books democracy

Book review: Pirate Enlightenment, by David Graeber

Pirate Englightenment is the last of David Graeber’s books, published posthumously. It’s about the cross-pollination of pirate communities and Malagasy culture in the early 1700s.

It’s a fitting last word, because the first book Graeber wrote was also about Madagascar. What he discovered during his doctoral research in the country in the early 90s informs a lot of what he wrote in-between. He regularly referenced Madagascar in his other books, and his influential ideas on democracy and freedom were shaped in part by Malagasy traditions of discussion and decision-making.

If you know the story of the ‘golden age of piracy’, you will know that Madagascar served as a refuge for pirates. They would lie low and refit and restock their ships. Many also settled, marrying Malagasy women and eventually producing a clan of offspring known as the Zana-Malata, an ancestry that some people still claim today.

Back in Europe, rumours circulated about these pirate communities, including stories of pirate kings, and of experiments in radical democracy. Philosophers and agitators were inspired by the idea of ‘Libertalia’, a society of equality and freedom beyond the reach of old hierarchies, out at the edges of the known world.

How much of this was real? Graeber digs through old eye-witness testimonies and travel logs from the time, including some that have never been published. There are contradictions, huge exaggerations from writers mythologising the pirates, and all we can go on is “a series of tiny windows on extraordinary events”. Nevertheless, Graeber does find his prototype democracy, and it’s not quite what you might expect. The nearest thing to a radical democracy in the historical record is something called the Betsimisaraka Confederation, led by a character called Ratsimilaho. His father was a pirate and his mother was Malagasy, and his politics combined aspects from both cultures.

This combining and blending of ideas is a key theme. The enlightenment was an intellectual movement born out of synthesis – the rush of new ideas that came with parts of the world in dialogue with each other for the first time. The ideas were codified and the books were written in European cities, but the dialogue itself happened at the margins, along trade routes and at the outposts of empire. And it worked both ways – imperial powers changed cultures on the ground, but were themselves influenced in return.

The book demonstrates this rather nicely by telling the story of the pirates and their settlements in Madagascar, and then flipping things around and telling the story from a Malagasy perspective.

It’s this effort to incorporate Malagasy culture into the story that makes it worth reviewing here. I was always going to read this – I like David Graeber, and have an interest in Madagascar, and it’s got pirates in it. But I wanted to review it on the blog because it’s also a useful example of de-colonising anthropology and history.

Thanks to the ‘culture wars’, decolonialism is misunderstood and misconstrued as being about white guilt and angst about empire. That misses the point, because it removes the sense of superiority but still makes history all about us. Graeber’s book shows how decolonial history is much more rewarding than that.

“Existing history is not just deeply flawed and Eurocentric, its also unnecessarily tedious and boring,” he writes in the introduction. “The real story of what happened in human history is a thousand times more diverting. Let us tell, then, a story about magic, lies, sea battles, purloined princesses, slave revolts, manhunts, make-believe kingdoms and fraudulent ambassadors… I hope the reader has as much fun as I did.”


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