Locke’s Political Thought and the Oceans Pirates, Slaves, and Sailors


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Sarah Pemberton, PhD., examines John Locke’s political thought on the laws and freedom of the oceans by examining the Two Treatises of Government. Locke argued that the seas were collectively owned by all humans and governed by universal natural laws that prohibited piracy. His Two Treatises provided insight on international and maritime law. In this book; Pemberton analyses Locke’s political thought in an absorbing weave which draws together the Treatises along with Locke’s unpublished writings and other intriguing archival finds.

John Locke was born in 1632 near the port of Bristol. During his ‘Shaftesbury’ period (1666-1683), he was employed by Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper, later Earl of Shaftesbury. A radical proponent of religious freedom, individual liberty and conscience, he believed power should be controlled and used to secure national interests. He was politically conservative, economically mercantilist, and morally authoritarian. He was a puritan with a modern and empirical vision. He was a member of the Board of Trade in England in the 1690s. Shaftebury is considered by some to be the founder of liberalism.

Locke’s Two Treatises are said to have been written at the pinnacle of his political philosophy. The Treatises contain his theory of government, power, property, trust, and rights. He wanted to build an empire on both land and sea. He proposed an anti-piracy treaty between Europe’s largest maritime players. He advocated English piracy laws and supported the idea of deploying the Navy against pirates. His ideas on piracy were consistent with natural law theory developed in the Two Treatises.

There has been much debate about when Locke’s two treatises were originally written. Published in 1689, they were possibly, written earlier. Considered an apology for the Glorious Revolution, British historian Peter Laslett, feels the writings date back to 1679. This lapse in time would have allowed Locke to amend the original, giving it the appearance of an apology, rather than a prescription for revolt, which could have caused him contention at the time.

In his first Treatise, he rebuts Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha. Patriarcha’s main premise embraced the divine right of Kings. Filmer’s theory is a diktat that “all government is an absolute monarchy: since Adam was an absolute monarch, all princes since his time should also be absolute monarchs.” Filmer did not believe that man was born free, nor should they be governed by consent, as the masses do not possess the intellectual wherewithal to elect their leaders. Pemberton discusses this in her examination of Locke’s political theories.

Filmer claimed that man was not born into freedom, and a father, like a Monarchy; possessed unlimited rights over men’s lives, however Locke refuted this idea as unjustified. He argued against Fillmer’s attempts to provide a theoretical basis for patriarchy and examined his assumptions for logical cohesion. Taking issue with his ideas, Locke countered the theory of divine rule. He argued that Adam’s creation alone did not presume sovereignty over anything. Locke felt that rights must be established and argued that man is a governor in habit; potentiality did not imply actuality – he wrote, “A very pretty way of being a Governor without Government, a Father without Children, and a King without Subjects”. He argued against Divine rule, then outlined, in his second Treatise his justification of consensual government.

Locke’s Treatises are consistent with his later work on the board of Trade. There, he advocated forced migration and forced labour for English convicts. He felt forced labour was consistent with theories on penal slavery for the period and he discussed these in the Two Treatises. Pemberton feels Locke’s theories were intended to justify the current practice during the period. She sees a tension between his arguments in the Treatises with policies of forced naval service, which Locke, as a member of the Board of Trade, supported. Locke had a good relationship with King William and was very involved with colonial and trade policy during this period. His theories guided English government policies in the arenas of slavery and piracy, and he was influenced by Grotius’ Mare Liberum; whose central argument was based on freedom of the seas.

Locke’s theories of law and freedom on the seas also influenced his vision of English National Identity.

Locke was a colonial thinker, devoting much attention to the settlement and governance of the colonies. He was in the minority of political thinkers active in the practical aspects of business promotion and administration of overseas settlements, due to his position on the Board of Trade. Locke suggested that Europe come to a formal agreement on how to deal with international maritime law about piracy in his second Treatise. The international piracy agreement would be known as the Power of War and Peace, Leagues and Alliances and all the Transactions with all Persons and Communities outside the Commonwealth.

Locke considered the grandfather of liberalism; in the standard histories of philosophy, was also an exemplar of empiricism. His position on the Board of Trade had a bearing on his philosophies in the Treatises, just as Grotius’s writings on Natural Law came from his defence of the Dutch East India Company’s maritime activities. He argued freedom of trade across the oceans in The Free Sea (1609). Locke understood Grotius’s position well.

Locke acknowledged extractable resources such as fish and ambergris produced by the ocean could be acquired as the property of man. He glossed over that fact that these resources might be finite and risk extinction due to over-extraction. Conservation efforts such as with fisheries would have been consistent with Locke’s concerns about acquisition of private property. His theory of property had concerns. Starting with the premise that potential productivity of natural resources derived from human labour and not in the inherent value of the resource itself. He ignored the finite nature of natural resources, and he underestimated the value that eco-systems could provide. Overly concerned with human contribution, he completely ignored resource depletion. Furthermore, he criticized Native practices of land use, feeling they did not use the land productively enough, he felt that sustainable fishing wasted resources and again, ignoring resource depletion he emphasized man’s contribution and focused on over-productivity. His Treatises provide a systematic political theory of the seas and did not feel oceans could be considered ‘appropriated’ because they cannot be managed or improved in the same way that land can be improved.

Pemberton relates that Locke first addressed piracy in an unpublished manuscript called Pyracy which now resides in the Bodleian library. In this manuscript, he ambitiously proposed extending England’s existing piracy law to the colonies and extending protection of European trade to those involved in the Treaty of Ryswick and urged them to reach a formal international agreement on the piracy issue. Described as Power of War and Peace, Leagues and Alliances and all the Transactions of all persons and communities outside the Commonwealth, he wished to create a coordinated approach to piracy, to extend these laws across the World’s oceans. Unfortunately, he missed the issues of jurisdiction under Admiralty law. Like a good Loyalist, he felt that these laws could be extended to the colonies thereby preventing colonials from exercising autonomy on this issue. Locke’s contribution to piracy was consistent with his ideas on natural rights and the rule of law under the Two Treatises.

Locke had theories on penal slavery which stemmed from his position as a member of the Board of Trade and his work on piracy. This resulted in him advocating expanding English legal and naval power at sea and reducing political autonomy in the American colonies, which gave rise to tension between liberty and empire. He felt that penal slavery, including the English convicts, was justified. Those who broke natural law give up their rights and they should be punished proportionately, which he felt would deter future crimes and allow for making victim reparations. He argued attacking someone’s liberty was equivalent to murder and felt that participants in an unjust war broke natural law and should be legitimately enslaved or killed.

A practice England had already been taking part in for quite some time. The colonists including many so called ‘free’ subjects co-existed with those sent there under forced labour (penal) and forced migration. Pemberton relates that between 1600 and 1800 more than a million Europeans migrated to America and the Caribbean and up to a third of these immigrants were transported convicts or indentured servants, or bonded slaves, due to the cost of transportation across the Atlantic. Some came during this time by choice, but they forced many. After his death, his political philosophy in turn impacted on ideas leading to the Age of Enlightenment. It related to the development of separation of Church and State in the American Constitution. Pemberton takes us on an interesting journey, dissecting the Treatises, adding social and political context so we understand the period and why Locke was formulating the theories he was, his influences, along with other possible economic and political factors which may have played a part in the formation of his ideas.

Reviewed by Rosdaughr


Further reading recommendations on Locke:Tully, J., Rediscovering America: The Two Treatises and Aboriginal Rights’.
An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts. 1993.
Arneil, B., John Locke and America: Defence of English Colonialism. 1996.
Farr J., ‘Locke, Natural Law, and New World Slavery’, Political Theory. 2008.
Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford, 2006).


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