Pirates and the Middle Passage

March 23, 2007

Popular accounts of piracy tend to overlook its close links with slavery. Richard Sanders considers how one dark trade fostered another.

In December last year, the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Florida, was forced to abandon plans to exhibit artefacts, including 400 pieces of Akan African jewellery, recovered from the pirate ship Whydah , after objections from the local black community. The Whydah sank off Cape Cod in 1717 and was rediscovered and excavated in the early 1980s.

Like many pirate ships, the Whydah had previously been a slaving vessel.

"The Whydah is not about pirates. It's about slavery," a local black leader told National Public Radio. "It's about the slave trade as a part of the trade to the New World, and it was about making money selling human beings.

And so you cannot allow someone to exploit that story and try to make it a pirate story because they want to romanticise and glorify pirates using slavery to get there." The National Geographic Society is now involved in attempts to resurrect the Whydah expedition.

The link between pirates and slavery is an increasingly important area of study, and it was the subject of a recent symposium organised by the State Department of Cultural Research in North Carolina. Piratology itself has been gaining ground as an academic discipline, particularly in the US. In the UK, David J. Starkey of HullUniversity has been teaching a course on piracy and privateering in the Atlantic economy, c 1560-1856, since 1994, and piratology features in a number of other courses and modules.

The massively successful Pirates of the Caribbean films have also brought increased interest in all things piratical. But slavery is one of the key subjects that is entirely missing from the films and indeed plays no part at all in the general popular perception of pirates. This is despite the fact that piracy and slavery were as tangled and intertwined as the roots of the mangroves at the watering holes of the Caribbean and West Africa where pirates used to careen their ships.

Piracy in the Atlantic took off with the discovery of the New World. As early as the 1520s, the French discovered the wealth to be gained from robbing the Spanish of what they had robbed from the Native Americans. By the Elizabethan era, the English were getting in on the act. Both Francis Drake and his uncle John Hawkins were originally slave traders who turned to piracy after the Spanish refused to allow them to sell their human cargoes.

In the 17th century, gentlemen adventurers were replaced by one of the strangest groups ever to grace the history of the Americas. They originated in the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the northern part of which had been abandoned by the Spanish in 1605. Hispaniola became a haven for the flotsam and jetsam of the Caribbean - runaway slaves, escaped servants, mutinous soldiers and sailors, anyone with a reason to hide. They lived deep in the forests of the interior and survived by hunting goats and cattle, introduced by the Spanish and now running wild. They smoked the meat over a type of wooden barbecue known as a "boucan" and so they became known as "buccaneers".

Most were either French Huguenots or English, united by a fierce hatred of the Catholic Spanish. They called themselves the "Brethren of the Coast"

and developed a fiercely democratic, egalitarian culture. Almost entirely deprived of women, they also lived in male couples. By the 1630s, many were already turning to piracy, and over the next half century they ravaged the fledgling Spanish colonies of the Caribbean.

For the northern European powers, they proved a useful means of prising open the Spanish monopoly in the Americas; but by the 1680s, they had outlived their usefulness. England and France had their own colonies and were more interested in trade than plunder. They were soon hanging pirates with as much enthusiasm as the Spanish. But the ragged bandits of the Caribbean refused to retire into decent obscurity.

Between 1690 and 1726 they extended their activities into the Pacific and the Indian Ocean and across to West Africa. These men shared the strange democratic, misogynistic culture of their buccaneer forebears, but they were true outlaws - preying on the shipping of all nations and hunted by all nations. They fed, above all, on the fabulously lucrative triangular trade between northern Europe, West Africa and the Caribbean.

No groups suffered more at their hands than the slave traders and the plantation owners of the Caribbean, and no branch of the merchant navy provided more pirate recruits than the slavers. Conditions aboard slaving vessels were only marginally better for the crew than they were for the cargo. More than one in five could expect to die during the course of a round trip, mainly from malaria and dysentery, and discipline was ferocious. When they fell into the hands of pirates most were only too happy to sign up for service beneath the black flag. Pirates often placed captured captains on trial for the treatment of their men.

But it was not just the crews who were of interest to pirates. Almost a third of pirates in this period were black, some, at least, liberated from the holds of slavers. But were these men pirates or were they slaves? It is a fiercely disputed question among historians. When Blackbeard's crew was captured off North Carolina in November 1718, there were five black men among them. The judge inquired "whether there be anything in the circumstances of these negroes to exempt them from undergoing the same trial as the other pyrates". The answer was "no", and they were tried and hanged along with their shipmates. But generally, the Admiralty regarded blacks captured aboard pirate ships as chattels and they were sold rather than tried.

By the 1710s, slave traders and plantation owners were begging for greater protection from the Royal Navy. "The pirates are now so strong and numerous in these parts that not only the trade to and from these islands suffers very much but likewise all intercourse is broke off betwixt these islands to their very great damage," read one petition from the Leeward Islands in the spring of 1721. Slowly the Admiralty responded. By 1722, there were eight warships on station in the West Indies and two 50-gunners patrolling the West African coast.

In February of that year, HMS Swallow hunted down the Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts, the most successful of the era, to Cape Lopez in modern Gabon. There, in an apocalyptic battle fought in a raging thunderstorm, Roberts was killed and his crew of more than 250 men, including 75 slaves, were captured. It proved a turning point.

Within a couple of years, the number of pirates roaming the Atlantic had fallen from well over 2,000 to about 500. By 1726, they had been swept from the seas altogether. The Golden Age of Piracy was over.

The effect was a dramatic increase in the number of slaves being carried across the Atlantic - from 24,780 in 1720 to 47,030 in 1725. And this was no temporary spike. The average increased from 33,000 slaves a year in the first quarter of the 18th century to 45,000 a year in the second quarter and 66,000 a year in the third. The destruction of piracy had achieved one thing above all - it had created a world safe for slavery.

Richard Sanders is a freelance historian. His book If a Pirate I Must Be... The True Story of Bartholomew Roberts , King of the Caribbean is published by Aurum Press, £14.99.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments