Pirates

Why pirates were accepted in the colonies, even welcomed as good neighbors.

Photo of HMS Surprise at San Diego Maritime Museum by James Ulvog.

In Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates Eric Jay Dolin says that from the early 1680s until about 1726 pirates usually had a positive relationship with the citizens in the American colonies. I will summarize points he makes that caught my interest.

The harsh nature of life in the colonies combined with the exploitative policies of England explain this comfortable relationship.

Hard currency, whether British pounds or Spanish pieces of eight, were scarce. That by itself makes commerce more difficult.

Compounding the situation is British imports had to be purchased in hard currency.

When pirates returned to the colonies from their adventures they brought plenty of hard currency with them and used it to pay for their nice lifestyle thus moving coins into the economy.

Further compounding the problem is that goods imported to the colonies had to first be transshipped to England. Mariners could not sail from some other location in the world directly to the colonies. Instead they had to sail to England, pay customs there, and then sail to the colonies. That not only added the extra customs duties to the cost of goods but also added the substantial extra transit time. Both of those factors drove up the cost of every imported item.

Pirates would bring goods they plundered directly to the colonies thus saving the extra layer of duties and the substantial travel time. Thus goods were much cheaper to purchase from a pirate than an official importer.

Photo of deck of HMS Surprise at San Diego Maritime Museum by James Ulvog.

Another factor making it comfortable to accept pirates is who they were plundering.

Very early on the pirates were raiding British merchant ships which didn’t cause much heartburn for the people living in the colonies since it was the British government making it extra difficult to survive in the colonies.

During the War of Spanish Succession ending in the mid-1710s, pirates turned their attention to Spanish ships. Since it was the detested Spanish who lost their merchant ships, there were no hard feelings between pirates and their colonial neighbors.

Prior to that, pirates would sail around the Cape of Good Hope at the south tip of South America and then over to Madagascar, using that as their base of operations. From there they would raid Muslim ships of the Mughal Empire. The merchant ships were heavy laden with valuable prizes.

Book points out that even more valuable prizes were the ships carrying Muslim pilgrims journeying from India or Iran to Mecca. Such pilgrims carried abundant portable wealth with them – lots of gold coins, jewelry, plenty of silver.

Of course the residents of the colonies had absolutely no problem stealing, I mean plundering, from Muslims halfway around the world. When pirates returned with their bounty from fruitful raids on Muslims, their neighbors would be happy to sell them farms, liquor, or provisions or weapons for their next foray. In return the pirates’ neighbors received hard currency, luxury goods, or low cost supplies. Worked great for everyone.

Another factor making for friendliness towards pirates is the Royal governors of the time were not particularly well paid. They could handsomely supplement their income by turning a blind eye toward the activity of the pirates. For a generous fee of course.

Book points out that after the war with Spain, pirates turned attention on merchant ships which were now owned by colonists or carrying goods for merchants in the country. It was no longer the detested Spanish, detested Muslims, or detested British overlords being plundered but friendly British merchants or colonialist owned ships.

Hostility towards the pirates replaced the previous friendliness. That factor combined with the intense focused effort of the British government to shut down piracy quickly reduce the number of pirates.

Their ranks thinned to just about nothing by the mid-1720s.

All of this is to say that for a very long time pirates were welcomed in the colonies when they returned with their load of hard currency and untaxed goods.

Photo of HMS Surprise at San Diego Maritime Museum by James Ulvog.

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