Fresh Lens Podcast

Pirate Enlightenment

May 03, 2024 Hirad Motamed & Patricia Veinott Season 1 Episode 22
Pirate Enlightenment
Fresh Lens Podcast
More Info
Fresh Lens Podcast
Pirate Enlightenment
May 03, 2024 Season 1 Episode 22
Hirad Motamed & Patricia Veinott

In this episode we discuss David Graeber's final book - Pirate Enlightenment. This was a very short book that promises to teach us about the political organization of the pirates who ended up settling on Madagascar after a lifetime of raiding vessels in the Indian Ocean.

Make sure you stay tuned to the end for a sneak peek of what's coming up next on Fresh Lens.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode we discuss David Graeber's final book - Pirate Enlightenment. This was a very short book that promises to teach us about the political organization of the pirates who ended up settling on Madagascar after a lifetime of raiding vessels in the Indian Ocean.

Make sure you stay tuned to the end for a sneak peek of what's coming up next on Fresh Lens.

[00:00:26] **Hirad:** Hey Trish,

[00:00:28] **Trish:** Hey Hirad 

[00:00:28] **Hirad:** what are we talking about today?

[00:00:31] **Trish:** there's more Graeber.

[00:00:32] **Hirad:** Surprise,


[00:00:34] **Trish:** I know that wasn't a very good introduction. David Graeber has a new book published posthumously just last year called Pirate Enlightenment or the Real Libertalia and we saw it. We got excited, purchased it immediately. I even bothered hardcover book

[00:00:53] **Hirad:** lot of commitment. That's a 

lot of Graeber commitment right

[00:00:55] **Trish:** right?

This is how excited I was. You know, I'm such a fangirl And it's really funny. He even makes a joke about this and the preface He was like, oh I was writing this and like I know that everyone hates a long essay but loves a short book so I decided just to make a book out of it and that was like finally some self awareness.

I was very excited because it's 140 odd pages. For Graeber, you know, this is I don't know if you guys have seen in person what the tome of the dawn of everything was like but this we were really excited for this book.

[00:01:27] **Hirad:** Yeah, this was like a single chapter in the Dawn of Everything, I feel like.

[00:01:32] **Trish:** Mm hmm. But, it didn't go very well.

[00:01:37] **Hirad:** Spoiler alert.

[00:01:38] **Trish:** So, I read the whole thing, and then I literally couldn't tell you almost a single thing about it. So I read the entire thing again, and now I think I just have the most tenuous grasp on what point he was going to try to make, but this was a rough go. I don't know if it went any better for you, Hirad. Mm

[00:01:55] **Hirad:** No, I think let's maybe we, we start from the top and let's walk through what Graeber promised he was gonna do in the book. So, the idea is that A , few interesting things right when I read the first you know, the introduction of the first few chapters or like the first one chapter, I was quite excited because a, because I had seen Pirates of the Caribbean. I actually didn't know anything about pirates in general. I knew like pirates existed but I thought all the pirates were just in the Caribbean. But it turns out and it makes a lot of sense that there was a lot of piracy in the Indian Ocean, which is where , the spice trade was and all the fancy goods from the East and India and China was making its way to Europe.

So there's a lot of piracy there and it turns out that this island of Madagascar was a very convenient rest stop for the pirates back then. So a lot of the history that we have about pirates and even a lot of the. The glorified or the, you know, fantasized history is about these pirates that were over there.

And then they ended up settling in Madagascar a, because they had some local hookups to help them laundered the loot and B because at some point, I guess they just had to lay low or whatever, and like, retire from. Piracy and have normal lives.

And what Graeber promises in the beginning is these guys have some interesting political arrangements. And yeah, that's kind of like the premise of the book is , he decided that this was a group of people that were not studied enough for a variety of reasons. And he decided to study what he could from, Pirates and their descendants who are still kind of a distinct population in Madagascar And write this book

[00:03:43] **Trish:** Yeah, he was in Madagascar doing some other anthropological research. Which I'm not sure on what, and that's how he got turned on to the pirate legacy that was there, and I guess had been sitting on a lot of this data, and primary sources for years, and at one point finally decided to write it up.

