The Insurgent Sea: Piracy and the Nation in Antebellum American Literature

This is (most of) the Program of Work I wrote as part of my 2012 SSHRC post-doctoral fellowship application. Since it’s unlikely I’ll ever get a chance to go any further with the project, I thought I’d post it here in case anyone finds it useful. I did present what would have been the kernel of chapter one (on Peter Markoe’s The Algerine Spy in Pennsylvania) at a 2012 CAAS-sponsored conference in Toronto, Ontario. I omitted the last few paragraphs, which describe more practical matters such as the project supervisor, location, and expected timeline for the project and its outputs. 

The Insurgent Sea: Piracy and the Nation in Antebellum American Literature

The Burning Ship. Howard Pyle, 1898

The Burning Ship. Howard Pyle, 1898

In a recent article in PMLA, Margaret Cohen alleges that literary scholars have suffered from “hydrophobia”: they have too readily mapped the land onto the sea, reducing the ocean to a mere metaphor for landlocked histories and practices. Somewhere along the way, Cohen says, Moby-Dick stopped being about sailors and became a novel about factory labourers (657-58). Cohen joins scholars like Paul Gilroy, Hester Blum, and Iain Chambers in recovering the sea as a crucial literary and historical context and building a new methodology that “takes the sea as its proprioceptive point of inquiry” (Blum 671). “Oceanic Studies,” as Blum names it, would discard the nation as the basic unit of literary analysis in favour of the uncontainable currents of the sea—watery channels that link cultures and peoples and undermine the putatively discrete categories of nation and state. My postdoctoral project, “The Insurgent Sea: Piracy and the Nation in Antebellum American Literature” will examine how the nation form is itself the product of “hydrophobia.” By specifically focusing on the figure of the pirate—identified frequently in post-Enlightenment political theory as “common enemy of all” (Heller-Roazen 21)—I will argue that antebellum American literature produces national structures of state and citizenship precisely through its anxious containment of oceanic models of community and belonging. Reading a series of canonical and non-canonical literary texts, including James Fenimore Cooper’s The Red Rover (1827), Peter Markoe’s The Algerine Spy in Pennsylvania (1787), and Susanna Rowson’s Slaves in Algiers (1794) against a larger body of ephemeral pirate literature, I will explore how pirate literature offered American writers and readers an imaginative space through which they contested and sometimes disciplined radical forms of community that challenged and violated the emerging discourse of the American nation-state.

Pirates come to blows over a game of cards

“Capture of the Galleon.” Howard Pyle, 1887.

This postdoctoral project emerges from a research program I initiated as a doctoral student at the University of Western Ontario. In my SSHRC-funded dissertation, “States of Insurgency: Dismemberment and Citizenship in the American 1848,” I traced how American political culture was shaped by what I described as counterinsurgent discourse: narratives and performances of power that figuratively—and sometimes literally—dismembered individuals and groups that sought to revise the meaning of American citizenship in the nineteenth century. As I developed these ideas in part through readings of Melville’s sea novels Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, I realized the importance of the ocean itself as an insurgent space. As Chambers argues, the ocean evokes “the laboratory of another modernity, in which the hegemonic time and space of capital are viewed in askance, diverted, and subverted” (679). The word “insurgent” itself carries nautical connotations. Though today we are more familiar with its usage as “[o]ne who rises in revolt against constituted authority,” the word also describes the “surging up or rushing in” of the sea or a flood (“Insurgent”)—a swelling expansion that defies human attempts to maintain order over neat lines on a map. And yet, even as the ocean is heedless of national borders, the ships that traverse its surface are often agents of the nation, linking networks of globalized capital, enforcing claims of national sovereignty on uncharted space, and connecting the sinews of transoceanic power. The ocean, then, is a crucial site of conflict between formal articulations of power and alternative expressions of “being political” that violate such neat, containable models.

The long and vexed history of the United States and its piratical enemies and allies provides a critical context for understanding these tensions. Though relying heavily on privateers—private vessels empowered by a sovereign state to attack enemy ships—to supplement its navy in the Revolution and the War of 1812, the U.S. has since its inception engaged in naval operations against piracy in an effort to protect access to foreign markets and maintain the flow of American capital around the globe. Piracy presented the U.S. with its first post-Revolutionary international conflict: the so-called “Barbary Pirates” of North Africa preyed on American shipping in the Mediterranean and prompted the formation of the American Navy in 1794. In the 1820s, the United States deployed naval vessels to the Caribbean to help deter piratical attacks against merchant shipping there and, in August 1855, Americans joined with the English Navy in a multilateral operation against Chinese pirates in Ty-Ho Bay, off the coast of Hong Kong. As late as 1870, the U.S.S. Mohican waged war against pirates who had been preying on American and Mexican shipping in the Pacific. Even today, American sailors participate in international efforts to quell piracy off the Horn of Africa.

These historical conflicts are complemented by an extensive literary that attests to the significance of piracy to the nineteenth century American imagination. While Blum, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Paul Baepler, and Malini Johar Schueller have all examined the captivity narratives that emerged from the U.S.’s conflict with the Barbary Pirates, this is but a small window into a much larger body of antebellum literature. Early American newspapers printed pirates’ gallows speeches and confessions alongside broadsides, ballads, short stories, and poems that condemned piratical depredations even as they celebrated a life unfettered by landlocked social mores. Pirates were mainstays in popular dime novels; Joseph Holt Ingraham alone was responsible for at least eighteen novels about pirates between 1836 and 1853. Piracy often figures prominently in canonical texts as well, including Royall Tyler’s play The Algerine Captives (1797); James Fenimore Cooper’s sea novels The Pilot (1823) and The Red Rover (1827); Washington Irving’s short story “Kidd the Pirate” (1824); Melville’s The Encantadas (1854) and Benito Cereno (1857); and George Washington Cable’s Madame Delphine (1881).

In spite of the prevalence of pirates and piracy in antebellum literature, this significant archive remains largely uncommented upon by scholars. My project will correct this critical oversight by revealing the crucial links between pirate fiction and nation-building in the antebellum period. I will explore how nation-building operates in relation to what Blum calls the “terraqueous globe,” a reconceptualization of space and territory that takes into account the inextricable ties between land and sea in American literature, history, and culture (671; see also Cohen; Hsu). My study of pirate literature demands such a perspective: the mobility of the pirate flouts national boundaries and collapses the geographical distance between the centre and the periphery of the American sphere of influence. These geospatial intimacies are reflected on the deck of the ship itself: the multinational, multiethnic crews of pirate ships organized themselves into communities of labourers whose loyalty lay not with any particular nation but with one another as self-identified “common enemies of all mankind” (Rediker, Villains of All Nations 26). My project will explore how the nation develops in part to manage and contain these discrepant intimacies. I read the pirate’s peripatetic existence and the “motley crew” as offering an example of what theorists such as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno describe as the “multitude,” an globalized, pluralistic public that resists containment into the unified and nationally inflected category of “the People” (Virno 21; Hardt and Negri xi). As I argue in my article “Melville’s Motley Crew: History and Constituent Power in Billy Budd,” recently accepted for publication at Nineteenth-Century Literature, articulations of state power frequently depended upon the containment and repression of such non-national, oceanic forms of belonging. Pirate literature, I will argue, helps construct its community of readers in part through its censure of such violations of national boundaries and interpersonal intimacies.

