Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740

Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740

Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740

Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740


Analyzing the rise and subsequent fall of international piracy from the perspective of colonial hinterlands, Mark G. Hanna explores the often overt support of sea marauders in maritime communities from the inception of England's burgeoning empire in the 1570s to its administrative consolidation by the 1740s. Although traditionally depicted as swashbuckling adventurers on the high seas, pirates played a crucial role on land. Far from a hindrance to trade, their enterprises contributed to commercial development and to the economic infrastructure of port towns.

English piracy and unregulated privateering flourished in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean because of merchant elites' active support in the North American colonies. Sea marauders represented a real as well as a symbolic challenge to legal and commercial policies formulated by distant and ineffectual administrative bodies that undermined the financial prosperity and defense of the colonies. Departing from previous understandings of deep-sea marauding, this study reveals the full scope of pirates' activities in relation to the landed communities that they serviced and their impact on patterns of development that formed early America and the British Empire.


On December 3, 1699, William Penn arrived in Philadelphia Harbor to investigate scandalous accusations that his colony openly fostered global piracy. He was appalled to find men, walking in the streets, who were notorious for committing astounding acts of piracy against Muslim pilgrimage vessels in the Indian Ocean. These predators upon England’s allies were not skulking among some maritime underclass in squalid taverns. Some had bought land in the colonies surrounding the Delaware Bay, where they had settled down with local women, often from established Quaker families. William Markham, Penn’s cousin and appointed deputy governor, had sanctioned his own daughter’s marriage to accused pirate James Brown. Penn’s former personal lawyer in England and now the colony’s attorney general, David Lloyd, had brazenly refused to try these known pirates for their crimes. Quaker justices of the peace Anthony Morris and Edward Shippen frankly admitted that their kinswoman had married one of these brigands and that they personally enjoyed the pirates’ company.

The few pirates royal officials did incarcerate had recently escaped the Philadelphia jail with the assistance of the sheriff and influential Quakers. In a not-so-elaborate cover-up, they tore away a fourteen-inch board to simulate

1. William Penn to BOT, Philadelphia, Apr. 28, 1700, CO 5/1260, no. 43, Edward Randolph to William Popple, New York, May 12, 1698, 323/2, no. 114. Before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, March 25 often marked the beginning of the year rather than January 1. This meant that documents written from January 1 to March 25 often had a double date, like March 1, 1690/1. I have changed these dates into the modern calendar where the actual date is clear.

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