The early colonial period in American history witnessed the golden age of piracy. In the mid-sixteenth century, England, the Netherlands, and France were struggling to overtake Spain and Portugal in the race for trade and empire. These challenger nations, by the licensing of entrepreneurs, through state sponsorship, or simply by turning a blind eye to pillage, let privateer and pirate ships sail free. In the seventeenth century, piracy was, for the most part, conducted in the Caribbean basin, where the primary targets were the rich Spanish galleons laden with gold and silver from the Mexican and South American mainland. The men, and occasionally women, who perpetrated these raids, at times with the blessing of their national governments, were English, French, and Dutch as well as sometimes renegade Spanish, Portuguese, and African pirates, who took part in the predations at sea.
The pirates of the seventeenth century operating out of the Caribbean basin were called buccaneers, so named from the French boucan, which means to roast or dry meat over an open fire, since these men hunted and feasted on the feral cattle and pigs that roamed the sparsely inhabited Caribbean isles. Since the early 1600s, the European states had a policy on the seas of no peace beyond the lines, which meant that while trade was for the most part carried out peaceably in European waters, all ships outside these lines of amity were fair game. Thus, the bellicose tradition of mixing trade and plunder was applied in the Atlantic and Caribbean regions.
By the end of the seventeenth century, several types of piracy were in existence: officially sanctioned piracy (privateering), commercial piracy, and marauding. These were not mutually exclusive and the career of any given pirate could encompass all three categories. During wartime, European nations issued official commissions, or letters of marque, to individual mariners and ships in support of marauding missions. In times of peace, the commissions were called letters of reprisal, which allowed an aggrieved subject of the prince to steal from those subjects who had stolen from him on prior occasions. Since there were not as yet any formal methods of insurance in place, letters of reprisal were a crude way of compensating for losses at sea and provided many opportunities for abuse. They also illustrate the weak institutional structure of international relations at the time.
Commercial piracy was fostered by local merchant communities that were suffering from an unfavorable balance of trade and a lack of hard currency. Colonial merchants, often with the support of the local government, sponsored pirate voyages in addition to offering buccaneers sanctuary and trading opportunities. While in port, the pirates exchanged goods, spent their booty at the local taverns and inns, repaired and re-equipped their ships, and purchased services of all kinds before heading back out to sea. In return, the townspeople acquired various cargoes, mostly Spanish commodities, as well as prized pieces of eight and other forms of cash. In the Caribbean islands, Port Royal, Jamaica, was the first to earn a reputation as a pirate haven. At the turn of the century, the mainland ports of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Newport, and Charles Town likewise became favored hubs of pirate activity. The third form of piracy, marauding, not only took place along the Atlantic seaboard but also extended to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, thousands of miles from the American mainland, while the organized marauders maintained their bases of operation in the colonial ports noted above. In the Pacific region, these pirates pillaged Spanish ships making the Acapulco-to-Manila run, as well as raiding coastal towns. The most spectacular of these raids took place in 1671, when Henry Morgan and a group of predominantly English buccaneers sacked the Spanish port of Panama City.
Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was an English pirate notorious for terrorizing ships in the West Indies and off the Carolina coast until his death in 1718. His treasure is said to be buried somewhere along the Eastern seaboard. (Library of Congress/Bridgeman Art Library) The most famous Anglo-American pirate was William Kidd, who was tried and executed in London in 1701. Kidd was married to a wealthy New York widow and lived in a house on Wall Street for a number of years before turning pirate in the Indian Ocean. He had been legally commissioned in New York and London as a privateer and proclaimed his innocence until the end, but international politics involving the Indian Mughal, King William III, and the powerful East India Company conspired to cause his downfall. In addition to Kidd, there were a number of other infamous Anglo-American pirates, including Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard, who was killed in a battle off the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1718.
As pirates grew more and more violent, thereby alienating previously sympathetic states, merchants, and ship owners, they were systematically hunted down and exterminated. The colonial governments continued to commission privateers to attack British shipping during the Revolutionary War. Kevin P. McDonald See also: Caribbean (Chronology); Crime; Drake, Sir Francis; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology); Transportation, Water. Bibliography Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. 1724. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2002. Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500 1750. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. Rediker, Marcus. “Under the Banner of King Death’: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates, 1716 to 1726.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., 38:2 (April 1981): 203 27. Ritchie, Robert. Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.