Black Men Under a Black Flag

During the golden age of piracy between the late 1600s and 1725, as many as a third of all pirates in the Caribbean were black, says American historian Kenneth Kinkor.

When Blackbeard's flagship ship sank in 1718, five of the nine survivors were black, says David Moore, a maritime historian and archaeologist. The Whydah pirate ship had 25 blacks out of a crew of 146, all liberated in raids on slave ships, according to the two survivors.

The slave trade was at its height in the 18th century, and black slaves who turned to piracy could be relied on to fight to the death to keep their freedom. Three blacks of the period were elected to command largely white crews.

Much of the explanation for black pirates lies in the democracy pirates exhibited. Pirates had specific social contracts that every pirate had to sign. In documentation prepared for the Whydah project, Mr. Kinkor lists many of the rules and customs of pirates two of which are: New members of a crew were sworn to be true to their shipmates and to abide by a pirates constitution. They got a take of the "prizes" only after they signed the agreement. All matters of importance were voted on. The leaders were chosen by the majority. But the captain had supreme power in times of chase or battle and could shoot dissenters.

Some historians advance the idea that pirates, because of the democracy among themselves, were mostly men who had had an unfair deal in life and wanted reform of society. British historian David Cordingly, states the majority view: "Pirates ... were notorious for their cruelty, casual violence, foul language, and heavy drinking."

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