The Golden Age of Piracy is a common designation given to usually one or more outbursts of piracy in the maritime history of the early modern period. In its broadest accepted definition, the Golden Age of Piracy spans the 1650s to the late 1720s and covers three separate outbursts of piracy:
Narrower definitions of the Golden Age sometimes exclude the first or second periods, but most include at least some portion of the third. The modern conception of pirates as depicted in popular culture is derived largely, although not always accurately, from the Golden Age of Piracy.
Factors contributing to piracy during the Golden Age 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 in European navies (particularly the Royal Navy), and ineffective government in European overseas colonies. The colonial powers at the time constantly fought with pirates and engaged in several notable battles and other related events.
The oldest known literary mention of a "Golden Age" of piracy is from 1894, when the Swedish journalist George Powell wrote about "what appears to have been the golden age of piracy up to the last decade of the seventeenth century." Powell uses the phrase while reviewing Charles Leslie's A New and Exact History of Jamaica, then over 150 years old, and refers mostly to such 1660s events as Henry Morgan's attacks on Maracaibo and Portobelo and Bartolomeu Português's famous escape. Powell uses the phrase only once.
In 1897, a more systematic use of the phrase "Golden Age of Piracy" was introduced by historian John Fiske, who wrote: "At no other time in the world's history has the business of piracy thriven so greatly as in the seventeenth century and the first part of the eighteenth. Its golden age may be said to have extended from about 1650 to about 1720." Fiske included the activities of the Barbary corsairs and East Asian pirates in this "Golden Age," noting that "as these Mussulman pirates and those of Eastern Asia were as busily at work in the seventeenth century as at any other time, their case does not impair my statement that the age of the buccaneers was the Golden Age of piracy."
Pirate historians of the first half of the 20th century occasionally adopted Fiske's term "Golden Age," without necessarily following his beginning and ending dates for it. The most expansive definition of an age of piracy was that of Patrick Pringle, who wrote in 1951 that "the most flourishing era in the history of piracy ... began in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and ended in the second decade of the eighteenth century." This idea starkly contradicted Fiske, who had hotly denied that such Elizabethan figures as Drake were pirates.
Of recent definitions, Pringle appears to have the widest range, an exception to an overall trend among historians from 1909 until the 1990s, toward narrowing the Golden Age. As early as 1924, Philip Gosse described piracy as being at its height "from 1680 until 1730." In his highly popular 1978 book The Pirates for TimeLife's The Seafarers series, Douglas Botting defined the Golden Age as lasting "barely 30 years, starting at the close of the 17th Century and ending in the first quarter of the 18th." Botting's definition was closely followed by Frank Sherry in 1986. In a 1989 academic article, Professor Marcus Rediker defined the Golden Age as lasting only from 1716 to 1726.Angus Konstam in 1998, reckoned the era as lasting from 1700 until 1730.
Perhaps the ultimate step in restricting the Golden Age was in Konstam's 2005 The History of Pirates, in which he retreated from his own earlier definition, called a 1690-1730 definition of the Golden Age "generous," and concluded that "The worst of these pirate excesses was limited to an eight-year period, from 1714 until 1722, so the true Golden Age cannot even be called a 'golden decade.'"
Rediker, in 2004, described the most complex definition of the Golden Age to date. He proposes a "golden age of piracy, which spanned the period from roughly 1650 to 1730", which he subdivides into three distinct "generations": the buccaneers of 1650-1680, the Indian Ocean pirates of the 1690s, and the pirates of the years 1716-1726.
Piracy arose out of, and mirrored on a smaller scale, the conflicts over trade and colonization among the rival European powers of the time, including the empires of Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and France. Most of these pirates were of Welsh, English, Dutch and French origin.
Historians, such as John Fiske, 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.
French buccaneers had established themselves on northern Hispaniola as early as 1625, but lived at first mostly as hunters rather than robbers; their transition to full-time piracy was gradual and motivated in part by Spanish efforts to wipe out both the buccaneers and the prey animals on which they depended. The buccaneers' migration from Hispaniola's mainland to the more defensible offshore island of Tortuga limited their resources and accelerated their piratical raids. According to Alexandre Exquemelin, a buccaneer and historian who remains a major source on this period, the Tortuga buccaneer Pierre Le Grand pioneered the settlers' attacks on galleons making the return voyage to Spain.
The growth of buccaneering on Tortuga was augmented by the English capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655. The early English governors of Jamaica freely granted letters of marque to Tortuga buccaneers and to their own countrymen, while the growth of Port Royal provided these raiders with a far more profitable and enjoyable place to sell their booty. In the 1660s, the new French governor of Tortuga, Bertrand d'Ogeron, similarly provided privateering commissions both to his own colonists and to English cutthroats from Port Royal. These conditions brought Caribbean buccaneering to its zenith.
