Like the American Indians, pirates were outside the norms of European civilisation and behaviour. Unlike the native Indians, however, Western pirates were mostly Europeans who had been encouraged initially by the European governments themselves. During the period 1630-c1655 buccaneers settled in both Tortuga, and Hispaniola, which lie between two Caribbean straits, which carried the Spanish Treasure Fleets and other merchant shipping. The term pirate comes from the Latin pirata and the earlier Greek for brigand.

After the English conquered Jamaica, many of the buccaneers, or pirates, moved to that island, which was largely uninhabited and without much government control. All three of these islands were cut by geography to isolate areas and thus provide protection to such men. Port Royal on Jamaica became a favoured, pirate-controlled town, because it was centrally located in the Caribbean and gave access to shipping, Cuban ports, and Central American Treasure Fleet outposts. The Governors of Jamaica exercised some control over English pirates by licensing privateers and authorising strikes against the Spanish. Under Henry Morgan, pirates became the most respected and powerful military force in the Caribbean and were used by the English against the Spanish, French, and Dutch.[1]

Piracy was a problem thousands of years before the Spanish began to bring gold, silver, and other treasure from the New World back to Spain. Men sailed as pirates when countries began to cross oceans and seas to trade goods. There were powerful pirates that sailed the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. These pirates set up a large pirate nation in Cilicia, Turkey. Barbary corsairs controlled the western part of the Mediterranean and Viking pirates terrorised Europe. Piracy was also a problem for the Chinese Indians and Persians. As ship design and navigation improved, piracy followed the Spanish treasure into the New World.[2]

John Hawkyns



England and France in particular both fudged the definition of piracy by authorising captains, ships and crews to harass their national enemies. A privateer was a captain of a ship that attacked and captured other ships and stole valuable items from them. A privateer was not considered to be a true pirate because he was given a special license from his government termed a Letter of Marque. From 1589 to 1591 235 privateer ships sailed from Engand. Of course the privateers were hunted down and punished as pirates by the countries from whom they stole. The French were successful and captured over 4,000 merchant prizes by c1695.[3]

Many privateer captains were sent out to capture pirates, but became pirates themselves because of the fabulous profits. The Golden Age of Piracy began when Queen Elizabeth I licensed sailors as privateers. She gave these captains official permission to plunder and loot for England. National navies had not then been created and England was quite nervous about Spanish power, but really wanted to curb that power before it confronted England: besides there was all that wealth. Sir John Hawkins, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, and Captain William Kidd all became privateers. Kidd, was a Scot who lived in America. Kidd went to sea early, and in 1695 was authorised as a privateer to fight the French. William Kidd sailed after the French just when the English were attempting to build a coalition against Spain. France became an ally, the politics changed: and Kidd was hung as a pirate.[4] Drake's first concern when he returned to England after sailing around the world was to test the political waters, despite Elizabeth's personal authority, and see if he was still in favour: he was.[5] Later buccaneers stole from any ship they found in the Caribbean: Captain Edward Teach was their stereotype, known as 'Blackbeard'.

George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland invested heavily in piracy. In 1598 he captured and looted San Juan in Puerto Rico. Clifford topped that by capturing the Portugese prize from Asia, the Madre de Dios, near the Azores. She carried: 537 tonnes of pepper, cloves, cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg; fifteen tonnes of ebony; and chests of gold, silver, pearls, and ivory. The investment had proven favourable. A later sailor Vice Admiral Sir Edward Vernon spent his time in the West Indies 'harrying smugglers and Spanish privateers". Vernon publicised the idea of a powerful British navy, which would chase the Spaniards from the Caribbean, the 'soft underbelly of the Spanish Empire'. In 1739, Vernon subdued and captured Portobello in Panama. One of Vernon's officers was Lawrence Washington, who named his Virginia estate after him. When Lawrence died his brother George inherited Mount Vernon.[6]

Buccaneers on the Spanish Main

The strategic Spanish settlements on the Spanish Main were Cartagena (in Colombia), Puerrto Bello and Panama City (in Panama), Santiago (in Cuba), and Santo Domingo (in Hispaniola-Dominican Republic). In the sixteenth century, Spanish slaves mined fortunes in silver from the mines of Zacatecas in Mexico and Potosí in Bolivia. The huge Spanish silver shipments from the New World to Seville, Spain attracted pirates and privateers like flies in both the Caribbean and Atlantic. In the 1560’s the Spanish adopted a convoy system. A treasure fleet or flota sailed annually with a year’s worth of silver to Seville (later Cádiz as the Guadalquivir River silted up) in Spain. The fleet rendezvoused with the silver at major Panamanian, or Mexican ports. A a mule convoy called the Silver Train carried the silver to those major Spanish ports. Sir Francis Drake captured the entire Silver Train at Nombre de Dios on the Panama coast in March 1573; in fact he captured so much silver that he couldn't carry it all in his ship and had to leave most of it behind.[7]

During this same period of time, both England and Holland (the Dutch United Provinces of the Netherlands) fought with Spain over religion and power. The international war and the local silver created the opportunity for the buccaneers in the Caribbean - far removed from European navies. From time-to-time European nations supported the privateers, who were hitting Spain where Europeans couldn't reach. So the pirates plundered the Caribbean because that was where the (Spanish) money was, and many used a boucan-knife as a favorite weapon.

