UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Free Men and Squalid Kings: Theories of Statehood in A General History of the Pyrates and its Milieu

Samuel Diener

This paper explores the way that several 18th-century texts by Daniel Defoe used accounts of piracy to question standard presuppositions about the emerging nation-state and promote Enlightenment ideas about government. As stateless individuals who lived and worked together, pirates were forced to create their own independent societies aboard ship and on land. Defoe used these pirate communities to experiment with and even sometimes go beyond ideas of theorists like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes on statehood, freedom, property rights, and criminal acts, and to provide a comparison with the European nation-states which questioned the legitimacy of the colonial enterprise.


Between the years 1707 and 1725, writer and journalist Daniel Defoe published several fictionalized accounts of the pirate Captain Avery. Defoe first mentions Avery in his political periodical A Review in 1707, when he advocates for British intervention in Madagascar, telling his readers that Avery has established a state of his own on this island. Defoe represents Avery favorably, advising that he be pardoned and brought home, and he seems deeply intrigued by the possibilities of a pirate state, composed of initially stateless men building a new nation from the ground up. He presents it both as an analogue and as a dangerous antagonist to the European nation-state. Once news reaches Britain that the tale of Avery’s kingdom had been a hoax, however, Defoe’s depictions of Avery change. Though his next account of Avery’s life (published in 1719) is still very friendly to Avery, it reveals the failure of his colony; in 1724, when Defoe published A General History of the Pyrates, [1] both Avery, who lives in Europe in hiding, and his men, who live in Madagascar in squalor and perpetual violence, are portrayed in an extremely unfavorable light.

Over time, the changes in the depiction of Avery seem to reflect an increasing disillusionment on Defoe’s part with the lack of ability of the pirate figure to establish a just, equitable, and successful society. Yet Defoe does not abandon the notion of the pirate state. Rather, he juxtaposes the failed pirate state of Avery’s men with that founded by a new, fictional pirate, Captain Misson. Borrowing from the political theories of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, this juxtaposition highlights two kinds of society. The first is the one that Avery’s pirates create, ultimately unsuccessful and depraved. It reflects a Hobbesian notion of property accumulation based on competitive acquisition, one in which the government is a construct of force which only mitigates a primal state of war. The second, Misson’s, is not led by pirates motivated merely by a desire for acquisition, but by men who are perhaps better described as revolutionaries. They are devoted to an ideal: a quasi-Lockean understanding of property based in every man’s right to the earth, its bounty, and the fruits of his own labor. Through the course of the three texts, the Avery pirate state and its unscrupulous acquisitiveness become symbolically identified with the nation-states of Europe; thus, the final juxtaposition of the two pirate states functions as a critique of the motivations of Western colonial empire, advocating for nation-building based on a more just creation and redistribution of wealth.

The Captain Avery Legend

The signal achievement of the historical Captain Avery was the capture of a great ship belonging to the Grand Mughal of India, Aurangzeb, whose empire at the time covered the entirety of the Indian subcontinent. This prize was so rich, both by the treasure it carried and by the fact that the Mughal’s daughter was believed to have been a passenger aboard it, that Avery immediately became the most notorious of the English pirates and a rumor was spread that he and his men had fled to Madagascar and settled there, creating a kingdom of pirates. Private envoys, claiming to represent the pirate colony, came to offer the British government a share of the pirates’ supposedly immense treasure in return for sending a fleet of ships to repatriate and pardon them. The story seems to have fired Defoe’s imagination. In October 1707, Defoe published an issue of A Review in support of motions in Parliament and the Privy Council for amnesty for the Malagasy pirates. His primary reason is that, if not eliminated, these pirates may gather in some inaccessible part of the island and recruit more and more outlaws to their ranks until they become a force to be reckoned with, dominating the region. He uses the example of Rome, which he tells the reader was originally founded by vagabonds and criminals, to suggest the possibility that this self-governing pirate state could even become a formidable empire (Defoe, Review 426). This analogy is not merely to Rome. In his Review, for example, Defoe speaks of Avery’s “brother pyrates, the French” (428), frequently compares England to the state on Madagascar, which is, for example, “bigger than our three Kingdoms” (427), and tells his audience that the pirates may “form a Nation, a State, at war with . . . such Nations as we” (426). The pirate state, then, is one with certain uncomfortable parallels to the colonial states of Europe.

It should not come as a surprise that the possibility of an alternative society created by placeless individuals like pirates fascinated Defoe. Questions of the origin of states and of the natural condition of man in the absence of some ruling government had been topical in the intellectual discourse of Europe and especially of Britain for decades. Central to this conversation had been the concept of an agreement by which men surrendered a certain amount of their autonomy and rights to a common government, which protected and policed them: a social contract. This idea of a group of men banding together to form a state by the consent of the governed was propagated by the influential political theorists Thomas Hobbes (in his 1651 Leviathan) and John Locke (in his 1689 Two Treatises on Government). The pirates, as stateless figures that, Defoe tells us in the 1707 Review, “had no Habitation” (426), provided a fascinating test case for these theories.

