Pirates + Madagascar = Egalitarian Utopia? On David Graeber’s “Pirate Enlightenment, or The Real Libertalia”

By Edward CarverJuly 11, 2023

Pirates + Madagascar = Egalitarian Utopia? On David Graeber’s “Pirate Enlightenment, or The Real Libertalia”

Pirate Enlightenment, or The Real Libertalia by David Graeber

WHEN HE died unexpectedly in 2020, American anthropologist and left-wing activist David Graeber was best known for his 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a revisionist history of money, and his involvement in Occupy Wall Street. He helped coin the catchphrase “We are the 99 percent.”

But before he became a swashbuckling public intellectual, his work focused on Madagascar, where he did doctoral research on the legacy of slavery in a highlands village. In his posthumous new book, Pirate Enlightenment, or The Real Libertalia, he returns to the subject of Madagascar to tell a story that challenges Eurocentric ideas about the origins of the Enlightenment.

Pirate Enlightenment was first published in French in 2019. The publishing house that released it, Libertalia, is in fact named after a pirate utopia in Madagascar that was depicted in an English-language book in the 1720s but probably didn’t exist. Graeber is interested in the legend only insofar as it indicates the kind of political stories that were circulating in European coffeehouses. He regards it as a European fantasy, in which the Malagasy act only as antagonists to the utopians in the tale. The “Real Libertalia” of Graeber’s book is, in contrast, about the political arrangements of the Malagasy.

This builds on Graeber’s other work, including “There Never Was a West, or Democracy Emerges from the Spaces In Between,” a 2007 essay in which he argues that the ideas of freedom, democracy, and equality are not principally Western. In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021), he and co-author David Wengrow, an archaeologist, dig up evidence that many complex societies existed without much hierarchy and that Enlightenment conceptions of human liberation flowed from many ancient and Indigenous traditions.

While Dawn is based on archaeological evidence from the deep past, Pirate Enlightenment, a short book, relies on written accounts by European observers, which are unreliable and at times contradictory. Graeber, ever ambitious, ventures forth with his interpretation nonetheless.

Per the title, the story’s egalitarianism starts with pirates. Pirate crews included men from Europe but also Caribbean Creoles, Africans, and Native Americans, Graeber says. These people from all over the world, with “so many different kinds of social arrangements,” were “tossed together in situations where the rapid creation of new institutional structures was absolutely required,” making their ships “perfect laboratories of democratic experiment.” Many pirates elected captains, kept their power in check through positions such as the “quartermaster,” had injury compensation systems, and divided booty somewhat fairly.

In the late 1600s, piracy was in its “Golden Age,” and some pirates moved from the Caribbean Sea to the Indian Ocean, where the booty was even more precious. They found that northeast Madagascar, with no strong legal authority, was an ideal place to base themselves and trade their ill-gotten merchandise or use it to curry local favor: “Before long, foreign observers began reporting Malagasy women at the port of Sainte-Marie ‘wearing dresses of the most beautiful Indian materials embroidered in gold and silver, with golden chains, bracelets, and even diamonds of considerable value.’” The children of pirates and Malagasy women were known as Malata (from “mulatto”).

The most notable Malata was Ratsimilaho (c. 1694–1750), the leader of what would become the Betsimisaraka Confederation, the governing body of this coastal region, covering hundreds of miles, for decades to come, and the main subject of Graeber’s attention. In writing about the Confederation, Graeber reinterprets an old account, by the French writer and slave trader Nicolas Mayeur, in a way that’s both brilliant and a bit speculative.

Ratsimilaho had inherited treasure from his pirate father, but he appears to have taken power in a democratic way. The leaders of various clans that would become the Betsimisaraka had gathered at the onset of a war against another Malagasy people and chose Ratsimilaho after “a prolonged process of consensus-finding.” They took a blood oath that involved Malagasy and pirate rituals, including drinking gunpowder. At a subsequent meeting, they settled on Ratsimilaho as “chief in perpetuity,” spelling out his rights and duties. Though the participants didn’t explicitly invoke democracy or natural rights, Graeber sees something radically new in these assemblies, calling the creation of the Confederation a “proto-Enlightenment experiment.”

There are conflicting accounts of Ratsimilaho’s role after the war, which the Betsimisaraka won. Was he a king, just one of many local leaders, or perhaps a deputy to another king, elsewhere in Madagascar? Graeber argues that he was a “sham autocrat” who would sometimes pose as king to impress outsiders, that there was no kingdom, and that life under the Confederation was more egalitarian than it had been before, with, for example, an end to the old northeast practice of giving warrior aristocrats ranked positions.

In concluding the narrative, Graeber calls the Confederation’s 1720–50 heyday a golden age full of peace and prosperity. The Betsimisaraka “insulated” themselves from the slave trade and created a decentralized, participatory system of self-governance, he says, though he isn’t able to muster strong evidence for either claim.

It’s clear to both Graeber and other experts that the transatlantic slave trade was active in Madagascar in the 1690s, and the pirates benefited. One trader-pirate was sending ships full of enslaved people and laundered booty to New York. But in 1697, the Malagasy revolted, destroying a pirate fortress and slitting the throats of dozens of pirates. Graeber cites this as a turning point. Fearing another revolt, and in need of ships, the pirates began attacking slave-trading vessels, which reduced the slave trade in the area, Graeber says.

How did the Betsimisaraka Confederation then deal with slavery in the first half of the 18th century? They don’t seem to have stopped the trade, which became geared toward French-owned plantations in island colonies near Madagascar; Ratsimilaho likely traded enslaved people for firearms, using this to gain power over his rivals, according to Rafaël Thiebaut, a historian who has studied the slave trade in Madagascar, and whom I contacted while preparing this review.

