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Enterprising Slaves and Master Pirates: Understanding Economic Life in the Bahamas

Author(s):Storr, Virgil Henry
Reviewer(s):Wahl, Jenny B.

Published by EH.NET (July 2005)

Virgil Henry Storr, Enterprising Slaves and Master Pirates: Understanding Economic Life in the Bahamas. New York: Peter Lang, 2004. 147 pp. $55.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8204-7075-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jenny B. Wahl, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

Virgil Storr wants to tell us a story. Like all good stories, his begins with “Once upon a time,” features memorable figures like Brer Rabbit and Blackbeard, and turns pleasing phrases (“footprints crisscross in pearl colored sand,” p. 43, “Women, beautiful like all grandmothers are beautiful,” p. 83). Engaging as the story is, ultimately it wears thin. By steering clear of quantitative data and statistics, Storr loses a chance to convince readers that he recounts more than just a story.

The title tells most of the tale. Storr views present-day Bahamian economic enterprises as heirs of two traditions: the piracy of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and the enslavement of the eighteenth and nineteenth. He argues that both traditions were different in the Bahamas than elsewhere; thus, the Bahamas today little resembles its West Indian neighbors.

Storr starts by telling us that context matters. He reveals his devotion to Max Weber, the Austrians, and his dissertation advisors in Chapter 2, which refers to Indian gatherer-hunters, Canadian businessmen, Indonesian traders, and Shakespeare. The point of this chapter seems to be that, to understand the economic structure of a particular community and the entrepreneurs that belong to it, we should “find out which stories are told … myths that are widely shared and believed … [and] heroes that are admired” (p. 35). Bahamian stories suggest an “ideal type” of entrepreneur who wishes to profiteer rather than to profit, according to Storr.

In Chapter 3, Storr turns to the first Bahamian tradition: piracy. He proposes that piracy became a dominant way of doing business in the Bahamas because the poor soil made agriculture an unattractive alternative. This contrasted with the experience of most other West Indian islands. What is more, Bahamian pirates were more focused on loot than conquest and tended to divide treasure equally, unlike pirates in other parts of the world. “Wrecking” was also a popular pursuit during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — natives reportedly lured ships onto the reef and took cargo without rescuing crew or passengers. Storr classifies running the blockade during the American Civil War and rum-smuggling during Prohibition as similar “extractive” activities.

Storr then offers two pieces of evidence to buttress his argument that piracy (and wrecking and smuggling) serves as a modern-day business model for the Bahamas: folklore and secondary-school textbooks. He relates several Brer Rabbit stories and quotes long passages from history books to demonstrate that the “master pirate” is firmly rooted in Bahamian culture. Consequently, he argues, today’s Bahamian entrepreneur tends to have a “narrow radius of trust” in business affairs and a short time horizon.

Chapter 4 discusses Bahamian slavery. Storr claims that Bahamian slaves were unique in their healthiness, strong nuclear families, and ability to self-hire and to work their own plots of land. Part of this relatively good experience stemmed from the lack of decent land for cotton and sugar and, thus, the absence of gang plantation work. Storr then describes the carnival of Junkanoo, which to him demonstrates the work ethic still alive in today’s Bahamian culture.

This chapter suffers from superficiality — although Storr refers to Eric Williams, for example, Stan Engerman is mentioned nowhere. Sometimes Storr is misleading as well — self-hire was common in many Southern states, although perhaps it wasn’t in the Caribbean. And, despite the colorful account of Junkanoo, I find it difficult to see how the preparation of costumes and music for a parade teaches Bahamians that in business “success is possible through effort” (p. 97).

Chapter 5 tells us that we can understand modern Bahamian business practices in light of the country’s history of pirates and slaves. We learn that Bahamians tend to be low-trust in their business dealings (like pirates) because they tell their relatives and friends first about job openings (p. 106). (Doesn’t everyone?) They have high rates of time preferences (like pirates), exhibited by poor customer service, lack of capital-intensive industries, and relatively low savings rate. True to form, he offers no numbers to establish the first two; he does tell us that Bahamians save 11 percent of GDP and Jamaicans and Trinidadians about 25 percent. (Can this really be true?)

Like enterprising slaves, modern-day Bahamians are hard-working and ingenious entrepreneurs, as well as being suspicious and focused upon the short-run. One bit of evidence Storr gives is the asue, a collective pool that pays off to one of its members via a lottery draw. Storr suggests that these rotating credit arrangements encourage savings and offer opportunities to small-scale businessmen. Whether this argument is compatible with the piratical time-preference one is not evaluated.

This chapter finishes with a short discussion of two modern Bahamian enterprises: tourism and off-shore banking. Storr claims that the Bahamas’ unique history has helped these two businesses thrive, making it the richest country in the West Indies and a major player in the money-laundering industry. He overstates his case somewhat: current figures indicate that Barbados has a per-capita GDP almost as high, and Bermuda and the Cayman Islands enjoy per-capita GDP nearly twice as great as that of the Bahamas. Off-shore banking and insurance flourish in these nations as well. And the “almost a thousand” Bahamians employed in banking (p. 116) comprise less than 1/3 of 1 percent of the population. Although off-shore banking and tourism are undoubtedly important to the Bahamas, Storr offers little hard evidence that these industries look much different than they do elsewhere in the Caribbean. It’s not clear to me that the master pirate and the enterprising slave left much of a mark to differentiate the Bahamas from its neighbors.

Storr freely acknowledges that his economic history of the Bahamas is interpretive rather than cliometric in nature (p. 3). I appreciate his desire to tell a story. But this story would be more compelling were it to include even a small amount of quantitative evidence.

Jenny Wahl is Professor and Chair of the Economics Department at Carleton College. Forthcoming publications include an analysis of Andrew Jackson’s responsibility for the financial panics of the 1830s and an investigation of the effect of Brown v. Board on intergenerational income elasticity.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII