Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor's Name

Sherry Johnson

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

James M. Sutton

Third Advisor's Name

Jenna M. Gibbs

Fourth Advisor's Name

N. David Cook


law, diplomacy, caribbean, atlantic, piracy, crime

Date of Defense



A life of piracy offered marginal men a profession with a degree of autonomy, despite the brand of “outlaw” and the fear of prosecution. At various times throughout history, governments and crowned heads suspended much of their piracy prosecution, licensing men to work as “privateers” for the state, supplementing naval forces. This practice has a long history, but in sixteenth-century England, Elizabeth I (1558-1603) significantly altered this tradition. Recognizing her own weakness in effectively prosecuting these men and the profit they could contribute to the government, Elizabeth began incorporating pirates into the English naval corps in peacetime—not just in war. This practice increased English naval resources, income, and presence in the emerging Atlantic World, but also increased conflict with the powerful Spanish empire.

By 1605, making peace with Spain, James VI/I (1603-1625) retracted Elizabeth’s privateering promotion, prompting an emigration of English seamen to the American outposts they had developed in the previous century. Now exiles, no longer beholden to the Crown, seamen reverted back to piracy. The Carolinas and Jamaica served as bases for these rover communities. In 1650, the revolutionary leader Oliver Cromwell (1649-1658) once again recognized the merits of such policies. Determined to demonstrate his authority and solidify his rule, Cromwell offered citizenship and state support to Caribbean exiles in exchange for their aiding of his navy in the taking of Spanish Jamaica. Official chartering of Port Royal, Jamaica served as reward for these men’s efforts and as the culmination of a century-long cycle of piracy legislation, creating one of England’s most lucrative colonies in the middle of a traditionally Spanish Caribbean empire.

Through legal and diplomatic records, correspondence, and naval and demographic records from England and Spain, this dissertation explores early modern piracy/privateering policy and its impact on the development of the Atlantic World. European disputes and imperial competition converged in these piracy debates with significant consequences for the definitions of criminality and citizenship and for the development of Atlantic empire.





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