Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Captain Misson & Libertalia
By Cindy Vallar
Thus begins chapter one in the second volume of Captain Charles Johnson’s The History of the Pyrates, which was published in 1728, four years after the release of his bestselling A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. Misson, whose first name is never revealed, “was born in Provence, of an ancient Family.” (Defoe, 383) For obvious reasons, the Frenchman never divulges his surname. After all, he is a pirate, which might reflect poorly on his wealthy family. Having too many siblings to ever hope for a large inheritance, he decides to make his own fortune with the use of his sword.
We can be somewhat particular in the Life of this Gentleman, because, by very great Accident, we have got into our Hands a French Manuscript, in which he himself gives a Detail of his Actions. (Defoe, 383)
Provence, France (left) and Musketeers in 1663 (right)
[Source: Wikipedia -- superbenjamin & artist unknown]
Unlike many pirates, Misson was an educated man. “After he passed his Humanity and Logick, and was a tolerable Mathematician, at the Age of Fifteen he was sent” to Anjou to study at the university.1 (Ibid.) He only spent a year at his studies before returning home. He might have become a Musketeer of the Guard, but wanted to see the world; the best way to do that was to choose “the Sea as a Life which abounds with more Variety, and would afford him an Opportunity to gratify his Curiosity, by the Change of Countries.” (Ibid.) At Marseilles he boarded a ship bound for the Mediterranean – a journey that “gave him great Insight into the practical Part of Navigation.” (Ibid.) He enjoyed the voyage so much he decided to learn all he could about ships and sailing.
[He was] always one of the first on a Yard Arm, either to Hand or Reef, and very inquisitive in the different Methods of working a Ship: His Discourse was turn’d on no other Subject, and he would often get the Boatswain and Carpenter to teach him in their Cabins the constituent Parts of a Ship’s Hull, and how to rig her, which he generously paid ’em for . . . . (Defoe, 384)
Furling sails, working ropes, and swabbing deck
(Source: Dover, Nautical Illustrations)
After arriving in Naples, Italy, he secured permission to tour Rome and the Vatican, where he met Seignior Caraccioli, a Dominican priest disenchanted with the immorality of the Catholic Church and the people.
For my Part, I am quite tir’d of the Farce, and will lay hold on the first Opportunity to throw off this masquerading Habit; . . . as I am an Enemy to Restraint, I am apprehensive I shall never act up to my Character, and carry thro’ the Hypocrite with Art enough to rise to any considerable Post in the Church. My Parents did not consult my Genius, or they would have given me a Sword instead of a Pair of Beads. (Defoe, 385)On hearing this, Misson suggested he go to sea too. Caraccioli accepted, and Misson provided him with new clothes befitting a lay person. Once they reached Leghorn, where Misson’s ship was now berthed, he convinced Captain Fourbin to take on Caraccioli.2 A week after the Victoire resumed her journey, they encountered Barbary pirates.
[They] fell in with two Sally Men, the one of twenty, the other of twenty four Guns; the Victoire had but thirty mounted, tho’ she had Ports for forty. The Engagement was long and bloody, for the Sally Men hop’d to carry the Victoire; and, on the contrary, Captain Fourbin, so far from having any Thoughts of being taken, he was resolutely bent to make Prize of his Enemies, or sink his Ship. (Ibid.)A young and inexperienced Spanish renegado captain attempted to sail close enough to board Victoire, but his pirate ship was hit “by a Shot betwixt Wind and Water.” (Ibid.) To keep from sinking, he veered off to repair the damage. The ship heeled over too far and sank. No one survived.
Now facing only one enemy, a resolute Captain Fourbin ordered his men to board the remaining ship, and Misson and Caraccioli led them. The defrocked priest received a thigh wound and was taken to the surgeon. Glimpsing one Barbary pirate with a lighted match go below deck, Misson pursued and slew him just before he ignited the powder to blow up the ship. Thereafter the French won the battle, and the few remaining pirates were sold at auction, as was their ship.
Caraccioli and Misson often discussed religion. Caraccioli believed in “the Divine Being,” but saw religion as “no other than human Policy.” (Defoe, 388-389) He also believed each person “was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired.” (Defoe, 389) Rather than a person being born poor, he argued that the avarice of some people made those who were weak poor. He believed people should take control of their own lives and make their own fortunes, rather than letting fate and others control what happened to them; many aboard Victoire supported him in this belief. When an opportunity presented itself to seize their own destinies, Caraccioli took advantage of it.
