Here’s my post for the Nautical Blog Hop. See the end of this post to find other great maritime writers and their contribution to the hop!
If you were to ask someone to name a few famous historical pirates, you’d probably get the usual suspects — Blackbeard, Caclio Jack, William Kidd, Black Bart, Sir Henry Morgan, Black Sam, Stede Bonnet. You might even get a few Charles Vanes or Olivier Levasseurs from the pirate-nerds (and I mean that as the highest of compliments). If you have someone who really knows their stuff they might even spout off a few famous women pirates — Mary Reed and Anne Bonny. Give them a giant high-five for me if they mention Grace O’Malley, or Charlotte de Berry. Double high-five if they say Rachel Wall, mostly because she operated in my backyard of New England.
Ask these same people to name some famous black pirates and, well, you’ll probably get a lot of blank faces. Maybe people will name some characters from Pirates of the Caribbean. Does anyone remember their names to begin with? Answer: Isaac C. Singleton Jr. plays Bo’Sun (not sure if that’s just the character’s title or if it’s his name, too) and Zoe Saldana played Anamaria. That’s probably two more fictional black pirates people may/may not name than historical ones.
And that’s all sorts of sad, but pretty typical when most things are written in a European-heavy point of view.
Now, I’m not trying to condemn everything we know about history or to crap on fictional works like Captain Blood and Treasure Island, in which almost every character you fun into is of European decent, but, by golly, there were some really interesting minority pirates out there, too.
It’d be amazing to actually conceive piracy in the Caribbean as all white Europeans. A land already inhabited by myriad native cultures, and then European ships bringing ships full of African slaves, and the only pirates you hear about are of European decent. Again, part of this is the Euro-heavy POV that tends to dominate history books and story-tellers. Part of it is also it’s a lot easier to becomes a pirate if you’re able to get work onto a ship in the first place. That’s a just a smidge bit harder if you’re a slave stuck on a tobacco plantation somewhere.
Even still, there were plenty of ships that were extremely diverse, as the table to the right shows. Edmonson had a uber-tiny crew, consisting of six white men and four black men. Lewis had half a crew of black folk. La Bouche, aka Olivier Levasseurs, also had a crew that was half and half. Hell, even Blackbeard had a crew that was 60% black. Of course, percentages vary from ship size, but fact remains that they were there — anywhere from a quarter to a third of most crews — and causing as much trouble and mayhem on the high seas as any white Englishman, Spaniard, or Frenchman.
From Kenneth J. Kinkor’s article, Black Men Under the Black Flag:
Blacks received shares of booty and enjoyed other prerequisites of crew membership, including the right to vote. Rewards and incentives appear to have been based on an individual’s ability to function effectively within the pirate crew than than on skin color.
Makes sense. When you’re an outlaw from the entire world and one small screw up could mean having one’s neck measured for rope, you want to have the best and most competent crew you can find. You also don’t give a share of the booty to your slaves, evidence that they were active members, and not servants, of the crew. Kinkor goes on:
That no known pirate crew prohibited blacks from carrying firearms is perhaps the most telling evidence that differences in status between whites and blacks were relatively minor. Indeed, blacks were frequently recorded as active combatants. On one occasion, black pirates even carried out an armed mutiny against a tyrannical captain and his cronies. It would seem that the deck of a pirate ship was the most empowering place for blacks within the eighteenth-century white man’s world.
So who were these black pirates that so few people know of?
Well there were a few Diego el Mulato’s during the seventeenth-century. Diego el Mulato Martin was a former slave that took to the seas in the 1630s until Spanish officials offered him a royal commission. If you can’t beat ’em, invite them to your camp, right? There was also Diego de Los Reyes, aka Diego el Mulato Lucifer (how charming), who had a fondness for attacking the Yucatec coast. The Spanish even created an edict because of him to order “Every possible remedy to be taken to capture the mulatto pirate.” Then there was Diego El Mulato Grillo, a former slave, enjoyed attacking Spanish trading vessels until he was finally captured and executed. Kinkor’s article also has Grillo commanding a ship in Morgan’s expedition against Panama and defeating three separate warships sent to get him.
Holy smokes, right?
You also have Abraham Samuel who led a pirate-Antanosy kingdom from Fort Dauphin at Madagascar. He even signed his documents King Samuel. A fellow named Hendrick van der Heul acted as quartermaster for Captain Kidd.
One of the more famous (relatively speaking) and colorful black pirates was Black Caesar. For a decade, he terrorized the Florida Keys and even acted as one of Blackbeard’s lieutenants. He was an African chief known for his strength and intelligence. Alas, he and a bunch of his men were duped onto a slaver ship with treasures, music, food, and other rich goods. Caesar and his men attempted to overrun their captors, but were outdone by the better armed sailors. He eventually escaped, thanks to some help from a friendly sailor.
Black Caesar and his companion used the longboat to lure passing ships to lend them a helping hand. Once on board, Caesar and his sailor would take over the ship and it’s treasure. Legend has it their cache of treasure is buried on Elliot Key…
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and for Caesar and his sailor buddy that end came over a women in the form of a heated duel. *sigh* So cliche, so swashbuckling. I can only hope Caesar’s friend had a solid Basil Rathbone death moment. It’s also rumored that Black Caesar had a harem and a prison camp.
Caesar’s reign ended with Blackbeard’s. At some point he joined Blackbeard’s crew. Under order, Caesar remained on guard in the powder room with a lit match. He had one job: blow the ship up should Robert Maynard and his crew manage to defeat Blackbeard and his men. The plan was foiled by two prisoners who stopped him before he manage to turn the Queen Anne’s Revenge into a Michael Bay film. He was one of five black pirates arrested and refused to testify against their fellow crewmen. He was hanged in Williamsburg as a pirate.
There were, of course, many more and all with their own unique stories of death, treasure, and adventure.
Some of this is why I concocted the fictional character, Little Queen, a Barbadian woman and ex-slave who turned to piracy after being rescued by the infamous pirate, Captain Jake Hawking. I really wanted Hawking’s crew to be more diverse than what you typically see in Hollywood movies and lots of fiction, which tend to be white washed beyond belief. I also wanted to create a character that women and teen girls could relate to. Little Queen fit that mold beautifully. She’s Hawking’s right hand (wo)man, and is the bad cop to Hawking’s good cop. Where Hawking prefers to use his mind to get himself out of mishaps, Little Queen is ready to crush some skulls with her titan-like strength. It makes for an interesting dynamic aboard their vessel not to mention she’s a blast to write.
Over the summer, I published three Jake Hawking adventure short-stories. Little Queen appeared, albeit briefly, in the first two, but her presence was well received and so I wrote the third one with her as one of the two main POVs. That story is entitled Little Queen’s Gambit and we get a nice juxtaposition of how Queen and Hawking attack a situation.
I won’t delve too much into that here, since an earlier post talks more about Little Queen and her debut. I do hope people will read Little Queen’s Gambit, enjoy it, and look for more stories (be they the fiction or non-fiction variety) about women pirates and black pirates. They existed, shed and drew plenty of blood themselves, and would be great to see their respective parties get a little more attention in history books and fiction tales.
There are many other amazing maritime fiction writers taking part in this Nautical Blog Hop. Be sure to swing by each of their site’s, see what they’ve written and check out their books and short-stories. There’s no shortage of great, sea-faring adventures awaiting!
James L. Nelson
Black Men Under the Black Flag by Kenneth J. Kinkor
The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan by Matthew Restall
Black Pirates By Cindy Vallar
The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks