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.