Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. We’ve all heard the fables and the legends of the Caribbean Pirates, their legacy living on through the stories told by the entertainment industry. From Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp, we are well familiar with a romanticized edge to pirates, these tough entrepreneurs of yesteryear. Of course, pirates have been around for a very long time and have been a problem since the advent of long-distance ocean travel. And now in our digital age we are familiar with a new form of piracy known as file-sharing. But what does it all mean? Where do the ethics and morals stand on the subject of piracy? What does it really mean to be a pirate and what was the Golden Age of Piracy really like? Well, climb aboard: we’re setting sail for the proverbial seven seas of research into Caribbean Pirates. (Please adjust your novelty eyepatch for accurate depth perception.)
The Golden Age of Piracy (1650 – 1725) was the time to be alive, if your thing was robbing vessels of their cargo and promoting anarchy as a solution to the Crown. While piracy is most famous for its campaigns at sea, it also involved land-based raids and the term has been used throughout history to indicate cross-border attacks by non-state agents. But just like the difference today between terrorists and freedom fighters, there was then, too, the blurry line between pirates and privateers. Of course, when there’s a profit to be made, you know the State will have its hands in it.
Privateers were essentially state-sanctioned pirates, carrying out the naval warfare tactic known as commerce raiding: destroying and disrupting enemy logistics by attacking its merchant shipping. Also known as Trade War, privateering played an important role in naval strategy all the way into WWII, and continues today in various evolved forms. Privateers or “corsairs” carried the ‘letter of marque and reprisal’ which was essentially a license to kill. Or at least attack and capture enemy vessels to bring before admiralty courts for condemnation and sale. Privateers cruised the ocean for profit under the veil of patriotism, raiding and plundering ships in a privately owned and operated endeavour within a legal framework. Indeed there was a vague distinction between the celebrated privateer and the universally reviled pirate (or buccaneer).
The differences between these three types of infamous, high-seas swashbucklers are as follows:
Pirates: Criminals on the open sea who use coercion, intimidation and violence to commit larceny and rob people of their cargo and transport. The majority of pirates were young men in their 20s from the British Isles who were skilled at sailing and open to the seizing of opportunity.
Buccaneers: Terrestrial pirates of the West Indies in the mid-17th century best known for attacking settlements and fortifications on land in large groups. The name is derived from the French term ‘boucanier’ – an instrument used to smoke strips of meat over an open fire.
Privateers: Not to be repetitive but the distance between a pirate and a privateer is but a hair’s breath of difference — pirates simply sail for one Monarch fewer.
The Peace Treaty of Westphalia (1648) outlawed privateering, causing many corsairs (now out of work and far from home) to take up piracy. Essentially doing the exact same job but with their own personal flag replacing their country’s. Other factors that contributed to the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean included the vast amount of valuable cargoes being shipped between Europe and the New World, the abundance of well-trained merchant sailors, and the ineffective governance of overseas colonies. Adding this to the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) which ended the War of the Spanish Succession and the quarrelling of Great Britain VS France and Spain (thus causing even more sailors to become pirates) – and mixed with a healthy attitude of self-determinism – the stage was set for piracy to make its mark on the world.
Many of the famous pirates whose names we know today began their careers honestly before turning to piracy as a means of sustaining themselves. Edward Thatch (aka Blackbeard) did his part for the crown before starting the Flying Gang in the pirate haven of Nassau, dreaming big and cooking up grand schemes. Their goal was nothing less than a country of their own, and they worked to turn Nassau into a land of liberty and freedom for all those who desired an escape from the bonds of imperial rule. In 1706, the governor of the Bahamas skipped town, leaving it open to anarchy and the self-election of pirate Benjamin Hornigold as governor with the declaration that Nassau was to be a Pirate Republic. In the words of the Governor of Bermuda at the time, Nassau was “a nest of infamous bastards.” Hornigold was one of the original pirates, and he too began as a privateer who was left without gainful employment following the war. For some years he refused to attack English ships out of a sense of loyalty to his home country. But all good things come to an end eventually. For many Caribbean Pirates of the Golden Age, it was found at the end of a rope.
Bonus: Jolly Roger Facts
We’re all familiar with the image of pirate ships and its cannons and bloodthirsty crew of outlaws, the black flag flown to signal an attack. The Jolly Roger skull-and-crossbones is the most famous flag but there were many others used by pirates to strike fear in the hearts of their targets. The flag indicated that the ship’s crew were not bound by standard rules of engagement and were likely to attack with much ferocity and little mercy. The name Jolly Roger was either an English corruption of the French term Joli Rouge (pretty red), for the original red flags, or it referred to slang for the devil, Old Roger. The skull and bones was the universal symbol for death with the black background representing quarantine and disease. You can imagine that seeing this flag would be quite intimidating indeed.
Caribbean Pirates Today
While pirates still exist in the world today, such as in Somalia, you’re extremely likely to not run into any pirates on your Caribbean vacation – but you can pay homage to these men (and women) at museums, both on land and underwater. The West Indies region is often beset by hurricanes and tropical storms, and when you mix that with the shallow waters of the Caribbean reefs, the result is a high incidence of shipwrecks. Today you can dive these wrecks and get a sense of the history through the ghosts of these once grand and powerful vessels that ruled the sea. Then return to the surface, snatch up a bottle of rum, and download the heck out of some torrents on your laptop. Preferably unlicensed versions of classic pirate films.