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Famous Pirates and the Golden Age of Piracy

From the very earliest days of history there have been pirates. Their seafaring adventures have stirred the imagination of men and women alike who kindle a bit of romance and wonder about the lives of these bold and adventurous souls that once sailed and pillaged upon the open seas sipping rum and amassing a fortune in stolen treasure.

Preceding the Golden Age of Piracy, there were other masters of piracy who sailed the seas in the Caribbean and set an example for other pirate souls to follow. One should consider the persuasion of these other seafaring masters to clearly understand the state of affairs that had developed in this country during parts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Stockton (1926) asserts that Christopher Columbus was the first who practiced piracy in American waters (pg.8). When he sailed with his three little ships to discover unknown lands, he was an accredited explorer for the court of Spain, and was bravely sailing forth with an honest purpose, and with the same regard for law and justice as is possessed by any explorer of the present day. But when he discovered some unknown lands, rich in treasure and outside of all legal restrictions, the views and ideas of the great discoverer gradually changed. Being now beyond the boundaries of civilization, he also placed himself beyond the boundaries of civilized law. Robbery, murder, and the destruction of property, by the commanders of naval expeditions, who have no warrant or commission for their conduct, is the same as piracy, and when Columbus ceased to be a legalized explorer, and when, against the expressed wishes, and even the prohibitions, of the royal personages who had sent him out on this expedition, he began to devastate the countries he had discovered, and to enslave and exterminate their peaceable natives, then he became a master in piracy.

Another notable person – Sir Francis Drake, one of England's greatest naval commanders – played the part of pirate in the New World during the sixteenth century, and thereby set a most shining example to the buccaneers of those regions. During his great voyage around the world, which he began in 1577, he came down upon the Spanish-American settlements like a storm from the sea. He attacked towns, carried off treasure, captured merchant-vessels, and in fact showed himself to be a thoroughbred and accomplished pirate of the first class.

The activities of the seafaring men and women that followed later in history were influenced by these men and they learned many a valuable lesson from the prior explorers of the open seas.

Some historians vary on the definition of the Golden Age of Piracy, although, the broadest accepted definition ranges from the 1650s to the 1720s – with the peak of seafaring piracy occurring between the years of 1715 through 1725. During this Golden Age of Piracy, privateers, buccaneers, and pirates attacked shipping lanes and seaborne trade occurring predominately throughout the Caribbean waters, the Atlantic seaboard of America, the West African coast, and the Indian Ocean. Many of these seafaring souls became legends in their own time and some of the most famous pirates known today such as Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Henry Morgan, William “Captain” Kidd, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and Black Bart Roberts.

At first nearly all the noted buccaneers—a name derived from the French word boucanier, signifying "a drier of beef" – were traders. But the circumstances which surrounded them in the New World made of them pirates whose misdeeds have never been surpassed in any part of the globe. Spanish galleons were continuously under attack throughout the Spanish Main by pirates who targeted the galleons carrying treasures from the New World back to Spain. The English, French, and Dutch governments were generally at peace with Spain, but they sat by quietly and saw their sailor subjects band themselves together and make war upon Spanish commerce. These pirates were fierce and reckless souls who pursued their daring occupation because it was profitable, because they had learned to like it, and because it enabled them to wreak a certain amount of vengeance upon a common enemy.

Finding that she could do nothing to diminish the growing number of the buccaneering vessels, Spain determined that she would not have so many richly laden ships of her own upon these dangerous seas; consequently, a change was made in regard to the shipping of merchandise and the valuable metals from America to her home ports. The cargoes were concentrated, and what had previously been placed upon three ships was crowded into the holds and between the decks of one great vessel, which was so well armed and defended as to make it almost impossible for any pirate ship to capture it. In some respects this plan worked very well, although when the buccaneers did happen to pounce upon one of these richly laden vessels, in such numbers and with such swift ferocity, that they were able to capture it, they rejoiced over a prize far more valuable than anything the pirate soul had ever dreamed of before. But it was not often that one of these great ships was taken, and for a time the results of Spanish robbery and cruelty were safely carried to Spain.

