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Historiography of the Golden Era of Anglo-American Piracy in the Atlantic 1680-1730

Author: Paul Gilbert

"Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life For Me"

Walt Disney, 1967,

There once was a mythical time when brave and dangerous pirates sailed the seas in search of both fortune and fame. In this time heroic villains rose to fame, figures like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Captain Avery, Captain Morgan and others became household names. They were the famous anti-heroes of their time, much like rock stars today. There was also a historical period from roughly 1680 - 1730 when large numbers of Anglo-American mariners were engaged in piracy and privateering, often against Spanish or other targets of opportunity in the Atlantic Ocean. A great challenge for modern historians is to separate fact from fiction, since the mythical time and the historical time of this Golden Age of Piracy are so intertwined in both historical sources and the collective consciousness of our culture.

             In this paper I will trace a number of works of history produced over the last 300 years to examine how historians approach to this subject has changed over the years. I will attempt to answer two questions. Why did the Golden Age of Piracy exist, and how have historians studied this period over time? Throughout this paper, I will use the terms piracy and privateering. Piracy was the outlaw practice of preying on merchant ships and raiding coastal towns for profit. Privateering consisted of the same actions, but they were sanctioned by a government to be conducted against an enemy during war.  Many mariners engaged in both activities, during times of war, they were legitimate naval axillaries and if captures were treated as prisoners of war. In times of peace, they were outlaws and if captured were treated as criminals. There is another distinction that sometimes existed between the two. Privateers were often, but not always, commercial ventures, financed by merchants and investors, with captains that worked for the ship owner. Pirates were often, but not always, mariner subalterns who had illegally obtained their ship and the captains were selected by the crew, and could be replaced at any time with a majority vote.

             As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot noted, it is not just historians who write history, movies, novels, television and the popular press all greatly influence what the public knows about history.[i] The historiography of this period is the story of a struggle between pop culture and scholars to understand this era. It is very telling to note that the Walt Disney exhibit Pirates of the Caribbean has been one of the most popular attractions at Disney Land since its opening in 1967, and that fictional works like Treasure Island and Peter Pan that are based on early 18th Century pirates have become an important part of our culture. The mythical pirates from this period are deeply engrained in popular cultural in England and English speaking North America and have been for 300 years. 

The Golden Age

            One could ague that as long as goods have been transported by sea, there have been pirates. The accent Greek historian Herodotus, in his history of the Persian wars, starts with a tale of piracy.[ii] And we know that pirates exist today in parts of Southeast Asia. So what made this roughly fifty-year period from 1680 - 1730 stand out as a unique phase in the history of piracy that has gained the reputation as the Golden Age of Piracy?

             Like most historical phenomenon, it was the convergence of a number of factors that came together to make this period and the myth that shrouds it. One factor was the high level of legitimacy that privateering and piracy had in England. It is interesting that an island nation like England did not have a strong professional navy for a very long time. Instead, much of England's naval power rested in its merchant fleet, which was called into service as privateers. This practice goes back to 1243 when King Henry III licensed three private merchant ships to wage war on France.[iii]  English national pride and wealth both raised as a result of Sir Francis Drake's privateering career against the Spanish from 1570 - 1587.[iv]

             Another key background issue was the expansion and competition between European empires. Ever since Christopher Columbus, the Spanish had the strongest hold on the wealth of the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. England, Holland and France all wanted what Spain had, and employed pirates and privateers to set up colonies in the Caribbean and take by force some of Spain's wealth.

