The little-talked about story of the black pirates of the Caribbean

Piracy and slavery coincided in history and in a very specific territory, the Caribbean. With one third of pirates being black, why is their story that little talked about?

Piracy, and its dominancy over the seas during its Golden Age, has become a subject of interest not only historically speaking but also culturally. Products like movie franchises, literary masterpieces, songs, and art, have given us images about that age that are hard to dismiss. Historical personalities like Blackbeard, Mary Read, and Calico Jack, have been immortalized in all sorts of products and their personalities and deeds have inspired tons of fictional characters, one of them being the extremely successful Disney franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean.

We’ve all seen the movies and fallen in love with the irreverent character of Jack Sparrow and his adventures on his beloved Black Pearl. We’ve seen all sorts of secondary characters, some of them of diverse backgrounds, and although these movies do include some black characters, there’s something they haven’t really portrayed (nay something they’ve deliberately avoided), and that’s the connection piracy had with slavery and the number of black pirates that menaced the seas.


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Slavery and Piracy

The Golden Age of Piracy coincided with one of the early peaks of the slave trade. The first one ran around 1620 to 1720, and the latter had its boom from the mid-17th century until the 19th century. It’s more than obvious that both would collide as their activities centered on the sea. But how did they relate and coincide?


Piracy was probably the most democratic society at the time; likely the precursor of democracy in the world. With the main trading routes set in the Atlantic Ocean, most pirates settled in the Caribbean, making it a haven for their illegal trade. The Caribbean and nearby territories were also the main destinations of the slave trade transporting human cargo into the Americas. These contrasting societies eventually clashed and piracy, whether intentional or not, ended up damaging the slave trade business for almost an entire century.

Now, pirates didn’t really have a moral compass against slavery, and some of them were actually slave traders themselves. However, indeed, many captains were known to focus on raiding slave ships, freeing slaves, and offering them to join their crew. Some captains would make them do the worst jobs and treat them as part of their property, while others accepted them as free men like the rest and could even rise in ranks among the crew.


All in all, pirate ships became free havens for black men and a job that could actually let them gain power and money. Besides that, for pirates, having black men join their crew represented strong men willing to take revenge against colonial ships. Again, this wasn’t a moral matter, for pirates, slave ships were a treasure itself. Not only could they expand their crew, but the ships were also loaded with all sorts of material goods. But all in all, the main treasure were ships themselves. These were the fastest ships, and more importantly, they were extremely big, perfect for big pirate crews. Having bigger and faster ships allowed pirates to raid any ship they encountered.

It’s a fact that when the Golden Age of piracy went into decline, the slave trade increased monumentally. This means, that for a century, there was a decrease in the number of slaves traded from Africa to the Americas, and it’s no secret that for Colonial countries, piracy was a real menace, not only for material exports but for human trade.


The Black Pirates of the Caribbean

Most black pirates, thus, were former slaves who had been freed by pirates, or that had managed to escape their fate and joined this illegal haven. It’s estimated that about one-third of the pirate population was black; former slaves.

As mentioned, many pirate crews established democratic systems in which, for the first time, in the Western world, black men (and this is important to note as women and children didn’t have the same fate) were able to vote, own weapons, and even have an equal share of stolen booties. But this fantasy of freedom, democracy, and equality, only happened on the ships and counted pirate territories. When pirates were captured, white pirates were hanged, black ones were taken back to their owners or resold into slavery; probably a worse fate than death.


Notable Black Pirates

Black Caesar

Three notable black pirates were menacing the Caribbean seas. The most famous of all was Black Caesar, a former slave turned into a pirate, known for raiding ships on the shores of the Florida Keys. He eventually joined Blackbeard’s crew aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge and managed to become the crew’s lieutenant. Before becoming a notable pirate, Black Caesar had been captured by slavers. However, when approaching the Florida coast, a big storm took the slave vessel by surprise; Black Caesar and a free sailor he had befriended on the trip joined forces and managed to escape in a rowboat. Soon, they started raiding ships pretending to have just survived a shipwreck. He became one of the most fearsome pirates of the Caribbean until he was captured and sentenced in 1718.

Henri Caesar

Often mistaken with Black Caesar (Blackbeard’s associate) is Henri Caesar who eventually was also given the same name though they operated within decades apart. Henri Caesar was a Haitian pirate and like the others made a name and fortune raiding European vessels. However, for Henri, it all would change with the Haitian revolution. He followed his patriotic moral compass and played an important role in the Revolution.


Laurens de Graaf

Last but not least, we have the infamous Dutch pirate Laurens de Graaf, known as El Griffe. Though many depictions pose him as a white man, the pirate with a crew of over 2,000 men, was likely of African descent. Actually, the name Griffe was commonly used to refer to mulatto people, that is, those with European and African ancestry. According to the story, he was enslaved during his childhood by the Spanish, but he managed to escape. He devoted his life to torment Spanish vessels, to the point that the Spanish gave him the nickname of the Devil.

Dutch pirate named Laurens de Graaf. He started his career as a French privateer, and the Spanish greatly feared his crew that grew to about 2,000 pirates at one time. Many accounts record that he was tall with blond hair and blue eyes, but his nickname tells another story. He was known as El Griffe, which was a common name given to men and women who had both European and African ancestry, which indicates he may have been a mulatto. After being enslaved by the Spanish in his early life, he spent the rest of his life being a thorn in their side. He attacked Spanish ships and settlements, and the Spanish frequently referred to him as the Devil.

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