Like many other important scientific inventions, the first true recipes for gunpowder were devised in China. The classic cocktail of sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal was known from at least the ninth century CE, though Taoist alchemists, searching for both gold and immortality, had by then been aware of similar preparations for hundreds of years. A very early reference appears in the Zhenyuan Miaodao Yaolue (Classified Essentials of the Mysterious Tao of the True Origin of Things), a text attributed in part to the third-century alchemist Zheng Yin. He warns against the mixing of sulphur, realgar, honey and saltpetre, a dangerously deflagrable combination: alchemists experimenting with the ingredients had burned down buildings and singed their beards. Zheng’s list of procedures to be avoided also included the imbibing of elixirs made of lead, silver, mercury and cinnabar (outcome – death); taking cinnabar derived from mercury and sulphur (causes boils and sores); and drinking ‘black lead juice’, an unappetising brew that the biochemist and sinologist Joseph Needham thought was possibly a ‘hot suspension of graphite’, which sounds like a hot toddy made of pencil shavings. Whatever it was, black lead juice apparently made you very ill, but even Zheng didn’t seem to think anyone would make a gunpowder drink – he merely cautioned people not to burn their whiskers messing about with it. Then again, he was an alchemist, not a Madagascan pirate king swearing a magical oath of brotherhood. And for that ritual a gunpowder drink was essential.
The formula, recorded by the French-Mauritian chronicler Nicolas Mayeur in 1806 and reproduced in the late David Graeber’s Pirate Enlightenment, called for gun flints, lead balls, gunpowder and river water to be mixed in an upturned shield with the point of a knife, the draught then taken with ginger soaked in the blood of the oath-takers. Mayeur, a retired slave trader turned historian, was recounting the rituals at the coronation of a young man called Ratsimilaho, the son of an English pirate captain and a Malagasy princess, who was installed in 1720 as ruler of a new political entity on the coast of north-eastern Madagascar, the Betsimisaraka Confederation. Centred on the town of Ambonavola, or Foulpointe (now Mahalevona), and stretching for more than four hundred miles, the confederation had unified existing local polities through a combination of war and diplomacy. It is considered to have been mostly the creation of the evidently remarkable Ratsimilaho himself, who was probably in his late teens when he rose to power. As a child he had visited England, most likely with his father (‘Captain Tom’), receiving at least a partial education. In the conventional accounts he is presented as an enlightened visionary who sought to bring contemporary science and letters to a new nation modelled on the states of Europe. But it seems that his confederation was sustained mostly by personal charisma. When he died in 1750, it began to disintegrate; by the early 1800s it was gone.
Mayeur’s account, ‘Histoire de Ratsimilaho, Roi de Foule-pointe et des Betsimisaraka’, is held in manuscript at the British Library. It is by no means the only tale of pirate kings and kingdoms in Madagascar, but it is one of the few that is much more than a colourful yarn. Mayeur was no hack: he had lived and worked on the island for 25 years and had gathered his information from some of Ratsimilaho’s generals and confidants, who were by then elderly. He also knew Ratsimilaho’s son and heir. The subject of his work was undoubtedly a real person, and the Betsimisaraka Confederation certainly existed – the people of the area call themselves Betsimisaraka to this day. The word means ‘the many unsundered’ and, according to Graeber, who undertook anthropological fieldwork in Madagascar in the late 1980s, they are ‘one of Madagascar’s most stubbornly egalitarian peoples’. So there is no doubt that something politically unusual happened in north-east Madagascar at the start of the 18th century, and that it had something to do with pirates and their descendants.
What exactly it was is less than clear. Other Madagascan kingdoms of the era have left a discernible footprint, but archaeologists have found no physical evidence for any kind of centralised state in the area: no public works or palaces, no evidence of any system of administration or taxation, no trace of an army or a bureaucracy, indeed nothing that indicates any interruption to existing ways of life on the coast. Mayeur and those who followed him believed that Ratsimilaho was a precocious visionary and brilliant military strategist, but there are other contemporary accounts that paint him merely as a disagreeable local chief, or as the deputy of another king elsewhere on the island, or even as lieutenant to a completely different pirate ‘king’ called John Plantain. It’s a confusing picture. ‘What,’ Graeber asks, ‘is one to make of all this?’
In Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia he tries to answer this question. As the title suggests, for Graeber there is more at stake here than one would typically expect of a brief episode in local history or a shaggy dog story about a pirate kingdom that never was, though the book is certainly filled with colourful material: blood pacts and poisonings, magicians and princesses, off-grid pirate towns on tropical islands, impostor kings lording it over phoney empires, and more. Beyond all that, though, Graeber has a case to make about the way events on the north-eastern coast of Madagascar might reframe our understanding of intellectual developments in the Age of Enlightenment.
