A Brief History of Pirates

Written by historians at history4everyone.wordpress.com

Ask someone their image of a pirate and they are likely to describe someone in eighteenth-century dress, peg-legged, hook-handed, parrot-shouldered, and speaking something resembling English, though laced with profanities and frequent “arrrghs.” Like many caricatures, this one contains a germ of truth, but it is inadequate and misleading as an accurate characterization of piracy as a historical phenomenon.

Piracy is as old as maritime commerce. The ancient Greeks and Romans complained bitterly of the plunder of their seaborne shipping by pirates, and the situation deteriorated so badly that the Roman proconsul Pompey marshaled a fleet of sixty warships in 67 B.C. to clear the pirate league of Cilicia from southern Anatolia. In later centuries, Maltese corsairs and the Barbary pirates, based on the north African coast, would wreak havoc with shipping (the latter would not see their influence diminish until the early 1800’s when American marines would venture to “the shores of Tripoli” to stop their depredations). But although the Mediterranean seemed especially infested with pirates other areas of the globe were not immune to that scourge as well. The waters around China, Japan, and India were also dangerous, and seaborne pilgrims bound for the port of Jidda and ultimately, Mecca, were vulnerable too. Neither the western nor eastern coasts of Africa was safe, and pirates established a permanent presence on the island of Madagascar.

Perhaps the greatest spur to piracy, however, came when Europeans began to colonize and exploit the indigenous peoples and natural resources of the new world. Spain was the first power to really establish itself there, and its principal rivals — England, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal — simply lacked the administrative, financial, and military means simultaneously to protect their interests in home waters and dislodge the Spanish (or each other) from positions of influence thousands of miles away. As a result, they practiced what historian Peter Earle has called “piratical imperialism,” relying upon privately financed and outfitted ships to harry their opponents. Distinct from their countries’ armed services, these private ships, or privateers, could operate, in time of war, under a legal umbrella provided by their host government (often a letter of marque), authorizing them to destroy the shipping of the enemy. In fact, European states routinely turned a blind eye toward the actions of their privateers in peace, such as Queen Elizabeth’s failure to sanction Sir Francis Drake’s accumulation of Spanish treasure in the period before open war erupted in 1585. Investors who financed voyages expected a return on their money, so the temptation to plunder could prove hard for a crew to resist. In principle, there would have been a distinction between privateering and piracy, but in practice the line was blurred, if not invisible on occasion.

As the Atlantic empires expanded, settlements grew and trade increased, and merchantmen laden with treasure, supplies, or slaves offered tempting targets in the commercial war waged by European rivals. In this struggle, the battleground, par excellence, would be the Caribbean. There were several reasons for this: much of the rich traffic from the Americas passed through the area on its eastward passage, the forces with which European states could maintain order and protect shipping were stretched extremely thin here, and the region offered numerous small islands, inlets, and harbors in which pirates could take refuge, refit their ships, and replenish their stores. For example, French pirates used the thinly-populated island of Hispaniola, hunting wild cattle and preparing a sort of sun-dried beef jerky on a “boucan” (hence “boucaniers” or “buccaneers.”)

The peak of pirate activity, the so-called “golden age of piracy,” ran from roughly 1650-1730. This was a period of frequent, yet intermittent, warfare among the European states that afforded ample opportunities for privateers, but threatened them with the prospect that their predatory actions, ostensibly legal at one moment, might be condemned as piracy at the next. How many pirates were there? Estimates range from anywhere between 2,500 and 5,000 active at any one time, so we are talking about a relatively small number of men (and a handful of women) who made such an indelible mark upon their contemporaries and upon our popular consciousness.

How did people become pirates? Going “a-pyrating” or “on the account,” as it was called, usually happened in one of two ways. Either crew-members of a merchant ship mutinied, disposed of their officers, and turned to a life of nautical crime, or sailors on a prize captured by pirates elected (or, in rarer cases, were forced) to join with the pirates. In most cases, it was men in their twenties and thirties, and from the lower ranks of the social hierarchy, who joined.

Why would they become pirates? The answer lies in the arduous conditions seamen routinely endured and the contrasts that pirate life appeared to offer. Of course, any sailor, pirate or not, could not escape the constant, exhausting physical labor required to keep the wooden ships, their rigging, and canvas sails seaworthy, or to reach their destinations. But pirates could choose when and where to put to sea, and to spend a greater time at leisure. Likewise, discipline on merchant ships was usually harsh, and sometimes ferocious, as autocratic captains could torment their crews with arbitrary orders and physical and verbal abuse. Food aboard ship might be inadequate or nearly inedible, while alcohol, if available, would be strictly rationed.

