Sea Robbers of all Nations: Pirates of the “Golden Age”

Christopher Land

Christopher Land

From at least Classical Antiquity right up to the present day, pirates have razed coastal villages and towns, plundered merchant vessels, attacked fishermen and fought with the authorities. Within this broad grouping of “sea robbers” there is a great diversity and the term can be applied to many groups: the Vikings who pillaged, and occasionally settled, the British Isles in the eighth- and ninth-centuries AD; the powerful Irish families in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries who bolstered their wealth and power by piracy; the Chinese pirate confederation of the early nineteenth-century which, at its height, comprised some 50,000 pirates and “totally dominated the coastal waters of southern China.” Even today, sea robbers ply their trade in waters where merchant shipping is particularly active and less than effectively policed. Modern-day pirates operate off the coasts of Brazil and West Africa, in the Caribbean and in the Malacca Straits. Without a doubt, however, the most famous pirates, and those who provide the historical basis for most popular fictions, belong to the “golden age of piracy” a period referring to the years between 1690 and 1720, 1695–1725, 1650 to 1730 or even “ten years or so from 1715” depending upon which historians you follow.

Which of these sets of dates is preferred is a matter of no little consequence. By extending the “golden age” to include 1650–80, the period incorporates the Caribbean buccaneers like Henry Morgan who straddled the boundaries between privateer and pirate proper. Henry Morgan’s raids were exclusively upon Spanish targets and were carried out under a commission, albeit one of questionable legality, issued by the governor of Jamaica. Despite some of these raids, including his famous attack upon Portobello, taking place after the signing of a formal peace treaty between England and Spain, Henry Morgan was never a pirate under English law and was even knighted by King Charles II in 1674 and appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica. Although he ended his days with a serious case of “dropsy” brought on by the rum-soaked, dissolute lifestyle we have come to associate with pirates, Henry Morgan was in many ways a respectable member of the establishment, serving the interests of King and Crown and continuing the tradition of the filibuster or privateer.

Privateers were generally commissioned by a head of state to disrupt the trade of hostile nations and seek plunder and wealth for the crown. They were agents of a form of primitive accumulation based upon the monarchic state. As Jacques Gélinas (2003, 4) has noted, this period was crucial to the monetization of the European economy and the end of barter, particularly the exploitation of Aztec and Inca gold and silver from South America. Without monetization, the commodity form could not have become generalized and industrial capitalism as we know it could not have developed. The privateers were indispensable to the eventual development of industrial capitalism in England. Unlike the buccaneers and the pirates proper, the privateer was a crucial addition to the naval armouries of European states during the period of competitive colonization that followed the “discovery” of the Americas in 1498.

Perhaps the most famous and successful of the English privateers was Francis Drake who, in the 1570s, circumnavigated the globe, plundering over £500,000 of gold and treasure along the way. £482,000 of this went to the crown and of the remaining £18,000, Francis Drake kept £10,000 for himself, leaving a mere £8,000 to be shared among his entire crew. Such activities were well within the bounds of conventional statecraft and did little to unsettle the status quo of either the geopolitical order or of the forms of hierarchy and authority aboard a ship.

In the period 1650–90 official privateers were not the only pirates operating in and around the Caribbean. The majority of Henry Morgan’s men who participated in the raid on Panama in 1671 were “buccaneers”, a motley collection of “the outcasts of all nations” who set up on-shore communities of the marooned and those escaping the hardships of the plantation to live a life of relative ease hunting and gathering: “they hunted wild cattle and pigs and gathered the king of Spain’s gold.” These communities were diverse. They were comprised of many different nationalities and races but, as Marcus Rediker (2004, 63–4) argues following John Edward Christopher Hill (1986), their culture was heavily informed by European traditions of religious and political dissent. Among the Buccaneers were a large number of English radicals who had emigrated around 1660 and included former members of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and veterans of the French peasant revolts of the 1630s. Both of these groups brought a tradition of radicalism and democratic self-organization that was to surface repeatedly during the golden age of piracy. In keeping alive the broken revolutionary promise of the English Civil War these dissenters were seeking out new places in which they could live in accordance with their religious and political beliefs and, unlike the privateers, were not simply defending the crown against Spain. For many, their hostility to the Spanish was informed by anti-authoritarian religious beliefs and a distrust of Catholicism that could go so far as to see the war against Spain as a war against the Antichrist. As the buccaneers’ predation was restricted to Spanish shipping and colonies, they play an ambivalent part in English history, simultaneously outlaws and agents of English interests in the West Indies. For the Spanish and French, however, there was no distinction between a “buccaneer” and a “pirate”.

