Success Story

Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates

by Robert C. Ritchie
Harvard University Press, 306 pp., $20.00

Captain Kidd
Captain Kidd; drawing by David Levine

Outlaws, highwaymen, smugglers, pirates, train robbers—they have always had a romantic appeal, and much public sympathy. It was difficult to get seventeenth-century English juries to return guilty verdicts against pirates. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when pirates did a roaring trade with New York and other American ports, it was better to ship them back to England for trial if possible. For by then Englishmen had become aware of the overall importance of trade for the national economy.

Robert Ritchie’s meticulously researched book is an account of the transformation in world trade which led to this transformation in attitudes. His first chapter shows that piracy is as old as trade. There was often very little distinction between the two. A great change came with the sixteenth-century expansion of European trade—first to Africa, India, and the Far East, then to the Americas. We euphemistically call this “trade,” but in effect it was organized piracy and plunder. Trading companies, financed by private capital, organized it. Their ships, thanks to better armaments, forced their way into the thriving commerce of Asia. They grabbed and fortified trading stations, concluded unequal treaties with local rulers whom they “protected” against other pirates. The English and Dutch East India companies intervened in wars in order to drive harder bargains with the winners. It is a very sordid story indeed.

But like many other stories of brutal violence, it was a success story. Local regimes in Africa and the Far East had to come to terms with the powerful intruders. In the Americas, Spain and Portugal took over direct rule. Europe’s “trade” advanced by leaps and bounds, not least the slave trade. This led to a vast increase in piracy on the trade routes. The scene was complicated by rivalries between the great plundering powers. Whenever Spain was at war with France, the Netherlands, or England, the governments of these countries commissioned “privateers” to pillage Spanish trade. Privateers did not always recognize the distinction between friendly and enemy ships, and when the great powers signed a peace the little pirates were apt to ignore it. In the Mediterranean the permanent state of war between Spain and the Turks led to permanent piracy, based on the North African coast. As Dutch and English trade became richer, Algerian pirates came out of the Mediterranean to take their share. In the reigns of James I and Charles I they raided the south coast of England and took slaves. Dunkirk became a pirate base. Such policing of the Channel as occurred was done by the Dutch; England was impotent to protect its own merchants and even its own shores.

Governments were ambivalent in their attitudes toward piracy. “Privateers” were useful allies in time of war. As Robert Ritchie points out, a navy was much more expensive than an army and, for all but the maritime powers, the Netherlands and England,…

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