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Pirates and the Making of the Modern Atlantic World

Not all pirates are as fun-loving as Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, but Stanley Rutland Professor of History Andrew Wood regularly offers a captivating course on these same terrorists at sea.  His approach focuses on pirates and piracy as part of a larger process identified by scholars as the “making of” the Atlantic world. Combining European, African and American histories, Wood’s approach widely interprets maritime discovery, conquest, colonization, war, resistance and of course, robbery at sea as part of a relatively integrated, tri-continental process.

One of the more provocative elements of Wood’s class derives from Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations.  Interestingly, Rediker argues that Golden Age pirates (ca. 1650-1730) established pioneering “floating democracies” aboard individual ships. “This meant that a host of multiethnic crews abided by a code of quite radical democratic ideas” decades before the advent of the American, French and Haitian Revolutions.  From the collective provisioning of food and water to the selection of the ship captain, these pirates curiously pioneered a wealth of revolutionary practices at sea.

Wood’s course engages a range of social-historical approaches including a serious commitment to gender studies. From this, students learn of the exploits of any number of female protagonists in the Atlantic world pirate saga including Grace O’Malley, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Like their male compatriots, “these women— if only for a time — enjoyed a life of heightened freedom and adventure,” Wood said.  

Although students are not required to walk the plank, they do take on an ambitious reading and writing agenda in critically considering the changing dynamics of political power that tend to provide the political opportunity for pirate activity. Toward the end of the semester materials fast forward to the contemporary era as students read hair-raising accounts and present their own research on pirate attacks off the Horn of [East] Africa, the South China Sea and in cyberspace.