Review: Raiders and Natives: Cross-Cultural Relations in the Age of Buccaneers (2022)
Florian Wieser | University of Edinburgh
Hollywood scandals and court battles have recently thrust Disney’s almost 20-year-old Pirates of the Caribbean franchise back into popular consciousness. Not all the memories thus resurfaced are pleasant; there is, for example, a particularly unsavoury part of the series’ second instalment. In it, main character Jack Sparrow, a misadventurous pirate captain, is held captive by an indigenous community who worship him as their god-king up until the moment when they plan to eat him. This depiction of Caribbean indigenous people was already called out as racist at the film’s release in 2006. Yet the deeper problem remains that it reflects a kind of presumed common knowledge. When most people think of Native Americans in the pirate age at all, they imagine that these people existed in isolation from the contest of colonialism played out around them and only entered history as cannibalism-prone impediments to pirate adventures. A reassessment of these stereotypes has been overdue, and one recent publication goes a long way towards delivering it.
In Raiders and Natives, Trent University historian Arne Bialuschewski explores the intertwinement of Native American and pirate histories in the seventeenth century. During this period, maritime raiding was still perpetrated on a semi-legal basis by the so-called buccaneers, international gangs justifying their attacks on the Spanish empire in the Americas through dubiously acquired and sometimes forged letters of marque. Though, at points more information about individual buccaneers could have helped one understand their motivations better, Bialuschewski does an admirable job of introducing this historical context without distracting from the various Native American peoples that are the principal actors of his narrative. He tells their shared story as a developing phenomenon, shaped by phases of greater and lesser mutual need and understanding.
The 1665 sack of Granada in Nicaragua by a group of English and Dutch buccaneers is described by Bialuschewski as a particularly important turning point in this development. While Granada was not the most significant city of the Spanish empire, the raid upon it still yielded impressive spoils. What made this event so impactful was that it made buccaneers realise the great advantages they could gain from amicable relations with Native Americans. Without the help of local indigenous people, the Granada raid would have been impossible; thus, it became a model for buccaneer strategies for decades after. Especially crucial to the raid’s success was the support provided by an indigenous man named Juan Gallardo. He accompanied the buccaneers back to Tortuga and joined several other expeditions in the following years, including those of infamous captains like Henry Morgan and L’Olonnais.
Gallardo’s piratical career is rendered in great detail by Bialuschewski, as it forms both an important link between the phases of his timeline as well as a sort of archetype for the experiences of indigenous people in the buccaneering world in general. Out of the many indigenous actors that play their parts in Bialuschewski’s account, there are three to which he dedicates entire chapters. First are the Maya of Yucatán in Mexico. Their interaction with buccaneers still fell into the exploitative period before the sack of Granada, when raiders preferred abducting indigenous people to cooperating with them. Countless Maya were enslaved during buccaneer raids to serve as guides, canoeists, or labourers, though a few also received the opportunity to win their freedom as buccaneers in their own right. Such journeys undertaken by indigenous people alongside European buccaneers were more frequent among the other two peoples described by Bialuschewski: the Mosquito of Honduras and the Cuna of Panama and northern Colombia. Bialuschewski shows how continued contact with buccaneers transformed the cultural and political landscape of these peoples, encouraging state building and social stratification. However, he also stresses that buccaneers were not the only ones vying for support from Native Americans and that the Spanish made tempting counteroffers for alliances.
In these chapters dedicated to individual Native American nations, Bialuschewski’s analysis is at its strongest, demonstrating clearly that these native peoples were not passive or isolated in the piratical environment of the seventeenth-century Caribbean. Rather, they were aware of the benefits to be gained from engagements with outsiders, expanded their power through these, and changed allegiances when it suited them. A surprising omission in Bialuschewski’s narrative are the Kalinago, inhabitants of the smaller Caribbean islands like Dominica and Saint Vincent. Their reputation for cannibalism is what stereotypical media like Pirates of the Caribbean riffs upon, and they were among the first indigenous people involved in Caribbean piracy.
Instead, Bialuschewski devotes his final chapter to the ventures into the Pacific Ocean that buccaneers began to undertake in the 1680s. The primary entry point used by buccaneers was the Central American isthmus, the narrow land bridge connecting North and South America. In the late 1600s, this territory was controlled by the Cuna and could thus open and close to travellers depending on current indigenous politics. Furthermore, the indigenous communities of the Pacific coast of the Americas were unfamiliar with non-Spanish visitors and less than welcoming to them. Soon, buccaneers resorted to torture and village burning when help was not forthcoming. Such behaviour marked the breakdown of positive interactions between buccaneers and Native Americans at a time when buccaneering as a whole was dying out due to increasing state repression.
While the historiographical gap he pushes into is considerable, Bialuschewski manages to keep his book almost pocket size at just under 180 pages, including notes and index. This compactness belies the depth of his research: more than 360 notes dot the text and show how Bialuschewski draws upon sources and scholarship in five different languages. The amount of archival work that this hints at is staggering. Bialuschewski also compares different editions of published sources and includes notes on their differences and respective merits. Despite such scholarly rigour, the book remains very readable and narratively engaging throughout. Typographical errors in the text are few, but they are annoying when they affect source references.
Overall, this small but fascinating book shows how underexplored the seventeenth century as a phase in the history of Euro-American encounters still is. Bialuschewski has used remarkable erudition to map out a route that others must now follow. And, as easy to carry as it is, I am sure his book will sit comfortably in my pocket as I embark on similar journeys of research myself.
Florian Wieser is a second-year PhD student at University of Edinburgh. He has previously studied at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. His research is funded by the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities and explores the role and agency of Black and Indigenous people in the seventeenth-century French and Spanish Caribbean. He is co-organiser of the Edinburgh Centre for Global History Graduate Workshop for the academic year 2022/23.