What Caused the Golden Age of Piracy?

During the golden age of piracy, the robbery of goods from merchant ships became higher than at any other time recorded in history. During this period, the triangular trade had significantly developed and therefore, there were many merchant ships transporting goods to Europe, Africa and America. The many vessels formed an easy target for the pirates.

Historians have associated the golden age of piracy with the heightened trade activities, the end of the Spanish Succession war that caused unemployment to privateers, the presence of islands that supported pirates’ movements, and the lack of state control in the sea.

What caused the Golden Age of Piracy

What was the golden age of piracy?

The golden age of piracy was a period when the activities of the pirates thrived more than any other. It was when the number of pirates and pirate vessels was highest. Historians divide the golden age of piracy into four:

  1. Privateering era – 16th and 17century
  2. Buccaneering era – 17th century
  3. Pirate round-up – 17th and 18th century
  4. Post-Spanish succession period – 18th century

The privateering period was characterized by an increase in the number of private ships. The sailors were licensed by their governments. Although the privateers were not pirates, they were authorized by the state to attack and rob ships and towns that belonged to their enemies.

The buccaneering period flourished in sea trade, which attracted many private sailors. States did not exert significant control on the private sailors. As the number of vessels increased, the number of pirates increased.

The pirate round-up was an era characterized by voyages over long distances. Pirates sailed from America to attack merchants during this period, mostly Muslims sailing through the Red Sea and Indian ocean. The East India Company was also a significant target for the pirates.

The Post Spanish Succession period resulted in the transformation of unemployed former privateers and Anglo-American sailors into pirates on the West African Coast, North American Eastern seaboard, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. The pirate activities were highest during this period than in the other three periods.

Golden Age of Caribbean Pirates

What led/caused the golden age of piracy?

The flourishing of piracy in the golden age of piracy was fueled by several factors that included:

  • Unemployment due to banning of privateers
  • A large number of ships carrying wealthy individuals and valuable cargo
  • Limited state control in the sea
  • Ease in access to weapons
  • Presence of landing islands for pirates
  • Poor conditions in merchants and navy ships

Unemployment due to banning of privateers

High unemployment rates of experienced sailors characterized the peak of piracy’s golden age. The unemployment was caused by the ending of the Spanish Succession war. The war was between France and Spain against Britain and Holland. During the war, the warring nations licensed individuals -known as privateers to attack the enemy’s ships and towns. The privateers would therefore attack and rob their enemies and amass great wealth. However, when the war between the nations ended, privateers were no longer licensed to fight on behalf of the government. They had no employment, and most of them turned to piracy as a source of income.

A large number of ships carrying wealthy individuals or valuable cargo

When the golden age of piracy occurred, there was an increased number of cargo ships taking goods to Europe, Africa, and America. It was at this time that the triangular trans-Atlantic slave trade significantly developed. The triangular trade involved shipping wine, textile and arms to Africa from Europe. Enslaved people were transported from Africa to America, while tobacco, sugar and other raw material from America to Europe. The increase in trade involved ships travelling long distances and becoming an easy target for the pirates. Wealthy individuals were targeted since they had gems, silver, and gold.

Limited state control in the sea

The state had little control over what happened in the sea. The colonial governments did not invest in the protection of ships, especially those belonging to other countries. Companies and individuals owning cargo ships mobilized their men to protect the vessels against pirates. The government relied on privateers to fight their enemies. The privateers were technically pirates who robbed ships and towns that were considered enemies by the state. Due to high reliance on privateers, states did not take much control of the sea.

Ease in access to weapons

Pirates had access to the same weapons the loyal navy possessed. Both pirates and merchants accessed and bought weapons. However, Pirates would amass large quantities of weapons to ensure that they would win when fighting was inevitable. Some preferred weapons included canons fitted on ships, riffles, axes, and powder flasks (grenades). Merchants surrendered to pirates who had made a name for themselves due to their weapons, fighting and sea expertise.

Presence of landing islands for pirates

Piracy was illegal according to the local laws. Pirates could, therefore, not operate freely in the presence of the state law enforcer. However, the British Caribbeans had several islands and ports where the loyal navy, governors, or state administration operated. The pirates used such islands to land their ships, sell the stolen goods, and repair their boats.

Poor conditions in merchants and navy ships

Experienced sailors in merchants and the royal navy shipped preferred working for pirates. Sailors in navy and merchant ships lived in poor conditions and were often mistreated by their seniors. They were paid poorly and did not have enough food. On the other hand, pirate ships were well-maintained. Sailors lived in good conditions, had enough to eat, had excellent income and lived like brothers and hence did not experience harsh treatment from their seniors. Pirate activities seemed fun and thus attracted most young and energetic people. Therefore, many experienced sailors from the merchant and navy ships joined the pirates.


The golden age of piracy was the peak of pirate activities. Pirates attacked merchant ships and enemy towns and robbed them of valuable goods. During this period, the triangular trade between Africa, Europe and America was also at its peak. Therefore, many ships, especially those under long voyages, were easy targets for the pirates. Other causes of piracy thriving included the end of the Spanish Succession war that led to banning privateers, limited state control of some sea regions, ease in weapon access, poor conditions in navy and merchant ships, and the presence of islands for pirates’ ship landing.

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