The Incorrigible Harriet Dumont

Summer Pirate Reading 2: Pirate Utopias


Before the well-known pirates of the Caribbean, there were the ”Barbary Coast” (Maghreb coast) pirates of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes by Peter Lamborn Wilson tells a story of these Muslim pirates, and of the several thousand Europeans (primarily captives) who converted to Islam and joined them.

Wilson focuses especially on the European converts, ”Renegadoes”, hoping to find their motivations, their tale. He therefore focuses on the port of Salé in Morocco, which for several decades was independent, multicultural, and governed by pirates as a more or less functioning republic: possibly, one of the eponymous ”pirate utopias”.

I exaggerate when I say ”focuses”, however. This is not a history book, but rather a sprawling historical essay. There are few first-hand sources to draw from, and none from the Renegadoes themselves, and Wilson goes from there to (he freely admits) pure wishful thinking and several instances of ”we can’t prove this is how they thought, so it’s not impossible!” This is ameliorated by the fact that these flights of fancy are so hopeful. They might have converted because 16th century Islam was far more democratic, pleasure-loving and wisdom-seeking than 16th century Christendom (for men). They might have become pirates as an act of proto-Marxist social resistance. They might be the original fathers of modern democracy already.

There are a lot of sources very properly quoted and a very proper bibliography, and I do feel I know quite a lot more about Maghreb history and pirate history. The rest of the story is wildly tendentious and very romanticising, but most of it is quite seductive to those of us who romanticise pirates – though there are some problematic romanticisings in the book as well, let it not be unsaid. In conclusion, I do recommend to fellow amateur piratologists, but take it with bushels of salt, if also hope.