It is perhaps best to conclude that any democratic or egalitarian advances were modest or incremental, no matter if we’re using a broad, anarchist-inflected definition of democracy based on participation and consensus-finding. We don’t know who had a voice: aside from the two wartime assemblies, Graeber doesn’t detail Betsimisaraka meetings or decision-making practices from the period, presumably because there are no accounts. But what we do know doesn’t indicate a radical breakthrough. For one, women were excluded from decision-making at the two assemblies. Moreover, enslaved people still sat at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and the Malata and the Zana-Malata (descendants of the Malata) at the top.

While Ratsimilaho was a Malata, his comrades and deputies were of “purely Malagasy descent,” Graeber writes. His use of the word “purely” is surprising, given his nuanced understanding of the Malagasy ethnic heritage. As he explains, the Malagasy descend from a wide range of peoples who came to the island at different times, including from mainland Africa and what are now Indonesia and Malaysia. However, much of the mixing that formed the Malagasy culture took place in perhaps the 11th or 12th centuries CE, he writes, forging a strong sense of shared Malagasy identity. The Malata and Zana-Malata would be folded into this identity, but in the early days, they were a largely intermarrying aristocracy, and, it seems, they stayed out of the war. So, in Graeber’s telling, the influence of pirates on Betsimisaraka political practices was not because pirates or pirate descendants literally took over; that is, it was borne through conversation and cultural mixing, rather than settler colonialism or violent coercion. The self-organization of the Confederation was a Betsimisaraka—that is, a Malagasy—undertaking, not a pirate one.

The origins of the participants and influencers matter because they could, by a certain logic, undermine Graeber’s attempts to “decolonize” the Enlightenment. If the pirates in Madagascar were largely Europeans—a possibility that Graeber, who emphasizes the multiethnic nature of pirate ships, never acknowledges—and it’s their ideas that guided the Betsimisaraka, then isn’t he still telling a story about the European genesis of Enlightenment ideas, albeit outside of Europe? Such was the implied critique of two scholars at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris in their review of this book.

To his credit, Graeber does center the Betsimisaraka in his telling, not overstating the role of pirates. He calls the Confederation a “creative synthesis of pirate governance and some of the more egalitarian elements in traditional Malagasy political culture.” And even if Betsimisaraka political developments were somehow assumed to be fully attributable to European pirates, this book might still do something to illustrate the diverse socioeconomic origins of Enlightenment experiments. Pirates generally came from the maritime proletariat—left-wing historians have argued, in fact, that merchant ships, on which treatment was brutal, were testing grounds for the discipline and surveillance that capitalists would later employ in factories. The relative egalitarianism of pirate ships may have been a response to the strictly hierarchical systems that pirates had grown to detest in their pre-pirate days.

Still, it’s unclear if the strands of the Pirate Enlightenment narrative fit together. In explaining why his story matters, Graeber argues, convincingly, that discussions about pirate utopias and the political arrangements of pirates were likely common in European cafés and salons at the time: pirate tales helped circulate antiauthoritarian ideas. However, he doesn’t indicate that there was any discussion of the radical Betsimisaraka—if indeed they were radical—which leaves us with the possibility that the Betsimisaraka Confederation may have been a remarkable political achievement but not an influential one. If few people outside of Madagascar were talking about it, and no one before Graeber ever interpreted it as an Enlightenment project, how much influence did it really have?

Then again, maybe we just don’t have a record of those coffeehouse conversations. If the Betsimisaraka did influence Enlightenment thinkers in Europe, those thinkers would’ve been unlikely to acknowledge it. Graeber points out, here and in other work, that most democratic practices develop on the “periphery,” away from the centers of power, where the intelligentsia is loath to cite such influences.

Though an anarchist, Graeber was no Noam Chomsky. Throughout his career, he wrote with joy and playful irreverence. Graeber’s first book on Madagascar, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar (2007) is a lively ethnography from his time in the center of the country from 1989 to 1991. Graeber never went back to Madagascar after that and didn’t do field research among the Betsimisaraka on the east coast for Pirate Enlightenment. The New Yorker, in a “Briefly Noted” review, seems to get this wrong, writing that he “conducted field research there,” the reviewer perhaps not realizing that Madagascar is larger than California. There may have been no reason to go: this book is about the past. However, Graeber does write that, in the present, the Betsimisaraka are still considered “one of Madagascar’s most stubbornly egalitarian peoples,” a claim that caught my attention. I lived in a Betsimisaraka village for two years and also lived for years in other parts of Madagascar, and I never heard or perceived this. But maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. Reading Lost People made me realize how much of Malagasy society I hadn’t been seeing.

In Pirate Enlightenment, Graeber makes fun of interpretations shaped by capitalistic views of human nature. In response to a present-day historian who writes that “the Betsimisaraka did not manage to profit from the export of slaves” during a certain period, Graeber remarks that the historian is assuming that “anyone in a position to send human beings overseas to slavery, misery, and death would certainly do so, at least, if by doing so they were fairly certain they could acquire a better grade of crockery.”

Graeber was an expert at unpicking the ideologies behind ostensibly neutral historical accounts. While he may not have had the best quiver of arrows to work with in Pirate Enlightenment, he still opens up our imaginations to the possibility that the Betsimisaraka came together in public assemblies and decided to do things differently. And, of course, there’s the implicit suggestion that maybe we could do the same.


Edward Carver is a journalist who’s covered social, political, and environmental issues in Madagascar.

LARB Contributor

Edward Carver is a writer based in Maine.


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