Rejecting the rule of sovereignty, the buccaneer tradition of piracy in the West Indies stands as a counterpoint to the more orthodox approach of the privateers and demonstrates the difficulty of drawing clear lines around who was, and who was not, a “real” pirate. Henry Morgan was feted and knighted in England despite plundering Spanish settlements during a time of peace. Although serving the interests of England, the buccaneers he managed to unite for his attacks were a fiercely independent and heterogeneous group and Henry Morgan himself was never wholly approved of by the colonial governing class. To the end, he continued to consort with pirates, men of low class and negroes. Blurring distinctions from the other direction, even the most famous of the pirates of the golden age, Edward Teach, more commonly known as Blackbeard, spent a period in 1717 residing in comfort in Virginia where he had surrendered to the governor there under the “general pardon” issued by the King of England earlier that year. He quickly returned to his piratical ways but did so for a period with the unofficial protection of the Governor of Virginia, with whom some of his wealth was shared.

Whilst recognizing the difficulty of precisely locating — in time or in place — the “real” pirates, and of distinguishing them from historical precursors like privateers and buccaneers, it is nevertheless possible to identify a distinct tendency in piracy during this period. For the buccaneers, with their radical democratic traditions, but also for the more avaricious of the privateers, there was a tendency to reject monarchy and the state as their fundamental locus of fealty. This created a tension, sometimes spilling over into open conflict, between service in the name of an established hierarchy and autonomous self-governance. It is this tendency that has fascinated more radically minded historians and led to the sometimes romanticized equation of piracy and freedom. The tendency reached its apogee in the short period from 1718–20 which Marcus Rediker (2004, 36–7) has characterized as a time when: “[…] common men of the deep gained control of the enterprise of piracy and used it for their own purposes, independent of the economic projects of the upper classes of the day. By 1720 the main purpose was no longer booty. It was, rather, the perpetuation of a ‘life of liberty’.”

It is this period that gives us the popular image of the independent pirates who commandeer or take a ship by mutiny and plunder for themselves without respect of, or recourse to, the law, sailing not under a national flag but under the Jolly Roger and robbing ships of any nation.

In this rather narrow group of pirates, operating between 1718 and 1720, can be detected a radical, egalitarian form of proto-anarchist organization and even a form of revolutionary consciousness directed, as the quote from Marcus Rediker above suggests, toward an autonomous life of liberty rather than any form of accumulation. For some theorists, this tendency makes it important to separate the “real” pirates from buccaneers and privateers but as I have suggested the reality is a little more complicated than that. Even when peace had been established between England, France and Spain and the privateers’ commissions had been revoked, many continued to attack ships on their own accord, often limiting their attacks to their traditional enemies and leaving those of their own country or allies alone. On the other hand, many privateers did rob ships sailing under the flag of their own nation and some, such as Captain Benjamin Hornigold, were forced by their crew to attack ships from their own country or be deposed.

This already complicated picture is blurred even further by the uncertainty of the historical records. Pirates were largely drawn from the uneducated classes of mariners and kept few written records. Historians are therefore dependent largely upon Naval records, court transcripts and other official, state-sanctioned records or upon the contemporary accounts of writers like Captain Charles Johnson who offers little by way of evidence to support his accounts of the lives of famous pirates. Whatever the realities of piracy in the golden age, what does appear to be certain is that in the period from 1716–26 a radical potential in the social organization of piracy was actualized in a large scale insurrection that involved, over the period of those 10 years, some 5000 pirates in the plunder of vessels of all nations, the disruption of flows of mercantile capital and in the constitution of an alternative, radically democratic organization of the maritime labour process. Before examining this radical potential, and the social organization of life “under the death’s head”, it is worth first examining who might become a pirate in this period and why they might do so.

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