Buccaneers were men from the Netherlands, England, France, and also Barbary corsairs chased from North Africa. The pirates, or buccaneers, began to assemble in c1565 on Hispaniola (now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and lived with the Taíno Indians. Columbus had claimed the island of Hispaniola for Spain in 1492 (its name derived from the Spanish La Española) and by 1535 large herds of escaped cattle roamed the islands. Many cattle herders soon joined the escaped cattle and lived on the meat in the wild. The native Taíno Indians smoked fish and meat in an early barbeque and called their wood grill a 'mokaém', or 'bokaém'. With a mixture of nationalities and pronunciations, the grill, the hut in which it was built, the smoking process, and the knives all became part of the same word boucan, which soon evolved into a label for the Caribbean free-living men.[8]

In the early seventeenth century, Spain built expensive fortifications and increased her colonial garrisons at the major Spanish ports to deal with the enemies in the Caribbean, but the treasure fleet’s silver shipments and the number of Spanish-owned merchant ships operating in the region declined. By 1600 European diseases like smallpox and measles and devastating plagues had killed most of the native Indian peoples and the entire Caribbean basin had been depopulated. Later settlements in the Caribbean islands by other European powers also relied on the labour of non-European workers, namely African slaves. The severe diseases and high death-rate meant that the Spanish were continually short of reliable men to guard their treasure and so created the climate in which the pirates operated so successfully.


Sir Henry Morgan


The most successful buccaneer was Sir Henry Morgan. He was born in Wales and joined an expedition to Jamaica 'to confront Spain' organised by General Venables in 1654. Morgan had no education, but came from a solid family of farmers and soldiers. Venables' invasion of Hispaniola was a farce, but they made headway at Jamaica and Morgan later earned a commission as a militia captain. Morgan was determined to earn English trust and was always careful not to cross English laws, or wishes. By 1663 Morgan had been given land and enough 'Spanish booty' to outfit a sloop and to receive a commission as a privateer from Lord Thomas Windsor, then Governor of Jamaica. Morgan made several successful raids on the Spanish and collected enough wealth to bring him a reputation for success and courage, while he earned the basics of leadership, sailing, and the ways of the Spanish.[9]

In the period 1663-1665, Morgan plundered the Spanish settlements of Puerto del Principe, Puerto Bello, and Maracaibo. In July 1665, Henry Morgan captured Fort Oranje on the island of Saint Eustatius with its 20 guns. In 1666, Morgan joined Captain Edward Mansfield's 1,500-man expedition which seized the island of Old Providence (Santa Catalina), and when Mansfield was captured and killed by the Spanish shortly afterwards, Morgan was chosen by the buccaneers as their admiral. This command was no small thing, there were 1,500 pirates on that expedition authorised by Governor Sir Thomas Modyford of Jamaica.[10]

In 1667, England was at war with France and that had been extended to the Caribbean: the English colonists in the Caribbean were now actively at war with the Dutch, Spanish, and French - but with no regular military or naval forces. In 1667, Morgan had been appointed a colonel, commanding a militia regiment and in 1688 he was commissioned by Sir Thomas Modyford, the governor 'of Jamaica, to draw together the English privateers and take prisoners of the Spanish nation...'.[11] Henry Morgan assembled ten ships and ~500 men for Jamaica's defence to preempt a rumoured Spanish attack. The men were a mix of former English civil war soldiers , buccaneers, hunters, and veteran privateersmen.[12] In 1668, Morgan captured and sacked Puerto Principe in Cuba and ransomed it back to the inhabitants for 1,000 cattle with which to feed his men. While in Cuba Morgan evidently learned of another, which he attacked a month later after reitting and cutting up the beef. He decided to attack Porto Bello in Panama, his French men refused as they considered the plan too dangerous. Morgan left his ships in rmote river-mouths, guarded by his wounded, while his remaining men paddled in 23 canoes ~150 kms along the coast and attacked on arrival in late June. They landed after midnight and assaulted from the vulnerable landward side and captured three 'impregnable' fortress castles. They released 11 English prisoners in chains, defeated the later 3,000-man counter-attack by the President of Panama, and ransomed the town and castles for 100,000 'pieces of eight'.[13]

