The Golden Age of Piracy

August 2022

Scholars debate the period when pirates actually ruled the waves – and the answer certainly depends on the location in question – but by general consensus it was all over by 1730 and it had begun some 80 years earlier, around 1650. The Golden Age of Piracy had been born in this crucial period when European maritime powers were flexing their muscles and starting to project naval power beyond the horizon. As empires grew so did the quantity and quality of trade and the seas became littered with merchantmen carrying indescribable wealth across the oceans. And yet this was a time when the maritime geographies of the new empires was imperfectly known, and when navigation was still as much guesswork as it was a science – this was the period immediately before the means to calculate longitude accurately had been discovered. The result was that ships carried this trade at predictable times of year, on predictable routes, in locations that were impossible to police adequately. Although European naval powers did create naval bases in the tropics, it was a slow process and one with many pitfalls. At the same time thousands of young men were learning how to sail and how to fight in a near endless series of maritime wars. The result? A period of piracy so intense and colourful that it still lives on today in myth, legend, and increasingly detailed and accurate histories. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with pirate historian Dr Jamie Goodall.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in Partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today we’re exploring that age old topic of piracy. Now I’ve come to this topic because I recently came across a survey of modern piracy. And this is from last year, that’s 2021. It shows us the number of incidents or attempted incidents of piracy is on the high seas, and there is some interesting results. There were two in Benin, five in Ghana, six in Nigeria, nine in Indonesia, and nine in the Philippines. However, there was a whopping 35 in the Straits of Singapore, we’ve made an interesting graphic, which shows this visually, so do check that out on Facebook and Instagram and Tiktok. I’m lucky enough to have actually been on piracy patrol in the Straits of Singapore with the excellent Republic of Singapore Navy, who have a significant force, highly trained individuals and a fleet of ships designed for the task. So that’s 35 incidents of piracy, in spite of their navy, you’ll be interested in the names of some of their vessels. Aa Corvette called the Victory, a frigate called Formidable, and an amphibious warfare vessel called Endurance. So, the Singapore Navy, they’re taking some strong inspiration from British naval and maritime history. Singapore is interesting, because you have a narrowing in the trade routes there between East and West, you have predictable trade routes, and you’ve also got lots of hiding spots, so it is really perfect for piracy. In the past all of these three things mattered. But piracy was far, far more widespread. Scholars debate the period when the pirates actually ruled the waves. And the answer certainly depends on the location in question. But by general consensus, it was all over by 1730. Prior to that, valuable maritime trade was fair game for any bold man or woman with local knowledge, a ship, a crew and some gunpowder and the Caribbean made particularly good hunting ground. Here was regular trade in immense wealth, and yet it happened in poorly charted waters, and was protected by only juvenile naval power. To find out more about the Golden Age of Piracy, I spoke with the excellent Dr. Jamie Goodall. Jamie is a historian at the US Army Centre of Military History. She has a PhD in history from The Ohio State University with specialisations in the Atlantic world, early American and military histories. She’s also a first generation college student. Her publications include a National Geographic Bookazine on global piracy “Pirates of the Chesapeake Bay from the colonial era to the oyster wars” , and her recently released book “Pirates and Privateers from Long Island Sound to Delaware Bay”. Jamie lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two boxer puppies called T J. and J. T. I very much hope you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoyed talking with her. Here is Jamie. Jamie, thank you very much indeed for talking to me today.

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    Thank you so much for having me, Sam.

     

    Sam Willis 

    No worries at all. So the Golden Age of Piracy. This podcast has been going for over a year. Yes. And I woke up in a cold fit. The other morning, I realised I hadn’t done pirates. So I thought you needed to come on, and we could talk about pirates. Let’s start with period. What is the golden age? What does that mean?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    Okay, so there’s a couple of different sort of periodisation’s for the Golden Age. Many scholars sort of look at the entirety of the spectrum, from about 1650 to 1730 as the Golden Age. Then others pinpoint it more specifically to this period about 1695 to 1713. So it just kind of depends on how you define the Golden Age and how you perceive the impact of piracy at a particular time period, or at this particular time period.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What are your views on that? What do you think is the most helpful way of thinking about it?

