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Biographies of Famous Pirates

Captain James Misson


    The account of Captain Misson is highly disputed by historians. He is described in the 2nd volume of the book 'A General History of the Pyrates' by Captain Charles Johnson. Much of the book is a mixture of fact and fiction, and it is likely that the account of Captain Misson and the colony of Libertatia (also known as Libertalia) is entirely fabricated. Captain Johnson writes that James Misson was French, born in Provence, and it was while he was in Rome on leave from the French warship Victoire that he is said to have lost his faith, disgusted by the decadence of the Papal Court. It was there in Rome he meet a "lewd" priest named Caraccioli who, gradually converted Misson and a sizeable portion of his ships crew to 'Go on the Account'. Embarking on a career of piracy, the two hundred man crew of the Victoire called upon Misson to be their captain. They shared the wealth of the ship, deciding "all should be in common." All decisions were to be put to "the vote of the whole company." Thus they set out on their new "Life of Liberty".

   In the late 17th century, off the west coast of Africa they captured a Dutch slave ship. The slaves were freed and brought aboard the Victoire, Misson declaring that 'The trading for those of our own species, could never be agreeable to the eyes of divine justice; that no man had power of the liberty of another; and while those who professed a more enlightened knowledge of the deity, sold men like beasts; they proved that their religion was no more than crimace; For his part he hoped, he spoke the sentiments of all his brave companions, he had not exempted his neck from the galling yoak of slavery, and asserted his own Liberty to enslave others'. Shortly thereafter with many prizes taken, they added to their numbers with new French, English and Dutch recruits, and freed African slaves. Eventually while cruising round the coast of Madagascar, Misson found a perfect bay in an area with fertile soil, fresh water and friendly natives. Here the pirates built the colony of Libertalia, renouncing their titles of English, French, Dutch or African and calling themselves Liberi. They created their own language, a polyglot mixture of African languages, combined with French, English, Dutch, Portuguese and native Malagasy.

   Shortly after building started on Libertalia, the Victoire ran into the pirate Thomas Tew, who decided to accompany them back to the colony. Such a place was no new idea to Tew; he had lost his quartermaster and 23 of his crew when they had left to form a settlement further up the Madagascan coast. The Liberi aimed to boost their numbers by capturing another slave ship. Off the coast of Angola, Tew's crew took an English slave ship with 240 men, women and children below decks. The African members of the pirate crew discovered many friends and relatives among the enslaved and quickly freed them. Most of whom were eager to join their ranks. In the end Captain Misson met his fate off Cape Infantes, where his sloop, was over-taken by a storm and sank. Best known for his role in Libertatia, and the radical ideas that it represented. Those ideas were to become a very common theme in western pirate culture in the years to follow. These pirates were against the various forms of authoritarian social constructs of their day, monarchies, slavery, and capital. The pirates practiced forms of direct democracy, where the people as a whole held the authority to make laws and rules, and used systems of councils with elected delegates. The pirates were anti-capitalist, opposed to the dispossession that necessarily accompanied the historic ascent of wage labor and capitalism. They created and operated a socialist economy. Insisting that "Every man was born free, and had as much right to what would support him, as to the air he respired." They resented the "encroachments" by which "villains" and "unmerciful creditors" grew "immensely rich" as others became "wretchedly miserable." They spoke of the "natural right" to "a share of the earth as is necessary for our support." They saw piracy as a war of self-preservation.

   This pirate utopia's motto was "for God and liberty," and its flag was white, in contrast to a Jolly Roger. They were anarchists, waging war against states and lawmakers, attacking their ships, sparing prisoners, and freeing slaves. They lived under a communal city rule, a sort of worker owned corporation of piracy. Prizes and money taken at sea were "carry'd into the common treasury". They had shared codes of conduct, and used elected systems of re-callable delegates. The pirates in the colony eventually settled down to become farmers, holding the land in common ("No hedge bounded any particular man's property"). The precise location the colony is not known, however, some sources say if it did exist, it likely stretched from the Bay of Antongil to Mananjary, including Īle Sainte Marie and Foulpointe. According to Captain Johnson's description, Libertatia lasted for about 25 years, which would mean it ended around 1715.

   Captain Johnson's book 'A General History of the Pyrates' originally published in 1724, was expanded in 1728 to two volumes. The accounts above are based on two chapters within the second volume, which appears to be entirely fictional according today's historians. Why Johnson would include it their, when his first volume was found to be a fairly accurate book on piracy is unclear. When Captain Woodes Rogers visited Madagascar in 1714, he wrote that the pirates there were just a few wretched survivors, living at the sufferance of the native chiefs. Although Johnson toyed with radical social ideas throughout his book, he had little faith in their practicality. Libertalia must be understood as the authors best expression of those political and social ideals which he admired but considered inevitably unworkable. Johnson makes Libertalia sound like a paradise. A place whose very existence then criticizes European society by inverting its rules, values and beliefs. Perhaps the author spun a fictional tale of Misson and Libertalia within his book, as his way of protesting against the harsh reality of corruption,injustices and tyranny he saw all around him in his world at that time. If so, I salute him.. and write this biography in that same spirit.




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