In 1728, the second volume of a mysterious and still not completely explained tome titled A General History of the Pyrates was issued. The author of this book was one Captain Charles Johnson and in it he told the fascinating tale of a pirate captain named Misson who established not a utopia. A pirate utopia. A democratic-socialist pirate utopia. The pirates named their little slice of heaven Libertalia and founded it on the island of Madagascar. It seems that there had been prophesied from ancient days that a paradise would one day be discovered off the eastern coast of Africa. What is particularly interesting, however, is not how Libertalia fulfilled an ancient prophesy, but seemed to predict the ideals of collectivist utopia based on equitable distribution of the wealth.
The pirate utopia of Libertalia, according to Captain Johnson, rejected the capitalist methodology of high seas economics as practiced by the British and Spanish, while also embracing many tenets of liberal progressivism that even today are at odds with mainstream conservative ideology. The anti-monarchical stance that became a foundational element of Libertalia took an especially suspicious stance toward the doctrine of primogeniture and the larger aspects inherited wealth and power contained within. In fact, the idea of absolute power being endowed to the Captain of a ship was anathema. In a startlingly innovative and radical move, the pirate utopians who founded Libertalia instituted a rotational hierarchy of leadership in which no single person was ever granted too much power for too long; a lifelong appointment was ridiculed as the ultimate in corruption that it truly is. Long before the idea took hole in England, much less America, the pirates of Libertalia outlawed slavery and granted equality of rights to those of all races and nationalities. Looking toward the humanist revolution of the Enlightenment, the utopian pirates of Libertalia hailed ideas such as natural rights endowed by God and, of course, the exceptionally ground-breaking ideas related the sharing and distribution of property.
Charles Johnson wrote that Captain Misson and his pirate compadres would go so far as to steal slaves and emancipate them on the spot before taking them into the pirate fold. The basic elemental structure of Libertalia was a utopia based on democratic rule and socialist economics that affirmed such basic rights as freedom and liberty, while recognizing that those who put forth the labor should share equally in the profits. Indeed, Libertalia was far, far ahead of its time. It still would be today if it existed. And that is the ultimate question that begs to be asked. Did Libertalia ever actually exist?
The answer appears to be no. Some have suggested that Charles Johnson was just a pen name for Daniel Defoe. And since no records of any kind exist to prove that Captain Mission or his utopia on Madagascar was anything other than a figment of somebody’s imagination, it truly does seem as though Libertalia never actually occurred. But that doesn’t mean it was entirely concocted. Although not a utopian settlement, there definitely was a pirate enclave on Madagascar named Ranter Bay. Ranters were a radical group of dissenters in England who essentially were pantheistic; they saw God in everything. Most dangerously, of course, was the idea that since God existed in everything, there really was no need for a church or organized religion. The Ranters were clearly precursors to much of the more humanist progressive ideas to arise from the English Revolution onward. Libertalia’s resistance to monarchical rule obviously has a basis in the Ranters ideological bent. The Pirates Code that makes up one of the plot gimmicks in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies also quite obviously has some meaty connective tissue to the ideals espoused by the pirates of Libertalia.
The idea that Daniel Defoe is the true author of A General History of the Pyrates is problematic, however, since one would be hard-pressed to describe his economic theories as socialist in nature, and there is plenty of writing upon which to base a reading of Defoe’s economics. At the same time, Defoe’s writing does give an indication of a radical democratic political point of view. The point is that what is known of pirate politics and socioeconomics is much closer to the tenets of Libertalian ideals than the European states of the time.