     

     

    So for me, I tend to look at the Golden Age of Piracy as operating between about 1650, but I carry it to about 1790. Just because I think that even though piracy has diminished quite significantly by the 1730s, we still see pockets of resistance into the later periods. And so I think 1790s kind of a good cut off in terms of discussing pirates in the Atlantic Caribbean world, specifically.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and we were saying 1650 is a good place to start. And it absolutely is because of the sudden burst and increase in piracy. But there are obviously origins which predate that as well. Pretty much as soon as the Spanish and the British and everyone come across, it all goes wrong.

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    Oh, yes, definitely.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Let’s talk a little bit about locations. I’m quite interested in that. Because if you start reading into piracy, you might think that it’s focusing in a pretty small area around the Caribbean. But that wasn’t the case. So tell me about sort of where piracy happened.

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    Yeah, so, of course, we tend to focus on the Caribbean islands, specifically islands, like Jamaica, or Barbados, but it sort of expands well beyond that. We have evidence of pirates operating off the coast of North America, from New England down into Florida, we see pirates operating off the coast of Bermuda, which doesn’t technically count as part of the Caribbean. They’re operating off the coast of West Africa and into the Gulf of Mexico along the South American coastline. So they’re kind of all over the place, they really operate wherever it is, that’s going to bring them the greatest opportunities for seizing a ship. And that sort of changes, depending on the year, what sorts of trade regulations are in place. And so that’s the sort of the concentration of pirates, if we’re looking at the Atlantic world, but a lot of the Atlantic world pirates also sort of start to shift into the Indian Ocean, and East Africa, specifically Madagascar, which was kind of a pirate Haven, because trade starts to shift into that region, in terms of greater riches. And so William Kidd, for example, probably one of the most prominent of our Golden Age pirates, if you will. He’s operating both in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, and so he’s not limiting himself or restricting himself to specific geographies.

     

    Sam Willis 

    The the question, actually, I suppose, is most answered by the presence of trade, because there’s, there’s great proof of piracy in the Roman world in the Mediterranean. And then, you know, 15th 16th 17th century out in Asia, Chinese suffered terribly from piracy, especially those kind of narrowing’s, like around modern Singapore, where, where trade kind of has to pass. And it’s very similar in, you know, the, the Atlantic world because in this age of sail, the problem was, is that everyone knew where the trade ships were going to arrive, because they were blown away by the wind, which never changed. That was, that was fascinating. But anyway, very much linked with trade and linked with Empire as well. I always thought it’s fascinating the way that piracy rises when wars between European powers diminish. And I suppose to understand the growth of piracy; we should talk a little bit about privateering as well to establish the difference. So can you tell us the difference between pirates and privateers?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    So, there’s been some debate on how to find privateers in comparison to pirates, particularly since contemporaries often used those terms interchangeably. That was something I found really interesting when I began my research into piracy was that there were a lot of government officials or merchants who didn’t distinguish between pirates or privateers. In terms of legality, a pirate is a commerce raider who operates without licence and disrupts the shipping of any nation so they were considered sort of the enemy of all nations. Whereas privateers technically, were commissioned to disrupt enemy trade so they were supposed to operate only in times of conflict. They were granted a letter of marque or a commission that could come from the crown. It could come from a colonial governor just sort of depends on time and place as to who has the authority to issue those letters of marque. And they were limited in terms of which nation’s ships they could attack. And what made it a legal prize as opposed to an act of piracy? I sort of look at it like this, there’s only two things really that separate a pirate from a privateer, and that is your letter of Marque, and the perspective from which you’re viewing the act. Because of course, the English when they are issuing letters of marque against the Spanish, they believe that they are doing this as a legal operation, at least under English law and that this is a patriotic sort of event, they are promoting the growth of the English empire, and they are undermining Catholic superiority. And they view this as a good thing. But the Spanish Of course, from their perspective, those letters of marque are meaningless. They are not bound by Spanish law and to the Spanish, they’re just pirates, they do not view them as any sort of legitimate actor.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So is there a kind of a generally accepted Law of the Sea of this stage where everyone agrees about certain rules of behaviour?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    I don’t really think so I don’t think we see any sort of real cooperation in terms of defining some sort of common maritime law until we get to the 1730s. By that point, I think the nations had been fairly firmly established in the development of their overseas colonial empires. And they sort of realised that it was better for them to work together to stamp out things like piracy, than trying to deal with it individually, especially, you know, through 1650s to 1690s 1700, we sort of see, especially the English pirates, they, for the most part, focused their attacks on foreign ships, they tended to leave English ships alone, with obvious exceptions. By the time we get to 1700 to 1730, the English pirates, for example, are attacking any ship, including English ships, they’re actually sort of making English ships a target in ways they hadn’t necessarily done so before. And so I think, during the height of piracy, in this particular region, there’s no real consistency in how pirates are sort of defined and what the implications of piracy are and how pirates are treated in terms of the law.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, so that’s one of the one of the ways that piracy actually benefited the maritime world in a very strange way, because it did bring people together and, and to focus on it. So you know, all the the eradication and the laws that were produced in the 1730s, you’re very much born from the experiences that had happened in the previous, I don’t know, 80 years or so. Let’s just go back to 1650. We talked about it all kind of blowing up then why what happened in 1650.

