By Raymond James
It is a blessing for a man to have a hand in determining his own fate.
–Edward Teach aka Blackbeard
Stage 1 | The Initial Encounter
On a wooden ship sailing through the tropical Caribbean, the water strikes against the hull. You are not a passenger on this vessel; you are cargo to be sold and exploited in the reaping of sugar, coffee, tobacco, and many other foodstuffs. You are a slave who was forcefully removed from your home to a land you had no idea of its existence. This is a journey to place yourself in that role as a slave. It is a truism that you cannot understand someone until you have walked in their shoes. This is an attempt to put yourself in the place of another human being. Remember this, you imagine this from a blog, while a slave experienced it from the bowels of a ship.
From the wet Hellish bowels of your slave ship, you hear the angry yells of men raiding your vessel. Foreign voices intermixed with the clanging of swords or the loud deafening burst of a blunderbuss. These pirate voices hold your fate in their blood-soaked hands. You would face three possible fates: death, slavery, or piracy, if you were an able-bodied man. First, you may find yourself drowning in the cold ocean to make room for the pirates’ real treasure: gold. Second, you would move from your chains because slavery was still your fate because they found some value in you. Third, you could join piracy, if they so desired and you met what they required. The third option did not remove the threat of the first two, often just delaying it. Your chains were exchanged for a cutlass. Your resurrection from this wet Hell was not Heaven, but just a drier Hell. This blog is a challenge to go beyond reading the text. Through placing yourself in that wet Hell and asking what would you do in the face of death or slavery a greater understanding can be found. As a disclaimer, this blog is not meant as a trigger to invoke past personal trauma. It asks you to activate your historical imagination to access a greater understanding of the past.
For a brief chronological framework of piracy and the slave trade this global relocation begins in the 1400’s. As the History Channel summarizes: “In the 1440’s the Portuguese took their first northern African slaves to Portugal. In 1492, Christopher Columbus found the “New World” in his quest for India. In 1526, we have the first accounts of African slaves being brought to Brazil seen as the start of the slave trade.” In 1619, we have the first African slaves arriving in North America a year before the pilgrims. This wretched business lasted into the mid 1800’s and it ran parallel to the prime years of Atlantic piracy.
To understand the interplay and relationship between pirate and slave we need to explore what the pirate held as valuable. For one famous pirate, human cargo was not the most valuable thing a slave ship could carry. As the North Carolina Maritime Museum has revealed, “Blackbeard’s most famous ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was a captured and converted slave vessel named Le Concorde.”
Stage 2 | The Transformation
Only a small number of the estimated 12 million slaves that were forcefully brought to the Americas became pirates. In “Black People under the Black Flag,” historian Arne Bialuschewski states that “African were pawns, workers, and sometimes objects of lust to pirates. Pirates regarded slaves as worthless, disposable commodities and treated them as such.” As the recent scholarship on privateering and piracy have shown, the slave trade was indeed a vast spiderweb intertwining Europe, Africa, and the Americas with the slave being the prey of the international black widow (Borucki).
For countless slaves like you, death became the fate at the bite of the spider, or they could not get rid of the iron web of the shackles on their arms and legs. Given the limited options presented to you, the life of piracy would provide more chances with the sea as your master. A master who rules all despite the color of one’s skin or nation. What could you gain as a black pirate? Why would you do it? Becoming part of a pirate’s crew was not necessarily liberating. Like the crashing waves, racism flooded those decks. The pirate system roughly worked in this manner: when a ship was taken, pirates collected valuable items. The men were paid out of the earnings of their plundering, which encouraged more attacks. Regardless of your color, if you could prove invaluable, you could attain a measure of status and respect in the vessel’s hierarchy. Several slave pirates would rise to high levels in piracy, including Black Caesar, the second in command r for Blackbeard, and Diego Grillo, who ran his own vessels.
