300 years ago the Golden Age of Piracy began in the Caribbean. Many fateful occurrences came together to provide the right environment for it to occur, a war ended, heightening the grievences of many out of work privateers and making them think back to the great pirates of bygone times. Nations began to rebuild their economies, sending treasure convoys across the sea and cracking down on illegal practices and industries that had flourished during the war. And on the 30th of July 300 years ago, a hurricane smashed onto the Florida coast at precisely the wrong time.
The example of Morgan and Avery.
Henry Morgan and Henry Avery were legends in their own time. Like Drake and Raleigh before them. In the case of Morgan, he defies a simple categorisation. He was both pirate and privateer, but most importantly he was an example of a man from relatively humble (though respectable) origins, who made his fortune in the new world, retired with more money than he could spend, was knighted by the King and became governor of Jamaica. Even better, he was hero material because he exclusively fought the enemies of England. In a dramatic series of raids he looted the gold rich ports of the Spanish Main and lived high off the proceeds until he died. For the oppressed hard worked and under paid crews of merchant ships, this was a tale to live up to.
Henry Avery started life as a privateersman, but fed up with his lot, he joined a mutiny and became the captain of his band. He acted with a broadly similar ethos as Morgan, trying not to attack English ships, in this he failed slightly, until he sailed to Madagascar and picked up two consorts with whom he sailed into the Indian Ocean and by a great stroke of fortune, ended up pillaging a treasure ship belonging to the Great Mughal, an act that nearly brought the East India company to its knees. Though Avery is remembered as something of a benign pirate, he can actually be proved to be crueller than Blackbeard, as Edward Teach was never recorded to have murdered anyone and Avery committed terrible atrocities to the passengers of the Ganji al Sawai. What made Avery a legend was the fact that he managed to get one big score, and then retired with it, he sailed to the Caribbean, bribed the governor of the Bahamas to dock in Nassau, then sold him his ship and promptly fell off the map. Wether he lived his life a rich man or lost it all and ended up poor and desperate, he was a prime example of the benefits of piracy.
Merchant crewmen and privateers, (even navy men) alike lived lives of great privation and danger, making profit for other men and whether they be bad or good, the names of Morgan and Avery were a sou
rce of hope and possibility in an increasingly harsh world.
The End of the War of the Spanish Succession.
The activities of Buccaneers like Morgan and “Roundsmen” like Avery (Those who travelled the pirate round) may have made sailors aware that they had options, but it was the peace of Utrecht in 1713 and the economic depression in trade and occupation caused by the slipstream of the war, that created the environment for the Golden Age to begin. During the war over who should sit on the Spanish throne, thousands of privateers had been active across the Caribbean between 1703-1713, providing ample opportunity for adventure and loot without the risk of ending up on a Gallows rope like Captain Kidd (Executed in 1701). Life was still hell for merchants but for these legitimised pirates, serving King and Country could take what they wanted and when they pleased so long as the ship in question flew an enemy flag. However when peace came their livelihood completely disappeared, and these same thousands of privateers were left in a sort of limbo, hanging around ports trying to figure out what to do next.
Expulsion of the Baymen from Campeche.
By comparison the end of the war brought Spain a much needed release. Her war effort had amounted to raiding Nassau a few times and trade in Spain’s American Colonies had pretty much ground to a halt, all their warships had been occupied in fighting off privateers, guarding treasure convoys and trying to interrupt English, French and Dutch shipping. Now that they were all freed up, they were able to deal with a very pressing domestic problem. They were called the Baymen, because they infested the bays of Honduras and Campeche, cutting Logwood. The logwood tree had the wonderfully unpronounceable scientific name of Haematoxylon campechianum, it’s value lay in the bruised red brown heartwood at its centre which was used as a dye and the wood that was used for medicines. It was possible to make £60,000 a year from this work. Many of the Logwood cutters where old buccaneers and part time pirates, they lived in primitive huts on the banks of creeks where the logwood trees grew. In the rainy season the mangrove swamps would flood so they slept on wooden frames three feet off the ground. During the dry season they spent their days cutting, the logwood tree is a tough specimen growing to five or six feet in circumference, if axes and saws wouldn’t do the trick they blasted them down with gunpowder. When it rained they loaded logs onto canoes which where paddled down to the coast where the ships would pick up the cargo, and where they would buy booze to wash away the aches and pains of their hard existence. Some being little better than pirates, the Spanish were tired of them casually harassing their shipping, and illegally logging on Spanish soil. In 1713 the Spanish fleet descended on their camps and began the process of expulsion. They seized their ships and stores and captured, killed or chased off the whole scurvy lot. There where however plenty of them still at large hiding in the dense forests, but those they dispelled bore a grudge, deprived of their livelihood, they where now adrift in the sea, in a motley collection of sloops, piraguas and brigs with nothing to do. During the war of the Spanish succession, Jamaica had been a base for privateers but the days of the buccaneers where over, it wasn’t hopeless, in fact the logwood cutters knew exactly where to go. The place were Henry Avery had stopped to divvy his plunder, Naussau on New Providence Island in the Bahamas.
