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Starting with the mid-17th century and lasting until the 1720s, the Golden Age of Piracy was a historical period that saw an explosion of piracy to such an extent that the daring cutlass-wielding sea robbers in certain years looted as many as half the merchant ships of the Caribbean region.
Some historians believe that thanks to the pirates' depredations, the commerce of the Caribbean nearly came to a halt.
Yet for all their successes and the absolute terror the pirates created, their fortunes declined by the mid-1720s, and never after did they become as powerful as they were in the 1710s. To understand why the pirates of the Caribbean were defeated, we first need to understand what were the factors that led to their rise in the first place, and in the first part of this article, I will look into these reasons.
Why Did Piracy Explode in the 1710s?
Historians generally divide the Golden Age of Piracy into three periods. The first period known as the Buccaneering period, lasted from the 1650s to the 1680s when it eventually fizzled out. The second period, also known as the Pirate Round, began in 1693 and lasted until 1701. While the final period, the most famous of them all, began in 1714 and lasted into the mid-1720s.
In this article, this final period will be my subject, so I will limit myself to dissecting the reasons why this period began in 1714.
One of the reasons why piracy subsided in the 1701-1714 period was the War of the Spanish Succession. By this time, the navies of the warring states were quite powerful, nonetheless still not large enough to defend their coasts, face the enemy and harass enemy commerce at the same time. Therefore, the rulers of Europe during the times of war granted privateering licences to venturing captains, allowing them to harass and loot the ships of the enemy. The privateers saw themselves as servants of their country and deemed it an honourable job; their enemies, however, saw them as little better than state-licensed pirates and often treated them as such when these men were captured.
This profitable business came to an end with the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. With peace established between Britain, the Dutch Republic, the Spanish Empire and France, privateering licences were withdrawn, and sailors demobilized, leaving thousands, if not tens of thousands, of men out of employment.
Of course, sailors could still find employment in the merchant ships and the royal navies; however, this prospect looked less than rosy for sailors who formerly served on privateer ships. Especially on the ships of the navy, discipline was harsh, and payment was hardly great either. On the privateering ships, the sailors received a share from the plunder they captured, giving them the possibility to enrich themselves in case of a rich picking, but no such option existed on merchant and navy ships.
It did not take long for disgruntled and unemployed sailors in the West Indies to conclude that returning to their old privateering life was much more desirable than serving for the enrichment of the elite of society. The only difference was now that they were not privateers serving the king but pirates serving themselves.
Led by a man called Benjamin Hornigold, the pirates relocated to New Providence Island sometime in 1714 and made it their new headquarter. The island was the perfect location for them, as from there, they could launch raids against the British colonies in America, against the Spanish Maine and against the islands of the Caribbean.
Furthermore, nobody was there to oppose their takeover of the island either, as, since 1702, when the Spanish razed Nassau and obliterated the British government of the island, the British failed to reestablish control over the island, leaving a power vacuum which Hornigold and his comrades eagerly filled in. There were a few hundred Britsh still on the island, but only the former chief justice tried to oppose Hornigold, but as more and more pirates moved to Nassau, he conceded that his efforts were hopeless and fled.
Initially, Hornigold and his man did not even have proper sailing ships but launched their attacks using sailing canoes, but they quickly captured ships, and using these, their raids became more and more harmful to the colonial powers of the area. During the first few years, the numbers of pirates were not great, but they soon received reinforcements.
When the Spanish treasure fleet was destroyed by a huge storm on the coasts of Florida, sailors from all corners of the Caribbean made their way to the coasts to “rescue” as much of that treasure as possible. The British governor of Jamaica sent his own privateers to the scene also, but he had bigger plans in his mind.
A firm Stuart supporter, the governor, equipped his own naval force of privateers, using which he wanted to secure his colony for the House of Stuart. His plans, however, were thwarted when the Jacobite rising in Britain was defeated by the supporters of the Hannoverian king George I. By the summer of 1716, orders arrived from London to remove the governor, and not much later, his privateers were declared pirates.
These men, the most famous of them all, Henry Jennings, probably never wanted to become pirates, but thanks to the political circumstances of the British Empire, now they had little choice and made their way to Nassau to join the Pirate Republic.
In the following year and a half, Hornigold, Jennings, Black Sam Bellamy, the newly rising Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, Christopher Condent, and La Buse, just to mention some of the most famous pirates brought absolute havoc to the Caribbean and the North American colonies of Britain.
The British Plans to Defeat the Pirates
With colonists, colonial officials and merchants sending desperate pleas for help, the British government finally decided to act. Typically for this period, their answer was a mixed private-government expedition, which aimed to reestablish British control over the Bahamas, most importantly over New Providence Island, which had become the real nest of the pirates.
