In 1713, peace of Utrecht left Spain free to drive logwood cutters out of Campeche and into piracy in New Providence. The Peace also left almost 40,000 privateers (mostly Dutch and English) out of work, many in the West Indies. Facing economic depression and a life of hardship in the merchant service or the Royal Navy, many were eager to find an alternate way out. When the Spanish treasure fleet wrecked in a hurricane off the coast of Florida in 1715, the lure of easy money meant that many of these dangerous types went “a wrecking”, and easily slipped back into their predatory ways in doing so.
Read here for more information on how it all started. (https://adventuresinhistoryland.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/causes-of-the-golden-age-of-piracy-in-5-steps/ )
Like a virus the pirate fad spread across the Caribbean and up the North American seaboard. It took everyone by surprise, the British armed forces, as was typical at the end of a war were laying off men, Both the army and the navy were spread thin. In 1716, when pricey really kicked off there where only 13 ships in American waters (3 to be ordered home that year) of which only 8 were in the West Indies.
By comparison between 1716 and 1718 there are estimated to have been 1,500 to 2,000 Pirates active. 800-1,000 of these were active in Bahamas (double of the law abiding population). Nassau on New Providence Island was their main base, and they were working out of around 20 ships that ranged from frigate sized ships like Whydah, & Queen Anne’s Revenge, to the more common sloops which needless to say a frigate, was not equipped to chase. One of the most disconcerting things about the “Golden Age” was the size of ships pirates were now operating in. When he was killed in 1719 Howell Davis commanded a 32 gunner.
The problem now was association, webs of pirates were emanating generally from two main sources, namely two influential captains named Hornigold and Jennings, who were at the heart of the entire thing. What was worse was that the entire system perpetuated itself down a line a string of protégés recruiting fresh and promising lieutenants and almost training them and they repeat the process when they become captain. It has been asserted that a line can be traced through Hornigold and Jennings to almost every other pirate during the period, and that all track back in some way to the Bahamas.
It didn’t help that pirating was almost a culture amongst seamen in the Caribbean and that brutalised sailors of the merchant service trucking slaves from west Africa or sugar, cotton and tobacco from the Americas, looked on Buccaneers like Henry Avery and Henry Morgan as heroes. Therefore the authorities needed to concoct a plan. They lacked the manpower and material to actively hunt the Pirates, though pirate hunters would play a part in their strategy, so they played to their strengths. Reinforcements were moved into the troubled area. Frigates, unsuitable for chasing small ships, were positioned as guard ships over ports and strategic trade routes. A royal pardon was decreed to any pirate that would surrender and with leeway given for initiative on the whole this was a highly effective course of action.
Nevertheless a crime wave of this size was always going to be difficult to tackle. And by 1718 some thought that piracy was causing trade in the Americas to grind to a halt. Big time Pirates like, Davis, Bellamy, Blackbeard, and in 1719, Roberts were constructing pirate fleets. Blackbeard’s flotilla had evaded HMS Scarborough and even blockaded the port of Charleston, which he held to ransom and in 1720 Roberts would hang the governor of Martinique. Nature however had a hand in getting the ball rolling, and as the tide of the “Golden Age” reached its peak it ever so slightly began to recede.
On April 26 1717 Sam Bellamy and all but 9 of his crew were caught in a hurricane off Cape Cod and were drowned. Both his ships went to the bottom and 6 survivors were hanged for piracy in Boston. The coming of a Royal Pardon for all Pirates arrived in the Caribbean with a new Governor. Captain Woodes Rogers, himself something of a buccaneer, had been appointed governor of the Bahamas, which at that time was not so much a colony as a pirate Republic. He was a man the authorities knew they could trust to sterilise the islands of Pirates, and he came to the West Indies with full powers to restore order. In one hand he would hold the pardon, in the other a rope end.
Rogers approach was known in the Bahamas before his sails came in sight. And one Bahamian diehard named Charles Vane, wanted to defend his actions with powder and shot. When Rogers appeared at New Providence in July Vane sailed out of Nassau with a fire ship and his guns blazing. Yet though Vane and a few others were unrepentant the ringleaders, Hornigold and Jennings had seen the writing on the wall. In 1718 there were now 16 RN ships in American waters of which 7 were in Caribbean. Initially Captain Vincent Pierce of the HMS Phoenix took the signatures of 209 pirates willing to surrender at Nassau, and Jennings had personally convinced 150 to follow him to do the same though these may be part of the total.
Rogers would report that he had pardoned 300 pirates at New Providence, he also set some of them, like Hornigold, to track down their old colleagues.
The appearance of royal authority in this lawless colony seemed to have given some false hope because in May there were only 12 RN ships on the West Indian and American stations in total and only 5 in Caribbean, Rogers own ships would have brought that up to 7, however though many influential Pirates had given up at Providence, Blackbeard was prowling along the Atlantic seaboard of North America from a new base at Ocracoke Inlet, blockading Charleston and seizing ships as he went. The most notorious of America’s Pirates, a protege of Hornigold’s and a sometime colleague of Bellamy and Vane, however was crafty, he had taken the King’s pardon in September and placed himself beyond the reach of the law. However this had not lasted long and he was back at sea off Carolina by November, this infuriated Governor Spotswood of Virginia who, unable to raid into a neighbouring state, turned to the Royal Navy for help.
On 22 November 1718 two rented civilian sloops sailed into Ocracoke inlet on the coast of Carolina. Working with the tide they entered a sheltered lagoon. They were well manned and commanded by an experienced officer, eager for promotion. 35 year old Lieutenant Robert Maynard. His stealthy approach surprised the Pirates, who had been holed up in there for weeks. A desperate running battle ensued, and Blackbeard lashed the navy ships with cannon fire that they were unable to return as they had no guns. It ended with a savage 10 minute boarding action in which Blackbeard was set upon and decapitated, his head, worth £100 in Virginia, was hanged from the bowsprit of Maynard’s ship as it sailed home, not since Perseus had slain the gorgon had such a head been associated with such terror.
