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A merry life and a short one: a review of <em>Under the Banner of King Death</em>

A merry life and a short one: a review of Under the Banner of King Death

Author: David Lester
Under the Banner of King Death
Beacon Press
ISBN: 978-080702398-3

The graphic novel is an art form which has long provided accessible introductions to complex ideas. The restraint of the medium forces both the writing and the artwork to focus on the very essence of the story being told. Not that Marcus Rediker was ever overly laborious in his original telling of this important story.

Under The Banner of King Death: Pirates of the Atlantic, a graphic novel (to be published by Beacon Press in February, 2023) is adapted from Rediker’s groundbreaking Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Verso Books, 2004), which broadens our understanding of the lives of the nearly 4000 pirates who sailed on some 80 pirate ships during the late period of the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’.

Illustrated and co-written by David Lister, Under The Banner of King Death focuses on the crew of one particular vessel, The Night Rambler, and its amazing transformation from slave ship to slave (self) liberator. This is a story which will have you yearning for freedom and rum like the hackneyed stereotypes of Jack Sparrow never could. No spoilers here though, let’s focus on the underlying message of the story rather than the specifics of plot line.

As Marcus Rediker says in his introduction:

In adapting my book […] David Lester has depicted the pirates’ ‘history from below’ with great subtlety and visual power, illuminating in human terms the real reasons the working conditions, the lash, the premature death — why people chose to become outlaws and what kind of society they built for themselves beyond the reach of the law. David brings these pirates to life, not only as workers who powered then challenged global capitalism, but as thinkers and doers who saw that another world was possible.”

Conditions onboard ship were brutal, and life within the law was already painful and short. Accidents were plentiful, leading to the kind of maimings which still populate pirate stereotypes — eye-patch, wooden-leg, hook-for-a-hand —and corporal and capital punishments were used by captains to subdue sailors and ensure the smooth running of their trade. Including, of course, the horrendous trade in human lives. As Lester’s book shows, life outside the law could be just as brutal, but pirate ships were run along democratic lines, with elected captains who needed to earn the respect of their crew through their actions rather than through fear. Whatsmore, the profits from piracy were evenly distributed amongst the ship’s crew, and even those who could not work (due to illness, age or the aforementioned debilitating maimings) were given financial support. Given a choice between violence and death onboard a ship run by a tyrannical captain, and violence and death onboard a ship run under proto-democratic lines, the decision to go ‘outlaw’ seems far less vexing than one might initially think. The pirate knew full well that their decision to go “upon the account” (i.e. go pirate) was to resign themselves to a brutal death. But a brutal death was the most likely outcome of their life anyway, hence the pirate toast of “a merry life… and a short one.”

Rediker’s original title, Villains of All Nations, also emphasises the multiethnic make-up of pirate crews in an age when race was being used to justify sweeping colonialism and the horror of the Atlantic slave trade. On average, black sailors made up around 25-30% of a pirate ship’s crew. The Articles of Agreement, the binding terms decided upon by the crew upon them going upon the account, offered all crew members the same liberties and the same spoils. When a black member of Stede Bonnet’s pirate crew reported that a white man who had refused to sign the articles had demanded of him: “why I did not go to the pump and work among the rest, and told me that was my Business and that I should be used as a Negroe.”, Bonnet declared that a man was either a sea-rover or a slave, regardless of colour or status. Indeed, as the fame of female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read (who features in Lester’s book) contests, the articles did not discriminate along sexual lines either.

In another of Rediker’s books, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail (Beacon Press, 2014), he underlines the famed insurrectionary tendencies of men and women from the Gold Coast:

The Ibibio of the Bight of Biafra, also known as ‘Quaws’ and, in America, the ‘Moco’, were, according to Captain Hugh Crow, ‘a most desperate race of men,’ always ‘foremost in any mischeif or insurrection amongst the slaves’ in the late eighteenth century. They killed many crew members and were known to blow up ships. ‘The females of the tribe’, added Crow, ‘are fully as ferocious and vindictive as the men.’”

The stories of insurrectionaries are always played down, because they are the stories which are prone to ignite a fire in the hearts of the oppressed. David Lester presents us with one such story and invites us to question the story of our own lives. We cannot all be heroes, or legends, or even very interesting people a lot of the time. But we can strive to lessen oppression in the world in whatever way we can. Life is short, make it merry.

Warren Draper

Under The Banner of King Death: Pirates of the Atlantic, a graphic novel will be available from Beacon Press in February, 2023.

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