Critical Intel

Critical Intel
A Piracy Primer for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Robert Rath | 31 Oct 2013 12:00
Critical Intel - RSS 2.0

To understand how murky these situations could get, consider the case of Henry Morgan. In 1668 Morgan was a vice-admiral in the English Navy commanding 15 ships. He sailed under a letter of marque signed by the governor of Jamaica. There was only one problem - the governor had issued the letter against the orders of King Charles II, who wanted out of the privateering business. Ergo, while Morgan was a privateer on paper, his actions against the Spanish could also be deemed piracy. This situation came to a head after Morgan sacked Panama, unwittingly violating the Treaty of Madrid that had ended hostilities between England and Spain earlier that year. Bending to diplomatic fury, the government recalled Morgan to England and placed him under arrest. However, by the time the accused pirate arrived, relations with the Spanish had broken down again, and instead of punishing Morgan, King Charles knighted him and appointed him Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. Morgan went from privateer to pirate to government official - all in five years.

Racial Equality Among Pirate Crews - A Contested Issue

Popular culture tends to cast pirates as enlightened with regard to inclusiveness and ethnicity, arguing that freebooter crews represented a vast stew-pot of cultures and nationalities and a rare example of racial equality in the 18th century. Democratic pirate crews welcomed black men as equals, the argument goes, and slaves were known to swim out to pirate vessels in order to escape their bonds. It's a seductive argument - after all, who doesn't want to believe something so heartwarming? Unfortunately, there's a lot of evidence to suggest this is either false or only partially true.

There's no question that black men were prevalent among pirate crews. Contemporary accounts often mention the racial makeup of pirate crews with hard numbers, and according to these accounts we can estimate roughly 20-30% of pirates were black. What we don't know, however, is what kind of status these men held aboard ship.

Men from all over the world (and some women) drifted into piracy. They could be merchant seamen, former navy men or landmen seeking wealth and adventure. Among them were also indigenous peoples from the Americas, Africans and mixed race people of almost every combination imaginable - some of whom did not serve willingly. Native divers, for example, were not only prized for their salvage skills but for ability to fix hull leaks below the waterline - pirates often kidnapped them for this purpose. Likewise, historians are unsure whether the black men aboard were full members of the crew, partial members, or were treated effectively like slaves. Unfortunately, most sources seem to support that they were held in some form of servitude. William Dampier described his own expedition in 1681 as being made up of Europeans, Indians and five black men that didn't carry weapons. Captain Kidd employed slaves to do the heavy lifting on his own ship - though these men were Asian Lascars, since he sailed in the Indian Ocean - and Basil Ringrose records how his privateering vessel hit a Spanish ship in 1679, taking "twelve slaves, of whom we intended to make good use to do the drudgery of our ship." Indeed, by the 1720s pirates were so infamous for preying on slave trading vessels, and even kidnapping slaves from plantations, that in 1724 Jamaican merchants wrote to the Council of Trade and Plantations in London demanding something be done. It seems that many pirates used black men to do the worst jobs on the ship such as working the pumps, going ashore for wood and water, and doing the washing - though all told this may have been preferable to life in the sugar plantations, explaining why slaves might escape to a pirate ship.

Given the evidence, it seems logical to conclude that most pirates shared the entrenched belief of most Europeans at the time - that non-white persons were at best curiosities and at worst property. AC4 seems to have taken the other tack, with Edward's second-in-command being a former slave named Adewale, and frankly, I can't blame them for not wanting to take the topic on. Apparently, the DLC will feature a story where the player controls Adewale liberating slaves in Haiti, so perhaps we will get to see that side of the story dealt with in a more serious manner.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

Comments on