A question that comes up on a regular basis is “Who was the first pirate?” When you are looking at just the Golden Age of Piracy, I’d have to give that title to Francis Drake (c 1540 to 1596) But when you look at the larger issue – at all the pirates that have ever lived, the question (like so many things about pirates) gets a lot murkier.
Piracy began with boats, and boats go back a long way. So long ago, in fact, that things like “laws” are hard to pin down. The earliest forms of piracy – practiced by the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians – was simply a matter of attacking people weaker than yourself, beating them up and taking their stuff. At the time, this was pretty much how all “international law” worked.
Piracy was something that was done to you. If you did it to somebody else, it was skirmishing, raiding, or “viking” depending on where you were, and it was perfectly all right. Nations just did this to each other. The Irish and the Scots were great raiders. All the Celtic tribes practiced raiding, and the Greek city-states had very small wars going on almost constantly over just this kind of thing.
The main reason the Norse were so hated for their “viking” was that they were just so good at it. Plus, the people they attacked didn’t have boats equal to the Norse longboats. This meant that the victims couldn’t go raid back, as was the custom.
A little closer to home for my American readers is the practice of the Native Americans. Young men of many tribes raided the neighbors. Horse-stealing was a fine art. It proved the initiative of the raider, enriched him, and made him look sexy for the girls. And while it wasn’t fun for the victims, this sort of thing wasn’t “war” in the sense that we understand it. It wasn’t about destroying people or goods. It was about getting rich.
If the raiding got out of hand – if too many innocents were hurt, if too much damage was done, older people would be called in to negotiate reparations. The Celtic tribes used similar methods to keep something like peace. It was mostly a matter of young men playing. And, as they say, whenever men play, they play at killing each other.
Which leads us to pirates.
The early Golden Age pirates – called the Buccaneering pirates – Raleigh, Drake, Hawkins, Morgan, were raiders in the old sense. Spain had money. England needed money. And Spain’s money was on the other side of the world, where no one was looking at it too closely. So these men showed their initiative by taking that money, bringing it home and sharing it with their own government.
The biggest differences here were the growing nationalism in Europe, and the issues of religion. The English raiders were Protestants, and to the Catholic Spanish, they were just as much Godless heathens as Muslims or American natives. The Spanish believed that God had given them all of North and South America, with the attendant gold and silver. Anyone stealing this money was acting against the wishes of God.
For this reason, the Spanish executed English pirates as soon as they caught them. This was hardly new- people had been killing pirates as often as they could be caught for a long time. But Spain continued its protests against English pirates by threatening – and later waging- war.
Queen Elizabeth I, who loved pirates (and the money they brought home to England), knighted many of the original Buccaneers.
But when the true Golden Age of Piracy began, the rhetoric changed yet again. Suddenly pirates were “the enemies of God and men” “the scourge of all nations” “savages” and “unnatural.”
The difference was that this time, the people in charge of the raiding, weren’t rich, and for the first time, the entities being robbed were neither nations nor individuals, but corporations. Individuals who are robbed don’t have a lot of recourse, and nations have a certain tolerance for small robberies, since doing something about it requires a lot of work.
Up until this point, raiding had been a rich man’s game. You needed the boat, and weapons, and that ran into a ton of money. Even if you weren’t rich yourself, you could become a pirate by convincing someone to give you command of their boat. So, when the profits were shared out, the owner and the captain got the largest share, and most of the cash stayed in the hands of the “upper crust”.
But corporations – and entities like the English East India Company (who later became powerful enough to maintain their own army and start their own wars) the West Indian Company, the Dutch West India Company, etc were insanely sensitive about being robbed, and they had the political clout to do something about it. They started the rhetoric that still echoes in the image of pirates being “evil” which lives on until this day. Highway robbers like Robin Hood have been romantic figures for a long time. Pirates, not so much.
In addition to ticking off the merchant corporations, early 18th century pirates also won the ire of insurance companies. Yes, almost all of the pirate’s victims had insurance. So, a small-time merchant might be annoyed by being robbed, but it probably wouldn’t ruin him. This may even have figured into the motives of certain pirates. Even today, fleecing an insurance company doesn’t carry the social disapproval of a “real crime”.
Pirates, usually working-class guys who had been repeatedly screwed by “the system” stood up for themselves when they captured treasure. They did not turn their prizes over to governments or financial backers. They kept it for themselves, and often flaunted laws which said that only people of hereditary wealth could wear certain clothing or eat certain foods.
When the powers that be saw “peasants” acting like they had just as much right to nice clothing and good food as rich folks, they went berserk. “God” had decided that certain people deserved to be rich, and He had showed His choices by making those people rich himself. That uneducated men, with no family connections or social standing should suddenly proclaim that they had just as much money as the next guy overturned a world-view that had stood for millennia.
Of course, pirates were not the only ones who were fighting this fight. On land, people displaced by their landlords, workers whose wages had been reduced to below poverty wages, mistreated apprentices, and others combined into riotous mobs and fought for their rights.
The English government, influenced by the newly prosperous middle class, and by corporations and merchant associations, tried to control the lower classes by the use of harsher and harsher penalties, until well over two hundred crimes were punishable by death. It did not have much effect.
Being a pirate, helping pirates, and doing business with pirates was all illegal, but the penalties fell harshest on the deckhand level pirates that the authorities happened to catch. The authorities simply could not stand poor people who claimed to be just as good as the rich folks around them.
Many rich people still can’t. Statements like “Those laws don’t apply to us,” “Everyone can be rich if they just work hard enough,” and “Forty seven percent of people just want handouts,” prove that there’s nothing a rich person hates more than a poor person who wants to be equal.