The Pirate Republics that Inspired Uncharted 4's Libertalia
After discovering El Dorado, Shambala and Iram of the Pillars, Uncharted 4 throws Nathan Drake into an area that’s a bit more grounded -- the pirate republic of Libertalia, a utopian colony holding the real-life treasure haul of Henry Avery.
Unlike the series’ previous lost cities, Libertalia has a certain amount of truth behind it. True, pirates never erected a city on Madagascar, but pirate settlements were a very real thing in the 17th and 18th centuries, and some resembled, and inspired, Naughty Dog’s depiction of the pirate paradise -- if you stir a bit of myth into your history.
Libertalia: The Uncharted of the 18th Century
According to Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, French officer James Mission founded Libertalia after he and his crew adopted radical enlightenment politics. Declaring aristocracy a sham, slavery a sin, and themselves free men, Mission and his crew went pirate and wandered the sea, attacking slave ships and liberating the men below deck. Intervening in a tribal conflict on Madagascar, Mission and his crew decided to stay and develop a utopian colony based on these ideals. These pirates-turned-collectivists shared all property, and elected their leaders via direct democracy. The General History claims Libertalia lasted 25 years before the colony collapsed.
It’s a great tale, but that’s probably all it is.
“Libertalia is a wholly made-up story,” says Josh Scherr, a writer at Naughty Dog who worked on Uncharted 4. “It was partially written as a political parable in A General History of the Pyrates -- so we were able to take plenty of liberties.”
Scherr’s correct in that assessment. The Libertalia chapter of General History -- which is otherwise a collection of pirate biographies -- exists solely to explore political ideas like collective ownership and abolitionism. Early modern writers often used fake countries as a way to express political ideas that might be considered seditious, and Johnson’s General History falls neatly into that category.
But tales of pirate kings and buccaneer colonies weren’t only told for politics, they were also the escapist entertainment of their day. British audiences devoured pirate stories in the 18th and 19th centuries, both on the page and at London’s raucous theater districts -- and the public’s favorite buccaneer was Uncharted 4’s own Henry Avery.
In 1695, Avery hit the Indian Mughal’s trading fleet as it returned from Yemen. The resulting payout was huge, by far the largest pirate score in history. One ship alone, the Gang-i-sawai (Anglicized as Gunsway), yielded between £325,000 and £600,000 of treasure -- an amount equal or double what Britain made from American tobacco each year. The heist outraged the Mughal court, which threatened to revoke the East India Company’s trading rights if Avery wasn’t executed. The British government responded by launching the first worldwide manhunt in history, dispatching an APB to every British colony to be on the lookout for Avery and his men. Hearing the order from his base in British Nassau, Avery disappeared -- never to be seen again.
But while British colonial authorities hunted Avery, London’s broadsheet press and theaters transformed him into a Robin Hood-like hero who lived free and struck against the rich. This was especially true after a 1709, when a spurious autobiographical pamphlet claimed that after taking the Gunsway, Avery abducted and married the Mughal Emperor’s daughter and set up a pirate kingdom in Madagascar. This story formed the basis for a 1713 tragicomedy The Successful Pyrate, that cast Avery as a pirate king ruling over a collection of free, and comical, pirate scalawags. This flamboyant, humorous Avery was a far cry from the real man (whose crew tortured, murdered, and raped civilians on the Gunsway) but it played well to a British public that enjoyed the fantasy of pirate freedom. Pirate stories were a way for the public to fantasize about Enlightenment ideas such as freedom and justice without having to read John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.
“Books about pirates were their form of escapist entertainment,” says Scherr, pointing out that these stories gave people a glimpse of a life they couldn’t imagine. “Tales of men living their lives at sea, living as free men, far from the reach of their oppressive governments. Noble lawbreakers, if you will.”
The game uses this fictional conception of pirates as a parallel to Nathan Drake and his crew -- they too are “noble thieves” on an adventure to win treasure, and they let the audience escape their humdrum lives by tagging along. Through them, we experience the thrill of travel and risk-taking, glory and discovery. But in both cases -- legends of pirate colonies and the game’s plotline -- the idealistic myth diverges sharply from the nastier reality.
Pirate Colonies: Far From Utopia
18th century audiences might have dreamt of living free, but those fantasies had little relation to the actual experience of piracy -- and pirate colonies.
