Atlantic History Piracy
Kris Lane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0077


Piracy, or larceny at sea, is an enduring and misunderstood crime. Its occurrence in Atlantic waters is ancient, but it was in the early modern era (c. 1450–1750) that seaborne predation grew most intense, giving rise to many legendary figures. Most popular images of pirates are drawn from the so-called Golden Age of buccaneering, roughly the second half of the 17th century. In this period, thanks to the buccaneer and author Alexander Exquemelin, Atlantic piracy became forever associated with the Caribbean archipelago. A second “Golden Age,” that of the Anglo-American freebooters, dates to the years between the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, and a spate of pirate trials ending about 1730. This was the age of towering figures such as Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Bartholomew Roberts, and female pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Read. Although Atlantic piracy was resurgent from time to time in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, extermination campaigns led by the British Navy largely stamped out piracy as a large-scale organized crime in the Atlantic in the 1710s and 1720s. Scholarly studies of Atlantic piracy have mostly explored the following themes: class relations, gender patterns, pirate sexuality, economic motives and effects, legal implications, and literary representations. New work has begun to tie pirate activity more clearly to the transatlantic slave trade. Some studies have attempted to place Atlantic piracy and pirates in the larger context of European overseas expansion, offering some global comparisons. An important distinction must be made between piracy and privateering, however. Piracy has historically been defined as unsanctioned plunder of vessels on the high seas, along with the related crimes of kidnapping, extortion, and ransoming of captives. In some instances, unsanctioned pillage by descent from the sea of land targets such as port towns has also been defined as piracy. Since the high seas were generally regarded in early modern times as open spaces beyond the limits of traditional, land-based sovereignty, emergent nations such as England and the Netherlands established admiralty courts for the prosecution of crimes committed at sea, most importantly piracy, but also including sodomy, petty theft, and drunkenness. Convicted pirates were often hanged from gibbets placed below tidal limits to reinforce the land/sea division. Privateering, called corsairing in the 16th and 17th centuries, consisted of sanctioned raiding by private individuals and commercial associations, almost always during wartime. Privateers were, as the name suggests, privately outfitted sea raiders whose aim was to take profit by capturing commercial vessels flying the flag of declared enemies; a few went after land targets. To be legal, privateering required a letter of marque and reprisal, usually signed by a monarch but at times issued by local governors and other lesser officials. In exchange for the letter of marque, another variety of which was issued to merchant vessels in wartime, crown officials received a portion of booty taken. As can be imagined, the line between piracy and privateering could easily be crossed, and many acts of piracy were committed under false pretenses against nonenemies and during peacetime. Individuals adept at capturing and plundering ships were likely to act as both pirates and privateers in the course of their careers, as happened with famous figures such as Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, and William Kidd.

