Though I’m about to be very critical about this novel I do want to preface by saying that Pirates! is not trash. Celia Rees is very talented in the realms of poetic word choice and world building and this is what makes this novel engaging, adventurous, and entertaining. Pirates! contains all the typical pirate-tropes like marooning, sea storms, sword fighting, and mutiny. The clichés may seem like the book would be boring but Rees writes them in a way that makes the novel feel like an old classic.
Where Rees falls-short is through her exploration of themes. She makes some choices in her plot and character-building that contradicts some of the themes that are in this story. The main theme in this book is about the perils of racism and sexism but that would be a lot more effective if this book wasn’t in fact racist.
The main character of this book is a white upper-class English women named Nancy. Through her own trials and tribulations she ends up in Jamaica where she owns and then frees a slave named Phillis. Phillis grew up in Dahomey and is a black shaman. The first critique I have over her shamanism is that there was really no effort in exploring Dahomey-culture. Phillis would have been a much more mature character if her actual culture was explained in this novel instead of her just being a platform for racial tropes. I learned a lot about 17th century upper class life, pirate life, slave life, and merchant life in this novel. If Africans are mentioned as well then their culture should be explored to the same degree. Instead Rees lazily relied on tropes to build Phillis.
This racism gets only more offensive as the story goes on. After Phillis introduces to Nancy to “African-magic” Nancy herself develops prophetic dreams. This makes no sense at all. Nancy is white and she is English and does not understand how shamanism works at all. How did she get second-hand supernatural powers from Phillis. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Phillis’ blood-daughter to receive these abilities?
There seems to be a desperation to make Nancy part of African-culture. Or that ‘hey the only way to make everyone equal is to make our cultural artifacts interchangeable’. But hey, who is more likely to be whipped for practicing Dahomey customs? Nancy or Phillis?
The other oppression that Pirates! explores is 17th century sexism. The examples Rees explores are still relevant and oppressive so I would go even further and say that this book is about how racism and sexism are still prevalent in 21st century society. One example of an ongoing gender issue that is present in this novel is how women are given less opportunities and lifestyle choices then men. And one example of an ongoing racial issue that is present in this novel is how black people are still tied to the lower-class and are stigmatized despite the amount of wealth that individual actually has.
Even though I can get behind these ideas in Pirates! there is still the problem in the way Rees presents them. Her choice to make Nancy and Minerva have a sister-like bond, to have Nancy and Minerva both refer to society as a prison, and to have Nancy have no internalized racism makes it seem like the two are dealing with the same issues when they are not.
Black women and white women do not undergo the same kinds of suffering or levels of suffering. Minerva and Nancy both have their own hardships but Minerva has to deal with a lot of the sexism that Nancy deals with as well as slavery and racism. Nancy had a lot of trouble in her life and though being a women/wife at the time isn’t exactly freedom this kind of servitude does not equalize the actual slaves at the time. Social oppression is a real thing but what is even more controlling then that is actually raping, whipping, and murdering your own slaves.
Also, re: sisters. We are misled in believing that Nancy and Minerva have a very strong healthy friendship but they are not fully honest with each other. If they were then they would of discussed at least once how at one point Minerva was Nancy’s SLAVE! Also, though I understand the foreshadowing, my eyes were literally rolling out of my head the first time I read that Nancy and Minerva were ‘like sisters’ because Minerva taught Nancy how to swim / they had a laugh together / they had a moment. Melodramatic much? This story basically is about a rich white person who believes slavery is cruel and runs away with some of her former slaves to live a free life at sea. There is no racism on a pirate ship. Nancy is the only one that is openly disturbed by the way white slave owners treat their slaves on land. The character Nancy is the epitome the myth that ‘some people are just born not-racist’ which is a really problematic perspective but the one that is in popular culture.
I suggest that a better and more realistic perspective would be a story about Nancy fighting her own internalized racism. The story would go like this: A young and rich English women, Nancy, was forced to move to Jamaica where she looked over her Father’s plantation. There she witnesses slavery and realizes that while her plantations gave her a cushioned life they were torture and hell for the slaves that worked them. Nancy feels awful for contributing to such a horrible world and then tries to assure that she is no longer apart of it. She goes throughout the rest of the story of dismantling her privilege, fighting her internalized racism, and developing into a strong ally as a way to ensure that she no longer makes choices that leads to the oppression of black people.
Anyway, that would be the case if the author wanted to keep Nancy as her main character. But honestly a black person should of starred in a story about dismantling racism.Also, Nancy is a horrible character. Nancy’s climax happens on pg. 146 out of 380 where she makes her first kill. Up to that point there was a lot of build up, Nancy’s character was heavily explored, her anger and disgust was realistically increasing, and she killing that guy was believable and evidence that Nancy is a strong character that will really fight for her beliefs. I know that the
vagueness makes me sound homicidal but that’s because I’m not trying to give away spoilers. Just trust me when I say that Nancy starts this off as a strong female character and that made me really proud. But shortly after her life-changing action, Nancy became passive, bland, and indecisive. The good parts of the rest of the story is Nancy following the advice and orders of people around her. The bad parts are when she just stands around and looks at stuff—most evident in the sea storm. The rest of the crew, including Minerva who is also a women, can actually handle the ship. But all Nancy does is stand in the way and look at how fast the wind is moving. DO SOMETHING, Nancy. Make up your own mind! Be a real character! But no, Nancy doesn’t do anything at all for the next 230 pages.
Minerva on the other hand continues to be a realistic character, continues to make decisive choices, and evolves from a cold person who keeps strangers at bay to a warm person in a healthy relationship. Minerva is a strong character that can actually handle a ship and pirate life, and man I wish this book was from her perspective. Though I think it is pretty clear that Celia Rees, who is white and English, is not be skilled enough to tell a story from a black woman’s perspective w/o making racist blunders.