No Quarter: an Anarchist Zine about Pirates

Tuesday, January 23, 1990

Two Travel Books

Hunting Pirate Heaven: In Search of the Lost Pirate Utopias of the Indian Ocean by Kevin Rushby (Walker, 2003)
The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and other Legendary Women of the Sea by Barbara Sjoholm (Seal, 2004)
Two books with some immediate similarities. Both with ‘pirate’ in the title, both more or less travel books, & both have little to do with pirates.
The Pirate Queen is a fascinating tale of travel and research that starts with Sjoholm's visit to Clare Island in Ireland, site of Grace O’Malley’s castle. Throughout her travels, Sjoholm does a wonderful job weaving together interviews with locals, research and her own impressions of the places she visits searching for women of the sea.
Besides Grace O’Malley, she finds folklore about Cailleach the sea hag, a sort of Goddess of storms in Scotland. She travels north by boat into the Orkneys, where she examines the persecution of witches and the practice of selling wind to sailors and the herring lassies, who drove the Scottish fishing industry for 100 years or so. Sjoholm seems to have a gift of being able to intertwine a huge amount of historical information into her travel narrative without getting bogged down. An amazing feat, especially when you consider that she was spending a great deal of time in her room because of the torrential rain. She evokes the rugged beauty of these islands, and the life of the sea without being overly romantic. She doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the lives of women working in the herring factories, but instead places them within the historical context and examines the relative liberty they had at a time when there was very little work or freedom for women.
Sjoholm also seems to have a knack for uncovering interesting characters in her travels. As if by chance she uncovers the story of Anne Robertson, a successful entrepreneur, supplier of ships, and recruiter for the Hudson Bay company and whalers, in the early 1800s. She continues by boat to the Faroe Islands, Iceland and then Norway. She encounters women sea captains, fishers, vikings, playwrites and feminist scholars. As I noted before this book has little to do with pirates, but of course it never claimed to. The section on Grace O’Malley is interesting, and the rest of the book is wonderful too. Another thing to note is that despite being a travel book the bibliography is wonderful. There are several books in there I’d love to hunt down.
Hunting Pirate Heaven grabbed my attention when I saw it at a used book store. : “In Search of the Lost Pirate Utopias of the Indian Ocean”! And this just a month after I had finished Peter Lamborn Wilson’s ‘Pirate Utopias’. What luck!
The story behind the book is that Rushby meets someone on the docks in London who talks up pirates as heroes and mentions in passing that he knows that Captain Mission (famous founder of the colony of Libertatia ) was real. Rushby decides that he should go to Africa and try to find evidence of the existence of Libertatia and of Mission, possibly find some descendents of pirates and generally have an adventure.
He certainly succeeds in the last part. He travels around the coast of Mozambique, over to the Comoros Islands, and down to Madagascar, often hitching rides on commercial freighters and other boats along the way. He quotes Captain Mission, Rousseau, and Gerrard Winstanley (leader of the Diggers), and meets various dropouts from North America and Europe, not to mention people who own their own islands.
He has quite the adventure in Anjoun (Nzwaan), one of the Comoros Islands, a former French colony. After gaining independence from France in the 70s there was a coup in 1975 overthrowing a corrupt dictator (Ahmed Abdullah) in favour of Ali Soilih. Soilih then hired a French mercenary/ adventurer, Bob Denard, to capture the former dictator, fearing that Abdullah might attempt to regain power. After Denard captured Abdullah, Soilih convinced Denard and his men to reluctantly leave Anjoun. “If history books are to believed, events on the Comoros now took a turn for the worse. Ali Soilih promptly disbanded the government, burned all records, legalized marijuana and put teenagers in charge”(p.196). Rushby did a little research and the books he read basically said Soilih was basically a crazy Maoist, compared him to Pol Pot, accused him of redistributing land owned by French absentee landlords to peasants, and said that he was a drug addict and was fairly debauched. Denard came back in 1978 and assassinated Soilih and took over, reinstalling the original dictator, Ahmed Abdullah, as a puppet. Eventually Abdullah rebelled against Denard, who’s militia was brutal, and who was running guns to apartheid South Africa. Abdullah died mysteriously and Denard tried to take over, but pressure from France forced him to flee to South Africa for four years. After which he returned with twelve men and defeated the virtually non-existent Comoran army. France sent in paratroopers and arrested Denard, trying him for Abdullah’s murder. He was acquitted. The funny thing is that almost no one Rushby talked to agreed with the official history about Soilih. Some were quite fond of him. Everything was very confused. I’d like to find out more. I think you could do a lot worse than burning government records, legalizing marijuana, redistributing the land of former colonialists, and putting teenagers in charge.
The one short coming of this book (and it’s a big one) is that despite all the interesting adventure, Rushby basically does very little when it comes to the point of the book. That is, looking for pirates or Captain Mission. He asks questions and gets some interesting answers, but unlike Sjoholm who seems to pull gold out of thin air, Rushby seems a lot more interested in drinking or hooking up with a French tourist than actually following up on leads. He eventually ends up in an area of Madagascar where supposedly everyone is descended from pirates. He finds a woman who can show him a family tree. And then the book sort of ends. No real conclusions, no real evidence. Just a sort of feeling that I got ripped off and that Rushby never really cared about finding anything, he just wanted an exotic premise for another adventure travel book.

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