General Overviews

Popular histories of Atlantic piracy abound, but few are based on primary sources. Even fewer have dared to challenge familiar, nationalistic, or sensationalist narratives. The following selections stand out for quality of research, theoretical insights, or coverage of frequently overlooked regions and nationalities. Once piracy became a topic of serious historical inquiry, thanks to Philip Gosse (see Gosse 1932) and other early 20th-century champions, two core questions emerged: How did subjects of the Spanish Empire, the pirates’ main victims, react? And were pirates ordinary criminal gangs taking advantage of new opportunities, or did they constitute an emerging class of “social bandits” reacting to new and oppressive work regimes? Clarence Haring (see Haring 1966 in Spanish Defense) was one of the first Anglophone researchers to consult Spanish manuscript sources, which he used to produce a more balanced narrative of Caribbean buccaneering, exposing the misrepresentations of Exquemelin and other authors. Andrews 1978, Earle 2003, Lane 1998, and others have followed in this vein, usually comparing Spanish documents with those produced in England and other countries. Collectively, these works make clear that, while victimized, Spanish subjects sometimes fought back effectively, at other times colluded with alleged enemies, and in general played more complex roles than older histories claimed. A pioneer historian who portrayed the Golden Age buccaneer as a knee-jerk (if not quite class-conscious) egalitarian was J. S. Bromley (see Bromley 1987 in Formation of New Social Groups). Following similar land-based research by Marxist historians Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, and Christopher Hill, Bromley focused on the connection between wars, navy recruitment, and what Gosse had termed “pirate cycles.” Golden Age piracy seemed linked to chronic unemployment of an emerging pool of island-based freelance raiders whose traditions emphasized sharing booty equitably and caring for the wounded. This thread was taken in the direction of maritime class formation in Rediker 2004. Cordingly 1995 borrowed some of Rediker’s earlier observations (see Rediker 1987 in Formation of New Social Groups) on pirate demography and habits in his general survey, but did not embrace his more romantic claims of piracy as social banditry. Earle 2003 challenged Rediker’s class interpretation of Golden Age piracy to argue that the English Navy’s 18th-century suppression efforts amounted to an early modern “war on terror.” Pirates were simply criminal opportunists in this view, but highly organized and dangerous ones. The reality may lie somewhere in between these extremes of sentimental Marxism and antisocial demonization; most pirates and privateers seem to have imagined themselves as enterprising gentlemen of fortune, self-made but not revolutionary. Solidarity could arise when convenient, but so could murderous infighting. If Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan’s career (roughly 1655–1688) is illustrative, the aim of most Caribbean pirates was to get rich at the margins of the law, then go straight and climb the social ladder among landlubbers. The sea offered space for self-improvement and transgression in equal measure. Political scientist Janice Thomson traced this ethical-legal gray area’s longer-term historical implications by treating piracy as a form of nonstate violence (today called paramilitarism) unleashed and then suppressed by early modern European states (Thomson 1994). Pirates could be unwitting tools as well as free agents. Along similar lines, but in narrative rather than modular form, Latimer 2009 ties Golden Age piracy directly to empire building. As licensed privateering, sea raiding was simply a time-tested form of military subcontracting that could also be profitable for small-time investors with few other high-return options. It spurred the growth of Atlantic cities from Charleston to Dunkirk.

  • Andrews, Kenneth R. The Spanish Caribbean: Trade and Plunder, 1530–1630. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978.

    One of the first studies in English to examine early Caribbean corsairing from the Spanish perspective, comparing documents produced on both sides of the pillager/pillaged divide. Several of Andrews’s earlier books treat Elizabethan corsairing in greater detail.

  • Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates. New York: Random House, 1995.

    A rare popular but also scholarly book on early modern Atlantic piracy that incorporates women into the larger narrative and challenges various myths, from pirates’ alleged fondness for parrots to their preference for dangerous broadside attacks. Appendixes give useful data on pirate suppression in the 1710s and 1720s.

  • Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London: Methuen, 2003.

    Something of a counterpoint to the work of Rediker, Hill, and others, emphasizing pirate fighting in the early 18th century as critical to the rise of the English Navy. Argues that the Navy’s successes in the 1710s and 1720s helped make it the dominant Atlantic enforcer. The 18th-century “war on piracy” is thus presented as a test of the mettle of the modern state. The study goes up to the last great surge of Atlantic piracy in the 1810s and 1820s, when Cuban pirates may have introduced the legendary practice of “walking the plank.”

  • Gosse, Philip. The History of Piracy. London: Longmans, 1932.

    Arguably the first global history of piracy, and first to put the famous buccaneers and freebooters of the so-called Golden Age (whose stories nevertheless take up about two-thirds of the book) in perspective.

  • Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500–1750. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998.

    A brief narrative overview that attempts to situate early modern piracy and privateering in the context of the vast and wealthy Spanish seaborne empire, the pirates’ main target. More attention than usual is paid to the victims of piracy and their responses. Published in 1999 under the title Blood and Silver: A History of Piracy in the Caribbean and Central America (Oxford: Signal).

  • Latimer, Jon. Buccaneers of the Caribbean: How Piracy Forged an Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    A rare interpretive work that ably ties 17th-century buccaneering to the imperial project of England, and to a lesser extent those of France and the Netherlands, in the Spanish-claimed Caribbean.

  • Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon, 2004.

    Consolidates the author’s earlier work on the Anglo-American pirates of the 1710s and 1720s (see Rediker 1987 and Linebaugh and Rediker 2000 in Formation of New Social Groups), emphasizing class solidarity and piracy as a form of social rebellion. Citing manuscript documents to buttress the standard account given by “Captain Charles Johnson” in his 1724 General History of the Pyrates, Rediker’s examination of pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Read compares well with Cordingly 1995.

  • Thomson, Janice E. Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

    A seminal political-science approach that carries on to the mid-19th century.

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