Piracy In The Caribbean

The great era of piracy in the Caribbean
began in the 1560s and died out only
around the 1720s as the nation-states
of Western Europe with colonies in the
Americas began to exert more state
control over the waterways of the New
World. The period during which pirates
were most successful was from the
1640s until the 1680s. Piracy flourished
in the Caribbean because of British
seaports such as Nelson's Dockyard,
Antigua, and ports in Barbados.

Piracy in the Caribbean came out of the
interplay of larger international trends in
the early modern period. The Caribbean
had become a center of European trade
and colonization after Columbus’
discovery of the New World for Euro-
peans in 1492. In the 1493 Treaty of
Tordesillas the non-European world had
been divided between the Spanish and
the Portuguese along a north-south line 270 leagues west of the Cape Verde. This gave Spain control of the Americas, a position the Spaniards later reinforced with an equally unenforceable papal bull. On the Spanish Main, the key early settlements were Cartagena in present-day Colombia, Porto Bello and Panama City on the Isthmus of Panama, Santiago on the southeastern coast of Cuba, and Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish were mining staggering amounts of silver bullion from the mines of Zacatecas in New Spain (Mexico) and Potosí in Peru (actually now located in Bolivia). The huge Spanish silver shipments from the New World to the Old attracted pirates and privateers, both in the Caribbean and across the Atlantic, all along the route from the Caribbean to Seville.

To combat this constant danger, in the 1560’s the Spanish adopted a convoy system. A treasure fleet or flota would sail annually from Seville (and later from Cádiz) in Spain, carrying passengers, troops, and European manufactured goods to the Spanish colonies of the New World. This cargo, though profitable, was really just a form of ballast for the fleet as its true purpose was to transport the year’s worth of silver to Europe. The first stage in the journey was the transport of all that silver from the mines in Peru and New Spain in a mule convoy called the Silver Train to a major Spanish port, usually on the Isthmus of Panama or from Veracruz in Mexico. The flota would meet up with the Silver Train, offload its cargo of manufactured goods to waiting colonial merchants and then transfer the precious cargo of gold and silver (in bullion or coin form) into its holds. This made the returning Spanish treasure fleet a tempting target, although pirates were more likely to shadow the fleet to attack stragglers than try and seize the well-guarded main vessels. The classic route for the treasure fleet in the Caribbean was through the Lesser Antilles to the ports along the Spanish Main on the coast of Central America and Mexico, then northwards into the Yucatán Channel to catch the westerly winds back to Europe.

The Dutch United Provinces of the Netherlands and England, both defenders of Protestantism, were defiantly opposed to Catholic Spain (the greatest power of Christendom in the sixteenth century) by the 1560’s, while the French government was seeking to expand its colonial holdings in the New World now that Spain had proven they could be extremely profitable. It was the French who had established the first non-Spanish settlement in the Caribbean when they had founded Fort Caroline near what is now Jacksonville, Florida in 1564, although the settlement was soon wiped out by a Spanish attack from the larger colony of Saint Augustine. Aided by their governments, English, French and Dutch traders and colonists utterly ignored the unenforceable line drawn by the Treaty of Tordesillas to invade Spanish colonial territory even in times of peace between their nations in Europe, which gave rise to the famed sixteenth century phrase: “No peace beyond the line.”

The Spanish, despite being the wealthiest state in Christendom at the time, could not afford a sufficient military presence to control such a vast area of ocean or enforce their exclusionary, mercantilist trading laws which allowed only Spanish merchants to trade with the colonists of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. This allowed for constant smuggling to break the Spanish trading laws and new attempts at Caribbean colonization in peacetime by England, France and the Netherlands. Whenever a war was declared in Europe between the Great Powers the result was always widespread piracy and privateering throughout the Caribbean.

The Anglo-Spanish war in 1585 - 1604 was partly due to trade disputes in the New World. A focus on extracting mineral and agricultural wealth from the New World rather than building productive, self-sustaining settlements in its colonies; runaway inflation fueled in part by the massive shipments of silver and gold to Western Europe; endless rounds of ruinously expensive wars in Europe; an aristocracy that belittled commercial opportunities as beneath them and a Catholic Church that restricted intellectual inquiry and consumed too much of the nation’s most talented manpower all contributed to Spain’s ruinous decline from Great Power status during the 17th century.

Meanwhile, in the Caribbean the arrival of European diseases with Columbus had decimated the local Indian populations; the native population of New Spain collapsed to a fraction of what it had been between 1500 and 1600. This loss of native population led Spain to increasingly rely on African slave labor to run Spanish America’s colonies, plantations and mines and the trans-Atlantic slave trade offered new sources of profit for English, Dutch and French traders who wanted to violate the Spanish mercantilist laws—and did so, with impunity. But the relative emptiness of the Caribbean also made it an inviting place for England, France and the Netherlands to set up colonies of their own, especially as gold and silver became less important as commodities to be seized and were replaced by tobacco and sugar as cash crops that could make men very rich.

As Spain’s military might in Europe weakened, the Spanish trading laws in the New World were violated with greater frequency by the merchants of other nations. The Spanish port on the island of Trinidad off the northern coast of South America, permanently settled only in 1592, became a major point of contact between all the nations with a presence in the Caribbean.

The Early Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660

In the early seventeenth century, expensive fortifications and the size of the colonial garrisons at the major Spanish ports increased to deal with the enlarged presence of Spain’s enemies in the Caribbean, but the treasure fleet’s silver shipments and the number of Spanish-owned merchant ships operating in the region declined. But perhaps the most important feature of the Caribbean by 1600 was that the vast Spanish Empire in the Americas, as noted above, was also one with few subjects—the diseases like smallpox and measles brought by the first Europeans to the New World had inflicted a century’s worth of devastating plagues on the native Indian peoples. The entire Caribbean basin had been depopulated. In New Spain (Mexico), the Indian population had plunged from an estimated range of 10 million to 25 million people in 1500 before Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs to only 2 million by 1600. Food supplies had become short because of the sheer lack of people to work farms and the output in the Spanish silver mines had declined from the death of so many Indian slaves. The number of European-born Spaniards in the New World or Spaniards of pure blood who had been born in New Spain, known as peninsulares and creoles, respectively, in the Spanish race-based caste system, totaled no more than 250,000 people in 1600. Even worse, almost no Spanish colonists in the New World served as the productive members of society who grew crops or manufactured goods—they all wanted to pursue lives of aristocratic luxury in their haciendas as the masters of great plantations growing food, tobacco or sugar, with African or Indian slaves to serve them and do all of the real labor. This social structure held true throughout the Caribbean and along the coasts of the Spanish Main and would in time create the enormous inequality in the distribution of wealth that plagues Latin America even to this day. Later settlements in the Caribbean islands by other European powers also relied on the labour of non-European workers, namely African slaves.....#E

At the same time, England and France were powers on the rise in seventeenth century Europe as they mastered their own internal religious schisms between Catholic and Protestant and the resulting societal peace allowed their economies to rapidly expand. England especially began to turn its people’s maritime skills into the basis of commercial prosperity. English and French kings of the early seventeenth century—James I (r. 1603-1625) and Henry IV (r. 1598-1610), respectively, each sought more peaceful relations with Habsburg Spain in an attempt to decrease the financial costs of the ongoing wars. Although the onset of peace in 1604 reduced the opportunities for both piracy and privateering against Spain’s colonies, neither monarch discouraged his nation from trying to plant new colonies in the New World and break the Spanish monopoly on the Western Hemisphere. The reputed riches, pleasant climate and the general emptiness of the Americas all beckoned to those eager to make their fortunes and a large assortment of Frenchmen and Englishmen began new colonial ventures during the early seventeenth century, both in North America, which lay basically empty of European settlement north of Mexico, and in the Caribbean, where Spain remained the dominant power until late in the century.

As for the Dutch Netherlands, after decades of rebellion against Spain fueled by both Dutch nationalism and their staunch Protestantism, independence had been gained in all but name (and that too would eventually come with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648). The Netherlands had become Europe’s economic powerhouse. With new, innovative ship designs like the fluyt (a cargo vessel able to be operated with a small crew and enter relatively inaccessible ports) rolling out of the ship yards in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, new capitalist economic arrangements like the joint-stock company taking root and the military reprieve provided by the Twelve Year Truce with the Spanish (1609-1621), Dutch commercial interests were expanding explosively across the globe, but particularly in the New World and East Asia. However, in the early seventeenth century, the most powerful Dutch companies, like the Dutch East India Company, were most interested in developing operations in the East Indies (Indonesia) and Japan, and left the West Indies to smaller, more independent Dutch operators.

In the early seventeenth century, the Spanish colonies of Cartagena, Havana, Santiago, Panama City, and Santo Domingo were the most important settlements in the West Indies. Each possessed a large population, a self-sustaining economy and was well-protected by Spanish defenders. These Spanish settlements were generally unwilling to deal with traders from the other European states because of the strict enforcement of Spain’s mercantilist laws pursued by the large Spanish garrisons. In these cities European manufactured goods could command premium prices for sale to the colonists, while the trade goods of the New World—tobacco, chocolate and other raw materials, were shipped back to Europe.