Locke, Hobbes, and the Origin of Private Property

Defoe draws heavily upon the writings of these thinkers on the state of nature and social contract to shape his narratives of the pirate state, so the theories bear some examination here. Both Locke and Hobbes posited that man, outside of an established civil government, was in “a state of nature.” For both Hobbes and Locke, this state is a state of equality and perfect freedom. Yet the two writers differ on what life in the state of nature would be like, and one of the major differences centers around contrasting understandings of property. To Hobbes, in the state of nature, “every man has a right to everything: even to one another’s body” (66). As a result, he has property only in the things which he can physically control: “no ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ distinct; but only that to be every man’s, that he can get” (Hobbes 65). Thus, if any man sees an object in another man’s possession, he has every right to take it, if he can—as much right as the man from whom he takes it. Man in the state of nature, then, is perpetually in a state of war “of every man, against every man” (64), and Hobbes’ view of the state of nature is both bleak and violent. He writes:

In such condition there is no place for the fruits of industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain . . . no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short. (Hobbes 64)

To Hobbes, it is in order to avoid this state of perpetual war that men gather together into societies and agree to limit their freedoms by accepting the rule of a sovereign. They wish to protect both themselves and their property (Hobbes 82). Hobbes then lists a number of “natural laws,” which individuals forming a society will be inclined to establish and follow. These laws ultimately limit the freedom and the rights of man, establishing individual title to property. Yet it is clear that they only begin to take effect when enforced and established by the social contract, in which the individual explicitly or implicitly surrenders his perfect freedom, and that the sovereign is always in the state of nature, at war with all other heads of state whether explicitly or not (Hobbes 65).

Locke defines the right to property far differently. He extrapolates from the Biblical gift of the earth to Adam and his seed a common right to all the earth and its produce: “no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state” (Locke 19). Yet Locke realizes that there must be some provision for personal property, and he provides a way for it to be established. By harvesting crops, tilling soil, and herding or capturing animals, man establishes his property in them; in Locke’s words, “he hath mixed his labour with them” (19). Initially, each man has a right to only however much of the earth he can physically care for and harvest, and to as much of its produce as he can enjoy before it perishes. “Whatever is beyond this,” Locke stipulates, “is more than his share, and belongs to others” (21). However, Locke does allow a possibility for men to amass more wealth than they can immediately enjoy: through the invention of money.

Lastly, Locke moves back the concept of the laws of nature, implying that they hold true even in the state of nature: that “reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind” (9) the ways in which he should act. Thus, though the state of nature is a state of liberty, “it is not a state of license” (Locke 9). It is because of this natural, universal law that men come to realize that they share communal property in the land and retain personal property in their labor, and because of this realization, they are able to live peacefully together. Locke points out that the earth’s resources are plentiful. It could easily feed the entire human population, giving every man enough fruitful land to support himself. Thus, man in a state of nature is not the same as man in a state of war. Neither are sovereigns, who Locke admits are in a state of nature (13), necessarily also in a state of war. In fact, Locke stops to specifically distinguish the state of war from the state of nature:

The state of nature and the state of war, which however some men have confounded, as far distant, as a state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation, and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction, are from one another. Men living together according to reason without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature. (15)

If men are in a state of peace and good will in the state of nature, then the only reason why a man would surrender his perfect freedom and unite into a society is to protect himself and his property against the outliers: the people who do not listen to reason. These people, the ones who are “no strict observers of equity and justice,” pose a threat to each other’s enjoyment of their property and the fruits of their labor (Locke 66). The danger of their attacks makes the state of nature a precarious one. Once the state has been created, however, their activities can be curtailed.

The Pirate and the State of Nature

In the context of these two theories, the pirate figure becomes emblematic of the state of nature. He is a symptom of a world not yet adequately governed. In fact, Defoe calls men who unjustly appropriate the property of others “Pyrates of Nature” (General History 423). As a remnant of the dangers of the state of nature, the pirate threatens the enjoyment of property. In a Hobbesian viewpoint, he is simply acting as any man in the state of nature would do. From a Lockean perspective, he is the kind of outlier that governments are designed to protect against. As we shall see, however, from either viewpoint, the pirate’s acquisitiveness is a potential problem for Defoe’s pirate state. If, as the Hobbesian point of view suggests, the pirate state will be problematic in the same sense that (as we shall discuss next) all states are, with their sovereigns in a state of nature that is inherently acquisitive and at war, they will commit unjust acts of acquisition. From a Lockean perspective, the pirate state is still problematic because it is composed of pirates, who are already outliers dedicated to criminality.

