The Golden Age of Piracy: Timeline, Facts & Ships

Instructor: Sarah Bostock
This lesson will introduce you to what has been dubbed, The Golden Age of Piracy. You will read about well-known pirates, their flagships, and the government's response to piracy.

The Golden Age of Piracy

Our world is intrigued by piracy, and it is evident in popular culture. Some children grow up on classics like, Treasure Island and Peter Pan, while teens and even adults flock to the movie theaters for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film. Most modern ideas about pirates stem from The Golden Age of Piracy.

The exact dates of the Golden Age of Piracy have been debated, but most scholars recognize it between 1650-1730, with the most prominent piratical activities between 1716-1726. There were many reasons for the increase of piracy during this period. First, the world was expanding through colonization, or a migration of people from multiple nations. The primary colonizers included the French, Spanish, Dutch, English, and the Portuguese. The majority of colonization was occurring in the New World, or the Americas. Secondly, many of the new colonial territories were not properly governed and didn't have enough men to protect them from pirate attacks.

Colonization of the Americas, 1750

The Early Privateers and Buccaneers

The New World was originally divided between Spain and Portugal. In fact, from the coast of South America, throughout the Caribbean Sea, and all the way to northern Florida was referred to as The Spanish Main. The other European countries became angry that Spain and Portugal were getting all the gold and treasure that was found in the Americas, so they quickly hired sailors to attack and seize these ships. These men, called privateers, were allowed to share a small portion of the treasure from these large Spanish ships, or galleons. Privateers were legal pirates for the crowns of Europe.

The first stage of the Golden Age of Piracy is considered between 1650-1680. During this time, privateers regularly attacked Spanish ports. Anglo-French sailors called buccaneers , became very localized in the Caribbean, and made their homes on the islands of Tortuga and Jamaica. Some privateers worked as buccaneers, and some buccaneers did not have permission from any crown. The most famous pirate of this time was Sir Henry Morgan, who conquered the Spanish ports of Panama, Santa Catalina, and Maracaibo in the early 1670s. Morgan had two favorite flagships during his career, the Oxford and the Satisfaction.

Most European countries stopped using privateers to carry out their affairs, and piracy itself became illegal. The Dutch stopped in 1673, the English followed by 1680, and the French eventually halted legal piracy by 1697.

Growth of Piracy 1690-1700

William Kidd on his ship, the Adventure Galley
Pirate William Kidd

During the last decade of the 17th century, piracy grew in the vicinity of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Pirates targeted ships as they were often full of merchant goods such as spices, gold, tobacco, and even the drug opium. One of the most infamous pirates of this decade was William Kidd. He was one of the last pirates authorized by a king to attack Spanish ships and other pirate ships.

Captain Kidd's travels took him into the Indian Ocean and to the island of Madagascar. He turned the island into a stronghold in which his ship, the 'Adventure Galley' stayed in the harbor when not sailing. The Adventure Galley was a 300-ton ship with 34 cannons aboard. The ship could easily hold 150 men with plenty of room for storage.

Other famous pirates of this decade include Henry Every, Thomas Lew, and Laurens de Graaf. Henry Every was a very powerful pirate who sailed on the Red Sea and attacked ships sailing between the Middle East and India. Every's ship, Fancy had 46 guns and was one of the fastest ships during this decade.

Henry Every and his flagship, Fancy
Henry Every and his ship, Fancy

Piratical Activities of the 1716-1730

Piracy was at its climax between 1716-1726. This decade flourished with pirate activity for two primary reasons: many sailors were out of work and shipping traffic grew because of the slave trade.

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