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Posted on April 1st, 2012, by

Marcus Rediker and Peter Leeson spent much time exploring and studying life, social structure and relations of pirates. They center on different aspects of the life of pirates and make different conclusions from their investigations. Rediker is a famous historian of maritime labor presents a detailed study of the golden age of piracy in his Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. In his new book called The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates Peter Leeson uses economic theory to shed light to true motifs of pirates. He uses economical theory to explain their motivation and behavior.

Two scholars use different approaches to investigate the reasons and structure of piracy during the so called Golden Age of piracy.

Dr. Rediker dedicated his life to the study of maritime life of the 18th century. He has published several books about this period. He believes that contemporary popular culture gives people wrong perception about pirates and their lifestyle.

He believes that pirates appeared as a response to brutal world and exploitation. In the 18th century pirates and salves belonged to the lowest social order. Rediker underlines that pirates formed a group of people who confronted current social order. He describes them as bold and courageous men who challenged social order and empire.

Rediker describes the time period of 1716-1726 as the golden age of piracy and he believes that this development of piracy was conditioned by the political and social situation. During the time described sailors had to work in very bad conditions and got little money for their work. Rediker also believes that suppression of working people including sailors reached enormous sizes during the time described and these suppression made people to look for the alternatives. Piracy according to Rediker was one of the ways to confront the tyranny of the ruling class. Rekider uses the information from accounts of captives to describe the lifestyle and social order of pirates. He notes that pirates had their own system of justice and code of behavior. For example, they tortured captured captains for the bad attitude to sailors, while they freed good and fair people.

Peter Leeson is an economist and his study of the pirate life is conditioned by his profession. He believes that pirates were driven by the desire to become rich and gain profit. Leeson does not deny that pirates strived for liberty, fraternity and equality, but he believes that they were not motivated by higher ideals. He thinks that their behavior was conditioned by desire to get and save their profit. As he writes Ignoble pirate motives generated enlightened’ outcomes (Leeson, 69). Leeson breaks myths about generosity and fraternity of pirates. He uses economic theory to explain their behavior and strict order. He states that pirates used economic reasons as the bases for social cohesion.

Rediker describes social order created by pirates as something opposed to the official order which existed during the times described. Pirates had their own dialect, rituals and symbols which made them a separated social unity.

According to him their order was based on the principles of equality and fraternity. They had a share system, which provided fair division of their earnings and this system was more fair than officials system of those times. In 1720s piracy created a real threat to the world trade and empires had to unite their efforts to fight it. This one more time proves that pirates had a well-organized structure which helped them to confront organized campaign. Rediker underlines that bad conditions of life and unfair attitude became the main reasons people had choose the life of pirates. He notes that not criminal inclinations, but unbearable conditions of life made people to choose piracy.

Poverty and lack of opportunity to earn normal living became other reasons of this choice. “Real pirates were not aristocratic. Real pirates were rough and rugged working people who put their lives on the line in hopes of having a different way of life and getting money in ways they could not expect to get in normal British or American society” (Rediker, 117). Many pirates started as ordinary employees working for England or the Netherlands and got money for fight French and Spanish ships. But still the major per cent of pirates made ex-sailors who protested against low pay and bad attitude of the captains. Pirates got new members from the ships they robbed. Pirates asked the crew of the ships they boarded to join them and each time several people were glad to join them. The relations between pirates and slavery are also interesting and notable. In the cases when pirates captured a slave ship with salves they could propose slave to join them. This means that pirates did not share racism ideas of their contemporaries. The existence of black pirates proves this fact. Pirate crew consisted of people of different races and social standing.

Pirates also treated women as equals and there are cases when women became pirates as well. Leeson breaks the myth about racial tolerance. He gives proofs that some pirates possessed slaves themselves. Leeson does not reject poor conditions of life which made people to turn to piracy but he believes economic reasons to be the main reasons of this choice. Piracy was a profitable business and Leeson believes that only with the help of economic reasons true motifs of pirates may be understood. As he states: “only with economics can we make sense of a great deal of otherwise unintelligible individual behavior. This helps to understand the group of libertarians who conscripted nearly all their members, democrats with dictatorial captains, and lawless anarchists who lived by a strict code of rules” (Leeson, 36). In comparison to Rediker Leeson pays less attention to ideological reasons of piracy and rather center on the economical ones.

Rediker notes that pirates tried to avoid violence when it was possible. They did not kill their victims because of cruelty. Rediker underlines that society put them in such conditions when they had to choose piracy to earn their living and to get certain freedom from the system. In the cases when pirates could escape the use of violence they tried to do this. They preferred to take money and expansive things without killing people when it was possible.

Pirates used force only when the crew resisted or the captain had a reputation of the man who abused his sailors. In these cases pirates would turn to certain punishment which corresponded to their code of ethics.

Marcus Rediker belies that pirates tried to build a better world in contrast to one which existed at those time. He believes that this world was founded on the ideas of democracy, racial tolerance and economic fairness. They tried to create alternative social order which had certain benefits. Injuries and different traumas were common not only for pirates, but for all kinds of sailors of those times. This can be explained by hard conditions of their work. The pioneers became the first to use the system of extra payments to pirates who became injured or even maimed during the sails. What is notable this extra payment was widespread among pirates while official institutions did not provide any compensations for people who got injured on board. Pirates became the first to imply the kind of social payment to those who needed it.

Leeser does not share idealistic view of Rediker. He explains all actions of pirates from the economical point of view.

He believes that all their actions were conditioned by economic reasons. As he states: “Pirate fiction portrays seamen as choosing piracy out of romantic, if misled, ideals about freedom, equality, and fraternity, but pirate reality is more about piratical means, used to secure cooperation within pirates’ criminal organization, rather than piratical ends, as they’re often depicted.” (Leeson, 49). Leeson recognizes the fact that pirates had democratic governances on their ships but he does not attribute it to high social developments and strict social order. He explains that since the most of the ships were stole they belonged to all people who capture them and that is why they were in collective owning.

Both authors, Marcus Rediker and Peter Leeson, give detailed and interesting study of the Golden Age of piracy in their books. The authors use different approaches to present the facts. Rediker centers on ideology and higher ideals pirates used as their main driving motive, while Leeson turn to economic necessity to explain pirates’ behavior.

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