Course C. Pirates, Guns, and Empires
Thursdays, 10:00-11:30 a.m.
Instructor: Scott Sowerby, Associate Professor, History
This course meets on Thursdays morning beginning on September 23.
Pirates have long captured our imaginations. From Long John Silver to Captain Jack Sparrow, stories of pirates have been the source material for novels, films, and tales of romance and adventure. But what were pirates really like? This course will consider the history of piracy in the Caribbean during the early modern period, beginning with the arrival of the Spanish and ending in the early eighteenth century. Along the way, we will examine maritime warfare, life on board ship, and the impact of European colonization on indigenous peoples.
Sep. 23 Make Way for Tortuga
We will begin our voyage with a discussion of pirate mythology. How much of the depiction of pirates in Hollywood films and popular culture is accurate? For example, did pirates have a distinctive accent? (The short answer is: no.) We will then explore the emergence of the first major pirate nest in the Caribbean – the island of Tortuga. We will investigate how pirates managed to hang on to Tortuga despite frequent efforts by Spanish forces to drive them off the island.
Sep. 30 Life in Port Royal
Around the year 1660, the focus of pirate society in the Caribbean shifted away from Tortuga to the new English settlement of Port Royal, Jamaica. The pirates base at Port Royal developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the English settlers. In the late 1660s and 1670s, the governors of Jamaica granted letters of marque to pirates, granting them a veneer of legitimacy when they attacked Spanish shipping. In exchange, the English authorities received part of the booty. The resulting boom in authorized piracy, also known as “privateering,” underpinned the development of a thriving entrepôt at Port Royal. This lecture looks at life in this port. What did people do there? How were they governed (or not governed)? How did they relate to each other?
Oct. 7 Pirate Economics
Privateering helped to strengthen the English hold over Jamaica and the French hold over Tortuga and the western half of Hispaniola. Without the gold and booty brought by these maritime marauders, the settlements of Port Royal and Tortuga might have withered in the face of Spanish hostility. But as English and French colonies in the Caribbean developed their own export industries, especially the growth and production of sugar, they had less need for the pirates and their disruptive ways. Eventually, the governors of these colonies turned against the pirates, to lethal effect.
Oct. 14 Pirate Lairs in Madagascar
In the 1680s and 1690s, with their old haunts in Tortuga and Port Royal barred to them, the pirates of the Caribbean began to rove in search of new lairs. Some of them headed north to the American seaboard, finding a warm welcome in Rhode Island and New York City. Others headed east, to the Indian Ocean, joining the burgeoning pirate community on St Mary’s Island, Madagascar. This lecture asks what life was like on St Mary’s Island: how the pirates sustained themselves, how they spent their time, and how they interacted with the Malagasy people of Madagascar.
Oct. 21 Pirate Hunting in the Indian Ocean
The pirates of Madagascar soon made a new set of enemies. The leaders of the English East India Company were alarmed by the threat that pirates posed to their lucrative trading routes. The English government, anxious to avoid any interruption of the trade between London and Bombay, commissioned pirate hunters to track down the corsairs of Madagascar and bring them to justice. This lecture focuses on the most famous of those men, Captain Kidd: the pirate hunter who went bad and turned pirate himself.
Oct. 28 Enemies of All Nations
For a brief period in the 1690s, some pirates had found a warm welcome in ports along the eastern seaboard of North America, including Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. But in 1700, the English Parliament passed a new law against piracy. Unable to find friendly ports to shelter in, pirates began to turn against merchant shipping from their own nations, attacking English and French ships as well as their usual Spanish prey. Instead of flying the flag of their own country, they flew a new sort of flag: the black flag, or the skull and crossbones.
Nov. 4 The Pirate Codes
The pirates who flew the black flag were outlaws. They could no longer turn to English or French courts to settle disputes among themselves. In order to govern themselves, they had to write their own rules. Thus began the pirate codes. These elaborate documents, which were written by the crew of each pirate ship and to which all crewmembers had to agree, set out the rules and regulations for the ship and the punishments that the crew would exact for each infraction. Pirate crews were effectively writing their own constitutions. In this lecture, we will examine the political philosophy underlying these texts and will ask how they were applied in practice.
Nov. 11 The War on Pirates
By the late 1710s, pirates had become so dangerous to European shipping that colonial governors became determined to wipe them out completely. The pirate lifestyle became increasingly hazardous and, as a result, pirates found it hard to gain new recruits. In an effort to find new shipmates, some crews began to diversify, with Black sailors taking prominent places on several ships, and the first women pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, setting sail in 1720. The difficulties of pirate life in this period are embodied by the short career and bloody end of the most famous pirate of them all, Blackbeard.
Nov. 18 The End of Piracy?
By the year 1726, most of the pirate ships operating in the Caribbean and Atlantic had been seized or destroyed by the British Navy and dozens of corsairs had been executed in grisly fashion. What happened to the few who remained? Was it possible for a pirate to escape and retire? In this lecture, we will examine the pirates who managed to get away with their treasure. We will then turn to surveying the global history of piracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We will ask why the maritime raiders who lived in those later periods have not captured the imagination of the modern American public in the same way as the earlier pirates of the Caribbean.
Information is subject to change. Full course and policy descriptions are available at www.nualumnae.org
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