11 Interesting Connections Between Piracy and Slavery You Didn’t Hear From Your Teacher

11 Interesting Connections Between Piracy and Slavery You Didn’t Hear From Your Teacher

Jennifer Conerly - December 16, 2017

The intriguing history of piracy has become more and more popular with each passing year. Pirates created their own two-fold subculture with equality aboard their decks and the ability to live their lives on their terms while embracing a life of crime and plunder. We have two images of pirates in the modern imagination: the ruthless pirate who was prone to violence and murder, and the bumbling, adorable pirate-with-a-heart-of-gold made famous in contemporary films.

One unusual characteristic of pirate life is that, even with the beginnings of the slave trade during the Golden Age of Piracy (1650s-1730s), about 30% of pirates were black. With slavery on the rise, were these men free or were they slaves? Many pirates were slave traders themselves, while some pirate ship captains were known to free slaves and allow them to join the crew. Others would make their new black crewmen do the most menial jobs on the ship. There are still other instances when black crewmen could rise in the ranks, and they became respected members of the crew and feared pirates on the high seas.

As the number of pirates and the number of the black members of their crew increased, many contemporary writers hid the existence of black pirates because they feared slave rebellions and maroonage. Some pirates became unwitting liberators of slaves and helped delay the dominance of slavery, which wouldn’t come until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries after the Golden Age of Piracy ended. While most pirate ships were egalitarian and they provided a more significant amount of freedom onboard their ships that most men, white and black alike, could find elsewhere at the time, the relationship between piracy and slavery is a complicated one.

11 Interesting Connections Between Piracy and Slavery You Didn’t Hear From Your Teacher
Captain Croker Horror Stricken at Algiers, on witnessing the miseries of the Christian Slaves. Drawing by Walker Croker, July 1815. Wikimedia Commons.

Pirates Traded Slaves of All Ethnicities

Even though most pirate ships had black pirates in their crew, many pirates engaged in the slave trade. Not only did they buy, steal, and trade slaves, these slaves were of every nationality: some were even white Europeans. While Europeans were raiding the coasts of Africa and buying slaves who were prisoners of war from African chieftains, the Berber pirates of North Africa were attacking merchant ships, taking the crew members into slavery to major cities like Algiers and Tunis.

It is estimated that between one and one-and-a-quarter million white slaves were sent to North Africa. In some cases, these white slaves, especially the ones who came from prominent families, were ransomed back to freedom. The pirates sent the slaves who didn’t have families who could pay for their release to North Africa for sale in the slave markets. By the 1500s, the Barbary pirates began to increase their involvement in the slave trade by raiding the coastal cities of many European countries, including Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal, kidnapping the people they found there and selling them into slavery.

The Barbary pirates were not the only pirates who were involved in the slave trade. Many pirates who operated in the Atlantic and the Caribbean also traded slaves. In the peace negotiations that ended the War of Spanish Succession, England had to provide Spanish colonies with slaves. This new arrangement provided pirates with more access to slave ships that they could rob. In a time when piracy was declining, it led to an increase in pirate activity in the western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean.

Many Atlantic and Caribbean pirates, such as John Martel, Benito de Soto, Nathaniel Gordon, Captain Kidd, and John Hawkins, all plundered slave ships or bought their own from Africa and found buyers for them. When Captain Henry Morgan died in Jamaica, there were over one hundred slaves included in his estate. In 1619, the Portuguese slave ship San Juan Bautista was robbed by two pirate ships, each one taking about 20-30 slaves. The two pirate ships, the Treasurer and the White Lion, both landed in Jamestown about four days apart, selling the first African slaves to the New World colonies.

11 Interesting Connections Between Piracy and Slavery You Didn’t Hear From Your Teacher
A French Ship and Barbary Pirates. Painting by Aert Anthoniszoon, ca. 1615. From the National Maritime Museum. Wikimedia Commons.

There Were Active Attempts By Governments to Stop Pirates from Robbing Merchant and Slave Ships

Pirates were not always the criminals and ne’er-do-wells that popular history has made them out to be. At first, many European powers used pirates that operated in the Atlantic and the Caribbean for their own ends, officially sanctioning pirates as privateers, agents of the government who engaged in legal piracy. Countries were able to enrich themselves by hiring pirates to steal the wealth and materials from merchant ships and bring them back to the country that hired them. Pirates were at the center of the economic warfare that was at the center of European diplomatic relations.

Once the New World colonies had sufficiently developed, the European powers wanted to focus on legitimate activities, but piracy was already in full swing. Former alliances made no matter when it came to stealing goods and plundering ships. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, piracy against merchant and slave vessels had become such a problem that the leaders of the New World colonies reached out to their home countries for protection against them.

