Pirate Captives as a Source of Wealth and Enslaver Privateers


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

Moro pirates in the Sulu Sea waged a privateering campaign against the European and American colonial presence. But during the 18th and 19th centuries, their main form of wealth procurement was in enslaving prisoners. In other words, pirate captives had little to no chance of ransom, and captive taking with the goal of enslavement has been a global phenomenon.

Bombardment among some vessels for captives
Pirate captives were valuable since they were traded and sold. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Piracy and Captive-taking

It’s not just the end of the Golden Age where we see this, piracy and enslavement are interwoven from very early on in its history. But it’s also true that throughout history, pirates have very often been willing to treat human beings as saleable objects, as a form of booty. Indeed, some pirates regarded prisoners as the main object of their raids.

In its least permanent form, this captive taking might amount to a ransom scheme, which was common among the Wako Pirates of East Asia, the Orang Laut of Singapore, and the Barbary corsairs alike.

Jolo in the Sulu Archipelago was both a notorious pirate layer and a notorious slave-trading marketplace. This shows us that the geographical connections between slave ports and pirate ports were not limited to the Atlantic, nor was it new to the Atlantic in the Golden Age.

What Pirates and Vikings Had in Common

Viking ship floating on the sea
Pirates were similar to Vikings in some aspects. (Image: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock)

As far back as the Viking Age, which stretched from the 700 to about 1050 or so, slave-taking seems to have been a major goal for seafaring raiders. ‘To go a Viking’ can basically be translated as to go pirating. It’s estimated that as much as 10% of the Scandinavian population in this period consisted of Thralls; that is, slaves or serfs. 

Some of them certainly were locals who’d fallen upon hard times, but archaeological evidence confirms that others were kidnapped and forced into servitude. Most Viking captives came from Europe or Britain, and many were absorbed into Viking communities. But Arab sources record that Vikings were enslaving and selling prisoners in Spain, Egypt, and across the Middle East, often targeting women and children inland raids.

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

Privateers as Enslavers

English pirates, on the other hand, did not become rovers specifically to take captives and sell them, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t want to be in the slave trade. Instead, to a significant extent, the English were inspired to privateer into piracy out of anger that the Spanish would not allow them more freedom to participate in enslaving and selling people from the African continent. In other words, early English piracy was driven in part by the ambition to have a nominally legal avenue into race chattel slavery.

Portrait of a privateer
In addition to being state-sanctioned pirates, privateers were also enslavers. (Image: Mauricio García Vega/Public domain)

Privateering is essentially state-sanctioned piracy. That is, it’s piracy with paperwork. England relied heavily on privateer forces from the 16th through the early 18th centuries as major components of its presence at sea. Elizabethan privateers helped to flesh out England’s overstretched navy, and did so with at least the potential for major profits for their often corporate mercantile backers, with the government getting a cut as well. 

Queen Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs were crucial to harassing Spain at the end of the 16th century. And the more successful among them were hailed as patriots and heroes, although the Spanish understandably considered them foul pirates. Yet, they were also enslavers, as well as explorers, early pioneers in the triangle trade that would later consign millions of Africans into American bondage. 

Examples of Enslaver Privateers

The privateer, Martin Frobisher, sailed when he was young aboard the first English voyage to West Africa; Thomas Wyndham’s disastrous Guinea adventure, which killed the captain and most of the crew. Undeterred, Frobisher returned, and was taken captive by local traders and handed over to the Portuguese.

He would later make three voyages to the New World; trying, though failing, to find the Northwest Passage. All very admirable, but he was also arrested multiple times on charges of slavery; although, he was never tried.

Sir John Hawkins made a number of triangle slaving voyages in the 1560s; murdering people in order to take captives, and then selling prisoners from Sierra Leone illegally in Santo Domingo. He also procured some African prisoners by attacking Portuguese slave transports. Along for the ride on his first voyage were Frobisher and Francis Drake, Hawkins’ younger cousin; and they made so much money for the crown that Elizabeth awarded Hawkins a coat of arms with an illustration of a bound black captive upon them. 

Drake, for his part, would later ally with Maroon communities in the Caribbean, and attack Spanish targets. Although, the basis for his loathing of the Spanish was that they had attacked his ship while he was engaged in illegally selling enslaved Africans; he, too, was knighted. 

And then there was Sir Walter Ralegh, privateer pirate and North American colonialist, who brought a young boy with him back from his voyage to Guyana and called him Charles. It was on-trend at this point in time for fashionable ladies to keep black boys as footmen.

Common Questions about Pirate Captives as a Source of Wealth and Enslaver Privateers

Q: How did Moro pirates gather their wealth?

During the 18th and 19th centuries, pirate captives had very little chance of paying ransom and freedom because captivity for the purpose of slavery was a global phenomenon. Accordingly, the main form of wealth creation for them was enslaving prisoners.

Q: What does the history of piracy imply about slavery and captive-taking?

History shows that pirates often wanted to treat humans as tradable objects or booty. In fact, some pirates considered the prisoners to be the main target of their attacks. It was also common among some pirates to free pirate captives for ransom.

Q: What was the main reason for the British to commit piracy?

One of the main reasons why the British turned to piracy was their anger at the Spanish, as the Spanish did not give the British enough freedom to participate in the slave trade by bringing people from Africa.

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