Madagascar in the late 17th century was an anomaly. Positioned just out of the way of the great shipping routes, it wasn’t fully integrated into the system of international trade that operated in the Indian Ocean. It fell outside the growing influence of the European powers: it hadn’t been brought within the jurisdiction of either the British Royal African Company or the East India Company, and cursory attempts at settlement by the Dutch and French had repeatedly failed. The west of the island was dominated by large and powerful kingdoms, among which Swahili and Arab traders known as Antalaotra (‘Sea People’) controlled the regular back-and-forth business with Zanzibar and the African mainland. But the east, especially the north-east, was much less well developed. It was therefore of scant interest to local powers and effectively beyond the reach of foreign ones, which made it an ideal hiding place and retirement spot for pirates, who had come to realise that the enormously rich shipping traffic of the Indian Ocean and Red Sea afforded even greater prizes than those to be had in the Caribbean. In the final decades of the 17th century large numbers of buccaneers and freebooters began to stop there, many of them taking Malagasy wives and settling into local communities. By the end of the 1690s, perhaps a few thousand pirates had taken up temporary or permanent residence, and the north-east coast was ‘speckled with little pirate settlements’, some of which became significant towns or ports.
The biggest and most notorious of these was Sainte-Marie. Founded by a wanted murderer called Adam Baldridge, Sainte-Marie was a fort town located on the small island of Nosy Baraha, just off the coast near Ambonavola. Home to as many as a thousand people, many of them active or former pirates, it acted as a refitting port and supply stop for pirate ships, and as a place to fence ill-gotten gains. It became a regular stop on the ‘pirate round’ stretching from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean, and Baldridge himself had a busy arrangement with a crooked New York businessman who used the buying and selling of enslaved Malagasy as cover for the disposal of plundered jewels and luxuries. Sainte-Marie was eventually sacked in 1697 by Malagasy from the mainland, after Baldridge committed an especially treacherous slave raid.
Back in Europe, highly embellished reports of towns like Sainte-Marie and characters like Baldridge circulated widely as coffeehouse gossip and in popular literature. Pirate tales were so appealing – and have proved so enduring – that Graeber thinks they may have constituted ‘the most important form of poetic expression produced by that emerging North Atlantic proletariat whose exploitation laid the ground for the industrial revolution’: a kind of anarcho-fabulous counter-literature which enthralled the public with tall tales of flamboyant criminality, hoards of treasure, and antiheroic outlaw kingdoms created by damned men sailing under the skull and crossbones. Sometimes these tales also came with a political twist, since pirate folklore abounded with rumours and fantasies about the organisation of the new polities founded by buccaneers in the remote tropics. The legendary pirate kingdoms were imagined to be very different from European societies of the time: they were often pictured as utopias where want and domination had been abolished, where citizens were equals and all things were divided equally among them, and where political matters were decided by democratic means.
This unvarnished, tavern-level probing of ideas about equality, property, social contract and political power is recognisable as a popular variation on what would come to be the essential themes of Enlightenment thought. Daniel Defoe compared the pirate settlers of Madagascar to the founders of Rome, and Montesquieu claimed that the Greeks, too, were originally pirates; Graeber suggests that tales of pirate politics would have been well known to many writers and thinkers of the day. As a roughneck utopian committed to liberty from all existing laws and governments, the pirate was ‘just as much a figure of the Enlightenment as Voltaire or Adam Smith’. (It wouldn’t do to romanticise too much. Pirates could be every bit as unscrupulous and brutal as their more conventional reputation suggests, though perhaps in this they were unexceptional by the standards of the time.)
The most famous pirate democracy of the era was Libertalia, or Libertatia, a legendary settlement said to have been located in – where else? – Madagascar. It appears in A General History of the Pyrates, a two-volume compendium of pirates and their deeds published in London in 1724, which is credited to a ‘Captain Johnson’ but is usually thought to have been written by Defoe. The book provides detailed accounts of such infamous buccaneers as Henry Avery and ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, all but one of whom are on the historical record.
The exception is a French pirate known as Captain Misson. Encouraged by his sidekick, a ‘lewd priest’ called Caraccioli whom he had picked up in Rome, Misson took to sea, according to the General History of the Pyrates, intending to ‘lawfully make War on all the World, since it wou’d deprive him of that Liberty to which he had a Right by the Laws of Nature’.
Onboard his ship, the Victoire, liberté, égalité and fraternité were apparently already the rule: prisoners were treated without violence, enslaved Africans were liberated and willingly joined the crew, and decisions were taken by general agreement. After many adventures at sea, Misson and Caraccioli founded a settlement on the Madagascan coast: Libertalia, land of freedom. Its inhabitants became known as the Liberi, and all their previous nationalities and languages were dissolved together so that they would become ‘one made out of the many’. Their government was to be of ‘a Democratical Form, where the People were themselves the Makers and Judges of their own Laws’. Slavery and organised religion were abolished, and land and cattle were divided equally, just as the spoils of piracy had been on the Victoire. Word of Misson’s free society spread. Many other famous pirates, including Henry Avery, came to join them, before the settlement was eventually destroyed by hostile Malagasy.
