Lies and Half Truths in the Archives

calico-jack-rackhams-pirate-flagAs a historian of piracy, I suppose it was inevitable that my research summaries would end up reading like bad monologues for a late night comedy act. Like this tidbit from the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla: “1618 four Frenchmen appeared before the governor of Santo Domingo accused of piracy by the Spanish patrolmen who caught them on the island’s coast. The governor interrogates the four men through a translator. One of the men admits that, to survive, they occasionally went pirating on the high seas, but that they never stole anything from the Spanish. The governor then asks him where they got their ship, to which the men admit that they may have stolen one thing from the Spanish.” Ba dum tsshhh, cue the rimshot and laughter from my friends as I relate the story over beers later that evening.

When I was at the archives, I gleefully wrote those research summaries and stored them away in a folder on my desktop. At the time, actually writing my dissertation seemed light years away and I proceeded oblivious to the problems that have now almost paralyzed my writing process. Somehow I constructed an entire dissertation project around the testimonies of captured mariners without really wondering if they were telling the truth. In the sober light of writing, however, I am now confronted with the issue of determining whether my captured mariners can really be the useful sources that I want them to be.

57997219Captivity narratives provide a potentially invaluable source for the lived experiences of marginalized groups throughout the Atlantic World. Their role in wider scholarly conversations about empire making and the exchange of information has recently received significant attention from historians as well. Lisa Voigt’s Writing Captivity in the Early Modern Atlantic, for example, makes clear the centrality of captivity in “the production of knowledge, identity, and authority in the early modern imperial world.”[1] Through an analysis of the texts produced by captives that circulated throughout Europe and the Americas, Voigt demonstrates how European administrators and the reading public knew what they did about peoples and places far from their immediate experiences.

And while Voigt’s discussion of captivity narratives might be instructive for me on how to understand the movement of ideas among imperial planners, less clear is how to work around essentially unreliable sources. The mariners I study stood accused of piracy—an offense punishable by death throughout the Caribbean. As they testified to Spanish officials, I can read the sources against the grain and see the ways in which these individuals adopted various means of legal posturing, a phrase so usefully coined by Lauren Benton in A Search for Sovereignty. And, on its own, that kind of analysis is incredibly useful for me in understanding these mariners and how they thought about what would be considered legal and illegal. (It’s instructive, for example, that the Frenchmen I discussed above seemed to willfully misunderstand piracy as the Spanish defined it. They viewed theft on the high seas as piracy depending on who they stole from, while the Spanish viewed the act as a crime no matter what flag the injured party flew).

But I want these sources to do more than show how mariners thought about piracy. I want them to tell me about the early seventeenth-century Caribbean in ways that other sources cannot. However, as I follow the testimonies of these men sailing throughout the Atlantic World before landing in a Spanish jail in the western Caribbean, I am left with the sinking feeling that perhaps none of what they testified to was actually true. These mariners understood the stakes behind their testimonies and they likely crafted answers using what little legal knowledge they had in order to save their lives. And, while historian James Sweet avoided particularly tricky issues of using Inquisition records to reconstruct the life of Domingos Álavares by writing a biography centered around a detailed analysis of the places and communities where Álavares lived, my mariner testimonies serve as material for a prosopography at best. But, a prosopography of what? Pirate fiction?

And so, knee-deep in testimonies delivered by mariners who faced garroting at the hands of their Spanish captors, I am left trying to divine truth from lie. I study the islands they frequented in order to understand what would seem probable in these narratives in light of everything we know about the early Caribbean. Despite that, the writing process is haunted by questions of veracity. When a mariner claimed he was kidnapped by a pirate crew and forced to serve them, I question his motives. When I find out that the same mariner was a free black who was later enslaved by the pirate crew who seized him, I question less. And, sometimes, when these testimonies provide the only voices I have for the lived experience of mariners and settlers in the first half of the seventeenth-century, I simply believe them. After all, what could possibly go wrong with trusting a pirate?


[1] Lisa Voigt, Writing Captivity in the Early Modern Atlantic: Circulations of Knowledge and Authority in the Iberian and English Imperial Worlds (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009): 1.

One response

  1. Pingback: Lies, Half Truths, and Pirates: Challenges in Doing Historical Work in the Archives | Buffalo Doug


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