In Part I of The Golden Age of Piracy, we’re taking a look at:

  • What makes a pirate
  • The code (aye, the code)
  • The flag
  • Home base
  • The world reacts

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What’s in a Name?

The Golden Age of Piracy spanned about 75 years, ending in the late 1720s, with a lot of bloodshed and enough legends to feed the imagination for the next 300 years.

The Buccaneers were active between 1650-1680. They were usually Protestants from the nations of England, the Netherlands, and France and sailed the seas of the Caribbean and areas near South America.

Next up are privateers. Letters of marque were issued to captains by their government. The countries usually involved were England, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands.

Privateers were usually merchant ships attacking other merchant ships. At the end of the day, a privateer was really just a formally recognized pirate with permission. 

On to corsairs, who were usually Muslim sailors in the Mediterranean given the greenlight by their governments to attack ships belonging to Christian countries.

And of course, because the corsairs weren’t European privateers, the Europeans saw them as pirates.

And finally, the pirates of the Golden Age, were the bandits of the sea. It didn’t matter what country they came from or represented before their pirating days.

All of those loyalties and ties were broken when they chose to become outlaws. The only flag that mattered was the black. And if you didn’t fly a black flag, your ship was fair game.

To Go a Pyrating

The guys who became pirates were usually already sailors, either because they joined the navy or a merchant ship and realized it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, or it was the only work available at the time. Or worse, they were forced into service.

Sailors might end up working night or day, or both. The food could be disgusting. Diseases often ran rampant on a ship. Food and water could last the entire journey, if they didn’t spoil first. If disease, hunger, or thirst didn’t kill sailors, then a storm could wash them overboard. Or they could fall from rigging. Or something could fall on top of them.

Punishments on naval and merchant ships were extreme and plenty. Men were constantly under the threat of a whip or a cane, which were used liberally. And sometimes food or water rations weren’t given. The pay was complete and utter shit. That is, if the sailors got paid at all. There was a lot of anger and resentment. 

Piracy, on the other hand, offered everything the navy and merchant vessels didn’t, such as time to relax, goofing off with buddies, a share of the plunder, food and drink for all, their own form of worker’s comp, captains chosen by the crew, and a real say in how the crew operated and what prizes were taken. 

Not all pirates came from a sailor’s background. Enslaved Africans who escaped or were freed from slave ships also joined pirate crews. According to the Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard, escaped slaves could make up a quarter of a pirate crew, if not more. 

Piracy became an even more popular choice for sailors after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, which was fought at the same time as Queen Anne’s War in the British colonies. Once the wars were over and the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in April 1713, a lot of sailors were out of work. 

Some of the men who went on the account mutinied and took over their ship as one big group. Others deserted the first chance they got and signed up with a pirate crew if they could. Or the most popular option, they volunteered to join a crew when their ship was seized by pirates. 

As a general rule, pirates didn’t like to make pirates of men who weren’t willing, but there were a few exceptions when it came to men with skills other than sailing, like coopers (those who could repair the barrels that held food and drink) and surgeons if they were desperately needed. 

Towards the end of the Golden Age, less and less men were willing to join pirate crews. Less volunteers meant less men to crew a pirate ship. So captains and their crews turned to forcing sailors to join up. 

The Pirate’s Code

Each ship had their own code, which were called articles, that the captain and crew had to agree and swear to. But a lot of the articles were pretty similar to each other from ship to ship. They were the dos and don’ts of piracy, kind of like the Pirate Bill of Rights that established the roles on board the ship and the tasks men were responsible for. 

Here’s the general gist of the articles, based on Bartholomew Roberts’s: everyone had a say and could vote when there was a vote taking place. Everyone got the same amount of food and drink (and yes, that included alcohol). No stealing from the crew or the offender would be marooned. 

The articles also dictated how many shares of a prize each man got, with the captain and quartermaster usually getting two shares and the regular crew getting one. It was definitely much fairer than they’d get on a privateer vessel or elsewhere.

Some, not all, of the articles drawn up by various crews did include an article about not raping women. Forcing a woman would be met with severe punishment on those ships, like that of Captain John Phillips in 1723.

