Imagining Libertatia: Paradise, Pirates, and the Work of Mutual Liberation – Written by Rev. Caitlin Cotter Coillberg, Presented by Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt

This morning’s sermon, like the rest of the service, was written by Rev. Caitlin Cotter Coillberg, who is home sick today. It’s my pleasure to preach it in her stead:

“It is hard to be objective about Pirates.” That’s the opening sentence of activist, anthropologist, and anarchist David Graeber’s book Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia.

He notes that most historians don’t even try – and that the literature on the subject is sharply divided. It’s divided between romantic celebrations of golden age piracy and “scholarly debates over whether pirates should be best viewed as proto revolutionaries or as simple murderers, rapists, and thieves”.

As he writes about, there are lots of different kinds of pirates – even if you are only talking about the “Golden Age” of piracy – that half century of nautical history at the end of the 1600s until 1726 that continues to inspire all sorts of popular culture. 

And it’s worth noting that we remember a lot of those pirates as incredibly scary and violent because the primary weapon they used was terror. It’s so much better to have the ship you are chasing give up in fear, so you don’t have to fight, right? Especially if you are fighting in solidarity with your fellow working class seaman, you want to take over that ship without fighting and then recruit the crew.    

There are many different kinds of pirates, but as Graeber notes “many did indeed create, however briefly, a kind of rebel culture and civilization that, though surely brutal in many ways, developed its own moral code and democratic institutions.  Perhaps the best that could be said of them is that their brutality was in no way unusual by the standards of their time, but their democratic practices were almost completely unprecedented.”

This is the sort of pirate most appreciated by radical historians, folks like Marcus Rediker, who writes “bottom up” history – a version of what the late great Howard Zinn called “people’s history” – about the maritime peoples of the Atlantic, from black folks escaping enslavement to irish dockhands to the working folks of many backgrounds and nations who mutinied and went pirate in a desperate attempt to seek justice for the common sailor. In a podcast about the proto Unitarian Puritans of New England and the pirates they executed, Unitarian historian the Rev. Dr. Susan Richie writes:

The pirates had their own ideas about covenant, a tradition dating back to the days of the earliest buccaneers who lived communally, but it was one that was also influenced by religious radicals. Radicals who had fled England in the mid-17th century to settle in the West Indies. These religious radicals, some of whom were anti-Trinitarian, they all practiced a form of congregational polity that was grounded in covenant and democracy and was far more radical than anything anyone had seen in Boston.

It’s actually known to lots of 8, 9, and 10-year-olds that the pirates themselves had codes about how they would conduct themselves, which is true. They had kind of operational covenants between themselves and agreements to which they would sign their names before they would embark together on a journey and some of them were pretty radical in terms of not just making contracts about how treasure would be divided up, but a commitment to take care of anybody who might be injured in the course of their adventures and a kind of democracy. The captain of a pirate ship could actually be overthrown by the democratic vote of his men. You did have glimmers of a democratic and covenantal society right there on the pirate ships themselves.

[ . . . W]hen you think about it, in some weird ways, the pirates and the puritans have quite a bit in common, right, because they’re both groups of people who hated hierarchy, who associated hierarchy with oppression, and who longed to find some kind of space on the earth where their personal practice wasn’t dictated by the state. When you think about it, actually, the one place on earth where you would be free of direct interference of state was on the open sea.

Life as a working class sailor in the 16 and 17 hundreds was HORRIFIC.  It was a life of, as Marcus Rediker points out “cramped quarters, poor vicuals, brutal discipline, low wages, devastating diseases, disabling accidents, and premature death”.  

Most of the folks who turned pirate for whatever reason – who became villains of all nations, against all flags, at war with the companies of their time and the nations that killed to protect those companies – only lived for a year or two. But for that year or two, they had ready money, an abundance of food and drink, equity in shared resources, care for the injured, and “joyous camaraderie”- all, as Rediker explains it, “as expressions of an ethic of justice.”

They were sometimes pretty literally expressing justice. One of the things they would do when they took over the ship was put the officers on trial, with the crew as witness.  There’s one account of a crew who testified their captain was actually really great, so the pirates gave him a bunch of treasure, put him in a boat and let him go free.  

In a time when the gap is once again rising between rich and poor, with the cost of living skyrocketing, and nations are continuing violence against civilians, the pirate way of life can begin to hold a certain appeal.  Can you imagine holding the captains of industries responsible for the harm they do?  

