Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Pirate Pluralism

Old-fashioned pirates and video games might make for a good sales pitch but are less often thought of as connected to legal pluralism. And yet, the popular video game Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag provides an example of the ways in which plural communities can be constructed and the boundaries needed for their functioning.

The story used in the game follows the evolution of Welshman Edward Kenway from a lowly pirate roaming around the Caribbean to an illustrious pirate captain. Kenway begins life as a poor yet law-abiding member of society in Wales, who believes that he is constrained by the existing legal and social system. His wife is content to live the way that her family did but Kenway wants more and leaves to become a privateer, promising that this will only be for a few years. A few years turn into many and the more socially acceptable privateer status gives way to piracy as Kenway seeks to maximize profit above all else.

At the opening of the story, Kenway steals a ship and changes his identity from a freelance pirate to a pirate captain in charge of a ship and her crew and seeking out goods and fortune. On this ship, the Jackdaw, Kenway’s word is law – as was standard for ship captains. In the process of outfitting the Jackdaw with a crew, Kenway meets Adewale, an escaped slave from a Caribbean plantation, and makes him the quartermaster, thus establishing a rule that capability, not race, is the benchmark for service on the Jackdaw. This is reinforced later in the story when Adewale goes on a separate path and Kenway brings on a woman as the new quartermaster. Kenway also establishes rules for the ship’s pirating activities and emphasizes that innocent civilians will not be targeted for attack or killed.

Kenway’s motives may have been monetary however the story explains that others within the loose community of pirates throughout the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico had other motives. Key among these motives was freedom from their home laws and legal systems, which are viewed as repressive, unfair and prejudiced. With this in mind, many of the pirates come together and agree to turn the city of Nassau into a city run under pirate control. Kenway is sceptical of this idea, arguing that the idealistic goals will not work as a governing system, nevertheless the city falls under their control and the British authorities retain only nominal jurisdiction.

 The city operates under loose sets of laws and mores that are imposed through society rather than through an official constabulary force. This is done with good intentions and in order to counter the rigid legal regimes that many of the characters sought to leave behind when they initially took to the sea. Despite these intentions, as the story progresses and Kenway makes frequent returns to Nassau, it becomes apparent that the city descends into physical and societal decay under such a lax system. This is particularly evident when a disease outbreak threatens to become an epidemic and the necessary supplies to save the inhabitants are not  readily available.

Ultimately, the story ends with a British force arriving to retake Nassau. The newly appointed authorities publicly make an offer of amnesty for any pirates who are willing to accept it and agree to give up pirating in the future. The offer is made on behalf of the British Crown, however it is soon clear that the new authorities do not intend to live up to the letter of this law and instead target any pirates – including those who are willing to comply – for death or imprisonment.

In the Black Flag storyline, there is of course action and adventure – it is a game after all. More than that though, the plot provides a complex backstory to Kenway as the main character and to the pirate system in which he operated. The plot provides the framework for a pluralistic system in Nassau that runs the gamut from revolutionary to decayed to repressed.  

At the beginning, the idea of freeing Nassau from what is viewed as an overbearing legal and societal system is revolutionary and motivated not only by profit but also by a desire to create an idealistic system free from the strictures of unjust laws. Those who undertake the responsibility of overseeing Nassau do so in a somewhat cavalier way, demonstrating good intentions and free spirits but little understanding of how to implement laws other than those on ships. It is possible that this is where the cracks in the system begin to emerge – the system is so plural that it lacks significant boundaries and methods of enforcement.

As the system progresses these cracks manifest themselves in a visible lack of public order. This is illustrated by increasingly dilapidated buildings and the inability of city residents to provide for themselves during a disease outbreak that appears to have occurred in no small part as a result of the lack of order endemic in the community. Indeed, this outbreak is only controlled when pirates undertake a dangerous mission that puts their own lives at risk and encourages unlawful conduct.

The system is finally suppressed and residents of Nassau are subject to repression that reinforces the problems from which the pirates initially fled their home countries. Efforts by the British governor to reassert imperial control are ruthless and methodical and include chicanery as well as outright murder. Indeed, the governor requires his men to disobey direct orders of amnesty from the Crown and instead engage in attacks that result in murder and imprisonment. These measures and the efforts at population repression which follow place the residents of Nassau, those who seek to put into port in the city, and the remnants of the pirate population in a worse position than they were in before.

In direct contrast to this, Kenway’s ship presents a system of controlled pluralism that functions well and allows those onboard to profit. Kenway is open to sailors of all races and genders as part of his crew provided they meet the needs of the ship and work with the other crewmembers. He establishes the rules of conduct on the ship and in terms of those who are targets of his ship’s activities. These rules apply equally and it is apparent that the prejudices and limitations that he sought to flee at home do not apply on the Jackdaw. While he sees continuing downturns in Nassau and frets at the seeming futility of the undertakings there, Kenway is the leader of an increasingly prosperous ship and functioning plural society that stands in direct contrast. 

In these ways, the game tells the story of differing forms of pluralistic societies and demonstrates the relationships between pluralism and boundaries in terms of societal success and functioning.

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