Golden Age of Piracy

      The Golden Age of Piracy is a common term given to western world piracy activity dating from about the 1650s to 1730 in maritime history. This piracy included the attacks on Spanish colonies and shipping in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. The looting of Muslim and East India Company targets in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. And later on the plundering of shipping along the American East Coast and West African Coast. This was done mainly by Anglo,French and later American seaman. In popular culture the modern conceptions of pirates of old is derived largely, though not always accurately, from this Golden Age of Piracy. Some factors contributing to the rise in piracy during the Golden Age included the increasing quantities of valuable cargoes being shipped to Europe over vast hard to defend ocean areas, the rivalry between nations over power and wealth, the ineffective governments in European and their overseas colonies, reduced European navies in certain key regions, and an abundance of well trained and experienced sailors or privateers left unemployed by the end of war.

      One of the most predominant myths about pirates is the belief that they were all a bunch of evil men completely lacking in any moral standards or beliefs. This was simply not true. Yes some pirates were rapists and murders, and some were truly sadistic killers. But most pirates were not much different in their moral beliefs then the other sailors of their time. Some worked as privateers and some on military ships before becoming pirates. Furthermore, not all buccaneers volunteered to serve as pirates of their choosing. Some were pressed men who were forced into serving when their ships were captured by pirates. Other men were abducted in ports and forced to join the pirates crew. (Note: Abducting seamen in ports to serve aboard naval warships was not an uncommon practice in the military back then.) Not to try and justify their actions here, but in a time of wretched poverty and little opportunity for most, some found in the brutal life of piracy a risk worth taking.

      The majority of these pirates were by nature rebellious and lazy. However they took their work quite seriously, and in most cases before a large crew would sail off on a voyage, a set of written articles was drawn up which every member of the ships company was expected to sign. These articles stated the ability of the crew to vote on most matters of importance, regulated the distribution of plunder among the crew, set the scale of compensation for injuries received in battle. They laid out the basic rules for shipboard life, and the punishments for those who broke the rules. The articles of piracy varied from one ship to another but most were generally very similar in scope. These articles were well needed as pirates were tough and ruthless men, notorious for their foul language and prolonged bouts of drinking... which frequently led to quarrels and violence. These rogue men of the sea came together forming a rather uneasy partnership, attracted by the lure of plunder and the desire for a better life.

Terms for Piracy

    The word pirate simply means one who robs or plunders at sea. Piracy is a term for sea-robbery. Reason tells us that pirates were no more than common criminals, but some still see them as figures of romance. As they are associated with daring deeds on the Spanish Main, with rakish black schooners and exotic tropical islands and sea chests overflowing with gold and silver coin.

    Over the years many stories have been told and fact has merged with fiction. In reality seamen who resisted a pirate attack were commonly hacked to death and thrown over the side. The plunder was not usually chests full of doubloons and pieces of eight, but typically a few bales of silk and cotton, some barrels of rum or tobacco, spare canvas for sail, carpentry and navigation tools, food or medicine, and prehaps a half dozen slaves.

    These were pirates or privateers who operated in the Mediterranean. The most famous were the Barbary Corsairs from the Barbary Coast of North Africa who were authorized by their governments to attack the shipping of Christian countries. Some of these states even helped organize the pirates and the ones that operated from them were called corsairs. Among these states were Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.

    One of the most famous Barbary corsairs was Barbarossa. Less well known were the corsairs of Malta. They were sent out to loot shipping by the Knights of St. John, a military order created during the crusades to fight the Muslims on behalf of the Christian nations. At first these men were driven by religion but after a while the rewards of piracy became to great.

    The Barbary Corsairs intercepted ships traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar or coming from the trading ports of Alexandria and Venice, swooping down on the heavily laden merchantmen, in their swift galleys powered by oars and sails. They looted their cargos, captured their passengers and crews, and held them for ransom or sold them into slavery.

    The term privateer could apply to an armed vessel, its captain or its crew. Many of the pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy began their careers as privateers. Privateers worked under letters of marque from the various countries that used them to basically wage a form of economic warfare on there enemies. Maritime nations made use of privateers in times of war as a cheap way of attacking enemy shipping (saving the cost of building and maintaining a navy).

    Usually the limits of the Marque were vague, leaving it up to the captain and crew to determine what they could undertake. Privateers often worked beyond the limits as detailed by their letter of Marque, many attacking neutral countries as well as hostile nations. These men did the same kind of things as pirates, but unlike pirates who were regarded by most as villians, they were seen by some as patriots by their respective countries because they were only suppose to attack hostile nations ships, and shared a part of their plunder with their countries rulers.