Sailing the Caribbean Sea near Martinique, the Victoire happened upon an English ship armed with forty guns. In the ensuing struggle, “the first Broadside killed the Captain, second Captain, and the three Lieutenants, on board the” the French ship. (Defoe, 390) The ship’s master wished to surrender, but Misson assumed command, named Caracccioli as his second, and fought for “six Glasses, when by some Accident the” enemy ship exploded. (Ibid.) One English officer was the lone survivor, but “he died in two days.” (Ibid.)
With the battle won and Captain Fourbin dead, Caraccioli proposed two alternatives as to what to do next. His friend could continue to command Victoire, or they could return to Martinique and hand over the ship to the proper authority.
[W]ith the Ship he had under Foot, and the brave Fellows under Command, [Misson could] bid Defiance to the Power of Europe . . . and lawfully make War on all the World, since it wou’d deprive him of that Liberty to which he had a Right by the Laws of Nature: That he might in Time, become as great as Alexander was to the Persians; and by increasing his Forces by his Captures, he would every Day strengthen the Justice of his Cause, for who has Power is always in the Right. (Defoe, 391)The discourse did the trick, and Misson seized his future. He was elected captain, Caraccioli became his lieutenant, and the crew chose other officers to represent them on the council. The next order of business was to decide where to cruise.
The Captain proposed the Spanish Coast as the most probable [course] to afford them rich Prizes . . . . The Boatswain asked what Colours they should fight under, and advised Black as most terrifying; but Caraccioli objected, that they were no Pyrates, but Men who were resolved to assert that Liberty which God and Nature gave them . . . . (Defoe, 392)They knew the rest of the world would disagree and “brand this generous Crew with the invidious Name of Pyrates, and think it meritorious, to be instrumental in their Destruction.” (Defoe, 394) Self-preservation, rather than “a cruel Disposition” forced them to declare war on “all European Ships and Vessels.” (Defoe, 395)
Thereafter, they evenly divvied up all property and cargo amongst them. Misson proposed stipulations as to how they would conduct this war: they needed to live in harmony and they must treat any captives with compassion. Two hundred able seamen and thirty-five who were wounded or sick agreed unanimously. While prowling the Caribbean, they captured several prey. From an English sloop they took “a couple of Puncheons of Rum, and a half dozen Hogsheads of Sugar,” but didn’t harm the crew or steal their belongings. (Defoe, 396) When the crew of another vessel had the audacity to board Misson’s ship late at night, his men quietly captured each boarder, “tumbled [him] down the Fore-Hatch, where they were received by others, and bound without Noise, not one of the Privateers killed, few hurt, and only one Frenchman wounded.” (Ibid.) Misson offered to return the men to their ship on two conditions. First, they needed to hand over all the ammunition and small arms on their vessel. Second, they had to swear not to go privateering again for six months. The prisoners agreed and were freed.
After a time, they sought richer hunting grounds and sailed to Africa where they engaged in a running battle with a Dutch ship off the Gold Coast. “The Nieuwstadt had some Gold-Dust on board, to the Value of about 2000 l. Sterling, and a few Slaves to the Number of seventeen . . . .” (Defoe, 403) Misson gave these slaves clothing from the Dutch crew’s sea chests and then allowed them to join his crew. He also permitted others to join him, but never forced anyone. After capturing a second Dutch ship, Misson now had ninety captives, so he put them aboard the prize and allowed them to sail away.
Eventually the company numbered too many for one ship to hold. Misson acquired a second ship, divided the crew between the two vessels, and proposed Caraccioli to captain the consort. Together they sailed round the Cape of Good Hope. They anchored off Johanna Island and, during their stay, became involved in a war between two tribes.3 Darts and arrows were no match against Misson’s guns, and a slaughter ensued. Allied with Johanna’s queen, Mission and Caraccioli participated in peace negotiations with the defeated king of Mwali, a neighboring island. Misson, Caraccioli, and some of their men dined with this man, but on the way back to their ship, “they were enclosed by, at least, 100 of the Mohillians, who set upon them with the utmost Fury, and, in the first Flight of Arrows, wounded both the Captains, and killed four of their Boat’s Crew of eight . . . they, in return, discharged their Pistols . . . and fell in with their Cutlasses . . . .” (Defoe, 411) Caraccioli sustained a severe stab wound to his side, but his attacker “paid for the Rashness of the Attempt on his Life, one of the Crew cleaving in his Skull.” (Ibid.) Outnumbered, Misson and his comrades faced certain death until the discharge of their weapons alerted the men still on the ships, who drove off the attackers. Seven of Misson’s men were dead; two more died from their wounds. Six others were wounded, including Misson and Caraccioli.
