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Welcome the Outlaw: Pirates, Maroons, and Caribbean Countercultures

From: Cultural Critique
59, Winter 2005
pp. 24-62 | 10.1353/cul.2005.0008

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Cultural Critique 59 (2005) 24-62

Pirates, Maroons, And Caribbean Countercultures

Erin Mackie

Complicity and Continuity

Nostalgia might be one way that we feel the effects of historical complicity and continuity. Even as it laments an irrevocable past, nostalgia evokes and so revives the past, or a desirable version of that past, in the here and now. Figured as an object of desire, the past enshrined by nostalgia memorializes, in the shape of this figuration, complicities it seeks to contain or evade. The four Caribbean subcultures addressed here—pirates, Maroons, rude boys or yardies, and Rastafari—are heavily involved in the operations of nostalgia, perhaps because they are such vital embodiments of historical complicity and continuity. As this essay goes to press, yet another pirate movie, Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean, hits the summer theaters and yet another Guardian article (June 14, 2003) warns that "Yardie-violence Spreads across the UK."

In representations so ambivalent and repetitious as to signal a cultural fixation, volume after volume of criminal biography have fixed the pirates of the early modern Caribbean as objects of popu- lar fascination, glamorization, and, I think, nostalgia since the late seventeenth century. Placing themselves in a tradition of frontier outlaws that starts with the early modern pirates and goes forward through the Wild West gunman and Depression-era mobster, Jamaican rude boys self-consciously accrue the outlaw glamor produced by three hundred years of popular culture. The popular glamor of the frontier outlaw is colored by a nostalgia for a kind of fully licensed machismo already becoming outdated by the turn of the eighteenth century and yet one that still, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, remains active in fantasies of masculinity. In part, the dream for this particular brand of liberty has its origins in notions of absolute individual sovereignty that arose even as absolutism came under assault in the political sphere. A law unto himself, the outlaw asserts the ultimate aristocratic privilege of sovereign will.

It makes perfect sense that such hyperbolic, desperado forms of machismo are promoted within two groups, the pirates and the rude boys, that emerge from the dispossessed underclasses for whom social, economic, and political powers are most circumscribed. One thing worth noting is that, for those who have never had power, the taking of criminal liberties needs to be seen as a utopian as well as a nostalgic gesture; such gestures are more purely nostalgic, however, when embraced by those who have power, secured in part by the disavowal of such liberties.

The other two Caribbean subcultures examined here, the Maroons and the Rastafari, although also promoting strong ideals of masculine power and notions of independence, engage in what looks like a more explicitly sociopolitical form of nostalgia. Both the Maroons and the Rastafari enshrine an African political and spiritual past lost to slavery, but do so effectively only through a complicity with colonialism that might be understood to compromise the power and validity of this preservation. The "Africa" replicated in the New World Maroon communities survived only by means of the collusion of these communities with the colonial military machine. In ways that look very nostalgic indeed, the Rastafari reconfigure an inevitably New World and mythical Africa as both the locus of lost origins and the site of redemption and return. Yet, to reframe a point made later in this essay, the discrepancy between the Africa of the historians and ethnographers, on the one hand, and, on the other, the mythical and redemptive Africa of the Rastafari, reveals not simply a nostalgia for what never was but also a utopian site of resistance from which demands for justice keep on coming.

In April of 1978, before an audience of 20,000 people gathered for the reggae Peace Concert headlined by superstar Bob Marley, former Wailer Peter Tosh made an extended and dissenting speech. The concert had been organized to celebrate the truce between rival Kingston gang leaders Claudie Massop and Bucky Marshall and their political sponsors, Michael Manley of the Jamaican National Party (JNP) and Edward Seaga of the Jamaican Labour party (JLP). For years these national political leaders had capitalized on the rivalries, desperation, and tactical...



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