             With this backdrop of legitimacy of piracy and privateering in English society, and the competition to build national wealth and empires, there were several forces that converged in the late 17th Century that built both the myth and reality of the Golden Age. First was the book that cast the image of the swashbuckling pirate that is still with us today. The book was The Buccaneers of America by John Esqemeling, published in Dutch in 1678, in Spanish in 1681 and in English in 1684. Esquemeling presents this book as a first hand account of the daring deeds of French, Dutch and English pirates raiding against Spanish ships and colonies in the Caribbean. This book was very popular at the time and elevated Captain Morgan and others to hero status in England. This highly romanticized work has been used as a primary source ever since in many other historical works on pirates. Because of the very positive and heroic portrayal of the pirate captains featured in this work, it both elevated the popular image of pirates at the time and forever made it difficult to sort out the historical from the mythic pirates of this time.

             While religious competition between England and Spain (Protestant vs. Catholic) had been an issue in Drake's day, after the English Civil War, strident Calvinism was in vogue under the Cromwell administration. In 1688, King William III became monarch of both England and Holland. In 1689 William III declared war on France. By having England and Holland, both Protestant countries allied at war with France and Spain, both Catholic countries, piracy and privateering against Spanish and French targets gained further legitimacy as part of a wider religious war.[v] 

             In addition to a new religious legitimacy for piracy that came out to the English Civil War, I think the radical egalitarianism that was part of the Roundhead movement was put to practice aboard pirate ships. I have not found any sources that make this connection, but it seems the only logical explanation for the radical egalitarianism that existed among many pirate crews of this time. Nearly 100 years before the American and French Revolutions, experiments in egalitarian democracy were being carried out on the decks of hundreds of pirate ships. It was common aboard pirate ships to have the crew elect the captain and make most decisions outside of combat situations with majority vote. Under such governance, captains often had few rights or perk beyond that of a common crewman, and could be replaced at any time with a vote.[vi]

            Another factor that pushed many patriot privateers into outlaw piracy was the peace treaties between England, France and Spain that came in 1697. Although low-grade hostilities never stopped, it would be another 40 years before war was declared again against Spain. Without official war, there was a surplus in mariner labor, since the Royal Navy was no longer needed to fill its ranks. Wages for sailors dropped in times of peace and many mariners had become accustomed to the financial gains that could come from plunder.[vii] These factors lead many to a career in piracy.

             While different authors use slightly different dates for the start of this period, from Alexander Winston's 1665 to Marcus Rediker's 1716. I think the factors of national competition, religious competition, egalitarian ideology, pop culture, and the end of sanctioned war came together in the period from 1684-1697 to create what has became known as the Golden Age of Piracy.

             The end of this Golden Age of Anglo-American piracy in the Atlantic is much harder to define. For one thing, much like piracy existed long before this age, it continued to exist long after any of the definitions of this era. While pirates were active worldwide during this time, one of the distinctive characteristics of this period was the concentration of pirate activities in both the Caribbean and Africa. During this time, these areas were key hubs of merchant shipping that were at the edges of control by the Royal Navy. As a result, many of the Governors of Caribbean colonies welcomed the military protection that pirate and privateers could offer, that the Royal Navy could not. By the 1720's and 1730's the reach of the British Empire and various efforts to bring the pirates under control, were pushing many pirates to other bases of operation in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Part of the reason for the growing interest in pushing the pirates out of the Caribbean was that the English colonies there were transitioning from raiding colonies to major sugar producers.[viii] As the Caribbean colonies began to produce their own wealth, the pirates became a problem to be dealt with. From the beginning of the Golden Age in the 1680's some pirates were beginning to make this migration to "greener pastures" of less controlled areas of the seas.[ix] 

            I believe that much of the romantic myth of pirates that is central to this Golden Age is connected to the Caribbean base of operations that many pirates had during this time. As the pirates were pushed out of these bases, the Golden Age came to an end, although piracy at the fringes of government control continued. This connection between the popular pirate and the Caribbean may be due largely to two books that defined this age and stand like bookend to the period itself. John Esquemeling's popular book The Buccaneers of America  focused on Caribbean pirates in the period just before it is published in 1678. The second bookend was Charles Johnson's defining work A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most Notorious Pyrates published in 1724. As much as any other reason, the Golden Age exists because these two books gave us the romantic vision of daring and dangerous pirate captains of this period and place. During the same time frame, many of the same pirates also operated out of bases in Africa, and even set up a pirate government in Madagascar.[x] Yet the Madagascar pirates never became as popular a subject as their Caribbean colleagues.

