The end of ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’…

A Spanish guarda-costa in the shape of a heavily-armed lateen-rigged galley cruises off the coast of Porto Nuevo in 1700. Such vessels caught many a ‘smuggler’ (legally or not) and were a constant threat to any prowling pirate vessel hoping to pick off a prize. Though some men survived, a sentence by a Spanish court to ‘penal servitude on the galleys’ through the conditions aboard such a vessel was a virtual death sentence to a criminal. The notorious Captain Kidd’s first ship - The Adventure Galley - was a similar vessel but larger and square-rigged, built in London.

The author sailed aboard the ship seen here in 1992    (Authors Collection)

Pirates during ancient times were named as ‘Enemies of all Mankind’ as their activities were seen as ‘uncivilised, illegal and barbaric acts against the laws of nature and commerce’. Before navies existed, in the event or state or private mercantile disputes with another nation, merchant vessels under private or syndicated ownership were crewed, armed and sailed under a Government-approved issued Letter of Reprisal and Marque against an identified enemy. These ‘privateers’ were left to judge who and what the targets might be - commercial shipping or coastal towns - and the dispute ended or continued by mutual agreement. The line between privateers and pirate was often vague ; whilst a privateer sailed under a defined and firm command structure against a specific named enemy with the crew agreeing - in writing - to serve for a defined pay with plunder going mostly to the owners or commissioners of the vessel, by comparison a pirate vessel and crew attacked any prospective prize under the flag of any nation on an understanding of proportionate cash shares for all crew members aboard. Privateers enjoyed a degree of legal protection in the case of a dispute concerning the voyage when returning to port, whereas pirates had no legality at all.

Privateers increased at times of war : any ship and crew could sail under a Letter of Marque and Reprisal issued by a state or local Governor against an enemy. As most navies were expensive and run down during peacetime and as colonial frontiers were months away from home Government, this facility gave the advantage that when a dispute suddenly arose, a large number of vessels in a colonial port could be quickly commissioned and equipped by a Governor within a matter of days. As the war or local dispute ended, privateers were legally assumed to return to previous commercial activities. Privateer vessels were also commissioned to seek out and destroy pirates, especially on a colonial basis where navy ships were few and far between. Large numbers of ships fitted out as privateers for commercial gain became redundant after a dispute many privateers became pirates by the very nature of their activities and many privateers simply carried on their ‘privations’ against commercial shipping in peacetime.

Colonial Governors and Monarchs (through Parliament) in the early 18th Century regularly issued pardons in the form of ‘Acts of Grace’ ; at a time of where no forces were available to control increasing piracy these acts and proclamations granted named or unspecified pirates ‘pardon for their past crimes’ with no punishment ensuing if they would simply surrender to the legal authorities by a stated date. Pirates quickly realized that these ‘acts’ were desperate attempts by a powerless state or colonial authority to end their activities ; though many pirates used the pardons as a reason to give up their activities and retire - most of these ex-pirates had sums of plunder to live on, some disappearing ashore to enjoy enormous wealth or become legitimate merchants themselves - some like ’Blackbeard’ used the acts to gain a temporary breathing space to land ashore, seek out new markets, sell their plunder, refit their ships and then sail again on a voyage of piracy.

Though pirates always favoured finding cash or portable valuables that could easily be shared out and concealed, Governments quickly realized that if illegal trade ashore - often through the connivance of corrupt Governors with a merchant who both turned a blind eye on piracy in return for a commission or bribe - piracy would cease as plunder from stolen cargoes of tobacco, fabrics and foodstuffs could not then be disposed of, making piracy ‘unprofitable’. This - in a British sense, beginning with the extermination off South Carolina in 1718 of Blackbeard by the Royal Navy on a colonial commission from the Governor of Virginia - eventually resulted in The Piracy Act of 1721. This act not only stated the penalty for illegal trading but was also accompanied by the stiffening and enlarging the ability of the Royal Navy to protect commercial traders and catch pirates at the same time as the weeding-out and replacing corrupt overseas Governors and their officials - any Royal Navy captains hence having a vested interest in not controlling piracy by requiring the presence of pirates to be able to squeeze ‘convoy and protection’ fees from commercial traders and  merchants. The first to fall victim to the act in terms of increased naval strength was the end in 1722 of infamously successful pirate, Bartholomew Roberts - killed on board his ship by a shot from a navy cannon with his crews captured and hanged - and several more notorious pirate captains over the next three years such as Lowther and Taylor, and the brutal pirate captain Low being cast adrift by his own crew and never seen again.

The Piracy Act of 1721 slowly began to end corrupt commercial practice through an increase in customs & excise efficiency and law enforcement. The act also resulted in Spain attempting to regain their trading power in the Caribbean by commissioning and recruiting mainly British pirates in permitting Spanish ports to be used by pirate as bases in an attempt. When this fact became known - it was reported to the British authorities by a known pirate - all Royal Navy ships on all stations were ordered to hunt down and destroy any pirates. By 1720, many pirates could already see ‘the writing on the wall’ and only the real hard-cases carried on : but most of them ended on the scaffolds and gibbets of ‘Execution Dock’.

The result of these combined actions meant that by 1725 - apart from very isolated instances - piracy on the high seas had almost disappeared. The failure of pirates to respond to the Spanish inducements above led to actively increased guarda-costa activity which by 1739 led to so much Spanish interference in British trade that a war over trade began between Britain and Spain - but by that year ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’  was over…

In a period engraving, a convicted pirate has been brought by cart from The Marshalsea Prison near The Tower of London and is about to be ‘turned off’ on the tidal flat at ‘Execution Dock’ (a spot by the River Thames near Wapping ‘Old Stairs’). After three tides have washed over the corpse it will be cut down and taken for burial - if not to be dissected by surgeons or ‘tarred and hung in chains’ at Tilbury as a warning to other sea-farers of the danger of ‘going on the account’. Each year in February, ‘The Pilgrimage to Execution Dock’ takes place as costumed re-enactment ‘pirates’ solemnly walk the route from the prison to the traditional place of execution then drink the health of the pirate genre in the nearby ‘Captain Kidd Tavern’.


All images supplied by & all text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore.


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