Despite what you may think, pirates were much more than people who committed robbery at sea. Pirates were free men and women who thrived for independence and adventure! They directed their ships where they pleased and stayed for as long as they wished.
The Golden Age of Piracy was active from 1650-1720. During this time, piracy flourished in Caribbean cities such as Port Royal and Tortuga, due to the lack of legal structure in these English and French settlements. Legendary pirates like Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts left us with many fascinating items including the Jolly Roger flag, the eye-patch and pirate coins!
What is a pirate?
Pirates today are seen as cool, rum drinking, peg legged, scoundrels. In reality, pirates were hardworking and skilled in boat construction, sailing and hunting. Also called corsairs or buccaneers, pirates have existed since the ancient times. Most pirates targeted ships and some attacked coastal towns. For years, pirates threatened the trading routes of Ancient Greece and seized cargoes of grain and olive oil from Roman ships. In the Americas, pirates openly traded smuggled goods with the colonies. In return, merchants made money by selling crucial pirate items, like flour.
The pirate culture
A pirate ship was like a thriving democracy. The captain was hand picked by the crew and could be disposed of for poor performance, including not finding adequate treasures. If disposed, the captain might be lowered in status to first mate or forced overboard to find his way to shore. In a world full of class structure and segregation, a pirate ship was considered a multi-cultural society. With a mixture of English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese seaman, there was essentially no discrimination. Even blacks were allowed aboard.
There is much evidence that pirates in fact carried coinage. The majority of pirates bartered with ancient Spanish or Dutch gold and silver coins. One particular pirate coin was the “pirate piece of eight,” also known as the Spanish colonial Pillar Dollar. The profit acquired by being a pirate made it a successful line of business. Wealthy businessmen were notorious for financing this legitimized piracy in return for a piece of the pie. For a poor man, there were few other promising career choices at the time apart from joining a pirate ship!
While much has been written about pirates, it was only over the last 40 years or so that salvaged ships have began to surface, exposing different kinds of coins that may have been looted. From a numismatic perspective, the uncharted seas only make pirate coins more fascinating!
Gary Dyner is the owner of Great American Coin Company. Connect with him on Google+.