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Voyage of the Black Joke: Piracy and Gallows Humor in an Era of Primitive Accumulation

by Andrew Opitz
20 Dec 2009 • Comment (0) • Print PDF
Posted: Pirates and Piracy [5] | Article

In 1827 there was a bloody mutiny aboard the slave ship Defensor de Pedro sailing from Africa to Brazil. The mutiny was successful and the leader of the revolt, a Galician sailor turned pirate named Benito de Soto, reportedly renamed the ship “The Black Joke” (La Burla Negra) and, after selling its human cargo in the West Indies, proceeded to terrorize commercial shipping in the South Atlantic.[1] I mention this incident here both because it encapsulates the violent logic of an Atlantic world forged by the slave trade and because the chosen name for De Soto’s ship, The Black Joke, is in many ways emblematic of the combination of dark humor and spirited anti-authoritarianism found in pirate communities and in the maritime proletariat at large in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although this piratical sense of humor is frequently celebrated and is probably at least partially responsible for the continued fascination with pirates in Hollywood and popular fiction, it does not often receive the type of serious critical attention it deserves.

Some attempts have been made understand pirate pageantry and gallows humor through Russian literary critic and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of carnival and/or his analysis of the figure of the rogue and the fool in picaresque novels.[2] However, I would argue that theorizations of pirate contrarianism through these Bakhtinian categories, which are rooted in Bakhtin’s analysis of folk humor in feudal Europe, fail to adequately account for the uniquely modern features of a working-class sense of humor closely linked to the rise of mercantile capitalism. Historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh have observed that sailors were one of the first work forces organized around wage labor, and that this organization both facilitated their exploitation and created new opportunities for rebellion. This article will examine the ways pirate humor both grew out of and resisted the wage discipline imposed by maritime capitalism. As part of this investigation, I will pay special attention to a 1721 incident in which Captain Thomas Anstis’ pirate crew convened a mock Admiralty court to “try one another for Pyracy.” This article will also analyze some of the ways that eighteenth century pirate humor expresses an emerging working-class consciousness that intersects with the revitalization of European satire as practiced by bourgeois writers such as Jonathan Swift, Voltaire and Montesquieu.

In a characteristically provocative note on satire entitled “Juvenal’s Error” in his 1951 collection of aphorisms Minima Moralia, critical theorist Theodor Adorno observes that “he who has laughter on his side has no need of proof.”[3] Perhaps recalling the cruel humor and racist caricatures he witnessed firsthand in inter-war Germany, Adorno is deeply suspicious of satire and its contributions to public debate. He contends that satirical uses of irony have historically been conservative and reactionary rather than progressive or revolutionary. In order to function, satire relies on public consensus — on commonsense notions of what constitutes normal behavior. Satire of this type then commonly ridicules those who transgress, or can be made to seem to transgress, the boundaries of these commonsense norms. The implicit and sometimes explicit message of this satire (of which the Latin satirist Juvenal is a classical example) is that one must “check oneself,” stay within the lines of decorum and social convention, avoid blatant hypocrisy and thereby escape the acid gaze of the satirist. With a few exceptions, this has been the conservative function of literary satire for much of its history—for example, its role as an aristocratic literary form was to ridicule the rustic peasantry and the rising bourgeoisie as well as any “deviant” members of high society left open to attack. Satire has thus traditionally held hostility for those who step out of line, especially if they appear to be “putting on airs” or otherwise exceeding their station in life. Though Adorno argues that satire never completely loses its conservative and authoritarian inheritance, he also observes that it seems to acquire a more progressive heading at around the time of Voltaire in the eighteenth century. This raises a question important to my inquiry in this article: what social and historical preconditions were required for the emergence of a politically progressive satire in the eighteenth century, and what role did pirates (as feared and celebrated figures of rebellion) play in this reordering of Europe’s satirical imagination?

Now, a number of important social factors likely contributed to this apparent shift in the politics of European satire in the eighteenth century. One could point to the gradual decay of aristocratic power structures and the rise of an increasingly powerful and literate middle class, for example. One could also point to the Enlightenment, the decline of religious hierarchy and authority, and the rise of a rational and scientific world view helped along by the forces of print capitalism. However, for the purposes of this article, I would like to emphasize a less obvious but perhaps equally important factor — one that is intimately connected to the other developments just mentioned — that is, the place of overseas colonies in European literature and the European imagination.

