How Pirates in Madagascar Spread Enlightenment Ideas

Pirate Enlightenment documents an interracial experiment in stateless self-governance.


Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia, by David Graeber, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages, $27

Value is established on the margins. That is a central insight of both Austrian and neoclassical economics, but it is useful in thinking about history as well. Consider the ostracized, marginalized pirates who settled in 18th century Madagascar, married local women, and birthed one of the lost wellsprings of the Enlightenment.

With Pirate Enlightenment, his final book, the late anthropologist David Graeber has given us the best attempt to date to integrate these pirates into the wider world they occupied, drawing them in from the margins to see their contributions to modernity—and to liberty.

If this sounds faintly familiar, it may be because of the legend of Libertalia, the pirate community described by Capt. Charles Johnson (probably a pen name for Daniel Defoe) in his popular two-volume history of Atlantic piracy. Libertalia was always a fiction, but what a fantastic fiction it was.

Defoe described a bunch of sailors who took the chance to "turn pyrate," flee their lives of poverty and exploitation, set sail 'round the Cape, and settle on the relatively isolated island of Madagascar. There they renounced their former national allegiances and declared themselves a new people with new principles, "The Liberi."

They were less libertarians than they were simply trying to live freely in a world of unfreedom. In so doing, they charted new political, intellectual, and social routes to freedom. They governed themselves, traded and interacted with other people as they wished, and, above all, managed not to have their choices hedged in by the nation-states and empires gobbling up the map.

As Graeber notes, "The image of Libertalia, the utopian pirate experiment, has remained an endless source of inspiration for those on the libertarian left; it has always been felt that even if it did not exist, it should have existed." But something like it did in fact exist, Graeber reports.

The first Western pirates arrived to settle in Madagascar in 1690 under the leadership of one Adam Baldridge. They were followed by the crews of Thomas Tew (in 1693), Henry Avery (1694), and James Plantain (1715), among others. These immigrants mingled with the native Malagasy and created something radically cosmopolitan and free: the Betsimisaraka Confederation, which Graeber rightly calls one of "the first Enlightenment political experiment[s]." This real-world experience helped shape Defoe's fable, which likely inspired libertarian-minded Enlightenment figures in salons from Philadelphia to Paris to Warsaw to St. Petersburg.

In an era when the Enlightenment has fallen into disrepute, such experiments—and studies like this—offer what Graeber calls "a kind of redemptive promise of a genuine alternative." Pirate Enlightenment establishes non-Westerners as "important theorist[s] of human freedom" and at the same time repositions the pirates' place in the history of Madagascar.

The Enlightenment is in this disrepute because it was the origin of new forms of violence and exploitation, of so-called scientific racism, of modern empires, of modern bureaucracies. Graeber agrees there is much here worth criticizing, but he also sees a lot worth salvaging. The synthetic work of the Enlightenment was happening not in the hottest salons or most powerful courts, he argues, but on the margins of modern life—"and particularly in the relatively free spaces that often opened up alongside imperial adventures, with all the rearrangement of peoples alongside them that they so often entailed."

Here is where the pirates come in. Their arrival, Graeber argues, "set off a series of revolutions on the coast…spearheaded largely by women." Those were followed by "a kind of male backlash…under the leadership of a half-caste pirate king, clan leaders, and ambitious young warriors," who then embarked on "their own proto-Enlightenment political experiment, a creative synthesis of pirate governance and some of the more egalitarian elements in traditional Malagasy political culture." The real-life Libertalia, in short, was an interracial experiment in combinatory culture, stateless self-governance, and other innovations in a place free enough to tolerate them.

Malagasy political culture included "a profoundly different notion of sovereignty than that familiar from most of Eurasia at the time," Graeber writes. "Most Malagasy 'kings' of this period existed in a kind of predatory bubble, full of magnificent finery, but lacking any real ability to interfere systematically in the daily lives of those they claimed as subjects." The pirates—inordinately wealthy and well-connected to the outside world—fit this role well. Even Ratsimilaho, the pirate-descended king of Betsimisaraka, never "presided over anything remotely like what we might consider a state." Instead, the pirates arrived as exiles powerful enough to defend themselves, rich enough to attract native wives, and organized enough to be consulted to resolve conflicts among the Malagasy.

This is a classic example of what anthropologists call a "Stranger King" scenario: Powerful outsiders enter a new society, find an important niche as go-betweens, and gain extraordinary influence as a result of this special role as "insider-outsiders." Pirates, for example, had carefully cultivated reputations for never fighting among themselves, and so they were often appointed as judges in cases involving Malagasy disputants. They similarly became the go-to intermediaries between Madagascar and the outside world.

The pirates also became the premier way for Malagasy women to assert their own positions. Over generations, men responded by incorporating what we could call "pirate politics" into Malagasy life, which in Graeber's words "ultimately created Betsimisaraka society as it exists today." Elements of shipboard pirate life, such as radical equality and democracy, were ideas that washed ashore and set roots in Madagascar along with generations of pirates. But to make new generations themselves, the pirates needed wives.

Pirates arriving from the Atlantic often possessed great economic and sometimes even political capital, but extremely little social capital. Their solution was to intermarry as quickly as possible. In so doing, they traded more than they initially realized to their Malagasy brides. "Any pirate who proved too brutal, or even who threatened to abandon his wife for another woman, could be eliminated quite easily by the introduction of poison into the evening meal," Graeber writes. And then the pirate's main assets—booty ripped from European merchantmen—"would pass to the hands of his widow and her family."

The initial European accounts of these arrangements, often provided by missionaries, would have us believe Malagasy women were offered as sexual gifts to these wealthy outsiders. But according to the historian Dominique Bois, the unions actually emerged because the women recognized their opportunity to dominate a new social space. Documents available in the Musée Lampy made it clear, as Graeber wrote in an earlier article, that "the women's motives were not primarily romantic." Women dominated activities in the marketplace, and enterprising wives gave the pirates a clear way to convert booty into the comforts of life. In the process, women accumulated unprecedented social and economic capital of their own.

The synthesis ultimately created by pirates, their Malagasy wives, their offspring, and the warriors and leaders of the Betsimisaraka Confederation was nothing like the modern nation-state. It was a true experiment in Enlightenment governance. Its inhabitants avoided the predatory slave trade, avoided exploitation and imperialism from Europe, and avoided self-destruction through internal conflict—"all not because they had created something like a modern nation-state…but precisely because they didn't," Graeber observes. "If this was a historical experiment, it was, for a time at least, startlingly successful."

Although Ratsimilaho himself was a drunken party animal who ultimately lost his kingdom's independence to the growing state of Imerina (which eventually unified the island), the independent, pirate-inspired domain of Betsimisaraka lasted from about 1720 until the early 19th century. (The exact dates are debated.) The Betsimisaraka remain Madagascar's second-largest ethnic group and a powerful influence on the country's larger political culture, which has tilted more egalitarian since unification.

If we want to keep the Enlightenment, we have to recognize and appreciate its often non-Western roots, the level of control women exercised in developing and disseminating it, and the multivariate ways that marginalized peoples found niches in its world. Call it Enlightenment From Below.