service of the Royal Navies. What pissed off the kings and merchants of the time was not the thievery itself, but that they were no longer profiting from it.
This is still the case. Governments are very happy to be benefactors of underhand activity, and to train others to participate in it. What they hate is when that activity is then used on them in turn.
This is not to valourise theft – and we must be careful not to do that. Rather, the point is that pirates shouldn’t be defined as thieves. What sets them apart from other mariners of the time is not theft – because they were all at it – but their radical freedom. And there is nothing pisses a government off more than a politically radicalised and free-thinking poor.