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"A merry life and a short one shall be my motto."-- Bartholomew Black Bart Roberts

The Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730) was made famous by the bloodthirsty legends of rogues such as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and Black Bart Roberts.

In 1689, after England's King James I made peace with Spain, the ranks of piracy suddenly exploded with ex-privateers and all sorts of disgruntled seamen seeking to improve their miserable lot in life with the acquisition of sudden riches from a captured prize. While the nations were at war, privateers were sanctioned to attack and pillage foreign ships at will, all in the name of England, and were allowed to keep most of their prizes. After peace was established, such activities became illegal and those who practiced them became classified as pirates.

Also at that time, England's lower-class citizens were little more than slaves to powerful, despotic masters. While the gentry enjoyed their fine goods, ample property and lives of luxury, the poor spent most of their time in the mines and mills, chained to a life of crushing labor, sadistic beatings, and marginal subsistence.

Meanwhile, a legitimate life on the high seas on either a merchant ship or in the British Navy was hardly better. Many seamen turned to piracy to escape the harsh and unjust discipline on these ships, where they were subject to the whims and ways of sadistic and psychopathic officers who enjoyed using an array of punishments. Naval and merchant seamen were frequently flogged, keel-hauled, hanged from the yard arms, forced to eat cockroaches, towed from the ships stern, and more. Whats worse, many of these men were pressed into service against their will!

Black Bart summed up the choice between legitimate work and a life of piracy by saying, "In a honest service there is thin rations, low wages and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto."

By the dawn of the eighteenth century, ports and trading posts had been firmly established along most of the inhabited seaboards of the world, and a multitude of ships of all shapes, sizes, and nationalities, particularly English, French, Dutch, and Spanish, sailed along a network of shipping lanes carrying valuable cargo. In the minds of pirates, these vessels were ripe for the taking.

But the Golden Age of Piracy would have never emerged if the pirates had nowhere to sell their stolen goods and North America provided the greatest market. While pirates in England were hunted down mercilessly, American governors and merchants gave them protection, cooperation, hospitality, ships, provisions, crews, privateer commissions, and a place to sell their booty.

Why were the American colonies so supportive of pirates?

America became a nation of pirate brokers in large part due to the series of Navigation Acts passed by the English government beginning in 1651. These Acts stipulated that virtually no goods could be imported into England or her colonies except in British ships manned by British crews. And all colonial exports had to go directly to England at British predetermined prices, which created a virtual trade monopoly by the mother country. American colonials felt enslaved by the enforced trade with England, which included excessive taxes and artificial prices fixed by English merchants who bought cheaply and sold dearly. By condoning piracy and trafficking with pirates, the colonists struck a blow against British rule in a growing power struggle that would culminate in the American Revolution.

All these conditions during the last decade of the seventeenth century certainly stoked the seas of piracy. But the War of Spanish Succession (also known as Queen Annes War, 1702-1713), fought mostly on the high seas, created more privateers-turned-pirates than any other period in history. Initially, the English Act of 1708 allowed privateers to keep 100 percent of their plunder of enemy ships. But the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 forced thousands of highly skilled privateers out of work. Many of them soon found themselves sailing under the black flag.

Eventually, British judicial pressure in the American colonies along with Royal Naval pressure on the seas put a slow, painful death to the Golden Age of Piracy and its colorful cast of characters.

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Did you know?

  • The Jolly Roger was a black flag flown to identify the vessel as a pirate ship. While the skull and crossbones is the most common of these flags, many great pirate captains designed custom symbols to identify exactly who is attacking.

  • "Shiver me timbers" is an expression of excitement or awe. Its origin has to do with sailing in heavy seas, when the ship is lifted up and pounded down so hard that the timbers are said to shiver.

  • Although pirates have been around since the Romans and Vikings, most pirating happened during the Golden Age of Piracy between 1680 and 1730.

  • Pirates believed that whistling on a ship would cause the weather to turn stormy. Consider the phrase 'to whistle up a storm.'

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