Kris Lane

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:

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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.

Article.  6959 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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