The most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy, Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, included eighty-eight blacks amongst his crew of 368 in 1721. A year later, there were seventy blacks among 267 pirates. These men didn’t do menial work, either. They received shares in any treasure taken and voted with the rest of the crew whenever a decision had to be made. A mulatto, who had served aboard the Royal Rover, was hanged for piracy with six others in 1720. One of his mates requested a bottle of wine and drank after declaring, “Damnation to the governor and confusion to the Colony.” The others concurred then all were executed and hung in chains as a lesson to others. Two years later, however, the seventy black pirates captured after Bartholomew Roberts’ demise in 1722 were given to the Royal African Company, who promptly enslaved them.
The black pirate most written about is Black Caesar. Legend identifies him as a tall African chief with great strength and keen intelligence. A conniving captain lured him and his warriors aboard a slaver with greater treasures than the gold watch that fascinated Caesar. Once on board, the captain and his men plied the Africans with food while enticing them with musical instruments, jewels, silk scarves, and furs. With his focus on these unusual treasures, Caesar failed to notice that the slaver put to sea. Upon learning the truth, he and his men fought the ship's crew, but the slavers eventually subdued the Africans.
During his confinement, Caesar refused to eat or drink. One sailor showed Caesar kindness, and the two eventually became friends. When the slaver wrecked on the reefs off Florida, the sailor freed Caesar, and the two escaped in a long boat loaded with supplies and ammunition. They left the others to die.
Caesar and his friend decided to attack passing ships. Whenever one was spotted, they rowed the long boat near the vessel and pretended to be shipwrecked sailors. Once aboard their victim, they seized control and took their treasure ashore. Eventually, they buried a large cache of booty somewhere on Elliott Key, or so legend says.
One day Caesar’s friend brought a beautiful woman to their island. The two men argued, and Caesar slew his friend and took the woman for himself. Alone, he continued his piratical raids until he acquired a number of ships and men. They attacked passing ships, then escaped into the coves and inlets where their prey could not pursue them.
Sometime in the early 1700s, Caesar joined forces with Blackbeard. In November 1718, Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy and his men attacked Blackbeard near Ocracoke Island. Under his captain’s orders, Caesar stood in the powder room with a lit match. If the navy succeeded in subduing the pirates, he was to blow up the ship. He was about to do just that when two prisoners, whom Blackbeard had stowed below during the fight, stopped Caesar. He was taken to Virginia and danced the hempen jig in Williamsburg. Caesar was the only one of the five black pirates – James Black, Thomas Gates, Richard Stiles, and James White being the others – arrested who refused to give evidence against his comrades.
Blacks became pirates for the same reasons as other men did, but they also sought the freedom often denied them elsewhere. W. Jeffrey Bolster wrote in Black Jacks, "No accurate numbers of black buccaneers exist, although the impression is that they were more numerous than the proportion of black sailors in commercial or naval service at the time." It isn't known how many of the estimated 400 pirates hanged for their crimes between 1716 and 1726 were black, for the historical record fails to show this. Like their brethren who weren't given the chance to stand trial, but were sold into slavery, these pirates remain lost to history.
Other famous pirates
Abraham Samuel, the son of a Martinique planter and a black slave, went on the account under Captain John Hoar. After cruising the Caribbean, the John and Rebecca sailed for richer prey in the Indian Ocean. At some point Samuel’s fellow pirates elected him their quartermaster. After capturing a prize near Surrat, the sea rovers put in at St. Mary’s in February 1697. Unbeknownst to them, the Malagasy had rebelled against Adam Baldridge, the retired pirate who became the go-between for the pirates and New York merchants who bought their booty. Captain Hoar and a number of pirates died in the uprising, but Samuel and others escaped. They set sail for New York, but the ship sank after hitting a reef near Fort Dauphin, an abandoned French settlement.
After the death of her husband, the chief’s wife ruled the Malagasy. One day she saw the shipwrecked men bathing in the ocean and noticed strange markings on Samuel’s body. They were the same markings her own child had had, but she hadn’t seen her son in many years. His father, a Frenchman, had taken the child with him when he fled Madagascar in 1674. The woman declared Samuel her long-lost son and made him chief of the Malagasy.
With the assistance of his fellow shipwrecked pirates, some of whom became his bodyguards, and the Malagasy, Samuel traded with slavers and pirates alike. Fort Dauphin became popular it rivaled St. Mary's as a trading center. In November 1699, Samuel assessed an American slaver £100 for a trading license. The following year, Captain Littleton, a member of the English Royal Navy, invited Samuel and two of his wives to dine with him aboard his ship. Littleton reported Samuel was much loved by the Malagasy.
In September 1699, a pirate named Evan Jones raided an American slave ship in the port. He gave the ship to Samuel, who sold it to four other pirates for 1,100 pieces of eight. He signed the document detailing the purchase and added "King of Fort Dauphin, Tollannare, Farrawe, Ganquest, and Founzahíra." News of the attack and sale, and Samuel's participation in it, spread and ships ceased to visit the port. When a Dutch slaver anchored there in December 1706, Abraham Samuel was gone and the new chief declined to discuss his fate.
Diego Grillo, also known as “El Mulato,” was of mixed ancestry – African and Spanish. After escaping from Havana, Cuba, he went on the account. When Henry Morgan sacked Panama in January 1671, Grillo captained a ship mounting ten guns. He refused to accept the king’s pardon, preferring instead to remain a pirate. He and his men attacked Spanish ships from a fifteen-gun ship and sold the booty in Tortuga. Three ships were sent to capture him, but he defeated them all and slaughtered every sailor aboard who had been born in Spain. He eventually was captured in 1673 and hanged.
Not all black pirates were known by name. For example, thirty men escaped enslavement on Saint Thomas and went on the account in August 1699. A mulatto amongst Stede Bonnet's crew had a confrontation with a white sailor who refused to sign the articles of agreement. After cursing the man, the black pirate wondered "why I did not go to the pump and work among the rest, and told me that was my Business and that I should be used as a Negroe." (Kinkor, 199) Captain Bonnet overheard the exchange and concurred with the pirate -- a man was either a sea rover or a slave, regardless of his colour or status.