The Golden Age
One might think that the Golden Age of piracy lasted for hundreds of years. In truth, it lasted only a relatively short time. Most historians place the Golden Age as running somewhere between thirty and fifty years, from around 1680 to 1730 with its heyday from 1714 to 1722. By 1730, piracy had nearly disappeared from the Caribbean, but from the last decade of the seventeenth century through the first few decades of the eighteenth century, many factors came together to cause a resurgence in piracy that was as brutal and unpredictable as it had ever been throughout history. During the Golden Age, pirates weren't looking for treasure ships filled with gold and silver — though they certainly wouldn't turn them down if they came upon them — but were instead preying upon regular merchant ships carrying goods from Europe to the Americas and back, or slave ships carrying slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and returning with cargoes of rum and sugar. Fictional pirates in film and literature present us with a romantic and exotic view of pirates, and while those stereotypes were rarely true, there were plenty of fascinating pirates operating during this “golden” era.
Back with a Vengeance
Many factors contributed to the rise of piracy during the Golden Age. First of all, the buccaneering era was coming to an end in the Caribbean. Secondly, by 1687, the Jamaican government passed anti-piracy acts, and the remaining buccaneers and pirates were forced to move outward and expand their target area. War between various European countries was another reason piracy flourished, as privateers acting under letters of marque performed legalized versions of piracy (see Chapter 6).
This privateering era would continue until 1714, when peace between England and Spain effectively brought an end to privateers. Suddenly unemployed, these once highly revered sailors were left with choosing between low-paying jobs on merchant ships or becoming pirates. Many saw piracy as the more attractive option.
As slavery increased on Caribbean plantations and in colonial America, the ability to take a slave ship and sell slaves for profit was a huge incentive for men to become pirates. Functioning slaves commanded high prices, and when they could be taken from a slave ship at no cost, the entire price of the cargo would be pure profit once they were sold. Another factor that contributed to the rise in slave trading was that colonial governments were not well regulated, and illicit trade between pirates and colonists was relatively easy, and often welcomed — especially when pirate ships arrived bearing contraband. All of these forces came together and caused the explosion of piracy during the Golden Age.
Destitution or Doubloons
Treasure was not the main commodity that most Golden Age pirates were searching for when they captured a ship. Typically, the first thing that a pirate captain searched for when he claimed a prize was food and medicine for his own men. Blackbeard himself lay siege to the entire port of Charleston, South Carolina so that he could obtain medicine. For the most part, pirates were poor and basic necessities aboard ship were scarce. They would often spend weeks or months at sea, and their food and water stores would quickly be used up or spoil. Stores of medicines would be filled prior to a voyage if possible, but often wouldn't last long given the amount of disease and injury that crews often incurred. In addition, a pirate captain would always be on the lookout for men with certain abilities, and would force those men to join his crew.
Doctors and carpenters were two of the most sought after sailors. Their expertise could come in handy on a pirate ship, and for the most part, they were considered as valuable as food and medicine. After the basics were out of the way, raiding pirates would take cargo, looking for what they could easily sell. They would then either take the captured ship as their own, return the ship to the original crew and let them go, or burn the ship after murdering crewmembers who refused to become pirates. Pirates would deal with captured ships in different ways. Many Golden Age pirates were cruel, and torture and murder were common occurrences.
Once pirates had sold their booty, they would split their share of the profits and head to a safe pirate haven, where they would quickly drink, gamble, and womanize their way through their profits. When their wealth was depleted, they would look to their captain to lead them on another voyage. Pirate life was a vicious circle, and very few were able to save their money and retire from piracy. A closer look at some of the real pirates of the Caribbean shows how at times some of them could be considered fair individuals, but as a group, most were extremely brutal. On occasion, a pirate would retire and live to old age like “Red Legs” Greaves, but most died young and violently like Black Bart.
Benjamin Hornigold was best known as being mentor to Blackbeard and Samuel Bellamy. Hornigold served as a privateer during the War of Spanish Succession, but when peace was declared in 1713 he moved to pirating. In 1718, he accepted a pardon from Bahamian governor Woodes Rogers, and was later commissioned as a pirate hunter by Rogers, capturing ten pirates and bringing them to justice.