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Golden Age of Piracy: Facts, Myths, and Maritime Impact

Author: Krzysztof Wilczynski

Starting in XVI century piracy was gaining in popularity. Thanks to the progress of technology better, bigger and faster ships were built. Colonial expansion was beginning with all the shipping it created carrying gold and other goods. Competing interests and ambitions of colonial powers made it easy for ambitious sailors to always find a way to legalize the most cruel acts of piracy. English privateers could for instance attack and rob, with impunity, Spanish shipping. On the other hand North African pirates had a license to rob English ships and Madagascar pirates of the XVIII century represented French king’s interests. The continually, since ancient times, notorious was so called Barbary Coast , name formerly applied to the coast of North Africa from the western border of Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean. From the 1500s to the 1800s the coast was occupied by independent Islamic states under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 1500s, these states became centers for pirates.

Barbery pirates were any of the Muslim pirates operating from the coast of North Africa. Captains, who formed a class in Algiers and Tunis, commanded cruisers outfitted by wealthy backers, who then received 10 percent of the value of the prizes. The pirates used galleys until the 17th century, when Simon Danser, a Flemish renegade, taught them the advantage of using sailing ships. North African piracy had very ancient origins as we described above. It gained a political significance during the 16th century, many of the Muslim pirates operating from the coast of North Africa, at their most powerful during the 17th century but still active until the 19th century. Most notable leader of North Africa was Barbarossa, who united Algeria and Tunisia as military states under the Ottoman sultanate and maintained his revenues by piracy. With the arrival of powerful Moorish bands in Rabat and Tétouan (1609), Morocco became a new center for the pirates and for the 'Alawi sultans, who quickly gained control of the two republics and encouraged piracy as a valuable source of revenue. During the 17th century, the Algerian and Tunisian pirates joined forces, and by 1650 more than 30,000 of their captives were imprisoned in Algiers alone. Piratical practices were the cause of several wars between Tripolitania and the United States in the 19th century. The British made two attempts to suppress Algerian piracy after 1815, and the French finally ended it in 1830.

After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the United States agreed to pay money for immunity from attack, but it later attacked several Barbary states and helped end the Piracy. During the remainder of the 1800s and in the early 1900s, European nations gained sovereignty over the Barbary Coast.

Another category of pirates (at least by name only) has emerged. They were so called Buccaneers hired by their governments to fight in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). Buccaneer title was applied to English, Dutch, and French seafaring adventurers of the 17th century. Buccaneers and they were usually distinguished from privateers, who had official government commissions; buccaneers rarely had valid commissions. They are also distinguished from pirates, who attacked ships of all nations.

The buccaneers were pirates who, during the 16th and 17th centuries, preyed mainly on Spanish commerce with the Spanish American colonies. Piracy decreased with the development of the steam engine and the growth of the British and American navies in the late 18th century and early 19th. At first the headquarters of the buccaneers was on the island of Tortuga, off the northwestern coast of Hispaniola (now Haiti). The buccaneers later used Jamaica as a base of operations. They captured Panama in 1671.

The term buccaneer comes from the French boucan, a grill for the smoking of viande boucanée, or dried meat, for use in ships at sea. The early buccaneers were usually escaped servants, former soldiers, and wood cutters mainly from Mexico. The historical importance of the buccaneers lies chiefly in the influence that they had on the founding of the abortive Scottish colony at Darién, on the Isthmus of Panama (1698). Their stories also influenced such important authors as Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The buccaneers were largely inspired by the example of 16th-century seamen, such as Sir Francis Drake, but they are to be distinguished from genuine privateers because the commissions that they held were seldom valid. They are also to be distinguished from the outlawed pirates of the 18th century, although many of the buccaneers' actions can be called piratical. The earliest buccaneers went under assumed names, such as L'Olonnais (Jean-David Nau) or Rock Brasiliano, a Dutchman who had lived in Brazil. With the appearance of Henry Morgan, an outstanding leader, they began to organize themselves into powerful bands that captured Portobelo in 1668 and Panama in 1671. As the Treaty of Madrid (1670) had only recently been signed to compose Anglo-Spanish differences in those parts, the news of his success at Panama was not officially welcome. Morgan was brought back to England under arrest, but, on the renewal of trouble with Spain, he was knighted and sent out as deputy governor of Jamaica. He and his superiors attempted to suppress buccaneering, a task impossible without adequate naval patrols. The last great buccaneering enterprise was the unsuccessful attack on Panama in about 1685 by a force of about 3,000 men led by Edward Davis, John Eaton, Charles Swan, and others. On the outbreak of the War of the Grand Alliance in 1689, these freebooters became legitimate privateers in the service of their respective nations, and buccaneering came to an end.

Quite a few pirates were operating during the Elizabethan years when England and Spain fought over world domination. One of the famous pirates was Sir Francis Drake who circumnavigated the Earth, during which Spanish shipping was looted, Spanish California plundered even though England was not officially at war with Spain. When Drake and another pirate John Hawkins were almost captured during the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa in September the English cried foul treachery but the Spanish dismissed the action as sensible tactics when dealing with pirates.

During XVII and XVIII centuries piracy has peaked and many infamous pirates were operating at that time (Blackbeard, Morgan, Lafitte to mention only few) and this is the era we concentrate on in our Web page.

The less known but also very active were pirates of the Far East. Pinyin Zheng Zhilong (XVII century), was a Chinese pirate leader who achieved great power in the transitional period between the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties. As a boy, Cheng found employment with the Europeans in the Portuguese settlement at Macau, where he was baptized and given the Christian name of Nicholas Gaspard. After leaving Macau, he joined a pirate band that preyed on Dutch and Chinese trade. In 1628 he was induced by the government to help defend the coast against both the Dutch and the pirates . He soon acquired great wealth and power.

Another notorious pirate Cheng Ch'eng-kung (also known as Koxinga), controlled the island of Formosa (Taiwan), and refused to surrender to official forces for long period of time.

By the end of the 17th century, with the growth of a strong central power in Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) and in China under the Ch'ing dynasty, most of the piracy was eliminated.

Also, the increased size of merchant vessels, communications technology and naval patrolling of most ocean highways, the regular administration of most islands and land areas of the world, and the general recognition by governments of piracy as an international offense resulted in a great decline in piracy in the 19th and 20th centuries. Piracy has, however, occurred in the 20th century in traditional places like the South China Sea, and the practice of hijacking ships or airplanes has developed into a new form of piracy.