Contrary to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom (and Keira Knightly…), pirating was not nearly as crazy as the movies portray. Nor was it filled with adventures involving sea monsters and cursed, monstrous crews. It was, in essence, a business. But it was filled with interesting characters, global economic implications, and before-it’s-time political practices. It is a very popular, extremely brief, and poorly understood period in history that helped shape the Americas as we know it today.
The Beginning: Roasting Cows on Islands
Pirates were originally, and sometimes still are, referred to as buccaneers. This nomenclature comes from the French word boucaner, which is someone who roasts meat on a wooden structure. No, early pirates weren’t avid weekend bar-b-quers. In the 16th and 17th centuries they were, in fact, marooned sailors on the various tiny islands around Hispanola and Jamaica that lived off of cattle who had shared the same unlucky fate. By smoking the cows on the beach, passing merchant ships would often be tempted to stop and see if any trading could be done. The opportunistic marooned men would then attack the ships, stealing the vessel and its cargo. It was definitely a poorly organized and petty operation done out of a necessity to get the hell off an island, but from these humble beginnings grew a fearsome and lucrative enterprise.
While the smalltiming buccaneers were busy trying to take ships by luring them towards tiny islands, European nations were beginning to develop their New World empires. It is important to note that only Spain considered the Americas as a priority; the English, Dutch, and French all saw Asia as the land to exploit and concentrated most of their resources in the Far East. As a result, Spain came to dominate the New World in the early stages and began reaping huge rewards. The silver mines in Zacatecas, Mexico were turning out unheard of amounts of the shiny metal and all sorts of precious metals were being pillaged from the Incas in Peru.
The other European powers, namely the English, French, and Dutch, soon realized the immense potential of New World colonies and quickly rushed to catch up. One way to do this was stymie the wealth the Spaniards were shipping out of Panama City. But with much of the military tied up in European conflicts or protecting the Asian colonies, a more economical approach was taken: hire private ship crews to attack poorly guarded Spanish convoys in the Caribbean and Atlantic. Because Europe was pretty much constantly at war in some form or another during the 16th and 17th centuries, it was quite easy for a government to legally declare open season on other countries’ vessels in the Caribbean.
The early privateers – mainly British sailors – got to like their new, legal lifestyle of plundering ships and continued to do so once peace in Europe had been reached and the other European countries had gained a stronger foothold in the New World. Usually, this would have meant the end of piracy, as peace in the Caribbean among the countries was much more economical than warring. But across the Atlantic, Europe couldn’t get its stuff straight. Continuous wars and political upheaval allowed for the rampant, “illegal” piracy between 1650 and 1750.
With most military forces fighting in Europe, the waters of the Caribbean were nearly free of obstacles for pirates of any country. And the region was target rich, as African slave labor increased the production of Spanish precious metal mines. Pirate havens began to spring up around the Caribbean, with names that are still famous today: Port Royal in Jamaica, Nassau, and Tortuga. Privateers remained vital for all parties involved (save for the Spanish), because the European wars were not cheap and needed financing from the New World riches.
The men (and sometimes women) that took to the pirate life did so during this period under a certain country’s flag, most likely the one of their homeland. But they were less patriotic than they were opportunistic; the promise of personal riches and the freedom of sea were the real driving forces. It is also during this period that the most famous pirate figures strutted their stuff on the decks of cannon-laden ships. Henry Mo
rgan, that of the famous drink, was just as lethal as the rum named after him. A lifetime pirate with a career spanning three decades, he is best known for the audacious sacking of Panama City in 1670. Leading nearly 2000 pirates – one of, if not the, largest pirate armies ever assembled through the dense rainforest, Morgan took the city from behind and burned it to the ground. He later even became governor of Jamaica. Not bad for a pirate.
One of the most prolific pirates during this period was Bartholomew Roberts, a Welshman who captured almost 500 ships during his career. He was all about excess and efficiency; with a huge fleet of pirate ships, each armed to the tooth, he was able to patrol large swaths of water in search of prey.
Then of course there is Blackbeard, the archetype pirate. While his main claims to fame occurred off what is now the
east coast of the U.S, he did venture often into the Caribbean. Sporting a wide hat and wild hair, Blackbeard – aka Edward Teach – was about as outlandish as they come in the pirate world. He wrecked havoc upon his fellow country, the English, with his impressive fleet of ships, including the famous Queen Anne’s Revenge. During battle Blackbeard would light slow burning matches under his hat and in his beard, giving him the appearance of some kind of hellish monster. When he was eventually killed in 1718 it is said that he was shot five times and stabbed 20 before finally succumbing to death.
The End: No longer heroes
The end of the piracy good times, during the first half of the 18th century, can be attributed to a few things. One, the practice had just gotten to big. What was once a somewhat controlled way to effectively attack enemy colonies had turned into a nightmare of privately enterprising privateers like Blackbeard, who preyed on any ship, no matter the flag. Secondly, relative (emphasis on relative) had been reached in Europe and more naval resources could be sent to the Caribbean, nulling the need for privateers. And there had been a general change in philosophy towards pirates; where they had once commanded great admiration among their countrymen (i.e. Morgan becoming the governor of Jamaica), they were now hunted men to be hung upon capture. Despite their cunning and experience, pirate captains could not match up gun-for-gun with the hundreds of naval ships in the region. While piracy in the Caribbean continued somewhat regularly up through the 19th century, the romantic images of swashbuckling characters was long gone.