The cover art of Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail, “The Pirates,” by the eminent Haitian artist Frantz Zéphirin, is something I discovered through a long journey. I began collecting Haitian art in the year 2000; Zéphirin was one the artists who drew me in.
I had long been fascinated by the history of Haiti, especially its profound revolutionary self-emancipation based on the greatest slave revolt in modern history (1791-1804). The small island nation also boasts one of the world’s greatest folk art traditions—it has more painters per capita than any other place on earth. They paint sheer wonder, as André Breton, leader of Europe’s surrealist movement, discovered when he arrived in Haiti in 1945. When he saw the paintings of the vodou houngan Hector Hyppolite, he remarked that by these astonishing works he recognized his own as failures.
Haiti has always been a crossroads of peoples. Gerald Bloncourt, a member of the first generation of Haitian artists in the late 1940s, wrote: “In order to understand Haitian art, one must understand that this country has been an authentic cultural crucible, in which were mixed the Carib Indians, the Spanish invaders, the fearsome Brothers of the Coast, filibusters, and pirates of all kinds from France, the English and more than thirty African tribes.” Having written with Peter Linebaugh a book entitled The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2000)—which is about precisely this same “motley crew”—I was hooked.
I was especially keen to understand how Haitian folk artists have recorded, remembered, and disseminated their history through art. No one, in my view, is more accomplished in this regard than Frantz Zéphirin. His intricate surrealist work combines vodou, politics, and history in a truly profound and compelling way. I marveled at his paintings about Native Americans, pirates, slavery, and slave revolts. His work embodied Bloncourt’s dictum.
One of the first paintings I purchased was Zéphirin’s “The Spirit of the Indian Facing Colonization.” It features a Carib woman, with a Spanish vessel (“El Conquistador”) in the background. Surrounded by wild animals, the chaos of colonization, the Indian wears the masque of red death, symbolizing the genocide inflicted on native peoples by the European invaders. She has a cross violently inscribed on her forehead. Around her face are numbers and the letters of the Roman alphabet, all signs of her forced acculturation. Through a hole in her chest peers a darker face, the African who, upon her death, will take her place as the subjected laborer of the Spanish and eventually French colonial system. This is a stunning allegory of the origins of the New World.
I had the good fortune to meet Zéphirin when he visited our mutual friend, the Haitian art dealer Bill Bollendorf, in Pittsburgh in 2007. We talked at length about his interest in Haitian history and my interest in the history of the slave ship, the subject of a book I had recently completed. When I returned to the artist’s makeshift studio two days later he had almost finished a painting entitled “The Slave Ship Brooks,” an allusion to the famous British abolitionist image of the Brooks, originally drawn in 1788 to evoke the horror of the slave trade for the reading public. Zéphirin created a dungeon ship, out of which peer haunting red eyes. He rendered the European crew as animals: the imperial alligator captain holds the deed to the land on which the enslaved will work; the first mate is Death incarnate. The vodou deity of the sea, Agoue, announces the arrival of a shipload of new souls. Chained to the outside of the vessel as food for the sharks are a group of rebellious slaves, the neckplate of each showing a different African ethnicity, the message being, “from many, one.” Two of the enslaved, at right Toussaint L’Ouverture and at left Boukman Dutty, break free of their chains, gesturing hopefully ahead to the Haitian Revolution they will lead. Zéphirin knew I would have to buy the painting and indeed I did. He is not only a brilliant artist but a shrewd businessman.
Soon afterward I began to hope that I might someday feature a painting by Zéphirin on the cover of a book. When I completed Outlaws of the Atlantic and began to discuss with my editor Gayatri Patnaik what might be an apt image for the cover, I immediately thought of Zéphirin. I have always believed there was something deeply surreal about life at sea in the early modern era and I felt that the Haitian artist might capture and evoke it. Then I recalled a painting he had done called “The Pirates”—a big, sprawling, luminously colorful interpretation of robbery by sea. When I saw that members of the pirate crew were depicted as animals boarding and attacking a prize ship, I thought the image was ideal—it was maritime, it featured pirates, and it reflected the very essence of motleyness. I contacted the artist and he kindly agreed to let us use the painting on the cover. I simply cannot imagine a more perfect way for that book to greet its readers.
Marcus Rediker is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the 1988 George Washington Book Prize (2008), the Organization of American Historians’ Merle Cuti Award (1998 and 2008), and the Sol Stetin Labor History Award (2013). His books include The Many-Headed Hydra (Beacon Press, 2000; with Peter Linebaugh), Villains of All Nations (Beacon Press, 2004), The Slave Ship (Viking, 2007), and The Amistad Rebellion (Viking, 2012).