The pirates of the early 1700s were not just at war with the brutality and oppression of merchant ships and the Royal Navy, they were living out a story of a different way of doing things, a different way of being.  Pirate ships of this moment were short lived heterotopias, where things were settled democratically, the injured were cared for, and all were comrades to each other. 

But there was, also, a Pirate Utopia.

Apparently in the 1700s a group of pirates who had spent their early careers in the Caribbean settled in Madagascar and created with the people who already lived there a mythical place called Libertalia.  

Liberalia is a utopian place – like Wakanda, or Atlantis, or Barbieland. Specifically it was a pirate utopia popular in the imagination of Europeans of that era – Marcus Rediker wrote:

These pirates who settled in Libertalia would be “vigilant Guardians of the People’s Rights and Liberties”; they would stand as “Barriers against the Rich and Powerful” of their day. By waging war on behalf of “the Oppressed” against the “Oppressors,” they would see that “Justice was equally distributed.”

In Libertalia, all are governed by an elected council; in Libertalia, all humans are equal regardless of “Colour, Customs, or religious rites;” in Libertalia, leadership is open to all “without Distinction of Nation or Colour.”

English professor Lincoln Faller described Libertalia as an “integrated, harmonious, multiracial, and anti-imperialist society,” a flourishing democratic pirate utopia funded by the booty captured off of Spanish galleons, Portuguese Men-of-War, French brigantines, and English schooners – making these pirates oceanic Robin Hoods, stealing from the colonizers to fund their socialist experiment.” 

Libertalia was described by that 18th century professor as a place committed to political and economic justice that was “Defiant against human bondage at the height of the Transatlantic Slave Trade”.  The Libertalians were said to attack slave ships and liberate the enslaved persons found there, many of whom chose to become citizens of Libertalia.

Marcus Rediker has long argued that whether or not Libertalia existed, this kind of radical democracy founded in discussion-based decision-making definitely existed in miniature on pirate ships of that golden era.  

Kind of like Barbieland might not exist, but women’s colleges and girl scout camps definitely do. Wakanda might not exist, but spaces within Unitarian Universalism for people of color to gather and support each other do.

What’s exciting about David Graeber’s last book is that he suggests a form of Liberatalia DID exist.  There were no pirate kings of Madagascar, but there were democratically-elected pirate captains of land-based pirate communities, where pirates married into indigenous communities and used their democratic conflict resolution skills in an official capacity for the locals – and their descendants are, apparently still there!  

The Libertalia myth got started because some of these pirates intentionally created a mythos of pirate kingdoms – even going so far as to send representatives of the mythical kingdoms to meet with European monarchs, and creating entire dramatic role-plays where they pretended to have little monarchies with their own courts to bamboozle visitors to their shore. 

Real pirate history is every bit as intense as your favorite pirate shows and movies.  

David Graeber discovered this history by accident when he was doing some other research on Madagascar and ended up dating a pirate descendant.  Even for the guy who helped launch the occupy movement and the phrase “99 percent” that redefined how we think about our economic structure, that’s pretty wild.  

And this is exciting because it gives us a different glimpse into what is possible – not just short-term covenanted communities of the sea, but something rooted and longer lasting, something we can understand even if we’ve never set foot on a sailing vessel.  

It’s a vision of a paradise on earth.  A paradise of community. 

The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock wrote in their theological and historical text Saving Paradise that, “Entering paradise in this life is not an individual achievement but is the gift of communities that train perception and teach ethical grace. Paradise provides deep reservoirs for resistance and joy. It calls us to embrace life’s aching tragedies and persistent beauties, to labor for justice and peace, to honor one another’s dignity, and to root our lives in the soil of this great and difficult earth.” 

The forces of empire and capitalism killed off most of the justice seeking pirates, but not all of them. And not all of their stories. The stories they spun like yarn into rope to rig the sails of their ships.

Those stories lived on, and live on. Stories of folks willing to defy the entire world for a chance to be in real community with each other in a new way. Stories of adventure and romance and defiance against the evil of emerging capitalism, and the coming dehumanizing era of industrialization. Stories that defied rigid notions of gender and sexuality, of what is expected. (Ask Rev. Caitlin about Anne Bonny and Mary Read sometime.)

Stories of pirates give us hope for a world beyond the rigid and exhausting bounds of capitalism and empire, give us hope for a world where people matter to each other not for what they can produce, not for how much labor can be beaten or coerced or dragged out of them, but for themselves, where what we have is shared equitably, where we care for the sick and injured and disabled, and where everyone comes together to create the rules we will live by.  

We can find ways to live into that promise, to create places for this vision of paradise, to be heterotopias centered in love and working together for liberation.