PART FIVE: THE GOLDEN AGE
The Golden Age was inaugurated in 1692 by a Rhode Islander named Thomas Tew. Tew had a letter of marque allowing him to attack French shipping in the African slave-trade. Instead Tew took his vessel into the Indian Ocean began attacking vessels from the Mughal Empire (at that time the dominant power of India). Spurred by Tew’s enormous windfall, other pirates soon followed. Henry Avery, a mate on a privateer named Charles II, disdained the fig-leaf of latters of marque (not that they were valid against Indian vessels). He led a mutiny and seized the Charles II (renamed the Fancy) and sailed for Johanna Island off Madagascar, which was rapidly becoming a pirate rendezvous. From there Avery sailed with Tew until the Rhode Island captain was killed in battle. In quick succession Avery seized the Ganj-i-Sawai and the Fateh Muhammed worth perhaps £500,000 together.
Avery also ignited an international crisis. The ships Avery seized carried relatives of the Great Mughal himself and the Mughal threatened war if something was not done. The East India Company, run by England’s corporate elite were horrified. At the time they were pursuing “quiet trade,” avoiding expensive military outlays. Ironically, the Company’s brief war against the Mughal in 1690 may have been what gave Tew his ideas. In any case the Company could so little beyond offering sporadic convoy services. The pirate bases were difficult (and no doubt expensive) to attack. Effective law enforcement at the pirates’ point of origin, the American colonies, was stymied by colonial governors who looked the other way for a share of the loot.
In 1698 a consortium of wealthy nobles, investors, and politicians formed a company to do a bit of freelance pirate hunting. The plan was to bring the pirates to justice and to bring in a haul of pirate gold. The consortium’s chosen man was a New Yorker by the name of William Kidd.
Kidd found arresting pirates to be impossible. His crew were depleted by naval press-gangs and desertion. The pirates proved easy to find, but clearly too risky to collar. Kidd was reduced to recruiting men off the beach at Johanna. Far from being the scourge of pirates, Kidd was signing them on as sailors. This did little for discipline and Kidd killed a mutinous gunner in a violent altercation.
Kidd’s other remit, amassing treasure, proved doable. Unfortunately in his eagerness to please his masters, Kidd resorted to methods that greatly resembled those of the pirates. On his return to New York Kidd found a warrant for his arrest waiting for him. Stung by the scandal Kidd’s backers turned on him. Critical documents that supported Kid’s version of events disappeared. Convicted of piracy and the murder of the gunner, Kidd went to the gallows.
By then the authorities realized that a solution to piracy had to be found, but the bought governors and thinly stretched Royal Navy were not up to the task. Instead the king issued wholesale pardons. The outbreak of the War of Spanish Succession offered ample scope for legal looting during the next thirteen years.
The end of war in 1714 released a flood of desperadoes, mostly British, on the seas. They revived their old rendezvous off Madagascar. Nor did the new breed confine their attentions to Indian vessels. Pirate gangs operated openly from Nassau in the Bahamas.
Outlaws such as Calico Jack Rakham, Stede Bonnet, Bartholomew Roberts, Anne Read, Mary Bonney, and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach became criminal celebrities. Their great chronicler was Captain Johnson, perhaps a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe, whose General History of the Pirates became a true-crime classic.
Once again law enforcement proved difficult in the face of highly mobile outlaws and corrupt local authorities. The crown resorted to a two-pronged approach. The Royal Navy began visiting Madagascar the better to keep watch on pirate activities. In 1718 a new governor descended on Nassau. He was Woodes Rogers, a well-know privateer. Rogers did not rely on force alone. He was authorized to issue free pardons to any pirate who foreswore raiding. Backsliders were hunted down, often by their former comrades who were expected to show their loyalty to the new order by acting as bounty hunters.
The program had results. Bonnet went to the gallows in 1718, Calico Jack in 1720. While Read and Bonney were spared hanging, they received prison sentences. Blackbeard accepted a pardon and relocated to Okracoke Island on the North Carolina coast. A naval force from neighboring Virginia liquidated Blackbeard in a savage battle in 1718. There has been speculation that Blackbeard’s demise was linked to an attempted coup against the governor of North Carolina shortly thereafter.
Bartholomew Roberts was among the last of the Golden Age pirates. He had been a mate on slave ships on the Guinea run. Pirates of this era followed the Royal Navy’s custom of “pressing” or kidnapping any seaman whose skills they could use. When pirates captured his vessel in 1719, Roberts was pressed into service aboard the pirate. Roberts’ leadership skills proved a bonus and after the death of the previous commander Roberts was elected captain. Pirates of the era generally elected their leaders. Leading heavily armed desperadoes with no compunctions about mutiny required a certain mix of delicacy and wolf-pack violence. Mostly it required a steady provision of looted wealth, which Roberts was quite adept at. He led a small armada of three vessels in pillaging forays from the Cape Verde Islands to Newfoundland. But the days of freebooting were numbered. Roberts was run down and killed off the African coast in 1722. Roberts death took the heart out of his men and they surrendered. The black men among the pirates were sold into slavery. Fifty-two others were hanged at the English trading post of Cape Coast Castle.
The mass execution and enslavement of Roberts’ men was a decisive blow to piracy. A few pirate vessels remained at large until 1725, but large-scale piracy by alliances of British outlaws was a thing of the past. The Golden Age was over.