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War Makes Thieves, Peace Hangs Them

May 2024
13min read

In an era that condoned smuggling and lawbreaking the transition from privateer to pirate was easy

Piracy along the American coast began with legalized plunder. Sea warfare in colonial times was only partly an affair of navies. The rest was free private enterprise. If an individual adventurer could reap a fortune from a war, he had the satisfaction of knowing that his riches were patriotically gained.

In the war which England waged in the late years of the Seventeenth and the early years of the Eighteenth centuries, the American colonies were of considerable assistance. The king anthorized colonial governors to distribute “letters of marque and reprisal” liberally among the seafaring men of the New England and middle colonies. Such a letter entitled its holder to capture all the enemy ships he could, bring them into port, and there claim a major portion of ship and cargo. If he could not bring the ship into port, he would relieve her of her cargo and crew and sink her. Enormous sums of money were made in this way, especially from the sale of the rich cargoes of captured Spanish merchantmen.

King William’s War between England and France ended in 1697. Queen Anne’s War, which was a part of the War of the Spanish Succession, began in 1701, and involved both France and Spain. In both wars there was sea fighting, and colonial “privateers” carried on a lucrative business. In Queen Anne’s War which involved most of Europe, both English and colonial ships worked the Spanish Main. There shipmasters became familiar with the hundreds of island hide-outs, the inlets, the coves, and the rivers that gave shelter for escape and surprise attack.

Privateering was a free, adventurous, exciting life. The risks were great but so were the rewards. There was an almost total absence of restraint, of regulation, of discipline. The privateer was entirely on his own. He was only authorized to capture enemy ships, but neutrals sometimes fell into his hands, and it was easy to explain that the neutral ships were carrying contraband of war. He must use his own judgment. There was no one to give him advice. The seas were wide and empty and, once over the horizon, a ship was out of range of communication.

The life was so good, indeed, that when the war was over, the men who had enjoyed it became restless. They had lost their taste for the hard work of legitimate trade. They had grown intimate with the merchants of the seaport cities but these friendships, built through the sale of rich, exotic cargoes, had nothing to sustain them when peace came. In the uneasy peace that followed King William’s War at the turn of the century, there was depression throughout the colonies. The bungled Treaty of Ryswick ending that war had given concessions to the French that nearly ruined the New England cod fisheries. In the middle colonies the price of wheat fell because of English competition in the West Indies trade. This general climate ol depression was anything but congenial to the ex-privateer who despised slow, laborious ways of earning a living.

Thus the temptation to find his way back to some sort of predatory seafaring was hard to resist. It was easy to move across the vague lines set by a treaty; to plunder what were no longer enemy vessels; to move, in short, from privateering to piracy. In England, this progress had been practiced since the days ol Francis Drake; it was hardly surprising that it appeared in the American colonies in the intervals between wars.

By no means all the buccaneers who operated along the American coast were colonials. Indeed, some of the most masterful were natives of the British Isles. But America was the natural scene of their operations, whatever their origin. Its intricately indented coastline furnished ideal hiding places for the ships that flew the black flag. Still more useful was the colonial tradition ol lawbreaking. Certain kinds of smuggling had been universal among New England traders. After years of winking at this practice officials in the northern seaports had grown corrupt. Finally, dealing in contraband goods had made the seaport merchants rich and powerful and they, in turn, had brought pressure even on the royal governors to ignore the illicit trade.

In the northern colonies, smuggling had become necessary to survival. The Navigation Acts had created this necessity. They prohibited, among other things, trade with those islands of the West Indies that were not British. In the North, where winters were long and there was no such staple crop as tobacco or rice, agriculture alone could not pay for the goods the people had to buy from England. They turned, therefore, to other occupations: mainly fishing, sea trade, and the manufacture of rum. Rum became the staple, so to speak, of New England. It was made of molasses brought from the sugar islands of the Caribbean. The British islands could not supply all the molasses the Yankees needed; also, the French product was cheaper. So the smuggling of molasses became a universal practice. To the proud northern colonials it was a demonstration of their independence of drastic English law. As time went on and the laws became more restrictive, evasion, for some New Englanders, became a sort of patriotic duty just as, some two centuries later in the Prohibition era, many Americans proudly defied the Eighteenth Amendment and encouraged bootlegging in the name of liberty. By that time, however, Englishmen who were shocked by such American lawlessness had forgotten that the same sort of evasion had once been forced by their ancestors upon ours.