Buccaneers found that it did not pay to devote themselves to capturing Spanish gold on its transit across the ocean; many of them changed their methods of operation and boldly planned to seize the treasures of their enemy before it was put upon the ships.

Consequently, the buccaneers formed themselves into larger bodies commanded by noted leaders, and made attacks upon the Spanish settlements and towns. Many of these were found nearly defenseless, and even those which boasted fortifications often fell before the reckless charges of the buccaneers. The pillage, the burning, and the cruelty on shore exceeded that which had ever been known on the sea. There is generally a great deal more in a town than there is in a ship, and the buccaneers proved themselves to be among the most outrageous, exacting, and cruel conquerors ever known in the world. They were governed by no laws of warfare; whatever they chose to do…they did.

In order to prevent disputes, most pirate crews had rigid rules in regard to the division of their spoils and operating procedures. These eventually became known as Articles of Agreement, or pirate code…which each crew member was asked to sign or make his mark upon and swear an oath of allegiance. When a rule was breached, the crew was often without pity or remorse in punishing a guilty crew member.

The buccaneers of the West Indies and South America had grown to be a most formidable body of reckless freebooters. From merely capturing Spanish ships, laden with the treasures taken from the natives of the New World, they had grown strong enough to attack Spanish towns and cities. But when they became soldiers and marched in little armies, the patience of the civilized world began to weaken: Panama, for instance, was an important Spanish city; England was at peace with Spain; therefore, when a military force composed mainly of Englishmen, and led by a British subject, captured and sacked the said Spanish city, England was placed in an awkward position; if she did not interfere with her buccaneers, she would have a quarrel to settle with Spain.

Therefore it was that a new Governor was sent to Jamaica with strict orders to use every power he possessed to put down the buccaneers and to break up their organization. The French had also been very active in suppressing the operations of their buccaneers, and now the Brethren of the Coast, considered as an organization for preying upon the commerce and settlers of Spain, might be said to have ceased to exist. But it must not be supposed that because buccaneering had died out, that piracy was dead.

There were buccaneers who would not give up a piratical life; driven away from Jamaica, from San Domingo, and even from Tortuga, they retained a resting-place only at New Providence, an island in the Bahamas, and this they did not maintain very long. Then they spread themselves all over the watery world. They were no longer buccaneers, they were no longer brothers of any sort or kind, they no longer set out merely to pillage and fight the Spaniards, but their attacks were made upon people of every nation. English ships and French ships, once safe from them, were a welcome prey to these new pirates, unrestrained by any kind of loyalty, even by any kind of enmity. They were more rapacious, they were crueler, and they were more diabolical than they had ever been before.

The scene of piratical operations in America was now very much changed. The successors of the Brethren of the Coast, no longer united by any bonds of fellowship, but each pirate captain acting independently in his own wicked way, was coming up from the West Indies to afflict the seacoast of our country. History shows that in our own country pirates appeared along the Carolina coast as far back as 1565 and that the notorious Captain Teach, alias “Blackbeard,” appeared off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina in the spring of 1718. Blackbeard's ship - Queen Anne's Revenge - was known to fly the infamous Jolly Roger flag...although, unlike the notorious black flag with a white skull and crossbones…Blackbeard’s Jolly Roger flag featured a devil-horned skeleton holding an hourglass and directing a spear toward a bleeding heart. It has been said that many people thought Blackbeard was the devil himself and was undoubtedly one the most feared and most despised pirates of all time.

Throughout history, popular safe havens provided a place where pirates would gather without fear of attack or arrest. Pirates were known to be fond of locations such as Port Royal, New Providence, Tortuga, Ocracoke - North Carolina, and Newport - Rhode Island.

The demise of most pirates and a large proportion of the buccaneers was sudden and violent…few of them died in their beds. Many were killed in battle, a number of them were drowned. Some drank themselves to death with strong Jamaica rum, while many of the other buccaneers died of malaria and yellow fever contracted in the jungles of Central America. Most of the pirates who survived these perils lived only to be hanged.

By the early 1700’s the Golden Age of Piracy was coming to an end as national navies and colonial governors significantly influenced the decline of piracy...along with it's seafaring souls romancing the seas.
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