Property Rights and Criminality in Defoe’s Review

Defoe scholar Carol Kay notes (referring to other works of Defoe) that “rather than following the common course of tracking Defoe’s ideas to Locke, we should recognize that Defoe constructed an ‘eclectic originality’” from numerous theoretical sources (66). This is no less true in the context of Avery’s piracy. In the Review, Defoe outlines a theory of his own on the origin of personal property that draws from both Locke and Hobbes, but adds to them in a way that makes it completely distinct. The discussion of Avery and piracy in the Oct. 18, 1707 issue is immediately preceded in the Oct. 16 issue by a long discourse on the power of money. In this discussion, he posits that there are two just and one unjust means of obtaining property. The unjust is an appropriation of the property of others “by Fraud, Rapine, [or] Violence” (Defoe, Review 424). This, Defoe tells us, is unjust, whether done by pirates or “legitimate” merchants; those who engage in it are the “pirates of nature.” In fact, Defoe writes, the preservation of “Law, Liberty, and Property” is the “End of Parliaments, Constitutions, Government, and Obedience; and this is the true Foundation of Order in the World” (Review 424).

Yet there are also two just means for the accumulation of wealth. The first is distinctly Lockean: the creation of wealth by “honest labor.” Defoe tells us that property is legitimately obtained by “Subjects honestly laboring, honestly possessing” (Review 424). He discusses the need for someone to stop the depredations of the pirates so that these “Subjects” may “be left quietly, enjoying what they are Masters of” (Review 424). Thus, as for Locke, the whole point of a government is to protect the property of the honest laborer. The second means of just property acquisition is an appropriation of someone else’s dishonest gains, like a confiscation of stolen goods. Such an acquisition, even if achieved by force, is an appropriation in the interest of “the Publick Good” (Review 423) and thus legitimate, as Defoe goes to great lengths to argue (Review 426). This goes above and beyond the claims of Locke; though he defends the right of any person to kill a thief who attacks him, he says nothing of the redistribution of that thief’s unjustly acquired wealth (15).

The distinction in the Review between acquisition for personal gain, acquisition for the public good, and the creation of property by labor is one that will form the basis for Defoe’s critique of colonial power. Defoe compares the pirates to England’s “legitimate” merchants, a rhetorical technique that he leans heavily upon to make his point for the pardon of the rumored Malagasy pirates. In so doing, however, he also indicts the East India Company, the merchants, and even the government as perpetrators of institutionalized piracy. In the Review, Defoe calls the legitimate British merchants pirates as if by accident:

I hope, the Gentlemen won’t be offended, that by a Slip, I had like to have given some of them their true Names . . . it would make a sad Chasm on the Exchange of London, if all the Pyrates should be taken away from among the Merchants there, whether we be understood to speak of your Litteral or Allegorical Pyrates . . .These Sorts of People, when they get Estates in Jamaica or Barbadoes, or any of our Colonies or Factories abroad . . . they seek to come home and spend them. . . They soon . . . adjourn the Thief, and putting the Badge of Gravity on, they come home for great Merchants, and live unquestion’d. (426-426)

This passage acts at the initial level as a criticism of the British merchants. It suggests that these people are guilty of the same kinds of criminality that the pirates were. It also equates the plunder and pardon of the pirates to the similar plunder of the corrupt merchant, who brings home the fruit of his dishonest labors and, after the payment of a tax, enjoys them. This criticism can also be read as a critique of the colonial mercantilism of Britain (and the other European countries), which established colonies and “factories” to plunder other lands of their resources and their gold, bringing it back to Europe to spend. In fact, mercantilist policies attempted to regulate the flow of trade so that gold and silver specie would not be exported from the homeland, even as payment. This creates a problem: rather than having a lasting, constructive effect on either growing colonies or pre-existing foreign societies, the corrupt mercantilists simply plunder wealth and bring it back to Europe to spend.[2]

The Acquisitional Motive in Defoe’s Pirate State

If the pirates are analogues of European merchants and the pirate state, and by extension, to the European nation, then any problems caused by its acquisitional motive develop Defoe’s critique of the same principle in European states on a larger scale. Over the course of the three texts in question (the Review, the King of Pyrates, and the General History), the acquisitional motive increasingly corrupts and destroys the states which the pirates create. It first begins to be identified as a problem in The King of Pyrates, Defoe’s first fictionalized retelling of the tale of Avery, which was published in 1719, several years after news first broke that the Malagasy pirate kingdom was merely a clever piece of propagandist fiction. In 1712, Captain Woodes Rogers had returned from Madagascar, saying that there was neither a large, successful pirate colony nor a Captain Avery to be found on the island. In the meantime, the fraudulent envoy of the pirate commonwealth and original promulgator of the tale, John Bryholt, had been discredited as a traitor. It is no surprise, then, that by 1719 Defoe had clearly changed his mind about the success of the pirate kingdom.