In those early years there was hardly a customs official in the colonies who enforced the unwelcome statutes. It was, of course, profitable to them to let the contraband through. Payment for protection was an item of the merchant’s budget. If there were officials who were above this sort of corruption they were rare characters indeed, and so unpopular that ways would surely have been found to force them out of office. Thus, all along the coast there developed an atmosphere of genial, easygoing disrespect for law that made it an ideal hunting ground for every kind of freebooter. If one contraband article could be smuggled, why not another? If a port inspector could be bribed, why not the man higher up? If the bribe was big enough, where, indeed, was the royal governor who could not be bought?

Almost any American school child, asked to name the most notorious pirate in American history, will automatically reply, “Captain Kidd.” William Kidd has become a legend. Boys of many generations living in the vicinity of Long Island Sound have dreamed of finding his buried treasure. As the historians George Francis Dow and John Henry Edmonds tell us in their Pirates of the New England Coast: “Captain Kidd as he is recalled today is a composite type. All the pirates who have frequented the New England coast have become blended into one and that one—Captain Kidd.” His death did much to nourish the legend. Hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames water front, his body was then bound in chains and left hanging in view of every ship on the lower river as a macabre warning.

Recent researchers have tried to debunk the legend. According to Kidd’s latest biographer, Willard Bonner, in his extremely readable Pirate Laureate he was “a reputable trader and navigator of old New York.” and Bonner presents evidence that the “unfair” trial given the Captain was part of a political conspiracy. That Kidd had admittedly killed a number of his crew was, however, the first charge against him.

Whatever may have been the whole truth—and it will perhaps never be disclosed—Kidd illustrates the sort of progress from privateering to other predatory operations that is typical. In September, 1696, he sailed out of New York with a royal commission to command a “private Man of War” and orders to capture and bring to justice “Pirates, Free booters, and Sea Rovers,” wherever he might find them. Specifically mentioned were the notorious villains, Thomas Tew of Rhode Island and Thomas Wake and Willaim Maze of New York, supposed at the time to be in the neighborhood of the international pirate headquarters on the island of Madagascar. In this enterprise. Kidd was financed by five peers of the realm and one New Yorker. As usual, all these gentlemen were to profit heavily from the patriotic venture.

Kidd disappeared entirely for three years. Apparently he had fallen on evil times. Cruising in the dreadful heat of the Red Sea, he had missed his prizes, and his men, who had expected to share in the booty, had become unruly. Finally, according to Kidd, they had mutinied, made him prisoner, and turned his ship, the Adventure Gallery , from a man-of-war into a pirate craft. This, at any rate, was Kidd’s story as he sailed into the home port with his ship loaded with treasure. Meanwhile, the story had circulated in England that the Captain had turned pirate. He was, therefore, arrested in Boston; not, however, until after he had buried part of the loot on Gardiners Island off Long Island where men and boys have been vainly digging ever since. The hidden treasure is the most probable part of the legend.

Kidd’s story of the mutiny was typical. Many an alleged pirate made a similar tale part of his defense. Often enough it was true. It was common practice for a pirate to force the master of a captured vessel to join him in further robberies. It may be doubted, however, that the prisoner was always as reluctant as he maintained to bow to his captor’s will. The temptation to turn from the dull life of a merchantman skipper to the fabled adventure of a buccaneer was usually irresistible as soon as he saw the tangible evidence of the rich rewards.

Among the pirates who entered the profession in this way wore Howel Davis, Captain England, “Red Legs” Greaves, David Herriott, Benjamin Jefferys, John Phillips, Bartholomew Roberts, John Upton, and Thomas White. It was surprising how many men had started life as respected citizens in their communities--lawyers, doctors, merchants, or well-to-do gentlemen--and had turned at last to piracy. Such, for example, was Stede Bonnet, a former major in the British Army and a wealthy landowner in the Barbados. Once started on his new career, however, he became one of the most brutal pirates of all—the only one, indeed, against whom it was proved that he made his prisoners walk the plank. So outrageous was his behavior and so complete the change from his former way of life that his island neighbors blamed his nagging wife for having driven him mad. According to the contemporary biographer Charles Johnson, Bonnet was “rather pitty’d than condemned, by those that were acquainted with him, believing that this Humour of going a-pyrating proceeded from a Disorder in his Mind … which is said to have been occasioned by some Discomforts he found in a married State….”

Yet in the early years of the Eighteenth Century, piracy was not as disreputable—at least in America--as it later became. Like smuggling, it was often thought to be a protest against the injustices of British maritime law. The tough, hard-drinking, picturesquely profane Samuel Bellamy echoed these sentiments in a speech he delivered to an unhappy lawabiding skipper whose sloop he had captured, plundered, and sunk. He apologized lor the sinking, which he said had been done by his crew contrary to his wishes, but he added:

“Tho’, damn ye. you are a sneaking Puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by Laws which rich Men have made lor their own Security, for the cowardly Whelps have not the Courage otherwise to defend what they get by their Knavery: but damn ye altogether: Damn them for a Pack of crafty Rascals, and you, who serve them, for a Panel of hen-hearted Numskuls. They villify us, the Scoundrels do, when there is only this Difference, they rob the Poor under the Cover of Law, forsooth, and we plunder the Rich under the Protection of our own Courage; had you not better make One of us … ?”

A early as 1700, the city of New York had acquired a reputation for greed, sharp trading, and cynical corruption. Established by the Dutch as a trading depot, it had continued under the English with business the main preoccupation. Hither had come people from all parts of Europe, each seeking some kind of fortune. Politically there had been chaos. The stupid, drunken, or prideful Dutch governors had been followed by a succession of weak or corrupt Englishmen. In 1691 the insurgent German-born Jacob Leisler had almost brought the colony to civil war. A few vears later, while Benjamin Fletcher occupied this powerful and despotic post, New York became a Utopia for pirates.

During Fletcher’s administration, the New York merchants attained a position of wealth and arrogance they had never known. One of the great sources of their riches was the vast, wild no man’s land of Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa. As the island belonged to no one but the savage tribes that had always inhabited it, the pirates were safe there; they made it their rendezvous, the depository for their stolen goods, and a market for trade with New Yorkers. Ships out of New York would land at Madagascar laden with goods the pirates wanted—mainly liquor and ammunition. The profits to the New Yorkers were astronomical. Rum that sold for two shillings a gallon in New York would bring £3 a gallon in Madagascar. A pipe of Madeira wine costing £19 in New York could be sold for £300 there. Coming back, the merchantmen brought the loot the pirates had captured all the way to India. Encouraged by the friendliness the New Yorkers showed them in Madagascar, the pirates came themselves to New York and were welcomed.


They had, to be sure, to make it worthwhile for the collector, the customs officers, and the magistrates at New York not to have them arrested. When these gentlemen were taken care of, it was customary to make friends with the Governor. Fletcher seems, from his later testimony, to have been confused as to who was a privateer and who a pirate. It was estimated that before a pirate and his crew could land, the cost of protection was £100 per man. The buccaneer Edward Coates, a frequent visitor to the city, maintained that he had paid some £1,300 directly to Governor Fletcher.


Once the sea robbers had paid the price of the racket, they were free to dine at the houses of the best families—who often found it good business to invite them—or to swagger through the streets, drunk, boastful, and exceedingly generous with silver and gold. They were popular with rich and poor alike. People of all conditions gathered round them to hear their yarns. They sold their loot at bargain prices, under-selling legitimate goods. Some they gave away to adorn the houses of important officials.

The genial Governor seems to have justified himself by the fact that war with France was in progress during his administration and that some of the alleged pirates had privateer commissions. This did not, of course, entitle them to capture neutral and even English ships or to carry on the Madagascar trade, and it failed to explain the presents the Governor received.

When, in 1697, the King replaced Fletcher with the Earl of Bellomont and instructed the new governor to end the piratical trade in New York, the situation there was wholly out of hand. Bellomont found not only that the powerful merchant body was solidly behind Fletcher, but also that there were no instruments of Iaw enforcement that he could use. In his report to the home government he stated that he would rather have an honest New York judge than a man-of-war. He found the city literally a nest of pirates. Everywhere they were living in luxury, sheltered by the merchants.


In his first year, however, Bellomont did meet with some success—at least, in 1698, he so reported.

