Pirates and Unitarians—On radical democracy, utopias, Islam and ideas of unity

The "Jolly Roger"
READINGS: The Story of the pirate William Fly

Captain William Fly's career as a pirate began in April 1726 when he signed on to sail with Captain John Green to West Africa on the Elizabeth. Green and Fly began to clash until one night William led a mutiny that resulted in Capt. Green being tossed overboard; Fly then took command of the Elizabeth. Having captured the ship, the mutineers sewed a Jolly Roger flag, renamed the ship Fames' Revenge, elected William Fly as captain, and sailed to the coast of North Carolina and north toward New England. They captured five ships in about two months before being captured themselves. Following his capture, Cotton Mather [a leading Puritan minister best known today as a keen supporter of the Salem witch trials] tried, and failed, to get Fly to publicly repent.
    Fly and his crew were hanged at Boston Harbour on July 12, 1726. Reportedly, Fly approached the hanging with complete disdain and even reproached the hangman for doing a poor job, re-tying the noose and placing it about his neck with his own two hands. His last words were, roughly, a warning to captains to treat their sailors well and pay them on time - “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.” Fly urged that “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.

From “Mather’s Wrath: Pirates and Unitarians” a Unitarian Universalist Podcast about Unitarian history called The Pamphlet: 

Susan Ritchie, a Unitarian Universalist historian asks us:

Where did Fly's convictions come from, and what would have turned a sailor into a pirate with no regret? It turns out that Fly wasn’t irreligious like Mathers suspected. In many ways, he was just following the dictates of his own conscience and acting out of his own understanding of covenant. Because, you see, the pirates had their own ideas about covenant, a tradition dating back to the days of the earliest buccaneers who lived communally, but it was one that was also influenced by religious radicals. Radicals who had fled England in the mid-17th century to settle in the West Indies. These religious radicals, some of whom were anti-Trinitarian, they all practiced a form of congregational polity that was grounded in covenant and democracy and was far more radical than anything anyone had seen in Boston.
          It's actually known to lots of 8, 9, and 10-year-olds that the pirates themselves had codes about how they would conduct themselves, which is true. They had kind of operational covenants between themselves and agreements to which they would sign their names before they would embark together on a journey and some of them were pretty radical in terms of not just making contracts about how treasure would be divided up, but a commitment to take care of anybody who might be injured in the course of their adventures and a kind of democracy. The captain of a pirate ship could actually be overthrown by the democratic vote of his men. You did have glimmers of a democratic and covenantal society right there on the pirate ships themselves.
          [ . . . W]hen you think about it, in some weird ways, the pirates and the puritans have quite a bit in common, right, because they’re both groups of people who hated hierarchy, who associated hierarchy with oppression, and who longed to find some kind of space on the earth where their personal practice wasn’t dictated by the state. When you think about it, actually, the one place on earth where you would be free of direct interference of state was on the open sea.

Sean Barron, interviewing Susan Ritchie observes that this is

          . . . almost like a tale of two covenants. All these different groups are all experimenting in different ways, different interpretations of living out covenant. One restrictive and enmeshed in the state and one radically open and divorced from any governmental control. Fly is in this milieu and the thing that always strikes me about hearing his story is this is a man who is in jail, he’s going to be hung, he’s destined to be hung in Boston Harbour in just a few days and he’s not repentant for the bloody mutiny that he committed, he's not repentant for the acts of piracy that his crew inflicted on whomever they were pirating. When they see a person walk comfortably to the gallows, it makes me think that he has a faith in something that is stronger than his own actions, especially someone who rebels against an unjust system. I’m wondering about his faith. I’m getting a Jesus parallel here for some reason.
          There’s this oppressive system, you know, the Roman Empire in Jesus’ case, or the Puritan, and he found a way with his small group of rebels and friends to rebel against that and to try to forge a new way and he is executed by the state for that. The words he says, like, he walks towards the gallows and he gives the hangman advice about how to tie the knot; he waves to the crowd. It’s striking.


Pirates and Unitarians—On radical democracy and ideas of unity

What has long fascinated me about pirates is how elements of their stories have entered into our culture’s life in a number of positive ways when the act of piracy itself (both ancient and modern) — and at least when understood in its original, seafaring sense — is often a very violent and extremely frightening event indeed.

John Cottee (left) and me at Kirby Quay c. 1982
For example, in my own life I became captivated by one of the well-known series of inter-war children’s stories by Arthur Ransome about two groups of sailing children called “Swallows and Amazons.” It was called “Secret Water.” You will recall that the Amazons, the sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett, sailed under the banner of the Jolly Roger. Well, at the age of ten I moved to the small north-Essex coastal village called Kirby-le-Soken which lies at the centre of the actual landscape described by Ransome in “Secret Water” and it was there, on the Walton Backwaters with its many creeks, small islands and little quays, that I learnt to sail with a splendid neighbour called John Cottee . At the same time, with the help of my grandfather, I quickly got together my own pirate chest with an imaginary treasure map, real nautical charts (one of which is on the communion table today), a compass, various Observer and I-Spy books on sailing and natural history, note books and pens and, of course, my own little Jolly Roger pennant. I cannot tell you how exciting all this was for a ten year old boy.

