Dr David Wilson’s keenly-awaited and thoroughly absorbing new book examines how the British empire sought to blunt the very real threat of piracy. But the empire could not act as a single force, so instead the “war against piracy” took the form of many varied – and sometimes contradictory – actions and responses in territories across the vast swathe of the globe covered by British trade routes.
On 31 July 1715, a Spanish flotilla carrying bullion, dyestuffs, tobacco, and other loot violently extracted from the Americas was struck by a hurricane off Cape Canaveral, Florida. Ten of the eleven ships were lost: two disappeared beneath the open seas while the remaining eight crashed into shallow waters off the Florida coast. More than a thousand sailors lost their lives, including General Ubilla, the fleet’s commander. The survivors assembled on the beach, sent to the nearby Spanish colony of St. Augustine for support, and began to salvage the wrecks. The Spanish government in Havana learned of the loss two weeks later and immediately dispatched a relief expedition to aid survivors and recover as much of the lost cargo as possible.
This event triggered an outpouring of British wrecking crews from various colonies who voyaged to Florida to try and recover some of this submerged wealth from the sea floor, particularly through the use of enslaved divers. In April 1716, following Spanish pressure to curtail these activities, the British governor of Jamaica issued a proclamation that forbade all British subjects from fishing the Spanish wrecks. With this proclamation, it became clear that any British vessels that returned to port laden with salvaged treasure would face the loss of that plunder and potential prosecution. The proclamations, consequently, isolated a significant maritime population who, rather than return to colonial ports with their plunder, instead gathered at the Bahamas and continued to fish the wrecks. By the end of 1716, once the wrecks became harder to work and such activities proved less profitable, a significant number of this isolated maritime population turned to outright piracy.
So began a ten-year surge in piracy, in which this isolated population and their offshoots caused significant impact on shipping and trade throughout the Caribbean, North America, West Africa, Brazil, and the Indian Ocean. It is this ten-year period that gives rise to many of the modern tropes of piracy because it was this period that figures such as Edward Thache alias Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read operated. It is also the period that the famous skull-and-crossbones flag originates from. Yet, despite this enduring legacy (or perhaps because of it), this ten-year period has not received a great deal of focus within existing histories of piracy beyond the popular retellings of the pirate biographies contained in Captain Charles Johnson’s swashbuckling but notoriously unreliable and embellished A General History of the Pyrates (1724-8).
Beyond perpetuations of Johnson’s myths, these ten years are largely discussed as an end point to discussions of seventeenth-century piracy, in which a “war on piracy” was enacted by the British imperial state to rid the seas of unaffiliated and obstructive maritime predators. This is pitched as a result of a newly coherent British empire following the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707, in which the now British colonies and the British imperial government had become better connected through a series of colonial reforms occurring at the turn of the century. This then prompted British colonists who had once supported pirates to turn their backs on them. Such transformation, however, did not then negate the need for enforcement and deterrence against piracy at sea.
Yet, no study has examined the practical application and impact of changing colonial perceptions and related government manoeuvres on the rise and decline of piracy in the early eighteenth century. Instead, this is interpreted as the result of a coordinated state war against piracy and the inevitable consequence of a more united British empire that was entirely hostile to pirates and had the capabilities to eradicate it. Contesting this view, this book argues that the British imperial administration did not have the resources or capabilities to undertake such a campaign. Instead, the so-called “war against piracy” was in fact a series of local, detached, and entirely reactive campaigns that relied on the interactions and resources of multiple interest groups operating across the diverse regions and waters of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
By exploring these campaigns, Suppressing Piracy reassesses British imperial and maritime power as it was projected through encounters between pirates and those who sought to suppress them. Beginning in the Greater Caribbean following the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, this bookcharts the rise of piracy and British anti-piracy campaigns as pirates voyaged from the Greater Caribbean to North America, West Africa, and the Indian Ocean and impacted on different British trading routes. In doing so, the book explores how campaigns against piracy were entangled in the concerns of and contests between British imperial participants operating throughout the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Far from a cohesive and centralised campaign, the impact of piracy on specific coastlines and shipping routes exacerbated existing conflicts and questions throughout the British empire surrounding issues such as maritime defence, naval authority, piracy laws, colonial governance, commercial monopolies, and imperial investment.
Shifting the focus from the pirates themselves to those that sought to suppress them, Suppressing Piracy examines how anti-piracy campaigns were constructed in disparate contexts as a result of the negotiations, conflicts, and individual undertakings of imperial participants operating in the commercial and imperial hub of London, in maritime communities throughout the British Atlantic, in trading outposts and Presidency towns in Africa and India, and in marginal and contested zones such as the Bahamas, the Bay Islands, and Madagascar. It argues that it was only through manifold activities transpiring within these places, which were driven by often competing and contradictory interests, that Atlantic piracy was gradually discouraged, although not eradicated, by the mid-1720s. But this was not permanent. There was simply not the capacity to perpetually protect and police British merchant shipping throughout the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. This remained reliant on the limited and detached efforts of diverse actors who responded to maritime threats and regulations as they arose throughout the waters surrounding and connecting the British empire.
This guest post was written by David Wilson, Lecturer in Early Modern Maritime and Scottish History at the University of Strathclyde.