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The Rise and Fall of Piracy Between 1650 and 1750

Info: 1573 words (6 pages) Essay
Published: 29th Oct 2021 in History

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Piracy has existed since the earliest times for many reasons but the increasement of it was aided by the transatlantic trade. “Oceans and seas have always provided opportunities for the relatively cheap transport of products and persons, and the resulting movement of vulnerable assets has attracted from earliest times predators called pirates. (Anderson 1995: 175)” Pirates can be described as social bandits at sea who plundered merchant ships during the second half of the 17th century which is when they wanted to seize the opportunity to gain wealth, until the first half of the 18th century.

Their eventual downfall was induced by their simplistic lifestyle and powerlessness against the colonial empires. Their extinction was a product of the successful hunting strategy commissioned by the colonial masters to extinguish the threat of maritime piracy on their economic empire.  This is what this essay will try to argue.

The Rise of Piracy

Among the plentiful motives for the rise of piracy during the second half of the 17th century the expansion of colonization is important to mention. They began with the exploration of the New World and the trade between Europe and the New World encouraged the emergence of piracy. The new colonial territories were not properly governed and did not have enough men to protect them from pirate attacks. “Notwithstanding the Maltese, the Pope, Florentines, Genoese, French, Dutch and English gallies and men of war, they would rob before their faces and even at their own ports…”(Phillip 1629:157). Pirates used deception and intimidation to attempt to take enemy ships without firing a shot. They did not only attack the ports but reaped the benefits of weak defence of merchant ships. The [English] Crown supported the attacks on the Spanish ships which caused great trouble for the Spanish and then in turn helped the English develop their long-distance trade (Walvin 2007:51). Therefore, we can see a direct correlation between the start of colonization and the start of piracy. 

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Another considerable motive for emergence of piracy was poverty. “Those that were poor, and had nothing but from hand to mouth, turned pirates”(Phillip 1629:156). Sailors had many options of escaping from the poverty and poor conditions but the probability of becoming wealthy from the pirate business was higher than from being a merchant.“Pirates who had served on privateering vessels knew well that such employment was far less onerous than on merchant or naval ships” (Rediker 1993:259).  If they wouldn’t find enough food then the majority of the goods gained by pirates were trade goods being shipped by merchants, such as tanned animal skins, sugar, tobacco, cotton, wood (ThoughtCo 2020). This shows that the pirate business was more lucrative than the standard merchant job because when they targeted trading ships, they amass great fortune.

The rise of the pirates between 1650 and 1750 was attributed to weak political systems and state structure. According to Anderson (1995:176), lack of well-defined territories across the seas favoured the works of the pirates. The European nation-states lacked a clear law that could guide the operations at the sea. Therefore, it was difficult for the state-nations to interfere with matters that took place in the sea. On the other hand, Kingston argues that piracy existed during the 18th century due to ineffective state campaigns on the issue (2015). Piracy continued even during the periods of peace and war. Moreover, Kingston argues that the vagueness of the anti-piracy statutes and lack of a clear distinction between privateers and piracy lead to the expansion of the works of pirates during the 18th century. The states were misled by the courts that often overstated the jurisdiction and authority of the state. Although Anderson (1995) and Kingston (2015) present different opinions on the factors that contributed to piracy, they tend to question the legitimacy of states. The idea about territorial jurisdiction comes out in the arguments presented by the two scholars. Ideally, the pirates selected the sea as their operational area since it lacked defined territories. The capitalist regime in Europe partly contributed to the rise in piracy. The competition for resources prevented states from engaging in matters that could promote their security in the sea (Greene, 2010). It was difficult for a state to engage itself in matters associated with another country. Piracy continued for a long period since states had primitive forms of arrangements. This prevented them from launching attacks on the pirates. Moreover, the lack of unity among the colonial powers contributed to the rise of the pirates (Defoe, 2012).

The Fall of Piracy

The fall of piracy is attributed to the rise of colonial powers. Anderson (1995) noted that piracy contributed to the loss of goods. The shortages experienced in the consumer market prompted the colonial powers to put more resources in the protection of their merchants from piracy. Anderson (1995) opined that the states focused their efforts on solving the problem of predation as it leads to losses to the capitalists. For the states to gain their power, they had to protect their economic interests. As the states were developing strategies to counter predation, the pirates focused on the destruction and stealing of goods shipped (Greene, 2010). The protection of merchants by the states hindered the activities of the pirates as they used to operate unopposed. Defoe (2012) noted that the increased armament of the English merchants led to the decline of piracy. The development of sophisticated weapons helped the English merchants to traverse the waters with ease. The success of colonial masters is attributed to their ability to conquer and control. The pirates were crushed mercilessly by the colonial powers. Anderson (1995) highlighted that the pirates contributed to the loss of wealth accumulated by the capitalists in the colonial powers. This is was due to the massive destruction of goods and ships. Producers could not engage in the production process due to the losses experienced. Therefore, the colonial powers focused on the protection of the merchants to achieve their economic interests.

The pirates fall due to the wars experienced in the earlier 18th century. Defoe (2012) noted that the Spanish war of the 18th century led to the disintegration of the pirate gangs. Many of the people who engaged in piracy were jobless. The Spanish war rendered them hopeless and this forced them to move to their respective countries. As a result, the pirate gang was weakened greatly. Moreover, England pardoned all the buccaneers who were ready to assist in the Spanish succession war. This was a major factor that weakened the pirate gang. Defoe (2012) observed that the change in the naval war strategies led to the decline of piracy. The men-of-war were increased significantly, and this led to better control of the enemy. The sea vessels that shipped goods across the waters were well guarded by a large number of war men. The increase in the size of war men made it difficult for the pirates to carry out their activities. The colonial masters recruited more war men as a major strategy to protect their activities across the world. It is certain that success in any war depends on the organisation, size and strength of the soldiers. The colonial powers knew this secret, and this helped them to crush the enemy. Anderson (1995) noted that the merchants who had more security were less vulnerable to attack. The Dutch and English merchants entered the waters with highly armed vessels. The merchants were able to ship their goods regularly across the sea due to the strength of their army. Therefore, the strength of the colonial powers contributed to the decline of piracy.

To sum up the emergence of piracy was primarily caused by the expansion of colonization because when they started exploring the New World.


Anderson, J. L. (1995) ‘Piracy and World History: An Economic Perspective on Maritime Predation’. Journal of World History 6 (2), 175-199, available from: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/20078637> [12 February 2020]

Phillip, A. J. (ed.) The True Travels And Adventures Of Captain John Smith (1629), pp. 155-159. <https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.201269>

Walvin, J. (2007). A short history of slavery. Great Britain: Penguin Books, Limited.

Defoe, D., 2012. A general history of the pyrates. Courier Corporation.

Greene, M., 2010. Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Early Modern Mediterranean. Princeton University Press

Kingston, C., 2015. The Ocean Is a Wilderness: Atlantic Piracy and the Limits of State Authority 1688–1856, By Guy Chet. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014. Pp. xx, 157. $80.00, cloth; $22.95, paper. The Journal of Economic History75(3), pp.933-936.


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