Value of Spanish silver dollar and British pound during the Pirate Age? Part 1 of 2

Spanish Pillar Dollar, Piece of Eight, Charles IV of Spain 1803 a by Jerry “Woody” is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Spanish silver dollar is referred to as the first global currency. There were so many produced and they  spread so far across the world that they were the common currency.

Because the Spanish silver dollar was present everywhere and the valuations referred to during the pirate are in British pounds, let’s explore the value of each.

Spanish silver dollar

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Financial rewards of piracy.

Silver & Gold Coins from Spanish Warship San Diego, Sunk 1600 by Gary Todd is in the public domain (CC0 1.0)

Author Eric Jay Dolin provides some indications of how lucrative it was to be a successful pirate in his book Black Flags, Blue Waters

Dixie Bull

The story of Dixie Bull provides one sliver of a view of the rewards from piracy. I won’t repeat the long tail of his adventures. Suffice it to say that he raided a fort after he and his crew decided to try their hand at piracy.  His haul was estimated at £500.

The book provides the following prices for context:

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Why go out pirating? How many pirates were there?

Photo of HMS Surprise at San Diego Maritime Museum by James Ulvog. Bow of Soviet sub visible behind the Surprise.

In Black Flags, Blue Waters, author Eric Jay Dolin says that many men in the American colonies signed on with a pirate captain for a cruise in order to make a fortune.

Even modest good luck would produce enough wealth to buy a nice chunk of land and enough livestock to live well.

A really successful voyage would produce enough loot to be quite well-off when you returned.

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Bad reputation of pirates was a good strategy for capturing ships.

Photo of HMS Surprise at San Diego Maritime Museum by James Ulvog.

In Black Flags, Blue Waters author Eric Jay Dolin says pirates would rather not engage in a fight when they captured a prize ship.

The downside of a battle is the target ship might be sunk, some of the valuable cargo might be destroyed, and more significantly some of the pirates might get hurt or killed.

The far better battle strategy was to win through intimidation. There were enough accurate reports of pirates torturing or killing captives that an approaching pirate ship would create justifiable fear.

Continue reading “Bad reputation of pirates was a good strategy for capturing ships.”

Photos for this discussion of pirates.

Photo of HMS Surprise at San Diego Maritime Museum by James Ulvog.

Photographs for this series of posts are of the HMS Surprise, replica of a British 24-gun frigate named HMS Rose. The ship is now part of the collection of the San Diego Maritime Museum.

It was built in 1970 and weighs in at 500 tons. It is 170’ long, with 32’ beam and maximum draft of 13’.

All photos of the HMS Surprise are by James Ulvog, taken during various visits to the museum over the last decade or so.

HIstory of HMS Surprise at San Diego Maritime Museum by James Ulvog.

This ship was configured as the star of the movie Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. It name was changed from Rose to Surprise for the movie.

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Pirate ship organization.

Photo of HMS Surprise at San Diego Maritime Museum by James Ulvog.

Mr. Dolin’s book Black Flags, Blue Waters provides intriguing background on how pirates organized themselves and how they split up the booty. Also provides a contrast of their reputation compared to their actual battle techniques.

Pirates organized themselves in something with very strong correlation to a democracy. The crew voted to select the captain and first mate (or quartermaster). In battle the captain had absolute authority, which is obviously necessary. Other than during battle the crew could vote to depose the captain if he were sufficiently unacceptable.

Apparently this issue has been discussed at great length in the literature.

The author says this self-governance structure was not due to any particular philosophical enlightenment or fondness for democracy as a concept. Proof for this is they held slaves and did not treat non-crewmembers well.

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Volume of silver flowing out of the conquered territories.

Spanish Piece of Eight, Carlos IV Mexico Mint 1805 – – 8 Reales b by Jerry “Woody” is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates author Eric Jay Dolin provides background on one reason why piracy flourished in the Caribbean – that’s where the money was.

In the 16th century Spanish explorers harshly conquered the Aztec empire (in 1521) and the Incas (in 1532).

This opened the door to a flood of gold and silver flowing to Spain.

It also opened the door to ruthless exploitation, brutal labor conditions, and plenty of death for the Aztec and Inca people. Because of the dangerous backbreaking work one of the most productive mines in the history of the world, named Cerro Rico or “rich mountain”, was known locally as “mountain that eats men.”

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Why pirates were accepted in the colonies, even welcomed as good neighbors.

Photo of HMS Surprise at San Diego Maritime Museum by James Ulvog.

In Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates Eric Jay Dolin says that from the early 1680s until about 1726 pirates usually had a positive relationship with the citizens in the American colonies. I will summarize points he makes that caught my interest.

The harsh nature of life in the colonies combined with the exploitative policies of England explain this comfortable relationship.

Hard currency, whether British pounds or Spanish pieces of eight, were scarce. That by itself makes commerce more difficult.

Compounding the situation is British imports had to be purchased in hard currency.

When pirates returned to the colonies from their adventures they brought plenty of hard currency with them and used it to pay for their nice lifestyle thus moving coins into the economy.

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Pirates in the Americas are fascinating, just not like anything you see in the movies.

Photo of HMS Surprise at San Diego Maritime Museum by James Ulvog.

Blockbuster movies of today, swashbuckling movies of yesteryear, and fantastical books give us a delightful picture of piracy in the Americas several hundred years ago.

The reality isn’t as flashy yet is more interesting and far more fun to read.

My first introduction to this concept was several years ago in an article by Prof. Mark Hanna in the Winter 2017 edition of Humanities magazine published by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Article titled  A lot of What Is Known About Pirates Is Not True, and a Lot of What is True Is Not Known / The pirate next door

In popular lore, pirates of the 1600s and 1700s are anti-social anarchists, rebelling against governments, wearing colorful clothing, and speaking oddly. In contrast, the professor found in his research there were a huge number of pirates in the American colonies who were otherwise average neighbors who went to sea, plundered some, then returned home to enjoy an otherwise normal life.

He found a lot of pirates in the early colonies and a lot of support from neighbors, friends, and relatives for those accused of piracy. He found the colorful legend of popular movies and books was only in place for about a decade, from 1716 through 1726.

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Food preservation in Viking Era

Buckets of whey left after making homemade cottage cheese. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Ever wondered how Vikings preserved food?

Jesse Byock, in his book Viking Age Iceland, gives us insight.

Lots of great stuff in the book, of which I’ll highlight a few items that caught my eye. Posts in this series:

Food preservation

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