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Talk Like a Pirate Day: The Evolving Social Character of Pirates in the Golden Age

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Authored by Katherine Waite
Published on 19th September, 2021 13 min read

Talk Like a Pirate Day: The Evolving Social Character of Pirates in the Golden Age

International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a parodic holiday which springs from a romanticised view of the Golden Age of Piracy, a glossy Hollywood adaptation where pirates with eye-patches and bushy black beards shout ‘Ahoy, Me Hearties!’, ‘Avast Ye’, and make unsuspecting victims walk the plank. In reality, the social class and social character of pirates changed dramatically between the 16th and 18th centuries. There was no one way pirates spoke, and no one piratical code of honour.

What is a Pirate?

Piracy itself is a complex concept, one authority could denounce an individual as a pirate whilst another praises them as a hero. Due to the often blurred lines between a pirate, buccaneer, privateer, and sailor, historian Miles Ogborn argues that piracy is in the eye of the beholder.[1] In this essay a pirate is defined as a person who attacks and robs ships at sea.[2] A privateer was a private individual commissioned by governments to engage in maritime warfare. A buccaneer is a pirate who preyed on Spanish colonies and shipping in America and the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries. Between the 16th and 18th centuries both the social class and character of pirates evolved, as well as the public perception of acts of piracy. There was a clear shift in the social status of the men who became pirates: seafaring noblemen in the 16th century, mercantile buccaneers in the early 17th century, and primarily common sailors driven to piracy to support themselves in the late 17th and 18th centuries.[3]

Sir Francis Drake - The Gentlemen Privateer

Pirates existed for millennia before the 16th century but the near constant dynastic European wars, coupled with Spain’s success colonising the Americas, created conditions on which piracy thrived. Monarchs, such as Queen Elizabeth of England, often sponsored privateers. Gentlemen privateers were given letters of marque that legitimised and pardoned any acts of piracy against enemy vessels. This was adopted as a pragmatic policy that weakened England's enemies, making an invasion less likely. Furthermore, Queen Elizabeth recognised the economic importance of the Americas and hoped to break the Spanish stranglehold on the new world.[4] Spanish control over the Americas was tenuous and the Crown did not have the resources to stop pirates or privateers from preying on their valuable merchant and treasure ships. Privateers hoped to gain the Queen’s favour, along with all the riches, fame, and power which came with it. England’s greatest sea-going hero of the Elizabethan era, Sir Francis Drake, was from the Spanish perspective a mere pirate.[5] Spanish King Phillip offered a 20,000-ducat reward for Drake’s capture or death.[6] In the 16th century the typical pirate was a rich independent privateer that preyed on enemy shipping, usually with a letter of marque to legitimise this piracy.

Pamphlet on ‘The voyages and travels of that renowned Captain Sir F. Drake into the West Indies’, published 1652.

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake by Marcus Gheeraerts, 1591.

William Kidd - The Mercantile Buccaneer 

By the early 17th century, the social character of pirates began to shift. Pirates were more likely to be mercantile buccaneers rather than ambitious gentlemen. Pirates were supported and sponsored by colonial merchants; they were encouraged to attack Spanish American treasure galleons and trade ships. The strong links between pirates and colonial merchants grew from the fact that at the beginning of the 17th century nearly all the noted buccaneers were traders’ first, seeking extra profit or political acclaim through piratical acts.[7] These mercantile buccaneers were often involved in the English and American political scenes. Captain William Kidd, one of the most notorious buccaneers of the 17th century, was patronised by politicians with trade interests in the Americas. Kidd’s career highlights the links between buccaneers, politicians and merchants. Kidd came from an impoverished family after his father was lost at sea, his luck changed when he moved to New York, married a wealthy widower, and made friends with the political elite. The elite of New York were often from merchant backgrounds, they sponsored sailors and pirates such as Kidd to attack Spanish shipping. New York became a pirate town, the governor and his council were deeply involved, and pirate gold flowed through the purses of the elite.[8]  The elites used pirates as privateers, however, they were often difficult to control and could negatively affect their home countries economy as well as their rivals. Privateers were sent after other pirates who were disrupting lucrative trade routes. Kidd set off in search of these disruptive pirates with capital provided by a group of hidden partners, some of whom were key figures in the English Whig government, with interests in the Americas.[9] Although Kidd was an associate of the political elite of New York with links to the English Whig government, he and his crew were not the wealthy aristocratic pirates of the century before. Kidd embodies a change beginning in the early 17th century whereby merchant buccaneers, often from lower social backgrounds intent on protecting trade interests, made up the vast majority of pirates.

