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The golden age of piracy: when pirates ruled the waves

Dr Rebecca Simon answers key questions about an era when bands of buccaneers menaced the high seas

A pirate ship flying the Jolly Roger closes in on another vessel during a storm
Published: January 17, 2022 at 12:05 pm
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What and when was the Golden Age of Piracy?

It was a period of time when piracy was most active within the Atlantic world – primarily the Caribbean, North America, Britain, Europe and the west coast of Africa, writes historian Dr Rebecca Simon, an expert in early modern piracy.

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Piracy’s golden age can really be divided into three main periods: in the 1670s and parts of the 1680s, buccaneers of the Caribbean, mostly French pirates, fought over different land territories and were more land-based than sea-based.

Then, there were the British pirates in the Indian Ocean in the 1690s. Here, we see figures such as Henry Every and Captain Kidd, both of whom disrupted trade between the British and Indian Mughals.

The third period – and the one that most people associate with piracy’s golden age – took place between c1713 and c1730, during which time there were large organised bands of pirates. It was in this last period that the famous pirates most people have heard of were operating: Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Captain Hornigold and so on. It’s also the time when the pirate republic at Nassau, on the island of Providence in the Bahamas, was established.

  • Read more | Famous pirates: The most notorious and despicable from history

Piracy in the 1600s was mainly the product of contested ownership of plantation colonies in the Caribbean, particularly between the British and the Spanish, who were constantly at odds over who should control different regions.

A main area of contention was Jamaica, which became known as one of the most successful plantation islands in the West Indies, mostly because of sugar cultivation. With so many political issues and battles taking place, the British and Spanish were unable to police piracy in the same way they had previously.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) was another factor in the rise of activity. During the conflict, many pirates were hired as privateers – someone who was given a contract to attack enemy ships – for either the British or the Spanish. They were paid in the loot that they stole, but once the war ended, many privateers found themselves out of work and turned instead to illegal piracy.


Dr Rebecca Simon responds to your questions on the 17th-century golden age of piracy and discusses how accurate pop culture portrayals of pirates are on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast


The Golden Age of Piracy timeline: a century of terror

The key moments during piracy’s ‘golden age’, when the seas became a playground for criminals seeking quick fortunes

c1630 | A group of French and English buccaneers (privateers who attack Spanish ships) establish a base at Tortuga, a rocky island off the coast of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. It will become a major haven for pirates and smugglers over the coming years.

May 1655 | Jamaica is captured by English forces during the Anglo-Spanish War –a bitter conflict begun in 1654 over England and Spain’s commercial interests. Buccaneers are encouraged by the island’s new rulers to protect it from Spanish attacks, and make Port Royal their base.

1660 | The Anglo-Spanish War comes to an end due to the ongoing political turmoil in England, which sees the end of Oliver Cromwell’s republic and the restoration of King Charles II to the throne. But with no peace treaties signed, sporadic clashes in the Caribbean continue.

1662 | Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan accompanies Royal Navy captain Christopher Mings on a raid of Santiago de Cuba – the former capital of Spanish held Cuba. The attack, supported by Jamaica’s governor, Lord Windsor, causes outrage in Spain.

11 July 1668 | Morgan and his crew occupy the Spanish settlement of Portobelo (now part of modern-day Panama). They negotiate a ransom of 100,000 pesos in gold coins and silver ingots and receive a rapturous reception back in Jamaica. The incident helps cement Morgan’s fearsome reputation.

1670 | The Treaty of Madrid is signed between England and Spain. England agrees to suppress piracy in the Caribbean, while Spain promises to recognise England’s sovereignty over Jamaica.

1674 | Henry Morgan is knighted by Charles II and made lieutenant governor of Jamaica. Originally summoned to England to face charges of piracy, he is now lauded as a hero.

30 July 1715 | A Spanish treasure fleet, carrying coins, silver, silks and spices, is wrecked off the coast of Florida. Treasure seekers quickly set out to plunder the vessel, including John Rackham, Charles Vane and Blackbeard.

c1713 | Nassau, on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, becomes a fully-fledged pirate republic. Its founders are the English pirates Benjamin Hornigold, Henry Jennings, Charles Vane and Edward Teach (known as Blackbeard).

  • Read more | Blackbeard: the life, death and 'burning beard' of Edward Teach

1713 | The first of several peace treaties is signed between England, France and Spain, who have been at loggerheads with each other during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14). After being made redundant by the Royal Navy, thousands of British sailors turn to piracy – a lucrative form of income.

23 May 1701 | Scottish privateer William Kidd is hanged at Execution Dock in Wapping, London, having turned to piracy after being sent on a mission to suppress pirate activity in the Indian Ocean.

September 1695 | English pirate Henry Every carries out one of the largest heists in history when he captures the Ganj-i-Sawai, a ship belonging to the Mughal emperor and laden with treasure worth roughly £600,000 (around £127m today). He becomes the subject of one of the earliest international manhunts in history, but is never found.

