Piracy has been in the news a lot recently, mainly concerning blokes in Somalia armed with AK47s running around attacking cargo ships. However, as some regular readers of this blog (if such there are) may be able to guess from the subtle hints I regularly drop in, the pirate news I have been most interested in recently concerns Assassin’s Creed, and the recent announcement of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. This is the first AAA game that I’ve ever heard of set in the ‘golden age of piracy’, and so I thought a post on this period of time might be in order. Plus, I think a 200th post deserves a cool topic.
When people think of piracy, the mental image conjured up is always of Caribbean piracy during these days; swashbuckling men in fancy hats & coats, swanning around in large ships with flintlock pistols, cannons and oversized cojones. Captain Jack Sparrow, basically. Specifically, they refer to the situation in and around the Caribbean from around 1650 to the early 1800s, peaking during the first 30 years of the 18th century. These were the days of colonial wars in this area; 200 years earlier the Spanish-sponsored Christopher Columbus had discovered the New World and Spain, which was at the time the richest and most powerful nation on earth, smelt an opportunity. Newly unified into one nation after pushing out the Moors and uniting the powerful crowns of Aragon and Castile through marriage, 16th century Spain was finally able to utilise the great wealth that centuries of war had been unable to use productively, and swept across the Atlantic (and, indeed, much of the rest of the world; theirs was the first Empire upon which ‘the sun never set’) armed to the teeth. The New World offered them vast untapped resources of gold and silver (among other things) that the local tribes, had not extracted; these tribes were also lacking in gunpowder, and were totally incapable of dealing with the Spanish onslaught that followed. Even small raiding parties were able to conquer vast swathes of land, and Spain pillaged, raped and murdered its way across the land in a fashion eerily preminiscient of the ‘rush for Africa’ that would follow a few hundred years later. America was rich, it was untapped, it was (relatively, compared to, say, India) close enough to be accessible, and Spain got there first. Seemed like a great deal at the time.
However, cut to a couple of hundred years later, and Spain was in trouble. The ‘Spanish Golden Age’ was on the wane, and Spain found itself at near-constant war, either with France or from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, whose Barbary pirates (the first time piracy enters this story) would frequently trouble Spain’s coastal possessions. In the colonies, things were just as bad; Britain and France had established their own empires in North America and fought frequently, if not with each other, with Spain for its colonies in Florida and Central America, constantly attempting land grabs in and around the Caribbean area. Spain simply did not have the ability to maintain a military presence across such a vast area, especially when a succession war started and all parties started fighting over the future of Spain as a country and an empire, making the game of ‘who’s on whose side’ even more complicated. The whole area turned into one chaotic mess of sporadic fighting, where law was impossible to enforce,towns were frequentl either destroyed or changed hands, and honest trade such as farming became an unreliable source of income when your crops kept getting burnt. However, at the same time, there were still lots of goodies being sent around all over the place for trade purposes so the various countries involved in the conflict could make some money out of the whole mess, wherever possible. So, let’s have a sit rep; we have large amounts of very valuable goods being shipped all over the Caribbean & the high seas, frequently alone since all powers had so few ships to spare for escorts, nobody is able to reliably enforce the law and we have a lot of men unable to make a living from practicing an honest trade. Rocking up in a large ship and stealing everything has never seemed such a productive strategy, particularly when some towns turned lawless and became pirate ports.
Interestingly, all the colonial powers at one time or another made some acts of piracy legal; ‘privateers’ were sailors (such as Sir Francis Drake) employed by a country to ride around all over the place and disrupt other countries’ trade. All the other nations, of course, considered them pirates and put ‘dead or alive’ prices on their heads, but these people are pretty boring when compared to some of the genuine pirates who terrorised the Caribbean. In many ways, pirates were the first professional celebrities; reasoning that the whole ‘piracy’ business would be a lot easier if everyone would just shit themselves upon sight of them and hand over all the gold without a fight, they put a lot of effort into building up their reputations so that everyone knew who they are. This is one of the reasons why pirates are so famous today, that and the fact that they were simultaneously mental and amazingly charismatic. Consider Blackbeard, probably the most famous real-life pirate and a man who spread rumours about satanic powers and would stick flaming sticks in his beard so he smoked like a demon. Consider Captain John Phillips, whose version of the pirate code (because even criminals have honour of a sort; Phillips’ is one of just four surviving) included an article stating that any man who kept a secret from the rest of the crew was to be marooned on a desert island with nothing but a bottle of water, a pistol, gunpowder and shot. Just to let everyone know who’s boss. And what about Charles Vane, a certified arsehole even by piratical standards whose three-year career netted him the equivalent of around two and a half million US Dollars, which is made doubly impressive by the fact that he never lead a ship with more than twelve guns. For a more expanded (and rather hilarious) look at a few pirates and their stories, I refer you here.
After 1730, the age of the pirates was largely over; the Royal Navy in particular was exerting far more control over the seas and ports, and small pirate vessels were unable to sustain a living. The trade attempted to move overseas, but proved unsustainable in other colonies such as India. The law was finally organised enough to catch up with pirates, and they retreated back into history, leaving only their fearsome reputation and charisma behind. Pirates as we in the west think of them were many things; brave, violent, aggressive, borderline mental, and not the kind of people you’d want to invite to dinner. But one thing that they undoubtedly were, and always will be, is effortlessly, earth-shatteringly cool.