During the Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730), pirates were first and foremost after gold, silver, and jewels, but if these could not be grabbed, then a ship’s cargo would be taken for resale at a pirate haven. Shared amongst the crew, the lure of plunder drove many a mariner to piracy in the hope that they could escape the toil and hardships of ordinary ship life and enjoy the fleeting pleasures of shore. While the majority of pirates quickly frittered away their ill-gotten gains, some pirates did hit the jackpot when they captured a treasure ship and took, in a few hours, riches that an honest seaman would never earn in a lifetime before the mast.
The most sought-after loot for a pirate was gold, silver, and gemstones. Bullion and jewels could be sold to a dealer in a pirate haven, but coinage was even handier as it could be spent directly. During the Golden Age of Piracy, the coinage a pirate might hope to come across included Spanish silver reales (0.12 oz / 3.43 g each), silver pesos (equivalent to eight reales and consequently often called 'pieces of eight'), gold and silver ducats (originally minted in Venice but widely used elsewhere; the gold version was worth about 10 reales), and Spanish doubloons (the largest gold coin, known as the 8-escudo coin, and weighing about 1 oz / 28 g).
In reality, finding a locked box spilling over with gold, emeralds, and pearls was something of a jackpot find. The Spanish treasure ships which privateers and buccaneers had plundered in the 16th and 17th centuries were now too well protected by convoys to be considered targets by the great majority of pirates, and few other ships carried such riches. During the Golden Age, a pirate was much more likely to come across a ship carrying ordinary goods which had to be resold. Rolls of silk and spices could fetch high prices, but the majority of captured cargoes consisted of more mundane commodities like tobacco, sugar, indigo, spirits like rum and brandy, wine, linen, hides, barrels of flour, fur, and lumber. Even slave ships were targeted. A shipload of any of these allowed a pirate crew to indulge in food, drink, and prostitutes for a good while on shore before the money ran out and they were obliged to hunt for a new victim. Sometimes, merchant vessels carried wealthy passengers, and these were usually stripped of their personal valuables and even their fancy clothing for resale on shore. Foodstuffs meant for the crew and the ship’s medicine chest were usually taken, too.
In addition to these much-desired items, pirates, like any mariners, needed to constantly replace nautical equipment like ropes, tackles, sails, and anchors. Weapons, tools, and navigational instruments were also much sought after. As wanted men, pirates could not get these materials from a port and so they simply stole them from captured vessels. A fishing boat might be attacked for this sole reason, its cargo of fish being of little value to a pirate crew. On many occasions, too, pirates took over the captured ship and abandoned their previous vessel, either because it was unseaworthy and in desperate need of repair or because the new ship was bigger and had more cannons.
Pirates sold captured cargoes to unscrupulous dealers who had set up business in the various pirate havens in the Caribbean like Port Royal (Jamaica), Tortuga (Hispaniola), New Providence (Bahamas), and, in the Indian Ocean, on Madagascar. The dealers were on to a good thing since they acquired goods at a much cheaper rate than from legitimate merchant vessels in any other port, and the pirates were happy enough to get their cash, even if they were obliged to sell at a price much below the real value. The dealers then smuggled their dubious goods into legitimate ports where it was sold through the channels it would have reached if the pirates had not interrupted the trade process.
Booty was the only pay a pirate received, and if no prizes were taken then they starved, but usually not before replacing their captain in the hope of better pickings. Even if prizes were taken, patience was required since the quartermaster was charged with cataloguing and protecting any booty until enough was taken for it to be sold ashore.
When the authorities, pressured by legitimate businesses, shut down havens like New Providence in 1718, piracy in the Caribbean became much more difficult as there was nowhere to sell stolen goods. This, in turn, led to pirates looting ships only for their valuables and wantonly destroying cargo simply for the pleasure of it. As the historian A. Konstam notes: "From the pirates’ perspective, if you couldn’t eat it, drink it, smoke it or spend it, plunder was of absolutely no value to them" (1998, 51). Some pirates attempted to establish new havens such as Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard (d. 1718) on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, but the Royal Navy was an ever-more powerful presence in the western Atlantic, and when the authorities heard of illegal trade going on, they moved in swiftly with their warships. At the same time in the Indian Ocean, the East India Company began to use convoys and more aggressively protect its assets at sea.