By the 1720s, there were almost ten warships in the Caribbean whose only job was to catch pirate ships and arrest the pirates on board. In 1724, merchants who often traded with Jamaica wrote a letter to the Council of Trade and Plantations in London about the pirate activity and how it created “havoc and destruction of the ships employed in the negro trade on which the being of our Colonies chiefly depends.”

European powers also hired the Barbary pirates as privateers. The Barbary pirates from the North African coast were much closer to home, and they had no shortage of European powers willing to hire them: the French hired them to attack Spanish ships, and the British and the Dutch hired them to attack French ships. This continued until the end of the seventeenth century, as European navies grew in influence and they were able to use their power to force the Barbary pirates into peace treaties. The Barbary Wars of the early nineteenth century began when the pirates violated these peace treaties and were still attacking ships and settlements to kidnap slaves to bring back to North Africa. The Barbary threat wasn’t completely contained until the nineteenth century.

11 Interesting Connections Between Piracy and Slavery You Didn’t Hear From Your Teacher
On Board a Slave Ship. Slave traders bringing African slaves on board a ship, 19th century. Unknown artist. Wikimedia Commons.

Many Escaped Slaves Joined Pirate Crews

A common misconception about pirates is that they were all white Europeans or men of European descent. Runaway slaves found that joining a pirate crew was the best way to truly escape their bondage. Many either ran away from plantations or joined maroon communities of escaped slaves, eventually traveling to port cities to find a pirate crew to join. It is estimated that 25-30% of the former slaves who were serving on pirate ships between 1715 and 1726 were runaway slaves owned by the Spanish, called cimarrons. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, black sailors were common knowledge, so much so that runaway slaves would disguise themselves as sailors to escape the American South. In the 1830s, Frederick Douglass wore sailor’s clothes and held papers that were given to him by a sailor to escape slavery in the South.

Although blacks could get more autonomy and freedom through life on the sea, becoming a pirate was ideal for them. Boarding a pirate ship was a way for runaway slaves to escape the North, where there was still a chance he could be kidnapped and resold into slavery or returned to his owners. In 1643, the New England Federation of colonies of Massachusetts, New Haven, Connecticut, and Plymouth passed an article that allowed for fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners. While there wasn’t an official Fugitive Slave Law until the late eighteenth century, many runaway slaves always lived in fear of discovery and being returned to their masters: boarding a pirate vessel or choosing a life on the sea was a way to escape North America and the chances of being returned to slavery.

11 Interesting Connections Between Piracy and Slavery You Didn’t Hear From Your Teacher
Sailors hauling on halyard. Illustration by W. Symons. From J.E. Patterson’s “Sailors’ Work Songs,” June 1900. Wikimedia Commons.

Black Pirates and Sailors Influenced the Development of Sea Shanties

The history of songs that were sung on ships, called sea shanties, has a connection to black pirates and sailors. Sea shanties were common and used in work-related activities for as long as there have been vessels on the seas. Workers on board vessels used music to develop a rhythm to work, which would make them more efficient. In the eighteenth century, the sea shanties were just chants, but they grew in popularity as the maritime trade developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and black sailors and pirates directly influenced their development.

Sea shanties combined the chanting common on European merchant and slave vessels with African languages and popular music of the time, and they were modified to match the work that the sailors were doing on the ship. Considering that the songs have both European and African influences, we can assume that the mixed-race crews on ships created these songs together. The Royal Navy forbade the use of sea shanties because they believed that it would disrupt operations if the sailors were singing and not listening to commands, so they were only used on merchant, slave, and pirate ships.

Black Pirates Were Sold Into Slavery…If They Were Caught

Despite the freedom that black pirates found on the sea, they were treated differently if the authorities caught them. They had every reason to stay with pirate crews: captured black pirates were not usually hanged for their crimes. If they were escaped slaves, they were either returned to their masters. If they were free men, they were sold into slavery. Samuel Bellamy’s pilot on the Whydah, John Julian, quickly became one of the most esteemed members of Bellamy’s crew. After the pirate vessel sank, Julian was taken into custody and sold into slavery to John Quincy, John Quincy Adam’s grandfather.

In the seventeenth century, many of the judges who tried piracy cases looked for reasons not to put black pirates on trial because they believed that they were slaves. If there was no evidence that black pirates were slaves, then they were executed. In Blackbeard’s crew, which included the fearless Black Caesar, thirteen of the surviving members were arrested after Blackbeard’s death and brought to Virginia for their trial. Five of these thirteen were black, and they were put on trial with the rest of Blackbeard’s crew and executed in 1719.

