Pirate Corner: Captain Misson and Libertalia

Was there really a revolutionary pirate Utopia in seventeenth century Madagascar?


Content note: slavery, colonialism, forced marriage.


The same Ladybird Book of Pirates in which I first discovered Red Legs Greaves included, alongside such real life luminaries as Blackbeard and Aruj Barbarossa, some other swashbucklers of dubious authenticity. But while the most suspicious thing about Greaves is his total absence from early sources, one of these did go back to the single most famous source on Western piracy in its Golden Age: Captain Charles Johnson's The General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724-28). Almost everyone else in the General History is real and well documented, and it is hardly surprising that compilers of a children's book took its uniquely anomalous chapter at face value. It was to be many years before I learned that there was any whiff of doubt about the mysterious Captain Misson.


(Before going any further, I should probably state a position on the notorious authorship question. "Captain Johnson" is almost certainly a pseudonym, and since 1932 it has been commonplace to attribute the General History to Daniel Defoe. Often, even in scholarly circles, this attribution is asserted without acknowledgement that there is any doubt in the matter. In my view, however, the case for this is flimsy. I shall therefore continue to refer to the author by their assumed name.)


Captain Misson's story opens the second volume of the General History, published in 1728 when the first was already a sensation. Briefly, it goes as follows: a young officer in the French Navy, on a visit to Rome, falls under the influence of a dissolute and disillusioned priest named Caraccioli, who converts him to Deism and to radically egalitarian politics. Caraccioli joins the crew, and when their captain and senior officers are killed in action, they persuade the men to turn pirate, electing Misson as their new captain. Declaring themselves enemies of monarchy and slavery, they enjoy a successful cruise in the West Indies before departing for the Indian Ocean and settling in the Comoros, where the two friends marry native royalty. They set up an egalitarian colony named Libertalia in Madagascar, and briefly join forces with the notorious (and real) Thomas Tew: but when they attempt to follow Tew back to the Americas they are lost in a storm.


Unlike other chapters, which function as self-contained biographies even if their subjects do pop up elsewhere in the book, Misson's ends before his story does, the conclusion of the narrative being left for Tew's chapter. The purpose of splitting the story like this is hard to ascertain: perhaps it was to anchor Misson more firmly to an indubitably real character. Yet Tew is not mentioned in Misson's chapter at all. One effect of this is to obscure the story's most obvious anachronism - but only for readers who read Misson's chapter alone, or at least left a gap between it and Tew's. For anybody reading the book straight through, it would only make it more obvious.


For Misson's career makes no chronological sense. Within his own chapter, he belongs firmly in the early years of the eighteenth century. His career in the French Navy is attached to the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), and to two historical events: the loss of HMS Winchelsea in August 1707, attributed here not to the likely cause (a hurricane) but to a French attack; and the battle known as Wager's Action, when Admiral Charles Wager assailed the Spanish treasure fleet a little south of Cartagena (in modern Colombia), on 8th June 1708. The latter action is supposed to have seen the death of Misson's captain and his assumption of command: historically no French vessels appear to have been present, but to an eighteenth century English readership this invocation of two well known maritime episodes must have created an air of verisimilitude. No doubt it helped that many of the most famous captains of the Golden Age of Piracy were veterans of the same war, although the majority turned pirate only after the conclusion of peace led to unemployment.


But this effect is so completely undermined by linking Misson to Thomas Tew that it must surely have been deliberate: for Tew had been killed in battle in 1695. This can be no fraud - rather, Johnson is deliberately and obviously signalling that Misson is a fictional creation.


It is interesting to note who is not linked by name with Misson: the famous captain known in the General History as John Avery (though his real name appears to have been Henry Every). Every was celebrated for having committed what some reckon to have been the single most profitable crime in history when he seized the treasure ship of the Mughal Aurangzeb in 1695. He was the reputed ruler of a pirate settlement in Madagascar, and a known associate of Thomas Tew (indeed, Tew was present on that lucrative day). As late as 1712 - by which time he had in fact returned to England in desperate poverty, probably dying shortly afterwards - Every was still spoken of as an outlaw king who defied all empires.


In that year, he was made the nominal hero of the play The Successful Pyrate, written by a real Charles Johnson whose name the author of the General History almost certainly stole. Every's kingdom in the play is named Laurentia, with which Libertalia alliterates nicely. In Björn Larsson's novel Long John Silver (1999), Defoe is the real author of the play as well as the General History. There is no reason whatever to suppose this: Charles Johnson was a real and well documented playwright. (It is worth noting that the play, the General History, and the 1719 pamphlet which gave Every the by-name "King of Pirates", give three rather different accounts of his career: and the pamphlet itself has been widely attributed to Defoe since 1869, and is recognised as his by scholars who reject the attribution of the General History.)


It's hard not to suspect that elements of Every's story helped to inspire Misson's. Of course, there are also significant differences. Every had traded in slaves before coming to Madagascar; Misson, on taking a Dutch slaver,


"told his Men, 'That the Trading for those of our own Species, cou'd never be agreeable to the Eyes of divine Justice: That no Man had Power or the Liberty of another; and while those who profess'd a more enlightened Knowledge of the Deity, sold Men like Beasts; they prov'd that their Religion was no more than Grimace, and that they differ'd from the Barbarians in Name only... he had not exempted his Neck from the galling Yoak of Slavery, and asserted his own Liberty, to enslave others.'"


- a revolutionary view for 1728, even from a pirate. The Brethren of the Coast often preached radical egalitarianism, and practised a sort of democracy among themselves, but seldom extended it to enslaved people.


In a 1709 pamphlet Every is depicted as kidnapping and marrying Aurangzeb's daughter; in the play, the princess becomes the Mughal's granddaughter, terrorised by the lustful Every but in love with a servant who turns out to be the pirate's longlost son. Misson and Caraccioli, by contrast, marry the sister and niece of the Queen of Johanna with her blessing and no hint of unwillingness on the part of the brides. Misson seems to be a sort of anti-Every, cocking much the same snooks at European powers (even in similar language) but crucially declining to imitate them, instead actually living up to the radical rhetoric of so many pirates of the era. Libertalia, instead of being a colonial monarchy founded on plunder, adopts a constitution blending the democratic articles of governance from real pirate ships with elements of the systems later attributed to Lycurgan Sparta and the beginning of the Roman Republic - but more radical than any of them, for its inhabitants abolish private property and hold all things in common.


But it cannot be allowed to last. A Libertalia still flourishing at the time of writing, decades after Misson's supposed career, would not only stretch plausibility but also be more likely to encourage revolutionary ideas in England, and therefore to attract the ire of the Georgian state. Therefore Misson and Caraccioli die their chronologically impossible death and their Utopia fades from view.


Philip Gosse, who renders the name of the pirate colony as "Libertatia", repeated Johnson's story uncritically in The Pirate's Who's Who, from which Ladybird derived it (complete with the mistaken assumption that a quotation from Byron's Corsair used by Gosse as an epigraph had been originally written about Misson). Some time after Gosse, Misson picked up the not particularly French first name "James", and his Utopia acquired the new variant spelling "Libertaria", which brought it new and modern political associations: these innovations I have been unable to trace to their source. (The frequent rendition of the pirate's surname as "Mission" is probably just a typographical error.)


Nearly three centuries after his creator deliberately signalled his unreality, Captain Misson's compelling legend - buoyed by the appeal of Utopia - still refuses to die.

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