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American Literary History 14.2 (2002) 358-375

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Of Pirates, Captives, Barbarians, and the Limits of Culture

David E. Johnson

Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader Edited by C. R. Pennell New York University Press, 2001
White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives Edited by Paul Baepler University of Chicago Press, 1999
Pirate Novels: Fictions of Nation Building in Spanish America By Nina Gerassi-Navarro Duke University Press, 1999

Although Jean de Léry's History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil (1578) is justly famous as the "anthropologist's breviary" (Lévi-Strauss 81), before he recounts his year-long stay among the Tupinambá of Brazil, Léry offers what amounts to a brief consideration of piracy. In chapter 2, "Of Our Embarkation," which narrates the voyage to Brazil, Léry writes: "I have seen practiced on the sea what is also done most often on land: that is, he who has weapons in his fist, and who is strongest, carries the day, and imposes the law on his companion" (History 8). Léry then describes how one vessel approaches another, feigning hardship, pleading for succor, "But if, under this pretext, they can set foot on board their neighbor's ship, you need hardly ask whether, as an alternative to scuttling the vessel, they relieve it of whatever takes their fancy. And if one protests (as in fact we always did) that no order has been given to pillage indiscriminately, friends as well as enemies, they give you the common cant of our land soldiers, who in such cases offer as sole reason that it's war and custom, and that you have to get used to it" (9). The next few pages detail various piratical adventures in which Léry was an apparently reluctant participant. Chapter 3, "Of the Bonitos, Albacore, Gilt-Fish . . . ," has nothing to do with pirates, but it does include a description of relations among fish that perhaps applies to that among men: "For when they are in the sea, the albacore and other big fish, pursuing them to eat them, wage continual war; and if they try to escape by flight, there are certain sea-birds that seize and feed on them" (15). Who is the "we" in Léry's description of friends, enemies, and neighbors, all in varying relations of size and strength and thus in varying degrees of pursuit and flight in this state of continual war? Who is "our" friend, "our" enemy, "our" neighbor? In such a state, alliances would be contingent, shifting, not only between ships but also within the "fraternity." Who, then, is my brother on the high seas? [End Page 358]

This brief text, written by an early observer of both pirate and barbarian ("our savages," as Léry called them) behavior, provokes questions relevant to any inquiry into the discourses of captivity and piracy, two genres that, although by no means identical in their respective outlines, nonetheless share a concern for fringe or marginalized groups. Both concern relations of alterity and the formation of community.

For example, in his contribution to C. R. Pennell's Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, David J. Starkey writes that pirate crews and communities "were marked by the cosmopolitan character of the personnel involved and the egalitarian, democratic values which permeated their activities. . . . Often mixed in nationality and race, though rarely in gender, companies of pirates from the early seventeenth century to the 1830s were generally organized along extraordinary lines" (112). Further, he claims that "pirate settlements were established almost in defiance of 'normal' society" and that "the fraternal tendencies of groups that styled themselves the 'Confederation of Deep-Sea Pirates,' 'the Brethren of the Coast,' or the 'Brethren of the Gulf' further attest to the self-conscious 'otherness' of pirate life" (112). For Starkey, such communities or fraternities form for purely economic reasons: "At the heart of the discussion is the contention that piracy, for all its political and social ramifications, was essentially an economic activity; that men, and occasionally women, attacked...


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