Pirates and Plantations: Exploring the Relationship between Caribbean Piracy and the Plantation Economy During the Early Modern Period

 Brooke Keling, Western Carolina University


 Throughout the colonial period, piracy, plantations, and the slave trade dominated the Caribbean economy. During the late seventeenth century, buccaneers settled throughout the Caribbean islands and routinely attacked Spanish vessels. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, pirates ravaged trading vessels and plantations across the American coast and Caribbean islands. Although piracy mostly occurred on the high seas, the massive influx of piracy during the colonial period directly correlated to the growth of the plantation economy in the Caribbean. The intertwined economic relationship between piracy, the slave trade, and planters played a significant role in the rise and eradication of piracy during the early modern period.

 Since the economic success of the Caribbean colonies relied on the plantation system, piracy also depended on the plantation economy to survive. Marcus Rediker, the author of Villains of All Nations, argued that the plantation system played a role, which eventually led to the massive influx of piracy in the early modern period. The seizing of Caribbean land initially held by Native American groups allowed English settlers to grow crops on large plantations. Rediker illustrated how the placement of plantations on the Caribbean islands led to an increase in the migration of agricultural laborers in the region. He asserted, “expropriation had ‘freed’ millions of workers for redeployment to the far-flung edges of empire, often as indentured servants or slaves, on plantations that would produce what may have been the largest planned accumulation of wealth the world had yet seen.”1 Throughout Villains of All Nations, Rediker argued that several factors allowed piracy to flourish in the Caribbean during the early eighteenth century, including the War of Spanish Succession. During the War of Spanish Succession, England, France, and Spain employed massive numbers of privateers and sailors and legalized the capturing and plundering of enemy vessels in the Atlantic Ocean. After the war ended in 1713, many unemployed privateers in the Caribbean turned to piracy.2

 Although the War of Spanish Succession contributed to the increase of Caribbean piracy, the lucrative plantation system also contributed to an influx of marauders. Naturally, the unprecedented wealth accrued by plantations and sugar exports ensured a lively trading industry in the Caribbean that pirates exploited and plundered. During his discussion of the plantation system, Rediker highlighted the relationship between plantation violence and the wealth of the sugar industry. He stated, “The growing riches of the few depended on the growing misery of many.”3 Rediker also argued that the egregious violence of the plantation system, along with the enormous flood of indentured servants and enslaved people, led to an increase of plantation runaways joining pirate crews. Ultimately, the Caribbean plantation system produced unprecedented wealth, but the atrocious violence of the system contributed to the massive rise in piracy during the early eighteenth century.

Although extremely rare, planters occasionally abandoned their plantations to embrace a life of piracy. Lindley Butler, the author of Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders on the Carolina Coast, discussed the career of Major Stede Bonnet, a Barbadian planter who became an infamous pirate captain. Butler expressed the bewilderment that those who knew Bonnet experienced when the planter embraced piracy. She stated, “the bloody course set that day, which brought him in less than two years to a South Carolina gallows, was so perplexing to his fellow Barbadians that they could only conclude he must be mentally unbalanced.” Butler asserted, “his land and tax levy indicate a successful planter of means but not of great wealth.”4 Butler characterized Bonnet as a mentally unbalanced, successful planter who abandoned his wife and children to pursue a life of piracy. Although most pirates captured and commandeered their ships, Bonnet purchased weapons and his ship, the Revenge, with his own money. Although Bonnet paid his crew quite well, Blackbeard eventually replaced Bonnet as captain of the Revenge after authorities captured Bonnet and placed him on trial in Charleston, South Carolina. L. Lynn Hogue, the author of “Nicholas Trott: Man of Law and Letters,” emphasized the impact of Bonnet’s trial and the judge’s subsequent creation of an official definition of piracy. She argued, “the definition of piracy which he framed for that trial has been quoted and cited by scholars of international law through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.”5 Stede Bonnets’ unique piratical career influenced how international law defined piracy for several centuries. Although most sources cannot offer a clear explanation for Bonnet’s bizarre decision to embrace piracy, his career still serves as an example of a product of the Caribbean plantation system who chose to pursue a life of crime on the high seas.

The colonization of the Caribbean islands by the French, Dutch, English, and Spanish empires relied on building a plantation economy on each island. The planters in the Caribbean grew several cash crops including, tobacco and sugar.6 Stephan Talty, the author of Empire of Blue Water, described the plantation system in Jamaica when he stated, “the tightly packed streets of Port Royal gave way to sprawling plantations. Sugar would be to England what silver was to Spain: the reason for sustaining the New World empire. Various cash crops had been tried in the islands, but West Indian tobacco could never compete with the rich Virginian variety.”7 Since Virginian plantations produced the preferred variety of tobacco each year, sugar became a major Caribbean crop.

 England built its empire off valuable sugar exports from the Caribbean islands. Unfortunately, sugar cultivation required a large amount of extensive labor; therefore, plantations relied on the forced labor from indentured servants and slaves. Butler described the plantation system on Barbados when he stated, “in a short time island’s rolling central plateau was covered with capital-and-labor intensive plantations, which absorbed the small holdings of yeoman farmers.” Butler continued, “the sugar plantations generated a prosperity that in late seventeenth century was unrivaled in all of British America…”8 Butler insisted that Barbados’ lucrative sugar plantations earned the island the title of ‘fair jewel’ of the Crown.9 Since Caribbean planters earned a massive amount of capital from the island’s sugar exports, Butler argued that Barbados became a wealthy society with an emergent upper-class citizenry.

Randy Browne, author of Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean, illustrated the challenge of maintaining a large labor force on a Caribbean plantation in the Berbice colony, presently referred to as Guyana. Browne asserted, “plantation labor came from 4,000-5,000 enslaved Africans—many from the Gold Coast—and creoles, as well as 300 native slaves.” Browne continued, “in Berbice, as in all Caribbean plantation societies, slaves died faster than they could reproduce. But planters had trouble getting the number of captives they wanted.”10 Browne argued that plantations in the Caribbean heavily relied on the transatlantic slave trade.Since the plantation system depended on enslaved labor to remain lucrative, Butler insisted that the majority of the population of Barbados consisted of indentured servants and enslaved people. Consequently, the high mortality rate amongst slaves on sugar plantations severely hindered plantations after England banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1804. During the late eighteenth century, observers of the enslaved men and women who forcibly traveled from Africa to Berbice described the slaves as appearing extraordinarily sick and malnourished. 

Horrific living conditions of the indentured servants and slaves characterized the plantation system in the Caribbean. Talty illustrated the type of work that plantation owners required their servants and slaves to perform. He wrote, “Sugar was a difficult crop and required backbreaking work from an army of indentured servants and slaves to produce. The land had to be cleared, hoed, weeded, dewormed, degrubbed, planted, and tended with care. Small planters desperate not to sink back down into servitude drove their servants pitilessly”11 Talty’s statement illustrated the extensive work required for cultivating sugar in the Caribbean islands. As a punishment, planters viciously whipped their indentured servants and slaves. During his discussion of plantation violence, Talty described a man who published a book criticizing the elite of Barbados. After the man published his work, the planters nailed his ears to the town’s pillory.12 Talty also argued that over a third of Jamaican indentured servants and enslaved people died from diseases.13

Browne described Caribbean slavery when he stated, “African captives who did not die during the forced migration from the African interior to the coast…usually succumbed within a few years of arrival in the West Indies, a lethal combination of unrelenting work, a hostile disease environment, inadequate nutrition, and physical violence.”14 Browne characterized Caribbean slavery as a particularly harsh and deadly institution. Olaudah Equiano, a former slave and abolitionist who published his autobiography in 1789 illustrated the egregious treatment of slaves in the Caribbean. While discussing his travels in the Caribbean, Equiano recounted the experience of several slaves who had been severely punished by their owners for minor transgressions. Equiano asserted, “it was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St. Kitt’s, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name; and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed on the most trifling occasions, they were loaded with chains; and often instruments of torture were added.”15

Caribbean planters inflicted many cruel punishments on slaves who attempted to escape, but Equiano insisted that planters also tortured slaves for minor errors. Throughout his work, Equiano criticized Caribbean laws that protected violent planters who injured their slaves, permitted slaveowners to harm slaves who had attempted to escape, and fined planters who murdered their slaves with a small fee. The exercise of extreme violence by planters in Caribbean slave societies created an environment in which some slaves who escaped the malevolent treatment of their planters embraced piracy as a form of resistance to the Caribbean plantation system.

The violence of the Caribbean plantation system created an atmosphere in which many indentured servants and enslaved people attempted to escape their abysmal living conditions. Talty highlighted how piracy became a refuge for marginalized groups in the Caribbean. He stated, “The plantations became factories for rebels and pirates; servants who were sick to death of the hellish life sneaked away to the ships waiting in Port Royal’s harbor. The pirates offered the only other outlet for men who were tired of being beaten.” Talty continued, “By night, runaways from the interior would appear in the town, looking to join a pirate crew.”16 Talty characterized Port Royal, Jamaica, as a haven for runways servants and enslaved people who had abandoned their lives on plantations and aspired to join pirate crews. Since sugar plantations heavily depended on an ample supply of forced laborers to grow their crops, Talty argued that planters frequently complained to Jamaican authorities about losing their laborers to pirate crews.

Rediker illustrated the vast array of people who joined Caribbean buccaneer settlements and pirate crews. He wrote, “the early traditions were what one English official in the Caribbean called ‘the outcasts of all nations’—convicts, prostitutes, debtors, vagabonds, escaped slaves and indentured servants, religious radicals, and political prisoners, all whom had migrated or been exiled to the new settlements ‘beyond the line.”17 Rediker characterized pirates as people who lived outside of Caribbean society, including prostitutes, convicts, and escaped slaves. Ultimately, piracy’s reputation for being composed of social outcasts and marginalized people encouraged indentured servants and slaves to escape horrific plantations and join pirate crews.

The settlement of Tortuga emphasized the integral relationship between agriculture and piracy during the seventeenth century. In 1625, both English and French citizens settled in Tortuga, a Caribbean island located near the coast of Haiti. During the seventeenth century, the imperialism of the French, English, and Spanish empires resulted in numerous bloody clashes between each nation. As a result of a Spanish attack on the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis, French and English refugees settled in Tortuga; however, Santo Domingo, held by the belligerent Spanish empire, lay extremely close to Tortuga. In his article, “Planting, Pirates, and the Rights of Mankind in Seventeenth Century Tortuga,” Casey Schmitt illustrated the precarious position of the inhabitants of Tortuga and their leader Anthony Hilton, the former English governor of Nevis. Schmitt states, “As a survivor of the attack on St. Kitts and Nevis, Hilton understood the vulnerability of Tortuga to a Spanish invasion. The island was perched in the heart of the Spanish Caribbean, with Providence Island off of the coast of modern-day Nicaragua as their closest non-Hispanic neighbor.”18 As a result of a declaration from the Spanish Crown that labeled all non-Hispanic settlers in the Caribbean as pirates, Hilton entered a deal with the Providence Island Company to secure England’s recognition of Tortuga and protection from Spain.19

The settlers of Tortuga frequently attacked Spanish vessels to procure items necessary for building their plantations. Schmitt depicted the actions of Tortuga’s “pirate-planters,” also referred to as buccaneers, when he stated, “Early Tortugans did, in fact, engage in the widespread raiding of Spanish ships and coastal plantations. However, often the men who took to sea used piracy in order to acquire the tools and coerced laborers that they needed to establish their own plantations on Tortuga.”20 The settlers of Tortuga mostly comprised of formerly indentured servants and working-class laborers; therefore, many settlers did not possess the capital or tools necessary for building their own plantations. Schmitt used testimony from a Tortugan buccaneer who described his occupation as tobacco planter and pirate. Schmitt’s uses of this testimony revealed how Tortuga’s settlers viewed piracy as an essential component of life on the small island.21 Schmitt also argued, “…early Tortuga recasts historical understandings of the relationship between piracy and planting in the Caribbean.”22 Schmitt explained that the settlers of Tortuga turned to piracy as a method to build their island’s economy. Eventually, the plantation economy on Tortuga became lucrative enough to replace piracy on the island.

During the seventeenth century, the definition of piracy varied between each empire. After the King of Spain labeled all non-Hispanic Caribbean settlers as pirates, the relationship between the settlers of Tortuga and the Spanish empire quickly eroded. Spanish officials in Santo Domingo launched a massive attack and briefly occupied Tortuga from 1635- 1636 with hopes of enslaving Tortugans. Schmitt outlined, Montemayor y Cuenca, the Spanish governor of Hispaniola’s justification of the enslavement of Tortuga’s settlers. He stated, “As European legal theorists grappled with the legal contours of transatlantic slavery, some argued that individuals who engaged in piracy fell outside the bonds of natural law and could, therefore, be enslaved. By the 1650s, Montemayor y Cuenca deployed these very arguments to defend his seizure of property on Tortuga and the treatment of prisoners taken off the island.”23 Naturally, the enslavement of French and English citizens deeply angered their respective empires.

Although Montemayor y Cuenca insisted that pirates forfeited their rights as citizens and deemed the marauders as eligible for enslavement, Tortuga’s planters defended their piracy as revenge for the violent treatment of non-Hispanic prisoners by Spanish officers. Schmitt argued that Spain’s enslavement of Tortuga buccaneers highlighted the entangled relationship between piracy, planting, and forced labor.24

Schmitt challenged the historiographic narrative that presented Tortuga as a nest of pirates. Montemayor y Cuenca’s portrayal of Tortuga as an illegitimate, pirate lair has remained a popular depiction of the island. However, Schmitt revealed inaccuracies in this account. He stated, “This depiction of early seventeenth-century Tortuga as a pirate lair, in fact, is echoed in the modern historical literature about the island. However, Tortugans throughout the first half of the century sought legal legitimacy for their colony…”25 Schmitt argued that Tortuga sought recognition from England through the Providence Island Company and the French section of St. Kitt’s island. Although Tortugan planters frequently attacked Spanish vessels, the buccaneers viewed their actions as justified acts of revenge in response to Montemayor y Cuenca’s brutal treatment of Toturgan prisoners. From Montemayor y Cuenca’s perspective, it was justifiable to enslave planter-pirates because they operated outside the natural law of mankind.26 Ultimately, the unique relationship between planting, piracy, and enslaved labor revealed how the definition varied between different entities.

The buccaneers of Tortuga also frequently attacked Maya settlements and kidnapped Native Americans as a source of enslaved labor. Although Schmitt defended the settlers of Tortuga for some of their piratical actions against Montemayor y Cuenca, Arne Bialuschewski, author of “Slaves of the Buccaneers: Mayas in Captivity in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century” highlighted the Tortugan settler’s horrific enslavement of Maya villages. After the tobacco crop failed to provide enough capital for the planters on Tortuga, Bialuschewski argued that the settlers began raiding and pillaging Maya villages in the Yucatan Peninsula. The buccaneers plundered churches in search of valuables and enslaved entire Maya communities.27

Bialuschewski described the types of jobs given to enslaved Native Americans on Tortuga. He stated, “The Native Americans who had been brought to Tortuga were utilized for different purposes. A few certainly had to work in the tobacco plantations, but the fact that most slaves were reported to be living close to the south shore indicates that they performed other tasks.”28 Bialuschewski argued that the Tortugan pirate-planters ordered enslaved Mayas to work on their plantations as well as assist in the island’s fortification efforts against Spanish attacks from Santo Domingo. The Native American slaves experienced a high mortality rate while living on the island. This rate increased significantly as Tortugan buccaneers began arming enslaved Maya and forcing them to participate in piratical voyages.29

Bialuschewski criticized the historical tradition that portrayed pirates as romanticized European figures that terrorized Spanish trade. He insisted that a Eurocentric focus on piracy hid the reality that pirates often terrorized regions populated by Native American villages. Although the popular narrative of Caribbean piracy focused on particular pirate captains who launched large attacks on English, French, and Spanish vessels, pirates frequently pillaged and enslaved many Native American settlements.30 Biauluschewski stated, “these barely known cross-cultural relations (show) how Maya communities not only suffered under the colonial regime but were also besieged by Spain’s fiercest enemies, the often-romanticized buccaneers.”31

Although the settlers of Tortuga engaged in piracy to build lucrative plantations, pirates also settled in Madagascar. Captain Charles Johnson, believed by some scholars to be the penname of Daniel Defoe, published A General History of the Pyrates in 1724. Despite a handful of questionable sources, Captain Johnson provided a detailed illustration of the pirate settlement and agriculture on Madagascar. A large island located off the coast of Africa, Madagascar became a haven for pirates and criminals who fled from the authorities. Woodes Rogers, the future governor of the Bahamas during the Golden Age of Piracy, traveled to Madagascar to purchase slaves and gather information about the island’s pirate population. Captain Johnson recounted Rogers’ description of the pirate settlement on Madagascar. Johnson wrote, “and if Power and Command be the Thing which distinguish a Prince, these Ruffians had all the Marks of Royalty about them, nay more, they had the very Fears which commonly disturb Tyrants, as may be seen by the extreme Caution they took in fortifying the Place where they dwelt.” He continued, “…their Dwellings were rather Citadels than Houses…”32 Captain Johnson depicted the pirates as “Kings of Madagascar” who built massive fortifications and had lived on the island for twenty-five years with their large families. Although Johnson identified several of the pirate settlers as men hiding from the authorities, the settlers welcomed Rogers’ vessel and traded with his crew.

Johnson also vividly illustrated the agricultural opportunities that Madagascar held for potential settlers. He asserted, “the Soil will produce Sugar, Cotton, Indigo, and other Growths of our American Colonies…” He insisted, “If a Colony, with a lawful Power, were settled here, no doubt, but many of the Commodities with we fetch from the Indies might be made here, as Silk, Cotton, &c. the Soil being proper for their Production.”33 Captain Johnson portrayed Madagascar as a rich agricultural region with the potential to grow many lucrative crops. Since the soil and climate appeared suitable for agriculture, Johnson argued that a legal settlement of the area would diminish the number of pirates on the island. Since Johnson insisted that the pirate settlement on Madagascar thrived for twenty-five years and sustained several large families, the pirate settlers certainly participated in agriculture on the island.

Although many enslaved people escaped plantations to join pirate crews, many pirates still participated in the slave trade and terrified maroon communities. David Cordingly, the author of Under the Black Flag, presented a realistic perspective of pirates as prejudiced men who viewed enslaved people as plunder. Cordingly stated, “the pirates shared the same prejudices as other white men in the Western world. They regarded black slaves as commodities to be bought and sold, and they used them as slaves onboard their ships for the hard and menial jobs: working pumps, going ashore for food and water, washing and cleaning…”34 Cordingly criticized the romanticized portrayal of pirates as a democratic group of people who believed in equality and welcomed black men into their crews. Since many pirates frequently stole slaves from Caribbean islands and sold enslaved people, Cordingly insisted that pirates treated enslaved people like commodities. Cordingly also argued that slaves onboard pirate ships did not carry weapons; therefore, pirates viewed slaves as servants.35

In his book, Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the IndoAtlantic World, Kevin McDonald discussed the process pirates used to antagonize maroon communities in the Caribbean. These communities, frequently located in swamps and in mountainous areas, were comprised of escaped slaves. McDonald discussed landed pirate groups, similar to the pirate settlement on Madagascar, who attacked maroon communities to steal forced laborers for their settlements. McDonald detailed how landed pirate communities that relied on log-cutting perpetuated slavery. He asserted, “First, slavery was a central theme in the logwood-cutting settlements: the pirates sporadically made alliances with or fought former African slaves who escaped from the Spanish and established maroon communities in the mangrove swamps, and pirates either enslaved some of the maroons or enslaved some of the natives.”36 Since McDonald depicted pirates as enslavers, he reinforced Cordingly’s criticism of the romanticized portrayal of pirates. McDonald also emphasized the importance of slavery within a landed pirate settlement. Overall, both Cordingly and McDonald presented slavery as a crucial component of Caribbean piracy during the seventeenth century.

During the colonial period, several newspapers reported on acts of piracy under the “plantation news” heading. The Jamaican Gazette reported on April 5, 1782, the arrest of a pirate captain after a naval ship captured his vessel. The article outlined the details of an illegal transaction that transpired between the pirate ship and another vessel. Additionally, the article described the pirate crew’s backgrounds and the contraband onboard their boat, the General Campbell. The report stated, “Upon making the proper Enquires, and examining the People separately, the villainous Transaction was discovered.” The article continues, “They prove to be Americans from Rhode Island, but had shipped themselves at Kingston, as British seaman. The General Campbell had a valuable Cargo on board, consisting of dry Goods, Provisions, &c…”37

The Jamaican Gazette article described a pirate crew and the type of goods that pirates typically carried on board their vessels. Directly underneath the General Campbell article, another report detailed the unfortunate fate of a wrecked slave ship and the death of 160 enslaved people on board. Both articles appeared underneath the “plantation news” subheading. The particular placement of these newspaper articles highlighted the intertwined relationship between plantations, piracy, and the slave trade.

The London and Country Journal also reported on an act of piracy under the “plantation news” subheading. The article detailed the acquittal of three pirates who captured a French vessel and hung several people on board, including slaves from Jamaica.38 Another London newspaper, The Public Advertiser, reported on news concerning the plantation office, merchants, and piracy trials under the same “plantation news” heading. 39 All three of these newspapers reported the news that concerned trade and piracy under the same heading. Including piracy within the “plantation news” section reinforced the dynamic relationship between piracy and plantations in the eighteenth century.

During the colonial period, piracy ravaged trade and plantations throughout the Caribbean. Consequently, many merchants and government officials requested legislation from the English empire to help eradicate piracy from the islands. Humphrey Morice, a wealthy slave trader, became a leader in the public outcry for protection from Caribbean pirates. Rediker addressed the appeals for assistance by merchants and planters. He wrote, “merchants from Bristol, Liverpool, London, and many other British Atlantic ports, including those of the recently revitalized (though still declining) Royal African Company, formed a chorus around Morice, protesting their losses and demanding that Parliament take action to protect their trade, the plantation system…”40 Rediker illustrated the fear and frustration that planters felt during the early eighteenth century. Morice issued a letter to the King of England on behalf of the West Indies planters for the protection of plantations under British authority.41 Throughout his letter, Morice advocated for a naval force to eliminate the numerous pirates that damaged the plantations of English colonists.

The English government issued orders to colonies that demanded the colonial governments enforce piracy laws and protect the colony’s plantations from destruction. The Privy Council of England delivered an order to the colonial governments in America that lamented “the great damage that does arise in His Majesty’s service by harbouring and encouraging of Pirates in Carolina and other Governments and Proprietys where there is no law to restrain them.”42 Similarly, a 1697 letter from England’s Board of Trade to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina warned Carolinians about the destruction that piracy wreaked on English colonies. The letters insisted: “And whereas his Majesty has also received complaints that the entertainment given to Pyrates in some of his Colonies, and more particularly in those under distinct proprieties, had occasioned many ill minded persons, seamen and others to desert their habitations, and apply themselves to such wicked and destructive courses…”43 The Board of Trade’s letter criticized the political leaders of Carolina for allowing their colony to become “too ordinary a Receptacle of Pyrates.”44 Although the Board of Trade warned that piracy’s destructive exploits would lead to settlers abandoning the Carolina colony, the letter also condemned planters who hid fugitives on their plantations. Public outcry from government officials, merchants, and planters demanded that authorities eradicate piracy from the Atlantic Ocean to prevent the destruction of plantations in the American colonies.

Government officials utilized a variety of different methods to suppress Caribbean piracy during the colonial era. As a response to the public outcry for the protection of plantations from pirates, King William III issued an order in 1699 that called for the Carolina government to capture and place suspected pirates on trial for their crimes. The document states: “Whereas we have been informed that several Pirates have been lately seized in our Plantations in America, and it being necessary that due care be taken for bringing them and all others that may in like manner be seized hereafter to condign punishment.”45 King William III’s order outlined the procedure required for arresting and placing pirates on trial for their crimes, including collecting witnesses and evidence. Although King William III’s order directed a legal crackdown on piracy in the American colonies, King George I issued a vastly different mandate concerning piracy in 1717. During the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean, King George issued a proclamation that pardoned all pirates who surrendered to the colonial government.46 The proclamation also insisted that pirates who refused to surrender to the colonial government would be arrested and tried for piracy. 

The correspondences between colonial governments provide insight into the way English authorities arrested and tried those pirates who attacked plantations. During 1785, William Moultrie, governor of South Carolina, corresponded with the Spanish governor of East Florida, Don Vincent Emanuel De Lespedes, about a gang of pirates that recently attacked a plantation. After capturing the pirate, Thomas Bell, the governors, discussed his interrogation and subsequent confession. The governors’ correspondence also described the conviction and execution of Thomas Bell for his piratical crimes.47 Since piracy severely hindered Atlantic trade and damaged plantations, officials from every level of government attempted a vast array of methods to eliminate piracy in the American colonies.

Both pirates and maroon communities represented counterculture and marginalized groups that existed in the Caribbean during the colonial period. Erin Mackie, author of “Welcome the Outlaw: Pirates, Maroons, and Caribbean Countercultures,” highlighted the links between piracy and maroons’ resistance to colonial institutions including, slavery and the Royal Navy. Mackie described the similarities between piracy and maroon communities. She wrote, “…the strongest link in the chain that connects pirate and Maroon is that both constitute sustained and organized refusals of participation in the two central institutions of the colonial machine: plantation slavery and the vastly expanded merchant navy, both of which qualify as total institutions and as precursors to the industrial factory of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”48 Mackie outlined the influence piracy had on Caribbean culture in the early modern period. Since pirates and maroons resisted powerful colonial institutions, Mackie argued that the Caribbean cultural imagination used piracy and maroons as masculine symbols of freedom. Maroon communities consisted of escaped slaves who actively resisted authorities and attempted to capture and enslave the community members. Mackie drew a similarity between pirates and maroons by pointing to their shared resistance to colonial authorities. This commonality often led to alliances between the two groups.49

Mackie detailed this shared resistance. She wrote, “living, in a sense, on the frontiers of the frontier, both pirates and Maroons hyperbolically embody instabilities-ethical, economic, political, sociocultural, linguistic, demographic -that typify the early modern Caribbean and the late modern urban frontier as well.”50 Mackie argued that pirates and maroons lived on the fringe of Caribbean society and lived in opposition to colonialism.51 Since both pirates and maroons became mythic figures in Caribbean culture, Mackie insisted that both groups inspired modern Caribbean countercultures, including Rastafarians. Pirates and maroons served as symbols of resistance that heavily influence modern Caribbean culture.

Many scholars argued that the lucrative plantation system eventually replaced the role of piracy in the Caribbean economy. Rediker insisted that wealthy slave traders encouraged the British empire to eradicate piracy in the Caribbean. He illustrated how pirates drastically interrupted the African slave. He wrote, “pirates now had to be exterminated for the new trade to flourish…Pirates had ruptured the Middle Passage, and this would not be tolerated. By 1726 the maritime state had removed a major obstacle to the accumulation of capital in its ever-growing Atlantic system.”52 During the 1720s, Rediker argued that the numbers of Africans in the slave trade reached a low point while pirate activity reached its highest point in the Caribbean.53 Since the British government deregulated the slave trade in 1712, Rediker asserted that the lucrative slave trade gained the attention of English businessmen. However, Caribbean piracy created a trade crisis in the Atlantic Ocean and prevented slave traders from the accumulation of capital. As a result, the British military increased its naval presence in the American colonies and attempted to eradicate Atlantic piracy.

After pirates captured and plundered vessels, the crew sold their stolen goods throughout the Caribbean, but the value of the pirates’ goods declined as the plantation economy grew. Bialuschewski outlined how the decline of piracy and the rise of the plantation economy affected Tortuga. He states, “The formal annexation of Tortuga along with the western part of Hispaniola by the newly established Compagnie des Indes occidentales in 1665 meant that the age when outlaws operated virtually unchecked was beginning to wane and that plantation economy was slowly expanding its reach all over the region.”54 As the Caribbean islands, such as Barbados and Jamaica, profited from the massive amount of sugar plantations, trading posts, and lucrative slave markets, pirates lost their influence in the Caribbean economy.55  

Consequently, Talty argued that many pirates abandoned their marauding to pursue careers as farmers and merchants.56 Talty illustrated how plantations became a significant competitor for the illicit goods of pirates. He asserted, “As the plantations grew more and more profitable, as the global model of trade built on the currency minted Potosi silver solidified and grew, the white gold produced by black slaves and poor ‘buckras,’ or white men, became more valuable than the latest haul of pirate booty.”57 Talty argued that planters benefited from purchasing goods from pirates at low prices and that the plantation system eventually outgrew the need for pirates’ ill-gotten goods. Although pirates enriched themselves by attacking oppressive European empires, selling their loot to Caribbean planters strengthened the pirates’ most significant competitor—the plantation economy. The Caribbean plantation economy became so lucrative that it turned piracy into an unprofitable and hazardous enterprise.

The maroon communities, landed pirate settlements, news reports, and the methods in which the government responded to Caribbean piracy highlighted the intertwined relationship between piracy, plantations, and the slave trade. The influx of wealth from sugar exports enticed a massive wave of migrants and forced laborers who worked on sugar plantations; however, the egregious violence of the plantation system led some indentured servants and enslaved people to embrace piracy as a career. Although marauders viewed piracy as a lucrative way to resist colonial institutions, including the British Royal Navy, the plantation system eventually outgrew piracy. It replaced the role that piracy played in the Caribbean economy. Ultimately, the plantation system was a decisive factor in both the creation and demise of piracy during the colonial period.

 1 Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004), 22.
2 Rediker, Villains of All Nations Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, 7.
3 Ibid., 23.
4 Lindley Butler, Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 52-55.
5 L. Lynn Hogue, 1975. “Nicholas Trott: Man of Law and Letters,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine 76: 25- 34. 30.
6. Stephan Talty, Empire of Blue Water (Three River’s Press, 2007), 135
7 Talty, Empire of Blue Water, 135.
8 Butler, Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina, 54.
9 Ibid.
10 Randy Browne, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 20-22.
11 Talty, Empire of Blue Water, 135.
12 Ibid., 135-136.
13 Ibid., 136.
14 Browne, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean, 3.
15 Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vol. I. (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 1789), 213.
16 Talty, Empire of Blue Water, 136.
17 Rediker, Villains of All Nations Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, 63.
18 Casey Schmitt, “Pirates, Planting, and the Rights of Mankind in Seventeenth Century Tortuga,” The Latin Americanist 61 (2018): 584-599, 587.
19 Ibid., 585.
20 Ibid., 588.
21 Schmitt, “Pirates, Planting, and the Rights of Mankind in Seventeenth Century Tortuga,” 585.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid., 585.
24 Schmitt, “Pirates, Planting, and the Rights of Mankind in Seventeenth Century Tortuga,” 590.
25 Ibid., 592.
26 Ibid., 593.
27 Arne Bialuschewski, “Slaves of Buccaneers: Mayas in Captivity in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century” Ethnohistory 64 (2017), 41-63, 43.
28 Bialuschewski, “Slaves of Buccaneers,” 44.
29 Ibid., 43.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid., 54.
32 Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates (Dover Publications, Inc., 1999), 60.
33 Ibid., 436.
34 David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1995), 16.
35 Ibid., 16.
36 Kevin McDonald, Pirate, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the Indo Atlantic World (University of California Press, 2015), 24.
37 Jamaica Gazette, April 5, 1782.
38 London and Country Journal, June 9, 1741.
39 Public Advertiser, February 27, 1767.
40 Rediker, Villains of All Nations Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, 142.
41 Ibid.
42 John Nicholas, Order of the Privy Council of England concerning colonial laws against pirates, 1684, Colonial and State Records Collection, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
43 Board of Trade of England to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, February 9, 1697, Colonial and State Records Collection, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
44 Ibid.
45 King William III, Instructions to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina concerning pirates, 1699, Colonial and State Records Collections, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
46 King George I, A Proclamation for Suppressing of Pyrates, A General History of the Pyrates, Charles Johnson, 40-41. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1999.
47 Gov. William Moultrie to Don Vincent Emanuel De Lespedes, February 19, 1785, Series: Governors’ Messages, South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
48 Erin Mackie, “Welcome the Outlaw: Pirates, Maroons, and Caribbean Countercultures,” Cultural Critique 59 (2005): 24-62, 32.
49 Ibid., 24.,
50 Ibid.
51 Mackie, “Welcome the Outlaw: Pirates, Maroons, and Caribbean Countercultures,” 24.
52 Rediker, Villains of All Nations Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, 144-145.
53 Ibid, 144.
54 Bialuschewski, “Slaves of Buccaneers: Mayas in Captivity in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century” 7.
55 Talty, Empire of Blue Water 136.
56 Ibid., 288.
57 Ibid., 136.