Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

If mass unemployment of sailors in the early 1700’s lead to widespread piracy why don’t we hear about pirates after every major sea-war?

Unemployment of sailors after the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1713) had it’s influence but wasn’t necessarily the cause of it. The wrecking of the Spanish Treasure Fleet in 1715 was a sort of catalyst to a peak in pirate activity from 1716 to 1725, having areas with high value targets but little authority to reign in piracy allowed for piracy to succeed for a long time, and then the hard up employment issue exasperated it all. I wouldn’t call the several thousand men who engaged in piracy at the time (around 5,000 men in total according to an estimate by Marcus Rediker in his work on piracy Villains of All Nations for the 1716-1725 period) a “large fleet” since they didn’t all work together at the same time (it’s a lot of pirates, but fleet suggests one that works together like a Navy fleet to me). As to why there aren’t rashes of piracy after other wars afterwards, it depends on time and place since other parts of the world had notable periods of piracy afterwards.

The origins of “unemployed equals piracy” is that, historically, some unemployed sailors in the New World did take to the sea and engage in piracy. Charles Johnson noted this issue in his notorious work The General History of Pyracy (published in 2 volumes and several additions that added things between 1724-1728), and the numerous publications on the health and well-being of sailors that started popping up more regularly at the time noted the concern of unemployed sailors having no choice but to turn to thievery and piracy. But, after the War of Spanish Succession ended for the English in 1713, piracy didn’t erupt in that same year. After most wars of that era, there is a spike in maritime activity for a brief time since there are no Navy ships or privateers to threaten civilian vessels. So, there would be a rush of employment immediately after the war. So to get trading networks back up to their previous supply and to get rid of surplus that built up in warehouses during the war, more sailors were employed in the months following the war. But once the surplus was transported and demand leveled out, employment issues set in. There were around 45,000 sailors employed by the British Navy during that war, and only 15,000 of those were kept in peace time. While quite a number would find employment again on civilian vessels or employment on land (not all sailors spent their entire lives employed at sea, see the book Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail by Daniel Vickers on that issue), others would have troubles, and then there was the greater issue of wages going down a little during peace time on civilian vessels. During wartime, of course demand for sailors will be up due to the Navy, and that will drive up wages a little on civilian vessels. But when you have an abundance of sailors and not enough vessels to employ them, wages may come down a little from their wartime levels since the supply isn’t pressed and the threat of combat/capture at sea isn’t there anymore from foreign countries. Merchants and their captains could hand pick better crews. But of course some sailors will be ticked off that they aren’t being paid as well when there was a war, or getting the chance at the high risk-reward profits of privateering that could only take place during the war.

From 1713 to 1715, a small number of sailors either unemployed or not satisfied with wages after the war (and wanting to continue to make big profits off of taking vessels like during the war) engaged in piracy from primarily the Bahamas. This small number of crews started out in small vessels and even in boats. Since the Bahamas had been raided so many times by rival powers during the last war, authority (and population) was scant in that colony and pirates could operate from there without people coming after them. The Bahamas sat right next to major routes that trading vessels regularly sailed by. With authorities that couldn’t stop them, a population that won’t stop them, plus unprotected/rich traffic of vessels nearby, and having a group of men who were in want of money and not seeing much other way to make it – you get piracy. Much of this formula still applies today (go look at Somalia in much of the 21st century).