Indeed, the pirate occupies an ambivalent position in a developing national argument about the form and limits of the American nation-state. On one hand, piracy represents an egalitarian, anti-authoritarian counterculture to the nation (Williams 75). Piracy as seen as a threatening example of democracy run amok, its threat located not simply in its violence or economic cost but also in radical politics that Melville described as “riotocracy”—a government “neither Grecian, nor Roman, nor American … which gloried in having no law but lawlessness” (The Encantadas 149). The threat of piracy made a compelling case for a strong, central government capable of defending American people and property from these “wolves of the sea.” National battles against pirates served to incorporate oceanic regions into an American sphere of influence; in an analogous fashion, literary depictions of piracy confronted the pirate’s violation of national space and models of belonging in order to contain a potentially transgressive alternative to liberal subjectivity. On the other hand, this literature suggests an anxious affinity between the new nation and those identified as “the enemy of all.” As Erin Mackie points out, it is dangerous to see in piracy a wholesale critique of the structures and processes that gave rise to the nation state. “[P]iracy,” she explains, “is embraced by radical intellectuals only at the risk of overlooking the ways in which piracy mirrors as much as it subverts the economic and social institutions it opposes” (131). Indeed, my project will consider the troubling proximity between piratical acquisitiveness and rapacious capitalism in the nineteenth century. The final scene of Cooper’s The Red Rover, for instance, features the eponymous pirate expending his last breath while clutching the U.S. flag, having forsaken his freebooting ways for the cause of the American Revolution. Cooper’s striking image suggests that piracy was far more complex than simple robbery. It also held up an uncanny mirror to post-Enlightenment ideas of liberty, democracy, and governance.

This book project will be divided into four primary chapters. In chapter one, I will examine how pirate literature reflects post-Revolutionary anxieties of contact through a re-evaluation of literature produced in response to the Barbary and Tripolitan Wars. Following the American Revolution, American merchant ships, no longer protected by the British Navy, were subject to attack and seizure by pirate vessels loosely affiliated with the Muslim “quasi-states” of North Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli. Malini Johar Schueller has examined how captivity narratives produced in the wake of such attacks articulate a form of “U.S. Orientalism”—a discursive practice that stages the “Orient” as “the new frontier against which the United States … could identify itself in terms of virtue and world mission” (4). However, this literature has important domestic implications as well. In producing the figure of the Muslim intruder, pirate literature articulates national anxiety of exposure: no longer insulated by the British empire, early national Americans deployed the Muslim pirate in an effort to mark as “enemy” those discrepant practices of belonging and nationhood that they felt threatened the stability and homogeneity of national practices of democracy. Linking Barbary and Tripolitan captivity and travel narratives to domestic politics, most notably the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, I will suggest that texts like Peter Markoe’s novel The Algerine Spy in Pennsylvania (1787) and Susanna Rowson’s play Slaves in Algiers (1795) deploy the figure of the Muslim intruder in order to stage the nation as a form of security against what Virno describes as the national dread of “being-in-the-world” and “permanent insecurity” (Virno 31).

Chapter two turns to the relationship between piracy and slavery in the nineteenth century. This chapter takes its inspiration from Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, in which the naïve American captain, Amasa Delano, mistakes the revolted slaves of the Chilean ship the San Dominick for a band of pirates. Interestingly, Melville is not alone in linking piracy to communities of marooned slaves: in John Howison’s short story “The Florida Pirate,” the protagonist, intending to join a crew of pirates, instead finds himself among a gang of revolted and fugitive slaves. These stories, I will argue, point to nineteenth-century anxieties over racialized colonial rebellion. For writers like Melville and Howison, piracy offered a discourse through which they could imagine what Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls the “unthinkability” of servile insurrection in the Caribbean (73). The interracial intimacies of the pirate ship, as well as its troubling mobility, offered an apt metaphor for antebellum American anxieties about “the volatile contact of colonized people” (Lowe 203) and piracy as a vector for servile insurrection in Haiti and the Caribbean into the American south.

In chapter three, I will study the relationship between piracy and working class radicalism in the popular dime novels of Joseh Holt Ingraham. Building from Blum’s contention in The View from the Masthead that sailors constitute an important, albeit neglected, body of working class labour, I will read Ingraham’s fiction in light of Rediker’s analysis of piracy as a form of working class radicalism. My analysis of Ingraham’s pirate novels Lafitte: The Pirate of the Gulf (1852), Captain Kyd; or, the Wizard of the Sea (1852), and The Dancing Feather; or, the Amateur Freebooters (1852), will unpack how pirate fiction offered an important site of exchange in the formation of an American working class identity that must acknowledge, even as it disavows, its own transnational roots.