To some the death of Blackbeard and the resumption of war with Spain, might have seemed to suggest that the pirate menace was officially on the wane. In 1718 56 pirates which included the deeply unfortunate Stede Bonnet and men from Blackbeard’s ship, plus men pulled in by Hornigold were tried for piracy of which about 49 were executed. But it wasn’t over. Although no pirate would ever come close to inspiring such fear as Blackbeard, he was small time compared to the man who appeared off the Brazilian Coast in July of 1719. Newly elected after Howell Davis was killed at Principe, Bartholomew Roberts was a curious pirate. He was celibate, teetotal, fairly clean mouthed and liked to dress well. A Welshman of obscure background he had originally been a slaver but he had been seduced by the lure of piracy, with its free society and it’s quick rewards for little labour.
Beginning his career with the capture of no less a prize than a Portuguese treasure ship, he spent the next four years roving from the Caribbean to West Africa, snapping up a incredible tally of 470 prizes, and gathering the largest pirate fleet yet seen, powerful enough to attack convoys and indeed capable of engaging the navy. In this time other Pirates were caught. Charles Vane was finally brought in, and Jack Rackham, “Calico Jack”, who is really only famous for the two women Pirates that sailed with him, both men went to the scaffold. And though the greatest of the Pirates seemed untouchable he was feeling the walls closing in.
In 1720 there were 14 Royal Navy ships in American Waters 6 of which are in Caribbean. All were predominantly large vessels, the navy never had enough frigates and sloops, the numbers of Pirates active were in decline, due to the realisation that piracy was not paying and that the easy life of plunder and good times was illusory at best, for more and more rotting carcasses were to be seen hanging from the gibbets of major harbours, tagged with the sign “Pyrates ye be warned”. In 1722 it seemed to Roberts that the best course was to sail for West Africa, were the hunting was still good, he arrived to find that this was true, but that two navy ships were expected to arrive in a month or so.
One of them was HMS Swallow, 50 guns, commanded by Captain Chaloner Ogle. A fairly brilliant officer destined for a successful career, though eventually attaining a greater rank than Maynard would, he never attained the sort of fame as the man who killed Blackbeard. Ogle had heard that Roberts was about and had remained watchful since reaching the coast of Sierra Leone. This paid off on 5 February 1722 when he sighted the Pirate flotilla careening at Cape Lopez. Ogle knew his business and as soon as he came in sight veered sharply away to so as to give the impression Swallow was fleeing. One of Roberts’ ships obligingly gave chase, but found out too late that she was chasing a ship of the line. The ensuing fight was short and one sided, and with the odds evened up Ogle headed back for Cape Lopez.
Five days later Ogle found Roberts still at his former anchorage. In the time he’d been away the Pirates had captured a ship and were now mostly drunk. When Swallow came into view the Pirates thought it was their sister ship returning, but it soon proved otherwise. Roberts gathered his hungover crew and hoisted his sails. He planned to run the gauntlet of Swallow’s fire, give them a broadside and then strike out for open water. Both ships closed on each other, Roberts was conspicuous on deck shouting orders, guns were run out as they passed a terrific exchange of artillery shattered the silence of the sea. Fumbling on the pirate ship allowed the navy gunners to unleash a second crippling broadside before the Royal Fortune could sail away. When the smoke cleared Bartholomew Roberts was dead, and by the time Ogle’s men boarded the pirate ship, his body had been weighted down and thrown overboard.
Many point to this as the end of the golden age of piracy, and indeed it was only the small timers left, all of whom were either hunted down or disappeared into obscurity.
After Roberts’ death pirate numbers began to drop dramatically. The last and most vicious wave appeared in the wake of Roberts, yet there was only 1,000 active in 1723, when the infamous Edward Low, was captured at Cape Fear, which equates roughly to perhaps 10 ships, 500 in 1724, and between 1725-6 it has been estimated that less than 200 were active across the Americas. Between 1718 and 1723, there were 16 trials of pirates. Six of which dealt with men who were from, or were large names in pirate community. Of 304 tried, 210 were hanged.
Although the authorities were taken by surprise by the scale and virility of the great wave of piracy, they had formulated an effective response very quickly. By stationing well armed ships at key ports and trade routes, they forced the Pirates to move in more predictable ways and by utilising privateers, former Pirates and cutting out operations, headed by capable men like Maynard and Ogle, the navy started to make piracy a much less attractive pastime. Added to this was the lure of pardon, a carrot and stick plan came into effect deployed artfully by Rogers, and by 1718 the Pirates operating in American and West Indian waters had been reduced by perhaps 350-400, and numbers would continue to diminish by approximately 500 a year until eventually by 1730 the Golden Age of piracy had faded into gory legend. It would stay that way until the early 19th century when yet another depression and destabilisation, caused by the end of another Great War would trigger one last western upsurge of piracy but that’s another story.
First appeared on Britannia Magazine Facebook Page. 2016.
Pirate: The Golden Age. Angus Konstam.
Pirates: 1660-1730. Angus Konstam.
The Pirate Ship 1660-1730. Angus Konstam.
Blackbeard: Angus Konstam.
Blackbeard’s Last Fight. Angus Konstam.
General History of Piracy: Captain Johnson.
Republic of Pirates: Colin Woodward.
Under the Black Flag: David Cordingly.
If a Pirate I Must Be: Richard Sanders.
Spanish Gold: David Cordingly.