HL90 FV: Piracy, Empire, and Race

Looking for a class this spring? We’ve got some new HL90s to explore! Patrick Sylvain teaches “Piracy, Empire, and Race” this spring, Monday, 9:45-11:45.

What inspired you to teach this class?

As a person who was born in the Caribbean, my very existence (indirectly speaking) is the result of piracy. The island of Hispaniola (Ayiti) wouldn’t have been separated into two colonial territories (Spanish and French) if it hadn’t been for the subversive activities of pirates. Assuming that pirates were not merely a band of irrational fools and that their violent acts were not committed purely out of pathological impulses, I became enthralled by them early on.  As a scholar, I aimed to demystify the lore around pirates (I feel the same way about zombies) and offer a course that would be both fun and serious at the same time. So, I am excited to discover many doubloons worth of information through this course.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

Pirates were actually quite democratic in their organizational structures. Pirates were also fundamental pillars of the transoceanic capitalist economy until they were deemed illegal by the royal governments. Before being designated as illegal, governments (kingdoms) utilized piracy as instruments of destabilization and plunder. Many insurance companies in existence now derived from piratical activities.

Are you doing any cool projects or activities?

Yes, there will be plenty. But, students will have to sail with me under the Black Flag to find out what those are.

What do you want students to take away from the class?

You cannot fully understand empire, or for that matter the Western world, without having a solid understanding of piracy. When considering piracy we often think about the acts of violence committed during the illegal period when terror was no longer legitimated. Rarely do we remember that piracy was first and foremost an economic endeavor. From privateers employed as government agents to the most infamous men to sail under a black flag, pirates sought treasure as well as conquest. Some pirates also cared about justice. The earliest pirates were government agents, what today would be called mercenaries. The first ever recorded legitimated pirate in modern Western history was Sir Francis Drake who was employed as a privateer by the English crown. His maritime acts were very much illegal, but the crown deemed his actions legitimate.

How can students learn more?   

By becoming a mate on the HL90FV Pirate Ship! (You can also look at the syllabus on Canvas here!)

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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