Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (2023, Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 3 stars

Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia

3 stars

I'd been waiting for years for this book to come out in English, so I was excited that it finally did.

Like many books written by anthropologists, it spends a lot more time discussing facts and histories than it does trying to argue a political point: more than halfway through the book, Graeber writes “At this point, we can finally turn to the story of Ratsimilaho, and examine it in its proper context” — a story which is mostly history, rather than the argument of a thesis I was expecting from this book.

On the one hand, I'm not especially interested in the history of 16ᵗʰ and 17ᵗʰ century Madagascar — on the other hand, going into depth on that history is the only way to avoid the exoticization that's so endemic to political texts drawing from other cultures.

The tension between the ideals that it's pleasant to image the Betsimisaraka Confederation embodying and the ideals they actually seemed to hold is palpable — Graeber explicitly acknowledges that the exclusion of women in its founding was a sort of reactionary backlash to women gaining more economic power via marriages to and alliances with pirates, but that doesn't stop him from framing it as a sort of utopian, democratic experiment.

Of pirates more generally, Graeber writes “Perhaps the best that could be said of them is that their brutality was in no way unusual by the standards of their time, but their democratic practices were almost completely unprecedented” — true, but it's important to avoid unduely romanticizing them, and it's unclear that Graeber's description of the Betsimisaraka Confederation in the conclusion succeeds at that. Luckily, he provides ample description of the historical realities, so readers who are paying attention should fairly easily be able to make up their own minds.

Much more interesting to me than the story of Ratsimilaho and the Betsimisaraka Confederation were the stories and themes of the relationships that foreigners and outsiders have to local culture.

There are two prominent examples of that in the book. First, the “Zafy Ibrahim” community — Jews who migrated (potentially from present-day Yemen) to Madagascar in antiquity, who despite being widely seen as outsiders, had a monopoly on the ritual sacrifice of cattle. Second, the arrival of pirates in the 16ᵗʰ century, who were greeted by Malagasy women, seeking to join up with newly-arrived pirates to help them trade with locals, in order to gain economic agency that women had previously been denied. (Also discussed is the role of pirates who did manage to make independent settlements as mediators in local conflicts — since they didn't have any strong connections with local groups, they could be trusted to be relatively neutral).

This relatively detailed and nuanced discussion of the common roles that foreigners and outsiders play in the places they arrive was, to me, one of the most novel and interesting parts of the book, but it seems to be largely in the background, taking backseat to the sort of "decolonializing the Enlightenment" that's discussed in more depth in The Dawn of Everything.

On the whole, I'm quite glad I read this book — it's useful background for some writing I've been noodling on for a long time, and it's interesting in its own right, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who isn't interested in this history in its own right.