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Pirates of the Florida Keys – The Golden Age of Piracy

A majority of the popular accounts concerning the activities of the pirates of the Florida Keys arose due to a confluence of historical events that occurred in the relatively short period from the mid-1600s into the 1700s. Known popularly as the “Golden Age of Piracy”, and generally agreed upon as running from about the 1650s until the 1720s, modern pop-culture notions about pirates derive loosely from characters and events of this era. During these few decades, changes and developments in global geopolitical and economic regimes served to stimulate a burst of growth in New World pirate operations, with most of the swashbuckling action taking place in the Caribbean and Florida waters.

Pirates_BuccaneerA Buccaneer

The first group of Anglo-European pirates operating in the Caribbean region was the French buccaneers. The buccaneers were originally Caribbean settlers who hunted feral pigs and cattle on the island of Hispaniola and made a living by supplying smoked meat to the crews of trading vessels plying the nearby waters and anchorages. Driven off the island by the Spanish around 1630, the buccaneers fled to nearby Tortuga and turned to wrecking and piracy as a way to make a living. They used Tortuga as a base for attacks on Spanish galleons in the area of the windward passage. The activities of the buccaneers represented the first major outbreak of pirate activity in the New World, and what is now referred to as the buccaneering period lasted from approximately 1650 to 1680.


A 17th Century Map of Tortuga

The original buccaneers were joined later by more French sailors, as well as Dutch and English mariners. These mariners formed large pirate crews that eventually began to extend their activities to attacks on coastal Spanish colonies. As the strength of the buccaneers grew, England sought to use them as a way to strike at Spain, and many buccaneer crews were supported as privateers by letters of marque issued by the English crown. These letters legalized the pirates’ activities in return for the delivery of a share of the profits to the English government.


By the end of the 1600s, the make-up of many of these pirate crews had changed to include captains, sailors, and refugee African slaves who were by-products of economic activity generated by the operations of the so-called triangular trade. The triangular trade was founded by Sir John Hawkins, the British shipbuilder, navigator, commander, and administrator of the early British navy who was knighted for his leadership in the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada. When the Spanish wars with other European countries ended, economic conditions arose that supported the continuation of the highly profitable triangular trade, and the slave trade it was based on, for more than 250 years.

A primary purpose of the triangular trade was to fill the need for colonial manpower by bringing slaves from Africa to the New World. The first leg of the triangle was comprised of ships that would leave England loaded with cargoes such as beads, glass, pewter ware, and pig iron – all goods that could be traded for slaves provided by the African kings and warlords who controlled the lands along the West African coast. The labor of the kidnapped Africans drove the English plantation system that produced the alcohol, cotton, fish, lumber, and tobacco that were exported to Europe and traded for the manufactured goods that were needed in the colonies.


The Whydah, a British galley built for the Atlantic slave trade and captured by the pirate Black Sam Bellamy in 1717.

The second leg, or Middle Passage of the triangular trade route comprised the well-known and hellishly brutal transport of the African prisoners on slave ships bound for the New World. It is estimated that at least 15% of the slaves died on these voyages, with men, women, and children alike suffering indiscriminately. What is less well-known is that many of the slave ship captains were even more harsh on members of their own crews, resulting in crew mortality rates that could climb as high as 30% on a single voyage. The motivation was simple: while the death of a slave represented a loss of potential profit, the elimination of crewmen resulted in a reduction of expenses in the form of sailors’ wages to be paid.


A plan for a slave ship.

The third part of the triangular trade was the trip back to England with a shipload of New World commodities purchased with money generated by selling slaves at auction in the Americas. With the growth and development of the Atlantic Coast colonies, variations in Sir John Hawkins’ successful trade strategy also opened up markets for products from New England and other North American colonial areas.

The brutal shipboard conditions prevalent on the triangular trade route drove many sailors to seek places among the pirate crews, which offered what was often perceived as a more equitable, free, and adventurous lot for the seafaring man. The Caribbean was warm and welcoming to pirates in the late 1600s, as England colonized Jamaican and encouraged privateer and pirate attacks on Spanish and French shipping. Henry Morgan, the legendary buccaneer who lead raids on the Spanish colonies and took the city of Panama, was knighted and made governor of Jamaica, and Kingston and Port Royal on that island become havens where pirates were free to sell their captured treasure and enjoy their profits ashore.


Old Port Royal

A final increase in pirate activity was spurred when plentiful slave labor and the demobilization of wartime navies associated with the signing of the 1713 and 1714 treaties that ended the War of the Spanish Succession caused high unemployment among sailors and downward pressure on seamen’s wages. Transatlantic shipping was booming, and piracy was flourishing in the Caribbean and along the American eastern seaboard, as well as off the West African coast, and in the Indian Ocean. Many trained sailors were attracted to the visions of freedom, adventure, and riches that were associated with living outside the law, and unemployed and desperate sailors and ex-navy officers swelled the pirate ranks en masse during the peak of the Golden Age of Piracy, an era lasting roughly from about 1716 until 1726. It was during this relatively short window of time that some of the most well-known pirates of the Florida Keys made their marks on history.

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