It is important to observe that many of the most influential modern satires written in the Western tradition use the other world and other peoples of the colonies as a creative foil for their critique of European and/or colonial American society. For example, consider Voltaire’s Candide, which compares Europe to the mythological New World utopia of El Dorado, or Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, which satirizes French culture and the abuses of the clergy and the aristocracy through the eyes of two imaginary Middle Eastern travelers. Additional examples could include Madame de Graffigny’s Letters from a Peruvian Woman or even Benjamin Franklin’s use of the Susquehanah Indians to critique Puritan hypocrisies in his frequently anthologized “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America.”[4] These are just a few famous examples that serve to illustrate how, in the eighteenth century, the outside space of the colonies — and of the non-West in general — seems to have allowed European society a site (though often a mostly imaginary site) against which to measure its own deficiencies. This, coupled with the gradual decline of religious/aristocratic hierarchies, the democratizing forces of print capitalism and the revolutionary rumblings of the mercantile bourgeoisie, created a social environment that was both increasingly self-critical and receptive to egalitarian political ideas. In literature, this progressive social criticism commonly took the form of satirical writings in which an outsider figure (a savage ingénu, an oriental, or a libertine from the Americas) comes on the scene and, either due to innocence or shamelessness, is able to reveal uncomfortable truths about European society.

This is where I think the figure of the pirate intersects with the progressive turn in satire observed by Adorno. In literary texts and contemporary historical accounts, the pirate often plays a role similar to that of the fool or the rake who, because he is such a scoundrel, is able to express dangerous truths and radical ideas that more respectable characters would never dare to speak of openly. For example, one fictional pirate who plays this role is the character of Captain Mission, whose story is told at length in the second volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates.[5] This two-volume history from the 1720s is arguably both the most entertaining and most authoritative book ever written on the subject of eighteenth-century piracy. Authorship of this history has long been attributed to Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame, although more recent scholarship suggests that it may actually have been written by one Captain Charles Johnson — the man whose name actually appears on the title page. It is now generally agreed that the knowledge of seafaring activity and nautical jargon found in the book exceeds that found in other Defoe texts, suggesting that Captain Charles Johnson is not simply a nom de plume for the more famous author. In any case, the General History is remarkable because it mixes stories of actual pirates such as Black Beard and Bartholomew Roberts with accounts of almost certainly fictional pirates like the aforementioned Captain Mission — reportedly a young gentleman from Provence who, with the help of his Italian philosopher lieutenant Carricioli, turns to piracy and transforms his ship into a floating republic sailing the high seas under the banner of liberty.[6] This republic is both a meritocracy and a democracy, with a popular vote determining each new course of action for the pirate crew. According to the General History, Mission’s band of adventurers behaves chivalrously toward its opponents while vociferously denouncing despots, creditors, slave traders and any who would harm the common good or deny the natural liberties given to all men. Eventually, Captain Mission’s crew leaves pirating behind and works with the natives to build a communist utopia named Libertalia on the island of Madagascar.

Johnson/Defoe’s tale of Captain Mission is important for a couple of reasons. Considering that the story was first penned in 1728, Mission’s egalitarian ideals—his personal rejection of aristocratic privileges, his faith in common people, the pirates’ opposition to slavery and the creation of an anti-racist republic — seems remarkably forward looking. It is important to note that even Voltaire, one of eighteenth-century Europe’s most powerful voices for liberty, invested heavily in the Compaignie des Indes — a slave trading operation with interests in West Africa and the Caribbean.[7] Mission and his rowdy crew are far more progressive on issues of race and worker’s rights than most of the famous bourgeois advocates of liberty and equality — Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson etc. Comparing the modern world to the ancient world of Sparta in The Social Contract (1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau was even able to declare that “modern peoples, you have no slaves, but you are slaves yourselves.”[8] Rousseau’s statement demonstrates a remarkable blindness when it comes to matters of slavery and colonial violence. This blindness was all too common in European writing from this time period. Philosophers ostensibly much concerned with matters of liberty managed to avoid discussion of the slave economy at the heart of eighteenth-century capitalism. The violent engine of the Atlantic economy was pushed to the edges of social and literary consciousness. When word of this brutal world was allowed to enter into European literature, it was often carried by a sailor or a pirate.