    When the various countries with interests in the New World were openly competing for the riches found there, some men saw that it could be quite rewarding becoming a privateer. But eventually most of these countries began to turn away from the use of privateers as they made peace with there rivals, and many of these men where unwilling to give up their wicked ways....and so began a career in piracy.

    Originally hunters of cattle and pigs on the island of Hispanola (now Haiti and Dominica), buccaneers got their name from the French word boucan which means barbeque. This was because of the way they barbequed their meat on grills. Driven out by the Spanish, the hunters joined the groups of runaway slaves, deserters and others who preyed on the ships of the hated Spanish. These buccaneers called themselves "The Brethren of the Coast".

    By the end of the 17th century the word buccaneer was being applied generally to most of the pirates and privateers who had bases in the West Indies. The buccaneers established their headquarters on the little island of Tortuga. Later they used Jamaica as a base of operations. One of the most famous buccaneers was Sir Henry Morgan. Under his command five hundred buccaneers from Tortuga and one thousand buccaneers from Jamaica captured Panama in 1671.

    Marooners were yet another special breed of pirate harrassing the Spanish Main. Marooner is a coruption of the Spanish word "cimarron" which loosely translates to "deserter" or runaway. In those days many Spaniards deserted their Navy at the first opportunity, and over time their numbers began to grow into a serious problem for Spain. Another group of marooners were the cimarron negros. These were the runaway slaves that had been brought to the Americas by Spain to haul the heavy cargos of gold and silver. The cimarron's quickly joined with the other deserters and runaways and became known as Marooners.

    Eventually this term became a common word for any pirate in the Caribbean, but not as common as Buccaneer. As time passed the pirate punishment of leaving shipmates on small deserted areas of land entered the language as "Marooning". The pirates would use this form of punishment for certain offenses, such as deserting the ship or quarters in battle, or stealing from other pirates. Marooning may not sound like such a serious punishment, but it usually meant a slow death from starvation or exposure. One of the most famous of these marooned men was the pirate Selkirk, better known as Robinson Crusoe.

Many pirates of the Spanish Main during the Golden Age of Piracy
adopted a code of conduct. These "articles or rules" would often be
agreed upon and signed by all members of the crew before going to sea.
The articles varied from ship to ship, but mostly they looked much the same.
Below is and example of a real pirates code from that time.

The Articles of Piracy

ARTICLE 1: Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of the Moment; has equal title to the fresh Provisions, or Strong Liquors, at any Time seized, and use of them at Pleasure, unless a Scarcity make it necessary, for the good of all, to Vote a Retrenchment.

ARTICLE 2: Every man shall obey civil command; the captain shall have one full share and a half in all prizes. the Quartermaster, Carpenter, Boatswain, and Gunner shall have one share and quarter.

ARTICLE 3: If any man shall offer to run away, or keep any secret from the Company, he shall be marroon'd with one bottle of powder, one bottle of Water, one small Arm, and shot.

ARTICLE 4: If any Man shall steal any Thing in the Company, or game, to the value of a piece of Eight, he shall be Marroon'd or shot.

ARTICLE 5: If at any Time we should meet with another Marrooner (that is, Pirate) that man shall sign his Articles without Consent of our Company, shall suffer such Punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit.

ARTICLE 6: That man that shall strike another, whilst these Articles are in force, shall receive Moses's Law (that is 40 Stripes lacking one) on the bare Back.

ARTICLE 7: That Man that shall snap his Arms, or smoke Tobacco in the Hold, without cap to his Pipe, or carry a candle lighted without lantern, shall suffer the same Punishment as in the former Article.

ARTICLE 8: That Man that shall not keep his Arms clean, fit for an Engagement, or neglect his Business, shall be cut off from his Share, and suffer such other Punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit.

ARTICLE 9: If any man shall lose a joint in time of Engagement, he shall have 400 Pieces of Eight: if a limb, 800.

ARTICLE 10: If at any time you meet with a prudent Woman, that Man that offers to meddle with her, without her Consent, shall suffer Death.

Pirate Superstitions

    The behavior of cats abroad a ship was thought to help predict luck and weather. It was believed that if a cat came up to a pirate, it was a sign of good luck, but if it came part way then turned around, bad luck would result. Also, it was considered very bad luck to throw a cat overboard, as foul weather and misfortune would follow. Other beliefs included; if a cat licked its fur against the grain, it meant a hailstorm was coming; if it sneezed it meant rain; and if it was frisky it meant wind.

