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What was the Golden Age of Piracy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 April 2014
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The Golden Age of Piracy was a period between roughly 1650 and 1720 when piracy on the Atlantic Ocean reached astounding levels. For merchants, of course, the Golden Age of Piracy was far from a Golden Age, but for pirates, it represented a glut of treasure taken from ships laden with various valuable consumer goods and treasure brought to Europe from the New World. Some of the most notable pirates in history were active during this period, including Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Stede Bonnet, and Black Bart.

Many of the modern legends about pirates are taken from the Golden Age of Piracy, thanks to an ample assortment of material from this period about the lives of the pirates and their doings. Much of this material comes from survivors of pirate attacks, along with regional governors who were forced to deal with the aftermath of such attacks, although some documentation relating to the Golden Age of Piracy comes from the pirates themselves, in the forms of journals and examples of Ship's Articles, documents signed by all members of a crew.

Some historians date the Golden Age of Piracy back to the European discovery of the New World, arguing that piracy certainly experienced an uptick after 1492, as pirates realized the potential in raiding ships coming back with spices, gold, silver, and other valuables. However, most people prefer to link the Golden Age of Piracy specifically to a period of relative peace in Europe which started in the mid 17th century.

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The peace meant that many nations downsized their navies, resulting in widespread unemployment among sailors. At the same time, nations were accruing huge amounts of wealth, primarily from foreign colonies, and such wealth would have represented a hefty temptation to pirates and privateers. Pirates were active in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and off the coast of Africa primarily, although ships in other parts of the Atlantic were also vulnerable to piracy.

Piracy seriously undermined the economic well-being of several nations, in addition to being viewed as a nuisance. Pirates often took entire ships, pressing members of the crew who might be useful and holding others prisoner, but they could also turn vindictive, murdering crews and setting their ships on fire or sinking them. For merchants, the loss of cargo and a ship was a double blow, especially for those with murky clauses relating to piracy in their insurance policies.

In the early 1700s, several European governments collectively agreed to cease issuing letters of marque, documents used by privateers as a legal basis to seize ships belonging to enemy nations. These nations also agreed to crack down on piracy in their colonies and at home, making examples of pirates and rooting out corruption in colonial governments which had previously allowed piracy to thrive. As a result, piracy greatly declined through the 18th and 19th centuries, although in the 20th century, a new age of piracy began to arise in the Pacific Ocean in regions like Southeast Asia; as of 2007, almost 300 individual acts of piracy were recorded in a single year, including violent takeovers of ships and the taking of hostages.

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