Johnson’s story of Captain Mission illustrates how the pirate functioned as an outsider figure that could be used by writers to voice politically risky ideas and social criticisms that could not be safely lodged from within Europe proper. However, although Mission was a fictional character, I would argue that the selection of a pirate as a vehicle for the expression of revolutionary ideas was not simply an accident or an authorial whim, but rather a reflection (in literature) of a growing working-class unrest found within the centers of maritime commerce — an emergent class consciousness that can be found in the gallows humor of pirate communities and the maritime proletariat at large in the eighteenth century. Sailors were well-known to be a rowdy and politically militant work force in the 18th century. The use of the term “strike” to a refer to a deliberate labor stoppage even has its origins in a 1769 labor action in which English sailors “struck” (lowered) sails to prevent merchant shipping from proceeding to sea.[9] Literature’s fascination with sailors and pirates as flamboyant rebels and satirical blackguards does not come out of nowhere. It is tied to the history of sailors as discontented laborers — workers with first-hand experience of the economic injustices at the base of the Atlantic economy.

In his materialist history of the Anglo-American maritime world in the eighteenth century titled Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, historian Marcus Rediker observes that many if not most of the common sailors who manned the sea routes of the empire were driven into their line of work by dire economic necessity.[10]) They did not want to go to sea, but felt they had little choice in the matter. Many of these sailors were once country folk–subsistence farmers–who had been forced from their ancestral homes by land enclosure and the on-going privatization of the commons in the British Isles. They went to sea as a last resort or, in some cases, were forced onto ships by press gangs. Some sailors shipped out to avoid debts on land and still others hoped to learn a new trade or find a better life in the colonies. Desertion was a perennial problem in this period as sailors regularly jumped ship to find a better situation in foreign ports. Desertion was also encouraged by the fact that life on board ship resembled conditions in a workhouse or a factory — an enclosed and strictly hierarchical workplace in which rules were enforced by a vicious disciplinary regime that employed public whippings and other more horrendous forms of corporal punishment. Rediker argues that this coerced labor was the life blood of commercial shipping in the eighteenth century and that it should be understood as part of a much larger process of “primitive accumulation”—that is, the forcible expropriation of land and labor (from Native Americans, Africans and dispossessed Europeans) required for profits in an early capitalist system of production. An important branch of this transatlantic expropriation of labor is demonstrated by the William Hogarth engraving of the “Idle ‘Prentice turn’d away, and sent to sea” in the figure below.[11]

The Idle ‘Prentice turn’d away and sent to sea - William Hogarth, 1747

The Idle ‘Prentice turn’d away and sent to sea - William Hogarth, 1747

A close examination of this image reveals that the young apprentice in the back of the boat is being forcibly removed to a waiting ship while his long-suffering mother at the center of the boat weeps for his misfortune. The man behind his back gleefully dangles a cat-oh-nine-tails — a vicious lash used to enforce maritime discipline — while another sailor points toward the corpse of an executed pirate hanging from a gibbet on the beach off in the distance. For Marcus Rediker, this image is a clear illustration of Karl Marx’s assertion that the road to the capitalist workplace was lined by the whip and the gallows.

Rediker also observes that sailors were one of the first work forces organized around wage labor. Whereas in the past it was traditional for sailors to be paid with a share of a voyage’s profits, by the eighteenth century it had become customary for most sailors to sign a wage contract for each voyage.[12] This wage system further facilitated the exploitation of maritime workers by turning them into exchangeable commodities, limiting their access to profits, and by allowing owners to dock wages or even void contracts for the violation of certain rules.[13] However, despite the negative developments just mentioned, the wage system of early capitalism also held certain advantages for the maritime workforce—advantages that created new opportunities for resistance. For one thing, the need to sign and to understand a wage contract made at least a basic level of literacy an important skill for sailors to possess. Literacy also served a community building function, and there are accounts of literate sailors teaching others to read and understand the contracts they were signing. Contracts also encouraged maritime workers to be very aware of their rights as stipulated under the terms and conditions of the legal documents they signed. Admiralty court records in fact reveal that eighteenth- century sailors were a particularly litigious workforce and frequently sued ship owners for lost wages, abusive labor practices and broken contracts—especially common in instances when a ship’s captain unlawfully extended a voyage or took it to a port (for example, on the dangerous coast of Africa) not mentioned in the contract. Though these court cases most often went against common sailors, the fact that legal complaints were even registered reveals that these workers thought of themselves as viable subjects before the law. It is worth noting that even when sailors turned pirate and abolished wage labor in order to return to a share system (now a share of the plunder), they typically cemented their new allegiances by signing a contract in the form of ship’s articles that preserved order and protected their rights. This demonstrates that pirates did not actually abandon the law altogether, but rather reconfigured it to suit the needs of their community.

