(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 European 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:
Fiction set in the Golden Age of Piracy include:
Anime and Manga
- Astérix: A Running Gag of the series is that Asterix and the Obelix will encounter the pirates at one point in every album and beat them up. The pirates are so scared of them that they actually rather sink their ship by themselves beforehand than face them.
- Barbe Rouge: A comic strip series about Red Beard, the legendary pirate, set in the 17th century.
- Nero: A regular cast member is Abraham Tuizentfloot, a dwarf who is a complete Cloud Cuckoolander and thinks, dresses, talks and acts like he's a pirate. He attacks everybody with his sword, though he doesn't own a ship and can't even swim.
- Suske en Wiske: The albums De Geverniste Zeerovers, De Kleppende Klipper and De Regenboogprinses are pirate themed stories.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Princess Bride and its film adaptation feature the Dread Pirate Roberts as a main character. Like many historical pirates, he cultivates a fearsome reputation so people are more likely to give up their belongings quickly.
- 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.