- Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World by Kevin P. Mcdonald
For the past twenty years or so, the Atlantic History paradigm has dominated the study of colonial America. Countless books, articles, and dissertations have been published with “Atlantic” in the title, while Atlantic History seminars, graduate programs, and faculty hires institutionalized its position within the historical profession. Atlantic History, however, had its early detractors. Peter Coclanis challenged the restrictive nature of the Atlantic framework, arguing that the study of commodity markets, particularly rice, should be examined from a global perspective. Like Coclanis, Kevin McDonald’s informative study, Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves, requires stepping outside the traditional boundaries of Atlantic History and reshaping it as an “Indo-Atlantic World,” where “flows were multidirectional, multidimensional, and multinational” (p. 4). The result of breaking down artificial boundaries and examining a new global network is a highly readable and important contribution to our understanding of pirates’ role in colonial projects in both the Americas and Madagascar. It also sheds much needed light on the Madagascar slave trade and the subsequent Malagasy diaspora.
Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves is a story about the cultural and material exchanges, human networks, and maritime “world in motion” (p. 5) that connected the Atlantic and Indian Oceans at the end of the seventeenth century. Atlantic pirates, colonial American merchants, Madagascar settlers, and both free and enslaved Malagasy maintained this web without the direction or approval of traditional European elites. The first chapter, “The Spectrum of Piracy,” examines the critical role of pirates in spreading the European colonization project from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Pirates, McDonald rightly argues, were not just maritime predators. They participated in defending frontier colonies, privateering, legal commerce, the slave trade, salvaging shipwrecks, and, importantly, logwood cutting in the Bays of Campeche and Honduras. Pirates turned logwood cutters demonstrated “the protoindustrial productive capacity of pirates when they were not pillaging at sea” (p. 23). The Spanish regularly attacked and dispersed the logwood cutters throughout the Atlantic, and some found their way into the Indian Ocean where they began pirating European and Mughal vessels. McDonald astutely draws parallels between the logwood cutters’ experiences, such as negotiating with and enslaving natives, in the harsh frontier environment of the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, and Honduras with the settlement of St. Mary’s, Madagascar, by pirates in [End Page 150] the 1690s. This comparative approach also forms the basis of chapter 3. Here McDonald juxtaposes the discourse of English elites for colonizing projects in the Atlantic and Madagascar and finds remarkable similarities in the language and goals of would-be colonizers. Suffice it to say, their visions of colonial projects in Madagascar did not include unruly pirate lairs but rather “utopian” settlements and promises of “rich profits” (p. 70).
New York and St. Mary’s, Madagascar, the topics of chapters 2 and 4 respectively, anchor McDonald’s fluid maritime world within local contexts. During the 1690s, these two locations developed mutually beneficial economic, political, and cultural relations. New York merchants supplied the pirate base with guns, powder, clothes, and alcohol. In return, they received stolen gold, silver, and precious commodities from Mughal and European ships, as well as Malagasy slaves acquired by the pirates through their local alliances and endemic tribal warfare. New York’s governor, Benjamin Fletcher, nominally legitimized pirates’ actions through privateering commissions and easily pardoned returning pirates for a small gift. New York’s seafaring community was heavily involved in the “Indo-Atlantic World” as commercial agents, pirates, and slave traders. Although the connection between New York merchants and St. Mary’s pirates has been explored by other historians, in particular Robert C. Ritchie in Captain William Kidd and the War against the Pirates, McDonald offers the most detailed and complex account to date. Furthermore, his analysis of the social relations between the pirate-settlers of St. Mary’s and the local Malagasy, as well as his treatment of the local slave trade, goes well beyond...