Pirate History: The end of an era

by Pirate Matty on March 29, 2008

The decline of piracy in the Caribbean paralleled the decline of the use of mercenaries and the rise of national armies in Europe. Following the end of the Thirty Years’ War the direct power of the state in Europe expanded. Armies were systematized and brought under direct state control; the Western European states’ navies were expanded and their mission was expanded to cover combating piracy. The elimination of piracy from European waters expanded to the Caribbean in the 1700s, West Africa and North America by the 1710s and by the 1720s even the Indian Ocean was a difficult location for pirates to operate.

After 1720, piracy in the classic sense became extremely rare in the Caribbean as European military and naval forces, especially those of the British Royal Navy, just became too widespread and active for any pirate to pursue an effective career for long. Pirates who were caught were usually hanged as soon as the British returned to port. Piracy saw a brief resurgence between the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 and around 1720, as many unemployed seafarers took to piracy as a way to make ends meet when a surplus of sailors after the war led to a decline in wages and working conditions. At the same time, one of the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the war gave to Great Britain’s Royal African Company and other British slavers a thirty-year asiento, or contract, to furnish African slaves to the Spanish colonies, providing British merchants and smugglers potential inroads into the traditionally closed Spanish markets in America and leading to an economic revival for the whole region. This revived Caribbean trade provided rich new pickings for a wave of piracy. Also contributing to the increase of Caribbean piracy at this time was Spain’s breakup of the English logwood settlement at Campeche and the attractions of a freshly sunken silver fleet off the southern Bahamas in 1715.

This early 18th century resurgence of piracy lasted only until the Royal Navy and the Spanish Guardacosta’s presence in the Caribbean were enlarged to deal with the threat. Also crucial to the end of this era of piracy was the loss of the pirates’ last Caribbean safe haven at Nassau. It is in this period that the popular Pirates of the Caribbean film series produced by the Walt Disney Company is loosely set.

The famous pirates of the early 18th century were a completely illegal remnant of a golden buccaneering age, and their choices were limited to quick retirement or eventual capture. Contrast this with the earlier example of Henry Morgan, who for his privateering efforts was knighted by the English Crown and appointed the governor of Jamaica.

Privateering would remain a tool of European states, and even of the newborn United States, until the mid-19th century‘s Declaration of Paris. But letters of marque were given out much more sparingly by governments and were terminated as soon as conflicts ended. The idea of “no peace beyond the Line” was a relic that had no meaning by the more settled late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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