The portrayal of Avery in The King of Pyrates is already deeply problematic. The fact that the story is told by Avery forces the reader to acknowledge an unreliable narrator; the pirate will necessarily have a desire to exonerate himself from the charges that have been made against him. Indeed, certain elements seem to suggest that Defoe wishes the reader to question or to see hints of a more turbulent history below the smoothly narrated surface. For example, Avery insists that his men did not rape the female passengers of the Mughal’s ship; yet he admits that “as for the ship where the women of inferior rank were . . . I cannot answer for what might happen in the first heat . . . all sorts of liberty was both given and taken” (Defoe, King 57, 59). Lastly, and most importantly for our purposes, Avery’s is no longer a successful pirate state. Instead, the state is a mere rumor created by Avery’s small pirate crew in order to dissuade the European nations from attempting to bring them to justice. Though the pirates do maintain a small, successful home-port in Madagascar, it shrinks yearly by attrition, as individual men one by one find their way off the island and back to civilization in secrecy. In the end, Avery himself escapes secretly from the island and returns to Europe under a different name.

This attrition highlights the problem of the acquisitional motive, which inclines a person to plunder rather than settleme and create wealth through labor. This problem is similar to that of European mercantilism. In Defoe’s 1707 Review, as we have seen, he tells us that the merchants who build an empire return to the homeland to retire: “when they have got Estates, they . . . come home and spend them” (426). The pirate operates from a similar motivation. As long as he is poor, he has a motive to be a part of the pirate community, but as soon as he acquires wealth, he finds that in the fledgling state there is nowhere to spend it. The great acquisitions he has achieved are meaningless without a means for equally great consumption. And thus, Avery tells the reader: “We really knew not what to do with ourselves or with our wealth” (Defoe, King 61). This problem weakens the loyalty of Avery’s pirates day by day; one by one, they slip away to Europe to spend their riches. (The very next year, in 1720, Defoe published his novel Captain Singleton; here again the problem of meaningless wealth is a central problem for the pirate. With nowhere to spend his money, Singleton seeks to escape from the pirate lifestyle, and he gives up most of his wealth to secure a re-entry into society.)

The problem of the acquisitive motive is further developed in the final portrayal of Avery in the 1724 General History of the Pirates, in which the consequences of the acquisitional motive are far-reaching and far worse. In fact, this version of the narrative is at all points more negative. First of all, Avery himself is depicted as cowardly: “Avery only cannonaded at a distance, and some of his Men began to suspect that he was not the Hero they took him for” (Defoe, History 53). Secondly, Avery betrays his own men once the Great Mogul’s ship has been captured, making off with all the treasure in the group’s largest ship. He is emphatically unsuccessful, and ends his life in hiding and in poverty in England, having been bilked out of his share of the treasure by ostensibly legitimate diamond merchants and money launderers.

Yet in his absence, Avery’s men still settle in Madagascar. Made powerful by the firearms they possess, they begin “to divide from one another, each living with his own Wives, Slaves and Dependants, like a separate Prince” (Defoe, History 59). In time, the pirates each become tyrannical leaders of their own small kingdoms, ruling the native people like tyrants and selling their subjects as slaves so that they can purchase weapons, knives, and clothes. These “Kings of Madagascar” treat all of their subjects like slaves and punish with death anyone who displeases them. Yet Defoe admits their legitimacy as kings: “since they actually are Kings De Facto, which is a kind of a Right, we ought to speak of them as such” (History 61). In order to protect themselves from rebellion, they foster a national identity among their subjects by creating war and strife with other native nation-states; by creating the image of a dangerous “other”, the pirates are able to maintain a sense of homogeneity that holds their individual kingdoms together (Defoe, History 60). These brutal tyrants in Madagascar continue to live in squalor and perpetual violence, and at the end of their tale, Defoe informs us that in all likelihood they “are reigning to this Day” (History 62).

If we recall the status of the pirate state as analogous to European nations, then this narrative becomes a powerful critique of the colonial empires. Still driven by the acquisitive motive that initially drew them to piracy, the pirates plunder from every person they can in order to enjoy the fruits of others’ labor. They trade in slaves, selling some of their own subjects to European slavers in order to obtain the means by which to keep the rest in their power. They live in constant fear of insurrection, barricaded in upcountry strongholds. Certainly, they live at constant war with each other as heads of state, and they rule by fear: “Thus Tyrant like they lived, fearing and feared by all” (Defoe, History 61). This basis of authority is the very same which Hobbes gives in Leviathan, saying that fear is the only thing that can be counted upon to keep men to their promises, including their contract with the state:

There are in mans nature, but two imaginable helps to strengthen [covenant]. And those are either a Feare of the consequence of breaking their word; or a Glory, or Pride. . . This later is a Generosity too rarely found to be presumed on, especially in the pursuers of Wealth, Command, or sensuall Pleasure; which are the greatest part of Mankind. The Passion to be reckoned upon, is Fear. (71)

The problem with fear as a governing principle, however, is that it does not bind the head of state in the same way that it binds his people. Hobbes does not see this as a problem, because it is in the king’s interest to govern well (90). In the General History, however, the pirate kings betray their subjects’ well-being on a large scale in order to maintain power over them. Defoe writes, “If Ambition be the darling passion of men, no doubt they were happy” (History 62). Here Defoe merely draws out to its conclusion an assertion that Hobbes makes himself when he tells us that this is the primary inclination of men: “a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death” (Hobbes 52). If the European states are analogous to those of the pirates, then this acquisitive desire for power in the sovereign is another example of the corruption that exists on all levels.

Misson: The Revolutionary Figure

The brutal tyrannies of Avery’s men in the General History are followed by a completely fictional tale. In this tale the protagonist, the French Captain Misson, creates a democratic society ruled by a representative government which, although it is strong, exists by the consent of the governed. This new version of the pirate state is radically different from that created by Avery’s men and every other version of the pirate state that Defoe has given the reader so far. The key difference is that Misson and his men do not begin as pirates. Instead, they are political dissidents motivated by the theories of a thinker on board the ship named Caraccioli, and they found their own state in order to “live a Life of Liberty” (Defoe, History 391). It is not just freedom, however, that Misson seeks; he argues that the government of France no longer deserves their allegiance because of the corruption that causes it to foster economic inequalities.

Instead of a Hobbesian model of property based on acquisition and power in which every man has a right to everything he is able to obtain, Caraccioli promotes a model that is remarkably similar to that of Locke. It implies that the world is common property of all mankind. He gives the following as his very first principle of government: “Every man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as the Air he respired” (Defoe, History 389). Because of this principle, he tells us, a governor was to be considered good when he combated economic inequalities and did not exploit his power:

suffered none on the one Hand to grow immensely rich, either by his own or his Ancestor’s Encroachments; nor on the other, any to be wretchedly miserable, either by falling into the Hands of Villains, unmerciful Creditors, or other Misfortunes . . . and instead of being a Burthen to the People by his luxurious Life he was by his Care for, and Protection of them. (History 392-393)

The similarity here is striking between the critique of European governance and Locke’s description of ethical property ownership, in which he holds that no man has a right to waste resources that others need (21). The kings of Europe, however, are of the sort (in Misson’s words) that “thinks himself rais’d to this Dignity, that he may spend his Days in Pomp and Luxury,” and as a result Misson and his men resolve to “shake off the Yoak . . . and scorn to yield to the Tyranny” (Defoe, History 393). This, then, is the motive for Misson’s rebellion. Engaged in violent protest of a corrupt social order, Misson’s men are not like other pirates. Though I will continue to call them pirates, they are perhaps rather more like revolutionaries.

The Misson State and Just Acquisition

Misson does indeed go about plundering and pillaging, boarding ships, taking their cargo, and inviting their crews to join him. Yet he grounds his reasons not in motives of acquisition, but on a basis of natural law: “If the World, as Experience may convince us it will, makes War upon us, the Law of Nature empowers us not only to be on the defensive but also on the offensive Part” (Defoe, History 393). As revolutionaries, then, Misson and his men do not engage in piracy. In fact, they carefully distinguish themselves from the pirate figure. Misson tells his men, “Such Men are we . . . we do not proceed upon the same Ground with Pyrates, who are Men of dissolute Lives and no Principles . . . Ours is a brave, a just, an innocent, and a noble Cause; the Cause of Liberty” (History 393). Because Misson believes the profits of corrupt and dishonest European powers to be unjust, dishonest gain, he is able to justify the plunder of those just as Defoe defends the legitimate plundering of “ill-gotten Treasure” in his Review (424). In this sense, Misson’s pirates become the administrators of justice to the corrupt and acquisitive merchants and governments of Europe.

The pirate state of Misson is also not affected by the attrition that robs Avery of his men in The King of Pyrates and robs the men of Avery in A General History, because his men are loyal, not merely to him or to the prospect of plunder and profit, but to an ideal. Misson’s men are willing to settle and to stay in order to become part of his visionary new state. As a result, they are also able to represent the other “just” means of property accumulation that Defoe outlined in his Review: honest labor. They do not merely possess meaningless, unspendable treasure. Instead, as we shall see, they engage in the construction of a settlement and society in which their labor creates commodities for which their wealth can be exchanged.