Historical Approaches to the Study of Piracies Golden Age

             It is ironic that although radical egalitarianism was practiced on many pirate ships, so much of the historical work on the subject falls into the great man model of history. From John Esquemeling seminal work in 1678 until the late 20th Century, most of the scholarly and popular books on the subject have focused almost exclusively on the role of heroic ship captains. John Esqemeling's 1678 work recorded the first generation of captains with a particular focus on Henry Morgan, Charles Johnson's 1724 work recorded the deeds of the next generation of pirate captains including, William Kidd, Blackbeard, Woodes Rogers and others. These two books really defined the era and have been used as key sources for most scholarly and popular works written on the subject since. As a result, many of the books and articles on pirates of this period essentially retell the same stories that Esquemeling and Johnson initially recorded. This is true of Alexander Winston's book No Man Knows My Grave published in 1969, and Robert Richie's Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates published in 1986. This does not mean that these two authors and others have not added to the historical understanding of this era, and brought in other sources. They have. My point is just that they do not venture far from the safe harbor of great man theory interpretation of history (do you like the nautical metaphor?). One of the problems with this historical approach is that it blurs the distinction between the outlaw ships ruled more by the majority vote of the crew than their captains, and the semi-legitimate ships financed by merchants and run with the iron fisted hierarchy of merchant ship of that day. This is a very important distinction, and one that is completely lost in focusing solely on the captains. Blackbeard was an outlaw pirate who was elected by his crews. Henry Morgan and William Kidd started out as rouge pirate captains elected by their crews. Both suffered the reversal of having their command taken away from them by dissatisfied crews, and later were given command of other ships by wealthy and politically connected government and merchant interests.

             Another historical approach can be seen in William Thomas Morgan's article "The British West Indies during King William's War (1689 - 97)" which was published in the Journal of Modern History in 1930. Morgan takes a military historical approach and focused on the pirates and privateers as naval axillaries to the British Navy. Morgan sees the geo-political forces of empire building as the engine of history and puts a great focus on actual naval combat and the numbers of ships, cannons etc. engaged in these battles.


            The two most compelling and intellectually challenging works I have examined were both written by Marcus Rediker, they are "Under the Banner of King Death: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates, 1716 to 1726" published in William and Mary Quarterly in 1981, and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea published in 1987. Rediker writes 'bottom up' histories that focus on the social conditions that the common mariner worked under. Moving far beyond Esquemeling and Johnson as sources, Rediker uses linguistics, sociology, economics, anthropology and ethnography to paint a picture of the conditions that sailors, commonly known as Jack Tar, lived under. This approach is very similar to the French Annals historians, and is striking because it is such a radical departure from what came before. With Rediker, history is not driven by the deeds of great men, but by the social and economic forces that lead the lowest and most oppressed class of workers to revolt against dictatorial merchant captains and seek the relative freedom of outlaw piracy. Rediker employs both a social and Marxist historical perspectives. All romanticism is striped away in the stark and gritty details of life aboard early 18th Century ships, and the oppressive social order that was common on merchant and naval vessels. Using a method similar to that of Larry Levin, Rediker examines sea shanties as one type of source to gain insights into a group of workers that is not well documented. Rediker sees the attraction of piracy as a workers revolt against the brutal and oppressive working conditions of life on a merchant ship. The egalitarianism that was so prevalent on pirate ships is portrayed as a result of a workers revolt.

             A quite unique historical perspective on pirates is given by Hans Turley in his book Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and the Masculine Identity published in 1999. Turley studies the popular myth of pirates, both fact and fiction and draws connections between society's fascination with pirates as economic and social transgressors and the scorned position in society of sodomites. Turley states, "I shall argue, then, that English society's dialectic of fear and admiration of the pirate indicates a conflict between the pirate's representation as legal or economic criminal and his portrayal as a literary antihero. More broadly, this dialectic is a conflict between normative sexuality - private domesticity - and sexually deviant subjectivity."[xi] Turley tries to make the point that because pirates broke with the cultural, legal and economic norms of the day, and because they lived almost exclusively in the company of similar men, that they were most likely homosexual, and further that the popular fascination with pirates, is a hidden fascination with homosexuality.

             While Turley certainly brings an original and different perspective to the study of Anglo-American piracy, I think he failed in a number of ways to add much to the historical discourse. First, with pirate homosexuality as a central theme, he fails to offer even one source of historical documentation to support this central theme. While pirate homosexuality seems very plausible, without proof, the central premise of his book falls apart. Secondly, he does not use a wide variety of sources. For historical sources he rests heavily on Charles Johnson's General History of Pyrates, from 1724, and the various novels of Daniel Defoe including, King of Pyrates, Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies, of the Famous Captain Singleton.  Johnson's work is not very scholarly, and Defoe's works are pure fiction.

             Although none of the books or articles examined in this paper explore these theories or approaches to history, I believe the study of piracy would benefit form further study in the following areas: gender history, piracy as a means of social mobility, and an intellectual history of the origins of radical egalitarianism as practiced on pirate ships.

             While Turley explored the hyper-masculine image of the pirate, he did not look at it through the lens of gender history. I think historians Joan Scott or Ana Alonso would have seen the early 18th Century mariner as the least powerful group in society, a group that cultivated a hyper-masculine persona to gain power and prestige in society. This strategy of using gender identity to gain status in society worked. Pirates became folk heroes at the time. They also perpetuated folklore about an outlaw code of honor that protected women such as how "Black Bart" Roberts would protect that chastity of his women prisoners.[xii]   This is very similar to how another lower class population of men gained social standing through the use of a hyper-masculine code of honor in Ana Alonso's book Thread of Blood about the Chihuahuan frontier.

             Another possible historical approach would be piracy as a means of social mobility in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. During a time of rigid social structure, some common mariners were able to use both the popular image of piracy and the wealth potential to move from the lowest rungs of society to the highest. Henry Morgan was able to go from an outlaw pirate to being knighted and made Governor of Jamaica. William Kidd went from lower class mariner, to pirate, to privateer, to being both wealthy and politically connected at the highest levels in the Tory Party in London. Because pirates operated outside the law, they were also outside the social confines of society, and therefore could move more easily than most from one social class to another.

             The last and for me, the most interesting historical approach that I would like to see applied to this subject, is an intellectual history of the democratic social order that existed on many pirate ship of this time. It is fascinating that 100 years before the American and French Revolutions, the lowest social class in Anglo-American society was setting up entirely new and radical social orders on board these outlaw ships. Not only did they elect their captains, but also they drew up articles at the beginning of the voyage that defined the social contract that all the sailors agreed to abide. They used the command structure of the captain only when engaged in battle, and for most other decisions were ruled be majority vote. They also distributed the loot from their raiding very evenly. I strongly suspect that these ideas must have come from the egalitarian ideology of the Roundheads during the English Civil War, but I do not have any proof. This intellectual history is what I was hoping to find when I selected the Golden Age of piracy as the subject for this historiographic essay. I hope someone will fill in this missing piece of history, through further research.

             Pirates reside in a mystical place in Anglo-American history. It is often hard to separate fact from fiction, since so much fiction has been written about this subject and even some of the early sources of "facts" are questionable in their accuracy. Yet what we do know, or think we know, is intriguing to say the least. Why mariners in the bottom rungs of society would step outside the law and existing social structure and risk execution if caught is fascinating. It is even more fascinating that through their actions they became the anti-heroes of their time and our. I do not fully understand why this period of piracy is such an important part of our society even today. But I fully admit, that I am and have always been intrigued and drawn to both the myth and reality of Anglo-American pirates of the Golden Age.


