What Happened to the Pirates?

James Barrett
13 min readMar 21, 2023


You teacher used teach about Pirate Hawkins
you teacher used teach about Pirate Morgan
And you said he was a very great man
you teacher used teach about Christopher Columbus
And you said he was a very great man
you teacher used teach about Marco Polo, so

You can’t blame the youth
You can’t fool the youth
You can’t blame the youth of today

Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003) is a highly questionable text. Mr. Ferguson is selective in his use of evidence, in a sort of Boys Own Annual meets The Economist style. However, Ferguson writes well and much of his source materials do have a significant bearing on how “an archipelago of rainy islands off the north-west coast of Europe came to rule the world” (xi) I contend that how this happened began, (and depending on who you ask, continued for quite some time), with piracy.

In Ferguson’s book there are several references to pirates and piracy, which includes:

“The buccaneers called themselves the “Brethren of the Coast” and had a complex system of profit sharing, including insurance policies for injury. Essentially they were engaged in organized crime. When Morgan led another raid against the Spanish town of Portobelo in Panama, in 1688, he came back with so much plunder — in all, a quarter of a million pieces of eight — that the coins become legal tender in Jamaica. That amounted to to £60 000 from just one raid. The English government not only winked at Morgan’s activities, it positively encouraged him. Viewed from London, buccaneering was a low-budget way of waging war against England’s principle European foe, Spain. In effect, the crown licenced the pirates and ‘privateers’, legalising their operations in return for a share of the proceeds. Morgan’s career was a classic example of the way the British Empire started out, using enterprising freehand as much as official forces.” (p. 2)

“Morgan’s career perfectly illustrates the way the empire building process worked. It was a transition from piracy to political power that would change to world forever.” (p. 12)

“Once pirates, then traders, the British were now the rulers of millions of peoples overseas — and not just in India.[…] But if British rule in Bengal was to be more than a continuation of the smash-and-grab tactics of the buccaneers a more subtle approach was needed.” (p. 38)

The “new approach” was supposed to be the appointment of Warren Hastings as the first Governor-General of British India in 1773. In 1788 Hastings was on trial in London for, among other things “gross injustice, cruelty and treachery” as well as “impoverishing and depopulating the whole country of Oude”. (p. 49) As the British East India Company was what the Governor-General really managed it was “the state of near perpetual warfare” (p. 44) waged by the Company in India (and their potential profits) that had resulted in it being taken over by the British Government under the new India Act of 1784. According to the Act:

the work of trading had to be separated from the work of ruling India

a six-man Board of Control from the Privy Council, headed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was to be appointed. This meant that the Board of Control would change with the government.

the ministerial board was to have sight of all the papers of the Company and was to issue orders to the directors of the Company which they were bound, in practice, to obey. The Board of Control could, in case of emergency, transmit the orders direct to India.

the appointment of offices in India was retained by the Company subject to the king’s over-riding power to veto or remove

the Governor-General in Calcutta and his council was given absolute power with regard to foreign policy over the other presidencies in Bombay and Madras

the Governor-General had the power to over-rule his council (this came with an amendment in 1786)

British subjects were made responsible to English courts for wrongs done in India. All returning “nabobs” were to declare their fortunes

It was never the case that the English succeeded in defeating the pirates in the 1700s. Rather it was a complex series of moves and counter moves, where the actions of pirates were used to the advantage of the British government when it suited. The pirate/privateer Morgan himself ended up becoming Lieutenant Governor Admiral Sir Henry Morgan of Jamaica in 1673. Those pirates that went against what was expected of them or began getting too independent, such as Edward Teach (Blackbeard -who bought a pardon once from the British Governor Charles Eden of North Carolina but then abandoned settled life and the offer of subsequent pardons), met with violent deaths at the hands of their former business partners.