By 1600, Porto Bello had replaced Nombre de Dios (where Sir Francis Drake had first struck at the Spanish) as the Isthmus of Panama’s Caribbean port for the Spanish Silver Train and the annual treasure fleet. Veracruz, the major port city in Mexico, continued to serve the vast interior of New Spain as its window on the Caribbean. By the seventeenth century, the majority of the towns along the Spanish Main and in Central America had become self-sustaining. The smaller towns of the Main grew tobacco and also welcomed foreign smugglers who avoided the Spanish mercantilist laws. The underpopulated inland regions of Hispaniola were another area where tobacco smugglers in particular were welcome to ply their trade.

The Spanish-ruled island of Trinidad was already a wide-open port open to the ships and seamen of every nation in the region at the start of the seventeenth century, and was a particular favorite for smugglers who dealt in tobacco and European manufactured goods. Local Caribbean smugglers sold their tobacco or sugar for decent prices and then bought manufactured goods from the trans-Atlantic traders in large quantities to be dispersed among the colonists of the West Indies and the Spanish Main who were eager for a little touch of home. The Spanish governor of Trinidad, who lacked both strong harbor fortifications and possessed only a laughably small garrison of Spanish troops, could do little but take lucrative bribes from English, French and Dutch smugglers and look the other way—or risk being overthrown and replaced by his own people with a more pliable administrator.

The English had established an early colony on the island of Barbados in the West Indies in 1627, although this small settlement’s people faced considerable dangers from the local Carib Indians (known to be cannibals) for some time after its founding. Barbados needed regular imports of food from England or the rest of the Caribbean to survive in its first few years, much like the English colonies on the North American mainland. No large tobacco plantations or even truly organized defenses were established by the English on its Caribbean settlements at first and it would take time for London to realize just how valuable its possessions in the Caribbean could prove to be. Barbados, the first truly successful English colony in the West Indies, grew fast as the seventeenth century wore on. Increasingly, English ships chose to use it as their home port in the Caribbean. Like Trinidad, merchants in the trans-Atlantic trade who based themselves on Barbados always paid good money for tobacco and sugar. Both of these commodities remained the key cash crops of this period and fueled the growth of the American Southern colonies as well as their counterparts in the Caribbean.

After the destruction of Fort Caroline by the Spanish, the French attempted no further colonization attempts in the Caribbean for several decades as France was convulsed by its own Catholic-Protestant religious divide during the late sixteenth century Wars of Religion. However, old French privateering anchorages with small “tent camp” towns could be found during the early seventeenth century in the Bahamas. These settlements provided little more than a place for ships and their crews to take on some fresh water and food and perhaps have a dalliance with the local camp followers, all of which would have been quite expensive.

In the early seventeenth century, Dutch merchant ships were commonly seen plying Caribbean waters, but no true Dutch-owned ports (the Dutch called their colonies “factories”) yet existed. The Dutch spent most of their time trading in smuggled goods with the smaller Spanish colonies. Trinidad was the unofficial home port for Dutch traders and privateers in the New World early in the seventeenth century before they established their own colonies in the 1620’s and 1630’s. As usual, Trinidad’s ineffective Spanish governor was helpless to stop the Dutch from using his port and instead he usually accepted their lucrative bribes.

The first third of the seventeenth century in the Caribbean was defined by the outbreak of the savage and destructive Thirty Years’ War in Europe (1618-1648) that represented both the culmination of the Protestant-Catholic conflict of the Reformation and the final showdown between Habsburg Spain and Bourbon France. The war was mostly fought in Germany, where one-third to one-half of the population would eventually be lost to the strains of the conflict, but it had some effect in the New World as well. The Spanish presence in the Caribbean began to decline at a faster rate, becoming more dependent on African slave labor. The Spanish military presence in the New World also declined as Madrid shifted more of its resources to the Old World in the Habsburgs’ apocalyptic fight with almost every Protestant state in Europe. This need for Spanish resources in Europe accelerated the decay of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. The settlements of the Spanish Main and the Spanish West Indies became financially weaker and were garrisoned with a much smaller number of troops as their home countries were more consumed with happenings back in Europe. The Spanish Empire’s economy remained stagnant and the Spanish colonies’ plantations, ranches and mines became totally dependent upon slave labor imported from West Africa. With Spain no longer able to maintain its military control effectively over the Caribbean, the other Western European states finally began to move in and set up permanent settlements of their own, ending the Spanish monopoly over the control of the New World.

Even as the Dutch Netherlands were forced to renew their struggle against Spain for independence as part of the Thirty Years’ War (the entire rebellion against the Spanish Habsburgs was called the Eighty Years’ War in Holland), Holland had become the world’s leader in mercantile shipping and commercial capitalism and Dutch companies finally turned their attention to the West Indies in the seventeenth century. The renewed war with Spain with the end of the truce offered many opportunities for the successful Dutch joint-stock companies to finance military expeditions against the Spanish Empire. The old English and French privateering anchorages from the sixteenth century in the Caribbean now swarmed anew with Dutch warships.

