How Piracy and Slavery Were Connected


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

In his diary of 1833, Charles Darwin made the remark that, ‘‘It is commonly said that a Sealer, Slaver, and Pirate are all of a trade.” The link his statement identified between pirates and people in the slave trade raises an interesting question for us. Assuming Darwin was right, what kind of connection runs between piracy and slavery?

‘The Slave Trade (Slaves on the West Coast of Africa)’ painting showing slaves with masters near a shore
Piracy and slavery are somehow related to one another. (Image: François-Auguste Biard/Public domain)

Piracy and Slavery Were Different, Yet Related

At the outset, we need to differentiate between the captivity in which, say, the crew of a merchant ship might find itself if it were seized by pirates on the one hand, and race chattel enslavement on the other.

The former situation occurred quite often, but rarely lasted long. Having too many captives on a pirate ship was dangerous; an unhappy crew might, well, mutiny. Pirates were often mutineers themselves. So who better to know that important fact of maritime labor management? 

So pirates let most of their captives go free, preferring a willing and enthusiastic crew most of the time. They might attack the captain and officers of a captured ship out of a general principle of not liking authority, or torture them to find their money. But they had fewer quarrels with the common sailors.

Concept of captivity
Even though slavery is different from captivity, the two are related. (Image: Alta Oosthuizen/Shutterstock)

Unless, that is, they were short-handed. Or if they came across sailors with certain special skills: pilots, navigators, carpenters, coopers, surgeons, or musicians were often forced to remain behind when their fellows went free.

They also not uncommonly treated Indian or African men as their captives or slaves, assuming their resistance was less meaningful than the dislike of white men for being forced to be a pirate. And here is where the relationship between captivity and race chattel slavery becomes more complicated.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Trial of Stede Bonnet

Let’s go back to the trial of Stede Bonnet and his followers to see how these issues might play out in real life. For his last hurrah, Bonnet cast aside the royal pardon he’d received for his pirate past, picked up a crew of pirates that Blackbeard had marooned, and returned to piracy, until he and his crew were captured in a chaotic battle. 

All of the pirates of the trial agreed on some principles, that Blackbeard had marooned them, and Bonnet offered to transport them to St. Thomas, saying he would apply for privateers commission to honor the terms of his pardon there.

One pirate, named Neal Paterson of Aberdeen, gave this explanation for his actions: “Sir, it was in a strange land, and I had no money, nor nothing left, and I was willing to do something to live; but it was against my will to go a pirating.’’ The evidence, however, worked against them. It appears that Bonnet and his men started attacking ships even without a commission. 

Exactly whose idea this was occasioned some debate. Also, inconveniently, Paterson turned out to have stolen money on his person, so he was hanged. Bonnet, despite his novel claim that he didn’t actually take any booty, but was just holding some shares for other people, really, he said this, also hanged. But other men were acquitted.

Thomas Gerrard’s Case 

One interesting case is of Thomas Gerrard from Antigua. Gerrard was found to have signed the articles of piracy aboard Bonnet’s ship, which you might think would have been enough to condemn him. He was an able seaman, a man with a reputation for honesty, and also a free man of mixed-race descent. This gave the pirates leverage. 

According to Gerrard, after he was taken by Bonnet’s pirates, ‘‘One of the men came and asked if I would join them. I told him, no. He said, I was but like a Negro, and they made slaves of all of that color if I did not join. So I did it with a design to get clear of them the first opportunity, and I never shared any of the goods.’’ 

That’s obviously an important detail. Juries would take seriously a man’s claim to have been forced into piracy. But if he could be shown to fight willingly during boarding, or to use stolen goods, his chances of acquittal were poor.

Become a Pirate or Remain a Slave

Interestingly, the other pirates, to amend, including the bosun, corroborated Gerrard’s claims. In his address to the jury, the judge grossly remarked. “Indeed, he had better been made a slave than go a pirating.” Which is the kind of thing only someone who knows his race protects him from ever having to imagine such a choice could say. But this remark seems to have been taken satirically for Gerrard was acquitted.

What this means, then, is that captivity and race chattel slavery were indeed two different things in the 18th century. But both concepts could be and were applied to black people who found themselves on pirate ships, sometimes at the same time. Bonnet’s pirates held Gerrard captive by threatening him with being sold into slavery if he did not work as a member of their crew.

The jury of white men was unable to fault Gerrard for his choice to prefer a temporary, distasteful captivity to permanent bondage. Sailors tired of harsh conditions, terrible food, and flogging, might run away to become pirates.  

But no one ran away from piracy to become a chattel slave; any other existence at all was better than that. Indeed, black men who were found among pirates but who could prove that they had been enslaved by them, were not held liable legally for any pirating they had done. But they were also not freed.

Common Questions about the Connection Between Piracy and Slavery

Q: What was Thomas Gerrard’s case?

Thomas Gerrard was one of the Stede Bonnet pirate ship’s captives. The ship’s crew offered to make him a pirate, but he refused, so they threatened to enslave him, therefore, he was forced to cooperate with them. Eventually, Gerrard was acquitted for the above reason.

Q: How can the connection between piracy and slavery be seen in Stede Bonnet’s trial?

The connection between piracy and slavery can be seen in Stede Bonnet and his fellows’ trial. According to some of them, they were captured and threatened with slavery by the crew; in other words, they were forced to go pirating. Therefore, it can be said that most of the pirates, especially the black ones onboard pirate ships did this only to escape slavery.

Q: How were piracy and slavery related?

To better understand the connection between piracy and slavery, the difference between slavery and captivity must be distinguished first. Although captivity and slavery were two different things, these were mostly applied to black people. Black captives who were threatened to be enslaved had no choice but to become pirates.

Keep Reading
The Problems in Piracy and Their Defiance
A History of Mutiny and Piracy
The Predicament of Black Pirates