[act-ma] 10/10 Marcus Rediker and Slave Ship (Wed)
cwelch at tecschange.org
Tue Oct 9 07:58:55 PDT 2007
Marcus Rediker and /Slave Ship/ at The House of the Seven Gables
Marcus Rediker, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh,
has written a chilling account of the lives, deaths, and terrors of
captains, sailors, and the enslaved aboard a "floating dungeon" trailed
by sharks. From the young African kidnapped and sold into slavery to the
would-be priest who takes a job on a slave ship, to the captain of the
ship, Rediker illuminates the lives of people whose story is not widely
known. Rediker will also discuss the relationship of slavery and slave
ships to Salem's maritime economy.
Lecture and Booksigning at 7 pm, no charge.
Lecture location: The Settlement gym, 114 Derby Street.
Private Reception with the Author at 6 pm $25 general public, $20 members.
Reception at 6 p.m. in Hooper-Hathaway House at The Gables historic site.
To register for the lecture or reception, call 978.744.0991 ext. 107,
or email rcohn at 7gables.org <mailto:rcohn at 7gables.org>.
"Life and Death Among the Pirates:
The Real Story of the Pirates of the Caribbean"
A lecture given by Marcus Rediker at Emmanuel College
in Boston on October 9, 2003 and recorded by Roger
Leisner of Radio Free Maine.
Reviewed by Nikos Raptis
Historically the elite of any society have been able
to force upon the ordinary people of that society a
worldview which they (the elite) had constructed. The
elite of western societies are very adept in
constructing such a system of views. This they
accomplish by hammering these views in the heads of
ordinary people since childhood.
The general opinion of people about pirates has been
built on the idea that they were amoral, violent men
who attacked innocent people (noblemen, government
officials, naval officers, merchants, etc) to rob or
kill them. Hollywood, using the time-tested formula of
the "good" guys (the noblemen, etc) versus the "bad"
guys (the pirates) has enforced this view
So, it is a great surprise for most of us to be
presented with evidence that this is not so. That the
pirates really were the "workers of the world" of
their time. This evidence is based on the research
work of 25 years by Marcus Rediker (Professor at the
University of Pittsburgh).
Rediker's research is deep and the presentation of his
conclusions is systematic and lucid. The span of time
that he examines is a ten year period from about 1716
to 1726. He starts by asking who were these pirates.
They were "a multiethnic, multinational, and
multiracial group of people" who "in essence" were in
"a struggle for life against socially organized death"
and "they were also poor". Mostly "poor working
Then Rediker tries to answer why these people "chose
to become pirates?". The answer is: The barbarity of
the ruling classes. The unbelievably cruel conditions
of life on naval and on merchant ships, the brutality
of the officers, the ever present accidents that
turned people into cripples, the low wages, the poor
quality of food, etc pushed these men to their limits.
As a matter of fact Rediker states that the rather
"humorous" image of the pirate with a patch over his
eye, a hook for a hand, and a peg leg "is a real
situation for the 18th century sailor". The beggars
that were found in the great cities of the Atlantic at
the time were made up mostly of these crippled
(Note: I think that a 1911 painting, by N.C. Wyeth, of
a blind pirate "tapping up and down the road in a
frenzy, and groping...for his comrades" is an
extremely vivid presentation of Rediker's description
of the reality of the crippled sailors.)
So, "piracy was an effort to escape a death trap",
according to Rediker. He quotes a pirate in court who
says to the judge: "What I did was to keep me from
perishing". And, although the life of a pirate was
short he preferred it because it was a life of
freedom, of dignity, and of merriment! A life based on
democratic principles. The pirates elected their
captain, who was revocable and was punished if he
abused his authority. Any punishment was based on
collective democratic decisions. They even created a
"miniature welfare state", according to Rediker, by
giving a certain "amount of booty" to those that were
unable to work because of health, injuries, etc.
To better show the rational, democratic, and just
foundation of the society of pirates (and the lack of
these qualities in the correct mainstream society)
Rediker uses the dialogue from a theatrical play (!)
of 1722 performed by the pirates. Here are some parts
of this dialogue:
The scene is in a court trying a pirate. The parts are
played by pirates. The judge is on a tree wearing a
mop on his head for a wig.
Judge: "Are you guilty or not guilty?"
Accused: "Not guilty".