Keeping in mind this important historical context, let us now turn to the analysis of two particularly telling accounts of pirate satire and gallows humor. The first incident I would like to examine involves the notoriously successful and bloody voyages of the Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts. In 1722, Roberts and his crew were patrolling the busy waters off West Africa. The pirates seized numerous ships, many of which were undoubtedly involved in the purchasing of slaves, and threatened to keep or destroy the captured vessels unless the ship’s master, who was usually a managerial employee hired by a group of investors, agreed to pay a ransom of gold for the release of the ship. A number of foreign captains agreed to pay the ransom, but asked the pirates for a receipt so that they could apply for compensation from the owners. Roberts and his crew obliged this request, but used it as an opportunity to thumb their noises at the establishment. In the General History, author Captain Johnson/Daniel Defoe reports that the pirate receipts took the form below:

This is to certify whom it may or doth concern, that we GENTLEMEN OF FORTUNE have received eight Pounds of Gold-Dust, for the Ransom of the Hardey, Captain Dittwitt Commander, so that we discharge the said Ship,
Witness our Hands,
Batt Roberts
Harry Glasby

13th of Jan. 1722[14]

This document is instructive for a number of reasons. The fact that it was drawn up in the first place illustrates the prevalence and importance of literacy and writing within the pirate community. It also has a keen and, I would argue, class-conscious sense of humor. The pirates presume to call themselves Gentlemen of Fortune, and in some ways make a mockery of the very concept of a receipt. However, there is also a delicious irony to the fact that these outlaws—men the law desperately wanted to destroy—could produce a document that legal authorities would have to assess and possibly even honor. Finally, the fact that the pirates would consider providing expense receipts to captured captains and officers (i.e., to waged employees working within the economic order the pirates abandoned) suggests a measure of class solidarity. Their war was not against their fellow sailors, but rather against the owners and the disciplinary regime that governed maritime capitalism in the eighteenth century.

The second incident I would like to examine is more overtly satirical. In 1721, Captain Thomas Anstis and his pirate crew–disgruntled former associates of the aforementioned Bartholomew Roberts–sought shelter on an unnamed island south west of Cuba as they waited for a response to a pardon request they had sent to the King of England with the help of a Jamaican merchant. During their stay on the island, the pirates reportedly drank, sang songs and feasted on the many sea turtles that came ashore to lay eggs on the beaches. The relative ease and leisure of this “turtleing” life, as we might call it, stood in stark contrast to the manufactured scarcity workers experienced in the merchant marine and back in England. A General History reports that these turtle-stuffed pirates also entertained themselves by holding a mock Admiralty court in which they tried each other for the crime of piracy. One pirate put on spectacles, a dirty robe, and a mop-like cap for a wig and climbed a tree to stand as the judge. Another pirate became the indicted prisoner while others played the role of jurors, the attorney general and various court officers. Charles Johnson’s transcript of the raucous trial that followed is provided below:

Attorn. Gen. An’t please your Lordship, and you Gentlemen of the Jury, here is a Fellow before you that is a sad Dog, a sad sad Dog; and I humbly hope your Lordship will order him to be hang’d out of the Way immediately . . .
Judge. Harkee me, Sirah—you lousy, pitiful, ill-look’d Dog; what have you to say why you should not be tuck’d up immediately, and set a Sun-drying like a Scarecrow?—Are you guilty or not guilty?
Prisoner. Not Guilty, an’t please your Worship.
Judge. Not guilty! Say so again, Sirrah, and I’ll have you hang’d without any Tryal.
Prisoner. An’t please your Worship’s Honour, my Lord, I am as honest a poor Fellow as ever went between Stem and Stern of a Ship, and can hand, reef, steer, and clap two Ends of a Rope together, as well as e’er a He that ever cross’d salt Water; but I was taken by one George Bradley [the Name of him that sat as Judge] a notorious Pyrate, a sad Rogue as ever was unhang’d, and he forc’d me, an’t please your Honour.
Judge. Answer me, Sirrah—How will you be try’d?
Prisoner. By God and my Country.
Judge. The Devil you will—Why then, Gentlemen of the Jury, I think we have nothing to do but proceed to Judgment.
Attorney Gen. Right, my Lord; for if this Fellow should be suffer’d to speak, he may clear himself, and that’s an Affront to the Court.
Prisoner. Pray, my Lord; I hope your Lordship will consider—
Judge. Consider!—How dare you talk of considering?—Sirrah, Sirrah, I never consider’d in all my Life—I’ll make it Treason to consider.
Prisoner. But I hope your Lordship will hear some Reason.
Judge. Do you hear how the Scoundrel prates?—What have we to do with Reason?—I’ll have you to know, Raskal, we don’t sit here to hear Reason;—we go according to Law.–Is our dinner ready?
Attor. Gen. Yes, my Lord.
Judge. Then heark’ee, you Raskal at the Bar; hear me, Sirrah, hear me.–You must suffer for three Reasons: First, because it is not fit that I should sit here as Judge, and no Body be hang’d.–Secondly, you must be hang’d, because you have a damn’d hanging Look:–And thirdly, you must be hang’d, because I am hungry; for know, Sirrah, that ’tis a Custom, that whenever the Judge’s Dinner is ready before the Tryal is over, the Prisoner is to be hang’d of Course.–There’s Law for you, ye Dog.–So take him away Gaoler.[15]

This trial demonstrates the rebel sailors’ view of maritime “justice.” The pirate playing the role of attorney general opens the proceedings by asking that the judge have the “sad, sad dog” of a prisoner hanged without delay. The judge is more than open to this suggestion, but goes through the motions of asking the prisoner how he would like to plead his case. The prisoner pleads not guilty and argues that he is simply a skilled and honest sailor who was forced to become an outlaw when his ship was captured by pirates—a common defense in actual piracy cases and, perhaps not coincidentally, the same story used by Anstis’ crew in their pardon request to the King.[16]

The judge has no interest in a not guilty plea, however, and the attorney general agrees that the prisoner should not be allowed to speak least he clear his name and embarrass the court. The prisoner makes a final appeal to the judge’s reason, but he will have none of it and ends the proceedings by declaring that “we don’t sit here to hear reason—we go according to Law.”[17] The prisoner is then dragged away so that the judge can attend to his waiting dinner. The legal authorities are unwilling to inconvenience themselves, or even briefly delay the gratification of their appetites, for the sake of the life of a common criminal.

Thomas Anstis' pirate crew holds a mock trial - unknown artist.  (From the Collections of Lauinger Library, Georgetown University)

Thomas Anstis' pirate crew holds a mock trial - unknown artist. (From the Collections of Lauinger Library, Georgetown University)

The dark humor of this mock trial can tell us quite a bit about the working class solidarity found among pirates and the maritime proletariat at large in the eighteenth century. The pirates jokingly refer to each other as “sad dogs” (suggesting a communal recognition of their lowly appearance in the eyes of the establishment) but they are also clearly proud of their sailing skills–their ability to “hand, reef and steer”[18]–and their mastery of the floating world between “stem and stern.” The trial also illustrates the pirates’ sharp awareness of the hypocrisies of the bourgeois legal system. Even as they attempt to work the law to their own advantage, the pirates sense that they can expect scant justice from a court designed to discipline common sailors and maintain hierarchical relations of production even on board ships in far off waters. They know full well that the courts are more interested in making an example of unruly workers than in preserving their rights or protecting them from workplace abuses–abuses, such as corporal punishment and the withholding of wages, food and grog–that led many of them to mutiny and piracy in the first place. Then as now, the propertied interests of owners and investors took precedence over the interests of wage laborers, and the legal establishment of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world regularly disposed of the lives of working men and women who stepped out of line and endangered the profits produced by maritime capitalism. The ridiculous miscarriage of justice presented in the pirates’ travesty of a trial is grimly humorous because it is based on stark, historical realities. The rebel sailor who got between the owner and his “dinner,” no matter his motives or his desperation, could always expect a quick trip the gallows.

