In his article “Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America,” in the Americas: A Quarterly Review of Inter-American Cultural History, Matthew Restall introduces us to three pirates named Diego “el Mulato,” who targeted 17th-century Spanish colonial officials. The first was Diego “el Mulato” Martín, an ex-slave from Havana active in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1630s. Apparently, Martín was such a capable pirate that the Spanish granted him a royal commission to get him to fight on their side.
The second “el Mulato” was Diego de los Reyes (aka Diego Lucifer). While Restall leaves open the possibility that the first two Diegos were the same person, this Diego concentrated on the Yucatec coast. After he sacked Campeche and Cacalar in 1642, the Spanish crown ordered “every possible remedy to be taken to capture the mulatto pirate.”
The third “el Mulato,” Diego Grillo, was another former Havana slave, but he set up at Tortuga, which, according to our old friend Joel Rogers in Your History, was a hotbed of black piracy. This Diego, too, raided a number of Spanish ships. His story did not end happily. In 1673, according to Restall, Grillo was captured by Spaniards and executed.
Why did they turn to piracy? Restall points to vengeance—Africans reacting to their lives as slaves—as well as the New World influences of the Spanish. One of Diego Lucifer’s captives, Thomas Gage, an English Dominican clergyman, alluded to the same. Kris E. Lane, in Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500-1750, quotes Gage as saying, “This mulatto, for some wrongs which had been offered unto him from some commanding Spaniards in Havana, ventured himself desperately in a boat out to sea, where were some Holland ships waiting for a prize. With God’s help getting unto them, he yielded himself to their mercy, which he esteemed far better than that of his own countrymen, promising to serve them faithfully against his own nation, which had most injuriously and wrongfully abused, yea, and whipped him in Havana, as I was afterwards informed.”
There also is evidence that other practical concerns induced these black pirates to act. As Restall explains, rather than wage war against all white colonialists, Diegos Martín and Lucifer aligned themselves with the Dutch, while Grillo joined up with the English; and they did not view themselves as liberators of their own people. In Bacalar, for instance, Diego Lucifer kidnapped a mulatto man.
Was Piracy a Viable Path to Freedom for Blacks?
One may wonder whether this was a smart move for free and enslaved blacks, becoming pirates to find freedom. In his book Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (1997), W. Jeffrey Bolster argues, “Buccaneering tempted black seamen with visions of invincibility, with dreams of easy money and the idleness such freedom promised, and with the promise of a life unfettered by the racial and social ideology central to the plantation system.” Often, they joined with poor white sailors and servants to form their own pirate bands and embraced greater responsibility and authority than they’d known on land as wage laborers or slaves. One of the stories Bolster shares is that of a black man who reportedly served as the notorious Captain William Kidd’s quartermaster, charged with distributing the booty and even boarding captured ships.
It’s important not to assume too much, however. While some slave pirates even had the opportunity to make money, the lion’s (or should I say, the whale’s) share went to their masters. For example, in 18th-century Bermuda, Bialuschewski notes, “it was customary that privateering slaves obtained one third or half of one man’s share, while their masters received the rest.”
The Realities of Pirate Life
There were other limits—and risks, as Bolster makes clear: “Unattached black men operating in the virtually all-male world of the ‘Brotherhood of the Coast’ realized those yearnings [for freedom] to a degree, but also found abuse and exploitation, as well as mortal combat and pursuit.” It also is easy to overstate the camaraderie black pirates felt with their white counterparts, when many slaves who joined pirate ships were put to hard labor, betrayed by their captains back into slavery or returned to the ship whence they came.