Cape of Good Hope (left) and Cape Point (right)
[Sources: Wikipedia, Zaian & Thomas Bjorkan]
After six weeks of healing, the pirates returned to the Indian Ocean to hunt for more prey. They successfully tangled with a sixty-gun Portuguese ship carrying gold dust valued at £250,000. Thirty men, two-thirds of them English, died in the battle and, wounded again, Caraccioli lost a leg. While he regained his health, Misson added ten of the Portuguese’s guns to the thirty already mounted on Victoire. Then he sailed to Madagascar.
He . . . coasted along this Island . . . as far as the most northerly Point, when turning back, he enter’d a Bay to the Northward of Diego Suares. He run ten Leagues up this Bay, and on the Larboard-Side found it afforded a large, and safe, Harbour, with plenty of fresh Water. He came here to an Anchor, went ashore and examined into the Nature of the Soil, which he found rich, the Air wholesome, and the Country level. . . . this was an excellent Place for an Asylum [haven] and . . . he determined here to fortify and raise a small Town, and make Docks for Shipping, that they might have some Place to call their own; and a Receptacle, when Age or Wounds had render’d them incapable of Hardship, where they might enjoy the Fruits of their Labour, and go to their Graves in Peace. (Defoe, 415)The company agreed. “Misson designed his settlement, which he called Libertalia, and gave the Name of Liberi to his People, desiring in that might be drown’d the distinguished Names of French, English, Dutch, Africans, &c. (Defoe, 417) The pirates built two forts on either side of the harbor and mounted forty guns in them. They also constructed a battery of ten guns, as well as houses and magazines. Peaceful relations with a nearby tribe were also forged.
With the founding of Libertalia, Captain Johnson ends his chapter on Misson, but not his story. This he continues in the next chapter, which concerns the Rhode Island pirate Thomas Tew, rather than make the reader read the same information twice. Johnson begins with an account of how these two pirates met. Returning from another successful venture, Misson and his men spotted a sloop.
[W]hen in Gun-Shot, [the sloop] threw out black Colours, and fired a Gun to Windward; Misson brought to, fired another to Leeward, and hoisted out his Boat, which the Sloop perceiving, lay by for. Misson’s Lieutenant went on board, and was received very civilly by Captain Tew, who was the Commander, to whom the Lieutenant gave a short Account of their Adventures and new Settlement, inviting him very kindly on board Captain Misson. Tew told him, he could not consent to go with him till he had the Opinion of his Men; in the mean while Misson, coming along Side, hal’d the Sloop, and invited the Captain on board, desiring his Lieutenant would stay as an Hostage, if they were in the least jealous of him . . . . (Defoe, 421)After this initial meeting, Tew went ashore where he “was received by Caraccioli and the rest, with great Civility and Respect, who did not a little admire his Courage, both in attacking the Prize he made, and afterwards in giving Chase to Misson.” (Defoe, 424)
At a council meeting on what to do with recently captured men, Misson favored releasing them. Tew and Caraccioli feared the released prisoners would divulge what they knew to authorities and European governments would attack Libertalia. In answer, Misson successfully swayed the council to his side by saying, “it was better [to] die once, than live in continual Apprehensions of Death.” (Defoe, 425) The prisoners were summoned, and
he told them . . . that he knew the Consequence of giving them Liberty; that he expected to be attacked as soon as the Place of his Retreat was known, and had it in his Hands, by putting them to Death to avoid the doubtful Fate of War; but his Humanity would not suffer him to entertain a Thought so cruel . . . but he required an Oath of every one, that he should not serve against him: He then enquired into the Circumstances of every particular Man, and what they had lost, all which he return’d [from his own share of the plunder] . . . . The Prisoners were charm’d with this Mark of Generosity and Humanity, and wished he might never meet a Treatment unworthy of that he gave them. (Defoe, 425)In the ensuing months, Misson also freed more slaves, welcomed new prisoners into his community of pirates, and went cruising. After a bloody battle with another Portuguese ship, he discovered two men who “had sworn never to serve against [the pirates].” (Defoe, 430) They were “clapp’d in Irons, and publickly try’d for their Perjury . . . and they were condemned to be hanged at the Point of each Fort; which Execution was performed the next Morning . . . .” (Defoe, 430-431) A quarrel ensued between Tew’s men and Misson’s over this punishment – an event which led Misson to conclude that Libertalia needed laws and a government so they might live “in Unity among themselves, who had the whole World for Enemies . . . .” (Defoe, 432)
[T]hey look’d upon a Democratical Form, where the People were themselves the Makers and Judges of their own Laws . . . they would divide themselves into Companies of ten Men, and every such Company choose one to assist in the settling a Form of Government and in making wholesome Laws for the Good of the whole: That the Treasure and Cattle they were Masters of should be equally divided, and such Lands as any particular Man would enclose, should, for the future, be deem’d his Property, which no other should lay any Claim to, if not alienated by a Sale. (Defoe, 433)Caraccioli suggested they needed one person to lead them. This leader “should have that of rewarding brave and virtuous Actions, and of punishing the vicious, according to the Laws which the State should make . . . .” (Defoe, 433) He also suggested this Lord Conservator could do so for only three years, after which either the pirates must reconfirm him as leader or select someone new. In this way, the office could never become a hereditary one like those of the European monarchies. Needless to say, Captain Misson became the first Lord Conservator, Captain Tew became Admiral, and Caraccioli was named Secretary of State.
