Libertalia (also known as Libertatia) was an anarchist colony founded in the late 17th century in Madagascar by pirates under the leadership of Captain James Misson. Whether or not Libertatia actually existed is disputed. It is described in the book A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson, an otherwise unknown individual who may have been a pseudonym of Daniel Defoe. According to Johnson's description, Libertalia lasted for about 25 years. The precise location is not known; however, most sources say it stretched from the Antongil Bay to Mananjary, Fianarantsoa, including Île Sainte-Marie and Mahavelona. Thomas Tew, Misson and a Dominican priest named Signor Caraccioli were involved in founding it.
Libertatia was a legendary free colony forged by pirates and the pirate Captain Misson, although some historians have expressed doubts over its existence outside of literature. Historian and activist Marcus Rediker describes the pirates as follows:
These pirates who settled in Libertalia would be "vigilant Guardians of the People's Rights and Liberties"; they would stand as "Barriers against the Rich and Powerful" of their day. By waging war on behalf of "the Oppressed" against the "Oppressors," they would see that "Justice was equally distributed."
Although the existence of Libertatia is contested, the radical ideas that it represented were very common in various pirate-era events. After the American Revolution, pirates fleeing from England were wrecked on an island and set up their own Libertatia. They called their new island "the Republic of Spensonia", after a fictional Utopian country created by the English author and political reformer Thomas Spence. According to A. L. Morton, it "looks backward to the medieval commune and forward to the withering away of the state."
The 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 delegates, who were supposed to think of themselves as "comerads" of the general population, and not rulers. The pirates created a new language for their colony and operated a socialist economy.
[The] pirates were anti-capitalist, opposed to the dispossession that necessarily accompanied the historic ascent of wage labor and capitalism. They insisted 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. [They redefined the] fundamental relations of property and power. They had no need for money "where every Thing was in common, and no Hedge bounded any particular Man's Property," and they decreed that "the Treasure and Cattle they were Masters of should be equally divided."
Misson's crews often were half white and black. The pirates have been reported to have freed enslaved people because the idea of slavery went against their own ideals of freedom.
The 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 called themselves Liberi, and lived under a communal city rule, a sort of worker owned corporation of piracy. They had articles (shared codes of conduct), and used elected systems of re-callable delegates.
Misson was French, born in Provence, and it was while he was in Rome on leave from the French warship Victoire that he lost his faith, disgusted by the decadence of the Papal Court. In Rome he ran into Caraccioli - a "lewd Priest" who over the course of long voyages with little to do but talk, gradually converted Misson and a sizeable portion of the rest of the crew to his way of thinking:
he fell upon Government, and shew'd, that every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired... that the vast Difference betwixt Man and Man, the one wallowing in Luxury, and the other in the most pinching Necessity, was owing only to Avarice and Ambition on the one Hand, and a pusillanimous Subjection on the other.
Embarking on a career of piracy, the 200 strong 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." 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, cou'd never be agreeable to the Eyes of divine Justice: That no Man had Power of Liberty of another" and that "he had not exempted his Neck from the galling Yoak of Slavery, and asserted his own Liberty, to enslave others." At every engagement they added to their numbers with new French, English and Dutch recruits, and freed African slaves.
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 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 the beginning of building work on the colony of Libertalia, the Victoire ran into the pirate Thomas Tew, who decided to accompany them back to Libertalia. Such a colony 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 - "Enemies to Slavery," 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 struck off their fetters and handcuffs, regaling them with the glories of their new life of liberty.
The pirates settled down to become farmers, holding the land in common - "no Hedge bounded any particular Man's Property." Prizes and money taken at sea were "carry'd into the common Treasury, Money being of no Use where every Thing was in common."
Libertalia in popular culture
- William S. Burroughs Cities of the Red Night, 1981
- Ghost of Chance, 1991
- Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Pyrates, 1999
- Libertalia, une utopie pirate (French extract of "Histoire générale des plus fameux pirates", L'Esprit Frappeur
- Marcus Rediker. "Libertalia: The Pirate's Utopia," in Pirates: Terror on the High Seas from the Caribbean to the South China Sea.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Legends of the Brethren Court: Wild Waters, 2009
- Ye Banished Privateers: The Legend of Libertalia (album, 2014)
- Philip Gosse (1924). "Misson, Captain". The Pirates' Who's Who. Burt Franklin. pp. 211–219. Retrieved March 24, 2014.
- Rediker, Marcus (2004), Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, Beacon Press, Beacon, Massachusetts. ISBN 0-8070-5024-5.
- Morton, A. L. (1952), The English Utopia, Lawrence & Wishart. ISBN 0-85315-185-7.
- Cordingly, David (1996), Pirates: Terror on the High Seas from the Caribbean to the South China Sea, 9th ed, World Publications. ISBN 1-57215-264-8.
- Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Dover Publications. p. 389. ISBN 978-0486404882.