The Rise of Piracy

The era of Euro-American piracy is ushered in by the discovery of the New World and the enormous empire seized by the Spanish in the Americas. New technologies allowed long sea voyages to be made with regularity and accuracy, and the new empires that emerged were not based so much on control of the land as control of the seas.

The Spanish were the world superpower of the 16th century, but did not go unchallenged for long; the French, Dutch and English all struggled to overtake the Spanish in the scramble for empire. In their quest to do so they were not above using piracy to attack the hated Spanish and fill their coffers with the vast wealth the Spanish had plundered from the Native Americans. In wartime this raiding would be legitimised as legal privateering but the rest of the time it was simply piracy with state-sponsorship (or at least toleration and encouragement).

Over the course of the 17th century these embryonic empires finally overtook the Spanish and established themselves. With the new technologies shipping was no longer just used for luxury goods but became the basis of an international trading network essential to the origin and growth of capitalism. The massive expansion of sea-borne trade in this period necessarily also created a large population of seafarers - a new class of wage-workers that had not previously existed. For many of them piracy seemed an attractive alternative to the harsh realities of the merchant service or the navy.

But as the new empires - especially the British Empire - matured, attitudes to piracy changed: "The roistering buccaneer did not suit the hard-headed merchants and imperial bureaucrats, whose musty world of balance sheets and reports came into violent conflict with that of the pirates." The ruling class recognised that stable, orderly, regular trade served the interests of a mature imperial power far better than piracy. 

So piracy was forced to evolve in the late 17th and early 18th century. Pirates were no longer state-sponsored gentleman-adventurers like Sir Francis Drake but dropout wage slaves, mutineers, a multi-ethnic melting pot of rebellious proles. Where there had once been a blurring of the edges between legitimate commercial activity and piracy, now pirates found they had few of their old friends left and were increasingly regarded as "Brutes, and Beasts of Prey." 

As mainstream society rejected the pirates, they likewise became increasingly antagonistic in their rejection of it. From this point onwards the only pirates were those who explicitly rejected the state and its laws and declared themselves in open war against it. Pirates were driven further away from the centres of power as the American colonies, originally beyond state control and relatively autonomous, were brought into the mainstream of imperial trade and governance. There developed a deadly spiral of increasing violence as state attacks were met with revenge from the pirates leading to greater state terror

Posted by Under The Black Flag on 11:27 μ.μ.. Filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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