Marcus Rediker: New book shows that pirate ships could be a refuge for slaves

Historians in the News

... The N.C. Maritime Museum will explore this intersection of the worlds of slavery and piracy at a symposium called Pirate Ships, Slave Ships and Colonial America set for Feb. 21 in Beaufort.

The program will include an address from one of the country's foremost experts on pirate ships, slave ships and maritime culture of colonial America. Marcus Rediker, author and professor of maritime history at the University of Pittsburgh, will speak about how so many and why so many slave ships ended up as pirate ships.

Rediker, who just finished writing a book, "The Slave Ship: A Human History," due to be published in October, said some of the reasons were logistical.

Pirate ships need to carry 80 to 100 people so they could board and capture other vessels, Rediker said. They also needed the speed to outrun naval ships.

Slave ships were built to berth and feed hundreds of captives and to run at speeds that allowed the merchants to make a profit, Rediker said.

But there is a social aspect to the history of pirate ships that crosses into the history of black Americans, Rediker said.

Rediker believes that colonial pirates saw themselves as rebels against the harsh discipline, low pay and bad food seamen received aboard merchant ships and naval vessels.

"The practiced a kind of democracy in which they elected their officers," Rediker said.

They divided their plunder in a surprisingly equal way which helped them recruit sailors to the pirate ships, Rediker said.

Pirates were a racially diverse group with a large number of blacks, Rediker said. There were some instances where the blacks may have been captives on slave ships that were taken by the pirates, but seafaring was also one of the most open forms of employment for free people of color, he said.

"There were a lot more black sailors than we thought," Rediker said.

A pirate ship could also be an attractive escape from plantation life for a runaway slave, Rediker said. For pirates, loyalty was more important than the color of skin, he said....
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