J: "Not guilty? Say so again sir and I will have you
hanged without any trial".
A: "Pray my Lord I hope your Lordship will
J: "Consider? How dare you talk of considering.
I never considered in all my life..."
A: "But, but, but I hope your Lordship would hear
J: "Do you hear how the scoundrel prates! What have we
to do with reason? You know rascal that we sit
here not to hear reason. We go according to law.
Is our dinner ready?"
Then the judge offers three reasons for which the
accused must be hanged. The third reason is
J: "Third, you must be hanged because I am hungry".
[Note: What follows was confided to me by a
fellow-civil engineer shortly before his death a
couple of decades ago. From 1945 to 1950 the Greek
Government, a puppet of first the British and then the
U.S., tried tens of thousands of Greeks for belonging
to the Left. To accomplish that "feat" the Government
hired "educated" people with the correct (fascist)
worldview to serve as judges. One of those judges, a
civil engineer, in later years confessed to his
friends that there were days that the load of cases
was so heavy that around midnight, as they were
"hungry and sleepy", all they did was to write
"Condemned to death" by the remaining names on the
list of the accused and then have supper and go to
bed, without ever having seen the faces of the
defendants. Thousands of people had been executed in
this manner. The "supervisor" of these Christian acts
on the part of the U.S. was General James VanFleet.]
So it was not through "poetic license" that the
pirates of the Caribbean depicted the "hungry judge".
They knew what they were talking about, as they had
already experienced the law of the powerful. It is not
farfetched to surmise that today the U.S. is doing
similar things in Afghanistan and in Iraq in relation
to the thousands of people detained in prisons in
I think that Rediker should be praised for having
unearthed, through his research, such a gem from what
is wrongly considered the detritus of human history.
Similarly, Rediker's analysis of the symbolism of the
social attitudes of the pirates through their flag,
the "Jolly Roger", is superb. Especially his thesis
for a second level of symbolism (the first being that
of death and a short life), that has twisted the
symbols (of skull and bones, etc) "rooted in Christian
culture". That second level of symbolism was used to
declare their ultimate message towards the powerful,
based on the use of the (early 18th century) verb "to
roger", which meant "to copulate with a woman". This
message to the powerful being in essence: "F**k you!"
(Editors Note: I had to block out the middle two
letters to get this email through filters.)
According to Rediker two key elements characterized
these "proletarian outlaws": rage and humor. Burning
rage against the powerful and the humor and merriment
of men that have chosen to be free.
Finally, it is to the credit of Rediker that he admits
that his involvement as an activist in the Mumia Abu
Jamal case (of the former Black Panther on death row
for the last 21 years) "had a tremendous impact on
(his) ability to see in the materials that (he) was
studying the ways in which terror had been used in
times past by governmental authority... Because of
him, because of the campaign (he) could see things in
the historical record that (he) would not have seen
The eye-opening conclusions of Rediker's research
tempts one to think if it is not so utopian to propose
that a new course could be added to the curriculum of
the last grade in high school. The course could be
named: "Critical Thinking", or "Critical Reading of
History", or whatever. The list of subjects dealt with
in the course could be:
- Pirates (according to Rediker)
- Mark Twain's repressed work
- The Nuremberg Tribunal
- The Tokyo Tribunal
- The Bertrand Russell Tribunal
- George Orwell (in 1936 Spain)
- History (according to Zinn)
- The Worldview (according to Chomsky)
- And so on
Is this extremely utopian? I think that starting with
Rediker's pirates will not be that difficult.
PS: Professor Rediker's previous work includes an
earlier book on pirates, "Between the Devil and the
Deep Blue Sea", and, with Peter Linebaugh, "The
Many-Headed Hydra", Beacon Press, Boston, 2000. His
forthcoming book, on which the above lecture was
based, is: "Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates
in the Golden Age".
Radio Free Maine
LIFE AND DEATH AMONG THE PIRATES
The Real Story of the Pirates of the Caribbean
Recorded by Roger Leisner on October 9, 2003 at
Emmanuel College in Boston
VHS video has 20 minutes of a beautiful sunset at
Pemaquid Point lighthouse and rocks in mid-coast Maine
on October 14, 2003.
Available on DVD, VHS video, audio CD and
For information on how to order, please contact
P.O. Box 2705
Augusta, Maine 04338
rleisnerrfm at yahoo.com
More information about the Act-MA