Life as a pirate beckoned as an escape from these harsh realities, as the closest the downtrodden sailors might come to tasting freedom. Pirate crews operated on an egalitarian, democratic basis, electing their own captains and quartermasters, and allocating equal shares of plunder to each member of the crew. Captains only exercised absolute authority in battle, and could be removed from their positions in favor of another. When pirates captured a prize, they interrogated the crew to determine whether the ship’s master was kind or cruel, and meted out leniency or punishment accordingly (the “distribution of justice”). Pirate crews themselves were composed of individuals from a wide variety of national and racial origins, and they functioned together effectively in ways that contrasted sharply with the societies around them. They pioneered a form of health insurance, specifying payments to crew members for the loss of fingers, limbs, and eyes. Perhaps it is no wonder that in some quarters pirates have been viewed as little more than unruly ruffians, “Robin-Hoods of the sea,” early proponents of a counter-culture wedded to a merry life.

“A merry life and a short one,” was how Bartholomew Roberts, the most destructive pirate of them all, described what awaited those who chose to go “a pyrating.” The average pirate’s career lasted between one and two years, and it was so short because it was so brutal. Pirates were maritime thieves, who routinely tortured and killed innocent people, destroyed private property, and desecrated churches and other sacred space. If opposed, they promised “no quarter” (a merciless fight to the death if necessary), and they would reap what they sowed. Piracy wasn’t a career in which one partook for a year or two and made enough money to retire and settle comfortably in the countryside. Governments might occasionally offer pardons, though it was a matter of dispute among pirates just how genuine such offers really were,, and anyway the lure of treasure or memories of companionship were enough to tempt many wavering pirates back to their predatory life.

For the most part, though, they could expect the full weight of the law, and (increasingly) sufficient military force to be mobilized against them. No pirate ship could stand up to the greater firepower and disciplined gunnery of naval vessels. The Black Pearl of Disney fame is somewhat out of character, for pirate ships rarely carried too many cannon. Pirates did not want to destroy their prizes by shooting them to pieces; they preferred to intimidate their victims into surrender or, failing that, to pull along side and board them, where the pirates’ telling superiority in numbers and ferocity would make short work of the opponent. Once the European states (especially England) set out to exterminate piracy, the outlook was not so merry: a pirate could anticipate death in battle or to be hanged in a public spectacle.

The most commonly cited exception to this rule is a name familiar to rum-drinkers, Henry Morgan. Morgan, an obscure Welshman, distinguished himself as a privateer in the West Indies in the 1660’s, but rose to fame by leading an expedition through the jungle to sack the Spanish city of Panama in 1671 (six months after the official end of Anglo-Spanish hostilities). Although Morgan’s men were disappointed that the treasure taken amounted to less than they had expected (the Spanish, alerted to his raid, had prudently moved much of it), leading to accusations that he had cheated them, Morgan was able to retire, accept a knighthood, and die peacefully in 1687. He did so in large part because he protected himself with written authorization (however dubious) from the Governor of Jamaica. He never, therefore, under English law at least, crossed the boundary from privateering to piracy.

Another famous name was not much of a pirate either. William Kidd was a privateer who did cross the line into piracy, but as a commander he lacked Henry Morgan’s ability and flair for leadership. He also chose the wrong friends. In 1696, Kidd persuaded wealthy Whig politicians in England to underwrite his voyage to the Indian Ocean to hunt for pirates. Once there, his crew was more interested in capturing rich prizes, and Kidd himself made no effort to capture pirates, instead joining with them on occasion and looting what few ships he could catch. When Kidd returned from his voyage (astonishingly, he thought his transgressions would be ignored), he was arrested as evidence of the English government’s tough new stance against piracy, and his former Whig allies, now displaced from power by the Tories, were in no position to help him. Kidd was tried, convicted and hanged in 1701.

If it is “true” pirates one is after, then it is to Edward Teach and Bartholomew Roberts that one should look. Teach, better known as Blackbeard” was a fearsome, brutal character known for stuffing slow-burning fuses in his beard, creating a terrifying black halo of smoke around his head. He and his sea-going gang terrorized the coastline of South Carolina and North Carolina, even blockading the port of Charleston. Finally, in November 1718, two sloops commissioned by the Governor of Virginia and manned by sailors of the Royal Navy (their own ships could not sail into shallow water after Blackbeard) caught Teach’s ship, the “Adventure,” off Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. although most of Teach’s crew were drunk, they fought fiercely and held the upper hand until a ruse by Lieutenant Maynard (keeping his men in hiding, leading the pirates to suppose that they had been killed) turned the tables. Blackbeard himself was killed and his head mounted on the bowsprit of one of the victorious vessels.

