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Useful Notes / The Golden Age of Piracy

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Who Shall Be Captain? by Howard Pyle


(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 (with a rekindling during the early 19th century). 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 (particularly the Thirty Years' War) 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.

The Buccaneering Period (1650-1680)

It all began with the Buccaneers, French squatters on Hispaniola. For most of the first half of the 17th Century, Spain was preoccupied with war in Europe, which meant many of their Caribbean territories were allowed to go fallow. Hispaniola chief among them: taking advantage of the lack of any real regional authority (and the ready supply of feral pigs rampaging around the island), the Buccaneers made a good life for themselves as poachers and brigands. In the 1630's, with things in Europe having quieted down, the Spanish began to reassert their control over Hispaniola, driving the Buccaneers off the main island and onto the neighboring islet of Tortuga. Cut off from their previous lifestyle (and the feral pigs), the Buccaneers re-invented themselves as pirates, launching raids on coastal settlements and treasure galleons.

With Spain still trying to get its act back together in the Caribbean, the coastal towns and treasure-laden ships bound for Europe turned out to be easy prey, and the region experienced a boom in piracy. It wasn't long before the English - who already had a long and glorious tradition of harassing the Spanish at sea - got into the act as well. English privateers descended on the Spanish Main, even going so far as to wrest control of Jamaica from Spain in 1655. The Jamaican city of Port Royal soon became the unofficial base of operations for Caribbean piracy, a place to unload booty, get some booty, and plan the next raid.

The Pirate Round (1690-1701)

By the 1680s, the piracy boom had boomed itself out. The Buccaneers had become victims of their own success: their raids on Spanish settlements had become so frequent and so devastating that eventually the Spanish just stopped trying to rebuild them. Treasure shipments from Mexico to Spain became more infrequent as the infrastructure that supported them fell into disrepair and gold and silver veins ran dry. Meanwhile in Europe, the English King James II was deposed by his daughter and her husband. The loss of a Catholic-friendly monarch meant that the ancient English-French rivalry was back on, which subsequently ended the friendly collaboration between English and French pirates that had made the Buccaneering period so profitable for all of them. The last straw was the near-total destruction of Port Royal by an earthquake in 1692. Without a local base of operations in the Caribbean, and no real reason to stay, pirates began to branch out.

Beginning in the 1690's, the bulk of piracy took place along the "Pirate Round," an oceanic trade route that circumnavigated Africa and followed the Asian coast to India. The bustling trade between the Mughal Empire and the British East India Company was the main target, with gold, spices, and the occasional ransom of a wealthy Muslim pilgrim on Hajj as the prizes. It was during this period that some of the biggest names in piracy emerged, as they launched spectacular raids and made their fortunes.

Interim: War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714)

The Golden Age was effectively put on pause with the outbreak of war in Europe. The War of the Spanish Succession meant that European nations - England in particular - found themselves in need of privateers and honest sailors to contribute to the war effort, and many pirates answered the call. So many did so, in fact, that the Caribbean was effectively emptied during the War. A fact that would come back to bite the English later...

Postwar Period (1714-1726)

The War precipitated a great geo-political shift in Europe and the Americas. Spain's supremacy in global affairs was broken, and the newly-formed union of England and Scotland known as Great Britain emerged as the clear winner in the post-war landscape. With a bustling global commercial empire now on its hands, Britain began making sweeping changes to how it conducted itself overseas. Most notably in its military: rather than the traditional ragtag band of privateers, Britain instead invested in building a full-time, professional navy. It's a Foregone Conclusion that this worked out quite well for Britain in the long run. But it was not great news for those privateers, who, after the War's conclusion, suddenly found themselves unemployed and prospect-less.

With the end of the war, there was no work to be had at sea, since merchant ships need maybe a dozen men where privateers need dozens. On the other hand, there was no work to be had on land, either, as the colonies were full of slave labor and they couldn't compete. Finally, they couldn't return home because, like the pirates they would become, they had a habit of spending their money as fast as it came in, convinced there would always be more. So, they turned to privateering as a cottage industry. Much like the Buccaneers before them, they found a colony largely abandoned by its ruling empire, and they quickly moved in, claiming the island of New Providence for themselves as a "Pirate Republic."