In chapter four, I will examine how in The Red Rover James Fenimore Cooper links the transformation of the pirate into the citizen to the formation and consolidation of an American nation-state organized around white, homosocial fraternity. In locating the foundation of the American nation-state in the death of the eponymous Captain Heidegger, Cooper’s novel suggestively links citizenship with the repression of non-national, multi-racial affiliation and desire. Early in the novel the Rover rejects nationalized identities and sails under a variety of national banners, appropriating whatever symbol suits his purpose at a given time. His death and concomitant embrace of the American flag mark a crucial moment of national integration. With this gesture, the Rover becomes American even as he exchanges the racially and socially heterogeneous intimacies of the motley crew for a homosocial bond with the novel’s protagonist, Wilder. Reading Cooper’s novel alongside contemporary literary and historical accounts of piratical deaths, including contemporary reportage of the trials and hangings of pirates Charles Gibb and Thomas J. Wansley, I will explore how the death of the pirate enables the state’s disavowal of its motley origins and organizes the state around what Dana D. Nelson calls “national manhood,” an ideology that conflates national unity with white, male, middle-class fraternity.


Tautology, Terror, and Billy Budd

Billy-BuddNote: some of the ideas in this post are published elsewhere (and more eloquently, I hope) in my article “Melville’s Motley Crew: History and Constituent Power in Billy Budd.” Check it out.

On April 15, 2013, two brothers committed a horrific act of terrorism at the end of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring scores of others. A week later, RCMP announced that they had arrested two men in connection with an alleged plot against a Via train.The attacks have left many people searching for answers. Yesterday, Canadian Parliamentary Secretary Pierre Poilievre provided one possibility. “The root cause of terrorism,” he declared, “is terrorists.” I suppose the natural reaction to a statement like this is a shake of the head. It’s not exactly the most eloquent explanation, is it? But I, for one, offer my thanks to Mr. Poilievre, for giving me cause to say something about Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.

The link here is tautology. In Billy Budd, the eponymous young sailor—a handsome sailor, as Melville emphasizes to us!—is condemned to death for killing the duplicitous master-of-arms, Claggart. There’s no question that Billy kills Claggart in the story; the real question hangs around his intentions in committing the act. Billy, by reputation and in deed is naive and innocent, completely incapable of guile. The blow he struck against Claggart was not premeditated, nor was it committed out of anger. It was reflex. It was for all intents and purposes inexplicable.

It is up to Captain Vere to determine Billy’s fate. But he has much more on his mind than just Billy’s strike against Claggart. The context of the event is crucial. Set against the backdrop of the “Great Mutiny,” an aftershock of the American and French Revolutions, Billy Budd describes a nineteenth century set into motion by the conflict between democratic uprisings on various fronts and established regimes of power that are fearful that such fervors would spread. The Nore Mutiny was, the narrator says, “[t]o the British Empire . . . what a strike in the fire brigade would be to London threatened by general arson.” The British Navy was the best line of defense against the “irrational combustion” that was feared would be ignited “as by live cinders blown across the Channel from France.” The novel is set fresh on the heels of these moments moments of resistance, and historicizes the events on board the ship in light of moments of resistance and insurgency that in their moment had the potential to shape the nineteenth century.

Sailors played a crucial role in all of this. As Melville’s narrator makes quite clear, sailors are crucial to the smooth operation of transnational capital in the period. Naval vessels ensured the safe navigability of the seas against pirates, privateers, and other threats, and working sailors themselves were, of course, the agents by which goods moved across the Atlantic. But there’s a lot of anxiety here not only because mutinous sailors might be a point of vulnerability but because there’s a long radical tradition associated with the sea. In their fantastic book The Many-Headed Hydra, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker analyze how the “hydra” metaphor was used in transatlantic Euroamerican discourse to describe the amorphous, multitudinous forces of labour that powered the shipping industry. Derived from Greek and Roman mythology, the hydra was a dragon-like creature with seven heads. When one of these heads was cut off, two more grew back in its place. As Linebaugh and Rediker explain, the hydra offered a potent metaphor for the conflict between capital and global labor: colonial rulers

various designated dispossessed commoners, transported felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban laborers, sailors, and African slaves as the numerous, ever-changing heads of the monster. But the heads, though originally brought into productive combination by their Herculean rulers, soon developed among themselves new forms of cooperation against those rulers, from mutinies and strikes to riots and insurrections and revolutions.