In England, a new round of colonial ventures in the New World was fueled by declining economic opportunities at home and growing religious intolerance for more radical Protestants (like the Puritans) who rejected the compromise Protestant theology of the established Church of England. After the demise of the Saint Lucia and Grenada colonies soon after their establishment, and the near-extinction of the English settlement of Jamestown in Virginia, new and stronger colonies were established by the English in the first half of the seventeenth century, at Plymouth, Boston, Barbados, the West Indian islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis and Providence Island. These colonies would all persevere to become centers of English civilization in the New World.

For France, now ruled by the Bourbon King Louis XIII (r. 1610-1642) and his able minister Cardinal Richelieu, religious civil war had been reignited between French Catholics and Protestants (called Huguenots). Throughout the 1620’s, French Huguenots fled France and founded colonies in the New World much like their English counterparts. Then, in 1636, to decrease the power of the Habsburg dynasty who ruled Spain and the Holy Roman Empire on France’s eastern border, France entered the cataclysm in Germany—on the Protestants’ side.

Many of the cities on the Spanish Main in the first third of the seventeenth century were self-sustaining but few had yet achieved any prosperity. The more backward settlements in Jamaica and Hispaniola were primarily places for ships to take on food and fresh water. Spanish Trinidad remained a popular smuggling port where European goods were plentiful and fairly cheap, and good prices were paid by its European merchants for tobacco or sugar.

The English colonies on Saint Kitts and Nevis, founded in 1623, would prove to become wealthy sugar-growing settlements in time. Another new English venture on Providence Island off the malaria ridden Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, deep in the heart of the Spanish Empire, had become the premier base for English privateers and other pirates raiding the Spanish Main.

On the shared Anglo-French island of Saint Christophe (called “Saint Kitts” by the English) the French had the upper hand. The French settlers on Saint Christophe were mostly Catholics, while the unsanctioned but growing French colonial presence in northwest Hispaniola (the future nation of Haiti) was largely made up of French Protestants who had settled there without Spain’s permission to escape Catholic persecution back home. France cared little what happened to the troublesome Huguenots, but the colonization of western Hispaniola allowed the French to both rid themselves of their religious minority and strike a blow against Spain—an excellent bargain, from the French Crown’s point of view! The ambitious Huguenots had also claimed the island of Tortuga off the northwest coast of Hispaniola and had established the settlement of Petit Goave on the island itself. Tortuga in particular was to become a pirate and privateer haven and was beloved of smugglers of all nationalities—after all, even the creation of the settlement had been illegal!

Dutch colonies in the Caribbean remained rare until the second third of the seventeenth century. Along with the traditional privateering anchorages in the Bahamas and Florida, the Dutch West India Company settled a “factory” (commercial town) at New Amsterdam on the North American mainland in 1626 and at Curacao in 1634, an island positioned right in the center of the Caribbean off the northern coast of Venezuela that was perfectly positioned to become a major maritime crossroads.

The mid-seventeenth century in the Caribbean was again shaped by events in far-off Europe. For the Dutch Netherlands, France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War being fought in Germany, the last great religious war in Europe, had degenerated into an outbreak of famine, plague and starvation that managed to kill off one-third to one-half of the population of Germany. England, having wisely avoided any entanglement in the European mainland’s wars, had fallen victim to its own ruinous civil war that resulted in the short but brutal Puritan military dictatorship (1649-1660) of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and his Roundhead armies. Of all the European Great Powers, Spain was in the worst shape economically and militarily as the Thirty Years’ War concluded in 1648. Economic conditions had become so poor for the Spanish by the middle of the seventeenth century that a major rebellion began against the bankrupt and ineffective Habsburg government of King Philip IV (r. 1625-1665) that was eventually put down only with bloody reprisals by the Spanish Crown. This did not make poor Philip IV more popular.

But disasters in the Old World bred new opportunities in the New World. The Spanish Empire’s colonies were badly neglected from the middle of the seventeenth century because of Spain’s many woes. Freebooters and privateers, experienced after decades of European warfare, pillaged and plundered the almost defenseless Spanish settlements with ease and with little interference from the European governments back home who were too worried about their own European problems to turn much attention to their New World colonies. The non-Spanish colonies were growing and expanding across the Caribbean, fueled by a great increase in immigration as people fled from the chaos and lack of economic opportunity in Europe. While most of these new immigrants settled into the West Indies’ expanding plantation economy, others took to the life of the buccaneer. Meanwhile, the canny Dutch, at last truly independent of Spain when the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia ended their own Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) with the Habsburgs, made a fortune carrying the European trade goods needed by these new colonies. Peaceful trading was not as profitable as privateering, but it was a far safer business.

