(No, we're not talking about the days before the passage of the DMC Act
Gather round me hearties, and hear a tale of the days of Wooden Ships and Iron Men
, derring-do, and fortunes to be made upon the Spanish Main!
Or maybe not.
The Golden Age of Piracy was a period of Western history spanning roughly seventy years, between 1650 and 1720. Historians differ on exact dates, but this is a pretty good estimate of the time frame. This was by no means the first or the last outbreak of lawlessness upon the sea; wherever there are things of value going somewhere, there are thieves looking to steal it before it gets there, and there have been pirates almost as long as human beings have been transporting things over water. But the Golden Age is by far the most romanticized time in the history of piracy. When we think of swashbuckling adventure upon the high seas, we’re thinking of this time period. It was a time of colorful characters and high adventure. It was the time of Blackbeard
, of Anne Bonny
, and of Captain Kidd…and many, many others.
By the middle of the 17th Century, the religious conflicts that were touched off by the Protestant Reformation had died down, leaving European powers free to once again start developing their colonial empires in the New World. With this development came a new influx of goods and precious metals, and the establishment of a network of trade routes across the Atlantic Ocean. And where there were highways, there were highwaymen. These thieves were largely based in the Caribbean Sea, due to its convenience to the Spanish Main, and its abundance of islands and shoals, giving them plenty of hiding places from which to strike. Although initially just a nuisance to the bustling trans-Atlantic trade, as the Golden Age went on pirates became genuine threats, often bringing nations to the brink of war with their zany antics along maritime borders.
The Golden Age saw many major political developments that would shape world history to come: it saw the decline of Spain as a superpower, and the subsequent rise of England and France. It saw the beginnings of large-scale global commercial trade, and the birth of the first Mega Corp.
, the British East India Company. And, most significantly, it saw the dawn of the concept of a professional navy, as European nations grew wealthier and more powerful, and colonial empires became larger and separated by greater distances, necessitating a permanent defense force to keep the colonies safe and the profits rolling in.
It all began with the Buccaneers, French squatters on Hispaniola. When the Spanish began to reassert themselves on the island in the 1630s, the Buccaneers were driven off the main island and onto the neighboring islet of Tortuga. From there they began to launch raids on Spanish galleons and settlements, becoming the first wave of pirates of the Golden Age. The English - who already had a long and glorious tradition of using Privateers to harrass the Spanish at sea - soon got into the act as well, eventually getting so good at it that they captured Jamaica and turned it into an English colony.
After 1680, the Caribbean pirates began to branch out: the Spanish Main was running dry, and political developments back home in Europe brought about the end of the English Privateering tradition. Pirates began to sail far and wide, following shipping lanes to Africa and India, often pulling off spectacular raids and making names for themselves.
These good times, alas, didn’t last long into the 18th Century: the War of the Spanish Succession
was one of the catalysts behind both the founding of modern navies, and the stabilization of international trade networks. Where Privateers were once a Necessary Evil
for countries like England that didn't have a standing navy, now they were a nuisance and a hinderance to respectable overseas commerce. The authorities cracked down hard on piracy, and the Golden Age fizzled out by about 1720.
The Age itself, as well as the pirates that lived in it, are popular subjects of romanticization. To the popular imagination, a pirate is the epitome of the Rebel, the flamboyant, freedom-loving adventurer who travels to exotic climes, owes allegiance to no one, harasses The Man at every turn, gets rich doing it, and gets to come home every night to a pristine tropical beach where he can drink rum and make time with the ladies to his little black heart’s content. The reality, of course, was rather different.
Pirates of the Golden Age were, at heart, robbers and thieves. And since piracy was (and still is, in some places) a capital crime, they were often desperate men with nothing to lose. They wanted your cargo, and if they had to kill you to get it, well, too bad for you: they're already going to hang for piracy; a murder or two won't make a difference. And if you were lucky, they wouldn’t do unspeakable things
to you and your crew first. Some did adhere to a loose code of honor where they’d negotiate terms of surrender, or would leave crews largely unharmed if they didn’t resist, but this was by no means a hard and fast rule.
