The Golden Age of Piracy


By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University

The Golden Age of piracy is divided into three periods, lasting approximately from 1650 to just before 1730, or from the rise of the Buccaneers to the near eradication of Atlantic Piracy. While piracy was never totally eradicated, it was reduced to an annoyance, rather than a threat, by the end of the first third of the 18th century.

An image of several pirate ships with dark clouds in the background
As with respect to pirates generally, the historical record of the Golden Age of piracy in the Caribbean rarely sustains the legends we grow up with. (Image: Campuchia/Shutterstock)

Rise of the Golden Age

The first period of piracy, from about 1650 to 1680, took place after the Thirty Years’ War, a messy conflict that altered the map of Europe and ended in 1648. It was dominated in the Caribbean by buccaneering. Buccaneers were a loose, very loose, coalition of English, French, and Dutch men around Jamaica, Tortuga, and Espanola, who hunted wild cows and pigs, jerked the meat, and sold it. Famous buccaneers include François l’Olonnais and Sir Henry Morgan.

United by their hatred of the Spanish, and desire for Spanish gold, the buccaneers allied with local privateers to raid the Spanish main, to the point that the terms buccaneer and privateer became synonyms. They also often partnered with Caribbean Indians, who had plenty of their own reasons for wanting to harass the Spanish. 

Buccaneers were of dubious legal status; although their nations were officially at peace, the rule in the Caribbean was no peace beyond the line, meaning that peace in Europe ended at some geographic point. The point was usually southwest of the intersection of the prime meridian and the Tropic of Cancer, leaving the buccaneers to believe they were free to attack the Spanish in the Caribbean as they pleased, while also keeping the relations among buccaneers of different nations a delicate affair.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Pirate Round

A drawing of Captain Tew
Captain Tew was one of the famous figures of the Pirate Round. (Image: Howard Pyle/Public domain)

Next, through the 1690s came the period of popularity for what was called the Pirate Round, which was a seasonal deep-sea sailing route. By 1680 or so, the English and French governments had made their policies hostile enough to Caribbean piracy that some of the piratically inclined started venturing into deeper waters, including the Red Sea and south seas. 

These pirates called themselves privateers, but they absolutely weren’t. They were sometimes known as Red Sea Men, for they harassed the richly laden, poorly defended vessels in the Indian Ocean. This was much to the consternation of both the Indian government and the British East India company.

While this looks like a turn away from Caribbean targets, it’s important to note that the North American slave trade, which included the Caribbean, was crucial to enabling Red Sea piracy. It guaranteed trading outposts, supplies, and easy passage home for successful pirates. Famous figures of the Pirate Round include Captain Tew, Captain Every, and Captain Kidd.

The Last Period

But the pirates we know best come from the last period of the Golden Age. The 1700s saw a new rash of pirating that lasted until the end of the 1720s, becoming especially severe at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. 

Spain, although their ability to enforce it was on the decline, claimed a trade monopoly in and around its colonies, and would treat even peaceful merchants like pirates. England, meanwhile, wanted to be able to trade within the Caribbean and the Americas unmolested. 

Most pressingly, the English wanted to gain a stronger foothold in the trade and enslaved African people that had been conducted primarily by the Spanish and Portuguese since the 16th century. 

In 1713, the British South Sea Company was granted the asiento, a Spanish license to transport enslaved Africans to Spanish colonies. These same events that led to this shift in white supremacist power also gave rise to a big upswing in piracy, that is, the war of the Spanish succession was over, and all the privateers who’d fought a semi-legal proxy war in the Caribbean waters were thrown out of work.

The Most Known Period of Piracy

The last period of piracy is the one we know the most about, in part because there were more newspapers and trial records tracking pirates’ movements than ever before.

However, as with respect to pirates generally, the historical record of the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean rarely sustains the legends we grow up with. For example, there was no particular pirate uniform in this period and part of the world. 

Pirates were usually seasoned professional sailors before and often after their excursions into illegal behavior. They wore slops, or other practical maritime clothing rather than stripy pantaloons. They might have worn scarves to protect their heads from the sun, but this was a mark of someone doing labor outdoors, not of piracy. 

Common Questions about the the Golden Age of Piracy

Q: When did the first period of piracy begin?

The first period of piracy began after the end of the Thirty Years’ War, which changed the map of Europe. This war ended in 1648 and then the first period of piracy began in 1650 and lasted until 1680.

Q: What is the Pirate Round?

The Pirate Round is the second period of piracy that took place through the 1690s. The Pirate Round was actually a deep-sea seasonal route used by pirates. Captain Kidd, Captain Tew, and Captain Every were famous figures of this period.

Q: Which period of piracy is considered the most known?

The last period of piracy, between the 1700s to 1720s, is considered the most known period. This period is more familiar to the public as more newspapers and trial records began to track down the pirates’ movements.

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