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A Critical Book Review: "Villains of All Nations" by Marcus Rediker

Updated on February 25, 2013
Pictured is the edition this review is based off of.
Pictured is the edition this review is based off of. | Source

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations, Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. 240 pp.

Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations is undoubtedly an entertaining read for those interested in further understanding how the age of piracy developed and fit into the larger context of the colonial age and the Atlantic trade system. That being said, Rediker, writes with an innate sense of purpose and a pervasive perspective, an agenda, if you will, which every reader should be cautioned about prior to or after reading the work[1]. Like the quote above, Villains of All Nations seems to feed existing stereotypes and caricatures regarding pirates in popular culture today. As opposed to discussing the nature of piracy from a neutral standpoint within the context of colonialism, the book works to vindicate pirates and piracy as a seemingly noble deviation from a system which was (truthfully) drenched in corruption and abuse.

Rediker’s thesis is best summarized by the last line of the book wherein Rediker commands: “These outlaws (pirates) led audacious, rebellious lives, and we should remember them as long as there are powerful people and oppressive circumstances to be resisted (176)”. The colonial age, most assuredly, did not bring out the best in imperial minded, capitalist hubs including Britain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands; nevertheless, memorializing the age of piracy as a movement that should be associated with principled resistance, is a dangerous connection to make. Rediker’s narrative should not simply be written off as wholly preposterous, however, for he does make an effort to point out that his observations work to summarize the era as a whole. He writes to explain the environment in which piracy was fostered and to depict it as the social reaction that it was as opposed to the random trend of “adventure seeking” which it is often depicted as in popular culture.

As one reviewer very accurately points out “the author's skillful use of metropolitan and colonial newspaper articles, travel accounts, religious sermons, official correspondence, state papers, admiralty records, and other court documents (many of which are carried over from Captain Charles Johnsons General History of Pyrates)” tremendously helps to reign in his thesis[2]. An invaluable element to his work was his research on women as pirates which was truly fascinating as the accounts seemed to hold up throughout the historical record (105). The fact that women participated in the piratical movement helps solidify Rediker’s theory that there was great social disparity between the classes. Middle class working men were undoubtedly close to their trades and seamen in particular would have witnessed the lucrativeness of the trade industry on an up-close and personal basis; their participation in piracy could have stemmed from a number of ambitions most obviously greed and anger. But the citation of women’s participation in piracy, even on this small scale, demonstrates that these documented women (and who knows how many undocumented ones) were willing to launch themselves into an industry they had never experienced to face risks they couldn’t imagine for supposed profits which their gender had only heard about through their ‘superiors’. This kind of participation demonstrates that the attraction of piracy for women likely stemmed from a desire for freedom which can more easily be associated with the social reform movement that Redkier links with piracy. Further valuable elements of the work include Rediker’s insight into “the social order of the pirate ship” which, contrary to popular depiction, “was governed by the majority” most of the time and piratical behaviours were surprisingly laced with codes of conduct which the pirate class was expected to uphold (65). One of the most telling excerpts of the work which truly helps to demonstrate the humanity of pirates and the existence which steered them towards a life of crime was undoubtedly Rediker’s depiction of Walter Kennedy:

“In the end, Walter Kennedy was a typical pirate in several key respects. He was born into poverty in a port city; he was experienced in the rough conditions of life at sea, in both the navy and the merchant service; he was apparently unmarried; and he was in his mid-twenties. These traits served as bases of unity with others when, in search of something better, he decided to become a pirate. And yet, like the others, was not merely escaping oppressive circumstances. He was escaping to something new, a different reality, something alluring about which he had heard tales in his youth (59)”.

According to Rediker, those who opposed piracy and who sought its extirpation, namely, “royal officials, attorneys, merchants, publicists, clergymen, and writers (100)” were for the most part those whose profits from trans-Atlantic trade were being compromised by piracy. The irony within this is that various systems of trade, established by European powers, “might properly be framed as state-sponsored piracy”[3]. In fact, state-sponsored piracy was quite often unofficially supported by one or another nation. All this to say, that Rediker is correct in presenting state run trans-Atlantic trade systems as being morally bankrupt and he is correct in depicting the hypocrisy that was exhibited through Cotton Mather’s condemnation of ‘rebel’ pirates when state-sponsored piracy was rampant and advocated[4]. Seemingly, those responsible for running the trade systems set up by nationalized companies were upset that the rebel pirates, specifically during the period Redkier focusses on between 1716-1726, were beating them at their own game of piracy.