A number of factors caused Anglo-American pirates, some of whom had cut their teeth during the buccaneering period, to look beyond the Caribbean for treasure as the 1690s began. The fall of Britain's Stuart period had restored the traditional enmity between Britain and France, thus ending the profitable collaboration between English Jamaica and French Tortuga. The devastation of Port Royal by an earthquake in 1692 further reduced the Caribbean's attractions by destroying the pirates' chief market for fenced plunder. Caribbean colonial governors began to discard the traditional policy of "no peace beyond the Line", under which it was understood that war would continue (and thus letters of marque would be granted) in the Caribbean regardless of peace treaties signed in Europe; henceforth, commissions would be granted only in wartime, and their limitations would be strictly enforced. Furthermore, much of the Spanish Main had simply been exhausted; Maracaibo alone had been sacked three times between 1667 and 1678, while Río de la Hacha had been raided five times and Tolú eight.
At the same time, England's less-favored colonies, including Bermuda, New York, and Rhode Island, had become cash-starved by the Navigation Acts. Merchants and governors eager for coin were willing to overlook and even underwrite pirate voyages; one colonial official defended a pirate because he thought it "very harsh to hang people that brings in gold to these provinces". Although some of these pirates operating out of New England and the Middle Colonies targeted Spain's more remote Pacific coast colonies well into the 1690s and beyond, the Indian Ocean was a richer and more tempting target. India's economic output dwarfed Europe's during this time, especially in high-value luxury goods such as silk and calico, which made ideal pirate booty; at the same time, no powerful navies plied the Indian Ocean, leaving both local shipping and the various East India companies' vessels vulnerable to attack. This set the stage for the famous piracies of Thomas Tew, Henry Every, Robert Culliford, and (although his guilt remains controversial) William Kidd.
In 1713 and 1714 a series of peace treaties ended the War of the Spanish Succession. As a result, thousands of seamen, including Britain's paramilitary privateers, were relieved of military duty, at a time when 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 a steady pool of recruits in west African waters and coasts.
In 1715, pirates launched a major raid on Spanish divers trying to recover gold from a sunken treasure galleon near Florida. The nucleus of the pirate force was a group of English ex-privateers, all of whom would soon be enshrined in infamy: Henry Jennings, Charles Vane, Samuel Bellamy of Whydah Gally fame, Benjamin Hornigold, and Edward England. The attack was successful, but contrary to their expectations, the governor of Jamaica refused to allow Jennings and their cohorts to spend their loot on his island. With Kingston and the declining Port Royal closed to them, Hornigold, Jennings and their comrades founded a new pirate base at Nassau, on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, which had been abandoned during the war. Until the arrival of governor Woodes Rogers three years later, Nassau would be home for these pirates and their many recruits.
Shipping traffic between Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe began to soar in the 18th century, a model that was known as Triangular Transatlantic Slave 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, tobacco and cocoa. In another triangular trade route, ships would carry raw materials, preserved cod, and rum to Europe, where a portion of the cargo would be sold for manufactured goods, which (along with the remainder of the original load) were transported to the Caribbean, where they were exchanged for sugar and molasses, which (with some manufactured articles) were borne to New England. Ships in the triangular trade made money at each stop.
As part of the settlement of the War of Spanish Succession, Britain obtained the asiento, a Spanish government contract to supply slaves to Spain's new world colonies, which provided British traders and smugglers more access to formerly closed Spanish markets in America. This arrangement also contributed heavily to the spread of piracy across the western Atlantic. Shipping to the colonies boomed along with the flood of skilled mariners after the war. Merchant shippers used the surplus of labor to drive wages down, cut corners to maximize profits, and create unsavory conditions aboard their vessels. Merchant sailors suffered from mortality rates as high or higher than the slaves being transported. 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.
During this time, many of the pirates had originally been either sailors for the Royal Navy, privateersmen, or merchant seamen. Most pirates had experience living on the sea, and knew how harsh the conditions could be. Sailors for the king would often have very little to eat while out on the sea, and would end up sick, starving, and dying. That resulted in some sailors deserting the king and becoming pirates instead. This also allowed for pirates to better fight the navy. Unlike other seaman, pirates had strict rules for how they were to be treated on the ship. Unlike what many people think, captains did not have a dictatorship over the rest of the pirates on their ship. Captains had to be voted in, and there were strict rules for them to follow as well. The captain was not treated better (with more food, better living conditions, etc.) than the other members of the crew, and was to treat the crew with respect. This was because many merchant captains treated their crews terribly. Many pirates had formally served on these merchant ships and knew how horrid some captains could be. Because of this, all ships contained councils. These councils composed of all crew members on a given ship. Some councils were used daily to make decisions while other were used as a court system. Whatever the case, these pirates had as much power as the captain outside of battle. The captain only had full authority in times of battle and could be removed from this position if they showed cowardice in the face of the enemy. He was also to be bold in battle. The pirates did not want things to end up the same way as on a navy ship.
Many of the most well known pirates in historical lore originate from this Golden Age of Piracy.
While most pirates were men, there were at least fifty cases of women entering the career of piracy (usually disguised as men). The best known female pirates were Anne Bonny (also sometimes spelled Bonney) and Mary Read.