“The reality of life as a pirate was considerably less romantic, but anything sounds better when you’re toiling in the fields for your king,” says Scherr. Naughty Dog put this rift between escapist fantasy and reality at the center of the game’s narrative, where Drake experiences nostalgia for his old, dangerous life. “Nate has given up his adventuring but still feels the pull,” says Scherr. “Eventually he gets back into it to help Sam, but it’s not without a cost.”
Pirates tended not to live long, a situation that pirate Bartholomew Roberts summed up with the motto: “a merry life and a short one.” Naughty Dog plays with this in Uncharted 4, frequently suggesting that it’s only a matter of time before Nate’s freewheeling lifestyle destroys him. His brother Sam, by contrast, seems unafraid -- or unaware -- of the fact that he might die in pursuit of Avery’s treasure. Sam’s the real pirate out of the two of them, and it isn’t greed that makes him different. Unlike Nate, Sam’s an unmarried, unattached man with nothing to lose -- he can afford to be selfish in a way Nate can’t. Sam can pursue that dream of adventure without asking what will happen if he dies.
Strangely, this pattern played out with actual pirates as well. Pirate captains preferred unmarried men, arguing that men with families wouldn’t be able to throw themselves fully into the mission. Piracy was a dead-end job. You didn’t retire and go home, and people who did often ended up back at sea when their funds ran out.
So if piracy was such a dead end, why establish colonies -- which by definition involve large groups of people handing settlements to the next generation? What about all these stories about pirate republics where men lived free from authority?
The truth is that there were pirate settlements -- a lot of them in fact -- but they looked nothing like what popular culture imagined.
The vast majority of pirate communities were not intended to be long-term. These were more bases of operation than anything -- comparable to logging camps or arctic research stations -- and not always inhabited year-round. This was where pirates collected to stage raids and organize fleets. You can see this work-centric nature by looking at their geography -- they tended to be near shipping lanes that trafficked in treasure. Caribbean haunts like Port Royal and Nassau preyed on Spanish fleets returning with the plundered metals of Latin America, while bases on Madagascar harried the India-Middle East trade.
Few pirate-founded settlements had stone buildings, and most were probably camps more than anything. There are notable exceptions -- Fort de Rocher on Tortuga -- but any non-wooden buildings tended to be the work of colonial governments. This is a historical cheat Naughty Dog uses in Uncharted 4, where pirates have erected a whole inland city.
“We based it on old colonies and European architecture of that era,” says Scherr. “We certainly veer more towards the fantastical rather than realistic depiction of a pirate colony, but it was vital for our story that the colony felt majestic.”
In the game, Libertalia’s architecture ranges from buildings you would see in a small tropical town -- rough stone with wide windows and verandahs to catch the breeze -- to grander structures reminiscent of Jamaican plantation houses and Rococo mansions. As Scherr admits, these aren’t historically accurate, but they do convey the essential contradictions inherent in Avery’s “paradise” that also occurred in most pirate colonies. Despite the rhetoric, these were not societies of equals -- the captains were in charge.
In reality, the Madagascar settlements were shantytowns, at most protected by earthen forts. A man visiting Madagascar in 1700 claimed that there were 17 pirate ships docked on the island, and estimated that 1,500 men resided there. But within ten years tropical diseases, infighting, and raids by native islanders whittled the settlements down to nothing. In 1711, Captain Woodes Rogers spoke to two former pirate settlers who testified that only 60 or 70 pirates remained on Madagascar, “most of them very poor and despicable, even to the natives, among whom they had married.”
Though the plays and books promised freedom, most pirate settlers found themselves struggling to survive in a hostile and unfamiliar environment. Others -- like the logwood cutters on the coasts of Central America -- used far-flung industries to hide out between jobs. The logwood men lived free from government, it’s true, but they also lived in primitive stilt shacks. During the rainy season they worked in two feet of parasite-infested water and lived on liquor bought from the ships they supplied.
Even the most developed pirate colonies -- those at Port Royal or Nassau, where British authorities looked the other way -- weren’t particularly pleasant places to live. Drunkenness, gambling, and prostitution were rife, as was the violence these pursuits encouraged. English authorities referred to Port Royal as “the wickedest city in the world,” for good reason -- one popular pastime involved buying a huge pipe of wine and forcing everyone who passed you on the street to take a drink.
