Pirating is one of the oldest professions, and it has been practiced all over the world. But when we think of pirates, it’s almost always the Caribbean we imagine, with its blue waters, its rum, and its bands of jolly cut-throats, who might do anything except what authority tells them to.
And yet there are two different kinds of pirates in the Caribbean, and today we’ll talk about what sets them apart from each other.
The first group falls into a period of roughly a hundred and thirty years, from about 1560 to 1688, bounded on one side by Sir Francis Drake, and on the other by Sir Henry Morgan. They included the likes of Sir John Hawkins, Sir Thomas Cavendish and Sir Humphrey Gilbert.
You may have noticed that all these men were knighted (which seems an odd fate for a pirate), evidenced by the “sir” before their names. The reason for this was that they were, at least nominally, all working for the English government, and they were most certainly sending a considerable part of their profits home to enrich that government. This sort of behavior was enough to get nearly anyone knighted, no matter what he’s been up to.
For in spite of their loyalty to their reigning monarch, they got into a lot of trouble. Drake was financed by Queen Elizabeth I to sail around the world. He was the leader of the second expedition to do it. (Magellan gets the credit for doing it first, but he didn’t live to complete the journey.) Drake made his money by sacking several Spanish galleons, and payed off his investors at a rate of 4,700%. Queen Elizabeth took her share and paid off the national debt with it.
Raleigh was also considered a pirate by the Spanish, a hero to his home country of England. He was so good at removing gold from Spanish hands that Elizabeth encouraged him to found the first colony in North America. Roanoke colony didn’t survive, and Raleigh got into considerable trouble through a secret marriage to a noblewoman. He ended up with his head cut off.
Hawkins (possibly the inspiration for the name Jim Hawkins in the novel Treasure Island) caused enough disruption that he inspired the Spanish to prohibit all English commerce in the Caribbean (a prohibition that was entirely ignored by other English adventurers.)
Morgen sailed under Letters of Marque, documents that licensed him to take specific actions against the Spanish. But he never really paid any attention to the requirements of these letters. He needed success, both for his backers and for the pirates who sailed under him, and if his assigned mission did not prove profitable he simply attacked somewhere else.
This got him into such trouble that he was recalled to England to stand trial for his disobedience. The intent was to hang him, but his many friends (men whom he had enriched) came to his aid, and he was knighted and send back to Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor, where he lived out his life hanging out in dockside taverns and drinking himself to death.
These men came from middle-class families, and had some education. They were funded by their government and by rich merchants in an era where anything was possible. Their logic seemed to be that if they were far enough away from home, they could get away with anything, and they were mostly right.
In these early years, sailing in general was a communal profession. All the ship’s crew risked their lives (some voyages of exploration had 90% casualty rates) and all shared in the profits.
Often these men attacked the Spanish on land. They proved daring tacticians and inspiring leaders, as they sacked settlements and captured forts. On land they had leisure to spend days or weeks raping, burning and pillaging. To the Protestant English, the Catholic Spanish were barely human, and they had no compunction in treating them without humanity. When the Spanish, sure of their God-given rights in the New World, took revenge, a circle of torture and violence erupted.
But as time went by, sailors were expected to work for pay, and ships carrying Letters of Marque were expected to do what they were told. The Caribbean was no longer the “wild west.” Morgan’s brush with the law was a lesson to anyone who wanted to step out of line. The days of the Buccaneers were over.
Instead, corporations were beginning to rule the sea. Ships were owned by men who stayed at home, and sailed by captains who wanted their crews to work as cheaply as possible. The rise of capitalism brought about a contest between the employer and the employed. At sea pay was as small as possible, and work was all that a man could do. On land, tenant farmers who had rented the same land for generations were driven into cities, where poverty, filth and overcrowding killed them off.
In 1690 Henry Avery, a man of common birth, was being held captive by the agents of a consortium of English merchants who had sold his ship – crew and all – to the Spanish. Henry, with no family or education, raised up a band of common sailors, took the ship back and sailed her to the Indian Ocean, where he made his fortune by pirating. The Golden Age of Piracy had arrived.
Avery was a new kind of pirate. He was elected to the post of captain, and he led by the accent of his men. He refused to take more than twice the amount of plunder allotted to the lowest deck hand, and consulted his crew in all matters of importance.
Avery retired, but his story spread. When Queen Ann’s War ended, throwing thousands of sailors, with no job experience except as warriors, out of work, and the Wreck of the Spanish Treasure fleet brought adventurers from all over the world, the time was ripe.
Ben Horinigold, a former privateer, taught hundreds of young men about pirating, and along with it, the idea that working men could be free and proud. Pirate captains didn’t beat their crews. That was for the navy and the merchants. Now, when a man became a pirate, he swore to kneel before no one. The crew owned the ship, and they could vote the captain out of office. The ship was run by a set of written rules called “articles” and they applied equally to all. Never before had common men been so free.
Pirates recruited by simply asking the crews they’d captured if anyone wanted to join. And pirates were seen, more than ever before, as a danger to the established order that said some people were simply born to have more than others… More money, more respect, more freedom.
The pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts did not, at first, want to be a pirate, but when he realized the advantages of living among men who considered themselves equal, he became one of the greatest spokesmen for piracy. Sam Bellamy called himself the equal to the King of England. Captains like Charles Vane put merchant captains on trial for crimes against humanity.
The Golden Age petered out some time about 1720, when European governments realized that they could not defeat this new idea. Instead, they pardoned all the pirates, leaving them free to keep their riches and live out their lives.
Some fifty-odd years later, another upstart group in the New World would announce that “All men are created equal.”
But the pirates from the Golden Age got there first. And don’t you forget it.