Golden Age of Piracy

Golden Age of Piracy

The Golden Age of Piracy is the common designation given the period roughly spanning from the 1650s to the 1720s. The decade of 1715–1725 experienced a substantial increase in the number of pirates operating throughout the Caribbean, the American coast, the Indian Ocean, and the western coast of Africa. It is also from this period that the modern conception of pirates as depicted in popular culture is derived.

During the early 18th century, many European and colonial American sailors and privateers found themselves unemployed. Factors contributing to piracy included the rise in quantities of valuable cargoes being shipped to Europe over vast ocean areas, reduced European navies in certain regions, the training and experience that many sailors had gained as conscripts in European navies (particularly the Royal Navy), and ineffective government in European overseas colonies.


Some historians mark the beginning of the Golden Age of Piracy at around 1650, when the end of the Wars of Religion allowed European countries to resume the development of their colonial empires. This involved considerable seaborne trade, and a general economic improvement: there was money to be made—or stolen—and much of it traveled by ship.

In 1713, a succession of peace treaties was signed, known as the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession (also called 'Queen Anne's War'). With the end of this conflict, thousands of seamen, including Britain's paramilitary privateers, were relieved of military duty. The result was a large number of trained, idle sailors at a time when the cross-Atlantic colonial shipping trade was beginning to boom. In addition, Europeans who had been pushed by unemployment to become sailors and soldiers involved in slaving were often enthusiastic to abandon that profession and turn to pirating, giving pirate captains for many years a constant pool of trained European recruits to be found in west African waters and coasts.

Triangular trade

Trafficking on shipping lanes between Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe began to soar in the 18th century, a model that was known as triangular trade, and was a rich target for piracy. Trade ships sailed from Europe to the African coast, trading manufactured goods and weapons for slaves. The traders would then sail to the Caribbean to sell the slaves, and return to Europe with goods such as sugar and cocoa.

As part of the war's settlement, Britain obtained the "asiento", a Spanish government contract, to supply slaves to Spain's new world colonies, providing British traders and smugglers more access to the traditionally closed Spanish markets in America. This arrangement also contributed heavily to the spread of piracy across the western Atlantic at this time. Shipping to the colonies boomed simultaneously with the flood of skilled mariners after the war. Merchant shippers used the surplus of sailors' labor to drive wages down, cutting corners to maximize their profits, and creating unsavory conditions aboard their vessels. Merchant sailors suffered from mortality rates as high or higher than the slaves being transported (Rediker, 2004). Living conditions were so poor that many sailors began to prefer a freer existence as a pirate. The increased volume of shipping traffic also could sustain a large body of brigands preying upon it.

Pirates of the era

Many of the most well known pirates in historical lore originate from this Golden Age of Piracy.

*Stede Bonnet, a rich Barbadian land owner, turned pirate solely in search of adventure. Bonnet captained a 10-gun sloop, famously named the "Revenge". Primarily raiding ships off the Virginia coast in 1717, he was caught and hanged for piracy in 1718.
*Edward Teach, more commonly known as Blackbeard, ruled the seas with an iron fist from 1716 to 1718. Blackbeard's most famous ship was the "Queen Anne's Revenge", in response to the end of Queen Anne's War. Blackbeard was killed by one of Lieutenant Robert Maynard's crewmen in 1718.
*"Black Sam" Bellamy, captain of the "Whydah Gally", sunk in 1717 in a storm.
*Bartholomew Roberts, sometimes called "Black Bart", was one of the most successful and colourful pirates of the day. He was killed off the coast of Africa in 1722.
*Edward Low, active 1721–1724, who was notorious for torturing his victims before killing them.
*William Fly, whose execution in 1726 is used by historian Marcus Rediker to mark the end of the Golden Age of Pirates.
*Calico Jack Rackham, who was captured in 1720, then hanged, and gibbeted outside Port Royal, Jamaica.

Female pirates

Women entered the career of piracy as well (most usually disguised as men). Two of the best-known female pirates were Calico Jack Rackham's cohorts, Anne Bonney (also sometimes spelled Bonny) and Mary Read.

Bonney grew up ferocious, and, unable to leave an earlier marriage, eloped with Rackham, with whom she was in love. Mary Read had been dressed as a boy all her life by her mother, and had spent time in the British military. She came to the West Indies (Caribbean) after the death of her husband, and fell in with Calico Jack and Anne Bonney. Fact|date=September 2008

When their ship was assaulted, the two women were the only ones that defended their ship. The other crew members were too drunk to fight. In the end they were captured and arrested. Fact|date=September 2008

After their capture, both women stalled their death sentences (the punishment for piracy) by claiming to be pregnant; however, Read died of a fever in jail and Bonney's fate remains unknown. Fact|date=September 2008


* Rediker, Marcus. "Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age". Beacon Press: Boston (2004).

External links

* [ Paul Gilbert, "Historiography of the Golden Era of Anglo-American Piracy in the Atlantic 1680–1730"]
* [ "The Golden Age of Piracy" from The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society]
* [ Cindy Vallar, "The Golden Age of Piracy"]
* [ A short history of the Golden Age of Piracy]
* [ The UnMuseum, "The Golden Age of Piracy"]
* [ History of Piracy]

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