Archive for the ‘pirates’ category

Book Review: Revolutionary Pirates?

September 21, 2011

Review: Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on the Golden Age of Piracy by Gabriel Kuhn (PM Press, 2010)
LookLeft #7, July 2011

Almost 100 years before the French Revolution gave the world the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, the imperial sea-trading routes were plagued by “floating republics”. These pirate ships of the Golden Age (c.1690-1730) and their crews of “rebels, robbers and rovers” plagued the high seas from Madagascar to the Bahamas. Much has been written about these “republics of rogues”, from both radical and reactionary perspectives. Kuhn’s short book, an attempt to distil the reality from the myth, draws on many sources and illustrates what was indeed revolutionary about these pirates and their rejection of the aristocratic status quo – turning their backs on “institutionalised authority” and attempting to build internally “egalitarian communities” that were the antithesis of the dictatorial regimes that existed on the imperially-sanctioned vessels on which many of these pirates once served.

Kuhn himself is an anarchist, but unlike some other anarchists, he does not ideologically romanticise these Golden Age freebooters either. He is careful to point out that there was much that was decidedly unprogressive about their behaviour – they were brutal, violent, often slave holders and while their democratic form of organisation was revolutionary, generally “they had no social ideals at all” and that if anything, the perceived radicalism of these pirates lies more in their symbolism than in their actuality.

Finally, it has to be said that while the book is not a chronological history of Golden Age piracy – for the most part it explores themes and ideological interpretations – it is an extremely engrossing work that anyone with an interest in this era of history will be rewarded for reading. 

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