Pirates of the Bahamas – The Role of Piracy in Colonial American Independence
Taxing the Colonies
After piracy had been essentially eliminated from the Bahamas by the 1720s, ending what is known as the golden age of piracy, and there were no more wars with France and Spain, Britain began to look to their American colonies as a source of revenue. Prior to this time the tax laws which were in place had been all but ignored by the colonists. Events during the years that followed, however, created more and more friction between the new world colonies and the British government.
The Molasses Act
Not only did the old laws start to be enforced, but in 1733 the British parliament, in an attempt to regulate commerce and collect even more duties by forcing trade through the ports of Kingston, Jamaica, and Nassau, Bahamas, passed the molasses act. This act imposed a high tax on molasses and rum coming from any non-British island, and also made it illegal for the colonies to trade alcoholic beverages directly between one another.
War of Austrian Succession
The peace did not last long, however, and hostilities in the Caribbean erupted again in 1742 with the War of Austrian Succession, this time resulting in France and Spain being allied against England. When this war spilled over into a new era of naval hostilities in the West Indies it took the British focus away from Colonial America, resulting in little to no enforcement of the newly passed molasses act. In fact, things went back to ‘normal’ for the colonists as far as tax collection was concerned.
The Royal Navy did not have sufficient ships or sailors to successfully take on both the Spanish and the French, so many of the surviving golden age pirates along with their descendants took letters of marque and became privateers to bolster the British forces. By 1748 all the available British warships were based out of Jamaica Station at Port Royal and concentrated around the islands in the southern Caribbean, which left the Bahamas once again freed up to become a haven for piracy. Those who had not joined the privateers resumed their old trade, and from the islands of the Bahamas began intercepting the lucrative merchant trade between the American colonies and Jamaica.
End of the War
When the hostilities with Spain and France ended Britain began to look at collecting revenue from the colonies once again to help pay for the war costs. Although it provoked much anger among the American colonists, strict enforcement of the molasses act began in 1750.
The end of the war had also brought economic concerns for the pirates who had become privateers but had been released from government employment. The more entrepreneurial among them, the ones who had fast ships capable of outrunning the British revenue cutters, elected to help the American colonists avoid what they felt were unjustified taxes by smuggling for them.
Piracy Under A Different Name
With the help of the former pirates, American goods were traded with the ever obliging merchants on Harbour Island, Bahamas, or went directly to French Martinique where the rum was cheap. There were tremendous profits to be gained from smuggling, and over the following years the former pirates became critically import to the developing American colonies by helping them evade taxation.
Other out of work privateers became wreckers, salvaging goods from ships which were unfortunate enough to become lost on the Bahamian reefs. Since the islands of the Bahamas were owned by Britain, any wrecks that occurred there were considered property of the crown and licensed wreckers were paid 60% of the value of the salvaged goods that they brought into Nassau.
For all practical purposes, smuggling and wrecking was simply piracy under a different name.
Explore the fascinating history of the interrelationship between the American colonies and the Bahamas Pirates.