Four years later, it was Roberts’ turn. Pirate activity reached a peak in the wake of the prolonged bout of warfare that had ended in 1714. Depressed postwar economic conditions and thousands of laid-off seamen made it easier for pirates to recruit new members, and no pirate captain was as effective as Bartholomew Roberts. Cruising mainly off the west African coast, he took more than 400 prizes. His skill seemed superior to whatever merchant captains or the Royal navy could offer. But Captain Ogle and the fifty-gun H.M.S. Swallow tracked down Roberts off the coast of what is now Gabon in February 1722, and the pirates were no match for naval firepower. Roberts, who wore a flamboyant crimson waistcoat and pants for the occasion, was killed by a blast of grapeshot in the throat, and his adoring crew tossed his body overboard so the British could not make a spectacle and display it. The pirates tried, but failed, to ignite their ship’s powder magazine, and the battle ended without the loss of a single British sailor. And with it ended the golden age of piracy; unless, of course, we are talking about Hollywood box-office receipts, in which case it has just begun.

Want to learn more about Pirate ships? Check out this website about The Wydah, originally a 300 ton galley slave ship constructed in London in 1715, that was captured in 1717 by pirate Captain “Black Sam” Bellamy. Unfortunately, a fierce storm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the same year (1717) sank the ship, along with Bellamy and most of his crew of 146 men. With the efforts of a former school teacher, Barry Clifford, more than 100,000 artifacts of the slave/pirate ship have now been recovered. http://www.whydah.com as well as

Perhaps you would prefer to take a pirate adventure on the open seas with your children? Check out these websites for some exciting learning experiences:

Chesapeake Pirates Adventure http://www.chesapeakepirates.com

Watermark Pirates of the Chesapeake (Annapolis, MD) http://www.watermarkcruises.com/cruisesPirate.htm

Pirates of Lewes Expeditions (Lewes, DE) http://www.piratesoflewesexpeditions.com

Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise (Clearwater, FL) http://www.originalpiratecruise.com

Pirate Websites and Books
Pirate Websites
http://www.piratesoul.com [Pirate Museum in Key West, Florida]
http://www.piratemuseum.com[New England Pirate Museum]
http://www.mariner.org [Mariner Museum in Newport News, Virginia]
http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk [including information on famous
women pirates found in the Age of Exploration

For Children:

John Matthews, Pirates (Simon and Schuster, 2006); a scrapbook
with everything from a sample treasure map to a mini book of
pirate slang.
Dugald Steer, Pirateology (Candlewick Press, 2006) [for grades three
and higher]; lavishly illustrated fictional journey of Captain
William Lubber as he tracks a female pirate in 1723.

For Adults:


Amy Crawford, “The Gentleman Pirate: How Stede Bonnet went from wealthy landowner to villain on the sea, ” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/issues/2007/august/pirates.php


David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag (Random House, 1996); a
fine general survey by a former curator of Britain’s National
Maritime Museum.

__________., Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens,
Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives (Random House, 2007)

Alexander O. Exquemelin, Buccaneers of America (Dover, 2000);
originally published in Dutch in 1678; a pioneering account
of the wave of piracy in the Caribbean in the 17th century, which
was highlighted by Henry Morgan’s sack of Panama in 1671.

Peter Earle, The Pirate Wars (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006); covers
250 years of piracy, contrasting the myth of seafaring Robin
Hoods with the reality of pirates’ short and bloody lives.

Charles Johnson, General History of the Robberies and Murders of
the Most Notorious Pirates (originally published in 1724;
reprinted Lyons Press, 2002); a series of biographical chapters
on famous pirates based on eyewitness accounts and trial records
upon which all subsequent historians have relied.

Angus Konstam, Blackbeard (Wiley, 2006); based in part on
maritime archeology, an interesting biography of the notorious
Edward Teach.

__________., Piracy: The Complete History (Osprey, 2008)

Edward Kritzler, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom and Revenge (Doubleday, 2008)

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations (Beacon, 2004); a summary
of twenty years research and reflection by the foremost academic
historian of piracy.

Robert Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates
(Harvard, reprint 2005); written by a history professor, the book
uses the career of Captain Kidd to explore a wide range of
interesting questions about pirate life.

Colin Woodard, The Republic of Pirates (Harcourt, 2007)

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