Against the state and capital on the high seas
By Marley B
Thanks to the work of a rare breed of historians (see below) we now know that the pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries, rather than violent thieves, were in fact rebels against the oppression of the young modern state and of a still-emerging capitalism. The (mostly) men who became pirates were poor sea-labourers, slaves and navy sailors who, in the face of extreme exploitation and tyranny at the hands of merchant and navy captains, decided to throw off their chains and build alternative ways of life that represent some of the first experiments of the modern era with direct democracy and radical equality.
When they mutineed, pirates replaced the dictatorship of the merchant or navy captains and elected their captains, subject to instant recall. A captain had sole authority over “fighting, chasing, or being chased” but top authority rested with the ship’s “council” where everyone had a vote and where the most important decisions where made by majority rule.
Pirates also rebelled against the emerging system of wage slavery (what we now call the hourly wage or salary). Instead they distributed loot according to a pre-capitalist share system where wealth was distributed along radically egalitarian lines, with the captain receiving barely twice as much as those receiving the lowest share. Part of the captured booty was also set aside in a common fund, a welfare safety net for pirates injured “on the job.”
Libertarian legal codes were used on pirate ships (yes, they had constitutions). Most of the laws dealt with maintaining harmony on the often-crowded ships. Capital punishment was used at times but it is telling that this was reserved largely for abusive captains, either their own or those from captured ships. Pirates were also free to leave a ship and join another or start their own. The 18th century Atlantic ocean saw the emergence of a loose informal federation of pirates, a mobile community of linked but autonomous pirate ships who collectively wreaked havoc on European transatlantic commerce (itself based on the genocide and racist exploitation of peoples in Africa and the Americas)
As always, we should not romanticize our radical history. Patriarchy, slavery, racism and the occasional act of brutality were also at times part of pirate communities (though far less present than in the broader society). But we should acknowledge the piracy of this time and place for what it truly was: a movement that, while containing its own contradictions, also expressed the desire among the oppressed to resist the brutalities of the modern state and the capitalist system from their very beginning.
For further reading check out:
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra (Beacon Press, 2000)
Marcus Rediker. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Cambridge University Press, 1987)
Peter Lamborn Wilson. Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes (Autonomedia, 2003