Unfortunately for them, this wasn't the England of 1650 they were dealing with now. This was the Great Britain of 1715, and Great Britain had very little tolerance for their shenanigans. Privateers might once have been a necessary evil before England had an empire and a standing navy, but now they were pirates, and a nuisance and a hinderance to respectable overseas commerce. The crackdown was hard, culminating with the appointment of the privateer Woodes Rogers as Royal Governor of the Bahamas in 1718, and his dismantling of the "Pirate Republic" by both diplomacy and force (whichever was called for in each individual situation). By the mid-1720s, the Golden Age had fizzled out.

The Rekindling (1800-1835)

With most of Europe cut off from the Americas thanks to the The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) conditions once more became favourable for piracy in the region. Conflicts such as the Haitian Revolution (1791-1805), the many Spanish American Wars of Independence (1809-1825) and the War of 1812 also saw the resurgence of the use of Privateers from all sides and many ended up taking advantage of the unstable post-revolution state of the former Spanish and French colonies to become very wealthy as smugglers or even through straight-up piracy. And with that the golden age had been ignited once more!

While this era tends to get less focus than the "true" golden age of the 1600s, it spawned just as many colorful individuals, including the former Haitian slave-turned-revolutionary-turned-pirate Henri "Black" Caesar (not to be confused with the guy who served Blackbeard), the excessively brutal Charles Gibbs (aka James D. Jeffers) who bragged that he had executed as many as 400 people right before he was executed himself, and the famous Lafitte brothers, who during the height of their career owned an entire colony and controlled a fleet that rivaled that of nations.

This rekindling is often stated to have ended during the 1830s thanks to a combination of the former colonies getting their act together, the United States, who had some experience of beating up pirates in the North African coasts decades prior, ramping up its naval presence in the Gulf of Mexico and the increasing use of steam ships ending the age of sail that piracy in the region had become so associated with. While privateers kept being used during the Mexican-American War and The American Civil War of the mid-1800s, very few ended up breaching their contract and by the time the latter ended in 1865, piracy as it used to be known in the region was pretty much over for good.

The Era From a Modern Perspective

The Age itself, as well as the pirates who 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. Of course, if you did resist, you were in for very rough treatment. The fact that pirate crews typically outnumbered merchant crews five to one (or 50 to one, in the case of Blackbeard and Black Bart) meant they almost never got any resistance, so they could afford to be magnanimous.

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). Merchant vessels worked with the bare minimum crew to save costs, so their crews were run ragged (this also explains why pirates could catch them; more crew means being better able to work the rigging, so the ship responds better to changes in the wind and tacks better, so runs faster). On top of that, merchant captains were given free reign over discipline and what we would now consider torture was commonplace. Many merchant sailors were happy to join pirate ships where that was guaranteed never to happen.

Pirate crews were more egalitarian: crews elected their captains, and could vote him out of office if they wanted (hence no torture). 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? As outlaws, pirates really did "drink to the devil and damned be the rest". They swore damnation to the king and all that.

The drawings are also fairly accurate. They were happy to steal silk and fine clothing, so their scarves, hats, striped shirts, and the like are all period accurate. Sailors loved having pets to help ease the boredom of life at sea, so monkeys, parrots, cats and dogs were all common; anything that could be tamed was fair game. Life at sea was dirty and dangerous for a regular sailor, and pirates occasionally entered pitched battle, so missing fingers, hands, eyes, legs, heads (not heads) were common, as well as their prosthetic replacements. Given a sailor who's lost An Arm and a Leg can't actually climb the rigging, it was actually quite common for that type to be hired on as cooks, like Long John Silver. This was common among merchants and the Royal Navy as well.

Another thing, they probably did talk like that — the British ones, anyway. They mostly came from The West Country and Wales and the like, speaking with rhotic dialects. Plus, rhoticity and other language features that sound "pirate"-like today used to be more widespread, so some pirates may have sounded that way despite coming from parts of the country whose accents are radically different now. In fact, they probably would have sounded a lot more like Shakespeare and the crew of the Golden Globe than modern fancy limeys do.

