4.4 —The Golden Age of Piracy (19 min video)
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Well today we’re going to talk about pirates. Specifically, the golden age of piracy. Kind of the high time during the 1600s especially. The time we often associate with pirates or when we imagine what pirates look like, like, what their flags look like, what their weaponry and clothing looks like, made popular through things like Treasure Island, for example, or things such as Pirates of the Caribbean.
All of those things kind of come together in this time period. Now, pirates were nothing new. It’s not like they suddenly appeared on the scene at this point. They’ve been around since ancient times. In fact, Julius Caesar, to give you one example, was captured by pirates when he was a fairly young man. Now the word pirate is an interesting term, it’s kind of helpful to define it. It simply means experience danger or something along those lines. And pirates, their entire purpose was to attack and to risk their lives for some sort of unlawful gain. The Portuguese simply called them buccaneers, another term that you’ve probably heard of. A buccaneer though, in Portuguese thought and worldview, wasn’t just a pirate, it was really anybody that came from the Caribbean. This is, and is after all, or was a place that was kind of a seedbed, kind of a gathering place for many different pirates.
Dutch, one of my favorite terms of course, were they called pirates “vrieboeters” which means something like “free loaders”. They were basically mooches, they basically took whatever they wanted and did not actually work for a living. I suppose the pirate might say his form of attack was a form of work, but we’ll leave that to the pirate. The Turks themselves referred to pirates as corsairs and often actually used pirates or themselves were pirates to raid and to gain for themselves. Like it was a common practice. We already talked, for example, about how there were Muslim pirates who essentially captured slaves from the coast of the various parts of Christendom and sold them at a profit.
Well, with all of that said, we can have an idea of a pirate, somebody who illegally attacks on the high seas for personal gain or for profit.
But there’s another term we really need to understand. And that is the term privateer. A privateer was someone who, like a pirate, also possessed a large ship, well armed with cannon and artillery and supplies and all the sailors to man those things and so forth.
But privateers were a little bit different than pirates because they possessed something called a letter of mark. This was basically a license that gave them permission to practice piracy. That is to attack other ships for personal gain. Now they didn’t keep all of the things that they captured, whether it be the ship or the ship’s cargo. They typically on average kept about 50 to 75% of whatever they took. The rest of it went to the state or to the crown that had authorized the official piracy or the privateering, if you will, in the first place.
Now, not only was this a handy way to raise money, in fact, England was so successful at it that at one point, piracy or privateering, to use the term that they used back then, often accounted for up to half of their entire economy.
But the other thing that it actually did was it allowed a variety of nations, especially England once again, to send its pirates, or its privateers if you will, against various more powerful nations in itself, such as the Habsburg-controlled Spanish dominion, or the Portuguese for that matter.
They could attack these other countries, they could justify it saying, “Well, they have too much power,” or “If we don’t let them, if we don’t stop them, they’re just going to keep gaining power, take over the world,” or “They’re Catholic, and since England was largely Protestant this time, they had an issue with that.” All the same, what we see going on here with the privateers and the pirates, it can really be understood if we think back to what Gronvang Prinscherer said.
As Van Prinscherer, who I mentioned to you earlier, said that modernity began with the unbelief in the enlightenment. That’s kind of easy to see, kind of this dismissal of God or the fact that God actually reveals himself. But he said it also began with the violence of the pirates. Specifically, not just illegal pirates, but also legal pirates, the privateers. Those who were actually authorized by the state to steal and to kill without any kind of official declaration of war, without any kind of sense of there being any type of just reason for going to war.
It was simply for profit and to mess with a power that was more powerful than yourself that you didn’t want to go into full-scale war with. Once again, we have a separation of the secular from the sacred. So you don’t have this idea that all men are made in the image of God, that all properties and extension essentially of their calling and their labor and their time, and so therefore it’s wrong to take those things from them. Instead of having that worldview, it’s simply, “Oh, they’re of a different state. They have a different citizenship, and that’s a different secular realm than ours, so therefore we can do with them what we want to do with them. Now we’re going to talk about three specific privateers/pirates today. The first one is the most famous perhaps. He’s also probably the most noble of the three that we’re going to talk about. He is of course Sir Francis Drake, who lived from 1540 to 1596. Now Drake grew up in the seaside town of Plymouth and was well acquainted with the art of sailing and navigation. He also had great trouble with the Spanish. In fact, saw the Spanish, saw their claims, saw their arrogance, saw their pushing of things such as the counter-reformation. He saw all of those things as threats, not just to the people of England, but to the rest of the world. He was an interesting character. For example, he was the very first Englishman to actually see the Pacific ocean. He was the very first Englishman also to go completely around the world, to circumnavigate the globe. Actually did that from 1577 to 1580. Took him a little bit longer than Magellan’s crew. He was also one who consistently raided Spanish towns from his great ship the Golden Hind and saw it as justified because he was attacking what he saw as an oppressive power.
