By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
On board a ship, the captain’s authority was essentially absolute. This environment was a terrible breeding ground for tyranny, and it is hardly surprising that the result was sometimes mutiny, or punishment at the hands of pirates, who had often themselves worked under such brutal conditions before going rogue.
Treatment of Pirates
One of the most popular tools for imposing duty upon sailors was the cattle nine tails, a whip made of nine knotted thongs. But sailors could also be flogged by other painful means, as well as beaten, punched, and kicked. Threats of nose slicing and ear cutting were in fact far from unknown on legal ships. However, they were directed top downwards.
Captains could also imprison sailors or abandon men on shore on any convenient port. Captains could stop grog, or rations, or offer only spoiled scant food. In short, a merchant ship could be held afloat quite as horrifically as anything a violent pirate might conceive of.
Many men died of such treatments, and while legal redress of grievances was theoretically possible, it was not commonly easy to pursue. This, however, was of course not universal. Some merchant ships were places of brotherhood and conviviality.
Mutinies were almost always the result of accumulated grievances, and often involved not only cruelty, but also unjust wage stoppages, or a likely opportunity for piracy happening to present itself at the right moment. So, while resistance to injustice was often a part of the motivation for turning pirate, it simply was never the entire story.
Mix of Races on Pirate Ships
This is not to say that there is no truth to the idea of relative equality and freedom on board the pirate ship. While the pirate’s freedom always came in the end at the cost of someone else’s safety or liberty, still, their hypocrisy was somewhat tempered by the special circumstances of pirate community standards.
For one thing, while ships in general tended to have polyglot, heterogeneous cruise, the general belief is that pirates were more likely to feature international and interracial mixing. It’s difficult to get good numbers on the racial makeup of the average pirate crew, but by some estimates, pirate crews were often as much as 20 to 30% black.
There’s some limited evidence, though, that black pirates were more likely to be free than black sailors on other kinds of ships.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Black Men as Pirates
Black men at sea, if they were not among the enslaved, generally experienced a little more freedom from racism than those on land. The shared experience of maritime labor, forcible confinement, and brutal management could create bonds among white and black sailors.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that the plight of an impressed white sailor cannot fairly be compared to the plight of a captive African bondsmen during the middle passage. The white sea men, however miserable, at least received wages, as would a free black sailor working on a slave ship. Bondsmen working on ships, and there were many, would by contrast see any wages they earned directed to their captors.
Life at sea was different, and the rigid customs of hierarchy meant that to some extent, the concerns of role, skill, and status in the ship’s crew could crowd out racial distinctions. To simplify, lawful ships could be places where everyone was so hierarchized that racially targeted oppression was a little bit less severe than normal, particularly as some of the hierarchy was really based on skill.
On the other hand, there were high limits. Black sailors were unlikely to be officers.
Captain Kid’s second quarter master, a Dutch privateer man named Hendrick van der Heul, was described as a small black man, which has led to him being proposed as one of the highest ranking men of African extraction in Golden Age society. However, the term black was commonly used to indicate an olive complexion and so is not reliably a racial marker.
Buccaneers with Black Population
In the early days of buccaneering, the Buccaneers ranks were filled with both white and black people who had fled captivity. Often, these populations would band together with indigenous peoples against the Spanish.
Kenneth Kinkor, one of the very few historians to study black men under the black flag, notes that towards the end of the Golden Age, skilled mariners were highly valued by pirate crews, whether they were black or white. Black pirates do not seem to have been banned from boarding parties or weapons.
On the other hand, it’s indisputable that many pirates saw enslaved ships as desirable prey and had no compunctions about selling prisoners in the transatlantic slave trade. To quote Jeffrey Bolster, “Black and white pirates preyed on black and white victims.”
That black pirates often fought bravely, even to their death, is not necessarily evidence of their equality or any particular commitment to the brethren of the coast, as the buccaneering communities were sometimes called. If captured, they were very likely to be enslaved even if they were acquitted, which might well have been motive enough to resist capture ferociously.
Common Questions about the Predicament of Black Pirates
Many pirates died of harsh treatments on ships, and while legal redress of grievances was theoretically possible, it was not commonly easy to pursue.
While ships in general tended to have polyglot, heterogeneous cruise, the general belief is that pirates were more likely to feature international and interracial mixing. It’s difficult to get good numbers on the racial makeup of the average pirate crew, but by some estimates, pirate crews were often as much as 20 to 30% black.
The shared experience of maritime labor, forcible confinement, and brutal management could create bonds among white and black sailors.