Eighteenth Century

Piracy in the 18th century – The “Golden Age”

With the increased use of the shipping lanes between Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal and their American colonies, and a decrease in the need for those seamen recently released from service following the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, piracy saw a revival. Piracy in the 17th and 18th century was deemed the “Golden Age” of piracy (approximately from the 1650s to the 1730s).  Due to the emergence of capitalism, war, slavery, land enclosures and clearance; starvation and poverty side-by-side with unimaginable wealth, many men of lower means saw piracy as a way of improving their circumstances and escaping governance by others.

Most of these pirates operated from “pirate utopias”, which were land enclaves that were located on islands that were yet beyond the reach of civilization, and therefore safe for pirates. From these pirate sanctuaries, they could easily attack the trade lines, so much so that they created a prime obstacle for merchant vessels during this period. The majority of pirates during this time period were British, but other nationalities were also a part of this resurgence (English 35%, American colonialists 25%, West Indies colonials 20%, Scotsman 10%, Welsh 8%, and Swedish/Dutch/French/Spanish about 2%).

Previously, there had been a very fine distinction between piracy and privateers who were “state-sponsored gentleman”.  In the 16th century, when Spain had dominated the seas, piracy was considered a legitimate means for “lifting” the Spaniards of the burden of their cargo.  However, in the 18th century as the English empire matured, as did technology, many businessmen felt the best course of action was a steady, regular, form of trade that did not include piracy. So what becomes of a privateer out of work?

As privateering no longer became a state-sponsored endeavor, and pirates found their way of life being outlawed, they too began to push even further away from society and were increasingly regarded as “Brutes, and Beasts of Prey”.  As the social perception of pirates changed, they became much more violent in their dealings and formed their own “world of solidarity and fraternity”. This “Golden Age” of piracy, is the time from which most pirate stereotypes are taken.  One of the most famous privateer, turned pirate, of this period was Blackbeard who terrorized the coastal waters of the American colonies in his ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Despite being outlaws, pirates were often well organized with their own clearly defined rules and regulations, as well as hierarchy. Every crew was organized under its own unique written articles which all member of the crew had agreed upon and signed.

The articles of Bartholomew Roberts’ crew began:

“Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of Moment; has equal Title to the fresh Provisions, or strong Liquors, at any Time seized, and may use them at Pleasure, unless a Scarcity make it necessary, for the Good of all, to vote a Retrenchment.”(15)  

Pirates functioned in a surprisingly communal fashion, using a share system to divide the “booty” that was taken.  Most of their code was based on ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  This went as far as to provide a sort of “pension” to those injured during the taking of a vessel.

The Golden Age of piracy was also at the height of the slave trade between Africa and the colonies.  However, the relationship between the two is not as clear cut. Some pirates did participate in the slave trade, but for the most part this was not the case.  A great number of African men were valued members of pirate crews; some having escaped slavery, others having been sold into the service aboard the ships.

The Golden Age of piracy came to end as the conditions that had initially brought about the favorable conditions of the time diminished.  In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht ended the wars between the European countries and the state began initiating measures to pursue and punish pirates as its resources were now freed up for this endeavor.  The mission of the state was now to allow trade to flow unimpeded, which would allow for increased wealth for the merchants, and in turn revenue for the state.  In 1700, a new law was put into place that allowed for the quick trial and execution of pirates and allowed for them to be enacted wherever the pirates might be. In the following years, many pirates were meticulously hunted down, and executed.


F., Tony (2007). Pirate utopias: Under the banner of death, 1640-1820. Retrieved 29 October 2012 from http://libcom.org/library/pirate-utopias-under-banner-death

Lewis, Brenda Ralph (2011). The Return of Piracy in the 18th Century. Retrieved 29 October 2012 from http://suite101.com/article/the-return-of-piracy-in-the-18th-century-a376427

Vallar, Cindy (2003). The Golden Age of Piracy. Retrieved 29 October 2012 from http://www.cindyvallar.com/goldenage.html


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