Golden Age of Piracy > Pirate Merchants
The pirates on the high seas were not the only piece of the larger system that was able to sustain piracy during the golden age. In addition to being helped by corrupt governors, maintaining a pirate haven there were also merchants responsible for selling the goods as legitimate products. While the pirates were the largest figure in the perception and view of the public there was actually a complex system of smugglers, pirates and merchants that helped provide massive economic wealth to everyone.
It would start with pirates stealing goods from a merchant who then traded them to a merchant for significantly less than the actual value due to its stolen nature. The merchant would then employ a smuggler to bring the cargo in different packages to a legitimate trading port and sell the goods to any of the colonists around the world. There were many famous merchants who worked with pirates to sell their wares and fund their lifestyle, some even going so far as to establish their own Locations even if for a brief period of time.
Trading with pirates was a highly lucrative and profitable business if one knew the right connections. This was especially the case with the British Empire who restricted the trade of the colonies greatly. Under the British system of mercantilism the colonies could only produce goods that Britain manufactured and that they supplied the raw materials for. This meant that the colonists could not get any of the trade goods they made have coveted from other civilizations unless it was through smugglers.
Pirate Trade Routes
These Navigation Acts in essence forced reputable merchants to deal with Madagascar pirates, whom they referred to as the Red Sea Men, in order to supply the colonists with the goods and luxuries denied them by the government. The public seemed to support the pirates, even though they broke the law, because the pirates robbed heathens. Others, both merchants and colonists alike, publicly decried piracy, claiming it to be a cancer on the body politic, but in secret they either fenced or bought the pirates’ ill-gotten gains. When the first cargo arrived in New York, the plunder quickly disappeared and merchants made a considerable profit compared to their original cost for the goods. In 1684, the governor of New Hampshire complained that one ship docked in Boston Harbor held so much booty that each pirate netted seven hundred pounds as his share.
Pirates stole the goods, traders purchased those goods, smugglers carried those goods to legitimate ports, and then merchants sold the pirated goods to the colonists. Those in league with pirates included Thomas Crooke, who operated out of Baltimore, Ireland. If a pirate ship required a supply of meat, the crew sent one of their own ashore. Through Crooke’s network, the pirate sought a farmer who had cattle to sell. Once they agreed on a price, the farmer told the pirate where he intended to leave the animals. The pirates waited until dark, fetched the beef, and returned to their ship. By the time he died in 1624, Thomas Crooke had amassed a fortune and become a baronet in spite of his dealings with pirates.
Madagascar MapAdam Baldridge also catered to pirates. Once a pirate himself, he arrived at Île Sainte Marie in 1691 with a shipload of goods from New York merchants. He built a trading post in this pirate enclave ten miles off the coast of Madagascar where he exchanged silver, silks, and slaves for food, drink, and women. His fort, which overlooked the harbor, boasted forty guns. On top of a hill visible from ships, he erected a mansion. He amassed a fortune by trading European goods to natives in exchange for food, which he traded to the pirates in exchange for their plunder, which he then sold to merchants in colonial cities like New York and Boston. Six years later, he sold his lucrative enterprise to Edward Welsh.
Frederick Philipse, a member of the governor’s council in New York, carried on a lucrative trade with pirates. He was Adam Baldridge’s chief supplier of goods. William Markham, the governor of Pennsylvania, gave shelter to pirates. Benjamin Fletcher, the colonial governor of New York, backed ventures with the Red Sea Men and was friends with at least one of them, Thomas Tew. Fletcher accepted bribes to permit pirate ships to deliver their goods to buyers without undergoing customs inspections. He reaped huge profits from his dealings with pirates. He and his merchant friends bribed or appointed judges, government officials, and soldiers to allow pirates free entry into ports without fear of prosecution.
In June 1695, one New York resident wrote, His Excellency gives all due encouragement to these men, because they made all due acknowledgement to him; one…presented his Excellency with his ship, which his Excellency sold for eight hundred [pounds]…[his Excellency] presented [Tew] with gold watch and engaged him to make New York his port on his return. Twoo [Tew] retaliated the kindness with a present of jewells…. Governor Fletcher’s dealings with pirates were public knowledge, and in 1698 he was recalled to London in disgrace.
Just as commerce brought wealth to merchants and lined pirates’ pockets with gold, so too did it bring about the demise of most Locations. Pirates found themselves deprived of two mainstays to their existence: a source from which to plunder treasure and a market where they sold that treasure. The British, for example, accomplished this in four ways. They removed from office corrupt officials who condoned piracy. Naval patrols seized cargoes of vessels suspected of carrying smuggled goods. King William offered pardons to any pirate who surrendered prior to June 1699. Finally, Britain revised her maritime laws to allow for the prosecution of pirates where they were captured rather than in London.
While pirates require havens to carry out trade, to relax, and to repair their vessels, these land enclaves are also their weak spot. Historically, piracy was suppressed by attacking the land bases of pirates. Once the leaders of pirate communities realised that acts of piracy would be met with cannons, they quickly diverted their energies into other moneymaking channels. (Captain Jayant Abhyankar, Deputy Director of ICC International Maritime Bureau, An Overview of Piracy Problems, 1999) Today, our best chance to defeat pirates is to attack where they are most vulnerable. Only then will Locations be relegated to the pages of history.
Government support was also vital in establishing Locations. Tortuga gained its prominence in part because the French needed the pirates to protect the island from her enemies. John Ward, a Barbary corsair, based his operations in Tunis under the protection of Cara Osman, the head of the Janissaries. Ward gave Osman the right of first refusal on all acquired booty. He stored his treasure in Tunisian warehouses, and designated traders sold it to Christian merchants, earning a considerable profit in the process. In 1606, Osman paid for one-fourth of the supplies Ward needed to outfit his ship.