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Global History of Piracy

By Marcus Rediker at the University of Pittsburgh

History 1060 is an exploration of the ancient, global history of piracy. We will begin in antiquity (Greece and Rome), when maritime brigands marauded around the Mediterranean. We will continue by studying the various coastal piracies of the medieval era (Ireland was especially important in this regard), West Indian buccaneering in the seventeenth century, the “golden age” of Atlantic piracy in the eighteenth century, North African and Chinese piracy in the nineteenth century, and contemporary piracy in the south Asia seas.

Using primary historical documents (written by and about pirates) as well as the accounts of modern historians, we will discuss a range of topics such as the role of piracy in the building of empires, the later struggle of merchants and their allies to eradicate piracy through bloody campaigns of capital punishment, and the meanings of the pirate as represented in popular culture through the ages. We will focus throughout the course on the social and economic causes and consequences of piracy, and we will endeavor to understand the phenomenon “from the bottom up” – what it meant to the men and women who took courage in hand and crossed the line into piracy, risking the gallows as they did so. Drawing on creative recent scholarship on the race, class, and gender of seafaring and pirate communities, our history will consistently be international, multicultural, and comparative.

In addition to surveying the global history of piracy, this course seeks to teach students to think critically about the meanings of the past for the present. We will explore different historical interpretations, analyzing the disputes among historians and judging the merits of various arguments. We will compare and contrast what have been called “romantic,” “criminal,” “geopolitical,” and “social” interpretations of piracy. We will pay special attention to recent arguments that pirate ships were floating lower-class utopias, formed apart from the dominant values of the upper classes of their day. We will ask whether the utopian element of the pirate ship helps to explain the persistent popularity of pirates in popular culture. Through lectures, readings, discussions, debates, and in-class role-playing exercises, students will be encouraged to develop skills of understanding, analysis, and argumentation.

The format of the course includes an occasional lecture, but will consist primarily of readings and discussion in a colloquial approach. Class participation is crucial to the success of the course, so it is important that you attend regularly and speak out. Grades will be based on participation (25%), two quizzes (25%), a journal based on field work (25%), and a final examination (25%).

About the journal: every student in the class will keep a journal for the duration of the voyage, writing in it reflections on course lectures, readings and discussions, as well as observations to be made in port. It is the student’s task to learn something significant about the history of piracy in each port, and to enter what has been learned into the journal. Each student should, throughout the voyage, employ a variety of sources as he/she moves from port to port: written works from libraries, newspaper accounts, folklore, and interviews that may reveal both information about and attitudes toward piracy. The assignment will allow the student to explore the place of piracy in the history of each port/nation, and to link what has been learned to the themes of the course. Each student will be graded on the quality of thought and the quality and variety of sources that make up the journal.

We will use one primary text, Phillip Gosse, The History of Piracy (1932), which will be supplemented by articles and documents (hand-outs) throughout the semester.