The language of the Misson narrative betrays its underlying fascination with labor. In his plunders, the acquisition of men is as important to Misson as his acquisition of “confiscated” goods. These men, as they join his crew (freely, we should note, not as slaves) are specifically recognized as assets to the community for the potential future value of their labor, whether they are skilled or not, in a way that is unique to this narrative and perhaps provides a linguistic framework for a new kind of social order. When Misson captures an English ship bound to London from Jamaica, for example, he takes from the ship a number of commodities, but we are told: “What he valued most in this Prize was the Men he got, for she was carrying to Europe twelve French Prisoners, two of which were necessary hands, being a Carpenter and his Mate” (History 400). Now, “hands” has been used throughout the General History to refer to sailors aboard ship; linguistically the name is a metonymical reference that highlights the importance of the physical labor that these people do to the community of mariners aboard a ship. Yet the term “necessary hands” is unique to the narrative of Misson’s pirate state: it is not used elsewhere. The same phrase appears again when Misson takes a Dutch ship off the coast of Angola. This ship is full of useful cargo, like cloth and “hard Ware” (which, by the way, gave “full employ to the Taylors, who were on board, for the whole Crew began to be out at Elbows”) (History 405), but here also Misson takes an opportunity for recruitment. We are told, “Eleven Dutch came into him, two of which were Sailmakers, one an Armourer, and one a Carpenter, necessary hands” (History 406). Misson values these men because of their skills. They are trained to do particular kinds of labor that will be invaluable for the upkeep of any society, whether seafaring or otherwise.

Misson determines to end slavery in the new pirate colony, and the pirates free African slaves, adding them to the colony. Yet a second distinction of labor appears when these former slaves are first absorbed into the group: “The 17 Negroes began to understand a little French, and to be useful Hands” (History 407). The phrase “useful hands” is used again of the Negroes on page 428, where we are told, “The Negroes growing useful hands, Misson resolved on a Cruise.” “Useful hands,” like “necessary hands”, is a phrase that only appears in the Misson narrative. While it may be indicative of a latent racial discrimination, the difference between “useful” and “necessary” hands may also refer to a nascent class distinction implicit in the different types of work that the craftsmen and the Negroes could be expected to do; Negro slaves provided physical labor and were rarely educated and trained to the same degree as carpenters, tailors, and armorers. Those craftsmen would have been essential to a colony because they were uniquely qualified to provide necessities the entire society depended on. Thus, they are “necessary,” while the Negroes merely “useful” hands. [3]

Elsewhere, as well, the industrious nature of Misson’s society is evident. It is a community that takes pride in its labor and its ingenuity. The houses are “neatly framed and jointed, not built from any Foundation, but so made, that half a dozen men could lift and transport them from place to place,” a sentence fairly bulging with active verbs that celebrate the industry of house-makers and house-carriers alike (History 419-420). When native visitors arrive, they “admired the Forts and growing Town, in which all Hands were busied, and not even the Prisoners excused” (History 420). One of Misson’s ships, the Victoire, when it grows old, is entirely “pull’d to pieces and rebuilt;” where before, useless ships were sunk, now a “Prize was taken to pieces, as she was of no Use; her Cordage and Knee Timber preserv’d;” and the Negro soldiers drill and train every single morning to be ready to defend the colony (History 429). Lastly, “every one began either to enclose Land for himself or his Neighbor, who would hire his Assistance,” transactions in which the money that the pirates took from their prizes is spent within the colony as a store of value which serves as a recompense for labor (History 434).

The language of commerce used in Misson’s narrative bears striking similarity to that of Locke. For example, both use the word “enclosed” metonymically to signify the appropriation of real estate; in Locke’s words, “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common” (21). In both the Second Treatise on Government and “Of Captain Misson,” this word is used frequently throughout the text. It is the primary way used to indicate an appropriation of land. The other means of acquisition that Misson’s men make use of, the plundering and confiscating of the profits of merchants that they deem to be corrupt and sovereigns against whom they are at war, also reflects a Lockean concept. Misson’s defense of his rebellion and his indictment of the sovereigns of Europe echo very closely Locke’s discourse on tyranny in Chapter 18 of the Second Treatise of Government. In fact, it uses many of the same words. Locke writes, “When the governer, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion . . .[he] may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another” (101, 103). Compare this to Misson’s speech about the “Governors” of Europe:

When a Governor . . . lavishes away the Lives and Fortunes of the People, either to gratify his Ambition, or to support the Cause of some neighboring Prince . . . should the People’s Trade be willfully neglected . . . and while their Ships of War lye idle in their Harbours, suffer their [civilian] Vessels to be taken . . .it speaks a generous and great Soul to shake off the Yoak. (Defoe, History 393)

Many of the salient points here are the same: neglect of the duty to protect citizens from loss of property, wasteful expenditure of public funds and lives for personal ends, neglect of the distribution of justice, and frivolous wars. Misson’s model of response to tyranny, however, goes farther. It incorporates an element of redistribution of wealth that comes neither from Hobbes nor Locke but from the arguments of Defoe’s 1707 Review: “’tis equally just both to suppress the Violence, and to seize the Treasure” (423). In the Review, this refers to the suppression of literal pirates by the government of a nation-state, but, as we shall see, the principle is stated in such a way that it can be turned around and used to justify a kind of vigilantism against states that foster economic injustice.

