Monday, January 21, 2008

Pirates and Slavery

Pirates and slavery were linked in a number of different ways. It is often overlooked but at the same time that Virginia colonists were importing African slaves, corsairs from Northern Africa were sailing up the English Channel and taking English as slaves to be sold in Africa. I was reminded of this by a showing of the silent version of The Sea Hawk. Adapted from a Sabatini novel by the same name, it is about an English nobleman who is taken captive by Moors.

Jump forward from the early 17th century to the golden age of pirates (late 17th to early 18th centuries) and there is a different relationship between pirates and slavers. There are no longer any pirates string enough to invade European countries. Instead they prey on slavers. The waters off of Africa were often patrolled by pirates hoping to catch a slaver.

Romantic tradition has pirates capturing a ship full of slaves and freeing them. Althought there were exceptions, in general this went against the mercenary instincts of pirates who simply considered slaves as part of the haul. On the other hand, slaves were a lot of trouble to handle and pirates would prefer to take a slave ship when it was on its way to buy slaves. At that point its cargo would be trade goods.

A slave ship was desirable on its own. They were generally strong, fast, and well-armed - the perfect combination for a pirate ship. That is the origin of the Whydah.

The final association between pirates and slaves is that it was the only profession open to many ex-slaves. Blacks were often a large portion of pirate crews and many of these were escaped or freed slaves. Sometimes pirates recruited slaves when raiding sugar plantations.

There is a lot more about black pirates here.

The writers at Disney were aware of the ties between pirates and slaves. The back story for Captain Jack is that he was, at one point, employed by the East India Company as captain of the Wicked Wench. When he refused to transport slaves, Sparrow was branded as a pirate and the Wench was sunk. Sparrow bargained with Davy Jones who raised the ship and rechristened it the Black Pearl. This back story gave Sparrow and the other pirates the moral high ground over the East India Company. After all, pirates steal from people but the East India Company stole people.

1 comment:

Lin Shukla said...
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