Woodes Rogers was named as the new governor of the island, and it was he and his partners who formed a private company that raised an expedition force numbering some 500 men (soldiers and colonists) and four ships. The British Crown also lent its support by giving the expedition a naval consort of three ships from the Royal Navy.
Overall the force of Rogers was quite impressive, as, despite the great number of pirate ships, these pirates rarely controlled a fleet bigger than a few ships, and a concentrated attack with seven ships against Nassau was a formidable challenge even if the pirates were willing to resist the British.
However, Rogers hoped to take over the island without a fight. To this end, he and his partners, using all their influence, succeeded in securing pardons for all the pirates. Rogers already had some experience with pirates, as initially, he planned to become the governor of Madagascar, and under cover of doing business with the East India Company, he travelled to Madagascar to gather intelligence about the pirates. After meeting many of the pirates, Rogers became convinced that given the chance to (re)become citizens of Britain, most of the pirates would accept and even succeeded in convincing some of the pirates on the island to send a petition to King George. He found no support for his plans in Madagascar, but Rogers was convinced that the scheme could be made to work in Nassau also.
The pardons became official starting in late 1717, and the news of it reached Nassau at the beginning of 1718. The reaction to the British pardons was a rather mixed one, as the more moderate pirates led by Hornigold were overjoyed by the news( Jennings at the time was not there, but as he did not even want to become a pirate in the first place he also took the news well), a group of hardliners, on the other hand, were disgusted and lead by Charles Vane they intended to defend their freedom from the British.
Another group of pirates, similarly to Vane’s man, had no intention of giving up on pirating; however, they were less fanatical than Vane and simply decided to pack up and leave Nassau to find a new base from where they could continue their life as pirates. (These pirates generally headed to the east and raided and plundered the coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean, using Madagascar as their base.)
Woodes Rogers Victorious
Rogers arrived in Nassau in July 1718 and ordered a blockade of the harbour. The hardliners led by Vane, however, succeeded in escaping by breaking the blockade using a fireship. The rest of the pirates, led by Hornigold, greeted Rogers well, and soon the remaining pirates of the island took the pardons.
Nonetheless, despite his initial success in taking over Nassau, Rogers was soon hit by trouble. Unaccustomed to the tropical climate and diseases, his man started to get sick, and in total, over 80 of them died. His navy consort also decided to leave Nassau, as with Rogers successfully taking over the island; they considered their mission done.
While his forces were getting weaker and weaker, he received threatening messages from both Charles Vane and the Spanish authorities from Cuba. Rogers desperately tried to train his militia and strengthen the fort that was defending the harbour of Nassau, but much to his displeasure, he found out that the pardoned pirates were a very reluctant force to work with, and I am putting it very mildly.
Despite his disappointment in the slow work and morale of the workforce, Rogers was sure that if a foreign invasion came, the former pirates would help him to defend the island. If, on the other hand, it would be their former comrades invading the island, Rogers was not quite so sure.
After he fled from Nassau, Vane and his crew raided many ships, but he knew that alone, he could not retake Nassau from Rogers. He contacted his old friend Blackbeard and asked him to join his effort, but Blackbeard was uninterested. While Rogers retook Nassau, Blackbeard secured a pardon from Governor Eden of South Carolina and formed a mutually beneficial partnership with the governor.
Things went even worse for Vane a month later. He ran into a heavily armed French ship. Heavily outgunned, Vane wanted to run rather than risk death, but his crew had other thoughts. Using his absolute authority during the time of the battle, Vane ordered his crew to make a run, but once they were safe, the unhappy crew voted Vane out of his captaincy. He and a dozen loyalists were put on a sloop and left behind by the rest of the crew, led by their new captain, Calico Jack Rackham.
During the following months, Vane tried to rebuild, but he had no luck, and after a storm, he was stranded on a small island. He was captured by British authorities in the early months of 1719 and brought to trial in Jamaica. He was sentenced to death and hanged in May 1721.
With Vane’s capture and death, any chance of a pirate restoration of Nassau was gone. Many of the former pirates, of course, returned to their old habits, but any existential crisis threatening Nassau now was from Spain, but by February 1720, Rogers succeeded in sufficiently strengthening the defences of Nassau to frighten off the invasion force without a battle.
The remaining pirates remained active for much of the early 1720s, and one man, in particular, Bartholomew Roberts, caused much havoc wherever he went, but with many of them accepting pardons, the numbers of the pirates were now smaller than they used to be and with the loss of their bases in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean slowly, but surely the Golden Age of Piracy came to an end.
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Sherry, Frank. (2008). Raiders and Rebels: A History of the Golden Age of Piracy. Harper Perennial.
Woodard, Colin. (2008). The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Mariner Books
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler