Piracy

By the 1830s, the ‘golden age’ of piracy had passed.

The power of the feared Barbary corsairs, pirates operating off the north African coast, was waning. Many Caribbean buccaneers, based in the West Indies, had moved from preying on Spanish shipping to involvement in the slave trade, a trade which by the 1830s was illegal and being actively suppressed. Privateers – those issued with ‘letters of marque’ by their governments to authorize them to attack enemy ships and share the proceeds with the government – continued to sail until the practice was banned in 1856. The decline of piracy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was hastened by the growth of the British and American Navies.

Pirates and privateers alike had relied on speed and surprise to board and take ships, their cargoes and sometimes their crew. Pirate flags, including the famous ‘jolly roger’ skull and crossed bones, were used in attempts to intimidate a ship into giving up without a fight, a tactic which relied on a reputation for showing no mercy to captives. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries some pirates in the seas between West Africa and the Americas had became slavers, either directly, or by capturing cargoes of slaves bound for the Americas or the West Indies, or raiding West African slave ports. Some pirate crews included runaway slaves.

Under British law, piracy was punishable by death.  Pirates, smugglers and mutineers were hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames in London until 1830.

While the number of pirate and privateer ships was in decline in the 1830s, pirates continued to loom large in the popular imagination. As the reality of piracy receded, pirates and their exploits were mythologised through works including Byron’s bestselling 1814 poem ‘The Corsair’.

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