Other laws were also enacted, and they decided a congregational meeting would meet once a year, although the Lord Conservator and his council could convene such assemblies more often. The council was composed of the best men, regardless of their nationality or color. A new language, comprised of elements from all the languages spoken in Libertalia, was also devised.
(To be continued . . . .)
1. The university was founded in 1246 and was located in Angers, once the capital of Anjou. Law, medicine, and theology were taught in this well-known school that was abolished during the French Revolution.
2. The English commonly referred to Livorno, Italy as Leghorn. The port is located on the Ligurian Sea, and the region has been inhabited since the Neolithic Era.
3. Johanna is known today as Anjouan or Ndzuwani. It lies between Malawi and Madagascar in the Mozambique Channel northwest of Madagascar.
For additional information, I recommend the following resources:
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Arnaudov, Plamen Ivanov. Elements of Mythmaking in Witness Accounts of Colonial Piracy [thesis]. Louisiana State University, 2008. (accessed 12 February 2017)
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Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
Diener, Samuel. “Modes of Fictionality in the Works of Daniel Defoe and Captain Charles Johnson,” Charlene Conrad Liebau Prize for Undergraduate Research. UC Berkely, Spring 2015. (accessed 12 February 2017)
Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. Thomas Dunne, 2003.
Faller, Lincoln. “Captain Misson’s Failed Utopia, Crusoe’s Failed Colony: Race and Identity in New Not Quite Imaginable Worlds,” The Eighteenth Century 43:1 (Spring 2002), 1-17.
Fox, Edward Theophilus Fox. ‘Piratical Schemes and Contracts’: Pirate Articles and their Society, 1660-1730 [thesis]. University of Exeter, 2013. (accessed 12 February 2017)
Gosse, Philip. The History of Piracy. Rio Grande Press, 1932.
Gosse, Philip. The Pirates’ Who’s Who: Giving Particulars of the Lives & Deaths of Pirates & Buccaneers. Rio Grande Press, 1924.
Hill, Christopher. “Radical Pirates?” in The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism edited by Margaret C. Jacob and James R. Jacob. Humanities Press, 1991, 19-34.
Hooper, Jane. “Pirates and Kings: Power on the Shores of Early Modern Madagascar and the Indian Ocean,” Journal of World History 22:2 (June 2011), 215-242.
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Little, Benerson. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. Skyhorse, 2016.
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Osborne, Lawrence. “A Pirate’s Progress: How the Maritime Rogue Became a Multicultural Hero,” Lingua Franca (March 1998). (accessed 12 February 2017)
“[Osborne], Reasons for Reducing the Pyrates at Madagascar,” British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer. Pickering & Chato, 2007, 3:415-422.
Parker, Martin. “Pirates, Merchants and Anarchists: Representations of International Business,” Management and Organizational History 4:2 (2009), 167-185. (accessed 12 February 2017)
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Rediker, Marcus. “Hydrarchy and Libertalia: The Utopian Dimensions of Atlantic Piracy in the Early 18th Century,” Pirates & Privateers: New Perspectives on the War on Trade in the 18th and 19th Centuries edited by David J. Starkey, E. S. van Eyck van Heslinga, and J. A. de Moor. University of Exeter, 1997, 29-46.
Rediker, Marcus. “Libertalia: The Pirate’s Utopia,” Pirates: Terror on the High Seas from the Caribbean to the South China Sea edited by David Cordingly. Turner, 1996, 124-139.
Turley, Hans. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity. New York University, 1999.
Wilson, Peter Lamborn. Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes. Autnomedia, 1995.
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