By that time both England and Governor Modyford were denying any knowledge of Morgan's exploits, despite Modyford's reports to London. Morgan had become a dangerous liability, which he proved again in several successful 1668 attacks on Puerto Rico. Puerto Velo's defenders put up a fierce fight, but Morgan managed to take the walls and left with plunder worth another 250,000 pieces of eight, having destroyed many of the defences and guns. By this time Morgan had no trouble recruiting more men on his return to Port Royal in Jamaica and re-built his crews to ~950 men. In March 1889 he sacked Maracaibo, Venezuela then the town of Gibraltar on Lake Maracaibo, torturing the wealthy to find booty. Returning to Maracaibo, Morgan destroyed or captured three Spanish ships one carrying treasure, as well as extorting more ransom to leave. He made his escape and returned to Jamaica, where he was reproved by Modyford with a wink, but not punished. In 1670, Morgan was commissioned an admiral by a Jamaican Order in Council, with full power to raise forces (and pay them with plunder) commission officers and ships and act in England's best interests against Spain. Thus Morgan and his crew were privateers, not pirates.[14]

After ravaging the coasts of Cuba and the mainland, Morgan decided to cross the isthmus and capture the Spanish treasure, warehoused at Panama for the annual treasure flota. He recaptured the island of Santa Catalina on December 15, 1670, and on the December 27 gained possession of the castle of Chagres, killing 300 of the garrison. Then with 1400 men he ascended the Chagres River, some of the worst swampland in the area. When his force finally appeared outside of Panama they were very weakened and tired. On January 18, 1671, Morgan discovered that Panama was defended by 1,500 infantry and cavalry. He split his forces and flanked the enemy. The untrained Spaniards rushed Morgan's line and were killed by heavy gunfire, with his flanking finishing the rest of the Spaniards. After taking a booty of 100,000 £, he burnt down the city. He buried much of the heavy silver, which he couldn't carry and re-crossed the isthmus to join his waiting ships. However, because the sack of Panama violated a peace treaty between England and Spain, Morgan was arrested and conducted to England in 1672, where he proved he had been unaware of the treaty. In 1674 Morgan was knighted before returning to Jamaica in 1675 to be Lieutenant Governor and the model for most other pirates.


Pirates were successful in the Caribbean until c1725, by which time the European states with regional colonies finally imposed control.[15] The period during which pirates were most successful was from the 1640s until the 1680s. Piracy flourished in the Caribbean because of British seaports such as Nelson's Dockyard, Antigua, and ports in Barbados. As Spain’s military might in Europe weakened, Spanish New World trade was increasingly plundered by other nations. The Spanish port on Trinidad off the northern coast of South America, was settled in 1592 and became a major international meeting place and hangout in the Caribbean.


'Pyrates' often used elements of pyschological warfare to intimidate their victims into surrender. The Caribbean Sea became known as the Spanish Main. (The Spanish Main edged the mainland of Central and South America, which had then already been seized by Spain.) The period between 1519 and 1780 has been termed the Golden Age of Piracy, because of the rich, vulnerable, European colonies in the Caribbean and the inability to stop the piracy. The Spaniards responded to the pirate threat by building stone forts from Mexico to Chile. In 1589, construction began on the Spanish Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in Puerto Rico; enough had been completed by 1596 to foil an attack by the English Sir Francis Drake. The same castillo was captured by English land attack in 1598, led by George Clifford, the Duke of Cumberland. Clifford occupied and looted the castillo, but was but unable to hold it. The Spanish Castillo de San Diego in Acapulco, Mexico was started in 1615, but not completed until 1784! In 1665, the Presidio de San Augustin in Florida was sacked and burnt by the English pirate Captain John Davis. Rebuilt in 1666, 1668, San Augustin was again destroyed by the English pirate Captain Robert Searles. The Castillo de Los Treyes Reyes del Morro was built to protect the harbour at Havana, Cuba. Del Morro seems to have been more successful and only fell during direct assault in war.

In the period 1610-1615, England built ten stone forts on Bermuda to protect colonists from the pirates. The fortunes to be had in the New World were enough to support a man for life, but the Europeans were unable to defend their colonies, because of larger wars in Europe and America. While the pirates and their colonial victims settled towns and built plantations the natives were still dying of European-born diseases.



Since most treasure ships were Spanish, the pirates were in a semi-permanent war with the embryo Spanish navy. In retaliation the Spaniards destroyed pirate ships and towns, and they would capture and kill any buccaneer. The buccaneers formed a close group called 'The Brethren of the Coast' and vowed to fight the Spanish. They attacked the Spanish colony settlements and merchants ships who were bringing supplies from Spain.[16]

In 1701, the buccaneers were persuaded to join France and England against the Spanish. With the end of the War of Spanish Succession the buccaneers returned to pirating. In 1712, the French Capitaine Jacques Cassard and his pirates attacked Dutch Suriname twice. The pirates attacked the Spanish treasure ships that brought supplies from Spain and Asia and silver and gold back to Spain. In 1714, the buccaneers chased the Spanish Plate Fleet off of the tip of Florida when a hurricane hit. Most of the treasure was saved and taken to shore, only to be stolen by a pirate named Henry Jennings.

The pirates became so strong that the merchant ship captains insisted that their countries put a stop to the pirates. The Europeans did not offer much help, but did offer an amnesty to all pirates. Most pirates just laughed and dared the Europeans to stop them. In 1717, a former privateer, the British naval Captain Woodes-Rogers was sent to the Caribbean. Rogers was officially appointed 'Captain - General and Governor in Chief in and over the Bahama Islands' by King George I on February 6, 1718.[17]

Captain Woodes-Rogers successfully trapped and defeated 1,000 pirates in their harbor at New Providence in the Bahamas and also ousted Edward Teach (Blackbeard) from his position as magistrate of the 'Privateers Republic'. Blackbeard's name may actually have been Edward Drummond, who began his career as an ordinary seaman, from his home port of Bristol, Evidently after he went bad he changed his name to Teach, or Thatch. England. Blackbeard's flagship was the Queen Anne's Revenge, which sank at Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina in 1718. After Woodes-Rogers became governor of the Bahamas, he offered the "King's Pardon", (amnesty) to most of the pirates, however, the most notorious and powerful were hunted down and killed.[18]

American Pirates

The pirate who terrorised Charleston and the Carolinas was Captain Edward Teach, better known for his big black beard. Teach terrorised evryone, his crew included. Teach left the Caribbean in July 1718 with Rogers arrival at Nassau. Alexander Spottiswood, then governor of Virginia asked Rogers to deal with Teach. Teach had captured more than 20 ships and had openly careened (beached to clean off barnacles, etc) his ship at Cape Fear. Rogers sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard on a smaller sloop with a shallow draft to find Teach. On 21 November 1718, Maynard and his crew killed Teach and much of his crew, but it took five gunshot and 25 sword wounds to down Teach: his head was finally cut off and displayed as a bowsprit![19]

Abraham Shurte's Fort in Maine in 1633, was attacked and burnt down by Captain Dixie Bull's pirates. The French used Fort Plaisance in Newfoundland in 1673, to defeat Dutch and pirate attacks. Pirates operated out of Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas for many years. In 1682, pirates captured and burned the Spanish Presidio San Marcos de Apalache in Florida. Jean Lafitte lived off of the coast of Louisiana in a sheltered Bay named Barataria Bay. He was often called a gentleman pirate and walked around New Orleans without capture. Lafitte had a pirate base on Padre Island off of the coast of Texas. Lafitte aided the Americans in the defence of New Orleans against the British in 1814-1815.


1              See Barry Clifford, The Lost Fleet, and EA Cruikshank, The Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Jan Rogoziñski, A Brief History of the Caribbean, pp.,85-94. See also Piracy at, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirate; and Piracy in the Caribbean, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piracy_in_the_Caribbean.

2               For historical background see Pirate History, at http://library.thinkquest.org/J0110360/history.htm.

3              Arthur Herman To Rule the Waves, p. 227.

4              Ibid., pp., 246-247.

5              This is a well-known vignette and cited in Stephen Coote, Drake, pp., 182-183; and Samuel Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580, pp., 185-190.

6              Adapted from Arthur Herman's book To Rule the Waves, pp. 252-254.

7              Stephen Coote, op. cit., pp., 71-76.

8              Pirates, Privateers, Buccaneers, http://www.rochedalss.eq.edu.au/pirates/pirate1.htm; and Pirates and Buccaneers, http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/pirates.htm

9              EA Cruikshank, The Life of Sir Henry Morgan, and Henry Morgan, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Henry_Morgan.

10           EA Cruikshank, op. cit., p. 80, and Henry Morgan, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Henry_Morgan.

11           EA Cruikshank, op. cit., p. 82.

12           Ibid. p. 83.

13           Ibid. pps., 86-90.

14           Henry Morgan, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Henry_Morgan.

15           For a good overview of piracy see Piracy in the Caribbean, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piracy_in_the_Caribbean.

16           Ibid.

17            Arthur Herman's book To Rule the Waves, p. 248.

18            Woodes Rogers, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodes_Rogers

19            Blackbeard, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Teach.

home · introduction · genealogy · background · maps · bibliography · search · contact