Guest Author - Eileen Brown
Pirates have existed since ancient times, but the most notorious reign of piracy occurred during the 1700's in the Caribbean Sea. The phenomenon was, in some ways, inevitable. Spain, England and France had sufficiently resolved long standing conflicts over territorial rights to the newly colonized region and they downsized the numbers of fighting vessels in their navies. Sailors who had sailed on the decommissioned navy ships found themselves suddenly landlocked, with no prospects for employment.
For these men who had known only sailing as a livelihood, there was a strong lure to the sea and to piracy, as vast number of galleons and cargo ships sailed the coastal region of the Americas surrounding the Caribbean Sea, particularly the coast of South America. The straits between South Florida and the islands of the Caribbean where the Gulf Stream flows became known as the Spanish Main. Countless vessels laden with treasures of gold, silver, precious gems, spices, hardwoods, and chocolate sailed through these waters and the Caribbean became a favorite hunting ground for pirates to make their fortune.
The geography of the Caribbean made for easy looting. Treasure filled ships often grounded on the sandbars or crashed into the coral reefs surrounding the Caribbean islands. But the shallow inlets provided places for the pirates, seamen who knew the tropical waters well, to lay in wait for the groundings of cargo vessels in secluded coves and channels. The pirates attacked swiftly, in smaller boats with shallow drafts that sailed easily over the reefs and sandbars; they looted the disabled vessels and made off quickly with their bounty.
A number of pirates made names for themselves during the era: Blackbeard, who carried three sets of pistols in battle and wove smoking hemp into his long beard to appear as if he were on fire may be the most famous. Black Caesar created a mutiny aboard a slave ship, declared himself Captain and made the liberated Africans his crew. There were women among the pirates' numbers as well; Anne Bonny and Mary Read are notorious.
So seductive was the lure of piracy in the 1700's, that thousands of pirates were reportedly operating in the waters off the coast of the Americas and throughout the Caribbean basin. Eventually, looting on the high seas became so detrimental to the economies of New World colonies, British, French, Spanish and American naval forces took strong action against such lawlessness on the trading routes. Pirate ships were intercepted by colonial naval vessels. Retribution against pirate captains and crews was severe. By the early 1800's, raids and looting on the high seas were curtailed, but this era would be known evermore as the "Golden Age of Piracy."