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22 January 2023

The poetic history of David Graeber

The posthumous publication of “Pirate Enlightenment” shows how the anarchist, like any true intellectual, never grew out of his childhood passions.

By Justin EH Smith

Was there really a colony known as “Libertalia”, founded by Enlightened pirates on the north-east coast of Madagascar in the early 18th century?

In 2021’s The Dawn of Everything, co-written with the British archaeologist David Wengrow, as well as in his new posthumously published book Pirate Enlightenment, out 26 January, the late David Graeber has claimed as his signature method a bold hermeneutic charity towards unreliable sources. These include early-modern travel reports, memoirs written from vague and embellished recollections, and even overtly fictional adventure tales.

Graeber is not alone among historical anthropologists in this relative openness. The French anthropological theorist Philippe Descola has warned against dismissing such sources as Hans Staden’s True History: An Account of Cannibal Activity in Brazil (1557) in our effort to reconstruct Amazonian cultural practices in the early contact period. Recourse to such historical materials is simply faute de mieux, for want of something better: we may appeal to the material-cultural traces of non-textual societies, such as are found in much of Amazonia and Madagascar in the early-modern era, and we may speak with living representatives of these societies as vessels and transmitters of oral history. But both of these methods are bound to mislead – not because of dishonesty, but because of the inherent tendency of cultural information to corrupt over time. It thus seems reasonable to supplement them with contemporaneous European sources, even if we must see past the ideology, the narrowly focused pragmatic goals, and the rapacious greed that typically brought European travellers into contact with indigenous peoples.

It is not that Graeber fails to interrogate his own reading of historical sources. Rather, as he insists in Pirate Enlightenment, whether the claims are true or not, the fact that people were making them tells us something important about the era. This is broadly correct. Just as early-modern proto-science fiction about, say, lunar travel, shows us real transformations in the conception of what is scientifically possible, Daniel Defoe’s tales of egalitarian pirate societies tell us something about how politics was being reimagined in the period. And even where we have the authors of travel reports speaking as mouthpieces of incipient imperialism, they are also saying things no European could have said prior to 1492, about, for example, the unity and diversity of the human species, and the range of possible models for the successful organisation of society.

When European authors begin attributing novel patterns of cultural expression to the peoples they encounter, even if they are contemptuous of what they see, it is reasonable to suppose that they are seeing something worthy of our attention. This is so even when the author may be suspected of inventing fictional personages and passing them off as real, as some scholars have concluded the Baron de Lahontan did in his Dialogues with the Savage Adario (1703). This “savage” may have been the Wendat chief Kondiaronk, or may only have been loosely inspired by him. But either way, Graeber thinks, Lahontan’s work presents a model of indigenous North American self-governance, and exemplifies the European Enlightenment’s debt to non-European peoples for the characteristically modern notion that other worlds are possible.

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We do not have to draw a direct line from Kondiaronk to Montesquieu to grant that there may have been some connection between the encounter with the Iroquois Confederacy’s Great League of Peace, on the one hand, which maintained social stability across different Iroquois nations by means of an oral constitution and traditions of deliberative conflict resolution, and on the other hand the longing for participatory democracy throughout Europe and its colonies. A number of authors, notably Scott L Pratt in Native Pragmatism (2002), have argued that it was the encounter of English colonists with indigenous American traditions that led to everything from CS Peirce’s pragmatic theory of truth to the “unprogrammed worship” of the Quakers.

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While the Americas were the parts of the world that delivered the most fuel for new ideas about politics, culture, nature and human nature, there is an even larger part of the world that contributed to the shaping of modern Europe: the sea. We often associate the first signs of an emerging secular public space with the Netherlands, where, with the founding of the Dutch Republic in 1579, religion was increasingly considered a matter of individual freedom with no relevance for one’s civic standing. And with the emergence of individual choice in matters of faith came a whole suite of liberal freedoms and a sacrosanct status for the individual liberal subject.

But the Dutch miracle did not happen in isolation, and the transformations within its republic may be seen as a consequence of the Netherlands’ expansion outward. It is in the context of this expansion that Hugo Grotius published The Freedom of the Seas (1609), which is rightly held to be one of the earliest contributions to the study of international law. Which nation has legal authority to try a band of sailors who resort to cannibalism while drifting in a lifeboat on the high seas? The ocean was no one’s territory, and for the same reason it was everyone’s. This realisation had profound implications both for the social order of places like Amsterdam, and for the order that emerged onboard ships beyond the sovereign reach of nations.

[See also: The prophet of post-fascism]

As Graeber notes, the order that emerged on islands, newly populated by men who arrived there by ship from all over the world, sometimes resembled the order on the ships themselves. Ships were floating islands, and islands were something like immobile ships. Islands off the coast of major land masses were particularly important both as strategic strongholds, and as the sites of new experiments in social organisation. No island demonstrates this more vividly than Madagascar, the world’s fourth-largest non-continental land mass – large enough, indeed, to have hosted, until well into the modern period, several different kingdoms ruling over culturally and linguistically distinct groups, often with little contact between them.

Madagascar was initially inhabited by Austronesian seafarers setting out from the islands of what is today Indonesia, who subsequently witnessed successive waves of settlement from around the Indian Ocean, and significant genetic and cultural admixture from East African Bantu populations. The Zafy Ibrahim community of the island of Sainte-Marie just off the north-east coast (today called Nosy Boraha), claim to be a group of Jews who migrated in antiquity. Further to the south we find the Antemoro people, who claim to be Muslims, who use the Arabic script to write treatises of natural magic and who have a reputation for sorcery, but have no knowledge of the Qu’ran. When the Europeans finally began to arrive in the Indian Ocean at the beginning of the “age of discovery”, they added their own presence to what had already long been a trans-regional maritime cosmopolis, bringing together Africans, Arabs, Persians, Indians and Javanese, among others.

Madagascar presented itself as an ideal foothold in this new world of the Indian Ocean, and quickly became an object of imperial ambition. Graeber’s story begins around 1690, with the first arrival of European pirates (mostly English and Caribbean-born English), but well before this the island had become a site for the projection of European fantasies. In 1672 the European diplomat (and philosopher) GW Leibniz attempted to convince Louis XIV to colonise the island, reasoning that it could serve as a launching site for France’s eventual domination of “the entire world”, just as the Canary Islands had served the Spanish empire as the opening stage for the conquest of the Americas. Some authors have speculated that while the French king ignored this proposal, it was filed away in the royal archives, and was periodically dusted off and reconsidered throughout the centuries, playing at least some role in the eventual colonisation of the island in the wake of the Franco-Malagasy Wars between 1883 and 1896.

The geopolitical importance of Madagascar even before the golden age of piracy (about 1690-1720) complicates the picture Graeber presents of the island – as a place where maritime outlaws could freely experiment with radical egalitarian projects, under significant influence from pre-existing social patterns among the Malagasys, in a way that contradicted the official designs for global domination by European states. The experiments of the pirates, like Leibniz’s proposal, might plausibly be seen as part of the gradual establishment of European hegemony on a global scale, which culminated at the end of the 19th century. Piratical libertarianism may look counter-hegemonic, particularly when we address its hybridity with indigenous social forms. But individual actors in history are seldom in a position to comprehend the historical processes in which they are participating. This is certainly the case for pirates, who were often divided only by a fluid line from the privateers operating under a commission of war from a sovereign state. Some pirates, such as the legendary Captain Kidd, may have sincerely believed that they were operating as privateers in the employ of a sovereign, only to learn that their sovereign had reconsidered and decided to withdraw their support.

[See also: The business-lounge intellectual]

Nonetheless, individual actors strive to be free, and it is heartening and instructive to focus on them. This is what Graeber does, with a spirit of wonder and an evident love of old adventure stories. Like any true intellectual, he never grew out of his childhood passions, such as reading Defoe, but figured out how to channel them into adult pursuits. It is also this quality that likely explains Graeber’s casual attitude towards the boundary between fact and fiction.

