Privateers – In the Caribbean the use of privateers was especially popular. The cost of maintaining a fleet to defend the colonies was beyond national governments of the 16th and 17th centuries. Private vessels would be commissioned into a ‘navy’ with a letter of marque, paid with a substantial share of whatever they could capture from enemy ships and settlements, the rest going to the crown. These ships would operate independently or as a fleet and if successful the rewards could be great—when Jean Fleury and his men captured Cortes’ vessels in 1523, they found the incredible aztec treasure that they were allowed to keep. Later, when Francis Drake captured the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios (Panama’s Caribbean port at the time) in 1573 his crews were rich for life. This substantial profit made privateering something of a regular line of business; wealthy businessmen or nobles would be quite willing to finance this legitimized piracy in return for a share. The sale of captured goods was a boost to colonial economies as well.
Buccaneers – Specific to the Caribbean were pirates termed buccaneers. The original buccaneers were escapees from the colonies; forced to survive with little support, they had to be skilled at boat construction, sailing, and hunting. They transferred the skills which kept them alive into piracy. Traditionally buccaneers had a number of peculiarities. Their crews operated as a democracy: the captain was elected by the crew and they could vote to replace him. The captain had to be a leader and a fighter—in combat he was expected to be fighting with his men, not directing operations from a distance.
Rewards – Spanish pieces of eight minted in Mexico or Seville were the standard trade currency in the American colonies. Ordinary seamen received a part of the plunder at the captain’s discretion but usually a single share. On average, a pirate could expect the equivalent of a year’s wages as his share from each ship captured while the crew of the most successful pirates would often each receive a share valued at around £1,000 ($1.17 million) at least once in their career.
The romantic notion of pirates burying treasure and wearing gaudy clothes had some basis in fact. Most pirate wealth was accumulated by selling of chandlery items; ropes, sails, block and tackle, stripped from captured ships.
One undemocratic aspect of the buccaneers was that sometimes they would force specialists like carpenters or surgeons to sail with them for some time, though they were released when no longer needed (if they had not volunteered to join by that time). Note also that a typical poor man had few other promising career choices at the time apart from joining the pirates.
Treasure – Even though pirates raided many ships, few, if any, buried their treasure. Often, the “treasure” that was stolen was food, water, alcohol, weapons, or clothing. Other things they stole were household items like bits of soap and gear like rope and anchors, or sometimes they would keep the ship they captured (either to sell off or keep because it was better than their ship). Such items were likely to be needed immediately, rather than saved for future trade. For this reason, there was no reason for the pirates to bury these goods. Pirates tended to kill few people aboard the ships they captured; usually they would kill no one if the ship surrendered because, if it became known that pirates took no prisoners, their victims would fight to the last and make victory both very difficult and costly in lives. In contrast, ships would quickly surrender if they knew they would be spared.
The End of An Era – The decline of piracy in the Caribbean paralleled the decline of the use of mercenaries and the rise of national armies in Europe. The elimination of piracy expanded to the Caribbean in the 18th century. The famous pirates of the early 18th century were a completely illegal remnant of a golden buccaneering age, and their choices were limited to quick retirement or eventual capture.
The English presence continued to expand in the Caribbean as England itself was rising toward great power status in Europe. Captured from Spain in 1655, the island of Jamaica had been taken over by England and its chief settlement of Port Royal had become a new English buccaneer haven in the midst of the Spanish Empire. Jamaica was slowly transformed, along with Saint Kitts, into the heart of the English presence in the Caribbean. By the 18th century the Bahamas had become the new colonial frontier for the British. The port of Nassau became one of the last pirate havens.
Effect on Popular Culture – A General History of the Pyrates by Charles Johnson, is the prime source for the biographies of many well known pirates of the Golden Age, providing an extensive account of the period. Introduced many features which later became common in pirate literature, such as pirates with missing legs or eyes, the myth of pirates burying treasure, and the name of the pirates flag the Jolly Roger. In giving an almost mythical status to the more colourful characters, such as the infamous English pirates Blackbeard and Calico Jack, the book the book provided the standard account of the lives of many pirates in the Golden Age, and influenced pirate literature such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”.
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Pirates of the Caribbean • Locations & Activities