15 June, 2002Issue 1.1AfricaTravel

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Eye-Patched Idealists?

Jeff Kulkarni

Kevin Rushby
Hunting Pirate Heaven: In Search of the Lost Pirate Utopias of the Indian Ocean
Constable, 2001
300 pages

The success of the search does not determine the success of the writing about the search. That is one lesson to be learned from reading about Kevin Rushby’s experiences in looking for the ‘lost pirate utopias’ off the coast of Mozambique and Madagascar. Contrary to usual rules of travel writing, in this case, getting there is not all the fun — or even all of the adversity — that makes the endeavour worth reading about. Rather, it is Rushby’s reflections on a number of archetypes — not merely the pirate, but also utopia, the noble savage, Robinson Crusoe, the foreign legionairre, and the mercenary — that prove the most rewarding.

The appeal of the book’s subject matter is obvious to any reader who has ever been a 7-year-old, but a moment’s contemplation reminds us that our knowledge about pirates goes little past Robert Louis Stevenson and the stereotypical hoop-earring brigands of Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson. As is standard for the historical travel literature genre, Rushby walks us through a review of pirate scholarship. However, it quickly becomes clear that most existing sources bear little more credibility than the familiar cartoon pirates with parrots on their shoulders. This investigation will be driven more by happenstance and fortuitous encounters than inviting clues teased out of decaying manuscripts.

Indeed, the device that initiates Rushby’s search is neither a childhood fascination with pirates nor a longstanding academic interest, but rather an encounter with a mysterious stranger in Deptford, South London. The author is allegedly searching for the launching point of the famous East India Company ships on what would have been the four hundredth anniversary of their initial departure. He is contemplating pirates since he has just gone to see the skull-and-crossbone gates of St. Nicholas’s Church in Deptford, which allegedly served as the inspiration for the infamous Jolly Roger. In the course of his hunt for the old docks, he happens across a mysterious Asian stranger, who claims to have been the victim of piracy. The stranger places in Rushby’s mind the idea that the buccaneers were not only the bloodthirsty robbers of myth; they also founded a democratic political utopia somewhere in islands lying off the Mozambican coast. As the trigger for Rushby’s adventurous investigation, this mysterious stranger is too true to cliché. If he is fictitious, Rushby should have devised a better conceit. If inspired by truth, the author should have modified his characteristics to make him easier to swallow.

At first glance there may seem to be no reason to doubt authenticity of this character. However, Rushby’s review of pirate literature reveals the centrality, in this field, of false histories conveyed by fictitious characters. In the foreword of the book, he mentions one of the most famous of all pirate books, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson. This work provides many of the details of the pirate utopia that Rushby sets off to find; it recounts that French buccaneer Captain Misson, an opponent of slavery, founded the utopian colony of Libertalia in northern Madagascar. This state allegedly featured a new universal language as well as a rudimentary parliament. The problem with this account, Rushby tells us, is that the ‘Captain Johnson’ who wrote this book was most likely Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe. Even on this point Rushby refuses to take a stand either way; he says ‘there are no hard facts’ on this point. However, he does admit that ‘There is something ephemeral and untrustworthy about pirate history.’

This rhetorical technique recurs again and again in the book; Rushby sets forth some sort of historical evidence about his subject matter and then undermines its credibility. This may seem like an odd technique, given the fact that the historical literature ostensibly serves as the guide for his journey. However, the notion of ‘undermining’ lies at the heart of Rushby’s narrative. The search most critical to the story is not the physical search for pirate settlements and descendents, but rather the search for, and ultimately undermining of, the ideas that motivated the pirate settlements in the first place.

The notion of a pirate settlement is brazenly oxymoronic. Pirates are by definition nomadic raiders, forever on the prowl for victims and on the run from justice. However, what drove them to settle down was the idea of utopia, as the subtitle of the book indicates. Utopia was not merely meant to signify freedom from avenging authorities, but more importantly, freedom from outside authority generally — a political ideal of self-rule. Of further importance was freedom from material scarcity. Pirates supposedly started their sailing careers as press-ganged conscripts or slaves — in other words, the poorest of the poor. They therefore desired a more egalitarian distribution of resources along with their self-government.

The attraction of utopia is not restricted to the realms of politics and economics; natural environment matters as well, and in this regard the tropical island is ideal. On one hand it is beautiful, isolated, and rich in natural resources. On the other hand it is easy to defend.

Guided by the likely apocryphal legend of Captain Misson’s Libertalia, Rushby begins his search for pirate utopia off the coast of Mozambique. However, as it turns out, his search undermines the notion of utopia rather than finding a real-life example of it. In the course of his journey, Rushby constantly encounters other people’s island utopias, and finds them wanting. Examples include the island owned by German settlers whose kids have since moved away, the tiny island being sold by a Swedish yachtsman, the fishing atoll overcrowded by Mozambicans trying to scratch a hard living out of the sea, and the failed political utopia of Ali Solih in the Comoro Islands.

The message is always the same — sunshine and rich natural resources are not enough to rescue the ideal of utopia. There is always work to be done, and nature is constantly throwing up new challenges. However, beyond material factors, the greatest dangers are psychological. Man is a social animal. Man is also, it seems, a prowling animal, that needs adventure and a change of scenery for sustenance. The message seems to be that pirates did not become free when they initiated self-rule and overcame scarcity of resources; in reality they imprisoned themselves when they freely ended their peripatetic existence. They were only truly free, in the sense that matters, when they had no fixed address and knew no laws – not even their own. Their true utopia was their buccaneer lifestyle, not an island off of Madagascar, and that is why they retain such a powerful hold on our imagination.

From Plato to Sir Thomas More and beyond, the notion of utopia has played a powerful role in facilitating a critique of existing government. Apparently pirates have likewise entered the realm of political theory. In reference to Defoe’s subterfuge, Rushby writes that ‘Whole chunks of pirate history, it is alleged, were created by Defoe to further his own subtle ends in dissenting politics. The speeches of Captain Bellamy, and Misson too, were thinly disguised assaults on the English Establishment by one of its own.’ Pirates served as a heurisitic device for criticizing slavery and the inequitable distribution of wealth. Their fictitious characteristics did not compromise their role in political critique any more than fictitious characteristics hamstrung the efficacy of Swift’s Lilliputians.

Hunting Pirate Heaven takes detours through several other mythical concepts that, like utopia, have surfaced in political theory as heuristic devices and have influenced the way we think about societal order: notions of a universal language (i.e. the Tower of Babel myth), the noble savage, and ‘Year Zero’. When encountering examples of these concepts along his journey, Rushby’s tactic is once again to undermine them. They end up lacking not only a grounding in reality, which is pretty much self-evident, but also appeal as abstract ideals.

The picaresque characters who pass through Rushby’s pages also end up being not what they initially seemed. Infamous French mercenary Bob Denard, who took control over the Comoro Islands, looks like less of a modern-day utopia-seeking pirate than a puppet of French neocolonialism. On the other hand, assassinated Comoro dictator Ali Solih starts out as a wicked Pol-Pot wannabe who attempted to return the Comoros to ‘Year Zero’ by burning government records, banning traditional weddings, legalizing marijuana, and placing teenagers in high government offices. During Denard’s invasion in 1978 — one of many — Solih was allegedly found watching pornographic films with three naked women. His reputation is salvaged later in the book, when locals depict him as a quixotic man of the people, who rode across the country in the same jerry-rigged taxis as the peasantry, and was not afraid to take his shirt off and pour concrete with the builders working on a public school. He turns out to be much simpler, and much less sinister, than colonial propaganda would have it.

By the end of the journey, the vestiges of pirate life that Rushby has discovered are an unequivocal disappointment. One of the only major physical relics he comes across is a huge cauldron that was supposedly used for salmagundi, the pirate soup of legend which all crewmembers shared as equals. An empty pot is a far cry from the in-tact pirate ship found by the children in the classic teen movie Goonies. Despite the impossibility of ever finding such a treasure, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this is what I secretly hoped for Rushby as I commenced his book. However, Rushby’s failure to find pirate utopia does not mean that his narrative is a failure. Indeed, one could argue that his inability to find solid empirical grounding for the pirate myth serves to prove a more important point: that fanciful heuristic devices can nonetheless play a critical role in revealing shortcomings in our own society.

Jeff Kulkarni is a National Science Foundation graduate researcher at Balliol College, Oxford, where he reads for a DPhil in Politics.