In making these observations, my goal is not to further romanticize pirates — men who were often violent actors in a maritime world known for its brutal and dehumanizing practices. We should not forget that unlike the fictional abolitionist pirate Captain Mission, the captain of The Black Joke — Benito de Soto — actually sold the African slaves he captured; and while many pirate communities developed egalitarian ideals in opposition to the strict work hierarchies found in the Atlantic economy at large, they were also often quick to steal from each other and from other victims of “primitive accumulation.” Having said this, however, I would suggest that we need to evaluate these pirates not simply as colorful literary figures or as the treasure hungry maniacs found in Hollywood films, but as members of a troubled but decidedly anti-authoritarian working class community formed in opposition to the disciplinary regime of the modern capitalist world-order emerging in the eighteenth century.

Some pirate enthusiasts have cast late-seventeenth and early eighteenth-century pirates as democratic freedom fighters and communist revolutionaries avant le lettre–a vision encouraged by accounts of fictional pirates like Captain Mission. However, this is undoubtedly a romanticized oversimplification of complex historical realities. Though common pirates had close connections to a maritime workforce with legitimate labor grievances and a growing political consciousness, the actions of pirate crews were driven by desperation and misdirected violence rather than by a unified political ideology.[19] This does not mean that these pirates should be dismissed as simple criminals, however. In his innovative 1959 study of Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels, historian Eric Hobsbawm understands feudal bandits and brigands as “pre-political” rebels. They arise from an impoverished peasantry — a class that is “in perpetual ferment but, as a mass, incapable of providing a centralized expression of their aspirations and needs.”[20] As an enemy of the landlords, the social bandit comes to embody the desire for escape and revenge found in the underclass population at large — this is why he and sometimes she is often turned into a folk hero — but the fragmentation and poverty of the peasantry prevent the bandit from being more than an isolated voice of violent dissent. This does not mean that their rebellion is meaningless, however. “If their way was a blind alley,” Hobsbawm declares, “let us not deny the longing for liberty and justice which moved them.”[21] I would argue that a similar understanding should apply to many of the common sailors turned pirate in the eighteenth century.

Like Hobsbawm’s social bandits, pirates became celebrated figures of anti-authoritarian rebellion because they spoke to the frustrated desires of a wider population. This is especially true of the pirate as folk hero. The pirate came to embody and sometimes cleverly articulate the worker’s dream of a life of relative ease, freedom from backbreaking work routines, and escape from the master’s discipline and the master’s law. The pirates’ violence also spoke to a desire for revenge against the bosses, the overseers and the system in general — the desire to destroy the world as it is rather than put up with its cruelties and indignities for one more day. This combination of fantasy and rage may not add up to an effective political program, but it expresses an understandable response to the injustices of an economic order that enriched a relatively small class of owners while leaving their workers trapped in grinding poverty. It is also important to note that the material realities of the maritime workforce — their global contacts and growing literacy — made it a stronger force for rebellion than the rural bandits of the feudal world. Eighteenth-century pirates may not have been successful political agents, but many of them were disaffected members of a working class community with a global reach. Their connection to the hopes and desires of this community should not be discounted.

Of course, we should recognize that not all pirates shared this working-class world view. Some pirates, like the famous Captain Kidd (d. 1701), were officially sanctioned privateers who plundered foreign shipping as part of a semi-legal business practice which eventually turned sour and fell afoul of the law. The “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet (d. 1718) was actually a moderately wealthy plantation owner from Barbados who reportedly embarked on a life of piratical adventure because of marital difficulties at home.[22] However, despite these colorful, middle class exceptions, most acts of piracy in the eighteenth century were committed by common sailors who emerged from the large seabourne work force at the base of the Atlantic economy of this time period. The instances of pirate humor examined in this essay should thus not be classified as mere literary fictions or the insolent actions of a few flamboyant criminals. There is more to them than that. The gallows humor of these particular pirates can be best understood as a high-profile and perhaps sensationalized example of the anti-authoritarian sensibilities of the maritime working class at large. Eighteenth-century sailors were known to be restive and incorrigible, and the pirates merely sharpened these widespread tendencies in their outright defiance of the established order.

