Rum, Sodomy and the Lash

Review of The Anatomist’s Tale by Tauno Biltsted (Lanternfish Press, 2020)

I love that the lives of pirates of the golden age still matter, that we still covet their memory and recall their exploits. I love that a bunch of 17th century outlaws, clandestines and marginals continue to capture our imagination and fire our notions of rebellion, or even just escape. The Golden Age of Piracy was so short (roughly between the 1680s and the 1730s) and yet imagining is so long. Captain Charles Johnson’s seminal work A General History of the Pyrates (1724)—the prime source of much of our knowledge on the subject—may be a somewhat unreliable account of these transatlantic rascals, but nevertheless, it is enough to know that they existed, that they rebelled, and that they, by all accounts, lived their short lives well.

Tauno Biltsted’s new book The Anatomist’s Tale serves the legend of the pirates of the golden age well. Choosing to dwell on the emancipatory aspects of the milieu, the book presents a speculative history of what the author describes as “potential realities.” Although there is plenty of high sea adventure and rambunctiousness, the focus of The Anatomist’s Tale is less on the drama and more on the intimate lives of men (and some women and children) caught up in the merciless system of exploitation of 17th-century capitalism.

Heading into uncharted territory, The Anatomist’s Tale takes us to the far shores of New Madagascar, the off-the-map lair of pirates and maroons constructing an outlaw society. In contrast to the brutal world they have left behind, the castaways form part of a democratic and egalitarian community, like a kind of utopian communalism. In its historical imaginings, The Anatomist’s Tale takes us on a voyage of possibilities into a potential world flourishing in the margins.

A Rapscallion of Sorts

But mostly The Anatomist’s Tale is the story of a motley group of captivating people living in unruly times. It is a tale told by the eponymous anatomist, who we meet initially languishing in Marshallsea, the notorious London gaol, lamenting his fate and eager to share his tall tales with anybody who has ears to hear (he relates part of the story to a resident mouse). But he is an unreliable narrator and—we quickly learn— inclined to tailor the tale in the name of self-interest.

“Although I found those pirates beautiful and brave,” the anatomist comments during his incarceration, “I did not take part in their conspiracy.”

And thus a marvellous tale is left to be told by a flawed and duplicitous character. Does a book suffer when an unlikeable character is given narrative agency? Here in this case, it adds to the general intrigue.

Paradoxically, the anatomist’s own history elicits sympathy from the reader. His family is forced from their land in rural England at the dawn of the industrial revolution, dispossessed by the sweeping enclosure of the commons. In a convoluted and eventful series of struggles that would not be out of place in a Daniel Defoe novel, he ends up signing up as a shipward surgeon on a merchant vessel traversing the Atlantic.

Suffice to say the working conditions on board are typically horrendous, and the captain maintains control by means of intimidation and threats of violence. One whipping too many and Captain Bellamy and his staff are thrown overboard. And so the mutiny of the Royal Fortune commences.

The newly-minted pirates are a motley crew of damaged and traumatised proletarian mariners hailing from around the globe, most of whom were coerced into working or slaving on the vessel in the first place. They rename the ship The Revenge, and having no other options but an outlaw life, set sail beneath the Jolly Roger.

When describing the day-to-day life on board The Revenge and the relationships between the haphazard crew, the author Tauno Biltsted’s eloquent, lyrical prose excels. With an eye for the suffering below or on the surface, Biltsted creates tender and poignant profiles of the reluctant pirates. We meet Tharinda, a philosophical Indian abducted from Goa at a young age. And the warrior Jalil, sold by slavers off the coast of Africa, coming to terms with issues of gender and identity. Their romance, and the rum-soaked joy of the crew in general in their new-found freedom, provide moments of levity in an otherwise—up to this point—wretched and unforgiving world.

A Pirate Utopia

Our pirates are not so good at the plundering trade, but they enthusiastically embrace life onshore in the pirate colony of New Madagascar. Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates tells the tale of the pirate kingdom established in Madagascar in the late 17th century, known as Libertalia and founded on the principle “that every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired.” Similarly, in New Madagascar, the Anatomist’s Tale describes how the community of maroons, indigenous and pirates shared the wealth equally, and ensured that all decisions were to be put “to the Vote of the whole Company.”

The author’s radical imaginings take flight in a nuts and bolts description of the intentional community numbering tens of thousands in the swamps of Central America. The pirates of The Revenge finally find their safe haven, and for a time, New Madagascar becomes a place of healing for the weary crew. As Alexander, a pirate-turned-Mayan-prophet tells the narrator – “You have a right to seek your happiness, Surgeon. You may not find it, but you surely have the right to seek it.”

Of course, as everyone knows, there is no happy ending and Alexander’s words could well stand as an epitaph for this and all brave if doomed pirate utopias.

The Revolutionary Atlantic

The Anatomist’s Tale is a thoughtful rather than swashbuckling read, exploring themes of agency, free-will and fate. Beyond such philosophical musings, Tauno Biltsted’s ambitious novel also considers the workings of the political economy of the late 17th century alongside a critique of early laissez-faire capitalism. It is a history from below told from the perspective of reluctant rebels, of pirates forced by circumstance to assume a bandit life. With its rich character sketches and poignant story-telling, it is a novel that remains in the reader’s mind long after reading the unexpected and somewhat disquieting finale.

In memory of David Graeber