Writing at the Edge of the Empire: The Poetics of Piracy in the Early Modern Atlantic World
Payton, Jason M.
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My dissertation examines four pirate-authored texts from the early modern period, each of which centers on the development of piracy in the Atlantic world. Contrary to popular opinion, not all pirates were illiterate thugs. Many wrote about their experiences, and their narratives were immensely popular among early modern readers. I focus on the generic choices pirate-authors made as they crafted their narratives for popular consumption, particularly their use of chivalric romance, which they drew on to present "enchanted" histories of the Atlantic world. By representing themselves as chivalric knights-errant, pirate-authors transformed themselves from thieves to gallant knights, they recast their raids as knightly quests, and they re-imagined their gruesome acts of violence as heroic feats of daring at arms. The romance form thus allowed pirate-authors to create modern spaces of agency within empire that resembled the mythical landscapes of the medieval chivalric tradition. It also allowed them to fashion critiques of empire, which increasingly limited the social mobility of the lower classes from which most pirates hailed. Pirates' reflections on the violence of empire offer a disenchanting picture of the development of imperialism during the colonial American period. My dissertation begins with Sir Walter Raleigh's 1596 Discovery of Guiana, which narrates the author's voyage to Guiana simultaneously as a knightly quest for the mythical city of El Dorado and as a mercantilist voyage for England. Raleigh was met with severe criticism for his decision to frame the history of his voyage as a romance quest because the notion of the adventure-quest celebrated the freedom of the individual apart from the power of the state. The conflict between the interests of the pirate-as- knight-errant and the aims of the state became even more pronounced during the seventeenth century. I trace the evolution this conflict in three narratives written by Caribbean pirates--also known as buccaneers--during the late seventeenth century: Alexander Oliver Exquemelin's 1678 Buccaneers of America, Raveneau de Lussan's 1689 Journal of a Voyage Made into the South Sea, and William Dampier's 1697 New Voyage Round the World. Whereas Raleigh could envision his adventure-quest as part of a larger narrative of English imperial expansion, buccaneer authors understood piracy as a utopian escape from the hegemony of empire. For Exqmemelin and de Lussan, piracy represents an alternative to their lives as servants. The chivalric ethos that Exquemelin and de Lussan projected onto pirate society allows them to level a devastating critique of the debasing nature of empire. For Dampier, representing his circumnavigation of the globe as the adventure-quest of a troupe of knights-errant allows him to imagine a global space in which pirates could create a society completely free from constraints of imperial governance. Ultimately, my dissertation demonstrates that the most unlikely band of literati in the Atlantic world made significant contributions to the development of American literary forms. By adopting the Old World form of the chivalric romance to New World contexts, pirate-authors created spaces of individual agency at the edge of the imperial domain, which allowed them to offer sharp critiques of the systems of exploitation and subjugation that structured imperial culture. The narratives I treat here reveal that the history of early America cannot simply be told as the history of states and empires. Rather, my research shows that early American scholars must broaden their disciplinary horizons to include the literary contributions of trans-national, trans-Atlantic subjects whose lives at the edge of empire allowed them to pursue lives of political transgression and fashion narratives that challenged progressivist narratives of imperial history.