How to End Criminal Enterprises: A Lesson from the Golden Age of Piracy

Most are familiar with the golden age of piracy, if only in vagueries and fanciful accents. Millennials and Generation Z probably know this period only from the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean films, which are parodies of pirates during this period. This is unfortunate considering it is one of the most fascinating and important periods of history in the Age of Enlightenment.

(This is a guest post from Jared at Legends of Men. The opinion expressed here is his own.)

Some still recognize the names of figures from this period though they can’t recite much history of them. For example, most know the name Blackbeard but do not know that he was Edward Teach, once a brave sailor for the British Navy during the War of the Spanish Succession. As a pirate captain, Blackbeard was a pretty amazing guy. He wanted his crew and his enemies to see him as being in consort with the devil. After drinking some rum on his ship one day, he and a few of his men went below deck and filled some pots with brimstone and lit the brimstone on fire. Unknown to his crewmates below deck, Teach had locked the latches that would let them above deck to breathe fresh air. Just before the men choked on the brimstone fumes, Teach let them out, proud of himself for lasting below deck the longest. This may have given rise to the belief, held by several crew members according to their accounts, that the devil himself was on board their ship for some time.

Blackbeard Edward Teach

While that was a fun and interesting story, the true significance of Blackbeard to history was the fact that a highly successful pirate made criminal arrangements with the British governor of North Carolina. Blackbeard plundered merchants and plantations along the rivers and split the profit of the plunder with the governor in exchange for his tacit consent. It was the British governor of Virginia who dispatched a bold lieutenant named Maynard to kill Blackbeard. Teach only died after sustaining 25 wounds, five from pistol shots.

This important bit of Colonial history acts as a precursor to one of the most important lessons we can learn from the golden age of piracy: how to effectively end criminal enterprises.

Step 1: Install Leaders With a Mind Toward Law & Order

When the British were finally ready to end piracy in the Caribbean they first dispatched capable governors to piracy hubs. After pirates successfully plundered merchant ships they had to make money from their booty somehow. To do this, they delivered it to cities throughout the Caribbean where the loot was sold. The British installed governors at these crime hotspots who were dedicated to preventing piracy from being profitable.

Step 2: Capital Punishment for Pirate Captains

Initially, new governments found it hard to bring any pirates to punishment. British law required pirates to be tried by juries of their peers. Most of the peers in these areas were pirates or relied on pirates for economic reasons. To solve this problem, British law eliminated the requirement for juries in the case of pirates. Judges found men guilty of piracy and hung them immediately. This was especially effective for pirate captains, but not the last step in ending piracy.

Step 3: Grant Pardons

The problem with piracy, from the pirate’s point of view, is that once you become a pirate the punishment was death and there were few ways out. Pirates swore an oath of loyalty to their shipmates and many saw no way out of the pirate lifestyle. The British government solved this problem by pardoning pirates of their crimes, thus allowing them the opportunity to return as law-abiding citizens. Many took this opportunity to leave piracy, thus diminishing the number of pirates the British would still need to find and arrest. Many remained pirates though because they enjoyed the lifestyle of free brigands. These were taken out definitively in step four.

Step 4: Blitzkrieg The Remainder

After the pardons exhausted their use, the British finally committed a substantial number to combat the remaining pirates. 3,500 men were deployed to end piracy. At the height of piracy, there were only about 2,000 pirates in the Caribbean. This final push to end piracy amounted to a sort of blitzkrieg tactic where the British navy overwhelmed the remaining pirates. Because their safe-havens were now in the control of British governors and their numbers diminished from pardons, the pirates couldn’t run from the British navy. They had nowhere to go and nowhere to sell their plunder. The golden age of piracy is generally agreed to have ended with the defeat of Captain Black Bart Roberts, the most successful pirate in the golden age.

Bartholomew Black Bart Roberts

One can easily imagine this same strategy working to end organized crime in the early 20th century. It could even work to diminish the power of gangs today. One could easily imagine this strategy being used to end rising gang violence in mid-sized cities. The main problem with this strategy is that it requires plenty of resources. The moral outrage over pardons would also be enormous. Despite the challenges faced, the answer is there, in history, for us to seize. The lack of commitment and prioritization from our government, and thus ourselves, is the primary reason we have not stamped out criminal enterprises.

One day, when we are ready to do what needs to be done, the game plan is here before us. We need look no further than the golden age of piracy.

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