11 Interesting Connections Between Piracy and Slavery You Didn’t Hear From Your Teacher
Drawing of Black Caesar, Blackbeard’s lieutenant. Unknown artist, unknown date. http://archive.tcpalm.com/yournews/martin-county/was-black-caesars-phantom-ship-spotted-in-martin-county-36f7c39a-dd74-2a61-e053-0100007f46e4-388421261.html

Many Black Pirates Were Feared on the High Seas

Many black pirates rose to prominent status aboard their ships. Many of these high-ranking black pirates’ names have been lost to history, but we still know of a few of them. Perhaps the most famous black pirate was Blackbeard’s lieutenant Black Caesar, who was a high-ranking chieftain in Africa before being kidnapped into slavery. After surviving the wreckage of the slave ship and pretending to be shipwrecked to take control of a ship, Black Caesar soon had a large crew that attacked ships at sea. He eventually joined Blackbeard’s pirate crew aboard Queen Anne’s Revenge, becoming one of the most high-ranking crewmembers, second only to Blackbeard himself.

There was another famous black pirate named Black Caesar, and the two men are often confused, although they were operating decades apart. Henri Caesar, also known as Black Caesar, was a Haitian pirate that played a role in the Haitian Revolution. Like Blackbeard’s lieutenant, much of his life is a combination of fact and legend. When Toussaint L’Ouverture allowed slaveowners to leave the island in the beginnings of the revolution on Saint Domingue, Henri Caesar helped transport them off of the island.

One of the most successful pirates of the late seventeenth century was a Dutch pirate named Laurens de Graaf. He started his career as a French privateer, and the Spanish greatly feared his crew that grew to about 2,000 pirates at one time. Many accounts record that he was tall with blond hair and blue eyes, but his nickname tells another story. He was known as El Griffe, which was a common name given to men and women who had both European and African ancestry, which indicates he may have been a mulatto. After being enslaved by the Spanish in his early life, he spent the rest of his life being a thorn in their side. He attacked Spanish ships and settlements, and the Spanish frequently referred to him as the Devil.

11 Interesting Connections Between Piracy and Slavery You Didn’t Hear From Your Teacher
Queen Anne’s Revenge. Blackbeard’s pirate ship was formerly La Concorde, a slave vessel. Drawing by Joseph Nicholls, 1736. Wikimedia Commons.

Pirates Stole Slave Ships, But Not For The Reason You Would Think

Pirates were creatures of opportunity: they would only decide to take over a ship if it would make them a profit. Slave vessels were their most significant targets because they often contained treasure, in addition to slaves, that could be ransomed or sold. Pirates often attacked slave ships as they were on the Middle Passage between Africa and the Caribbean. Slave ships were the easiest to steal: they usually had a small crew, and the slaves below were in chains. What was most important to the pirate crew was the ship itself: they moved quickly, and they had enough space to store the pirate crew, provisions, and their plundered treasure.

The crews among slave vessels also joined the ranks of pirate crews: like merchant ships, the conditions among slave vessels for crewmen were just a step above that of the slaves they were transporting. About twenty percent of crewmen on slave vessels died from disease, discipline, and malnutrition. The death toll among sailors on slave vessels was so high that British abolitionists used the statistics as part of their ammunition against the institution of slavery. When pirates took over their ships, they often jumped at the chance to join pirate crews to escape the deplorable conditions.

Some of the most famous pirate ships were formerly slave ships that were stolen from slave traders. In 1984, the wreckage of Samuel Bellamy’s Whydah, a former slave ship, was discovered near Cape Cod, making it the first documented pirate ship ever discovered. Historians found African Akan jewelry that was split and broken apart into equal pieces, indicating that it was to be fairly divided among the crew. Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge was initially the slave vessel La Concorde. When the wreckage of Queen Anne’s Revenge was discovered in 1996, shackles and beads and gold dust that slavers commonly used for trade as well as restraints used to confine slaves were found on board.

11 Interesting Connections Between Piracy and Slavery You Didn’t Hear From Your Teacher
“Black Bart” Bartholomew Roberts with his ship and captured merchant ships in the background. From A History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson. Drawing by Captain Charles Johnson, engraving by Benjamin Cole, c. 1724. Wikipedia.

Pirates Became Agents of Emancipation

Pirates known to attack slave vessels became unwitting emancipators of African slaves. Their attacks weren’t necessarily fueled by a moral aversion to slavery: they just wanted the benefits of having the slave ship. In many cases, pirates would go below the holds and free the slaves, and then they would encourage the slaves to join the pirate crew. Piracy was a better option than slavery, and if the pirates were successful in convincing the slaves that life as a pirate was better than life as a slave, they could increase their numbers exponentially.

