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

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

Jennifer Conerly - December 16, 2017

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.