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History Cat Lessons: Creative and Engaging

Pirates of the Caribbean

​The Golden Age of Piracy

 

Ahoy Mateys! Get ready to shove off on an adventure of organized robbery, democracy, and government sabotage. Wait, what? Yes it's true. Though these words usually don't come to mind when you think of the Golden Age of Piracy, the truth of the matter is that pirates were just bank robbers on the open water. An interesting lot. So interesting that despite their brief dominance (around 1650-1726), pirates have had an enormous cultural impact. The historian has to ask: how did a bunch of disorganized criminals on sailboats inspire so many movies, literature, and Halloween costumes?

 

While many factors contributed to the rise of piracy, the main cause of this particular breed of criminal behavior can be traced back to colonialism. Yeah, big shocker, right? I mean, how could colonialism, a system based around subduing a distant population of foreigners, lead to a hatred of the local populace towards these far away lawmakers? /sarcasm

In the 1500s, Spain ruled the oceans and were the first to establish colonies in America and the Caribbean. They were cruel overlords by any standard and built up a ton of resentment. Often their strategy involved killing natives, building plantations, and shipping a bunch of deserters, slaves, prisoners, and refugees to these isolated territories to do punishing labor. Essentially, Spain wanted to extract as many resources from these colonies as possible. Human life was as much a commodity as cotton -- and arguably cheaper.

 

Many of the people who arrived in these territories were unable to return to their homeland for fear of prosecution, but couldn't find work in these foreign lands because nobody can compete with slave labor. So they had to live off the land. Many of them were taught survival skills by the remnants of an indigenous Caribbean tribe, called the Arawaks who, surprise, also hated the Spanish. From this mutual resentment, these bands of vagabondes united against their common foe and, from the secret backing of England, who wanted to wage a proxy war against Spain, started attacking and plundering Spanish ships and settlements. This particular group of pirates were called buccaneers.

 

Over time, lack of arms and training allowed Spain to overwhelm the buccaneers. But a precedent was set and the ingredients for piracy still persisted. International trade was booming in the late 1600s. European powers had all established trading ports throughout the globe, but these holdings were distant and difficult to police. Along these trade routes, goods of great value were shipped, and it was really expensive for countries to provide armed escorts. It was only a matter of time before piracy exploded again.

 

Seeing all this potential for plundered wealth wealth, a pirate would be licking his chops. There's just one major problem: where to sell the stolen goods? Heavy penalties were enacted in Europe for the trading of stolen goods, after all. Well, thanks to the rise of the American colonies (USA! USA!), a viable black market emerged. Wouldn't you know it, Americans also didn't care for their colonial overlords, the English.

And then, thrown into this growing blaze was the conclusion of the Spanish War of Succession. This was a major war, no doubt, with lots of European players vying for great wealth.

 

But the details are pretty darn boring, and besides the point. The important thing to know is that during this 13 year war, privateers in the navy weren't allowed to leave their ships, at all, even while docked, for fear that they'd desert. Being on a ship for that long must have been unbearable.

 

But at the war's conclusion, these sailors were unceremoniously discharged. Those who couldn't find work chose to use their skills in the only way they knew how that could still earn them a living: piracy. And why not? If their country didn't have the decency to take care of their veterans, why should they feel any allegiance? This careless and pitiless act ended up biting Europe in the proverbial ass and costing them incredible sums of money.

 

Piracy exploded, and at the worst possible time. European navies, having just fired their crews, had mostly recruits to protect their valuables and defend the vast distances of ocean. Amazingly, despite a huge spike in pirate activity, between 1715 and 1717 only one pirate ship was captured. ONE! Insurance on merchant ships rose so swiftly it almost caused the entire collapse of international trade.

Seeing all this potential for plundered wealth wealth, a pirate would be licking his chops. There's just one major problem: where to sell the stolen goods? Heavy penalties were enacted in Europe for the trading of stolen goods, after all. Well, thanks to the rise of the American colonies (USA! USA!), a viable black market emerged. Wouldn't you know it, Americans also didn't care for their colonial overlords, the English.

 

And then, thrown into this growing blaze was the conclusion of the Spanish War of Succession. This was a major war, no doubt, with lots of European players vying for great wealth. But the details are pretty darn boring, and besides the point. The important thing to know is that during this 13 year war, privateers in the navy weren't allowed to leave their ships, at all, even while docked, for fear that they'd desert. Being on a ship for that long must have been unbearable.

 

But at the war's conclusion, these sailors were unceremoniously discharged. Those who couldn't find work chose to use their skills in the only way they knew how that could still earn them a living: piracy. And why not? If their country didn't have the decency to take care of their veterans, why should they feel any allegiance? This careless and pitiless act ended up biting Europe in the proverbial ass and costing them incredible sums of money.

 

Piracy exploded, and at the worst possible time. European navies, having just fired their crews, had mostly recruits to protect their valuables and defend the vast distances of ocean. Amazingly, despite a huge spike in pirate activity, between 1715 and 1717 only one pirate ship was captured. ONE! Insurance on merchant ships rose so swiftly it almost caused the entire collapse of international trade.

In the 1500s, Spain ruled the oceans and were the first to establish colonies in America and the Caribbean. They were cruel overlords by any standard and built up a ton of resentment. Often their strategy involved killing natives, building plantations, and shipping a bunch of deserters, slaves, prisoners, and refugees to these isolated territories to do punishing labor. Essentially, Spain wanted to extract as many resources from these colonies as possible. Human life was as much a commodity as cotton -- and arguably cheaper.

