Thesis

Hostes humani generis: piracy on the tides of empire in the Age of Sail

Thesis (M.A., History)--California State University, Sacramento, 2016.

Pirates are a fascinating subject, inspiring authors and filmmakers alike with dramatic and romantic tales of daring and adventure to create works of fiction like Treasure Island, Peter Pan, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates have inspired historians to explore topics ranging from the pirate crews' proto-democratic organization to their role in developing world systems of trade and cultural exchange. Few, however, have examined how pirates helped to establish the great European maritime empires, which emerged from the relative backwater of sixteenth-century Europe to conquer distant lands and peoples, master global trade winds and tides, and muscle their way into every corner of the globe by the nineteenth century. Emerging theories in the discipline of world history appear to provide the most promising explanations of European ascendancy by emphasizing global systemic connections and contingencies. Systemic explorations of economic connections and commodities have provided historians with a much better understanding of the past, and this exploration of piracy fits this mold. Piracy was both a form of economic connection and commodity, particularly when defined as the use of violence to achieve economic gains. As this paper will show, Europe's maritime empires, and the British Empire in particular, traded this commodity heavily between the late-fifteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.
 
 The Early Modern Era was a bigger world than the one we occupy today. Reliant upon the trade winds and favorable seas to connect the imperial metropole with its colonies, the British Empire relied on a collection of frontiers to fuel its economic engines. In these frontiers, pirates helped build the British Empire, their crimes later justified its centralized authority and the state monopoly on violence, and their continued existence served as a laboratory for developing new methods of international power relations. In these ways and more, pirates deserve a great deal more credit and attention from scholarly circles.
 
 Unfortunately for historians, pirates rarely left detailed documents outlining their actions and motives, but Subaltern Studies methodology provides a potential solution. While researching colonial Indian peasant uprisings against the British for his 1983 book, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Ranajit Guha encountered difficulties in finding primary source material portraying the peasants’ perspectives, which is not surprising given that colonial Indian peasants were largely illiterate. Guha could discern their perspectives by deciphering coded language in the abundance of British documents—by reading against the grain of the biased documentary record. Similarly, the clear majority of primary source material on piracy originates from official British documents, including trial transcripts, colonial correspondence, the occasional
 journal entry, and contemporary literature and newspaper articles. The government sources are often biased, of course, but Guha’s methodology provides a filter to deal with source prejudice. Contemporary literature, such as the works of Daniel Dafoe or the infamous A General History of the Pyrates, is often embellished for entertainment value, making the separation of fact from fiction difficult. But cross-referencing this literature with sources less likely to be embellished allows one to sift through the chaff and acquire a contextual understanding of piracy. Finally, a wealth of secondary source material is available to assist in parsing the primary documentation. For example, Marcus Rediker’s work on the social history of outlaws and the Atlantic slave trade provides invaluable contextual information, Linda Colley’s work on captivity narratives provides insight into the victims of piracy as well as the nature of empire, K.N. Chaudhuri’s work illuminates the pre-European trade systems in the Indian Ocean that European empires and pirates alike would later prey upon, and Sven Beckert’s work provides an example of a global analysis of commodity exchange. World history methodologies provide frameworks in which to draw connections between seemingly separate areas and events to depict the bigger picture. 
 
 Both pirates and empires have been the subjects of many historical studies, but few historians have sought to explore their interrelated natures in their European manifestations. Building an empire requires the use or threat of violence to establish a dominance relationship through which the empire draws upon the resources of the conquered—essentially piracy writ large. The development of the British Empire, with its mercantile foundations, was not a simple expression of force relationships from the beginning. It developed slowly, expanding more often through the efforts of its merchants than its navy, and in such an environment, the empire relied on the skills of
 pirates to acquire the resources and corresponding power required to become the largest and most influential maritime power to date. Exploring the roles pirates played in the development of imperial systems helps historians to better understand the nature, scope, and function of early modern structures that serve as the foundation for the modern era. Understanding how piracy shaped early modern empires, therefore, tells us a great deal about ourselves.

