Pirates and Mutineers of the Nineteenth Century by Grace Moore, ed., Reviewed by Gillen Wood
 

Pirates and Mutineers of the Nineteenth Century
Ed. Grace Moore
(Ashgate, 2011), xii + 299 pp.
Reviewed by Gillen Wood on 2011-07-29.

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In 1822 Edward Trelawney, an obscure but charismatic midshipman, gained admittance to the Shelley Circle at Pisa as the very embodiment of Byron's Corsair. "Our pirate," as Shelley called him, entertained the group with wild, romantic stories of his career on the South Seas. Visions of violent raids, shipwrecks and salt-drenched love sur mer enlivened long evenings by the Arno. That Trelawney wholly fabricated these stories would not have mattered, except that his exaggerated maritime credentials gained him the job of overseeing the design of a pleasure boat for Shelley and his friends, whom Mary Shelley called "the Corsair crew." The boat, like Trelawney himself, was the very image of high seas adventure but bereft of structural credibility. Inevitably, it took Shelley to the bottom of the Mediterranean.

The awkward crossings between piratical fantasy in the nineteenth century and its deadly reality underpin many of the contributions to this valuable and wide-ranging new volume of essays. One of the best, by Deborah Denenholz Morse, argues that the bloody mutiny on the Hermione in the West Indies in 1797 inspired the fictional naval scandal that serves as the sub-plot in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. While Frederick, brother of the heroine Margaret Hale, participates in the violent overthrow of a tyrannical authority in the Caribbean, she tries by non-violent means to mediate between striking workers and factory owners in a fictionalized Manchester. Morse draws a persuasive analogy between the inchoate labor relations of mid-Victorian Britain and the traditions of naval authority and discipline. In so doing, she shows how our understanding of both piracy and mutiny, the twin themes of the volume, may be extended beyond their marine context to illuminate a variety of historical episodes and cultural phenomena in the nineteenth century.

A number of essays, for example, examine the emerging legal concept of literary piracy. Andrew Lyndon Knighton revisits the brief career of the New York journal Corsair, edited by Nathaniel Parker Willis, whose title and editorials gloried in its predatory mode of existence, trawling the transatlantic main for prizes at the expense of the local literary economy: "As the piratical law of copy-right secures to [the editors], free of expense, the labors of BULWER and BOZ, SCRIBE, and BALZAC, with the whole army of foreign writers, they cannot at present . . . offer anything for American productions" (80). Willis regards himself as a literary pirate, sailing merrily through the legal loopholes of nineteenth-century publishing, but for other writers, the insecurity of literary property worked decidedly against them. In her chapter on litigation surrounding Douglas Jerrold's pirate drama Black Ey'd Susan (1829), Deborah Mattacks argues "that the figure of the pirate came to represent both the material conditions of theatre practitioners and the threat of piracy from publishers" (135). In this respect, the literary economy faced the same vulnerability to rogue competition and ruin as capital operations of all kinds. Charles Reade makes the dangers of an unregulated marketplace the subject of his novel Hard Cash (1863). From a piratical episode early in the plot, Sean Grass extrapolates Reade's vision of a metropolitan-based financial system rife with predation.

Other essays trace the associations, both figurative and historical, between piracy and imperialism. Joetta Hardy construes the unpublished fantasy writings of Branwell Bronte, centered on a pirate hero, as "a caricature of Britain's activities in the Niger delta" (46), while Katherine Anderson examines the motif of manifest destiny in the best-selling American pulp novel Fanny Campbell, Female Pirate Captain (1844). Aside from its interest as a rare example of a fictionalized female pirate captain, this Revolutionary-era novel blends historicism and piratical romance in ways, Anderson writes, that "allowed readers to envision a proto-national past in service of contemporary expansionist, or imperialist, ideology" (97).

Ting Man Tsao observes the same heroic trope of the nationalist pirate, with a dash of Byron's Corsair, in the reports of Hugh Lindsay and Charles Gutzlaff on their secret mission to forbidden ports of China, published in 1834. Their express goal--to provide reconnaissance for British commercial incursion into the untapped Chinese market--shows "the connections between the emergence of the British piratical hero and the rise of free-trade imperialism" (61) as the dominant ideology of the High Victorian age. Dominant, perhaps, but not universally agreed upon. Garret Ziegler's intriguing essay on Dickens's notoriously bloodthirsty response to the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857, "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners, and their Treasure in Women, Children, Silver and Jewels," shows how his co-author Wilkie Collins uses a comical pirate plot to defuse the idea of the Indian threat and, even more subversively, to suggest that "the moral ambiguities of piracy . . . are not all that different from the moral ambiguities of empire" (164).

