- Bible Overboard:The Word and the Grand Pirate, Captain George Cusack
In 1674, as Captain George Cusack sat with 13 fellow sailors in the Marshalsea in Southwark awaiting trial for piracy, an anonymous author brought his case to public view in a brief pamphlet entitled News from Sea: Or, the Takeing of the Cruel Pirate. The author of News from Sea heightened the lurid draw of his account with a conventional condemnation of piracy as the worst of all crimes:
Amongst all the rapacious violencies practiced by wicked Men, there is scarce any more destructive to Society and Commerce then that of Piracy, or Robers of the Sea, whence in all Ages they have been esteemed, Humani Generus hostes, Publique Enemies to Mankind whom every one was obliged to oppose and destroy, as we do Common vermine that Infest and trouble us.(1)
Beyond placing the subject of his account in such villainous company, the criminal biographer singles out Cusack's history as extraordinarily egregious, "aggravated by so many Circumstances as may render it superlatively wicked and abominable" (1). The crimes with which Cusack was charged placed him outside the pale of humanity and the protection of civil society, which was obliged to annihilate him.1 Some time later, after Cusack's trial and execution, a second biographer, who styled himself as "an Impartial Hand," published a fuller narrative of Cusack's exploits entitled The Grand Pyrate: or, the Life and Death of Capt. George Cusack the Great Sea-Robber (1676). In similarly hyperbolic fashion, this second biographer tempted readers with an account of "the most signal Sea-Robber, that perhaps this Age hath known" (3).
For all their sensationalism, these two biographies raise the question of the singularity of Cusack's criminality. Cusack's first biographer rightly [End Page 263] points out that it was a time-honored practice to categorize pirates as the worst of all criminals. Yet accounts of land robberies and murders from the period could be equally heinous and shocking. Exactly what qualities or circumstances allowed for the elevation of the Caribbean sea-robber of the 1670s to the status of a "great" and "grand" enemy of mankind? For Cusack's second biographer, the pirate's own language offers a key to the enormity of his crime. The author of the Grand Pyrate records not only Cusack's actions at sea but also the stages of Cusack's development as writer and orator. He quotes Cusack's words at pivotal moments in his history, such as when he seizes his first ship, when he is captured by the governor of Anguilla, and when he defends himself in court at Old Bailey. Cusack's second biographer includes what are purported to be Cusack's speeches at sea, an excerpt from the pages of Cusack's private journal, and quotations from his trial defense. By foregrounding such material, the author of the Grand Pyrate makes the words the pirate speaks on his own behalf indispensable to his history, judgment, and punishment.
Cusack's biographer represents the pirate as defying law and civil authority with his utterances as well as his violent attacks on ships; he views Cusack's language performances as themselves piratical. Accordingly, he emplots the rise and fall of the grand pirate as a tale of his bold rejection of authoritative language, his attempt to substitute his own language in the place of the ousted logos, and the eventual unraveling of his treasonous self-representations. Ultimately, Cusack's biographer concludes that the pirate's rebellious struggle against authority must inevitably collapse. The pirate's language cannot stand long as surrogate authority; because it has no transcendent truth to anchor it, it differs essentially from the language it usurps and displaces. As he traces the pirate's usurpation and mimicry of authoritative language and exposes the ultimate impotence of the piratical word, Cusack's biographer makes the pirate life-history serve as a confirmation of state authority and just religious and civil order. Cusack's transgressions, both material and linguistic, thus reverberate beyond his isolated attacks in the remote Caribbean, engaging topical questions about the origin and stability of civil government and the...