While piratical activity has stretched back to antiquity, it was in the early modern period (1500-1800 AD) that the craft saw the emergence of its golden era. Catalyzed by Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World and then fuelled by a trading arms race to establish and exploit its vast riches by numerous world powers, pirates ruled the seas of the Caribbean and Americas with an iron fist for a number of decades. Their activities not only had serious financial implications for the region and the powers competing for dominance (primarily the Spanish, English, French and Dutch), but also sculpted the geopolitical landscape, with settlements, ports and trade routes changing hands on a frequent basis.
Pirates emerged from the privateers of the 16th century, who roamed the New World looking for riches and adventure, often on behalf of a national backer (see ‘Pirate trade’ boxout). Opportunities for fame and fortune were in abundance and men from across the globe travelled to explore this dynamic new region en masse. Indeed, the scale of this new territory was immense, with everything from the top of modern-day North America down through the Caribbean and on to the northerly coast of South America literally up for grabs to whomever held the biggest gun.
This fact, along with a wider pattern of Western inter-nation conflict (largely between protestant and catholic nations) generated a level of war and lawlessness that had not been seen for hundreds of years. Constructed settlements were frequently razed to the ground, ports were completely ransacked and massive naval battles were commonplace. Any territory that was held by a nation was done so at knifepoint and often on a razor’s edge due to the scarcity of troops and difficulty in sourcing replacements from across the Atlantic Ocean. In many respects, as is common in the human pursuit of power and wealth, chaos reigned supreme.
Out of this chaos the Golden Age of Piracy was born, a period of 80 years lasting from 1650 to 1730 where every nation, every settlement and every trade route was at severe danger from being attacked by one of many infamous and brutal pirate lords. These included many of the men (and women; see the ‘Famous pirates’ boxout) that today represent the entire profession, celebrated and revered in both literature and film. Pirates such as Edward Teach, commonly referred to as ‘Blackbeard’, Jack Rackham, known by reputation as ‘Calico Jack’ and Bartholomew Roberts, who through his violent and cruel deeds acquired the nickname ‘Black Bart’.
Importantly though, these figures were far from the melodramatic, larger-than-life characters more often than not presented in fiction. They were opportunistic and ruthless robbers, slavers and murderers, who wrought death and destruction wherever they went – Henry Morgan and his crew, for example, single-handedly burnt down and decimated Panama City, while Edward Low once burnt a French prisoner alive on a spit.
The Golden Age of Piracy came to an end arguably due to the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 – a series of peace treaties between Spain, France, Britain, Portugal and the United Provinces – which, due to the ceasing of major warfare between nations, allowed many more military vessels and trained crewmen to be imported into the Caribbean. This, along with the total outlawing of piracy, led to the vast majority of pirates to be captured and executed, or outright killed in battle.
- Contrary to popular belief, most pirates lived by strict rules. Here are a few examples
- Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, and may use them at pleasure.
- Every man to be called fairly in turn, on board of prizes. But if they defraud the company to the value of a dollar… marooning is their punishment.
- No person to game at cards or dice for money.
- The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour, still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck.
- No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol.
- No boy or woman to be allowed among them. If any man be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he is to suffer death.
- Desert the ship or quarters in battle is punished with death or marooning.
- To keep their piece, pistols and cutlass clean and fit for service.
- No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds.
- The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.
The explosion of valuable goods in and out of the New World generated the vast majority of piratical activity of the period.
Catalyzed by Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492, the Caribbean and the wider Americas as a whole became an area of intensive trade and exploitation, with the West’s major powers each vying to establish themselves in the region.
The Spanish were the first to make significant inroads in the area, being granted the Spanish Main by the pope in 1493. This huge area allowed them to establish numerous large trading ports and settlements including Panama, Cartagena, Santiago and Santo Domingo. From this dominant position, by the 1550s the Spanish were exporting vast quantities of silver, which fuelled their powerful empire. Further, this head start enabled them to deeply integrate the ports of the New World into their world trade routes.
Despite the majority of the New World being under Spanish control in the early to mid-i6th century, due to its epic scale and vast distance from Spain, the country struggled to protect its new assets, leading to rival nations such as Britain, France and Holland gaining footholds. In addition, after news spread of the staggering quantities of valuable goods being carried across the Atlantic – as well as the general lawlessness of the area – piratical activities grew exponentially.
Interestingly this new pirate trade was initially legal, with notable military commanders and apolitical privateers hired to disrupt and loot trade routes, ports and settlements under an enemy’s control. Henry Morgan is probably the most famous example of this practice, with the British crown granting him free licence to ransack and pillage the Spanish Main without consequence. Indeed, Morgan’s efforts were so highly regarded, they earned him a knighthood and he was made governor of Jamaica.
By the mid to late-16th century, however, this game of one-upmanship had catalyzed a new breed and culture of exploitative piracy, with rogue individuals commanding large fleets of ships that could rival those used by national navies. With limited policing powers and the establishment of several pirate havens such as Tortuga, a golden era of piracy had begun and would remain unchecked until the 1730s.
The countries that brought about both the dawn and the demise of pirates:
England – The English, despite the Treaty of Tordesillas, quickly established numerous colonies throughout the West Indies, building a substantial presence in Barbados and Jamaica. During the Golden Age of Piracy, Port Royal, Jamaica, became a popular base for both English and Dutch-sponsored privateers and many pirates even used the islands to launch attacks.
Spain – After the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, the majority of the Americas had been decreed by Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI to belong to Spain. Assuch,bythemid-i6th century, Spain had created the Spanish Main, a New World empire that included everything from present-day Florida, down through Central America and on to the north coast of South America.
France – The French rapidly tried to establish themselves in the New World, building bases on the islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint Barthelemy. Famously though, they took control of the island of Tortuga in 1660, which was to become a privateer and pirate haven, hosting such notable figures as Henry Morgan, who used the island to recruit new crew members.
Holland - From the 17th century onwards, the island of Curacao was the equivalent of the English port at Barbados for the Dutch. It was a large settlement with a host of fortifications from which to defend the region. In addition, Dutch forces established additional bases on the islands of St Eustatius and St Martin, which became hubs of the sugar and slave trade.
Top 5 pirates facts
The one that got away – The only pirate to have survived with his loot was Henry Avery, who is famous for capturing the Mogul ship Ganj-i-Sawai. He vanished in 1696, with conflicting reports of his final destination.
Buried – The cliche of pirates burying treasure comes from William Kidd’s testimony before his execution that he had buried his vast looted fortune in an undisclosed location.
The women – Two of the most well-known pirates of all time were Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two women who took part in numerous brutal raids along with ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham.
Romanticism – The Golden Age of Piracy was romanticized in the 19th century in classic literature like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and J M Barrie’s Peter Pan.
Decline – After the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, a host of skilled sailors flooded into the Caribbean to swell the navies. This was a key factor that ended the age of pirates.