Investigation of the relationship of pirate, buccaneer and privateer between the English State and the British Empire in the Caribbean during 1650 - 1725

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

33 Pages, Grade: B13


List of Contents




Part 2.a Admiral Sir Henry Morgan
Part 2.b William Dampier
Part 2.c Christopher Myngs
Part 2.d Woodes Rogers

Part 3.a Land Battles
Part 3.b Naval Warfare




This investigation will examine the English State’s and latter British Empire’s evolving relationship with pirates, buccaneers and privateers as well looking into how far they contributed to laying the foundations of the British Empire in the Caribbean. The investigation will identify numerous ways in which these outlaws contributed to the basis of an Empire as bands of men, but also as individual men – pointing the investigation into examining individual Captains themselves and assessing the significance of their endeavours. Pirate, privateering and buccaneering warfare tactics will also be scrutinised as the significance of their methods cannot be ignored in the defence of British colonies in the New World. Throughout the investigation, various primary materials will be used to help re-enforce arguments where needed. In addition, numerous prominent historians in this field will be made reference to, and used in order to help structure the argument that in order to fully appreciate Britain’s history of Empire, the significance of robbers on the high seas cannot be ignored.


This essay will investigate to what extent the role that British pirates and privateers and buccaneers enjoyed in firstly extending the colonial frontiers of England, and latterly on Britain’s evolution as a nation. 1650-1725 is an obvious period to focus upon, because from 1650 onwards piracy and buccaneering in the Caribbean reached something of a peak, hence historians tending to label it: ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’. (Incidentally, the buccaneering period also fits into the period 1650-1680.) Pirates in the modern age are often depicted as glamorised rebels; their image representing freedom and adventure, but their true roles and importance are often overlooked, ignored or unappreciated. How was it that simple pirates, like Henry Morgan, could conceivably lay the foundations of the world’s largest ever Empire? It is, indeed, one of the greatest questions of history [Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Channel 4, November 26th, 2008]. The C17 was probably the most important century in the making of the modern world, and to fully understand the roots of Empire – in the case of this particular investigation, the British Empire – it is hard to ignore the huge contribution and significance that pirates, privateers, and buccaneers had in laying the foundations of an imperial superpower.

In the modern world, sixteen colonies remain; Great Britain has ten, the United States three and France, Spain and New Zealand each possess one [Manke, E. 1999. P225]. They are living testaments to an age of Empire and Imperialism, and so in order to suggest that there was a time indeed – when the ocean was the key to Empire building, and in order to fully appreciate Britain’s history as an Empire – the significance of the robber barons of the high seas must be explored.

The rise of buccaneers and privateers commences at an exciting, rich historical period of time. For England, this upsurge coincided with Cromwell’s dictatorship in England and, later, the restoration of Charles II and the Stuart dynasty. In France, Louis XIV ascended to the throne for a long productive reign, and the Dutch enjoyed independence from the Spanish. It was also a period when the Spanish Empire was finally starting to crumble under the strain of constant war with France and later Cromwell. Spanish overseas possessions became most vulnerable to buccaneers and pirates [Konstam, A. 2000. P3]. Largely, piracy was on the increase owing to the cessation of the various conflicts in Europe (like the British Civil War), and hence many sailors becoming unemployed. Take, for example, Bartholomew Roberts; at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession he was out of work (having fought in the Royal Navy), and from 1713 served on slave ships for an unknown period of time, having signed into the trade at Barbados. Roberts represents just one of the thousands of seamen left jobless and desperate when the War ended [Breverton, T. 2004. P68].

From a British perspective, it is fair to argue that the rise in piracy was simply due to the broken English economy – the result of a long and arduous Civil War at the end of the 1640s. In terms of the Dutch, from roughly 1630 and onwards until the end of the Eighty Years War for Independence in 1648 and further still, Dutch buccaneers and pirates harassed vessels abroad – mostly Spanish ships, but also Spanish colonies. The Dutch were hardly alone though; the English and the French were also heavily involved in raids. As for France, unlike the Dutch and English, their nation had not recently had to endure the strain of major political unrest. In fact, Louis XIV’s reign saw the strengthening of the Gallic nation through the arts, science and its military might – on both land and sea, in addition to the strengthening of France’s boundaries. Shrewdly, Louis utilised French Corsairs to his advantage, as he knew (despite heavily improving the might of the French Navy) that the Dutch and English indisputably ruled the seas. With the corsairs’ help he expanded French colonial boundaries significantly, reinforcing the established view that the utilisation of these ‘highwaymen of the seas’ wasn’t simply an English innovation. Nevertheless, this investigation – broken up into three distinct areas – will focus upon the English nation’s relationship with pirates.

