Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Golden Age of Piracy

This blog concerns all things “pirate”, but the question comes up – What is the golden age of piracy? What made this time special? What started it, and how did it end?

Piracy goes back to ancient times, but in the Caribbean, something special happened in 1696 that started a revolution. The name of the man involved was Henry Avery, and his story set the stage for 20 years of pirate history.

Like most pirates, Avery started out as a common sailor. During one of England’s wars with France, he enlisted as a junior officer, and spent twenty years serving in a Navy that beat its men regularly, paid them irregularly (years could go by with no pay at all) and fed them the cheapest available food. Men honorably wounded in battle became beggars if they lost hands, eyes or legs, for there was no paid compensation for injuries.

In 1693, Avery signed for a commission which looked like a much better deal. A privately funded sloop, setting out with generous, guaranteed pay, would sail to Spain to obtain documents authorizing it’s crew to hunt pirates. Pay came in advance, and Avery would sail as first mate.

The ship, Charles II, sailed to La Coruna in northern Spain, where they waited for the documents. And waited. And waited. Eventually the truth came out. The ship, and her crew, had been sold to the Spanish government. Avery and his men learned that they were considered slaves, bound to Spain for the rest of their lives.

When legal efforts to get back to England failed, Avery boldly arranged a breakout, gathering all the captive English and Irish seamen in the port and fighting their way clear. Once out of port he offered the captain a choice to join the crew in a life outside the law. The captain refused and was put off in the longboat.

The crew then met and determined how to live from here on. They decided to vote democratically on all future actions, to rob French and Spanish ships and settlements for their own profit, to keep Avery as their leader and to split their profits equitably. They were now pirates.

The ship, renamed the Fancy, sailed down the African coast and into the Indian Ocean, plundering ships, settlements and native villages. Their last “catch,” off the coast of India, netted them an estimated £150,000 in gold, jewels and trade goods, or more than twenty years’ pay for each man on board.

The Fancy was now so laden with treasure that she rode low in the water, and Avery was ready to retire. He sailed for Nassau in the Bahamas, where the pirate crew, some 113 souls, gave the Governor of Nassau a generous gift of £840 (three years wages for the governor) and the Fancy herself in exchange for new identities and the right to purchase less identifiable ships.

The crew broke up and sailed away. Seven of them, bragging about how rich they had become, were caught. Avery was rumored to have been headed for northern Ireland when last seen. He was never captured.

His exploits were published anonymously in a book titled The Successful Pyrate, and the story made him a legend. His wealth was incalculable. Over 50 tons of ivory had been left on the Fancy because it was too much trouble to carry it away. From then on, any abused cabin boy or sailor shorted on pay would think of Henry Avery and dream of being a pirate.  

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