- Historic Sites
War Makes Thieves, Peace Hangs Them
In an era that condoned smuggling and lawbreaking the transition from privateer to pirate was easy
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
Piracy along the American coast began with legalized plunder. Sea warfare in colonial times was only partly an affair of navies. The rest was free private enterprise. If an individual adventurer could reap a fortune from a war, he had the satisfaction of knowing that his riches were patriotically gained.
In the war which England waged in the late years of the Seventeenth and the early years of the Eighteenth centuries, the American colonies were of considerable assistance. The king anthorized colonial governors to distribute “letters of marque and reprisal” liberally among the seafaring men of the New England and middle colonies. Such a letter entitled its holder to capture all the enemy ships he could, bring them into port, and there claim a major portion of ship and cargo. If he could not bring the ship into port, he would relieve her of her cargo and crew and sink her. Enormous sums of money were made in this way, especially from the sale of the rich cargoes of captured Spanish merchantmen.
King William’s War between England and France ended in 1697. Queen Anne’s War, which was a part of the War of the Spanish Succession, began in 1701, and involved both France and Spain. In both wars there was sea fighting, and colonial “privateers” carried on a lucrative business. In Queen Anne’s War which involved most of Europe, both English and colonial ships worked the Spanish Main. There shipmasters became familiar with the hundreds of island hide-outs, the inlets, the coves, and the rivers that gave shelter for escape and surprise attack.
Privateering was a free, adventurous, exciting life. The risks were great but so were the rewards. There was an almost total absence of restraint, of regulation, of discipline. The privateer was entirely on his own. He was only authorized to capture enemy ships, but neutrals sometimes fell into his hands, and it was easy to explain that the neutral ships were carrying contraband of war. He must use his own judgment. There was no one to give him advice. The seas were wide and empty and, once over the horizon, a ship was out of range of communication.
The life was so good, indeed, that when the war was over, the men who had enjoyed it became restless. They had lost their taste for the hard work of legitimate trade. They had grown intimate with the merchants of the seaport cities but these friendships, built through the sale of rich, exotic cargoes, had nothing to sustain them when peace came. In the uneasy peace that followed King William’s War at the turn of the century, there was depression throughout the colonies. The bungled Treaty of Ryswick ending that war had given concessions to the French that nearly ruined the New England cod fisheries. In the middle colonies the price of wheat fell because of English competition in the West Indies trade. This general climate ol depression was anything but congenial to the ex-privateer who despised slow, laborious ways of earning a living.
Thus the temptation to find his way back to some sort of predatory seafaring was hard to resist. It was easy to move across the vague lines set by a treaty; to plunder what were no longer enemy vessels; to move, in short, from privateering to piracy. In England, this progress had been practiced since the days ol Francis Drake; it was hardly surprising that it appeared in the American colonies in the intervals between wars.
By no means all the buccaneers who operated along the American coast were colonials. Indeed, some of the most masterful were natives of the British Isles. But America was the natural scene of their operations, whatever their origin. Its intricately indented coastline furnished ideal hiding places for the ships that flew the black flag. Still more useful was the colonial tradition ol lawbreaking. Certain kinds of smuggling had been universal among New England traders. After years of winking at this practice officials in the northern seaports had grown corrupt. Finally, dealing in contraband goods had made the seaport merchants rich and powerful and they, in turn, had brought pressure even on the royal governors to ignore the illicit trade.
In the northern colonies, smuggling had become necessary to survival. The Navigation Acts had created this necessity. They prohibited, among other things, trade with those islands of the West Indies that were not British. In the North, where winters were long and there was no such staple crop as tobacco or rice, agriculture alone could not pay for the goods the people had to buy from England. They turned, therefore, to other occupations: mainly fishing, sea trade, and the manufacture of rum. Rum became the staple, so to speak, of New England. It was made of molasses brought from the sugar islands of the Caribbean. The British islands could not supply all the molasses the Yankees needed; also, the French product was cheaper. So the smuggling of molasses became a universal practice. To the proud northern colonials it was a demonstration of their independence of drastic English law. As time went on and the laws became more restrictive, evasion, for some New Englanders, became a sort of patriotic duty just as, some two centuries later in the Prohibition era, many Americans proudly defied the Eighteenth Amendment and encouraged bootlegging in the name of liberty. By that time, however, Englishmen who were shocked by such American lawlessness had forgotten that the same sort of evasion had once been forced by their ancestors upon ours.