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History Blog: The Golden Age of Piracy - Piracy and Law at Sea in the 18th Century

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Buccaneers were the second generation of fringe participants in the colonial economy. After buccaneers came the true, classic form of piracy we remember best today.

To be strictly accurate, true, free-agent, seagoing marauders have existed for as long as maritime commerce itself. However the pirates of the Eighteenth Century stand out, not just in their scale and success, but also in the impact they have had on culture after their time.

The End of Buccaneering

The buccaneers had existed on the basis of the tacit acceptance of colonial governments, since they were profitable raiders in wartime, and since there was still a great deal of wilderness on the frontiers where official patrols never found them.

With the end of Henry Morgan’s campaigns, however, those who had profited living the buccaneer lifestyle were increasingly regarded as loose cannons as governments and territories started to solidify.

The Eighteenth Century Seas

The logwood forests of Belize and the pastures of Hispaniola were now ineffective hiding places. Shipping lanes from Europe had encircled the whole globe. The opportunities for riches had also expanded in scope: Central American precious metals were joined by Chinese porcelain, Indian cloth, spice and opium, sugar, tobacco, exotic hardwoods, African slaves, gold and ivory and gems. The former adventurers, unwelcome in their original bases, had no choice but to become legitimate or sail farther afield, and commit to a life of crime at sea.

The People of Piracy

The Eighteenth Century was one of law and absolute kingship, and a time of harsh laws that executed men for the slightest infractions. It was also the age of naval press gangs, who kidnapped men for navy service. In such times, escape to the sea and piracy might have seemed preferable by comparison.

In addition to these, outcasts and the downtrodden of society often became pirates: several occasions are known of African slaves, their ships captured by pirates, aiding the attackers in taking the ship, and afterward becoming pirates themselves. Women also became pirates: Anne Bonnie and Mary Read, both officers of the pirate Jack Rackham, are the most famous examples of this.

Order Among Thieves

Like the buccaneers they were descended from, pirates were a brutal group of people: Anne Bonnie, before she went to sea, had, in an argument, cut off another woman’s nose. William Kidd enforced brutal discipline on his crew. Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard, deliberately played up a frightful image.

Having said that, keeping order among thieves demanded some kind of structure, and, borrowing from the ‘Brotherhood of the Coast’ institution of the buccaneers, pirate ships often possessed a constitution, banning violence among the crew, ensuring even division of loot, and providing for the removal of unpopular or unsuccessful captains.

Legacy

Those who ventured out became the classic pirates we know today: William Kidd, who started out as a contracted pirate hunter, he gave into a craving for action, and ended his days at Execution Dock. Blackbeard, who terrorized the Caribbean and American Coast. Calico Jack Rackham, whose variation on the famous ‘Jolly Roger’ flag features prominently in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and the last great pirate, Welshman Bartholomew Roberts, who was feared on both sides of the Atlantic.

The assertion of government naval power was unrelenting, and in the end, piracy simply faded away. Its stories and romance live on, and its place as a shelter for the exiles of society is a notable commentary on the progress of society.
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