Which is cool, 

[00:04:04] **Hirad:** and I guess we agree in our estimation the write up did not go so well

[00:04:11] **Trish:** it is not a fun read.

[00:04:14] **Hirad:** Yeah. So I guess I, laid out the promise of what Graeber's seem to have set out to do based on what he said in the intro and the early chapters, what did you take away from the book? What did you get? That's like the, the story arc

[00:04:30] **Trish:** Yeah so I'll do my best here. So the story arc you set it up great. It's sort of the the history of pirates it can't be overstated how being a pirate in the , 17th and 18th century, you really had, burned every bridge that you had.

to normal society. You turned your back on all of it. It was really an act of social defiance. You weren't going to pirate for a few years and then reintegrate yourself into normal society. You know, you weren't going to go back to Britain or France and sort of pick up where you left off. This was really A pretty radical position to take and you probably then needed to hole up somewhere weird or like off the grid to spend the rest of your years.

So life on the pirate ship ended up having its own distinct culture.

You know, on naval ships and merchant ships, it was really strict hierarchy everything was top down, everything was really ordered, and it kind of had to be like that, but on pirate ships it was, much looser, there was always sort of a risk of mutiny. So there was a captain and the captain was in charge, but he was only sort of in charge so long as that all the pirates would agree that he was the guy in charge.

And would agree to be ruled so as a result, the pirate booty, whatever they would earn tended to be Equally distributed between all the crew and things were settled by consensus and it was just a lot more egalitarian and it looked very different than what life would have looked .

Like in other ships at the time, so they did have their own interesting culture. That was the thing. So as you said, if you plunder some ship and you have all these jewels and gold, like you can't just roll into Marseilles and cash it in. So it's very difficult for them to offload all the stuff that they got.

. And so they ended up in Madagascar, like you said. So the thing that was sort of interesting there, where they start offloading these things is very quickly there was a class of women who weren't necessarily low status, but immediately.

saw an opportunity to change their lives by plugging in with these pirates for their own social and economic advancement. They were very much the mediators to local Malagasy culture 

so, you know, like they spoke the language, they understood the customs, they had all the hookups, and it was just a very natural. Sort of way for them to interface the pirates into the local customs and network of trade,

[00:07:15] **Hirad:** Yeah, 

it seemed like a interesting power dynamic where the Pirates had money and I guess maybe to some extent kind of like status because of the money. But , they also to some extent had power because , they were kind of a armed force. But then , the local wives were very much on equal footing because.

The pirates had no social bonds except through the wife and the wife's family. So who they kind of had to keep happy. And yeah, like you said, then, the whole dynamic kind of balances out because the pirates, they're both mutually dependent on each other.

[00:07:50] **Trish:** yeah. So it was very common to have pirates, , marrying Malagasy women then having children and stuff. And then that was the way that the Malagasy women sought to empower themselves and liberate themselves from what was the existing structure for women.

So that started happening. And then as the pirates began to integrate themselves more to that culture so I guess I should, I sort of glossed over how it looked before, 

but there was a lot of almost constant internal warfare. There was an emerging class of warrior elites because of the constant Warfare that you maybe had a little bit of a dominating priestly class, but , it was tribal.

It was, not really well connected in any way, and women didn't have much status in the culture either. So this was a big shift when these guys started coming in and staying and having children and stuff with the local Malagasy women.

[00:08:53] **Hirad:** So part of the title of the book is the real Libertalia. And apparently Libertalia is kind of like a mythical pirates colony, I guess. Where the word you know, it comes from liberty.

Where there were these fantastic tales of kind of. I don't know, I guess a utopic egalitarian pirate colony. , And by zooming in, on some of these characters Graeber is trying to find the outlines of what the real Libertalia might've looked like, or what, what it might've been inspired by.

This, what this like myth of Libertalia might've been inspired by. And then he goes into details of Some of the events that happened with these, intermixed group of Malagasy women and the pirates.

[00:09:41] **Trish:** Yeah, and their offspring. So we get this one guy, Ratsimilahu. I would like to just apologize to the listeners. This is the problem when you just read a book, is that I'm probably butchering some of the pronunciations, but I'm just gonna do my best and power through it. So, Ratsimilahu, Ratsimilahu. He was born to an English father and a Malagasy mother.