By the later half of the seventeenth century, Barbados had become the unofficial capital of the English West Indies before this position was claimed by Jamaica later in the century. Barbados was a merchant’s dream port in this period. European goods were freely available, the island’s sugar crop sold for premium prices, and the island’s English governor rarely sought to enforce any type of mercantilist regulations. The English colonies at Saint Kitts and Nevis were economically strong and now well-populated as the demand for sugar in Europe increasingly drove their plantation-based economies. The English had also expanded their dominion in the Caribbean and settled several new islands, including Bermuda in 1612, Antigua and Montserrat in 1632, and Eleuthera in the Bahamas in 1648, though these settlements began like all the others as relatively tiny communities that were not economically self-sufficient.

The French also founded major new colonies on the sugar-growing islands of Guadeloupe in 1634 and Martinique in 1635 in the Lesser Antilles. However, the heart of French activity in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century always remained Tortuga, the well-fortified island haven off the coast of Hispaniola for privateers, buccaneers and outright pirates. The main French colony on the rest Hispaniola remained the settlement of Petit Goave, which was the French toehold that would develop into Haiti. French privateers still used the tent city anchorages in the Florida Keys to plunder the Spaniards’ shipping in the Florida Channel, as well as to raid the shipping that plied the sealanes off the northern coast of Cuba.

For the Dutch in the seventeenth-century Caribbean, the island of Curacao was the equivalent of England’s port at Barbados. This large, rich, well-defended free port, open to the ships of all the European states, offered good prices for sugar that was re-exported to Europe and also sold large quantities of manufactured goods in return to the colonists of every nation in the New World. A second Dutch-controlled free port had also developed on the island of Saint Eustatius which was settled in 1636.The constant back-and-forth warfare between the Dutch and the English for possession of it in the 1660’s later damaged the island’s economy and desirability as a port. The Dutch also had set up a settlement on the island of Saint Martin which became another haven for Dutch sugar planters and their African slave labor. In 1648, the Dutch agreed to divide the prosperous island in half with the French.

The Golden Age Of Piracy, 1660-1720

The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are often considered the “Golden Age of Piracy” in the Caribbean. The Spanish Empire in the New World continued its rapid military decline when the senile King Philip IV of Spain was succeeded by the equally inept King Charles II (r. 1665-1700), who in 1665 became the last Habsburg king of Spain at the age of four. While Spanish America in the late seventeenth century had little military protection as Spain entered its terminal decline as a Great Power, it also suffered less from the Spanish Crown’s mercantilist interference with its economy. This lack of interference, combined with a sudden surge in output from the silver mines because of the increased availability of slave labor as the demand for sugar drove an increase in the number of slaves brought to the Caribbean, began a resurgence in the fortunes of Spanish America.

England, France and the Dutch Netherlands had all become New World colonial powerhouses in their own right by 1660. Worried by Holland’s intense commercial success since the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, England launched a trade war with the Dutch. The English Parliament passed the first of its own mercantilist Navigation Acts (1651) and the Staple Act (1663) that required that English colonial goods be carried only in English ships and legislated limits on trade between the English colonies and foreigners. These laws were aimed at ruining the Dutch merchants whose livelihoods depended on free trade. This trade war would lead to three outright Anglo-Dutch Wars over the course of the next twenty-five years. Meanwhile, King Louis XIV of France (r. 1642-1715) had finally assumed his majority with the death of his regent mother Queen Anne of Austria’s chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661. The “Sun King’s” aggressive foreign policy was aimed at expanding France’s eastern border with the Holy Roman Empire and led to constant warfare against shifting alliances that included England, Holland, the various German states and Spain. In short, Europe was consumed in the final decades of the seventeenth century by nearly constant dynastic intrigue and warfare—an opportune time for pirates and privateers to engage in their bloody trade.

In the Caribbean, this political environment led colonial governors to confront new threats from every direction. The Dutch sugar island of Saint Eustatius changed ownership ten times between 1664 and 1674 as the English and Dutch dueled for supremacy. Consumed with the various wars in Europe, the mother countries provided few further military reinforcements to their colonies, so the colonial governors of the Caribbean increasingly made use of buccaneers as mercenaries and privateers to guard their colonies or carry the fight to their mother country’s current enemy. Surprisingly (or not), these undisciplined and greedy dogs of war often proved difficult for their sponsors to control.

By the late seventeenth century, the great Spanish towns of the Caribbean had begun to prosper once more even as Spain itself continued to lose economic ground, but remained poorly defended militarily because of Spain’s problems and so were easy prey for pirates and privateers. The English presence continued to expand in the Caribbean as England itself rose to become a preeminent Great Power in Europe. Captured from Spain in 1655, the island of Jamaica had been taken over by England and its chief settlement of Port Royal had become a new English buccaneer haven in the midst of the Spanish Empire. Jamaica was slowly transformed, along with Saint Kitts, into the heart of the English presence in the Caribbean. At the same time the French Lesser Antilles colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique remained the main centers of French power in the Caribbean, as well as among the richest French possessions because of their increasingly profitable sugar plantations. The French also maintained privateering strongholds around western Hispaniola, at their traditional pirate port of Tortuga, and their Hispaniolan capital of Petit Goave. The French further expanded their settlements on the western half of Hispaniola and founded Leogane and Port-de-Paix, even as sugar plantations became the primary industry for the French colonies of the Caribbean.

At the start of the eighteenth century, Europe remained riven by warfare and constant diplomatic intrigue. France and England (more properly Great Britain after 1707) maneuvered for ultimate supremacy on both the European mainland and in the contest for colonial empires abroad, having emerged as the greatest of the Western Great Powers. But the depredations of the pirates and buccaneers in the Americas in the latter half of the seventeenth century and of similar mercenaries in Germany during the Thirty Years War had taught the rulers and military leaders of Europe that those who fought for profit rather than for King and Country could often ruin the local economy of the region they plundered, in this case the entire Caribbean. At the same time, the constant warfare had led the Great Powers to develop larger standing armies and bigger navies to meet the demands of global colonial warfare. By 1700 the European states had enough troops and ships at their disposal to begin better protecting the important colonies in the West Indies and in the Americas without relying on the aid of privateers. This spelled the doom of privateering and the easy (and nicely legal) life it provided for the buccaneer. Though Spain remained a weak power for the rest of the colonial period, pirates in large numbers generally disappeared after 1720, chased from the seas by a new English Royal Navy squadron based at Port Royal, Jamaica and a smaller group of Spanish privateers sailing from the Spanish Main known as the Costa Garda (Coast Guard in English). With regular military forces now on-station in the West Indies, letters of marque were harder and harder to obtain.

Economically, the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century was a time of growing wealth and trade for all the nations of the Caribbean. Although some piracy would always remain until the mid-eighteenth century, the path to wealth in the Caribbean in the future lay through peaceful trade, the growing of tobacco, rice and sugar and smuggling to avoid the British Navigation Acts and Spanish mercantilist laws. By the eighteenth century the Bahamas had become the new colonial frontier for the English. The port of Nassau became one of the last pirate havens. A small English colony had even sprung up in former Spanish territory at Belize in Honduras that had been founded by an English pirate in 1638. The French’s colonial empire in the Caribbean had not grown substantially by the start of the eighteenth century. The sugar islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique remained the twin economic capitals of the French Lesser Antilles, and were now equal in population and prosperity to the largest of the English's Caribbean colonies. Tortuga had begun to decline in importance, but France's Hispaniolan settlements were becoming major importers of African slaves as French sugar plantations spread across the western coast of that island, forming the nucleus of the modern nation of Haiti.

The End Of An Era

The decline of piracy in the Caribbean paralleled the decline of the use of mercenaries and the rise of national armies in Europe. Following the end of the Thirty Years' War the direct power of the state in Europe expanded. Armies were systematized and brought under direct state control; the Western European states' navies were expanded and their mission was expanded to cover combating piracy. The elimination of piracy from European waters expanded to the Caribbean in the 1700s, West Africa and North America by the 1710s and by the 1720s even the Indian Ocean was a difficult location for pirates to operate.

After 1720, piracy in the classic sense became extremely rare in the Caribbean as European military and naval forces, especially those of the British Royal Navy, just became too widespread and active for any pirate to pursue an effective career for long. Pirates who were caught were usually hanged as soon as the British returned to port. Piracy saw a brief resurgence between the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 and around 1720, as many unemployed seafarers took to piracy as a way to make ends meet when a surplus of sailors after the war led to a decline in wages and working conditions. At the same time, one of the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the war gave to Great Britain’s Royal African Company and other British slavers a thirty-year asiento, or contract, to furnish African slaves to the Spanish colonies, providing British merchants and smugglers potential inroads into the traditionally closed Spanish markets in America and leading to an economic revival for the whole region. This revived Caribbean trade provided rich new pickings for a wave of piracy. Also contributing to the increase of Caribbean piracy at this time was Spain's breakup of the English logwood settlement at Campeche and the attractions of a freshly sunken silver fleet off the southern Bahamas in 1715.

This early 18th century resurgence of piracy lasted only until the Royal Navy and the Spanish Guardacosta’s presence in the Caribbean were enlarged to deal with the threat. Also crucial to the end of this era of piracy was the loss of the pirates' last Caribbean safe haven at Nassau. It is in this period that the popular Pirates of the Caribbean film series produced by the Walt Disney Company is loosely set.

The famous pirates of the early 18th century were a completely illegal remnant of a golden buccaneering age, and their choices were limited to quick retirement or eventual capture. Contrast this with the earlier example of Henry Morgan, who for his privateering efforts was knighted by the English Crown and appointed the governor of Jamaica.

Privateering would remain a tool of European states, and even of the newborn United States, until the mid-19th century's Declaration of Paris. But letters of marque were given out much more sparingly by governments and were terminated as soon as conflicts ended. The idea of “no peace beyond the Line” was a relic that had no meaning by the more settled late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Famous Caribbean Pirates

Perhaps the most famed pirate from this period was known as “Blackbeard.” He was born about 1680 in England as Edward Thatch, Teach, or Drummond, and operated off the east coast of North America in the period of 1714-1718. Noted as much for his outlandish appearance as for his piratical success, in combat Blackbeard placed burning slow-match (a type of slow-burning fuse used to set off cannon) under his hat; with his face wreathed in fire and smoke, his victims claimed he resembled a fiendish apparition from Hell. Blackbeard's ship was the two hundred ton, forty gun frigate he named the Queen Anne's Revenge. Blackbeard met his end at the hands of a British fleet specifically sent out to capture him. After an extremely bloody boarding action, the British commanding officer of the fleet, Lieutenant Robert Maynard, examined Blackbeard’s body and discovered that it had taken five bullet wounds and twenty slashes with a cutlass before the pirate had finally died.


Henry Morgan
Henry Morgan a Welshman was one of the most destructive English robber captains of the seventeenth century. Although Morgan always considered himself a privateer rather than a pirate, several of his attacks had no real legal justification and are considered piracy. A bold, ruthless and daring man, Morgan fought England’s enemies for thirty years, and became a very wealthy man in the course of his adventures. Morgan’s most famous exploit came in late 1670 when he led 1700 buccaneers up the pestilential Chagres River and then through the Central American jungle to attack and capture the “impregnable” city of Panama. The city’s capture was not much of a financial coup, as most of its wealth had been removed before the English attack and the remainder had been destroyed by a fire that swept the city even as Morgan had captured it. However, the sack of Panama City was a deep blow to Spanish power and pride in the Caribbean and Morgan became the hero of the hour in England (and also lent his name to a popular brand of present-day rum). At the height of his career, Morgan had been made a titled nobleman by the English Crown and lived on an enormous sugar plantation in Jamaica. Morgan died in his bed, rich and respected—something rarely achieved by pirates in his day or any other.


Bartholomew Roberts
Less famous than Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts was far more successful, capturing and pillaging more than 400 ships. He started his freebooting career in the Gulf of Guinea in 1719 when Howell Davis's pirates captured his ship and he proceeded to join them. Rising to captain, he quickly came to the Caribbean and plagued the area until 1721. He commanded a number of large, powerfully armed ships, all of which he named Fortune, Good Fortune, or Royal Fortune. Efforts by the governors of Barbados and Martinique to capture him only provoked his anger; when he found the governor of Martinique aboard a newly captured vessel, Roberts hanged the man from a yardarm. Roberts returned to Africa in 1721, where he met his death in a naval battle and his crew were captured.


Stede Bonnet
Probably the least qualified pirate captain ever to sail the Caribbean, Bonnet was a sugar planter who knew nothing about sailing. He started his piracies in 1717 by buying an armed sloop on Barbados and recruiting a pirate crew for wages, possibly to escape from his wife. He lost his command to Blackbeard and sailed with him for some time as a guest or prisoner. Although Bonnet briefly regained his captaincy, he was captured and hanged before he could return to the West Indies.


Charles Vane
Charles Vane, like many early 18th century pirates, operated out of Nassau in the Bahamas. He was the only pirate captain to resist Woodes Rogers when Rogers asserted his governorship over Nassau in 1718, attacking Rogers' squadron with a fire ship and shooting his way out of the harbor rather than accept the new governor's royal pardon. Vane's quartermaster was Calico Jack Rackham, who deposed Vane from the captaincy. Vane started a new pirate crew, but he was captured and hanged in Jamaica in 1720.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read
Anne Bonny and Mary Read were undoubtedly the most famous pirates never to hold the position of captain; both spent their brief sea-roving careers under the command of Calico Jack Rackham. They are noted chiefly for their feminine sex, highly unusual for pirates, which helped to sensationalize their 1720 trial in Jamaica. They gained further notoriety for their ruthlessness - they are known to have spoken in favor of murdering witnesses in the crew's counsels - and for having resisted far more fiercely than their male crewmates when Rackham's ship was taken. The capstone to their legend is that they alone of all Rackham's crew escaped execution, as both were newly pregnant at their trial and their sentences were commuted to avoid harm to their unborn children.


Calico Jack
Calico Jack was only a moderately successful pirate who is remembered mainly because of his association with the two most famous women pirates in history: Mary Read and Anne Bonny, whom all shared sexual affairs. It has been claimed he fathered their children but has not been proven.


Captain Kidd
William "Captain" Kidd is remembered for his trial and execution for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean. Some modern historians deem his piratical reputation unjust, as there is evidence that Kidd acted only as a privateer. His fame springs largely from the sensational circumstances of his questioning before the British Parliament and ensuing trial. His actual depredations on the high seas, whether piratical or not, were both less destructive and less lucrative than those of many other contemporary pirates and privateers.


Thomas Anstis
Thomas Anstis was an early 18th century pirate, who served under Captain Howell Davis and then Captain Bartholomew Roberts, before setting up on his own account, raiding shipping on the eastern coast of the American colonies and in the Caribbean during what is often referred to as the "Golden Age of Piracy".


Samuel Bellamy
Though his career as a pirate captain lasted less than a year, Bellamy and his crew captured more than 50 ships before his death at age 29. Called "Black Sam" because he eschewed the fashionable powdered wig in favor of tying back his long black hair with a simple band, Bellamy became known for his mercy and generosity toward those he captured on his raids. This reputation gained him the second nickname of the "Prince of Pirates," and his crew called themselves "Robin Hood's Band."


Jean Lafitte
Lafitte claimed never to have plundered an American vessel, and though he engaged in the contraband slave trade, he is accounted a great romantic figure in Louisiana. The mystery surrounding Lafitte has only inflated the legends attached to his name. Lafitte's lost treasure has acquired a lore of its own as it, like his death, was never accounted for. He reportedly maintained several stashes of plundered gold and jewelry in the vast system of marshes, swamps, and bayous located around Barrataria Bay.


François l'Ollonais
Jean-David Nau better known as François l'Ollonais, was a French pirate active in the Caribbean during the 1660s. L'Ollonais first arrived in the Caribbean as an indentured servant during the 1650s. By 1660, his indenture was complete and he began to wander the various islands, before finally arriving in Saint-Domingue and becoming a buccaneer, preying on Spanish shipping in the region.


Edward Lowe
Edward 'Ned' Lowe (or Low, or Loe), often known as Ned Low, was a notorious pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy. His pirate flag featured a black flag with a red skeleton. Lowe is also famous as one of the more brutal pirates, inflicting torture and cruel acts to his victims.



In the Caribbean the use of privateers was especially popular. The cost of maintaining a fleet to defend the colonies was beyond national governments of the 16th and 17th centuries. Private vessels would be commissioned into a 'navy' with a letter of marque, paid with a substantial share of whatever they could capture from enemy ships and settlements, the rest going to the crown. These ships would operate independently or as a fleet and if successful the rewards could be great — when Francis Drake captured the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios (Panama's Caribbean port at the time) in 1573 his crews were rich for life. This was repeated by Piet Hein in 1628, who made a profit of 12 million guilders for the Dutch West India Company. This substantial profit made privateering something of a regular line of business; wealthy businessmen or nobles would be quite willing to finance this legitimized piracy in return for a share. The sale of captured goods was a boost to colonial economies as well.


Specific to the Caribbean were pirates termed buccaneers. Roughly speaking they arrived in the 1630s and remained until the effective end of piracy in the 1730s. The original buccaneers were escapees from the colonies; forced to survive with little support, they had to be skilled at boat construction, sailing, and hunting. The word "buccaneer" is actually from the French boucaner, meaning "to smoke meat", from the hunters of wild oxen curing meat over an open fire. They transferred the skills which kept them alive into piracy. They operated with the partial support of the non-Spanish colonies and until the 1700s their activities were legal, or partially legal and there were irregular amnesties from all nations.

Traditionally buccaneers had a number of peculiarities. Their crews operated as a democracy: the captain was elected by the crew and they could vote to replace him. The captain had to be a leader and a fighter—in combat he was expected to be fighting with his men, not directing operations from a distance.

Spoils were evenly divided into shares; when the officers had a greater number of shares, it was because they took greater risks or had special skills. Often the crews would sail without wages—"on account"—and the spoils would be built up over a course of months before being divided. There was a strong esprit de corps among pirates. This allowed them to win sea battles: they typically outmanned trade vessels by a large ratio. There was also for some time a social insurance system, guaranteeing money or gold for battle wounds at a worked-out scale.

One undemocratic aspect of the buccaneers was that sometimes they would force specialists like carpenters to sail with them for some time, though they were released when no longer needed (if they had not volunteered to join by that time). Note also that a typical poor man had few other promising career choices at the time apart from joining the pirates. According to reputation, the pirates' egalitarianism led them to liberate slaves when taking over slave ships. However there are several accounts of pirates selling slaves captured on slave ships, sometimes after they had helped man the pirates' own vessels.

In combat they were considered ferocious and were reputed to be experts with flintlock weapons (invented in 1615), but these were so unreliable that they were not in widespread military use before the 1670s.

Captain William Kidd hanged in 1701 in London - Click To Enlarge