In her book Political Constructions, Kay points out that Defoe’s fiction does not portray economic self-interest and morality as mutually exclusive motivations. “It would make more sense,” she tells us, “to claim that Defoe had a religious optimism about economics . . . economic activity and many other forms of self-preservation and self-interest show fundamentally moral motives” (73). This concept is reflected perfectly by the Misson state; it abolishes not the profit motive but, as we might say, the “plunder motive.” By focusing only on just means of acquisition, like labor, the Misson state fosters a more just economic system of trade.

Questioning the Colonial, Mercantilist Nation-State

In the General History, the comparison becomes even more distinct between the European mercantile states and the pirates. It quickly becomes clear that the pirates hold no monopoly on violence, excess, and plunder. Captain Avery, for example, is bilked out of his fortune by the merchants of Bristol, who are “as good Pyrates at Land as he was at Sea” (History 57). The suggestively-named Captain England would burn or sink entire ships and cargoes “out of Wantonness” (History 134). However, Captain England’s men disperse easily into English and Spanish society, and one becomes a Captain in the “legitimate” Spanish navy. While England and his men are enjoying their plunder, we are told:

if they had known what was doing in England, at the same Time by the South-Sea Directors, and their Directors, they would certainly have had this Reflection for their Consolation, viz. That what ever Robberies they had committed, they might be pretty sure they were not the greatest Villains then living in the World. (Defoe, History 134)

From subtle clues like Captain England’s name to bolder ones like the narrator’s interjection above, the text conveys the idea that the European nation-states are guilty in their colonial acquisitiveness of the same moral degradation as the pirates. If this is true, then the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy becomes very thin indeed, and the pirate state with its crimes and excesses is reinforced in its function as an analogue or semiotic placeholder for the European colonial empires.

This takes on a particular importance when we consider the juxtaposition of the two narratives of the pirate state. Avery’s men are quintessential pirate figures. As such, if the pirate is the symbol of corrupted nation-states, so is the state that Avery’s men create. In fact, it is perhaps even more so. Being based on land and tied to place, it is a closer analogue to them than is the placeless pirate ship. The juxtaposition of the Misson state with the one of Avery’s men then speaks not just to the acquisitional motives that underly piracy and prevent pirates from forming a just and equitable state, but also to the acquisitional motives that underly the European colonial state: if the analogy holds true, a Hobbesian appropriation of as much land, goods, wealth, and power as that state is able to hold.

That this juxtaposition is deliberate and important to the work seems apparent from even a cursory examination of the structure and form of the General History. It was originally published as a two-volume work, the first volume published in 1724 and the second in 1728. It covers an era of piracy that occurred after the 1713 Peace of Utrecht. Yet the first volume opens with the tale of Avery, a story that took place nearly twenty years before. One may surmise that Defoe’s decision to include Avery was partly based upon his status as the most famous and notorious pirate of the previous century, but the decision to include him becomes much more interesting when we consider that the fictional tale of Captain Misson, a new and parallel version of the nation-building pirate, opens the second volume of the General History in much the same way that the tale of Captain Avery did the first. There is likewise a formal similarity in the openings of the two narratives. Avery’s tale is prefaced by some historical background and a discussion of the dangers of pirates founding states, with the Roman Empire and its outlaw founders being given as an example of the potential power of the pirate state. Misson’s tale, though it has no preface, opens likewise with a discussion of the theories of statehood. Because of the juxtaposition, the Misson narrative takes on the form of an answer to that of Avery. If so, its political innovations form a response to the problems of the pirate kingdoms and, by extension, to the problems of the European monarchies.

The two tales are thus a working out of two very different ideologies and theories of property, one a Hobbesian model of acquisition-by-force and the other a neo-Lockean [4] model of creation-by-labor where forceful acquisition occurs only in the act of confiscating ill-gotten treasure. The juxtaposition of these two states may be seen as a statement about the nature and outcome of the theories themselves. Defoe does not clearly side with either Locke or Hobbes, or align the two pirate states each with a single philosopher. Still, it is apparent that two motives for action, and perhaps two underlying theories of acquisition, are at work. One leads to squalor and violent tyranny, a kind of criminal state, and the other to a more just and equitable government.