And in many ways he was correct about the oppressive power, but whether or not he was going about it correctly is another matter. He did, of course, have permission from the English government to do this. Curiously, he was also the first Englishman to directly deal in slaves. In slaves, that is, from Africa and getting them to other parts of the world. We have to keep that in mind when we’re taking a look at a privateer like Drake. He ultimately was knighted for his service against Spain. He was one of the very first to really make English power known at sea. Also, of course, was a very strong Reformational character and Protestant character. Now you could be the judge whether or not he applied the doctrine to the scripture in all areas of life or not. But he was someone who was known for preaching to his men regular sermons, was someone who tried to convert the prisoners and slaves that he captured on board his ship, and who who said that his favorite book besides the Holy Scripture was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which largely described the persecution of Protestants and follows the formation at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, often led by the Habsburg family.
So he’s an interesting mixed character. In fact, if you read, for example, a book by G.A. Hinty that has Drake as a main character, of which he has written some, you’ll find a very romantic view of Drake. and part of that is based upon real fact. But you also, of course, have this issue where he tended to use his religion in a very forceful way that was not very winsome as the Jesuits had done in their various missions.
But of course, to really understand the genius of Drake, we have to look at the event for which he is most famous, and that is his defeat of the Spanish Armada in the year 1588.
To understand this whole story, we have to back up just a little bit to the character of Philip II. He was, at this point, the Habsburg Emperor in the Spanish domains. He was the son of Charles V, the one who had united so much of the world. And Philip II, specifically, was a great sponsor of what is called the Counter-Reformation, kind of that Roman Catholic and Habsburg push against the Reformation and trying to stop it from spreading or gaining more ground than it already had.
In fact, Philip II had dreams of a global Roman Catholic empire, which of course he would rule as the physical ruler and let the spiritual rule be let to the Pope and so forth.
In other words, it was once again kind of this weird separation between sacred and secular. Well, he ultimately decided that the English were a huge thorn in his plans, or a thorn in his thighs, that is, a huge problem to actually exercising his plans of taking over the world properly, because they were a growing naval power, they were using more and more privateers, and they had become in certain ways a stronghold of the Reformation.
So he ultimately created a large armada, a gigantic fleet, one of the largest ever seen in world history, to head up and attack the British Navy, and he allied with various land armies, primarily from Holland, to also sail across the English Channel and invade by land.
He also spoke and wrote, actually wrote to the Pope, and asked permission for all of this, and asked permission to not only depose Queen Elizabeth, the reigning monarch of England, but to also have her executed as a heretic.
So he gathers this enormous navy, has the plans and the authority from the Pope to execute it, also manages and organizes a massive Dutch army.
It’s all set and ready to go there in the year 1588. However, it didn’t quite work according to plan. For one, that Dutch army was never actually deployed. There was a series of miscommunications. For another thing, the massive ships of Spain that were designed for crossing the Atlantic Ocean and having a wide berth at sea on which to sail, proved to be rather difficult to maneuver in the more narrow and more rocky English Channel.
Whereas of course the English, having their ships mostly close to home, typically had smaller vessels that were more easily steered and navigated. They could actually kind of almost do circles around the larger Spanish ships. Ultimately, when the Spanish Armada came, it first landed in France at Calais, but then it began to set out to the west against England.
But it first of all suffered very bad weather, and many different ships were actually sunk before they could ever even engage the English. Finally, the Spanish Armada and the English fleet, led by Sir Francis Drake, came to heads in the month of July of 1588. And when the Spanish at this point found out that, A, for many of their gigantic cannons, they had brought the wrong size artillery shot, so they didn’t actually fire properly, and B, several of their cannons were so massive and so untried and so poorly designed that they actually exploded when you tried to fire them.
As a result, many of the Spanish Armada sailors actually died from their own cannons rather than from English cannons. One of the great ironies of this entire story. Ultimately, the Spanish Armada was defeated in battle. Some of the ships made it further away south. Some tried to head on north towards Scotland, hoping to find allies up there, because there was still some stronghold of Catholicism up there, but they did not find that.
