The “Pirate Studies” panel the other day, organized by Craig of theoria, was fun and generated some useful discussion. It was also good to hang out afterwards with Craig, Weblog denizen Doug Johnson, and others.

Johnny Depp, pirateHere’s the last section of my paper, on “piracy, nomadism, and the state.” The first two sections were on “why pirates matter” and “the political economy of piracy.” The paper as a whole is more or less an outline, sketching out some possible positions within pirate studies. But it brings together some thoughts I’ve been mulling over for a little while…

piracy, nomadism, and the state

The complexity and confusion regarding piracy’s political economy leads to, is amplified in, and exacerbates a similar set of confusions regarding piracy’s relation to the state. Moreover, an added complication here concerns first, the range of piratical activities and the nomenclature used to describe them, and second the historical vicissitudes of piracy from at least the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, in other words precisely during the period of the European state’s consolidation, and imperial expansion. Take the issue of nomenclature. Though sometimes all non-state maritime violence is considered under the label of piracy, the series of differing terms employed at other times indicates multiple attempts (often finally frustrated) to distinguish between different forms of violence, or more strictly its different degrees of legitimacy. Pirate, buccaneer, privateer, private man-of-war, corsair, filibuster, freebooter, coastal raider. . . all these terms indicate subtle differentiations, of which by far the most important is that between privateer and pirate.

Strictly speaking, a privateer is a private merchantman who has been provided with a “letter of marque” from a national state, permitting him to engage with, board, and take goods from merchantmen from other nations, within boundaries more or less precisely delineated by national and international law. As such, privateers (and the closely related private men-of war) were extensions of the state’s juridical and military apparatus in those areas of the world beyond its formal control, or its ability for direct regulation. Privateers and private men-of-war were essentially mercenaries, enabling state expansion without the state having to invest in the expense of fixed capital, and the set-up costs of recruitment, construction, outfitting, and so on. Privateers were particularly a feature of the sixteenth-century Caribbean, when private seamen such as Drake and Hawkins, though viewed as common criminals by the Spanish, in fact did the work of English state foreign policy more effectively and efficiently than the English navy itself was capable of doing. No wonder Elizabeth I would term Drake “my pirate.” Given, however, this close relation between state and private forces, there was significant attempts at regulation and normalization of the relationship. So, for instance, normally, as David Starkey notes, the “authority [of letters of marque] was valid only in wartime and against enemy property” (69). Yet, as Starkey goes on to explain, the boundaries of legality were often disputed, and evidence as to the propriety of specific acts hard to ascertain when they had taken place on the high seas many thousands of miles from any court of law. The British High Court of the Admiralty was charged with determining justice in such cases, with the “issue of letters of marque and privateer commissions and the condemnation of prizes” (73). But the process could be cumbersome, especially as in the case of dispute “either party could appeal against the decision to a superior court, the Court of Prize Appeals, which could delay the final pronouncement for months or even years” (76).

The system was therefore prone to abuses, to privateers going beyond their bounds and misreporting or not reporting the extent or circumstances of their engagements. Increasingly, the regulation of privateering had to take place closer to the spheres in which it actually took place, and so to be monitored more directly by the Royal Navy. As such, however, and with the (in part, consequent) growth in the power and extent of the Navy, the raison d’être for privateering began to wane. After all, if the Navy could now take on the role of monitoring privateering on the high seas, it would be even more efficient for it to perform directly the self-same functions for which privateering was invented. In other words, once the state no longer needed private supplements to enable its foreign adventures, it could dispense with the requirement for privateers, and even take a moral high ground within the international juridical order, by seeking to abolish privateering altogether. And this was precisely what happened over the course of the seventeenth century, until by the beginning of the eighteenth what was supposedly piracy’s “golden age” was in fact the period of its precipitate decline, at least in the Atlantic, as it was the point at which European state collectively turned against the forces that they themselves had historically authorized and nurtured, turning now to outlaw private force, and so to secure their rather tardy achievement of a monopoly over the legitimate use of force, beyond as well as within their territorial borders.

Hence, the relation between piracy and the state is complex and historically variable. And here, to conclude, we can venture some theoretical observations regarding the Deleuzoguattarian conception of nomadism. At times, to be sure, pirates do and have functioned as a kind of absolute outside, a war machine opposed to and in contradistinction to a state which only arises (if perhaps not “all at once”) later. At other times, however, pirates were if anything the advance guard of the state, heralds of its imperial expansion. In a further irony, piracy equally called forth the state as a mode of regulation. This is perhaps most clearly obvious in the case of Spain and its construction of the first modern state bureaucracy, centered in Seville’s “Casa de Contratación,” in direct response to the threat of a continuity of illegal activities, from private commerce to fraud to mutiny to outright piracy. Finally, there is the case of piracy sponsored and originated by the state, instances of groups organized and financed under its care, but which outgrew it, to become semi-autonomous, dangerously out of control. The American filibusters such as William Walker and his Nicaraguan expeditionaries in the nineteenth century, are perhaps a particularly good example of this. In other words, the question of nomadism may not simply be that of the state taking over the war machine (as Deleuze and Guattari suggest) but also the ways in which the state itself becomes immanent, at the frayed edges of its territorial power, at the liminal margins of Empire: the ways in which, in short, the state itself generates its own nomads.

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