David Graeber’s “Pirate Enlightenment”

by Cory Doctorow | External link

The true, swashbuckling lives of matriarchs, anarchists, and pirates at the crossroads of the world.

The Farrar, Strauss, Giroux cover for David Graeber’s ‘Pirate Enlightenment, Or the Real Libertalia.’

The untimely death of activist/anthropologist/author David Graeber in 2020 tore a hole in the future, depriving us of not just Graeber’s presence, but of the books he had left to write — incisive, brilliant, hilarious followups to the likes of Debt and Bullshit Jobs:


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And what books Graeber had left in him! Just weeks prior to his death, Graber finished Dawn Of Everything, his ten-year collaboration with David Wengrow. It’s a nose-to-tail reconsideration of everything we know about the civilizations of prehistory, and what they tell us about the essential nature of humanity:


Today, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux publishes Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia, billed as Graeber’s “final posthumous work” (more on this later).


It’s a reworking of Graeber’s anthropology doctoral research, studying the Zana-Malata people of Madagascar, the living descendants of the feminist, anarchist pirates who ruled the island in the early 18th century.

I read a prepublication draft of the book for a blurb, and I was riveted. In the early 18th century, the Zana-Malata people — a new culture created jointly by pirates from around the world and Malagasy — came to dominate the island. They brought with them the democratic practices of pirate ships (where captains were elected and served at the pleasure of their crews) and the matriarchal traditions of some Malagasy, creating a feminist, anarchist “Libertalia.”

Graeber retrieves and orders the history of this Libertalia from oral tradition, primary source documents, and records from around the world. Taken together, it’s a tale that is rollicking and romantic, but also hilarious and eminently satisfying.

For example, the pirates of Madagascar found it useful (and amusing) to trick visitors into thinking the island had “pirate kings.” They created sham courts, where Zana-Malata, Malagasy and pirates put on elaborate cons for visitors where they all pretended to be subjects of a pirate monarch whose treasures were borrowed for the duration of the show.

These shams, in turn, spawned a popular English literature, with the likes of Defoe penning bestselling, fantastical accounts of the pirate kings and their improbable adventures. Back in Madagascar, the Zana-Malata laughed themselves silly at the credulous crowds on the other side of the world.

18th century Madagascar was a crossroads of sea-traders, religious apostates (radical Jews!), exiles and sea-bums of every description. Graeber describes how the Zana-Malata’s egalitarian made them resilient and adaptable, able to meet aggression with force when needed, or to turn it away when possible.

Graeber tells this tale as skillfully as any 18th century romantic pirate novelist, but grounded in academic rigor and careful research. “Pirate Enlightenment” is a swashbuckling, anti-authoritarian thrill-ride through the true pirates of the Indian Ocean, and the legacy they left behind.

One note on that “final posthumous work” epithet. I’m told that Graeber left behind a mountain of unpublished work, in various degrees of done-ness, ranging from notebooks to unpublished articles. I’d be very surprised if this was the last work of Graeber’s we see in print.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction authoractivist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).