” ‘Tis almost incredible,” he wrote, “what a vast quantity of East India goods would have been brought into this port, had there not been a change in government. Two men in this town had for their share twelve thousand pounds each, which were brought from Madagascar and got there with the barter with pirates. …”

We must allow for a certain excess of zeal in the Earl’s reports. Anything approaching a total suppression of the piratical trade was beyond the powers of any one man. An illustration of the complexity of the situation is the fact that Bellomont had himself been one of the backers of Captain Kidd. The news that Kidd, in 1698, had turned pirate must have suggested the possibility of arousing distrust of the Governor at home. In New York Bellomont had become universally unpopular; the rich merchants had brought vilifying accusations against him and these had been conveyed to powerful connections in the English aristocracy. It was natural, therefore, for him to exaggerate his effectiveness in his letters home. Actually, documents in the city archives show that New York was still haunted by pirates as late as the summer of 1717.

The thirty-year piratical era came to an end in 1718, not in New York but in Virginia. There, that rare creature, an honest royal governor, had turned up in Alexander Spotswood. Meanwhile, a change in colonial fortunes had made piracy unpopular.

Queen Anne’s War had ended in 1713. It was folowed by circumstances very different from those consequent upon King William’s War. The Peace of Utrecht was the opposite of that of Ryswick. It put an end to French commercial competition. As a result, prosperity instead of depression came to the American colonies. Legitimate trade became more profitable and far less risky than the shadowy negotiations with Madagascar.

At the same time, Queen Anne’s War had produced a new breed of privateer-pirates. They were bold and savage men, drunk with the fortunes they had reaped and, for the most part, utterly ruthless. Also, even before the war was over, they had begun to prey, not only on enemy or neutral vessels, but on colonial shipping as well. When peace came and the newly prosperous American sea traders were carrying their legitimate rich cargoes, these new pirates became an intolerable scourge. Also, they made raids on the seaports, terrorizing the inhabitants, burning, pillaging, and making prisoners of those who resisted. Horrible stories drifted back of prisoners stripped, lashed to a mast, and whipped to death; of others marooned on desert islands to starve.

The most formidable of these postwar pirates was a man whose name was variously reported as Thatch, Thack, and Teach, but who was commonly known as Blackbeard because of his abundant, fancily braided coal-black whiskers. Teach had started life as a crewman on an English privateer in the war. Deserting, he had fallen in with a veteran pirate named Hornigold at New Providence in the Bahamas. Hornigold was exceptional in having a conscience and refusing to capture British ships; wherefore Blackbeard left him and carried on operations on his own at Charleston and along the southern coast, hiding, between exploits, in one of the many coves of North Carolina. There he was protected by one Tobias Knight, secretary of the colony, whom he rewarded abundantly as, in fact, he seems to have done the governor, Charles Eden, as well. Wrote Henry Brooke in his Book of Pirates (1841):


“As governors are but men, and not unfrequently by no means possessed of the most virtuous principles, the gold of Black Beard rendered him comely in the governor’s eyes, and by his influence, he obtained a legal right to the great ship called ‘The Queen Anne’s Revenge.’ ”

Brooke adds that the Governor liked Blackbeard enough to attend his wedding when he took as his fourteenth wife a sixteen-year-old girl of Bath, North Carolina.

The Governor of the neighboring province of Virginia, however, was otherwise inclined. Teach had made devastating raids on Virginia shipping. Governor Spotswood was not subject to pirate bribery and Teach kept out of his way, usually escaping to a North Carolina shelter after his attacks. Presumably, a Virginia governor would never trespass upon another province to pursue him. But Blackbeard did not know his hotheaded adversary.

In a twenty-gun sloop, Spotswood sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard, one of his bravest officers, to find Blackbeard and end his career. He found him in Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina. All night the two ships maneuvered among the treacherous shoals of the inlet. On his ship, Teach is reported to have sat all night below, drinking. In the morning his men attacked Maynard’s sloop, killing and wounding 29 Virginians. Maynard sent his remaining men below and appeared on his deck alone. Blackbeard, thinking he had only one man to contend with, boarded Maynard’s sloop. At a given signal, the crew came on deck and overwhelmed the pirate. There are various accounts of this fight but all agree that it was a desperate battle and that, in the end, Teach’s bearded head was stuck on a pole and carried triumphantly ashore at Hampton, Virginia, followed by the members of his crew, who were duly tried at Williamsburg and hanged. The more credulous people of Hampton believe that the headless ghost of Blackbeard still walks there at night.

In the same year, 1718, Stede Bonnet of the “disordered mind” was taken at Charleston. Thus piracy along the colonial coast came to an end. In the bad years, it had flourished. In the economic upturn, it could not endure.

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