That being said, a surprising amount of the pirate tropes we have come to accept were Truth in Television
, and were established during this time period. Pirate ships were, on the whole, nicer places to live than legitimate merchant ships (“nicer” being a relative term on 18th-century sailing vessels). Pirate crews were more egalitarian: crews elected their captains, and could vote him out of office if they wanted. They could vote on targets or destinations. And they often got an equal share of the plunder. Some historians have actually made the argument that pirate ships should be considered the first functioning Western-style democracies in the Americas. Pirate captains did draw up their own codes of behavior, to keep discipline at sea. And yes, they did love their rum. As desperate men, pirates lived fast and hard, spending money on women and booze almost as fast as they made it
. That’s why we don’t find a lot of actual Buried Treasure
: why save your money when you could be hanging from a dock tomorrow?
Expect Golden-Age pirates to be the Rock Stars of their day: dashing, flamboyant, attractive in a dangerous kind of way. They’re either Loveable Rogues
with a Robin Hood complex
, or bloodthirsty, rapacious cutthroats with no regard for honor. The lasses are lusty, and often busty
. The authorities are zero-tolerance types
who wear powdered wigs (when they play a part in the story at all). And pirate treasure is always silver and gold; never mind all those practical things like citrus fruit and fresh water…
Drink up me hearties, Yo-Ho.
Tropes related to the Golden Age of Piracy include:
- Action Girl: Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
- Artifact Title: A “buccan” is a wooden frame used to smoke meat over an open fire, which is how the early Buccaneer poachers cooked what they caught. The word “buccaneer” has since become synonymous with pirates, even though it has nothing to do with piracy.
- Awesome McCoolname: Pirates chose their nicknames based on this, but some of them had pretty cool real names: Thomas Tew. Bartholomew Roberts. Henry Morgan.
- Bad Boss: Blackbeard had this reputation, said to kill or maim random crewmembers on a whim. But it's debatable how much of this is true, and how much was the work of a Genre Savvy pirate deliberately cultivating a monstrous image in order to scare victims into surrending without a fight. There's no hard historical evidence of him ever killing someone before his Last Stand.
- Badass Beard: Blackbeard would set his on fire.
- Battle Couple: Well, more like Battle Threesome: Anne Bonny, Mary Reade, and Calico Jack Rackham.
- Becoming the Mask: Arguably, what happened to William Kidd. Hired by the East India Company as a Privateer and pirate-hunter, he was soon accused of going rogue and turning pirate himself. There is some evidence that he was framed, and he himself professed his innocence until his death.
- Being Good Sucks: If you were an honest sailor, life at sea was still pretty hard. You had low wages with little to no chance of advancement, appalling working conditions, and commanding officers that often pushed you as hard as they could. Turning pirate couldn't make your situation much worse, really.
- Boring, but Practical: Your average pirate ship was a small, fast, maneuverable craft that could zip around shoals that larger ships couldn’t navigate. The big heavily-armed warships we see in the movies weren’t what most real pirates had; they were pretty much limited to whatever they could steal and hold on to. The heaviest ships pirates used tended to be converted merchantmen - Blackbeard's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, was such a ship.
- Buried Treasure: Very rare in real life. Pirates wanted to spend their ill-gotten gains, not squirrel them away. William Kidd was the only real-life pirate known to actually do this, and there have been many works of fiction dedicated to the search for his “lost treasure.”
- Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Black is the color most commonly associated with piracy in popular culture, and it is largely Truth in Television. Traditionally the color black was associated with "stateless" persons, like mercenaries or outlaws. And while there was no standard "pirate flag," banners adhered to a loose convention of being black with some kind of gruesome design (a skull, drops of blood, etc.) for intimidation purposes. What's not as well-remembered, however, was that the black flag was not the only one pirates used. There was also the red flag. If you were about to be attacked by a pirate ship, you prayed for the black flag. Black meant they would "give quarter," meaning they would accept terms of surrender or leave some of you alive. Red flag? No quarter. No prisoners. Kill or be killed.
- Cool Ship: The Ganj-i-Sawai, Mughal treasure galleon captured by Henry Every, the largest single haul ever netted by a pirate.
- Cutlass Between the Teeth: In reality, a good way to give yourself a tracheotomy.
- Deserted Island: There were still a few left during the Golden Age. Often hideouts for pirates on the run. Sometimes places to maroon mutineers.
