In the Golden Age of piracy from 1680, more than 5000 pirates were said to be roving the world’s seas.
They robbed ships of all nations, even in peacetime, and were a great threat to maritime trade. News of piracy reached the ears of both rich and poor. Ballads about topical events were sung on the streets. Newspapers could be freely read in coffee houses for the price of a dish of coffee. There was a spectrum of opinion about the exploits of the more notorious pirates. Merchants and the forces of law and order wanted to drive them from the seas while ordinary people often harboured a sneaking admiration for them. Published images often showed them as powerful and well dressed.
Why become a pirate?
There were a number of reasons why piracy increased from the 1680s. In England there was social disruption. Smaller farmers were forced off the land by ruthless landowners and smaller tradesmen were challenged by larger businesses. These displaced people flocked to urban areas looking for work or poor relief. In London especially there was overcrowding and unemployment and funds for the poor could not meet the need. People had to shift for themselves. Distressed people weren't simply worse off, they had no hope of making a better life. The frustration of poor sailors and their antipathy towards the rich are clear in ballads of the time such as, ‘The Sea-Martyrs; or, the Seamen’s Sad Lamentation for their Faithful Service, Bad Pay, and Cruel Usage’.
Piracy tempted poor seamen because it offered them the chance to take more control of their lives. In an age when few people travelled and young men might have to work seven-year apprenticeships before they could make an independent living, many were tempted to go to sea anyway, though the life was a tough one. Adolescents who longed to escape could get a job on a sailing ship before they were fully grown: agility was needed as much as brute strength. Yet ordinary seamen toiled for modest wages and were subject to strict discipline. In contrast, piracy not only offered them a chance to get rich quick but also a rare opportunity to exert a degree of power over others. Some men turned to piracy only as a last resort. At the end of wars, there was always a glut of seamen as navies were paid off. Unable to find work, or perhaps unwilling to settle into regular employment, men drifted into piracy.
Was life as a pirate all it was cracked up to be?
Pirates certainly had more freedom. They were spared the hierarchical discipline of naval life and also the arbitrary injustices seamen might suffer on a merchant ship if the captain proved a tyrant. They enjoyed ways of sharing power and booty – famously they elected their captains. But pirate customs were not wholly democratic. Their treatment of captured cargoes of enslaved Africans was often inhumane: they might sell the Africans as soon as free them. Pirate crews were generally less divided by national, religious and racial differences than communities were on land. Disaffected from their home societies and often unable to return safely, pirate crews comprised men from all nations, largely united by a common purpose: to get easy money.
Pirates’ methods of sharing power were exaggerated in contemporary literature but these sea rovers presented a challenge to the establishment. Reports of their exploits helped to win them the admiration of the downtrodden and unfortunate. Of course, when food and medical supplies ran short, pirates were as prone to hunger and disease as any seaman, but to many the risks seemed worthwhile.
They were at one with the pirate Bartholmew Roberts, who traded an honest life of hard labour and low wages for 'A merry life and a short one'. Next week I will be looking at the pirate image, or you can find out more in my British Pirates & Society, 1680–1730 (Ashgate, 2014)