What we think of as pirates is a reality that last maybe 20 years

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

When thinking of pirates, most people will think of movies like Pirates Of The Caribbean or Black Sails, which portray the Atlantic during the early 1700s. But the world has always had pirates, and even in the early modern period, pirates were a varied experience.

One reason piracy was often an act or a phase, and not a way of life, was simply because humans have not evolved to live on the sea. The sea is a hostile place, offering few of the pleasures of terrestrial society. Pirates needed to clean and repair their ships, collect wood and water, gather crews, obtain paperwork, fence their goods, or obtain sexual gratification. Simply put, what is the value of silver and gold in the middle of the ocean? Why would someone risk his life in a hostile maritime world if there was no chance he could actually spend his booty?

“A Merry Life and a Short One” was not the motto of most pirates of the late seventeenth century. Until the 1710s, English pirates almost always had somewhere to go to spend their money, either for a few days or to settle down for good. The British National Archives holds a petition from 48 wives of known pirates, begging the crown to pardon their husbands so they could return home to care for their families. Returning to London was not an option for most sea rovers, but a life in the American colonies offered the closest proxy.

Support of piracy on the peripheries of the British Empire dates to the first forays of English sea captains overseas. Pirate Nests begins in Elizabethan England with the active protection of piracy by port communities in Devon and Cornwall. The ascension of James I coincided with the migration of a plunder economy from England to farther shores. Puritan communities in Ireland, and soon the fledgling colonies of Jamestown, Bermuda, New Plymouth, and Boston all supported illicit sea marauders. Upon the conquest of Jamaica in 1655, Port Royal became a renowned pirate nest, led by Henry Morgan, whose attacks against the Spanish were defended by the colony’s governor and council. By the 1680s, pirates who plundered along the Spanish Main or in the “South Sea” coasts of Chile and Peru dropped anchor in the North American colonies. In the 1690s, men like Moses Butterworth joined crews heading out of colonial ports to the Indian Ocean, basing themselves on the island of Madagascar.

Beginning in 1696, support for piracy was threatened by Parliament’s efforts to reform the legal and political administration of the colonies. Initial attempts to better regulate the colonies faced heated resistance like the riot that sprang Moses Butterworth in 1701. Royal officials battled with colonial elites over control of their court system, choice of governors, economic policies, and other issues. But the transformation of law, politics, economics, and even popular culture in a relatively brief period of time soon persuaded landed colonists of the long-term benefits of legal trade over the short-term boom of the pirate market. After being sprung from jail, Moses Butterworth eventually headed to Newport, where, in 1704, he captained a sloop that sailed alongside a man-of-war in pursuit of runaway English sailors. The former pirate had turned pirate-hunter.

…The expansion of commercial trade, particularly the slave trade, cemented a colonial social order increasingly threatened by instability at sea and less tolerant of social mobility on land. This change in attitudes led to the period we call the “War on Pirates”—roughly 1716 to 1726—and the advent of sea marauders who, with little hope of ever resettling on land, attacked their own nation. This is the era of characters like Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Bartholomew Roberts, and female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, colorful rebels who lived dangerously and fit the legend. Where for centuries pirates had sailed under the flags of their own nations or of foreign princes, they now sailed—and were hanged under—flags of their own construction. No longer welcomed by the colonial elite, outlaw vessels were routed from shores that once harbored pirate nests. In 1718 and 1723, the ports of Newport, Rhode Island, and Charleston, South Carolina, tried and hanged crews of 23 and 26 pirates, respectively, the two largest mass executions not involving a slave insurrection in colonial America. As a result, by the late 1720s the pirate scourge had largely abated.

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