In other words, the hydra suggests a non-national, extraterritorial union of persons who had little in common with one another save for their marginalization. The metaphor evokes the uncontainable nature of an multitudinous consciousness that cuts across divisions of race and culture–and nation-states–and threatens the structure of Euroamerican imperial power by defying the rigid hierarchies and spatial organizations upon which transatlantic power depended.

The formal considerations here are very important to Billy Budd. The multitude–the potential for a multitudinous consciousness–defies the formal logic. It is inexplicable under general rules of decorum and order, and from the perspective of someone who relies on rigid forms and order, inexplicable–just like Billy’s strike against Claggart.

These issues are at the front of Captain Vere’s mind as he tries Billy. With Vere, “forms, measured forms are everything.” He has been unmoved by the “invading waters of novel opinion social, political, and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own” but because, he says, “they seemed to him insusceptible of embodiment in lasting institutions . . . [and] at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” That is, Vere likes stability rather than disruption, order rather than chaos.

This is why Billy’s act troubles him so. Melville describes Billy’s act “quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night,” the simile connecting Billy’s action, perhaps, to the “irrational combustion” of the French Revolution. Vere’s worry is precisely that if the general mass of sailors hear about Billy’s deed, they will rally around him. His first goal is to “guard as much as possible against publicity” and to exert full control over the narrative of what happened:

The people,” (meaning the ship’s company) “have native sense; most of them are familiar with our naval usage and tradition; and how would they take it? Even could you explain to them–which our official position forbids–they, long molded by arbitrary discipline, have not that kind of intelligent responsiveness that might qualify them to comprehend and discriminate.

Vere’s position is a bit hard to swallow, and in the novel it seems that everyone knows it. But Vere worries that clemency of any kind would be seen as an act of weakness and inspire the other sailors to question his supreme authority. Acting as the case’s only witness as well as Billy’s prosecutor, he contains the narrative to the act alone, reducing it, as Nancy Ruttenburg explains to tautology. (Ah, I got back here eventually.) He directs the courtroom to ignore “any conceivable motive” or “provocation” and “confine its attention to the blow’s consequence, which consequence justly is to be deemed not otherwise than as the striker’s deed.”

Vere contains Billy’s action to its consequence, effectively stripping the act of any possible justification it might have had. Billy himself is effectively silenced. When offered an opportunity to speak in his own defense, Billy defers to his captain/prosecutor: “the young sailor turned another quick glance toward Captain Vere; then, as taking a hint from that aspect, a hint confirming his own instinct that silence now was best, replied to the lieutenant, ‘I have said all, sir,'” though he has said nothing at all.

Ultimately, when Billy’s story is reported in “News from the Mediterranean,” it’s very different from the one Melville’s narrator tells. Claggart becomes a hero for sniffing out a potential uprising on board the ship, but was “vindictively stabbed to the heart” by the nefarious William Budd.

Now, the point of all this is not to suggest that the terrorists who commit terrorism are much like Billy Budd. Not at all. Obviously Billy’s blow against Claggart bears little resemblance to a craven bomb attack directed against innocent civilians. The point of this is, though, to show how regimes of power rely heavily on techniques like tautology precisely because they eliminate what Melville calls the “ragged edges” of the story. By reducing an act of terrorism to the act itself, the state removes those ugly elements of the narrative of terror that do not conform with the “measured forms” of the national story. It renders the act inexplicable without calling into question the circumstances that might lead young men to perform an unthinkable and horrific act. It turns aside the kind of probing questions and inquiry that such an act really should raise and instead becomes authorization for the further consolidation of power so that the measured forms of narrative are not violated yet again by the inexplicable act of violence. This is one way in which violence against the nation can be folded back into an argument for stronger state authority–through a reduction of narrative to tautology.