Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 89: Did black people engage in piracy during the heyday of the practice in the Americas?
While the sports world is waiting for the Washington Redskins to adopt a 21st-century name honoring the great football tradition in our nation’s capital, I’ve been thinking about another team close to where I grew up in eastern West Virginia: the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In the Tri-Towns of the Potomac Valley, on the border between Maryland and West Virginia, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, baseball games floated in through cable TV (we were among the first to have it) from the District, some 115 miles away, and from Pittsburgh, 83 miles away. We oriented towards Pittsburgh, because it was in the National League and the National League had far more black baseball players than the American League at that time. While most of the black people I knew were Dodger fans because of Jackie Robinson, no team was more exciting to watch than the “Buccos” because of their starting right-fielder, Roberto Clemente, “The Great One” from Puerto Rico. He was gone too soon but is celebrated still as baseball’s Latin “Jackie Robinson.”
For many of my generation, the Pirates were the dark team, not only because of the black in their uniforms (like the Steel City’s football franchise) but because of their larger-than-life players, from Clemente to Willie “Pops” Stargell and the “We are Family” crew. Pittsburgh, for those who don’t know, also is home to an extraordinarily influential black community, from the Pittsburgh Courier days of the Double V campaign during World War II to the playwright August Wilson and such jazz titans as Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn, Kenny Clark, and Art Blakey.
Curious thing, though, about Pittsburgh, to me, was the Pirates’ team logo. In his various guises over the decades, the Pittsburgh Pirate has always been a white guy. You know, Jolly Roger hat, eye patch, beard, stubble or shaven—your classic swashbuckling buccaneer. Put him together with all the other white pirates that kids like me saw growing up in the culture (Errol Flynn in Captain Blood; Tyrone Power in Black Swan; you name it), and it’s easy to see why it was natural for us to wonder: were there black pirates? It wasn’t a question of guts, mind you—what rational person would’ve risked walking a real plank? But I did sometimes wonder whether all of the pirates were white, especially after learning in school that the whaling industry (pdf) was one of the earliest integrated professions, most probably because it was so very dangerous. What I learned in researching this column was that the stakes of actual piracy were a lot higher than getting home runs and Halloween costumes.
The Problems of Analysis
My search began with the question: Were there black buccaneers? The short answer is yes. A significant number of pirates in the heyday of piracy (the 17th and 18th centuries) were of African or mixed-race descent. While the evidence tends to be sparse, we do have eyewitness testimony.
For example, when a white man was captured by the pirate Bartholomew Roberts in Antigua in 1721, he reported a crew of “250 Men and 50 Negroes.” Another sailor later noted the same crew was “manned with about 180 white men and about 48 French Creole Negroes” (both witnesses are quoted in Arne Bialuschewski’s Pirates, Black Sailors and Seafaring Slaves in the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1716-1726, in the Journal of Caribbean History). Still, it’s unclear whether these men of color were crew members or captured slaves, a challenge to any historian sorting fact from legend (especially those hunting for statistics).
Diego el Mulato (Times 3)