Economics of classic Caribbean piracy

The thread comparing truck hijacking to “road piracy”, and the discussion of the practicality of cargo theft, got me to thinking about old-time piracy. Just how did piracy on the high seas work out to spendable loot back in the day? If you’re talking about a Spanish treasure ship transporting gold and silver that’s easy enough to understand. But those must have been the minority. The vast majority of ships must have been transporting relatively mundane cargo. So maybe liquor and tobacco were worth keeping or could be sold fairly easily; good cannon especially were a top prize. But what would a pirate crew do with for example twenty barrels of sugar? Was it the ships themselves if taken intact that were valuable? Was piracy dependent on friendly ports where one could “fence” stolen cargo?

According to Sid Meier’s Pirates, you just sail to the nearest port and sell the goods.

I am under the impression that most carreer pirates of that era were essentially independent contractors working for a particular government. I would assume they had carte blance to sell stolen goods at ports operating under the banner of friendly governments.

The fastest news could travel in those days was by ship.

So, pirates steal a ship’s cargo, or a whole ship, and sail it to the nearest trading port and sell the cargo. Nobody needed documentation back then, either: you offer some barrels of sugar to a sugar buyer at a bargain price, he buys them. Done deal.

By the time the news that a shipment of sugar has been stolen reaches port, the pirates have sold the cargo and moved on.

I happen to be reading a book about the Pirates Lafitte.

They would set up a trading post, where legitimate merchants from New Orleans would purchase the cargoes, to be resold in town. The sheer volume of the “mundane” goods meant a good profit could be realized.

Actually, there was a large amount of documentation “back then”. Taxes were collected on traded goods from merchant shipping, and those tax collectors / customs agents did not just sit blindly away in some hill-top governor’s palace (unless bribed to do so). They were on the docks inspecting and recording what each merchantman was loading and unloading.

Those records are the stuff history is built upon.

Privateers were pirates who essentially acted as commerce raiders for a particular government. They didn’t exactly “work” for a nation, but they generally had an agreement about who to go after and who not. They could also expect to be free from harrassment from Naval vessels of the nation with whom they contracted.

However, some privateers were much more closely associated with their nation. One such was Sir Francis Drake, a [sometimes] Naval officer who fought against the Spanish Armada, as well as being notorious for his commerce raiding.

Different thing. Sacking foreign merchant ships with the explicit approval of a government (but without flying that government’s colors, that would defeat the whole purpose) is privateering, not piracy. That being said, a lot of privateers later became pirates, or engaged in piracy as a side job, so the line is murky.

Jean Lafitte had a Letter of Marque issued by Cartagena. It seems the city government sold Letters of Marque to anyone who would pay, and they were not very picky about who “their” privateers intercepted. It was a flag-of-convenience situation, giving pirates “official” paperwork.
As I understand it, a privateer caught intercepting a cargo outside his designated targets could expect to be fined and/or to have to relinquish that cargo. A pirate could only expect to be hung.