Captain Kidd and pirates burying treasure on Gardiner’s Island in New York, USA (circa late 17th century). Vintage etching circa late 19th century.

The Social Bandit - Piracy in the Lower Social Orders

The late 17th and early 18th centuries are dubbed the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’. This Golden Age was caused by a shift in the social character of pirates, as European governments began to use pirates as a way in which naval power could be rapidly expanded upon declaration of war, without dramatically increasing state expenditure.[10] Governments caught in a constant cycle of war needed manpower, by tactfully legitimising piracy this gave them a quickly formed and experienced army. Furthermore, the European wars distracted colonial powers, so they sent fewer troops to the colonies. This meant colonial governors, especially in the Caribbean, increasingly made use of buccaneers as mercenaries or privateers to guard their colonies. Governors would often agree these pirates could keep whatever booty they captured as pay. However, this led to problems in peacetime when a large body of sailors became unemployed, often turning to begging and looking to piracy to support themselves. Piracy became a business opportunity for those who were out of work.[11] This problem began in the 1670s, however, the Peace of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 saw a dramatic decrease in the size of the navy and the end of privateering commissions. This acted as a catalyst and by 1716 the final and perhaps greatest wave of piracy had begun.[12] Mass unemployment propelled piracy into its final social character shift. Marcus Rediker concurs that in this period, almost without exception, pirates, like the larger body of sea fearing men, came from the lowest social classes.[13] These men differed from the aristocratic gentlemen and merchant buccaneers of previous centuries, they had little to lose and were in search of a better quality of life. Furthermore, the British Royal Navy epitomised the harsh discipline, low pay, and dangerous work of other European navies in the 18th century. It is no surprise that, especially in American waters, many sailors deserted, enticed by merchant or pirate ships offering higher pay and easier conditions.[14] Piracy in the late 17th and early 18th century became a way of survival for those lower classes who felt rejected by peacetime government policies.

The perception of the social character of pirates also changed between the 17th and 18th Centuries. Influential historian Eric Hobsbawm described pirates as ‘social bandits’. Social banditry is a universal and virtually unchanging phenomenon, it’s little more than endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty: a cry for vengeance against the rich and oppressors.[15] Hobsbawm highlights how the working-class pirates of the Golden Age were seen by their local communities. Pirates’ activities, such as safeguarding the coast from enemy ships and smuggling goods, were often beneficial to communities, therefore, pirates were regularly seen in a positive light by local populations. Officials even encouraged their own subjects to engage in smuggling if it produced a greater benefit than loss for the economy as a whole.[16] Some pirates believed they were a force for good. When eight pirates were tried in Boston in 1718, merchant Captain Thomas Checkly told of the capture of his ship by pirates who pretended to be 'Robin Hood’s men'.[17] The idea that pirates embody Robin Hood’s ideals emphasises that some pirates believed they were standing up for themselves and the common man against a corrupt society. Some people admired the strong anti-authority aspect to piracy which was often rooted in a rejection of the class system of European society which had left them poor.[18] This view has been challenged by historian Kenneth Kinkor, who encourages people to remember, pirates were hard and vicious men who exploited others just as the poor were exploited by the upper class.[19] However, the perception of the social character of pirates especially during the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ was surprisingly positive by many governors as well as common people.

The very idea of banditry being a peasant protest against an oppressive society and government puts pirates at odds with the authorities. By the early 18th century this came to pass, pirates were numerous and had gone from being a key part of the mercantile and imperial transformation of the Caribbean, to a barrier to the further development for profit and power.[20] The consolidation of power of the colonial government's in the Americas allowed imperial and mercantile spaces to be integrated, the margins of society were secured and no longer free for pirates to plunder. The authorities use for piracy had run its course. By this time piracy was distinct from the sanctioned violence of privateering, and mercantile accumulation.[21] This left pirates without a hunting ground and any vestiges of legitimacy. The government and church targeted remaining pirates through all means at their disposal, including: sermons, press publications, and the establishment of courts. Pirates in the 16th century, such as Sir Francis Drake, had links to the Monarchs; in the 17th century they were protected by colonial governments and the political elite; by the 18th century pirates from the lower social orders had no one in high places to protect them. This made it easier for authorities to vilify piracy, in the early 18th century a conscious effort was made to change the public perception of pirates. Pirates were depicted as a social plague draining the life from the colonies.[22] One pirate captain complained ‘they vilify us, the scoundrels, when there is only one difference: they rob the poor under the cover of the law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage’.[23] By the end of the early 18th century the ‘Golden Age’ of Atlantic piracy was brought to an end by a wave of prosecutions and executions where piracy was, once and for all, criminalised.


