The Political Ecology of Piracy: Archaeological and Historical Evidence

This discussion topic submitted by Mark Pedelty (pedeltmh@miamioh.edu) at 12:58 on 3/1/99. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

Pirates have been represented in popular media as vicious murderers, outlaws and anarchists. Occasionally, they are viewed as dashing "Buccaneers", battling the Spanish Empire. Naturally, these popular representations fail to capture the complexity of colonial piracy. I plan to present a synthesis of historical and archaeological evidence in order to draw a more accurate illustration and explanation of pirate economy, ecology and culture. I will present an overview of piracy as it fit into the political economy, ecology and culture of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries in the Caribbean. I will focus primarily on New Spain, and the role of English pirates in subverting Spanish hegemony (and in installing English and U.S. hegemony) in the region.

A series of questions will guide the research and presentation: Were the pirates anarchists, in the popular sense of the term? Did they commit horrible and senseless acts of violence and cruelty for the sake of gaining riches and satisfying immediate pleasures? Or, were pirates anarchists in the political sense of the term? Did they function in fairly autonomous collectives, responding to inner group needs and attacking collective forms of repression represented in organized states like the Spanish Empire? Or, were pirates themselves part of the colonial enterprise, working at the behest of governments like Great Britain as they attempted to whittle away at their opposition? Preliminary evidence indicates that "pirates"--themselves a diverse set of individuals and corporate groupsórepresented all of these possibilities, and more. Complicated pirate leaders like Sir Frances Drake were both in rebellion against, and incorporated into, colonial regimes of power.

I will emphasize the material basis of piracy, from its political economic underpinnings to the ecological factors which conditioned its spread, success, and eventual termination. I will draw material from ongoing underwater excavations, as well as secondary historical sources, including the following (note: this is a very cursory list; I will be obtaining the complete publications of the Port Royal excavation and selected historical texts):

Cabeza, Gregorio Z., Esclavitud,
1991 Piratería y fortificaciones en Nueva España. Puerto Vallarta: CAAAREM.
Hamilton, Donny Leon.,
1981 Port Royal 1981. INA newsletter 8(3):1-2,4-7.
1982 Preliminary report on the archaeological investigations of the submerged remains of Port Royal, Jamaica 1981-1982. International journal of nautical archaeology and underwater exploration 13(1): 11-25.
Hamilton, Donny Leon. And Robyn Woodward,
1984 Sunken 17th-century city: Port Royal, Jamaica. Archaeology 37(1): 38-45.
Hume, Ivor. Noël,
1968 A collection of glass from Port Royal, Jamaica with some observations on the site, its history and archaeology. Historical archaeology 2: 5-34.
Lizé, Patrick.,
1984 Wreck of the pirate ship Speaker on Mauritius in
1702. International journal of nautical archaeology and underwater exploration 13(2): 121-132.
Marley, David.,
1992 Pirates and engineers : Dutch and Flemish adventurers in New Spain (1607-1697). Windsor, Ont.: Netherlandic Press.
Marx, Robert F.,
1973 Port Royal Rediscovered. London: New English Library.
Society for Historical Archaeology
1992 Underwater archaeology proceedings from the Society for Historical Archaeology conference: Kingston, Jamaica. Pleasant Hill, Calif.: SHA.



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