Ahoy! It's the real pirates of the Caribbean—and the Carolinas

Privateers, buccaneers, and scurvy sea dogs prowled the Caribbean and the Atlantic in search of booty as the 'Golden Age of Piracy' dawned.

This 1718 oil painting depicts the notorious Blackbeard before his death at the hands of Lt. Robert Maynard's forces.
Photograph by CORBIS/CORDON PRESS

Pirate ships, treasure maps, and bottles of rum are just a few of the things that come to mind when thinking of pirates. These popular symbols and many others have their origins in the golden age of piracy, a period that began around 1500 and lasted for 300 years. During this time, the Caribbean islands and coasts of the Americas were the dynamic center of a trade empire linking Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Heavily laden trading ships carried slaves, sugar, precious metals, tobacco, and coffee among all three and generated enormous wealth for the dominant colonial powers: England, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain. As trade boomed, so did piracy. By the 18th century thousands of pirates terrorized the rich merchant vessels and eluded the naval attempts to capture them.

Part of the romantic myth of piracy is the colorful terminology. In the second half of the 16th century some of the most famous pirates were sponsored by European nations. Called “privateers,” these pirates had government commissions to seize the ships, both trading and naval, of an enemy. Some of these pirates, such as the explorer Sir Francis Drake, were often regarded as patriotic national heroes. Drake was able to carry out his exploits because he was the bearer of an all-important letter of marque, issued by Queen Elizabeth I in 1572, which gave him the right to raid Spanish ships.

Corsairs were typically privateers sailing along the Barbary Coast in northern Africa in the 16th century; later, the word would be broadly applied to pirates in general. The terms “buccaneer” and “freebooter” arose in the 17th century. Buccaneers were adventurers who settled in Hispaniola, the island today divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They lived off the meat of wild cattle, which they preserved using an indigenous smoking method called bouccan. In the mid-17th century they started to engage in piracy, just like the freebooters, a term deriving from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, “a person who freely takes booty.”

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