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

New Book Examines How Pirates Tried to Sabotage the Growth of the Slave Trade
by   /   November 10, 2023

“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.

PH: 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?

AC: 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. 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.

PH: 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?

AC: 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. 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.

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

AC: 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.

PH: 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?

AC: 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. 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.

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

AC: 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.”

Adapted from Pirates of the Slave Trade: The Battle of Cape Lopez
and the Birth of an American Institution

“In 1722 a British navy vessel helmed by Chaloner Ogle, a social-climbing captain with a mandate to end piracy, secured a decisive win in the waters off the coast of present-day Gabon. In the Battle of Cape Lopez, Ogle and his crew faced off against an infamous pirate band led by Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts. The defeat of one of the most prolific pirate crews gave the British dominance in the slave trade and curtailed the piracy that had so often scuttled their dealings with West African slave traders. While few in the United States know about the Battle of Cape Lopez, its role in shaping the horrific form of slavery that took hold here and its impact on the course of American history is pivotal. Specifically, in the Americas, the ascendence and systemization of the British trade was the catalyst for the emergence of chattel slavery. Settlers departed from the Roman-derived systems of slavery, which afforded the enslaved some basic rights, after the Battle of Cape Lopez and moved toward a legacy of total ownership and dominion over their involuntary workforce and any future descendants in what is now referred to as the chattel model. The Roman system, which had been practiced by other European powers who saw their empires and international influence wane at this time, was incompatible with the aims of British American planters. Before the eighteenth century and this dramatic shift, the Portuguese were the first and central European participants in the slave trade who set the tone for enslavement in the Atlantic world. They brought with them to the trade the Roman understanding of slavery. Under the systems of the Roman Empire, enslavement was often a temporary state of being, not a permanent identity. Enslavers could claim the labor of their enslaved, but not their full personhood. Enslaved people had a lesser status and fewer rights, yet some of their key human rights remained recognized. They could and did make use of the legal system, suing enslavers for cruel treatment, for their emancipation, or for the emancipation of their children. The Portuguese enshrined this system of enslavement in West Central Africa and Brazil beginning in the 1500s.

Enslavement in the 1600s Dutch Atlantic world tended to follow suit. The Dutch began their forays into trafficking in West Africa by emulating their first competitors, the Portuguese, and also following their lead in the Americas, particularly in what would later become the United States. On the Gold Coast, some Africans enslaved unlawfully by the Dutch were able to avail themselves of the Dutch courts to appeal for freedom. In New Netherlands, in the area including parts of present-day New York and Delaware, records reflect enslaved people purchasing their freedom and formerly enslaved Africans marrying free Dutch people in the mid- 1600s. Enslaved Africans and their descendants earned wages that they were permitted to keep, worshipped in the Dutch Reformed Church alongside White and free Black settlers, and some owned farmland in Manhattan. They appear with regularity in church and court records, testifying on their own behalf and insisting on their rights. It is not until the English began importing Africans in its takeover of New Netherlands in 1664 that more rigid race-based rules and racial designations took hold in the region. By contrast, the British Empire were relative latecomers to the slave trade. They had been trading in Africa since the 1600s, but it took them longer to get a foothold in the trade. In the Atlantic world, they spent the first half of the seventeenth century battling the other European empires for Caribbean and West African territory and mercantile opportunities. Unlike their Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and French competition, Britain’s colonies in North America were administered under a variety of companies and stakeholders, and each colony was created for its own purposes and therefore had its own regulations regarding enslavement. Each procured forced African labor in a variety of ways, often relying on the illicit inter-American market when the British Royal Africa Company (RAC) was unable to meet the voracious demand of colonists. As demand grew and supply did not keep up, colonists stripped more and more rights and freedoms from the enslaved populations to ensure maximum extraction of their labor and the labor of their children. In these ways, the aftereffects of the Battle of Cape Lopez had devastating consequences for what would become the United States.