    A feather in the hat, like many other pirate accessories, was driven by superstition. It was thought to protect against shipwreck. Very lucky was the pirate that donned a feather from a wren slaughtered on New Year's Day, for it was said to work it's magic for a year.

    A legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a omen of doom. It's myth is likely to have originated from the 17th-century golden age of the Dutch East India Company.

    If a ships bell rang untouched, it was believed a sure sign of imminent death for someone aboard. Likewise, a wine glass that made sound on it's own was thought to be a sign the ship and it's crew would soon perish.

    Once the anchor was hoisted and a ship was headed off on it's next plunder, a pirate never looked back towards the shore as it was believed to be bad luck A glance back to shore would imply a pirate was not ready for the journey ahead and bring about misfortune.

    When setting sail for their next plunder, pirates would toss gold cions into the water as an offering to Neptune, the god of the sea, to ensure a safe voyage. If Neptune was appeased calm seas would prevail.

    Good luck for a voyage could be welcomed by pouring some wine on the deck. Though pirates loved their libations, a little was gladly offered for this purpose.

    Sailors have had several patron saints. According to his hagiography, Saint Nicholas calmed a storm by prayer. Saint Elmo, may have become the patron of sailors because he is said to have continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground beside him. This prompted sailors, who were in danger from sudden storms and lightning, to claim his prayers. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were read as a sign of his protection and came to be called "Saint Elmo's Fire". Thus, Saint Elmo's Fire was usually good luck in traditional sailor's lore, but persistent discharges of electricity in the air were thought to interfere with compass readings, and sailors sometimes regarded it as an omen of bad luck and stormy weather. The mariner's cross, also referred to as St. Clement's Cross, is worn by many sailor's to bring blessings.

    Many pirate's would cease to cut their hair and nails during voyages in an attempt not to anger Neptune. This cutting was considered an offering to the goddess Proserpine, and a pirate dare not make an offering to another god or goddess while sailing Neptune's sea, lest they make him jealous an bring about foul weather.

    A pirate always made sure to start a voyage off on the right foot, literally. Stepping aboard a ship with the left foot first was considered unlucky and could invite disaster, or even death. Even worse was to sneeze to the left while stepping aboard. Doomed was the pirate who did both.

    The presence of certain sea animals swimming alongside a pirate ship were regarded as either a good or bad omen. Dolphins were praised as heralds or good luck, while sharks were feared as harbingers of imminent death.

    Most seamen held fast to the belief that it was unlucky to change the name of a ship. Once she was christened, a ships name should remain unchanged for fear that replacing it would bring about disaster and grief to the ship and her crew. However, pirates often changed the name of their captured ships, probably attempting to hide the fact it was stolen booty.

    To ensure a successful voyage, silver coins were placed under the mast of ships. This was thought to bring good luck as well as offer protection to the ship and crew.

    A pirate's look had more to do with the power of superstition than what was considered fashionable. Pirate's believed that tattoos and piercings would help protect them from evil spirits or bring good luck, and would adorn their bodies as such. Sailors, at the constant mercy of the elements, often feel the need for religious images on their bodies to appease the angry powers that caused storms and drowning far from home. The images of a pig and a hen were good luck; both animals are not capable of swimming, but they believed that God would look down upon a shipwreck and see an animal not capable of swimming and would take them into his hand and place them on land. Another example of superstitions is the North Star (Nautical Star or Compass Rose); sailors had the belief that by wearing this symbol it would help them to find his or her way home. Sailors designed mariner motifs of their own, according to their travel experiences in the ocean. By the 19th century, acceptance of superstition was so widespread, that about 90% of all United States Navy sailors had tattoos.

    There is no greater friend or foe to those who brave the seas than the weather. It was believed whistling softly after sticking a knife in the mast could call forth a favorable wind when none was present. However, whistling while the wind was blowing was thought to stir up ill winds, conjuring dangerous storms. On boats and ships where whistling was taboo, the cook was usually excused, because as long as he was whistling, he was not stealing the food.

    A figurehead of a bare-breasted woman was not uncommon on the mastheads of many ships, as a woman naked to the elements was thought to help calm the seas. Her open eyes were believed to serve as a clear guide for safe passage as well. Yet, having an actual woman aboard was regarded as bad luck. Many a joke has been made as to why.

The Golden Age of Piracy - Terror at Sea

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