Pirates of the Caribbean Clip – NOT how the code worked

A Pirate Society

There were a lot of things that tied pirates together, but nothing as recognizable as the black flags they flew. They were unified by common goals, symbols, behavior, pretty similar to the countries they came from. Whatever loyalty they had to their home nation was transferred. The only loyalty pirates had was to their own crews and to other pirates.

Absolutely none of the officers were allowed to wear any symbol that declared them officers or more important than any other crew member. All were equal in dress as well. While the captain could choose a specific cabin as his own, his crew members could waltz in and out whenever they wanted and help themselves to whatever was in there. The ship belonged to the crew. 

A lot of the things that happened on a ship, and even on land, were dealt with by the quartermaster. If there was fighting on board or if crew members weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing, the quartermaster got the pleasure of sorting it all out. He figured out how to fix it or what the punishment would be. And he didn’t need any votes for the small things. Some punishments, like whipping, required the approval of the crew. 

Quartermasters were also elected based on their character and abilities as a sailor. You could even argue that the quartermaster had more of a say than the captain in the day to day operations of the ship. He was in charge of the ship’s helm, aka the wheel, during battle and led the vanguard onto the ships they were attacking. 

Other positions within the crew might be elected, or chosen by the quartermaster or the captain if they fit the bill. The sailing master was in charge of navigation and making sure the sails stayed in tip top shape. The boatswain, or bosun, made sure everything was spick and span when it came to the ship as a whole – repairs and keeping the ship stocked with food and drink.

Raise the Black

The black flag with the skull and crossbones didn’t make it on the scene until 1700 when the French pirate Emmanuel Wynne raised the black.

Before that, pirates used two different flags. A red one and a black one. No symbols, just solid colors. 

The red flag, sometimes referred to as the bloody flag meant no quarter. There was no mercy to be given.

Pirates usually flew the red when the prize they were after chose to fight instead of surrender right away. The black flag, on the other hand, meant you might just live another day. 

But by the end of the seventeenth century, solid colored flags were becoming a thing of the past. So no, all pirates weren’t flying the same black flag with a skull and crossbones. Jack Rackham, also known as Calico Jack, probably created one of the most famous and recognizable pirate flags in history. A skull and crossbones with two cutlasses crisscrossed underneath.

Starz’s Black Sails Clip *chef’s kiss*

Ships and Warfare

A pirate crew was only as good as their ship. It didn’t matter if the best sailors in the history of sailors were on board, if the ship wasn’t up to the task, there was only so much the pirates could do.

Which is why pirates almost always chose ships based on how fast they could go instead of how big they were. 

The ships of choice were ones where the hull only needed a few feet of water in order to sail. 

Which meant it was a much faster ship. Pirates needed vessels that could carry their entire crew and all their cannons without being weighed down, like a schooner or a sloop.

The only ship capable of giving the pirates a serious run for their money was a man-of-war, AKA, a Royal Navy ship.

Merchants weren’t the type to go out, guns blazing. It wasn’t their cargo. And the pirates were more than okay with that. They were always ready for a fight, especially when there was a prize on the line.

But fighting also meant getting injured, losing arms and legs, and even death. If there was no other option, they’d draw their cutlass and attack. 

Which is why speed was so important. If the ship being pursued knew they couldn’t get away, and that fighting meant dying, they’d be more likely to surrender from the start. But speed and the threat of violence weren’t the only weapons in their arsenal. 

If a pirate didn’t want to be recognized as a pirate, they could sail incognito. Pirates had a habit of stocking up on national flags. They’d fly whatever flag would allow them to blend in best. Unfortunately for the hunted, that meant they wouldn’t realize until it was way too late that their so called fellow countrymen were pirates in disguise.

The Pirate Kingdom of Madagascar

Madagascar

When the pirates weren’t pyrating, they had to drop anchor somewhere they felt safe. Madagascar was such a place.

It had quite a few harbors to stop at and complete some business (both legal and illegal), somewhere to beach a ship for maintenance and repairs, and the worst of the lot, slave ships might stop by every now and then to take on slaves. 