But, in later 1715, the Spanish Treasure Fleet (that had been delayed for a number of years due to the previous war) set off to bring riches from the New World to Spain. On the coast of Florida, the fleet was wrecked by a hurricane. The Spanish instantly worked to salvage the treasure – but word got out hat a bunch of treasure was spilled out on the beaches of the Florida. Various colonies had men go out to try and salvage (or outright take money from Spanish salvagers) money from these wrecks. After all, it’s money, it is salvage, and hard currency is always in short supply in the colonies. The “privateers” sent out by Governor Hamilton from Jamaica are the most notorious, since they raided a Spanish salvaging camp on a beach and took a large amount of treasure from it. But, things got out of hand. For one, it was peace time, so many of the “salvagers” were pretty much engaging in piracy. As a result, they were declared such and were not allowed to return back home because they were now criminals. Second, many of these salvagers didn’t find the amount of treasure they thought they would (if they found anything) or could not get at the treasure due to Spanish guard ships – so they turned to piracy afterwards since, as those men operating out of the Bahamas had found already, the circumstances were ripe for piracy and these men wanted money to begin with. In 1716 and 1717, piracy grew rapidly so that eventually numbers reached around 2,000 pirates in about 30 crews operating the Atlantic (though heavily in the Caribbean and on the North American east coast).

While the origins of crews varied from those early beginners in 1713 from the Bahamas to former “salvagers”, the one issue with the unemployed sailor thing is that once many of the early crews formed, many of the men they recruited afterwards either volunteered or were forced out of captured vessels the pirates took. So, those men were already employed and made up the strongest means by which pirates became pirates. Piracy only started to decline when British authorities sent Woodes Rogers to the Bahamas to bring back law and order. The reclaiming of Nassau prevented that place from being a base for the pirates to organize crews, repair, resupply, and engage in a black market with colonial merchants in which the pirates got rid of their captured cargoes at amazing prices for the colonial merchants (since the overhead cost for the merchandise was quite low for pirates). Pirate hunting by the Navy and colonial authorities heightened as well. Pardons to pirates who surrendered themselves went out (since plenty of men who started pirating because of the “salvaging” on the wrecks hadn’t exactly thought the consequences of engaging in piracy and wanted to go back home). The pardons and the loss of the Bahamas hurt the pirates. As time progressed, while pirates continued on until about 1725, their numbers grew less and less as time progressed (though, crews of pirates continued to form and reform and operate mostly at sea without the support of a major port like Nassau in the Bahamas). Much of the excess crews from the Bahamas gangs that didn’t surrender in 1718 dissipated or were captured by the end of 1723, though groups of pirates that didn’t have as much origin from those men in the Caribbean started growing at about the time those men from the Bahamas started wrapping up. These contingents hunted until about 1725 and had pretty harsh reputations (I see many more of the harsher stories coming from these guys during the Golden Age of Piracy).

As for why didn’t piracy erupt after all the other wars afterwards due to unemployed piracy? As we’ve seen, for piracy to work, you need the right circumstances. After the Napoleonic Wars, there were higher levels of piracy due to the unstable environment caused by former Spanish possessions rebelling and breaking away into their own countries. This is why the American and British navies had to work together in the years after 1815, to help take these guys down. It’s also why an American “mosquito fleet” was established in 1825, to hunt down the pirates that pestered the waters around the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and other areas around Central America. Even in 1825 there was still some “frontier-ish” aspect to the New World coast to allow for raiders of to raid merchant traffic and escape to places that lacked law enforcement. For the World Wars, I don’t study those, but the changes in the world between the 18th and early 19th century and the 20th had to play a factor. Also, the increase in piracy in Southeast Asia (in particular in and around Indonesia) kind of happened after World War II (though I primarily know of the huge increases that happened after the Vietnam War in the 1970s).

Sailor unemployment, or maritime unemployment in general, does play a factor in piracy. But so does circumstances – as in the presence of vulnerable targets and having authorities that either aren’t present or accepting of the situation. Not all pirates have to be former sailors, though history shows that it’s a common pattern. The vast majority of pirates in the Golden Age from the 1690s-1720s were former sailors. In the 21st century, many of the Somali pirates were former fishermen, though quite a number were just common populace with no maritime experience.

[For the information on what the pirate crew numbers were like when and where, Marcus Rediker as his book Villains of All Nations did a good job with that (though his argument concerning pirates as organized labor against the capitalist system in the Atlantic during the 18th century is quite debatable, and has been so since the 1980s when he first posed the idea in his work Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea).]


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