7 June 1692 | An earthquake destroys Port Royal. It never recovers to its earlier heights as a vital English trading port and pirate haven.

25 August 1688 | Henry Morgan dies a wealthy man in Jamaica; an amnesty is proclaimed allowing pirates to attend his funeral without fear of arrest.

6 December 1687 | An entry in a French pirate logbook describes the raising of a flag bearing a skull and crossbones – one of the earliest known references to the ‘Jolly Roger’ symbol associated with piracy.

5 September 1717 | Britain’s King George I issues the Proclamation for Suppressing of Pirates, offering pardons for those who surrender themselves by the same date the following year.

May 1718 | Blackbeard blockades the port of Charles Town in South Carolina for a week, demanding medical supplies and ransacking any ships that pass.

5 September 1718 | More than 600 pirates have now been pardoned by George I, including Blackbeard and Hornigold.

22 November 1718 | Blackbeard, back at sea despite his royal pardon, is killed off the coast North Carolina by Lieutenant Robert Maynard and a group of fellow pirate hunters. The pirate’s head is fixed to the prow of Maynard’s ship as a grisly trophy.

12 December 1718 | Nassau’s time as a pirate republic comes to an end with the execution of nine ringleaders captured by Hornigold, who has recently switched sides to become a pirate hunter.

1721 | The Piracy Act is passed in Britain. The Royal Navy now has more powers to suppress piracy, while the courts can also impose harsher penalties for illegal cargo trading.

March 1722 | A mass trial takes place at Cape Coast Castle, West Africa, for dozens of crewmen previously led by the late pirate Bartholomew Roberts – alleged to have plundered more than 400 ships. Fifty-two men are hanged, while 17 are sent to London’s notorious Marshalsea Prison. By now, the so-called ‘golden age’ of piracy has virtually come to an end.

May 1724 | Captain Charles Johnson (likely a pseudonym) publishes A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. It contains biographies of some of history’s most prolific pirates and helps shape their near-mythical status.

Words by BBC History Revealed staff writer Emma Slattery Williams


The Golden Age of Piracy: 5 huge questions answered

1

What goods and routes did pirates target?

Pirates targeted lots of different areas, particularly major sea lanes that led into the West Indies – through a lot of the Bahamas, the Leeward Islands, in towards Jamaica and many American ports. Their aim was to acquire items that could give them wealth – textiles such as silks and spices, for example – as well as things that would replenish their own stores. Alcohol was also highly desirable, especially rum, which was a staple drink on a pirate ship, and wines, such as Madeira wine from Portugal.

2

How was piracy viewed by people on land?

The relationship between piracy and those on land was actually quite complicated. There were people in parts of the Caribbean and the southern American colonies who actually worked with pirates, particularly in the 1600s.

Competition between the British and Spanish over plantation islands saw Britain try and cripple Spain’s economy – along with that of France and Portugal, its other main competitors – by passing navigation acts in the 1650s. Amongst other things, these banned colonists from trading with Britain’s competitors. The colonists didn’t like this. It took away their own freedom of trade and also stopped them from being able to obtain a lot of goods that they really wanted. So they worked with pirates who robbed ships at will and were able to bring these goods into the colonies illegally.

Some pirates were considered well-respected members of the community in those areas. They might have had families there, or might have even been sponsored by a governor or other powerful people.

This wasn’t always the case, though, particularly at the turn of the 18th century when anyone found to be trading with, or helping, pirates would consequently be considered a pirate themselves and been treated as such if caught. People living in the middle- Atlantic colonies – such as Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, New York and up into New England – had a fear and hatred of piracy because the economies of these communities were so merchantdependent, and pirates were a massive threat to merchants. There were many sailing communities, particularly in New England, that were in real danger of having their livelihoods and communities destroyed by pirates.

Even though there were people who supported pirates in the Caribbean and some of the southern American colonies, there were many people who were absolutely terrified of them. And pirates knew this; some would even release victims so that they would go and warn people of what their former captors were going to do. It was a way of keeping their fearsome reputations alive.

A pirate with one of the most terrifying reputations was Edward Teach – known as Blackbeard – who was described as looking as if he had emerged from the gates of hell. He deliberately made himself look as frightening as possible, putting candles or pieces of fuse in his long beard so that it would smoke. So pirates were very aware of their grim reputations, and many of them did capitalise on it because it gave them an advantage when attacking ships, and often meant they could get their victims to surrender very quickly.

3

What ailments and illnesses did pirates at sea suffer from?

Pirate ships, and pretty much all other ships at the time, experienced similar ailments among their crews. Perhaps the number one threat to anyone at sea during this period was scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency and which presented in swollen, bleeding gums, swelling, joint pain, weakness and ultimately death. But pirates were generally known as being a bit healthier than many other sailors of the day; the frequency with which they were robbing ships meant that they were constantly replenishing their food stores.

