Why was there a golden age of piracy?
The so called golden age of piracy occurred between 1700 and 1725. This was the period when the plague of pirates was at its worst particularly in the Caribbean Sea. However piracy was common on the high seas throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Here is a brief summary of the factors which lead to the dramatic rise in the number of pirate crews.
- When the European powers were not at war their fleets were reduced in size which lead to many out of work sailors. These men had been trained to fight and were ideal pirate material and could easily be recruited.
- European navies used privateers to harass the merchant ships of their enemies. These privately owned fighting ships were issued with letters of marque ( a licence ) to allow them to legitimately attack enemy merchant ships. In between wars some privateers continued their lucrative business as pirates.
- As new worlds were discovered and colonies established in far away lands maritime trade increased. Large numbers of merchant ships were needed to trade with the colonies carrying valuable cargoes to and from Europe. This meant rich pickings for those prepared to break the law by plundering traffic on the seaways.
- As new colonies were established there was very little protection in terms of military or naval presence. The far flung corners of empire were vulnerable to attack and to begin with pirates could roam freely without too much danger to themselves.
- Life in the merchant navy was harsh. Ordinary sailors were overworked and under paid. They were often badly treated by their captains and discipline was strict. Life as a pirate was much easier and the rewards could be huge as pirates shared out their booty equally. Piracy offered an easier way of life and potentially a chance to get rich quick. A disgruntled merchant crew could mutiny, overthrow their captain and turn pirate.
- Often when merchant ships ware captured the crew were given the chance to join the pirates and many voluntarily did so. Others were forced. Merchant ships provided a good source of manpower for pirate captains. It helped them increase the size of their crews and become more powerful.
- As Spain explored and colonized South America they discovered the treasures of the Aztecs and the Incas. These civilizations were conquered and their vast wealth was stolen. Spanish treasure ships periodically set sail to carry gold and silver back to Spain. Initially these ships traveled alone or with a small escort and could easily be attacked. Soon they were formed into heavily guarded convoys which provided safety. It was still possible for a ship to become separated from the convoy, perhaps by being blown off course during a storm. Such a ship would be a pirates dream come true, the equivalent of winning the lottery today perhaps.
- The booming slave trade was also a tempting target for pirates. A ship full of slaves could be worth a small fortune as the pirates could sell the slaves to the highest bidder. Although slavers were usually faster vessels they were not likely to be heavily armed and as the pirates knew where the slavers picked up their cargoes ( on the coast of Africa ) and where they were headed, it was not too difficult to intercept them. The slave trade was therefore also a factor which influenced the increase of piracy as many pirates profited from it.
Eventually as the colonies became more established they improved their own defences. They organized forces to protect themselves from pirate attack and also to hunt down the pirates and to destroy their safe havens. Governments were increasingly under pressure to protect trade and so naval forces were allocated to hunt down the pirates too. Over time there were less places for the pirates to hide and more and more risk of capture with the ultimate prospect of ending up dangling from the end of a rope.
Thus the “Golden Age Of Piracy” was over.
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