In 1720, just before the final collapse of the Republic of Pirates era, pirate hunting was hardly a new pursuit. When it comes to the Golden Age, the most commonly sketched arc is that it declines rapidly in the 1720s and is essentially done with by 1726. It does seem that piracy was becoming less appealing in general, and more desperate overall, by the 1720s. Fewer men flocked willingly to the Jolly Roger, and tales of forced men grew.
Faulty Rules for Anti-pirate Forces
One view is that this slow choking off of piracy’s resources happened because of a deliberate, multipronged suppression campaign, undertaken by the British home government. Peter Earl makes this argument, but he also argues for problems with pirate hunting that were particular to the Golden Age and based particularly on avoidable mistakes made by anti-pirate forces.
The Admiralty liked to keep an eye on its bottom line, which could produce substandard working conditions. For example, crude undermanned ships, a scarcity of essential supplies like extra sails, rigging and ammunition. Worse, captains were required to buy supplies in England, rather than the West Indies. So, unless the captain somehow had a private fortune, and was willing to supplement, even medicines, and food ran short on long voyages.
Cruises were artificially shortened by the need to turn back across the Atlantic to resupply. And not unrelatedly. scurvy, and diseases like malaria and yellow fever, ran rampant.
Pirates, meanwhile, could make use of local markets, and were also perfectly willing to steal extra supplies needed.
But all these policy mistakes were pretty easily correctable, and Earl claims that, in the 1720s, they were largely reversed. Supplies were more plentiful, morale improved, captains made more effort to actually find some pirates.
In one of the most famous examples, Captain Ogle decisively defeated Captain Bartholomew Roberts, in 1722, striking a huge blow against the population of cruising pirates, and arresting hundreds of them. Roberts had died in battle.
In contrast, David Wilson says that piracy declined gradually because of a number of uncoordinated efforts. Wilson emphasizes the importance of British merchant lobbyists such as, the British East India company, but also tobacco merchants from the Chesapeake, and even Newfoundland Fishermen, bringing pressure to bear on the King, Parliament and Board of Trade.
The point was less to eradicate piracy than to stop particular pirates or clean out particular routes protecting Virginia slave traders or Jamaica Sugar planters, for example, but not the colonies as a general principle. Colonies with royal charters tended to be more hostile to pirates than private colonies. But then again, they also received a little more support against them. Both royal and private colonies sold commissions to privateers who could, and easily did, turn pirate given any temptation.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Not a War on Pirates
Furthermore, some of the most important steps taken against piracy were, Wilson contended, the result of work by independent individuals or groups than top down government imperative.
The capture of Stede Bonnet and Black Beard, happened because of questionably legal private actions taken by colonial governors without the direct support of London or the Admiralty. This was not a war on pirates. It was a series of independent skirmishes against specific pirates.
Woodes Rodgers was not appointed governor of the then Republic of Pirates Bahamas as a reward for his greatness as an explorer. Instead, Rogers persuaded the crown to grant him authority in exchange for his services with respect to the pirate problem.
He was doing it, in other words, as a sort of economic adventure backed by a company that hoped to turn a profit from the whole enterprise. Rogers was determined and it seems a reasonably devout and sincere man. But it’s difficult to see him here as motivated primarily either by patriotism or any other burning ideology.
A 1722 Anti-piracy Act made it more difficult, though not impossible, for naval commanders to wink at pirates while enriching themselves. And the steadily increasing presence of naval ships in the Western Atlantic began to work more effectively as a deterrent to piracy. At least some of the hunters became more dogged in their pursuits as well.
Most of Captain Thomas Anstis’s crew was tired of piracy and hoped only to hide in the woods of Tobago until they could find a way to return safely home. Alas for them, they were hunted down by Captain Humphrey Orme, over a period of several relentless weeks, and most of them ended up hanged.
Indeed, the punishments for piracy became markedly harsher in this period. By the 1720s, pirate trials were often conducted without benefit of jury, were a great deal more aggressive, and were executing thousands of pirates.
Unenthusiastic British Anti-piracy Forces
Between 400 and 600 accused pirates were hanged in the final decade of the Golden Age. During this period, the overall number of pirates operating in and around the Caribbean dropped, from about 2000, to about 200. This suggests around a quarter of the reduction was directly due to the hangman.
Earle, for one, felt this increased lethality of the trade was a moderately effective pirate deterrent. Guy Chet, however, argues that except for a few high-profile cases, British anti-piracy forces remained largely unenthusiastic even in the late period. Deep sea piracy, at least, continued to be accepted as part of the price of doing business and international trading.
Further, the argument that piracy declined across the 18th century, depends, in part, upon accepting the notion that the line between pirate and privateer was consistently demarcated, and that’s a difficult proposition to swallow on the whole.
Common Questions about the British Anti-pirate Forces and Decline of Piracy
This slow choking off of piracy‘s resources happened because of a deliberate, multipronged suppression campaign, undertaken by the British home government.
Captain Ogle decisively defeated Captain Bartholomew Roberts, in 1722, striking a huge blow against the population of cruising pirates, and arresting hundreds of them.
Most of Captain Anstis’s crew was tired of piracy and hoped only to hide in the woods of Tobago until they could find a way to return safely home.