My own Great Great Grandfather in 1859 was part of an expedition that sailed up the east coast of Australia with 12 muskets and a cannon in response to “The New South Wales Government [which] in 1859 has posted a reward of 2000 pounds to anyone who discovered a suitable harbour north of Port Alma (near Rockhampton).” They found one, Port Denison at Bowen and while they did not get the reward the township of Bowen was founded by Captain Henry Daniel Sinclair, his partners James Gordon (my great great grandfather) and Benjamin Poole in 1861. From 1861–1866 the area around Bowen was closed to Aborigines, with none allowed to enter its boundaries. Capt Sinclair was considered a maniac by his fellow colonialists. Something to do with his habit of shooting any Aboriginal people he could see from the deck of the boat. Today Bowen is a vibrant tourist location and source of primary produce. It began as a ‘claimed’ territory in the tradition of all great piracy.

If history is to be our teacher in regards to the debates around private property, profit and common ownership on an international scale, we have to look at the grey area between the law, the event and what would be considered justice. This is relevant for us today when we consider such grand acts of piracy as the fact that £30 trillion worth of oil and £20 trillion in gold was stolen in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Exactly as Ferguson writes, “Morgan’s career perfectly illustrates the way the empire building process worked. It was a transition from piracy to political power that would change to world forever” (p. 12). It continues to happen today. In Ukraine today, private militias are attempting to establish state power and deplete wealth from their victims. It’s piracy all over again. The pirates never went away. Just the one’s that don’t coperate with state power. They are not tolerated. We can take a look at two “pirates”, separated by three centuries, but whose ‘professional’ arcs as pirates are similar in some ways, but perhaps not in the scale of their crimes.

How pirates die — if they don’t cooperate with the State of Power

William Kidd, Pirate

William Kidd (c.1645–1701) was declared a pirate by the Royal British Navy in 1698. However in 1695 he had been given a privateering certificate by the governor of New York and was working for the British Navy, “hunting pirates and attacking French ships”.

Escaped prisoners told stories of being hoisted up by the arms and “drubbed” (thrashed) with a drawn cutlass by Kidd. But on one occasion, crew members sacked the trading ship Mary and tortured several of its crew members while Kidd and the other captain, Thomas Parker, conversed privately in Kidd’s cabin.

Kidd was declared a pirate very early in his voyage by a Royal Navy officer, to whom he had promised “thirty men or so”. Kidd sailed away during the night to preserve his crew, rather than subject them to Royal Navy impressment. The letter of marque was intended to protect a privateer’s crew from such impressment.

On 30 January 1698, Kidd raised French colours and took his greatest prize, the 400-ton Quedagh Merchant, an Indian ship hired by Armenian merchants. It was loaded with satins, muslins, gold, silver, and a variety of East Indian merchandise, as well as extremely valuable silks. The captain of Quedagh Merchant was an Englishman named Wright, who had purchased passes from the French East India Company promising him the protection of the French Crown.

When news of his capture of this ship reached England, however, officials classified Kidd as a pirate. Various naval commanders were ordered to “pursue and seize the said Kidd and his accomplices” for the “notorious piracies” they had committed.

Kidd kept the French sea passes of the Quedagh Merchant, as well as the vessel itself. British admiralty and vice-admiralty courts (especially in North America) previously had often winked at privateers’ excesses amounting to piracy. Kidd might have hoped that the passes would provide the legal fig leaf that would allow him to keep Quedagh Merchant and her cargo. Renaming the seized merchantman as Adventure Prize, he set sail for Madagascar.

On 1 April 1698, Kidd reached Madagascar. After meeting privately with trader Tempest Rogers (who would later be accused of trading and selling Kidd’s looted East India goods), he found the first pirate of his voyage, Robert Culliford (the same man who had stolen Kidd’s ship at Antigua years before) and his crew aboard Mocha Frigate.

Two contradictory accounts exist of how Kidd proceeded. According to A General History of the Pyrates, published more than 25 years after the event by an author whose identity is disputed by historians, Kidd made peaceful overtures to Culliford: he “drank their Captain’s health”, swearing that “he was in every respect their Brother”, and gave Culliford “a Present of an Anchor and some Guns”. This account appears to be based on the testimony of Kidd’s crewmen Joseph Palmer and Robert Bradinham at his trial.

