My original idea for my big project proposal, way back in February, was to focus on pirates. I love reading about them, despite the fact that had I been on a ship under attack by them in their heyday (1630-1730, roughly) I probably would have been killed off fairly quickly, and I refused to see Captain Philips because I was convinced it would give me nightmares. Still, historic pirates are undeniably fascinating: groups of people from different nations and cultures, moving in borderless seas, living by their own codes and laws. They are, in my opinion at the very least, one of the most interesting groups of transnational actors in modern history.
I’m going to focus on a specific affiliation of pirates in this post. The historiography on pirates is slim, largely due to a sheer lack of sources: pirates were not usually the sort of people to become writers later in life, and even if they did, the successful amongst them (i.e. those who were not killed or jailed before the age of forty) would not be as stupid as to record their crimes for the world and authorities to see. However, the literature that does exist reveals the stereotypical examples of pirates acting as independent, free-willed actors (most notably the Barbary corsairs of the Mediterranean, or the Chinese pirates who plied the Pacific and Indian Oceans), alongside those who were allied through loose groups such as the Brethren of the Coast, a fraternity of sorts formed in the West Indies and united under a general desire for wealth and a dislike of Spain. The Brethren’s home base became the Bahama Islands, selected for their position in the shipping lanes between the New World and Europe. What has become Nassau today was once New Providence, a lawless city of transients. First brought under European control by a French-Spanish force before moving under English ‘control,’ New Providence was already an international town with a history of brutal violence.
The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries presented a perfect storm for piracy in the West Indies. A number of transnational forces all played a hand in its rise. A highly unsteady situation across Europe (including the aftermath of religious wars in France, civil war in Britain, a war of independence in the Netherlands) had left the various powers struggling for wealth and power, and searching for it in new colonies abroad. Imperialism played an important role: without the colonies sprouting up across the Atlantic, there would be no ships sailing between North and Central America and the western European coast. Wherever the resulting new trade networks formed, pirates followed. The competition along these trade routes between various European powers allowed and even encouraged the Brethren. Piracy, illegal under all European powers’ laws, was legal if the pirate became a ‘privateer,’ or an armed vessel licensed to attack the vessels of a hostile country. By using privateers, France, England, Spain, and the Netherlands could attack each other via private contractors and thus circumvent the cost associated with maintaining a large navy.
The Brethren was not only formed by a transnational network, it was composed of highly mobile and transnational actors. Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach, for example, was born in Bristol, began his life at sea in Jamaica, and despite spending much of his career based in the West Indies, his name has been found among the public records of early Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas (he died in North Carolina while under attack by the Royal Navy). Pirate captain William Kidd was born in Scotland, moved to New York City immediately after it changed hands from Dutch to English, became a privateer in the Caribbean, married an English woman living in the colony of New York, and was executed by the English government following his return from the Indian Ocean. His international crew was led by his first mate Hendrick van der Heul, a man reportedly of African descent. Pirates were often indiscriminate in the nationalities of the ships they attacked, and were often hunted by more than one European power at a time.
Most of what we know about pirates has been heavily shaped by literature and pop culture: treasure maps, black ships, and ‘walking the plank’ all are inventions of Robert Louis Stevenson, for example. However I think they deserve a good deal more serious scholarly recognition than they currently receive. Pirates were both transnational in their targets and in those who targeted them – they were an unforgettable part of the trade networks that sprang up between Old and New Worlds, and were arguably the world’s first and most significant international criminals.
Cordingly, David. Life Among the Pirates: The Romance and the Reality
Latimer, Jon. Buccaneers of the Caribbean: How Piracy Forged an Empire.
Lee, Robert Earl. Blackbeard the Pirate.