Friday, April 20, 2012

Slavery and the Spawning of the Age of Piracy

History has a lot of lessons, but a primary one is that every incident or eventuality creates unintended and often unexpected opportunities.

The advent of the European slave trade was one example.

The Europeans were late comers to the slave trade, trailing the Arabs’ Zanzibar trade by a few Centuries.

Short shrift is given to the fact that the initial European slave trade involved the Irish and was part of Cromwell’s attempted and nearly successful extermination of that race.

Throughout the 17th Century, Ireland saw its population drop from 1.6 million to under 500,000 as England’s war against the Irish proceeded. Not disposed to pass up an opportunity, Cromwell’s forces saw the legions of homeless Irish, many of them women and children dispossessed in the wake of their husband’s and father’s death, were scooped up and shipped to the America’s as slaves NOT “indentured servants.”

Until the early 1700s there were far more Irish slaves in the America’s than there were Africans.

Debtors and others found in the workhouses were often plied with drink to get them to sign on to work onboard slave ships.

Large crews were necessary on the voyage to the Americas to reduce the possibility of any slave revolt, but few were needed on the return trip when the ships were laden with tobacco, sugar and other crops.

The slave-ship seamen’s lives were brutal and often short, as well.

While about 12% of the slaves died in passage from Africa to “The New World,” fully 21% of the crews did, as well. Many more of them were often left stranded penniless in the Americas when the ships returned to Europe. Many of those starved to death, since there was no work available in such slave-based economies.

The Captains of these ships were supreme rulers, in effect, “gods” to their men...their word was law.

Many delighted in inflicting brutal punishments on their crews, often keel-hauling (pulling a man’s body from stem to stern along the bottom of the ship by means of a rope and pulleys) or fastening iron bolts into the mouths of those who complained “too much.”

As luck would have it, this created a fertile opportunity for the new breed of pirates, who’d moved from the ranks of “official Privateers,” under the aegis of various governments, to independent “enemies of all mankind.”

These independent pirates constantly needed an infusion of manpower, given the violent and often short-lived nature of their work. Slave ships became a favorite target of pirates for exactly that reason – to “recruit” their crews.

Often the crews of such ships were more than happy to see their officers punished and often pirates would put such officers “on trial” before their crews.

Most crew members saw a much better chance of survival aboard a pirate ship than with the slave-ships they worked on, making them more than willing recruits.

That’s how Bart Roberts (the most successful pirate in history) was recruited into piracy. He was a reluctant 3rd Officer on a slave-ship attacked by the pirate Howell Davis’ crew.

They found themselves in need of a navigator and Roberts could read maps and navigate so his skill-set was valuable to the pirates.

When Captain Davis was killed in a battle a short while later, the crew appealed to the reluctant Roberts, a non-drinker and one who did not delight in the violence he’d been immersed in and he accepted.

Throughout the 18th Century the slave trade fueled the growing pirate menace until the Caribbean became an untenable pirates cove, from which neither American nor European ships were safe.

In that regard, the rise of independent piracy is a testament to unintended consequences and expanding variability.

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