By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
The Elizabethan sea dogs were heroes in England. They were authorized in 1560 during Elizabeth’s reign to carry Anti-Spanish commissions. The sea dogs were varied, colorful men who could be hard to control at times. Among other things, the sea dogs were bold explorers, and to some extent, exploration in the 16th century had always involved piracy.
Colonial Trade Monopolies
In the 15th century, the Church of Rome, via Popes Nicholas V and Alexander VI, had declared that the land and resources of India and the African continent were destined for Portuguese control and the Americas were likewise allocated exclusively to Spain. This was modified a bit to account for Brazil which went to the Portuguese and the Philippines which the Spanish colonized. Obviously, the people already living in the lands outside Europe were not consulted, and in the 16th century, the other monarchies of Europe, some of which by then were Protestant, made clear that they also were not thrilled with these colonial trade monopolies.
Nations began to develop clandestine triangle trading routes, which were risky but often hugely profitable. By the 1600s, most trading routes that involved Africa meant trading enslaved captives. Meanwhile, privateers and pirates picked off whatever they could: captives, goods, or gold from the legal Portuguese and Spanish ships, ventures that were likewise both risky and rewarding. Not infrequently, the sailors who engaged in the illegal trading and the sailors who did the pirating overlapped.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
England: ‘A Nation of Pirates’
Nowhere was this overlap so marked as it was in England. In the 16th and 17th centuries, England garnered a reputation among its trading partners for being something of ‘a nation of pirates’. This is not because everyone in England was suspected of actually being a pirate; instead, it was a sign of how deeply implicated piratical and pirate adjacent activities were in the English economy and political system.
Further, as with the Buccaneers, the predations of English pirates were often partly justified by anti-Catholic sentiments as well as economic motives.
Thriving Privateers and Pirates
The mercantile system that dominated European trade focused on closed markets, high profits, and protectionist measures like import bans and high tariffs. It also tacitly encouraged poor working conditions for sailors; in other words, it was a system set up, however unintentionally, to goose black market trading.
Privateers and pirates thrived because they could easily find merchants willing to back them and trade with them, and there were plenty of politicians, gentry, and admiralty officials, not to mention occasionally the Queen, who were willing to protect them.
To be fair, the administration of Elizabeth I did try to put a damper on open acts of piracy, but this was exceedingly difficult to do because there was so much local support of its practices among both local gentry and some powerful noble families, particularly in the West Country.
Pirates Versus Privateers
Piracy, as far as the English were concerned, until the 1670s or so, had many things to be recommended. It encouraged trade mariners and brought home profits, although it could be diplomatically inconvenient at times.
English privateers from a Spanish or Portuguese point of view were hard to distinguish from pirates. Their rapacity was considerable, and their targets militarily advantageous for the motherland. But from the English perspective, English pirates were often hard to distinguish from privateers. They most often ran disciplined, accountable ships with regular crews, and they really harassed English targets.
Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, the first ever completed by an Englishman, was in many ways an openly piratical trip. His ships were by no means run like a buccaneering venture. Indeed, he kept taut discipline, at one point even putting one of his noble commanders on trial. Thomas Doughty, imprisoned by Drake on very thinly supported charges of witchcraft and mutiny, was ultimately beheaded. Drake never precisely proved that he had any right to do this and not all of the men in his fleet felt easy about the decision, but ultimately everyone was willing to bow to his supremacy as the Commander.
Expansion of Irish Deep Sea Piracy
The early 17th century also saw an expansion of Irish deep sea piracy. James I, who succeeded Elizabeth I, did not share her liking for pirates or for war with the Spanish. But while he cracked down considerably on the operational ease of English piracy on the English coastline, Ireland was barely troubled by naval patrols at all. For a while, southwest Ireland became a safe haven for as many as 1000 or 2000 pirates at a time, with local communities happy to trade with and shelter groups of rovers who would pay well for their favor.
It was also handy that Ireland and England had legal differences when it came to piracy.
For example, there was ‘benefit of clergy’, which was a very longstanding legal custom through which people accused of crimes could make a claim for mercy by declaring themselves ecclesiastical. After 1351, to do this, one just needed to pass a literacy test. Elizabeth I had strongly scaled back the uses of benefit of clergy in England. Piracy was not supposed to be clergiable in England, but in Ireland, pirates could still claim it and pirate officers at least were almost always literate.
Common Questions about Piracy and the Era of the ‘Sea Dogs’
In the 16th and 17th centuries, England garnered a reputation among her trading partners for being something of ‘a nation of pirates’. It was a sign of how deeply implicated piratical and pirate adjacent activities were in the English economy and political system.
The mercantile system that dominated European trade focused on closed markets, high profits, and protectionist measures like import bans and high tariffs. It also tacitly encouraged poor working conditions for sailors.
‘Benefit of clergy‘ was a very longstanding legal custom through which people accused of crimes could make a claim for mercy by declaring themselves ecclesiastical. After 1351, to do this, one just needed to pass a literacy test.