Atlantic piracy in the 18th century

Blackbeard the pirateRebecca Simon explores the murky world of 18th century piracy in the Atlantic, and The Gazette’s role as a source of news about their activities, capture and the authorities' response to the threat.

Pirates have long been a great source of fascination, particularly since the time in which they were most known to terrorise British colonies in the early modern Atlantic: the early 18th century, also known as the 'Golden Age of Piracy'.

In order to discover how the authorities reacted to threats of piracy, we can turn to early modern newspaper articles. The London Gazette is a prime resource of pirate news. Piracy exploded throughout the Atlantic in 1716, after the end of the War of Spanish Succession, when numerous American and British sailors found themselves unemployed during peacetime. Rather than take employment under harsh conditions of the Navy or merchants, they turned to piracy in order to operate under their own jurisdiction.

Authorities had to create new laws and proclamations in an attempt to rid the seas of piracy, but the best way for them to be effective was to ensure that the public had knowledge about pirates’ actions. The most efficient method was through newspaper publications. The London Gazette, in particular, was known as a key publication for official notices.

Proclamation of the Suppression of Piracy, 1717

In response to the pirate threat, and in an effort to stop the rise of pirates, The Gazette was one of the first newspapers to publish the full text of the ‘Proclamation of the Suppression of Piracy’ in 1717. This proclamation granted a full pardon to pirates who would voluntarily surrender themselves to the proper authorities (Gazette issue 5573). With the wide circulation of this newspaper, not only were merchants and officials made aware of this mass effort against piracy, but the London public now had full knowledge. To keep news of the proclamation relevant, The Gazette published it again in full a year later (Gazette issue 5706).

It appeared that the proclamation had a positive outcome: ‘the said Proclamation was received with great Demonstration of Joy and Thankfulness by the Pirates’ who then promised they would surrender themselves gladly (Gazette issue 5632). The proclamation would have further success when The Gazette published an article which stated that ‘Captains Hornigold, Nichols, Burgess, Lesley, and 114 of their Company had surrendered themselves… and that in time they hoped to disperse all Pirates’ (Gazette issue 5655). However, despite this good news, notorious pirates would continue to make waves.

The Gazette continued to make news of piracy known to the London public, so they were fully cognisant of piratical activity in the colonies, where many people had families who lived and worked on the sea and thus could be under the threat of attack.

‘Black Sam’ Bellamy

The same year as the proclamation was published, The Gazette printed news from Boston letters that described the actions of a notorious pirate named Samuel Bellamy.

Bellamy, known as ‘Black Sam’, only operated as a pirate for a little over a year, but in that that time, his fleet had attacked over 50 ships. News of Bellamy’s actions were of great interest to merchants and the public, and The Gazette spared no detail about an attack that he and his crew made on a ship off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. According to The Gazette, Bellamy attacked a ship and kidnapped its captain and one member of the crew. Fortunately, this story proved to have a happy ending. Bellamy’s men ‘entertained themselves so plentifully with Madera Wine; that they all got drunk, and the Pirate Ship ran upon a shoal’. The pirates were captured, and the victims were saved (Gazette issue 5575).

The infamous Blackbeard

One of the most dramatic articles to come out of The London Gazette refers to the most infamous pirate ever to terrorise the British: Edward Teach (sometimes referred to as Thatch), commonly known as Blackbeard, who’s nickname came from the description of his long, black hair and beard that added to his frightful appearance.

Blackbeard originally sailed under the command of Captain Hornigold, before he struck out on his own in 1718 and commanded a substantial fleet in the Atlantic. Blackbeard and his fleet terrorised the Atlantic seaboard until 1719, when they managed to blockade the port at Charleston, South Carolina. According to The Gazette, Blackbeard was able to sail into the Carolinas under the guise that he had accepted the proclamation of surrender. It was during this blockade that Blackbeard engaged in a dramatic battle that ultimately ended in his death, and the end of his reign as supreme pirate commander.

The Gazette reported that the fight between Blackbeard and Lieutenant Maynard’s South Carolina fleet was an explosive battle, which lasted several hours. However, the drama of the battle’s culmination could not be mistaken: ‘After the Action was over, Lieutenant Maynard ordered Thatch’s head to be cut off, which he hung under the Bowsprit of his Sloop, and carried it in that manner to Virginia, where those Pyrates who had been taken were hanged’ (Gazette issue 5740). After the death of Blackbeard, pirate crews became scattered and disorganised, and by the 1720s, piratical activity had gone from being a legitimate threat to an occasional annoyance, until it all but dissipated.

Newspapers are a key resource for historians to find out how people and events were broadcasted, and how the public received them. The Gazette is a valuable resource to analyse the perceptions of, and responses to, early modern Atlantic piracy.

About the author

Rebecca Simon is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, and is writing a thesis about pirates’ executions in the early modern Atlantic. You can contact Rebecca and find more about her research at She is also active on Twitter: @beckalex.