The other version was presented by Richard Zacks in his 2002 book The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd. According to Zacks, Kidd was unaware that Culliford had only about 20 crew with him, and felt ill-manned and ill-equipped to take Mocha Frigate until his two prize ships and crews arrived. He decided to leave Culliford alone until these reinforcements arrived. After Adventure Prize and Rouparelle reached port, Kidd ordered his crew to attack Culliford’s Mocha Frigate. However, his crew refused to attack Culliford and threatened instead to shoot Kidd. Zacks does not refer to any source for his version of events.

Both accounts agree that most of Kidd’s men abandoned him for Culliford. Only 13 remained with Adventure Galley. Deciding to return home, Kidd left the Adventure Galley behind, ordering her to be burnt because she had become worm-eaten and leaky. Before burning the ship, he salvaged every last scrap of metal, such as hinges. With the loyal remnant of his crew, he returned to the Caribbean aboard the Adventure Prize, stopping first at St. Augustine’s Bay for repairs. Some of his crew later returned to North America on their own as passengers aboard Giles Shelley’s ship Nassau.

The 1698 Act of Grace, which offered a royal pardon to pirates in the Indian Ocean, specifically exempted Kidd (and Henry Every) from receiving a pardon, in Kidd’s case due to his association with prominent Whig statesmen. Kidd became aware both that he was wanted and that he could not make use of the Act of Grace upon his arrival in Anguilla, his first port of call since St. Augustine’s Bay.

He was shocked to learn at his trial that he was charged with murder. He was found guilty on all charges (murder and five counts of piracy) and sentenced to death. He was hanged in a public execution on 23 May 1701, at Execution Dock, Wapping, in London. He had to be hanged twice. On the first attempt, the hangman’s rope broke and Kidd survived. Although some in the crowd called for Kidd’s release, claiming the breaking of the rope was a sign from God, Kidd was hanged again minutes later, and died. His body was gibbeted over the River Thames at Tilbury Point — as a warning to future would-be pirates — for three years.

Sadam the Pirate

Sadam Hussien (1936–2007) was the ruler of Iraq from 1979 until 2003. Sadam went from being a revolutionary to a member of the government of Iraq in 1968 following the coup of 17 July. He took control of a country, and ran it like a pirate ship. The first state power this pirate turned to was the USSR. On 1 June 1972, under the direction of Saddam and oil minister Sa’dun Hammadi, Iraq announced Law 69: The nationalization of the Anglo-American shares of the IPC and their transfer to the INOC. (The French and Gulbenkian shares of the consortium followed in 1973.) This followed the April 1972 signing of the 15-year Iraqi–Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Co-Operation by al-Bakr and Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin. According to historian Charles R. H. Tripp, the Iraqi–Soviet Treaty upset “the U.S.-sponsored security system established as part of the Cold War in the Middle East,” leading the U.S. to finance Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) rebels during the Second Iraqi–Kurdish War. From October 1972 until the abrupt end of the Kurdish intervention after March 1975, Gibson states that the CIA “provided the Kurds with nearly $20 million in assistance,” including 1,250 tons of non-attributable weaponry.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, formally al-Bakr’s second-in-command, Saddam built a reputation as a progressive, effective politician. At this time, Saddam moved up the ranks in the new government by aiding attempts to strengthen and unify the Ba’ath party and taking a leading role in addressing the country’s major domestic problems and expanding the party’s following.

After the Ba’athists took power in 1968, Saddam focused on attaining stability in a nation riddled with profound tensions. Long before Saddam, Iraq had been split along social, ethnic, religious, and economic fault lines: Sunni versus Shi’ite, Arab versus Kurd, tribal chief versus urban merchant, nomad versus peasant. The desire for stable rule in a country rife with factionalism led Saddam to pursue both massive repression and the improvement of living standards.

