Every, Tew, Misson, and Libertalia

One of the odder features of Capt. Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates is that when it was expanded to two volumes in 1728, Johnson (whoever he was) included a chapter on what appears to be an entirely fictional pirate, Captain Misson. Even more confusing, Johnson has Capt. Misson meet with the real pirate, Thomas Tew, whom you might remember from class sailed with Henry Every on his last voyage. And to complicate matters further, Misson’s story contains internal references dating it to 1707, yet Tew died in 1695! What’s going on here?

Strange though it may seem, Johnson is actually working within an established story telling tradition, that of the fanciful utopia. Medieval peasants had their Cockaigne, a land not of hardship but plenty, with peasants in charge instead of nobility, and freedom from sexual restrictions. It was the normal world turned topsy-turvy.

An unflattering view of Cockaigne, emphasizing those well-known pirate virtues of sloth and gluttony

An unflattering view of Cockaigne, emphasizing those well-known pirate virtues of sloth and gluttony

The discovery of the New World was a shock to Europeans. They thought they had known everything! However, once reports began trickling back from the New World, Europeans were intrigued by how different society was there. To them, it seemed that the Native Americans lived in a paradise, quite different from Europe. And so, combining elements of the New World and Cockaigne, European writers began developing stories about imaginary realms in far-off places where the normal (European) social order was inverted. Probably the best-known examples are the fanciful realms of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and the isolated native kingdom visited by Candide in Voltaire’s 1759 eponymous story.

Every living like a prince in Madagascar

Every living like a prince in Madagascar

This is the purpose of Johnson’s chapter on the fictional Captain Misson. Johnson drew on the legends about Henry Every’s mythical Madagascar kingdom, and the reports he had about how the pirates treated each other as equals, to have Misson found a fanciful pirate utopia on Madagascar. This colony of Libertalia is governed by reason and kindness. It has no religion, because a priest has converted all the pirates to skepticism. Misson and his followers recognize no authority other than their own, accepting no king, though they vote to make Misson their leader for a time. Johnson makes Libertalia sound like paradise, a paradise that criticizes European society by inverting its rules.

Although it’s a fiction, Johnson tried to anchor Libertalia in reality by providing many plausible details about the life of Captain Misson and his career in the French Navy before he becomes a champion of liberty. And that is no doubt why he connected Misson to Tew. Tew was a known historical figure. If Tew interacted with Misson, Misson had to be real, too!

Paradise may not last, but it can sure be fun. It has to be said in Johnson's favor that the pirates and natives treat each other as equals.

Paradise may not last, but it can sure be fun. It has to be said in Johnson’s favor that the pirates and natives treat each other as equals.

Yet the pirate utopia on Madagascar was a pipe dream, nothing more. Johnson has Misson die, and Libertalia fail, as his way of ending the fantasy. And in reality, when Captain Woodes Rogers (of whom we shall hear more) visited Madagascar in 1714, he found that the pirates there were a few wretched survivors, living at the sufferance of the native chiefs.

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8 thoughts on “Every, Tew, Misson, and Libertalia

  1. sarij

    Could it be that Johnson felt there was a need to fill in a gap in pirate history? I have heard of travel books that contain factious places and people on maps.Sir. Thomas More’s Utopia is a fictitious account of Raphael Hythlodaeus, a sailor who “spent time in Portugal and found a Utopia. Though a novel, some of the information and maps made by the sailor found their way into history books and map books as if the area needed to be filled in or given longer descriptions. Then again, maybe Johnson was paid by the word.

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    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      A reasonable conjecture about filling in the history. And I might add that Johnson may not have seen his work as strict history, but his account of factual material he had read or knew of, retold by him as he saw fit. So fictional enhancements, particularly for dramatic purposes, may have seemed quite reasonable to him. Give the readers what they want!

      Every so often, this question crops up among historical scholars: is it OK to engage in a bit of dramatic license to make the story come alive? John Demos did so with his book on a captive among the Native Americans, and being a respected scholar, it set off a storm over the issue.

      On the other hand, it’s unlikely Johnson was paid by the word. The standard in those days was flat payment for the publication rights. I suspect, given that his information was less reliable in volume 2 than in volume 1, that Johnson was struggling to fill out volume 2, period.

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  2. crimsonprose

    Captain Mission: what a fantastic name for a super-hero of comic book fame. I can imagine it. He’s a lowly cabin-boy, with a stammer and limp, until danger threatens. Then, whoosh, whip off the rags, done the Jolly Roger’d hat, and into action goes Captain Mission!
    Well, if no one has used it, they’ve missed out on a tailor-made chance.

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    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      I guess kings get special privileges. More to the point, the story of Every has him lording it over the natives, while the story of Misson does not, even though the latter ultimately derives from the former.

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  3. Warspite

    It seems like there could be a kernel of truth regarding the whole Libertalia legend. Given the limited post-piracy career opportunities, trying to establish communities on Madagascar makes sense. It was on a heavily traveled route, and an island of that size offers many geographical options for settlement.

    The long term prospects of any success for such a settlement would have been minimal. I am thinking of predations by local tribesmen instead of the Royal Navy and others as in the Carribbean. Captain Rogers’ observation in 1714 certainly rings true of such occurrences.

    Sometimes the legend just “feels” so much better than the facts!

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    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      You have a good point. Rogers did confirm there were some pirates there, and before that there had been a trading post run by a colonist from British North America in the 1680s. It may well be that the first few pirate settlers enjoyed life there . . . before getting sucked into native politics.

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