‘Under The Banner of King Death’ puts pirates in their place – in workers’ rights history

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Folklore and mythology have always mixed reality and fiction. But we are all lucky (or not) to exist in a time when our access to folklore and mythology—indeed, our entire cultural presentation of history—is most accessible through corporate media franchises. And corporatism (vis à vis colonialism) means that the stories we get – the mythologies imposed on us at impressionable ages – are neither fully representative of historical facts nor rooted in the needs of ordinary people like other oral traditions.

Now let’s talk about some fucking pirates.

Under the banner of the King of Death is a new graphic novel adaptation of Villains of All Nations: Pirates of the Atlantic in the Golden Age, a non-fiction pirate history book by famed historian Marcus Rediker. Illustrated by David Lester, Under the banner of the King of Death cleverly turns Rediker’s history lesson into a tightly character-driven adventure. I guess it’s a bit fictional, but it seems true to the larger ideas of Rediker’s book (or at least the part I’ve read of it). That is: what if the real pirates of the Caribbean of the 18th century were in fact one of the first models of the workers’ rights movement?

Building on Rediker’s story, Lester introduces readers to John Gwin, a black man who escaped slavery in South Carolina; Ruby Decker, a white working-class sailor from Amsterdam; and Mark Reed, a white American who – slight spoiler for the dead of history – is actually a woman who lived in drag to work on ships and have more freedom than she would otherwise have been granted in as a property of a man. Right off the bat, it’s an intriguing cast – far more diverse than the pirate stories you’re used to, but in a way that feels natural, and frankly, After realistic, given what we actually know about the triangular trade industry in the Atlantic Ocean.

John, Ruby and Mark didn’t go looking for gold and sunken treasure. They’re just tired of being mistreated. They want to put in a hard day’s work and be paid fairly, without fear of being whipped by the ship’s arrogant captain in his stupid wig and robe. Over a drink, they discuss their frustrations with their working conditions and realize that there is strength in unity. If they can build solidarity with the rest of the crew – damn, even those African prisoners in the cargo hold, on their way to be sold as property – and if they all get up together and tell the captain they don’t take more of his shit, and also, they wanted better pay?

Emboldened by rumors of similar working-class uprisings, our trio undertake a mutiny and commandeer the ship. Much of the black-and-white graphic novel focuses on what happens next, as they attempt to build their own anarcho-communist society on the sea. The crew learns to make decisions through democracy direct – which, of course, includes struggles – and agrees to distribute things more evenly. No one is looking for treasure; they just want to survive and enjoy life, in exchange for a little work. When they attack other ships, it is usually for one of two reasons: to free Africans who have been sold as slaves or to obtain supplies. As far as these pirates go, the captains of these “legitimate” ships are all corrupt and greedy bosses anyway. They abuse their crews and exploit the resources of the native peoples, so it’s okay to treat them like they treat others.

This, of course, as an affront to the self-important bureaucrats of the European colonizers. These wigged bastards believe in rules, you see – in law and order, I say! But history has shown that most of these “laws” are just little slips of paper created specifically to justify horrific atrocities and punish anyone who tries to push them back. Hackers may have a reputation for being those debased, immoral savages – but that reputation only exists to help bosses keep their workers in line. Sure, they indulge in wage theft, flogging and literal slavery – but that’s different from those savage pirates who mix races and revel in the pleasures of life.

Thus, like all workers’ rights movements, Under the banner of the King of Death is a story that inevitably heads into a confrontation between workers and the armed wing of bosses and owners (aka, the cops). It’s going as well as usual. But that’s what makes this story so interesting: to realize how much you and I and every Starbucks employee have in common with these pirates than with the so-called lawful captains, who will whip and whip you until the profit be in the black .

Globally, Under the banner of the King of Death is a quick and fun read that twists the conventions of pirate stories in fascinating ways. The ending draws particularly poignant parallels, if you’ve ever had to fight for rights at work or in society. Lester’s sketchy illustrations are simple enough to guide you through the story, while firing just enough synapses for your mind to fill in the bigger, brighter images. There are a few points where the artwork gets a little confusing, but ultimately none of that took away from my understanding of the story; even though I couldn’t say who More precisely done X thing, I still have enough of the essentials to continue.

Pirate solidarity!

Under the Banner of the Death King: Pirates of the Atlantic, a Graphic Novel [David Lester and Marcus Rediker with Peter Buhle / Beacon Press]

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