The Caribbean was once the economic powerhouse of the Atlantic world. Ships laden with rich cargo traveled the high seas on trade routes that linked Europe, Africa, and North and South America in the complex webs of an economy fundamentally driven by slavery.
Let’s trace one common trade route. A ship on the first leg of its journey, from Europe to Africa, would be loaded with manufactured goods such as firearms, cloth, liquor, iron, beads, and tools. It would work its way down the west coast of Africa, trading manufactured goods for human captives and also for gold and ivory.
When fully loaded with human cargo, the ship would set out on the next leg of its journey, the infamous Middle Passage, sailing across the Atlantic from Africa to the Caribbean slave markets. Crammed into the stinking hold for two to three months, the captives endured heat, malnutrition, disease, and emotional trauma.
Those that survived were sold as slaves, and the ship took on new cargo, products from the plantations in the Caribbean and South America destined for European markets.With the use of unpaid slave labor, these vast plantations were able to produce huge quantities of sugar, tobacco, and coffee for export at enormous profits.
There was other trade too. Gold and silver mined by Indians under slave conditions was shipped from South America to Spain. Rum from the North American colonies was smuggled illegally into the Caribbean.
With all this treasure on the open seas, is it any wonder that pirates took advantage?