Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.
Reading this by Kester Brewin reminded me of watching a movie based on a Saturday Night Live sketch. The basic premise is reasonably sound for a sketch, or perhaps in this case for a magazine article, but what works well in a more limited format doesn’t have the heft required for a full movie or in this case a book.
Essentially, the book pits the rise of the pirates, as an expression of egalitarian society, over against the loss of the commons, those spaces and activities which existed for the benefit of the whole of society. As such the book serves as a good, readable lesson on economic history. It also provides a counter narrative to the current view of piracy in places such as the waters off of Somalia.
On the whole, I found the book a good read. Brewin has an engaging style as a writer, and he certainly does a good job of helping readers understand the complexities of the relationships between pirates and mainstream society, and how mainstream society (including, maybe even especially, the church) took it upon themselves to vilify the pirates at every turn.
There are however, two major points of disagreement I have with the book. The first is that Brewin, while admitting that the pirates were often very nasty and violent, soft pedals this aspect throughout. This is problematic, because no matter how ill-treated those who turned pirate were, the initial act that creates the pirate is almost inevitably one of violence. There doesn’t seem to be any way around the idea that piracy meets taking power from the oppressors can only be done through violent means. Also, while egalitarian, pirate societies only seemed to be maintained with a great deal of violence. (Location 327 in my Kindle edition)
Second, is Brewin’s insistence in seeing all acts that promote the preservation and expansion of the commons as acts of piracy. For example he cites Ben Franklin’s willingness to not patent the lightning rod as an example of pirate behaviour (location 1178), yet Franklin while acting against common practice, was in no ways contravening any legal standards.
Perhaps Brewin is simply trying to appeal to our adventurer’s hearts with these examples, but I think such an appeal overlooks the possibilities of ways of subverting our society, while working within it.
Brewin’s treatment of the death and resurrection of Christ in relationship to the pirate’s seeing themselves as the embodiment of a living death doesn’t seem quite right to me, but it is one that I need to sit with a little longer in attempting to try and figure out what Brewin is actually saying.
On the whole I found this an interesting read. It’s worth putting on your “to read” list, but not necessarily one which I would recommend rushing out to acquire right away.
Here are a couple of other links to some of Brewin’s ideas.