The democrats of the high seas

Villains of All Nations: Atlantic pirates in the golden age

Marcus Rediker <em>Verso, 240pp, £18.9

Piracy, a phenomenon still very much with us in the Straits of Mal-acca and the China Sea, has always excited contempt among the law-abiding. At the same time, as Hollywood and Disneyland attest, the safely defunct genus of "pirate of the Caribbean" stirs the popular imagination more than any other kind of historical lawbreaker, including highwaymen. The pirates' domain is the ocean, a fearsome, storm-tossed abode of demons ("Davy Jones's locker"); a watery hell; in some ways an archetype of the chaos world. But the sea is also a symbol of freedom and pleasure. As Byron puts it in The Corsair: "O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea/Our thoughts as boundless, and our hearts as free".

It is this ambiguity that Marcus Rediker explores in his exemplary book Villains of All Nations. He sees pirates as yet another addition to the list of "social bandits" popularised by Eric Hobsbawm. In one sense, pirates were the common enemy of mankind, outside its laws and therefore marked down for certain extermination if caught. Yet, in another sense, they fought the good fight against commercial capitalism and represented an alternative mode of social organisation.

Whereas we usually think of the buccaneers of the Caribbean in the years 1650-80 as the true "golden age" pirates, Rediker suggests they be regarded as the first stage in a threefold evolution. After the Caribbean pirates came the corsairs of Madagascar and the Indian Ocean in the 1690s; their dominant figure was William Kidd. Finally, and in Rediker's view most importantly, came the Atlantic pirates, of whom the most famous was Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. The Atlantic pirates of the 18th century had their heyday in a single decade, which Rediker pins down to the years 1716-26. Their advent resulted from a unique conjuncture: the rise of transatlantic capitalism at a time when the Royal Navy had not yet come to dominate the oceans. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) disgorged thousands of unemployed seamen on to a glutted labour market. Unwilling to bow the head and panhandle or to play the footpad on London's streets, these men hoisted the Jolly Roger and took to preying on the sea lanes.

For a decade, they made serious inroads into the slave trade, especially in West Africa, where a hundred slave ships were captured in the years 1722-24 alone. Their target was not the slaves but the vessels themselves, which were prized as the most suitable craft for corsairs. Rediker establishes that Blackbeard and his ilk did more damage to British trade during their ten-year golden age than the French and Spanish navies had achieved in the 13 years of the War of Spanish Succession. The Treaty of Utrecht had granted the British unique slave-trading rights with Spanish America by the so-called asiento. By the 1720s, however, the asiento, the Middle Passage and the slave trade itself were being destroyed by piracy.

Throwing all its resources into the struggle, the British state finally cleared the seas of pirates and so removed a major obstacle to the accumulation of capital in its Atlantic trading system. The 18th- century British state always reacted with unique savagery when its financial foundations were threatened - witness the Jacobite Rising of 1745 - and anyone found guilty of piracy was routinely hanged in chains. Aware that their lifespan was likely to be short, the pirates of the golden age, virtually all in their twenties, lived for the moment. Pirates at sea were usually roaring drunk.

Rediker's brilliant study illuminates every aspect of life on the high seas during this turbulent time. We learn, for example, that homosexuality was rare aboard ship; that pirate crews were made up mostly of former merchant seamen, Royal Navy sailors, Newfoundland fishermen or log cutters from central America; that working conditions aboard pirate ships were easy, as a 250-tonne merchantman, whose crew would normally have numbered between 15 and 20, might contain 80-90 pirates; and that the corsairs preferred to blow up themselves and their ships rather than be captured.

But above all Rediker shows how pirates sought to carry out the ideas of the Puritan Levellers and other egalitarians. All leaders were elected, and the common council, not the ship's captain, was the supreme decision-maker. The distribution of spoils was also proto-Marxian, with the captain receiving only about twice what the ordinary crewman got, partly because, by common consent, pirate ships contained the best seamen afloat. Rediker's pleasingly taut and lucid book is a minor classic in what is now becoming the fascinating sub-genre of "piracy studies".

Frank McLynn's most recent book is 1759: the year Britain became master of the world (Jonathan Cape)