While pirates were naturally happy to steal gold, silver, and jewels, the truth is that they mostly looted food and water, ropes, spars, and canvas, and people. Yes, people. Not only did some pirates consider slaves a legitimate commodity to be stolen and re-sold (some were deeply racist, some were perfectly happy to work alongside black Africans), but pirates almost always forced blacksmiths, coopers (barrel makers), and other crew with specialized skill to sign their charters. This was so well-known, that that sort of crew would weep in terror knowing they were about to be forced into a life of piracy, and the authorities were willing to grant leniency to such men, provided there was no evidence that they joined voluntarily. As for their demand for common commodities, these were infamous criminals. They couldn't sail into a regular port and buy the things they needed to keep their ships working.

Sadly, buried treasure wasn't a thing (the origin appears to be a rumor that started with Captain Kidd). They pissed away their money as fast as they could steal it. Pirates almost never retired. Unless they were officially sanctioned (Henry Morgan, Francis Drake), a minority accepted clemency and returned to civilian life (half the pirates of Nassau accepted the pardon offered by Rodgers, 209 of the full decade of piracy), but the rest were captured and hanged (Jack Rackham, Stede Bonnet) or killed in the attempt to capture them (Blackbeard, Black Bart).

In modern works, 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.

Compare The Wild West, a period that also had its fair share of dashing outlaws and wide open space for settlement and plunder.

Tropes related to the Golden Age of Piracy include:

