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Kevin P McDonald. Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves. Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World. [The California World History Library, Vol. 21.] University of California Press, Oakland (CA) 2015. xii, 206 pp. Maps. $60.00; £41.95.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 July 2016

James Dator*
Affiliation:
Goucher College1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Baltimore, MD 21204, USA
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Abstract

Type
Book Review
Copyright
© Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 2016 

This work is a pithy study of the social and cultural ties that connected the Atlantic and Indian Oceans at the end of the seventeenth century. Framed as a history of the “Indo-Atlantic World” from “the margins”, historian Kevin McDonald focuses the work primarily around the networks that linked colonial New York and Madagascar in the 1690s. In doing so, the author has written a thought-provoking book that will register with both scholars and students of early-modern Atlantic and Indian Ocean studies.

The major aim of the book is to look at piracy in relation to several themes, namely “colonialism, slavery, interoceanic networks, and cross-cultural interactions” (p. 5). Given the wide array of sub-topics such a task would seem to require, one might imagine the book to be a magnum opus of epic proportions. Yet, McDonald deftly and elegantly weaves these topics together over the course of five chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion that span a grand total of only 130 pages. True to its title, the author elaborates on these themes through case studies and vignettes about people ranging from well-known wealthy merchant families like New York’s Philipses to lesser-known figures like the seafaring runaway slave Calico Jack. The author’s clear writing is matched by the book’s well-executed organization. Together, these elements of the book offer the reader an accessible window onto the liminal qualities of the Indo-Atlantic world during a moment when two ocean realms were becoming more deeply interconnected in the English imaginary.

McDonald’s analysis of what he calls the “pirate-slave trade nexus” contributes to the growing body of literature that argues piracy contributed to the emergence of seventeenth-century merchant capitalism rather than undermined it. Describing the conventional wisdom that pirates were “enemies of all mankind” as the “one of the most enduring legal fictions of all time”, the author elaborates on this idea in the first chapter of the book, aptly titled “The Spectrum of Piracy” (pp. 12–13). In this chapter, McDonald provides the reader an overview of piracy in the Anglo-Atlantic world in the early seventeenth century while emphasizing the blurry distinctions between hardcore pirates, privateers, and other maritime actors whose circumstances moved them between state-sanctioned plunder, private pillage, colonial defense, and landed aspiration. In turn, pirates appear as much a social type as they do a kind of archetype that competing mercantile and political interests coopted. The author illustrates this with an analysis of the Margaret, a ship owned by merchant Frederick Philipse of New York that was captured by an English East India Company (EIC) captain for smuggling proscribed East India goods. Using the seized documents from the ship, the author shows how New York merchant families like the Philipses began using Atlantic mariners to gain access to East India prestige commodities as well slaves from the notorious pirate lair of Madagascar. Fascinating, too, is the author’s use of the wills captured from the ship, which reveal how how some pirates continued to value English legal customs in order to control any inheritance they left behind (pp. 34–36).

Shifting focus to New York proper, the author then turns the reader’s attention away from the mariners to the “lesser merchant” families in the colony in the second chapter. As McDonald points out, the Philipse family was not a rogue merchant clan in New York. Rather, by 1695, over one-third of the city’s top twenty-nine traders were “moderately to deeply invested in the Indo-Atlantic trade” (p. 51). The author’s thoughtful weaving together of a variety of sources (ranging from Admiralty records to wills and Colonial Office correspondence) reveals the intricate web of relations that connected New York to the Greater Caribbean, Africa, and with increasing significance in the 1690s, Madagascar. Although many of the merchants moved in Anglo-Dutch circles (some families had forbearers active when New York was a Dutch colony), they were a diverse group that included Huguenot and Jewish investors as well. In this regard, the author only scratches the surface of the relationship between trade politics and identity in early English New York. On one hand, the willingness of New York’s lesser merchants to pursue wealth through illicit trade seems rooted in the Hudson estuary’s geography, with its riverine landscape that made the pirate-merchant nexus particularly viable there. On the other hand, it also seems as if these lesser merchants identified little with the “Englishness” of the English empire not simply because of geography, but also because of a particular Dutch ideological streak concerning property rights. The author does not really explain the relationship between these two issues explicitly in the chapter, which concludes with a discussion of the violent confrontation between colonists and the new governor of the colony, Lord Bellomont, over the royal government’s growing campaign against illicit trade (pp. 58–59). Instead, the author places more emphasis on the distance influence of East India Company officials, who were lobbying Parliament in the 1690s to affirm the organization’s monopoly rights and end piracy in an effort to better their ties with Mughal rulers. However, in the end the author focuses very little on those politics as well, for the primary focus of the book is the networks that operated outside the orbit of overt state authority.

