For many, the word “pirate” conjures up notions of skull and cross bone flags, cutlasses and gold, wooden legs and ships sailing on the high seas. Pirates have always had a strong image in popular culture. This is one often taken from the Golden Age of Piracy which was in full flow between the early seventeenth and eighteenth century. However, an interesting yet largely unacknowledged partnership during this time was the link between piracy and slavery.
Slave trading was in operation from the mid 1600’s until the early 1800’s. The abominable business began with a journey from Europe. Ships sailed from the continent by a route which first stopped in west-Africa to pickup enslaved African people in exchange for industrial goods. Such ships would then continue to the Americas or the Caribbean – a thriving piracy hub at that period in time – to sell on surviving Africans to work at the local plantations. To round off their journey, the ships then set course back to Europe, full to the brim with indulgences such as sugar and tobacco which had been coldly traded for human souls.
Conditions on the slave ships
The slave ships were packed with human cargo and the conditions were terrible for the enslaved Africans. For passing pirate ships however, these ships were floating dollar signs. Pirates would attack the ships and sell on the captured slaves for money or give them the opportunity to work on the pirate ship as part of the crew. This was mutually beneficial for both pirates and slaves. It offered pirates financial gain or a replenished workforce, whereas the slaves had the opportunity to live a freedom they couldn’t have dreamed of on the plantations.
Democracy for slaves and pirates alike
We might even consider the pirate culture as having had a contemporary element. Each crew member had an equal say over dealings on the ship, which agrees with the basics of a democratic society. Through this interchange, black pirates appeared, as former slaves began to rise through the ranks onboard a ship. Perhaps the most famous example of this being Black Caesar, a black pirate who worked closely alongside the infamous Blackbeard. The latter too was alleged to have African roots, which had bestowed upon him such a pirate alias.
For many slaves, being captured by a pirate ship was a blessing, saving them from a life of servitude.