And he was really interesting from a young age, he was instrumental in unifying the different towns and bands and independent communities that were in this area and created a new confederation called the Betsa Misarka Confederation. And this was something that was very unique and actually lasted for what, 30, 40 years, I think, that he was the leader.

And again, it, it had a lot of aspects of sort of what, You would see on pirate ships and in that it was like a very loose Confederation and there was a lot of independence and autonomy in you know the little independent communities But they did agree to work together and to be ruled under this one leader.

They had some interesting features. Even though the slave trade, , in the 18th century was gangbusters, they opted out of that. They didn't want to sell slaves internationally or participate in the slave trade when there was any sort of disagreements or stuff. Graeber really gets into the details of, they had, they called like the Great Cabary, K B A R Y, and this was where they would really hash out any problems through consensus.

And these were big get togethers with a lot of ritual and a lot of tradition of how they, Dealt with internal conflict. It was a very, very different and interesting culture.

And that, that's kind of the book. And, you know, we're glossing over a lot of details here. This is just sort of a 10, 000 foot book. Picture.

[00:11:43] **Hirad:** I mean, that's, that's, we wanted the 10, 000 foot picture and then Graeber just like threw us in behind enemy lines to do weed whacking or something. I don't know.

[00:11:52] **Trish:** Well, I don't mind actually getting into the detail and weeds about it because then, you know, it's a really good academic work and it's, going to really support his argument. I just felt that you'd get into the weeds of stuff and you would lose track of what the point is and there wasn't good sort of reiteration 

[00:12:08] **Hirad:** exactly.

So. Listeners, you would end up with like these long chapters where, I mean, like it's the whole book is not that long, but this chapters that go into these play by play details of when Ratsimilahu had to fight a battle with some other ones. And it was every single detail we know about that course of events.

And you just finding yourself reading about these characters and he said this and she said that, and we have this document saying. I don't know. , the chiefs wanted this. And yeah, like you said, basically we just have no idea. I still think , at the end of the book, I don't know that this promise wasn't really fulfilled.

I, I don't know. I kind of, did you get the, did you understand the, the political structure of the so called Libertalia? I have no idea.

[00:12:51] **Trish:** No, I, I didn't get it at all. I had to go out and actually, like, I had to go out and read other people's analysis of the book and then go read the book again. And then I was like, oh, okay, now I'm starting to see sort of how this fits together. But, , you shouldn't have to go, start sifting through Goodreads reviews to figure out what the heck was going on in this book.

And I mean, , this is coming from me, who's A, a Graeber fangirl, and B, sort of has a little bit of an interest in anthropology right now, and spent a lot of her life as, , an armchair libertarian, , this, to me, it was, , hitting all the, , You know, things that I am so into and for it to fall flat, I just, heartbreaking, heartbreak.

And I'm not even sure, \ , cause I feel like his whole thing is, that there were , be something to extrapolate into our culture, I feel like I should be able to glean something about how I should live or how we could maybe reorganize our culture or maybe some ideals that I was thinking of.

And I just couldn't get anything like that 

[00:13:54] **Hirad:** was nothing. No, no. And yeah, exactly. The Dawn of Everything was like, what, 600 pages to conclude that we should have more political experimentation. I feel like that was the The central point. And then, then this is the next book where he's talking about like, Oh, look, look, there's a, this group of oddballs that basically decided to completely forego any connection to their homelands or whatever,

[00:14:21] **Trish:** social pariahs.

[00:14:23] **Hirad:** yeah, exactly.

Become social pariahs and live this in this parallel universe. And look, they came up with some interesting social rituals or organizations or communities or whatever it may be. I was kind of expecting some kind of connection there. It was like, hey, we need more experimentation. Oh, here's an experiment.

And I just didn't get that. I just got so many things about , I don't know, this battle that two tribes fought and during which they like exchanged cows and threw red mud at each other and I don't know.

[00:14:55] **Trish:** Yeah. I mean, I guess it's, it's like interesting on some levels because it's not necessarily the same colonial picture that we see. Like, usually it's the Europeans roll in and sort of establish themselves as like the new king class and it doesn't go well. So this was, it was an interesting different story,

[00:15:16] **Hirad:** Yeah. Details.

