The End of the Golden Age of Piracy

The Golden Age of Euro-American piracy was roughly from 1650 to 1725 with its peak in about 1720. There were very specific conditions and circumstances that led to this hey-day on the high seas. The period opens with the emergence of the buccaneers on the Caribbean islands of Hispaniola and Tortuga. For most of this period piracy was centred around the Caribbean, and with good reason. 

The Caribbean islands provided innumerable hiding places, secret coves and uncharted islands; places where pirates could take on fresh water and provisions, rest up and lie in wait. The location was perfect; lying just on the route taken by the heavily laden treasure fleets from South America back to Spain and Portugal, the Caribbean was effectively impossible for any navy to police and many islands were unclaimed or uninhabited. All in all it added up to a freebooter's paradise. 

In 1700 a new law was introduced to allow for the swift trial and execution of pirates wherever they may be found. Previously they had to be transported back to London to stand trial and be executed at the low tide mark at Wapping. The 'Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy' also enforced the use of the death penalty and gave rewards for resisting pirate attack, but most importantly, it was not trial by jury but by a special court of naval officers. The famous Captain Kidd was one of the first victims of this new law - indeed the law was partially rushed through specifically so that it could be applied to him. He was hanged at Execution Dock in Wapping and his body was then placed in a gibbet, coated with tar to help preserve it, and hung at Tilbury Point to be a "terror to all that saw it." The blackened and rotting corpse was intended to serve as a very clear reminder to the common seaman of the risks of resisting the disciplines of wage labour.

Kidd's case was unusual in that he was executed in London. After 1700, under the provisions of the new law the war against the pirates would increasingly take place around the peripheries of Empire, and it wouldn't just be one or two corpses that dangled from crosstrees down near the tidemark but sometimes twenty or thirty at a time. In one particularly significant case in 1722 the British Admiralty tried 169 pirates of Bartholomew Roberts' crew and executed 52 of them at Cape Coast Castle on the Guinea Coast. The 72 Africans on board, free or not, were sold into slavery, which perhaps some of them had escaped for a short while.(44)
It was the disappearance of the unique favourable conditions of the Golden Age that ended the reign of the pirates. With the development of capital in the 17th century came the rise of the state, fostered by the imperial wars that wracked the globe from 1688 onwards. The requirements of conducting these vast wars necessitated a huge increase in state power. When, in 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht ended war between the European nations, the state's ability to actually police piracy was massively increased. The end of the war also allowed naval ships to concentrate on hunting down the pirates and granted the British even larger commercial interests in the Caribbean, giving an extra incentive to these efforts. As the new, more powerful state consolidated its monopoly on violence, the colonies were brought into line. The practice of dealing with pirates and investing in pirate voyages had continued in the colonies long after it had become unacceptable at home; it was wiped out by an extension of state power from the mother country to enforce discipline on the colonies. 

The beginning of the end was marked by ex-buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan's return to Jamaica as Governor with express orders to destroy the pirates. Naval patrols flushed them from their lairs and mass hangings eliminated the leaders. Ultimately the pirates' war on trade had become too successful to be tolerated; the state was fighting to allow commerce to flow unimpeded and capital to accumulate, bringing wealth to the merchants and revenue to the state.

If we want to look for the heirs of the libertarian piracy of the Golden Age we shouldn't necessarily only be looking at more recent pirates, but rather at how piracy fed into the Atlantic class struggle. Just as some of the initial impetus behind the piracy of the 17th and 18th centuries had come from land-based radical movements like the Levellers, the flow of ideas and practices circulated around the Atlantic world, emerging in sometimes surprising places. In 1748 there was a mutiny aboard the HMS Chesterfield, near Cape Coast Castle off the west coast of Africa. One of the ringleaders - John Place - had been there before; he was one those captured with Bartholomew Roberts back in 1722. It was "old hands" like John Place who kept alive the pirate tradition and ensured the continuity of ideas and practices. The mutineers hoped pirate-fashion "to settle a colony". 

The term 'to strike' originated in mutiny, particularly the "Great Mutinies" at Spithead and the Nore in 1797 when sailors would strike their sails to disrupt the ceaseless flow of trade and the state's war machine. These English, Irish and African sailors established their own "council" and "shipboard democracy" and some even talked of settling a "New Colony" in America or Madagascar.(46)
The pirates prospered in a power vacuum, during a period of upheaval and war that allowed them the freedom to live effectively outside the law. With the coming of peace came an extension of control and an end to the possibility of pirate autonomy. 

This is not so surprising really when we consider that periods of war and turmoil have often allowed for revolutionary experiments, enclaves, communes and anarchies to flourish. From the pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries, to D'Annunzio's piratical Republic of Fiume in the First World War, the Paris Commune in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, The Diggers' land communes in the English Civil War and the Makhnovist peasants in the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution, it is often in interstice and interregnum that experiments in freedom can find space to flower.
"Is this Utopian? A map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias." - Oscar Wilde

Posted by Under The Black Flag on 11:07 π.μ.. Filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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