The Collapse of the Misson State

Any attempt to read the narrative as a straightforward critique of the acquisitive motive and human casualties of the colonial endeavor is complicated by the ending of the Misson narrative. Captain Tew, who leads the pirate state along with Misson, leaves to visit another pirate settlement. In his absence, the natives fall upon Misson’s pirate state “without the least Provocation given, in the Dead of the Night” (Defoe, History 437). They slaughter both men and women and Misson must flee with as many men as he can get into his ship. This breakdown in human relationships casts doubt on the entire endeavor of establishing the pirate state and on the vindication of Misson’s alternative, non-aquisitive, more just and equitable state.

Scholar Lincoln Faller, in his article “Captain Misson’s Failed Utopia, Crusoe’s Failed Colony” chalks up this failure of Misson’s pirate state to the unavoidable violence of the human condition. Though Misson had cast an optimistic light on the human condition, attempting to show that reason, peace, and equality could carry the day, his state ultimately succumbs to an unaccountable appetite for destruction. Faller goes as far as to suggest that this episode also serves as a final vindication of the imperial, colonial state:

However well the Liberi [Misson’s pirates] can defend themselves against Europe, however well they can achieve an integrated, harmonious, multiracial, and anti-imperialist society . . . they are swallowed up in some terrible outburst from some unimaginable heart of darkness. . . if [there is] no imperialism, then [there is] still the need to keep indigenous peoples in awe of the metropole. (6)

In the end, this passage hints, the natural state of man may indeed be a state of war.

It is possible to read this tale as Faller does. The tale certainly does not provide a straightforward vindication of democracy, or a straightforward condemnation of imperial greed. Yet where the Review was a journalistic text after the manner of a modern editorial column straightforwardly arguing points and stating opinions, the General History is not. It is a fictionalized historical text in narrative form; its primary end is as much to tell a story as it is to communicate a message. Ultimately, this text is constrained by its form. Misson’s narrative is a fictional tale embedded within an ostensibly factual work. As such, it must come to an end. Defoe knew that there was no such pirate community anywhere in Madagascar in 1724, and as a history, the text must reconcile that discrepancy with fact.

The tragic ending of Misson’s settlement does indeed call into question the long-term feasibility of the kind of state that it describes. However, the role this state plays as a contrast to Avery’s Kings of Madagascar is undiminished, as is the critique of the colonial endeavor. If the corrupt merchants of Britain operate on the same acquisition-driven theory of property as the pirates do, then the tale of Avery’s pirate kings can be seen as a critique of the social structures and underlying political philosophy of Europe’s nation-states. While Defoe’s narrative does not wholeheartedly endorse the egalitarian state of Misson, it suggests that there may be some alternative to the plunder, the violence, and the tyranny of a state based on selfish acquisition.


[1] The book was published under pseudonym, like most of Defoe’s work. Attribution of the text to Defoe, which was established in the 1930’s by John Robert Moore, has been questioned (See Defoe De-Attributions, P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens). Recently, in fact, Arne Bialuschewski has suggested that the work may have been written by a colleague of Defoe’s, Nathaniel Mist. This uncertain attribution complicates understanding of the succession of changes in the Avery narrative that I describe. However, these changes, the new information about Avery that influenced them, and the final complexity of political thought arrived at by the General History’s portrayal of Avery remain the same regardless of whom the work is ultimately attributed to.

[2] There is a distinction to be made between the European merchants and the states themselves. However, the distinction was much less clear than it is today. In Defoe’s time most overseas trade was conducted under the auspices of the crown itself by organizations such as the South Sea Company that were quasi-governmental institutions. For the purposes of this paper, the merchants and the monarchies that authorized them will be considered together.

[3] This distinction seems oddly prophetic of the lingering economic inequalities that still marginalize formerly enslaved people-groups today.

[4] Locke’s theories in their original form were often used to support the British monarchy, and certainly did not contain the elements of wealth redistribution that we see present in the tale of Misson. Neither Defoe’s theory of property in the Review nor the tale of Misson can be labeled as merely Lockean.


Works Cited

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. London: Dent, 1972. Print.

–. A Review of the State of the British Nation: Book 10, June 17, 1707 to November 8, 1707. New York: Facsimile Text Society, Columbia UP, 1938. Print.

–. The King of Pyrates. London: Hesperus, 2002. Print.

Faller, Lincoln. “Captain Misson’s Failed Utopia, Crusoe’s Failed Colony: Race and Identity in New, Not Quite Imaginable Worlds.” The Eighteenth Century 43.1 (2002): 1-17. Jstor. Web. 5 May 2014.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London: Routledge, 1887. Print.

Kay, Carol. Political Constructions: Defoe, Richardson, and Sterne in Relation to Hobbes, Hume, and Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. Print.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Ed. C.B. MacPherson. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980. Print.