Crimes of Terror: Piracy and Slave Revolts

Over the last two weeks the True Crime seminar Paul Bond and I are co-teaching has started to catch its groove. As of last week groups of three students have been tasked with introducing the readings, running the class discussion, and generally managing the tenor of the seminar for the week. A new group takes over each week, and they’re responsible for some basic research on the topic, time period, and readings. They’re also expected to perform a close reading of the texts in order to run the seminar discussion, as well as prepare questions and arguments about the work to help galvanize discussion.

I’ve never ran a course like this before so consiously, but at of the end of week four it’s really starting to work. The students are rising to the challenge, and I think they’re beginning to realize the importance of background research, close readings, and focused questions. What’s more, they’re taking ownership of where the discussion goes and how it gets there. Paul and I jump in and re-direct the conversation as needed, but more and more the responsibility rests on their shoulders. Some of this is in response to the Hardboiled seminar we taught last Fall. During that class I tended to dominate the conversation, feed the group my readings, and take center stage most of the time. While I freely admit it’s my incination to do this, I know it has its real limitations as an approach to a seminar.  So we changed it up, and I owe much of the organization and thinking behind this structure to Paul. I’m finding this new model has helped muzzle me a bit. And while I still probably talk more than I should, it’s definitely much better than it might have been otherwise. Most of the students are participating regularly, there’s active discussion, and we’re all getting comfortable with discussing a wide range of topics.

One of the topcis that came up both this week and last that I find particularly interesting is the idea of terrorism and crime in the 18th and 19th centuries. In particular, last week we started talking about the narrative of William Fly, a sailor who in 1726 mutinied and killed his captain, commandeered the vessel, and raised the Jolly Roger. Fly was eventually caught, convicted of murder, and sentenced to hang—as was the fate of most pirates. But, what’s so compelling about Fly’s execution narrative, The Vial Poured out on the Sea written by Cotton Mather, is that unlike all of the others up to this point we’ve read, Fly refuses to play along with Mather’s game of obedience that enshrines the power of the elite and ignores their abuses of the poor. Rather than repenting with his last words, Fly scoffed at Mather in the narrative and warned:

Our Captain and his Mate used us Barbarously. We poor Men can’t have Justice done us. There is nothing said to our Commanders, let them never so much abuse us, and use us like Dogs….all Masters of Vessels might take Warning of the Fate of the Captain that he had murder’d, and to pay Sailors their Wages when due.

This struggle between Mather and Fly over the narrative being told is one that can be broken down between that of powerful, establishment Mather versus the poor, disempowered Fly. Marcus Rediker in his 2004 book on pirates Villians of All Nations argues that what we have at work between the minsiter and the pirate are two distinct kinds of terrors, the hanging of the poor man Fly to protect property, reinforce obedience and instill fear was a terror practiced by the power elite to reinforce their privilege. A second form of terror is that practiced by Fly and his ilk that worked in similar ways by using  violence to terrorize sailors, obtain booty, and seek vengeance on those they considered enemies. Pirates often opted for a different social order than that of Mather, but they nonetheless used terror to accomplish it. In so many ways the summary execution of scores of pirates in North American, the Carribean and Africa from 1715 through 1726 demonstrates how the war on terror in the Atlantic played out during the Golden Age of Piracy.

What I like about Rediker’s frame for the hostile face-off between Fly and Mather is how he uses the idea of terror to illustrate these two social positons in the first chapter of his book. In turn, it gives a bit richer and more complex way to conceptualize the pirate and piracy. Going “on the account” was one way to avoid certain abuses rampant for the average sailor (or laborer more generally) in the colonies. The relationship between those who try and resist the power structure and those who enforce it starts to provide some rather striking examples of the idea of power as a social construction and relation that we read about in Foucualt last week.

Nat Turner praches religion

All of which seemed to be an important prelude to our discussion this evening about the 1831 narrative The Confessions of Nat Turner. More than a century after Fly’s narrative and a revolution for national independence later, the question of terrorism and slavery re-emerge. In class tonight, one student tried comparing Turner’s insurrection to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, a number of other students resisted this and alternatively suggested Turner’s rebellion was more like the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  Hmmm, where to go from here? How do we understand what Turner did? How is this terrorism? What are the various vantage points? Turner ruthlessly killed men, women and children, 55 in all, why? What was his motive? How does his existence within a peculiar insitution premised upon control, terror, and violence shape this reality?

The conversation was interesting, and I think as a class we’re starting to break free of some of the assumptions that these texts reflect some kind of unbiased truth or reality. Every text is a reflection of a moment’s fears, desires, and concerns and it needs to be read accordingly—keeping in mind our own. Turner’s confessions reflect just how traumitized an entire nation was by the impact of an insurrection of almost 70 slaves ruthlessly murdering men, women , and children. A terrible recognition of the contradictions of freedom, democracy, and slavery coming home to roost. But what was probabaly most powerful about tonight’s class is the final seven minute produced film called Possession in which the contradictions, humanity, and barbarity of this peculiar institution come into sharp focus.

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