Hunting pirates: how piracy's golden age came to an end
As vicious criminals plundered the seas, sailors were required to become pirate hunters in a bid to bring offenders to justice – and, ultimately, the gallows
During late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Royal Navy waged war against pirates, doing everything within its control to try and bring criminals to justice. In fact, the English (and, from 1707, British) authorities even went so far as to offer pardons to some of the worst offenders, so keen were they for the heinous practice to end.
But for the wider public, pirates often came to be viewed as folk heroes; as mythical and dashing rogues, rather than murderous thieves. This created a strange dissonance, where killers could attain near-celebrity status, and ordinary people clamoured for the news of the latest pirate escapades.
The ‘war’ had begun in earnest in 1698, when the government of King William III passed the Piracy Act, allowing pirates to be captured by English ships and tried in Vice-Admiralty courts out at sea, rather than having to be brought back home to account for their crimes. The courts – which had been set up to deal with maritime matters in England’s colonies – had no jury, and justice was swift.
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However, catching the pirates in the first place was often a problem. As the result of peace treaties stemming from conflicts such as the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), the Royal Navy had been significantly reduced in size, and didn’t have the resources needed to deal with the issue effectively. They therefore sought the assistance of professional pirate hunters, who would spend their time scouring the seas looking for the swashbuckling thieves.
One of the pirates’ worst enemies was the famed naval captain and explorer Woodes Rogers, who was appointed royal governor of the Bahamas in 1718. Unlike some of his predecessors, who had turned a blind eye to piracy, Rogers was determined to stamp out the activity altogether. Heading up a new, lawful administration in the area, he saw that the worst culprits were publicly hanged, and helped rid Nassau, Providence Island, of its so-called ‘pirate republic’.
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Thanks to a new piece of legislation signed by King George I, Rogers also made the offer of royal pardons if pirates agreed to surrender. While this didn’t always work (some pirates accepted the pardons and simply returned to their old ways), one such offender that took up the offer was Benjamin Hornigold. Despite a formidable pirate CV, the ex-criminal hung up his sword and joined Rogers’ crusade, successfully hunting down many of his old partners in crime.
The trials of pirates were eagerly anticipated, and their most notorious acts were reported in newspapers. Through sensational prose, those in the dock were often portrayed as heroic outlaws, not unlike the highwaymen of the day. But without access to a defence counsel, the accused had no choice but to defend themselves – no mean feat, given that many pirates had a limited education and would have been unable to argue their cases effectively. Instead, they usually had three options: claim to have been drunk at the time of the alleged offence; claim that they had been forced into piracy; or simply to not speak at all.
For condemned pirates who were tried in London, rather than overseas, their final destination was typically Execution Dock, near the shoreline at Wapping. The prisoner would be transported from either Marshalsea or Newgate prison in a procession, led by an officer carrying a silver oar symbolising the Admiralty’s authority. Once the Thames was at low tide, gallows would be constructed on the mudflats, where crowds of spectators would jostle for the best view. But unlike most criminals, pirates would be hanged with a short rope, meaning they had to face the agony of slowly being strangled to death rather than having their neck snapped in an instant.
Once the pirate was dead, their body would be left in the gallows until at least three tides had passed over it, before being transferred to an iron gibbet, where it would be displayed as a warning to fellow criminals. Sometimes the corpse would also be coated in a layer of tar so that it didn’t decompose too quickly – a truly gruesome spectacle.
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However, the London executions paled in comparison to some of the show trials and mass executions of the era. These occasions, with a festival-like atmosphere, were a source of entertainment for the crowds, and demonstrated both the strength of the Royal Navy and the king’s authority.
One of the most notable mass executions took place in 1718, when 22 people who had served on board the ship of wealthy ‘Gentleman Pirate’ Stede Bonnet were hanged in Charlestown (now Charleston) in the Province of South Carolina. A similar incident took place five years later, when English pirate Charles Harris was hanged alongside 25 of his crew in Newport, Rhode Island.
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But arguably the most famous mass execution in pirate history was that of the crew of the late Bartholomew Roberts in 1722. Although 17 were spared the gallows and were sentenced to prison, 52 men were hanged at Cape Coast Castle in what is now Ghana. With this final show of justice, the golden age of piracy was now at an end.
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This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.