pirate enlightenment

(2023) by david graeber – Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia

via nika dubrovsky.. museum of care.. and brooklyn library: [https://www.bklynlibrary.org/calendar/david-graeber%E2%80%99s-pirate-central-library-dweck-20230124]:

Virginia Heffernan, Edward Ongweso, Jr., Gideon Lewis-Kraus, and Andrew Ross discuss David Graeber’s Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia, the final posthumous work by the coauthor of the major New York Times bestseller The Dawn of Everything.

Pirates have long lived in the realm of romance and fantasy, symbolizing risk, lawlessness, and radical visions of freedom. But at the root of this mythology is a rich history of pirate societies—vibrant, imaginative experiments in self-governance and alternative social formations at the edges of the European empire.

In graduate school, David Graeber conducted ethnographic field research in Madagascar for his doctoral thesis on the island’s politics and history of slavery and magic. During this time, he encountered the Zana-Malata, an ethnic group of mixed descendants of the many pirates who settled on the island at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia, Graeber’s final posthumous book, is the outgrowth of this early research and the culmination of ideas that he developed in his classic, bestselling works Debt and The Dawn of Everything (written with the archaeologist David Wengrow). In this lively, incisive exploration, Graeber considers how the protodemocratic, even libertarian practices of the Zana-Malata came to shape the Enlightenment project defined for too long as distinctly European. He illuminates the non-European origins of what we consider to be “Western” thought and endeavors to recover forgotten forms of social and political order that gesture toward new, hopeful possibilities for the future.

madagascar.. on kings.. lost people.. nika & noam on pirates.. pirates.. et al

nika retweeted day of publication (jan 24).. link to article in statesman on pirate enlightenment is paywalled.. but great quote..

‘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.’ https://t.co/EmU2IvFgWd

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/DrScottJames/status/1617205235893534720

would add/emphasize.. ‘all the people (period)’ even in ones we have written (false) traces of’.. because has to be that all of our us (stripped of whales ness) are heard

and this via nika – on david’s notebooks on pirates:


Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/nikadubrovsky/status/1616868718595768323


thanks library .. but no more amazon kindle.. poo.. so reading from weird (to me) format

notes/quotes from book :


supposed to be a essay on kings.. then pirates.. so pirates as mock kings of madagascar

on kings.. madagascar

before long.. wonder if drifted too far from emphasis on fraudulent kings (and large question of whether all kings were in a sense impostors) to really justify inclusion

in end.. everyone hates a long essay.. loves a short book.. that’s what i’ve done

very existence of pirates and pirate societies was itself a kind of experiment.. seen as a false dream of lib.. has instead unleashed unspeakable cruelty upon world.. there was a kind of redemptive promise of a genuine alt..

this small book can be seen as one contribution t a larger intellectual project i first laid out in an essay called ‘there never was a west’.. that i’m now pursing as part of joint project w david wengrow.. might be referred to as a project of ‘decolonizing the enlightenment’..

there never was a west.. david wengrow.. dawn of everything (book).. et al

if nothing else.. what i’d like this little experiment in historical writing to bring home is that existing history is not just deeply flawed.. it’s also unnecessarily tedious and boring.. let us tell then a story about magic, lies, sea battles, purloined princesses, slave revolts, manhunts, make believe kingdoms .. spies, jewel thieve, poisoners.. that lies at origins of modern freedom.. hope the reader has as much fun as i did

the first greeks were all pirates – montesquieu

the only important question is assumed to be: ‘was there ever really a utopian settlement of former pirates called libertalia on the malagasy coast’

to my mind, this is a rather trivial question.. it would appear likely there was no mission or caraccioli, or a settelmetn w precisely that name; but there most certainly were pirate settlements on the malagasy coast.. and what’s more, they were the place for radical social experiments.. pirates did experiment w new forms of governance and property arrangements; what’s more so did members of the surrounding malagsy communities into which they married,

golden age of piracy, as it’s not called, really lasted only 40-50 yrs.. it was quite some time ago.. but people all over world are still telling stories about pirates and pirate utopias.. or elab-ing on them

it’s hard to escape the conclusion that these stories endure because they embody a certain vision of human freedom.. one that still feels relevant.. but one.. at same time.. that offers an alt to the visions of freedom that were to be adopted in european salons over the course of he 18th cent.. but he (toothless peg leg) also reps a profoundly proletarian vision of liberation.. necessarily violent and ephemeral..

