In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the ship’s crew included two men of color: Bo’sun (seen above), played by African-American actor Isaac C. Singleton Jr., and Koehler, played by the black English actor Trevor Etienne.
Screenshot from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

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?

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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.”

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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.

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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).

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Diego el Mulato (Times 3)

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

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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.

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In a separate essay, “Black People under the Black Flag: Piracy and the Slave Trade on the West Coast of Africa, 1718-1723,” Bialuschewski argues that it was “very unlikely that pirates ever freed African slaves and accepted them as equal shareholding members in their ventures.”  To many white pirates, slaves were “pawns, workers, objects of lust, or a source of ready cash.”

Thomas J. Wansley

One case stands out above all the rest, and Joel A. Rogers spotted it a century away. Thanks to trial records and scholarship, we now have a fairly complete record of the exploits of a man named Thomas Wansley, who, though hardly typical, was a free African-American man arrested and convicted of piracy and murder. (A report of his trial [pdf] is available through the Library of Congress.)

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“A New Orleans Negro,” Rogers writes in Your History, Wansley “was one of the most ferocious and daring pirates of the 19th century. Together with his white partner, Gibbs, he robbed many ships, one of them with $54,000 cash and a cargo several times richer. Both also captured beautiful women and took them to their rendezvous, an islet, off the Cuban coast, defended with cannons, after killing the men, the plainer women and the children on the ships. Wansley was finally captured and brought to trial in New York City, where he and Gibbs were hanged in 1831.”

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Rogers, as we shall see, considerably overstates Wansley’s history as a pirate. In fact, Wansley was involved in only one robbery, and it was aboard the ship on which he was already working. That said, while Wansley’s true story may not be quite as incredible as Rogers would have us believe, it still has its fair share of excitement and intrigue.

In his book Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Lives and Legends of the Pirate Charles Gibbs (2007), historian Joseph Gibbs describes how Wansley and a white pirate named Charles Gibbs (his real name was James Jeffers) ended up on the gallows. Wansley was born in Delaware to a white mother and black father on Dec. 8, 1807. In 1828, he took his first ship job, a two-year stint aboard the USS Delaware.

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In 1830 Wansley, by then in New Orleans, joined the ship the Vineyard as a steward and deckhand under Captain William Thornber and first mate William Roberts. From what we know, Wansley was the first person to sign on as a crewman on the Vineyard. While loading its cargo, he learned it was carrying some 50,000 Mexican silver dollars. It was a bounty too great to resist, and Wansley began conspiring with other men on board to kill Thornber and Roberts and seize the Vineyard’s treasure and escape aboard a 12- to 15-foot boat that was carried on the ship’s deck. His chief co-conspirator was Jeffers. Three additional white men joined their plot—Henry Atwell (or Atwood), Aaron Church and Robert Dawes—while two others—John Brownrigg and James Talbot—were apparently left unawares.

On Wednesday, Nov. 24, 1830, the would-be pirates put their plan into action when the Vineyard sailed through stormy conditions off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. “I looked, feeling some curiosity to see how a man looked when he was being killed,” Dawes said of watching Wansley creep up behind Captain Thornber with a heavy pump lever, according to Joseph Gibbs. Then, according to the trial report (pdf), Dawes saw Wansley “str[ike] the Captain … on the back of the neck” so that he “moved forward and fell, crying oh! murder [sic].” From what Dawes remembered, Wansley hit the Captain again, leading Dawes to believe the man “was dead” before being tossed “overboard.”

Atwell, Church and Jeffers took care of first mate William Roberts with a club, and when he attempted to flee, Jeffers grabbed him so one of the men could strike him with the pump lever Wansley had used to kill Captain Thornber. Because Roberts put up a better fight, the men heaved him overboard alive, creating a picture in Dawes’ mind at trial of Roberts “sw[imming] after the ship as long as he could, shouting as loud as he was able.”

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In the aftermath, Wansley mopped up the blood while the other men, in true pirate fashion, started drinking. As for the booty, all seven men on board—Brownrigg and Talbot included—divided the money the following day. The crew then sailed north until they reached Long Island, where, boarding two smaller boats, they set the Vineyard on fire. One of the smaller boats, weighed down by silver, disappeared, presumably drowning the men on board, while the surviving boat carried Wansley, Gibbs, Jeffers and Brownrigg. Catching on, they started dumping money from the boat until, as Brownrigg recalled, they reached shore with only “four or five thousand dollars,” writes Joseph Gibbs.

