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New York's Pirate Past

From the late 17th century to the early 18th century, pirates sailed the seas off the Caribbean and the North American coasts. n 1720, historians estimate that there were around 2,000 pirates sailing the seas, plundering ships, disrupting trade and amassing their treasures. One of the most infamous pirates, Captain Kidd, conducted his privateering business in the waters around New York City.

In 1692, Colonial Benjamin Fletcher was the British governor of New York, and pirates offered an advantage for the city when it was competing with Philadelphia and Boston ports. During this time, England and France were at war and pirates were hired by each side to attack each other’s boats. Each country offered pirates “letters of marque” which gave them permission to take cargo from the enemy boats they attacked. They were supposed to report what they took to authorities for proper redistribution. However, pirates, being pirates, (many became pirates after deserting merchant and naval posts, or after being captured by pirates) they had other ideas in mind which was to interfere with any boat no matter what flag they were flying, seize the goods, and find a port where “pirated” products could be sold. And that’s where Governor Fletcher comes in.

Under the Governor’s willingness to allow pirates access to New York, which they paid 100 Spanish dollars to Fletcher for the pleasure, the New York economy was given a hearty boost. They sold their goods and spent it on the taverns, shops and other forms of entertainment the city had to offer at the time.

“Captain Kidd in New York Harbor” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.Source: Marek Marynistyka Ostasz via Flickr

The most well-known pirate to find treasure in New York was Captain William Kidd, who parted with some of his wealth to build a home on Pearl Street in Manhattan and helped establish the first Trinity Church on Wall Street by lending the runner and tackle from his ship to lift stones for the structure. Kidd also buried treasure worth 20,000 pounds (over a million dollars today) off the coast of Gardiner Island in Long Island, which was recovered in 1699 by British authorities after he was arrested for piracy.

Captain Kidd was hanged in London for murdering a crewman and for piracy. In 2015, archaeologists announced they had discovered Captain Kidd’s treasure off the coast of Madagascar, however after an investigation by the U.N., the claims were disproved. More of his undiscovered treasures in the Caribbean and elsewhere remain a mystery.

George Washington.,Source: Joyce~ via Flickr.

Pirates continued to maintain their presence along the Northeast coast during the American Revolution. For profit and patriotism, they harassed British merchant vessels and fought with warships of the Royal Navy. Privateering was sanctioned by the new Congress and General Washington ordered attacks on military British ships.

In the 1870s, gangs not only roamed the land in the infamous Five Points, they also sailed the rivers and came to be known as river pirates. The most recent, notable, occurrence of a pirate in New York City happened in 2011, when the only survivor of the Somali pirates who seized the Maersk Alabama on April 8, 2009, was sentenced in a Federal District Court in Manhattan to 33 years and 9 months in prison.

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