On top of the rowdiness, pirate communities were too transient to weather a large disaster. In 1692, the largest pirate port in the Caribbean, Port Royal, collapsed into the sea during an earthquake (it was forgotten until flight sim inventor Edwin Link re-discovered it). Instead of reestablishing their base, the pirates simply moved on -- after all, they were mobile by nature, and it didn’t profit them to rebuild a settlement when they could weigh anchor and sail somewhere else.
And where they sailed was Nassau, a place that came the closest to being a real-life Libertalia.
Nassau: The Real Libertalia (Sort Of)
The island of New Providence became a pirate shelter in 1696, when Henry Avery dropped anchor there after the Gunsway heist and bribed a local official to look the other way. Though Avery didn’t stick around -- there was a £1,000 bounty on his head -- he set a precedent for pirates to use it as a base of operations. Britain was at war, after all, and happy to shelter anyone who would harry enemy shipping.
But in 1706, a combined French and Spanish fleet attacked Nassau, leaving the colony without a government and essentially in the hands of pirates. Like Uncharted 4’s Libertalia, the most prominent captains -- Benjamin Hornigold, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, Stede Bonnet, Charles Vane, and Jack Rackham -- began acting as “governors” on New Providence. They declared themselves a republic, and held elections for office. Henry Jennings, who’d founded the pirate settlement, acted as mayor, and Blackbeard (hilariously) won the post of magistrate. Their legal system was an adapted version of the ship’s articles most pirates sailed under -- an element that Uncharted 4 includes. While it was no paradise, this rough-but-functional system did confer greater political and religious freedom than these men might’ve experienced at home -- particularly because it conferred equal rights regardless of race.
And like in Uncharted, the colony ultimately fell to infighting and greed. As the war dragged on, the captains -- most of them British privateers -- fell to raiding British shipping. When the war ended in 1713, London wanted Nassau back, and offered a royal pardon to any pirate that agreed to give up the trade. The proclamation had its intended effect: it shattered the captains’ fragile unity. While most of the swashbucklers dispersed before the encroaching British fleet arrived in 1718, Benjamin Hornigold and his crew stayed behind to surrender. Sensing a good thing, the incoming governor turned Hornigold into a pirate hunter and sent him after his former friends.
These elements -- the famous captains, code of conduct, and bloody rivalry between the founders -- are all exaggerated in Naughty Dog’s vision of Libertalia. And that’s fair, because Uncharted 4 is a game that cares less about the facts, and more about how we choose to remember those facts.
A Game About Myth and Memory
Last week, we discussed how societal memory can shape how we see the past, and it’s hard to find a better example of that than piracy. Despite centuries of historians telling us that pirates were bloodthirsty, cruel, and greedy, we insist on seeing them through rose-colored (spy)glasses.
“Pirates are cool,” admits Scherr. “At some point, I think everyone goes through a pirate phase, plays pirates, makes a treasure map. There’s an inherent sense of adventure to any classic pirate tale, and we thought it would be fun to weave our modern-day adventure around these scalawags.”
And he’s right -- the pirate myth is fun. So fun, that we prefer it to the actual history. That’s why it’s so effective when Uncharted 4 plays into these myths, tempting us into that childlike vision of piracy then pulling the rug out to say: Remember, these guys killed for money. They were not nice.
It’s the right tone to strike for a game so steeped in memory. Throughout Uncharted 4, we’re prompted to look back on Drake’s previous adventures. The game spends a lot of time in flashback, and includes callbacks to the first three installments. At one point, Sam even turns to Nate and asks: “So, how does this stack up to your previous adventures?”
It’s both meta and thoroughly within the theme. As Nate tracks Avery across the world -- Avery, a killer erroneously remembered as a hero -- we also see him struggle with how to remember his own adventures. Are they lighthearted escapades he misses, or foolhardy endeavors he narrowly escaped? Does some dark center lurk beneath that cocky smile?
“Henry Avery, or any pirate, could be described as a treasure hunter, as are Nate and Sam,” says Scherr. “Which sounds great on paper, but of course, there’s an element of obsession and danger that goes along with it.”
By the end of Uncharted 4, it’s hard to say who has the most mythologized past -- Nate, or the pirates.