The release this week of Monkey Island 2: Special Edition has many people revisiting the lighter side of piracy in the Caribbean. If only real pirates had been that funny!
Like Vikings, Pirates have always held a curiously romantic position in popular consciousness, people idolising the men (and women) involved and their exploits despite a history of thievery, lawlessness and murder. Games like Monkey Island and films like Pirates of the Caribbean are the perfect examples of this, with pirates portrayed as lovable rogues, the Robin Hoods of the seas.
The thing is, they weren't. For the most part.
While piracy has been prevalent on the open seas as long as humanity has known how to put a boat on the ocean, the popular myths surrounding the act are centred on the pirates that terrorised the Caribbean Sea between the 17th and 18th centuries. This is where those most romantic images - of swords in teeth, long coats, Jolly Rogers and tall ships - originate, as well as the most famous of pirates, like Blackbeard and Henry Morgan (who still makes quite a nice rum).
Piracy began in the Caribbean for two reasons: there was a lot of gold moving through the area, as Spanish ships carried it from conquests in South America back home (passing through the Caribbean en route), and that gold was often poorly protected and a long way from home.
The earliest pirates - mostly from England, France and Holland - thus preyed on Spanish treasure fleets, which were laden with gold and silver. As the years went by, and the Spanish Empire declined in power and wealth, other European nations would take their place as the dominant powers in the region, establishing bases and trade routes throughout the sugar-rich islands. When Spanish Gold from South America dried up, English, Dutch and French gold from New World trade would replace it.
Because Europe during this period (around 1600 to 1720) was distracted by almost constant conflict - including the Thirty Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession - the armed forces of the great powers could never be fully mobilised to meet the threat of piracy. In a time before police forces, this meant the Caribbean was an almost lawless territory, with pirates able to not only roam the seas in search of plunder, but even to establish bases of operation in major ports like Tortuga and Port Royal.
These pirates were not the lovable rogues that modern fiction makes them out to be. To be any kind of sailor at this time meant you were from the bottom of society's barrel; to be the kind of sailor that resorted to piracy made you the lowest of the low. And while many pirate captains set better examples than the rabble - Blackbeard and Captain Morgan were both reportedly quite well-mannered, merciful captors - others were less generous. Welsh pirate Edward Low, for example, had a nasty habit of not just capturing sailors, but also brutally torturing them before killing them off. And two female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, were also both renowned for their ruthless, murderous nature.
The constant warfare on continental Europe resulted in a swell of experienced ex-mercenaries flooding to the Caribbean in search of "work", where they would soon up in pirate crews. Some of these men, like those returning from The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), had been among the most bloodthirsty and ruthless "soldiers" in European history.
The influx of these kind of men, followed by an increase in the numbers of sailors trained in naval combat following the end of the War Of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), led to a "Golden Age" of piracy in the latter half of the 17th century, which would last until the early decades of the 18th century. These "professionally trained" pirates were operating in a Caribbean stripped of military protection following the ravages of European warfare, and were free to take what they pleased from Spanish settlements and Western European trade ships.
To combat this lawlessness, and to try and bring some semblance of order and control to the region (as well as to try and affect the outcome of conflicts like the War of Spanish Succession), European governments took the extreme step of employing pirates. If you can't beat 'em, hire 'em! These men and their ships were labelled as "Privateers", and with letters of pardon from, say, England, would be free to attack the shipping of rival nations such as France and the Netherlands.
By 1713, however, the War of Spanish Succession was over, and the Privateers were decommissioned. This resulted in even more piracy as these former "contract employees", now out of work, returned to a life of crime in great numbers. For a decade or so following piracy in the Caribbean reached its peak, and it was during this period that the most famous pirate of all - Edward "Blackbeard" Teach - was terrorising the seas.
It was also at this time, however, that European governments - now free of major military operations in the Old World - had grown fed up with the threat of piracy to their ships and trade. Military fleets began to operate in the region for the first time in sufficient force, hunting down and eliminating pirates (Blackbeard was executed in 1718), while former buccaneer strongholds like Port Royal had been transformed into military bases, from which the newly-dominant Royal Navy of Great Britain could enforce law and order.
So next time you're playing Monkey Island, enjoy it! Because the real Guybrush Threepwood wouldn't have been so nice. And probably wouldn't have lived so long, either.