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New Book Examines How Pirates Tried to Sabotage the Growth of the Slave Trade

The 18th-century pirates sowed havoc among human traffickers from Europe, burning and exploding their ships and ports.

Lithograph of a pirate ship attacking a vessel by A St Aulaire, 19th century

In historian Angela C. Sutton’s new book, Pirates of the Slave Trade: The Battle of Cape Lopez and the Birth of an American Institution she shows how a pivotal battle fought off the coast of present-day Gabon between the British navy and an infamous pirate crew had devastating consequences for the U.S. that are still felt today. She uncovers the largely forgotten role of pirates in thwarting Britain’s ambition to dominate the slave trade and how their defeat allowed the brutal system of chattel slavery to take root in the Americas.

In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Sutton discusses the historical figures involved in this crucial conflict, as well as her approach to documenting histories traditionally left out of the archives. As the long battle for racial justice continues, this history is essential for understanding how racism became so virulent in the U.S., and how we might resist it.

Peter Handel: In your book, Pirates of the Slave Trade: The Battle of Cape Lopez and the Birth of an American Institution, you show how the Battle of Cape Lopez was a crucial turning point for the British Empire, the slave trade and, ultimately, U.S. history. Why was the Battle of Cape Lopez so pivotal?

Angela C. Sutton: The battle of Cape Lopez occurred off the coast of Gabon, West Africa, in 1722 between the British Navy and a fleet of ruthless pirates led by Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts. The British declared war on the infamous pirate crew because they were undermining their efforts to control the slave trade, which was burgeoning because of demand in the Americas. Roberts and his crew had spent the previous year and a half terrorizing the West African coastline while being hunted by the Navy. Not only did the pirates wreak millions in damages (equivalent to tens of millions in today’s U.S. dollars), but they sowed havoc among the human traffickers along the coast, burning and exploding their ships and ports, bringing the trade nearly to a standstill. Once these pirates had been caught and “summarily dealt with,” Britian’s [Royal African Company] slave trading company was able to rebuild their horrific trade and export unwilling captives at exponentially greater rates to its territories in the Americas, including the North American colonies which would become part of the United States. This exponential growth in the trade of enslaved Africans to the Americas allowed the newer British model of slavery — chattel slavery — to become the predominant form of enslavement in the U.S. This was the most brutal and dehumanizing form of slavery ever devised. Its impact remains, unfortunately, relevant today, as racial justice still hasn’t been achieved centuries later.

Throughout your book you give a sense of the complex West African societies that interacted with European imperial forces. Talk about this. How were these societies structured and how did they navigate the European incursions into their land?

Prior to European arrival, West Africa was an incredibly diverse and cosmopolitan place that was home to competing empires and connected to some of the most important trade routes in the world. It was home to universities and scholars, scientific developments, linguistic developments and technological advancements. There is a profound gap in our education about the diverse and vibrant cultures of Africa, and this region is no exception.

The British declared war on the infamous pirate crew because they were undermining their efforts to control the slave trade.

By the time the transatlantic slave trade picked up, word had spread in Europe that sailing onboard a slave ship, or working in an African trading post or fortress owned by any of the slave-trading companies, was the most miserable, dangerous and degrading job, and so with a few notable exceptions, the Europeans who performed this work tended to be largely uneducated, young and inexperienced. The African Ahantan king of infinite names, who I call John Conny in the book, was a multilingual broker with a wide family and kinship network. Like other powerful Africans on the coast, he was a savvy businessman and martial leader, well-versed in various European cultures and languages, and able to control the way he was perceived to limit their power on his land. While he was unable to stop the Europeans from arriving and demanding captives, he disregarded most of their rules and customs to make it as difficult as possible for them when their goals and his did not align. Those who crossed him, like the Dutch, he made grisly examples of as a display of his power and will.

To the diverse cultures in West Africa, Europeans were considered just one more ethnic group to work into the political and social dynamic. Europeans who did not try to understand West Africa’s cultures or offer mutually beneficial business practices found themselves on the outs and unable to complete their jobs — or worse, they found themselves at the end of a sword or spear, or their trading post burned to the ground.

You dedicate your book to “Captain Tomba and all the others who resisted.” Who was Captain Tomba and how did he and other Africans resist the slave trade?