 

Many of the people who arrived in these territories were unable to return to their homeland for fear of prosecution, but couldn't find work in these foreign lands because nobody can compete with slave labor. So they had to live off the land. Many of them were taught survival skills by the remnants of an indigenous Caribbean tribe, called the Arawaks who, surprise, also hated the Spanish. From this mutual resentment, these bands of vagabondes united against their common foe and, from the secret backing of England, who wanted to wage a proxy war against Spain, started attacking and plundering Spanish ships and settlements. This particular group of pirates were called buccaneers.

 

Over time, lack of arms and training allowed Spain to overwhelm the buccaneers. But a precedent was set and the ingredients for piracy still persisted. International trade was booming in the late 1600s. European powers had all established trading ports throughout the globe, but these holdings were distant and difficult to police. Along these trade routes, goods of great value were shipped, and it was really expensive for countries to provide armed escorts. It was only a matter of time before piracy exploded again.

While it took some time for Europe to organize itself and defend its trading routes, eventually they did and stories like Blackbeard's demise became more and more common.

 

King George I of England, in particular, took aggressive action against pirates by enacting the Piracy Act. While the crime of piracy had always been punishable by death, it took some expense and time to bring a pirate back to the country of his captor, have him tried, and then executed. King George cut through all that and gave every official in the British Empire the authority to prosecute and execute a pirate -- these officials were granted the power of Judge Dredd in other words.

But King George was a pretty shrewd fellow. He knew that if pirates were boxed into a corner they would fight even harder. So in addition to an increase in capital punishment, he installed an incorruptible governor, Woodes Rogers, at the pirate haven of the Bahamas, and had him issue a decree stating that any pirate who swore to never again engage in piracy would be pardoned. Moreover, Governor Rogers paid pirates to hunt other pirates. For good measure, George also sent a fleet of warships to the Caribbean.

 

All these ingredients lead to the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, and by 1727 its effect on global trade was negligible.

---

Initially, piracy was more about governments trying to get one over on their colonial competitors as much as anything else. Sure, you had infamous criminals like Blackbeard and William "Captain" Kidd who went freelance and started robbing shipping vessels for their own profit. However, much of the work of pirates (at least at first) was done with the secret blessing of one of the European powers. You see, ever since Columbus made a claim to the New World and the conquistadors began hauling Aztec and Incan gold back to Spain by the boatload, other European countries like France, England, and the Netherlands were trying to figure out a way to get their share.

One way was to simply intercept Spanish ships as they made their way across the Caribbean and relieve them of their melted-down Indian treasures. Most European countries were not willing to risk an open war to do this (that would be uncivilized) so they hired sailors (called Buccaneers or Privateers) who were in need of work and didn't mind the danger. And so the Golden Age of Piracy (government endorsed piracy, that is) began. For as long as there have been ships transporting valuable cargo (a.k.a. booty), there have been pirates. But the kind of pirates people typically imagine -- uncivilized, wearing a tricorn hat, a bird perched on his shoulder, and mouthing such colorful phrases as XX -- dominated the world's seas and during a period known as the Golden Age of Piracy.

So, what happened to all of that Spanish treasure? Well, it certainly didn't get buried on a desert island full of monkeys that's for sure. Pirates had heavily armed forts located on various islands throughout the Caribbean. During the Golden Age, the British town of Port Royal (in Jamaica) became a haven for pirates (driving out most of the law abiding citizens). The treasure would be split between the government that hired them and then equally amongst the crew. If pirates went freelance, they kept 100% of the profits for themselves. (But then there was that nasty hanging business).

So, if piracy was so successful why did it come to an end? In the 1700s, the French, English, and Dutch all had colonies in the Americas. Piracy threatened their trade across the Atlantic and so the great powers of Europe became less tolerant of pirates. Most pirates were pardoned if they agreed to end their activities. The most infamous, like Captain Kidd and Blackbeard, were hunted down and executed. What can we say. It was a haaard life.

 

Real pirates looked more like everyday sailors, like Captain William Kidd. After all if they went around dressed like Jack Sparrow it wouldn't be too hard for the authorities to pick them out of crowd.

Because of its small size and speed, the sloop became the favorite
ship of pirates.
Conquest. Pirate Weapons
Port Royal Jamaica-
the "Wickedest City"
on Earth

In the 21st Century, Port Royal, Jamaica is the hangout for sun worshippers and beach bunnies. But in the 17th Century it was so over run by pirates that even the British government abandoned it. Port Royal became infamous for its seedy pubs, street ladies, and lawlessness. That is until a 1692 earthquake sent a chunk of the island to the bottom of the sea.

 

 

 

Nearly all Pirates stole their ships.

 

GTA...

18th century-style

Black Beard

Edward Teach isn't a name that is likely to strike fear into the hearts of ones enemies. When Teach turned to piracy in the 18th Century he carefully began crafting himself as the face of terror.  Teach was unusually tall. But his most intimadting feature was his thick beard that he braided into pigtails. (how cute). But when he needed to turn on the pirate charm he would tie  in fuses into his scruff and light them on fire.

 

Teach was instantly transformed into what eyewitness described as  "such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from hell to look more frightful."

 

Well Played, Teach, Well Played

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