First let’s get our terminology straight. Every once in a while, I run into someone who wants to call these people “African American Pirates.’ Sorry, guys. “African American” is a term that only works in the United States of America. Since, during piracy’s Golden Age the US had not yet broken free from England, there were no African Americans at the time.
However, the terms that were in use are not specific, mostly because these people were not viewed as a homogenous group. Some were slaves. Some were slave owners. Some, as we shall see, were Dutch, or French.
The story of many Black pirates was at many times also the story of slavery. Since the first founding of colonies in the New World, European countries scraped up their poor, or occasionally just their unlucky, and forcibly shipped them off to New World colonies as “indentured servants.” That the term of servitude (often 7 years) outlasted life expectancy in the harsh new colonies (sometimes as little as 2 years) bothered the authorities not at all.
However, ship captains bent on kidnapping prostitutes, thieves, beggars and gypsies for transportation sometimes also scooped up relatives of the rich and powerful. By 1700, indentured servitude was on the decline.
Landowners looking to acquire lifelong or hereditary workers also enslaved non-Christians. This could be done under the excuse that by “Christianizing” these people, the slaver owner was benefiting them. But problems surfaced when Jews, Muslims, Native Americans or Africans converted. Could Christians be held as hereditary slaves?
Disputes also broke out about what constituted a Christian. Catholic Spain and France claimed that Protestants were non-Christians, while Protestant England said the same about Catholics.
By 1700, the vast majority of slaves brought to the West Indies, the area that we now refer to as the Caribbean, were Black people from Africa.
Pirates had long had problems with slavery. Beginning in the 1600’s, pirates who captured slave ships often gave the slaves an opportunity to join their crews. In the beginning, human cargo on captured ships might amount to 6 or 7 people. By the 1700’s, purpose built slave ships were carrying hundreds of slaves from Africa.
Capturing a slave ship could vastly increase a pirate captain’s power. At one point, pirate captain Sam Bellamy’s crew consisted of more than 50% freed African slaves.
Bellamy’s friend Blackbeard had a crew that was estimated at 30% African. In fact, some historians believe that Blackbeard’s famous black beard came from African heritage. Some people even claim that Blackbeard was the offspring of an English nobleman and a mulatto (half-African) servant. Will we ever know for sure? Probably not. But descriptions of Blackbeard’s appearance make this plausible.
We are certain that a Black pirate who called himself Black Caesar was a pirate captain who occasionally ran with Blackbeard, and was with him when Blackbeard fought his last action against the Lieutenant Maynard of the Royal Navy. Caesar had been given the duty of blowing up the ship if it looked like the pirates would not win. Though willing to carry out his suicidal mission, he was stopped by two (presumably white) pirates with less bravery.
The problem with these African pirates is that, like most working pirates of their day, their stories remain untold. But a few names are noted in history. Hendrick Quintor, for instance, was a skilled Dutch sailor of African origin. He joined Bellamy’s crew when the Spanish brigantine he was sailing on was captured. Quintor was one of the few pirates to escape the disastrous hurricane that sank Bellamy’s flagship.
Quintor was tried with his fellow pirates, and found guilty. But unlike the others, he and John Julian, a Native American pirate, were sold into slavery. It is noted that both men made bad slaves, but their ultimate fates remain unknown. Was it better or worse than facing the hangman’s noose, the fate of the other members of Bellamy’s crew?
Other black pirates of note include Diego Grillo, a man of African descent who was born in Havana. He took up the pirate trade in the 1630’s. He was esteemed by his comrades, and was elected to the post of captain.
The legend of Diego Grillo has attached itself to many Black Caribbean pirates from the era. One Spanish priest writes of being captured by Grillo, and states that the pirate captain felt a particular hatred of the Spanish, who had enslaved him, and that Grillo made a special effort to burn Spanish ships.
Grillo is said to have made his base either Tortuga or New Providence, the later home to the Pirate Republic. Some even claim that he was a ship’s captain during Morgan’s raids against the Spanish.
A pirate by the name of Old South, a Black man, is said to have captained one of the many pirate ships called the Good Fortune.
In 1731 Juan Andres, a man of mixed African heritage, was the leader of a pirate crew of runaway slaves and Indians. They plundered along the coast of Venezuela. Authorities assumed Andres had died two years later when the attacks ceased. In reality, Andres and his crew had merely moved to the safety of Curacao before resuming their assaults.
Peter Cloise, a former slave, became a pirate after Edward Davis took him from his owner in 1679. They became close friends and went pirating in the Caribbean and along South America’s Pacific coast. After Davis’ ship put into Philadelphia in May 1688, Cloise was arrested, but no records of his execution have been found.
Stede Bonnet, the gentleman planter who turned pirate to get away from his nagging wife, summed up the piratical attitude when settling a dispute between one of his African crew members and a white recruit. Stede’s judgement was that piracy was a race in itself – it trumped color, nationality and station of birth. A man who called himself a pirate could never be called a slave.
So, to all those who were confused by the recent hullabaloo about Paymobile offering a Black pirate with a slave collar around his neck... It's a valid image if you change one thing... The pirate should be holding the slave collar in his hand (having just ripped it off his own neck) and he should be waving a pirate flag!