Travels of 17th and 18th Century Sea-Robbers
During the early 17th century, piracy happened wherever no one was watching. English, French and Dutch seafarers snatched gold from the hugely prosperous Spanish Empire in the New World whenever they had the opportunity, frequently under the guise of “trading”, “self defense” or “exploration.”
But as international relations normalized – that is to say, as goodwill between nations became an important factor, and countries like England found it in their best interest to at least appear to have firm control over all their citizens, pressure began to mount for adventurous mariners to mind their manners.
The act of robbing Spanish ships and settlements had come under scrutiny from the buccaneering pirates’ own nations. It was time for a new and interesting way to harvest ill-gotten riches. And so began The Pirate Round.
“Rounders” as they were sometime called, started out in the New World, from places ranging from Nassau, to Bermuda to New York, and even including the Spanish city of Coruna. From these home ports, pirates would follow sea currents and winds to the Portuguese island of Madeira, where they would clean their ship-bottoms and re-supply.
From there, these Rounders made their way around the horn of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope (southern tip of the continent) and up the eastern coast to the Mozambique Straight, which led them to north eastern Madagascar. (Yes, that Madagascar, the one in the movie with all the talking animals.)
The island was a perfect pirate base. Claimed by no European power, it was outside of European law and the influence of European politics. A pirate named Adam Baldridge had staked out the area as early as 1687, subdued the natives (from whom he then collected tribute) and set up his most profitable venture of all, a trading company that supplied pirates with the necessities of clothing, powder and shot, and rum after their arduous journey.
His partner in this venture was Frederick Philipse, a formerly Dutch settler to New York. Philipse seems to have always been more interested in money than nationality. He had married a rich and driven widow, and when the English took over his colony, he joined with them and changed his name to better fit in with his new neighbors.
Philipse had no compunction about shady dealings. He dealt in illegal slavery, and was happy to trade with pirates as long as it brought a handsome profit. It did. The simple addition of a reliable, friendly base for re-supply brought sea-robbers and fortune hunters from all over the world.
They were hunting Eastern prey. Madagascar’s northern tip made a perfect spot from which to stake out Red Sea trading, and to waylay ships carrying Muslim travelers on their way to Mecca for the Haj, or sacred pilgrimage. Often these trading ships were richly appointed. Henry Avery took a ship valued at over £300,000 – more money than he, his ship and his crew could have realized in 20 years of honest trading. Thomas Tew made an even more enormous haul.
It was a perfect location for pirates. The Eastern ships were not used to attacks from the well-equipped, well-supplied and well-trained European pirates. Though shipping vessels were sturdy and armed with cannons, merchant vessels did not necessarily have the latest weapons, and often had not maintained their weaponry or fully trained their crews. Ship size and the appearance of great power was often enough to chase off local raiders.
Furthermore, The East was still largely outside of European relations. Eastern rulers might complain to Western nations, but complaints did not mean as much as objections from neighboring countries. It was also far easier for a European government to divest itself from the actions of men who were nowhere near European territories or colonies, and who had sailed halfway around the world to commit their crimes.
When England finally took steps to combat piracy by their citizens in the East, they followed the disastrous plan of hiring privateers to do the work. Men like Captain Kidd started out as pirate hunters, but far too many of them saw the riches to be had and quickly turned pirate themselves.
The Pirate Round flourished from about 1693 to 1697, when Baldridge left Madagascar for more civilized locations. Between 1700 and 1713, the War of Spanish Succession provided legal work as privateers for former pirates, and offered similar chances for plunder.
When the war ended in 1713, the Caribbean became the world’s greatest hotbed of piracy, as the former privateers hunted familiar waters for Spanish treasure and English merchant ships.
The Round took on a second life between 1720 and 1721, when the last pirate holdouts, men like Olivier la Busse and Bartholomew Roberts refused to accept pardons for their piratical past. These men came back to Madagascar to plunder Eastern shipping again, but were ultimately forced out by the East India Company, whose growing presence in the region demanded government protection, while its own might and power allowed it to build a private army and navy that influenced the region for nearly two centuries.