Finally, I would like to conclude this investigation of pirate communities and their grim sense of humor by suggesting that the “Golden Age of Piracy” defined by nautical historians and the “Golden Age of Satire” celebrated by literary historians should be understood as interrelated developments. The same Atlantic economy which helped to create and enrich the literate bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century– the chief audience for writers such as Daniel Defoe (1661-1731), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Montesquieu (1689-1755), Voltaire (1694-1778), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and others — also created a class of literate and politically conscious sailors. The pirate became a convenient outsider figure/device for bourgeois satirists with an ax to grind against aristocratic privileges and monarchical despotism, but the choice of the pirate as a figure of rebellion in literature was certainly no accident. It is a literary echo of the disaffected rumblings of an increasingly large and irreverent class of maritime wage laborers produced and immiserated by mercantile capitalism in the eighteenth century.


1. David Pickering, Pirates. (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006), 96-97. [↑]

2. For example, see Wendy R. Katz, “Introduction to Stevenson’s Treasure Island.” Treasure Island. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.) A more casual example of this Bakhtinian approach to pirates can also be found in the Publisher’s Weekly review of historian Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates of the Golden Age. October 20, 2004. [↑]

3. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia. Trans. E.F.N. Jephcott. (New York: Verso, 1978), 210. [↑]

4. The title of Franklin’s essay is ironic in that it comes to mean the opposite of what one might expect. In every anecdote of Indian and colonist interaction he recounts, the natives are polite and open-minded while the European settlers are rude and intolerant. The implication, of course, is that the true “savages of North America” are the colonists rather than the Indians. See Benjamin Franklin, “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America.” The Bagatelles from Passy. Ed. Claude A. Lopez. (New York: Eakins Press, 1967)  [↑]

5. Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates, Ed. Manuel Schonhorn, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1972)  [↑]

6. Although I know of no direct connection between the two texts, Johnson/Defoe’s 1720 tale of a globetrotting young man accompanied by a guiding philosopher is strikingly similar to the 1759 story of Voltaire’s Candide. The dashing characters of Mission and Carricioli lack the hilarious naiveté of Candide and Dr. Pangloss, however. [↑]

7. See Christopher L. Miller. The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 73-75. Miller’s basic argument is that Voltaire and other eighteenth-century philosophes used slavery as a powerful metaphor for despotism and religious superstition in Europe while also ignoring and financially supporting its continued existence on Caribbean plantations. [↑]

8. Miller, 69 [↑]

9. Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, v. “strike,” sense 17 and 24 [↑]

10. Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987 [↑]

12. As Herman Melville famously points out in Moby Dick, the rather anachronistic whaling industry was a rare exception to this trend. Whalers continued to be paid by a share long after other maritime industries had switched over to wage labor. [↑]

13. Rediker, 118-119 [↑]

14. Defoe, 235 [↑]

15. Defoe, 292-294 [↑]

16. In their pardon petition, Anstis’ pirates reportedly declared “That we your Majesty’s most loyal Subjects, have, at sundry Times, been taken by Bartholomew Roberts, the then Captain of the abovesaid Vessels and Company…and have been forced by him and his wicked Accomplices, to enter into and serve, in the said company, as Pyrates, much contrary to our Wills and Inclinations” Defoe, 290. [↑]

17. Defoe, 293 [↑]

18. Defoe, 293 [↑]

19. See Peter Earle, The Pirate Wars, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005), 12-14. [↑]

20. Eric Hobsbawm, Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels, (London: Butler & Tanner Ltd., 1959), 10 [↑]

21. Hobsbawm, 21 [↑]

22. An early and influential account of the lives and crimes of Major Stede Bonnet and William Kidd can be found in volumes one and two of Johnson/Defoe’s A General History of the Robbers and Murders of the most Notorious Pyrates (1724 [↑]

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Andrew Opitz teaches cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota.
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