Pamphlet ‘Vilany Rewarded of the Pirates Last Farewell’  Magdalene College - Pepys Library, Pepys Ballads 2.199; EBBA 20813

Talk Like a Pirate Day is a parodic holiday celebrating a romanticised view of piracy. In reality, pirates were an incredibly diverse set of men, with different dialects, languages, cultures, and priorities. The social character of pirates evolved from 16th to 18th century, manifesting itself as a slide down the social scale.[24] Francis Drake’s aristocratic search for glory, was succeeded by Captain Kidd’s cabals of merchants and politicians, which in itself was followed by the efforts of impoverished common sailors in society to carve out a life for themselves in a harsh environment. As colonial governments became more firmly established in the Americas, authorities turned against pirates, who had become increasingly problematic to the successful growth of the colonies. Ultimately, governments on both sides of the Atlantic made a conscious effort to criminalise piracy and to shift public opinion away from the idea that pirates as social bandits standing up for the common man.

Footnotes:

[1] Miles Ogborne, Global Lives (Cambridge University Press 2008) p.169

[2] Oxford dictionary

[3] Ogborne, Global Lives p.171

[4] James McDermott, Martin Frobisher: Elizabethan Privateer (Yale University Press 2001) p.60

[5] Ibid p.170

[6] John Cummins, Francis Drake: The Lives of a Hero (St Martin’s Press 1997)

[7] Frank Stockton, Pirates of Our Coast: A history of Pirates and Buccaneers (DRAM tree books 2007) p.4

[8] Ogborne, Global Lives p.178                                           

[9] Ibid p.181

[10] Ibid p.172

[11] Ibid p.172

[12] Ibid p.183

[13]Marcus Rediker, ‘The Seaman as a Pirate’, in C.Pennell ed. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates reader (New York University Press, 2000) p.142

[14] William Pencak, Historical Dictionary of Colonial America (Scarecrow Press 2011) p.106

[15] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, (Abacus 2001) p.12

[16] Anne Perotin, ‘The Pirate and the emperor’, in C.Pennell ed. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates reader, (New York University Press, 2000) p.46

[17] Marcus Rediker, Bandits at Sea: A Pirates reader, p.146

[18] Janice Thompson, Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns: State Building and Extraterritorial, (Princeton University Press, 1996) p.48

[19] Kenneth Kinkor, ‘Black Men under the Black Flag’, C.Pennell ed. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, (New York University Press, 2000) p.20

[20] Miles Ogborne, Global Lives, p.194

[21] Ibid, p.194

[22] Anne Perotin, ‘The Pirate and the emperor’, in C.Pennell ed. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates reader, (New York University Press, 2000) p.40

[23] Janice Thomson, Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns: State Building and Extraterritorial, p.41

[24] Miles Ogborne, Global Lives, p.194


Bibliography:

Anne Perotin, ‘The Pirate and the emperor’, in C.Pennell ed. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates reader, (New York University Press, 2000) 

Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, (Abacus 2001) 

Frank Stockton, Pirates of Our Coast: A history of Pirates and Buccaneers (DRAM tree books 2007) 

James McDermott, Martin Frobisher: Elizabethan Privateer (Yale University Press 2001)

Janice Thompson, Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns: State Building and Extraterritorial, (Princeton University Press, 1996)

John Cummins, Francis Drake: The Lives of a Hero (St Martin’s Press 1997)

Kenneth Kinkor, ‘Black Men under the Black Flag’, C.Pennell ed. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, (New York University Press, 2000)  Marcus Rediker, ‘The Seaman as a Pirate’, in C.Pennell ed. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates reader (New York University Press, 2000)

Miles Ogborne, Miles. Global Lives (Cambridge University Press 2008)

William Pencak, Historical Dictionary of Colonial America (Scarecrow Press 2011) 


Authored by Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite is Head of Publishing at British Online Archives.


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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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