Hell on high water: the rise and fall of the golden age of piracy
The golden age of piracy saw waves of rogue sailors terrorising the Atlantic world from 1670 to 1730. But what, asks Rebecca Simon, drove this period of maritime pillage and plunder?
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In August of 1720, a pirate named Captain Bartholomew Roberts led an attack on a British merchant ship out of Boston. According to the Boston News-Letter, the pirates stripped the sailors of their money and effects (weapons, tools and jewellery) and stole the ship’s artillery and gunpowder. Survivors claimed that the pirates were “cursing, swearing, damning and blaspheming to the greatest degree imaginable”.
The pirates knew that if they were captured, they would publicly hang, but they paid no heed to these consequences. They claimed that “if it should chance that they should be attacked by any superior power or force which they could not master, they would immediately put fire with one of their pistols to their powder and all go merrily to hell together”.
There were hundreds, if not thousands, of incidents like this during the golden age of piracy – a 60-year period when organised piracy flourished in the Caribbean, East Indies and along the North American seaboard. Pirates have plied their trade throughout history, but most of them were so-called privateers, working for kingdoms and governments to attack enemies and bring wealth back home. The 17th century saw a new breed of pirate emerge: men (and sometimes women) who plundered ships entirely for their own gain.
What were the pros of piracy in the 17th century?
While piracy was a dangerous world, where anyone caught was almost guaranteed to hang, but the life appealed to many people. Pirate ships were extremely diverse. Crews were made up of men and women from Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, North America, India and China. Christians, Jews and Muslims sailed together – sometimes alongside freed or escaped enslaved people from Africa. Pirate ships were places where people could escape social persecution, and their crews had often chosen piracy over careers in the Royal Navy or on merchant ships, where conditions were notoriously poor.
Naval and merchant ships offered the prospect of harsh punishments, meagre rations and a lack of sanitation. Pirate ships were often more egalitarian places where sailors could vote captains in and out based on their abilities. They also promised better and more abundant food – courtesy of looting – and every pirate was guaranteed their equal share.
Yet egalitarianism and the prospect of a good hearty meal weren’t the only factors driving the surge of piracy in the 17th century. Geopolitics played a critical role. Intense competition between Europe’s colonial superpowers along the Americas’ eastern seaboard left the waters unsupervised and chaotic. This was the perfect environment for pirates to turn the seas into their own private playground, raiding, plundering and killing with seeming impunity. And at the vanguard of this maritime crimewave were the English.
How did the English change the pirate world?
Until the 16th century, England’s European rivals, particularly the Spanish, had led the charge to colonise the New World, and made themselves fantastically wealthy in the process. All that changed in the 1600s when – having already established colonies at Virginia and across New England – the English made a move south to the bustling trading centre of the Americas: the Caribbean. They arrived in a region already swarming with Spanish, French, Portuguese and Dutch vessels, which gave English pirates ample opportunity for raiding.
Then, at the midpoint of the 17th century, the authorities in London passed a series of laws that made the plunder of merchant ships irresistible not only to English pirates, but colonists too. The 1651 Navigation Act stated that colonial goods could come in only on English vessels. The aim of the legislation was simple: to cripple the economies of England’s European competitors. Not only foreign merchants suffered since cutting off a diverse range of desirable goods in an instant meant the act denied English colonists a valuable income stream.
And so these colonists now began to turn to pirates. Plantation island governors and those in the southern North American colonies either turned a blind eye to pirates, who could spirit in goods such as wine, silks from Asia, spices, cash and sometimes jewels – or they financed piracy outright, aiding and abetting the raids whenever necessary. One such raid took place in 1695 when a group of pirates led by Henry Avery captured the Indian ship Ganj-i-Sawai, slaughtered many of the men and women on board and made off with everything. Avery mysteriously disappeared after the raid, but many of his men sought refuge in North America – and they found it, mostly in Philadelphia and Providence, Rhode Island.
- On the podcast | Henry Avery: the legendary 17th-century pirate
Avery’s raid on the Ganj-i-Sawai was utterly ruthless but it was far from unusual. Soon, piracy was so rampant across the Caribbean that it had become impossible to keep the shipping lanes under control. Too many governors and colonists entertained pirates, which only encouraged illegal maritime activities. Pirates were also starting to go after Spanish ships, which threatened the precarious peace between the two nations.