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    By 1650, the English who were well behind the Spanish in terms of their colonisation efforts, by 1650, they’ve sort of hit their stride in terms of their colonisation efforts. And there’s a greater push towards disrupting Spanish trade. There are also greater connections between the different nations and these various ports, whether those ports cities are in North America, South America, the Caribbean, West Africa, and we just see an explosion of trade around that time period, and it becomes a lot more effective and a lot more profitable than it had in earlier decades. So it’s sort of it’s a very Anglo centric sort of situation, in the sense that prior to maybe 1630 with the existence of William Claiborne in the Chesapeake, we don’t have specific instances of multiple piratical incursions that that we can sort of speak to. And so I think a lot of it just has to do with the rise of the English.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I think a lot of it has to do with as well with knowledge, the eradication of piracy I’m talking about here, to do with knowledge of the area, it’s easy to assume that just because the English and the Spanish were in the Caribbean and in America in the 1650s, that we actually knew what was there but we didn’t, there weren’t any kind of detailed charts that all the old the really good soundings of the harbours, the detailed charts, all the stuff you need to police an area don’t exist. It is it is this this kind of it’s a geographically unknown area. And I think that’s often overlooked in favour of people worrying about rules. Yes. What type of treasure were these pirates after?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    Oh, that’s always my favourite question. It’s one of my favourite myths to bust is that we have this sort of romanticised notion that pirates are out there getting gold and jewels and silks and all sorts of, you know, luxurious items. In reality, by the time we hit that sort of rise of piracy, and its heyday, the Spanish have learned how to successfully protect their silver ships, their their treasure ships, if you will. It was not in a pirate’s best interest, usually to try to attack an entire convoy of Spanish ships just to get to a treasure ship. By and large, pirates are really just stealing everyday commodities, which turn out to be incredibly profitable, they’re stealing linens, they are taking timber, and they are stealing rum and Madeira wine. Any sort of commodity they can get their hands on, one of the most profitable that pirates came across, was unfortunately, the enslaved Africans that are being forcibly transported from West Africa, to the colonies. We have this romantic idea that pirates were these proto egalitarian floating democracies. It’s true that some pirates were what we would consider progressive in that way. But a lot of pirates had absolutely no issue, participate in the in the barbaric trade of enslaved people.