So went the story. There is no evidence that Misson or Libertalia actually existed, but the description of life aboard the Victoire has a basis in truth: some pirate ships, unlike merchant and navy vessels, did operate according to egalitarian principles. Without any higher authority to invest the captain with power, pirate ships were in effect governed by consent. Decisions were often taken in common, with the captain having no special power of command except during battle, and some ships even had written articles setting out terms for the fair distribution of booty. Crew members might also receive compensation for injuries. As in Libertalia, these ships could be a melting pot where one was made out of the many. Graeber thinks the ships may have had a role in ‘spearheading the development of new forms of democratic governance’ at the time. ‘Pirate crews,’ he writes,
were so often made up of so many different sorts of people with knowledge of so many different kinds of social arrangement (the same ship might include Englishmen, Swedes, escaped African slaves, Caribbean Creoles, Native Americans and Arabs), committed to a certain rough-and-ready egalitarianism, tossed together in situations where the rapid creation of new institutional structures was absolutely required, that they were in a sense perfect laboratories of democratic experiment.
Such matters of piratical fact surely fed into the folklore about pirate utopias, but it wasn’t all fabulation. Baldridge’s Sainte-Marie may have been little more than a city of thieves with no real governance, but in this it seemingly wasn’t typical. Pirates in Madagascar really did experiment with bringing the politics of the pirate ship ashore. Sometime in the early 1700s a Bermudan called Nathaniel North established a pirate community in Ambonavola, the eventual seat of Ratsimilaho’s Betsimisaraka Confederation. North, ‘a reluctant and unusually conscientious pirate’, became respected among coastal Malagasy as a fair mediator of local disputes, and was, according to Graeber, ‘assiduous in converting the democratic associations first developed on board ship into forms that would be viable on land’, including a makeshift judicial system characterised by fair trials for community miscreants, with a jury selected by the drawing of lots.
Although Sainte-Marie was attacked, most other coastal settlements were spared. Many settled pirates were now part of Malagasy families, and some were effectively defending the coast against European slave raids, mostly by stealing the ships of slavers. They would always be classed by Malagasy as outsiders, but the pirates had become a significant, semi-integrated element of coastal society. Indeed, the descendants of pirate fathers and Malagasy mothers – people like Ratsimilaho – eventually became a hereditary aristocracy known as the Malata (from ‘mulatto’), then the Zana-Malata (‘children of the Malata’), by which ancestry they still identify.
But Graeber isn’t only interested in the pirates’ story. He wants to show us how their arrival was understood from the Malagasy point of view, and the effects that pirate settlements had on existing Malagasy society. We are familiar with what usually happened to indigenous societies when heavily armed, hirsute Europeans started settling their lands, but Graeber argues that the interplay between pirate settlers and coastal Malagasy was complex and fairly balanced. Their cachet as exotic foreigners notwithstanding, the pirates had very little social capital. They did, however, have useful weapons and lots of plundered finery, and they could trade with distant powers for luxury items. And when they weren’t being drawn into the endemic small local conflicts, the pirates, as outsiders, were in a position to negotiate neutrally between warring parties. It’s possible that their own forms of democratic organisation and improvised justice came in useful here. At any rate, in Graeber’s account, the net effect of their settling on the coast was unexpected: an efflorescence of women’s commercial empowerment, followed by the establishment, in the Betsimisaraka Confederation, of what was to some degree a more equal society than the existing one. Neither women’s power nor egalitarian social relationships had previously been a notable feature of Malagasy life on the north-east coast, any more than they were notable features of early 18th-century European life.
Malagasy women seem to have registered the arrival of the pirates as a novel socioeconomic opportunity. Marriage to a pirate with a decent stash of plunder might offer a young woman the opportunity to set herself up as an independent trader, and also to escape the strictures of what could be a violently patriarchal society. (While arrangements regarding sex and marriage were fairly free in some areas of Madagascar, in the north-east the historical influence of the Zafy Ibrahim, a religiously zealous elite perhaps descended from Yemenite Jews, or maybe from Ismaili Gnostics, meant that women were subject to very strict controls.) Graeber suggests that we would do well to reverse the terms of the conventional European account: ‘The Malata came about not because foreign pirates established themselves on the coast and took Malagasy wives, but rather, because Malagasy women set out to find foreign men to marry.’ The pirates, for their part, came to see that marrying Malagasy women was an excellent solution to the perennial problem of loot, as their new partners were in a position to dispose of stolen goods that were otherwise tricky to shift.