The earliest possible date for the founding of the Libertalia colony is 1700, when a certain Captain Misson is reported to have settled down on the north-east coast of Madagascar. This report comes from the author of the General History of the Pyrates (1724), who gives his name as Captain Charles Johnson, but may well have been Defoe. Graeber concedes this claim is false, but rather than seeing it as a simple invention he interprets it as the misreporting of a solid historical fact: namely, the foundation of “the real Libertalia” at Ambonavola by Nathaniel North in 1703. This was the original ethnogenesis of a group known as the zana-malata, the descendants of pirate marriages who remain a distinct community to this day. While Libertalia’s location, and indeed its existence, remain subject to controversy, the Betsimisaraka Confederacy was established in 1712 by a zana-malata named Ratsimilaho. Ratsimilaho was the son of an English pirate and a Malagasy woman by the name of Rahena. Later accounts of his political project often describe him as an egalitarian philosopher-king.

Ratsimilaho is frequently credited with having imported European Enlightenment ideas. But another possibility, Graeber suggests, is that Ratsimilaho’s political style came not from his father, but from his mother. Women of the north-east coast actively sought seafaring men to marry, with a long-term aim of absorbing their husbands’ plunder and managing domestic finance. It was, moreover, part of their cultural upbringing to maintain marital cohesion through their highly developed art of conversation. Graeber cites a 1729 work entitled Madagascar; or, Robert Drury’s Journal, During Fifteen Years’ Captivity on That Island, whose author refers to the “agreeable conversation” he often had with his Malagasy wife. “This just didn’t seem the sort of thing an English author who’d never been to Madagascar would have been likely to have made up,” Graeber writes, adding: “In Madagascar, sexual allure, and conversational skill, were seen as closely intertwined.” From such small hints Graeber speculatively reconstructs a period of pronounced gender egalitarianism in the ethnically hybrid world of north-east Madagascar in the 18th century.

Graeber characterises pirates, of Madagascar and elsewhere, as concerned about cultivating an image of ruthless violence, while internally seeking to resolve their affairs by collective deliberation. Aboard ship it was only during battle that a pirate captain had the standing to give orders, while other actions could only be undertaken by universal consent. In part this spirit of egalitarianism was a spontaneous adaptation to the extreme circumstances of life on the seas as international pariahs, and in part it may have resulted from contact with indigenous societies.

It may also have had the strains of English radical Protestantism that some of the pirates imbibed before they left home. One hint about the possibility of such an influence, first suggested by the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, and touted repeatedly by Graeber, is when the pirate James Plantain called a colony he founded in 1720 at Antongil Bay, Madagascar by the name Ranter Bay. Perhaps this was a homage to the pamphleteer Abiezer Coppe of the heretical Ranter movement, who in his 1649 tract A Fiery Flying Roll had declared: “I can if it be my will, kiss and hug ladies, and love my neighbour’s wife as myself, without sin” – among other expressions of radical communalism that would land him in prison for a significant portion of his life.

But as with so much else in Graeber’s story, a “perhaps” is as much as we are going to get. In his view, historical anthropology, and history in general, can only benefit from attention to all the possibilia that had previously been neglected, even when we have good reason to think that no new information will ever arrive to confirm or disconfirm conjectures about what might have occurred. We know with certainty that English men and their Malagasy wives had countless hours of conversation together, and that these have gone for the most part unrecorded. We see some trace of them, some terribly imperfect and incomplete “recording” in the scattered comments found in memoirs and travel reports. If we are open and imaginative, as Graeber is, we take these traces as significant reminders of the real human lives that were lived, and by filling in the details ourselves we are able to return these people somewhat back to their humanity.

But we also run the risk of slipping into sheer speculation, indeed into storytelling. Aristotle said that history differs from poetry in that history only tells you what happened, whereas poetry ranges over all possibilities. Graeber is writing in a hybrid genre of poetic history, in this sense, but he is also reminding us why such hybridisation is good for us.

This is especially apparent when it comes to thinking through the possibilities for new political projects in the present. Here, Graeber understood, we are doing ourselves a disservice when we underestimate or neglect the ingenuity, adaptability and humanity of all the people our traditional historiography neglects, who lived and died without leaving direct written traces. Although it is hard to hear them, it is certain that they had voices, and agency, and that they did much to shape the modern world as we know it. 

Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia 
David Graeber
Allen Lane, 208pp, £18.99

[See also: The new class war]

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