Pity poor, honest Robert Snead. A justice in colonial Philadelphia in 1697, he was determined to enforce the laws against piracy by arresting members of pirate Henry Avery’s crew who were living in the city. But the governor’s daughter was married to one of them. Snead’s fellow justice also had a relative married to a pirate. They blocked him at every turn. Ultimately, the sheriff let the criminals “escape.” A disgusted Snead gave up.
In a nutshell, that’s how the so-called “Golden Age” of piracy from 1680-1726 became so golden. American colonists not only tolerated piracy, they built their economy on its loot. As author Eric Jay Dolin illustrates in his gripping Black Flags, Blue Waters, colonists and pirates were “partners in crime”—until their interests diverged.
Dolin, who has previously written popular narratives about whaling, the fur trade and opium trafficking, finds another can’t-miss subject in the adventures of Kidd, Bonnet, Blackbeard and their ilk. Dolin makes it fresh by focusing on the interaction between pirates and the British colonies. His evidence is irrefutable: pirate cash and stolen goods were invaluable to colonial ports.
As long as the pirates were attacking Spanish and Muslim ships, the colonists were delighted to abet them. But, inevitably, the authorities got around to cracking down, and the pirates sought new victims closer to home. The culmination was Blackbeard’s blockade of Charleston, which led to the exciting chase that ended in his death. The colonists were now pirate hunters.
Many of the infamous pirates were hanged, and they didn’t leave behind buried treasure. But Dolin ends with real treasure: the discovery in 1984 of the wreck of Samuel Bellamy’s pirate ship Whydah off Cape Cod, producing “a torrent of artifacts.” Our fascination with the robbers who sailed under the black flags is unlikely to end any time soon.