In fact, many of the Spanish Armada sailors who had the misfortune to wind up somewhere on the British coast were often beaten to death by the local inhabitants who saw them, in some ways, rightfully so, as invaders.
As for the Great Armada, much of the wood washed up on the beaches of Great Britain and was made into furniture, specifically some nice furniture for the Queen.
Either way, Queen Elizabeth had this to say after the Great Battle. She says, “I have come”–I’m sorry, this is actually before the Great Battle. She came out to actually rally the troops of Sir Francis Drake, the sailors and so forth before the battle. She said this, she said, “I am come amongst you as you see at this time, not for my recreation and sport, but being resolved to, in the middle and the heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all, and to lay down for my God and for my kingdom and for my people my honor and my blood, even in the dust.
” She goes on, she says, “I know that I have the body of a weak and a feeble woman, but I have the heart and the stomach of a king and a king of England too.
Therefore let us stand, therefore let us fight, therefore let these infidels be turned back.” It was the kind of stuff that really rallied the troops. They saw Elizabeth as an incredible ruler, which she was. Now the second character I actually want to talk about was probably more so of a pirate than Drake actually was, and that was William Kidd.
His dates are 1645 to 1701. William Kidd was a Scottish privateer who largely operated against the French. He was a privateer, meaning he actually had permission to attack French vessels. He also was often commissioned by the English authorities to go out and attack actual pirates, those who had no permission to attack anyone and actually sought no permission.
He took a French ship, actually, in the middle of one day in the harbor of what became New York City, after many of his own sailors had been impressed by the Royal Navy.
that means that the Royal Navy of England, even though he was a privateer, sanctioned by them essentially, had taken several of his sailors because they were short of hands.
So he simply went and attacked a French ship in the middle of New York City. This was all considered illegal back at the time. There was really not much consideration of personal liberty. Anyway, he took many different ships. In fact, at one point he took an Armenian ship, which you don’t actually have permission to do so. He was actually taken, but largely because his men started the battle when he was indisposed in his cabin. Perhaps he had drunk too much, I’m not really sure. He was known though for being rather violent when he needed to, and was quite an authoritarian leader. In fact, at moments when his own sailors did not actually follow his orders, or did do things like take a ship, they were not, did not actually have permission to take, at least from him, he was known often for simply killing them by his own hand.
So that’s how he handled things and how he ran his own crew. That’s one of the things that made him so feared throughout all of piracy. He also used some of the wealth that he actually gathered from his privateering, or if you want to call it piracy, adventures to help found Trinity Church in New York City.
You can still see it to this day right there on Wall Street. It’s dwarfed by skyscrapers now. By the time that it was built, it was the tallest structure in all of New York City stayed that way for hundreds of years.
Eventually, however, he turned to actual piracy himself, began to attack whomever he wanted to without any kind of permission, and was himself actually captured by the British who hanged him in the city of London.
The final character we’ll talk about today also began as a privateer and also turned to piracy. He’s perhaps the most famous character, perhaps even more famous than Francis Drake. And that is the character of Edward Teach, who’s better known to history as Blackbeard. He lived from 1680 to 1718 and terrorized particularly the Caribbean and the southern United States from his great ship Queen Anne’s Revenge, which itself got its title from Queen Anne’s War, of which he was really quite upset over the outcome of that battle, and believed that Great Britain had not properly received its due for all of its fighting and all of its gains in that actual war.
All the same, he was known for creating quite a bit of terror, largely because he had lit fuses under his hat and tied to his beard that would actually burn and make it look like he was about to explode at any time.
These are fuses are often used for different kinds of explosives. He also was a brilliant negotiator in the sense that he can negotiate well with other pirates. He actually organized a massive flotilla to go and attack the South Carolina city of Charleston and ransack it. As a result he was often wanted by United States authorities. However the The British saw him as a great weapon against the Spanish, against the French, against whoever happened to be seen as a rival at the time, and so they pardoned him for his piracy and actually allowed him to serve as a privateer for a while, which he did, until of course he returned to being a pirate and attacking whoever he wanted to at any possible time, whenever he felt like it.
Ultimately, he struck the Americas one too many times and was killed in a fight against forces that came from the state of Virginia. So, if you want to call that the advent of US Navy SEALs, it might be a good place to start. But either way, that is how Blackbeard made his end. We’ll talk about some enlightened despots and rulers tomorrow.