The Transatlantic Slave Trade


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

Piracy and various forms of slavery were absolutely inseparable in any era, particularly so during the Golden Age. There was no way for men traveling the Caribbean, let alone the deep-sea routes through the Atlantic, to avoid the presence of the transatlantic slave trade. Slavery was present in all of the trading ports where a ship might touch the African coastline.

Concept of triangle trade
Transatlantic slave trade was known as the Triangle trade for the British. (Image: Arkela/ُShutterstock)

The Triangle Slave Trade and Its Three Legs

Slavery was a prime driver of the Spanish-English rivalries that drove the sea war, where privateers and pirates fought proxy battles for a century.

During the time that the transatlantic slave trade was more or less exclusively a Spanish and Portuguese operation, slaves were mostly brought from Africa to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas, and forced to labor there. Once the British got into the act, their trade route became known as the Triangle trade because it typically involved three legs:

A journey from the British Isles to West Africa, carrying brandy, guns and other goods to be exchanged for captives. The second was a brutal middle passage taking the Africans from West Africa to the West Indies in North America, where those who survived were sold, and colonial goods such as rum and sugar were taken on board. And the third back to England, where those goods were sold.

Harsh Condition Aboard Enslaving Ships

Model of a enslaving ship
The condition onboard enslaving ships was harsh for both the crew and the slaves. (Image: Kenneth Lu/Public domain)

Many pirates had experienced aboard enslaving ships. For some, it was this experience that led directly to piracy. The conditions onboard ships engaged in the transatlantic slave trade were often grim, and the risk of death from disease and harsh conditions was high for both the captive bonds people below decks and their captors; as high, sometimes, as 25%. 

Long after the pirates of the Caribbean had been hunted nearly to extinction, the enslaver crews of European vessels would sometimes rebel, and set up as small-time pirates near the African coast, well into the middle and the end of the 18th century.

The mutiny was a constant risk, both on the part of the enslaved people and the seamen who held them captive. But when the latter rebelled or deserted, it was against the captain, not against the grotesquerie of the transatlantic slave trade.

Indeed, pirates who encountered enslaved people among their prey were more likely to murder them or sell them than to free them. And slave ships were attractive targets. They were often speedy vessels with crews that were poorly motivated to put up a fight to defend abusive captains and owners who shared little of their profits.

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

Pirates Also Engaged in Slave Trading

The available evidence suggests the pirates had no particular interest in righting wrongs when they captured slaving vessels. For example, Captain Sam Bellamy famously captured the Whydah Gally, an enslaver ship on its maiden voyage in 1717. Its captain was Lawrence Prince, who curiously had been a buccaneer with Henry Morgan. Piracy was a small world in the Golden Age Caribbean. 

Illustration of Sam Bellamy and his ship
Sam Bellamy converted a captured enslaver ship into a pirate ship to use it for attacking other vessels. (Image: George S. Harris & Sons/Public domain)

Bellamy and his crew simply converted the Whydah Gally to a pirate vessel, using it to attack and loot other ships, until the Whydah Gally was wrecked by a nor’easter off the coast of Cape Cod later that same year; there were only two survivors. You may have heard of this ship. The wreck of the Whydah Gally was discovered in 1984 by Barry Clifford, and it remains an important submarine archaeological site.

Captain Roberts had engaged in the slave trade himself when he turned pirate, and he periodically returned to that trade. In 1722, he crowned a campaign of terror along the West African coastline by attacking Ouidah harbor, a notorious hub of the transatlantic slave trade, and captured and ransomed 11 ships for eight pounds of gold dust a piece. Although, he stole one of the ships that he had ransomed.

The captain of the twelfth ship, called the Porcupine, refused to pay the ransom, even though the ship was almost full of people. Roberts ordered his crew to set fire to the ship, killing the 80 captives on board because Roberts’s crew was in too much of a hurry to free them.

Who Caused the Slave Trade?

Did pirates somehow caused the transatlantic slave trade? They didn’t. As that there was no separation between pirates and enslavers. Indeed, there hardly could have been; the transatlantic slave trade so thoroughly permeated European economies, voyages, and politics in the early modern period, that any ambitious, wide-ranging mariner, law-abiding or not, would have had to come in contact with it. But there’s no evidence that pirates encountered the trade in human beings, and turned away in disgust. Quite the opposite.

This interconnectedness of pirate voyages and enslaving one’s would only increase with time. The Red Sea Men, the pirates who sailed the so-called pirate round, were absolutely dependent on the transatlantic slave trade. Without slave ports along the African coast, they would have had nowhere to take in supplies or fence goods. That is, there was simply no way for them to get to the Red Sea from the Caribbean without coasting Africa.

Common Questions about the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Q: Why was the transatlantic slave trade also known as the Triangle trade?

During the time that the transatlantic slave trade was exclusively a Spanish-Portuguese operation, slaves were brought from Africa to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies on the American continent. But as the British entered the slave trade, their trade route became known as the Triangle trade because it passed through three destinations.

Q: How were the conditions on the ships during the transatlantic slave trade?

The ships engaged in the transatlantic slave trade often carried the risk of death from disease for captives and slaves as well as for crew members, so the risk of dying from the disease on these ships was as high as 25 percent.

Q: Were pirates the cause of the transatlantic slave trade?

The transatlantic slave trade had a profound influence on European economies and politics in the early modern period, and so every ambitious sailor was tempted to experience it. Although the pirates had a direct connection to slavery, there is no strong evidence that they were the major cause of the transatlantic slave trade.

Keep Reading
Stories of Pirate Attacks: A Fusion of Fact and Fiction?
Tactics That Pirates Used in Their Attacks
Were Pirates Really the ‘Sea Monsters’ as Some Called them?