Investigation Of Piracy In The Early Modern Period

The Atlantic and the Americas, and especially the West Indies, were, during the nearly two-century period spanning from the mid-1500s to the early 1700s, highly contested spaces, vacillating between various major European powers, and which experienced consistent conflicts, wars, and rivalries, treaties, and truces, which all in effect rendered the region politically, economically, and socially unstable. This instability, while detrimental to those same powers, proved fortunate for those “unsanctioned sea-raiders” who engaged in the always dangerous business of piracy, pillaging, plundering, smuggling, and generally harassing European ships at sea and settlements on land. They were hostis humani generis: enemies of all mankind. The catachrestic – deriving from ‘catachresis,’ meaning ‘the use of a word in an incorrect way’ – phrase, is, in the words of Matthew Tindall, from his Essay Concerning the Law of Nations (1694), “neither a Definition, or as much as a Description of a Pirat, but a Rhetorical invective” used to show the “Odiousness” of these buccaneers, at war with all the world, and is made catachrestic in the sense that it is an expression partially grounded in hyperbole, “a designation that is more literary than literal. ” The assessment following will attempt to examine piracy in the early modern period, centering on the Americas and the Caribbean, as well as investigate both the effects of piracy on social, economic, and political spheres of various European empires and American communities, and the purposes or functions that such an enterprise served as would reason why, despite disruption of “atlantic commerce, including slave trade, by plundering ships and stealing profits,” pirates would be welcomed and enjoy co-operation in some regions, while being persecuted and shunned in others.

Contraband slave trading was a cornerstone of the economic roles played by piracy, especially in the years between 1558 and 1578 during the reign of Elizabeth I. Slaves were principal commodities, and in the latter half of the sixteenth century, the Portugese appeared to hold a monopoly on the especially lucrative trade. One notable example of an English pirate making a profit from this enterprise is found in the case of John Hawkins, who weighed anchor and put to sea from Plymouth in October of 1562 with three small vessels directed towards the Canary Islands and then onwards to the West African coast, where he would raid for slaves. While Hawkins, a member of a prominent West Country merchant family, would claim that he and his men had sacked and attacked African settlements on the coast, in truth he had instead stolen some three hundred slaves from the Portugese and gone to sell them along the northern coast of Hispaniola; he followed a similar plan, though this time actually travelling to the African coast, in a second voyage wherein he captured around four hundred African slaves before embarking for the Caribbean to seek his fortune.

This was one of many means by which pirates could improve relations, or rather, encourage acceptance of their presence in various regions. It appeared then that so long as they could obtain slaves, officials of colonial communities such as Virginia, Jamaica, and South Carolina would support certain piratical endeavors and be willing to harbor them. Trafficking of human beings was as “profitable as it was barbaric,” with “only the gold trade yielding higher returns. ” But the economic functions of these pirates was not limited to their contributions to Atlantic slave trading systems. Theirs was as much a business of the acquisition of illicit goods as of illicit people. In the year 1651, the English government passed a series of Navigation Acts with the goal to limit colonial trade in the American colonies to English vessels sailing from English ports, thereby bolstering English trade. The opposite, however, occurred, and colonial trade and commerce was stifled by these restrictive acts which were “so severe that discourages all people” whereby there was created a “large black market of goods” for which colonists were driven to illicit trade with pirates and smugglers who would deal in such merchandise in exchange for goods, protection, and monetary gain. Thus it was that “to suppress pirates” was effectively “to suppress the influx of desirably foreign commodities. ”

Colonial proprietors in the Americas, despite possible condemnation of piracy in public, would condone such practices in private, especially when there was presented an opportunity for financial gain and returns on the investments they made when embarking on the risky endeavor that was colonization. Therefore when pirates entered their domains carrying booty, so long as a portion of that revenue found its way into their own coffers these officials would often look the other way. Not only would officials turn a blind eye to simple trading and dealings with pirates, but they would seemingly also overlook the brutality those buccaneers utilized as a means to their ends, so long as those said officials reaped some adequate monetary benefit. Referring to the cruel tactics of one Samuel Moseley, Reverend William Hubbard writes: “we see the Thief who steals the public Property tolerated by some, because he has stopped their Mouths with a Portion of the Plunder!”