The arrangement appears to have allowed the women a good amount of autonomy. Since a pirate husband had no social standing, and usually couldn’t even speak the local language, he ceded almost all economic and social responsibilities to his partner. By marrying a pirate, then, a woman could at a stroke gain freedom from the control of her family and move into a position of economic, social and, it seems, sexual independence, with nary an in-law in sight. Ports and villages on the coast sometimes became ‘cities of women’, where trade and contacts with the outside world were controlled by a new class of female merchants, who ‘constituted the backbone of such communities … no decision of importance could be made without them.’ Graeber thinks that by throwing in their lot with prestigious, wealthy outsiders, young Malagasy women had seen a chance to ‘re-create local society’ according to their own lights, ‘and with the creation of the port towns, the transformation of sexual mores, and the eventual successful promotion of their children by the pirates as a new aristocratic class, this is precisely what they were able to do.’
What about Ratsimilaho, the enlightened teenage king? After his installation by general consent as ‘chief in perpetuity’ in Ambonavola – an occasion for the gunpowder ritual, which was a mixture of conventional Malagasy war magic and rum-and-gunpowder pirate toasts – a number of grand public meetings were held to decide on the form of his rule. Ratsimilaho let local chiefs continue to run their own affairs, stepping in only to mediate disputes or complaints. However, somewhere along the line, the coast’s existing aristocratic hierarchies had been dismantled, and the various local clans were all placed on an equal footing with the Betsimisaraka. There they remained, socially equalised, as the many unsundered. Despite Ratsimilaho’s own heritage and reputation, the Malata, the female merchants and the pirates were all but excluded from his court and its deliberations. But he struck agreements with them such that they, too, could maintain their position without interference. For their part, the Malata and their ambitious mothers continued the process of defining themselves as a hereditary outsider elite, a development which finally dissolved the influence of the conservative Zafy Ibrahim over women. Although all this might seem a footloose way to run a kingdom, during the thirty years or so of Ratsimilaho’s hands-off rule there was a sustained peace, the Betsimisaraka became consolidated as a people, and the north-east coast was protected from slaving. It is still regarded as a golden age.
Graeber’s fundamental concern is to show that the intellectual ferment of the 18th century was never confined to the salons and coffeehouses of the European capitals: talk of politics, rights and democracy was also bubbling away in very distant settings. And in some of them – pirate ships, pirate settlements and coastal Malagasy society, in Graeber’s example – new ways of organising social life weren’t just matters of speculative debate but living, practical experiments. These real Libertalias may even have been a significant influence on what eventually went on in those salons: Graeber provides plenty of evidence to show that there was a great deal of energetic discussion about what exactly the most infamous antiheroes of the age had been up to in their sea-girt redoubts.
Widening the view to make men like Ratsimilaho and Nathaniel North the heroes of a bootleg Enlightenment is an exciting subversion of the orthodoxy, no doubt: a usefully provocative bit of history from below that shows the periphery was moving faster than the centre, as is so often the case. But Graeber’s point is larger than that. It isn’t just that the story of the Enlightenment needs amending to reflect its true complexity, it’s that conventional approaches to global history are in need of profound recalibration. The Malagasy weren’t just the backwater hosts of pirate kingdoms, imaginary or otherwise: they had busied themselves with their own political experiments. It wasn’t pirates who took the lead, or even their children, but coastal Malagasy who had fully involved themselves in a rich and intimate dialogue for many years with a motley crew of strangers from distant lands. The Betsimisaraka Confederation should be seen as a ‘proto-Enlightenment political experiment, a creative synthesis of pirate governance and some of the more egalitarian elements in traditional Malagasy culture’. It was part of a web of trade, politics and folklore that stretched around the globe and made the people of the coast ‘global political actors in the fullest sense of the term’.
Securing the place of 18th-century Malagasy in Enlightenment history doesn’t require us to demolish the story of Europe. When Joseph Needham showed to readers of English that gunpowder had been discovered in China it didn’t change the story of the use of gunpowder in Europe a jot, beyond placing it on a more accurate and interesting footing. Graeber observes that the ‘blanket condemnation of Enlightenment thought’ fashionable in some quarters is ‘rather odd’, given the radical themes of Enlightenment thinkers, the close involvement of women and the fact that many of the acknowledged sources of inspiration were non-European. Assuming that the historic chauvinism of Europeans has always erased the contribution of everyone else performs that erasure with great economy: ‘A four-hundred-page book attacking Rousseau is still a four-hundred-page book about Rousseau.’ What is required is a wholesale shift in focus. Not so much the ‘decolonisation’ of history – a tame and insufficient word, borrowed from the lexicon of officialdom – but a revolution in our understanding of its depth and breadth. The world was far, far larger than whatever was happening in Paris and London.
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