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Speaker explores relationship between buccaneers and the slave trade

| Tuesday, January 31, 2017

John Donoghue, associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, spoke Monday evening about buccaneers and their role in the slave trade during his talk, “Slave Revolts and Piratical Capitalism in the Age of Captain Morgan.” Donoghue said in the 17th century, buccaneers started out as poor French, Dutch and British citizens who had been “delivered into bondage across the Atlantic” without their consent, often tricked or manipulated into signing contracts.

“These buccaneers who become pirates and make their living ultimately by stealing, are themselves stolen,” Donoghue said.

He said these indentured servants ultimately escaped from their brutal work, and formed communities of their own, where they lived off looting.

“Whatever loot that they got, whatever provisions they were traded, the spoils would be divided equally among the brethren,” Donoghue said. “They organized themselves along decidedly anti-Capitalist lines.”

Nevertheless, Donoghue said soon the buccaneers teamed up with the British colonial settlement in Jamaica in order to stifle Spain’s thriving trade.

“The buccaneers saw an opportunity to increase their wealth, and the English saw an opportunity to acquire the labor they needed to begin robbing the Spanish,” Donoghue said. “This produces an innovation in the colonial economy called privateering. This is essentially state-sponsored piracy.”

Donoghue said the buccaneers, led by Capt. Henry Morgan of Wales, pillaged many Spanish settlements, most famously Porto Bello and Panama.

“These were massive forces attacking cities, destroying them and relieving them of their wealth,” Donoghue said. “So the buccaneers provided the key military labor for extracting capital from the Spanish empire that [would] be brought back to Jamaica, and invested for the purposes of sugar planting.”

Through these attacks, Donoghue said the buccaneers brought back thousands of African slaves from Spanish settlements to Jamaica.

“By turning mercenary for the colonial regime in Jamaica, we see people fleeing from unfree labor becoming instruments of enslavement themselves,” Donoghue said. “I call this conflicted resistance.”

The intense influx of African slaves made each slave increasingly expendable, to the point that Donoghue said it was “more profitable to work a slave to death” than keep him healthy.

“This is a holocaust of the early-modern period, a holocaust driven by profit maximization,” Donoghue said. “This is a murder machine.”

However, by 1693 slaves outnumbered their white slavers by a ratio of around 5-to-1 in Jamaica, Donoghue said. Consequently, slaves began to revolt and form their own settlements on the island called Maroons.

“These rebels were so powerful that the British were forced to come to terms with them in the Treaty of 1739, recognizing the sovereignty of these Jamaican Maroon communities,” Donoghue said.

What makes this so fascinating, he said, is despite how buccaneers are in part responsible for the prevalence of African slaves in Jamaica, the buccaneers and Maroons were very similar in their quest for sovereignty after escaping enslavement.

“Buccaneering parallels the development of the Maroon societies of the Caribbean,” Donoghue said. “In some ways, buccaneering is a floating Maroon community. But we see that this history gets very complicated and conflicted.”

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