Despite potential economic benefits, there proliferated arguments such as that piracy would “like a Consumption weaken and ruin the whole body of trade insensibly, but as surely and mortally as the force of any just enemy in a lawful war. ” Efforts to eradicate piracy were renewed in the later part of the seventeenth century, as political views of piracy began to shift. However to understand this, one must first know who or what pirates were in they eyes of the law. A legal definition of piracy and conviction of piracy is as follows: “All Treasons, Felonies, Piracies, Roberies, Murthers, or Confederacies committed upon the Sea, or in any Haven, or Bay, where the Admiral hath Jurisdiction, shall be inquired, tried, and adjudged within this Island as if such offence had been committed upon the Land. ” As was stated earlier on, pirates were seen to be enemies of all mankind, a label that designated them not just as adversaries, not merely as criminals, but firmly as monsters. In this last half of the century, the “so-called peace” with Spain was exceedingly fragile in Europe, but “beyond the line” in the Americas and the Caribbean, it was being significantly fractured, in part by the actions of a pirate by the name of Christopher Myngs, who not only raided Cumana, Puerto Cabello, and Coro in 1659, led a raid against Santiago de Cuba in 1662, one which damaged Spanish morale and strained diplomatic relations in Europe, but also led an expedition that resulted in the taking hostage of the western Yucatan port of Campeche, which only served to do further damage and resulted in Spain sawing Charles II of England for an end to the hostilities.

The campaign for the genuine and complete eradication of piracy in the Americas was, politically, a means by which the English could legitimize their control in the Caribbean and reinforce the Crown’s rule and its sovereignty over the colonies. However, in some cases, even when private colonies did reluctantly begin passing “arbitrary piracy acts,” many of them were filled “with so many caveats and loopholes” as to render them futile and pointless. Not all anti-piracy endeavours were fruitless, however. Following the denouncement of pirates by the English King George I, a commission was granted in 1718 for a privately financed mission, led by former South Sea privateer Governor Woodes Rogers, who in his time was responsible for the capture and execution of a number of “alleged sea-robbers,” including the notorious Charles Vane, captain of the Ranger, whom Woodes chased for a period of two years before he was finally captured and hanged in Port Royal in March of 1720. The presence of the Royal Navy in the Caribbean was bolstered by the 1698 Act for the Effectual Suppression of Piracy, which also served to expand Admirality jurisdiction to colonial plantations, essentially changing the ways by which alleged pirates were tried and convicted. For instance, they no longer needed to be transported back to England to face judgement, which now became a more localised affair. In addition, while procedures for trying pirates had changed, so too had the number of people tried for such crimes, as now, anyone who “knowingly entertained, concealed, traded, or corresponded with a pirate would be named a pirate and face the same consequences as those actually active upon the sea;” this new ruling came about in an attempt to “curb the widespread allegiances merchants and businessmen created” with those accused of piracy.

Regardless of how ruling and governing officials felt, the pubic was fascinated by pirates and their “audacious exploits;” “the crueler and more outlandish the deeds the better. ” Even when in London a pirate or a group of pirates were executed – as they were often done in groups – the spectacle could draw massive crowds of “hundreds, if not thousands. ” Still, the age of piracy in the early modern Americas and the Caribbean, whether golden or not, was nearing its end. Recurrent conflicts in the Caribbean and the Americas meant irregular patterns of activity for the pirates of the West Indies. The War of the Spanish Succession, for a time, presented an opportunity for some employment to what buccaneers remained, and even offered a return to “semi-legitimacy” as privateers. However, when the war ended, the absorbed pirates-turned-privateers reverted into privateers-turned-pirates as they were left without work, and thus a new cycle of piracy appeared inevitable. However the stars of this “last siginificant buccaneer episode” in the 1710s and 1720s would come in the form of the “quasi-anarchistic Anglo-American freebooters. ” Partly in response to the wreck of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1715, the Bahamas experienced a new influx of vast numbers of pirates over the next three years. One estimate, given by Marcus Rediker, approximates that some five thousand sailed American and Caribbean waters from 1716 to 1726, with perhaps one to two thousand active “at any given time. ” The “average pirate[s],” were, based on several samples of pirate crews from the 1710s and 20s, low-status, unmarried Anglo-American males with experience in merchant marines, privateering missions, or royal navy, and was an average of 27 years old.