- Determinator: Robert Maynard, the British Navy officer who hunted down and killed Blackbeard. Despite being outnumbered, outgunned, nearly wrecking one of his ships on a sandbar, losing many of his men and a few fingers in brutal hand-to-hand combat, he managed to bring the pirate down. And his reward was...being screwed out of the bounty by the governor of Virginia and fading into obscurity.
- The Dreaded: Pirates in general tried to be this whenever they could. Why fight your enemies if you can just scare them into surrendering? Blackbeard was a master of this: just hearing that he was about drove most captains to surrender.
- The Empire: Spain, its last days as such. At the same time, the British one was on the rise.
- End of an Age: Pirate historians generally consider the Golden Age to have ended in 1722, with the death of the last great pirate, Bartholomew Roberts.
- False Flag Operation: A common pirate tactic was a quite literal one of these. They got close to merchant vessels by flying the flag of a friendly nation. Then, when they were close enough, they ran up the black flag (or the red one).
- For the Evulz: Many pirates claimed this as their motivation, though it’s debatable how many actually believed it.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: Most pirates were relative nobodies, any of the thousands of ordinary seamen toiling away at dead-end jobs on merchant vessels, before turning pirate and becoming infamous, but perhaps the most literal case is that of Blackbeard. We know absolutely nothing about his origins or early life. First mention of Edward Teach was as a British Privateer during the War of the Spanish Succession, but "Edward Teach" was not the man's real name. It was an alias, possibly even a stolen identity. It's even possible that Blackbeard and Edward Teach were two completely different people. As far as the pages of history are concerned, Blackbeard simply did not exist until springing onto the scene fully realized sometime around 1716.
- Genre Savvy: Pirates were very image-conscious. Henry Morgan in particular played the part of the Gentleman Adventurer to the hilt, dressing impeccably and recruiting people by means of sheer charisma. Other pirates soon learned that “violence perceived is violence achieved,” and that cultivating the image of ruthlessness was just as effective at getting merchant ships to surrender without a fight as was actually being that ruthless. Of course, some of them really were that bad…
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: as well as Ambiguously Gay. The early Buccaneers were exclusively male, and lived closely together in communities, often sleeping in pairs in the same bed. Hmm…
- Historical Hero Upgrade: These guys were thieves and murderers, but darn it, they had so much style.
- Ho Yay: Lots of this, from the Buccaneers, and from Anne and Mary.
- I'm a Humanitarian: French pirate Francois L'Olonnais, who cut the heart out of a Spanish sailor and ate it in front of him. He himself was later killed and eaten by cannibal natives.
- Indy Ploy: On the way to Panama, Henry Morgan's ship gets caught in a storm and blows off course. They find themselves off the coast of Jamaica. Turn the ship around? Or try to take Jamaica instead? Well, we're already here, so...
- Insistent Terminology: We’re not pirates, we’re privateers! There is a difference! No, really!
- Karma Houdini: Most pirates were either captured and executed, or met their end in battle. Although, a few of them got away with it:
- Henry Morgan: rapacious privateer, terror of the Spanish Main. Plundered and pillaged Cuba and Panama. Captured Jamaica completely by accident. Was knighted for his actions and made governor of Jamaica. Died peacefully of old age. Got a pretty good rum named after him.
- Henry Every: orchestrated the most profitable single raid of the Golden Age. Got away with over half a million pounds, set Anglo-Indian foreign relations back about fifty years… then vanished from history.
- Anne Bonny: received a stay of execution due to her pregnancy. Then she and her baby disappeared from prison, mostly likely spirited away by her wealthy family to live a quiet life in the Carolinas. Mary Reade could fall into the same category, but only if you consider death in childbirth preferable to hanging.
- Karmic Death: Cannibal pirate Francois L'Olonnais was eaten by natives.
- Last Stand: Blackbeard's was pretty epic - he had only one small ship with mininal crew and almost managed to defeat two Royal Navy sloops whose total crew outnumbered his around 3:1. Blackbeard himself almost killed Lt. Maynard, the leader of the force sent to kill him (he broke Maynard's cutlass in one blow - something that's very hard to do in real life), and soaked up an incredible amount of damage before he finally fell dead (see Made of Iron).
- Jack Rackham, on the other hand, was taken without a fight; he and most of his crew were too drunk to put up any resistance.
