The Color of Pirating

By Peter T. Leeson

Eighteenth-century pirate features, from skull-emblazed flags to wooden legs, pervade popular culture. One important pirate feature that doesn’t appear in most pop-culture treatments, however, is the fact that upward of a quarter of the average early 18th-century pirate crew was black.

Historical evidence on the free vs. slave status of black pirates is conflicting. Because of this it’s tempting to conclude that pirates, who were no more racially enlightened than their legitimate contemporaries, typically treated blacks as their legitimate contemporaries did: they enslaved them.

But as I argue in my new book, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, this conclusion may be mistaken. Although some black pirates were slaves, it’s probable that many, and perhaps even most, black pirates were not. To be sure, pirates were as prejudiced as their legitimate contemporaries. But unlike in legitimate society, in pirate society, prejudiced thinking didn’t necessarily mean prejudiced policy.

The reason for this is straightforward: pirates were profit seekers. They cared more about gold and silver than they cared about black and white. And granting blacks their freedom was often more profitable than enslaving them.

A pirate crew’s benefit of enslaving a sailor was the additional booty the slave’s wage-less labor brought it. But the crew’s cost of enslaving a sailor could be much higher. If the slave escaped and informed the authorities on his pirate captors, or together with other conscripts succeeded in overthrowing his enslavers and delivered them to the law, the pirates faced the unpleasant prospect of hanging and thus the end of their roguish lives. Since the cost of enslaving a sailor often exceeded the benefit, in many cases, granting black sailors their freedom was simply good business.

Pirate profit seeking, not progressivism, prodded some sea scoundrels to practice racial tolerance. But this doesn’t diminish the tolerance they showed. In their pursuit of self-interest these pirates were led, as if by an “invisible hook,” in some ways reminiscent of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” to treat black sailors as equals.

Peter T. Leeson is author of The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates (Princeton University Press). Image courtesy of the author.

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