The Brief History of Pirates

Pirates have been the subject of countless books, movies, and plays. There’s even a water ride at a popular amusement park in Florida dedicated to pirates. Most people are familiar with Captain Hook in the story Peter Pan as well as those characters in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. But, do fictional pirates bear any resemblance to the real pirates of the Golden Age? This article will explore the history of piracy and discuss famous pirates from centuries ago.

The archetypical pirate attacks ships and steals valuables like gold, jewels, and money. A privateer is a ship or private person authorized by the government to stop other ships to take possession of their property. A privateer had a Letter of Marque, which gave them permission to raid an enemy ship. Similar to the role of a bounty hunter, a privateer could turn the crew of the ship over to his country. Those that had been captured were faced with charges and even punishment. Sometimes privateers became pirates after they saw all of the riches that had been acquired by the other pirates they encountered at sea.

Corsairs were French privateers who occupied the southern Mediterranean Sea. Working for the King of France that began in the Middle Ages, Corsairs attacked the ships of their country’s enemies; they did this mostly in order to get compensated for the economic hardships they encountered during times of war.

A buccaneer was pirate in the 17th century that attached Spanish ships in the Caribbean Sea. These men came from England, Holland, and France. Although there is speculation of the origins of the word ‘Buccaneer’, most likely the term comes from the French word ‘Boucanier.’ They were originally hunters that poached cattle and pigs. The Boucaniers smoked the meat on wooden frames called ‘boucans’ so that the meat could be preserved and eaten for later.

Pirates have occupied the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans and the seven seas for thousands of years. The Barbary pirates from North Africa were famous for their solidarity and successful attacks on merchant ships. Some of the first pirates stole from trade ships sailing in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

Around the 8th century, Vikings from Denmark and Norway sailed the Atlantic Ocean. They raided and burned ships. They traveled in longships, which were sea vessels made by the Vikings that traveled up and down the European coast attacking other ships and stealing their valuables. Centuries later, many pirates attacked ships that came from the New World.

Though piracy has been in existence for centuries, the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy occurred from the 1650’s through the 1730’s. An increase in traffic of valuable cargo to and from Europe prompted this frenzied period of piracy. Many of the most recognizable names in pirate history belong to era. Sir Henry Morgan was a buccaneer responsible for plundering and destroying Panama in 1671. Captain William Kidd and Sir Francis Drake were privateers that worked for Queen Elizabeth of England. Jean Lafitte was an infamous pirate who lived on the Island of Padre, a popular place where pirates dwelled. There were a few notable women pirates. Anne Bonny followed in the steps of her lover ‘Calico Jack’ and practiced piracy on the Caribbean Sea. Mary Read was another famous female pirate. She disguised herself as a man in 1721 to join the crew of pirate ‘Calico Jack.’ She got captured and died in prison.

Many men turned to piracy because they wanted to experience the freedom and benefit by the riches of a pirate’s life. Pirates often recruited crew members from the ships that they captured. Some of the crew members worked under harsh conditions on a merchant or cargo ship was more than happy to join a pirate’s crew. Naturally, there were rules to be obeyed. One of the most important rules was that a pirate could not steal from another crew member. No women were allowed aboard ship. If pirates didn’t adhere to these rules, they were punished. Some pirate ships sent offenders to a deserted island and they left them there stranded. Some were tied to the mast of the ship and whipped mercilessly while others were hanged for breaking the rules.

The pirate flag with skull and crossbones is an iconic image seen throughout history. Blackbeard named the skull and crossbones flag the Jolly Roger, which also happened to be the name of one of his ships. The Jolly Roger was displayed to intimidate nearby ships to surrender. Pirates had a preference for traveling in different styles of ships. The most popular was the Galleon. Often portrayed in movies, the Galleon was a large sailing ship with many decks used by the Europeans from the 16th to 18th centuries. Pirates made good use of the space on this sturdy, durable vessel. A Junk ship was designed with a flat bottom and bow. Many pirates liked Junk ships because they were easy to maneuver.

Any man who became a pirate was considered an outlaw. If a pirate was caught by an official he was hanged or put into prison, where he faced a death sentence. Captain William Kidd was put on trial for piracy, found guilty, and executed in 1701. Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Teach, was killed while trying to rob a navy ship. Blackbeard’s head was severed from the rest of his body and hung from the navy vessel as a warning to others.

By the 19th century the Golden Age of piracy was over. Although, there were still some pirates around, the majority of them had vanished. Pirates exist in the world today. The most recent account was in 1996 when they attached a fishing boat crew in the area of the Philippines Islands. Today’s pirates sometimes have political reasons for committing crimes. They continue to intimidate their victims just like they did during the Golden Age.