In attempting to describe these ‘freebooters’ Kris E. Lane argues that “to call them ‘anarchistic marauders’ […] is perhaps unfair to anarchists, but the term does reflect their disdain for hierarchical government and authority in general. ” Among these sea-faring rogues can be found some of the most notorious and presently well-known names in the history of piracy: Stede Bonnet, the Gentleman Pirate, Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, John “Calico Jack” Rackham, Charles Vane, Benjamin Hornigold, and Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard, captain of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Teach was a famously cruel and unsual pirate captain, known for his theatrical tendencies, including the habit of wearing slow-burning fuses, or charges, in his twisted, dreadlocked hair. Upon his death following a battle near Ocracoke Inlet in North Carolina on 22 November 1718, the pirate’s killers, namely Lieutenant Maynard of the Royal Navy, sailed their ship with Blackbeard’s severed head hanging from the bowsprit of their sloop, as a public show of their defeat of the infamous vagabond. Additionally, included among this list of prominent figures were two of the only four or five female pirates in early modern history, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Both Bonny and Read sailed with the crew of Jack Rackham, and were cross-dressers by necessity, as having women on board a ship was considered bad luck by some superstitious sailors. The story of these two remarkable women appeared first in Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates in 1724. It was the print culture to which this work belonged which “vividly exposed to readers the extent of violence that was common” among pirates operating in the “peripheries of the empire. ” As times changed, so did views of pirates and piracy, and eventually, these buccaneers began to appear “more like thieves and less like potential allies;” more like barbaric villains than exciting rogues.

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, pirates harassed Spanish and Portugese fleets and coastal settlements, as well as English, French, Dutch, and Danish for around two and a half centuries after 1500. Where at one time the Caribbean islands had been a hotbed for piracy, a haven, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the same region in time became a hotbed of execution, as local governors acquired new authority to confront the “pirate problem” in the West Indies and northwards. It is estimated that somewhere between four-hundred and five-hundred-odd pirates (of varying nationalities) were executed by English colonial authorities alone between 1716 and 1726, during the last true cycle of piracy in the early modern Atlantic. Despite the social, economic, and political functions they served, and the contributions they may have made, “official policy” had now turned fully against pirates; for the victims of men such as Bartholomew Roberts, Edward Teach, and Charles Vane, “pirates were vermin, not heroes. ”


  1. Rebecca A. Simon, “The Problem and Potential of Piracy: Legal Changes and Emerging Ideas of Colonial Autonomy in the Early Modern British Atlantic, 1670-1730,” Journal of Maritime Research 18, no. 2 (2016): pp. 123-137, p. 130 [accessed 3 February 2018]
  2. Kris E. Lane, Pillaging the Empire: Global Piracy on the High Seas, 1500-1750 (New York: Routledge, 2016) p. 2
  3. Jody Greene, “Hostis Humani Generis,” Critical Inquiry 34, no. 4 (2008): pp. 683-705, p. 683-692 [accessed 1 February 2018]
  4. Jon Sensbach, Review of The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, in The Journals of American History 89, no. 1 (2002): pp. 202-203, p. 202 [accessed 6 February 2018]
  5. Mark G. Hanna, Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740 (University of North Carolina Press, 2015): pp. 144-182, p. 150 – PDF from MOODLE
  6. Claire S. Schen, “Piracy in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean,” The Atlantic in Global History, 1500-2000, ed. by Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra and Erik R. Seeman (New York: Routledge, 2016): pp. 149-160, p. 155
  7. Kris Lane, Review of Patterns of Pillage: A Geography of Caribbean-Based Piracy in Spanish America, 1536-1718 by Peter R. Galvin, in The William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 4 (1999): pp. 828-830, p. 829 [accessed 5 February 2018]
10 December 2020
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