Chapters Three and Four focus on the divergence between English “utopian” dreams about a colonized Madagascar and the on-the-ground realities of these schemes. In the first half of the seventeenth century, various metropolitan merchant associations worked to capitalize on the East Indies trade. Initially, colonization was not the focus. Instead, the EIC and the influential Anglo-Dutch company De Moor-Courteen wanted to compete against the Dutch and Portuguese national monopolies, albeit without investing in forts or factories. In turn, the smaller merchant associations that received royal charters seem to have relied on interloping and “piracy” against Moghul dhows rather than direct trade, which caused diplomatic problems for the EIC. McDonald shows how these initial pursuits stirred aristocratic imaginations in the metropole (especially Prince Rupert’s) and how a propaganda literature emerged that painted the “Red Island” as the “richest and most fruitful island in the world” (pp. 69–73). The promotional tracts briefly spurred investment and by 1644 a small group of 140 men, women, and children set sail for Saint Augustine Bay, Madagascar. Isolated and lacking the local alliances needed to thrive, the group was decimated by disease and the settlement collapsed. Ultimately, the New York-Madagascar connection depended on the pirate-slave nexus. Displaced sailors and buccaneers flocked to island in the 1690s, where they developed a distinct pirate “identity as the ‘Red Sea Men’” at Saint Mary’s island (p. 83). Skilled at cultural negotiation, willing to form families with Malagasy women, and eager to trade in slaves captured in skirmishes or sailing raids, it was this culturally unique group that ultimately wed Indian and Atlantic trade networks.

The book does an excellent job moving from location to location while introducing the reader to the varied perspectives of people who integrated the Indo-Atlantic system. Thus, it is fitting that McDonald concludes the work with a discussion of the enslaved folk whose own agency was bounded by these very networks. Much of chapter 5 is comprised of short sections detailing the lives of enslaved seafarers and the ambiguities they experienced as laborers on slave ships and interloping merchant vessels. Displaying a cultural dexterity similar to that of the pirate-settlers, these slaves worked on “floating hybrid spaces of intercultural and cross-cultural dynamics”, a feature that gave them a degree of negotiating power that even enabled a handful to secure their own freedom (p. 115). As McDonald is careful to point out, their lives differed from the majority of Malagasy slaves who ended up in American colonies like Virginia and Jamaica, where they were constrained by the plantation regime. Pointing to the need for more research, the book concludes with a quick survey of the demographic and social impact of Malagasy slaves on places as distant as New York and Barbados by drawing on data from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Given the dearth of work on the contribution of Malagasy culture to the English Atlantic colonies, scholars of African culture in the Americas will find this last chapter particularly helpful.

Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves is a fascinating work of history that uncovers how diverse pursuits – be they for wealth, freedom, or land – served to interlock distant and relatively small maritime communities across the globe at the end of the seventeenth century. It is a wonderful addition to the growing catalog of works on Atlantic piracy and culture and offers a sophisticated analysis without overbearing technical language. As any good book should do, McDonald’s study will leave the reader wanting to know more, and in turn, provoke new and important questions to pursue for budding scholars of early-modern Atlantic, East African, and Indian Ocean history.

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Kevin P McDonald. Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves. Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World. [The California World History Library, Vol. 21.] University of California Press, Oakland (CA) 2015. xii, 206 pp. Maps. $60.00; £41.95.
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Kevin P McDonald. Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves. Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World. [The California World History Library, Vol. 21.] University of California Press, Oakland (CA) 2015. xii, 206 pp. Maps. $60.00; £41.95.
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Kevin P McDonald. Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves. Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World. [The California World History Library, Vol. 21.] University of California Press, Oakland (CA) 2015. xii, 206 pp. Maps. $60.00; £41.95.
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