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Ideas | Christopher Klein

The surprising history of American pirates

Blackbeard, in an image published in 1736.wikicommons

Shortly after the “golden age of piracy” dawned in the late 1600s, buccaneers swashbuckled up and down the New England coastline. Far from being treated as outlaws, however, pirates found themselves welcomed with open arms — even in Puritan Boston.

As Marblehead author Eric Jay Dolin chronicles in his new book, “Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates,” 17th-century sea-bandits propped up colonial economies while preying on ships from a faraway Muslim empire. Not until they started to plunder local merchants in the early 1700s did colonial attitudes toward pirates harden. Dolin spoke with Ideas at a Peabody restaurant about the surprising history of American piracy. Below is an edited excerpt.

Why did American colonies give pirates tacit support over the objections of the English government?

It was a collaboration of convenience. Pirates allowed colonists to get their hands on desperately needed currency and goods they were being starved of by the mother country. England required the colonies to pay for their products with coins, but it was difficult, if not impossible, to import large amounts of currency. The pirates who trafficked the Indian Ocean brought back silver and gold and essentially acted as black-market middlemen to give the colonies the sustenance that they desired. By trading with and buying from the pirates, the colonists were also able to skirt the restrictive Navigation Acts and obtain East Indian goods at prices far less than if they bought them legally from England. While England saw pirates as threats to the cash cow of the East India Company, the colonies saw them as commercial angels helping their communities survive.

How did colonial attitudes toward pirates expose fault lines with England nearly a century before the American Revolution?


Even by the late 1600s, the colonies saw themselves as second-class citizens for a variety of reasons, including their lack of representation in Parliament. They also believed that on the frontier of the English world, they had to make do as best they could, including allowing pirates to become part of their economic and social fabric. Even though colonists knew England wanted them to crack down on piracy, they didn’t want to because it benefitted them greatly in those places where the English government had left a void.


Puritan Boston was described as “the common receptacle of pirates of all nations,” and John Winthrop described a 1646 visit by pirates to Plymouth as “divine providence.” How did the Puritans and Pilgrims reconcile their support of piracy with their morality?

They were no different than any of their fellow colonists in trying to survive any way they could. Plymouth was in dire straits in 1646, and the pirates who visited may have been a bunch of unruly, lusty men who raised hell for a couple of days, but they came with money in their pockets and shared it liberally. When those same pirates came to Boston, they gave Winthrop a stolen sedan chair that had been intended for the ruler of Mexico, so Winthrop got his palms greased a little bit. When pirates came to Boston, the people threw out the red carpet for them because they knew that they would be spending a lot of their plunder at the local grog shops and stores and provide a major jolt to the economy.

In the late 1600s, pirates targeted ships sailing from the Muslim Mughal Empire, including convoys taking wealthy pilgrims to Mecca. What role did attitudes toward Islam play into the colonies’ support of piracy?

By and large, colonists viewed the pirates of the 1600s as attacking “infidels” despite the fact that the East India Company and the Mughal Empire were valuable trading partners. Colonial governors and elites didn’t view it as a sin to rob non-Christians halfway around the world. The colonists could psychologically disassociate themselves with the victims. The sense I got in reading contemporary documents was that the attitude didn’t necessarily arise out of a fear of Islam. It was more of not giving a second thought about those people. They didn’t feel bad about taking their money and killing them in the process. I think it’s as simple, base, and vicious as that. When pirates started attacking colonial merchant ships with reckless abandon after the War of Spanish Succession, that’s when colonists said enough was enough because piracy was affecting their bottom lines.


Few pirates actually became wealthy, so why did they do it?

Pirates were like gamblers entering a casino full of confidence that they were going to be the one to hit on the slot machine. It’s human nature to exaggerate the possibility of success and underestimate the chance of failure, which is why people get into risky behavior. This is just another story of people thinking they were going to score big, only to be foiled. And once they became pirates, it was harder to get out and stop trying to get that next score. Many of them were lured by a dream, but more often than not that dream turned into a nightmare.


Can you talk about the surprising way in which pirate ships were governed?

Crews elected the captain, and if he wasn’t doing a very good job, the pirates could take another vote and elect a new leader. It was a very democratic process. In addition, each crew member was promised nearly equal riches. The pirates didn’t do this because they were democratic philosophers. They did it because they were a floating society shunned by much of the rest of the world, and they had to create a political and social environment in which they could survive. If you had all these money-hungry and bloodthirsty people crowded together on a ship, one of the clearest ways to sow dissension was to create formal hierarchies and have a captain abuse someone beneath him or not share the treasure equally.

What are some of the biggest myths about pirates?

Along with the misconception that pirates were outlaws from society, the belief that pirates buried their treasures all along the coast — which never happened — feeds this erroneous idea that piracy was a get-rich-quick scheme. Also, I didn’t find a single historical reference to a pirate with a wooden leg, although I did find a few who wore eyepatches. And I didn’t find any references to pirates saying, “Argh!”

Christopher Klein is the author of the forthcoming “When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom.” He can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com. Follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.