An Introduction to Colonial Piracy


Piracy has persisted all throughout history, right up into the twenty-first century.  Often viewed as a romantic, individualistic endeavor, piracy during the Golden Age of Colonial America was anything but.  The distinction, then, between pirate and privateer was one of utmost importance.  Privateers were pirates sponsored by a nation during wartime to attack the ships of an opposing power’s navy.  Perfectly legal, many Colonial-era pirates sailed under the guise of privateering.  Captain Kidd even possessed a commission signed by the King of England himself 12.

There were a plethora of factors that worked together to exacerbate colonial era piracy.  Maritime historian Marcus Rediker estimates that during the height of the Golden Age, there were approximately 5000 Anglo-American pirates operating in the Atlantic alone9.  Reasons why individuals would chose the life of a pirate – and the life of a pirate was a very dangerous and uncertain one – include the chance escape life at home, greed and the desire for treasure, the poor working conditions on merchant or naval vessel, and the desire for new social order.  Pirates, however dangerous their lifestyle was, were protected throughout the Golden Age by colonial governors, and the result was a mutually beneficial relationship with many unforeseen consequences.

photo credit: http://news.ncdcr.gov/2009/05/18/nautical-archaeologist-of-pirate-ship-whydah-galley-presents-program/