Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Rogues Return

Thomas Tew, a pirate's pirate
A rum named after Captain Tew.  What could be more appropriate?
Antongila Bay, Madagascar, today.  Looks pretty quiet.
The biographical films presented here at Just Sayin' Theater usually feature murderous pirates, spunky ladies, favorite authors or eco-heroes.  A rather odd mix.  Ah, if we could just get episodes of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" to open each show, and we had better any case, I think you will enjoy today's adventure, an old tale of rogues, riches and...righteousness?
Clear the decks, roll up the cannon and think ye on this:  how tip the scales of justice when very bad men do good things?
The story of LIBERTATIA, the pirate republic which existed for a generation in a bay situated in the northeast of Madagascar, found an eager audience when A General History of the Pyrates was published in 1724 and passed through several editions.  As to the author, a Captain Charles Johnson, nothing is known. 
In the late 17th century, Thomas Tew, a successful privateer from Rhode Island, met up with Captain Mission, a former French naval officer who turned pirate when he and the crew seized control of the warship Victoire.  They teamed up with an Italian Dominican priest and went ashore in Madagascar, a thriving haven for pirates around 1690 to 1720 (a reported 1,500 of them were based there).  Setting up a base for raids on rich shipping was not unusual on many islands and coasts during this period; there were many ex-sailors unemployed at the end of any number of wars between Great Britain, France and Spain.  What was unusual is the social organization of Libertatia, considering the time period.  It was multinational and multiracial, practicing democratic decision-making and communal sharing of wealth.  And with the formidable Victoire at their disposal, they accrued a great deal of it from conquered Portugese, Arab and Indian vessels.  Having subdued two slave ships, the band freed the captives who joined the colony as equals, true to their motto  "For God and Liberty." 
Exploiting the rich tropical land around their bay, the colony developed a more diversified economy of farming and cattle raising.  In a rare moment for humankind, they achieved prosperity and equality, for about twenty-five years.  One day while the ships were away on a raid, however, the native Malagasy people attacked and killed many of the colony, and the voyage went badly with losses due to storms and well-prepared adversaries.
When Tew and Mission escaped and sailed for the Atlantic, Fate took another swipe and Mission drowned in a storm before even reaching the Cape of Good Hope.  Captain Tew went back to respectability in New England, then tried piracy one more time, losing his life painfully to a cannonball from the Indian trader Fateh Muhammad.
The tale re-appeared in the 1952 film (remade with a title change in 1967) "Against All Flags," Errol Flynn's last swashbuckler.  Unique social advancements by seagoing criminals were not emphasized, of course; Flynn's character, while constantly being captured and escaping, falls for a pirate queen played by Maureen O'Hara, and was almost eaten by crabs while staked out on the beach!
It turns out the original author probably played with the facts and spun a lot of fiction around them, too.  The known dates do not match up and there is no substantiation that Libertatia existed as one place in time at all.  One critic proposed Daniel Defoe as the actual writer of A General History, since he was clearly fascinated by pirates and did a similar turn with Robinson Crusoe.  (Castaway Alexander Selkirk is the usually supposed model for Crusoe, but there was a former island-stranded surgeon who lived quite near Defoe also.)  But why the pseudonym?  My guess is that writing positively about anarchism, liberty, equality and getting away with crime might have landed the author in jail at the time. Purported "histories" from ancient, Renaissance or early modern European explorers are full of wild fictions wrapped around facts (except for Arab traveller al-Masudi who seems to have been unusually truthful); we can expect, really, no more from A General History of the Pyrates than one ripping good yarn that has a thoughtful point.  Robinson Crusoe, however, was clearly an early novel and a significant event in literature whose appearance spelled the beginning of the end of the fantastic histories. 
Until the movies came along.


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