My old sea chart, "Pirate Utopias" and "Secret Water" on the communion table
Now, I ask myself, why was it that, like most children, I preferred to sail under the Jolly Roger rather than a pennant bearing the image of a Swallow? Well, looking back on it, today I want to suggest that the whole symbology of the Jolly Roger — or perhaps it would be better to say some kind of ghostly, half-misremembered pirate ideology — speaks particularly powerfully to children about the possibility that they can find, or even create themselves, an adjacent, possible, alternative world to the restrictive, conventional, social and political adult ones in which, at around the ages of 8-10, they quickly begin to discover they are living.

Now, you may be tempted to say in the first instance that this was (and is) all merely childish play. Well, although childish play is clearly going on here, a look at the actual history of our own radical, alternative religious movement, suggests that this is, in fact, very far from being the whole truth. When we do look closely we can see that something much, much more important, interesting and real sometimes was, is, and I think can be, going on under the Jolly Roger that is to do with creating alternative ways of being and of being able to resist oppressive systems of thought or government.

For us, all of it begins in our sixteenth-century affirmation of the unity of God — “Egy az Isten” (as we sang in our second hymn)  and, of course, its correlate, the humanity of Jesus — the two classic, historic Unitarian claims.

In the first instance, as many of you will already know, our affirmation of the unity of God (or, spoken of negatively, our “denial of the Trinity”) caused utter horror amongst many orthodox Christians. Before long, certain of them attempted completely to suppress our communities and ideas using measures up to and including torture and death. This meant that, in addition to our early communities’ obvious, strictly theological, concerns, we quickly began to develop and promote the related idea of religious toleration and freedom of conscience; something which only flourished in reality in Hungary between 1568 and 1570 thanks to King Sigismund’s famous “Edict of Toleration.” We needed, wanted and demanded — both for ourselves and others — the right to inhabit certain autonomous spaces that weren't dictated by the state in which we could think, believe and worship differently to each other whilst still saying that, although we did not think or believe alike, we could still love alike. Alas, these spaces, temporarily granted by the Edict of Torda, were not at the time securely given to us and, over the next three-hundred or so years, we were forced into exile again and again.

So, during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, there we were, believers in one God and the humanity of Jesus, on the run and often ruthlessly oppressed and chased down by whatever state power was ruling the places we ended-up in. It was this persecution that drove many of our number into exile in the New World. But even here we found ourselves in the minority, surrounded as we were by radical Puritan Trinitarians who were also on the run, although for slightly different, if associated, political reasons. Cotton Mather (1663-1728) — most famous today for his enthusiastic support of the Salem Witch Trials — was one such later Calvinist Puritan. Consequently, even New England was not safe for all of our forebears and so they had to move on again. Some ended up in the West Indies and who else is in the West Indies at this time? Pirates and escaped slaves of course.

It seems that in various places along the Spanish Main and, of course, in pirate ships themselves, some interesting conversations were had about how best to develop and maintain a workable polity amongst people who were so radically different from each other, all whom were suspicious of hierarchy, and all of whom had directly experienced the potential for states to become a highly corrupting and violent force. 

In our reading concerning the pirate William Fly we have already heard something of these conversations about polity that in complex and often hidden ways eventually made their way back into our Unitarian communities’ own development of radical, covenantal ways of understanding and practicing democracy.

I — and others — do not think it is too much to claim that it is a kind of folk-memory of these kinds of conversation about polity that survives in the way generations of children have inherited the idea of pirates. As the Unitarian historian Susan Ritchie points out, our culture has somehow managed to pass on to our children a not incorrect sense that amongst pirates there were “glimmers of a democratic and covenantal society [that existed] right there on the pirate ships themselves.”

But in addition to radical democracy there is another connection between Unitarians and pirates — one that is directly connected with our theological, Unitarian position. But what on earth has this to do with pirates you may well ask?

Well, a key early centre for pirates — along with that in and around the Spanish Main — was the northern coast of Africa and, in particular, the Moroccan city of Salé which has been provocatively and excitingly written about by Peter Lamborn Wilson in his little book “Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes”. As I’m sure most of you know, the religion of this region at that time and since is Islam, with its deep and central concern to affirm Tawhid, that is to say the oneness of God.

Tawhid is Islam’s most fundamental concept which holds that God (Allah — Al-Ilāh “the God”) is one and single and consequently, Islam is Unitarian through and through — although, naturally, it is Unitarian in a number of significantly different ways to it’s Christian counterpart.