The Wreck of the Spanish Treasure Fleet.
Spain had always depended on the gold and silver from her colonies to survive. The new King Phillip was in dire need of it now, his new country was again nearing a state of bankruptcy after a long and damaging war. Peace seemed to offer the chance for the Treasure fleet to sail unmolested once more. In 1715 the first fleet for 3 years was assembled, carrying something in excess of 7,000,000 pesos and commanded by Admiral Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. Despite worrying over the lateness of the season they sailed along the traditional route via the straits of Florida in late July. His premonitions were proved sound when on the 30th the wind backed from the north east, the swells rose and clouds built on the horizon. By midday the wind rose in speed to 20 knots and sea began to build, and it got worse, by afternoon winds of 30 knots where lashing the ships who where ordered to sail into the wind and try to ride out the storm. But the sea was now leaping twenty feet high and the land was under the fleet’s lee with the storm pushing them towards it, by midnight it was clear all was lost. The hurricane hit the fleet with its full strength and broke it to pieces on the coast between San Augustine and Palmar de Ayes, only one ship and an estimated 1,500 people survived, the other thousand or so died during the night.
On the 9th of August 1715 a boat rowed into Havana harbour. It contained 19 ragged, hungry and exhausted survivors of the disaster. When their news was brought to the Governor a relief force was sent, and diving camps where established to retrieve the treasure, but word did not just reach the Spanish it also reached the islands of Jamaica and Providence. As fate would have it Nassau had a thriving cutthroat community, which since 1714 had been living in a shanty town amongst the wreckage of the old town burned by the Spanish in 1700. So when the sea had calmed, some of the nearest people to the scene of the gold studded wrecks where, out of work privateers and logwood cutters, in other words the last people on earth you would want around sunken treasure.
Captain Henry Jennings was a privateer, still acting as if he was at war with Spain, and was originally in charge of the Governor of Jamaica’s private effort at Treasure hunting. He and Captain John Willis went ‘a’wrecking’, but they didn’t dive for it, they returned with a cargo of stolen gold from the salvage camps. Buoyed by his success it was soon open season, and from 1715 to 1717 treasure salving, mixed with piracy, became the official pastime of the Bahama’s. The Golden Age of Piracy had begun.
By 1718 the ‘Wreckers’ were getting organised, outdated romanticised ideas of continuing a war with Spain was thrown out in favour of war against the whole world, in the name of all poor mistreated sailors of course. From 1718 to 1725 Under leaders like Blackbeard, Bellamy, Vane, La Buse, Burgess, Davis, Rackham, and the most successful, Roberts, the pirates of the Caribbean strangled the commercial shipping lanes of America in short brutal careers that typified the Golden Age. According to one report they actually halted trade altogether and brought ruin to the wealthy merchants they hated so much.
Nevertheless as with all empires and rebellions, it’s high water mark was also the beginning of its decline, as the authorities, aided by the Royal Navy and various Pirate Hunters, clamped down on the pirates. One by one the great captains were killed or hanged and by the time Roberts fought his last battle in 1722 the heyday was over, but for a brief moment in time, they achieved a kind of immortality that few men of their day had even dreamed of.
Under the Black Flag: David Cordingly.
Pirates 1690 – 1730: Angus Konstam.
The Pirate Ship 1690 – 1730: Angus Konstam.
Blackbeard: Angus Konstam.
If a Pirate I must be: Richard Sanders
The Pirate Wars: Peter Earl.
Republic of Pirates: Colin Woodward
A General History of Pirates: Captain Johnson.
Spanish Gold: David Cordingly.