Pirates are a fascinating subject, inspiring authors and filmmakers alike with dramatic and romantic tales of daring and adventure to create works of fiction like Treasure Island, Peter Pan, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates have inspired historians to explore topics ranging from the pirate crews' proto-democratic organization to their role in developing world systems of trade and cultural exchange. Few, however, have examined how pirates helped to establish the great European maritime empires, which emerged from the relative backwater of sixteenth-century Europe to conquer distant lands and peoples, master global trade winds and tides, and muscle their way into every corner of the globe by the nineteenth century. Emerging theories in the discipline of world history appear to provide the most promising explanations of European ascendancy by emphasizing global systemic connections and contingencies. Systemic explorations of economic connections and commodities have provided historians with a much better understanding of the past, and this exploration of piracy fits this mold. Piracy was both a form of economic connection and commodity, particularly when defined as the use of violence to achieve economic gains. As this paper will show, Europe's maritime empires, and the British Empire in particular, traded this commodity heavily between the late-fifteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The Early Modern Era was a bigger world than the one we occupy today. Reliant upon the trade winds and favorable seas to connect the imperial metropole with its colonies, the British Empire relied on a collection of frontiers to fuel its economic engines. In these frontiers, pirates helped build the British Empire, their crimes later justified its centralized authority and the state monopoly on violence, and their continued existence served as a laboratory for developing new methods of international power relations. In these ways and more, pirates deserve a great deal more credit and attention from scholarly circles. Unfortunately for historians, pirates rarely left detailed documents outlining their actions and motives, but Subaltern Studies methodology provides a potential solution. While researching colonial Indian peasant uprisings against the British for his 1983 book, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Ranajit Guha encountered difficulties in finding primary source material portraying the peasants’ perspectives, which is not surprising given that colonial Indian peasants were largely illiterate. Guha could discern their perspectives by deciphering coded language in the abundance of British documents—by reading against the grain of the biased documentary record. Similarly, the clear majority of primary source material on piracy originates from official British documents, including trial transcripts, colonial correspondence, the occasional journal entry, and contemporary literature and newspaper articles. The government sources are often biased, of course, but Guha’s methodology provides a filter to deal with source prejudice. Contemporary literature, such as the works of Daniel Dafoe or the infamous A General History of the Pyrates, is often embellished for entertainment value, making the separation of fact from fiction difficult. But cross-referencing this literature with sources less likely to be embellished allows one to sift through the chaff and acquire a contextual understanding of piracy. Finally, a wealth of secondary source material is available to assist in parsing the primary documentation. For example, Marcus Rediker’s work on the social history of outlaws and the Atlantic slave trade provides invaluable contextual information, Linda Colley’s work on captivity narratives provides insight into the victims of piracy as well as the nature of empire, K.N. Chaudhuri’s work illuminates the pre-European trade systems in the Indian Ocean that European empires and pirates alike would later prey upon, and Sven Beckert’s work provides an example of a global analysis of commodity exchange. World history methodologies provide frameworks in which to draw connections between seemingly separate areas and events to depict the bigger picture. Both pirates and empires have been the subjects of many historical studies, but few historians have sought to explore their interrelated natures in their European manifestations. Building an empire requires the use or threat of violence to establish a dominance relationship through which the empire draws upon the resources of the conquered—essentially piracy writ large. The development of the British Empire, with its mercantile foundations, was not a simple expression of force relationships from the beginning. It developed slowly, expanding more often through the efforts of its merchants than its navy, and in such an environment, the empire relied on the skills of pirates to acquire the resources and corresponding power required to become the largest and most influential maritime power to date. Exploring the roles pirates played in the development of imperial systems helps historians to better understand the nature, scope, and function of early modern structures that serve as the foundation for the modern era. Understanding how piracy shaped early modern empires, therefore, tells us a great deal about ourselves.

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