The increase in the slave trade volume afforded by the British maritime victory allowed British settlers to reject the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Spanish notions of enslavement modeled after the Roman system, which had become the norm in the Atlantic world. Instead, they adopted the economically efficient chattel model in all their American colonies. This model spread as neighboring colonies, such as French Louisiana and Spanish Florida, became part of the United States after Louisiana was admitted to the union (1812) and the ratification of the Adams-Onis treaty (1821). Under this new model of slavery, the enslaved were described as chattel, a word that shares its root with cattle, one of the most important forms of nonhuman capital at the time and in the history of the world. The ramifications for the enslaved were dire: slavery became a permanent identity, passed along generations. Enslavers claimed not only the labor of those they enslaved, but their entire beings. There was little to no legal recourse for the enslaved who experienced severe punishments nor was there any justice for the enslaved who were tortured and murdered by their enslavers. People with slave status could not testify in court, because for the first time in the Atlantic system, they were legally considered objects rather than human beings. The economic efficiency of chattel slavery coincided with the rising popularity of capitalism, and this caused the widespread adoption of this British-introduced model across most of what would become the slaveholding United States and beyond. This is why, for example, other European colonies created in the Americas after this date, like Dutch Suriname, tended more toward the British chattel model.

The results were catastrophic and their reverberations far reaching. The United States would not confer citizenship onto the enslaved, freedmen, or their descendants until the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868—183 years after the French Empire granted citizenship to this population among her colonies. Just as the enslaved were affected by this transition to a chattel model, so were the enslavers and the nonslaveholding colonists of European descent. This slavery transformed the cultures of the colonists. The all-encompassing nature of chattel slavery created a new type of identity politics: it conditioned people of European ancestry to think of themselves as White and to define themselves in opposition to Black people. This in turn sowed poisonous divisions that Americans still reap today. Slavery has existed in nearly every society in the world in some form or another. Until British Atlantic societies developed the chattel model, no form of enslavement gave such complete and utter dominion to enslavers on such a scale. Consequently, no society had organized its entire social, political, religious, and economic systems around the exploitation of a more or less permanently enslaved underclass.

Over time, the British North American territories became slave societies rather than a society with slaves. The distinction between a society with slaves and a slave society is important. Historian Ira Berlin first noted this in 1998. The British North American colonies began as societies with enslaved people with the charter generations. Race and slavery were more fluid designations, and many free people of African descent took part in many levels of society. Over time, as plantation systems emerged, the colonies became slave societies, wherein every aspect of the society hinged upon the strictures of slavery, and opportunities for people of African descent shrank dramatically. To maintain generational wealth and power—or at least the dream of it—Whites had to participate and coerce the participation of other Whites in the system of White supremacy that dehumanizes the enslaved other. Colonial American lawmakers made informing on self-emancipating enslaved people and slave-catching mandatory for all White people, whether they personally enslaved anyone or not, whether they supported or opposed the institution. Mandatory reporting meant that failure to inform authorities when an enslaved person was doing anything they were not permitted to do could result in punishment. Legislators in many Southern colonies even formed groups that chased enslaved persons who dared attempt to “steal” themselves by escaping enslavement or by self-emancipating. These groups of White Southerners were expected to discipline enslaved people who were found off their plantations and to guard known escape routes. They were also the genesis of modern sheriff departments.

This social order mandated that the children born of an enslaved person would be born into slavery themselves. For slavery to be heritable, this type of system required a strict delineation between those with enslaved status and those without it. The ability to transfer from one status to another—as the enslaved often did in West Africa and, to lesser extents, elsewhere in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Atlantic world—became a liability in this system, as did racial ambiguity. To keep this system stable, enslavers tied visible Blackness to the status of enslavement. This meant that Africans in the British North American colonies were, according to Ibram X. Kendi, citing a particularly noxious speech of Jefferson Davis, “stamped from the beginning.” Everyone who profited from the bloody and brutal trade in slaves made the decision to embark on ventures that resulted in African enslavement and death. They all justified these ventures, after the fact, in the letters and narratives they left behind. And the people today who read their writings and say things like “well, that was normal then” or “they didn’t know any better” or “that was just the way things were” are missing the point. It was not normal then. They did know better, and that was not just the way things were. That was the way these men who trafficked human beings after the Battle of Cape Lopez actively created things. If it had ever been normal, moral, and acceptable to profit from the dehumanization of millions of people and to steal their labor, personhood, and that of their descendants in perpetuity, they would not have written thousands of pages of anti-abolitionist propaganda to convince the readership otherwise after the Battle of Cape Lopez, and during the birth of American slavery.”