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Course C. Pirates, Guns, and Empires

Alumnae Continuing Education

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


• Each 9-week online course is $155.00.  Registration pays for access to a live webinar and limited-time access to a recording of each week’s 90-minute session.                                                                                                                    

• Late registrations require payment of the full course price. Courses cannot be prorated. Late registrants will NOT be able to access recordings from prior weeks if the links and passcodes have expired.

        • There are no multi-course discounts.

        Per Diem pricing is not available for these courses.


        • Registrations can only be purchased online at  A payment card is required.  No other forms of payment can be accepted at this time.  Neither the Norris Box Office nor the Alumnae Continuing Education group can process any other type of registration payment.  There are no exceptions.

        • After registering for a course, you should receive a registration confirmation message from  It will be sent to the email address associated with your profile.  Though it is not your entry to the ZOOM class, it is important that you locate the confirmation as soon as possible. If you don't receive an email, it could mean that there is a problem with how your email address is listed in our system.  A typo in your email address could result in the Zoom link being lost.  You can correct your information by logging in at, clicking on your name in the purple bar at the top, and then on Edit Profile.

        To access the first webinar on September 21, your online registration must be completed by midnight, Thursday, September 16, 2021. If you register on September 17 or later, we cannot guarantee timely entry to the course on September 23, the first day.

        • Your registration automatically includes temporary access to a recording of each remaining livestream session in the course.  You will be sent a separate link with a passcode to give you access to the recording for six days, ending when the next session begins. If you register late, you may not have access to recordings of livestreamed sessions that took place prior to your registration.

        Your Zoom link and passcode are specific to your email and may not be shared.  Sharing your links may void your registration without refund.

        • All course times listed are in the Central Daylight Time zone (UTC -05:00). Course times will return to Central Standard Time (UTC -06:00) on Sunday, November 7, 2021, at 2 a.m.

        • Given the limitations presented by the pandemic, support from customer service will be limited to email correspondence.  Please use the Help Form with any service issues.

        Linking to Live Sessions

        • You will be emailed a Zoom link invitation for each session on the Friday before the session is scheduled to be livestreamed.  The invitation will be sent from Norris Technical Services . You will also receive an email reminder with the link one hour prior to the start of each session. Please check your spam, junk folder, or deleted messages if you don't see the email in your inbox.

        • Plan on clicking on the Zoom link and joining the online session at least 10 minutes before the session begins.

        Your Zoom link is specific to your email address and may not be shared.

        • For a detailed guide on using Zoom, please click on the Alumnae Continuing Education Zoom Guide here.

        Limited Access to Recorded Sessions

        • If you cannot attend the live-streaming of the session, you may still view the recorded session for a limited time.

        • You will be sent a separate link with a passcode to give you access to the recording of the session for six days, ending when the next session begins. 

        • Your Zoom link and passcode are specific to your email and may not be shared.

          • Recordings CANNOT be downloaded.

          • If you don’t receive the email with the link and passcode to the recording, please complete the online Help Form at or contact as soon as possible to ensure timely assistance. Weekend support is not available.

          • For additional support, call The Alumnae voicemail number: (847) 604-3569.

          Refund Policy

          • If you intend to withdraw from a course, you must purchase a $10.00 cancellation fee by Thursday, September 16, 2021. A full refund will be processed to the payment card used for the initial purchase.

          • Registrations purchased after September 20 cannot be refunded.

          • No refunds will be given once the first webinar begins.

          • Credits are not given for future classes.

          • Contact the if you would like to transfer to another class offered during the same quarter.  There is no additional cost.  But you will have to wait until the following week to access the new course links.

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          Online ticket sales ended on 10/7/2021 at 11:59 PM (CT)

          Event Location
          Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Drive Evanston, IL 60208

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