Blackbeard's back story

When Henry Morgan, one of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty pirates of his time, died in his sleep at his mansion near Port Royal on Aug. 25, 1688, one entry in his varied and lengthy resume stood out like a trout in a bathtub: at the time of his death, Morgan was lieutenant governor of Jamaica.

Shocking, perhaps, but not unusual. Many of the great pirates of the age crossed back and forth over the line distinguishing brigand from patriot, as Douglas R. Burgess Jr. details in his important new book, "The Pirates' Pact."

Woodes Rogers, who famously brought an end to the Pirate Republic of the Bahamas in 1718, had been at some times in his career little more than a pirate himself. And many of his contemporaries sailed on both sides of the law. The cunning Henry Avery (or Every), the wily Thomas Tew and the blundering Capt. William Kidd were, at one time or another, privateers.

Notably during the Nine Years' War (1688-1697), which pitted England and Spain against France, and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), in which England opposed France and Spain, pirates were granted letters of marque that allowed them to take enemy prizes. Quite literally, one day these men were corsairs and the next, at the conclusion of a peace treaty, they were pirates.

Cozy in the Colonies

Nowhere was the distinction between loyal subject and criminal more slippery than in the American colonies. The struggling administrations depended on booty from sea captains -- regardless of whether the captains were acting legally or illegally -- to fuel the Colonial economy.

The idea that pirates buried their treasure is romantic fiction, Burgess says. They sold their cargo in broad daylight at wharves in virtually every coastal city from Rhode Island to the Carolinas with the active or tacit sponsorship of colonial authorities. In 1695, Burgess reports, well before piracy reached its zenith, 60 buccaneer captains operated in New York, each employing 60 to 100 crewmen. Thousands of pirates roamed the fledgling city in the last decade of the 17th century.

Having precious cloth, gold, jewels and slaves flow into the colonies from far-flung places turned the governors of Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Burgess says, into pirate brokers.

Just a business

The cozy relationship between Colonial authorities and nefarious sea captains is enough to dispel another widespread image of the pirate: The typical sea rogue of the era was far from a desperate criminal on the run from the law.

A number were from aristocratic families, but most of the pirates Burgess considers were businessmen, pillars of the commercial community whose trade enriched them and their sponsors.

England faced daunting challenges as it tried to stop piracy. Before the Lords of Trade, charged with prosecuting acts of piracy, was reconstituted as the Board of Trade in 1696, its ranks included men who had long-standing relationships with pirates. The new Board faced a cancer that had metastasized into every corner of the Earth, from the Caribbean to the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.

Hampered by a lack of funds and poor communications, it faced its largest obstacle from the Crown itself. Acts of Navigation, passed from the 1650s through the 1690s, effectively decreed that legal trade in the Americas was limited to English sources.

The English attempt to corner trade for its own suppliers fanned the flame that would explode in a war of independence, Burgess says. It also made American and Caribbean colonies turn more avidly to trade, with pirates simply because that greatly increased the potential profit for both pirates and their colonial sponsors.

In its most effective move, the Board dispatched Edward Randolph to document illegal trade in the Colonies. Randolph dutifully trudged from city to city, dispatching reports to London documenting rampant corruption. His efforts led to the downfall of the governors of New York and Pennsylvania and earned Randolph the title of "the most hated man in America." But they did little to quash pirate trade.

By the turn of the 18th century, the pirate nation seemed unstoppable. But it wasn't.

End of a golden age

Piracy flourished in the next two decades, then collapsed abruptly. This had less to do with the Board of Trade's strategy of granting the King's Pardon to any pirate who would swear allegiance to the Crown than the unchecked fury and greed of a new breed of pirate represented by Charles Vane and Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard.

Earlier pirates had been restrained by a sense of patriotic loyalty, but this generation preyed on ships of every nation, becoming "enemies of the human race."

When Woodes Rogers arrived in Nassau with blanket pardons, most of the thousand or so pirates of New Providence accepted his offer. Some of them, notably the intrepid Benjamin Hornigold, became pirate hunters themselves.

Blackbeard slipped the net and sailed for the Carolinas, where he plundered Colonial shipping as wantonly as he did English, Spanish or French prizes. Despite his famously cozy relationship with North Carolina's Gov. Charles Eden, Blackbeard had to be stopped.

Off the North Carolina coast in November 1718, Lieutenant Robert Maynard ambushed Blackbeard behind Ocracoke Island and killed the most notorious pirate in history. Maynard had Blackbeard decapitated and the headless corpse thrown overboard where, legend has it, the body swam three times around Maynard's ship and sank.

"The Pirates' Pact" provides the back story of the death of both Blackbeard and the golden age of piracy. It is not the place to start if you're new to the history of pirates -- that would be Capt. Charles Johnson's "General History of Pirates."

But this informative, well-written book is a welcome addition to the history of pirate sponsorship, and given the brazen exploits of Somali pirates today, as timely as it is and engaging.