one might call pirate legends.. then.. the most important form of poetic expression.. whose exploitation laid ground for industrial rev.. as long as those forms of discipline or their more subtle and insidious modern incarnations govern our working lives.. we will always fantasize about buccaneers

this is not however primarily a book about the romantic appeal of piracy.. it is a work of history, informed anthro.. an attempt to establish what actually happened on the ne coast of madagascar at end of 17th cent when several thousand pirates made that place their home.. and to make a case that in a broader sense libertalia did exist.. and that it could indeed by considered, first enlightenment political experiment.. and that many of the men/women who brought this experiment into being spoke malagasy


in this small book i might not be able to provide a comprehensive explanation of the existing evidence .. that might well be impossible anyway.. but i will attempt to provide a general framework w/in which it might be interpreted.. there are several points at which my anal breaks w conventional understanding of the period

ie: quite clear that at least some of the ‘kings’ encountered by foreign observers were simply playing a game of make believe.. w malagasy complicity.. pirates were particularly good at such games..

in fact on reason the golden age of piracy remain stuff of legend is that pirates of that age were so skilled at manipulating legends.. they deployed wonder stories.. whether of terrifying violence or inspiring ideals.. as something very much like weapons of war.. even if war in question was the desperate and ultimately doomed struggle of a motley band of outlaws against the entire emerging structure of world authority at the time

second.. like all successful propaganda.. these stories did contain elements of truth

the very radical enlightenment

calling this volume ‘pirate enlightenment’ is obviously something of a provocation..

contemp radical thinkers are more likely to see enlightenment thought as the ultimate in received authority.. that became basis of sci racism, modern imperialism, exploitation and genocide..

seems to me.. that much of the ensuing debate distracts us from a much more fundamental question: whether enlightenment ideas and particularly enlightenment ideals of human lib.. can be meaningfully called ‘western’ at all.. i strongly suspect that when future historians look back.. likely to conclude that most were not

org’d around charismatic figure of a brilliant child of pirates.. but which w/in operated by a decentralized grassroots democracy w/o any developed system of social rank.. how to explain this.. are there any real historical analogies..

of legit free ness.. i’d say no

in fact most obvious parallel would be pirate ships themselves.. on ships elected by majority.. could be removed by same means any time.. only empowered to give commands during chase/combat.. otherwise took part in assembly like anybody else.. no ranks on pirate ships.. what’s more we know ow explicit attempts to translate this form of org onto the malagasy mainland..

the betsimisaraka then did reorg actual social relations in their communities.. they simply did not do so in the way one would under an actual monarchy

what am going to argue in this book is that the advent of the pirates might be said to have set off a series of revolutions on the coast.. first an probably most important spearheaded largely by women.. and aimed at breaking ritual and econ power of the clan.. 2nd might be best viewed as male backlash against first.. what is generally written off as failed attempt to create a kingdom can just as easily be seen as a successful malagasy led experiment in pirate enlightenment

part 1 – pirates and mock kinds of the malagasy northeast


one can understand how after such violent acts the sight of a european vessel would become for the islanders a presage of terror and calamity


many pirates (on the other hand) .. seem to have settled down and become effectively malagasy ‘internal outsiders’


turn to how things look from malagasy pov


part 2 – the advent of the pirates from a malagasy pov


while in european accounts malagasy women are sexual ‘gifts’ presented by men to other men, here it’s the women who initiate the action.. the malata came about not because of foreign pirates established themselves on the coast and took local wives, but rather, because malagasy women set out to find foreign men to marry; indeed, were willing to use powerful fanafody, or medicine, to acquire them. such medicine, as we shall see, has long been famous in madagascar, not just for its ability to cause feelings of desire and affection, but also as a means to bend others completely to one’s will. pretty much any magic that is designed to directly control the minds and behavior of others is classified as ‘love magic.’

