As demonstrated by the recent publication of a DIB entry on Sir William Hull, during the early seventeenth century west Cork briefly became the pirate capital of Europe. This is an international story, in some ways a classic illustration of nascent British imperialism as driven by rogue actors and ruthless opportunists handily positioned at the confluence between colonialism, naval might and international trade.
State-sanctioned buccaneering became a way of life in many parts of England during the Anglo-Spanish war (1580–1604) and following the war’s end many newly unemployed mariners turned pirate. When a government crackdown closed English and Welsh ports to such activities during 1607–8, Ireland’s far south-west became an alternative haven, especially a thirty-nautical-mile coastal stretch centred around the well sheltered Roaringwater Bay. Offering easy access to the main international shipping routes and replete with anchorages, quays, small islands and secluded berths, this loosely governed frontier region had long harboured pirates, like the notorious Thomas Stukeley. The area had also opened up to English settlers at the end of the Nine Years War (1594–1603). William Hull (himself a retired pirate) set up a smugglers’ cove on the remote headland of Leamcon, while Sir Thomas Crooke (1574–1630), a wealthy lawyer and landowner, founded a bustling fishing settlement/pirates’ entrepot at nearby Baltimore in 1605. Aside from Leamcon and Baltimore, the main pirate haunts were at Crookhaven (another fishing village), Sherkin Island and Long Island.
An extraordinary boom in Atlantic piracy developed from the pirate base at Roaringwater Bay and another at Mamora (latterly Mehida) on the north-western coast of Africa, where the king of Morocco was happy to allow his seafaring guests a free hand in attacking his Christian enemies. The pirates operated in and around Ireland from spring to August, spending the rest of the year further south, occasionally also ranging as far west as Newfoundland, where they preyed upon the vast fleet of European fishing vessels. Although they formed a loose confederation, headed by an elected admiral and his vice-admirals, the pirates did not sail en masse, instead roving either individually or in small packs, only congregating in fleets of up to forty ships when berthed at Mamora or around Roaringwater Bay. Most of these relatively small ships were converted trading vessels that were fast, easy to handle, capable of operating in shallow waters yet big and sturdy enough to carry a crew of about fifty as well as heavy ordnance. The ships needed to be able to stay out at sea for long periods, and, if their unwarlike appearance was ideal for surprising traders, their crews’ skill at gunnery made them a match for significantly larger vessels. Certainly, the lone patrol ships deployed by the much-diminished English royal navy were no deterrent, while further encouragement came in the form of a legal loophole that meant pirates could not be executed in Ireland. In practice, the authorities preferred to release captured pirates rather than undertake the expense and effort of shipping them to England for execution.
The spoils of piracy could be extremely lucrative – one Irish-based pirate captured a Dutch ship carrying £20,000 worth of cargo (nearly €3 million in today’s money) off Cape Clear Island in 1612. While that was untypically valuable, plundered cargoes worth £1,000–£2,000 were routinely landed in west Cork, comprising gold, silver, silk, tobacco, sugar, and spices. Once the goods were ashore, local crown officials (like Hull) were on hand to solicit bribes, grant protection from arrest, sell supplies, and launder the plunder. Many English migrants – typically from those west country ports that had been a hive of privateer activity during the war with Spain – arrived either to trade with or join the pirate ships, facilitating the emergence of a sophisticated redistribution network. In the years after 1607, the Roaringwater Bay area effectively became a pirates’ colony. A goldrush vibe developed, as ‘rialls of eight, Barbary ducats and dollars’ circulated freely, not least because the pirates spent their time on land carousing to excess (Calendar of State Papers, Ireland, 1611–14, 99). Illegal alehouses sprung up across the bay, along with boarding houses that doubled as brothels featuring a ‘good store of Irish, English, and Scottish wenches’ (Mainwaring and Perrin (eds), The life … of Sir Henry Mainwaring, ii, 39–40). There were, however, risks to the lifestyle, with one pirate falling ‘very ill of burneing by whoores’ (Kelleher, The alliance of pirates, 212).
The west Cork raiders generally left English traders alone, targeting French, Dutch and (especially) Spanish shipping. The pirates caused such havoc, however, that James I of England was embarrassed into action in 1611, announcing a pardon for all those who agreed to pay partial restitution to their victims. This amnesty program proceeded in a fraught, halting and confused manner, with mistrust and double dealing on all sides. Sometimes the pirates were only interested in buying time for repairing and resupplying their ships, but even when they were in earnest, communication problems often caused negotiations to drag on for so long that they spent all their money, prompting a return to piracy. For their part, the royal officials responsible for these negotiations were often at cross purposes, accusing each other – justifiably – of seeking to line their own pockets. In 1612 the negotiated surrender of William Baugh turned into a fiasco when he was arrested, despite being granted protection, while various officials either extorted bribes from him or embezzled his loot, leaving him with nothing for the required restitution – the piracy was, it seems, not confined to the sea.
It was too good to last, and the pirate confederacy was gradually picked apart by the carrot of royal pardons combined with the stick wielded by the English, Dutch and Spanish navies. With James I’s permission, Dutch warships harried pirates in Irish waters from 1611. This activity culminated in August 1614 with a Dutch raid on Crookhaven, which resulted in the burning of a pirate ship and the slaughter of forty of its crew, with some unfortunate civilians and a government official perishing also. No longer able to rove with impunity off the Irish coast, the pirates were simultaneously deprived of their other main base when Mamora fell to the Spanish. Roaringwater Bay’s time as Europe’s most notorious pirates’ nest was coming to an end. Indeed, the boom turned definitively to bust in 1631 when Muslim corsairs operating from Algiers carried off 100 inhabitants of Baltimore into slavery, plunging the area into long-term decline. Ironically, these slavers had learned how to operate in the rough north Atlantic waters under the tutelage of English pirates who had been based in various north African ports during the 1600s and 1610s.
Connie Kelleher, The alliance of pirates: Ireland and Atlantic piracy in the early seventeenth century (2020)
Des Ekin, Ireland’s pirate trail (2018)