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Privateers and Pirates

by Thomas McCord

In addition to the economic advantage which piracy made possible in the 17th century, New York's role as a pirate haven grew as a result of British commissions for privateers. Privateering was a commonly used naval practice from the 16th century to the 19th century, particularly in England. Privateers were commissioned in times of war to intercept enemy trade vessels and in return, they were given a percentage of the goods they plundered from these vessels. Privateering was a lucrative profession and thus drew a great number of seamen away from the Navy and Merchant Marines.

However, privateering could also be quite risky. The seamen's pay came entirely from the contents of their loot and thus if a voyage was unsuccessful, its crew went without pay. So when a privateer vessel came across a ship at sea, they were often so eager to plunder the ship and assure their own pay that they would disregard the ship's allegiance. Thus privateers, only commissioned only to disrupt enemy trade vessels, were turned to pirates, who would even plunder British vessels.

The British would tend to turn a blind eye when privateers crossed the line into piracy, as long as they remained an effective disruptive force. Similarly, New York governors were often bribed to turn a blind eye to activities of pirates while in their port, due to their economic benefit. When conflict against the British waned, such as the end of the Nine Years' War, which ended in 1697, the tolerance of piracy went with it as the British sought a safe, controlled sea in which to trade. As England hardened its policies on pirates, piracy in New York, and around the world, declined.

To learn about the famous pirate William Kidd, click here.


McKay, Richard. South Street: A Maritime History of New York. Riverside: 7 C's Press, Inc., 1969.

Lopate, Phillip. Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.

Innes, J.H., New Amsterdam and Its People. Volume I. Port Washington: Ira J. Friedman, Inc., 1969.

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