The darkside of Piracy: The relationship between Piracy and Slavery in the Early Modern Period from a British perspective

These days when one thinks of Piracy they think of the famous pirates from the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ that are anarchists sailing for freedom such as Jack Sparrow (who regrettably never existed). This has been propagated a lot by the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Franchise and the video game ‘Assassin’s creed IV: Black Flag.’ One interesting aspect that little attention is given in popular culture however is the Piracy/slavery relationship that occurred throughout the Early Modern period, with the British perspective being quite interesting. How these piracy/slavery interactions differed; some pirates were former slaves, pirates and privateers would employ slaves on their crew, capturing people to sell into slavery, it differed from crew to crew. The reason for the pirates working in the slave trade also differed as well; finances played the most important reason but there was religious slavery, performed by the Barbary pirates of North Africa, and racial slavey by privateers during the early modern period.

Barbary Pirates

The Barbary Pirates originated from the North African Coast from the Kingdoms of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and the Ottoman Empire. These people performed their piracy not for anarchist reasons but for economic and religious reasons, generally being given permission to perform piracy by their home kingdoms, making them privateers. These Barbary pirates would attack ships containing non-Muslim Europeans and take prisoners to be ransomed or sold into slavery. There are stories where these pirates would attack not just Ships but coastal settlements along Britain to gain captives to be sold for slavery. Nabil Matar has collected many useful British sources about the many slaves who were captured and their experiences during their slavery (Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England, 2001). This includes actions such as being forced to work as ship crewmen, working in city infrastructure alongside many other slaves for the government of the kingdom they were sold to and working for private masters, doing housework and possibly being treated quite cruelly. Of course, what sources collected are from those slaves who escaped or were set free, which only tell a small part about the many thousands of stories from British men captured by the Barbary pirates.

European Privateers

Compared to the Barbary pirates the European privateers seemed similar in performing their piracy and slave trade in the name of their home kingdom. The main difference however is that the reasoning these privateers traded in slave was originally to make a good fortune. Accounts on Francis Drake in the 1500’s show him in his youth travelling to the ‘Gold Coast’ along the West African Coast with another privateer and buying slaves to sell. Shortly after this he raided Spanish plantation sites in the Caribbean, using slaves to help with this piracy. This early form of the British Slave trade was primary focused on profit rather than with little racial elements but this would later develop into the racial slavery that occurred often during the 17th and 18th century. This racial slavery can be better seen with privateers like Woodes Rogers, as slaves purchased by him were treated lower than livestock, as they were seen as objects for profit. By the ‘Golden Age’ racial slavery had risen dramatically.

Golden Age Pirates

Slaves during the Golden Age of Piracy from 1696 to 1726 had more freedom compared to those captured by privateers- if they could obtain this freedom that is. It was quite common for pirates to raid the Slave trading vessels, and sell captured slaves when they needed more money and had the room on their ships. There were plenty of slaves who became pirates themselves for the freedom they wished to gain. The main reason for this is that each crewmember had equal say on the happenings of the ship, with these individual pirate societies being the most equal and democratic societies in the world at the time. Blackbeard’s crew was said to have had a third of its members being former slaves and one of his most trusted subordinates was a man named Black Ceasar, a former slave from the West African coast. Racial influences would even affect pirates who were captured, as while most pirates were hanged; if the pirate was black they would be forced into slavery again.

If one looks at all the interactions between piracy and slavery it is obvious that the primary reason the slaves were captured and sold were for financial reasons. It was not uncommon for the captain of the pirate ships to become rich from the slaves sold or ransomed. Pirates who were former slaves themselves would take part in the trade for this easy money. With this put into interpretation, while nationalism, race and religion did have a major impact on slavery it was the rise of economics and primitive forms of capitalism which caused the interaction of piracy and the slave trade.



Cordingly, David, Spanish Gold: Captain Woodes Rogers and the True Story of the Pirates of the Caribbean, London, Bloomsbury, 2011

Friedman, Ellen, “Christian Captive at Hard Labor”. The International Journal of African Historical Studie, Boston, Boston University African Study Centre, 1980

Johnson, Charles, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, London, 1724

Matar, Nabil, Victus, Daniel, Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England, New York, Columbia University Press, 2001

Woodard, Colin, The Republic of Pirates, Pan Macmillan, London, 2007

2 comments on “The darkside of Piracy: The relationship between Piracy and Slavery in the Early Modern Period from a British perspective

  1. lukewyld says:

    Hi Christopher,

    I’ll choose to ignore that Jack Sparrow never existed. I liked how your post subverted traditional conceptions regarding slavery, as whilst your post acknowledged racial slavery which occurred, it seems that it is often forgotten that economic gain was a primary driver. Your inclusion of the Barbary Pirates in your post is something I found to be extremely interesting, especially as piracy is often remembered as something carried out by Europeans. I particularly liked it as you mentioned how ‘thousands’ of Europeans became the victims of these pirates. which would come as a surprise to most, I was definitely surprised to hear that the British coast was raided and it is some information that I can pass on to other people.

  2. fairleyb says:

    This is a very interesting post and topic. When I took a unit for my Economics major called Evolution of Economic Ideas the lecturer mentioned that someone did a PhD thesis on the Economics of Piracy. As the last comment mentioned about the Barbary Pirates I was wondering if you knew that a war on the Barbary Coast was the first international military engagement that the United States ever fought – under President Jefferson – in order to stop Barbary attacks on American ships. In fact the American Navy’s anthem starts ‘From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli’ – because of this war.

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