Historians Link Pirate Ships and Slave Vessels

Historians are examining evidence that links piracy and slave trading on the Atlantic. North Carolina Public Radio's Leoneda Inge reports.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The Americans has a well-known history with slavery, and the Atlantic in the Gulf of Mexico have a well known history with pirates. But rarely do we think of the two together. Now some historians are examining the link between pirate ships and slave ships.

North Carolina Public Radio's Leoneda Inge reports.

(Soundbite of music)

LEONEDA INGE: In 2003, Walt Disney Pictures presented a summer blockbuster that grabbed audiences of all ages.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl")

Mr. JACK DAVENPORT (Actor): (As Admiral James Norrington) You are, without doubt, the worst pirate I've ever heard of.

Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (As Jack Sparrow) But you have heard of me.

INGE: "The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" brought in a treasure chest full of loot, and so did the sequel, "The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

Professor MARCUS REDIKER (History, University of Pittsburgh): I think "Pirates of the Caribbean" is great, good fun. And, in fact, it's been tremendously successful because it's tapped into this almost national obsession that we have with pirates.

INGE: Marcus Rediker is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. He has researched and written on colonial maritime history, culture and pirates for more than 25 years.

Rediker presented his research last month in Beaufort, North Carolina at a packed symposium on pirate ships, slave ships and Colonial America. He says "Pirates of the Caribbean" is pure Disney fiction, but they did get a couple of things right.

Prof. REDIKER: They did have motley crews on board the pirate ships, including black sailors. I think that's very important and significant.

INGE: Rediker says history has conveniently left out that there were many black pirates. His research of 15 pirate ships shows almost one-third of the pirates were, quote, "negroes or mulattoes." Some black pirates were runaway slaves. Some were sailors whose merchant ships were captured. And many blacks ended up on pirate ships when pirates grabbed slave ships as they traveled from West Africa through the middle passage. Rediker says pirates loved slave ships, and not necessarily for the human cargo.

Prof. REDIKER: What they wanted were the ships themselves, which were fast, which had a very great carrying capacity, which had space for a large pirate crew, which had a capacity to feed a large number of people as slave ships always did.

INGE: But there are still a lot about pirates and slaves we don't know. Michelle Lanier is curator of cultural history at North Carolina State Historic Sites.

Ms. MICHELLE LANIER (Curator, Cultural History, North Carolina Historic Sites): And, of course, you do have the interesting and intriguing story of kidnapped Africans joining the group of pirates and perhaps enjoying some of the utopian democracy of that experience. But what the people who are not being useful, women and children, elderly and infirmed, what was done with them?

INGE: David Dennard specializes in social and cultural history at East Carolina University. He says this part of African-American history should have been hashed out a long time ago.

Dr. DAVID DENNARD (History and Culture, East Carolina University): Some folk, they regard the role that blacks played on a pirate ship as exceptionalism, but this is a way really of looking at the lives of ordinary folk - looking at history from bottom up. And so I think we have to take the good, the bad and the ugly when we tell the whole story.

INGE: One of the greatest archeological finds in North Carolina history came in 1996. the discovery of what's believed to be the shipwreck of the Queen Anne's Revenge, now sitting on the ocean floor near Beaufort. The story goes the infamous pirate known as Blackbeard captured a slave ship called La Concorde as she traveled in the Caribbean and renamed her the Queen Anne's Revenge. David Moore is the curator of nautical archeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

Mr. DAVID MOORE (Curator, North Carolina Maritime Museum): We're sitting here, standing here on the ramparts of Fort Macon State Historic Site, overlooking the dunes, looking out towards the site of Queen Anne's Revenge.

INGE: Moore says there is physical proof that the Queen Anne's Revenge was once a slave ship.

Mr. MOORE: We've got a number of things, some still locked up in concretion that forms around this artifacts after spending so many years underwater -almost 300 years. And - but we've been able to X-ray those and see some of the material on the inside, and there does appear to be a large number of trade beads, which was reminiscent of slavers and the types of commodities they were using on the West African coast, and also slave shackles.

INGE: Excavation expeditions continue at the Queen Anne's Revenge shipwreck site, and there is more evidence to be found and a joint pirate ship, slave ship history to be learned.

For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge.

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