Pirates, St Pauls, and the Roots of Anti-Capitalist Protest

November 2, 2011

In May 1724, in a small bookshop just a stone’s throw from St Paul’s, Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates went on sale, and became an instant hit. Though pirates’ bodies were hung in gibbets along the banks of the Thames to frighten those who thought of mutiny the crowds that gathered to watch these hangings were there less to jeer at criminals meeting just punishment than for the spectacles that these events often were.

One such spectacle was the hanging of the notorious pirate William Fly on 12th July 1726. Fly was given an opportunity to speak. Having complained at the poor workmanship of the executioner and re-tied his own noose, he went to his death unrepentant, using his moment to speak to warn that ‘all Masters of Vessels should pay sailors their wages when due, and treat them better.’

We think of pirates as thieves, yet the truth is far more complex. Sailors aboard Royal Naval ships and merchant vessels were some of the sorriest men alive, ‘caught in a machine from which there was no escape, bar desertion, incapacitation, or death’ as one writer of the day put it.

These merchant ships were the engines of the emerging global capitalism, yet the sailors themselves were utterly excluded from the wealth they worked to generate. The decision to ‘turn pirate’ was thus a decision to wrestle back some autonomy, and when they did, life on a ship changed dramatically. Officers were democratically elected. Food was shared equally among men of all rank. When booty was collected the Captain only took two shares where the lowest took one – income differentials that would make modern CEOs faint. Loss of a limb aboard would be met with a payment of around £20,000 in today’s money – an amazing form of early healthcare.

So, far from being simple thieves, pirates were perhaps the original anti-capitalist protesters. The reason they were hunted down and suffered such savage public executions was because the powers of the day were petrified of the consequences of the pirates’ ethos. Historian Marcus Rediker writes:

‘Pirates abolished the wage relation central to the process of capitalist accumulation. So rather than work for wages using the tools and machine (the ship) owned by a capitalist merchant, pirates commanded the ship as their own property and shared equally in the risk of their common adventure.’

It is this ‘equal sharing’ that the banks do not want. Yes, they want to nationalise debt, but profits must remain private and enclosed. Interestingly, this is the view of the Anglican Church too – the 38th ‘Article’ of which reads:

‘The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common… as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.’

Appropriately, pirates emerge whenever ‘the commons’ is under threat of enclosure into private property. They rose up to battle the crown-censored publishing monopolies of the 17th century. They rose up as Levellers to defend the poor as they were turfed off common land and forced into vagrancy. They rose up in the 1960’s as pirate DJs when the BBC refused to play Rock and Roll.

Look around. Pirates are everywhere. The Jolly Roger is to be found on baby bottles, t-shirts, children’s clothes, skate boards. Why? Why do we send our children to pirate parties, but not ‘aggravated robbery’ ones?

The reason, I believe, is this: deep down, we know that pirates say something to us about freedom from oppression, about standing up to systemic violence, and about taking back free access to that which has been enclosed and privatised by the wealthy.

We are not much brutalised, nor often beaten or left unpaid, but our lives are no less reduced, narrowed and controlled by powerful forces far beyond our control. So now, more than ever, we need pirates to rise up again against the princes, the captains and merchants, raise the Jolly Roger, and restore to life some democracy, some fairness… and not a little merriment. That’s exactly what Occupy is about, so, avast occupiers, stay strong and mutiny!


By Kester Brewin, a teacher and writer from South East London.