Now, I hope it goes without saying that you realise not all Muslims are, nor were, pirates, and not all pirates were or are Muslims but, along the north coast of Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth century many pirates were Muslims, and Muslims of various sorts were also ruling the various seaports along that stretch of coast. Given that religious persecution meant that some of our Unitarian forebears found themselves in this part of the world (either by choice as crew or passengers on trading ships or unwillingly — at first anyway — as captives of pirates) it should come as no surprise that some interesting theological conversations were had between some Unitarians and Muslims.

To some extent this was encouraged — in a negative way — by matters back at home because Unitarians (in both the New World and in England) were at times inveighed against (and vilified) as being Muslims — or at least what was called “Christian Mahometans”. Here’s just the briefest flavour of this invective taken from a late English text of 1697 called “The Socinian Creed: or, A Brief Account Of the Professed Tenents and Doctrines of the Foreign and English Socinians. Wherein is shew’d The Tendency of them to Irreligion and Atheism. With Proper Antidotes against them.” It was written by John Edwards, sometime Fellow of St. John's College in Cambridge and who, in 1664, became minister of Holy Trinity Church here in Cambridge (quotes taken from pp. 227-228)

I could observe that they [i.e. Unitarians] industriously comply with Jews and Turks, in opposition to and defiance of all Sober Christians. To gratifie the former, they think fit to renounce the avowed Principles of the latter. Herein they follow their Old Friend Servetus, who had convers’d a long time with Jews and Mahometans, and had espoused many of their Opinions, and was a great Admirer of them. Especially he declar’d his approbation of the Alcoran, and thought it reconcileable with the New Testament, if the doctrine of the Trinity were laid aside.

And more particularly it is observable how favourably they speak of Mahometism or Turcism.

They further (in the same place) insinuate their approbation of the Mahometan Religion above that of Christianity, they magnifie the Alcoran, and the more plausible Sect of Mahomet, as the Saracens call’d it; and at the same time they represent the Modern Christianity (which professes the doctrines of Christ’s Incarnation and the Trinity) no better or other than a sort of Paganism and Heathenism.

It should come as no surprise that, in the context of the times, that some of those who found themselves in this Muslim context and amongst Muslim pirates should have willingly converted to Islam and become themselves religiously integrated into the Muslim world. Such a conversion to Islam may well have been another powerful way a dispossessed and oppressed Unitarian could strike back in a small, personal, religious way against an orthodox Christianity and system of government that had treated them so badly. 

Having said all of the above, please remember that everything I have said here is dreadfully broad-brush stroke stuff. The detail of the whole story is, of course, way, way, more complex, nuanced and confused (and confusing) than I can possibly present here in my self-imposed limit of 2000 words.

But I’ve offered you this little introductory story for a few interconnected reasons.

The first is that, at the very least, I hope it will intrigue you enough to do a little more research about the positive connections between Unitarians, Islam and piracy yourself.

The second is not to believe everything bad you hear about either pirates or Muslims, then or now. Remember that many of the stories told about them both were (and are) constructed by people with some serious political, economic and theological ideological axes to grind. As I hope I’ve shown, amongst pirates (Muslim and non-Muslim) there was something very important going on with regard to radical democratic polity and independence from state control and, amongst Muslims, there was also a powerful affirmation of and support for some of the key religious ideas held by our Christian Unitarian forebears concerning the unity of God and, therefore, the possibility that there existed some kind of meaningful unity of all peoples and all things.

Thirdly, I tell you these things to remind you that resistance to coercive, prevailing power-structures can sometimes help create some visionary and very surprising, unusual and highly plural alternative, parallel democratic communities. This is something that, I think, should be celebrated — especially in an age that seems increasingly to be desirous of creating single, mono-cultural identities and nations.

The "Jolly Roger" flying on the River Cam last week
Fourthly, I tell you these things to remind you that no tradition (family, religious or political), no matter how venerable, is entirely pure as the driven snow.  All traditions have dark elements in their histories — and, no matter which way you tell it, there are clearly aspects of real piracy that were, and are, deeply unpleasant and problematic. However we should remain grateful for the grace that allows from out of them to develop surprising, valuable, good and beautiful fruits. Let's not forget that we all have nefarious "pirates" in our pasts from whom we are descended.

Lastly, I hope that thinking back to the thrill you may have felt yourself as a child sailing under the skull and crossbones can serve to remind you of what the possibility for an alternative world felt like.

Without doubt we, as adults, need to recover something of that feeling to help enthuse us to create today some radical democratic alternatives that still have at their heart both a distaste for inequality and a lack of justice and fairness, and a sense of humanity’s deep underlying unity with each other and all things.

Now "shiver me timbers, shipmates" that's surely still a good and wonderful thing to aim for!