Madagascar was a free nation. None of the European powers had control over it. So the European navies had very little reason to hang around there.

This made Madagascar a safe haven and the perfect place for pirates to call home. 

Madagascar continued to grow until it was kind of like a pirate kingdom. Well almost, anyway.

The residents of Madagascar created their own set of laws to keep order on the island and from there, it kind of continued growing. It was a strange little cohesive society. 

Welcome to the Bahamas

Eventually, Madagascar faded into the rearview mirror. That doesn’t mean Madagascar wasn’t used anymore, just that by 1716, pirates were more likely to travel to New Providence, Bahamas, to the coastal city of Nassau. 

It was a rundown place dedicated to pleasure, drinking, gambling, brawls, and all things mayhem. Not to gross anyone out, but how the people of Nassau could stomach being there is a fucking mystery.

Think about all these smells mixing together – food, rotten trash, body order, and whatever else baking under the hot, hot sun. Supposedly people could smell Nassau before they ever saw it.

Alexander Spotswood, the Governor of Virginia, once said that Nassau was the New Madagascar. In many ways, the two pirate havens were very much alike. But the pirates of Nassau actually came up with a way to defend their home. They had cannons and guys ready to use them at any given time. 

Since Nassau was the perfect base of operations in the Caribbean, it gave pirates the ability to go hunting just about anywhere stretching from the Caribbean to Central America to North America. The oceans were theirs for the taking. Wherever they went, the Bahamas were close enough that pirates could hideout within the Bahamas or Nassau itself.

We like pyrates. They don’t like pyrates. Oh well, yay pyrates. 

Pirates wouldn’t have been able to keep doing what they were doing without help or support from someone. Luckily for our looting outlaws, the colonists very much wanted all the goodies pirates had to offer. The colonists were also more than happy to welcome the pirates into their cities for however long they wanted where they could spend lots of money.

Pirates would bring their silver to minters who would then turn the silver into coins. If the pirates weren’t bringing their silver to minters, then they brought it to silversmiths who were able to melt it all down and refashion it into something else, like utensils.

Pirates brought a wealth of other items with them into the colonies, like silk and sugar. Some merchants even supplied pirates directly. 

There were more than a few governors who looked the other way or actively helped the pirates.

They got to line their pockets with extra income since their wages were quite shitty, and the pirates got to sell their cargo.

A mutually beneficial arrangement. 

Pirates offered one more important service for the colonies: their strength. England saved their main military forces for themselves and left the colonists with the equivalent of a squirt gun.

So the pirates offered their men to fight if they were needed. 

The fact that the colonies had gone so far as to practically lay out the red carpet for the pirates made the British break out into a cold sweat. In England piracy was no joke, it was a death sentence. 

England actually thought the colonists would arrest the pirates and send them back to England for their trials and public executions. That definitely wasn’t going to happen, especially when the colonists almost never even put them on trial in a local court. 

England as a whole was making sure that all those in power that had any kind of inclination to support pirates were sacked and replaced. While they were at it, they decided to fix their little pirate problem. In January 1700, the King wanted the arrested pirates shipped back to England. And so the pirates went to England, stood trial, and then they all had a long drop and a sudden stop. 

Later on that year, parliament passed a new law called the Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy. It was basically a fancy new law that gave the colonies a new way to try pirates on home turf through the court of Oyer and Terminer. 

The Oyer and Terminer courts established for pirates found a way to circumvent any sympathizers from sitting on a jury and letting the pirates walk free. Only men high up in the government, from a military background, and highly valued merchants were allowed a commission. The inglorious end for the pirates shouldn’t come as a shock – death.

As if that wasn’t enough, this new act rewrote some definitions. A pirate was no longer just a pirate. Now the word would encompass a wide range of people like mutineers, sailors who surrendered to pirates instead of fighting back, and those who traded with or supplied pirates. 


*Photos: All photos used in this post are taken from The Library of Congress Archives and WikiCommons and are in the Public Domain.

*Music: Initial classical piece that’s a part of the intro is Concerto for 2 Oboes in F Major Op9 no3, 3 Allegro by Advent Chamber Orchestra under the Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.*