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    I suppose it’s question of what they, what they’re actually doing really does raise the other question of who they are. Who are these pirates? Where did they come from? What do we know about their lives?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    The vast majority of pirates are sort of indistinguishable from the general population. They are average men, typically, who operated in maritime trades, whether they were, working on merchant ships, whether they were members of the Royal Navy. They are fathers, they are brothers, they are husbands and, and that sort of thing. They’re just these generic guys, I’m sure there were some who were the sort of stereotypical down on luck, impoverished individuals, or those who were just seeking adventure. By and large, they’re just average men, sometimes women. I find it really interesting to sort of think about pirates with respect to the idea not only of having a family, which we tend to, associate pirates as these swashbuckling single men, but their intimate ties to the land. Again, we sort of envision pirates as these, you know, water bound figures, who only touched land to sell their goods and go to brothels and taverns. We have so much evidence of them settling down and buying land and investing in their communities having strong community ties, and owning businesses, for example. So just this sort of notion that pirates were men who lived normal lives.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s a really refreshing way of looking at it because we’re so focused on the, the the, the real stars of the pirate world. You know, the ones who had kind of biographies written about the record, there are so many who just lived their lives. I’m always interested in the moment of turning pirate? So So at some point these guys weren’t pirates, right? A few of them were born pirates. And they become they at some point, something happens. Do we know any anything about that or any good stories?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    There’s a few different primary ways that somebody would decide to turn pirate or go upon the account as they called it. The first was through mutiny as a result of being upset about their conditions on either a merchant vessel or as a member of the Royal Navy. Particularly in the Royal Navy, a lot of the lower ranking sailors were not treated very well, to say the least, they were brutally beaten, they had their pay withheld, they often had minimal food rations, and the only thing they really had to look forward to was their rum ration. So mutiny was not necessarily uncommon in those sorts of instances. Those who did mutiny would sometimes decide to turn pirate as they viewed it as a profitable enterprise. The other way is just being in a Tavern and overhearing somebody say that they’re going to go pirating and being, I need the money, or I want the adventure, let me join you. If people were impressed into service on pirate ships, especially if you had the skills that they were looking for, specifically surgeons and navigators, they were very prized on pirate ships. Those are kind of the primary ways, my favourite way of becoming a pirate would be Stede Bonnet or Stead bonnet, however you want to say his name. He was a wealthy merchant in Barbados. He, by all accounts had this great life. Okay. He didn’t want that life anymore. So he ditched his wife and kids sold his business, bought a ship and hired a pirate crew. It’s not the most effective way of becoming a pirate, because of course, the the men expected him to continue to pay them rather than operating on the typical look for prey, sort of system. He was so ineffective that even Blackbeard said ‘ I can’t do this.’ So he’s my favourite example of sort of this midlife crisis, seeking adventure kind of guy

     

    Sam Willis 

    Very good. I liked the story of William Kidd. Do you know that one?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    He’s really interesting, especially after his marriage to Sarah Bradley Cox ort Kidid, she, she married a lot. But this idea of being solicited as a pirate hunter, and then somehow finding yourself instead, while all the time claim that you’re not a pirate. He was very interested in this idea of offering his services to the government then be like, just kidding.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Very briefly, I kind of I jumped in on our listeners a bit, William Kidd is commissioned by the British to go and hunt pirates in the Indian Ocean. And then once he’s out there, he turns around goes, Ah, well, actually, I’m going to become a pirate and start stealing stuff. Do you think? Do you think he decided on the spur of the moment, or he was going to do it all along?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    I don’t know that he initially designed it that way. I know, for example, he was on a ship called Blasted William, his crew mutinied against him because he wouldn’t turn pirate. In an act of revenge, he offers services to the newly established English government in New York. That’s sort of his first foray into becoming a pirate hunter, with his intention being to take revenge on the crew that mutinied against him. I think once he saw the significant riches that were to be had in the Indian Ocean and the fact that even though a lot of those treasure ships were also in protective convoys, they were not necessarily as protected as the Spanish I think he just decided, You know what, I’m not getting paid enough for this, especially when his crew started to turn on him. And he’s like, no, what? I’ll join. Let’s do this. We’ll be pirates. So I, I don’t know if it was spur of the moment necessarily. I think it was a, you know, a carefully laid out thought. But I don’t think it was his initial intention when he when he received the commission.