In addition to being a distinguished professor of Atlantic history, Marcus Rediker advocates himself as an activist for a series of world peace and social justice problems. This tidbit of information helps to explain Rediker’s attempt to demarcate piratology as a phenomenon which developed out of the social oppression of the proletariat. As one reviewer very accurately put it, Rediker “revaluates the golden age of piracy as a proletarian struggle between a government-supported merchant class and a militant force made up of their formerly exploited labor force”[5]. From this standpoint then, we can see that Rediker is responding to this area of what he considers unexplored social oppression and works to vindicate the “poor men” (as he frequently calls them) who chose to escape and exact revenge upon the nationalized and morally bankrupt trade industry that had so brutally mistreated men of the trade. Rediker’s efforts should undoubtedly be appreciated as he brings to life a valuable perspective, that being said, somehow the age of pirates as a class struggle does not imply the nobleness which Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful resistance movements did. Although this could simply be because these later resistance movements were highly publicized as opposing a morally damnable reality, where the resistance of pirates has survived in the historical record as more of a rebellion fuelled by the greed of an otherwise monetarily limited class. To support this latter understanding of piratical incentives, one of Rediker’s contemporaries, David J. Starkey points to the cyclical nature of piracy in that “a marked increase in piratical activities following periods of European warfare [when trade systems would have picked up again, can be depicted] for example, from 1603 to 1616, 1714 to 1726, and 1815 to 1825”[6]. While this reality seemingly undermines “any wider historical significance of Rediker's anti-statist villains” (as they are apparently propelled by tangible profits more so than they are consistent government resistance), Rediker’s work is still valuable for the unique insight it offers into the life and development of pirates.

Rediker very emphatically maintains that through his work: “We have seen who the pirates were (poor, working seamen), how they organized themselves (in egalitarian and democratic ways), and how they represented themselves (as “honest men” seeking justice for the common sailor (127)”. While Rediker may be painting an accurate depiction of pirates, the demographic they came from and the principles which drove their vendetta; it should be maintained that piracy as a whole should not be classified as ‘resistance’ on the part of the an oppressed class for their actions speak more of a vengeful rebellion which practised much of the same condemning oppression that the state had used against them. Like most other reviewers commented, Rediker’s haphazard presentation of the violence that was orchestrated by pirates is disturbing and therefore, although perhaps there may be elements within the societal context that drove good citizens to piracy, their work as pirates shouldn’t be advocated as admirable resistance[7].

In conclusion, Rediker’s work presents a valid thesis which is successfully argued, but where he strives to depict piracy as an understandable reaction to the condemning realities of government, the work comes across as condoning the violence demonstrated during the age of piracy as appropriate social resistance to oppression. In reading the final chapter of Rediker’s commentary, one cannot help but identify “the pirate” in the same light as one can witness their depiction in the Walt Disney blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean, wherein pirates are depicted as relentlessly waving their “devil-may-care” attitude in the face of colonial powerhouses while unwaveringly maintaining their hyperbolized dedication to pirate culture and moral codes. In summary then, while Rediker’s commentary succeeds in humanizing the blood-thirsty pirates of tall-tales and convincingly identifies the development of piracy as an early form of social resistance, the work does not succeed in fully vindicating the methods the pirate class used to resist the exploitative nature of society.

[1] Bill, Anonymous. Review of Rediker, Marcus, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2005.

[2] Kevin P. McDonald. Review of Rediker, Marcus, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2005.

[3] Kevin P. McDonald. Review of Rediker, Marcus, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2005.

[4] Bill, Anonymous. Review of Rediker, Marcus, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2005.

[5] Nicholas, Calabasas. Review of Rediker, Marcus, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2005.

[6] Kevin P. McDonald. Review of Rediker, Marcus, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2005.

[7] I read a plethora of reviews of the work off Google Scholar, most of which agreed with this viewpoint.


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