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Captain Jennings Causes Chaos

Early 17th century England saw the emergence of pirates, much romanticised creatures whose lives were often nasty, brutish and short. Adrian Tinniswood examines one such career.

The execution of a pirate at Execution Dock in Wapping, London

Where are the days that have been ... when we might do what we list, and the law would bear us out in it? When the whole sea was our empire, where we rob at will?’

(Andrew Barker, A True and Certaine Report of ... two late famous Pirates, 1609)

One consequence of the Somerset House Conference, which brought an end to the ‘long and most cruel ravage of wars’ between England and Spain in the summer of 1604, was the cessation of privateering. This legal variant on piracy, whereby private individuals carrying letters of marque from their government were permitted to seize goods and ships belonging to an enemy, was big business. In the late 1590s at least 85 privateers were operating out of London and the south coast ports and the prizes they brought home accounted for between 10 and 15 per cent of English imports.

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