Saddam actively fostered the modernization of the Iraqi economy along with the creation of a strong security apparatus to prevent coups within the power structure and insurrections apart from it. Ever concerned with broadening his base of support among the diverse elements of Iraqi society and mobilizing mass support, he closely followed the administration of state welfare and development programs.

At the center of this strategy was Iraq’s oil. On 1 June 1972, Saddam oversaw the seizure of international oil interests, which, at the time, dominated the country’s oil sector. A year later, world oil prices rose dramatically as a result of the 1973 energy crisis, and skyrocketing revenues enabled Saddam to expand his agenda. The piracy game was paying off well.

Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s Sadam switched allegiances, traded, bargained, betrayed and attacked various allies and enemies, which were both interchangeable along the course of his rule. During the Iraq-Iran War (1980–1988), Iraq received an abundance of financial, political, and logistical aid from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, and the overwhelming majority of Arab countries. While Iran was comparatively isolated to a large degree, it received a significant amount of aid from Syria, Libya, China, North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and South Yemen.

Pirates have no loyalty other to themselves and the coin they can gain. By 1991 the ability of Sadam to be useful to States of Power, following the end of the Cold War, had run out. So was his coin and his time in power. Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. Reason’s for this reckless act include IIraq’s inability to pay Kuwait more than US$14 billion that it had borrowed from Kuwait to finance the Iran–Iraq War, and Kuwait’s surge in petroleum production levels which kept revenues down for Iraq. Iraq anexed Kuwait and occupied it for seven months. The United States could not tolerate the disruption.

Operation Desert Shield marked the military buildup from August 1990 to January 1991; and Operation Desert Storm, which began with the aerial bombing campaign against Iraq on 17 January 1991 and came to a close with the American-led Liberation of Kuwait on 28 February 1991.

In the First Gulf War Iraq lost anywhere between 25000 to 50000 of its troops, and also more than 3000 civilians. On the coalition side, only 300 troops were killed. Kuwait lost more than 4000 troops and 1000 civilians. Saudi Arabia and Israel also lost some civilians in Iraqi scud missile attacks

The Gulf War had caused much more damage to Iraqi infrastructure than American officials had anticipated or acknowledged. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Hussein’s forces brutally suppressed uprisings by Kurds in the north of Iraq and Shi’ites in the south. For ten years after the war Iraq was isolated. The economy and society fragmented. Kurdish groups received more support from the US and began an organised military uprising. Then the 9/11 attacks happened in the United States and the pirate state of Iraq was called in to settle up with the USA.

The Iraq War began on 20 March 2003. It was massive (the United States used the term “shock and awe”). On 9 April, Baghdad fell, ending Saddam’s 24‑year rule. US forces seized the deserted Ba’ath Party ministries and, according to some reports later disputed by the Marines on the ground, stage-managed the tearing down of a huge iron statue of Saddam. The war (called the “Insurgence”) would go on for another 9 years.

The execution of Saddam Hussein took place on 30 December 2006. Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death by hanging, after being convicted of crimes against humanity by the Iraqi Special Tribunal for the Dujail massacre — the killing of 148 Iraqi Shi’ites in the town of Dujail — in 1982, in retaliation for an assassination attempt against him.

On 30 June and 11 December 2009, the Iraqi ministry of oil awarded contracts to international oil companies for some of Iraq’s many oil fields. The winning oil companies entered joint ventures with the Iraqi ministry of oil, and the terms of the awarded contracts included extraction of oil for a fixed fee of approximately $1.40 per barrel. The fees would only be paid once a production threshold set by the Iraqi ministry of oil is reached.

Piracy, “an act of robbery on the high seas; also: an act resembling such robbery” has always existed in relation to a State. The crime was defined by a state, and in relation to this; the theft could also be done in the service of a state. Whether pirates survived their “crimes” was usually dependent on what deals they could make with powerful states. Justice was not always the issue.



James Barrett

Freelance scholar. Humanist. Interested in language, culture, music, technology, design & philosophy. I like Literature & Critical Theory. Traveler. I am mine.