Pirates have gone down in history as drunken, bloodthirsty terrors of the high seas who wouldn’t think twice about slicing off a captive’s ear or sending him down the plank.
But historians are taking a new look at the seafaring thieves and finding that their ships may have been one of the earliest places in modern society where blacks attained equality with whites. Despite slavery on the mainland, black pirates on the ocean had the right to vote, could bear arms, got an equal share of the booty and were even elected captains of predominantly white crews.
“The deck of a pirate ship was the most empowering place for blacks within the 18th century white man’s world,” said Kenneth Kinkor, project historian at Expedition Whydah, a museum on Cape Cod that houses artifacts from the first documented pirate ship discovered in the world.
Pirates even raided slave ships and plantations and gave blacks a chance for freedom by joining them, said Kinkor, who contends pirate brutality has been exaggerated by Hollywood movies and popular lore.
Historians are divided over the black pirate theory. W. Jeffrey Bolster of the University of New Hampshire, for instance, acknowledged that black pirates enjoyed some privileges: One was Capt. Kidd’s quartermaster, and several belonged to Blackbeard’s crew.
But Bolster also said many pirates were psychopathic criminals who “happily raped captive African women” and kept black slaves on board to do the most onerous jobs.
“For us to say these white pirates always accepted the black men as equals is nonsense,” Bolster said.
Others, such as historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh, insist pirates practiced a type of democracy revolutionary for the times--nearly two centuries before slavery ended in the United States.
They say buccaneers voted on all major decisions, elected their leaders, split their booty fairly and established workman’s compensation for injured pirates and the families of pirates killed on the job.
Pirates’ democratic ways extended to blacks, who could escape slavery and rise to command a ship or an entire fleet, said Rediker, author of the 1987 book “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.”
“They could either be a law-abiding slave or an escaped convict or a pirate with a chance at the golden ring,” said marine explorer Barry Clifford.
Clifford is the finder of what are believed to be the only pirate ships in the world discovered to date: the Whydah off Cape Cod in 1984, two pirate ships off Venezuela in 1998 and what he believes is Capt. Kidd’s ship off the African island of Madagascar last January.
On Madagascar’s tiny Ste. Marie isle, where Kidd’s ship apparently sank, pirates brought their “floating democracies” to land, said Clifford, establishing a community in about 1680 governed by a constitution that included the right to be free regardless of color.
“It sounds almost like Abraham Lincoln plagiarized it,” said Clifford, coauthor of the 1999 book “Expedition Whydah.”
The untold story of black pirates is emerging partly through the discovery of the sunken ships, which is being made possible with new technology such as camera-carrying robots that allowed scientists to find the Titanic. The Whydah, for instance, yielded rare African gold jewelry that had been hacked apart so it could be divided fairly, said Kinkor, who works with Clifford.
Kinkor and others also base their findings on new research into statements of people imprisoned by buccaneers as well as trials and testimony of pirates, including members of the crews of Blackbeard, Capt. Kidd, Black Bart and the Whydah.
Even Kinkor and Rediker don’t think pirates treated blacks as equals solely out of a grand vision of social justice. They say it also grew out of pragmatism: Pirates needed competent, hard-working deck hands, regardless of skin color.
The “Golden Age of Piracy” lasted from 1680 to 1725, with at least 10,000 pirates roaming the seas at its height, Kinkor said. At least one-third of them were black, he said.
Arguably the most “successful” pirate ever was Laurens de Graf, who was one of the buccaneers most feared by the Spanish and who led a fleet that peaked at 2,000 men, Kinkor said. De Graf eventually was pardoned by the French, given a minor title of French nobility and helped found Biloxi, Miss.
In history books De Graf is described as tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed and white. In reality he was black, an escaped slave originally from Holland, Kinkor said. Historians lied about his color because they feared he might inspire other slaves to revolt.
“Historians did not want people to know De Graf was black. The thought of a black uprising was the most frightening thing in colonial America,” said maritime historian James Nelson of Harpswell, Maine.
De Graf is buried near Biloxi and today is largely forgotten, Kinkor said.