Would you rather be a pirate or a slave? That question might have been posed to the human cargo aboard the slave ship La Concorde en route from West Africa to Martinique, were language no barrier. The vessel came under attack by two pirate ships in November 1717. Two a small sloops captained by the notorious Blackbeard, who seized the larger Concorde, and renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge. Most of the 455 blacks aboard were off loaded and taken to nearby Bequia island to be left with the ship’s crew. But a large number of them traveled on with Blackbeard. Pirate ships and slave ships were contemporaneous, and pirates often took the Africans when raiding those ships.
African trade beads and gold dust from West Africa are among the artifacts recovered from the shipwreck of Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge and on display at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. These links to the African slave trade helped to establish the identity of the wreck near Beaufort, as the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Pirate crews were a cosmopolitan lot, picking up mariners are various ports in the known world of different races, religions, and ethnicities. So diverse were these seamen that they gave rise to the term “motley crew,” as historian Marcus Redicker details in his book “Villains of All Nations.” “It was the skill and ability of a sailor that determined his worth,” Redicker explained. A fierce warrior, for example, might make a good pirate. Ability, not color, determined status.
Even so, the role of blacks on pirate ships is debated. Some insist that they would be limited to menial roles, and treated as they would have been ashore. Would that have been on the American shore, or some other? Slavery did not become its most restrictive even in America until the 1830s. Questions often have arisen when blacks are seen out of the servile role, say as a soldier, pilot, or president. So too for black pirates.
At the defeat and death of Blackbeard, the Royal Navy seized the vessel Adventure, then Blackbeard’s base of operations. At least a third of the Blackbeard’s downsized crew were Negroes, and Blackbeard had left posted in the hold the huge Negro Caesar, “whom he had bred up” with instructions to blow up the ship if the pirates lost that last fight. But that fight was not aboard Adventure, Blackbeard lost, and Caesar and his mates were captured. All 13 pirates were taken prisoner and removed to Williamsburg for trail. The five blacks were tried with the rest of Blackbeard’s captured crew in March 1719. In the end they were not sold as taken slaves, they were tried and hanged as pirates.
It is said that the pirate creed is “A short and merry life for me.” For the five black pirates that were hanged with Blackbeard’s crew, the 16 months as free men may have offered experiences far removed from their childhood dreams.