Collins's pirate captain is a mincing, Jack Sparrow creature--"I saw no such lace on any lady's dress there as I saw on his cravat and ruffles" (qtd. 160)--and several essays locate the enduring popularity of the Victorian pirate in the figurative license it gave to a rollicking polymorphous perversity. Mel Campbell traces the evolution of "pirate chic" from Defoe and Charles Johnson in the heyday of the early eighteenth century, arguing that the hybrid aesthetics of the picturesque best describes the pirate's ambiguous status "somewhere between the feminized mode of ideal beauty and the masculinized mode of the sublime" (12). Deborah Lutz's excellent essay, meanwhile, examines the cross-gender appeal of Byron's corsair as embodied in Trollope's Lizzie Eustace. Like Charlotte Brontë's Blanche Ingram before her, the heroine of The Eustace Diamonds (1872) re-enacts for herself Bryon's signature role of poetical melancholy but also seeks rough trade at the hands of some "wild, fierce, bandit-hero." Such was the irresistible appeal of the Corsair as romantic sex symbol: he offered a locus of fantasy both wild and emotionally habitable, exterior and interior, masculine and domesticated. Trollope typifies Victorian revisionists of Byron, however, in that Lizzie's romanticism gradually becomes indistinguishable from a host of desires and anxieties surrounding money and material wealth. The contemporaneous boys' adventure novels of R. M. Ballantyne offer a more explicit rejection of the well-worn Corsair figure. In "Pirates for Boys," Grace Moore shows how Ballantyne purges from his pirate characters the image of a brooding, sensitive intellectual essential to the complex Byronic buccaneer. Instead, Ballantyne offers only brutes and degenerates, who make a mockery of piratical romanticisms and supply a bland cautionary tale instead.

In the late Victorian era, W. S. Gilbert and Robert Louis Stevenson breathed new life into the Byronic corpse of the corsair. It is Stevenson, after all, who is more responsible than anyone for the pirate's post-nineteenth century life as a comical peg-legged treasure hunter, bedecked by a parrot, and driven by obscure compulsion to conclude all statements with "arrrgh!" Neither Long John Silver nor the clownish outlaws of The Pirates of Penzance exactly match the corsair of Lizzie Eustace's dreams. But perhaps this is because both Stevenson and Gilbert focus as much on the collective identity of pirates and their potentially progessive forms of self-government: shared wealth, democratic election, etc. As Abigail Burnham Bloom argues, the Gilbert and Sullivan pirates, with their close, communal bonds, present an alternative to what the hero Frederic exemplifies: slavish devotion to abstract "duty" to Queen and country. Alex Thomson likewise traces the rhetoric of duty, or "dooty," through the iconic Treasure Island (1883), addressing the conundrum of a community which--though by definition outside the law-- is conspicuously addicted to legalistic procedure and concepts of fairness.

The general argument of the volume, and many of its contributions, relies upon the oft-stated irony that the heyday of Caribbean piracy ended around 1720, a full century before the full flowering of the Romantic buccaneer. By this narrow reckoning, the figure of the pirate might be analyzed solely in the realm of representation, as a lurid afterimage of historical realities. Those realities cannot be banished quite so neatly, of course. The very real Barbary Wars between the United States and the pirate ports of North Africa (1801-05 and 1815) do not rate a single mention, while the Atlantic bias of the volume means that readers must wait until the final essay, by Tamara Wagner, to learn that in the early nineteenth century, "the suppression of piracy" was a pillar of British foreign policy in south-east Asia, where it played a crucial role in such imperial events as the founding of Singapore.

Perhaps it is the natural limitation of a volume of essays, as opposed to a monograph, that gaps in coverage stand out, and that there is no place for a sustained overview of the subject. But to this reviewer, at least, the emphasis on post-hoc fantasies of the pirate, and his metaphorical transferability to subjects ranging from imperialism to copyright law, come at the expense of proper treatment of the continuing economic and geo-political relevance of piracy in the nineteenth century, particularly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It was there that Edward Trelawney, after all, found rich material for his own piratical self-fashioning among the Shelley circle at Pisa, and later in his Adventures of a Younger Son (1831). That reservation aside, this is a rewarding volume of essays on subjects both remote and familiar. Piracy is the common thread, but the prominence of themes of imperialism, copyright and print history, spectacle and popular culture, and gender and sexuality, make of the book a veritable treasure trove for the reader interested in a broad canvas of (mostly translatlantic) nineteenth-century cultural history.

Gillen D'Arcy Wood is Nicholson Professor of English and Director of the Sustainability Studies Initiative in the Humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


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