BY SARA LONDON
We've spied his telltale eye patch, cowered at the clomp of his wooden leg, and trembled at his Jolly Roger flapping atop the mast. He is cruel Captain Hook, antithesis of Peter Pan's purity. Or he is handsome Samuel "Black" Bellamy, looter of the king's vessels, breaking the laws of God and man for elephant ivory, gold dust, and doubloons.
North American folklore celebrates a small cast of such adventurers and bandits, buccaneers, or "Satan's men," who sailed the world's trade routes in search of plunder. Recent discoveries of wrecks like the Whidah off Cape Cod have reignited interest in these sailor thieves. But Mount Holyoke's Nina Gerassi-Navarro, associate professor of Spanish, has plumbed the depths of pirate myth beyond the mere flotsam of folklore and the shores of New England.
She has deconstructed the bold, heroic, cruel, and criminal icon to discover a figure who embodies the spirit of emerging nationhood in nineteenth-century South America. Her new book, Pirate Novels: Fictions of Nation Building in Spanish America, traces the history of piracy through colonial-era novels. Swashbucklers in these melodramas become metaphors for rebel nations seeking independence; their odysseys are symbolic searches for selfhood.
"These are novels dating from the period of nations newly independent of Spain but experiencing internal wars defining their frontiers," says Gerassi-Navarro, who teaches a popular Mount Holyoke Spanish course called Building the Nation with Outlaws: Bandits and Pirates in Spanish America. Her students are surprised to discover that the pirate protagonists of these novels are not the classic rogues of the high seas, but rather men who come ashore, bringing aspects of one culture to another, or questioning the culture at anchor.
Women in these melodramas play an important role as well, says Gerassi-Navarro. "The model of the family evokes the model of the nation, and in these works, women are seen disobeying their fathers, breaking the established order by taking their lives into their own hands." The professional pirate, historically, is male, but Gerassi-Navarro points out that scholars have recently discovered two eighteenth-century female freebooters.
This progressive pair of privateers is part of the focus of an independent study by Kelsey Guntharp '01, who is working with Gerassi-Navarro. Guntharp says she is particularly interested in "how women pirates were treated in the pirate community and at their trials." She is primarily focusing on buccaneers who attacked the galleons returning to Spain during the seventeenth century, but will also be examining Elizabethan privateers, "who received commissions to commit acts of piracy." Guntharp sees an important contemporary angle as well, noting that "there have been recent accounts of armed pirates in the Pacific, and piracy is also used today as a type of political activism."
While readers in the United States may be familiar with such classics as J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, for most, knowledge of pirate literature is limited, and images are confined to campy Hollywood portrayals. For Europeans and Latin Americans, Gerassi-Navarro says, pirate adventures are part of the reading tradition.
She herself grew up devouring works by Italian author Emilio Salgari, and, given her multicultural background, her passion for nation-building allegories makes sense. Her mother, a native of Spain, lived in France and South America, and her father, a Frenchman, raised Gerassi-Navarro in New York, Brazil, and Argentina. With so much nation hopping during her formative years, building an identity, she says, was a tricky prospect. It entailed processes of rejection, embrace, and the synthesis of various heritages--an experience not unlike that of New World nations forging identities.
Gerassi-Navarro's book explores this cultural blending while focusing on literature published from 1840 to 1880. Her Mount Holyoke course is wider ranging and includes the study of corsairs and privateers in Latin America and Brazil through history, literature, film, and popular songs. She is also teaching a graduate-level seminar on pirate novels at the University of Massachusetts. A professor at Mount Holyoke for the past seven years, she teaches courses in nineteenth-century and colonial literature, and women and film in Latin America, in addition to introductory Latin American literature and Spanish. She has also co-taught, with Amy Kaplan, Mount Holyoke chair of American studies and professor of English, an interdisciplinary course titled Crisscrossing the Americas: Narratives of Dialogue, Conflict, and Betrayal.