  • Action Girl: Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
  • Antagonistic Governor: The various colonial governors were frequent nemeses of the pirates, but also unexpected bedfellows in times of war or during disputes between colonies. Governor Woodes Rogers, the royal governor of the Bahamas, ended up being the most implacable, dangerous, and successful of these figures, instituting reforms that rid the Caribbean of many of these pirates.
  • Artifact Title: A boucane is a wooden frame used to smoke meat (usually a feral pig) over an open fire, which is how the French squatters on Hispaniola cooked what they caught, earning them the nickname Boucaniers, or "Buccaneers."note  The word “Buccaneer” has since become synonymous with pirates, even though the word itself actually has nothing to do with piracy. note 
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Blackbeard's flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge, was a massive warship that made him the most feared pirate of his day. It was also very costly to maintain, with 40 heavy cannons to keep in repair and a crew complement of around three hundred men simply to run it on a daily basis. It's still a subject of debate by historians whether the wreck and scuttling of the ship in 1718 was deliberate, because Blackbeard wanted to downsize his operation.
  • 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 pirate deliberately cultivating a monstrous image in order to scare victims into surrendering without a fight. There's no hard historical evidence of him ever killing someone before his Last Stand.
    • Surprisingly, many pirates deliberately averted this. A large number of sailors turned to piracy as an escape from the perfectly legal and sometimes brutally vicious treatment they received from captains as honest sailors. And as pirate captains were elected by their crews and could be quickly deposed, a particularly unpleasant captain could quickly find himself no longer captain.
  • Battle Couple: Well, more like Battle Threesome: Anne Bonny, Mary Read, 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 Queen Anne's Revenge was such a ship.
    • On top of this, the treasure most pirate ships were after was... rope, canvas, and spars. Being criminals, they couldn't sail into your average port and buy the supplies they needed to keep their vessels maintainednote , so they had to steal them from the ships they stopped. When they stole other things, they tended to steal tobacco and cloth rather than gold and jewels, because why would merchants be carrying a fortune in gold and jewels?
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Some of the most successful pirates of this day were also the most eccentric characters. Bartholomew Roberts stands out in particular: with a near-supernatural aptitude for navigation, a keen organizational mind, and enough personal charisma to get himself voted Captain with no prior experience, he was also a prude and a teetotaler who never permitted women on board and never worked on a Sunday.
  • 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 believed to have actually done this, and there have been many works of fiction dedicated to the search for his “lost treasure.”
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Perhaps less than you'd think of the worst end of the mythical spectrum, but still happened. If you didn't surrender fast enough, then you could expect to be tortured. One merchant captain had his lips cut off and burned for having dumped the ship's money overboard when the pirates got close. This was also, sadly, the fate that awaited any specialist sailors. If you were a smith, a carpenter, or a cooper (barrel-maker; read: the guy who makes water possible), then you would be offered a slightly different choice from other sailors. All were free to join or not, except the specialists. They would be tortured until they signed the pirates' articles. Many pirates claimed at trial they had been "forced", but this plea was rarely accepted by the authorities.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Black is the color most commonly associated with piracy in popular culture, and it is largely Truth in Television. By the 17th Century the color black already had a long association in popular culture with "stateless" persons, like mercenaries or outlaws, and while there was no standard "pirate flag," most pirates adhered to a loose convention of flying black banners 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: Several examples:
    • The Ganj-i-Sawai, Mughal treasure galleon captured by Henry Every, the largest single haul ever netted by a pirate.
    • The Queen Anne's Revenge. In a time when most pirates were limited to fast lightweight ships, Blackbeard's re-purposed French 40-gun heavy frigate gave him quite an edge.
  • Cutlass Between the Teeth: In reality, a good way to give yourself a tracheotomy.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Frequently when a pirate was killed in battle or executed, the authorities would truss up the body in a metal cage or frame and put it on display in the harbor, as a warning to other pirates. Bartholomew Roberts was so beloved by his crew that, after his death in battle, they weighed his body down with cannonballs and tossed it overboard so the British Navy wouldn't be able to recover it and give it the same treatment.
  • Defiant to the End:
    • Many pirates met their end this way. Captain William Fly, a sailor who mutinied against his corrupt captain, was led to Boston Harbour to his hanging. On being hanged, the execution made a mistake while knotting his noose so Fly did it for him, he refused to repent his actions but he gave a speech insisting that captains should treat their soldiers better and not abuse them.
      William Fly: "Our Captain and his Mate used us Barbarously. We poor Men can’t have Justice done us. There is nothing said to our Commanders, let them never so much abuse us, and use us like Dogs."
    • Blackbeard likewise refused to surrender in his epic Last Stand.
  • 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.
  • During the War: The War of the Spanish Succession was happening in Europe during this time period, which meant there was a great need for privateers in the war's North American theater. It had a pretty big effect on piracy — the Bahamas were largely abandoned by the British, and the pirates moved in, creating a pirate haven that lasted until Woodes Rogers returned to reassert British authority.
  • The Empire: Spain, its last days as such. At the same time, the British one was on the rise.
  • End of an Age: There is no consensus among pirate historians as to the exact date the Golden Age ended, but most agree that it did not extend past 1730 at the latest. Traditionally 1722 is regarded to be the last year of the Golden Age, the year that Bartholomew Roberts, the last of the great pirates, met his end.
  • 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 the Edward Teach who fought in the War and the Edward Teach who became Blackbeard were two completely different people. Nothing is really certain. As far as the pages of history are concerned, Blackbeard simply did not exist until springing onto the scene fully realized sometime around 1714.
    • Bartholomew Roberts is possibly even more mysterious. He was a honest sailor on board a ship that got hijacked by pirates, his skill as a navigator was immediately recognized and he proved to be highly popular and respected among the crew of Captain Howell Davis. When Davis died of an illness, the crew immediately elected Roberts as their Captain despite never being a Pirate before purely because he was just that good. Roberts immediately brought professionalism and severe discipline and became the most successful pirate captain of the period. His crew was so devoted to him that when the English defeated him in battle, they threw his body into the sea rather than let the English have it. When Roberts first became captain he gave one of the greatest speeches of the era, as recorded in Charles Johnson's book:
    "Since I hath dipp’d my Hands in muddy Water, and must be a Pyrate, it is better being a Commander than a common Man."