david on magic


these various forms of revenge magic – fehitratra, manara mody, rao-dia.. still exist (at least in the sense that people still insist they do) and in the community where i worked, at least, were all considered form of ody fitia, or ‘love magic’ along w a whole series of others, such as fanainga lavitra (which can cause an absconded lover to go into a trance form which he or she does not awaken until he returns to the caster), or tsimihoa-bonga (which confines a lover w/in a certain perimeter), that were considered ody fitia – either because they tended to be used in romantic situations, or because they were ways of bending another to one’s will. love magic was above all about power and control.. now they are not longer seen as typical of any particular geographical regions.. but the fact that 150 years ago, they were seen as the particular speciality of women from the northeast coast who entered into commercial and sexual alliances w outsiders is surely significant

david on magic


if nothing else, all this gives a sense of what, in our initial story the use of ‘love charms’ to lure and keep foreign sailors might actually imply. there can be little doubt that pirates were informed of such possibilities very quickly; as they settled in w their new malagasy families, their new friends and relatives would surely have explained all this, insisting (no doubt not entirely insincerely) that they only had their best interests at heart. given the fact that the pirates were frequently ill, and many died, of malaria and other tropical ailments, one can well imagine the web of rumors that must have quickly surrounded them


what evidence we have suggests that magic – the domain of fanafody, or ‘medicine’.. was particularly contested territory.. it is striking, for instance, that mayeur’s ratsimilaho manuscript, and accounts of warfare in general, never mention charms or incantations, though they do mention other sorts of ritual.. since in madagascar fanafody is usually quite central to the practice of war


lacombe doesn’t tell us anything about the origins of his tutor, but he emphasizes that local magical lore seemed to be bound up around two mythological figures, the giant darafify, and the witch mahao.. darafify is a familiar character in malagasy folklore, a kind of paradigm of the benevolent warrior, ruler and explorer, who crossed up and down the island looking for worthy subjects to rule, creating various features of the landscape, and engaging in occasional battles w rival giants.. mahao, in contrast, is very much a local figure.. we know her only from lacombe.. these two existed in clear opposition, one the patron of protective magic, the other, apparently, of love magic and witchcraft.. one can get a sense of the terms of the opposition form the stories told about a stet of three great lakes that lay in the forests behind the town of tamatave: rosoabe, rasoamasay, and nosibe..


lacombe reported crossing this lake some time before, and recalled how his guide warned him that men were required to remain absolutely silent while crossing this lake, lest a terrible fate await them.. the passage is worth quoting in full: ‘you should’ he added, ‘perceive in the lake an island larger than the others. there once lived a woman as beautiful as she was wicked: mahao, daughter of a powerful antemoro chief named andriantsay. this prince had taught her the secrets of the art of magic as his ancestors had brought them from arabia, that she might be useful to men. but mahao one day surprised her husband asleep on the breast of a young slave; after stabbing him to death, she swore an implacable hatred fro all men, and from that time on she made use of her science to harm them.. in this manner many, many chiefs and valiant warriors perished .. however.. a diff talisman, that raised mahao to the level of a spriti, gave her ht epower to hurt people even after her death.. she remains on teh bottom of the lake and hearing the voice of a man is enough to awaken her old hatreds.. let us not talk too much because it would inevitable lead us to the caves wherein she dwells’..


the story of mahao packs together almost every theme that has emerged in this section: the arcane knowledge of internal outside groups.. the sexual rebellion of their womenfolk, the power but also vindictive use of love magic, the opposition of that power to the male warrior class.. and in the story at least, the eventual response and victory of the warriors.. but theirs is an ambivalent victory. mahao is dead, but undefeated.. she remains under the water, her power unbroken.. even the male warriors whose speeches dominate the great assemblies have to remain silent when they pass over her.. and the two principals, darafify and mahao, remain locked in permanent suspended opposition w/in the logic of magical practice itself..


