Monday, May 20, 2013


Pirates and the Economy

The question came up recently of why local communities who have a pirate in their history speak of these pirates so fondly. It’s been rightly pointed out that pirates took things that didn’t belong to them, at the very least. So why all the love?

Communities loved their pirates because there’s nothing like a local pirate to enrich a community. Fortunes were made by people who dealt with pirates, and everyone on land had a good time doing it.

First, a brief overview of how pirate ships operated. A pirate ship was a stolen vessel – captured in battle or taken in a mutiny, or occasionally snuck out of port in the dead of night. While merchant ships ran with the smallest number of crew possible (the salary of each crew member was an added expense)  pirate ships ran with the largest possible crew (each additional crew member increased the ship’s fighting force.)

Pirates wanted money, but they took anything of value, including the cargos of captured vessels. They especially loved taking manufactured goods coming into the Caribbean from Europe.
Colonies in the Caribbean were not self-sufficient. During the Golden Age of Piracy, the early 1700’s, they consisted mostly of large plantations which produced cash crops such as tobacco, cotton, coffee or sugar for export back to the home country. This produced cash, which was then used to buy European products and food.

The colonies were not yet producing cloth, thread, metal goods, fine leathers, furniture, glassware, china, guns, swords, paper, printed material, cosmetics, wigs, or any of hundreds of things that well-to-do plantation owners wanted to be part of their lives.

They did not even produce much European-style food. Wheat did not grow well in the tropical climate. Cattle and sheep fell prey to tropical diseases.  Tea had to be imported from India.
So the basic economy of the Caribbean was that land was owned by large holders who either bought impressive holdings or received them as gifts from their respective governments. They worked the land with slaves or bound servants (who had no more rights than slaves) because the cash crops were labor-intensive. Sugar cultivation, the greatest wealth of the colonies, involved handling plants whose leaves cut the skin as well as a knife could, and required back-breaking labor under the hot sun to cultivate and harvest the plants, then back-breaking labor to extract the juice, then time in the heat spent boiling the juice down to molasses.

A slave on a sugar plantation was lucky to survive the work for two years. Free people did not cultivate sugar. Nobody did if they could help it.

What we would call “middle class” people were few and far between. Skilled tradesmen were hampered by lack of raw materials, and in competition with slave labor. Small merchants were in competition with large trading houses, such as the infamous East India Company. Trading companies of all kinds existed, and they often “bought monopolies” from their governments, giving them sole rights to transport valuable cargo (sugar, tobacco, slaves) through certain trade routes. If private individuals were caught breaking the monopoly, they could be fined or have their cargoes confiscated.

And into this world came the pirates.

Pirates did not rob slaves or middle class people. There was no profit from it. They robbed the rich because that was where the money was. Pirate ships followed the trade routes and captured the largest, richest ships they could find.

While they wanted money, they took goods as well. And what did they do with them? They sold them, quickly and at a discount.

Pirates might choose to unload cargo in a port where they had family who could cover them with an aura of respectability. They might have knowledge of a particular trader who didn’t mind buying goods with no paperwork involved. More and more, they took their plunder to “free ports,” places where known criminals met with dishonest merchants to trade.

The pirates had no money invested in their cargo, so goods could be bought from them for one quarter their actual value. This provided the merchant with a handsome profit. The merchants, then, also eager turn a quick profit, passed the savings on to their customers.

Suddenly, middle class folks could afford to live like the wealthy. Pirates stole and sold furniture, fine china, silverware, silks and velvets. Regular sale of these plundered goods in a community could raise the standard of living for everyone.

Furthermore, upon getting cash, the pirates spent it.

A hundred pounds sterling in the hands of a plantation owner might inspire him to buy more land from the Crown, or to purchase slaves from Africa, or manufactured goods from Europe. A hundred pounds in a pirate's hands would be immediately dropped into the local economy.
A pirate in town was no more unruly than any other sailor, but he was a lot richer. Pirates bought rum, a local product, spent cash on women, ate in the 18th century’s equivalent of restaurants. They bought fine clothes, watches, and other tokens of respectability.

Moreover, pirates became pirates in order to be happy. “A short life but a merry one” was the pirate motto, and it was easier to be merry if the people around you were having a good time.
There are stories of pirates who bought barrels of rum and set themselves up on street corners, passing out free liquor to everyone in the area. Pirates tipped extravagantly and bought presents for people. If a pirate wanted the company of a well-dressed woman, the easiest thing was to pick out a whore and then buy her some fine clothes. Arrangements like this benefited everyone.

The Spanish colonies had even greater reasons to support pirates. Spain had few plantations, since their inland territories allowed them to mine gold, silver and precious gems, all with slave labor. The overseers of these operations became enormously wealthy, but little of this wealth found its way into the hands of  free colonists. But if a tavern owner or fisherman passed information to pirates regarding the Spanish treasure fleets – their numbers, protective forces, or dates of sail – they could count on a rich reward.

In circumstances like these, loyalty went to the pirates quickly and easily.

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