In 1523, Jean Fleury seized two Spanish treasure ships carrying Aztec treasures from Mexico to Spain. It was the first recorded act of piracy in the Americas, leading me to wonder why it was more acceptable for the Spanish to rob the Indians than for Fleury to rob the Spanish. One difference was that Fleury was engaging in private enterprise, while the Spanish were practicing state-sponsored terrorism. Another was that Fleury operated at sea, where only the professional adventurers were at risk, while the Spanish attacked on land, risking the lives of innocent men, women and children.
At any rate, the convergence of the two acts of violence and robbery ushered in the Golden Age of Piracy in our hemisphere. It had all started in May 4, 1493, when the Spanish pope, Alexander VI divided the Americas between Spain and Portugal, giving each a sense of proprietorship over their section of territory. But no one seemed to have wondered what gave the pope the idea that the lands were his to divide in the first place.
By the sixteenth century, the Spanish were mining staggering amounts of silver bullion in Mexico and Peru. As the huge silver shipments threaded their way through the Caribbean and across the open Atlantic on their way to enrich Spanish coffers, they formed attractive targets for pirates.
The Golden Age extended from around 1560 to the mid 1720s. England, France and the Netherlands had become colonial powers by 1660, increasing the number of targets. The British seaport of Port Royal in Jamaica and the French settlement at Tortuga, an island just off Haiti, were major centers of Caribbean piracy.
Famous pirates of the period included Blackbeard (above), who was killed in a bloody action by a British fleet sent specifically to capture him, and Henry Morgan, the most destructive pirate of the period, who died in bed, a rich and respected governmental official. Female pirates were less common, but included Anne Bonny and Mary Read. They sailed with Calico Jack Rackham, who was known for designing the first pirate flag (left). As with many of the trappings of piracy, it was intended to frighten captains into surrendering. Calico Jack was hanged at Gallows-Point in Port Royal, and his body was displayed in a cage at the entrance to the harbor as a warning to other pirates.
Pirate ships were democratic societies, with each pirate having a vote and receiving a set part of the proceeds. According to Captain Bartholomew Roberts, a Welsh pirate, the advantages of piracy over legal maritime service on military or merchant vessels were as follows: â€œIn an honest service, there is thin commons, low wages and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sober look or two at choaking. No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.â€�
Barbary Pirates operated from North African ports like Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers, preying on shipping in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. They also raided European coastal towns, where they captured Christian slaves to sell at slave markets in Algeria and Morocco.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Barbary Pirates destroyed thousands of ships and captured some 800,000 slaves, leaving long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coastline almost abandoned.
The United States Navy fought two wars along the Barbary Coast in the early 1800s (above). The Marine Corps actions there contributed the phrase "to the shores of Tripoli" to the Marine Hymn. Because the pirates carried large cutlasses, the Marines' uniform featured a high leather collar to protect them from being beheaded. This distinctive feature of their uniform earned them the nickname Leathernecks.
Pirates also operated in the Indian Ocean, where they attacked the cargoes of silk and spices of the East India companies, and off China and Japan.