Yo-ho-ho and a social revolution
HUNTING PIRATE HEAVEN by Kevin Rushby Constable, £16.99, pp. 304, ISBN 0094800103 Pirates evoke a handful of enduring images: Errol Flynn in tights and bandanna, careering across the quarter-deck, cutlass in hand, as the dashing Captain Blood; Long John Silver hobbling about on his wooden leg, moth-eaten parrot perched on his shoulder squawking 'Pieces of eight' in Treasure Island: the cartoon pirate ship The Jolly Roger sailing along cheerfully under its skull and crossbones flag. As a rule, most of us know what we associate with pirates and what we do not. Rapine, plunder and murder on the high seas, yes. The search for a democratic tropical utopia based on equality and fraternity, no.
Kevin Rushby's curiosity is therefore excited when he comes across a pirate history written in 1724. It introduces Captain Misson, a French filibuster who is said to have founded the utopian colony of Libertalia in Madagascar, where 'every man was born free and had as much right to what would support him as to the air he respired'. It is not clear whether this work is historically accurate or a plausible fiction written by Daniel Defoe, but this and a couple of other literary hints are enough to send Rushby to Durban with plans to catch rides up the East African coast, hop across to the Comoros islands and on to Madagascar in search of this tantalising utopia.
One of the first characters he runs into is a chain-smoking Portuguese captain, a former gun-runner who turns out to be an idealist — this part of the world, we soon
discover, attracts them — with his own land and the improbable ambition to become a regional ice magnate. Together, he and Rushby watch whales making love in the Indian Ocean, compare notes on Vasco da Gama's routes around Africa, and drop by a small-town nightclub where the author ends up being fought over by a pair of high-spirited prostitutes called Marilyn and Nina.
Hunting Pirate Heaven heaves with a chaotic cast of cameos. The slow-minded truck-driver in Pemba is the sort of character familiar to anyone who has travelled in remote parts of the developing world:
'Where is your country?' asked the driver, sharing a bunch of bananas with us.
'London.' I had got used to the city being more widely known than the country.
'Is that in Ethiopia?'
'Ifs a rich place, isn't it? Ethiopia.'
'I'm not from Ethiopia,' 'Where are you from?'
Then there is the anally retentive Swedish vegetarian with a rucksack full of cosmetics, designer dresses and champagne, a Mozambican drunkard reeking of pineapple aguardiente who styles himself the Ocean Sheriff of Ibo, and the meanminded Norwegian sailor who takes Rush ach in front of the Scandinavian captain, who fixes him with a hostile stare 'as if I were a pariah dog on a priceless carpet'.
Warned to avoid the fabled pirate island of Anjouan, which is supposedly in the grip of a murderous civil war, Rushby pays no heed and arrives to discover an underemployed population of welcoming natives whose main occupation appears to be getting high. Later, he moves on to Madagascar where at last he finds the traces of pirate settlements for which he has been searching.
Throughout the humour and the minutely observed descriptions of people and places that mark him as an accomplished travel writer, Rushby never loses track of the historical quest which underpins his journey. Seamlessly woven into the narrative, it leads him to explore, question, and ultimately reject the concept of the utopian idyll. Frequently hilarious and always entertaining, Hunting Pirate Heaven is a nautical Don Quixote, a serendipitous voyage teeming with the joy of travel and brimming with literary élan.
South from Barbary, the story of Justin Marozzi's 1,200-mile journey by camel along the slave routes of the Libyan Sahara, is published by HarperCollins.