Some pirates didn’t re-enslave the captives they found on slave vessels: it was too much trouble to try and find sellers interested in them. They often would forego the difficulty of selling slaves and just let them join their crew, quickly discovering that the Africans were fierce warriors. Although pirates had a practical reason for freeing the slaves they found in the holds, some pirates did show evidence of anti-slavery sentiments. There was an egalitarian spirit to pirate life that was the complete opposite of slavery. Some pirates were known to attack fortresses that were used in the slave trade. Peter Scudamore, a surgeon on a pirate vessel, encouraged a slave rebellion, insisting that he could sail the ship himself.

Although most pirates were respectful of human life and would avoid murder and violence if they could help it, there were some cases of brutality by pirate captains. The pirate Black Bart Roberts once burned almost one hundred slaves alive in a ship. This was the exception as opposed to the rule: the join-or-die rule was very rare. Most pirate captains would release the former slaves who didn’t want to join the pirate crew at the next port, although it isn’t known what happened to them once they were on land.

11 Interesting Connections Between Piracy and Slavery You Didn’t Hear From Your Teacher
Avary Sells His Jewels. The pirate Henry Avery is shown in the drawing selling his plundered goods. By Howard Pyle, engraved by Aikmann, 1887. From “Buccaneers and Marooners of the Spanish Main – Second Paper.” Harper’s Magazine 75 (448): pg. 502.

There Was Equality Between Black and White Pirates

Pirate crews were diverse, and the men that joined were from many different places. They had different religions and ethnicities, united in their shared desire for a free, comfortable life of plunder. These crews were so ethnically diverse that it contributed to the creation of the term “motley crew,” a term still used today. Captain Morgan was famous for his “motley crew” of pirates, including former slaves and military men, French Huguenots who were escaping persecution, and mulattos.

For the most part, pirate captains ran their crews diplomatically: the ship was a democracy, where every member of the crew voted on any matter. In the seventeenth century, about three hundred years before the passing of the Civil Rights Act in the United States, black men could vote, but only if they were pirates. They elected their captain, and they voted on a strict code of crime and punishment as well as how they treated each other. Some ships even established reimbursement for pirates who were killed or injured in their roles, the seventeenth and eighteenth-century version of workmen’s compensation.

When plundered treasure was divided up, it was divvied up and allotted according to the person’s role on the ship, not race. This equal treatment of white and black pirates probably wasn’t because of a moral aversion to racism and pirates were not proponents of social justice. They were criminals and treating black pirates equally just made sense. Captains needed loyal, fierce fighters as well as men who were competent in their jobs, no matter their color.

The role of blacks on pirate ships as equals is doubted, yet there are examples of equality on board pirate ships. The exact status of black pirates is not clear. Many historians believe that black pirates often served in lower roles than their white counterparts, but on the ships where they were treated fairly, black sailors could carry weapons, could vote, and were entitled to an equal share of the loot. If the captain allowed it, black crewmen could treat whites however they wanted. During the trials of Captain Stede Bonnet, Jonathan Clark testified that when he refused to join the pirate crew, one of the black pirates cursed him out and tried to press him into slavery aboard the ship.

Black Pirates Were Volunteers from Merchant Vessels

Pirates had galley ships, which were small and maneuverable, making them more able to take command of merchant ships. Most black pirates were formerly members of merchant ship crews or sailors of the British Royal Navy. Merchant ships often hired black sailors, so this was not unusual. They could pay them less, and they were more resistant to tropical diseases of the Caribbean. Most pirate ships had more men than weapons, so many crews on merchant ships were outnumbered.

When a pirate ship took control of a merchant ship, more often than not, the merchant crew would often voluntarily join the pirate crew. They were already knowledgeable about life on the sea, so many of them didn’t see much of a difference between being on a merchant ship or a pirate ship. Being on a pirate ship offered a very particular kind of freedom that sailors couldn’t find on merchant ships. The living conditions were so horrible that many sailors began to consider piracy to be the more viable option.

When Piracy Declined, the Slave Trade Increased Astronomically

Pirates were famous for attacking slave vessels, and it became very expensive to transport slaves across the Atlantic Ocean. In making the slave trade a dangerous and costly endeavor, piracy prevented the growth of slavery in the New World. By the end of the Golden Age of Piracy in the early eighteenth century, most of the pirates in the Atlantic and the Caribbean were either captured or dead, giving the slave trade was given the boost that it needed. Slave vessels could cross from Africa to the New World without fear of harassment or theft by pirates. The rise in New World slavery directly correlates with the decline of piracy.

While pirates still operated in the years after the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, they had nowhere near the numbers or the influence they had before. What was the result? The slave trade was able to become a successful endeavor. There was an average increase of over 30,000-60,000 slaves transported to the New World over the course of the eighteenth century. The end of the influence of piracy helped create a world where slavery could grow and reach its height by the nineteenth century.