Everything we know about Captain Tomba comes to us second-hand from slave traders and from the physician who accompanied the Naval party hunting down Black Bart’s fleet. Tomba was a resistance fighter, most likely from the Koinadugu Plateau in Sierra Leone. This is a rice-growing region, and the Africans who lived there were considered highly desirable for enslavement by those British North American territories, particularly in Charleston, [which] profited from African agricultural knowledge to create the highly profitable rice industry. People like Tomba who lived in Koinadugu had to reorient their lives to resist capture and enslavement. Their cities and towns were built defensively on the slopes of hills, surrounded by dense thickets of thorn with only one way in. The societies became increasingly martial as they resisted bands of slave catchers and larger armies looking to enslave them.

[The pirates] sowed havoc among the human traffickers along the coast, burning and exploding their ships and ports, bringing the [slave] trade nearly to a standstill.

Captain Tomba’s resistance interfered with the business of a leathery English outlaw, murderer, ex-pirate and human trafficker who lived in Whiteman’s Bay called “Captain Crackers.” (Yes, really. You can’t make this stuff up.) Crackers beat Tomba brutally for refusing to allow himself to be examined by potential buyers, and then sold him to an English slave ship owned by Humphry Morice and destined for either the British North American territories or the British Caribbean islands. On that ship Tomba planned and attempted multiple insurrections that cost the slave ship crew their lives. Because he was so strong and valuable, the English slave ship captain opted not to kill him for these attempts, but instead forced him to eat the liver of one of his accomplices.

How does chattel slavery differ from other and earlier models of slavery?

Earlier models of enslavement followed the models of ancient Rome, in which slavery is a state of being people could pass in and out of, and not a permanent, race-based identity. Under these Roman-inspired models, enslaved people could expect a limited set of human rights. Under chattel slavery, not only was a person enslaved, but they were dehumanized in the law, and therefore had no legal rights to life, familial integrity, or to their own children and further descendants. Legally, enslaved Africans and their descendants were no longer considered people, but things. Chattel slavery created a pernicious culture of objectification of Africans and their descendants which crept into every part of our nation’s culture: our economy, religion, politics, language, etc. This critical fact is too often overlooked in education and in popular discourse about slavery in the Americas. No one can fully understand the U.S.’s ongoing racism and its oppression of Black citizens without considering how the British remade slavery for the Americas.

You write that you wrote the book through an anti-racist lens. What does that mean in terms of how you approach the history and why did you make this choice?

Anti-racism in history involves the core understanding that history is created from primary sources that were deemed important enough to write and to preserve. The slave trade transformed our society to devalue Africans and their descendants in every way: the vast majority of enslaved people were barred from learning how to read or write, and those who could, often had no access to the structures of power that collected and preserved written material for inclusion in the archives and edited volumes historians depend upon. For me, it means that when I read the words of European enslavers and human traffickers, I have to use oral histories, geography, archaeological evidence, and triangulation of European sources (Dutch, English, Prussian and Swedish) in an attempt to reconstruct that which white supremacist society has kept from us.

There is a poverty when it comes to U.S. history. … The victors have stripped the voices and narratives of everyone else and created a story that rings so false that the youngest schoolchildren notice.

I tried to make this process explicit in the book: often the book takes a conversational tone as I discuss where the sources disagree and what went unwritten or unmentioned in the sources, and what those omissions could mean. I made the choice because doing so allows for a fuller story to emerge. In this story of the Battle of Cape Lopez, you’ll find stories of resistance, and counternarratives to African “savagery” and body-horror. In several places, I invite the reader to follow the documentary trail to see if the conclusion matches what the loudest and whitest voices at the time recorded about this period.

You conclude your book with some reflection on the power of history to guide social change in the present. Talk about this.

Americans are intertwined in ways most of us know, but don’t fully understand.

In the 1960s, James Baldwin wrote, “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” There is a poverty when it comes to U.S. history, and history of the world. The victors have stripped the voices and narratives of everyone else and created a story that rings so false that the youngest schoolchildren notice. The history so many children learn has been stripped of anything that has value and meaning.

There is value and meaning in humility and recognizing that which we do not know, and that which we cannot know because people acting in poor faith in the past made the decision to strip that knowledge from future generations. There is value and meaning in facing the full extent of the horrors of the past, and in recognizing one’s ancestors within those horrors. There is value and meaning in working to repair, restore and create equity where historically there was little. Once you know what happened, you cannot unknow it. It has the power to change the way you move in this world, and how you relate to everyone else, if you let it.

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