The Golden Age of Pirates

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13053

What do corsairs, privateers, buccaneers, and swashbucklers all have in common? They're not landlubbers, though they might be rapscallions or scalawags. They're the scourge of the seven seas: pirates!



learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Have you ever read Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, or seen the movie?

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door....a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

“Fifteen men on the dead man's chest — Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

Pirates have captured the imagination of writers, movie-makers, and the rest of us, for a long time.

Think about some pirates that you know from books, TV, or movies.

  • What is it about pirates that captivates us so?
  • Is it because they lived lives of danger and adventure, risking all for the possibility of fame and a quickly-spent fortune?

Get ready to meet the heroes and villains of the Golden Age of Pirates!

The Golden Age of Pirates began in the 1600s, as the discovery of the New World and its riches tempted many men to leave the hard life of a navy sailor for the fun, adventure, and easier work on a pirate ship.

But a pirate's life, though exciting, was short and dangerous.

Watch the video below to learn about the short career of one of the most famous — and feared — of all pirates.

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The word pirate comes from a Greek word meaning "one who attacks," and it came to mean those who attack others on the sea. There is an ancient clay tablet that describes a pirate attack in North Africa from 1350 BC. So, we know that pirates have been around since the first ships started sailing the oceans!

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  • But the golden age of pirates was from about 1650 to 1720.

The discovery of the New World was the beginning of a whole new world of piracy. The area from Mexico to Peru, including the Caribbean Islands, was an area of great treasure for Europeans to bring home.

The treasures of the ancient Inca and Aztec empires were loaded onto Spanish ships called galleons and headed across the Atlantic. Of course, other countries wanted this gold, and the pirate attacks began. This area came to be called the Spanish Main, and it was a main area of piracy for many years.

The Spanish Main

At first, many of the pirates worked as legal pirates, or privateers.

  • How could stealing from others be considered legal?

Well, a country like England would issue some papers, called Letters of Marque, that allowed private ship owners to act as part of their navy and attack and loot enemy ships. So if a British ship had these Letters and attacked a Spanish ship, taking all its treasure, the privateers could not be charged with a crime because they were acting for the British government. Without these papers, they would certainly be put to death if caught.

The most famous privateer was an Englishman who had a personal grudge against the Spanish and used his Letters of Marque to get revenge. He also ended up circumnavigating the globe (sailing all the way around the world) and defeating the Spanish Armada when it came to attacking England.

Watch the video below to learn about the man who was a hero to the British and a dragon to the Spanish.

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  • Would you call Drake a hero or a villain?

While Drake did have permission to attack Spanish ships, many men eventually began to take advantage of the times and attack ships without government authority.

In 1630, the Spanish allowed the English and French to settle on some of the islands in the Caribbean (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The settlers there lived as hunters, and they roasted meat on wooden frames they called boucanes. So they came to be called boucaniers in French. The English turned the word into buccaneers.

The Spanish later came to regret their decision to allow this settlement and sent hunters to kill all the wild boars so the buccaneers had nothing to live on. This was not a wise plan, because the buccaneers had to turn to piracy just to survive. These were the original "pirates of the Caribbean"! You'll learn more about these guys in the Related Lesson, found in the right-hand sidebar.

Captain Scarfield in Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates

But while many pirates were successful, others were not. Watch the following video.

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  • Was Captain Kidd a hero or a villain?
  • Do you think he should have been punished for his piracy?

Sad stories, like those of Captain Kidd and other pirates who were caught and hung, might have made piracy look like a foolish, short-lived career. But books such as Treasure Island and Peter Pan, and then movies and TV shows, have had a big impact on how we think of pirates.

Swashbuckler stories and movies were written about pirates who were daring adventurers. Swashbuckler comes from two Old English words. To swash meant to strike something violently, and a buckler was a small round shield; so a swashbuckler was someone who kind of “blew his own horn,” making a show of his bravery and adventurousness.

One of the best-known swashbuckling pirates was Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts. His daring and boldness were legendary. When he was a new pirate captain, Roberts captured a Portuguese vice-admiral's 40-gun ship, with 80,000 pounds of gold coins!

He was always well-dressed, wearing a red waistcoat and a red feather in his hat. He had a heavy gold chain with a diamond cross, that had been designed for a king. Roberts captured it as booty and decided to wear it.

Black Bart's reputation caused fear wherever he went. His small ship once entered a bay where 22 ships lay at anchor. When they saw his flag and heard the ruckus made on board the pirate ship, the crews of those ships fled to the shore, leaving their treasures for Roberts to seize. On another day, he captured 11 ships. Roberts is thought to have captured around 400 ships in his pirate career!

But his pirate reign did not last long. After three years, the British government sent a ship to finally find and capture Roberts. He was shot, and his crew quickly surrendered. The death of Black Bart is considered the end of the Golden Age of Pirates.

Bartholomew Roberts

Now that you've learned a few things about pirates, head over to the Got It? section to see how much you remember about corsairs, privateers, buccaneers, and swashbucklers!

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