- Miles Gloriosus: Calico Jack Rackham. He had the pirate image down, but he proved to be useless in a fight. When the authorities caught up with him, he just sat in his cabin and got drunk, while Anne and Mary did all the fighting for him.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In the 1680s, a treaty and a regime change brought an end to the long low-level war at sea between Spain and England, a war that had been going on so long that Privateering had become something of a tradition for English sailors. The treaty effectively ended that tradition. But instead of taking the blanket pardon the English offered and going straight, many Privateers elected to just go full-on pirate, kicking off the "Pirate Round" period, where they followed shipping lanes and took whatever ships and cargo they could, regardless of nationality. If they weren't going to be allowed to make trouble for Spain, then they would make trouble for everyone.
- Off with His Head!: How Blackbeard was finally killed; someone on Maynard’s ship actually brought a claymore with them.
- Outlaw: Pirates were technically considered to be "outside" the law, and therefore without citizenship, rights, or protection from any nation. The specific legal term for pirates was Hostis Humani Generis: "Enemy of All Mankind".
- Pirate: Well, duh.
- Pirate Girl: Anne Bonny and Mary Reade are the most famous ones, but there were more. Probably not as many as the movies would have you believe, though: most of them got in by disguising themselves as men.
- Pirate Booty: Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate. Indeed, most pirate hauls were practical items, like food and materials to repair ship damage. Molasses were highly valued (where do you think the pirates gets all their rum?). One of the items Blackbeard demanded during his blockade of Charleston was medicine for his pox-ridden crew.
- Pragmatic Villainy: Some pirates learned that showing mercy to captured crews was actually helpful: if a crew knew they’d be treated fairly, they might be more inclined to surrender, thus minimizing loss of life and collateral damage.
- Ragtag Band of Misfits: Your typical pirate crew. Individuals who became pirates could be anything from fugitive slaves, to disgruntled common sailors, to just bored young men looking for adventure and fortune.
- Rasputinian Death / Made of Iron: Blackbeard did not go down easy: he was shot at least five times and stabbed almost twenty times. And even then, legend has it that his headless corpse swam around the boat.
- Shrouded in Myth: the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship, was the holy grail for pirate historians, having been lost to time until its discovery in 1996.
- Still Fighting The Civil War: Henry Morgan's excuse for being caught raiding Spanish settlements after a treaty was signed between Spain and England was that nobody told him about it. Given the state of long-distance communications in the 17th Century, it wasn't such a farfetched claim, so the English believed him. More than likely, however, Henry Morgan just felt like going a-pirating and had a pretty good excuse up his sleeve just in case he got caught.
- Similar applies to Blackbeard: he used to be a privateer during Queen Anne's War and when it ended he was left without a job, so he turned to piracy, and even named his ship Queen Anne's Revenge as a Take That. Even so, just like in Morgan's case, it could have just been an attempt to justify his piracy by presenting it as "revenge".
- Straight Edge Evil: Bartholomew Roberts. He had a reputation as a teetotaler (considering these are 18th-Century English pirates we’re talking about, “teetotal” is a relative term), and the extant copies of his Code have some incongruously prudish-sounding provisions in them.
- Sweet Polly Oliver: Mary Reade lived as a man for most of her life, even serving in the British Navy as a cabin boy. Apparently she was so convincing that nobody realized she was a woman until Calico Jack Rackham asked this fiercely-fighting young seaman to join his crew.
- Sword and Gun: Firearms were still a relatively-new innovation and notoriously unreliable in wet-weather conditions, so keeping a melee weapon handy was just common sense. Your average pirate would go into battle festooned with single-shot flintlock pistols, both in case of misfire and to save reload time in a fight. Just fire one, drop it, pull another, and repeat until everyone's dead.
- Took a Level in Badass: England. During this time period, England went from a minor island nation with a "navy" consisting of a few converted merchant vessels, to Great Britain, a budding superpower who managed to wrest control of several key colonies and markets from Spain, and who would go on to pretty much rule the world.
- Treasure Map: See Buried Treasure; after all, if you buried your loot so no one could find it, why would you leave a written record of where it was?
