David Wilson, Suppressing Piracy in the Early Eighteenth Century: Pirates, Merchants and British Imperial Authorities in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2021), pp. 280 + xxvi.
By Claire Jowitt
In his forensic study David Wilson provides an important corrective to traditional historiography on long-range early eighteenth-century piracy, and imperial history more broadly. By focusing on anti-piratical activity in a range of locations and spheres of interest across the British Empire, Wilson shows how episodic, localized, and transient were the engagements between pirates and the forces that sought to suppress them − colonial authorities, trading groups, Royal Navy officers, and London-based branches of state apparatus. In so doing, Suppressing Piracy revises the standard narrative that after the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, facing outbreaks of piracy on unprecedented scales, there was a concerted and orchestrated effort – a ‘war on piracy’ no less − by the crown and Admiralty using the full force of the British imperial administrative framework and the Royal Navy in extra-European waters to check maritime predation. Such efforts, it has been conventionally argued, were important in creating the drive to further develop imperial infrastructure, thus establishing the conditions for British global maritime domination in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Instead, in his clearly written and engagingly told study Wilson reveals a far less coherent and more intermittent picture: ‘the apparatus for such a campaign simply did not exist in an empire comprised of distant semi-autonomous communities and settlements that were separated by vast ungovernable and erratically policed oceanic and coastal expanses’ (p. 22).
Across its seven chapters Suppressing Piracy traces the rise and decline of piracy between 1716 and 1726 across various regions in Africa, the Caribbean, India, and North America. The opening three chapters focus on the Caribbean and Bahamas, exploring the local circumstances and inter-imperial conflicts that set the conditions for piracy, and London-based responses based on information derived from colonial centres and ports, and from the contested sites of the decentralized maritime world that pirates operated in. Throughout the book Wilson usefully distinguishes the different perspectives that maritime predation engaged − from the ‘centre’ (i.e. London), from ‘peripheral centres’ (i.e. colonial centres and ports from where colonial governors and councils, naval officers, and company agents operated), and from ‘peripheral margins’ (i.e. unregulated maritime spaces exploited by pirates, mariners, merchants, settlers). Chapters four, five, and six trace the impact of piracy as it spread to North America, West Africa, and the Indian Ocean following the displacement of the pirate stronghold in the Bahamas in 1716. In each sphere, Wilson explores how localized conditions, and particular factors concerning governance, security, commerce, and conflict affected the ways anti-piracy measures were organized and enacted. Lobbying by merchants and company agents in colonial centres and ports for protection against pirates is shown to be a significant spur in prompting action from the hub of London. A concluding chapter focuses on how, taken together, naval operations and other defensive activities in these theatres, and new legislative measures after 1722, gradually led to a decline in the impact of piracy on British trade in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. This was achieved not because Navy warships were effective in coordinating and overseeing operations, but often because local stakeholders lobbied for their presence as well as mobilizing local maritime forces to provide defenses in these unprotected extra-European sea spaces.
Suppressing Piracy is a significant contribution to early modern pirate studies, challenging accepted arguments about the decisive role of the Royal Navy in diminishing Atlantic piracy to reveal an altogether more complicated and nuanced story of its decline. Writing with energy and skill, Wilson is an important new voice in maritime history. The book also includes a number of helpful maps and tables that demonstrate the reach and scale of maritime predation, as well as the forces available to deal with it. Wilson’s study is essential reading for all those interested in colonial and imperial history, maritime history, and the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of piracy.
Claire Jowitt (@clairejowitt) is Professor of English and History at the University of East Anglia. She is author of The Culture of Piracy 1580−1630: English Literature and Seaborne Crime (2010) and co-editor (with Craig Lambert and Steve Mentz) of The Routledge Companion to Marine and Maritime Worlds 1400−1800 (2020). She also co-edits (with John McAleer) the book series Maritime Humanities 1400−1800: Cultures of the Sea for Amsterdam University Press.