No Quarter: an Anarchist Zine about Pirates

Monday, January 22, 1990

Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger

Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger by Ulrike Klausmann & Marion Meinzerin and Gabriel Kuhn (Black Rose, 1997).
This book is comprised of two essays which I have review seperately.

Women Pirates by Ulrike Klausmann & Marion Meinzerin
The book opens with an anecdote about the occupation of the vintage steamer City of Cologne, in Germany during the Rhineland carnival by a group called Pirate Women Against Patriarchy. The audacity of this act caught “the authorities” off guard to such an extent that no one knew what to do for six days. The pirate women did not wait for them to decide; they had made their point and subsequently disappeared into the night. This amusing incident ties the subject matter of this book to the present.
This book looks with a feminist lens at women pirates. Not only the pirates with whom many readers are probably acquainted with like Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Grace O’Malley, but others as well. Like Ch’ing Yih Szaou, Lady Ch’ing, captain of the largest pirate fleet of her time (early 1800s), or Lai Sho Sz’en, a Chinese pirate in the first part of the 20th century who let a journalist travel with her, and who purportedly died fighting the Japanese during the Chinese-Japanese war, and French buccaneer Jacquotte Delahaye who allegedly turned down a marriage proposal stating: “I couldn’t love a man who commands me – any more than I could love one who allowed himself to be commanded by me”(p.168). Very interesting research.
Klausmann and Meinzerin also make the argument that Bartholemew Roberts, one of the most successful and interesting pirates of the golden age, was in fact a woman. Surely this is enough reason to pick up the book. They trace the history of women and sea robbery to various places where it clearly does not fit our usual definition of piracy. A nice reminder that history is seldom as neat and clear as we would like. Klausmann and Meinzerin do an excellent job tying all these loose threads up into a cohesive and very interesting book.

Life under the Death Head by Gabriel Kuhn
I think that there is a lot to be said for audacity. We are radicals after all. And where better than the subject of pirates to set out for uncharted waters? There is a lot to admire in Gabriel Kuhn’s Life under the death’s head: Anarchism and Piracy. In less than 50 pages Kuhn attempts to use Max Stirner, Nietzche, Pierre Claestres, and Deleuze & Guattari to look at pirates. Stirner fairly briefly, Nietzche only in passing, but both Claestres and Deleuze & Guattari are used extensively.
Kuhn argues that pirates are an example of Claestres’ society without a state (or against the state as it is more commonly translated)*. Kuhn argues that the pirate captain fills essentially the same role as a tribal chief, emphasising that a pirate captain’s authority was subject to recall and existed mainly in battle. Outside of battle the captain had little real power over the crew. In fact, one of the main functions was to mediate disputes, and that the captain constantly had to maintain adequate support from all sides or have his authority rescinded. Kuhn also uses some of Claestres’ observations about primitive economies, asserting that pirates didn’t accumulate wealth like European society, but rather squandered whatever they had until they had nothing left.
Kuhn uses Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the nomadic war machine and argues that pirates as a whole constituted just that. By their nature and in order to exist pirates were at war with all states and their agents. “Nomadic war functions molecularly: no arrangement, no uniformity, no command, no regulations, no supervision. No rigidity, not of language or of thinking, or of body and play, or of living and working together. In short: a defence of singularities, of events, of nomadic (as opposed to despotic) unity, without compromises, using all available mechanisms”(p.267).
There are some fascinating assertions in this essay. One is that pirates were Christian.Kuhn goes on to assert that:

pirate Christianity was thoroughly pagan. Like everything else about pirates, pagan myths, deities, and principles fit into their tribal form of life. Their absoluteness never exceeded a particular limit. Everything was subject to permanent revision, and gods and rules were regularly switched according to circumstances(p. 248).

And further that pirate Christianity was:

constantly mixed together with the most divergent of other religious perspectives: African tribal rites, voodoo (influences of the escaped African slaves upon pirate communities) or so-called cosmopolitan convictions. For this reason it is probably true “that nomads [pirates] offer no favourable terrain for religion. A warrior is always sinning against priests or God”(p. 248) (here Kuhn quotes Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Tausend Plateaus [A Thousand Plateaus] Berlin: Merve 1992).

All very fascinating but there is no real evidence given for these claims.
In general the major weakness of this essay is that there is scant evidence provided to support most of the claims made. Clearly this is not meant to be an academic essay, and this reader at least is more than willing to give some leeway, but there is just no evidence given for many of the claims. Another problem is that for some reason Kuhn often makes claims as strongly as possible. Instead of saying that this essay will examine piracy during the following period or something of that nature Kuhn says: “True piracy represents only a small part of the history of sea robbery. Geographically concentrated in the Caribbean (and a little bit around Madagascar and African coastal zones) and historically spanning just 30 years – the period from around 1690 to around 1720 – the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy is in fact the only time when it ever really existed”(p. 228). He offers no evidence for such a controversial assertion. After reading the essay I can’t see why Kuhn even made the point! It is indeed a strange assertion in the same volume as Women Pirates, which spans the history of sea robbery. Likewise, Kuhn doesn’t argue that Pirate society was very similar to those societies discussed by Claestres, or that pirate society was similar to the concept of the nomadic war machine of Deleuze & Guattari. Rather Kuhn inserts the word pirate in square brackets after the word nomad in Deleuze & Guattari quotes. And then there is no indication that this is Kuhn’s insertion. Perhaps this is a fault of the translator or editor, but it is a problem none the less. Another problem is that Kuhn presents pirates (even defined in so narrow a way) as far too cohesive and uniform a group. Despite that Kuhn quotes Stirner: “for the individual is the relentless enemy of every generality, every band, meaning every binding tie” (p. 259) (from Max Stirner - The Ego and Its Own). I could go on, but I don’t think I need to. Obviously there are some shortcomings here. I would also emphasize a lot of interesting and audacious ideas that deserve further exploration.

* Its interesting to note that Peter Lamborn Wilson explores similar concepts in one of the essays in his Escape from the 19th Century, reviewed elsewhere (but not in his pirate book Pirate Utopias).


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