Piracy in the Caribbean has always been a popular subject for people. There are many popular movie franchises, video games, fictional book series, and other references in pop culture that romanticizes pirates and their life. For whatever reason their life on the open seas and freedom to do as they please has captured the attention of many people, but their lives were much harder than many would believe.
Piracy in the Caribbean: The Rise of Pirates
With the demise of Spanish power in the Caribbean and the rise of other European powers there was a vacuum of power that would be filled with pirates and privateers. The Caribbean was fat with riches and pirates were able to find easy targets and create much wealth for themselves.
The Golden Age of Piracy was from 1650 – 1730 and ranged from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean. Most pirates had served in the navy and were familiar with naval warfare and for years had been underpaid and survived poor conditions. Bartholomew Roberts said this about the motives of pirates:
In an honest Service, there is thin Commons, low Wages, and hard Labour; in this, Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power; and who would not balance Creditor on this Side, when all the Hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sower Look or two at choaking. No, a merry Life and a short one shall be my Motto.
Pirates were also given legal status. Pirates that were given legal status were often called privateers. Privateers were used in the Caribbean by rival nations to attack treasure ships heading back to their home country. These raids were often lucrative and led to many privateers becoming pirates after their contracts expired.
These pirates became wealthy, influential, and dangerous. Various pirate seaports popped up over the Caribbean, the most notable ones were Port Royal in Jamaica, Tortuga in Haiti, and Nassau in the Bahamas. These seaports supported pirates and their activities for decades until pirates became more trouble than they were worth and were outlawed.
Another cause for the rise of pirate activity in the New World was the devastation of disease to the native population. Since the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 the native population of New Spain fell as much as 90% from its original numbers in the 16th century. This loss of native population led Spain to increasingly rely on African slave labor to run Spanish America’s colonies, plantations and mines and the trans-Atlantic slave trade offered new sources of profit for the many English, Dutch and French traders who could violate the Spanish mercantilist laws with impunity. But the relative emptiness of the Caribbean also made it an inviting place for England, France and the Netherlands to set up colonies of their own, especially as gold and silver became less important as commodities to be seized and were replaced by tobacco and sugar as cash crops that could make men very rich.
Piracy in the Caribbean: 1600 – 1660
The world had changed significantly since Christopher Columbus landed on San Salvador and unknowingly discovered a New World. Over the next century the Spanish Conquistadors would dominate the Caribbean and Spain’s Navy would remain unrivaled on the high seas. Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas, and they brought European diseases to the New World that would obliterate more native than any steel sword or cannon would. Gold would be plundered and new natural resources would be farmed.
However, by the end of the 16th century Spain’s power had begun to fade. The English, under Sir Francis Drake, had defeated the Spanish Armada. The English, French, Dutch, and the Portuguese had all begun to attempt and establish colonies in the New World. With Spain’s power on the decline and the other European powers on the rise but not powerful enough to dominate the Caribbean the remaining power vacuum was filled with pirates.
Also taking place during this time period was the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1638) and would end with Spain losing many men and resources which made their Caribbean easy targets. After ruling the world for almost 100 years, Spain finally was in decline and extremely vulnerable. The events in the Old World during the early to mid 17th century caused the events in the New World in the mid – late 17th century.
Piracy in the Caribbean: 1660 – 1726
The years 1660 – 1726 is labeled the Golden Age of Piracy due to all the pirate activity in the Caribbean.
By the late 17th century, the great Spanish towns of the Caribbean had begun to prosper and Spain also began to make a slow, fitful recovery, but remained poorly defended militarily because of Spain’s problems and so were sometimes easy prey for pirates and privateers. The English presence continued to expand in the Caribbean as England itself was rising toward great power status in Europe. Captured from Spain in 1655, the island of Jamaica had been taken over by England and its chief settlement of Port Royal had become a new English buccaneer haven in the midst of the Spanish Empire. Jamaica was slowly transformed, along with Saint Kitts, into the heart of the English presence in the Caribbean. At the same time the French Lesser Antilles colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique remained the main centers of French power in the Caribbean, as well as among the richest French possessions because of their increasingly profitable sugar plantations. The French also maintained privateering strongholds around western Hispaniola, at their traditional pirate port of Tortuga, and their Hispaniolan capital of Petit-Goâve. The French further expanded their settlements on the western half of Hispaniola and founded Léogâne and Port-de-Paix, even as sugar plantations became the primary industry for the French colonies of the Caribbean.