From the island nation of Cuba would emerge Diego Grillo aka “El Mulatto.” Grillo was a man of African and Cuban descent who once being the slave of the famous English sailor Sir Francis Drake who would become a captain of his own ship and is credited with being the first Cuban pirate (Memoria de la Habana). “In Fleeing Slavery,” we find that Grillo’s ocean reach extending through the Caribbean to the coasts of Mexico. He amassed wealth and a trail of tears and blood on both water and land. Why would he do this is still the critical question that underpins pirate and slave dynamics. For Grillo, the ability to lead and determine his own fate was a form of resistance. He found his value and controlled his action within a dehumanizing system that categorized him as a commodity or an instrument of work.
Stage 3 | The Aftermath
The spirit of rebellion towards those who oppressed the black pirate was a call to action that preceded future liberation struggles, including later revolutions transformed Haiti and Cuba into independent countries. In “The Impact in the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World,” historian David Byron Davis examines the speech of Fredrick Douglass when he extolled the Haitian freedom fighters. Douglas said, “When they struck for freedom they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world” (Byron Davis). In the context of the Americas, I contend that the black pirates of Age of Empire Building and the black freedom fighters of the Age of Revolution share a defiant spirit against colonial masters. Another interesting point is the impact of piracy on the slave trade. In Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, Jeffrey W. Bolster argues that the effect of piracy on the slave trade would lead to drastic shortages of slave labor and build competition amongst the nations. The slave became valuable not because of their humanity but simply their existence. For the pirate, despite skin color or nation, the dangers became not merely the sea but the military vessels sent to hunt them.
Like the sea, the cannonball is colorblind. As stated in the first paragraph, the third option for captured slaves could be a delay of your fate. For many, it was when killed or captured by the colonial navies. Many hanged from scaffolds as their descendants would tragically experience similar fates even today on trees. Again, why would they take this path of piracy answer is survival but on their terms. A bold exercise of self-determination which had been stripped from them when they entered their watery Hell. It is a statement of personal value that they saw themselves worth living even if their hands got as bloody as the captors. You may ask how this all relates to the movement of many slaves to the “New World.” Piracy was not a benevolent action in the saving of slaves. Both pirate and slaves resided on that spider web under the overwhelming power of the spider. You would most likely meet option one or two again. But the difference is you did it without bruised wrists and standing to face the master rather than being on bended knee. If you were there in that position as a slave, maybe you physically did not reach the plantations or haciendas, but your spirit of defiance did. You found self-determination and worth where the world saw none in you. I prefer to view a Heaven I may or not reach than die in my wet Hell.
Crystal Ponti, “America’s History of Slavery Began Long Before Jamestown, history.com, Aug 26, 2019, history.com/news/american_slavery_before_jamestown_1619
NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, “Queen Anne’s Revenge Project”, access date Apr 22,2021, ncdcr.gov/about/special-_programs/queen-_annes-_revenge
Bialuschewski, A. (2008). Black People under the Black Flag: Piracy and the Slave Trade on the West Coast of Africa, 1718–1723. Slavery and Abolition, 29 (4), 461-475.
Borucki, A. (2017). Transimperial Networks of Slave Trading, Piracy, and Empire Building in the Iberian Atlantic. Latin American Research Review, 52 (4).
Miguel Barnet, Pedro Deschamps Chapeaux, Rafael Garcia, and Rafael Duharte (2003). ‘Fleeing Slavery.” The Cuba Reader. Duke University Press.
Historians Link Pirate Ships and Slave Vessels, NPR
Privateering, Piracy, and British Policy in Spanish America, 1810-1830 by Matthew McCarthy
Monsters by Trade: Slave Traffickers in Modern Spanish Literature and Culture by Lisa Surwillo
Amistad: A Hidden Network of Slaves and Merchants by Michael Zeuske
Andresote and the Revolt Against the Guipuzcoana (1731-1733) by Dario Azzellini
A Review of Pillage the Empire: Piracy in the Americas by Rachael Wolfsohn