     

    Sam Willis 

    He might have been a literary genius, though, because I think he was writing his own story. It’s fantastic. He killed somebody, kills a member of his crew with a bucket, you couldn’t invent a more brilliantly piratical way of killing someone. Just losing your temper and smashing someone’s head in with it with a bucket? And also there’s, or I’m just hanging on? I’m talking off the top of my head here. But isn’t he executed twice or something?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    I believe that’s the story that the first attempt at hanging did not do its intended purpose, and so they had to try again. I’m not sure how legitimate those claims were. I myself haven’t really read too much into the physical evidence we have in terms of the written record. But that is, I think, the overall belief.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Maybe there’s a challenge for one of our listeners. So if there’s someone out there, you’ve got to be got a bit of time free. I think. I’m sorry if I’m wrong, but I think William Kidd is the only man who is executed twice for piracy. And it would be nice to know what we know about that. I bet there are newspaper accounts and court records, it should be quite easy to find out about, just nip down to the British Library. While we’re talking about evidence, let’s carry on how we know about these pirates lives.

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    The vast majority of information we have regarding the pirates, at this time period, come from government records, whether those are trial transcripts of those who have been caught and accused of piracy, letters from governors to each other, to the Board of Trade and plantations, to various higher ranking officials, and the records of ports in terms of ships that are coming in and out, and keeping track if they can of illegitimate ships who are trying to remain off the record. That’s the vast majority. I also think that a lot of people have turned to the infamous Charles Johnson book, a history of pirates, which there is some element of truth in that book, he was a contemporary of the pirates. He’s getting some information from newspaper accounts and that sort of thing. We also know that he made up a lot of stuff, so it’s not the most effective source to use. My favourite is to use material culture evidence when we can find it, sunken ships, goods that had been seized from the pirates, that sort of thing. For example, there was a great underwater archaeology excavation at Port Royal in Jamaica, done by the nautical archaeology programme at I think it was Texas A & M. You basically get to see what that part of the island looked like because it sort of just fell into the ocean. The buildings are still laid out where they were, you can see objects still in their spaces. That’s where I learned a lot about tavern life in the Caribbean specifically.  I think those are the main kinds of evidence and then the fun evidence would be we have some letters from pirates families to the pirates, and from pirates to their families. There’s also a petition from a group of pirates wives whose husbands had been accused of piracy and sentenced to hang asking for their pardon. It’s difficult though because obviously, pirates are not keeping records themselves. For the most part, plausible deniability, very important in that line of work. You just have to sort of read into the sources with the knowledge and understanding that, especially being primarily government records, it is coming from a very particular stance, and a very particular perspective with a very specific purpose, which is usually to make that individual look good against the pirates.

     

    Sam Willis 

    In terms of archaeology it’s claimed that the ‘Queen Anne’s Revenge’ Blackbeard’s ship has been discovered, and the ‘Whydah’ Sam Bellamy’s ship, is that Sam Bellamy’s ship? Yes. Do you know anything about those two?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    I’ve read a bit about the alleged Queen Anne’s Revenge, or the excavation of the alleged Queen Anne’s Revenge. I mean, they’ve found some really interesting evidence that that sort of points towards it being the actual Queen Anne’s Revenge. At the same time, I think it’s difficult to say with certainty, just because there are no specific markings, there’s nothing that this is Blackbeard ship. Shipwreck excavations can be really difficult because you would think they just sink to the bottom, and then that’s it. The shifting sands under the water can sometimes shift materials away from the original location. It’s really interesting how shipwreck archaeologists and scholars sort of understand that material. And for the Whydah, that has, I think, stronger evidence for being the Whydah than being Sam Bellamy’s ship based on what we knew about it as a slaving vessel. And we could use that information in relation to the materials they found and the structure of the ship and the location is right in terms of what we know about the the storm that caused the Whydah to wreck?

