“Follow the money.” It’s not a new idea in understanding motivation, but it’s an important one.
The Golden Age of Piracy (a real thing that happened between around 1650 and 1730) was all about following the money. I don’t just mean guys with guns chasing guys with gold, though there was a chunk of that. I’m talking about the bigger economic picture.
I’m talking about why the Golden Age happened, and why it happened when it did.
When Peace Means Unemployment
The Golden Age of piracy had three main phases, and two of them began when wars ended*.
In 1648, and again in 1714, wars ended in Europe. I’m not talking small wars that were only horrible for people in the local area. I’m talking huge wars that drew in nearly all the nations of Europe – specifically the 30 Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession. These were sprawling conflicts at land and sea between nations with far more guns than sense. They employed a lot of people, turning them into soldiers and sailors.
So yay for employment prospects, at least?
Well, yes and no. Because military employment in a continent-spanning war isn’t a sustainable career. Such massive conflagrations of human life are mercifully limited. Sooner or later, the combatants run out of resources or the will to fight. The war ends. The poor populations who’ve seen their homelands torn apart start picking up the pieces. And the governments start laying off troops, because they don’t need massive armies and navies any more, and they’ve spent all their spare cash on cannonballs and coffins.
Yargh For Opportunity!
Imagine you’re an English sailor in 1715. For the best part of a decade, you’ve been fighting at sea. It’s what you know best. It’s what you’re comfortable with. It’s pretty much the only way you can see of making a living.
But now your nation won’t employ you, so you need to go freelance. And just across the Atlantic is your opportunity. Because in the Caribbean, the governments have less control, and there are places were a seafaring bandit can hide out. Piracy starts looking pretty appealing.
Then you get there, and sure there are a lot of people in the same boat as you, literally and metaphorically. But that’s not a problem because trade is picking up. The end of the war means safer travel, which means more commerce. There are all these ships loaded with cash and luxury goods. You’ve lost your job, and suddenly the rich merchants and ship owners are making out like bandits. Well screw them, you’re a proper bandit, and you’re going to take your share.
Your big, watery share of pieces of eight.**
Need and Opportunity
In both cases, there was a big upswing in piracy. Big name pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonny strutted their stuff. For years, the seas of the Carribean weren’t safe, because this was the best way some folks could see to make a living.
This is what leads so much of human behaviour – a need and the opportunity to address it.
It’s also why economics, the social science of meeting material needs, is so important in understanding motives. The flow of money and opportunities shifted, so people did too.
In the FantasyCon panel on fantasy economics, the panellists talked a lot about real examples like this. They show how economics isn’t just about exchange rates. It’s about human behaviour. And whether you’re trying to understand history or create a fantasy world, human behaviour is what matters. So it’s worth paying attention to the economics.
Follow the money. Even if it’s pieces of eight.
* The other phase also had economic drivers, as opportunities in the Caribbean started to dry up.
** Pieces of eight were high quality Spanish silver coins which became a popular global currency.