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Golden Age of Piracy

Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration

Golden Age of Piracy > Introduction

Golden Age of Piracy

Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.

Jean Rostand, Thoughts of a Biologist (1938)


There were many factors that contributed to the Golden Age of Piracy in the late 17th and early 18th century, including a rise in the quantities of valuable cargo being transported across the vast Atlantic Ocean. Coupled with the fact that most of the major colonial empires of the time; the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Danish, Portuguese and many others were at war in Europe and did not have the men or ships to effectively govern any of their colonial territories at the time created an atmosphere of little to no law or authority. This led to experienced sailors and privateers taking advantage of a ripe opportunity to take over valuable cargo without risking a rapid colonial response.

The Golden Age of Piracy was a era in which the occupation of piracy flourished like no other time before in history. Pirates and privateers alike in this time period were able to amass massive fortunes and virtually halt trade in the West Indies. The Golden Age of Piracy can be sub-divided into four major eras, the Privateering Era in the 16th century, the Buccaneering Era in the 17th century, the Pirate Round of the late 17th and 18th centuries and finally the infamous Post Spanish Succession Period of the 18th century during which piracy reached its peak and resulted in many of the famous pirates we know today such as Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach.

Criminals or Liberals?

Despite what popular culture and the movies portray, the Golden Age of Piracy encompasses so much more than the exploits of a few sea rovers. While the pirates were called pirates by the Royal powers that be they were also useful as massive privateer armies during the many wars of Europe. In addition to this while the pirates committed their acts on the scale of individual merchant ships or maybe blockading or bombarding cities, the royal powers were engaged in the wholesale trade of slavery as well as the decimation and plundering of entire ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.

It is hard to tell who is the actual criminal in this context as the Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors along with the royal elite of all empires are largely guilty of far worse crimes than all of the pirates of all eras all collected in the same bar in Port Royal put together. Its also hard to say the Mesoamerican civilizations that they decimated were much better either, the Aztec being guilty of mass enslavement and mass human sacrifice themselves and the Inca providing the template for the Spanish encomienda system.

In actuality the pirates were champions of freedom, democracy and individual rights in an era of tyranny and oppression. Their exploits and stories provided a spark of rebellion that would reverberate through the ages of time and help influence the young Patriots of the American Revolution which led to the expulsion of all colonial powers from the New World throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. While the history books would have you think of the period of colonialism as simple and linear, the truth is one cannot examine any aspect of the 15th through 19th centuries without engaging the dimensions of piracy and privateering.


The trade of piracy is nothing that was invented during the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries and in fact the origins of pirates go much further back into ancient history. Wherever there have been long and unprotected trade routes there will be pirates, brigands, bandits and highwaymen to prey on the lightly guarded merchants traveling along. Weather this was the Silk Road or the sea trade of the Mediterranean there have always been ancient pirates to prey on the unsuspecting.

Yet the Golden Age of Piracy is different because it is a unique period in history following the development of the Age of Sail and occurred mostly concurrently with the Age of Exploration and Age of Colonialism. What is unique about this era is that people generally do not think of most of the privateers as pirates but thats exactly what they were. A privateer without a Letter of Marque was a pirate and a pirate could become a privateer simply by having a piece of paper signed by a colonial governor. Pardons were handed out all the time in the Golden Age and the pirates who were usually famous were the ones who brazenly defied them.

Famous explorers and privateers such as Francis Drake did not have any real authority to plunder Spanish towns and treasure shipments and while viewed in England as a national hero was seen in Spain as nothing more than a pirate. The pirates simply swore allegiance to themselves and issued their own Letters of Marque via the Pirate Code.

The Golden Age of Piracy involved the mass and widespread development of both privateers and pirates, sometimes culminating in entire buccaneer armies that laid siege to Spanish cities in the New World known as the Spanish Main. However, the reason the era of piracy is not mentioned as much as other aspects is not because of its impact on the development of the New World. Most of the lack of solid and cohesive information related to pirates is because it was their culture to not keep records, to not document every incident and most of all to give misleading information to the royal authorities and merchants they did meet so it could all be confusing at trial.

The pirates were not a literate bunch and there are only a few known primary source accounts. A lot of information comes from royal court documents and other merchant accounts but some of the pirates were never caught or never even desired to be caught by the crown. Overall trying to understand the pirates is a world caught between fact and fiction, one we aim to dissect as much as possible in order to understand the true history of the pirates of the Caribbean.

It must also be noted the Golden Age of Piracy is so aptly named because this was not a European phenomenon. All around the world piracy erupted during this era due to the massive explosion of colonial trade and the oppression of the people in the various colonies around the world. From the Barbary Corsairs to the massive Chinese pirate fleets under Ching Shih, between the 16th and 18th centuries the pirates ruled the high seas and even established their own pirate republics around the world which really threatened the global imperial structure the royal elite had going on. There are many given reasons for why piracy flourished during this period, most having to do with the geography and conditions of the time.

Main Factors

The main factors as given by Charles Johnson in his primary source account, A General History of Pyrates are an excess of small, uninhabited islands with harbors for safe storage and repair of ships. These islands often contained fresh water and food, so pirates could live on them for many years before being detected. Pirates eventually went on to establish many successful Locations at Tortuga, Port Royal and Nassau along with others around the world such as at Madagascar.

Golden Age of Piracy - Triangle Trade Routes

Transatlantic Triangle Trade Routes

A second reason the pirates succeeded so well was the massive levels of commerce that were occurring in the region through the development of the Triangular Transatlantic Slave Trade, which became a prime target for piracy. These ships carried valuable trade goods, weapons, food, and clothing. This trade route operated between Africa, the Caribbean and Europe and developed heavily in the 18th century, around the same time the pirates came about in full force. Ships would sail from Europe to Africa to purchase slaves. Then they would sail to the Caribbean to sell the slaves and bring goods such as sugar, rum, slaves, cocoa and tobacco back to Europe. You can learn more about the economics of piracy here.

Portuguese (white) and Spanish (blue) Treasure Fleet Routes

Portuguese (white) & Spanish (blue) Treasure Fleet Routes

A third reason is that the small islands and many inlets of the Caribbean provided a perfect means to escape and hide from the massive British Man-o-War and Spanish Galleons who were hindered much more than the nimble pirate ships by the rocky geography. Finding a pirate who did not want to be found in the secluded coves and harbors of the many Caribbean islands was near impossible in the late 1600's and early 1700's. Pirates were highly successful until the European navies grew in strength enough to combat the pirates and either convert or execute all of the ones left in the Caribbean.

Privateering Era

Buccaneering Era

The Pirate Round

Post Spanish Succession Period

Most Successful Pirates

Pirate Estimated Wealth Years Operated Pirate Haven
John Taylor $400 million Madagascar
Henry Every $150 million Madagascar
Samuel Bellamy $120 million Nassau
Francis Drake $115 million World
Thomas Tew $103 million Madagascar
Bartholomew Roberts $40 million Atlantic
Henry Morgan $13 million Port Royal
Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach $12.5 million Nassau
Howell Davis $4.5 million Nassau
Stede Bonnet $4.5 million Nassau
Charles Vane $2.3 million Nassau
'Calico' Jack Rackham $1.5 million Nassau


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Forbes - Top Earning Pirates

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