Blackbeard’s base was raided after the fearsome pirate was killed in action in 1718. The authorities recorded what they found, and it is indicative of how unglamorous pirate booty typically was. The historian D. Cordingly gives the following telling summary:
Blackbeard plundered around twenty ships during his two years as a pirate, but none of his prizes were spectacular in terms of treasure. After the battle at Ocracoke Inlet, the loot recovered from his vessels and ashore in a tent was "25 hogsheads of sugar, 11 tierces [casks] and 145 bags of cocoa, a barrel of indigo and a bale of cotton." This, together with the sale of Blackbeard’s sloop, came to £2,500 - not a very impressive sum to have amassed during such a famous piratical career. (191)
On the other hand, the wreck of Sam Bellamy’s ship the Whydah provides an alternative view of pirate plunder. Bellamy had captured the slave ship Whydah in the Bahamas on its way back to England. It was loaded with loot, and Bellamy took it over for his own ship before it ran aground in a storm at Orleans, Massachusetts in 1717. Cordingly again records the goods found:
[Divers] brought up from the seabed an impressive quantity of coins, gold bars, and African jewelry. There are 8,397 coins of various denominations, including 8,357 Spanish silver coins and 9 Spanish gold coins, which together add up to 4,131 pieces of eight. There are 17 gold bars, 14 gold nuggets, and 6,174 bits of gold, and a quantity of gold dust. The African gold includes nearly four hundred items of Akan jewelry, mostly gold beads, pendants, and ornaments. (Ibid)
The cash acquired from selling a cargo was divided amongst the pirate crew according to a strict hierarchy, most men getting one share, some skilled seamen and officers getting one share and a quarter or one share and a half, and the quartermaster and captain getting two shares each. Fancy items such as clothing that could not be divided were sometimes auctioned before the mast. In the curiously democratic pirate system of distribution, and before the general pot was divided, those pirates who had received injuries during the voyage received extra payouts. The payments were given out as follows:
- Loss of a right arm: 600 pesos
- Loss of a left arm: 500 pesos
- Loss of a right leg: 500 pesos
- Loss of a left leg: 400 pesos
- Loss of an eye: 100 pesos
- Loss of a finger: 100 pesos (Breverton, 237)
The Greatest Prizes
Although most pirates had to be satisfied with captures of cargo and the occasional strongbox of valuables, the period did witness some very large prize captures indeed. One of the greatest prizes taken by any pirate anywhere was the Ganij-i-Sawai in 1695. Belonging to the Mughal emperor, the cargo was worth over $95 million today, and Henry Every (b. 1653) was the man who took it. The booty took the form of gold, silver, gemstones, coinage, precious spices, and rolls of silk. There were also luxury manufactured goods such as a saddle encrusted with diamonds. Each man’s share amongst Every’s crew was the equivalent of a lifetime’s wages. Unlike most other pirates who were shot or hanged a few years into their careers, Captain Every made a smart move and gave up piracy immediately. He was never seen or heard of again.
Every’s prize was gigantic but not unique. Captain Thomas Tew (d. 1695) captured a merchant ship on its way back to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1693, and when shared out, the loot was worth a massive £3,000 for each crew member (over $800,000 today). Similarly, Edward England’s crew must have been thoroughly delighted with the capture of a Portuguese ship in the Mascarene Islands near Madagascar around 1720. The captured cargo included $3-$4 million dollars worth of diamonds.
The biggest ever single prize was captured in April 1721 by John Taylor commanding the Cassandra and Olivier La Bouche commanding the Victory. Together, they took over a Portuguese carrack, the treasure ship Nostra Senhora de Cabo at Réunion Island. The loot included £500,000 in diamonds, gold, and other valuables while the cargo added another £375,000 to the haul. Today, these riches would equate to over $250 million.
In many pirate tales, the villainous captain buries his criminal loot in a treasure chest on a desert island in a secret place revealed only by a cryptic treasure map. Such a captain might also have killed a few of his men on the spot so that he could return to his ship alone, the sole keeper of the secret location. Unfortunately, none of this has much to do with pirate reality. Pirates pretty much spent their loot as soon as they could, frittering it away in a revelry of excess in pirate havens where the here today and gone tomorrow atmosphere of wine, women, and song emptied pockets and purses faster than one could say "splice the main brace." Gambling was another quick drain on a pirate's pocket. Buried pirate treasure appears most famously in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island, and it has been a much-copied element of pirate tales ever since. Although it was a rare event in practice, Stevenson’s buried treasure idea may have been inspired by a real pirate, one Captain Kidd (c. 1645-1701).
Captain Kidd was first a privateer, but he then turned pirate in the Indian Ocean. Kidd managed to capture a fantastic prize in 1698, the 400-ton Quedah Merchant off the coast of India. A quantity of the ship’s cargo of silk, calico, sugar, iron, and opium was sold for £10,000 (around $2.5 million today). Kidd eventually sailed back to his hometown of Boston hoping for a pardon, but before he did, he stopped off somewhere, most likely New Jersey, Long Island, or Gardiners Island. Hereabouts he buried some of his loot, a fact known because the governor, who refused to issue a pardon, later recovered some of this treasure following a confession from Kidd. This recovered treasure included gold, silver, and gems. However, the value of the recovered goods did not match the manifest of the Quedah Merchant or the loot Kidd must have captured from other ships. Thus was born the legend of Captain Kidd’s still undiscovered buried treasure, a tale that has tantalised and disappointed in equal measure a host of treasure-hunters ever since.
Apart from Captain Kidd’s passion for squirreling away loot, there was one other notable episode of buried pirate treasure, a tale to raise a glint of avarice in the eye of many a modern treasure-seeker. In November 1720 at the mouth of York River in Virginia, Captain Stratton left his ship Prince Eugene in a longboat loaded to the brim with treasure. Stratton was not a pirate, but he had just traded with one, acquiring six wooden chests and six bags full of silver coins. On reaching the beach, Stratton buried his ill-gotten gains. However, one of the crew later informed the authorities at nearby Yorktown, and Stratton was arrested. What became of his treasure is not known. The sensible answer is the authorities looked for it and found it thanks to information from the informant. The romantic answer is that it was never found and so it still lies there today, the incorruptible silver patiently awaiting its chance to cross a human palm once more.