Bonny developed a notorious reputation in Nassau, and when she was unable to leave an earlier marriage, she eloped with her lover, Calico Jack Rackham. 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 leaving her husband, and she joined Calico Jack's crew after he attacked a ship she had been aboard. She divulged her sex only to Bonny at first, but revealed herself openly when accused by Rackham of having an affair with Bonny.
When their ship was assaulted in 1720, the two women and an unknown man were the only ones to defend it, the other crew members being too drunk to fight. In the end they were captured and arrested. After their capture both women were convicted of piracy and sentenced to death, but they stalled their executions by claiming to be pregnant. Read died in jail months later, many believe of a fever or complications of childbirth. Bonny disappeared from historical documents, and no record of her execution or a childbirth exist.
The Barbary pirates were pirates and privateers that operated from the North African (the "Barbary coast") ports of Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, Salé and ports in Morocco, preying on shipping in the western Mediterranean Sea from the time of the Crusades as well as on ships on their way to Asia around Africa until the early 19th century. The coastal villages and towns of Italy, Spain and Mediterranean islands were frequently attacked by them and long stretches of the Italian and Spanish coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants; since the 17th century, Barbary pirates occasionally entered the Atlantic and struck as far north as Iceland. According to Robert Davis, between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves in the Arab world between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Barbary pirates flourished in the early 17th century as new sailing rigs by Simon de Danser enabled North African raiders, for the first time, to brave the Atlantic as well as Mediterranean waters. More than 20,000 captives were said to be imprisoned in Algiers alone. The rich were allowed to redeem themselves, but the poor were condemned to slavery. Their masters would on occasion allow them to secure freedom by professing Islam. Many people of good social position - Italians, Spaniards, German and English travelers in the south - were captives for a time.
In 1627 Iceland was subject to raids known as the Turkish Abductions. Murat Reis is said to have taken 400 prisoners; 242 of the captives were later sold into slavery on the Barbary Coast. The pirates took only young people and those in good physical condition. All those offering resistance were killed, and the old people were gathered into a church, which was set on fire. Among those captured was Ólafur Egilsson, who was ransomed the next year and, upon returning to Iceland, wrote a slave narrative about his experience. Another famous captive from that raid was Guðríður Símonardóttir. The sack of Vestmannaeyjar is known in the history of Iceland as Tyrkjaránið.
One of the stereotypical features of a pirate in popular culture, the eye patch, dates back to the Arab pirate Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah, who wore it after losing an eye in battle in the 18th century.
Whilst the Golden Age of European and American pirates is generally considered to have ended between 1710 and 1730, the prosperity of the Barbary pirates continued until the early 19th century. Unlike the European powers, the young United States refused to pay tribute to the Barbary states and responded with the First Barbary War and the Second Barbary War against North Africa when the Barbary pirates captured and enslaved American sailors. Although the U.S. had only limited success in these wars, France and Great Britain with their more powerful navies soon followed suit and stamped out the Barbary raiders.
By the early 18th century, tolerance for privateers was wearing thin in all nations. After the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, the excess of trained sailors without employment was both a blessing and a curse for all pirates. Initially the surplus of men had caused the number of pirates to multiply significantly. This inevitably led to the pillaging of more ships, which put a greater strain on trade for all European nations. In response European nations bolstered their own navies to offer greater protection for merchants and to hunt down pirates. The excess of skilled sailors meant there was a large pool that could be recruited into national navies as well. Piracy was clearly on a strong decline by 1720. The Golden Age of Piracy did not last the decade.
The events of the latter half of 1718 represent a turning point in the history of piracy in the New World. Without a safe base and in the growing pressure from naval forces, the rovers lost their momentum. The lure of the Spanish treasures had faded, and the hunters gradually became the hunted. By early 1719, the remaining pirates were on the run. Most of them headed for West Africa, seizing poorly defended slavers.
Although some of the details are often misremembered, the effect upon popular culture of the Golden Age of Piracy can hardly be overstated. A General History of the Pirates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson is the prime source for the biographies of many well known pirates of the Golden Age, providing an extensive account of the period. In giving an almost mythical status to the more colourful characters such as the notorious English pirates Blackbeard and Calico Jack, it is likely that the author used considerable licence in his accounts of pirate conversations. In 2002, English naval historian David Cordingly wrote an introduction to Johnson's 1724 book, stating: "it has been said, and there seems no reason to question this, that Captain Johnson created the modern conception of pirates." Johnson's book would influence the pirate literature of Robert Louis Stevenson and J. M. Barrie. Such literary works as Stevenson's Treasure Island and Barrie's Peter Pan, while romanticized, drew heavily on pirates and piracy for their plots.
Various claims and speculation about their overall image, attire, fashion, dress code, etc. have been made and contributed to their fanciful mystery and lore. For example, men wore earrings as the value of the gold or silver earring was meant to pay for their burial if they were lost at sea and their body washed ashore. They were also worn for superstitious reasons, believing the precious metals had magical healing powers.
More recently, even less accurate depictions of historical-era pirates (e.g., Talk Like a Pirate Day) have advanced to the forefront. However, these phenomena have only served to advance the romantic image of piracy and its treasure-burying swashbucklers in popular culture.