- Buccaneer Ethnography: Nature, Culture, and Nation in the Journals of William Dampier
It might seem odd to speak in the same breath of piracy and science; of the violent tales of buccaneer adventures and of the growth of enlightenment modes of knowledge; of lawless bands of criminals and of a circle of informed public men whose capacity for reason and reflection qualifies them as members of a civil community. How could pirates, as international outlaws, participate in any kind of civil discourse within their home states, much less at the level of the disinterested, supranational production of knowledge about places and people in the newly colonized parts of the globe? Yet, if in the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries new forms of discursive authority are emerging in response to the proliferation of texts of discovery and exploration, it must be important to identify how these outlaws of the seas, historically central to English colonization of the new world as well as to the growth of English maritime power, might have helped to reshape the language of imperialism. In order to understand how this occurred, we must recognize how “nation” and “empire” are doubly interrelated in this period: in the spirit of a newly invigorated imperium that is busy defining who does and does not belong within its jurisdiction; and in an imagined political community where the relationship between subject and state is constantly being negotiated, sometimes on colonial terrain. 1 Part of what this essay will show is that the cultural transformation of the buccaneers from plundering pirates into ethnographic observers grows directly out of this connection between imperial administration and modern conceptions of political sovereignty. [End Page 165]
From Hobbes’s Leviathan to Locke’s Two Treatises, accounts of the character of both state sovereignty and civil subjecthood in this turbulent century of English government inevitably felt the need to link principles of rightful rule to representations of the nature of man—his natural dispositions, as well as his civilized accomplishments. New World discovery literature, read through the lens of a hierarchized, natural-law distinction between “savagery” and “civilization,” obviously provided fertile ground for such anthropological study. Such literature at once illustrated the condition of human beings in an earlier “pre-civil” state, and at the same time suggested that it is less might than civilized reason that determines entitlement to colonial territories and resources. Although by the very violence of their actions, the buccaneers, a society of maritime outlaws based in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century, had confounded this distinction between civilized colonizer and savage colonized, the increasingly direct interest of the state in scientific discovery in the last third of the seventeenth century had the effect of bringing them more closely into the fold of civilized statehood—either as objects of its disciplinary control or, more importantly for my discussion here, as reformed, re-civilized sovereign subjects and men of science.
My inquiry into the changing cultural and political status of the buccaneers in the 1690s will suggest that, through the language of natural law, newly remade English subjects also become racialized. The territorialized identity of the national subject in turn establishes boundaries between European and Indian and between white and nonwhite. The example of William Dampier, I will argue, demonstrates how what can be described as the fluid space of colonial contact, where identities and epistemologies shift and change, is juridically transformed into a stable zone of scientific exploration, where the boundaries between the ethnographic observer and the object of his study are firmly drawn. “Colonial contact,” in the sense that I am using it here, suggests an encounter in which events and actions are shaped not by what science has identified as the natural disposition of a people, but by the interactive circumstances of the encounter itself. 2 This form of contact, I am arguing, is a feature of the kind of fragmented colonialism wherein private merchants and other enterprising adventurers venture out into newly discovered parts of the globe to pursue their fortunes independently of the direct interests of the state. “Ethnographic detachment,” on the other hand, describes a mode of colonial encounter in which the state has a...