They landed near Pelican Beach on Barren Island in Jamaica Bay, New York (today off the coast of mainland Brooklyn), and stayed the night with a man named Johnson, near whose home they buried the remaining treasure. In such stories, there’s almost always a catch, and Wansley’s pirates tripped on theirs when Brownrigg apparently confessed to Johnson. The police apprehended the white pirates, but Wansley took off into the woods. He was caught soon, wearing a money belt that contained 259 Mexican dollars.

When the men appeared at court, Dawes and Brownrigg formed a united front, testifying that they had had nothing to do with the crime. Brownrigg was let go, while the prosecutor used the 18-year-old Dawes against Wansley and Jeffers at trial (Gibbs). Wansley did not testify on his own behalf, and it took the jury only 20 minutes to find him guilty.

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Yet, before he was sentenced, Wansley tried to make a case for racial discrimination. In his words, according to Joseph Gibbs: “I have often understood that there is a great deal of difference in respect of color, and I have seen it in this court. Dawes and Brownrigg were as guilty as I am, and these witnesses have tried to fasten upon me greater guilt than is just; for their life has been given to them. You have taken the blacks from their own country, to bring them here to treat them ill—I have seen this.” Whatever Wansley had seen, the judge didn’t buy it.

At that point, Wansley confessed to the murder. We’ll never know. As Gibbs’ book title makes clear, dead men tell no tales. Wansley and Jeffers (the jury took 90 minutes in his case) were hanged together on April 22, 1831, before a crowd of thousands at Ellis Island, New York.

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Black Caesar (Times 2)

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If this isn’t enough proof for you, there also are the rumored exploits of the black pirate for whom Caesar’s Creek and Caesar’s Rock are named near Key Largo in Biscayne Bay, Florida. According to legend, Kevin M. McCarthy writes in African American Sites in Florida, “Black Caesar” was an African chief, known for his size and strength, who was captured by slave traders. When their ship sank near Florida, Caesar and a white comrade managed to escape, becoming pirates. Present-day Caesar’s Creek and Caesar’s Rock were hiding places for Black Caesar and his men. He became a pirate of such renown, McCarthy writes, that he went on to join the crew of the famous Edward “Blackbeard” Teach. In 1718 Black Caesar was captured—as a pirate, not a slave—by British naval forces near Cape Hatteras and executed in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Like any riveting adventure story, Black Caesar’s has a sequel. In the 1820s, another black pirate calling himself Black Caesar allegedly terrorized the Florida coast, Kevin McCarthy writes in Twenty Florida Pirates. While this Black Caesar’s fate remains unclear, one possibility is that he was burned to death by the widow of one of his victims. It is important to note that no substantial evidence has been presented to prove any of this, yet the existence of Caesar’s Creek and Caesar’s Rock in Florida do demonstrate the power of the black-pirate myth. But it took Hollywood a long time to catch on.

Present-Day Piracy

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In our more liberated, creatively expressive America, a broad spectrum of children now lay claim to the pirate costume (apparently, President Barack Obama was ahead of the curve on this one). And in the mega-hit 2003 film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the ship’s crew included two men of color: Bo’sun, played by African American actor Isaac C. Singleton Jr., and Koehler, played by the black English actor Treva Etienne.

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That is the mythic world of piracy, irresistibly fun and romantic. There is also the violent, tragic, often terrifying side of high-stakes piracy in modern times. Take, for example, Paul Greengrass’s 2013 film, Captain Phillips, an edge-of-your-seat thriller based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) and the crew of the U.S.-flagged cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama, in their ordeal against four Somali pirates off the east coast of Africa in April 2009. There’s a titanic difference between it and the world of Pirates of the Caribbean that demystifies plunder and points to the fact that, in recent years, Somali pirates seemed to be more visible than ever. While piracy has declined over the past three years (who can ever forget President Obama, the former pirate trick-or-treater, giving the order for snipers to take out Captain Phillips’ captors?), it remains of interest to those shaping popular culture.

For many of us, there lies a confusing gap. In all those romantic stories of the distant past, black pirates are as rare as dry land, yet in brutal portrayals of present-day piracy in both Hollywood and news reports, they are the chasing, climbing, grasping “other,” villains as dark as they are ruthless. While we are left to sort out the difference, at least now we know that no one race has ever had an exclusive hold on the pirate’s life.

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We should expect to see the same principle reflected in our favorite sports teams’ logos. As with pirates, history shows far more diversity among real-life cowboys, warriors, rangers, islanders, Texans, Yankees, mariners—you name it—than the images we see on athletes’ uniforms. As I hope this column has made clear, never underestimate the power of symbols on a young child’s mind.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.