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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Cover Art: Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British
        Empire, 1570-1740
Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740
By Mark G. Hanna
University of North Carolina, 2015, ISBN 978-1-4696-1794-7, $45.00
Also available in e-book formats


In December 1699, William Penn visited his colony to see for himself whether Pennsylvanians were guilty of fostering piracy. He was appalled at what he unearthed, including the fact that his own cousin, Governor William Markham, colluded with pirates and Markham’s daughter had even married one. But what Penn and London did not comprehend was that people living on the peripheries of England’s empire viewed pirates far differently than London did. Their very survival depended on these marauders, for England could neither provide all the goods the colonists needed nor protect them from enemies like Spain and France.

Hanna examines and analyzes this support and protection. He also considers how piracy, as well as colonial politics and society, changed over time, assessing the role popular print played in that evolution. In addition, he looks at legal issues that both hindered and helped in the prosecution of pirates.

He begins this study with “The Elizabethan West Country: Nursery for English Seamen . . . and Pirates, 1570-1603,” detailing the political struggles that initially supported piracy under the Tudors, but stopped once James I ascended the throne. The Killigrews are discussed, as is Sir Francis Drake, who came to the conclusion that piracy wasn’t as attractive as he once thought. If the West Country was to survive, it needed to do so through trade and colonization.

As England withdrew her support of sea marauders, these men moved to Ireland. Some became renegades who sailed for the Barbary States. Chapter two, “Piratical Colonization, 1603-1655,” discusses this transition. It also covers the effect of England’s Civil War on colonial ports. Comparisons are made between Bermuda and Algiers, and American settlements and Caribbean ones.

The third chapter – “Contesting Jamaica’s Future, 1655-1688” – sees the emergence of the term “privateer” and English buccaneers during wars against the Dutch and France. Focus is placed on Henry Morgan, who rose to command them, and governors, like Sir Thomas Modyford, who supported them. The rise of Port Royal and slavery, as well as one of the earliest piracy trials outside of England (1671), are also examined.

“South Sea Pirates Sail North, 1674-1688,” is the next chapter. Particular emphasis is placed on Boston, Newport, Charles Town, and New Providence. Here Hanna analyzes why these ports welcomed pirate, when others did not. This is also when England’s and colonial perspectives began to differ in regards to pirates.

When havens in the Caribbean dried up, the pirates moved to Madagascar and the Indian Ocean. This period is examined in “The Rise of the Red Sea Pirates, 1688-1696.” Monopolies, such as the East India Company, allowed piracy to flourish.  Merchants, like Frederick Philipse, and governors, like William Markham and Benjamin Fletcher, colluded with pirates like Thomas Tew and Henry Every.

A series of events culminated in 1696 to impact the colonists’ support of pirates. These are discussed in chapter six, “The Spirit of 1696: Initiating Imperial Revolution.” London tasked Edward Randolph, surveyor general of customs in America, with reporting on the complicit governors and merchants; he, in turn, would write a treatise on how to suppress piracy. One of the other key episodes involved the pirate trials of some of Henry Every’s men.

One of the most vocal families on the scourge of piracy was the Mathers of New England. They, as well as Edward Randolph, Richard Coote, and Robert Snead, are topics covered in chapter seven, “Setting up for Themselves, 1697-1701.” During this time, debates arose as to exactly who had political power over the colonialists. While these men were strong believers in anti-piracy, they also expected to profit from such agendas.

Chapter 8, “George Larkin’s Tour, 1701-1703,” looks at the Board of Trade’s jurist who was sent to North America to train local authorities in the law and the proper administration of piracy trials. (For the first time, pirates could legally be tried outside of England.) Newspapers and other print media also brought the colonies under closer scrutiny in England, which resulted in making colonial authorities adhere to laws and policies.

But the first legal pirate trial outside of England was rife with irregularities, and these are showcased in the ninth chapter, “Captain Quelch’s Warning: The Transformation of Pirate Nests, 1704-1713.” The aftermath of that trial gave rise to formal legislation to distinguish privateers from pirates.

By the time Edward Low went on the account, pirates were no longer seen in a favorable light. They posed serious dangers to maritime trade, and their ideas of equality gave rise to fear within the social elite. This transformation is covered in chapter ten, “‘Abandon’d Wretches’: Rethinking the War on Pirates, 1713-1740.”

The text is accompanied by illustrations (maps and plates) and an index. Rather than include a bibliography, Hanna provides details of his source material in footnotes. Aside from traditional citations, these also provide readers with interesting historical tidbits and explanations not covered in the main narrative.

In his conclusion, “Piratical Societies: Trends and Lessons,” Hanna recaps key concepts he’s covered. The book ably details the symbiotic relationship between pirates and colonial ports. This study also illuminates the differences in perspective between England and her colonies. The economic, legal, cultural, and political transformations that take place from the mid-sixteenth century to the middle of the eighteenth are deftly drawn. Hanna also demonstrates that “[t]he patterns that bred piratical societies should compel us to pay closer attention to the people and communities on land that have fostered piracy well beyond the age of sail.” (423-24)

What began as a dissertation on Charles Town, South Carolina and Newport, Rhode Island’s support of piracy has blossomed into a complex study of English piracy, places that provided pirates safe haven, and the transition from venerated sea marauders to a villainous scourge that needed to be stopped.

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Review Copyrighted ©2016 Cindy Vallar

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