Golden Age of Piracy > End of the Golden Age
End of the Golden Age
The decline of piracy in the Caribbean paralleled the decline of the use of mercenaries and the rise of national armies in Europe. Following the end of the Thirty Years' War the direct power of the state in Europe expanded. Armies were systematized and brought under direct state control; the Western European states' navies were expanded and their mission was extended to cover combating piracy. The elimination of piracy from European waters expanded to the Caribbean beginning as early as 1600 with the expansion of standing Royal Naval vessels in the Caribbean, numbering 124 by 1718. Other colonial powers soon followed suit and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, France, Spain, and the United States had all stationed ships in the Caribbean.
Due to a high degree of tension amongst the colonial powers, most of the ships stationed in the Caribbean were more concerned with engaging each other than they were with engaging the pirates of the time. However, this same time period saw a resurgence of piracy in the Caribbean due to the growth of the slave trade. Pirates saw the slave trade as a new lucrative source of income. They could easily capture a crew and ransom the valuable slaves that were their cargo. As the piracy increasingly interfered with the lucrative slave trade come from the Caribbean, colonial powers had a changing attitude towards piracy. Military presence had been growing in Caribbean waters for some time, but now the Royal Navy especially was more concerned with the growing issue of slavery, increasing the number of ships dedicated to policing slavery from two in 1670 to twenty-four by 1700. Despite increasing military power, Piracy saw a brief resurgence between the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 and around 1720, as many unemployed seafarers took to piracy as a way to make ends meet when a surplus of sailors after the war led to a decline in wages and working conditions. At the same time, one of the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the war gave to Great Britain's Royal African Company and other British slavers a thirty-year asiento, or contract, to furnish African slaves to the Spanish colonies, providing British merchants and smugglers potential inroads into the traditionally closed Spanish markets in America and leading to an economic revival for the whole region. This revived Caribbean trade provided rich new pickings for a wave of piracy. Also contributing to the increase of Caribbean piracy at this time was Spain's breakup of the English logwood settlement at Campeche and the attractions of a freshly sunken silver fleet off the southern Bahamas in 1715. This last large resurgence of piracy saw a change in attitude of the colonial powers towards piracy. What had once been seen as a somewhat minor offense and only punishable if suspects and evidence were taken back to Europe for formal proceedings. Now, the English Parliament set of the system of Vice-Admiralty, appointing seven commissioners in the colonies to carry out the legal proceedings. These commissioners were chosen from naval and colonial officers who already contained a certain amount of bias towards the local pirates, instead of civilian judges. Pirates were given no representation in the new courts and were, therefore, often sentenced to hang. Between 1716 and 1726 approximately 400 to 600 pirates were executed. Another major attitude change was the policy that if one's ship was attacked by pirates, then one must fight back and attempt to resist to the capture of their ship lest they receive six months imprisonment.
With Royal attitudes growing so harsh towards the pirates in the Caribbean, many fled to areas of the world where piracy may still be a profitable trade. Black Bart, Bartholomew Roberts, perhaps the most successful pirate that had sailed in the Caribbean, eventually returned to Africa in 1722. Other, less successful pirates from the golden age in the Caribbean attempted to flee North to the Americas. Steve Bonnet, an accomplish of Blackbeard, supposedly began to plunder ships along the Atlantic Coast, but was captured along the South Carolina coast in 1718.
Jean Lafitte, New Orleans' legendary pirate
This early 18th century resurgence of piracy lasted only until the Royal Navy and the Spanish Guardacosta's presence in the Caribbean were enlarged to deal with the threat. Also crucial to the end of this era of piracy was the loss of the pirates' last Caribbean safe haven at Nassau.
The famous pirates of the early 18th century were a completely illegal remnant of a golden buccaneering age, and their choices were limited to quick retirement or eventual capture. Contrast this with the earlier example of Henry Morgan, who for his privateering efforts was knighted by the English Crown and appointed the lieutenant governor of Jamaica.
In the early 19th century, piracy along the East and Gulf Coasts of North America as well as in the Caribbean increased again. Jean Lafitte was a pirate/privateer operating in the Caribbean and in American waters from his havens in Texas and Louisiana during the 1810s. But the records of the US Navy indicate that hundreds of pirate attacks occurred in American and Caribbean waters between the years of 1820 and 1835. The Latin American Wars of Independence led to widespread use of privateers both by Spain and by the revolutionary governments of Mexico, Colombia, and other newly independent Latin American countries. These privateers were rarely scrupulous about adhering to the terms of their letters of marque even during the Wars of Independence, and continued to plague the Caribbean as outright pirates long after those conflicts ended.
About the time of the Mexican-American War in 1846, the United States Navy had grown strong and numerous enough to eliminate the pirate threat in the West Indies. By the 1830s, ships had begun to convert to steam propulsion, so the Age of Sail and the classical idea of pirates in the Caribbean ended. Privateering, similar to piracy, continued as an asset in war for a few more decades and proved to be of some importance during the naval campaigns of the American Civil War.
Privateering would remain a tool of European states, and even of the newborn United States, until the mid-19th century's Declaration of Paris. But letters of marque were given out much more sparingly by governments and were terminated as soon as conflicts ended. The idea of "no peace beyond the Line" was a relic that had no meaning by the more settled late 18th and early 19th centuries.