- Values Dissonance: Merchant sailors on the notoriously crappy Atlantic Middle Passage often jumped ship to become pirates in order to have more personal freedom. Of course, that sentiment did not extend to their cargo of African slaves.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: English and French pirates during the Buccaneering period found out that working together to pick the Spanish Main clean was much more profitable than maintaining the age-old English-French feud. It helped that The House of Stuart was more friendly toward France than previous English monarchs. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, where the Stuarts were replaced by the Hanovers, was one of the many factors that brought an end to that cooperation and forced pirates to branch out.
- Wretched Hive: Several, Tortuga and Port Royal being the most famous. Port Royal so much so, that when an earthquake destroyed the city in 1692, most people just chalked it up to God being sick of the whole thing.
- The Spanish town of Trinidad also counts, since it was a notorious haven for smugglers.
- Newport, Rhode Island. Kind of the odd man out here, but back then it was perhaps the most notorious den of thieves in North America. The heavy tariffs England levied on its New World colonies were designed to keep any local economy from getting off the ground, so the industrious citizens of Newport found another source of income: becoming a safe haven for pirates on the run. For a reasonable fee, a pirate could hide from the authorities and fence his ill-gotten gains with impunity.
- Nassau in the Bahamas. In 1713 pirate captains Benjamin Hornigold and Thomas Barrow proclaimed it a "Pirate Republic" and appointed themselves as governors. Later they would be joined by Charles Vane, Calico Jack, and even Blackbeard. Some people consider the Nassau Republic to be the first attempt at a democratic state in the New World. It was short-lived, however, as in 1718 the British decided to retake control of the islands and proclaimed Woodes Rogers as royal governor. Rogers quickly drove out the pirate element, cleaned up the town, and rebuilt the fort.
- Your Pirates Are Our Privateers: It mostly depended on what side you were on.
Fiction set in the Golden Age of Piracy include:
Anime and Manga
- Far too many movies to list here comprehensively. The Golden Age of Piracy was a popular setting for adventure movies almost as long as movies have existed.
- Of course, the original Disneyland ride Pirates Of The Caribbean. The film series seems to take place either at the tail end of the Golden Age or a few years after it: piracy is almost completely wiped out in the Caribbean, the East India Company is on the rise, there's a George on the British throne, and Blackbeard has already died once.
- Treasure Island is quite possibly the Trope Maker for every pirate trope we have: uncharted desert island, buried treasure, treasure map, one-legged pirates, wisecracking parrots…you name it. The story is set just after the end of the Golden Age, circa 1740: all the great pirates are dead and gone. Only their legends remain…and of course the buried treasure.
- The Rafael Sabatini novel CaptainBlood and the film adaptation starring Errol Flynn.
- The Tintin stories The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure feature flashbacks to the Golden Age of Piracy, when Captain Haddock's ancestor Admiral Francis Haddock battled a pirate very similar to Calico Jack Rackham.
- Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton, set in the Caribbean during the reign of King Charles II
- On Stranger Tides: set during Blackbeard’s last days, around 1718, features many real-life pirates. And voodoo.
- The Doctor Who episode “Curse of the Black Spot” explains why Henry Every vanished from history: he and his son became space pirates!
- Black Sails is a prequel to Treasure Island, featuring Captain Flint's original crew, among them a young Long John Silver. It is set in the Bahamas during the time of the "Pirate Republic" of the 1710's, and features a good many actual historical pirates, including Charles Vane and Anne Bonny.
- Crossbones is an Alternate History series starring John Malkovich as Blackbeard who rather than being killed, faked his death and has lived out life in semi-retirement ruler of a pirate republic that begins to form a threat to the English crown.
- The Monkey Island series of video games (which in turn inspired the Pirates of the Caribbean movies)
- Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag takes place in 1715, with protagonist Edward Kenway as a pirate. Blackbeard, as well as other renowned pirates are characters in the game.
- Sid Meier’s Pirates! is, naturally, set during this time period, although it also allows you to play early in the 17th century. Spanish power is the general key to the difficult of the various time periods: in early 1600, Spain is very wealthy but very well protected, with the power waning as the wealth is maintained until the nadir in 1660 (the game's golden age of piracy). Starting in 1680 (Pirate's Sunset) is very difficult, as the four nations react poorly to piracy by sending fleets of pirate hunters and only very rarely offering clemency.