  • Great Big Book of Everything: Most of the information about the life of pirates from a book written by a Captain Charles Johnson, called A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. Historians have never traced Charles Johnson and are not sure who he is or who wrote it under the pseudonym. The book's release in London brought Woodes Rogers back into the spotlight with some suggesting that he wrote it to bolster himself. Despite this, scholars have noted that the book is quite accurate and most of the information does check out with new research with only some biases and faults in the same.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: These guys were thieves and murderers, but darn it, they had so much style. More recently, books such as "Republic of Pirates" and other scholars have noted that Nassau is the first attempt at democracy in the New World with elected governors, women's rights and even some amount of racial tolerance that is quite Fair for Its Day. Recent research has tended to look at the pirates less as thieves and scalywags and more as an early attempt at worker's rights and protest.
  • 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...
  • Introduced Species Calamity: A minor, localized one with the aforementioned feral pigs. Early Spanish settlers introduced pigs to the Caribbean as a ready food source. When the Wars of Religion broke out in Europe, and Spain's New World colonies fell into neglect, the pigs got loose and bred explosively, almost destroying the ecosystem of Hispaniola in the process. Of course this made Hispaniola a prime location for poachers like the Buccaneers to set up shop. One of the first things the Spanish authorities did when they started reasserting control over the island was to get the pig population back down to a manageable level, thus both preserving what remained of Hispaniola's natural resources, and cutting the Buccaneers off from their food supply.
  • Insistent Terminology: We’re not pirates, we’re privateers! There is a difference! No, really! The difference is not semantics: a privateer is a "private buccaneer", where the captain has been given legal dispensation by a government to hunt the enemies of said government through a Letter of Marque. Basically, they are legal criminals. A pirate, on the other hand, has no such protection. Naturally, some pirates would claim to be privateers, and some privateers were actually pirates, so the line isn't clearly defined in reality. There's also the sad truth that there were thousands of sailors working as privateers during the war. Then the war ended and they were all fired. Stranded a few thousand miles from home and with no hope of work, they did what they knew: sailed and plundered.
  • 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 Read 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 minimal 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. Mary Read or Anne Bonny however put up a major fight, surprising the British navy.
  • Machete Mayhem: the most commonly-used weapon during this time (apart from firearms) was the cutlass. It was a versatile weapon, being used as a machete whenever it was not being used to threaten merchant sailors or fighting off pirates. And due to its short length, it was perfect for fighting in the close confines of a ship.
  • 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.
  • The Mutiny: Since pirates were by default considered mutineers, they actually had an organized system. Mutinies could be as simple as pirates putting it to vote for a new captain. Depending on the circumstances, it could be peaceful or it could be hostile.
  • Never Found the Body: Black Bart's crew threw his body in the ocean so that the British couldn't take him. Benjamin Hornigold disappeared in a storm. Anne Bonny, Edward Low and Henry Avery also disappeared from the pages of history.
  • N.G.O. Superpower: The East India Company. During this time period the Company's monopoly on the tea and spice trade made them so wealthy and powerful that they commanded their own armed forces and effectively ruled India, with the British government not really caring one way or another so long as the goods got to where they needed to go.
  • 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". This ensured that pirates could be killed without the benefit of "due process", "habeas corpus" or anything approaching rights as citizens of Great Britain... or any nation at all, for that matter.
  • Pirate: Well, duh.
  • Pirate Girl: Anne Bonny and Mary Read 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 was also highly valued (where do you think the pirates gets all their rum?). And 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.
    • Conversely, Governor Woodes Rogers, as his first act upon reaching Nassau, instituted a blanket pardon for any pirate who surrendered, confessed, and agreed to work with him. Hundreds of pirates took up the offer, shattering the nascent pirate republic of the Bahamas. In doing so, he solidified British control of the colony, and strengthened it against a possible Spanish invasion.
  • Ragtag Band of Misfits: Your typical pirate crew. Individuals who became pirates could be anything from fugitive slaves (who comprised 25-30% of all Pirate crews), to disgruntled common sailors, to just bored young men looking for adventure and fortune.
  • Rasputinian Death: Blackbeard did not go down easy: he was shot at least five times and stabbed almost twenty times, before being run through and then decapitated. And even then, legend has it that his headless corpse swam around the boat.
  • The Remnant:
    • 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.
    • Blackbeard 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, it could have just been an attempt to justify his piracy by presenting it as "revenge".
  • 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.
    • Libertalia, first mentioned in Captain Johnson's A General History, has divided historians among those who think there was a real pirate commune settlement in Madagascar and those who think it was a tavern legend from the same era. The only pirate republic with actual historical evidence to it was Nassau.note 
  • 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 Read 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: Personal firearms like flintlock pistols were still a relatively-new innovation and notoriously unreliable in wet-weather conditions like being at sea, so keeping a melee weapon handy was just common sense. Your average pirate would go into battle festooned with single-shot flintlocks, 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.
  • Talk Like a Pirate: The manner of speaking which has gone down in popular culture as a "pirate accent" is more or less an English West Country accent. The West Country is the home of the port city of Bristol, which was the center of English maritime culture and industry at the time. The majority of English sailors during this period would have hailed from this region, and so would have a similar accent. It wasn't so much "pirate talk" as it was "17th-Century English sailor talk."
  • 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?
  • Unintentionally Notorious Crime: William Kidd's second foray into privateering for the English turned into a long string of misfortunes and ended with him pirating two English-owned ships in desperation. Depending on whom you believe, Kidd either deliberately manipulated them into giving him false French papers as a pretext for his attack (If you were an English skipper being boarded by a warship flying the French flag, would you give them your real nationality?) or he was set up and genuinely thought they were legitimate targets for plunder. Either way, it's safe to say that Kidd did not expect the political fallout it caused to make him England's Public Enemy #1 overnight.
  • 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, hailing from Catholic Scotland, was more friendly toward Catholic France than previous, Protestant English monarchs. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, where James II was replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary II and her Dutch Husband William III, was one of the many factors that brought an end to that cooperation and forced pirates to branch out.
  • Wretched Hive: Several:
    • Tortuga, off the coast of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti). As the first base of operations for the Buccaneers, it has gone down in myth and legend for its debauchery.
    • Port Royal, Jamaica. So much so, that most people chalked up the earthquake of 1692 to God being sick of the whole thing.
    • The Spanish town of Trinidad, a notorious haven for smugglers.
    • 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.
    • Madagascar. During the Pirate Round period, the island was the main point for pirates to assemble and resupply before plunging into the Indian Ocean. It was a haven for unsavory types for the bulk of the period, and supposedly even host to a "pirate republic" similar to New Providence, known in folklore as "Libertalia."
    • 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.