Mariner Fact

Thus after Dangers past, now safe and well

The Story to our Friends we often tell,

And they to Recompense us for our Tale

Do Strive to Drown us in a Cup of Ale.

"The Third Journal of Jeremy Roch" (1699)



Mariner Fiction


Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me

We pillage, we plunder, we rifle and loot

Drink up me hearties, yo ho

We kidnap and ravage and don't give a hoot

Drink up me hearties, yo ho


Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me

We extort, we pilfer we filch and sack

Drink up me hearties, yo ho

Maraud and embezzle and even high-jack

Drink up me hearties, yo ho


Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me

We kindel and char inflame and ignite

Drink up me hearties, yo ho

We burn up the city we're really a fright

Drink up me hearties, yo ho


We're rascals, scoundrels villains and knaves

Drink up me hearties, yo ho

We're devils and black sheep - really bad eggs

Drink up me hearties, yo ho


Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me

We're beggars and blighters and ne'er-do-well cads

Drink up me hearties, yo ho

Aye, but we'er loved by our mommies and dads

Drink up me hearties, yo ho

Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean (1967)







End Notes


[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past ( Boston: Beacon Press, 1995) pg. 21

[1] Robert Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), pg.4

[1] Alexander Winston, No Man Knows My Grave, ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1969) pg. 3

[1] Ibid, pg. 9-13

[1] William Thomas Morgan, "The British West Indies during King William's War (1689-97), The Journal of Modern History, (vol. 2, issue 3, 1930) pg. 379

[1] Marcus Rediker, 'Under the Banner of King Death: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates 1716-1726," William and Mary Quarterly, (vol. 38, issue 2, 1981) pg. 209

[1] Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, (New York: Cambridge Press, 1987) pg. 32

[1] Ibid, pg.58

[1] Robert Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986) pg. 26

[1] Ibid, pg. 83

[1] Hans Turley, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity, (New York: New York University Press, 1999), pg. 75

[1] Alexander Winston, No Man Knows My Grave, ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1969) pg. 36





Esquemeling, John, Buccaneers of America, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1893, Dutch Edition 1678, Spanish Edition 1681, English Edition 1684-85


Johnson, Capt. Charles, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, London: George Routledge and Sons, 1932, First Edition 1726


Morgan, William Thomas, "The British West Indies during King William's War (1689-97), The Journal of Modern History, vol. 2, issue 3, 1930


Rediker, Marcus, "Under the Banner of King Death: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates, 1716 - 1726, William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 38, Issue 2, April 1981


Rediker, Marcus, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, New York: Cambridge Press, 1987


Ritchie, Robert, Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986


Turley, Hans, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity, New York: New York University Press, 1999


Winston, Alexander, No Man Knows My Grave, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1969


[i] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past ( Boston: Beacon Press, 1995) pg. 21

[ii] Robert Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), pg.4

[iii] Alexander Winston, No Man Knows My Grave, ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1969) pg. 3

[iv] Ibid, pg. 9-13

[v] William Thomas Morgan, "The British West Indies during King William's War (1689-97), The Journal of Modern History, (vol. 2, issue 3, 1930) pg. 379

[vi] Marcus Rediker, 'Under the Banner of King Death: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates 1716-1726," William and Mary Quarterly, (vol. 38, issue 2, 1981) pg. 209

[vii] Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, (New York: Cambridge Press, 1987) pg. 32

[viii] Ibid, pg.58

[ix] Robert Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986) pg. 26

[x] Ibid, pg. 83

[xi] Hans Turley, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity, (New York: New York University Press, 1999), pg. 75

[xii] Alexander Winston, No Man Knows My Grave, ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1969) pg. 36