What Was the Golden Age of Piracy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Some historians associate the golden age of piracy with the discovery of the New World.
Some historians associate the golden age of piracy with the discovery of the New World.

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.

Massive amounts of wealth were accumulated during the Golde Age of Piracy.
Massive amounts of wealth were accumulated during the Golde Age of Piracy.

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.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@KoiwiGal - It's definitely not that black and white, just like it isn't today either. Maritime piracy usually happens because the pirates have no other way of supporting themselves. It's not like they capture the goods and then throw them into the sea. They essentially replace the merchants. There's a reason that piracy flourishes when there is a lot of corruption. The pirates fill a need for the people as well as themselves.


@Iluviaporos - There was still the little matter of the pirates breaking the law though. You can argue that the navy were pirates as well, in that they weren't always doing the right thing by their sailors, but they were at least protecting merchants and enterprise and therefore the general economy of a country.

I'm sure it was more pleasant to be a pirate, because there would be no reason for anyone to take the risk if there wasn't some kind of reward.

But if you were depending on merchants to bring goods and to create jobs in your port town then you aren't going to be a big fan of people who stop that kind of thing from happening.


Apparently back in the day, working on a pirate ship was actually a much better option than working in a navy. They would treat the enlisted men terribly in a navy and would even force people into the job for very little pay. Pirates would share out the wealth among everyone on the ship and would all work together so no one had to take on the bulk of the dirty work.

I mean, I don't think either option was one I'd want myself, but given the choice between the two, pirate was definitely the better one.

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