Fiction set in the Golden Age of Piracy include:

Multiple Media

Anime and Manga

  • One Piece (well, an Alternate Universe version, anyway)
  • Berserk seems mostly set in a version of The Late Middle Ages in terms of warfare, politics, and religion, but it liberally borrows elements from The Renaissance and The Cavalier Years. The age of piracy gets thrown into the mix in volume 28 when Guts' party first encounters Captain Sharkrider and his crew of pirates, and part of the following volumes are devoted to their naval adventures with Prince Roderick and his ship, The Seahorse.

Comic Books

Comic Strips

Films — Live-Action


  • The Rafael Sabatini novel Captain Blood: His Odyssey and the film adaptation starring Errol Flynn.
  • The Legend of Anne Bonny expands upon the eponymous pirate's life both before and after her disappearance from recorded history.
  • On Stranger Tides: set during Blackbeard’s last days, around 1718, features many real-life pirates. And voodoo.
  • Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton, set in the Caribbean during the reign of King Charles II
  • 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.
  • 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.

Live-Action TV

  • The Doctor Who episode “Curse of the Black Spot” explains why Henry Every vanished from history: he and his crew 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 Nassau and the Bahamas during the time of the "Republic of Pirates" 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.
  • Our Flag Means Death is a heavily fictionalized romantic comedy series about the real-life partnership between the notorious Blackbeard (played by Taika Waititi) and self-proclaimed "Gentleman Pirate" Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby). Crewmate Israel "Izzy" Hands is a recurring character, and Calico Jack Rackham pops up in an episode as well.
  • Treasure Island: A Mini Series with Eddie Izzard and Elijah Wood.


Video Games

  • The Monkey Island series of video games (which in turn inspired the Pirates of the Caribbean movies)
  • Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag starts in 1715, with protagonist Edward Kenway as a pirate. Friends and allies include Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, and so on; and Nassau is a major location, Edward being a founding member of the Pirate Republic.
  • 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.
  • Uncharted 4: A Thief's End features Henry Avery's Pirate Booty from the Ganj-i-Sawaj raid as the MacGuffin, while the Lost City of the week is the Shrouded in Myth Libertalia, founded by Avery and other pirates.
  • Sea of Thieves, a game from Rare that has players set off on seafaring adventures and captures the many tropes about Piracy. From boarding trade ships, digging buried treasures, having huge sea battles... to winding up barfing drunk at a local pub.
  • The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and its sequel The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass base their settings on this time period, being departures from the Medieval European Fantasy setting most of the rest of the series has.

Western Animation