In addition, pirates often sailed close to lots of islands where they could replenish their stores pretty easily. They weren’t sailing over very long, drawnout distances in the same the way as merchant ships, which crossed entire oceans, so this generally kept them physically healthier.

A popular drink called grog, which we hear a lot about in pop culture, but which was actually a real drink, also helped to combat scurvy. Grog comprised one part rum, four parts water, a spoonful of brown sugar and the juice of a lime. So it was both a treat, but also a way to prevent scurvy, with the lime juice providing much-needed vitamin C.

Another threat, of course, was malaria, particularly in the Caribbean. At some point, pirates started drinking a tincture of quinine – made from the bark of the cinchona tree commonly found in South America, Central America and the islands of the Caribbean – which was used to treat malaria. And then, of course, there was always the risk of injury from the fighting that was always very common. Wound infections were prevalent, and pirates could very easily lose a limb or need to have an arm or leg amputated.

Syphilis was also a frequent disease on board pirate ships. Pirates visited brothels and we know that syphilis ran rampant throughout the American colonies and Europe at this time. In fact, Blackbeard, who blockaded Charleston port in South Carolina in 1718, is said to have done so in order to get medicine for himself and several of his crew, who had been ravaged by syphilis.

The most common treatment for syphilis was mercury, which was believed to be effective because it took away the symptoms. Did it actually cure the disease, though? No, it actually made people sicker due to mercury poisoning, but it took away symptoms such as tremors and sores. So, syphilis, scurvy, malaria, injuries and infection were some of the main threats to sailors on board pirate ships.

4

How were ethnic minorities treated on board pirate ships?

Pirate ships were quite multinational and pretty diverse. About 50 per cent of pirate crews in the Atlantic world during the golden age of piracy would have been white British or American colonists. So the other half would have been people from a variety of countries. There were French, Spanish and Portuguese pirates, as well as pirates from East India. You might have even seen southeast Asian pirates on board ships, although that was a bit more rare, particularly in the Atlantic, but not unheard of.

There were Native American pirates and, of course, there would have been black African pirates, many of whom would likely have been enslaved people who had escaped bondage or who had been released, or perhaps enslaved people whose ship had been captured by pirates and been forced into joining a pirate crew.

  • Read more | Barbary pirates: the Muslim corsairs and their role in the slave trade

We don’t know for sure how ethnic minorities were treated on pirate ships. Formerly enslaved black pirates may have been given lower positions on board, perhaps in the kitchens. This could have either been because of their skill set, or could have been because of prejudice.

There were some black pirates who were treated horribly because they had essentially been captured from slave ships and ultimately sold on as slaves in other colonies – they were considered cargo, really. But most pirates didn’t actually engage in the slave trade like that. They would bring enslaved people on board if they had captured a slave ship, for example, and some of these people would then be absorbed into the pirate crew.

  • Read more | Was pirate John Ward the real Captain Jack Sparrow?

Blackbeard is known for taking on as many as 14 enslaved people as members of his crew, but he did eventually end up selling several of them. So it varied a great deal from ship to ship.

The big difference for men of colour on pirate ships is that they were actually allowed on board, at a time when they wouldn’t have been permitted on other ships. So, you could say that pirate ships were places that a lot of marginalised people knew they would be accepted – the ability to fight and willingness to die in battle was deemed more important than skin colour.

Religious minorities, or those who had been persecuted for their religious beliefs, could also be found on board pirate ships. Catholics, in particular, were common, but there were also known to be bands of Jewish pirates in existence as well. So, overall, pirate ships were actually quite multicultural places.

5

When did the golden age of piracy start to slow down?

Piracy’s heyday starts to end in the late 1720s. The historian Marcus Rediker has argued that the golden age of piracy ended in 1726 when the pirate William Fly was executed, because his was the last real public spectacle execution of a pirate. There was also a real crackdown on piracy after the War of the Spanish Succession, with up to 4,000 pirates thought to have been executed in the decade after 1713.

By the end of the 1720s, many of the well-known pirate leaders had been executed, disappeared or retired, such as Benjamin Hornigold, Bartholomew Roberts, Blackbeard and Jack Rackham. What’s more, the appointment of former privateer Woodes Rogers as the first royal governor of the Bahamas, in 1718, had seen pirates expelled left and right from an area where they had congregated for so long.

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Further difficulties between various European countries – eventually culminating in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739–48) – also contributed to the decline of piracy; many of these European nations needed skilled sailors who were able to fight. Pirates were offered pardons in return for their services as privateers. A lot of pirates accepted this; for many, illegal piracy just wasn’t worth the risk anymore.

Authors

Dr Rebecca SimonHistorian, author and piracy expert

Dr Rebecca Simon is a historian of early modern piracy. She is the author of Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever (Mango Press, 2020)

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