The golden age of piracy was very much fuelled by the turbulent relationship between Spain and England. Nowhere was this more evident than in the waters around the island of Jamaica. By the 1650s, this hotbed of English piracy found itself at the centre of escalating tensions between the two nations. War broke out in 1654, and when the conflict ended in 1670 with the Treaty of Madrid, Spain acknowledged English ownership of Jamaica. That may have been good news for the English state, but it didn’t look that way for pirates. One of the stipulations of the treaty was the promise to protect Spanish ships from their raids. It was in London’s interests to end the pirates’ reign of terror across the Caribbean.
The English developed a two-pronged approach to eradicating piracy. First, they passed the Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy in 1700, which promised a pardon to all men who turned themselves in and named their accomplices. This was not as successful as the authorities hoped, since pirates did not trust that the conditions of the pardon would be upheld – and, sure enough, sometimes they found themselves pressed into the Royal Navy.
No sooner had this new era of zero tolerance come into effect than a sharp deterioration in Anglo-Spanish relations reset the relationship between the English authorities and pirates once again... much of the war was fought at sea and England found itself in need of skilled seamen and fighters
London’s second tactic was much more aggressive. That was to establish Admiralty courts in the Caribbean and North American colonies with the express aim of trying and executing pirates using the same, harsher penalties imposed in English courts. Until then, colonial courts had been able to operate more or less autonomously, punishing convicted pirates as they saw fit. And, as the colonies were frequently reliant on piracy to fill their coffers and bring in desirable goods, those punishments were often light to non-existent.
Such laxness, London decreed, had to be stopped. Yet no sooner had this new era of zero tolerance come into effect than a sharp deterioration in Anglo-Spanish relations reset the relationship between the English authorities and pirates once again. In 1701, the War of Spanish Succession broke out, embroiling most of Europe in a conflict over who would control the Spanish throne. Much of the war was fought at sea and England found itself in need of skilled seamen and fighters.
Suddenly pirates had the upper hand. The English authorities issued a proclamation promising all pirates a pardon if they agreed to fight as privateers for the government against the Spanish and its allies. Under their contract, known as a letter of marque, the privateers would be allowed to keep much of the loot they stole from enemy ships. Most pirates took advantage of this proclamation because they were able to continue their operations without fear from persecution. It was a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Scourges of the sea: the Atlantic world’s most notorious pirates
Avery worked on a merchant ship and led a successful mutiny against his captain, before sailing for the East Indies where he antagonised Indian Mughal ships. In 1695, Avery attacked the Ganj-i-Sawai, brutalising its crew and the women on board and plundering it dry. In order to avoid all-out war with India, Britain organised a manhunt: some of Avery’s crew made it to the American colonies, but the man himself was never found. His fate remains a mystery.
The privateer turned to piracy in 1698 when he robbed a ship called the Quedagh Merchant off the coast of India and sailed for Madagascar. On learning he was wanted for piracy, Kidd headed to Boston for refuge, but was arrested and imprisoned before being shipped back to England. He was hanged at Execution Dock on the shoreline of the Thames on 23 May 1701. Kidd is best known for claiming to have buried his loot, which sparked a long-running fascination with pirates’ buried treasure.
Edward Teach fought as a privateer in the War of Spanish Succession (1701–14). He turned to piracy and captured the French slave ship La Concorde, renaming it Queen Anne’s Revenge. Teach was dubbed Blackbeard because of his black hair and hirsute appearance, which he used to intimidate his victims. Lighted candles were woven in his hair during battle to give the impression that he was sailing out of hell itself. Teach was infamous for blockading Charleston, South Carolina for more than a week. He was beheaded in battle on 22 November 1718.
Bellamy was best known for ordering his men to charge naked on to ships to scare his victims into a rapid surrender. In 1717, he captured the British slave ship the Whydah Gally, which was worth tens of millions of dollars, making it the wealthiest ship in the Atlantic world and Bellamy the richest pirate. Yet his great wealth was short-lived: on 26 April 1717, his boat was caught in a storm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and crashed into rocks, killing almost everyone on board, including Bellamy. Treasure from the Whydah Gally is still being excavated to this day.
Mary Read and Anne Bonny
The only known female pirates during the golden age of piracy, Mary Read and Anne Bonny sailed with Captain Jack Rackham between August and October 1720, and were known to fight with their shirts open to intimidate their victims into surrendering. Survivors later claimed that the women fought and swore more than any of the men. They were captured in late October 1720 and found guilty of piracy in November of that year, but received stays of execution as both were pregnant. Read died in prison in April 1721 while Bonny’s fate remains unknown.
What was the Nassau pirate republic?
If the period from the 1670s to the 1730s is widely remembered as a golden age of piracy, then the years during and immediately after the War of Spanish Succession surely marked its zenith. During the conflict many pirates began gravitating toward the island of Providence in the Bahamas to settle in the city of Nassau. Thanks to its proximity to Florida, the Bahamas was the gateway to the Caribbean and North America.
The Spanish and British often fought over them: the former seeking to use the islands as a springboard from which to attack British ships; the latter wanting to employ them as a defensive base for North America. Yet during the chaos of the War of Spanish Succession, pirates were able to claim the islands for themselves. By the time the war ended in 1714, Nassau had gained a reputation for violence, disease and malcontents.
This all changed when a man named Captain Benjamin Hornigold spotted an opportunity to create an official community where pirates could congregate safely. Hornigold was formerly a leading privateer in the war and mentor to many future infamous pirates, such as Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard) and . He knew that, with the conflict ended, many privateers would suddenly find themselves unemployed. He also knew that many of these men would turn pirate and needed a safe harbour from which to launch their raids. He therefore stepped in and created law and order.
The pirates dubbed him “the pirate king of the pirate kingdom”. Nassau was now the pirate capital of the Atlantic world. Yet soon that capital would come under attack. In 1718 a former privateer called Woodes Rogers became the first royal governor of the Bahamas. He had a mission to eradicate piracy, and a burning desire to wipe the pirate kingdom off the face of the Earth. No sooner had he taken up his new post than Rogers had issued a proclamation that offered all pirates a pardon if they confessed their crimes before September of that year. More than 200 pirates took up the offer, reasoning that the risks of piracy now outweighed its rewards.
Rogers couldn’t rely upon the support of the Royal Navy, for whom piracy was now simply not a priority. But he could call upon the assistance of Hornigold. In a remarkable turn of events, he rounded on his former brethren and became Rogers’ chief pirate-hunter (quite possibly because he viewed being in Rogers’ good books as a smart career move). Hornigold died in a wreckage somewhere along North America’s eastern seaboard in 1719, but that didn’t stop Rogers having almost 100 people publicly executed during his war on piracy.
Soon, other powerful figures were seeking to destroy pirate captains. Among them was Alexander Spotswood, lieutenant governor of Virginia, who ordered the coastguard, headed by Lieutenant Robert Maynard, to hunt down Blackbeard. Maynard caught up with his quarry on 22 November 1718 and instantly engaged him in battle. During the fight, one of Maynard’s men stabbed Blackbeard. “Well done, lad!” the cornered pirate shouted. With Blackbeard distracted and injured, one of his assailants beheaded him. The head was mounted on a ship’s mast and paraded up and down the east coast, signifying the power of those working to bring pirates to heel.
Blackbeard may have been the most famous of all the pirates, but the wealthiest (at least, in the early 1720s) was Bartholomew Roberts, who commanded the world’s largest pirate fleet. His death in February 1722, after being struck by a stray bullet in a battle off the coast of west Africa, was somehow symbolic of the enormous squeeze that was being exerted on pirates across the Atlantic.
With relative peace and stability replacing war and chaos along North America’s eastern seaboard, the pirates’ traditional hunting grounds were providing increasingly meagre pickings. It has been estimated that nearly 4,000 pirates were arrested between 1700 and 1726, many of whom were put to death. One of those to die was a man named William Fly who, in July 1726, was led to a scaffold in Boston. Overseeing the execution was a preacher, Cotton Mather, who spoke to a rapt audience about the evil of piracy. Fly had nothing to say and stood defiantly, refusing to atone for his actions before meeting his fate with the noose.
Fly’s was the last major execution (one performed in front of a large crowd at which he was expected to utter his dying words) of a pirate in the Atlantic world. As such, it heralded the end of the golden age of piracy. Within a few years, the Atlantic world would be rocked by conflict again, in the shape of the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739–48) and the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48). Yet instead of triggering a resurgence of piracy, these conflicts saw the few remaining pirates trading in their black flags for the letters of marque borne by state-sponsored privateers.
For around 60 years, pirates had made the waters of the Caribbean and beyond very perilous places to sail. Their reign of terror may have been brought to a violent end, but they sailed into history. There, they’ve haunted the popular imagination – almost as successfully as they haunted sailors in the 17th and 18th century – for almost 300 years.
This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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