Pirates are not actually perpetually roaming the seven seas. They’re always somehow attached to local communities. Stamp out one base and the pirates may simply migrate elsewhere. Sink one ship and another may be stolen. Eradicating entire coastal pirate-friendly settlements, attempted in both the Americas and Asia, is expensive and upsetting to one’s citizens. Worse, it tends to be, at best, a temporary fix because it doesn’t eliminate the motivations to turn pirates.
A Tool for Foreign Relations
Piracy is a local good, but a global evil, which often makes the challenge of pirate repression local as well. While piracy has never been entirely stamped out, it has been reduced, sometimes drastically, in specific contexts, such as in the Atlantic after 1726, the Mediterranean after 1830, the China seas after 1956. But even this more particular wrist type of control is notoriously difficult to pull off. For one thing, it’s surprisingly difficult to get everyone necessary for the job to agree that piracy should be repressed and band together rather than hoping that piracy can be used as an enemy of my enemy kind of tool for foreign relations.
Once a group of locals, merchants, or even government decides piracy needs attention, there are two basic approaches that can be attempted separately or in tandem. These are, changing the socioeconomic conditions that make piracy appealing via amnesty, employment or bribery, or using military powers to battle and intimidate pirates. Historians disagree even today, not only on what tactics work best, but also sometimes on whether that generally agreed upon fall offs and pirating really happened is commonly believed.
What Pirate Hunters Need
To begin with, let’s take a look at the more popular solution, violence. So, if we want to see some pirates hunted down, what do we need?
Centuries of experience suggests that a pirate hunter needs the right kind of ship for the terrain. A maneuverable, heavy, well-armed ship of the line maybe for deep sea hunting or something smaller and faster for hunting along the coast. So maybe one also needs a consort, a group of ships, even a fleet. We need fresh supplies on demand, a good intelligence about where to find the pirates.
Needless to say, it helps a great deal if one has the support of local communities, rather than having to worry that everyone who sees us might pass along intelligence and try to shelter the pirates who spend their money in town, while selling tea or spices or the enslaved at discount rates.
Unfortunately, in this tall list of things that the pirate hunters should have, lies the problem. It is that, frequently, they haven’t got all these elements. In fact, often, they’re missing most of them.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Playing Hard to Catch
Pirates often enjoy the protection of local communities and even officials, particularly in the Caribbean. This was the place where European settlers were hard pressed because the protectionist navigation acts guaranteed that the colonies would stay cash poor compared to Mother England.
Even setting aside local connivance, pirates were often just playing hard to catch. Near the coastline, pirates often had a considerable home field advantage, knowing the shoals and shallows better than their pursuers. If their ships were clean and in good repair, they would also often be much faster than a naval ship sent from far off to hunt them.
Far from the coastline, where the ocean is really big, the problems differed. Large, powerful ships manned by naval sailors with good gunnery were expensive to produce. There weren’t that many, and there was a great need for them to serve functions other than pirate hunting in the Mediterranean and near the European theatres as well in the Caribbean. Moreover, unless one had quite a few of them, patrolling, pirates could often just steer clear.
There’s a series of episodes in Captain Charles Johnson’s book, General History of the Pyrates, regarding Black Beard and his powerful flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, that convey some of the challenges faced by pirate hunters. The Queen Anne’s Revenge had been the capacious French merchant Concorde. Black Beard had taken and renamed the ship, but released most of the crew, minus the surgeons, carpenters, and an unnamed black trumpeter, to provide vital musical accompaniment.
In any case, Blackbeard went cruising in his shiny new 36 gunship with its complement of 250 men, the majority of whom were apparently willing to be there. After some time, the General History records that the HMS Scarborough, a 5th rate ship of the line with 30 guns and 140 men, was sent from Barbados to deal with him.
Johnson tells us that the ships engaged with each other and a battle ensued for several hours, the conclusion of which was that the Scarborough peeled off and headed back to port, defeated.
A Made-up Episode?
It’s certainly possible that the better man pirate ship could have stood toe to toe with the Scarborough, even allowing for the fact that naval ships typically were able to achieve a higher rate of fire. In fact, the Scarborough was undermanned, in part because many of her compliment were reportedly ill with tropical fevers.
However, it seems far more likely that the encounter never actually happened. Except for Johnson’s reference, there’s no record of it. Their exciting episode of their battle seems to have been made up out of confusion or wishful thinking. Later, in 1718, the Scarborough and another ship were, again, or perhaps for the first time, sent to hunt for Black Beard’s ship, which had been reported near the Leeward Islands. But their intelligence came too late. They never even spotted it.
Common Questions about the Near-impossible Job of Stamping Out Piracy
The ways in which piracy can be tackled include changing the socioeconomic conditions that make piracy appealing via amnesty, employment or bribery and using military powers to battle and intimidate pirates.
Near the coastline, pirates often had a considerable home field advantage, knowing the shoals and shallows better than their pursuers.
Black Beard renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. He released most of the crew, minus the surgeons, carpenters, and an unnamed black trumpeter, to provide vital musical accompaniment.