At the start of the 18th century, Europe remained riven by warfare and constant diplomatic intrigue. France was still the dominant power but now had to contend with a new rival, England which emerged as a great power at sea and land during the War of the Spanish Succession. But the depredations of the pirates and buccaneers in the Americas in the latter half of the 17th century and of similar mercenaries in Germany during the Thirty Years War had taught the rulers and military leaders of Europe that those who fought for profit rather than for King and Country could often ruin the local economy of the region they plundered, in this case the entire Caribbean. At the same time, the constant warfare had led the Great Powers to develop larger standing armies and bigger navies to meet the demands of global colonial warfare. By 1700 the European states had enough troops and ships at their disposal to begin better protecting the important colonies in the West Indies and in the Americas without relying on the aid of privateers. This spelled the doom of privateering and the easy (and nicely legal) life it provided for the buccaneer. Though Spain remained a weak power for the rest of the colonial period, pirates in large numbers generally disappeared after 1730, chased from the seas by a new British Royal Navy squadron based at Port Royal, Jamaica and a smaller group of Spanish privateers sailing from the Spanish Main known as the Costa Garda (Coast Guard in English). With regular military forces now on-station in the West Indies, letters of marque were harder and harder to obtain.
Economically, the late 17th century and the early 18th century was a time of growing wealth and trade for all the nations who controlled territory in the Caribbean. Although some piracy would always remain until the mid-18th century, the path to wealth in the Caribbean in the future lay through peaceful trade, the growing of tobacco, rice and sugar and smuggling to avoid the British Navigation Acts and Spanish mercantilist laws. By the 18th century the Bahamas had become the new colonial frontier for the British. The port of Nassau became one of the last pirate havens. A small British colony had even sprung up in former Spanish territory at Belize in Honduras that had been founded by an English pirate in 1638. The French colonial empire in the Caribbean had not grown substantially by the start of the 18th century. The sugar islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique remained the twin economic capitals of the French Lesser Antilles, and were now equal in population and prosperity to the largest of the English’s Caribbean colonies. Tortuga had begun to decline in importance, but France’s Hispaniolan settlements were becoming major importers of African slaves as French sugar plantations spread across the western coast of that island, forming the nucleus of the modern nation of Haiti.
Piracy in the Caribbean: Decline of Piracy
The decline of piracy came around the same time as the decline of the use of mercenaries (although England hired the Hessians to fight in the American Revolutionary War in 1776, mercenaries were largely a thing of the past by then). With the development of larger standing armies and navies the need was not there and pirates had begun to be more trouble than they were worth. However, just as it seemed piracy was coming to an end the rise of the slave trade caused a temporary increase in piracy.
As the piracy increasingly interfered with the lucrative slave trade come from the Caribbean, colonial powers had a changing attitude towards piracy. Military presence had been growing in Caribbean waters for some time, but now the Royal Navy especially was more concerned with the growing issue of slavery, increasing the number of ships dedicated to policing slavery from two in 1670 to twenty-four by 1700. Despite increasing military power, Piracy saw a brief resurgence between the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 and around 1720, as many unemployed seafarers took to piracy as a way to make ends meet when a surplus of sailors after the war led to a decline in wages and working conditions. At the same time, one of the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the war gave to Great Britain’s Royal African Company and other British slavers a thirty-year asiento, or contract, to furnish African slaves to the Spanish colonies, providing British merchants and smugglers potential inroads into the traditionally closed Spanish markets in America and leading to an economic revival for the whole region. This revived Caribbean trade provided rich new pickings for a wave of piracy. Also contributing to the increase of Caribbean piracy at this time was Spain’s breakup of the English logwood settlement at Campeche and the attractions of a freshly sunken silver fleet off the southern Bahamas in 1715. This last large resurgence of piracy saw a change in attitude of the colonial powers towards piracy. It had once been seen as a somewhat minor offense only punishable if suspects and evidence were taken back to Europe for formal proceedings. Now, the English Parliament set the system of courts of Vice-Admiralty, appointing seven commissioners in the colonies to carry out the legal proceedings. These commissioners were chosen from naval and colonial officers who already contained a certain amount of bias towards the local pirates, instead of civilian judges. Pirates were given no representation in the new courts and were, therefore, often sentenced to hang. Between 1716 and 1726 approximately 400 to 600 pirates were executed. Another major attitude change was the policy that if one’s ship was attacked by pirates, then one must fight back and attempt to resist to the capture of their ship lest they receive six months imprisonment.
Most active pirates at this time sailed to different locations to seek their plunder and although there would be small uprisings in pirate activity into the 19th century, piracy in the Caribbean was over. The Golden Age of piracy has led to this time being romanticized and fictionalized. While pirates operated during a time when it was legal to be a pirate, their brutality to local populations and how they devastated colonial economies were their undoing.
Piracy in the Caribbean: List of Well-Known Pirates
If you do a Google search of the most well-known pirates during the Golden Age of piracy you will see a long list of names. Pirate activity did not only take place in the Caribbean, but throughout the world since boats could be sailed. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a list of the most well-known pirates that sailed in the Caribbean.
- Jean Fleury
- Francois Le Clerc
- Francois l’Olonnias
- Roc Brasiliano
- Henry Morgan
- Bartholomew Roberts
- Stede Bonnet
- Charles Vane
- Edward Low
- Anne Bonny and Mary Read
- Jean Lafitte
- John Rackham
- William Kidd
- Sir Francis Drake