Part One will identify the evolution of piracy and its mutating relationship to the state in the early modern era. In early C18 England, the social and economic elites of the state attempted to distinguish imperialists from pirates. As the state began to colonise, it utilised various laws, propaganda and popular literature in order to help crackdown on banditry [Teorey, M. 2003. P58]. However, just a scant few decades before, the English state fully appreciated the terror that pirates and buccaneers were causing in the settlements of the South Sea and Caribbean – and used them to the state’s advantage. This section will also consider factors like the pirate code of conduct, both at base and on ship, and investigate how this might be linked with the relationship between piracy and the English state. The bizarre bond between pirate and imperialist is a fundamental aspect in appreciating the change in attitudes towards imperial expansion. Most importantly, this section will detail exactly how involved pirates were in creating and moulding future economies, and – in the case of the British Empire – a financial system that would go on to thrive and become a leading world power. To achieve this, contemporary authors of the period – like Daniel Defoe – will be cited, as well as numerous historians and a valuable source entitled ‘Captain Kidd and the War against Pirates’ by Robert C Ritchie, with analysis by historian Marcus Rediker. All the evidence presented will help in establishing that pirates and buccaneers were a significant force in early Imperialist England.

Part Two will examine in greater depth the world of pirates, privateers and buccaneers – investigating the Captains themselves and their individual contributions. This section will include in-depth research into the famous Welsh pirate and buccaneer Henry Morgan. William Dampier’s exploits as an adventurer and explorer (relatively unappreciated nowadays) will also be explored, as will the lives of the buccaneer and pirate Christopher Myngs and privateer Woodes Rogers. A number of reasons exist for choosing these four distinctive characters: Henry Morgan represents a pirate whose contribution to the English state was primarily economic. William Dampier’s navigational exploits resulted in scientific and geographic discoveries which the elites and merchants in the colonies and at home found vital in the creation, maintenance and development of an Empire. Christopher Myngs, like Morgan, represents a man whose military style and ability to efficiently utilise pirates and buccaneers to conquer colonies and towns was a crucial factor in the maintenance and development of Empire. Lastly, Woodes Rogers was chosen because, much like Dampier, his contribution largely goes un-noticed, even though he was a prime example of a privateer – and later appointed Governor – recognised by the English state as an agent that could be used to help rid the Bahamas of piracy.

Part Three will scrutinise pirate battle tactics on both land and sea, citing examples from pirate raids – including those of Henry Morgan – on Spanish settlements and naval conflicts. This section will investigate how significant pirate and buccaneer battle strategies were in serving British interest in the West Indies. It might not be immediately obvious, but the evolution of these tactics is intrinsically linked with both economic and military expansion, as well as maintenance of Empire. The tactics buccaneers and pirates used an often unappreciated part of American military history [Konstam, A. 2000. P17]. For example, The English Government from the mid to late 1600’s would pay the pirates, privateers and buccaneers in places like Port Royal to protect Jamaica from Spanish invasion – while using the colony as a base to launch attacks on Spanish ships and towns. Despite the fact that pirates were admittedly not capturing land and cities on a regular basis, they were seizing and hoarding vast amounts of treasure that ultimately contributed to England’s growing imperial might through raids, the sacking of towns and plundering. Contemporary accounts by people like Exquemelin provide accurate, insightful information on the way these outlaws operated.

The buccaneering era is full of rich, valuable primary sources of information that cannot be ignored. For example, Alexander Exquemelin’s contemporary writings on his experiences as a buccaneer in the company of Henry Morgan’s crew shall be referred to several times throughout the investigation to help support arguments where needed. In addition to Exquemelin’s and Dampier’s writings, for other contemporary information and reference there is Daniel Defoe’s ‘A General History of the Pirates’ which shall be referred to and used in Part one of the investigation. Other notorious pirates, plus William Dampier’s journals, will also feature. This investigation exclusively focuses upon expansion in the Caribbean, chiefly because the material is vaster and the characters more effervescent. Piracy and privateering in relation to the The East India Company was an area originally intended for exploration as it too was pivotal in the burgeoning role of the British Empire, but eventually dismissed as it may have caused the investigation to become too broad. Thus, solely investigating the Caribbean was settled upon instead. The characters chosen were picked because (aside from Henry Morgan) they are relatively unknown, yet their contribution to the English State and early British Empire was pivotal, as this investigation shall prove.


“Merchant and pirate were for a long period one and the same person. Even today mercantile morality is really nothing but a refinement of piratical morality.” – Friedrich Nietzsche [Wikiquote. 2009]

Robert C. Ritchie’s ‘Captain Kidd and the War against Pirates’ is an important body of work that underlines some important issues on piracy that tend to be overlooked. It demonstrates how piracy was related to the broad social, economic and political forces and trends of the C17. What Ritchie succeeds in providing, according to historian Marcus Rediker, is an important typology for understanding the evolution of piracy, and its changing relationship to the state in the Early Modern era [Rediker, M. 1988. P351] – highlighting the importance of the connection between state and pirate. It appears the war on pirates was not only about high adventure, broadsides and drama but also a war of politics, imperial relations and low, changing institutions. In other words, piracy was intrinsically linked to the future of the world’s economic order, as shall be investigated in greater detail during Part Two. The (in)famous British privateer Captain William Kidd is a prime example of a man thrust into a world of change: shifts in English politics both at home and in the colonies, of legal change and altering imperial attitudes. Indeed, as Niall Ferguson states: ‘British shifts from piracy to political power was to change the world forever.’ [Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Channel 4, November 26th, 2008].

Ritchie’s writing on piracy outlines the ‘three essential types’ that are certainly worth investigating as they help to understand buccaneering in terms of its relationship with the nation state.

‘Officially Sanctioned Piracy’: ‘Acts that are clearly piratical under any system of law but that go unpunished because a particular government finds it convenient to ignore such activities or even secretly to sponsor them’.

Obvious examples of this are Sir Francis Drake’s adventures in the Pacific or the ‘Spanish Lake’. Indeed, the majority of the pirates, privateers and buccaneers of most nations (Dutch, British, and French) in the years thereafter preyed on the Spanish treasure fleets of the late 1500’s – and well into the late seventeenth century – with the unofficial backing of their various regents. Pirates like Henry Morgan and his peers essentially worked to ‘weaken Spain’s already arthritic grip (on the New World)’ [Rediker, M. 1988. P353], helping to establish competing national claims. According to Rediker, it was the: ‘unofficial violence of piracy that served the interests of England’s imperial state’ [1988. P353]; indeed practically all of the raids conducted by pirates, buccaneers and privateers of French, Dutch and English nationality on Spanish treasure fleets and settlements in the Caribbean were the instruments of empire.

‘Commercial Piracy’: ‘Piracy organised by merchants, or tolerated by entire communities on periphery of Empire who dealt with pirates to get scarce hard currency’.

An example of one such a merchant is Frederick Philipse. He was one of New York’s most wealthy merchants during the 1690s, and responsible for taking a leading role in both trading with and provisioning pirates off the coast of East Africa. Back home in New York, his fellow associates welcomed retired sea-robbers with their ‘earnings’ – piracy was thriving in the founding days of New York. Other corrupt individuals dealing with pirates and their goods are the numerous Governors of the period. Colonel Benjamin Fletcher was one such man; Governor of New York, he was the kingpin of a large network of corrupt leaders and officials. While informing officials back in London that he was doing all he could to try and suppress piracy, he was eventually relieved of his duty in 1698 when it transpired he was actually accommodating the pirate Thomas Tew (one of the men William Kidd was commissioned to hunt down) at his private residence. Indeed, it was individuals like Philipse and Fletcher who kept piracy booming and incidents such as these reinforce Robert Ritchie’s theory that merchants and officials not only tolerated but, in some cases, actually encouraged piracy – so long as it served their own interests.

‘Marauding’ and ‘Organised Marauding’: Raiding that that was launched from some place, be it ship or town, but from a dedicated base of operations.

One example of a base of operations was Port Royal in Jamaica – used as a launch pad for raids upon Spanish ships and coastal towns like the prosperous Porto Bello. Terry Breverton [True Pirates of the Caribbean, History Channel. 2006] argues that Port Royal, once settled by the English, was used to great effect, bringing in much revenue for the crown. Further examples lie to the East – the famous buccaneering cities of Tunis and Algeria along the Barbary Coast. Meanwhile, ‘Anarchist Marauders’ were pirates with no particular base of operations who simply roamed the seas and sea ports in search of bounty. Tortuga in the Caribbean was another piratical hotbed where brigands would congregate to launch attacks on unsuspecting victims. Intriguingly, on islands like Tortuga and onboard, men lived in: ‘small scale, self contained democracies’ [Rediker, M. 1988. P354] that generally operated by majority vote. The remaining minority were then either asked – or forced – to leave in order to keep the remainder content. The first record of such a government aboard a pirate vessel dates back to the 1600s [Leeson, P. 2007. P1066]. Piratical codes of conduct will be discussed in more detail later.

What Ritchie suggests next is fascinating. He convincingly argues that all three types of piracy were chronologically structured, though admitting they also overlap one another to a certain extent. He claims that officially sanctioned piracy was dominant around the period 1570-1670, commercial piracy from 1660-1700, and the final stage of anarchistic marauding circa. 1690-1730. As previously stated, merchants and government officials would encourage piracy if it served their own ends; however, as Rediker argues, when wide scale ‘anarchistic marauding’ broke out (into the East, i.e. Africa and India) officialdom decided to finally stamp out the piratical practices that had spiralled out of their control. For an in-depth examination of these themes, Matthew Teorey’s ‘Pirates and State Sponsored Terrorism’ provides superb insight into the hazy boundary between imperialist and pirate in the early C18.


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Investigation of the relationship of pirate, buccaneer and privateer between the English State and the British Empire in the Caribbean during 1650 - 1725
University of Wales, Newport,
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investigation, evolving, relationship, pirate, buccaneer, privateer, between, english, state, ways, which, they, contributed, laying, foundations, british, empire, caribbean, during, period
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Will Taylor (Author), 2010, Investigation of the relationship of pirate, buccaneer and privateer between the English State and the British Empire in the Caribbean during 1650 - 1725, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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