Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia by David Graeber - review by Philipp Blom

Philipp Blom

Skull & Bones Society

Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia


Allen Lane 208pp £18.99

Pirates have long inhabited a special place in the Western imagination, inspiring a proud line of works that juggle fact and fiction, from Treasure Island to Hollywood films. Part of their allure comes from the special kind of lawless justice that prevails among them. Pirate crews form a democracy of desperation and derring-do, facing equal risks for equal shares and an equal say.

For authors, pirates have made it possible to imagine not only exotic islands but also other ways of living together. In premodern times, travel literature and accounts of foreign lands real and imaginary served the purpose of holding up a mirror to society at home. From Montaigne’s musings about the virtues of cannibals to the writings of Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and even Swift, conjuring up other worlds proved a useful way of evading censorship and engaging in thought experiments: to imagine a sexual morality without Christian guilt, for instance, or a world without hierarchies of estates, sexes, creeds or ethnicities. 

The late anthropologist, historian and activist David Graeber specialised in surprising intellectual inversions and changes of perspective. His writing is never less than thought-provoking, and this slim, posthumously published book is a case in point. Pirate Enlightenment dangles an enticing possibility before historians, philosophers and activists. What if some of

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