[00:15:18] **Trish:** aside from that, , it feels like there's a little bit of a romanticization about pirates.

And I was like, I'm pretty sure that they like, were murderers and like, you know, like, I don't know. Something about that I still sort of wonder how I know. But,

[00:15:41] **Hirad:** anything else? This was like relatively short book. It didn't really make too much of a point. So I think we can have a very quick episode about it. Do you have anything else that's kind of stood out you want to

[00:15:51] **Trish:** I mean, what would you, what would you rate it?

[00:15:54] **Hirad:** Yeah, so the, the beer scale. I would, , what was the scale again?

Do you want to remind us? tiers?

[00:16:00] **Trish:** Drainpour. Wouldn't, don't want this in my body. Two, I'll drink it if it's free. Three, I like this and I would spend money on it. And four, I love it. This is one of my favorites, spend money on it. And in the case of a book, it's prominently displayed on my bookshelf.

[00:16:17] **Hirad:** Yeah. Now for me, it's a two.

[00:16:20] **Trish:** Ooh, for me, it might be a one.

[00:16:25] **Hirad:** Oh, wow.

[00:16:26] **Trish:** So I hate to say it, it's not it's not that it's a complete valueless book, and I don't hate it in the same way I hated other books. But like, man, like, you know when you're stuck on a book and you don't read other stuff because you feel like you should be reading the one thing and you just end up not reading anything at all?

This book did that to me. And I resent that

[00:16:48] **Hirad:** yeah, that's rough.


[00:16:51] **Trish:** rant over.

[00:16:53] **Hirad:** Well, I think it's definitely gonna be the last book we read of Graeber.

[00:16:56] **Trish:** Yep, he's dead, so that's done and dusted. Don't worry folks, we're gonna move on to something else. Unless you want to go back and do dead the

[00:17:08] **Hirad:** I, no, I need to, I need something I can, no. I was, see, I was excited about this short book being a, being an easy get out of jail free card, but no, we had to get into the whole, Life story of Ratsimilau.

[00:17:23] **Trish:** Yeah, yeah, it was rough. Do you want to talk anything or preview what we might be working on next in case anyone wants to get a jump on and read with us.

[00:17:34] **Hirad:** Sure so, I don't remember how I stumbled upon this, but I am reading currently this book called Democracy, The God That Failed. I think, , you basically get the gist , from the title. It's written by an economist named Hans Hermann Hoppe, if you are an economist named Hans Hermann Hoppe, you have to be taken seriously, appropriately he is from the Austrian school of economics, which you had some thoughts about the Austrian school, didn't you, Trish?

[00:18:04] **Trish:** Yeah, I mean I was in a libertarian book club for years and that's all we did was read Austrian economics. So I've got a lot of thoughts about it. I kind of love it and I kind of hate it. We'll get into it, I'm sure.

[00:18:15] **Hirad:** so yeah, so I actually, I don't know what the different schools of economics are , and how they're different from each other. But yeah, it is, this guy is from the Austrian school, if that means anything to anyone.

[00:18:26] **Trish:** I mean, it's usually a red flag for most people.

[00:18:30] **Hirad:** I've noticed as I, as I've started talking to people about it, I have noticed that there's, as soon as you just say the Austrian school, there's obviously, immediately there's some guard system. Being put up which is interesting. I think so far the concepts are quite intriguing. , and I think it's a great fit for fresh lens kind of challenges, a lot of assumptions that we may have a lot of our views on history kind of like the stories we tell ourselves.

So yeah, excited to dig into that.

[00:19:01] **Trish:** Yeah, it's an older book too, isn't it? Like 2001 or something?

[00:19:05] **Hirad:** Yeah, early 2000s. Yeah,

[00:19:07] **Trish:** Yeah, yeah, so we'll see. And I think that there'll be less, consensus. Often Hirad and I , have the same bend or, you know, on same take often or same reactions to things. This one I think will finally break that trend.

So I'm excited. I'm excited to get in some arguments. We haven't argued about anything in a

[00:19:25] **Hirad:** I know. Yeah 

[00:19:25] **Trish:** Sweet. Well, until next time,

[00:19:28] **Hirad:** Sounds good. I'll talk to you later

[00:19:30] **Trish:** talk to you later. Bye.