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, it’s fascinating. I hope there’s more pirate ships discovered in the future. The beauty of it is, of course, is that we may well have found lots of ships that were used for piracy, but we don’t know about it. So there may be sitting on wonderful discoveries already. You’ve recently done a lot of research on piracy and privateering, in and around the area between Long Island and the Delaware Bay. Relatively small area in the whole history of piracy, but very fascinating. Tell us about why you did choose that particular location,

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    I decided to focus on that particular location, because as I was researching for my first book, which was on the Chesapeake Bay, I kept coming across records that were specific to primarily New York and Pennsylvania. I just thought, I would love to have included those stories and that information into the book I was writing, but especially writing for the history press, it is geographically bedded. So I was limited to just speaking about the Chesapeake Bay, so Maryland and Virginia. I collected all that evidence and thought that there was a important enough story to tell about that region. The history press agreed. So that’s sort of how I fell into writing a book specifically about that, that region,

     

    Sam Willis 

    What did you discover? I bet the Dutch were up to no good, they always are in maritime history.

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    I looked at that the sort of conflict that surrounds the establishment of New York or New Amsterdam. That conflict really sets the inhabitants up, specifically the merchants and even the government officials, for supporting and participating in piracy. They found it to be beneficial in terms of supplementing lost incomes or providing them with certain kinds of benefits. Especially New York, because of it being such a prominent port city. There’s so much trade going in and out some of the most wealthy merchants in the whole of the English colonies at that time, come from New York. You have William Van Cortlandt. There, are so many and they are the Rockefellers of their era. And so I think that just sort of lent itself really well for, for piracy to flourish in that particular region.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And it’s lovely being able to focus on these specific geographical areas, whether it’s the Caribbean or the Chesapeake Bay, or, Long Island and the Delaware. It makes you realise just the the immense scale of piracy and just how influential it was. So, do you think it’s fair to say that parents are not just historically interesting, but they’re also historically important?

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    Oh, absolutely. That was sort of the core argument of my doctoral dissertation, which was then supported by the brilliant book published by Mark Hanna, which came out the year I submitted my dissertation. I found that for a lot of these colonies, especially the English North American colonies, and several of the colonies throughout the Caribbean, that at least for a period, pirates are incredibly beneficial to those islands economies and livelihoods. In many cases, pirates were providing protection for those colonies when the Royal Navy, for example, was incapable of sending vessels to protect their colonies from attack by the Spanish or the French. So for a lot of people, they appreciated the pirates coming to their island or their colony because they brought goods, especially goods that may or may not have found their way into that particular colony. They did so in a way that lowered the price of purchase for those items, and so more people were able to enjoy what we would consider luxury goods than might have otherwise. It gave the governments a chance to sort of really establish themselves in those regions. But it turns out the pirates are kind of their own worst enemy in that they’re so effective at enabling these colonies to become firmly established, and securing their own economies that there reach a point where the pirates no longer necessary and so they become viewed as a burden instead.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, there you have it, how the pirates shaped the Atlantic world rather than just tore it all apart. Jamie, thank you very much indeed for talking to me today.

     

    Jamie Goodall 

    Yeah, thank you for having me.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Many thanks indeed for listening in particular, do please check out the Mariners Mirror podcast, YouTube channel, Tiktok, and Instagram, where you will find out some truly magnificent videos, not least the quite brilliant new films on the world’s best ship models. Now this podcast comes from both Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Society for Nautical Research. So please do take the time to check out everything that both of those institutions have been up to. You can find the Lloyd’s Register Foundations History Centre and archive at hec.lr foundation.org.uk. And the Society for Nautical Research at snr.org.uk, where you can join up to enjoy all of the many, many perks of membership, including four copies of the printed mariners mirror journal every year, online access to over a century’s worth of maritime historical scholarship online seminars. And you can even come to dinner on board HMS Victory. What a treat

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