part 3 – pirate enlightenment


it corresponded to a period when madagascar, like so many postcolonial societies, was itself experimenting w state socialism.. since then both the large political situation and the primary focus and terms of historical analysis have changed.. an age of ‘globalization’ and the emergence of planet wide bureaucracies fostering the interests of an increasingly narrow econ elite, in the name of the global ‘market’ has also seen the rise of a style of historical writing that focuses above all on international trade, secondly on ‘local elites’ as the prime.. or even exclusive.. actors in history.. while there has certainly been superb historical work on madagascar that departs form this focus in significant ways, for the most part, those who have written about pirates follow this model.. foreign traders ally w or conflict w local elites. ‘elites’ are assumed to be in all important ways the same; at best they might divide into ‘political elites’ and ‘magico-religious specialists’ but mainly the assumption sees to be that there must always be elites, that such elites are primarily in the business of accumulating wealth and power, and that if they can be differentiated, it s mainly by how much power and wealth they have so far managed to accumulate.. in all this, either popular movements or intellectual currents (other perhaps that ‘western’ ones) .. cosmology, value, meaning.. are largely written out of the picture.. the first entirely, the second at best to appear as fancy dress costumes for a series of actors who no matter how colorful, are nonetheless cursed to obsessive compulsively enact the exact same play

david on magic




what i’ve really been trying to do in this book is to reconsider the history of the pirates in madagascar, and the rise of the betsimisaraka, in this light.. pirate ships surrounded themselves w stories of daring and terror.. one could even say, armed and armored themselves w such stories.. but on board ship they seem to have conducted their affairs thru convo, deliberation and debate.. settlements like sainte marie and esp ambonavola seem to have been self conscious attempts to reproduce that model on land.. w wild stories of pirate kingdoms to overawe potential foreign friends or enemies, matched by the careful development of egalitarian deliberative processes w/in.. but the very process of the pirates’ settling down, allying themselves w ambitious malagasy women, starting families, drew them into an entirely diff conversational world.. this i argue is the real significance of the stories that malagasy princesses lured the pirates to the land thru the use of love magic (ody fitia): being drawn into the life of a malagasy community inevitably means being drawn into a world of endless discussion, speculation, and debate about hidden powers and intentions, and in this new discursive universe, local women clearly had the upper hand. (and of course, as mervyn brown pointed out, if any pirate did try to break out of the world of talk and resort to simple violence it would have been easy enough to simply kill him)


this in turn led many malagasy men to try to create their own autonomous circle of convo: the great kabary, from which they attempted to ban women altogether..


of one thing we can be certain: most had spent many hours in convo w active or retired buccaneers, telling stories, speculating on others’ motives, exchanging views on money, law, love, war, politics, and org’d religion.. they also had many opps to observe the pirates’ ways and practices and compare them to others more familiar.. the architecture of the confederation, w its sham autocrat at the center, who could only really give orders during combat, w its pirate oaths and democratic decision making, emerged above all from those convos..

oi.. decision making is unmooring us


it should be be borne in mind, too, that the enlightenment was an intellectual movement uniquely tied to conversational forms; this is true not just of the salons and coffee houses from which its ideas emerged, but even of the prose style it developed.. which was witty light, and conversational.. as if propelled by a faith that all intractable social and intellectual problems could melt away in the clear light of intelligent discussion..

oi to intellect ness et al

how did those discussion inform the (for them) revolutionary conclusions reached by some of those attending those salons about the nature of liberty, authority, sovereignty, and ‘the people’?.. we can only guess.. what i have tried to do in this book is simply point out that, until now, we haven’t even been asking questions like this.. we have constructed a theoretical language that makes it almost impossible to do so.. but if, as i once suggested, political action is best defined as action that influences others at least some of who are not present at the time.. that is.. that influences others by being talked about, narrated, sung, drawn, written, or otherwise represented.. then pirates.. women traders, and mpanjaka on the ne coast of madagascar around the turn of the 18th cent were global political actors in the fullest sense of the term..